The whole stupid journey started on a New Jersey highway. Driving in that state is a form of suicide, or at least a cry for help. Take all the love and warmth of New York traffic and quintuple the speed. A more empathetic man would have taken it as a sign, especially from his own sister. But my empathy had been cut down to nothing by Dark Souls, where I’d just discovered the visceral joy of carving less min-maxed players down to nothing. I think of everything that followed as fair punishment.
I learned, once the doors were locked and the documents were signed, that I had agreed to attend McDonald’s Gospel Fest 2016. This was a one-way trip to an all-day celebration of Protestant radio hits. I also learned that I don’t have a cyanide tooth, and that one would not appear if kept grinding my molars together. The van windows were just strong enough that shouldering my way through it was impossible, which meant all my lifting hours were a waste. Just as well: no one can survive a roll into I-95 traffic. I slid into a passive fog.
I hadn’t been under the influence of liquor, but guilt. Under guilt, I’d forgotten my one spiritual rule: never consent to anything. A sane society wouldn’t teach their children remorse until the age of sixteen. Guilt is only useful as a deterrent for hit-and-runs. In my vision, we can be a nation of happy, well-adjusted sociopaths. Blind Monkey 2016.
We survived the journey to the Prudential Center, and left the blue Scion McCarName in a mercifully well-lit parking garage. The model of the car is completely irrelevant to the rest of this story, and not particularly interesting. Everything your high school teacher told you about the captivating power of detail is wrong. Pick and choose, unless you want to broadcast self-indulgence.
The line was all black. A bad sign: anything interesting in the New York halo has been at least slightly co-opted by cultural tourists. Argue all you want about appropriation, at least it means there’s something worth stealing. Tonight’s event lacked the appeal of jazz, property above Central Park, and the word fam.
“Hey fam,” said a lean young man in an old-fashioned hat. It wouldn’t have been out of place on a 1950’s golfer. The retro fashion sensibility wasn’t unique to him: half the crowd was displaced in time. He introduced himself. I missed the name.
“Are you from the Caribbean?” asked Whatshis Face. His line of sight arced right past my Mom and I, laser-targeting my sister. This is relatively common.
“Yeah,” Kadeish replied. Whatshis turned to me, hoping I would expand the conversation. I’m not against people hitting on my sister, but I’m not there to help out. I thought about the party/alcoholic convention I was missing. It took some effort not to cry, but I knew that there was still a bar stocked for Jersey Devils fans waiting for me inside.
“I noticed your accent,” Whatshis said in his best Montego Bay voice. My mother and sister can flawlessly drift-race turn between Jamaican Sunburn and Generic Northeast modes. I’ve always found it impressive; I stumble between Generic Northeast, Clintonian Super-Predator, 4chan Dipshit, and We Get It You Went To Princeton. It makes dates weird.
Sadly, Whatshis Face’s romantic hopes were crushed behind the Prudential Center doors. As the gates opened, we were separated by human traffic. I gave him a sympathetic shrug. Or smirked like an asshole. One of those two.
The blessed flock, plus one, flowed into the Prudential Center. Barclay’s charges a bit too much to contain the Holy Spirit, and Madison Square Garden is surrounded by the hellbound. A Christian event could only thrive in the home of the New Jersey Devils. Our seats were on the thirteenth row on the ground floor, right where the mosh pit would be on a better day.
I was surrounded on all sides by the golden arches. The McDonald’s logo shone from nine of the oversized monitors hanging from the center of the ceiling. Fair enough. It also occupied every meter of the low-res LCD screens that lined the rim of the stadium seating. The budget jumbotron screens in front flashed the bright yellow M before a scrolling list of the event’s vendors. It was impossible to look in any direction without getting an eyeful of high-velocity branding.
“How much did these tickets cost?” I asked.
“Around a hundred-forty each,” answered Mom. She settled into a glorified folding chair.
“Even with McDonald’s in the name and on the walls?”
“Funny, right?” said Kadeish. “We originally invited one of Mom’s friends, but she dropped out last week. So we got you.”
A trap. I was second choice, and hadn’t even gotten a Big Mac for my trouble.
“You should feel special,” added my mother. Wiseass is genetic.
A Steve Harvey impersonator with more beard and less infidelity occupied the stage. He heralded the judges for the first half of the event, which would be a multi-category contest for the New York Metro’s best amateur gospel performers. Under the watchful eye of the arches he introduced some guy, a past Super Bowl winner, another guy, and various others. My notes aren’t perfect.
The crowd seemed to enjoy his schtick. He occupied the harmless hypeman niche well, using enough y’alls to be amiable but nothing more risque. It sounds like I’m piling on him, but I would come to miss him later. The main event was hosted by Greg Kelly, a host of Good Day, New York and android incapable of simulating a human personality. Greg beat the same two jokes about hoverboards to death over the course of the show, violating one of the more important commandments.
For the moment, we had budget Steve Harvey. With the McDonald’s Gospelfest audience on his side, he said six magical words: “Let’s start with the rap category.”
I laughed by reflex. If you don’t know what’s hippity-hop with the homie-slizzles’ 8-tracks this month, here’s a hint: it’s not gospel rap. Note: Please don’t e-mail me Lecrae or the three songs where Yeezy name-drops Jesus before going back to lines about ass-ramming models. That’s a dead end for both of us.
There were, if my thin notes and thinner memory serve, nine gospel rappers. Six of these were thoroughly disappointing and immensely forgettable, providing clever lines like “Je-sus was a ge-nius.” One of them did half his verse in Spanish, which allowed me to pretend he was saying something insightful. Another managed a surprising amount of energy, aiming for the “8 Mile Road” of gospel rap. That impressed me, until I met Brimstone.
Brimstone is, judging by this performance alone, a horrorcore gospel rapper. At first this entertained because the combination seemed incongruous. Then it entertained because horrorcore and Old Testament insanity are a natural combination. Besides, he had America’s Choice Vinnie Paz energy. I wholeheartedly endorse Brimstone’s brand of Revelation-rap, and the inevitable Delilah-themed remix of “Kim” on his breakthrough album.
My eyes wandered back to the budget jumbotron. It asked an important spiritual question: “Have you visited the vendor village?” Beyond Ronald, Gospel Fest enjoyed support from Christ Church Assembly, Cookie’s Special Things, Respect in the Church Place, Christlife LLC, JLS Enterprises, SomeKindaFine Clothing & Accessories, TUNETOWN, Nyack College, Avon 39 Breast Cancer Foundation, A-Style Fashion and Accessories, Sistafriendz, and ma-ny more. I could feel the savings washing over me.
“As you wish, holy spirit of commerce,” I whispered. My mother rolled her eyes. I’m bad at whispering.
On my way to the vendor village, I found a war crime.
That’s not the way you treat your fellow man. The bar was equally abused, i.e., empty. Unattended. Nothing. God’s chosen people were stuck with either water or blighted concession-stand Miller Lite. I contemplated the finer points of withdrawal before forging ahead.
The vendor village was flanked by the standard array of stadium garbage food (sans McDonald’s, oddly enough). The “Souvenir Chicken Tenders” went for eighteen dollars each. I can only assume that these chickens were carried down Mount Sinai by hand, and consecrated by the relevant multi-denominational officials.
A whiff of nostalgia hit me. I was in a dense crowd of diehards milling around neatly arranged tables of lifestyle merchandise; the affair looked like Comic-Con if you squinted. There wasn’t much in the way of back issues: original prints of holy texts tend to get scooped by academia or Saudi Princes before consumers get a chance to bid.
I’ll credit McDonald’s with a single instance of restraint: there wasn’t a building sized McDonald’s booth in the vendor village. I honestly expected a kick-line of red-and-yellow clad dancers, but there were no McGriddles to be found. In fact, the arches were nowhere in sight. My inner cynic perked up. If Big M wasn’t around, then there was something here that it didn’t want to be associated with. That had to be worth finding.
I started with the novelty clothing, which seemed like a natural approach for Comic Con’s born-again twin. The booth operator was the size of two heathens, all muscle. I made a note to keep the usual comments to myself. He hovered over an array of caps, t-shirts, and hoodies offering semi-legal parodies of famous brands. This is a staple of boardwalk shops in dying resort towns (think your local variant of Atlantic City, Ocean City, etc) once again giving me the impression that I’d gone to the wrong event.
The divine rebrands included iPray, addJesus, Under-his-armor, Convert All-Stars, Hooked on Jesus, and GAP: God Answers Prayers. As a recovering corporate communications drone, I’d like to make a few suggestions: Praystation, Burger King of Kings, Facebook of Life, Trojan Abstinence Baloons, Jesus’s Divine Adventure: Battle Testament, and Chick-Fil-A (now with extra Jesus). I can accept payment by cash, check, or specious cryptocurrency.
As far as I could tell, “AddJesus” was the runaway hit. This galled me as both a clown and advertising junky. AddJesus is a garbage pun without flow, punch, or some kind of secondary meaning. It wouldn’t make the cut on The Bible Chnnel, and it won’t get a pass on this blog.
I moved on to the authors. Since the success of Torah-Bible-Quran trilogy, publishers have struggled to recapture the magic. While most companies try to sell insights on religion ranging from Pat “Gas Everyone” Robertson to Richard “The Smug Gene” Dawkins, McDonald’s was forward-thinking enough to reach out to the independent press. The authors of “Respect in the Church Place” and “Deceived” blessed the vendor village with their presence and promotional material.
That’s half a lie: I didn’t see the first book’s author, but I did get to watch his kids man the booth with professional-grade prepackaged smiles.
“Hey. What brings you here?” asked the son. Something about me didn’t fit with the environment. I like to think it’s a Hollywood jawline.
“I’m a writer,” I lied.
“That’s great! You’ll appreciate another black writer.”
“Definitely. What’s the book about?”
“You know how companies have human resources guides? This is the church version of that,” he explained. I accepted a flier from his sister.
After spending a truncated period in publishing PR, this was a strange leaflet to my semi-discerning eye. The scandal sheet on the right made it sound like lurid fiction, rather than a guide to avoiding scandal. Communication had collapsed at some point, producing an ad for a Law and Order: SVU marathon instead of a guide to keeping your altar boys intact. I thanked them both and added the flier to my inventory.
The second author had more literary goals. Keisha, author of Decieved (subtitle: What’s Done in the Dark Comes to Light) stood beside a colorful print of her work’s cover. She still maintained the hairstyle from that lightly photoshopped image. Adding a hint of authenticity to what had been a disturbingly plastic affair.
“Nice cover. What’s the thrust of it?” I asked. I used my best imitation of civil society.
“Read the booklet,” Keisha replied brusquely. She pointed towards a binder collecting a summary, press clips, and excerpts. I flipped through these with the requisite oohs and ahs.
Now, here’s where my tribal bias comes out. I don’t feel too motivated to shit on the work of another black writer. Solidarity requires-just fucking around. Decieved reads like the worst kind of pandering bull intestine. A good Christian woman saddled with an impotent, unfaithful, and latently homosexual husband. It’s the nonfiction (cough) bookcase companion to Homo Thug. It also has competition: it shares a title with a relatively high-profile self-help book on surviving “sexual betrayal” and a Star Wars tie-in novel. I imagine the space knights are a little more down to Earth.
After touring the vendor village’s literary output, I felt ready to return to the golden arches. But Providence led me to pass by the booth for Harvest Family World Outreach Ministries, Inc. I felt the itch that led me to tour the booths in the first place. An attendant glowing with energy handed my a flier without me even asking.
The team literature offered a “unique way to quickly earn the rich life you deserve,” emphasising that “Opportunity only comes to those willing to step forward.” It soothed secular doubts by providing a lengthy bio of its founder, Dr. Gary Kirkwood. The last paragraph of this bio is pure fucking magic.
I couldn’t look away from “Apostle of Faith and Economics.” It was the closest to a divine out-of-body experience I’d ever been, in or outside of a church. On some level, McDonald’s GospelFest was a complete success. I eventually collected enough pieces of my brain to ask the attendant a few questions about “new marketing strategies for the distribution of our media products, services, and incentives.”
“What’s the concept here?” I asked. “In your words.”
“We’re a multi-layered marketing business, Christian based, that teaches you to set up your own business. You become a partner,” she replied, in her words.
“Multiple layers? Like a pyramid?”
“Yeah! It’s how we make our mark on the world.”
I reopened my flier. “What’s an ‘Apostle of Economics?’”
“Faithonomics, he calls it. He teaches you to become a millionaire.”
“That sounds like a great scheme.”
“Doctor Kirkwood’s a genius. You should become an executive while you can.”
I never paid much attention during mass. Or bible study. Or Catholic School (a strange choice for a Baptist family). But I had a vague recollection about a “den of thieves.” I knew it was an important quote, but I couldn’t place it. If anyone has a hint of the answer, feel free to drop me a line.
I wandered back to my seat, where my mother and sister were enjoying the rest of the pre-show competition. The step dance category featured a team dressed like McDonald’s employees.The young girls opened with “Welcome to McDonald’s, can I take your order?” The stand-up category featured an extended riff thanking God for the value menu.
Then the real show started. The opening prayer name-checked McDonald’s. A McDonald’s franchise owner thanked New York City council members, the mayor of Newark, and a Japanese ambassador for coming to celebrate McDonald’s. A city council member, elected by the people, said “To all of you who are feeding us, and giving our kids happy meals, thank you.” A performer was late, so Ronald McDonald was brought on stage to stall for time.
With the thin film of my sanity gone I was transparent and bare before my God the one true God the egotism of my sinful life stripped away I could see my master beneath the golden arches my savior Ronald McDonald had forgiven me and my sinful dieting ways and I cried not through my eyes but my soul high fructose tears for he is lord and I am beef and we are beef and the nuggets are communion and those who embrace the false Burger King will be dragged beneath the oil and refried until time is a memory
Praise the Big Mac. Praise capitalism. Praise Mammon.