I am reaching a point where I think Gutenberg did not do the world a favor. And for the second time in these months in the Mystery Worship mode, I walked about of a service and said, “I need a drink.”
Just walking to the door identified us as visitors with outsider status. I wore tailored dress slacks, boots and blazer and my companion was similarly clothed with a dress shirt, jacket and slacks. At the Jehovah’s Witness meeting hall on Windsor Drive in Denton, he should have had on a dark suit and tie and I should have been in a dress. Which I don’t own.
With that marking of “newbie” all over us, many greeted us enthusiastically. One ushered us to seats on one side of the meeting area, a low-ceilinged windowless room, lit by institutional fluorescent lighting. A small dais adorned with nothing but a wooden lectern and microphone, flanked by two small screens, identified where the speakers would stand. The temperature in the room ranged from too warm to too cold, never quite settling on comfortable.
We guessed the room would seat approximately 250 people. Perhaps 150 (more for the first part) gathered. Another identical room housed a different cohort of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Three other area groups share that same building.
There is no Sunday school or nursery available. Nursing mothers may feed their infants in the toilet area, awash with sprayed feces, equipped with chairs but no viewing screen. The mostly middle-aged or older and highly diverse ethnically adults were accompanied by a small number of children and teens. None will ever celebrate their birthdays, Christmas or Easter if they wish to remain faithful to the beliefs of the faith they are being reared in.
At 10 am, a man approached the lectern, offered a good morning, and told us to stand and sing hymn number 75. I saw no hymnbooks, but the person sitting next to my companion offered him one. There were no musical instruments visible. A computer-based electronic piano provided the tune, melody line only, to support the unenthusiastic singing.
At this point, a man identified as Brother Gay came to the lectern for a 30 minute exposition on “The Promise of the Perfect Family.”
During his exposition, Gay referenced multiple scriptures. All come from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, a translation unique to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Again, our friendly row companions offered the use of one of their Bibles.
Later I learned about a smartphone app for the JW’s that made it easier to move from spot to spot. Before then, my companion frantically flipped from place to place in his borrowed Bible while I wrote non-stop. I counted 23 different Scriptures being used–about one per minute, each yanked from its historical/theological/contextual settings.
Message theme: God wants us to be happy in our families. The primary means of happiness: husbands in charge spiritually and materially, wives in subjection, and children whose training in obedience starts from birth.
The congregation applauded when the message was finished. I personally was exhausted from trying to keep up. Here is my summary of the sermon in 519 breathless words:
The message moved from a description of the creation of the family in Genesis 1:26 to the book of Ruth and Naomi’s determination to offer families to her widowed daughters-in-law to the promise of the blessing of children in Psalm 127 to movement in the heavenly realm where certain spirits chose to disrupt the family as seen in Genesis 3 to our inheritance of the problem in Romans 5:12 with a backspring to the curse of Genesis 3:15, followed by a flying leap to promise of John 3:16, accompanied by flyover to the son of God breaking up the worlds of the devil in 1 John 3:8, a mention of rebelling spirits in 1 Cor 15:24 with a brief landing on the wisdom expressed in Proverbs 3, settling for a few moments on the structure of the family as seen in Ephesians 5 and 6 with special emphasis on husbands being ordered to love their wives as their own bodies to a reminder that these husbands are to model the example of Jesus Christ as head of their households and the horror of disloyalty and divorce and how the subtle forces of entertainment, work and the Internet may break up God’s plan for a permanent union all yoked to a reminder from Malachi 2 of how much God hates divorce with then a big swing back to Ephesians 5:22 and the insistence that wives be in subjection to their husbands and what an immediate benefit this is to the household so the husbands can take the lead in providing both physically and spiritually for the household as commanded in 1 Tim 5:8, all this based on the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 where the man is told to love God with all his heart, soul and strength and to speak of these things to his sons so they might learn to read and study and meditate and be reminded of the truths in Genesis 2 of the helper, i.e., the woman, being provided so he will not be alone and that they will have obedient children as described in Ephesians 6 because this is God’s arrangement as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 11 all of this tied together with the theme that God wants us to be happy and to have happy families and we can start ensuring that in our children’s infancy as seen in 2 Tim 3 and eventually we will see the future as described in Psalm 37:10 because in just a little while this world will be no more as is clearly stated in v. 29 that the righteous will possess the earth and that we will be among the happy ones as seen in Ps 89:15-16 but we need to remember what Jesus said in John 17:3 that we must come to know God and that the formula for happiness can be found in Matthew 5 with the beatitudes and in praying like Jesus in Matthew 6:9-10 that the kingdom will come and all families on earth will be blessed when that happens.
After the lecture we stayed for the book study that takes place weekly over passages from The Watchtower, the official Jehovah’s Witness publication and from which they take their primary teachings. The sections for Sunday were slowly read, paragraph by paragraph, all 18 of them. After each paragraph, those in audience were given opportunities to comment on the writings with comments expected to be short and to the point.
Microphones were passed around by the well-dressed male ushers to those who carefully read written comments, evidence of much preparation beforehand. Most echoed statements in the paragraphs just read.
As we reached the section on Jesus having tender compassion, I did wonder if anyone would have tender compassion on my backside, sore from sitting so long. I also wondered if the woman in front of us who consistently raised her hand to contribute her thoughts would ever be called upon. Several others, including other women, had experienced multiple opportunities to speak, but her request to participate was not acknowledged by the facilitator. He did impressively possess knowledge of everyone’s name and was able to call out, “brother this” and “sister that” with astounding accuracy.
Because I found this part extremely hard to sit through, and because I had learned by then of the JW website, I spent some time looking at it. Unsurprisingly, I found the earlier lecture there in a somewhat different form, but with all the verses that the speaker had used. No original research here. Just parroting the official line.
The service ended at 11:45 after another unenthusiastic song and closing prayer. We were again deluged with many who greeted us, filled our hands with written materials, answered questions, and kindly offered to explain theological terms to me. I mentioned that I am a trained theologian and had no trouble understanding their terminology.
They also tried in vain to sort out the relationship that my worship companion and I share. I suspect they really needed me to be married because of the emphasis on family. I am not.
Upon leaving, my companion said, “Am I reading the same Bible they are reading?” I remarked that their translation differs significantly from ones used in churches that profess Trinitarian Christianity.
I also asked, “I wonder what would have happened if I had raised my hand and made a comment that did not fit with the program?”
It probably would not have gone over well. It is my understanding that independent thought is discouraged within this church culture. Anyone who knows me also knows that independent thought is my watchword.
I would never be a fit–but many clearly are happy, secure in their world and their understanding of the future they expect to have in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever that world is, it is not Christian. They are certain that the Archangel Michael is Jesus in some spirit-pre-incarnate way. The Nicene Creed would be anathema to them.
I started this article by writing, “I’m reaching a point in this worship venture where I think that Gutenberg did not do the world a favor.” His invention, coupled with translations in the vernacular, made the Bible available to everyone–and made everyone an instant authority on what it says.
I’m not even going to begin to critique the JW theology–many others have done so far more competently than I can. But this sure looks like a mind-control cultish place to me–and one with 18,000,000 world-wide adherents. As with the Mormons, there are no paid (or trained or educated) clergy; all decisions are made by a small group of secretive men; all monies go to the central office and buildings are funded and built by that central organization. As far as I am able to see, there is also no real financial transparency or accountability.
It’s a slick machine, and if we want to define a church as “successful” by the numbers, then Jehovah’s Witnesses are unquestionably a successful church.
I ache for their members. It’s a cheerless place, full of “correct” answers, no creativity, no celebration, no joy. This is why I am an intentional United Methodist. It is also why the more progressive arm of UM’s may never make it–we do not create adequate insider/outsider markers to give comfort to people, the vast majority of whom do not want to think hard about such things.
I’ve noted before that the Bible, taken as a whole, does not promote inclusive religious stances. Jesus’ life and messages, standing alone, very much do. But we humans actually distrust inclusion. It’s built into us: it has kept us alive. Don’t trust the outsider–they may be trying to take over. The JW’s and the Mormons and any type of high-boundary religious group does a masterful job at tapping into those deep fears of annihilation by the outsider. The anti-LGBTQI lobby camps on that–if we open the doors to those who are sexually “outside,” they will take over and destroy us.
First century people did the same to the Samaritans and to the lepers. It’s human nature. But the church is supposed to be about God’s nature. We are supposed to be different. But we’re not.
[Note: portions of this blog will appear in the April 17, 2015 print and online editions of the Denton Record Chronicle.]