Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Trip to the Local Kingdom Hall

After church today, my best friend Daniel dropped by, and we embarked on... well, it turned out to be quite an adventure of a road trip, considering how navigationally impaired we both are. We discussed a variety of things during the course of it, ranging from N. T. Wright to career plans to interpretations of Romans. But we finally made our way to the nearest Kingdom Hall just in time for the Jehovah's Witnesses' meeting. Hence, having paid a visit, I can now give some reflections. First of all, everyone was extremely warm and friendly. Frankly, it quite nearly made me ashamed at how cold and impersonal even my own church seems in comparison--and there are very many loving, outgoing folks in my congregation. Of course, the Witnesses were few in number--83 folks were in attendance today--and it was quite clear that neither Daniel nor myself were from among their number. I'd brought my New World Translation; Daniel didn't have anything. After being greeted by at least ten people and engaged in conversation, we found some available seats. Finally, it was time for the weekly 'Bible talk', delivered by "Uriah", the JW who had for a long time been visiting me sporadically, and who had extended the invitation for today's talk. He did a very excellent job with the speech, which really wasn't terribly objectionable. It began, though, in an unexpected way. To paraphrase: "You remember the good old days? Our grandparents remember the good old days too, and so do our parents, but they're an entirely different set of good old days? So how can they all be the good old days? Well, the world keeps getting worse and worse." The talk went on to highlight five major areas in which all human governments inevitably fail but in which Jesus succeeds, with illustrations from the Scriptures. There was even a bit of democracy-bashing, the sort Daniel and I were unused to in church. Of course, the both of us are more-or-less monarchists, of a sort, so we were fairly pleased. There was also an interesting point at which it was said (to paraphrase, perhaps): "This isn't true just because I'm saying it. This isn't true just because the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is saying it. It's true because the Bible says it." (Of course, the verse in question was actually a quotation from Satan during Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, which made me laugh a bit inside.)

Anyway, after the Bible talk came the first hymn (they would've called it a 'song'), #172 in the hymnal Sing Praise to Jehovah. Daniel and I both looked around for such a book, but neither of us could find one; evidently, the JWs each have their own. The woman in front of us, thankfully, was kind enough to let us borrow hers, while she shared with her husband. The hymn was actually very good. Better, in my personal opinion, than a lot of the songs from my church. The Scriptural theme of the song was Psalm 2. After this came... well, a curious thing for which I'm not sure I have a name. Each week, evidently, they go over an article in the latest issue of The Watchtower. This week's was about Jesus as the "greatest missionary", being sent from heaven by Jehovah to compassionately teach the people. The majority of the article was unobjectionable, although one could see beneath the surface a notion of Christ as a created being, as the archangel Michael. The Kingdom Hall meetings use a study edition of The Watchtower, with numbered paragraphs and questions in footnotes. One man read a paragraph or two at a time; then he stopped and another man in the "pulpit" area asked the question from the footnotes, and called on people who raised their hands. Two men took microphones around to everyone, and often quite a bit of time was spent on each question. It was... well, a tad boring. The questions were very, very simple, sometimes capable of being answered perfectly in a single word, and the people answering often seemed to use the same words as in the paragraph, as if it were soaking into them. Very strange. 'Course, then I was struck by a frightening thought: most Bible studies I've seen have been even less intelligent than the discussion we found there. Also, on one page of the article, there was a picture of Jesus teaching a crowd, and we paused to analyze the facial expressions of the people. As it turns out, Daniel and I both have interpretive instincts very contrary to what the JWs had. The drawing rather amused me, though. Finally, after working through the rest of the article, there was one last song (#72) which included a reference to us all going door-to-door witnessing. Well, that was a tad awkward... but I think that the whole experience, especially those songs, made me really understand better what life might be like through JW eyes. There finally came a prayer, led by Uriah, and finally we were dismissed. There was much more conversation to come, of course; probably about six or seven other people introduced themselves to us, and we got to talk to folks for a while before finally making our way to Uriah and chatting with him a bit. He'll be keeping in touch, and hopefully we'll get to start having more study-oriented meetings once June begins.

I found that a few key words kept cropping up as distinctives: "Jehovah". "Kingdom". "Theocracy". "Organization". "Governing Body". "Training". "Christendom", once. And in place of the typical "accept Christ as your personal savior" bit that most modern churches churn out, there was a replacement phrase along the lines of "accept Jesus as the reigning king". A superior phrasing, if you ask me. The songs also refused to simply gloss over notions of divine judgment; such was quite clearly retained, even if perhaps a bit disturbing at times in connection with the soft, almost cheery tune of the music itself. The JWs were quite obviously eager to have Daniel and myself return to visit again sometime, preferably soon. And I do think that, someday, I would enjoy visiting on another Sunday. It was... a very different experience. One both foreign and familiar, alien and human. Seeing everyone milling about in conversation, people of all ages, even little children darting around in the aisles under the affectionate watch of adults... it was a very human sort of thing, one that could take place in any church, one that's at home in any church. The hymns were beautiful, the prayers were exalted and--I dare say--a bit more Christocentric than those in many Trinity-affirming congregations. The speech was unobjectionable, and--aside from a few overly negative aspersions on political participation--would have actually made a rather suitable sermon in any church, better than many I've heard. In the course of the service, I could definitely sense a perception of superiority over "Christendom". Christendom's agents are lazy and short on faith, but Jehovah's Witnesses give their own time and work to spread the gospel, paying for their own transportation and facing apathy and prejudice on a regular basis. Christendom's missionaries get involved in local politics and lose sight of the gospel, but Jehovah's Witnesses are genuinely focused on serving God alone and spreading nothing but the good news. That sort of thing.

At any rate, Daniel and I had quite the experience once we left there, headed back to my house, grabbed my stuff, and headed back up to college. For one, Daniel kept missing the roads we were supposed to take, and sometimes we'd have to spend five minutes going the wrong way and having no clue. We actually got into a bit of an accident on the way back. Some mentally defective bloke decided to make a three-point turn in the 55-mph section of a major road, and when we swerved to avoid him, we realized that there was a car parked at the side of the road, so we were basically forced to drive off the road and, well, into a tree. Daniel's car only got a minor dent, and I was pretty much laughing hysterically, but that's because I'm insane. We eventually made it to the right town in one piece, stopped to split a large pizza at the local pizza shop (ran into another of our friends there and had to spend some time annoying her, too), and ended at campus. It's good to have a best friend as strange as Daniel.

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