Those who know me well know that I’m not a religious person at all. To me, religion is the marketing part of a corporate body called ‘church’, which makes a grand profit from satisfying people’s need for ‘faith’ by selling them a product named ‘god’. Substitute ‘hunger’ for ‘faith’, ‘food’ for ‘god’, ‘advertising’ for ‘religion’ and you’ve got yourself the greatest McDonald’s of all in the name of ‘church’.
About three years ago, a few days before Easter, I got stopped by someone on my way back home. I was asked whether I would like to watch Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ for free. Don’t worry. He was not dressed in a Catholic priest’s gear and I certainly was not a young boy. I knew there was a Methodist church in the corner of my neighbourhood. It turned out that it was organising a viewing of the film, being so close to Easter, for anyone who wanted to come along and watch it.
I had nothing planned for the following evening and I didn’t mind watching a movie for free. So I gladly accepted.
Queue the following evening, entering the church hall. I had never been to a Methodist church before so I was a bit surprised to see that its interior looked more like a school classroom, with only a small raised altar in the right corner, where a desk with a cross on top and a few pictures of Jesus on the wall gave away the fact that this place was used for prayer. You see, my experience with the Christian religion has only been around Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, where their interiors compete for the tallest, heaviest, most expensive decorations on the planet (if not heaven itself).
Chairs had been arranged in rows all over the room and I decided to sit in the front row on the right. I guess that was a subconscious decision since I do like to sit as close to the front as I can in a movie theatre. Luckily, I had not subconsciously brought a bucket of sweet popcorn and a coke with me. I looked around me and saw about 30-35 people in the room. Some were clearly religious, God fearing people, others looked curious more than anything else, a couple of them were just cheapskates like me, coming around for the free movie.
I can’t say that I felt guilty for entering a house of prayer with the simple intention to watch a movie for free. Me and God, if he exists, have an amicable understanding between us like a son and a mother in law. I stay out of his way and he keeps out of mine, spare the very few instances where I visit a church in Greece as part of a social custom or when someone in a city square would throw a big ‘Repent Your Sins Now’ sign in front of my face. In fact, it seems that from a very early age I was kind of allergic to churches!!! I remember in my school years, when the teachers used to take us to church once a month, I used to feel dizzy a few minutes into the service. My teachers would think I was pretending to faint until one day I almost got sick inside the church. It turned out that my body could not take the smell if incense in the church.
Anyway, the movie started and, to be honest, I was enjoying it even though it mixed and matched a few things in the story, pretty much like what the church has done with the Bible (but that would be a future blog in itself). When the movie had reached its peak and Jesus whispered his last words on the cross, it suddenly stopped. The lights came on and a blonde man in his early forties, jeans and T shirt on, mic in hand, jumped in front of us screaming ‘So, brothers, what did Jesus sacrifice himself for?’
Well, I guess I am getting old after all. No way to deny that. I can’t explain otherwise how I failed to run for the exit and be out in the rain and the cold by the time he said ‘brothers’. I missed that window of opportunity and by the time I turned to look at the exit door the two fellow cheapskates had already managed to run to freedom, before two guys closed the door behind them and stood there like two bouncers in a VIP nightclub. I was trapped!
Well, since escape was not an option I had to do what every clever jailbird does to stay alive and sane in a prison. No silly, I’m not talking about becoming someone’s bitch!!! I’m talking about tactics. Ways to make the guard, sorry, the priest get on your side and let you leave unharmed. So I sat in my seat, tight and quiet, listening to the priest and planning my next move.
‘We are all sinners!’ he was shouting on the mic. It’s actually a pity he was not black because then I could have actually related to all the movies I’ve seen of a black priest coming on stage, shouting and screaming for salvation and then doing his James Brown impersonation before everybody else joins in, hands in the air waiving like they just don’t care. But this guy was more like a call centre employee, pretending to be black and James Brown, as if in a karaoke bar.
However, since god does work in mysterious ways, I guess, the audience was actually throwing the odd ‘Yeah’, ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord’ at him and to the ceiling above, which means his karaoke act was working the audience pretty swiftly.
‘Are you ready to seek forgiveness for your sins?’ he was asking.
‘Yeah!’ they were answering back, less a Greek in the front row.
‘Are you ready to save yourselves and walk with God, our Lord, Jesus Christ?’ he would scream.
‘Yes!’ they would shout, less a mute Greek in the front row.
‘Then come up here, kneel and pray to Jesus for forgiveness’ he said.
And in queue, one by one they did. Walked up there with him, kneeled on the floor and prayed. He would touch their heads, say something which seemed like a prayer in fast forward and they would thank God, praise God, bow and pray and speak their own little chants.
It was time for me to start using tactics as this was getting out of hand. So, enter ‘Ostrich’, a tactic we’ve all learned at school. When the teacher asks the class a question and you don’t know the answer bow thy head, look down and pray that he will not pick you to answer. Obviously sitting in the front row put me at a disadvantage as it was not hard to pick me from the remaining 8 people still sitting. But I followed the tactic to the letter. Head down, eyes staring at my shoes (note: make sure you put your running shoes on next time you go to watch a movie in a church), hands tight together as in prayer. Let’s hope he thinks I’m praying and lets me be.
Alas, I spoke to soon. He was not alone. Suddenly, someone sat next to me. He was not one of the audience, he was working for the church.
‘Are you ready to ask forgiveness for your sins brother?’ he asked me.
That action required a different approach, I thought. It was going to be a game of religious chess between two grandmasters so I had to think every move carefully. If I attacked him with a ‘Fuck Off’ move, he would most probably respond with the ‘Satan In Our Lives’ defence, which could leave me open to attacks from the flanks, possible a check mate in 5 moves.
No, the game required sensible attacks like a true Kasparov. So, I started with an ‘On Your Side’ move to test his tactical ability.
‘I’m a Christian like you but of the Greek Orthodox order, so we have other ways of asking forgiveness’, I replied.
‘You could be saved tonight’, he responded. Ah, the ‘Ignore’ move. He was good, ignoring my test-attack and waiting for another attacking move to test my strength. Ok then fellow, let’s see what you’ve got. And I followed with a ‘Don’t Question My Faith’ move.
‘Orthodox Christians believe that you do not have to ask a priest to get forgiveness, you can just pray yourself to God for it’. There you go mate, what’s your response to this move then?
He paused for a moment to reflect on my answer.
‘But you should not waste any time to ask forgiveness for your sins. We never know what comes tomorrow so it’s better to be prepared brother.’
OK, he still didn’t take the bait, so I needed to create a diversion and hit him hard when he was not looking (metaphorically speaking, of course). Enter ‘Socrates’. My favourite tactic, slow, patient and turns the opponent's own power against them, like in Jiu Jitsu.
‘Do you believe in god?’ I asked him.
‘Of course I do’, he replied.
‘Do you believe that we should never lie? That it’s a sin to lie?’
‘Are you a sinner?’
‘We all are. That’s why it’s important to be saved now by asking forgiveness, as we never know what the next day brings’, he said.
‘I am a sinner too. Like everyone. But I’m not ready to ask for forgiveness yet.’ I pointed out.
‘Why not? Are you not afraid that something may happen to you and it would be too late?’
Bingo! He took the bait, opened his defence wide open by thinking I was not attacking and it was time to start taking his pieces one by one.
‘If I said to you I am ready, I would be lying brother. And lying is another sin. That means that if I accepted your offer, I would be sinning again by lying.’ Down goes the bishop.
‘But are you not scared of not receiving forgiveness for your sins?’ Repeat of his previous words. He was dazzled and didn’t know what move to make next.
‘I want to ask forgiveness when I’m ready. When I know that I will not be doing anything wrong after that. Right now I’m not ready to do that.’
‘Because I know that I will sin again. So there is no point to ask forgiveness if I am going to sin again shortly afterwards, whether that would be by lying to someone, or swearing to someone, or sleeping with someone without being married.’ Pawn down.
‘You can ask forgiveness for those sins too’. Amateur error.
‘If I repent now, knowing fully well that tomorrow I will be sinning again, then my repentance would not be true but fake. So, I would be lying which is a sin. If I say to you yes I want to repent I would also be lying. Another sin. Whichever way you look at it, if I take action now, this very moment, would result in a sin, in more sin that I already have. So, I am not ready for this. When I am, I will speak directly to the man up there.’ Horse down, check!
He didn’t say anything at first. I waited and waited. No answer. He was struggling. Your king is mine! But then, all of a sudden, an illegal move!!!! He stood up and was replaced by the priest himself!!! Hold on! You can’t change opponents half way! This is wholly and holy unfair! Where is the thunder and the lightning I should be expecting? The earthquake? What is that! Representatives of the Almighty are above the rules???? Come on!!!
Oh well, without a moment to waste we had a similar initial conversation as before. Why didn’t I want to repent; because I was not ready yet, because I wanted to sin for just a little bit longer and even when ready I would do it without the middle man to ensure a fully qualified ‘You’re forgiven’.
To my surprise, he accepted my explanation. He did not pressure me into submission. He did not call upon angels to tie me down and force me to read prayers from the Bible. He even invited me to stay over as they were serving coffee and cookies later on. (Hmmm, let me remind you again that I was not a 6 year old kid but a fully grown adult, so stop sinning by having those immoral thoughts!!!). He simply used the ‘Divide and Conquer’ move. Invite him to coffee, talk about religion, make him reconsider his views on Orthodox Christianity, make him question his own part of the faith and then turn him to your side.
What he didn’t know was that all that time I was using the ‘Einstein’ move, a difficult one to execute but a very effective one especially when defending. The move, in general terms, is defined as E=mc2. E is for escape, c is for church talk and m is for male. So, Escape = male times church talk squared, which in simple terms means that the more males talk about church matters the higher the chances of an escape. And since I was pretending to be ‘of the faith’ all I had to do was pretend to believe, enter into a deep religious conversation and let science take its effect and rescue me.
Coffee was served, home made cookies followed and he started talking to me about how one day he met God and from then onwards he followed his path to salvation. Personally I am happy for anyone who says so, since they seem to be happy and content with their path. I, on the other hand, am also happy with mine so as long as we walk in parallel lines all should be fine. It all changes when your path tries to cross into mine, in which case I will say ‘hey neighbour’ but would not let you preach on how better your path is to mine. It’s called subjective opinion.
After his ‘path to salvation’ talk, we moved to a more interesting discussion about the Bible and God’s word. Now that was something I could relate to since I have read the whole New Testament. After all I cannot say I don’t believe in something if I haven’t read what the opposing view is. To cut the long story short, he realised that I was well informed on Bible matters, he was satisfied that I believed in God but had my own way of dealing with salvation (clearly his communication with God must have suffered connection problems that night, since he believed that I believed, even though I don’t believe) and invited me to attend mass the following Sunday.
My response to that invitation, before saying my goodnights and leaving, was the old favourite ‘Diplomacy’ move, favoured and perfected by every female on the planet and used whenever they want to let you down nicely.
‘Maybe’ I said, and left the building.
I never set foot on the place again, not because of what happened but because I only enter churches as part of a cultural activity or to admire architecture and interior. Never to communicate with God. After all, God did not have a church to preach, he used desserts, mountains, caves and roads for that. Free of charge, with no obligation to ‘offer what you wish’, ‘buy the book, CD, DVD’ or ‘contribute’. Therefore, if I ever start believing, I would keep my communication between me and the man himself, not anyone else. Until that time comes, I think I would like to sin for a little bit longer.