I have been anointed. It happened over the summer at the World Harvest megachurch in Columbus, Ohio. The pastor, Rod Parsley, received some media attention this year for serving as John McCain’s “spiritual guide” before the presidential candidate rejected his endorsement for calling Islam a “false religion.”
I’m not quite sure what being anointed means, but I know it happened to me on that warm summer night in Columbus, Ohio. I know this because Rod Parsley shouted into the microphone, over a 30-person rock-gospel choir: “Tonight you will be anointed. Tonight the ceiling will open up and you will BE ANOINTED.”
These words echoed through the 5,000-capacity auditorium. The service had already lasted over two hours and the congregation was primed for revelation. For the last twenty minutes, the power ballad “God is Awesome” had been crescendoing through the high-tech speaker system, a refrain that stirs the air and lifts the soul. The lyrics were projected onto 15-foot flat screens, but everyone knew them anyway. The only words: “God is awesome.”
The music swelled. Rod Parsley’s perspiring face, projected fifteen-feet high, contorted. He keeled over and began to speak in tongues. The audience swayed and shook and danced.
Rod Parsley addressed his congregation: “When you watch CNN, you forget him. When you read the newspaper, you forget him. He’s running away. He’s running. Will you follow him? Will you catch him? Run! RUN TO HIM!”
The 3,000-person congregation rushed the stage. They fell to their knees.
“God is here tonight. Do you feel him?”
Yes. Yes. Yes. The cameras panned over the faces of the worshippers: faces slick with tears, hearts like bright balloons.
“You have been anointed here tonight!”
I’ve attended church services before. At my Church of England elementary school, we had a mandatory service every Thursday. The pastor told a Bible story, he underlined its moral and then we bowed our heads for the Lord’s Prayer. At the age of nine, I joined the ranks of students who bowed their heads, but didn’t part their lips.
Megachurches are a uniquely American phenomenon. Sprinkled across our urban sprawl, they promise a supersized religious experience, a Starlight Express-style sensory assault that enables you to see, hear and touch God.
Megachurches are perfectly designed to manipulate the cognitive states of their congregations. Music in the World Harvest megachurch throbbed in the pews: intense, sweeping and repetitive. This synchronizes the somatic states of the congregation and, like the cooing of mother and child or a Radiohead concert, forms intense, even ecstatic, emotional bonds. The rhythmic rocking and dance of the World Harvest worshippers also disjoints the eye and the inner ear. By ritualizing this disynchronization, you can induce a state of slow-motion or suspension.
The megachurch movement in the United States promotes the most primal form of religious practice. Many of these churches, like World Harvest, are non-denominational and racially diverse. They often don’t preach a specific Christian theology, but fulfill a fundamental human desire for existential comfort and community.
There were no stories, no psalms. Instead of Bibles in the pews, there are donation cards. Rod Parsley asks his audience to send him $41.10 whenever they are fearful, based on the scripture God delivered to him years ago: Isa. 41.10: “fear not.” Rod Parsley does very well for himself. It seems his congregation is pretty paranoid.
Christianity in America is a different breed from that across the Atlantic. While secularism has spread in Europe since the Enlightenment, the United States has experienced a religious resurgence. Religion here has always, in part, been an attempt to realize, reinvigorate and reimagine the great social and political experiment of America.
In the 19th century, this country was a playground for different religious movements and their often unorthodox social theories. Mormons, Shakers, Quakers, Mennonites, the Amish and the Oneida Community practiced, respectively, polygamy, celibacy, gender equality, pacifism, the rejection of modern convenience and “complex marriage” in which sexual relations were encouraged between all members, especially between post-menopausal women and teenage males. From the Puritan’s moral fervor to the Shaker’s demonstrative worship, megachurches follow from this American cultural tradition.
Baudrillard called America “utopia achieved.” Unlike Europe, which is buried in its history, the “fetishism of cultural heritage” and “theological, sacred religion,” America is “paradise” because its culture “sacrifices all intellect … it is space, speed, cinema, technology.” America, to Baudrillard, is “the world center of the inauthentic.” He asks: “Why should Los Angeles not be a parody of cities? Why should Silicon Valley not parody technology? Why should there not be a parody of sociability, eroticism, and drugs, or even indeed a parody of the (too blue!) sea and the (too bright!) sun.”
I slipped out the back of the World Harvest church and into the ocean of parked SUVs, the desolate, dusty landscape of urban development: dizzying rows of McMansions, gated condo communities, pre-fab suburbia fluttering with star spangled banners.
As a people, we crave community. Small-town America, however, is largely mythology: spun by the media, exploited by politics and fabricated through urban renewal. Tocqueville’s America has entered the modern, high-consumption age. The mall is our new temple, but Americans want something more. Will our anointment come by turning the temple into a mall?
Claire Gordon is a junior in Saybrook College.