I’ve been focused on finishing the semester and writing the bulk of a book on worship design that will serve as the text for one of my fall classes, so blogging has taken a back seat in the past months. Some of the thoughts coming out of this book have given me great blog post ideas, but the content keeps ending up in the book. Nothing inspires focus and priorities like a deadline. That being said, I had an experience in a service I designed and led yesterday that has stuck with me and needs to be written about.
Contemporary worship has long been slighted for the absence of intellect in favor of emotion. Lack of structure and connection to any time but the present have also been common, and fair criticisms. The early days of CCM during the 1980’s inspired the 7-11 song style as a reaction to what was perceived to be an overly complex and irrelevant worship tradition. The function of music in revival-inspired worship has often centered around exciting adoration songs, communion, and intimacy with the Savior. With these limited themes and simple, emotional appeals, their ability to connect with the diversity and complexity of liturgical functions and calendar was minimal. A lot about the landscape of worship songs has changed, and most of it has been for the better since those early, reactionary days. Emotion and hook still trump depth and variety of themes in many cases, but the latter have and continue to improve.
This, and a lot more, led up to yesterday’s service. It was Ascension Sunday, which sets up Pentecost Sunday a lot like Palm Sunday does Easter. Ascension Sunday marks the end of the time Christ spent with the disciples after his resurrection. It’s like that brief time when a couple that had decided to get divorced, get back together for a few weeks, but ultimately, someone leaves for good. That leaving is Ascension Sunday, and it’s worth noting that the central story in the sermon was about how our pastor felt the day her dad, after having gotten back together with her mom following a divorce, told her he was leaving for good. I get that Jesus told them he was coming back, and that they probably expected it to happen before they died, but everyone standing there died waiting like everyone else who has ever lived since. He just left.
You can start a story there, but you (or at least we at my church) can’t just start there. We began with the adoration and celebration worshippers expect and God deserves. We bridged the gap from expected to unexpected over time. We recited the Apostles Creed, because it helps us see beyond ourselves on communion Sundays like this one. And we followed that creed with a two-song set that painted the picture of this “time between times” that the Ascension signaled. Desert Song lyrics do so with images of hot and dry land, while Oceans lyrics have us treading water, praying for dry land. This dichotomy isn’t unlike the duality often expressed in lines of psalms that say the same thing in two different ways. In both songs, the response is to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to bring praise.
The sermon outlining the story of being left followed. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of hearing a forty-something professional recount what it felt like to be left by her dad, but there was nothing impersonal about the liturgy through those eyes. We responded with communion and by singing Aaron Keyes’ Sovereign Over Us. Here we recall both fire and water and sing:
Your plans are still to prosper.
You have not forgotten us.
You’re with us in the fire and the flood.
In our closing song, 10,000 Reasons, we committed that, “whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes.”
Words matter, but they don’t encapsulate meaning. I’m often annoyed by bad songs with the right words being used just because they convince those who so love words (especially theologians) of their fit. But if you know these songs, you know how familiar they are to so many people right now and how singable the choruses are. They found the balance of words and meaning for us in a way that I’ve rarely led. In a year, they will be in a different place in the popular worship ether. Ascension Sunday will come again, but we may be singing a new song.
I wanted to write about this because I wanted to raise an Ebenezer blog to a worship design that fully embodied the emotion of now songs with the timelessness of ancient liturgy. I’d love to take credit for this much forethought, but I’ve thought more about the design after experiencing it than I did in planning it. If I hadn’t forwarded this Huffington Post article entitled “And then He was gone” early Sunday morning, my pastor wouldn’t have reworked the core of the sermon around her story just hours before preaching. If you’re keeping score, she took a last minute chance, and I had a couple happy accidents in song selection. The stars aligned and the liturgy came to life in a new way for a sleepy little Methodist church in Salado, Texas.
Late night television has reclaimed a spotlight in recent days as Jimmy Fallon took over the Tonight Show and Seth Meyers replaced Jimmy in the later time slot. Together with SNL, the changes in these two programs mean Lorne Michaels will produce twelve hours of weekly content for NBC, making him one of the most powerful producers in television today. SNL has always been one of my favorite shows, and as much as I like Conan O’Brien, Jimmy shows all the signs of answering the call in ways O’Brien couldn’t. Given this, it’s hard to question Michaels’ deserving this power, regardless of his politics.
Michaels has always been fairly outspoken politically and clearly identified with the Democratic Party and liberal ideals. To me, his identification has ventured beyond the standard tolerance expected of powerful entertainers to advocacy for specific figures and ideals. Granted, SNL skewers both sides of the aisle, but Michaels has removed all doubt as to his personal leanings, and he’s done so on air. One doesn’t have to go looking for answers on his blog (he doesn’t appear to write one) or more personal sources. He shows his cards on one of the longest running television programs in American history. Even his recent interview in New York magazine, in which he asserts that Republicans take his jokes while Democrats take them personally could be interpreted as more of an indication that Democrats view him as one of them more than Republicans do. Given MSNBC’s political leanings, NBC Universal would have a difficult time making a case for being more red than blue, so it’s not surprising that Michaels has found a home there for so long. Again, let me stress that he produces great content, and for that, he probably deserves every opportunity he has been afforded.
The guest lists certainly support Michaels’ politics. Some of Jimmy Fallon’s most memorable sketches have featured Michelle Obama, and Meyers hosted Joe Biden in his first days on air. Meyers’ friend Amy Poehler went on before Biden and remarked about how exciting it was that “the gorgeous, charm monster, Joe Biden is here.” While there was some tongue in cheek to the phrase, she gave no indication of it being a joke and nodded in acknowledgement to the crowd’s excited applause at the announcement. While I am as troubled by the poor taste exhibited by critics of politicians as anyone, raucous applause to Biden described as a gorgeous charm monster is pandering.
By contrast, CBS’s David Letterman has made far greater attempts to remain independent and is registered as such politically. His style is very different from Fallon’s or Leno’s, featuring more biting sarcasm and a more cantankerous way, especially during obligatory Hollywood fluff interviews. Letterman is probably by most accounts less likable than Fallon or Leno, but I contend that he is, perhaps in his less-likability, more authentic and more valuable a voice for the common good, if not more valuable for advertising’s bottom line.
Certainly we could view this politicizing of late night television as a continuing of the politicization of all things, but that doesn’t mean it should go unnoticed. Admittedly I have not analyzed the ratio of right and left leaning jokes on any of these shows, so this is more of a call for further scrutiny than a specific indictment of content. Still I wonder if in order to gain a voice one has to choose a side as an entertainer or artist. I’ve always wondered what The Daily Show would have looked like if Jon Stewart had maintained the objectivity he showed in the first season after taking over for Kilborn. As much as I love his show, he has shown his cards as having chosen a side. His comedic talent allows him to get away with it while admonishing others for partisanship. Questions being raised about the tone and content of Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympics (loudly amplified by late night comedies) are worth considering as well.
The last thing I’m calling for is a Right-leaning equivalent to the Tonight Show or the Daily Show. I remember what it was like to be in ministry in LA as Mel Gibson “played the evangelical machine like a bad violin” according to a personal friend among the influential pastors involved. Gibson parlayed the move into $611,899,420 at the box office for a film that cost $30,000 to make. Mark Burnett has bellied up to the trough with his impending Son of God film that has just cut the strikingly Obama-inspired actor who played Satan. I haven’t seen it, but can’t help but wonder how one removes what seems like a pretty important character in post-production. At the same time, the artistic license taken with the portrayal of the lead character in Noah is clearly being reportedly rejected by “important voices” within the Christian community. Whether this is a smear campaign between two flicks looking to make some money from Bible enthusiasts or not, the fact that such a powerful part of the faith community requires movies to be period pieces or prosperity gospel-inspired, Kinkade paintings on film (as in the case of Facing the Giants and other similar movies) in order to gain approval is an even more troubling message than the politicizing of late night television. Metaphor is an endangered species in places where it should flourish.
Some might argue that I’m making too much of this, and that movies and talk shows are just entertaining commodities. The truth is, they are vital arenas for commentary and moral narrative, even when relying upon the support of advertising. On the other hand, history suggests the best way to silence a hungry, dangerous voice isn’t to boycott it. It’s far more effective to sign it to a lucrative contract. One need only consider the history of the American entertainment industry or African politics for evidence. A society whose arts are politically bought and paid for is no less endangered than one whose journalists are. One in which both have been, God help us.
Like a lot of evangelicals raised during the culture wars, I love movies and television and have come to see them as important avenues for spiritual formation. They serve as distraction and escape for me as well, but most of what I watch is in an effort to challenge myself and the systems I am a part of. That’s the kind of art I most enjoy sharing, so it isn’t any surprise that it’s the kind I most enjoy.
A few nights ago I watched Philomena, a film I’ve been waiting to see but hadn’t had the opportunity. If you know me and my family, you’ll understand both why I wanted to see it and why it was hard to find the right time. The time that emerged for me was one that turned the movie into more than just a challenge. It made Philomena more like a hot iron cauterizing an open wound. Not what I may have wanted (though I chose freely to watch it), but exactly what I needed.
I’ll assume you know the basic story, but if you don’t, I recommend Meredith Holladay’s account here. I knew from Charlie Rose’s interview with Steve Coogan that the movie didn’t have a simple ending, so I wasn’t surprised. There is no justice in the film for those who wrongly accused Sixsmith or for the lone surviving nun who profited on the sale of the baby’s of unwed teen mothers. The dramatic confrontation shines a blinding light on so much that had been hidden and searched for throughout the movie. But those of us who were hoping for the wrong to be punished (which seems to be everyone but Philomena) and an apology from the offender were only given a closer look into the hate that had fueled the offense. While we can only guess at Martin’s future thoughts about the Church and potential for justice in this world, Coogan seems to guard against any hope for that.
No character gets what they want. No one. It’s fair to say the audience (if they can be generalized) doesn’t either. Given the lack of satisfaction and justice, we rightly ask if there is any redemption. We could be tempted to see this as another post-modern tale, lacking any redemption. But I think we would be wrong to do so. We could assert that Philomena’s youthful indiscretion, though admittedly unwitting given her lack of knowledge about sexuality at the time, was redeemed by her choice to forgive even those who refused to confess their own offenses. But she stops short of confessing at the country church. Was she intending to confess her sexual encounter? We never see her confess it at any other point. Given her ignorance, one could assert that she didn’t sin at all, and that her pain was at the thought of confessing that an act that created her son was a sin. I’m not sure. What do you see in this?
Regardless of her guilt or innocence, we cannot dispute the fact that she models the very forgiveness of the God she believes in. One that does so without expecting justice in this poor world. While we don’t know of any change in Sixsmith, we do see peace, though not without deep pain, in Philomena. We see her surrounded by wolves, while delighting in the simple gifts of life. How profound that someone robbed of their only son can delight in things most dismiss as frivolous.
Yesterday I submitted a proposal for Young Baptists in the Academy, a program that invites young scholars to speak at Oxford. If last year’s proposal is any indication, I’ll be in Temple this summer. But how can I be anything but thankful for rejection, given the life-affirming pain it brings? Anyway, the topic is on answering dystopia. My money is on Meredith Holladay to get it, if she submitted a proposal. The premise of my proposal was that the design of Christian worship should be to answer dystopia, and one of the aspects of that design is the modeling of forgiveness in worship. Even if there proves to be no God, the design of worship that, among other things, reminds people of their need to forgive and their need to be forgiven, is a design that will bring about human flourishing. In some ways I think the task is even more difficult for those in liturgical communities, who can take the sacrament of confession for granted. If we believe the wisdom of the Bible, injustice is no justification for dystopia.
As much as those of us, all of us, who lie wounded on the battlefield, want the comfort of a soft touch and a gentle kiss, we will surely die by morning without the pain of a hot coal on our infected lips. It isn’t what we want, but it is what we need. Pain reveals life where numbness hides death. Those who choose the pain of forgiveness live in freedom. Those who reject the pain of forgiveness die a thousand deaths and spread their necrosis for as long as they roam the earth. How noble and redeemed are they who daily choose to live among and love these zombies. Zombies like me. As I write this, I am fully convinced that I am the forgiving Philomena, the doubting and hurt Sixsmith, and even the calcified nun. Please forgive me.
I’ve written several posts likening worship to eating for this blog, and I will no doubt write more in the future. It’s a meaningful lens through which to see two of humanity’s most natural and universal experiences. Today I’d like to view music and food similarly. On my ten-minute commute this morning (small jab at my LA and SF friends), it occurred to me that my musical diet has been out of balance lately. I tend to go through eating and listening phases. I’m yet to determine whether it’s a sign of immaturity or wisdom. Sometimes the focus of a phase settles in to my standard rotation, and sometimes it remains an occasional fixation. Regardless, I’ve neglected music that means so much to me in an effort to explore new tastes lately.
Two nights ago, I had the rare chance to actually “dine in” at one of my favorite restaurants here in Temple, Saigon Café. If you live here and don’t know the place, you should. It’s the closest thing I've found to my beloved Bangkok Sapphires, the little Thai place I called home when I was a bachelor in LA. Crouching over a steaming bowl of Pho as my eyes water from the spices purifies my soul. For me, it was $8 well spent. They deserve more for their art, but I am thankful that I can afford it. I couldn’t afford what I watch Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern eat (though I am so thankful for the technology to share in their experiences). I suppose one could say that not being able to afford a ticket to La Scala, Lincoln Center, Disney Hall, or the Cathedral of Notre Dame is a similar limitation, but I contend it is a lesser one.
I can’t cook like those at Saigon Café or Miller’s (trust me West Coast friends, you should be jealous of Miller’s), and I can’t perform the works at the halls I mentioned above. But I can, sitting in my office or my car, consume and be fed by some of the most amazing sounds humanity has ever recorded. Technology’s democratization of access to this music has put these sounds at my fingertips for less than the already unfair price of a bowl of Pho. I struggle with the ethical and moral implications of that privilege, and all who value art (or humanity, for that matter) should rightly be concerned about this. I am convicted by the opportunity I have, but I am more convicted by how I squander it.
For those in my Intro to Church Music class, you will recall my challenge to you from Monday when I confronted your complaints about the high price of higher education. I, like you, complained about it (and am still paying for it every month). I, like you, resembled so many consumers of higher education who “hoped to get less than I paid for” by rejoicing at cancelled classes and easier profs. I hope you will learn from my mistakes and get your “revenge” on the high price by squeezing every bit of wisdom from the experience you can. That’s up to you.
Taylor Lofton (one of our freshman church music majors) will recall how I pointed out that every person I’ve ever asked the question, “What kind of music do you listen to?” invariably responds, “I listen to all kinds of music,” only to then list a typically narrow list of artists. It’s the equivalent of saying you eat all kinds of food, only to recount how predictable your eating habits are. The difference between eating and listening is that we have the opportunity that no people in the history of civilization have had to enjoy music, the “food of love” as Shakespeare asserted in the Twelfth Night. I hope you will join me in my challenge to see that my enjoyment of this food stewards it well and doesn’t, when we come to die, “discover that we have not lived.”
I have been thinking a lot about the role of confession in worship lately, both in my ministry and my teaching. I’ve always been compelled by the Isaiah 6 model, but have found it difficult to convince free church congregations of the importance of confession in corporate worship. If we follow Isaiah, confession comes right on the heels of adoration. While this is completely natural, if we consider the relational dynamic of coming before God (surely we are struck both by his holiness and our fallen nature), it doesn’t fit the standard contour of a praise set. The euphoria of praise is immediately undone by phrases like “Lord, have mercy,” and, “We are a people of unclean lips.” Sometimes, I’m not convinced that the Isaiah model works, in this case. On the other hand, if we proceed with opening the word and seeking truth without acknowledging our sin, aren’t we modeling a certain kind of dysfunction, or conflict avoidance? I’m open to suggestions about the placement of confession, but I struggle with its removal, because I’m not sure how we are reinforcing it in other avenues of church community. What occurred to me this past week was how vital the modeling of confession is to our relationships with people, a sentiment Christ reinforced in the Sermon on the Mount when he challenged us to leave our offering and seek forgiveness before bringing it to the altar. Even if one rejects the notion of a higher being, the modeling of forgiveness in a weekly ritual is both brilliant and practical for human flourishing.
Another thing that occurred to me was a connection between forgiveness and creativity. Much of this comes from my experience in music schools, but the principle applies beyond our field. If you venture into a music building on a college or university campus, you will no doubt find a series of small confessionals known as practice rooms. Here, musicians seclude themselves, blocking out the outside world, alone in a room with nothing more than their talents and limitations to keep them company. I always saw this as a beautiful fight, where I would hack away at my limitations until my arms were too tired to swing. Sometimes my enemy was visibly weakened. Sometimes, he seemed stronger than when we started. It was those times when I had to remember the victories of battles before, and that his army had relinquished territory that I once thought was unconquerable. There are two kinds of musicians, those who are honest about what they cannot do, and those who lie to themselves and others. While fixating on weaknesses can be debilitating, only the honest thrive. Those who refuse to acknowledge their sins are bound by them.
I recently had the chance to spend a couple of days with some scholars and artists from a great university. The experience was humbling and invigorating. As much as we think our aspirant colleagues are the Goliaths to our David, time with them inevitably reveals how they too are Davids to yet another Goliath. I spoke with them about the promising future represented by the weakened state of so-called Christian Music. My closing thought was a reminder that the loss of a powerful label often brought with it great freedom and the opportunity for authenticity. I also spoke about Medieval liturgical structure and the importance of confession and the Eucharist as a reminder of the incarnational reality of the “meat” that was sacrificed for our survival. Being there, I saw first hand how their powerful environment and intense scrutiny, while supportive of a high standard, also stigmatized mistakes. The words of Ken Robinson’s TED talk came to mind often. He asserted that while being wrong wasn’t the same thing as being creative, if we aren’t prepared to be wrong, we will never be creative. It’s a sentiment Harvard’s Stephanie Paulsell echoed in her address to Georgetown College’s Re-Imagining Faith Conference a few weeks ago, when she advocated for bold experimentation in worship and spiritual formation. Just this morning a friend from LA shared this article from The Guardian about an artist’s decision to leave NYC for LA because of the freedom to fail that was afforded artists on the West Coast.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the hurdles to evangelicals embracing creativity as an attribute of spiritual maturity is our loss of confession in worship. What more effective enemy of creativity is there than legalism? In a field like church music, seen by some as a lesser pursuit than ones like musicology, theory, and performance, perhaps we are in need of embracing the very forgiveness and inherent creativity that has been central to our field throughout history as we face an uncertain academic future. And if the powerful labels elude us, may we seize our Davidic opportunity to embrace the “smooth stones” of authenticity, creativity, and our prophetic identity as artists so that we may slay the Philistine where he stands.
If worship is always, then what is complete awareness of worship is always?
I have been challenged by Steve Garber’s call to sing songs based on the truest of truths that the whole world can understand. Clearly, we now realize that it doesn’t look like this. How is it that Dr. Garber’s call seems most difficult for the one song that Scripture assures us that we all sing?
I am persuaded by the words of Harold Best that No one doesn’t worship, but somehow the perspective of David Foster Wallace in This is Water (especially at 18:00) was a crucial bridge to the place where “the whole world can understand.”
If not always, when?
Only when we confess with our lips? What then of confession without sincerity? Surely the mouth cannot be trusted with such an important thing. Even those of us who have confessed have seen our faith ebb and flow. When were we worshiping and not worshiping?
Only by those who know God? Who among us knows God? Is that not a constant process that, like our faith, ebbs and flows? Surely this is an unreachable place for such a fundamental thing.
If worship is always, then our call is to awareness. To consciousness. And by that, transcendence. To breath it in. Swim in it. And to know that we all breath, and swim. At our closest to God and to His Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven, we know and share this truest of truths.
The notion of an Evangelical Left has become more and more common among grassroots conversations about religion and politics as of late. David Swartz gave a compelling lecture at Gordon College last month entitled, “Evangelical Left: Oxymoron of Opportunity” that, among other things, opened my eyes to the work of journalist and author Rod Dreher. Rod and I share several story points, including a similar devolution from big cities to small Southern towns. While Rod and I both found the community and home we had both fought so hard to leave as young men, I would add a discovery that I’m yet to hear from him (though he may have well experienced the same in St. Francisville as I have in Temple). The discovery I am referring to is of the Evangelical Left hiding in plain site among what is widely believed to be the heart of the Religious Right.
I was raised in the South during the Jesus Movement, which means notions like Christian music, Culture Wars, and identification with the Republican Party as inherently Christian were the context into which I was born. My dad came to faith as a young man, though his own father was antagonistic toward faith and, as it turns out, toward my father as well. As I understand, dad left home at fifteen largely because of this. I mention this because dad passed on the context of evangelicalism he discovered as a young man. My mom, on the other hand is from a long line of Baptists, so she inherited a faith that was more balanced in its perceptions of “in, not of” than my father’s newly discovered faith. As I write this, I wear my papaw Laughrun’s (her dad) 1943 class ring from East Tennessee State University, when it was still a teacher’s college. Papaw died when I was a freshman in high school after many years of work at Campbell University, so he looms large as something of a mythical character for me. So large, in fact, that I prefer not to know the real him, in some ways. Because the mythical papaw represents the forgotten past that I see emerging in what is being called the Evangelical Left, but my papaw would have called Baptist. See, as much as the label Baptist has become an albatross for many in recent decades (sometimes for good reason), a longer view of its history shows that it is, like so many labels, much more than its press suggests. But that is another post for another day.
If you want to stare into the face of true goodness, the best place to find it is deep in the ruins of the greatest evil. Think about it, don’t our greatest stories of triumph emerge from within the most imposing tides of loss? Even within our own lives, don’t we discover our greatest hope wrapped in our deepest affliction? As much as logic, or my fight or flight reflex may tell me otherwise, I know I am closest to God when I am most aware of my fallen nature and hopelessness.
So why am I surprised to have found, after years of running from my Southern and Baptist roots that when I returned home, there were faces of hope against the tyranny that had hurt me so long ago? Here are those who remember the Baptist of my papaw and those who, having been raised in the plastic bubble of the ironically named Church Growth Movement, long for something that another fog machine or voter’s guide will not provide. Both are here, waiting to see what might become of what Swartz questions as an “Oxymoron or Opportunity.”
I “ministered” (a term I despise because it is an affected way of describing something very natural and normal) on the West Coast for over a decade, as well as in major universities, places deemed The Land of the Lost by my upbringing. The most difficult places to “reach people,” yet another affected term for such a normal thing. When I was there (and had my eyes open to it), I was surrounded by people hungry for the very meaning the Gospel had to offer. Compared to the Bible Belt, the West Coast and higher education are child’s play. Mother Theresa found her place in the slums of Calcutta. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement. For those who believe in the ideals Swartz articulated in his lecture, you will find them deep in the soil where their antithesis builds its house.
It is fitting for a person who grew up in the town where Kennedy Space Center is located to quote Kennedy here, especially given that we are just three days from the 50th anniversary of his assassination in the very state where I sit writing this. On a sweltering September 12, 1962 at Rice University he charged:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
I’m struck by the symbolism of the date September 12 and of another emerging era of exploration and of uncertainty. Unlikely as it seemed, its time and place had come. Unlikely as we who may believe ourselves to be, it is the very scars from injustice that prepare us to do that which is hard. There is nothing new under the sun for a people whose Savior is the unlikeliest of heroes and whose work is done by the unlikeliest of people in the unlikeliest of places in the unlikeliest of times.
In my class on CCM last spring, we discussed the Scriptural wisdom of Amanda Palmer’s recasting of how artists can depend upon their fans in her TED talk. The talk was my first introduction to her, but the controversy surrounding her song about an Oasis fan who has an abortion stood out from the other controversies detailed on her Wikipedia page. The video of the song is here. I should tell you that it includes a satirical scene involving an abortion, but the satire is aimed at the cavalier attitude the young girl has about the experience. Palmer herself is reported to have had an abortion at 17 and being raped at 20.
What struck me about her story was that it’s the only song I can think of that involves abortion. Cider House Rules explored the topic in film, but what other songs are there? Beyond propaganda from both sides, what art do we have about abortion? Is the issue so divisive that it is the third rail of art? Regardless of whether you label the being in the womb a baby or a fetus or you believe the choice belongs to the mother or the law, no one can argue that both mother and child are fully human. I wonder if by avoiding the topic, one side succeeds in dehumanizing the child and the other side succeeds in dehumanizing the mother for their own political simplicity. Surely we can all agree that no matter how deeply held our thoughts on this issue are, if it were simple it wouldn’t be so polarizing.
My hope is that as the Culture Wars subside we will allow artists to help us explore the stories of abortion as we have with so many vital issues of the human experience. Only when we fully grasp the humanity of every element of the story can we fully grasp the depth of an issue that, despite their efforts define themselves by it, transcends politics and religion.
There is a well-known custom among the Amish whereby adolescents are encouraged to venture outside the confines of their community and experience what the outside world has to offer. If they find fulfillment there, they are free to leave their community and embrace the freedom of the outside world. If they choose to rededicate themselves to the Amish way, they are baptized as adults.
We see corollaries to this throughout the human narrative. Whether it’s the story of the prodigal son or the kid who ate too much Halloween candy, the principle behind rumspringa is pervasive. It’s so pervasive that I wonder why we so often fear it.
I can’t help but wonder if many aspects of our culture are returning from their collective rumspringas. So much seems to have been driven to excess only to collapse on the couch with a tummy ache. Another smoke machine will not improve the gospel. A bigger house won’t bring our family closer. All of our study will not explain the unexplainable. Hoarding food will not feed my neighbor.
Perhaps we can learn from the architecture of coastal Japan, where some structures are made to fall away in the inevitable storm. Where pouring deep foundations has proven to erode the very land it clings to. Maybe more is just more. It hasn’t proven to be enough.
On my way to the office this morning I heard this story on NPR about “lining out” at the Old Regular Baptist Church in the mountains of Appalachia. In it you will hear a frail, elderly woman singing that is strikingly reminiscent of the singing heard on Ken Burn’s documentary The Shakers. The Shakers are one of the most enduring religious experiments in American history, despite the fact they are now just a memory. It’s a fate potentially, if not likely, shared by Old Regular Baptist worshippers.
We Americans have a peculiar relationship with tradition and indigenous culture. We have subjugated the indigenous people of our land, and we’ve displaced and subjugated others. Our identity as “The New World” is woven into our collective consciousness. We have more often been breakers from tradition rather than keepers of it. We have replaced our locally owned businesses with Walmarts and big box stores. It’s this same application of business and marketing models that drove the church growth movement that is, for the first time since its inception, confronted by successive generations (X and Millenial) who fail to respond to its product in many ways. We are the kid who got everything they asked for at Christmas who’s bored by lunchtime.
My family is from the South, though I grew up in Florida and worked primarily in California, two states so appealing that most of the people who live there aren’t from there. Still, I have visited relatives and heard my family stories enough to feel where I am from deep in my bones. Those bones tingled a little when I heard the worshippers at Old Regular Baptist Church this morning. It’s music of a time and place, drawn from the deep well of those who’ve gone before. A music both localized and universal, connected by folk and a pentatonic scale, to an ancient time and place, even when being improvised anew.
This is not Walmart. This is not a machine. This is real people and real stories. Not robbed of its individuality for the sake of being replicated is distributed. Guitars and drums are welcome here, but this is not on Tomlin’s or Hillsongs’ album. Is there nothing new under the sun? Does no one remember the former generation? Is this not worth the cost of restoration? Is this beyond renewal? Should the new song be build upon the corpse of its ancestors?