(Hey. If you can’t have faith, have lunch!)
It wasn’t your run-of-the-mill classified ad.
“Hi. This is Forest A. Phelps. Last week, I started my own religion and made myself a Reverend. And if you got twenty bucks, I can make you a Reverend, too!”
A simple man, a simple idea. What does a person need, anyway, he had often wondered, to parade around calling oneself a “Reverend?” Based on what Forest saw on TV, apparently all you needed was a bad suit and a good deal of gall. True, you might have to do that weird swept-back hair thing; possibly slip on some white patent leather loafers. But a big bucket of gall will get you through that embarrassment. That, and some mousse.
And it was simple enough for Forest to pull it off. He set aside an evening, browsed through the menu of available world religions, cherry-picked the parts he liked and deep-sixed the rest. Then he drew up some ads, bought some mousse, filed some IRS papers, and boom! Forest was a Reverend. And tax-exempt to boot!
Welcome to the Church of Toothless Theology!
As often happens, seemingly unrelated events led Forest to his new career as a local deity. First, the economy was still sulking and people were being laid off in droves. The government was busily implementing an odd strategy of strangling businesses, as if the way to generate more gardens was to kill all the gardeners. People needed hope, and Forest figured he could fake that as well as anybody.
Next, Presidentrix Michelle Obama somehow wandered in front of a TV camera. Before the crew could cut the feed, she started telling everybody to calm down, since there were still thousands of miles of Gulf shoreline that had not been damaged, which might’ve been cool if there actually were thousands of miles of Gulf shoreline, instead of the 1,600-odd miles that, in fact, exist. (Apparently, the Congressional Budget Office drew up her map.)
To clarify any confusion, Joe Biden issued a confusing statement, claiming the White House had saved or created millions of miles of shoreline. (Nor did it sit well when Biden quipped, off-camera, referring to the Gulf of Mexico as “The Dead Sea.”) President Profile reminded everybody of his promise not to raise taxes on anyone who lived near an imaginary beach. He renewed his promise to “not rest” until he had saved the Gulf Coast from George Bush, and then flew away to enjoy another vacation. (According to some reports, he didn’t take Air Force One; he just flew away.)
Forest watched the news play out and thought, “Not only are people believing these clowns can perform miracles: these clowns are starting to believe it themselves. I can fake that, too.” Given that nobody in the media even blinked in the face of all that extra-natural behavior, Forest couldn’t imagine anybody minding if one more messiah hoisted a shop shingle.
And lastly, Forest watched while the NAACP held a press conference and denounced the entire Tea Party movement as a bunch of racists. Suddenly, the Reverend Al Sharpton materialized, followed closely by his hair and by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was dressed in a nice, three-piece paternity suit.
Reverend Sharpton, having misunderstood the opening arguments, agreed that the Tea Party was indeed full of racers, and then he indignantly accused New York State of having a city named White Plains. On a roll, Sharpton then chided the city of Pensacola for having white sand beaches, inferring that Pensacola was a veritable hotbed for racers and other spigots. Wrapping up, the Reverend called for a boycott of Arizona, including a demand that the Yankees boycott the upcoming Super Bowl races in Arizona’s capital city, Flagpole. Someone pointed out that Sharpton’s closing remarks, though hilarious, were not relevant, but Sharpton again misunderstood, arguing that he was, too, a Relevant, and so was his good friend, the Relevant Jesse Johnson.
And with that, Forest had seen all he needed to see. If self-appointed religious leaders, self-righteous politicians, and self-serving citizens were going to act like nothing more than apes in trousers, Forest reckoned he might as well make a buck. He drew up a plan for a shallow, hollow, feel-good religion, mixing anxiety and anesthesia, blending creative marketing with Marx’s “opiate for the masses.” For a few dollars, he printed up several boxes of direct mail flyers, featuring the name of his new church, its logo (a thumbs-up sign reflected in a mirror) and emboldened with the catchy phrase, “Guilt No More!”
The flyer offered a menu of online classes, a price list, and an extremely comprehensive clutch of legal disclaimers. The curriculum, like the religion itself, was designed to be virtually painless and totally free of any serious commitment (or results). Correspondence courses were offered in various disciplines, including this sampler:
• Justifiable Intolerance: The “Holier Than Thou” Myth
• Creative Accounting I: The Cash Bar Bar-Mitzvah
• Personal Wealth Creation Versus Personal Wealth Evolution
• Witnessing And Eye-Witnessing: How To Work A Jury
• What’s So Bad About Bad Words? (The George Carlin Canon)
• Fantasy Writing Challenge: “The Barnacles Of Narnia” (Sponsor: BP)
• Managing Expectations: A Televangelist’s Guide To Faith Healing And Litigation
• Creative Accounting II: The Church “Building Fund”
• The “Three Strikes” Rule: How To Get A Mulligan In The Confessional
• Extra-Marital Sex: The New “Weekday” Exemption
• Creative Accounting III: IRS Audits And The “pecunia ex nihilo” Defense
• Deacon Blues: The Search For The Lost Tribe Of Steely Dan
• Off-Shore Banking: A New Take On “Church Planting”
• Torah! Torah! Torah!: Jewish Interpretations Of Shinto Shamanism
• The Jawbone Of An Ass: A History Of Religious Indignation In Political Speeches
• Creative Accounting IV: Making The Case For An Emergency Backup Vatican
• The Collected Humor Of Cotton Mather (9:00am to 9:03am)
• Moses And The Ten Suggestions
Prohibitive costs kept the new Reverend from building an actual church facility, but Forest did rent one of those white, changeable-letter roadside signs, and a boxful of black block letters, so he could rotate cute little blurbs at the curb in front of his apartment. During his debut week, he posted the following ill-fated schedule announcement:
SUNDAY MORNING MESSAGE: JESUS WALKED ON THE WATER
SUNDAY EVENING MESSAGE: WHERE IS JESUS?
Forest spent hours in front of the TV, reviewing reruns of several Reverends. From Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, he learned how to stomp his feet and cry on demand. From Jeremiah Wright, he learned how to dress in comfortable clothes and curse. From Pat Robertson, he learned how to make psychotic remarks. From watching Tammy Faye Bakker, he learned how to change the channel.
But it was from Reverend Jim Jones that Forest learned the importance of food for a fledgling religion. And that made all the difference.
It was Forest’s most clever marketing decision: the way he co-packaged cosmic comfort and comfort food to lure a public hungry for both. Faith required trust over time, but a sandwich could be got to right now. And lo, a fast-food franchise was born which, like the new religion itself, offered something for everybody.
Drive-Thru Speaker Voice: Welcome to Self-Actualization Burger! Can I help you help yourself?
Customer: Any specials today?
Voice: You can get two rationalizations for the price of one!
Customer: Nah. I’ve still got rationalizations left over from last week.
Voice: Well, with every Sheik Shake, we’ll throw in an order of French Friars!
Customer: Do you have any waffles that look like one of the Saints?
Voice: Not as such. But you can get a 218-ounce Holy Rolla Cola in a to-go cup that smells like the New Orleans Saints.
Customer: Yeah, that’ll do.
Voice: Or you can get a bottle of preservative-free “Saints Preserve Us” holy water.
Customer: Nope. Don’t trust your holy water.
Voice: Why not?
Customer: The bottle has an expiration date.
Voice: Point taken.
Customer: And besides, did you realize that “Forest A. Phelps” is an anagram for “False Prophets?”
Voice: That’s just uncalled for, sir.
Customer: So, do you guys have Happy Meals, like at McDenials?
Voice: Sir, ALL our meals are Happy Meals!
Customer: How about Esau-sage biscuits, like they have over at Burqa King?
Voice: Sorry, sir. We stop serving breakfast after the Lenten Ramadan mantra chant to Vishnu at Matins.
Customer: Sheesh. Not much of a church, is it.
Voice: Well, we do have a changeable-letter roadside sign, now don’t we, Mr. Smarty?
Customer: Big whoop. So does the back-hoe rental place.
Voice: Well, yeah, but our …
Customer: Forget it. Gimme four Relative Truth-Burgers, two Iced Teleologies and a Forbidden Apple pie.
Voice: Would you like lies with that?