I was sympathetically reading this profile of the preacher of what the New York Times claims is New York’s largest church. The Rev. A.R. Bernard has built his ministry around the responsibility of men, according to the Times, a message that is desperately needed in East Brooklyn, the city’s poorest and highest crime area, where his Christian Cultural Center is located. Then I got to this:
He said he has seen some astonishing things. The first was a teenage girl who came to his storefront church and crumbled to the floor, convulsing. Her face turned blue, then green. She growled.
When he splashed holy oil on her forehead, he said, she spoke in a deep man’s voice and, though they had never met, referred to his wife and sons by name and said they were in danger. She bit a deacon on the hand, opening wounds; when Mr. Bernard touched her, she let go and the flesh was whole.
He said he visited one young woman at her house and saw her eat broth, then regurgitate nails. Real nails.
A possessed man punched a wall and broke his hand. Mr. Bernard said he sandwiched it between his and it healed.
He does not do exorcisms any more. They drained him. “Now I have staff,” he said.
(Note that reporter N.R. Kleinfield raises not the barest quiver of skepticism towards these claims, indeed, that he seems to revel in their preposterousness [I hope that my religious colleagues on the right would agree that they are patently preposterous]. Kleinfield’s fawning acquiescence in such delusions refutes yet again the alleged hostility of the mainstream media towards religion.)
Is this the compromise we have to strike—a means for affirming positive moral values in exchange for rankest superstition and ignorance? The greatest boon of religion, in my view, is the sermon. It is a formal, regular forum in which to shore up the values required for a stable, law-abiding society. Those values—patience, forgiveness, and self-discipline, among others–are not religious values, they are human values; religion merely appropriates them and claims them for its own. But secular society has not evolved a counterpart to the sermon in which to articulate and strengthen its core moral components. The watered-down sermons of the Unitarians and Universalists that I sometimes subject myself to on the radio on Sunday mornings waiting for the classical music to come back on are nauseatingly PC and puling. In comparison, the Lutheran kooks who go before the Unitarians, confidently explaining such mysteries as what happened to Jesus’ body in heaven, at least occasionally focus on ethical essentials when they are not demanding total, unequivocal faith in God as the only route to salvation.
We cannot assume that positive values are self-perpetuating and will take care of themselves. Families are their original source, but they may fail. I wish we could create a secular institution for regular moral tune-ups that appeals to reason, not fantasy.