Crawford Avenue smells like spaghetti.
It’s Friday night and the sun has just set, sucking the last light from downtown Norman. Only late-night cafés and bars illuminate Main Street now.
That, and the multi-colored disco lights boiling over from Crawford.
The streets are eerily empty, kept company mostly by the howling wind. Cars packed with college kids are starting to pass on their way to the next party. Meanwhile, a handful of suits clamor about, heading home after finishing an obligatory business dinner.
Suddenly, people arrive. They step out of their cars, holding tubs of pasta and bottles of beer, and make their way toward Crawford — the downtown side street two blocks from the railroad tracks. With the week’s accumulated stress behind them, they have only one thing on their minds now: church night.
The door to the city’s new venue-turned-church stands ajar. The silence of the street is broken by the deep bass emanating from inside, enticing believers and misfits alike. Painted eyes goggle down at them as they enter the place of worship with colanders on their heads.
Welcome to the First Pastafarian Church of Norman.
* * *
“What if we offer baptisms?” someone suggests.
Eleven out of the around 25 crew members gather in a circle one week before the Norman Music Festival to plan the best way to attract more people to their church that opened last October — the first of its kind.
“Wait, so how exactly would we want to do that? Are we just going with the colander?” their leader asks.
“Yeah, the idea of dipping people in a kiddie pool filled with noodles is gross,” someone else laughs.
It’s decided. Colander baptisms it is.
Pastafarianism, a religion with growing media attention, worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster, believes humans evolved from pirates and that heaven has a Beer Volcano and a Stripper Factory.
The church is a world religion that, according to its website, has existed in secrecy for hundreds of years but just recently entered the mainstream spotlight.
And its entrance is causing quite a commotion.
The baptism that the Norman crew debated is actually a part of a broader Pastafarian tradition. The ceremony consists of holding a colander, preferably gold, over someone’s head and chanting the Pastafarian Commandments, which go something like this:
1. Don’t litter.
2. Wear deodorant.
3. Always shower.
4. Don’t be an asshole.
5. Less upsetti, more spaghetti.
6. Don’t be a meany, eat fettuccine.
“The first night I came here, I was baptized,” said Hannah Anvar, an OU sophomore and now-crew member of the First Pastafarian Church of Norman. “They put a colander over my head, and we did the whole nine yards.”
No one from the church can exactly remember how many commandments there are because they keep adding to it. The latest one that the crew is considering adding is: Always finish your beer.
“We really just add to the list as we need to,” Anvar said. She's been hanging around the church since January, three months after its opening.
Elizabeth Odors and her husband, Sky Oak Red Rock Thomas Aquinas, are also baptized Pastafarians and members of the Norman congregation, not to mention the first couple to have a marriage ceremony in the church.
Odors said her husband got involved with the church through an invitation from a friend. Then she joined. Then they got another friend to join. Then another.
“It’s like a snowball effect,” she said. “Everyone we’ve talked to who’s come, they’ve really enjoyed it because it’s just so laid back and it’s a lot of community and hanging out with like-minded people.”
* * *
Pastafarianism gets served a lot of criticism on its plate, with people claiming it is a satire created simply to mock religion and keep creationism out of public schools. Even on the Norman Pastafarian church webpage, there are comments like:
"I'm not going to play there because it mocks my faith and the Creator of the universe," musician Ed Crunk said.
"This has to be a big joke," Rean Henderson Lackey said.
However, Pastafarianism has already been legally recognized as a religion in Poland, the Netherlands and New Zealand, where the first legally recognized Pastafarian wedding was performed this month. Meanwhile, a federal judge in the U.S. ruled that the church is not a real religion.
OU professor and religious studies scholar Mara Willard disagrees. She looks at Pastafarianism as being something that has strong potential for being taken seriously in her field of study.
Willard has a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and specializes in religious and political thought in many areas.
She said that, although she has a few questions, if she were sending her students to do site visits, she would absolutely support them visiting the Pastafarian church.
“I would take it seriously,” she said, explaining that she doesn’t just see it as just a political movement. “Everything is a political movement. Being a Protestant is political. Being subversive to your tradition is still a political move. The Supreme Court has really been inconsistent in describing what counts as a religion.”
She brought up other examples of once unconventional religions that have actually turned into serious institutions, such as Unitarian Universalism, saying that it started out as a hippie movement but is now highly recognized.
“Not to boil all religions down to the same thing, but people across time and space, they gather together, they eat, they trust each other, they celebrate, they have a sense of what’s constant, and they have a sense of what can change,” she said. “If you just hold that people have to worship God to be a religion, then you end up ruling out, say, Buddhism and even Unitarian Universalism.
“In that case, a group that wants to gather together on Fridays and eat pasta begins to compete,” she said.
* * *
“Fridays are our ‘Holy Nights,’” Josh Babb says, casually sitting on a barstool. He slides his hand over his backwards snapback hat and goes over in his head what else needs to be done before the weekly church meeting.
On the agenda for the night's service: hang out, drink beer, eat spaghetti, enjoy live music and, of course, praise the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Babb is the captain of Norman’s First Pastafarian Church. Once a kid from the East Coast who attended a Catholic high school, he is now the owner of what he believes to be the first established church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in the United States.
He gets up and paces the floor, fixing last-minute things and cracking jokes. He stops only for a minute to welcome the early newcomers who have wandered in.
His crew continues to busily set up the stage around him, rushing between the main room and the back, coiling cables, checking sound systems, preparing pasta. They turn to him whenever they have questions.
“He’s very organized. We would be nothing without him,” Odors said. The others nod along in agreement, remembering aloud how Babb was the one who convinced many of them to join.
“My roommate brought me here first, and I started talking to Josh,” Anvar said. “He invited me to come help out and said I should come be a part of the church because we’re one big family.”
“Ooh, what’s up?” Babb calls out suddenly to some friends that entered the shop. “Hey, do any of you want to be captain tonight? Who wants to be captain? Nose goes?” A loud chorus of laughter follows.
Pastafarians copy pirate ships. Because pirates are sacred beings to Pastafarians, they mimic many of their ideas. “Pirate shipping” means that the church organizes exactly how a crew on a ship would, with a captain and first mate.
No one seems to know exactly how many people make up the Norman crew, and they all jokingly argue over who has what position on the "ship."
“We pirate ship because pirates and global warming are linked,” Babb said. “I think they were the original Pastafarians. Or wait, no that’s wrong.”
“No,” James Jackson, another crew member, chimes in. “There’s a correlation between the steady decline of pirates and the rise of global warming.”
Suddenly, everyone joins in on the conversation, debating who were the most sacred Pastafarian people.
“The first humans that were intellectually designed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster were very, very short,” Babb said with a smile. “They were small because there were more of His noodles to go around and push down on the population. That’s how gravity works.”
“You can see as human population increases, so too does average height,” he continued. “That’s because there are just less noodles for the Flying Spaghetti Monster to hold us all down. Scientists will tell you it’s gravity holding you down on the planet, but really it’s His noodles.”
Everyone laughs, and Babb finally says: “They felt his presence much more strongly back then. That’s just a little bit of allure.”
* * *
While all Pastafarians have a sense of humor about it, they say they still believe that Pastafarianism is a true religion and value its beliefs.
“Being a Pastafarian is mostly just about accepting people for who they are and being like, 'You can do whatever you want, just be a good person.' That’s the only rule,” Odors said. “You can be Christian and a Pastafarian, if you want. You can believe in both values, theoretically.”
While the national Pastafarian leader, Bobby Henderson of Oregon, has tried to oppose one teaching of Creationism in public schools, Pastafarians say they pose no threat to Christianity, or any other religion.
The idea that Pastafarianism is trying to oppose established religions is widespread and seems to be why many reject it.
However, Willard, the OU professor, believes more questions should be asked before anyone actually begins taking offense to Pastafarianism.
“I feel like if they’re just trying to wear a colander on their head and have their driver’s license picture taken just to prove that religious garb is sort of ridiculous, then I’d be more irritated with them,” she said. “As a scholar of religion, I’d want to know what do they think they’re doing constructively instead of just to undermine teaching creationism in schools.”
“But there are also people that have deeply felt loyalties to Christianity and Judaism and other religions, and they really don’t want to have their church be considered just silliness,” she said. “They do want to uphold some kind of place in society that is respected as a source of values and tradition. It’s really difficult to draw those lines.”
Meanwhile, the First Pastafarian Church stands, cooking a new kind of community in Norman. Crawford Avenue, once desolate, now draws small crowds. And the church is there, its front window painted over with a giant mural, mimicking Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” In its center, in all his glory, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rules.