Day Three of Happiness by Michael Murphy

Allyson is the CMO at a church that has a CMO. In less careful moments, she refers to the congregation as customers. Never use the c-word, reminds Pastor Marks. Undermining the dignity of worshippers is blasphemy at Maudeville Baptist Church. It destabilizes the continuous improvement model—underlines the mega in megachurch.

This is a less careful moment.

“We’re truly,” Allyson stammers, “truly sorry you’ve had a less than satisfactory experience.” Gripping the wrist of her upheld hand helps stanch a warm downward ooze. Between splayed bloodied fingers, she begins to define a question mark of a man. “You’re one of our most valuable customers.”

It’s clear from his shouted threats—from the terrified prayers of a flock in flight—Darren is dissatisfied. He is also unmoved. He is a rock. He’s found solace—purpose—in the truth. The Vaudeville Baptist Church podcast opened his eyes. It taught him the law of threes. Two in conflict—one that harmonizes. Action and inaction are the competing forces. Truth is the bridge between the two. He has become the truth.

“It’s Darren, right? Darren? Good morning. Hi, Darren. Darren, I’m Allyson. How can we make things right?”

Allyson knows Darren— she’s known him since onboarding.

“How does personal theology inform your approach to mediating disparate viewpoints?” Allyson recalls a preoccupied Pastor Marks fumbling with a set of keys as he asked—the sense of relief when it became clear an answer was not expected. It wasn’t a question. It was a segue.

From the locked top drawer of his desk, Pastor produced a leather-bound burgundy binder with the word Unelected embossed on its cover. Responding to Allyson’s raised eyebrow, he simply said, “worshippers we fear are not among the chosen.” It was a book of names. Each appeared atop handwritten notes and beside a photo. As he continued speaking, Pastor’s finger slowly circled one portrait—a shorn headed and goateed Darren Guidry.

“Legacy members. Inherited faith. Questioning. Quarrelsome. They require special care.” Pastor removed his glasses and wielded them to punctuate each pending syllable with a nippy jab. “But, the damned play a critical role in our success.” Jab. “They’re a highly engaged – highly charitable – segment.” Jab. “Think of them as disgruntled shareholders – vocal, anxious, craving certainty. Just keep them happy in the here and now.” Jab.

Allyson failed to find a shareholder in the highly engaged maelstrom of fire and bombast before her. Darren isn’t invested. He’s not concerned about divine dividends or shopping for some sort of fixed-return indulgence. How can she aspire to organizational excellence on a foundation of flawed metaphor? Her mind is aflutter with needs and motivations; price, quality, choice, convenience.

Episode 2 of Vaudeville Baptist Church, “The Propheteers,” parses the spiritual stick and carrot. When numbed to hellfire, crank up the fun bus. Give rock-n-roll Christ the keys. It’s a happy-clappy joyride to coffee bars and teen zones. To promises, prosperity and appeasement. Visualize a jet ski and He will provide. Allyson is a carrot.

“You’re a carrot,” Darren observes. “A fucking carrot.” He scans the now empty entrance hall. The froyo stand. The selfie crucifix. The gift shop with its luminous displays of Pastor Mark’s pamphlet; The Dark Wood: A Cyber-Survival Guide for the Righteous. Darren has read it. Followed the breadcrumbs. Sixty-six pages. Twelve rules to live by. The pastor’s photo. The positioning of his fingers. The tie. The green tie. The obviousness of it all. Darren wonders if the clip is empty. The SP-01 is still hot in his hands.

Allyson’s April blog post, “Converting the Converted,” takes her followers on a deep dive down the holy sales funnel. Of course, the end goal is always to inspire a church member to act—to give—but retention is the key to turning faith into dollars. Express gratitude. Solicit feedback. Make yourself available. Keep them coming back.

“I… I’m sorry to hear that, Darren. I understand. You’re unhappy that I’m a carrot.” Allyson is unsure if her dropping to a knee is an involuntary collapse or subconscious attempt to elicit sympathy.

“No. No. You’re not hearing me.”

Darren is done being unheard. The ink on his arms, the scrawl on his shirt—inescapable howls of avowal. Outside, a primered F-150 sits propped atop the sidewalk, rumbling loudly and door ajar. Red Pilled. Sheep no more. The Media is the Virus. Bumper sticker baccalaureates slapped on the slider glass to leave a trailing exhaust of fuck you’s. Inside the cabin, a man’s voice booms from the radio. “Why do you think they’re telling us to do this? Think about it. Think! Because they want us to do the opposite…” Darren is done being unheard. Done.

Episode 13 is “Know your M, B, C’s.” It pulls back the curtain. Maudeville Baptist Church—MBC. Middle East Broadcasting Center—MBC. Saudi royal family. Mellon Bank Corporation. Minority business council. Marketing, business, communications. A hidden haji spider web. Where each thread intersects, an MBC. At its heart, the MBC. The black widow. The Riyadh MBC with its subversive sticks and carrots.

“Thank you. Thank you for bringing that to our attention.” Allyson’s outstretched arm wobbles uncontrollably. “I understand, I understand. We’re not hearing you. On behalf of us all here at MBC, I want to thank you for your patience.”

Allyson is exhausted. She arrived on campus before sunrise to prep for today’s work–life balance seminar. The one starting in fifteen minutes. The program will begin shortly after the shooting stops. She stifles an unwanted giggle. Being present in the moment is a work in progress—she’s multitasking mindfulness into her daily commute. From asleep to awake at the wheel.

Backing out of the driveway this morning, Mindsplosion—the soothingly voiced meditation app Pastor Marks frowns upon—announced “Welcome to Day Three of Happiness.” Idling at the light beside Taco Rancho, Allyson learned happiness is about others. That Killer Queso comes free with every Fiesta Meal. That happiness is born of empathy. Sneaking into the empty Visitors Lot, it clicked. Empathy is the key to maximizing spiritual ROI.

“You… you’ve read it?” Allyson motions toward the gift shop with a flick of her chin. Darren nods reluctantly, agitated by any hint of dialogue.

The Dark Wood’s introductory chapter, “Sleeping with the Anomie,” warns of the Internet’s black gravity. It portrays a murky world of mesmerized exiles bonded in their banishment. A world of fantasies and recriminations conjured by outsiders looking in – in their tortured fugue, forever suffering blows or exacting them. Rule number seven; When they strike, strike back—with kindness and compassion.

“Where’s he?”

“He’s everywhere.”

“No,” Darren spits. “The showman, the author. The fucking Imam. Where’s your boss?”

“God’s our boss, Darren.” It’s an instinctive response. “Do you—do you still believe?”

“I know.”

The latest episode of Vaudeville Baptist Church, “The Showman and the Somnambulists,” details Pastor John Marks’ parlor tricks and mesmerism. The lulling to sleep. The imprinting of ailments and neuroses. The dangling of shiny salvation. Forever in and out of reach. The doomed hopelessness when abundance and health elude. The turning of souls against the sacred. The strategy.

“Sorry, what do you know?” Allyson’s question feels forced. The tone a tad performative. A transparent attempt to buy time.

“I know what I know.” Darren gifts a distracted reply. His breathing has become irregular. What is that stalled pause between exhale and inhale? The bite sized void between life-in and life-out? He steadies himself with a recitation. “Entropy is the opposite of coherence.” Closing his eyes, he taps the tip of the pistol against his temple. “Coherence is a byproduct of information.” Tap. “Information is corruptible.” Tap. “We must encourage entropy in systems reliant on corrupt information to avoid deviant coherence.” Tap.

“Sorry, Darren. Sorry. I don’t understand. I don’t know what you want.”

What a rare opportunity. This moment. Darren raises the pistol, pulls the trigger and is met with an empty click.

He has read about this type of silence.

Allyson inhales slowly—one, two, three, four—and releases a long audible exhale. Mindsplosion calls it the breath of fire. She surrenders herself to the floor, allows the earth to support her weight. The marbled tile is cool against her cheek. Feebly, robotically, she mouths the word “namaste.” She wonders if she will die here in the mall.

Please stop calling it the mall, Allyson. Pastor Marks has been insistent. The grand colonnade was dubbed “Solomon’s Porch” at the unveiling. A name that never quite took. The congregation prefers “God’s Lobby.” Ten years of fundraising drives. 17 million dollars. Allyson’s crowning glory. Worse places, she supposes.

Darren floats free from the tether. Arriving sirens cast a colored frenzy across his face—a mask of dancing blues and reds. He stares at Allyson without seeing her. The next episode should be a good one. Secrets revealed and shocking revelations. He wonders if he should have waited.

High above, on the vestibule steeple, a trio of flaxen haired angels hold golden horns aloft. They herald the good news, hovering above a pleading throng locked in frozen agony. The morning sun shines through, projecting an image between a crouched Darren and prone Allyson. And there it is. In the contorted lines and colors, you can clearly make out an Islamic star. You can clearly make out the ichthys. Clearly a mandala. A poop emoji. The Tree of Life. A bitcoin symbol. The minotaur’s labyrinth. An acknowledgment. Assurance. Absolution. Justification. Clearly a clue. Clearly a sign.

Michael Murphy received his B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte before launching a career as a copywriter and eventually co-founding creative agency Battle Medialab. He recently returned to the States after living many years in London where he wrote an award-winning satirical column for the Hampstead Village Voice. You can pester, praise, or throw virtual tomatoes at him @mpmurphy.