Despite my repeated viewings of Sister Act (and, to be sure, Sister Act 2) in primary school, I cannot claim to be a religious scholar. I’m unable to name the apostles, though thanks to Whoopi Goldberg I know that Ringo is not one of them. I cannot explain the difference between Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu (despite sage pronouncements by a high-school teacher that Buddhism would help me morph from a rigid tree into a flexible bamboo shoot) and my only experience with proselytizing is the rotation of homeless men who loiter outside my favorite restaurant nagging the local revelers, sodomites and drunkards.
So it struck me as odd, when I was reading through a textbook passage, that Jesus seemed to resemble another grand religious figure I had heard much about. As the text unfolded, it described Jesus as a king, prophet, carpenter and healer. To this impressive list of professional skills, I unconsciously added ‘author of romance novels,’ ‘bean-plant horticulturist,’ ‘balladeer,’ ‘all-round Type-A multitasker,’ ‘lyricist,’ and ‘yachtsman.’ It dawned on me that it was not Jesus I had in mind, but L. Ron Hubbard.
Cue a lazy August Sunday afternoon in Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle. Buff gay men and sundressed-women emerge fresh from a nearby French bakery and adjoining flower shop and walk by the strange old mansion as if it were the Cosi or the bike-short store that sit catty corner to it. They are able to stroll by so benignly because they are not going inside and they do not know the stories.
They do not feel hollow inside. They don’t know about the girl who wasn’t allowed to study this mansion and the secrets it holds, for fear her soul would be destroyed by John Travolta and too many viewings of Battlefield Earth. They don’t cross the street away from it and then double back because they don’t know that the aliens and Kirstie Alley will steal forever your personal information and home address. They’re not sweating profusely because they don’t know that with that mailing address, they will track you down wherever you live for the rest of your life. No matter how many times you move, the Church of Scientology will be there. Along with Beck and various male love interests from Veronica Mars.
The Church of Scientology. There I was, fueled by nothing save curiosity. A sign above the door beckoned me to the weekend open house, to walk around as I pleased, free to learn about Scientology itself or to explore the historic mansion which this Church calls home. The inhabitants of the church were manipulative from the start, assuaging my fears before I walked in.
Or maybe they weren’t so intense after all. Maybe the Tom Cruise/Oprah/couch-violating episode wasn’t a reflection of Cruise’s religion, rather of his profound strangeness as an individual.
I thus ventured in with an open mind, or slightly open, perhaps fleetingly open. But what I experienced next was just too easy to mock. First, there are the framed clippings that plague each beige wall with its mahogany wainscoting. They chronicle Hubbard – the Church’s founder, who incidentally looks like a pedophile – and his dilettantish exploits.
Second, there are the life-sized cardboard cutouts of Hubbard that adorn the ‘chapel,’ a burgundy, pew-ed version of a podiatrist’s waiting room. Third is his hunter-green office, sealed shut by a glass door. When I lingered near the door, trying to peek through, bona-fide Scientologists seemed to take notice.
When I made the above reference to aliens playing a role in this religion, it’s because they do. Scientologists- at least the ones in Washington D.C.-don’t look or act like the rest of us. They squint more. Their facial muscles cannot be incited to movement by blatant derision or girlish giggling. They possess the same hunched and asymmetrical qualities that epitomize much of the Astrophysical science department. They argue that the sign outside does not say that one can just walk around the “pretty building.” Which defies logic. Because it definitely does. They are confused when one asks to take a ‘tour,’ and only repeat that they cannot give you a tour but that they can “answer any of your questions downstairs.”
So I stupidly went downstairs, afflicted with sympathy for my squinty, facially stunted and illogical female guide. Little did I know that downstairs, in a basement with colorful posters and shag carpeting resembling a zealous rec room, there would be a cramped and freezing screening room. There I would find the best surprise of all: an explanatory Scientology film.
Granted, the film utterly fails to explain Scientology or its literary subsidiary- Dianetics. And you mustn’t be put off by the fact that they close the door, turn off the lights and wait approximately 20 minutes before they begin the film, observing you all the while through a glass window. Now, some enjoy feeling shaky, freezing and sweaty, but to those of you who prefer comfort I urge caution. But in what other video might you find asteroids hurling at you, coupled with the promise of a 1,000 year life span, a stay at a remote Scottish castle and a Caribbean cruise?
Where else could you observe attractive corpse #1 from CSI: Miami or single black female #85 from Moesha having their personalities ‘audited’ and IQs boosted by tens of points with the help of professionals at the Church. And what other religion would deign to designate a ‘Thetan’ dimension while repeatedly using the phrase “your Scientology collection isn’t complete without this book, for the low low price of…?” Finally, with backlighting like I’ve never seen and God music like I’ve never heard, a voice proclaims that converting to Scientology is absolutely your own choice, just as jumping off a cliff or shooting yourself in the head is absolutely your own choice!
The fact is: I went, I saw, I am confused. I left the Church of Scientology unable to explain how all of these disparate elements fit together or what the Church is really all about. I’ve spent the past few months attempting to reconcile this conflict and to rationalize why so many ordinary people are joining what is widely regarded as a glorified, Cruise-ifed cult. To be sure, it is one of the most ludicrous organizations one can ever come across. But what I learned on my visit and in the last few months is that Scientology represents a palatable and, in many ways, a fitting contemporary religion: it functions much like a self-help seminar, where one pays to be improved, to clear away the roadblocks on the path to happiness, fulfillment, a higher IQ and yes, a century-long lifespan. Here the tenants are individualism, consumption and blind faith in the absurd.
Whether Scientology’s popularity is then a reflection of disturbing modern trends or simply the success story of a wily businessman turned Church founder is not something I’m prepared to decide after one visit and a single perusal of the website. All I know is that I’m currently reading through my text book about the life of Jesus and the early history of Christianity, when Romans persecuted anyone preaching ‘the Way,’ and this cliché just won’t leave me. Perhaps Hubbard is the new Jesus, except fatter and uglier. Stranger things have happened.