Monday, February 15, 2010

In Praise (not) of Praise Music

For better or worse, Facebook allows one to make short, sometimes snarky comments by simply joining a "group" that exists purely to make such comments.  I'm afraid I did that the other day by digging through the groups and finding one that said "Praise Music Sucks!"  While that was not likely to trigger as many yea and nay votes as Farmville or Mafia wars, I'm afraid it did touch a nerve among some who have enjoyed it or associate a particular song or style with a significant spiritual experience - some who graciously but pointedly (and correctly) called me out on it. To the good discussion we had there, I'd like to add the following.

It is no secret that I have strong, sometimes too strong, feelings about liturgy and music in church. It comes, in part, from the fact that for a very long time my only strong connection to church and religion was through music.  My earliest deeply spiritual experiences (if I may call them that) were in places like Orchestra Hall in Chicago where, for example, I heard more than once Bach's St. Matthew's Passion (Georg Solti conducting, I believe, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Christa Ludwig, etal. singing).  My tenuous faith in God was rooted in music, religious and otherwise.  While there was (and is) much about my Methodist upbringing that gave me the creeps about organized religion and what-a-friend-I-have-in-Jesus piety, the one thing I loved about it was the hymns and the tradition of congregational singing (everyone sings - talent or no - from the pews - Lutherans I've known were pretty good at that, too).  So for the decades when I dropped out of church altogether, toyed with atheism out of a sometimes militant anti-organized religion attitude (driven partly by the antisemitic and racist tones of some of that earlier Methodist upbringing, which in turn engendered a prejudice against U.S. Southern culture, which I associated with it), what kept me coming back time and time again was music and literature (some will recall my delving into Melville, Shakespeare, Nietszche, and Dostoevsky - ah to be young and to take oneself SO seriously!).

What finally brought me back to church was, first and foremost the birth of my son, the happenstance of meeting for LaLeche League and later a non-denominational children's play group at  a Lutheran church (the family tradition of my first husband and father of my children), and an extraordinary Lutheran pastor.  But what really hooked me for good was the liturgy and music - first in an oldstyle, sung Eucharist Lutheran setting, later in a somewhat Anglo-Catholic Episcopal setting with a deep tradition of Anglican music.

For many, many years now I have struggled with the way I have clung to "my kind" of liturgy and music - to the point where even Jim, who very much liked what I liked, thought I carried it too far.  Yet as we increasingly talked about where we would live in retirement, the very first thing he thought about was where he could find one of the few progressive Anglo-Catholic parishes remaining or at least something not too Protestant as long as it had a "decent" music program. A top contender was the cathedral in Buffalo (and how we loved to tell people that we might retire there, of all places, rather than someplace idyllic further south or even north - though Maine was also in contention).  I was happy to follow his lead, in that respect (although I looked forward to the opportunity to visit and maybe even consider joining non-Episcopal churches if only to feel I had a choice again or might want to escape the drama of As the Anglican World Turns). 

But now all those abstract discussions and daydreams have come crashing into reality.  Now I don't have to leave my parish family as I would have had Jim lived (a former rector needing to stay far away from his or her old parish - what's that called?  oh yes, Good Church Order).  So if I stay in this area, that may settle things as a practical matter - family is, after all family, blood is thicker than water or even liturgy or music!

But for me it will never be all about where or with whom I worship on a regular basis.  I will always struggle with how much of my faith is grounded in what some may see as trappings or mood music and decor.  Jim could weave it all into his understanding of incarnational theology, which saw the face of God in music, in vestments, incense, and above all in the Eucharist, but none of that superseded or diminished encounters with the face of God in other human beings (though I would add the non-human as well - possibly a bit of pantheist lurking somewhere) - it was all of one piece, and there was no question that for those who chose it, so-called High Church was not only compatible with mission and outreach and mutual support in community but was something that strongly supported and nurtured faith and spiritual formation.

While I may make the occasional snide remark about Praise music or other clap-happy developments (as I see them from my biased and admittedly not entirely open-minded perspective), I do so not simply to advocate my tastes and preferences or even to preserve them for others who feel the same way, it is because I am deeply disturbed by comments from clergy, bishops, and even the Presiding Bishop, about the need to move away from traditional Anglican liturgy and music to save the church, which as we all know (but Progressives are loath to admit it), is declining in numbers and influence daily, no matter how many spurts of growth here and there (mostly in large urban and suburban areas).  We're supposed to all "open our eyes and our ears" and "discover" that in our multicultural society that most people are not "into" Anglican chant, Renaissance music, or even "modern" English church music with organ music and classically trained choirs, so we must give up what some of us love all for the sake of reaching out to others who are not like us.

Well, I've been down that road in the Lutheran Church and left because of it.  I can't claim that it was right to leave a community I loved because it was overtaken (for awhile, at least -a bloody and awful ten years with something like 6-7 pastors, interim and "permanent") by the bishop's staff and their party line, based on focus group research of the unchurched (real scientific stuff like asking people with no experience with church or classical music whether they "like" or "prefer" it or might even be put off by it - without ever having been in a church and experienced it with others - and based on the assumption that someone is only going to walk into a church building based on a good marketing campaign aimed at convincing them it suits their spiritual and musical preferences and needs).  I also realize that there is a great deal of truth to the notion that TEC and like mainline churches will, in fact, die if they insist on being exactly as they once were, in terms of music, liturgy, governance, and parish culture.  But.... what disturbed me 15 years ago with the Lutherans and more recently with the Episcopalians is that our churches are peopled with those who are so invested in the institution that they cannot conceive of the possibility that maybe it should grow or die "naturally" and that in the meantime what should be nurtured are healthy communities, in whatever size or setting they find themselves, and that there is no global, quick fix or salvation (earthly) for all by certain kinds of programming.

What "works" in one place will not necessarily work in another.  In some places people and events will produce entirely new ways of doing and being church, and that is fine and good.  But it seems crazy to me that we cannot do better at respecting and leaving space for the old, as well.  More important, it seems to me that churches should be, as much as possible, cleansed of those influences that manifest themselves in corporate-style image-making - everything aimed at the appearance of change, innovation, forward-thinking, along with increased market share, funding, participation, etc.  To some extent every generation attempts to remake Christianity into what people think will finally bring about the Kingdom of God on earth or herald the Second Coming or whatever.  People love to slough off the old, seemingly as if cleansing in the waters of baptism, being Born Again anew.  But now in the 20th-21st century, with all our anxiety, super-rapid communications, and cut-throat Western competitiveness, pride, and can-do spirit, we seem to be shooting ourselves in the foot time and time again, scrambling to be the one with the best and truest route to the Future and back to God, but only producing the scattered debris of failed efforts and empty church houses from which the old church faithful have been cavalierly driven.

I guess I'm trying to get at two different, but somewhat related thoughts.  First, I do question and struggle with my attachment to certain kinds of liturgies and music, knowing there must be people equally attached to or inspired by very different kinds, and in the end, it really should not matter what style one follows.  Yet what I "like" is more than a preference and is deeply meaningful and an integral part of what I understand my lived out faith, the part that engages in corporate worship and private devotions, to be.  How do I keep all that in proper perspective, what indeed is the proper perspective?

Second, on a policy level, when and where and how should I or anyone else stand up for what others seem blissfully ignorant of -- that some of the old traditions and ways continue to be meaningful not just to aging Baby Boomers like me but also to young people and others who are drawn to more vertical-style worship and the particular kinds of communities that engenders?  It's partly a matter of preserving something I find valuable, but it's also seeing the music and liturgy issues being part of larger tensions we have in TEC due to what sometimes seems like rampant clericalism (many clergy taking it on, after years of blaming lay people for it) and the overall push-pull that exists in a hierarchal church such as ours.  Of course the flip side of that is that sometimes the bullies are from the laity, as well.  But then, when is it bullying, when it is speaking up for something one finds meaningful, how much mix can we all support and tolerate without it turning into mish-mash?

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I very much appreciate all those who have thrown in their two cents worth on it because they are questions I will continue to ponder.  My natural bias and experience is contrary to preachers using the pulpit for anything but an intelligent and humane shedding of light on the Scripture readings, to bringing people together to the Table, to feeling and tasting the Real Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, and having all that bind us together, enfold us in God's love, peace, forgiveness, and prickling of consciences to do more and better in our everyday lives, to reach out to care for and attend to others, to each day try to best lead the lives God calls us to live.  As much as my mind loves to study the Bible, theological tracts, philosophy, science, etc. and relate it all the best I can, and listen to what others have to say about such things, when ideas and ideologies overtake the enterprise, when obedience to self-proclaimed leaders and self-styled prophets, to church growth gurus, to higher ups for the sake of their position and supposed authority become primary, then it is the music and poetry and deep-in-one's-bones meaning of the Incarnation that sustains and inspires me, despite all the rest.

Alas poor blog

It's been a long time since I've been here.  I especially regret having missed some wonderful comments and messages that I have failed to respond to.  I've just had strange and mixed feelings about being here (as if this was a "real" place!) - my once semi-hidden, semi-anonymous outlet for my yearnings to write and make sense of things, the occasional rant, or simply a place to bookmark something I've read or want to read more about it.  But then it suddenly became the place where my husband, Jim (the priest and hidden source of much, but not all, of my information, thoughts, and feelings about the Episcopal Church) resided, as well, or at least the fact of his death, the onslaught of memories, and the many people whose lives he touched.  Then of course there were the sermons.  Although I only selected a few (I still need to go through all the others, which mercifully have been saved for me - thank you Bruce!), to have his clarity of thought and expression in the same cyberspace as my often murky wordiness has been rather intimidating. So, I thought to move his words and maybe even the news of the funeral to another blog, but never found the time or the motivation to do so.

But these are, really just excuses - with some measure of truth to them - but nevertheless, as dear Lisa pointed out to me on Facebook last night, what I've really been doing is hiding out there.  For the past three months [ironic salute to my mom - who remembers and invents countless "anniversaries" - yesterday, Valentine's Day was the 3rd month anniversary of Jim' death - oh how she would weep and wallow over that one], I've been reading or at least glancing at all my usual favorite bloggers writings, rarely commenting, and only occasionally marking up those that really grab me by posting them on Facebook.  But writing - what I have wanted so desperately to do from the beginning - has scared me.

I didn't want to simply write on and on about Jim (did enough of that on Facebook as it was), not while I felt I had no control over what would pour out.  It wasn't that I wanted to keep any of it private for my own sake (my personal life is pretty much an open book to anyone who asks and often to many who don't).  It was that it seemed presumptuous and self-centered to just vent without some semblance of control and meaning-making for the sake of others.  I recalled, among others, Kristen's remarkable blogging journey through her cancer (also influenced by this post) and Sharon's through the death of her husband and I didn't think I could come even close to the way they shared their anguish and joy through good writing.  And also an NPR radio interview with an author, one I heard shortly before or after Jim's death - someone who had suffered a brutal rape, which she wrote about in both a memoir and a novel - explaining how what she wrote for publication was not for "therapy" (to the extent she needed that, she got it from actual talk therapy and, in writing, from private journaling).

Such thoughts were probably rather silly - me, a writer? not just another blogger out there blogging sometimes self-indulgently and sometimes making a little sense about something and sometimes just venting and not caring who reads or listens or that no one might?  But having delusions of grandeur or whatever about wanting and needing to write well and not giving in entirely to the need to emote, vent, and process (i.e. "therapy"?), has been something of the fragile self I've been trying to preserve while taking my time weeping and gnashing teeth and alternately dreaming of life hereafter, either here on earth or someplace where I will find Jim again in some way.  If I am to finally accept that I could still have many years left on this earth and the need to not only partially reinvent my everyday life but also embrace new possibilities, like maybe finally taking the time to read and write as I've always wanted, and emerging from the shadow of what seemed like Jim's constant criticism of my mental and verbal activities (which I only realize now was just part of daily friction between two vastly different personalities - not rejection or dismissal but simply natural weariness with something he appreciated in only small doses or at a distance when he could talk to others about my thoughts and accomplishments) - then maybe that self can grow and speak once again.

Well, he certainly was and is right about my over-thinking things.  I should just write and stop worrying about whether it is the old me, the new me, whether I talk about Jim too much or not enough, whether or not any of the new or recent readers agree with my views.  I am at least past the point of doing any deep or protracted weeping and wallowing myself (and, yes, as many, especially Jim, have liked to point out, I have some of my mom's flair for drama), so the rest will just be me, warts and all, the sometimes hot-headed, unrepentant, skeptical, and passionate person, ever stepping towards the Left in matters political, civil and religious, but often dancing or stepping outside everyone's boxes or just stopping by the roadside staring at the sun and the stars and letting the wind pass through and over me.

So, bottomline, thank you Lisa, I'm ready to write again.  I have no idea what will emerge, will not wait to make any definite plans or try to shape this place one way or another.  I just need to start thinking and talking again, and those who are bored or offended can, well, just change the channel or forever ignore.