Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Of Klingons and Pentecostals

Many years ago I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, a show I enjoy immensely because it allows me to indulge my inner geek. I was looking for a friend in the various meeting rooms where panels and talks were held when I walked in on a group of Star Trek fans dressed in full Klingon regalia, recreating a Klingon "Age of Ascension" ceremony.

A potential Klingon Warrior walks between two rows of Klingons, all bearing "painsticks" which are kind of like electric cattle prods. The warrior says, in Klingon, "Today I am a warrior. I must show you my heart. I travel the River of Blood." The would be warrior is then zapped over and over with the painsticks, proving, I suppose, his or her ability to suffer the pain of being a warrior.

Now the people in this room were only dressed as Klingons, of course, with more or less elaborate makeup and costumes depending on the money and time invested by those in attendance. The "painsticks" were not real, they were props. The ceremony consisted of a bunch of people, pretending to be Klingons, initiating a new warrior, who was pretending to be in pain when jabbed with the painsticks.

In the end the pretend ritual conducted in a pretend language allowed a person to become a pretend warrior. It was weird cool and geeky, and I rather enjoyed watching it.

This all came back to me recently when I was at the Rhode Island State House during the public hearings on the new marriage equality bill. Those opposed to a human being's right to marry a person of the same sex staged a massive, Statehouse dome rattling protest that united various Hispanic and non-Hispanic evangelical churches, the Catholic Church, conservative legislators, the local branch of the National Organization of Marriage and a certified anti-gay hate group from Massachusetts.

After I delivered my testimony upstairs I descended into the main rotunda, but the large, raucous protest was by then in its final moments. Still, I was able to see, for the first time in my life, a pastor leading a small group of followers in prayer that consisted of the Holy Spirit entering the faithful and bringing on full body seizures and the speaking in tongues.

The Pastor would yell and pray, the words are lost to me but there was a lot about Jesus, then he slapped the palm of his hand on a woman's head, and she began to convulse and spasm. The rest of the small group caught her as she fell backwards, and they gently lowered her convulsing body to the ground, making sure she did not hurt herself as she fell and thrashed around on the hard marble floors.

She started speaking in tongues almost immediately: a steady stream of nonsense came out of her mouth, words that the followers believe to be the language of the angels or perhaps the language that all men spoke before God destroyed the Tower of Babel and confused our language into the various tongues spoken today.

Here's the thing: I didn't see any difference between the Pentecostals writhing on the ground and speaking their made up language and the Klingons engaging in their painstick rituals in their made up language. I never felt that the woman was truly in the throes of anything but her own imagination, and I saw nothing in her behavior that indicated that her seizure was in any way real.

Twice, while working at Borders Books, I was on hand while a customer endured an epileptic seizure. The first time I was not entirely sure what I was dealing with. My first aid training had given me the factual information of what such seizures are like, but until you experience one in an emergency, you have no idea how intense they are.

During an intense seizure, the person is gone. There is no control of the body, there is no sense of safety, dignity or embarrassment. There is only a scary loss of control.

The glossolalia I witnessed, and the "seizure" that accompanied it was very different. There was hesitancy in the woman's movements. She was unable to fully commit to her seizure until she was sure that her friends were in a position to catch her and guide her to the ground. The seizure lasted for a while, but it only lasted for a dramatically satisfying amount of time. It didn't go on for fifteen minutes, it went on just long enough to make its point, and to allow others to have their turn.

No one thought to call a paramedic, as I did when dealing with a real seizure, because this wasn't a real seizure, it was an act. It was, in truth, no more real than the Klingons at Comic Con with their painsticks. Actually, the Klingons were better actors, bringing real solemnity and visceral expressions of emotion and pain to their ritual.

The Klingons knew that they were pretending. After Comic Con most of them would return to their lives and families not really believing that they are Klingons. It's a game, playacting, something to do for fun, a way to escape from yourself, but no one is pretending that the ritual truly created a Klingon Warrior, or that the person undergoing the ritual was now in some way truly changed by the event. It was theater.

The demonstration at the State House was also theater. The time and place of the ritual was chosen because they were using their Christianity to combat the perceived evils of marriage equality. They were inviting God into themselves and hopefully, into the State House. But here's the rub: they want us to believe that they really believe that God is somehow possessing them. They want the depth of their convictions to alter the debate on the rights of human beings to marry who they love.

The woman's lack of conviction in her own performance undermined this contention.

Religious Rituals are theater. They only difference is that some people know this, and they engage in them for fun or for spectacle, but some people pretend to believe that they are somehow engaging in activities that are more than theater, deeper in some way.

In truth, I suspect they are not fooling any one, including themselves.


  1. Of course it's all theater. The Catholic church once had a hold on that. I mean, go to a mass and you'll understand completely. From the pageantry to the symbols it's completely theater.

    And even in Baptist churches - it's very theatrical with the preacher belowing out the alleged word of god, etc.

  2. I really like your comparison between the pentacostals and the klingons. My only disagreement here is your last sentence, I would imagine a great number of people involved there are indeed fooling themselves. Why would the rank and file members keep coming back otherwise?

  3. nice post. i agree, it's all bullshit. but i would point out that i don't think those crazy pentacostals would call whatever that was a seizure. would they? if that's the case, what is the value of proving that it is actually nothing like a seizure?

    but yeah: it's delusional playacting just the same.

  4. @jacob hainline: good point, I'm not sure that spiritual possession should be concerned with epilepsy per se, but I think what was missing from the performance was a sense of commitment. I never felt that the possessed woman was really in the throes of anything special, she was just acting.

    @Hausdorf: I think people come back for the theater and community, and don't care how "real" it all is. In a sense it's that lack of commitment to the truth that so rankles me about religion.