A Hamlet for the looney bin

I love Hamlet.

Really, it’s an addiction. I’ll take Hamlet in nearly any form. I prefer good Hamlet, but I’ll even put up with a mediocre Hamlet just to hear those lines come out of the mouths of people up on their feet acting them out.   I like film Hamlets, live Hamlets outside in the park, college shows, professional shows, even classroom scene cuttings and random student “adaptations” that leave me wondering how the Dane ended up on Mars with a robot Ophelia and a dog. (I made that up, but I bet someone somewhere has done it.)

If you count the NCS production of Hamlet that led me to read the play several times, assistant direct it, learn the part of Gertrude, teach the play to 25+ students, discuss it at length during the show, and watch the play, oh, 30 times at least? during rehearsals, plus 4 performances (peeking out from the back entrance curtain) …. I’ve seen this play a lot.

So when I stumbled across the news that actor Richard Willis would play Claudius in an edgy adaptation of Hamlet at USC in April, I dropped everything, arm-twisted the husband into clearing his schedule, and fretted all weekend that they might sell out before I could rob the box office of 2 tickets to the show.

Photo by USC.  Richard Willis (right) as Claudius with Laertes.
Photo by USC. Richard Willis (right) as Claudius with Laertes.

Now, don’t misunderstand my love of Hamlet for an indiscriminate wanton willingness to love every bastardization of the Bard’s finest.  Hamlet offers such rich material that you can botch it pretty badly yet the story will survive and it’s probably still worth your time, even if you had to cringe in several places.  So after reading a little about USC’s production design, I knew this would be too controversial to remain on the fence.

Robert Richmond, who’s worked with Folger in DC and headed the Aquila Shakespeare Company, helmed this production. That’s how Richard Willis ended up on board to play Claudius, supported by a strong cast of MFA and theater undergrads at USC.

They decided to set the production in an insane asylum. Yup. It’s a crazy idea (haha) but they were hoping to let the setting itself drive home some serious questions about the play’s themes, especially Shakespeare’s shifting perceptions of madness and sanity.

If you REALLY care, check out this mini-preview of the production (if you watch just the first minute, you’ll see a good preview of a scene with Willis)

We “met” Willis in the Warehouse Theater production of The Tempest last fall, which is one of the finest Shakespeare live productions I’ve ever seen.   I’m sure USC was pulling out the marketing machine to get the word out, but honestly the only reason I knew this show was even happening came because Richard Willis posted photos of himself as Claudius on his Facebook page, which I stalk follow.

Photos like this one:

Photo by USC
Photo by USC

Boom. I was hooked.

The Columbia Free Times put up a great review that hooked me in too — you can read a really detailed overview of the production there if you care for like, actual facts.  I’m just rocking the opinions here, with a large dose of memories and nostalgia and Bard-love.

The insane asylum Hamlet production had potential. It really did.  Claudius rocked it, as I expected.  Willis owns the stage and brings all the creepy murderousness that I like to see in Claudius. None of this mamsy-pansy, weak-villain, 1970s-bad-movie-plot, antihero bullshit.

And I gotta give a shout out to the cast, including James Costello as Hamlet, because there were a lot of strong performances. Ophelia went suitably crazy(er); even the dudes who see the ghost in Act 1 Scene 1 kept my attention.   Rosencrantz showed up as a doctor giving Hamlet a physical, which actually worked REALLY WELL.  And they had two guys playing the Ghost, which meant Old Hamlet could totally freak you out by showing up on the other side of the stage supernaturally FAST.

The Ghost spoke through Hamlet, leaving you to wonder whether the whole ghost-dad-thing was a psychosis or a reality. (Old idea but they sold it well.)  Polonius was a lot more sinister than you usually see, implying that he was jealous himself for Ophelia’s sexual attention.  Ok, so that’s creepy and troubled but it’s theater. Everybody has to “do it new”…

But I am troubled.

As a production, USC’s Hamlet delivered some great thrills and chills and atmosphere and  grungy-Victorian-meets-sex-shop costuming. (Corsets and more corsets! I’m surprised the guys weren’t also wearing corsets! They were into straps and belts.)

But it ironed out all the nuance.

(Maybe you can’t have whips, restraints, and insanity AND expect nuance?)

Photo by USC.  Hamlet comes up behind Claudius as he's "confessing."
Photo by USC. Hamlet comes up behind Claudius as he’s “confessing.”

Claudius was super bad, like ALL THE TIME.  He was bad-ass bad, Irish-gang-tattoo, “I’m gonna eat your face off” kind of bad.  It was amazing during the king’s confession scene, where his thoughts ever “remained below.”

Hamlet’s soliloquies got faster and faster. By the end of “rogue and peasant slave,” I wasn’t sure whether they’d cut the lines down or he’d zipped through it so fast that I’d missed some of my favorites.  The entire second half was like a speed-round.  We couldn’t stop and wonder whether Polonius had it coming or got murdered by a hothead.  We didn’t really think much about how Hamlet took away everything Ophelia cared about, regardless of his intentions.  If you missed the one Elizabethan line about R&G getting axed, you probably missed the question of whether Hamlet wears their blood on his hands too.

By the final scene, the duel (which was a good modernization of the duel, the first I’ve seen…. guns just don’t make sense in that scene at all; Richmond turned it into a knife fight) raced by. Laertes took the cowardly cut to Hamlet’s back (not in the script but nobody ever seems to give Laertes balls in casting or action). The lines explaining Claudius’ poisoned pearl had been cut, so I don’t know how the audience was supposed to follow that Gertrude was drinking poison.

In fact, THAT IS MY BEEF with this production.  If you didn’t already know the story, YOU WERE SCREWED.   The asylum setting offered some cool costume & setting perks, but at the cost to the audience. I bet the actors dug out some amazing character insights (and some of those sparkled through during the production).

But the audience was left to unpack not only 2.5 hours of dense text, and all the deep ideas and universal themes of Shakespeare’s words, they had to figure it out without any context clues for who’s who and how they’re related and what the hell is even. going. on.

The final scene of the show closed with the players returning to the stage (the acting troupe from Act 3) dressed in their comic horror-movie clown attire and drinking the dregs of the poisoned cup while Horatio raced through a couple lines. Hamlet in one breath finished his course on stage — “oh i die horatio this potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit the rest is silence.”  The psycho clowns fell over dead. Horatio looked …sad.  Lights dark.  Applause.

It was like getting hit in the head with a hammer.

But hey. It was Hamlet.

[Wanna see pics from our 2007 Hamlet? Album here]

 

Link: Why Shakespeare always says something new – Telegraph

What Shakespeare always demands, though, is our sympathy, because, to put it simply, he writes about people like us. Offhand, I can think of only one character he wrote – Iago in Othello – that slips through the safety-net of his concern. Shakespeare might not agree with Lear’s sweeping and anarchic assertion that “none does offend”, but he sensed, I think, the danger of easy judgement. He recognises that self-worth and dignity are hard-won and that our lives cannot but be inconsistent, unpredictable, and confused. The only sane response for all of us, perhaps, is to emulate him – to look carefully, to withhold quick judgment and to try to understand.

via Why Shakespeare always says something new – Telegraph.

Ah! Good read!! Read the whole article!!

Christians must deal justly with abuse

I don’t like the narrative that demands we live our lives in fear.  Our 24/7 news cycle promotes a creeping terror that turns parenting into jail keeping and long nights of anxious terror about the “unknown unknown” about to destroy our families.

But churches can be very resistant to implementing the kinds of “best practices” for child care which businesses in general have adopted (either because they’re “good sense” or maybe to avoid lawsuits).  Yet the continuing stream of ugly stories of abuse happening amidst Christians demands that we change.

We don’t need suspicion or blind faith; we need sensible policies and structures in place.

Boz Tchividjian wrote a great post this weekend which puts in front of our faces the reality: Church is a great place to hide abuse.  (Boz is the head of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, abbreviated G.R.A.C.E., a consulting nonprofit that assists ministries and churches in auditing their policies and practice.

Sex offenders, faith communities, and four common exploitations | Rhymes with Religion.

Take time to read his post….. I’ll wait.

In addition to developing sensible safeguards for those who work with children in churches and Christian schools, church leaders also need to move investigations of child abuse and family neglect into the realm of the God-designated authority for issues of justice:  the government.

Stop hyperventilating, conservatives.

It’s hard to cut through the “government is evil” rhetoric that swamps our political discourse these days, but it’s the Church’s job to declare what  Scripture actually SAYS.  And God designated governmental authority to handle justice, punishment, and the law.

(Clarification: I’m not saying “check your judgment at the door”; I’m not saying the government should take over vital services like caring for victims; I think there’s a lot of value in the nonprofit / private sector running ministries like Calvary Home for Children.  So don’t assume what I’m not saying.)

Government is no more or less evil than the people who comprise it, despite the current political rhetoric that demands a small government in the name of God Almighty. *coughs*

God’s commands to government officials cover a constellation of human needs.  From punishing murderers/criminals or waging war to standing up for the oppressed and poor and marginalized, the government stands responsible before the Lord to handle questions related to justice.

As evangelical Christianity has become all the more aligned with the conservative political spectrum, the “government is evil!” narrative has tainted our theology.

So when someone whispers that “Susie” claims “Pastor D—-” acted inappropriately, our church organizations turn inward, circling wagons to protect reputation and PR and brand rather than pulling these questions into the God-approved light of legal investigation.

The word “investigation” makes us nervous. We don’t trust our governmental officials because
1) politicians are creepy and self-serving and slick and feel like used-car salesmen;
2) our political process rewards attack ads and sound bites, not thoughtful discourse;
3) sometimes our laws are just absolutely stupid because laws, by nature, must deal with lowest-common-denominator behavior;
4) America isn’t really that corrupt, all things considered, but the “good ol’ boys” network and back room dealing and ALL THE MONEY that now controls the political sphere sure feels corrupt to most of us;
5) we all know cases where the legal system failed, where a victim wasn’t given justice or where an innocent person was found guilty.

I get that.

But it is the very nature of legal investigation (done rightly) to protect victims and also to protect innocent people from having their reputations destroyed due to  “he said-she said” accusations, for just as many people of power abuse that power to victimize others, accusers sometimes betray justice by lying to destroy someone.

Neither the victim nor the accused benefit when the due process of law is replaced by back room deals, sweeping things under the carpet, or trying to handle an accusation “in house.”

The very nature of abuse is insidious because in many cases, abuse is tied to the wrongful exercise of “power.”  And, as Boz discussed in his  post, our Christian assemblies often deliver power structures and ready authority to any person interested in taking advantage of children or the weak.

So, as Christians, we  need to

  • get involved in politics to the extent that we can stand it 🙂 — because we need people voting in not-corrupt politicians and judges with good bench records
  • contact our local legislators on the state and national levels to ask for better laws to protect victims and more support for victim support agencies
  • implement clear, common-sense policies in our church children’s ministries, Christian schools, and parachurch organizations to protect children from abusers, run all personnel through background checks, clarify who can be where with kids, and mandate reporting charges of abuse to legal authorities
  • ask our denominational authorities to pass resolutions asking congregations to develop better policies, and provide leadership on this issue

Again, there are many ways to misunderstand what I’m saying, so feel free to ask questions in comments rather than just assuming you know what I mean.

And really,  do read Boz’s post.

A dark tale with Southern roots

This will seem like a very strange followup to yesterday’s post about Christianity changing its response to abuse, but hold on till the end and I think you’ll see the connection.

South Carolina has a surprisingly robust music scene, especially in Columbia and Charleston. (The Upstate really needs to catch up. …. and develop more of a “music scene” to support a couple more good venues for good old-fashioned rock. But that’s an issue for another day.)

One of my favorite South Carolina bands is The Restoration, fronted by Daniel Machado and based in Columbia.

The hubby and I first met Daniel when he opened for some friends of ours at the local Irish pub, and then got a flat tire in the parking lot which not a one of us — even the big burly guys — could manage to break free from the rusted lug nuts. So Daniel packed himself off to our friends’ house for the night, which turned into about a 3-day saga. So I feel a bond with Daniel, one somehow linked to great music, a banjo, South Carolina, and the crappy vehicles that musicians always seem to drive because the Universe is unjust. (In MY universe, musicians would make enough to eat without worrying, and financial analysts would have to drive 17 year old Corollas with rusty fenders.)

We’ve followed Daniel ever since, making the switch with him from The Guitar Show (his first band) to The Restoration, his roots-music band that delves deep into the twisted history of the South.

An encounter with William Faulkner at a USC literature course set Daniel’s sights on Southern Gothic storytelling. He grew up steeped in the Southern civic Christianity that flavors everything down here — God is woven into South Carolina life, regardless of your personal belief.  Here, especially if you’re white, good people respect the Almighty and appreciate the Bible; bad people believe evolution, vote for Obama, and claim to be agnostic. I think the Republican to Democrat ratio here in SC is something like 8 to 1.  I’m not even sure why I bother to vote (because seriously, regardless of party affiliation, my vote does not matter).

The Restoration kicked things off with an incredible album called Constance. I’ve written about it before, when we attended the CD release show, and I highly recommend hitting the newspaper interviews that I’ve linked to in that post.

Constance tells the story of a biracial young man in the 1910s whose rage against the injustice of his life, both economic and racial, blazes into hatred against a particular man as the cause for that injustice.  Like any good Faulkner follower, Constance doesn’t end happy, just like the racial reality of many Southern towns. (The last lynching in South Carolina was in 1947.)

This depressing narrative captured Daniel’s soul, resulting in some pretty amazing art.

The Restoration followed with a sophomore album named Honor the Father. It’s a dark, twisted story of a cultish Bible believer in the 1950s who follows Old Testament law straight into the arms of domestic abuse, murder, and weirdness.  Cheery.

The album spawned a Kickstarter for an indie film – fitting for a story of the 1950s, not all Mayberry as they’re cracked up to be.  You really ought to listen to the album in whole, but definitely check out the film:

Honor the Father from Christopher Tevebaugh on Vimeo.

Diana Bright grasps for a means to escape her husband’s transformation from insecure youth to domineering husband in this musical short about the 1950’s South.

The Restoration released a quick EP back in December, I think, called New South Blues. It crackles with satire toward Christians who speak so often of Gospel but live so much like the broken world we inhabit.

To quote a verse from the title track:

Lo the Facebook lamentations 
About the “spoiling of the nation” 
And how the good ol’ days are gone. 
Oh? They never mention ol’ Jim Crow. 

“In the past, turned the page” 
Muslim witch hunt, Proposition 8 
This is the new South 

and later

In all fairness, the South has no monopoly 
On ignorance and bigotry 
You understand 
We just have the most trusted brand

Whenever I hear Constance or Honor the Father and especially New South Blues, it hurts my heart that so many people see Christians as racist, misogynist hypocrites.

I listen, so that I may remember. And be different.

 

Sometimes questions are more important than answers

A friend on Facebook wrote a few months ago, “Faith is not the opposite of Doubt. Hope is.”

I have pretty strong opinions about the way I see Christians reacting to doubt. Generally, I think we suck at it.

Certainty lures us with a promise of safety and emotional stability. Doubt wears a DANGER sign, by contrast.  Skeptics and Agnostics inhabit the land of Doubt, a place no Believer ought to be found, we say. So we rush past the questions, head tucked down and coat collar up.

Maybe if we move fast enough, the hard questions will stop chasing us.

This is Easter week, and today is the dark Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  If Easter were a musical composition, this is the part where the the dramatic negative music continues a little more quietly for a page or so before the score explodes into the joy and celebration of a Risen Lord.

In the biblical narrative, Doubting Thomas has already walked off after the events of Friday to simmer in his own disappointment. The women haven’t been to an empty tomb yet to understand what it means when we say “Christ conquered death.”  It’s bitter to think you had the answer and then have that ripped out of your hands by a Roman governor who would rather execute an innocent man than face the political backlash from making the better choice.

Christianity is crazy.  You either need to grasp that and own it in faith, or walk away.  The Norse used to deride the English monks for their worship of “the nailed god.”  Ha.  What good is a god nailed to a tree?

Either Christianity is robust enough to step into the shitty places of life, or it’s irrelevant.  If this truth hasn’t hit you yet, well…. wait.  The crisis will come.

I could move from here into a complex discussion of the Problem of Evil across a variety of philosophical and religious systems.  Truly, this is where the questions punch us in the gut and leave us on the mat, bloody and gasping.

Nobody has a clear answer there. The systems of belief (and non-belief and anti-belief) duke it out to prove their answer is better or more fitting or less harmful.  On this side of Glory, we aren’t given the answer to the question of how a God who says He is both Good and Powerful exists in a universe so marred by Evil.

And most of us don’t sit back with a cup of tea to politely discuss the situation; we are thrown into the ring by personal tragedy (ours or someone we love).  It would be weird if doubt didn’t show up in the small still hours of the dark to suggest perhaps this whole Jesus thing is a crock.

In my experience, people who doubt are met with quick answers. Too quick.   A good teacher knows you have to let students stew in a problem before they’re ready to to grasp an answer. Sometimes you just have to walk beside them until it “clicks” and the answer is clear.

Life is a lot more about walking beside people through the valley of shadows than it is about delivering them packaged answers, like pills popped from dispensaries for troubled souls.

Our proof texts and pre-packaged answers for doubting souls interrupt the very important process of growing to love God on our own within the context of a personal journey.

Worse, sometimes we jump in with arguments that God Himself never made.

This really bothers me.  I’ve seen a lot of young adults walk away from the “faith” they were raised in because adults taught them “truths” that weren’t so clear.  In our rush to explain, we deceive.  In God’s name.

Galileo proved that the Church’s interpretation of Joshua’s long day, which locked them into a geocentric astronomy as the only valid interpretation of the Bible, could never match the observations through his telescope.   The Church loses followers when she insists that God said something He didn’t actually say.

Here’s where you’re going to get offended. 🙂 But I can’t make this point without listing a few examples.   The  raging debates over how the universe got here (young age creationism) turn away scientists who assume they’d have to check their scientific training at the door to become a Christian.  Doctors understand that the beginning of life isn’t a clear-cut moment, but strident anti-abortion rhetoric shuts down any real discussion of just how difficult it is to “prove” that life begins at conception. The debate over homosexuality has devolved into two sides, one that uses the Bible as a club and the other which mocks Scripture as an irrelevant, judgmental, bloody book of vastly outdated cultural practice.

Christians can’t conceive of a public policy divorced from their personal moral codes, so they talk a lot about being “persecuted” while rarely understanding alternate viewpoints on the political and social issues they feel like they’re losing.

When Christians harden our rhetoric over issues not central to the definition of the Gospel, we run the risk of linking our own interpretations and fallible opinions to the eternal Word of God.  Instead of seeing Scripture and preaching as witnesses to Jesus, the fully revealed Word of God, we present stances that are locked in our cultural and political contexts.

As soon as those contexts shift, the flaws in our thinking are exposed.  We said “thus saith the Lord,” and people took us at our word.

When we focus our energy on fighting for a specific political cause — banning abortion or gay marriage, keeping tax breaks for churches, condemning food stamps and welfare as “stealing” the income of holy middle class taxpayers (never mind the complicated American history of race, poverty, and social mobility and opportunity), keeping a small federal government, refusing to listen to anyone who might be a “socialist” — we blur the lines between witnessing to the Truth of the Gospel and witnessing to our own personal viewpoints.

And because we failed in our preaching and practice to differentiate God’s thoughts from our human attempts to understand Him, when people reject our preaching or practice (whether they’re right or wrong to reject), they reject the Faith as well.

I realize that conversion is a complex theological topic.  We are all unbelievers; our only hope is in the work of Christ to renew our hearts.  But Scripture speaks of not placing stumbling blocks in front of people coming to know God — in front of children, in front of the world.

My decade in the high school classroom taught me this:   even teenagers can understand complicated, nuanced arguments if you take the time to explain them.  Questions need not be a moment for panic and alarm.  Answers are rarely as important as the process of deriving those answers.  A troubled soul needs a caring listener, not a sermon.

And a God who can weave the story of Redemption through His entire creation and all of human history truly is “big enough” to calm the doubts of His children. Trust the Holy Spirit to do His job of illumination.  Trust the Word to bear witness to the truth of God and His ways.

He is risen!
He is risen indeed.

God for Thirtysomethings

This is Holy Week, the apex of the Christian calendar. (Or it should be.  The Christmas capitalist gift binge seems to swamp Easter — it’s hard to make a bunny and fake grass and plastic eggs sexier than buying stuff. We’re American after all.)

I don’t tend to put my Christianity up on a pole on social media, which stands out to me every Easter & Christmas as my Facebook news feed gets overrun by people posting hymn lyrics and pithy quotations and Bible verses.

Christians by our tshirts-01I’m not criticizing; sometimes people post wonderful content that I find enriching.  I’m just saying, I’d prefer my Faith inhabit my Facebook posts in the bones rather than on the surface.  OK, that’s going to strike people as judgmental and I promise I’m not judging. Really! Post all the song lyrics you want.  I don’t care.

I do find that my slow march toward the end of my 30s has brought a few subtle but significant changes in my understanding of God, faith, and religion:

  • My faith is deep and quiet rather than noisy and visible. I don’t have anything to hide, so I present the same version of myself basically to everyone… and usually that doesn’t mean I lead with “I’m a Christian.”  People tend to figure it out rapidly.
  • If God calls something sin, my desire is to avoid it; and when I find myself sinning, I repent. Or I confess my hard-heartedness. Either way, it’s a pretty straightforward life.  I don’t have much room for pretending some things are wrong or bad or sketchy to make other Christians feel comfortable, and then sneaking around in my own home to enjoy them. That’s a weird double life.  Usually the Holy Spirit jumps all over me when I wrong someone else or gossip or lie or lay around like a lazy fool. So I don’t spend a lot of mental/spiritual energy keeping up an external moral code that God didn’t write.  (Example:  I unapologetically will drink a beer in front of you or anyone else, unless you’re a recovering alcoholic or you ask me not to.  I don’t need alcohol any more than I need chocolate cake, but I enjoy both as good gifts from a kind Creator. If you disagree, we can definitely still be friends.  And I don’t need to guzzle a beer in front of your face to prove a point. But don’t get offended by the glass of wine you’ll see in my hand at Easter brunch this Sunday.)
  • I’m intensely interested in questions that matter to me, but I am so over the hot controversies of my 20s: sovereignty vs free will; Arminianism vs Calvinism; denominational distinctives; creation vs evolution; mode or time of baptism; scholarly arguments about texts or historicity or whatever.  I don’t know the answer to most of that stuff, and I’ve got a lot more important things to do. I know the arguments on both sides and I probably have an informed opinion. Good enough.
  • I spend a lot more time concerned about how my faith interacts with the people I’m called to love.  I don’t really care about eschatology, but I will lie awake at night wrestling over the way the Church reacts to homosexuality. I got this way through a decade of teaching. People matter.
  • I’m tired of the typical expressions of Christianity.  That doesn’t mean I’m tired of Christ — not at all.  My commitment to faith is  deeper than it’s ever been, despite a much more honest approach to my doubts.   You could call it an “eyes wide open” kind of faith.  But the franchised editions of Christianity that clog popular media really wear me out.  It’s so much noise and so little good preaching, so little Gospel.
  • It’s easy to criticize the Church, and religious people rightly push back with “that’s just an excuse people use not to deal with their own problems.”  But I think Christians are using that as an excuse too — not to change our disobedience to God’s commands to love Him and others as hard as we can, with everything we are, all the time. Ultimately, I don’t think God’s impressed with our attempts to deflect criticism (which is often legitimate) because the critic is an unchurched sinner.  We’re all sinners; the “churched” modifier doesn’t give us a free pass to treat rich people better than the poor, to swamp our conversations with judgmental speech in the name of “love,” or to misrepresent what God says to push a particular agenda.
  • Sometimes I miss out on what are probably good things because I hate jumping on Christian bandwagons.  We’re wrapping up the 40 days of Lent;  6 weeks ago everyone was asking if I was observing Lent; and if so, what was I going to give up?  I didn’t do Lent this year.  I hadn’t thought about it until Fat Tuesday rolled around, and then it seemed totally lame to just hop on to the cool thing to do rather than undertake the prayer and Scripture that ought to accompany a vow before the Lord.  So I abstained from observing Lent. Joking aside, I don’t want to do something “spiritual” because people think it’s cool.

I’m wrestling with some pretty deep questions these days.  Sounds like a good topic for the next post….

 

 

Church is weird, you know?

When I step back and consider the typical elements of the common American church service, I find myself wondering if the rest of the world thinks this is just crazy.

I’ll elaborate.

This morning we found ourselves in a different place of worship – we were there to hear a particular speaker in their Sunday school series and stayed for the morning worship. It was a well-established denominational church that followed a liturgical format for worship (but not as formal as, say, a very traditional Episcopalian service).

Surrounded by the familiar-yet-unfamiliar feeling of the worship service, I caught my mind drifting into seeing the service “from the outside.”  So much of what we do as “church” must strike non-religious people as weird:

  • Traditional church music sounds nothing like the music that most people are used to hearing. Who ever hears organ music these days, outside a ballpark or a funeral? Meanwhile, contemporary Christian music often comes across as a bad copy of current radio tunes. And while some people find comfort in one or the other, both streams of church music offer  plenty of mediocre songs that get pulled into Sunday worship because…. well, I don’t really know why. Maybe one person’s “mediocre” is someone else’s favorite song.  We can’t escape the tyranny of “taste.”
  • Song texts often serve up ideas that, if you just walked up and said them out loud to someone rather than singing them, would be strange.  Maybe even off-putting.This morning’s hymns were mostly unfamiliar to me since it was Palm Sunday and people pull out the oddball stuff for holidays.  One song was really kind of dark and depressing in an 1800s vibe; another was sentimental and gooey a la 1950s movie soundtrack (cue “dramatic music stab”!).  The choral anthem affirmed that we would agree to “love love,” whatever that means.

    In the land of CCM, as Cartman realizes so brilliantly on the South Park episode dedicated to lampooning Christian pop music (here’s a clip, but be warned: the content is offensive, by the writers’ design, to make its point), texts are often chained to a fatal subjectivity. “Jesus is my boyfriend” music weirds me out, regardless of the good intentions of the writer.

  • Worship practices have ossified into “stuff we do” because … it’s what we do?  For example, this morning, we stood to sing and stood for the reading of the call to worship, but not for the longer scripture readings.  We would stand sometimes for 60 seconds, and then be seated again.  It’s like worship postures are listed on a wheel that someone spun at random when they first wrote a service outline, and now those postures are set.  “We stand for songs because that’s how you really sing!”  Otherwise we sit. A lot.

    The Bible talks about praying on knees or prostrate on the ground; people dance and clap and leap around; Jewish synagogues have a parade around the room following the Torah for at least one major holiday.  I’m wondering if maybe we could change things up?  Maybe we have too many “required elements” in the order of service?

  • This morning’s congregation does a children’s sermon.  I didn’t grow up with that, so I never know what to do with it….  other than praise God that I’m not a minister who would have to do children’s sermons.  Unless the church was doing “teenager sermons.”  I could do that…   It would still be weird.
  • Even the nature of sermons must strike outsiders as odd. I can’t speak for churches nationwide because I can only attend one at a time and basically I’ve gone to 4 churches my entire life., 5 if you include the giant stream of chapel & church sermons at BJU.   I’ve heard a lot of “self-help” talks, guilt sessions, motivational speeches, the occasional infomercial for a ministry or (worse) building program, heart-wrenching stories, generic anecdotes, and vague platitudes.  Very rare to hear a trained minister with an active, humble walk with Christ really dig deep into the Word and preach Christ crucified, the hope of glory.

I imagine this sounds really critical. I’m not trying to be critical.   I am wondering why “church” seems so uninviting to many people.  I’m not talking about the theological questions that result in people condemning each other or legitimate differences of doctrine;  this is a contemplation of our practice.

James K. A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom (and in the followup book in that series, Imagining the Kingdom), first establishes the proposition that human beings are, at or core, lovers (rather than thinkers), and therefore liturgy exists to train our hearts to love the vision of “the good life” that matches God’s Kingdom, rather than the “good life” that the world would have us buy into – wealth, prosperity, success on those terms.   His reflections on church liturgy are powerful.  Not being from a liturgical background, I am not entirely sold on liturgy in the formal sense — I don’t particularly enjoy a rigidly constructed church service.  But all churches employ a “liturgy” in the very nature of how they set up a service.  Perhaps our “vision of the good life” in our liturgy is just a fossil of Victorianism or nostalgia?

Here’s what I would love to see, I think:

  • Enough “this is a special moment” aspects in the service to make it different than just “hanging out,” but a rejection of formality and custom just for their own sake.
  • Recognition that symbolism and visuals are important, but openness to exploring symbols meaningful for a particular congregation in its location. That is, it’s great to borrow symbolism from the rich heritage of the Church’s history – the Celtic trinity knot, or the practice of carrying in the giant Bible before reading the Gospels (in Episcopal and Lutheran churches) – but I think sometimes we venerate old stuff just because it’s old, or we fall in love with hipster Christian iconography.  Symbols need to work in a particular context, and sometimes they need to grow out of that congregation’s journey together.
  • A more organic flow to the service, with physical closeness and togetherness as a hallmark. The early church (in Acts) met in houses, and wrapped things up with a meal.  When did that turn into giant auditoriums, fluorescent lights, and a wafer & sip as the Lord’s Supper?
  • Intentional use of a variety of the senses — we should read, see, smell, appreciate, and hear during worship;  and get involved in it with our bodies, voices, minds.

I dunno.

I feel like I’m just covering ground other people have already burned over.

All I’m saying is, The way we do church in most places on Sunday morning is just…. weird. And I think that’s a barrier to people who aren’t churched.

If you were going to invite people over for dinner, you don’t change everything about your routine; but you’d probably go out of your way to make sure people feel comfortable in your home.   I don’t think church is for visitors; it’s for the community who regularly worships there. But we should be more mindful of what would make our friends and community actually feel welcome to visit the service, and I think stripping out the random stuff that’s built up over time in the name of “tradition” is a good place to start.