My recent travelling schedule has been hectic, and I haven’t spent a whole week at home for months. This past weekend, therefore, on finding myself actually in Singapore on a Sunday, I thought I should make the most of it.
So, I went to church.
Perhaps I should explain.
I had intended on writing a brief exposé on the subject of casinos in Singapore, and the peculiar fondness for gambling in Asia. Thus, in the spirit of impartial research, I decided to visit the Marina Bay Sands late on Sunday afternoon.
For those not in the know, MBS (Singaporeans love a good acronym) is officially an “integrated resort”. Although as descriptions go, this is about as woefully inadequate as it would be to say, for example, that Genghis Khan had “anger issues”.
The Marina Bay Sands is much better thought of as being a gargantuan, incredibly gaudy, over-the-top leisure and entertainment complex. It’s most noticeable feature is its three eye-catching skyscrapers, side-by-side, capped by an alien-looking structure that sits across the top of the three buildings. This is the Sky Park, quite literally a park held aloft, sixty stories up in the sky. In it there are palm trees, walking paths, cafes, restaurants, and the piece de resistance, a 150 metre long infinity-edge swimming pool. Spectacular for sure, but most definitely not for those with a fear of heights.
MBS is also home to one of Asia’s largest shopping malls, overwhelming in terms of size and quite brazen in its salute to conspicuous consumption. Like, for example, the Louis Vuitton flagship – a store the size of a small battleship, that is “moored” in the Bay on one of two private “Crystal Pavilions” (the other being occupied by Singapore’s hottest nightclub). Or like the artificial canal that runs through the centre of the mall. After picking up a new Prada handbag you can sail off into the sunset on an “authentic” sampan (Asia’s answer to the Venetian gondola).
There are 2,561 hotel rooms and 1.3 million square feet of convention and exhibition space at the Marina Bay Sands. There is the Art-Science Museum, an amazing, futurist structure that resembles an opening lily flower. There are two theatres, where blockbuster musicals play for up to 4,000 people at a time. There are seven “celebrity chef” restaurants, in which the world’s finest cooks do their thing, and where a piece of steamed fish might set you back $130. There is an ice-skating rink, a “Helix Bridge” shaped like two intertwined strands of DNA, a twice daily laser show and synchronised fountain display, a myriad of bars and restaurants and nightclubs, a pedestrian promenade, and so on and so on.
The oil that lubricates this whole machine? Gambling. At the heart of MBS sits the world’s largest atrium casino, with more than 1,000 gaming tables and over 1,500 slot machines, catering to everyone from casual gamblers to serious high-rollers. It is packed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Gamblers arrive in busloads from Singapore’s suburbs, and in planeloads from Indonesia, Malaysia, and China. Around 5,000 people work there, and about 25,000 people a day visit. It is not so much a casino as it is a small town in its own right.
The MBS was completed only four years ago, and at the time represented a complete change of heart by Singapore’s authorities, who were previously staunchly anti-casino. The complex was designed by Moshe Safdie, an Israeli-Canadian architect, and is owned by the Las Vegas Sands group, a company controlled by American-Jewish businessman and philanthropist, Sheldon Adelson. It cost $8 billion to build, and is staggeringly profitable. The amount of money dropped at MBS’ tables each day far exceeds that in most casinos in Las Vegas, Monaco, and even Macao.
In short, if my plan was to engage in some “field research” about gambling in Singapore, this was the obvious place to go.
Only I never made it through the front door.
Walking from the car park to the casino, I passed a bank of escalators going up three floors, to the MBS function rooms. They were jam-packed, a constant flow of pensioners, teenagers, young couples, and families. Dozens of uniformed security guards and white-shirted ushers were hovering around. Clearly there was a big event on, as advertised on a nearby sign: “Resurrection Sunday, 31 March 2013”.
Given the crowd, the guards and the ushers, I thought it might be a concert. I asked one of the security guards as much. He looked at me like I was mentally defective. “It is not a concert, Sir”, he said in a condescending voice. “It is a church service”.
Come again – a church service? I was immediately struck by the double irony of it all: a church service in the confines of a casino complex, possibly the least church-like setting imaginable. And this one in particular designed, built and owned by a bunch of north-American Jews, no less.
I politely enquired if I was allowed to attend. “I am not so sure Sir”, the security guard replied, looking me up and down. “Oh, is there a dress code?” I asked. Perhaps his hesitance was due to my jeans, sneakers and slightly scruffy, faded polo-top.
“No Sir, you are dressed just fine …” the guard replied, “… but, well … the thing is, we don’t normally get any Caucasians at the service”. How bizarre, I thought – I had somehow managed to find the one church in the world with a “no middle-aged white males” entry policy (middle-aged white Jewish males, if we must be specific…).
I assured the guard that my interest was genuine, and after confirming three times that I didn’t mind being the only white-guy in the room, he relented. He did, however, insist on personally escorting me up the escalator. There he handed me off to a young usher, fresh-faced and clean-cut in black jeans and a crisp white shirt. A microphone was clipped to his collar, and an earpiece was tucked discreetly into his left ear.
The usher led me into the “church”, seating me in a reserved section, near the front. Before leaving he passed me a small plastic bobble. It looked like a Nespresso coffee machine pod. I must have seemed confused, because he quickly explained: “it is for the sacrament”, pointing out that inside the pod was a small cracker, and a thimbleful of wine.
I am no expert on churches. But, I have been to enough of them to know that a church normally involves an altar of some sort, an assortment of ritual objects, a hallowed atmosphere, the occasional image of a crucified Jesus, and maybe the odd dome, spire or stained glass window. Not to mention a priest, or at the very least a pastor, in attendance.
There was absolutely none of this at the New Creation Church.
Instead, I found myself sitting in a vast ballroom, capable of seating perhaps 3,000 people. Chairs had been arranged in rows, facing towards the front, where four huge screens had been mounted on the walls. The room was packed to near overflowing. There was a hum of voices and sense of expectation in the air. It was a lot like the atmosphere in a cinema, in the last minutes before the film starts.
Without warning, the lights dimmed, and the screens flickered to life with a rock-band – four guys, electric guitars, synthesizer, and smashing drums. They were performing live. The volume was ratcheted up to ear-splitting, and spotlights strafed the audience. It really did feel like being at a concert.
Only when the lead singer began singing, the lyrics were about Jesus, and how He had come to save us, and would provide us with everything we could ever need, in this life and beyond. The words were projected on the screens as well, Karaoke sing-along style. All around me people in the audience had got to their feet and raised both arms up above their heads, palms facing forward. Most were singing rapturously, some were swaying to the music, and a good number had their eyes closed, like they were in a bit of a trance.
The song ended, and the room burst out into a long, sustained applause. We took our seats, and next up on screen was a pastor, young and good-looking in a natty blue-grey suit with thin satin lapels, a white shirt and a pencil-thin black tie. He looked like one of Buddy Holly’s band members, circa. 1955. Apart, that is, from the oversized, gold and gem encrusted watch that was strapped to his wrist. Its bling glinted in the spotlight every-time the pastor lifted the microphone to his mouth.
After a short sermon the pastor invited us to open our pods, and to eat the cracker and drink the wine. He reminded us that in so doing, we were literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. So I partook in my first ever communion, all the while marvelling at the sheer weirdness of it. No doubt most of the good folk around me would have regarded me eating haggis, or tortoise soup, or grilled sea-worm as “bizarre cuisine”. But a spot of ceremonial cannibalism? Entirely normal, of course.
The pastor left the stage to a round of rousing applause. There was a brief pause, the sense of anticipation in the room went up a few notches, and a deep voice boomed over the sound system: “And now, join me in welcoming ….. Pastor Prince!!!”
A tall, attractive Asian man, I’d guess late thirties, came bounding onto the stage, and immediately shattered any preconceptions I have ever had as to what a pastor should look like. He was decked out in a white leather jacket, black jeans, and converse sneakers. His hair was longish and immaculately coiffed, albeit in the fashion of British grunge musicians. He looked more like Liam Gallagher’s long lost Singaporean cousin than a man of the cloth.
The place erupted. Clearly, Pastor Prince was the main event, and his unique brand of the Jesus Show was about to start.
It seems that I had unwittingly landed myself in one of Singapore’s evangelical Christian “mega-churches”.
I later read that there are quite a few of these in Singapore, although New Creation is one of the largest, attracting over 25,000 congregants every Sunday. This dwarfs numbers at Singapore’s more “mainstream” churches.
The New Creation Church is so large that its congregants can’t all fit into the one venue. So there are four, located around the island and linked together live by satellite. This explains why Pastor Prince was doing his stuff in an even bigger auditorium, eight miles away near Orchard Road, while I was sitting in the Marina Bay Sands ballroom, watching it on a big screen.
Even with multiple venues, the Church is so big its worshippers can’t all be accommodated at the same time. On any given Sunday, therefore, four or five services run at different times throughout the day. Seats are best pre-booked online, via New Creation’s website.
“Mega-churches” in Singapore are a relatively new phenomenon. They have emerged over the last decade, preaching a potent cocktail of love, hope, health, and salvation. But their real hook seems to be the promise of material success, reserved exclusively for those who embrace Jesus. Pastor Prince himself put it this way: “As they come forth Lord to sow, release upon them Father the power to get, to create, to receive wealth in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Prosperity is right. Amen.”
It is not just the message that garners popularity, though, but the easily digestible format in which it is delivered. Services are entirely in English. They incorporate radio-friendly Christian rock-music. Active participation from the large crowds is encouraged. Sermons are delivered by young, trendy, charismatic pastors. Modern technology is used to great effect – venues linked by satellite; power-point presentations to highlight key points in the Scriptures; Facebook pages and twitter feeds and sermon Podcasts available for download from the iTunes store.
A researcher at the Institute of South East Asian Studies summed it all up quite well: “Mega-churches have been able to articulate Christianity in a very contemporary manner … being able to adopt the language of pop culture and mass consumption … [and thus] appeal to the aspiring middle class.”
And, as is so often the case, where you find God, Mammon is not far behind.
Singapore’s mega-churches rake in the dollars, primarily from donations and merchandise sales. The City Harvest Church, with an estimated 40,000 members (!), had enough money in its piggy-bank to bankroll a $250 million redevelopment of its main venue. (The pastor who founded City Harvest is on trial, by the by, accused of improperly using donations money to support his wife’s singing career).
The New Creation Church, not to be outdone, spent $280 million on its own mega-church-complex. From their web-site: “Our business entity, Rock Productions Pte Ltd … was awarded the tender to build, lease and operate an integrated civic, cultural, retail and entertainment hub …. The retail and entertainment zone [is on] Basement 1 to Level 2 … the civic and cultural zone, spanning levels 3 to 11 [is] known as The Star Performing Arts Centre …. The centrepiece is The Star Theatre, a state-of-the-art, 5,000-seater auditorium”.
For his part, Pastor Prince (who reportedly earns half a million dollars a year) doesn’t hold back when it comes to explicitly connecting earthly donations to heavenly reward. One Singaporean journalist described his visit to a New Creation service as follows: “Wearing a white leather jacket and jeans, senior pastor Joseph Prince asked God to reward the crowd with houses, cars, jobs, pay raises and holidays, if they contributed to New Creation’s multimillion-dollar funding drive”.
Sitting there in the ballroom of the Marina Bay Sands last Sunday, however, as I watched and listened to Pastor Prince, my thoughts were not on any of that. Instead, I just thoroughly enjoyed the show.
He spoke for almost 90 minutes straight, in an unbroken monologue. All the while he paced up and down the stage like a seasoned performer. He was animated and engaging, using his hands and occasionally his whole body for emphasis. Then from time to time he would stand completely still, to great dramatic effect. Above him the big screens were synchronised to show whatever verses of the Bible he was referring to, just like any sophisticated marketing presentation.
Being “Resurrection Sunday” Pastor Prince’s sermon was focussed on the subject of Christ having risen from the dead, but only in the loosest possible way. At times, it was almost like a stand-up comedy routine, the pastor cracking jokes that had his audience rolling in the aisles. At other times he opted more for a fire-and-brimstone approach, raising his voice to a ferocious shout. Following which he would lower his voice theatrically, and ask in a hushed, conspiratorial whisper: “are you with me, people?”
Most of his sentences concluded with the word “Amen”. Really important sentences got a triple “Amen Amen Amen”, and really, really important ones the ultimate “Amen Hallelujah Amen”. Into the mix Pastor Prince threw parables and Bible stories; quotes in Hebrew and ancient Greek; anecdotes, asides, and even holiday snaps from his most recent trip to the Galilee, in Israel.
At one point he read out aloud a testimonial, received from a Church member in far away Ohio. The testifier reported that he had suffered from spinal problems and was bed-ridden, but since “feeding on [New Creation’s] preaching, I have been able to effortlessly quit smoking”. Which was not quite the “I rose up and miraculously walked” story I had been hoping for, but maybe that’s just me having unreasonably high expectations.
Equally, I am not sure if modern science would totally concur with Pastor Prince’s forcefully delivered statement that, after the whole Noah and the Ark episode, God had purposely tilted the earth on its axis, so as to “congeal the waters of the flood at the north and south poles”.
More than anything, though, I was amazed at the extent to which pop culture was referenced, casually but continually, throughout the sermon. The world we all live in was as much a source of inspiration for Pastor Prince as the Bible. He related religious principles and precepts to everyday subjects as diverse as the Manchester United football team; shopping in the supermarket; TV shows like CSI; brand-name designer clothing; teh tarik (a uniquely Singaporean form of brewed tea); and the pastor’s very own iPod playlist.
It was an hour and a half of showmanship in its purest, most skilful form. I loved it.
Towards the end of his sermon, Pastor Prince spoke directly to all the non-believers in the crowd (I assume this included me), and made the following plea: “People, I am not asking you to believe a religion. I am asking you to believe the reality that Jesus rose up from the dead”.
My mind boggled as I tried to unravel the twisted logic of the whole statement, although no-one else seemed to care. Everywhere I looked heads nodded in agreement, accompanied by a chorus of “Amens” and “Hallelujahs”.
It kind of broke the mood for me. Despite external appearances, I suddenly became acutely aware that I wasn’t watching a routine, or a show, or a performance. I was in a church, in the truest sense of the word – a place of religious devotion and blind faith, and where those seated around me truly believed the stuff they were hearing.
They truly believed that it was an act of divine power that had flipped the earth on its axis; and that a virgin woman had given birth to the Son of God; and that a small dry cracker, when placed in the mouth could metaphysically transform into a real sliver of said Son of God’s flesh; and that He quite literally rose from the dead, coming back to life after being crucified in order to heal and absolve us all of our sins.
And, not for the first time, it occurred to me that in our brave new world, where technology is flattening the planet like never before, the particular Good Book you choose to read really doesn’t matter that much anymore. That regardless of whether you are a Jew or a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist, when it comes down to it there are really only two flavours of religion in the modern age.
There are the “faithful”, those who truly believe that an all-powerful, divine presence is out there somewhere, pulling the strings and directing our lives. On Resurrection Sunday it was the Singaporean guy standing next to me in the New Creation Church, fervently singing and praising the Lord and agreeing with everything Pastor Prince had to say. But it could just as well have been a Muslim cleric in Gaza, or a bearded Hasid in New York, or most anyone who, above all, fundamentally believes.
And then there are people like me. Disciples of the church of modern-secularism, who even if they desperately want to believe, just don’t.