Saturday while down in Ocean Grove my weekend companion and I had the interesting experience of hearing the well-known MegaChurch preacher speak at the famous Great Auditorium there.
Now let me be clear: ordinarily the thought of going out to hear one of the MegaChurch preachers would send me running in the opposite direction, fingers plugged firmly into my ears. But Warren has earned enough of a rep as being a reasonable voice that, if we could sit close enough to one of the exits, we two staunch liberal Democrats agreed he’d be good to hear. We also wanted to see what the inside of this historical building was like (it’s fantastic).
He got some serious attention, and took some flak, earlier this election cycle by scheduling a joint appearance with McCain and Obama, and his even-handed treatment of both candidates. What we were hoping to hear was something political, and the fact that we didn’t was in a way good news.
To the extent he mentioned world or national events at all, he talked about genocide, poverty, disease and hunger in Africa. These get (to put in mildly) short shrift in what I hear from your run-of-the-mill right-wing quote-unquote “religious” figures these last twenty or thirty years, because it distracts them from really helpful stuff like banning abortion or fretting about gay marriage. (If you sensed a somewhat high level of sarcasm in that last sentence, you are correct.) And to the extent he talked about the election, it was just in a list of “do we have to love _______” examples, “do we have to love people who vote differently from us in the election?” While I’m 99% certain that he’s not going to vote the way I do in November, I was glad to see that it’s not his primary concern.
Presentation-wise, Warren is a really excellent speaker. It’s a small wonder he’s got a 20,000-strong congregation because he held our interest 100% for the hour we were there and in the end we really weren’t even that interested. Good use of humor, some self-deprecating. Excellent pacing and change of tone throughout to keep it from being monotonous. I was especially pleased that he avoided most of those monotonous tropes and verbal “tics” that you always hear.
On the other hand, we’re no theologians, and even so we found that content-wise it was kind of thin, especially since most of the audience were religious professionals there as part of a conference. My companion, who knows considerably more theology than I, was especially annoyed at his oversimplification and “not only is this the most important thing it’s the only important thing” kind of emphasis on his topic. We got the sense that next month he’ll be talking about something else and it too will be the Most Important Thing.
Nevertheless, he got higher than average on our approval scale for his emphasis on what you the listener need to do, and nothing about what those bad “other people” need to do (or not do). Because if I remember correctly this religion is about one’s relationship with God and one’s neighbors and not about whether the gay couple on the next block (or next town, or next state) is allowed to share insurance benefits.
As an amusing aside: being post-season at a beach resort, the town was kind of empty this weekend, and since there also hadn’t been any serious publicity the audience was small. I wouldn’t have recognized Mr. Warren if walked up to me and introduced himself, but my companion did; and as we were walking around trying to figure out which entrance to go in she said, “there he is” and started to follow him in through the stage entrance door. I kind of stammered “I don’t think we’re supposed to …” in the general direction of the back of her head, but followed along as she just kind of swept in, and we practically walked out on to the stage with him.
The nice people inside politely told us we were in the wrong place but, rather than make us go outside and back in another way, directed us through the passageway from the office into the front of the hall. We took a couple of seats next to a transverse aisle and hung out for an hour or so until things looked like they were wrapping up, and made our discreet exit.