Have you ever felt like an alien? I was in Las Vegas last week and I felt like an alien.
We went down to the Strip to look at the dancing fountains and get the Mr. Lucky’s $7.77 steak special, which turned out to be the Mr. Lucky’s $9.99 steak special because we weren’t members of the “Hard Rock Hotel’s Frequent Gambler’s Club.” The club was free to join, except for the part about selling your soul to the Devil. But maybe we had already sold our souls — we were in Vegas, after all. I asked the young, facially decorated waiter if they could turn down the music a bit, or switch it over to something a little mellower, but I’m not sure he got the joke.
If anybody ever went to Vegas “just for the articles,” it was us. Air fare was cheap. We landed and promptly left town — drove to Death Valley, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and Red Rock. We hiked and climbed and photographed. But we used Vegas like a hub, stayed in cheap casinos when we could, and took advantage of the meal “deals.” I didn’t wager a single dollar. Other persons in our sextet may or may not have wagered up to 6 dollars.
It’s pretty easy for a church boy like me (whose father said putting a quarter in a pinball machine was gambling) to feel like an alien in Las Vegas. It is, after all, Las Vegas. Sin City. “What happens here, stays here.” It’s a city of indulgence. Swim with sharks, drive a Ferrari around a track 5 times ($600.00), eat at a buffet that cost 17 million dollars to build (Caesar’s Palace), see a show, have a quickie marriage, and party, party, party. And yes, you can still gamble here, though that’s hardly exotic anymore. I’m sure your governor is, at this very moment, hoping you’ll go down to your corner Quickie Mart and buy a lottery ticket. But Vegas is still gambling Mecca. Despite the current economic crunch, people still happily leave about 20 billion dollars a year at the casinos.
Sorta “happily.” According to the billboards and commercials, people really enjoy gambling; a young, attractive, happy woman sits at the slot machine surrounded by her young, attractive, happy, and racially diverse friends. They are all smiling. It’s not so pretty in real life. Of course, we weren’t staying at the opulent Bellagio (filled with the uber-rich) or the glamorous Cosmopolitan (filled with supermodels, no doubt) — we were staying at a wal-marty “big box” casino well off the strip. The people at our casino looked ordinary (frumpy, overweight, middle-class,) and they didn’t seem very happy. Most sat alone, empty-eyed and bored, repeatedly tapping a button (you don’t have to pull a lever anymore), trying to earn more credits (you don’t win real coins anymore). Sometimes you’d see a neurotic leg bouncing up and down, and once in awhile one of the slot-zombies would take a drag from her cigarette or drink her free gin and tonic or whatever you drink at 7 in the morning. Even the people at the bar seem depressed. Instead of drinking and conversing, they are drinking and staring blankly into keno or video slots built right into the bar. The off-track betting area is a little different. Men (mostly) sit with newspapers, charts, notebooks, and pencils, intently watching sports on a two story wall of big screen TVs. Those guys didn’t look bored, they look worried. There’s lots of neurotic leg bouncing over there. The people at the roulette table seemed happy — laughing and carrying on — but they were drunk out of their minds.
And then there’s Vegas sensuality. I have a friend who tried to plant a church in Vegas and he said the city isn’t really about gambling — it’s about sex. “Gentlemen’s clubs,” escorts, show girls standing on the strip asking, even though I’m clearly in the company of my wife, “Want to take your picture with me?” And the streets are filthy. They are are littered with pornography — brochures and cards and flyers advertising strip clubs and brothels. Homeless people and illegal aliens shove these in your face. Unsuspecting tourists take them, and then, seeing what they were given, drop them (mostly). Nude women carpet the sidewalks and streets.
They don’t feature that kind of stuff in the glitzy TV commercials. A few years ago Vegas tried to sell itself as a family vacation destination, but it bombed. Now they sell naughty.
I kept looking to the hills surrounding Vegas, thinking, “surely somebody has built a big alabaster statue of Lot’s wife, frozen forever, looking back over her shoulder.” What’s more likely is that some Christian TV celebrity with more money than theology is planning to open a “Christian Casino” so we can give Christians a G-rated place to gamble (little crosses and statues of the virgin Mary on the slots — 777 could remain the winning sequence, I suppose). Ug. I probably shouldn’t suggest it.
Please don’t get me wrong — I did not feel like an alien in Las Vegas because I’m somehow squeaky clean and righteous. I’m not. We are all a couple bad decisions away from disaster. And I’m sure much of my discomfort is just culture, not spiritual maturity. I’m sure, for instance, that part of my antipathy for gambling is that I’m just cheap. I’m sure Christians who say they feel comfortable in Vegas probably just say, “We don’t do the sinful stuff. We only gamble for fun and we go to the good shows, like Blue Man Group.”
I’m not confident we should trust the judgement of anybody who thinks the Blue Man Group is a good show, and if you can gamble recreationally and the 10th commandment doesn’t even enter your mind (the commandment about coveting), well, I’m not sure what to say.
But the sins of Vegas and my discomfort at being there were not the primary reason I was bothered. I was not worried that I would suddenly yield to temptation and go blow the family nest egg at the craps table or run off with with a cocktail waitress. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t do either of those things. What was bothering me was that I felt like an alien in Las Vegas, but that I knew that as soon as I got back to Rochester, I wouldn’t. What was bothering me was how comfortable I feel most of the time — going to the movies, sitting in a coffee shop, walking through the isles at Wegmans, sitting in a club listening to an Irish folk band, or driving through a blighted neighborhood on my way to the public market. The subtext of Vegas (it’s hardly a subtext) is so debauched that I think any thoughtful Christian should feel uncomfortable. But doesn’t scripture teach fairly plainly that we are to be be aliens and exiles all of the time? Doesn’t scripture teach that we are citizens of a different Kingdom?
It does. I think that means that this “in the world, but not of it” dialectic should create some discomfort, some cognitive dissonance; some kind of ambivalence about our habits, lifestyles, values, and our engagement with the world.
Before I go too much further, let me say that I don’t accept the position that there is a secular world (and it’s bad) and a sacred world (and it’s good), or the idea that pleasure, recreation, and excitement are sinful. I think all of God’s creation is God’s, and all of it is good, and He is the author of taste buds, music, and visual stimulation. He is also the author of that feeling you get in your stomach on the first drop of a really awesome roller coaster. If God didn’t want us to enjoy ourselves, he wouldn’t have made living so enjoyable! And we can enjoy him (worship him) everywhere, not just in a drafty Gothic cathedral with a boys choir. I think when we scrambled to the top of the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley and breathed in the miraculousness, we were worshiping.
But that doesn’t mean “anything goes.” Jesus isn’t just some kind of condiment; a salt that we sprinkle on an otherwise godless life. We get to go clubbing, but we wear our Ichthus t-shirt, or we spend our vacation in our villa on the French Riviera, but we don’t swear. I hope the aforementioned Christian casino idea is too ridiculous to even think about, but I get anxious when I hear about Christian theme parks, or Christian cruises, or Christian whatevers.
I don’t take much stock in formulas, so don’t expect one from me. There is probably already a blog or website somewhere with a questionnaire that helps you calculate your “alienicity,” and I’m sure it’s a disaster. One-size-fit’s-all edicts about Christian piety usually result in a whole set of legalisms about what you can drink, what kind of swimsuit you can wear, and whether or not you should use electricity on Sunday. I think the Amish have a wonderful two-Kingdom theology that has made them a living testimony of forgiveness and the mercy of God. Being an alien is central to being Amish. But maybe they prove that you can work too hard on the distinctives. They rejected worldliness and sought plainness and simplicity so fervently that they have turned themselves into a spectacle. People travel from all over the world to gawk at their plainness. (Don’t become Amish. You couldn’t read my blog.)
But certainly the alternative isn’t complete cultural assimilation. Everybody probably knows that we shouldn’t be opening Christian crack houses, but does being a member of the Kingdom of God transform our hearts and desires enough that we find ourselves chaffing at the culture in any way? Or is the only thing different about us the fact that we spend one hour a week in church (listening to the hipster praise band while we drink a mocha latte and adjust the collar on our Calvin Klein shirt)?
I lived in Kenya for a while. I was an alien then. After being there a few months, they even made me go to the embassy and get an “Alien Certificate.” I’m bonafide. Things were different there. We drove on the wrong side of the road, the honey tasted like the bees were angry, and the milk tasted like the cow had been standing in the sun too long. I should add that the people were wonderful, the bush incredible, and the pineapple unimaginable. But more than anything, I think I felt like an alien because as amazing as Kenya was, I just sorta wanted to go home. I wanted to go home when I was in Vegas, too, but I should always have that feeling — even now, when I’m actually at home, laying on my couch typing. We are visitors. We are foreigners. I’m not exactly sure what that should mean for you. I’m not exactly sure what that means for me. But if you find yourself feeling a little out of place, it might be a healthy thing, and you might ask God what you should do about it.
By the way, we did see some churches in Las Vegas. Turns out there are over 800 of them. And I’m sure the Christians there feel a bit conflicted, since they know that the economic well-being of the city and their economic well-being are tied together: “If vice does well, we do well.” But one of my fellow travelers said, (and I paraphrase) “the city is filled with needy people — lonely people — addicted people. There was a church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a mess. Isn’t Las Vegas a great place for a church?” I think that’s a sound analysis.