Anthony in Wonderland
A few days ago as I was en route to a suburban cemetery, where I was doing some research for this illustrious blog, I happened to drive by a mall. (Research in a cemetery, you say? Well, you'll soon find out what that's all about.) Anyhow, I was driving by this fairly commonplace mall, and whether or not it deserves the moniker'd adjective "strip" in front of it, well, I'll leave that to your imaginations. But as I was daydreaming and glossing over the discount shoe outlets, grocery stores, and Cheap-Marts, this rather out-of-the-ordinary shop caught my attention. Of course, many of you in other parts of the country (or even other parts of Illinois) will say "well, heck--that's not uncommon!" But what I believed to be an anomaly in my own myopic and barbaric universe was the phenomenon known as the "Christian Bookstore." I say phenomenon, because it is not so much the location or object of the store than its eloquent apparition to the virgin soul, almost akin to witnessing a phantasm of the BVM ("Blessed Virgin Mary") or BVP ("Blessed Vincent Price"). The point is, going anywhere is a phenomenological experience, but going to a Christian bookstore, well, that's a phenomenological event. Like the SuperBowl, but without the beer. So I drive up into the mall parking lot, and pull up in front of this store. I think "I've never been in a place like this, let's check it out!"
Before exiting my vehicle, I snap this shot of the storefront: Royal Christian Bookstore. I wonder whose royalty they are referring to, but then again, my presumptions should be obvious--just think of a popular GF Handel "song"...you know, like "King of Kings" top 40 countdown material. I went into the store. A store complete with its own "heavenly cafe," which was selling everything from fruit drinks to vegan dishes wedged with tofu and carrot shards. Everyone working inside was wearing a three-piece or dress suit. Hi-Def monitors beamed the vibrant proclaiming Dr. William (Bill) S. Winston preachin' the Gospel, microphone in hand, blue suit on back. I noticed that the bookstore carried mostly Christian Self-Help, as a friend calls it. And of course, the required retinue of attending Bibles which acted as guardians and helpers of those in the store (and you wondered what "Living Bibles" always meant!?) There were two surprises, which perhaps should not have been surprises: a) the collection of books did not include any "theology" per se. Theology seems to have taken on its own persona, as that which likely corrupts believing, at least for those who might frequent such an establishment; and b) there were several Jewish texts and Jewish versions of Biblical texts, including a "Chumash" (Pentateuch) and "Tehillim" (Psalms) published by the publishing house ArtScroll.
Now after perusing this store for a few minutes, I noticed a set of glass doors at the back of the shop. I went back and peered through to discover the mall, or at least "a mall." Something didn't seem quite right, it didn't appear to be that busy, and the halls seemed spartan. I decided to venture in and then realized where I was: it was a Mega Church complex, which doubled as a pseudo-mall facility, but materialized like an alternate universe. Just north of my location were "real" stores, clothing stores, shoe stores, food stores. But where I was now was a secret twin, a doppelganger mall with a religious twist of Christian lime. There was a greeters desk with a welcome sign over it, and another table with a sign for Army Reserve Christian Corps (or some such thing); there was a Hospitality and Welcoming Center with lounge; there was a Credit Union called "Covenant Credit"; but also dozens of offices, Missions Offices, Postal Offices (specifically for the Church), Media Offices, a TV Station, and more. I soon discovered that this place was called the "Living Word Christian Center." And for the next half hour, it would be my own true and personal Lord and Wonderland.
Whose Team are You On?--Sign Up Today!
Now many of you out there might be thinking "What the heck!?" As I milled around the massive serpentine hallways with 30-foot-ceilings, I was struck by the innumerable auditorium-type entrances with signs like this, which ranged from "Nursery" age to young adults. Usually, they didn't just say "Kids for Christ" but "Ages 3-6" or "Ages 9-11." Then I thought a little bit more about this and began to consider the theological implications of the phraseology "Kids for Christ." Why not "Christ for Kids?" I mean, come on...whose saving whom here? Is someone being selfish? Okay, I won't go there. We're not in the business of offense, but observation, mild, innocuous commentary, and reporting. At least there's some logical eventuality here: clearly if you're a "Kid for Christ," the only logical next step is to register, whether for him, on behalf of him, or for yourself with your keen interest in him. I suppose I'll refrain from playing any more of these Wittgensteinesque word games.
The Living Word Christian Center (or, LWCC) is presumably the power center of the ministries of Dr. William S. Winston. His photos abound the hallways, covers of his denizens of books, and elsewhere. This is a bone fide super- mega- holy cow- ginormous- Church corporation. And one might argue a crucible of the Prosperity Gospel promulgated by many of the mega-cloth. At left you will see a witnessing, testimony sign, encouraging parish members, I'm sorry... "Believers," to tell their stories. A card ~4"x8" is provided and has detailed instructions on how to submit your testimonial. I will recreate with actors the "Living Word Christian Center" Testimonial Card and Instructions below:
__All testimony submissions MUST be typed.
__Please submit a photo along with your testimony.
__Please include your contact information with your testimony.
__Submit the testimony, your picture and this card in the Testimonies box.*
*[Is it me, or is this redundant?]
Thank you for sharing your testimony.
In the event that we need to contact you, please provide your contact information.
By signing this card you give us permission to publish your testimony. Submittal does not guarantee publication.
The Oldest Water in the World?
From the maker of "the Bible," "People," and "the Universe," comes "Rivers of Eden Purified Water." Just in case you were wondering, this is the libation of choice at LWCC. They have these coolers set up all around the campus. I couldn't help but notice them and their delightful invitations to drink. The verbal consonance of "drink" or "drinking" in religious practice is something with a significant history in the Bible, from imbibing waters to wines and other liquors. But it is also very sacramental. Here we are faced with the refreshment of the body, which by chance or design becomes a metaphor for a refreshment of the soul. "Rivers of Eden" is no accident of the "Capital Gains Sub-Committee" of the Church polity. It has great "well springs" of potential and meaning, least of all is the power to slake. But let's not get too fresh with this, or act as the provocateurs of the mega-church narratives. As long as it is water for body and soul, I'm sure it is fine. Add some flavored powders and you'll start scaring people off. That's how powerful that symbol of the 1970s still is.
The last word on this must be a mention of two things: the hyper-web of ministries that targets almost every level of society and the Joseph Center School of Business, which trains individuals in succeeding as Christian business owners and practitioners. The first of these is, in many ways, a business model: Dr. Winston has everything from "enterprise ministry" to "grant writing ministry" to "administrative ministry." Everything's a ministry! And so naturally this ministry flows into his business school and vice versa.
Without a doubt this was quite a surprise. I slipped out of my Alice rabbit hole; I was no longer a giant or a mushroom or a dream. But I now know that any trip to a Christian bookstore is not an ordinary trip, but an adventure. And you might just learn something new: like when I said "thanks" and "good-bye" to the store clerk, I got a heroic "God Bless You!" in return. Well, what the heck. I guess I don't mind being "blessed" for a day.