Sunday, October 26, 2008

Liberace in Church

This morning on NPR, I heard a piece concerning a new breed of church organ player.  Wait -- don't stop reading.  The man leading the way wears leather tights and wild hair, and he's replaced the church organ with a grandiose electronic keyboard. He's a youtube star, has rock albums, and has changed the way people in New York City think of (if they think of) organists.  His flamboyant musical style has drawn a few critics, of course; the dissenters generally refrain that church music should never be showy. His pastor disagrees.  She says that the "Greatest Story Ever Told" is a dramatic one, so what's better to represent it than a little theater? "Churches have lower attendance than ever," she said; "People need a grand performance to bring them back."

OK. That statement has had me scratching my head all morning.  My first instinct, informed by a very reserved Methodist background, was to bristle. Is it ok for someone to advocate bringing in congregants with a show? If someone decides to come to church, should it not be for a number of personal spiritual reasons -- not to see Liberace?  

Then I realized that habit, not how I really feel about the theatricality of church, initiated that reaction. Methodists, by their name, like order, neatness, predictability, logic.  You don't wave your hands or dance; he who speaks in tongues would probably be ushered out.  You don't shout out "Amen!" -- you sit with a kind of reserve that borders on boredom.  You take what you're given. You rise to sing, recite the creeds, sit, and file out. While I have represented this as dry and uninspiring, I have found the rituals comforting.  And I always get more from the hymns than the sermon. Always. Either silence or music lead the way to God -- not talking. It's never been talking for me.

So what if this NYC organist walked into my church this morning and began representing the gospel with wild runs, dramatic crescendos, and cacophonous dissonance? Whether it inspired or outraged, wouldn't it awaken me? Wouldn't it interrupt that slumber that descends over every person, now and again?  And what if people came for the music? What if they stayed for the verses? For the people? What if it led them to some other religion that inspired them? What if it led to soul-searching, inspired them to be better people, moved them to do something greater for the world than they'd thought of before? There's really nothing bland about Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam -- why should the services that represent them be anything less? 

1 comment:

Anna said...

To me, ceremony of any kind involves some element of theatre, austere as it may be. That is not to say that because it is theatrical it must lack meaning, as the Puritans would have you believe. They are right that sometimes the meaning of the ceremony and theatre gets lost, but you're right, too, that sometimes the theatre can bring new people to new ways of thought, belief, and meaning.
(why do I feel the need to comment on everything I see on the internet when I'm on heavy drugs?)