Monday, December 19, 2005

The Church in Exile

Here are some pictures taken at Trinity Episcopal Church in Seattle. The cameras were out yesterday because Sunday was the final day of worship in the parish hall. On Christmas Eve the congregation will return to the historic sanctuary that has been undergoing restoration due to damages incurred in the Nasquale earthquake five years ago. For a church of a couple of hundred active members to raise six million dollars to repair this old church is quite a feat. Interestingly enough, a sizable portion of the money comes from the government in the form of a FEMA grant, and the rationale for the grant includes the proportion of the church budget that can be designated social services. In a church where there were mostly dour faces after the re-election of George W. Bush, there are now people who don't want to mention the Republican Faith Based Initiative, which made possible federal funding of churches that subsidize social services the government would otherwise have to support.

This picture was taken during the final cadence of an anthem celebrating the annunciation. Conductor Martin Olson has persisted for more than twenty years at this urban church. Choir and conductor have survived the various jurisdictions imposed by bishops, priests, and priestesses. The earthquake was a minor shock compared to some of the clerical administrations the choir has outlasted. The exile of the faithful to the parish hall, as was sermonized yesterday, can be considered the work of an angel of mercy. The foundation under historic Trinity, laid in the nineteenth century, was discovered during repairs to have been a disaster waiting to happen, and a large and failing steam pipe that was still conducting heat to the sanctuary five years ago could have blown away half the parishioners at any time.

Photos by Paul Hannah

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Flying under Wires

I had an unnerving dream this morning about 5:00 AM. I can’t blame it on anything pharmacological, Ray, or anything I ate. I was in an airplane taking off from an airstrip someplace out in the country. Another plane came alongside. I was afraid there was going to be a collision, but the other plane veered off and ascended out of sight. Then the plane I was riding in flew under some electrical wires hanging from telephone poles. We got past the wires, but we didn’t ascend. It became apparent that there were more wires to fly under, so it was a good thing the pilot had not tried to climb. As soon as we passed under these wires, there were more poles and wires. We didn’t hit any wires, but as far as I could see there were more poles and wires. We continued to fly at low altitude. There seemed no end to this. The wires were a menace. I felt only dread that this was the trajectory for the foreseeable future. It was a dream world subjected to futility.

Some months ago I began posting these essays under the heading still visible above: Alienated in Church. At the time this blog was a monologue. The earliest comment is still there, accusing me of being a Luddite and an elitist snob.

Most of my life I’ve been a Christian and for nearly as many years I’ve been a church musician. I have tried to think of church as a place where it is just as important to contribute something as to benefit in the various ways people benefit from church attendance. I invested considerable time and money in a master’s degree in theology, thinking that since the church has my heart, I might find a place to work productively in some aspect of ministry. It has become more and more apparent that what I have to offer is not much in demand in the currently fashionable ministries of the church.

I earn a good living in technology. My wife doesn’t have to work to keep us financially solvent. It would seem that we have time and skills that could be put to good use on a volunteer basis in church. For the past ten years or so, in several different churches, we have encountered clergymen, and others guarding their turf, who don’t want us to do much. I joke about being able to sing in the Episcopal Church but not to speak. As long as I have been at my current church, even while I was a member of the vestry, the rector and I have never had a disagreement. This is because he does most of the talking. I don’t have many opportunities to contradict him.

I ended up in the Episcopal Church on the rebound from a conservative Presbyterian Church five blocks away in downtown Seattle where I was a section leader in the choir. They fired me on the basis of an essay I read in a Sunday School class. It’s posted here in the April archive under the title Reformation Sunday. In retrospect it doesn’t seem an inflammatory piece, but several people with influence were offended by it and by my interest in having a discussion about music that they wanted to get behind them.

I had ended up in the Presbyterian Church on the rebound from the Catholic Church where I was confirmed. There the priest, who admitted he hated musicians, decided I wouldn’t be a cantor anymore because I sang too loud. The church was a big as an airplane hanger, but my operatic sound was objectionable to some. The church also had a marvelous organ that Father G. said the people “hated”. Interestingly enough, Father G. was a traditionalist. If, occasionally, somebody who had been involved in charismatic worship somewhere else raised their hands in praise, Father G. had given the ushers instructions, and they were escorted out. We didn’t do worship that way at St. Alphonsus. The church had a pretty good choir with salaried section leaders. That’s, of course, how I had ended up there.

Church has been controversial in my family since before I was born. My father is Italian and my mother Norwegian. Maybe it’s fitting that I’ve been hanging out in Henry the Eighth’s compromised Episcopal Church where, if I choose, I can hear Native American drumming and, probably, soon Hindu chant. I’m singing again, occasionally, in the Catholic Church. I mean, it’s fine to be inclusive, but I’ve already been in a heterosexual minority in the opera world. I’ve heard it said that networking is fine if you’re in the network and not so fine when you’re not. The Episcopal Church seems intent on following Tony Kushner’s motif in making homosexuals moral exemplars for our time, angels, no less, in America. I saw the first of the Kushner’s plays, so I may have to opt out for the reprise in church.

That brings me back to square one and the first post in this blog back in March:

Feeling a little strange in church these days?
Like you better not say what you think?
Guitars drive you up the walls?
Tired of Bush bashing jokes?
Of being organized out of the picture?

Maybe you need an AA meeting

Alienated Anonymous
Is for people who think church could be great
If everybody who wanted to got to talk
And not just sit and listen
If you could sing a four part hymn
And not be drummed into oblivion
By amplified choruses

I won’t go deaf listening to amplified choruses in the Episcopal Church, but I am often organized out the picture, and I wish I had a dollar for every Bush bashing joke I’ve heard. For people who trumpet their tolerance, Episcopalians are also noticeably intolerant of Evangelicals. My dilemma has not changed much. Mainline churches tend to follow postmodernism in ethics while conservative churches follow the pop-culture equivalent in their styles of worship. Even the Catholic Church sings mostly a musical derivative of the 1960s era of our enlightenment.
There is some consolation in knowing that Jesus was a misfit among the religious majorities of his time. Maybe he didn’t sing. Sometimes I think I’ll continue to sing only in the shower.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hearing is Believing

Here's an interesting article by Photius Kontoglou (Greek Orthodox) about sacred and profane music.

An Old Song

Sometimes it's hard to know whether one is reacting to Christian music out of sentiment or if a hymn or song has truly opened up the gates of heaven, if only for a moment. But when that moment happens, then you realize what a conduit of faith and spiritual sight that music can provide when it's done with faith and not for entertainment.

About 20 years ago, a friend and I went to a cozy, little German restaurant on western Christmas Eve located in a mostly vacant downtown area in a small Southern Illinois city. The restaurant was beautifully decorated and it was filled with mostly older customers, each table happily chatting away and feasting. My friend and I were also having a good time, and aside from the Christmas decorations, this could have been any other convivial meal at any other time of year.

The door opened and a young man and two young women entered. I recognized the young man whose name was Jerry; he ran a soup-kitchen and clothes shop for the poor from a store-front church. Jerry and his two companions were out carrolling on the city streets on this cold night and now entered this establishment to sing for us.

He pulled off his cap and began beating time with it in his hand. The trio began with "Silent Night" singing a very common rendition with a slightly better than average competence. But despite its ordinariness, I began to hear something different in this singing of an too-familiar tune. So did the rest of the customers, who immediately feel silent, suddenly suspended in their merry-making before the trio proceeded more than three notes.

By the time they came to the second stanza "Shepherds quake/at the sight. Radiant beams from heaven above..." the words suddenly struck me, as if I was hearing their import for the very first time. Why hadn't I heard about the magnificence of the shepherds' vision before in all the other times I had heard this song? It became apparent that Jerry and his friends believed in the words they were singing, that they were really doing this as an act of worship, not for the sport of carroling. They sang it straight, without adding any emotion to it, and just let the song and words speak for their beliefs and because of that, it was the most affecting rendition of that song I had ever heard.

The song ended, and they sang two verses of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" which served to provide a triumphant coda to the first song. Then they wished us "Merry Christmas" and disappeared into the chilly night.

No one stirred. The restaurant remained very quiet, as everyone seemed equally affected and deep in thought. I turned to my friend and saw that his eyes were full. Some minutes passed before the background noise returned to normal and life went on as before, but maybe not quite as before. But I never forgot how "Silent Night" had at last conveyed to me, or that I was at last allowed to hear in it, the essence of that extraordinary night so long ago.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Two Minds of Christianity Today

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time for about a week to visit Europe when the Christian culture was at its height, just to see how virile Christianity had been in the arts, culture and ordinary living, what a wholistic life as a Christian really had been. In our times, it seems that to be a Christian or even any seriously religious person is something that modern cultures will not accommodate, relegating as it does religion to the realm of spiritual hobbyists or potentially unmanageable political entities. Because our culture is so secularized, I think Christians today (probably 99%) are necessarily a strange blend between secularists and Christians, and with these two minds within ourselves, I wonder how long we can continue to carry this dichotomy within while our culture lurches into an increasingly hostile, anti-Christian future.

The so-called Dark and Middle Ages were a culturally fertile time for Christianity, but the pagan forces it gradually supplanted never really went away. It lived on in pagan folk practices (which lasted well into the 19th century), alchemy, witchcraft, and later in the resurgence of the ancient Greek pagan philosophies. The French Revolution heralded in the first secularizing mass movements as well as the beginnings of both fascism and communism, forces that are as strong today as ever. Even the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini have simply transplanted themselves around the world, morphing into whatever shape it needs to in order to regain ascendancy. Worse yet, the forces of fascism and communism seems to be re-merging in ways, subtle and overt, far more successfully than during the very brief pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939-40. It only points up what author Eric Hoffer said decades in his book "The True Believer" that fascists and communists are merely two sides of the same coin.

Since the French Revolution of 1789, utopian movements have been the greatest threat to Christianity and civilization generally. It is the chief trial of our times, and a war of belief, ideas and flesh and blood that will have to be fought over again and again.

Some interesting articles along this line:
The multiculturalism agenda hits Russia. A call to ban Christian symbols in Russia. As if they need this after 80 years of Communism which largely destroyed Christianity in Russia (compared to what its culture had been before the Revolution).

Two interesting articles from the traditionalist Orthodox point of view on trends in our culture.
Orthodox view of globalization, the West, and extremism

Orthodox view of true culture and civilization

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Service vs Worship or Worship and Service

From John 12:1-8

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead.

2There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him.

3Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

4Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray him,

5Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?

6This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.

7Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.

8For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

Today, in the Western Churches, a great deal of focus is given and much effort drafted into solving pressing social issues, such as poverty and injustice. Much of this change of focus of the Church to solving social issues through service has been in the last 40 years since Vatican II. However, the idea of service is not new to the Church (east or west). Centuries ago the Church, through its parishes and monasteries, had set up the first hospitals and lazariums (leper asylums), and provided many ministries to the poor and refuge to travelers. But the Church of today tries to SOLVE or eliminate these problems, whereas the Church in the past had not expected to solve or eliminate them, rather to minister to alleviate the suffering. The Church’s original focus and through the centuries had been first and foremost to worship the true God. Once true worship was established, the effects of grace would then spread throughout the culture, which in itself, could solve, eliminate or prevent many social problems. The ministry through true worship is a longer and harder path and one that requires more faith. But the temptation has always been to take short-cuts.

That the Church had changed its expectation from ministering to solving the world’s problems showed a decided accommodation to the utopianism of our age. There are historical reasons why this shift of expectation has happened. 18th and 19th century Europe experienced many revolutionary and social worker movements which saw the Church (wedded as it had been to the feudal state) as a hindrance to their economical and political freedoms. The French Revolution purged the Church from public life, beginning the spread of aggressive secularization in Europe (and throughout the world) that continues to the present day. By the late 19th century, the popes issued encyclicals that addressed the issues of social inequality, until finally the Roman church “modernized” itself at Vatican II (1965) and set itself the task of solving the social issues of the day in order to inject a Christian influence upon an already ongoing political process. This modernization immediately affected worship practices by detaching the liturgy from its traditional practices towards free-form worship. Contemplative monks and nuns were forced out of the monasteries and convents to perform social work instead of dedicating their lives to prayer, as a life of prayer was seen as useless. In Latin America, this utopian shift towards solving the social problems soon morphed into the Liberation Theology movement, which was often found making common cause with the Communists as gun-toting priests joined their ranks.

The Protestants, generally, also followed the Roman church’s lead into social issues ministries, where now, a congregation is often encouraged to prove its Christian ardor by enrolling in Habitat for the Humanity, soup kitchens, marching against war, or any other ministry that seeks to solve someone problem. Protestant churches was already disadvantaged with very thin worship traditions or devotional practices, but this modern essentially secular drive towards Christian service became in the minds of many as good as, if not better than, mere worship. I remember a Presbyterian pastor tell the story of a missionary/doctor friend of his who worked extremely hard in South Asia ministering to the poor there. This doctor, who had no opportunity for worship, exhausted herself because she kept trying to solve problems which were unsolvable and often very horrific. After five years, she completely lost her faith in God, thinking that this ultimate Problem-Solver didn’t care about poor people as much as she did.

So what is one to make of the verse where Jesus rebukes Judas by saying “The poor you will have with you always, but me you have not always?” (John 12:8). The author of this gospel says that Judas was covering his innate greediness by objecting to the “waste” the woman demonstrated by pouring expensive oil on Jesus’ feet. Judas based his objection on a practical suggestion: “this money could have been used for the poor.”

Was Jesus rebuking Judas only for his greed or perhaps something more? Given our modern practical mindset today, if we were direct observers of this scene, we probably would have been tempted to applaud Judas, thinking he had only suggested something hugely practical to removing the curse of poverty. We would have rejected the silly woman was being impractically mystical, though she was the only one in the crowd who intuitively knew that awe-filled sacrifice that would be required of Jesus.

But Jesus said: “The poor you will have with you always, but me you have not always.” Jesus didn’t rebuke the woman for her worshipful impracticality, but rebuked instead Judas for his mere practicality. It was the woman’s mystical response that was the real solution of the poor state of things, if one looks at this suffering world from a cosmological viewpoint (God is among us, let us bow down) instead of a worldly one (Problem A must be solved or God’s Kingdom won’t come.)

Jesus himself saw worship as the font of everything he did, and he did not reduce worship to the same level as service. Service is not worship, but worship’s outgrowth. Worship must precede service in order for service to do real good and not serve ego or ultimately, the devil. Jesus began his ministry after a sojourn in the desert where he was tempted by the devil to change stones into bread (which could feed the world.) Satan offered him the rulership of all the kingdoms on earth (think what good that Jesus can do with all that power) in exchange for diverting his worship from God to Satan.

Every morning, Mother Theresa began her service to the poorest of the poor with hours of prayer and worship and instructed her helpers to do the same. She would not accept the dubious “help” of any who would not abide by this requirement. She said that without deep prayer and worship, one couldn’t do this work, being too awful, exhausting and unending for a human being to do. For the poor will be with us always, no matter what we do.

To deal with them and any other suffering, Christ must be with us first and we with Him before we put our finite backs to it. If our worship is cast aside or is denigrated and cheapened, if we confuse what worship really is, then our service in time may well evolve into a practical atheism that any government social worker would envy.

Our attention to worship means we have faith in God to ultimately bring us to His Kingdom. To worship God BEFORE we serve means we lay aside our temptation to bring in the Kingdom ourselves.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Year 2K War of Attrition in Church Music

This piece was published five years ago on a forum sanctioned by Mars Hill Church, a postmod group of Christians in Seattle.

There are still occasional flare-ups in the acrimonious debate in church over music and worship styles. Mostly the factions have agreed to disagree and settled into their trenches. In a few places blended services try to sustain the clashing juxtaposition of amplified guitars and rock singers in competition with choirs singing music from the seventeenth century. Maybe it can be made palatable, but when either style runs for more than a few minutes in these services, those of another persuasion tend toward apathy or indignation. In respectable company, market dynamics have stifled debate. Ministers and church Elders have to pay the bills. If pop music is the price to be paid for the participation of generations born since the building campaigns of the fifties, so be it. Musicians with college jobs can have their fling using captive choirs that rehearse often enough to do ambitious works. When college conductors go on the speaking circuit, they know they have to make conciliatory noises respecting the “Trinity” of microphones, drum sets, and guitars. If they don’t, they will not continue to get speaking engagements.
The lamentable irony of this situation is that those of us who can remember an era when choirs in North Dakota were singing Handel and Mozart now have trouble finding a church choir in Seattle or San Francisco that can do as well. Friction has led to compromise, compromise to attrition. Those who think there is more involved in the music debate than the logic of cultural relativism have lost many battles. We’re finding it difficult even to get a hearing for our convictions. A whiskey baritone or breathy blonde crooning into a microphone before the congregation used to raise eyebrows. Now it’s an Elder who wants to hear J. S. Bach who troubles Israel. Elitism, it’s called.
I’ve argued often enough that pop music sends messages incompatible with Christian ideals. It’s evident that most of this is not taken very seriously in the American church. If present trends continue, the musical masterpieces composed under the auspices of the historical church will soon be relegated to the museum. The sentimental comfort of folk rock will replace transcendence and classical form. People who understand why it matters are getting too old and worn out to resist.
I’m not willing to learn to play the guitar, so what am I going to do? Try to be the last man standing when the barbarians completely overrun the territory? Will my cynicism trump an assault of banality and derivative pop? While the horde is stoking the fire, perhaps I’ll sing a Twelfth Century hymn. My last gasp in the flames will be to yell something incoherent about forty-year-old youth directors and how they ought to grow up. But when most of the horde is well over forty and still singing music suitable for Bible camp, my complaint is not going to be heard above the guitar amplifiers. Might as well shut up and burn. The groans of the martyrs will continue to be ignored while the church sings music that would embarrass Tiny Tim!
So why should anybody care if Mozart is banished from the sanctuary? Isn’t the gospel able to survive even the humiliation of tasteless pop art? Don’t we have to contextualize Christianity to communicate with savages? Can’t we dispense with tradition that doesn’t sell? Well, probably three out of four of these questions can be answered with a qualified yes. Yes the church will endure; it survived the Dark Ages and American Revivalism. We have to communicate, and if our traditions are retrograde, they should be jettisoned. It doesn’t follow that classical art can go. First of all, it just isn’t true that classical music doesn’t communicate cross culturally. In fact it communicates to a much wider spectrum of cultures than pop music. Pop music is by its nature trendy and contemporary (literally, of the temporary). Even in America, white middle class youth cultures and the old boomer culture are getting to be sects in the midst of waves of immigrants, urban ethnic groups, and affluent yuppies whose tastes change faster than the church can follow. Classical music is not an elitist style or genre. It is music that still works after hundreds of years. It is cross-cultural. This is the meaning of the word classical.
Why it matters if the church loses Mozart’s masses is similar to the loss the church incurs by losing its connection to history. The American religious landscape is littered with denominations of the church that once tried to start fresh by getting out of stale traditions only to end up odd subcultures of their own led by a collection of quirky preachers or an elite cadre in the college subsidized by their denomination. Generally, the transformation from fresh upstart to oddball sect takes less than a generation. Ministers who got saved worshipping with Jesus people in a park or under a freeway bridge someplace are now old and gray, but many of them are still trying to recapture the moment for people who have grandchildren and now quite different problems than they had in 1971. Folk singing accompanied by acoustic guitars may still be their stock in trade, but that doesn’t mean this music will communicate to Hispanic or Asian immigrants better than Handel or Mozart. A local fringe newspaper, The Stranger, recently featured a hilarious review of Creation 99, a Christian rock festival at the Columbia Gorge. Any illusions that the promoters had about their music’s ability to communicate with hip young moderns should be dispelled by the scorn the author heaped on it. He admitted his mind was made up even before attending this pop Christianity shop-a-thon, but his take on it is worth quoting: “Jesus rock makes about as much sense as shouting Sex-Pistols lyrics during the singing of a church hymn.”
Christian pop is really for people who grew up in the church feeling deprived of the fun everybody else seemed to be having. There is the illusion that because Jesus kept company with outcasts and sinners he wouldn’t have much taste for the refinements of high church culture. Rick Levin, the author of the scandalous article in The Stranger, evidences this prejudice. He prefers to think Jesus would spend his time among young Grunge Rockers in preference to the company of the relatively moderate attendees at the Creation 99 festival. It might be worth considering the possibility that Jesus kept the company he kept out of sympathy for the outcast’s alienation from their peers, not their radical chic. On that view it’s easier to surmise that Jesus would be more sympathetic with the folks who sing Mozart in community choirs than he would with the masses of like-minded enthusiasts at any number of pop churches. As T. S. Eliot apparently quipped: "When the world has gone mad, it’s the fellow bucking the trends who seems so."
For now I’d be satisfied if I thought many people understood that the church should not be a trend follower. Quite the contrary, the church has been a cultural force that has molded culture over many centuries in ways that have raised the status of women, made justice for the poor a social obligation, and institutionalized principles that were the currency of the Reformation such as Presbyterian governance and authority in a document rather than in men. There is even a good case that can be made that the philosophy of science could not have developed in absence of a worldview based on law as found in the Bible from the first chapter of Genesis. Now clearly the church and the rest of human culture stands to lose big if these things are undermined by culture that doesn’t recognize their importance or preserve the foundation for them. Does anybody really believe that American pop culture can sustain these things? Can you argue in good conscience that because Jesus befriended outsiders, he meant to perpetuate the values of those on the fringes of society? To institutionalize callow sentimentality in place of the noblest artistic masterpieces of Western Civilization?
The way the church has transformed Western Civilization has been through the transformation of culture. Thirty years of affluence have sent the musical culture of the church of the ages to the fringes of society. This is a disgrace to the triumphant company of saints and martyrs.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Friday, December 02, 2005

Whither Christian Culture?

Here is a link to an interesting website and blog (it contains numerous articles about and those written by the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson) Dawson wrote about Christianity and culture and some of his works sound as if they were describing our culture today, even though many were written several decades ago. He said: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.”

Question: are Christians losing their culture because they are losing their religion?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Sara F. Wells Jones Religious Arts Society

Originally published by The Crossing at PromontoryArtists.Org:

Sara Jones was probably the most religious person I have ever known. Born the daughter of a sharecropper, she attended Boston University in the 1920s, where she argued eschatology with learned men of an era that brooked little dissent from women, much less black women whose speech betrayed the rural South. Sara argued with the determination of a sidewalk evangelist. While serving in the navy she wouldn't hesitate when moral conduct was unacceptable. In Sara's presence, if the booze was flowing too freely and some admiral had his hands on the women, or women had been in sailors’ laps at too many places at the table, an officer's rank was no protection from an assault on his dignity. Sara's moralism was just as merciless when it applied to her own conduct. I didn't know her until her hands were so arthritic she couldn't open a pickle jar, but she felt the affliction was God's retribution on hands that had signed requisitions for bombs during the Korean War. She had three sons, two of them noteworthy, but the third I didn't even know existed until her funeral. Apparently he was illegitimate, and the shame followed her even in old age.

At times it seemed Sara belonged in the asylum to which her husband had once gotten her committed, but she had held many responsible jobs. After her stint in the Navy, for several years she managed a large apartment complex in Chicago. She had government jobs and worked at the IRS. She could tell hair-raising tales of guilt money at the IRS. She said thousands of dollars comes in every year, cash in envelopes without return addresses, that people send under no duress from the agency but to appease their consciences, most of which goes into the briefcases of executives. Sara had also worked in hospitals and was so repelled by doctors and hospitals that she only went involuntarily even when she broke a bone that had to be set. When the fracture had healed, she never did go back to let them remove a steel pin that was supposed to come out. When anybody tried to reason with her, she would tell the story about a conversation she overheard among doctors. "Put the patient in misery," she claimed they said, "And the family will mortgage everything and draw out every dollar to pay for treatment." She also described the way they put one patient in such misery... .

If the story about mercenary doctors didn’t suffice to keep people from taking her to the hospital, Sara would claim to be a Christian Scientist. It wouldn't surprise me if she were that too. She knew prominent ministers and rabbis all over town and had outlived some of the best of them. Besides the church paraphernalia around her apartment, she had Torah tablets on the doorpost. She had been made a member, honorary perhaps, of Temple de Hirsch Sinai, and she never desisted in lambasting a Rabbi there for permitting rock and roll music on the premises during a wedding that she had attended. If Sara had regularly gone to any of the churches on her circuit, it might have softened her prophetic assault on everything dubious or modern. As it was, she had an arcane Biblical mandate to challenge everybody in her path.

I got acquainted with Sara more than twenty years ago through an organization she founded for the promotion and exchange of religious art among churches and synagogues. Early in its existence the organization was funded in part by the Seattle Arts Commission. Sara knew a succession of mayors, one of whom helped her grant application through the process. Sara probably scared the commissioners into support with more of her stories. Now support for a church related organization would be unthinkable. The Religious Arts Society had an annual concert at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral or First Baptist. It was an exercise in incongruity combining selections from Handel's Messiah or the Brahms Requiem juxtaposed with black spirituals, an Irish tenor known for his renditions of The Star Spangled Banner at baseball games singing Malotte's Lord's Prayer, readings from the Bible or dramatic bathrobe enactments of King David's psalms, children pounding on instruments, and here and there a guitar picker or folk singer. The only guitar player and singer ensemble that lasted more than a couple of seasons was a rabbi-and-daughter combo which reprised nearly every year until the girl went to college.

This organization made me aware of the distinction between Black spirituals and Gospel music. Choirs that sing spirituals are dangerously near extinction. To my everlasting joy I was privileged to hear and occasionally sing with a group from an Adventist church that I met through the Religious Arts Society. They were known as Les Chanticleer. Mildred Tuggle, the director, had scrounged the back shelves of music stores all over the country, finding repertoire for her choir without any research grants and getting little recognition for what she was preserving. The group used to tour extensively, singing at NAACP conferences and such things in addition to church meetings. They sang standards of the genre such as Oh Mary Don't You Weep, City Called Heaven, or My Lord Delivered Daniel along with lesser-known works by Bond, Burleigh or Boatner. This choir was the genuine article. The tenors and basses could really sing in counterpoint to rich altos and sopranos. Their songs made the rafters ring. Since then the choir has had trouble getting engagements and keeping people interested, but their credits were so extensive at one time that they got onto the rosters of booking agencies in the Northwest. When The Andy Williams Show was resorting to Christmas specials in places like Seattle's old Paramount Theater, Les Chantecleer were hired as a backup chorus for Andy's holiday nostalgia fest, probably without full appreciation of the racial and musical constituency of the group. But, Mildred had a contract and the funds to supplement her ranks with whomever could be found to quickly learn Winter Wonderland and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. I got into the act on a rare snowy evening for Andy's tap dancing and the chorus’s backup of wah wahs. I can testify that the spontaneous singing up in the prep room, by a choir in high gear warming up on standards of their own repertoire, was worth much more than the price of admission downstairs. Some of the choir members were shocked at the band leaders tipsy jesting, and Sara Jones, who of course hadn't missed this occasion, let me hear about it all the way home.

Sara, as one might expect, detested pop music and jazz. Her celebrity son in Hollywood was playing the devil's music as far as she was concerned, a sentiment in which many of us in the Religious Arts Society were inclined to concur. No doubt, it was partly her son's prestige that got people to take Sara seriously when she called them about participating in her events. She always invited him and he would send flowers with a note conveying his regrets. When the master of ceremonies would read the card, Sara's reply would be squinty eyed and feisty from under the brim of her bonnet. "They send flowers to dead people," she would retort, or some such thing. She loved her son and prayed for him. She defended him; Solomon had had more wives. But she wasn't interested in using his success to promote art in a contrary tradition. One summer at St. Mark's Cathedral, television cameras showed up in the parking lot before the annual concert. Sara sent them packing back to their studios in the news-team vans in which they had arrived. Nobody was going to turn these sacred festivities and potluck luncheon into a media circus.

Sara attracted attention even while shunning the media. She wrote letters to governors, senators, and mayors. Every new mayor got a Bible in the mail from her, and she expected him to read it. When a lesbian was elected to the city council, Sara wrote Sam Smith, council member and long-time moderator, recommending that the Bureau of Vital Statistics be closed. That was before lesbians had children. Sara was anti war. Heaven help us had she been an animal rights activist! To my knowledge her only foray into Noah’s territory was a letter she wrote to executives of a food conglomerate objecting to overcrowding chickens and forcing them to lay jumbo eggs! Sara's letters were always immaculately typed and hilarious. Into her ninties a sense of humor never left her. She knew what she was doing and might have observed that Jesus was always able to draw a crowd. He put on some dandy potluck luncheons from a few loaves and fishes, but it probably wasn't the food that kept people interested. May it be suggested that the artistry of his discourses had something to do with it?

The Religious Arts Society exhibited artistry from churches in many traditions. It was nothing short of amazing to me when idioms that seemed exhausted of any innovation that could restore their original power suddenly moved the earth beneath me and communicated a humanity more profound than anything contrived by cinematic effects or that of many classical masterpieces. Some of the dreadful music and artistic traditions of the church have become travesties in which it is nearly impossible to recognize the meaning they must have once been able to convey, but a skillful practitioner can still use them in a metaphor that makes even the most cynical modern secularist let down his guard. Finding instances of such artistry is a haphazard affair. One is often in for something akin to culture shock, but having once survived the period of adjustment, the trip to a church where the tambourines are shaking or, for that matter, to hear the choir at a Presbyterian Church just down the street is often a great deal more than could have been imagined or hoped. It would seem that exchanges of the sort provided by the Religious Arts Society could go a great distance toward unity in spirit, if not in polity, among various denominations of the church. The church universal contains a great deal more diversity than most of the organizations making noises about diversity. If this abundance were more visible, it could do Christians a world of good. The process may lead to a winnowing out of some of the charlatans in our midst, which would also be to the good. Finally, the metaphors used to communicate Christian doctrines would have to be improved if they are to get a hearing outside the walls of our meeting places. There might be less preaching exclusively to the choir, if the choir were singing in public more often.

What of the metaphors themselves? Are the cultural artifacts that turn up in churches powerful enough to be mainstreamed or integrated in any way into society? A moment's reflection on this rhetorical question leads to the obvious conclusion that they are already part of our cultural landscape. We need to start thinking more like artists to become aware of them and use them as we have begun to use abstract legal and political discourse and as the church historically has used philosophy. A little more reflection leads to the conclusion that rational people think in images more fluently than they do in abstract deductive arguments. If we want to be able to effectively contest our issues in public, we are going to have to grapple with the monsters already engaged there, many of them brought to life by Christians who have preceded us.
It is probably a good thing that Sara was unwilling to let TV cameras into the cathedral. Before we try to harmonize our voices in a public Fourth-of-July celebration or Christmas Oratorio, the church could use more rehearsals of the sort provided by the Religious Arts Society. There is nothing quite like the refreshing new perspective that is obtained by getting what we do every Sunday out of its habitual milieu and before people who may be familiar with the text we sing but perplexed by its musical setting. Refreshing is perhaps a euphemism for having cold water thrown on you. It's the effect one can imagine if instead of religious television enthusiasts a bunch of Episcopalians became the captive audience in a television church, or the obverse situation of an audience that thrives on religious television at St. Marks Cathedral. The result would probably be unpleasant, but on a more manageable scale, if the exercise could be sustained, it might have the beneficial effect of winnowing out, not only the charlatans, but some of the excesses. It is a fact that Episcopalians can enjoy Gospel music without the big-hair accoutrements. Musicians from many black churches appreciate Handel or Brahms. Texans contribute a great deal of money to the New York Metropolitan Opera, though they are only a radio audience for the Met's broadcasts.

Despite the obstacles, the goal would be to someday have that Fourth-of-July celebration in a public park with a multi-denominational choir singing good settings of The Star Spangled Banner and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and once a crowd has gathered, for the people willing to listen, music representing the best of our church traditions. It could be one swell picnic! Much better than little enclaves of oddly ornamented church groups scattered around the park on a summer holiday, better than the ecumenists dialoging in academic settings or plotting a re-imaging of Biblical theology. The best thing about it would be that religious affiliation becomes indistinguishable while people are waiting for the hamburgers to come off the grill, or, among Adventists, waiting for a slice of cherry pie. Lots of onlookers might start to remember when all this was legal and help us send the ACLU packing with the dispatch Sara used on the TV crew.

That under our belt, Christians in many communities might be able to marshal the musical and financial resources to scare the hell out of everybody with a Verdi Requiem. Imagine massed choirs at the city arena on Good Friday. It would have a somewhat different impact on the community than a Billy Graham crusade. The Verdi Requiem was written for the theater, not under the auspices of the church, but it grabbed the churches' most demonstrably effective images to eulogize the passing of Verdi's idol Alessandro Manzoni. I don't think anybody is going to complain if we borrow our material back. Performing it in public is still perfectly legal.

Musical/dramatic metaphors from church traditions may be difficult to bring off in public, but there are many areas that verge on conventional morality that are not incorporated into music done in church services. Love songs clearly have something to do with family values. They are the stock in trade of a recording industry that could be accused of contributing to the delinquency of minors and abetting juvenile behavior among thirty somethings, forty-and-fifty-somethings who should know better, and even senior citizens. Are the religious music moguls turning out anything that can compete with this and start turning back the tide of immorality washing up on our doorsteps? If they would, maybe they could employ their poet bards in process of regeneration someplace more suitable to their craft than in church, and we wouldn't have to listen to oozy love songs to God on Sunday morning.

Political conventions in American politics have been compared to camp meetings of the revival eras in our history. It is somehow fitting that religious conferences are becoming major events for political organizing. These metaphors are interesting, but the archetypes and the metaphors sometimes fail to communicate, yet people, at least in Western cultures, continue to be indoctrinated and make decisions based on them. Time was when a lot of Americans breathed a sentimental consent hearing: I'm satisfied with just a cottage below/ a little silver and a little gold/ but in that city where the ransomed will shine/ I want a gold one that's silver lined. Now a lot of those folks are putting their money in gold to stave off the ravages of inflation and hide their financial affairs from the government. Apparently the old metaphor isn't working anymore and we're going to have to find more compelling motivation for cheerful persistence in the often-unrewarding responsibilities of everyday life. Is there sufficient spiritual energy to sustain us in the hymn that goes: Living for Jesus a life that is true/ seeking his blessing on all that I do? A prudent and reasonable answer, I think, is it all depends.

Whether the lines of the old songs ring true depends on the depth of character of the singer. When the character of the singer is compromised, somewhat shallow, unschooled in the larger theological framework from which the meager poetry gets its punch, as is most frequently the case, it depends on technique. This is where it gets difficult. A good person, exceptionally persistent in adversity, who has shown strength overcoming hardship, or who is faithful in spite of human failings, can sing the simplest lyric without embarrassing everybody. If they can carry a tune, it just might suffice. People who haven't seen anything admirable in so long they're numb may be convicted and the secrets of their hearts laid bare. In just about every other case I know of, more is going to be necessary than meager art. In the absence of exceptional humanity, we're going to have to rely on technique. Occasionally you find great art in combination with profound humanity and great artistry, and the earth moves. In most cases, in the presence of lesser mortals, that is to say people who have not suffered the kinds of things that require such strength of character, we need better art and artistry.

Who knows what Mozart was really like. Was he Don Giovanni? Given his position of privilege from a youthful precocity it seems more likely that he was the seducer than that he was the feckless, though virtuous, Ottavio. But, his music knows nobility even if he was not himself noble. Maybe he could only imagine things as they should be. The Marriage of Figaro is effective on so many levels that we marvel at its capacity to make us perceive and feel so many important things. Virtuosity without virtue? Possibly. But again, nobility is rare, maybe only an ideal in times like these. We need artists who can show us the ideal, whether or not they can embody it.

Artistry in the church on the threshold of the twenty-first century should be the finest we can muster. Music in church services should be the best music available played or sung by musicians with good technique, because finding musicians who are good enough people to inspire us without technique is an undependable prospect. This doesn't mean we showcase deadbeats. It is simply a matter of auditioning singers and selecting music that has proven its dependability rather than relying on good intentions. Then the larger quest becomes that of finding music that can be depended on to elicit the hidden things. We need to bring the metaphorical monsters out of hiding and slay them. Church may not be the best place to do some of the music that is most able to accomplish this. Then we have to be careful not to defeat our purposes through abstraction. Confinement to the church building and services may unnecessarily eliminate some of the best music. Explaining everything in it can be as deadly to the performing arts as it is to the reading of the Bible. Imagine a performance of The Magic Flute preceded by a long dissertation on music theory.

If we are going to try to do something that doesn't quite belong in church but brings to life subliminal ideas for those schooled in Western culture, probably we won't want to start with something that confuses Christians and completely mystifies secularists. The Wolf-Ferrari oratorio, La Vita Nuova, conflates images of Dante's idealized love for Beatrice with ideals Catholics venerate in the Virgin Mary. This is going to be a risky proposition, not to mention musically difficult, requiring as it does orchestra, exceptional baritone and soprano, and children’s chorus in addition to regular chorus. If these resources were available, it would be safer to do the Brahms Requiem and find something suitable for the children. Opera companies deal with issues of marketability and comprehension for somewhat different reasons. They think they have to produce crankish modern works. Sometimes they give us something good, but even then, Seattle Opera's War and Peace had to wait until people were satisfied that the company could do Rigoletto, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro, etc. If, after a couple of seasons of music that builds confidence among our combined churches' ensemble and trust in the audience, everybody is looking for something adventurous, the Wolf-Ferrari may be just what we need.
Let's look at the problem on a smaller scale. We have a church choir that manages to provide serviceable high church anthems at least a couple of times per month. The choir members are busy, but come to rehearsals fairly regularly. They have sung in school ensembles or played in the band, so enough of them can read music to keep things going. Maybe there are a couple of solo quality voices, or the church budget can manage to pay section leaders and occasionally a few string players. Probably, somebody knows of other choirs in much the same condition at other churches, and somebody probably knows of a community chorus that is also trying to stay afloat in the sea of administrative overhead and costs with which most arts organizations contend. There are really a lot of possibilities here. The community chorus may be delighted to join forces with church groups and have several expansive halls in which to perform. But wait a minute. What about the guitar players in our churches? And all the folks who want to sing folk choruses?

Before we can sing music that works in the community at large even when the singers are not spiritual giants, we have to deal with middle class music. Lots of people prefer callow choruses. We can't just send the guitar players to a church camp someplace where summer never ends. Churches with a sizable constituency of folk singers at odds with traditionalists often fail to resolve the problems this situation raises. Some find themselves dealing with emotions of an intensity the church hasn't seen since the wars of the Reformation era. And this adds to our public credibility problem. In the same way as secularists dismiss Christian theology and its cultural legacy because of the Reformation wars, our neighbors are repelled by the feuding factions of local churches. It used to be said that music is a universal language. In the church it has become an almost universally contested language.

Music from the period of Western standard practice with its roots in the classic period is better than the departures represented by Wagner and Schoenberg, and it is better than pop music. I'm not going justify this dogma here, but I'll persist in it with tenacity exceeding that of Sara Jones in her convictions. If the church is going to speak with any moral authority in the world, it is going to have to celebrate its truths with music that is up to the task. God chose to become incarnate in a human being, not a frog or even the most adorable puppy. To sing of the incarnate Word, we should find the highest forms of music available and learn the idioms of this music just as our seminarians need to learn the Hebrew and Greek idioms of the Bible. There are circumstances where the best that can be found is not up to the standard of that available to educated Americans, but that doesn't change the situation in affluent American churches. Having said that, I am willing to concede that we are not going to solve our practical problem on the basis of which music is better or even more suitable for our purposes.

I think the problem is one of alienation, not one of musical form. Lots of guitar players have classical music in their record collections and most choir singers have been to summer camp for singing around the fire to the strumming of guitars. But once somebody has connected with a community of one cultural disposition, it is hard for them to imagine giving it up. In a manner similar to conversion to Christianity in a Muslim society, conversion to classical music alienates people from much of the old culture and more importantly from people who still value the old forms. Still, in absence of coercion, it is often possible to find areas of convergence between cultures. All people are made in the image of God. We might expect large areas that can be shared by Muslims and Christians. In the same way there are probably areas that can be appreciated by both classicists and infidels.

What seems to have happened in the area of church music is that, in the larger culture within which American churches exist, popular music idioms shared by baby boomers and succeeding generations of pagan savages are tending to overwhelm civilization and decency. When church services sound like a pale imitation of incantations at the coliseum, it is not surprising that thirty-somethings don't feel much loyalty to Christian incantations. It's just another ritual and not a very good one at that, because, most places, the show isn't as entertaining as the circuses at the coliseum. An hour listening to National Public Radio's program, The World, is enough to verify that boomer music is invading even the territories of Indonesian cults. You hear throat singers from Borneo backed up by what sounds like Barry Manilow's band.

Maybe in some backhanded way this should give us hope. If Indonesian throat singers prefer tonal scales and harmonic progression once they've heard it, there may be grist for the mill that drives musical standards at conservatories and academic discussions of music in general. We can at least eliminate the nihilism of most twentieth century music. But how are we going to get the guitar pickers to repent?

It seems the only hope is something like Sara's Religious Arts Society. A good jolt of real diversity and the ensuing culture shock could unsettle everybody enough to talk to one another. When we start searching for something we can do together, we might find that music that can be written down in standard notation is necessary. From there it isn't too far to polyphony and more ambitious programming. In the mean time, we can enjoy the differences, because there is some real poetry to be found in our midst. If nothing else we can get acquainted again. The church really does need all of its members. Some of the humblest types find ways to restore the meaning and dignity of old forms. Even some old classicists can be revived.