Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Halloween Special: Satanism! My interview with a Satanic priest.

Satanism. The very word itself conjures up images in most people's heads of men in hooded robes gathered around altars adorned with candles made of baby fat ready to sacrifice virgins, babies, and animals. Many envision deals with the Devil, Satan appearing in monstrous forms, and wild orgies while blaspheming Christ and his saints.

It's hard not to see this image when it's the subject of so many Hollywood movies, was all over the news in the 1980's and early 1990's, and news stories about satanic murders popping up every few years or so. In fact, only a couple weeks ago from the time I wrote this, a couple in North Carolina was arrested after two bodies were found in their back yard. The couple are alleged Devil worshipers and the crimes are being labeled as possible satanic sacrifices.

Is this Satanism? We all have heard of The Church of Satan, and lately, another Satanist group, The Satanic Temple has been in the news seeking to erect statues of Baphomet in Oklahoma and wanting to distribute Satanic literature in public schools. Are these groups seeking to honor Satan on our government properties, teach kids how to worship Satan, and lead to more things like the atrocities mentioned above? What is Satanism?

That's a good question with a lot of diverse answers. While there are individuals who have done horrific things in the name of Satan, this isn't typical of Satanists. It's no different than a woman killing her children because she said God commanded her to. People do truly evil things in the name of God and in the name of Satan, but this is not typical of either group.

There are some groups and individuals who do worship Satan as a literal being, either the fallen angel who rebels against Heaven, or as a quasi-god or God himself with the Christian God being a deceiver and wicked. These people are Satanists, but aren't what Satanism has become known for. These people are what are called Theistic Satanists. However, there's another more common and philosophical version of Satanism known as Atheistic Satanism. This is the subject of our blog today as this is the typical form of Satanism.

Let's begin with the part that will probably shock most of you, Satanists don't actually worship Satan. In fact, Satanists don't believe in God or Satan. Most Satanists are atheists or agnostics. Satanists instead use Satan as a metaphor for mankind's carnal nature and various other aspects that are traditionally associated with the figure.

Satanism as we know it today started with Anton LaVey in 1966 when he founded The Church of Satan. LaVey's Satanism focused on individualism, mankind being an animal sometimes better often worse than other animals, indulgence, and vengeance against those who had wronged you.

Other Satanic organizations appeared over the years including, The Sect of the Horned God, The First Satanic Church, The Church of Satanic Brotherhood, The Satanic Temple, and The Temple of Set (though this group isn't recognized by all as a Satanist group).

Now, many of these groups promote different things and have diverse beliefs and practices just like various Christian groups.

Some things most of these groups ascribe to:
  • Individualism is seen as virtue.
  • A strong focus on your individual will.
  • Indulgence is seen as a virtue. Those who abstain often obsess over various vices or commit them in private while hypocritically denouncing them in public. With Satanism, there's no issue with indulging in your desires, provided they don't intentionally harm others or yourself, and they don't become compulsions as compulsions take away your free will.
  • Strong emphasis on science, knowledge, and learning. Belief in the supernatural is discouraged in most groups.
  • Focus on knowing how to interact with, charm, and work with people to achieve desired outcomes, called Lesser Magic in some groups.
  • Some participate in rituals that they believe help purge them of unwanted feelings or help them focus their desires and will. Most do not believe there is anything supernatural about these rituals, though some believe in the Law of Attraction. These rituals are called Greater Magic in some groups.
  • A willingness to accept and use the darker parts of one's personality to their advantage rather than cover them up and pretend they don't exist.
Aside from The Church of Satan, the other primary group I'll be referring to in this blog is The Satanic Temple. The Satanic Temple is a relatively new, but already very well known Satanic church. While The Satanic Temple draws inspiration from The Church of Satan they differ from them in several ways.

Differences in The Satanic Temple and The Church of Satan:

  • The Satanic Temple eschews the more selfish and Social Darwinism tendencies of The Church of Satan, instead focusing on compassion, social justice, and individual freedom.
  • The Satanic Temple has a very strong emphasis on science, believing that science shouldn't be manipulated to fit beliefs, but the other way around. Many in The Church of Satan believe in Law of Attraction or other things that render spells effective and are encouraged not to doubt their magic or they'll lose what they have gained. Though this isn't the case with all members of the Church of Satan by far.
  • The Satanic Temple doesn't have as strict of a membership entrance nor strong demands on their members. The Church of Satan has a very in depth process to become a member and members are expected to hold to the tenants of the faith found in The Satanic Bible, a book written by Anton LaVey and other church sources.
  • The Satanic Temple's strong focus is on social activism. They have proposed a Baphomet statue in front of the Oklahoma courthouse in response to a monument of the Ten Commandments being placed there. The Satanic Temple sees this as a violation of the separation of church and state and demands that other religions, including Satanists be represented equally as the state cannot favor one religion over another. They also have done similar campaigns generally in response to religious favoritism from government bodies. The Church of Satan doesn't engage in campaigns such as these.

Now, I visited Grace Presbyterian Church on Sunday, which is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative branch of Presbyterianism. But, I am holding off on that blog to bring you guys a very special Halloween edition of this blog. Last night, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Black. Zach is a Satanist with quite a long background in Satanism. Zach has the following credentials under his belt:
  • Member of The Church of Satan from 1994 - 2010.
  • Priest in The Satanic Temple.
  • Member of The Sect of the Horned God.
  • Member of The Church of Satanic Brotherhood.
  • Featured in a Comedy Central skit about Satanism.
  • Been a guest on several podcasts talking about Satanism.
  • Written several news articles on the subject.
  • Been featured on several news outlets in reference to Satanism.
  • Has two YouTube channels on Satanism with 40,000 subscribers between the two of them and over 3,000,000 views.
  • And founded and currently runs a Satanic social network called the Satanic International Netowrk, or SIN.
So, without further adieu, onto the interview.

I asked Zach what initially led him to Satanism. He told me that he grew up in a home that wasn't strongly Christian, but he would go to church with his dad some weekends and became disenchanted with Christianity at a very early age. Around age 10, he says he considered himself an agnostic leaning towards atheism. He said he started studying other religions and philosophies. Eventually, his studies led him to Satanism which he said was like looking into a mirror as to what he had always been. At age 18, he officially became a member of The Church of Satan.

I asked him if there's anything he wanted people to know about Satanism. He said that he's not out to educate people about Satanism, that most are content with their Hollywood image of it and you can't educate people who don't want to learn about it. He said that if he had to choose something, it would be eliminating the common misconceptions, that Satanists are evil, that they do evil things, or worship the Devil. All of that is untrue.

I asked him what led him away from The Church of Satan. He said that the leadership after Anton LaVey, particularly the new leader of the Church, Peter Gilmore, are much more militant and strict and he didn't like the direction the Church was moving in. He stated he felt that some of the writings of Peter Gilmore were way over the top and not practical guides for life in the modern world.

I asked him how he sees himself now. He said that he identifies as a self styled or modern Satanist. I asked him for an example. He explained that The Church of Satan discourages drug and alcohol use as it can lead to compulsion and harms the self. But he doesn't see an issue with indulging yourself in drugs or alcohol as long as you don't harm yourself and they don't start taking over your life. It goes back to personal gratification which is a tenant of Satanism, though it must be done responsibly.

I asked him how he became involved in The Satanic Temple. He said that he learned about them when he did a comedy skit on Comedy Central about Satanism. The people in the skit thought he was a member of The Church of Satan, but he wasn't and that they thought The Church of Satan was involved in the monument in Oklahoma. After this, he sought out The Satanic Temple and started getting involved with them. Prior to that, he had been working with The Sect of the Horned God, of which he is still a member.

I asked him to talk a little more about The Sect of the Horned God. He said that they're an educational group focused on teaching, mythology, and ritual, but that I'd have to talk to the members of the Sect for better information on it.

This led me to ask him if he practiced rituals himself. He said he did when he was younger, but hasn't since he got older, with the exception of a Blood Moon ritual he did with The Sect of the Horned God earlier this year. The ceremony was patterned after traditional Satanist ritual, but largely their own creation and involved writing intentions and burning them. He wouldn't go into much more detail than that.

He said that that's about to change, however, and he and other members of The Satanic Temple are going to go on tour across several states to perform reenactments of historical Black Masses for educational purposes. The Masses aren't intended to be magic rituals, but historical reenactments to help people better understand the history behind Satanic rituals. I'm excited to hear more about that, personally.

He also said that he finds that Satanism is misunderstood a lot by society, and briefly touched on why, the same reasons I mentioned earlier in this blog. He says it's easy for people, like serial killers to justify their actions by saying that the Devil made them do it, and many will see this and latch onto it. He said this isn't the norm for Satanists. But then again, Satanists aren't necessarily the nicest people you'll meet. There are extremists and awful people in all religions and philosophies. For Christians, you have groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, for example. The same thing applies in Satanism.

This was really the end of the interview. I spoke with him a little more afterward. He seemed like a very sincere individual with a very strong, dominate personality and strong opinions. He was very nice to me, and he seems like he is very big on education, dialogue, and questioning authority and the status quo. I really enjoyed speaking with Zach Black and would definitely love to hear from him and other Satanists in the future.

Additional Notes:

We now have only five groups left to investigate! I wanted to thank my readers so much for all they've done and sticking with me through this. I have a big announcement for all of you soon. I will have the blog on Grace Presbyterian Church up soon, and this weekend, I'm visiting a Quaker service.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Sabbath greetings at the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Ogden

On Saturday, I visited the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Ogden. Let's right to it and see where the Seventh-day Adventists come from and what they believe.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is the largest branch descended from the Millerite movement founded in the 1830's. Founded by William Miller, Millerites believed that Christ would return in 1844. Miller gained a huge following of people who believed that Christ was about to come. The day of Christ's predicted return came and went like any other day, and the event is now known as The Great Disappointment. After this, the movement still continued, but eventually split into different groups, including: Christadelphians, Branch Davidians, Church of God General Conference, etc. The most well known (other than the infamous Branch Davidians) and by far the largest is the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Beliefs held in common with traditional Protestant Christianity:

  • Belief in the Trinity
  • Belief that Jesus is the second person in the Trinity, the Messiah, and Savior of mankind.
  • Mankind deserves eternal punishment for their sinful nature. 
  • Grace is a free gift of God made possible through the atonement of Christ and accepted through faith alone.
  • Believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and completely free from error.
  • Believe the Bible is the sole and final authority in matters of faith and practice.
  • Belief in the Ten Commandments and that they are still binding on Christians today.
  • Practice baptism by immersion.
  • Practice communion. For them it is done quarterly using unleavened bread and grape juice. A foot washing ceremony is part of this service.
  • Adherence to traditionally conservative stances: abortion not condoned except in cases of the health of the mother or severe congenital defects in the child, homosexuality condemned, modest dress encouraged, any sex outside marriage condemned, swearing discouraged, belief in a literal six day creation, etc.
  • Christ's return is imminent.
Beliefs not shared with other Christian faiths:
  • They don't worship on Sundays like most Christians. Instead, they hold to the traditional Jewish Sabbath believing that Christians are still obligated to observe it. This begins from sunset on Friday evening and goes to sunset on Saturday evening. Members are encouraged to limit activities and focus on God and Bible study on the Sabbath.
  • Mankind is an indivisible unity of mind, body, and spirit. There is no immortal soul and mankind is unconscious after death. (This belief is shared with the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were influenced by the Millerites.)
  • Immortality is conditional. The wicked will not go to Hell, but instead be annihilated on the last day. (Another belief held in common with the Jehovah's Witnesses.)
  • Mankind is involved in a Great Controversy between God and the Devil. There has been an ongoing war between the two factions since Satan first rebelled against God and mankind is in the middle of this war.
  • They believe the date of 1844 was correct, but that it wasn't referring to Christ's return to Earth, but instead him beginning the cleansing of the Heavenly Sanctuary, preparing it for the End of Days.
  • They believe that since 1844, the judgment of professed Christians has been ongoing to determine the salvation of all mankind since the beginning of time.
  • There is a remnant of people in the End Times who will remain faithful to the commandments of God.
  • Prophecy continues into the modern day, though prophecies must be tested against the Bible for validity.
  • It is recommended members adhere to a vegetarian diet often following kosher laws. Members are also recommended to not partake in drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, and many members abstain from coffee, tea, and soda.
And now, onto my time with the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Ogden.


The Seventh-day Adventist Church of Ogden is a rather unremarkable building from the outside. You can tell it's a church, but it's a very simple red brick building without much adornment or anything that would set it apart from other churches in the area.

I forgot to snap a picture of the interior while I was there. The interior is a basic chapel with pews, mint green walls, and a pretty standard sanctuary with a place for a band to perform, a screen down to play a video at the beginning of the service, and a pulpit. The most unique part of the chapel were the small sections on the sides of the chapel. These sections were separated by an arcade (row of arches) from the rest of the sanctuary. The Sabbath school lessons were given in this part of the section, and some of the elderly members remained there throughout the service. I didn't see any crosses in the chapel, but there were a couple of lovely metal cutouts of angels sounding trumpets on either side of the sanctuary.

Overall, very simple and traditional style atmosphere. Nothing of major note, but it was done well.

The People:

The people were friendly, though rather reserved. A few came up to us and introduced themselves. One very nice girl hunted us down after the service and said that she was so excited to see someone our age because most of the people there are children, teenagers, or older and that few are college age.

Everyone was very well dressed, men in suites and ties, women in skirts or dresses. The congregation was pretty diverse. There were a number of white people, but also Asians, Latinos, among others. The people all seemed to get along pretty well and seemed to be a very tight knit group,

Overall, the people were nice. Fairly typical of a lot of other churches I've visited around here.

The Service:

The service was sort of like an Evangelical service, but a little more traditional than modern Evangelical services. It began with announcements, then the Praise Team got up and sang a song together with the congregation. The music was traditional hymns accompanied on piano.

After that, there was a video that featured an attractive young man showing clips with ominous music of Halloween scenes. The young man said that Halloween has a dark history and basically called it Satanic. But then he said, it doesn't have to be and encouraged the congregation to purchase pamphlets and hand them out as they go door to door trick-or-treating this year. Or if you're not going door to door, hand them out to trick-or-treaters instead of candy. 

It's starting to really annoy me hearing these churches talk about turning every single thing into a way to proselytize and spread their message. Can't we have a fun holiday with candy and costumes that doesn't have to be about Jesus and spreading the Good News? It's like church and Jesus consume every part of some of these people's lives with no balance outside of it. There's a lot of complex layers to life. Letting one aspect of it dominate every other part just makes me sad. Not just with religion, but with everything. If alcohol, weed, sex, church, God, a hobby, your job, anything is taking up so much of your time and thoughts that it seems that it's what you're living for or it's taking away from other things you love, then you probably should consider cutting back, diversifying your life. and enjoying different things more. There is so much out there to waste everything on just one thing. And we're all guilty of this from time to time, but it's important to sometimes step back and reassess things in your life.

After this they sang another hymn and took up an offering. Like in most churches, the deacons came around with collection plates and took money, but children also went around collecting money in their hands and bringing it up to the front. This was interesting to me. I think it's cute to get the kids involved, but nobody seemed to really be watching them. I know if I were a kid, it would be very tempting and easy to pocket some of that money. I think there should be a little more monitoring of them, but that's just me.

Afterward, there was a children's sermon. A lady told the story of Moses parting the Red Sea and related that to what she called a miracle in her uncle's life. He was driving a big rig and a herd of animals came out in front of it, but they parted miraculously when he was driving and he didn't hit any. This is a pretty low scale miracle to me. Animals have a survival instinct and most will dart out of the way of a moving vehicle. It's nowhere near as impressive to me as say if somebody were actually able to make waters part.

After the children's sermon, there was a lovely song sung by two men playing acoustic guitars. It was very pretty and I enjoyed it

After that, there was a community prayer. The worship leader and several other people got up front and got on their knees and gave a long prayer about the needs of the community. While they did this, some members of the congregation knelt at their pews while others just bowed their heads.

This was followed by a brief scripture reading, then a sermon. I ducked out during the closing hymn, but the bulletin said there was just a closing hymn and a closing prayer. I had had my fill of the service by then, so left.

The service was a traditional style Protestant service, but pretty slow paced and went on much longer than I thought it would.

The Message:

The sermon was pretty hard for me to sit through. It started out with the man quoting the scripture that we were to test everything by whether it taught us that Jesus had come in the flesh. He then said that there were three big Satanic teachings that were the spirit of the Antichrist that were popular today: Darwinism, pantheism, and spiritualism.

He said that Darwinism is the belief that everything just happened and that the universe evolved out of a Big Bang and that life just happened on earth and that there's no reason for it. He said this kind of thinking devalues human life because we're just an accident and there's no reason to live. He said that this teaching is appealing because things seem really old and there's a mountain of evidence like giant ice sheets, radio carbon dating, etc. But then he said that it was mathematically impossible, and that it contradicted the Bible.

Christians, please, for the love of God, don't talk about things you don't understand! If you want to talk about evolution, the Big Bang Theory, natural selection, etc., you had better have read actual scientific textbooks and material on the subject, and not just stuff that the church handed out to you or you found on a creationist website. Because more often than not, when I hear Christians talking about evolution and how it's evil, they explain evolution to me in a way that is not scientific and that is not taught in science classrooms. First off, evolution has absolutely nothing to do with the Big Bang Theory. Those are two separate theories in two separate branches of science. Evolution is part of biology, and the Big Bang Theory is in the realm of physics.

There is no such thing as Darwinism, this is a term created by those who teach Intelligent Design to malign people who teach evolution and other scientific theories that are contrary to a very narrow interpretation of Christianity. Evolution isn't the enemy of Christianity. Many millions of Christians the world over accept the Theory of Evolution with no consequence to their faith at all. It is accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, many Anglicans, many in liberal Lutheran churches, many Eastern Orthodox Christians, most other Mainline or Progressive Christians, etc. In fact, outside the United States, in Christianity, the denial of evolution and the Big Bang Theory are only upheld by a minority of Christians. Intelligent Design is not supported by the scientific community as a whole, populated heavily by Christians, and is largely an American phenomenon.

He then said that Darwinism wasn't created by Christians nor is it really believed by Christians, so he focused on another Antichrist teaching that has permeated the Church. He said pantheism was an Antichrist teaching because he said that it equated God with everything in the universe, which would mean suffering, sickness and death were part of God too, and that's not right. He talked about pantheism, but what he actually was talking about was panenthism. Pantheism is the belief that God is the universe, that everything in it is God. Panentheism says God is the universe, but that God also exists separately from it, which is how he described pantheism.

He then said that a final Antichrist teaching that is popular is spiritualism, which is the belief that matter and spirit are separate and that spirit is all that matters. He said that this is contrary to the holistic teaching of the Church which is that mankind is mind, body, and spirit and that there is no separate immortal soul. He said that this was a popular belief in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern Religions, but was gaining popularity in Christianity, too. Essentially, he called Hinduism and Buddhism Antichrist religions, which is a nice roundabout way of demonizing Eastern Religions.

Overall, I found this message really ill informed and spread some very upsetting messages. I did not enjoy the sermon and couldn't wait to get out of the church throughout the whole thing.

Overall Experience:

The service was slow paced but pretty, the people were lovely, and the sermon was awful. I wouldn't return to the Seventh-day Adventist Church again as it made me very uncomfortable to hear a message like that being preached to people who don't understand that much of what is being said is misinformed and misguided. A person giving a sermon like that perpetuates misinformation and creates a vicious cycle in which people just accept what they hear as the Word of God and anything outside of it is seen as satanic so they don't investigate it and then they pass on this misinformation to everyone else creating a culture of fear around something so integral as education and research.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Body of Christ at Community United Methodist Church

This past Sunday, I visited Community United Methodist Church in Washington Terrace, a suburb of Ogden, Utah.

A little bit about the United Methodist Church before we begin the review. The United Methodist Church is the largest Methodist church with about 80 million members worldwide and is the second largest Protestant church in the US after the Southern Baptist Convention.

Methodism began in the mid-1700's by John and Charles Wesley. Originally it was a movement within the Church of England focused on Bible study, holy living, and a sort of working man's Christianity. The movement reached the American colonies and gained popularity. It was never the intention to separate from the Church of England; however, after the American Revolution, the Methodist movement was unable to secure bishops from England and formally separated creating the Methodist Episcopal Church. The church eventually split into smaller churches as usually happens within movements. In 1968, a couple Methodist churches merged into what is now the United Methodist Church.

Beliefs of the United Methodist Church:

  • Belief in the Trinity.
  • Belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.
  • Humans are made in the image of God, but sin corrupts that image and separates humans from God.
  • Salvation comes through Christ's atonement.
  • Mankind is saved through grace which draws the sinner closer to God and sanctifies them.
  • Baptism is done by pouring, sprinkling, or immersion. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace and leaves an eternal mark on the soul.
  • Practice Communion. Methodists believe in the Real Presence (that Christ's body and blood are actually present in the bread and wine) but they don't explain how. Transubstantiation is rejected. They use bread and grape juice for communion.
  • Mankind has free will.
  • Emphasis on social justice, helping the poor, opposing slavery, opposing child labor, etc.
  • Churches range from a more Evangelical slant to a more historic Mainline slant.
  • Abortion is discouraged, there are pro-life and pro-choice members. Generally abortions in the case of the mother's health are allowed. The church officially doesn't recognize putting legal restrictions on abortions.
  • The Church opposes capital punishment, pornography, gambling, and war unless it is a last resort. However, the Church supports women's rights (including ordination) and stem cell research.
  • Opinions vary on homosexuality which is debated within the Church. Currently, the church does not allow practicing homosexuals to be ordained, nor do they allow same-sex marriage.
So, what was Community United Methodist Church like?


The building is a pretty standard, modern church building with red brick. Honestly, it bears a strong resemblance to many Mormon churches in the area built in the 70's and 80's.

The interior had the feeling of an elementary school with its plain brick walls and ceramic tile floors. That feeling was enhanced by several cork boards on the wall with announcements and a few children's drawings of people strung together on string along the wall.

The chapel was pretty, and fairly typical of a Protestant chapel with a band playing contemporary music in the sanctuary, a table for communion against the wall, a large cross, a baptismal font, the most prominent piece being the pulpit. Behind the sanctuary was a large window allowing you to see outside to some lovely trees and the road.

Overall, fairly typical Protestant atmosphere. Nothing of great note. It was lovely and I enjoyed it.

The People:

The people were extremely friendly and personable. A lot of people went out their way to speak with us. One lady in the pew in front of us talked with us like we were old friends of hers. The pastor came over after the sermon and put his hand on our shoulders and talked to us. The kindness of a lot of these people didn't seem like an act. Most seemed genuine with it. The people of the congregation were white, but there were a few other minorities. The people were of various ages from elderly to small children and all ages between.

Overall, very friendly people. I enjoyed interacting with them very much.

The Service:

The service was their contemporary service. The traditional service was just too early. The contemporary service was similar to an Evangelical service, the music was contemporary, though I have to say, the guitar playing and music quality overall was far superior to any I've seen in any Evangelical church on this journey. The lyrics on the other hand were just as hammy and full of the same tropes as Christian music tends to be filled with anymore.

It started with a welcome and everyone shaking hands and greeting each other with a sign of peace. Then it moved into a couple of songs, then they took up an offering and the pastor offered a prayer.

After that, there was another song and then the sermon.

After the sermon, they sang yet another song and we were dismissed with a blessing.

Very typical service. Not much to comment on.

The Message:

The sermon was about the Body of Christ. Not the literal flesh and bone body of Jesus, but the mystical church body that is talked about in the New Testament. The pastor started by talking about his trip to Ephesus, where Paul's letter was directed. He talked a little bit about what the city was like at the time, then mentioned that we  should go out and serve the Lord in our daily lives. He said that it's not enough to just sit in the church every week, that we needed to be out there doing the good work.

Now, considering he was talking about how it's a privilege to call yourself a Christian, and the overall tone of the sermon, I'm assuming he was talking mostly about evangelizing.

Then the sermon took an unintentionally creepy turn. He had a mock up of the Body of Christ next to the pulpit. This is what it looked like.

The picture doesn't capture how off putting this thing was. I'm sure it sounded like a lovely object lesson in theory. In execution, not so much. It is a frame with a cloak over it with the various offices that are the limbs of the Body of Christ, mittens and slippers with the initials of the church, a blinking light in the chest that shown through the fabric representing the heart, a face of Jesus put on top of it to represent Christ as the head of the Church. Just when I thought it was sort of creepy enough, the pastor lifted the cloak to show that the frame of it was a human skeleton (a fake one I'm assuming).

The sermon itself was a pretty plain Jane Christian sermon, but thanks to this object lesson, I'll probably never forget it.

Overall Experience:

Other than the creepy Jesus statue, this was a pretty middle of the road, non-confrontational version of Christianity. Honestly, it probably won't stick out in my memory, other than the Jesus figure, when I look back on this blog. It was a pleasant experience though.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Thailand in Utah, my Sunday at the Thai Buddhist temple

This past Sunday, I went to the Thai Buddhist temple in Layton, Utah, named Wat Dhammagunaram. The branch of Buddhism practiced is known as Theravada, one of the main branches of Buddhism, and what is often called Buddhist orthodoxy.

Most branches of Buddhism people think of today (Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, various Japanese sects, etc.) are part of a larger branch known as Mahayana. Mahayana is similar to Protestantism in the fact that it's a term used for a very diverse group of sects with a similar origin and some underlying principles.

Theravada on the other hand is a smaller branch of Buddhism, mostly found in South East Asia. It's sometimes called the Little Vessel, with Mahayana called the Big Vessel. Though I have heard that followers of Theravada take issue with it being called the Little Vessel.

Theravada is the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism and is much closer to the Buddhism originally practiced by Buddha and his followers than any branch of Mahayana.

I previously visited the Japanese Buddhist Church in Ogden. In my pre-service blog for that, I talked about the general teachings of Buddhism. Rather than rehash that here, please visit this blog to learn more about Buddhism:


Main differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism:

  • Mahayana has other buddhas, (often called Bodhisattvas) which are those who attain enlightenment and assist others to it. Usually seen as demigods in many ways. These beings are often prayed to (for lack of a better term) similarly to Catholic saints. In Theravada, there is only one Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.
  • Mahayana often takes on local flavors of worship and doctrines and is much more adaptable to different cultures. Theravada is much more traditional and purist.
There are dozens of other differences. However, they require much more explanation about Buddhism than just the basics I'm willing to go into here. For now, this is the information you'll need to know for this blog. I encourage more people to learn about this old and diverse faith from other sources. It is fascinating.

So how was my time at the temple? I'll tell you, but first, this service was unlike any of the others, so I'll only be talking about the atmosphere, people, and service since there was no sermon and no message.


The outside of the temple is an interesting bit of architecture. I don't know much about traditional South East Asian architecture, but it certainly doesn't look anything like the local. The building kind of looks like a boat to me of some kind. I'm not sure if this is an intentional design. I'm not sure if I care for the look of the building on the outside, but it's definitely unique.

We had to leave our shoes outside the temple, common among Eastern religions. Once we were inside, we were no longer in Utah. Everything about the building was very Eastern, there were no pews, only a few chairs along the side for the elderly and those with disabilties, and most everyone was sitting on the floor with their legs tucked under them. I sat down next to them and tucked my legs under. It's a sign of disrespect to point your feet at someone in South East Asian cultures.

Everything in the room was written in Thai, there was no English anywhere. The monks talked to the people in Thai and Pali, and none of the service was translated into English. I was definitely in a different world.

There was a main altar at the front of the sanctuary with several statues of the Buddha, along the right hand wall were several chairs reserved for the monks, all of which were wearing the traditional saffron robes of Buddhism. There were several artificial and a couple real trees that people were hanging money off of, sometimes in strings, sometimes just one bill at a time. I'm not familiar with this custom, and don't know what it means, but it was pretty interesting.

I loved the atmosphere here. Very few places anymore can strike a sense of awe and otherness in me anymore on this journey, but this place did. I truly felt like I was no longer in the US but in a modern temple somewhere in Thailand.

The People:

The people were quite interesting. Mostly it was people from South East Asia, as I was told, mostly Thai and Laotian immigrants. Most were speaking Thai or Laotian and didn't speak to us. There was one nice man who introduced himself to us when we first got there, but then didn't say anything else. There was a really nice man from South Africa who did introduce himself to us and he kind of guided us through the service explaining everything, then had a nice talk with us afterward.

The people seemed very kind and jovial, though I was an outsider and didn't speak their language, they seemed very happy to have me and my friend there. I really enjoyed the people at the Thai Buddhist temple and would love to go back and talk to more of them.

The Service:

I didn't understand a word of the service as it was all in Pali and Thai. The nice man from South Africa, however, was kind enough to explain the service to me.

First you must understand that there are three central things in Theravada: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the community (represented by the monks).

Following this pattern, there were a series of chants. The first set was done facing the altar with the Buddha, and honored the Buddha. The people sat on the floor with their hands together in a prayer position similar to how you see in India or when children pray. At various parts, they would then touch their heads to the ground similarly to how you see Muslims do during their prayers.

The second set of chants followed the same sort of format, but the people faced one of the monks who held a fan with some kind of writing over his face. They then did their chants towards the monk including bows. I assume this was to honor the Dharma.

After that, the third set was a set of chants to the monks following the same sort of format.

The people then went outside carrying various food items and money and put them into metal bowls lined up in a row. It was explained to me that these were the offerings to the monks and that the monks live off of these donations.

After this, people brought in the bowls and offered the things in them up to the monks, who put the contents into plastic bags and took them into another room. After this, the monks offered a blessing to all the people there, then said a chant for purification that also honored the ancestors. During this chant, people poured water into metal bowls in a slow trickle and then most drank the water out of the bowls. I was told this was a purification ceremony traditionally done in the culture.

The monks then left to go eat lunch. I am told that in traditional Theravada cultures, that the monks go and beg for food at this time, however, since we live in America where people aren't familiar with this custom, the monks instead go and share a meal which the community is invited to participate in once they're done.

While we waited for the monks to eat, several young women came out holding candles and performed a traditional Thai dance. It was very lovely to watch.

After their dance, a woman came out and did a traditional Thai hand dance, again, quite lovely to watch. Then, a few people came out and performed a song on traditional instruments. This was a very lovely way to pass the time as the monks ate.

After the song, one of the monks came in and said something in Thai, then said the only English phrase they uttered this whole time, "Lunch is served, help yourself."

Normally I don't include the after service meal (if one is served) as part of the blog, but because this is seen as part of the ceremony, I shall. The meal was served buffet style and featured a lot of Thai food, most of which I couldn't identify. After seeing the chicken feet, I decided to pass on those, then I told the people around me not to tell me what I was eating, but just let me enjoy it. I sampled most everything and it was, for the most part extremely good. The best things were what I chose to believe was a beef hash, and a nice dessert with coconut milk and beans. I even went back for seconds just to try more of their food.

Overall Experience:

This was quite a neat cultural experience. It was very traditional, but didn't feel stifling and oppressive. The people were very kind, the food amazing, the chanting inspiring. I would definitely return to Wat Dhammagunaram for another service and highly recommend it just for the cultural experience.

Additional Notes:

Still working on that blog for the Bible. Tomorrow I am going to visit the United Methodist Church. Sorry there's no pre-service blog for that, and that those have been missing lately. I'll try to get on top of that.

Until next time, peace be with you.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

If you can't say something nice, blog about it anyway.

So, I apologize for the delay in getting this blog out. I have two blogs I am pumping out one right after another. The one after this will be about my visit to the Thai Buddhist Temple. This one, however, is about my time at The Salvation Army.

Spoiler, I didn't enjoy my time at The Salvation Army. The reason I've taken so long to write this is that I was having trouble not being completely negative about the whole experience. However, I've never sugar coated on this blog, and I've been completely honest and fair in my assessments so far. So, I'm just going to put it out there. But first, a little background on The Salvation Army.

Origins and Beliefs of The Salvation Army:

The Salvation Army was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by William Booth. The Salvation Army is a Christian denomination with origins in Methodism (though it's not classified as a Methodist church) and patterned to be quasi-military in style, though they are not an actual military nor do they carry weapons or engage in fighting. They call themselves a military because they are a volunteer army fighting for the salvation and aid of mankind. The clergy are called officers, complete with military ranks, and the members are called soldiers.

The group's primary focus is charity work. In fact, they are so involved in charity work, that people often don't know they're a church, but simply think they're a charity and/or thrift shop. This is the primary reason I haven't wanted to say anything negative about The Salvation Army, I don't like tearing down groups that do so much good for their communities. But, for as much good as they do, their beliefs were hard to swallow, the experience bad, and they also have been involved in a few controversies, including anti-gay scandals. Discussion of those is a bit out of the scope of this blog, so feel free to research those on your own.

Here are some basic beliefs of the church:

  1. Belief in the Trinity and divinity of Christ.
  2. Belief the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and the only guide for the salvation of mankind.
  3. Belief that the fall of mankind left man spiritually wounded and totally depraved with no goodness within them.
  4. That the atonement of Christ offers mankind salvation through regeneration by the Spirit.
  5. Salvation is a free gift from God given by grace through faith alone.
  6. Belief in the end of times, resurrection of the dead, return of Christ.
  7. The Salvation Army doesn't practice any sacraments, such as baptism or communion, as they feel they distract from God's grace by focusing on the act rather than what the act symbolizes.
So, let's get the ball rolling.


The Salvation Army chapel is located in downtown Ogden. The exterior of the building is very simple and done in a contemporary style. My friend and I sat in the car in the parking lot listening to the song Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes because the name is derived from the name Salvation Army.

The interior of the chapel was fairly typical of a Protestant chapel: chairs lined up in pews, a sanctuary with a section for a band to play live music and a pulpit as the central piece, flower arrangements, etc.

Sadly, it was hard to focus on anything in this chapel as there was an overwhelming stench of cat urine that assaulted your nose when you walked in and was impossible to ignore throughout the whole service.

The atmosphere, overall, was simple, but the smell was overwhelming and really diminished the entire atmosphere giving it a very cheap and low rent feeling.

The People:

The people were eclectic as far as age and race, Some were elderly, some teenagers, some Latino, some white, some wearing hippie clothing, some wearing Hawaiian shirts and sandals. It felt like most of them were people who had once been down on their luck and had learned about The Salvation Army through their charity outreach. This assumption was confirmed when a man got up and bore his testimony saying that he was no longer homeless and was now clean and sober thanks to the Lord. 

A number of the members were dressed in uniforms. This was something I was told to expect. Many members purchase Salvation Army uniforms and wear them as a sign of being soldiers for God.

The woman who ran the worship service was an older woman who seemed kind of grouchy, especially when she yelled at the children for misbehaving, and kind of upset me with how she acted with people, yet covered it up with a smile and facade of caring.

Overall, it was an interesting group of people. I'm very glad that a number of them seem to have turned their lives around thanks to The Salvation Army.

The Service:

The service was fairly typical of a low church Protestant service. It began with a few announcements and welcome. Everybody went around shaking each other's hands, then the real service began. It started with a song. There was no accompanying music, only the acapella voices of the congregation. I've encountered congregations that don't sing well, but nobody here sang well at all. Because of that, the music wasn't enjoyable, just painful to listen to. I didn't want the singing to continue.

After there was a prayer and then they took up offerings. After that, they had the children's sermon before sending them off to Sunday school.

The kid's sermon was actually nice. It was on how words can hurt people and how we can't take back what we say. I am all for teaching kids this and encourage it.

After that was the main sermon. Then there was another song and a benediction.

Overall, the service was fairly simple, the music grating, and the overall tone extremely casual.

The Message:

The sermon was delivered by a guest speaker. The sermon was supposedly about God's contract with mankind, but really it bounced around a lot. He said that his wife just knows Jesus is the Messiah and that's all she needs. He said that he was a facts person and that he needed more than that. He said that the facts that convince him that Jesus was the Messiah are that nobody but God could do the things that Jesus does in the Gospels, therefore it's all true, Jesus is the Messiah. This is a very flawed argument that I will go into in a special blog on the Bible I've been planning.

He then talked about a conversation he had with his friends once in which he was talking to and how he and his friends tried listing off the Ten Commandments, but couldn't and ended up with a list of about fourteen and still didn't have all of them. I was absolutely amazed he admitted this. A lot of Christians cannot name the Ten Commandments, yet still tout them as the central piece of their faith and (mistakenly) say they're the basis for our laws here in the US. But I was very surprised to hear him admit that he didn't know what they were, and it only solidified what I knew.

After that, he talked about how we need to read the whole Bible cover to cover and read it as literature because all of the questions you'll ever have are answered in there and that there are no gaps in it. Essentially saying that the Bible is free from error. Clearly he hasn't taken up his own challenge as nobody who reads the Bible entirely can say that there are no gaps in it unless they aren't paying attention to anything they're reading. The Bible is filled with gaps and errors, often within the same chapter. More on that in my Bible blog I will do.

He also said that once a person repents, God doesn't remember their sins and that all sin is equal to God. A big sin is just as bad as a little sin, and a big good just as good as a little good. I hate this way of thinking. Murder isn't not on par with fibbing about your age. Rescuing a child from drowning isn't the same as telling your mom the truth about whether you stole the cookie. Things are complicated, not all actions are equal. Conversely, I know people who follow this mentality who think, well, I watched some porn, I already committed a sin, might as well go out and do all the things I want to since I'm damned.

After this he encouraged people that it might be fun to have the kids and adults dress up as Bible characters for Halloween, then when people asked who they were, they could share the Gospel with them. He then ended by saying that only God saves, we're just the ones delivering the message, but we never save anyone.

I found the message to be extremely juvenile in its understanding of Christianity and filled with a lot of problems and flawed logic. It was hard to sit through this sermon with a straight face knowing what I do about religion.

Overall Experience:

I hated my time at The Salvation Army. The whole time I was there, I just felt dirty and like I needed to leave. It's hard to explain why I felt that way, and no words could really capture the feeling. But really I didn't like my time there and have never felt more uncomfortable in a church. I couldn't wait to leave the service, and I will never go back to it.

Additional Notes:

I'll be posting my review on the Thai Buddhist Temple tomorrow. I also am working on a piece about the Bible, and I am visiting the United Methodist Church this Sunday.

Until next time, peace be with you.