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Losin' my irreligion

Editor’s note: In Discomfort Zone, we urge teetotalers to have a drink, wallflowers to go to nightclubs and — in our first installment here — convince humanists to attend apocalyptic religious rallies. To riff and ridicule? No, to open their minds by taking them out of their comfort zone — and putting them in the Discomfort Zone.

How do you know you’re not comfortable in a particular environment? How about when you find yourself actually pretending you’re not there? That seems like a good, strong indicator. And if it is, I must have been pretty unsettled to find myself attending It Is Written International’s May 27 “Babylon Rising: Mystery and Mayhem” apocalypse-readiness seminar at Cashman Field Center, because for me, the whole I’m-not-here-this-isn’t-happening pathology started in the lobby — before anyone even tap-tapped a clip-on mike or said anything like, “Raise your hand if you do NOT believe otter-faced minions of the Antichrist are preparing to sauté your innards with a little minced Antigarlic over the Hell-plasma churned up from a freshly cracked Earth.”

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Okay, no one really said that out loud, but they thought it. I could taste it. And I didn’t really believe I wasn’t physically at the event, but I acted like it; I bore false witness to the unanticipated registration form, giving a made-up name, address and phone number, which felt needlessly shady and lame, especially after the Seventh-day Adventist volunteer at the entrance had already handed me a pen with unconditional love, which I didn’t know was possible.

But see, I don’t want religion people — yes, religion people — calling me or texting me or showing up, God forbid, to make my porch a discomfort zone. I don’t want complimentary issues of Look Out! or Hide Your Innards!, or whatever they call their large-font monthly with the maudlin drawings of folks in business-casual attire fretting under literally rendered storm clouds of corporate logos, weapons and question marks, because it’s all very depressing on multiple levels. And I do know the difference between Jehovah’s Witnesses (who print Watchtower) and Seventh-day Adventists, but what can I say? The Witnesses have kind of ruined it for everybody.

In any case, it’s not that I’m hostile towards those with heartfelt religious convictions, or that I squirm with discomfort even in the presence of full-on preachiness. The truth is, I’d much rather hear a wild-eyed believer freestyle about the God they love than listen to another self-proclaimed atheist blather about how they see right through the church’s hypocrisy. It’s just that, as a devout … let’s see … “existential humanist” sounds good … I have a deep and undying (if often ailing) affection for us.

Us: The hairless bipeds who mill around and struggle with agonizingly specific spiritual concerns under just one of the few hundred billion suns in our own galaxy, at a time when we now have, in our hands, a single telescopic photograph showing 10,000 other galaxies we found just in one random speck of sky you could cover with the head of a pin held at arm’s length. That’s completely insane. But that’s us! Stubborn, cuddly, idiotic, ingenious, murderous, heroic us. Life is hard, we’re awesome anyway, and anyone who insists any of us are going to suffer eternally for not following an instruction manual really needs to stop crying, pull themselves together and help lift this goddamn couch over the banister, because there’s still no sign of Him or the pizza and beer He promised, and it looks like we’re doing this job ourselves.

Inside Cashman Field Center’s auditorium, Christian violinist Jaime Jorge busted out something seriously modern, smooth and epic while two or three hundred of us — same crowd you’ll find at a downtown casino — settled into our seats. “Mystery and Mayhem” was the third of four Apocalypse-related presentations scheduled for this week, and the installment that seemed to hold the most promise for righteous and specific finger-pointing of a highly discomforting, possibly enlightening nature. From the synopsis on

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Revelation’s “Mystery Babylon” sees leaders in all areas of society uniting in an alliance that produces chaos and confusion on a global scale. Dark spiritual forces are preparing to impose themselves on life at every level.

It was the “leaders in all areas of society” part that hooked me. Would New Zealand-born Seventh-day Adventist pastor and “Babylon Rising” emcee John Bradshaw go all McCarthy on Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke? Mark Zuckerberg? Randy Jackson? Naming names would take guts — the kind of guts I like to see in an affable prophet of doom. No such luck. For about an hour, Bradshaw kept the alarm bells muffled, the targets non-specific and the take-home message more or less wait-and-see, with a wary eye to the horizon for the approaching Beast.

It’s the “problems from within Christianty” we need to watch out for, said Bradshaw, the “collusions of church and state” that are the gravest threat to civilized society and our souls. Statements like those actually rang pretty true, while others (“People are sicker than ever … more people are in poverty than ever …”) only rang true for those who deny the Middle Ages ever happened. More discomforting was the constant circling-back to terms like “debt,” “foreclosure” and “your children.” Scary words. Fightin’ words. Words that make a Las Vegan stand up and shout, “It’s like you know me!” At one point, Bradshaw even managed to take a personal tale of dismay at his young daughter’s accidental tumble and bruised chin, all the way to the mark of the Beast and its diabolic role in regulating global commerce — in less than five seconds. After all, why make sense when you can just blitz them with all the hot-buttons at once?

In the end, “Babylon Rising” really did feel more like a make-millions-from-home infomercial than a revival. Similar to those outdoor tropical backgrounds on TV, Cashman Center’s stage was decorated with three Babylonian-ish faux-stone columns, potted Mediterranean-ish plants and sensuous orange lighting. It sent a weird, mixed message. Like, “Hey HEY! We’re already there, folks! And you can be too! Except … don’t. Because it’s bad. But isn’t it pretty?” I think a stage set for “Sodom Rising” would be pretty interesting too.

But back to that couch and banister problem. Despite my discomfort with “Babylon Rising” and other dire manipulations of its kind, it seems that quite a few Seventh-day Adventists really are pitching in to help on the Earth level. Four thousand of them are employed with the 50-year-old Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which operates in 125 countries, and is recognized by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. I’ve not personally seen the agency in action, but I can at least report that the Seventh-day Adventists at Cashman were astoundingly helpful and cheery. Of course, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and this may well be why the 150-year-old religion is now the fastest growing faith in the U.S. (2.5 percent annually, according to a recent USA Today report) at a time when Southern Baptism and other mainstays are losing members.

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Sounds like something any religion would be proud of, so I have to ask: Why was there no mention of Seventh-day do-goodism in Bradshaw’s talk, or on any of the promotional materials for “Babylon Rising”? Why the anonymity, Adventists? Afraid that if your audience finds out who you really are, they’ll judge you unfairly?

Now I don’t feel so bad about the registration form. Good luck finding me at 812 Skeezurkingblatte Road.