God and Country (The Altercation Book Club)

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

I have to deal with jury duty this morning, so TGIABCT ...

Oh, and I've got a new "Think Again" column called "Blaming Success, Upholding Failure" here, and a short comment on the Tony Judt mishigas here, and my Nation online column on AIPAC is here. And this week's Nation column, "No 'Comments,' " is here.

The Altercation Book Club

God and Country: How Evangelicals Have Become America's New Mainstream by Monique El-Faizy (Bloomsbury)

(Monique is a freelance journalist who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian but abandoned it when she entered college. Her book is an investigation of the evolution and influence of evangelical Christianity in America written from the intimate perspective of a former insider.)

"What? You want to clean what?" Dee Hu is trying, rather unsuccessfully, to wrap his mind around the question two volunteers from Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati have posed him. His confusion is understandable, given the odd request. They would like to clean the bathrooms at USA Nails, the manicure salon Hu manages. "Why?" Hu demands, still trying to figure out what these people really want from him.

"We just want to show you God's love," replies Josh Harney, the rugged young man leading the bathroom-cleaning team. "It's just so sudden ..." Hu replies falteringly. Since he doesn't go as far as throwing them out, Harney and his covolunteer Dori make their way back to the restroom. It's pretty clean, just a single stall reserved for staff use. Harney leans over to tackle the toilet and Dori pushes her blond hair away from her face as she starts in on the sink and mirror. "This is an easy one," Harney tells Hu while he works. "You should see some of the gas station restrooms." Hu watches the duo in action, still bewildered and asking questions. Where are they from? Why are they doing this? Is it an organized program?

"So basically, the principle is what?" Hu's question is exactly what the team is looking for. "The principle is, we believe God loves everybody, really," Harney explains. "And that's with no strings attached, but we think people might not always understand that on a deep level. So we want to show that in a practical way." The bathroom clean, Harney says his good-byes and exits, leaving Hu with a little card that says "This is our simple way ... of saying that God loves you. Let us know if we can be of more assistance." Vineyard's address and phone number are on the back, along with service times and a map to the church.

The bathroom cleaning is part of the church's monthly ServeFest, when scores of volunteers fan out across the city. They clean toilets and pass out hand warmers and hot chocolate in the winter and ice water in the summer. The program's architect, Steve Sjogren, calls this "servant evangelism," which he defines as "the idea that Jesus is better shown than talked about ... servant evangelism is taking the idea of God and putting wheels on it." The hope is that people will become so attracted to Christianity they will be swept up in what Sjogren calls "the God Blob," a reference to the 1958 horror movie classic The Blob. "You get pulled into it and it just gets larger than life," Sjogren said.

******

It's Saturday night and the music from the service is audible throughout the church building. I make my way down the stairs into a big open area with tables. At the far end, Kande Wilson, Vineyard's director of outreach, is organizing volunteers. She lists the choices: doling out hand warmers and hot chocolate at Wal-Mart, passing out mini flashlights in front of the movie theater, or distributing single-use breathalyzers at local bars. Dispensing trinkets like this is a classic guerilla marketing tactic, and the baubles are all accompanied by a card so recipients will know exactly what the ultimate product is and where to find it.

I decide to tag along with the bar team and hitch a ride from a twenty-nine-year-old pharmacist named Alex Machen, a pretty single mother with long, coffee-brown hair and squarish glasses. Machen considers these outreach efforts to be little pushes in God's direction. "You might have to touch somebody a couple of times before they get nudged over," she said. "That is the goal ... you know you might not bring somebody to Christ that day but you know what? You're nudging them."

We pull up to the first bar on our list. It's in a strip mall, fronted by a glass door with stickers on it. I peek through the glass and see, shrouded in a haze of blue smoke to the right, about six lone figures sitting at the bar. The other people in our group arrive and Karin, our leader, asks us to join hands and pray. (I will come to find out that this is but the first of many times we will seek God together that evening.) That done, we press our way through the glass door and Karin announces our purpose to the bartender. "I'm not sure . . ." the bartender dubiously replies, but before she can finish her thought a hulking, jean-clad man says, "I'll take one." The ice broken, three other people grab breathalyzers. We turn to leave. "Keep up God's work," the first man says dryly as we make our way out the door.

That was quick and relatively painless, but there are still plenty of yellow breathalyzers to unload so decide to go to Metropolis, part of a local mall. We reconvene in the parking structure outside the canopied entryway. Karin got here first and already has checked things out: Women over twenty-one get in for free, men have to pay five dollars. Should we pay and enter like regular customers or should we make ourselves known and ask for permission to go inside? It's about nine p.m., and at this point our group has dwindled to four women and one man and could slip in unobtrusively, so the choice seems fairly clear to me, but they decide to pray for guidance, joining hands and closing their eyes once again. We stand in a circle next to the red velvet ropes. "Lord, tell us what to do," Karin prays. "Amen," they all chorus when she's done. I expect them to have realized the only sensible thing to do is pay our money and walk in the easy way, but apparently that's not what God told everyone else. "I think we're supposed to talk to them," Karin concludes. We walk up to the cashier's desk and Karin makes her case. The cashier heads for the manager's office to ask if we can go in. "Lord, I ask you would grant this favor," I hear Karin pray quietly. The manager, apparently, is sympathetic but ultimately unwilling to let us inside. Instead we stand in front of the entrance and talk to people on their way in or out.

As we're waiting I chat with a young volunteer named Neil, who tells me the story of how he came to Christ. He had been an atheist in high school but one day, while he was working at Toys "R" Us a couple came in asking for a Talking Bubba Bear, which they wanted to buy their son for Christmas. Talking Bubba was such a hot item at the time that Neil had never seen one, and he told them so.

The woman was so upset she began to cry, but her husband comforted her by telling her that if God wanted the boy to have one, they'd find one. As they left, Neil turned around to straighten up the shelves and there, just behind another box, was Talking Bubba Bear. "I ran them down and gave them the Talking Bubba," he recounted. "That just kinda got me thinking there and eventually I decided I did believe in God." In the faith of evangelicals, if God wants to tell you something he could use anything -- even Talking Bubba -- to get his message across.

For more, please go here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: J DAlessandro
Hometown: Crestwood, NY

Ooh, you're so strict!

You did a waterboarding job on that poor schlub from Kensington, MD. Its not his fault that Babs' music is impossible to stomach for people of a certain age and tastes. [Although one must wonder, Mr. Kensington, what "high standards" of music do you accuse Streisand and Celine Dion of "lowering"?]

And on the other hand, Streisand fans must admit that A Star is Born is the greatest unintentionally funny movie ever made.

But banishing the poor guy to the Andrew Sullivan site? For dissing Streisand? Even Rumsfeld would not be so cruel.

What's next, a blanket prohibition against Yankee fans? Some pity, please!

Name: Daphne Chyprious
Hometown: Springfield, Illinois

While someone is (gingerly) reminding Marty about Al Sharpton, he or she might add that the term "Afro" refers to a hairstyle while "African-American" denotes a culture of people. That would make "Afro-American" entirely a creature of Peretz's infertile (if delicate) imagination.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.