The Baobab and the Megachurch

Kate Pickering, artist, writer and PhD researcher at Goldsmiths




Imagine a tree whose roots push out rudely into the upturned blue basin of the sky, whilst it’s branches hide coyly below the earth. This tree is unabashed, brandishing it’s leafless underparts for all to see. If you were to stand on your head, you would see it as it should be, the right way down.


But you still cannot see the branches. For that you would need to plunge into the crusty earth where the branches grow. You would need to be headfirst, soil deep, doing a handstand, legs exposed and flailing, aping the tree. Come, let us be upside down trees together for a while. Let us plunge our heads down and in beneath the cracked earth of an arid land, which darkens as you descend. In the subterranean earth the fissures narrow and merge as moisture binds the soil. You peer around rock fragments, burrowing creatures and the decaying remains of plant and animal matter. Your vision entangles with branches that splay out into the hidden tree crown.


The tree is a structure we will traverse in watery formations, moving from root to branch and branch to root, from the outside bark into the rich sapwood, through the hard heartwood and into the small dark spot of the pith, its cells teeming and lively, and out again. The tree will give us its secrets.


Whilst we are drawn in tight amongst the concealed root-branches I should tell you that this tree is a baobab[1]: say baobab! Baobab babbles through our lips, the name is formed of sounds on the cusp of meaning. The name is also a little upside down and back to front. The mouth echoes the lemniscate, the shape of infinity: the lips move out over the wide bloom of roots and into the tight ’b’ of the trunk’s pith, and out again into the spread of crown. It is also called the tree of life. Outside the tree, the world is sun scorched and parched, inside the swollen trunk is an immense collection of spongy tissue storing up water for the thirsty. The air that surrounds the root-crown mimics the earth that surrounds the crown-roots. The tree is a site for gathering the living, a place where meetings were held by people in search of wisdom: now it is host to a vast and thriving community of variant life forms.


Fig. 1: The Lemniscate

The baobab tree is both heights and planes. It spreads as wide as it grows tall. Its relations are with the earth but also the atmosphere and the networks of the ecosystems it supports and is supported by. We can orient ourselves in the trees roots at a central point, or peer upside down from the roots with dizzying abandon towards a stabilizing ground that is far away. We can look outwards, askance, from the pith, the core of the tree, as the tree pith. We are part of a watery body that moves within the tree. That leeches up-down into the roots and branches from the earth-sky, through the hard heartwood and into the rich sapwood to the small dark spot of the pith, its cells teeming and lively, across the rings, down-up into the branches and roots, and out in the atmosphere-ground. We will move in queer formations.


These queer ‘slantwise’ (Ahmed, 2006) movements are a generative orientation, enabling us to think a different, but analogous structure, one that is hinged to the tree in thought. Queering is needed for a growth which will fractalise outwards, downwards, inwards and backwards and through into other space-times and dimensions. In this wild, weird fruiting, hybrid connections will be made. Some might endure.


This other structure is also heights and planes. It engenders a dizzying verticality from certain viewpoints, and its spread continues to proliferate until it encompasses the known horizon. It is also deeply rooted in both grounding earth and atmospheric sky. It is a building whose foundations stabilise a vast structure, planted not in African plains but deep in humid Texan swampland, close to the fullness of the Bayou. The foundations are concrete but they are also of atmosphere, brought into being by tongues within mouths that speak a story, a story which in its repetition has materialized into a stable ground. Inside the building a colossal air conditioning system branches inside the walls, expelling all moisture. The air is clinically crisp and dry.


But for now we are deep within the tree’s flows, we pass through the xylem cells in an efficient transport system that echoes the human vascular network. We are taken inexorably up by conducting tissues which begins in the roots and extend out into the branches. A negative pressure, extending back down the tree, as vapour leeches off into the atmosphere, creates an anti-gravitational tension down through the xylem pathway.


At this scale of the molecular, the micro is the twin of the mega. Crowds of particles are drawn towards each other, body-molecules touch in limitless interactions.

We are drawn up through the distended trunk of the Baobab tree, bloated with water. The Baobab holds its unseen gallons whilst the earth outside perspires to a hard and unyielding carapace. It lightens to a pale sandstone shade. An arid land causes thirst, and dehydration. The symptoms of dehydration, along with a dryness in the mouth, a swallowing where the tongue sticks to the palate, are weakness, fainting and dizziness. This can lead to disorientation.

The Baobab’s interior collection of spongy tissue, cells ballooning with water, is an excess of possibility.


This watery excess produces lives lived in abundance. Lives that are saturated, that dwell in humid air thick with enchantment. The tree is a body-site, a site-body that fruits many bodies, bodies that are always reproducing and growing, it is a pure fecundity, a fullness that counters emptiness. It is a living house. The Baobab was once “bu hibab”, Arabic for fruit with many seeds. In the heady atmosphere of the damp Baobab trunk we begin to see images of people gathered into clusters emerge, these clusters swell, they crystallise into a vast horizon of bodies, an image of community, an image of togetherness.

In the building, all the bodies form a wealth, a sign of the wellness, the fatness of that community. Communities build and grow, they bulge, become bulbous, outgrow the confines of walls and rooves and parking lots and new buildings have to be built or bought. This spread of bodies, at a certain tipping point, forms an image. It is an image of the mega, of greatness.


The word mega means great, mighty, epic. It is also a prefix denoting the multiple of a million for any given unit. The lemniscate is thought to be a form of the Greek letter omega (ω), the last letter in the Greek alphabet and often used to denote the last, the end, or the ultimate limit of a set, in contrast to the alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. In Revelation 22:13 God declares: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End’. God declares himself an infinity, an infinite greatness.


Beyond and beneath the individual is the infinitesimal. The infinitesimal is a multiplicity: both the mega of the crowd and the micro of the molecular.

Let us trace this tributary of thought, drawing us osmotically outwards into an immersion in the fullness of the megachurch[2].

We descend-ascend now through the ground into this other site. Hidden in the darkness, down past the weak topsoil and into the strong subsoil and rock fragments, the structural slabs of the deep foundation piles are still and enduring. These slabs have been thickened beneath load bearing walls and are reinforced with steel. They sit on top of bell pier piles which penetrate deep into the ground, down past the unstable section susceptible to wetting and into the stable zone. The foundation underpins our monumental tree-building of 606,000 square feet. The structure encircles a fearless community. The foundations of this site are strong, and water tight.


The name of this structure is Lakewood, it is water – lake, and tree - wood, a stadium that grew from a small barnstore in the Lakewood Forest area of North West Houston. The website reads: There is a new generation rising at Lakewood Church, a generation who doesn't believe in limits, and who believes all things are possible. Every week, 47,000 people gather within the vast arena known as the Sanctuary, to hear wisdom, to feel consoled, to find belonging. Gatherings are televised in more than 100 countries, with an estimated 7 million viewers each week, whilst it’s international media broadcast has expanded into over 200 million households in the United States.


Megachurches are described in terms of a phenomenal wellness: ‘thriving’, ‘growing’, ‘flourishing’, ‘prospering’. They are strongly rooted and well-watered. For now they will continue to burgeon and bloom. The megachurch is an entity that has become fat with concentric growth rings of belonging: accountability groups, house groups, clusters, services, conferences, rallies, global networks.

The megachurch is more than the sum of its congregants, its conditions propagate infinities, it aims for a total and global reach. The immersion in an image of an endless, frameless spread of bodies is a tangible sign of the infinity of God.


At the heart of it, in the molecules of the pith, is the individual bodily encounter with this infinity. Micro and mega meet, the borders of the individual are breached.

Belief is produced in the bodies of those who encounter the saturating atmosphere of enchantment. Their eyes search outward, upward to an unseen other, hoping that this other will materialize excessively through pleasure, and through a proliferating wellness of thought and body.


Imagine now being crowded into a space that is so large it is hard to make out the individuals on the other side, where the far walls are barely perceptible. We are amongst the many thousands of bodies filling this vast structure to find belonging. This space is an oval womb, encircled by and bathed in the coolness of air conditioning vents. It is a holding space of curved lines containing the mass of bodies arrayed in rows upon rows of bleachers. In the centre of the stage an 11 foot wide sculpture of the globe, rendered in gold, slowly rotates. On either side streams of water flow over an imitation rock feature. The ceiling is painted black but downlit with multi-coloured LEDs, it resembles the dome of the night sky. The stage is also filling with people. Multiple screens multiply the faces. The waiting bodies reach out, faces upturned, eyes shut, palms open. We feel a presence in the prickling sensation in our skin, in the raised hairs and blood vessels dilating. Our breath quickens and our heart beats rise. The air is dampening, we sweat, our pores producing glistening beads which reflect the auditorium from every angle, the bodies endlessly arriving and joining the crowd. We have become dehydrated. Our mouths are dry, we are thirsty.


But the air is thick with magic.

In the voluptuous atmosphere of watery excess, molecule-bodies seep and return through the porous membranes. But they return with other body-molecules, cycles are repeated and repeated, bodies drawn together. A crowd inexorably grows, it breeches the limits of the trunk, it exceeds the confines of the site. The borders will no longer hold, the water is leeching out from the Baobab’s trunk and into the foundations of the stadium… a saturating atmosphere has drawn water molecules in and they glisten on the skins of the upturned faces and outstretched hands… the atmosphere has become humid, a mist has caused the sharp contours of the room to fade. Condensation fogs the image on the screens. Water is beginning to trickle down walls and the backs of seats. It is snaking its way across the polished acrylic floor of the stage. The carpet in the aisles is darkening as a bloom of water spreads across it. Rivulets gather, currents rise and swell. The lectern gently topples. A body of water is gathering, an epic inundation, soon the water will immerse us all.

Fig. 2 An African Baobab


References


Ahmed, S., (2006) Queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others. Durham: Duke University Press


Baobabs [Online] BBC Nature URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Adansonia Accessed 14.5.18


Baobab [Online] Siyabona Africa URL: http://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_baobab.html Accessed: 14.5.18


Bird, W., (2018) Global Megachurches - World’s Largest Churches [Online spreadsheet] URL: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1YIKShcapvO6LatV5WG7P4XXczuoaw9EAfKv3IMJwXnQ/edit?hl=en_US&pref=2&pli=1#gid=0 Accessed 14.5.18


Canetti, E., (1984) Crowds and Power New York: Farrar Straus Giroux


Goh, R.B.H., (2008) ‘Hillsong and “megachurch” practice: semiotics, spatial logic and the embodiment of contemporary evangelical protestantism’ Material Religion 4, 284–304

[Online] URL: https://doi.org/10.2752/175183408X376665 Accessed 14.5.18


Wade, M., (2016) ‘Seeker-friendly: The Hillsong megachurch as an enchanting total institution’ Journal of Sociology 52, 661–676 [Online] URL: https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783315575171 Accessed 14.5.18


Notes


[1] Baobabs occur in arid areas and store up to 120,000 litres of water in their trunks in order to survive during droughts. Specimens can live to up to 3,000 years old and often have an immense girth – the largest recorded is 47 metres in circumference (the Sunland Baobab in South Africa).


[2] The megachurch is commonly agreed to be a Protestant church of 2,000 congregants or more at weekly attendance, but the largest reach tens, even hundreds of thousands in size. In the US, Lakewood church in Texas gathers 47,000. In South America, the Elim Christian Mission’s weekly community is 50,000 strong in the city of San Salvador. Lagos, in Nigeria is host to numerous megachurches, the largest being Deeper Life Ministry with 65,000 attendees, whilst the Redeemed Church of God has formed its own city campus around a vast metal structure within which 50,000 bodies are galvanized weekly to give glory to God. The largest of all megachurches is in Seoul, South Korea. The services of Yoido Full Gospel Church meet the spiritual needs of 480,000 each week and the membership currently stands at 830,000 (Bird, 2018). Literary theorist Robbie B.H. Goh points out the tendency of megachurches to constantly reinforce their size and to link this to greatness. In a repeated foregrounding of growth as a means to strengthen authority, Goh writes that the megachurch ‘performs the mega or greatness’: ‘Not only in relation to the numerical size of the congregation, but as a tangible and imagistic form of the body of Christ, and of the seemingly inevitable dominance and spread of that body…. The performance of this ambition of “greatness,” enacted in a number of ways and in different media, coalesces into an experience of massive solidity and corporeality, which offers a reassuring presence as a supplement to (if not in lieu of) the experience of the presence of the invisible God’. (Goh, 2008: 296)


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