“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12
When I was a little girl, there were a couple of things that were expected of kids:
1. They were expected to help around the house with chores and younger siblings.
2. They were expected to eat what was given them.
3. And they were expected to go to school. And the church.
The closest church to my childhood home of Qebena was “Yeka Micheal Bete Christian”, which was near “Sholla Gebeya” [where me and my would-be-jail-bird little bro Tagel were sent to buy, and carry home, the weekly rations on Saturday mornings with one of my aunts who lived somewhere in between; teaching me the womanly art of home economics and him a consuming desire for other people's money]. St. Michael’s church had a tablet that “came out” once a year to the famous “Jan Meda”, distinguishing it from your average “bete selam”. It was also home to quite a few renowned birds, like “Aba Solomon”; the politically-minded monk who grew his hair long, wore colorful robs and chains, and called the wrath of God from upon high to low down below every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon.
So when the time came for my non-practicing Orthodox Christian father and slack Protestant mother to permit me go to this colorful place of worship, I was excited more than a child has the right to be upon leaving the house with an empty stomach. In almost the same manner “yeSama wot” and “watermelon” (or “hubhub”, as China and Mezgebu, our arch-frenemy brother and sister, sang it) affected me prior to actually eating them, I’ve built an appetite for it. I’ve been told of the building, of the serene atmosphere therein, of “Qurban” and it’s constructive effect on my soul, younger than 10 year old though I maybe.
On the morning I had my aunt put a white shash on my head, tie it around my neck, and send me into the world of angels and demons with strict warnings to the older kids not to let go of my hand, I didn’t stop to wonder where her patronizing smile at my feverish enthusiasm came from. That was a lesson I had to learn on my own two days later when, after being allowed to enter the holy of holies bare foot, spend hours pining by the wall [looking at the beautiful paintings, soft carpet, exotic curtains, the smell of incense mixed effortlessly with the sound of drums, tsenatsils and “te’ume zemas” raising and falling from the microphones] I partook of the “siga we’demu” and come out uncovering my mouth long enough to declare just how robbed I felt. “It tastes like bread and syrup!”, I said. I would have probably continued with my accusation hadn’t my declaration appeared to have knocked the breath out of half the teenage congregants of “Keftegna Asra Sidist, Qebele Zero Hulet”.
There was a stunned look, followed by a gasp, which in turn was followed by collective admonishing for my “diffret”, warnings of “Qisefet”s and a general sense of doom-about-to-befall. It was only “BilQat”, older sister to a kid who would chase me across “ginfle” river years later, and daughter to the local “yemender merfe wogi” [the illiterate mendertegna referred to as “doctor”]; who came to my defense. “She doesn’t know!”, she protested, God bless her, “It’s her first time. God would forgive her for speaking without knowledge”. Not many thought so. They watched and waited, with an almost eager anticipation, for me to be struck by a bolt of lightening and burn to crisp. [And when I survived, I could only imagine, bitter Christians were born].
[The cynic, the pacifist and the extremist; my Lord].
Referring to the holy communion as “mere bread and syrup”, however, wasn’t the only thing one wasn’t allowed to say within the gates of the sacred ground. There were many “can’t dos”: You can’t eat before coming to church. You can’t saunter-in without crossing yourself. You can’t run within the church compound. [All offenses punishable by death]. You can gossip about your friends, or their boyfriends. You can make eyes at the deacons, and flirt back when their’s meet yours. You are free to tell stories of two members of another congregation who, one cold morning, stole into the bell-tower and started going at it, until “Melaku Gebriel” appeared on the g-rated scene to meet out divine punishment, in the form of “matabeQing” them together. They were taken, we over-heard, around “Nigs”es and “Beale Kibret”s as a “lantica” for the Angry Angel’s ferociousness. [While the cool-as-cucumber Angel Michael, some observed, would have probably passed them by with a gentle wag of the finger]. You can do all that. But there were things off limit, slipping to the back of the building and walking among the dead, reading scriptures and looking at photos of the deceased, included.
When the church-going fuzz, or phase, faded and the hunger became the only thing that we have the patience to focus upon, it was for the grave-yard stroll that me and my friends came to Church for. And who can blame us? The sermons were in Ge’ez. The rules too harsh. And most of us knew too many priests and “Nefs Abaats” in our neighborhoods who were the most vulgar when drunk. Staying at home, on the other hand, was out of the question: our parents wouldn’t allow it, we wouldn’t want to look like whimps in the face of our braver-friends who held tournaments on who-can-out-fast-who and/or resist the temptation of not eating the egg he/she was assigned to peel on Easter eve. More importantly, we were suckers for the “Gosh Lijoche” when seen by grown-ups coming from church! Still, when the clock struck 3, vengence was ours! We flew out and raced one another [as if on wings of angels] to the bus stop by Shell station, ignoring the observations from our keepers that such weren’t behaviorisms expected of “tswami tselai” kids who has just been to church.
We needed more.
This came in the form of a conservative Protestant church behind 5 Kilo University, aptly called “Amist Kilo Mekane Eyesus Bete Kristian”. It was a neat little place; with pews, benches and psalm books that had the oddest.. most fascinating words and expressions that barely rhymed. God wasn’t out to get you here. He has no problem with you coming to church full. You don’t hear the word “Qisefa” if you begged for it. And as long as you conducted your business quitely, you were free to move about within the not-so-sacred ground. Infact, “quite” was the word best to describe this church. It was a quite church, with meditative people in it. Silence was cherished. Demureness rewarded. You called one another “wondim/ehit”, and they called you “wondim/ehit” in return.
What really bought us, and silenced our little wonderings of “endet enatu hona atamlidim”, however, were the “mezmurs”. There was a choir. And it was filled with neat men and women with white hair [unlike the Orthodox Church choir-members who were around our age and made us feel inferior in their colorful garbs, drumming abilities and knowledge of the holy-writ]. They sang, not unlike “zemaris” we saw on movies, without the need for instruments to play at the background. And if you can find the page number, the “Sebhat Le’ab” was there before you and you were free to sing along. “Nefse lante..” their words flew, like a calm river, like a cool breath, “mezmur taQerbalech.. hayal Qidus.. talaQ amlak”.
It was fascinating! It was un-Ethiopian [Swedish, actually]. The exotic-pull was too strong to resist for any young mind. And so we settled in. Took the good, with the bad; the fun with the obligations. These obligations didn’t come with holy vengeance or threats. There were punishments to breaking them, alright. But they were subtle. You were given [terrified] looks, like you were trying to infect everybody with the Satan virus. The word “Beyesus Sim!” was thrown regularly at you. And, when it comes to the worst, you were held down and prayed for. The obligations, they have to mostly do with praying: You prayed when you came into the church. While you are at church [Before "Mezmur", after "mezmur"; before "Sibket", after sibket; before and after the giving and taking of tiths]. And before you go out into the world to represent Christ by your actions. You prayed when you go into a house, and before you leave it. You prayed before eating. Before sleeping. And before getting out of bed. You prayed until concentration numbed your senses, and your young knees hurt. We’ve wondered, ofcourse, quitely and in the privacy of our hearts where we had hoped the protestant God won’t be able to reach, why we were “blubbering” these prayers that we felt less and less about, and why we have to stop to say “grace” when all we wanted to do was dig in.
It was bound to get old.
It did, first to my cousin Enat; then to me. And when she told me about this other church, this new place her friends took her to, and assured me how I wouldn’t wanna go back to “mekane eyesus shmuck eyesus” after seeing it [Mekane Eyesus; which she accused, to my horror, of monastery-like practices, of long and boring sermons, of soul-less songs and frownings upon body movement] I decided to give it a try.
Hibret Amba, it was called. It was exotic, not just due to its location near Piassa and across the street from Nazareth school [with its pretty girls, and their pretty uniforms, and ama-Englizegnas: “esu lij gin betam 'stop' 'stand' bilobetal”]. But also because the one Pastor they had, Pastor Gossaye – his name was, he didn’t care much about appearances! He cared about our souls and its relationship with/to God. Of what we prayed about, instead of where and how long. And the sincerity of our worships, instead of what it constituted of. We were allowed to clap our hands when we felt like it. To cry “Amen”/”Hallelujah” or lift our arms when we felt like it. We were even allowed to get up and walk out upon the showings of “Jesus”, so the men can do their crying privately, as was appropriate, while the women wailed and lamented “Getayen gedelut! Woyne Jesus!”, as was, also, appropriate.
It was the ideal place to “find God” at, a God of Mercy, of understanding, of “telling it the way it is”. And many of us felt we did. Having come through tougher gods, their tough crowds, and the unbending rules those crowds exercised; we also wanted to share this God, this joy, this freedom, with others. We volunteered to go forth into the world and tell the herald that was “Hibret Amba Meserete Kristos Bete Kristian”. We took discipleship lessons, and then fellowship courses. We got baptized and became choirs, and teachers and deacons. We loved one another and showed it by meeting at our houses and the houses of those that communed with us. And when it was time to partake of the “flesh and blood”, the bread and wine were served to us openly; which we were free to take of or pass on to the next pew. In our lives, for once, Muluken Melesse’s “Keyesus gara sihedu… endet yamral godanaw; endet yamral mengedu” became a reality.
It wasn’t meant to last.
There weren’t many can’ts here. But the few that were mattered: the major can’t or don’t being “do not listen to secular music”. So while we struggled to avoid giving ear to the “zefen” on the radio, the mini-bus, Hibret treat; and when no amount of “Ere Geta Yigestsih!” seem capable of wiping out “lomi tera tera” off our heads, something was being done about that. Like every other form of art that needed revolutionizing, those who grew in it, and got used to its magic, and become tired of it’s monotony have decided to come up with something that would bring the mountain to Mohammed. A spiritual hybrid song that would help us resist the temption of the “alemawi zefen” by making the “mezmur” almost as good as that other one was in the making!
Elias Melka was at the forefront of this small group of church-music-elites that went into the world and started “using the talent God gave them to serve the church” to serve the world and then themselves. The congregation of Christ that got shocked at and denounced Dereje Kebede for playing the guitar, and even refused to buy his first album (some burning it); was soon listening to spiritual songs that had not just a guitar, but an organ and all it’s fixings. They were good songs, however: didn’t lose the spiritual core, weren’t in any way “boogy-woogy”. They were also easy to worship with. So we took to them as the 1/99th lamb took to whatever it was that led him astray. We welcome the instruments; and the melody they produced. We even let the drum and the tsenatsil and the shibsheba back; and rejoiced at this new found harmony between the old and the new, the past with the present, the orthodox with the “pente”.
It was a brave new church. People, not unlike Whoopie Goldberg’s “Sister Act”, came by the hundreds, and then the thousands. The name “Lili” and “Tesfaye” and “Tamrat” became common-place on mini-vans and music shops. To many, the church became the song. But, did it matter: when souls were being saved?! When brothers and sisters were no longer presecuted? When neighbhours started recommending sending rebellious boys and girls “Eza Pentewochu ga”?!
It went on for a while, until such time when organists started playing “alemawi zefen”s between “mitswat sibseba”s and Zemaris become mini-celebrities whose life was watched closely and imitated. But by then, it wasn’t only the secular songs that infiltrated the church, it was the fashion as well. And the attitude. And the language! Youth choirs, or “Arada Pentes” as they were becoming known as, were referring to this new self-awareness as “Zenit leKristos”. They were having boyfriends and girlfriends now. Pastors were preaching sermons to piss off another pastor sitting on the same stage. Pulpits were shattered from passion. People were doing things, saying things and speaking in languages from/out of this passion. And nobody was allowed to do anything about it. “Prosperity” became the one language you wanted to speak if you wanted to get anywhere in the church, in life, and in finance. Preachings became self-centered and self-serving. The music more bizarre, water-ed down versions of one another. And by the time we realized God may not always be speaking from the pulpit, it felt too late to do anything.
Reality, as reality eventually does, was sinking in. Our pastors and singers were starting to transform, infront of our very eyes, from vessels of glory, to mere humans with mere [and sometimes more egoistic] human intentions. We no longer waited in the compound long enough to kiss every cheek and call one other “Wondim”, “Ehit”. Some of us started avoiding going to bible-studies and weekly fellowship-meetings, hating the politics of church politics, race relations and sexual/marital misadventures. Others, like me, started their silent/passive-agressive protestations by carrying “Addis Admas” to church to open when the wrong kind of sermon was being preached, and/or lame songs were being played. “Laugh”, we were being told. “Dance”, we were urged. “Rejoice”, we were invited. And when we paused to ask and wonder what would become of the world that’s perishing while we were busy laughing and singings and dancing; we were warned not to let Satan steal “our Joy in the Lord”. Hands were laid upon our shoulders, fingers probed our foreheads, prayer meetings were called for our sakes; for the un-fun congregators we were becoming.
Until such time our disillusionment with this new God and its people led us away from the fellowship.
In much the same manner as the second brother in the “Prodigal son” story; first we walked out in spirit: by noticing the dishonesty and phoniness in it. By taking note of the leering, gleeful spirit behind every sensetional song and every “laugh”, every “fiery” sermon that seems to threaten to bring the world on it’s head, but rarely does. By laughing along with Borat, when he made fun of it. By shaking our heads and wondering what the world was coming to when that American Pastor started calling homosexuals to church [“whether you are gay, bi or tri-sexual; as in trying to have sex”], despite a clear biblical warning against sodomy. Then we walked out, literally. [Became believers who didn’t subscribe to any "organized religion", or non-believers, or agnostics].
What we didn’t know, what we didn’t stop to find out, is who the real perpetrator, this vehicle that rendered God’s church “ungodly” was. We [by which I mean me] didn’t know it’s name. That it was “entertainment”.
Until… that is.. today :-).
Here is a chapter from “Life The Movie: (How entertainment conquered reality) – (Starring EVERYONE)” By Neal Gabler explaining the transition:
If sport didn’t have a difficult time transforming itself into entertainment, neither, it turned out, did religion. Evangelical Protestantism, which had begun as a kind of spiritual interment in the 19th century only refined its techniques in the 20th, especially after the advent of television. Televangelists like Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart recast the old revival meeting as a television variant show, and Pat Robertson’s 700 Club was modeled after The Tonight Show, only the guest on this talk show weren’t pitching a new movie or album; they were pitching salvation.
But it wasn’t just on television that religion appropriated the methods of entertainment to keep a flock that was everywhere inundated by show business. It was in the churches themselves. The movement toward a more vernacular liturgy and more contemporary music may have seemed like simple modernization of an aging religious institution; not incidentally, however, they were also ways of making services more entertaining. One young Minister in Waco, Texas, boasted that his congregation had the best rock music in town, describing the sound as a “Cross between Pearl Jam and Hootie and the Blowfish.”. The popular mega church movement of the 1990s, which attracted thousands of worshippers to cavernous auditoriums, even implemented the same devices as any rock group trying to fill a stadium: not only the music but light shows and huge overhead projectors illustrating sermons or showing video clips. Some even had cappuccino carts and food courts.
Yet one didn’t have to be a member of a new religious movement to appreciate the value of entertainment as a spiritual force. Colom Tobin, reporting in The New Yorker, described a dramatic visit that Pope John Paul II made in Czestochowa, Poland, in 1991. The pope, who, like Ronald Reagan, had acting experiences from his student days, mounted the platform gingerly as if he were too frail to continue, then turned wanly to gaze upon the crowd. “He did not wave or make any gesture,” wrote Tobin.
“The television lights were on him, and his face was alert to all the tricks of light. He turned again and walked up to the altar, wandering from side to side, as though in deep reverie and contemplation. The crowd held its breath. The young people cheered him; they were ready to do anything he said. Later, he sat with his hands covering his face, as though the burden of his office were too much for him. And later still, when a young girl from the Sudan who had been reading some of the prayers during the ceremony tried to run toward him and was held back by security guards, he gestured to them to let her go, and she came up to him and wrapped her arms around him. The crowd was spellbound.”
It was clearly a great and deeply moving performance, this ebb of strength and flow of resolve, but what the celebrants may not have realized is how closely it resembled the signature climax of soul singer James Brown’s act, where Brown stumbles and collapses only to be helped gently to his feet by his acolytes and draped with a protective cape, a man stricken by the burdens of rock and roll but forcing himself to soldier on as the pope at Czestochowa soldiered on through the heavy burdens of the papacy. (Page 120-122)
What Warhol realized that in the monoculture people themselves could be pop cultural artifacts and that celebrities were basically human soup cans—instantly recognizable products. That was why, along with his Brillo boxes, he could paint portraits of Elvis Presely, Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis without altering his fundamental theme that nothing, not even art, could escape the gravitational pull or popular culture and that art finally would have to embrace this fact or find itself the victim of a hostile takeover. (Page 134)
And then, literature:
Still, Hemingway and Mailer had talent, and their personas as brawling artists ultimately depended upon it. A more impressive feat was to create a persona so entertaining that there didn’t have to be any talent. (Page 126)
It’s succeeded, won’t you say?!
Entry filed under: Latest Posts. Tags: ethiopian protestant churches, God, god and entertainment, god and modern world, how entertainment conquered life, life the movie, missionaries, orthodox christianity, pente, prosperity and revival, protestant churches in africa, religion and entertainment, revival, salvation, spiritual songs, spirituality.