Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.
A pastor raises his arms in prayer and all around the sanctuary those assembled close their eyes and bow their heads. A pianist plays soft chords under the pastor’s voice as he entreats God to bless, bless these gifts about to be received in accordance with God’s commandment to give, oh Lord, and to give generously and from happy hearts. With his “amen” the darkness lifts, the music rises, eyes are opened, and suited men stand at the ends of each pew, holding out their collection plates to take in the week’s offering. It’s time to render unto the Lord. For some, it is the Reckoning in miniature.
Passing the plate is as familiar as falling asleep to one born and raised evangelical. Death and taxes dissipate into abstraction when one lays a crinkled bill into the holy pool. Vacation Bible School won’t fund itself, and neither will the senior pastor’s new roof. Fortunately, God helps those who help Godself.
In the shadow of the great amoral engines of world economies, it is incumbent upon Joe Pewsitter to faithfully give from what he has managed to scrape together for himself and his own. And presumably, God sees Joe P.’s giving heart, and is glad.Having opened my eyes at the end of a pew more times than I can count, I have watched a panoply of vessels bob down the row. The elders from my childhood church held out broad, shallow bowls of polished wood; a felt lining at the bottom softened the fall of my quarters alongside the envelope containing my family’s check. Varnished wicker baskets are not uncommon in remoter chapels; heavy worksite buckets might move from hand to hand at a service during a mission trip. At one Chicago church I attended, flannel-clad dudes would hand end-sitters a velvety bag hung off a wooden dowel. This assemblage always reminded me of a cartoon medieval taxman’s money pouch, looped to his belt next to a generous overhang of gut.
The offering moment in a service is never quite spontaneous—no one’s walking up the aisle soliciting tithes into an outstretched droop of undershirt—but neither is it wholly automatic; it exists in a middle range of extemporaneity, like a practiced speech. Of course, this isn’t to say it’s somehow not important. A friend from Queens grew up hearing about a service in which suited men behind the congregation chained the sanctuary doors shut to prevent people from leaving the church before meeting its intake goal. The heaviness of the offering plate, so similar in dimensions and heft to the business end of a good frying pan, takes on a sinister quality when the elders are not permitting you to exercise your Christian freedom by exiting the building.
While such a method is outrageous, the urgency is understandable. Churches throughout this country live and die by their bottom lines. The stone vaults of English churches that have shut down and reopened as bars, museums, and nightclubs are previews of coming attractions for their American counterparts whose pastors are unable to keep a reasonable number of people in the pews long enough to squeeze water out of their stone hearts.
And how exacting it can be! Consider then the moment of passing the plate. Performance-worship sets in—a showcase song for someone with real vocal talent—and those wooden receptacles begin a circuitous crawl up the rows toward you. For a certain set this motion is reminiscent of Space Invaders, which seems apt in light of the moment of exchange.
How to do it politely? Your neighbor may be caught up in the music or praying with eyes shut; do you nudge them with the bowl? Cough? Shake it around and hope some change jingles? And then the handoff itself—ought you make eye contact or look away? Smile? Nod with gravitas? Raise your eyebrows in mock terror? Grip the plate with both hands and pretend-toss a stir-fry? Reconsider the $20 bill you had placed on top of your other neighbor’s “Connection Card” and shuffle through the stack to find suitable change? In these moments the pew is a battlefield upon which good graces may be tragically lost. Money, like war, is apt to absorb everything in its proximity and churn it all into the same blackened debris. Nothing is so intangible as to escape the equalizing, leveling force of capital. Time and space have succumbed; otherwise we could not render them commensurate by working to pay off a mortgage on a house. Goodwill between acquaintances in a house of worship is not beyond its sullying reach.
Below the level of all our felt needs, money is simply a strange and powerful thing to reckon with. The dollar is, lest we forget, an abstract entity that obtains a kind of value based upon our massive intersubjective agreement. Market fluctuations are, in a way, the psychic ticker tape of our collective unconscious, spiking and bottoming out in accordance with the hopes and fears of whole nations; currencies strengthen and weaken as governments jump in and out of the fray and this ongoing tumult raises and lowers the value of one’s earnings—and by implication, one’s time at work. This impersonal flux can destroy lives while flooding others’ with inconceivable wealth. How absurd it is to see time and chance visit misfortune upon those hapless people left standing on the wrong side of a technical innovation or embargo or trade agreement. How absurd it is, more basically, to set goods, services, organs, amounts of time, and parts of the world upon the same scales, and to assign the whole lot a number with a decimal point.
That’s capital for you. “All that is solid melts into air,” one modern prophet says, “all that is holy is profaned.”
But in the shadow of the great amoral engines of world economies, it is incumbent upon Joe Pewsitter to faithfully give from what he has managed to scrape together for himself and his own. And presumably, God sees Joe P.’s giving heart, and is glad. Joe P. is blessed in spite of everything. In spite of his neighbor’s praying with eyes closed for minutes during the offertory, even.
What is the offering plate, then? Under one sign, it’s a desperate symbol of hope. Evangelicals put their faith in a God beyond the space of roads and office buildings and beyond the time of the hourly wage, and believe themselves to be setting store in his kingdom. Each dollar in the plate is a grasp out of the world towards its Archimedean point. It’s a gesture at bringing the logic of capital under another logic entirely, one that upends power and wealth and presumes to make the last first.