Christensen: Keeping those pearly gates open

By Caitlyn Christensen

Whenever I can find them, I pick up religious pamphlets from street corner evangelists on my way… Whenever I can find them, I pick up religious pamphlets from street corner evangelists on my way down Forbes Avenue. When I get home, I put them on the refrigerator with magnets to remind my roommates and me to seize the day, because the road to hell is — apparently — already paved.

The pamphlets tell me that I can’t get to heaven through “good deeds, church membership, sacraments, baptism, or anything” that I do besides believing in Jesus. Man, that’s rough. Might as well give up now.

One summer, a friend of mine founded one of the few religions I could ever commit to following. My parents rented our guesthouse to Joshua, a musician from Philadelphia. While living in New York, a documentary filmmaker paid him about $5,000 to start his own church and make a documentary about it.

Joshua was raised Jewish, and he wasn’t concerned with the concept of hell or an afterlife. His message was simple: “I don’t know anything more than you do, but maybe we will figure it out together.”

He called the religion The Church of Now and said that believing in God was optional. The only sin in the new faith, which drew on elements of Buddhist, Taoist and New Age thinking, was not living life to the fullest. Joshua didn’t proselytize, but rather carried a sign asking people to talk to him about “Living in the now.”

The Church of Now was founded shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. New Yorkers were shaken and depressed, and Joshua aimed to make them feel better about the present. He went to Wall Street with a box of red rubber clown noses and passed them out to men in starchy business suits, Muslim women in hijabs and taxicab drivers. A few construction workers took handfuls for their children.

Meanwhile, he broadcasted his message on a megaphone. “Let’s figure out how to be happy together!” he implored.

Of course, evident problems with the Church of Now lay at its foundations. A 2006 New York Times article is all that remains of the defunct religion. People didn’t feel comfortable figuring out the meaning of life for themselves. Joshua only gained 14 converts. Sadly, it seems most don’t believe they have any moral authority.

Converts typically crave direction — a law from on high. Joshua never aspired to be a real messiah. He didn’t claim to have divine wisdom or try to name who would or wouldn’t be saved. The concept quickly fell flat. The filmmaker ran out of money and scrapped the project. The film footage has long since been lost.

Televangelism works because it offers the certainty that grassroots foundations like the Church of Now lack. The preachers are not interested in further scholarly pursuits of the biblical word. They have the answers, and they are sharing them now. They have the list of names for admission into the afterlife. Why live in the moment when the future is already written?

My favorite proselytizing pamphlet contains a cartoon in which the Angel of Death takes a deceased man under its wings and shows him his past mistakes. Like the Ebenezer Scrooge of the church, the man declares that he simply cannot believe he could have been so stupid. He hangs his head, says he guesses he believes in Jesus after all and is saved from being carted off to hell.

Besides the hate-mongering that led televangelist Pat Robertson to declare the earthquake-stricken Haitians got their dues from an ancient pact with Satan, the biggest problem I have with the evangelical movement is its certainty regarding an intangible future. I like the Church of Now because it stipulates that life doesn’t come with any quick fixes. There is no definite plan, but the future is interesting because we don’t know what is going to happen.

Even if the evangelists are right, their claims that only a select group make it in the pearly gates exclude a whole list of people I would like to see in the afterlife — most of my family and friends, Buddha, Kurt Cobain and seemingly the majority of the world’s population. I would rather be with them in hell than alone in heaven.

Maybe it is too utopian to hope for a church that focuses on what we can do for ourselves in the present. A middle-ground religion that refrains from doom-saying, finger-pointing and proselytizing while still providing the confused masses with a concrete message would be more practical. Aggressive religion leads to fear of the ethereal. The Church of Now’s lax message couldn’t inspire anything lasting. There must be some kind of middle ground between knowing nothing and claiming to know everything.

In the meantime, I know that if the Ghost of Sins Past ever takes my corpse on a tour of my mistakes, I will pat myself on the back and say that I did my best to be good at the time.

E-mail Caitlyn at [email protected]