Jesus, Etc.

Could Luis Palau's Christ-A-Thon save a wretch like me?

I was heartened to read in the Star Tribune insert about the Star Tribune-sponsored Twin Cities Festival that there would be "something for everyone" at the two-day Jesus-a-Go-Go, which took place on the state capitol grounds in St. Paul over the weekend.

Heartened, because it meant that there would be something for me, a Catholic boy who spent his formative years attending damn-near hippie masses on the banks of the Mississippi River, where the Christian Brothers preached, simply, love and looking out for each other. Heartened, because it meant that there would be something for a wretch like me, whose current personal relationship with Jesus is informed by Vic Chesnutt's "Stay Inside," in which the apostles urge their savior not to roll away the rock, thus saving the world from centuries of post-resurrection blues; and U2's "If God Will Send His Angels," which preaches, "Jesus used to show me the score/Then they put Jesus in show business/Now it's hard to get a foot in the door."

Which is to say that since I was a boy I have had wacky inner conversations with myself and/or Jesus (or whom/whatever), and therefore the Jesus I have come to know intimately is none other than...me! Radical, I know, but I've always loved the story about the time Buddha met God and God said, "Tell beings that it is up to them." So, left to my own devices, I've become a lover of people and community; a hater of hawks, hacks, and the power-hungry, and a skeptic of anything that reduces the personal to a pep-fest. Still, I was curious.

Would Palau's shame-based circus offer something that spoke to me as much as did the contemplative moments I spent last week with Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels and Stevan Davies's The Gospel of Thomas, Annotated & Explained, both of which explore the "secret" Jesus writings discovered in 1945, which read more like Zen koans than almost anything recorded in the Bible? If you're like me these days, you're sick to death of pundits and politicians foisting godly quotes upon you, but indulge me on this one from Thomas: "Jesus said, 'If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.'"

Huh. Imagine that. Jesus said listen to and follow yourself, not me. I wanted to find out: Would the good reverend torpedo his huckster-for-heaven act by admitting that Christ actually advocated the concept of self-as-God, and not Palau-as-prophet? I opened my mind and traveled to St. Paul, a city named for that most rebellious of the apostles, but which Saturday night looked like Jonestown in wait for Elmer Gantry, what with all the forlorn-looking people wanting to be loosed from their pain. Upon arrival, I was handed a copy of something called the Minnesota Christian Chronicle and another copy of the Strib insert. Two eager retiree-types--who, like thousands of their fear-and-Lording brethren inside, wore stars and stripes and Bush/Cheney '04 stickers--asked me whether I was registered to vote.

As I wandered the grounds, a Christian lite-funk band played the same riff for 20 minutes straight. The omnipresent smell of cheese curds, corn dogs, and mini-donuts suggested that Christians deeply dig their deep-fried foods. Amidst the T-shirts ("Jesus Saves"; "Got Jesus?"; "I Eat Glue"; "Heavy Drinker--John 7:37"; "Jesus is my homeboy"), and sports jerseys (celebrating such Christlike heroes as Kobe Bryant and Shawn Kemp, who took that whole "be fruitful and multiply" thing to new heights), I spotted a woman with two kids.

She was pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. All four wore black T-shirts with the word "loser" on the front. I asked the woman what it meant, and she said, "You have to lose your life to Christ before you can have your life back." Gotcha. My doubts about finding Thomas were growing.

Actually, due to the low-grade enthusiasm and harmless rock bands, skate park, and kids area, I was fairly indifferent about the whole thing. Until Palau spoke. He stayed vague about why his nephew who had died of AIDS had to "repent," but laced his Help Is On The Way comments about everything with shame and guilt. I could feel the good people starting to feel bad, the bad people starting to feel worse, and the fence-sitters, by God--they were going to feel just wretched by the time Palau was done with them. Fortunately help was at hand, available through Palau's books (one modestly prescribes The Only Hope for America), CDs, beach balls, visors, and T-shirts, all available in the merchandise tent. When he went into a riff about the cautionary tale that is Elvis Presley, I lost it and started hollering at the video screen that Elvis made some of the most godlike records this planet has ever been blessed with. No one joined my crusade.

After Palau ended his with-us-or-against-us address ("Surrender to Jesus!"), his volunteers hit the grounds, handing out survey cards that asked for the respondents' names, ages, addresses, and Jesus-in-their-hearts status. Dusk was nigh. The video screens turned dark blue and glowed with the words, "Please turn in your response card now." The same message was echoed by a disembodied voice with metronomic eeriness.

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