The Devil goes to Church
Here it was, two days after Christmas, and the church building stood alone and in silence, as if it were taking a quiet exhalation within its immense parking lot. He had come to relive an adventure that had occurred on a hot summer morning in early June.
He, of all people, to use the term loosely, never understood why the Born Agains liked huge parking lots in front of churches that were bland reprisals of rustic elementary schools with the addition of spires. They reminded him of Mongolian temples. Places for nature worship or for Nestorian Christians to evangelize the “heathen.”
That sense of self-righteousness was in part why Evangelicals had become one of his favorite religious targets. They had managed to capture the cruddy sense of entitlement that America’s robber barons enjoyed, and turned it into a brand new populist force with a born-again pedigree. But this congregation had gone several steps further – expanding its “entitlement” to threatening doctors who performed abortions, including some literal mudslinging at anyone associated with the clinics.
That Sunday morning in June, He walked through the church doors to witness an overfed, flesh-ripe congregation near Newport, Rhode Island which had decided to expose themselves to America’s Pentecostal roots in the Deep South.
Why were they doing this?
Now that was good question. The word ‘curiosity’ came to mind.
And why had the snake handlers agreed to come all the way up from Oxford, Mississippi — that was another question. But there they were with big, shit-eating grins as if God, himself, were finally smiling directly down on them as they gathered in front of the altar in a wealthy, mercantile New England church.
The three men from Mississippi all had dark hair, while two of the women were blond. One man was rail thin and resembled Barney Fife. He was a little better looking than his peers, and the women treated him as if he were a little prince.
He — that unnoticed visitor who wasn’t from Mississippi — just stood in the back grinning. On a hunch, He wore a short-sleeved shirt. And as it turned out He fit right in. The place was barely air-conditioned. Sweat was abundant. And there was ecstasy in the air – something sensual and therefore not at all the norm for Rhode Island.
But that would not be his entrée.
Contrary to popular superstition, excess sensuality wasn’t his preferred temptation — not even close. His first choice was always ‘holier-than-thou’ false religiosity.
For every centigram of sensually aroused sweat in the room, there were at least ten more centigrams of egos inflated by their own, self-aggrandizing piety.
Or, in other words, no contest.
The minister, himself, was a different story. Older, heavy and balding. He also had trouble breathing. Serving as pastor in this church was a career move—one his wife and family applauded. But his own uncomfortable Evangelicalism was squeezed reluctantly out of a mind and soul much closer to Soren Kierkegaard than to the crowd around him.
To top it all off, he was the one who had first thought of inviting the snake charmers. He had done so out of his liberal past — always seeking a reference point– something authentic, feeling inauthentic himself.
“While we think of Pentecost as the birth of the church, Pentecost was really associated with a time of spring harvest in the Jewish tradition. It was also called ‘the Fiftieth Day,’ or ‘The Harvest Day,’ or ‘The Feast of Weeks.’ Also called ‘Shavuot,’ it occurred after seven weeks, or forty-nine days after Passover.”
The snake charmers glared at the reverend for the strong Jewish tradition reference. This wasn’t their usual Mississippi sermon.
The reverend must have sensed this, because after only a few more studious remarks, he opened the Bible and dove right in. “The reading for today is from Acts II — ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like a rush of mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues, as of fire, distributed and resting on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues…”
Then the minister read, “… And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and the vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood.”
Now, that was Christian imagery at its best!
This rhapsodic peak was followed by some meaningless announcements, neighborhood crap about whose mother was visiting and whose son had graduated from college.
Then there was an explanation about the snake charmers:
“And now we have a special event – I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. Our friends, from Oxford, Mississippi, have come to share a unique testament of faith.” The fat minister stared out at the audience – he might have been a good emcee for some spiritual reality show in a better time and place. “Please welcome brothers Jonathan, Bobby, Mary, Gladys, Greg and Gloria!”
Handsome Brother Jonathan stepped forward.
“Thank you, thank you. We are here to share with you what we know to be a true testament to God’s presence on earth. This is how we celebrate the passion of the Lord’s fellowship in the State of Mississippi. I hope you will find it worth your time. Thank you for inviting us.”
There were lots of “amens.”
And then they sang the hymn, “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus,” and the festivities began. They had put the hymn to a kind of bluesy rhythm, so that rather than the straightforward little march it really was – it came off more as a spiritual. No doubt in deference to the Southern guests.
At first it was like watching a magic show – Jonathan with his assistants taking the rattler, sluggish from the summer heat, out of its basket. The black snake wove itself over Jonathan’s arm like a friendly pet. Then Gloria, with a luscious grin, touched Jonathan’s right middle finger with her left middle finger, and a human chain began to form.
The snake gleefully wove itself from apostle to apostle, snake charmer to snake charmer.
The rest of the congregation watched with fascination.
He could hear them all thinking, “This will make for great gossip and a few juicy e-mails as soon as we get home.” More than a few cameras popped out, most of them violating the ‘no flash’ mandate that he’d seen posted on two of the narthex walls.
Sensing that the time was right, he moved his fingers – just a few digits.
Then he watched about twenty coral snakes, Micruroides, which were very toxic and had no known antivenin, crawl out from beside his shoes into the rest of the congregation. He had personally modified these reptilian guests from Arizona to be faster acting a lot more lethal.
He counted silently, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…” He estimated that it would take ten seconds before the initial panic broke out.
He was wrong.
It took only seven.
First He heard one scream. Then others. Then general pandemonium. The hymn continued…“Let courage rise with danger, And strength to strength oppose.”
…but not for long!
Soon the choir stopped singing and joined the rest of the uproar.
When the snakes bit, they hung with their hollow fangs sunk in their victims’ arms. He watched the terrified Born Agains trying to shake them off. One woman squirmed in disgust while one of the lively Micruroides twisted from her fat, gelatinous arm.
It was lucky for the congregation that most of their children were in Sunday School. But He wasn’t going to remind them of this and ease their torments.
He shook his foot again, and twenty more corals of the genus Micruroides came loose.
Some of the New Englanders actually believed they were face to face with the devil, which was true of course, only they were looking in the wrong direction.
The Mississippi group — Jonathan, Bobby, Mary, Gladys, Greg and Gloria –began to stiffen as they finally understood the growing frenzy of the congregation. Everyone was scanning the room for an exit with panicked eyes. As the Mississippians hurried towards the nearest door, their own black snake was taken with a new passion and began to attack them.
At the same time, the crowd imploded upon itself, seeking to run out from inside the church in mob-like fashion.
He shook his ankle and unleashed no less than twenty fresh corals, which quickly assumed their new roles as carnivorous appendages to the frightened Evangelicals. Quite a bold, new fashionable look, He thought. Much more differentiating than jewelry or tattoos.
The apoplectic minister, long suffering in this world, tried to calm his congregation and find a way to pry open one the doors. In the course of waving his arms like a baseball umpire at home base, he was bitten twice by the same coral, and then, in a sad moment, the good reverend was pushed down and trampled near the side entrance. He lay there, pummeled by the shoes of his own congregation, until his wheezing finally ceased.
Then He, who had not come from Mississippi or any single earthly place, left quietly, through a door usually reserved for the janitor.
There, in the massive parking lot, He saw a few individuals who managed to crawl into their BMWs and drive away in a combination of epilepsy and coma. Their cars swerved this way and that – as if a bunch of drunken twelve-year-olds were playing demolition derby. Only one car made it to the road—and that quickly hit a tree and exploded into flames.
Beyond that, He chose not to stay around as the heat had become stifling, even for him.
And that was why He was so interested in the newspapers.
He had always wanted closure.
But all too often, closure was denied him.
Yet it was closure, indeed, that He got when He walked in the doors one Sunday morning seven months later in the middle of winter. There, He saw a small group of people reading Buddhist scripture in spite of the Christmas holiday. They rotated, wisely he thought, from one religious source to the other – the many paths to God.
It was nice to see a group of Unitarians replace the Evangelicals.
The more the merrier. Many paths better than one.
Contrary to popular superstition, God was a very poor communicator and just trusting one source was bound to lead to error.
No one else knew this better than He did.
And arguably, no one else had suffered as much because of it, either.