Conventional Wisdom

Seeking enlightenment in a rented ballroom with an evangelist and two dozen Klingons

Where does one draw the line between a culture and a subculture? Between religion and spirituality? A set of beliefs and a lifestyle? On one sunny Saturday, I sought answers in the most unlikely place: the hollow, impersonal, downtown Minneapolis Convention Center, where every week municipal alchemy transforms 10,000 Shriners into sales-tax revenue. By immersing myself in previously unfamiliar worlds, I imagined I'd find the answers--like chewing a tincture of pulverized cactus root and bat guano in the Baja desert and waiting for the epiphanic visions to kick in.

For the past month or so, hardly a commuting Twin Citizen has missed the billboards bearing the soft-focus visage of St. Louis evangelist Joyce Meyer. Her promise: "God will heal you everywhere you hurt" (although God presumably won't touch you in the places the bathing suit should cover). Bereft of health insurance, today's contract worker is shrewd to take advantage of discount healing wherever she can find it, and so I ventured into the Joyce Meyer Life in the Word meeting--located in the memorably named "Ballroom B" of the MCC. There I found merchandise tables galore, enough seats to accommodate the population of Blaine, and a whole mess of Midwestern women hungry for salvation.

Meyer, perhaps best known for her Christian weight-control bestseller, Eat and Stay Thin, must be on to something, as few attendees wander these halls without toting around some relic picked up at the concession stand. Even fewer are without the Meyer-penned Amplified Bible, an edition that includes a study guide and the theologically questionable Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books. About ten impeccably dressed men (including Meyer's husband Dave) staff the book-and-tape-selling corner, convincing the cane-and-wheelchair set that Meyer's "Emotional Healing" package is the only medicine they'll ever need. Although its price tag, $110, might be near the monthly bill for a cut-rate HMO, Jesus has no co-pay for office visits--and He covers preexisting conditions.

Dave Meyer takes the stage to inform the infirm that the start of the meeting will be delayed because he has noticed some expired meters outside and doesn't want anyone to get a ticket. In the meantime, women wearing nametags and clutching walkie-talkies and collection buckets circulate briskly through the crowd, stopping to coo over the infant offspring of two alarmingly young women. The revelers are a diverse lot. The ambition to eat and stay thin seemingly appeals to people of different generations and races: to men in tie-dyes and men in blazers; to women in hospital scrubs and teens in sexy shorts.

At last the onstage action begins, as a woman's Motown rendition of "Amazing Grace" inspires everyone to clap, dance, and shout hallelujah. Everyone, that is, except the woman stretched out on the seats behind me, who is either in a deep meditative state or unconscious. A live band comes out onto the pink-lit stage, breaking into a hymn strikingly similar to a Pearl Jam hit and screaming, "Turn to your neighbor and shout, 'You born again today!' Now who's ready to worship the Lord some more?"

Apparently not the woman behind me, who's still not moving. In an attempt to procure first aid, I speak with Dave Meyer himself, who seems a little annoyed that those with medical conditions aren't waiting until the designated healing time. I finally convince a female staffer to examine the passed-out woman. Upon being revived, she breaks into uncontrollable sobs.

When Meyer finally takes the stage, she begins by describing some of her books and tapes--all for sale in the back--and announces over raucous applause that Avon will soon sell her books in their catalog. "While they're getting makeup, they can get some salvation out of it, too," she says. (She makes no mention whether cheap perfume will be déclassé in the eternal afterworld.) Meyer then announces the message of the day: "You help build God's house and he'll build yours"--which does not necessarily mean that Meyer will donate all proceeds to Habitat for Humanity.

She then reads testimonials, over more cheering, of people who have contributed to her building fund and subsequently found their financial problems miraculously solved. One woman even convinced her husband to renounce the occult after she sent Meyer $100. The congregation gasps and hollers.

More than an hour passes and we are still watching videos of the soon-to-be-finished Meyer compound. I can hardly wait for God to build me one just like it.

 

After flirting with the miraculous, I visit the seat of secular humanism, the place where the godless go to seek the light of the cosmos: the Creation Entertainment Star Trek and Sci-Fi Media Convention. My navigation is a little less sure than Sulu's, though, and so first I find myself barging in to the National Association of Postmasters of the United States convention. (They have no right to object: How many times has a wayward postal carrier left me a copy of Soldier of Fortune with someone else's address on the front?)

Eventually, I make my way to the outer edges of my social universe, where I am startled to immediately encounter some 30 elaborately costumed individuals of all ages: an eight-year-old girl in a Seven of Nine costume; a scrawny grandmother in an Enterprise crew uniform; a couple of Worfs and a gorilla. The atmosphere in the merchandise room is intense, bordering on grave. Middle-aged men come close to fisticuffs when loudly making bets about minutiae--perhaps the specifications of the Enterprise's HVAC system. The mother of Seven of Nine, and a similarly costumed younger daughter, tries to stay well out of begging earshot. A young corporate type in a Captain Kirk shirt and polyester pants whines to his companion: "This is so sad. I came here thinking I'd spend money. They don't have anything I want."

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