Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

What is religion? part I

by Collie Collier
June 2005 Firestarter column

A few days ago I ran across something interesting on-line: the performance of a Clown mass Eucharist. It was offered in the Trinity Church of St. Paul's Chapel in New York City, on May 22. This initially sounded a bit weird to me, and the photos certainly showed a... somewhat unusual service in progress. Was this holy, or a farce? Was it even religion? So, of course, I nosed curiously around to find out more.

The service

The bulletin from the week before the clown mass had some pertinent references from the Bible, out of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. I found that amusingly apropos, since I suspect there were many who smugly considered themselves the only true and superior followers of Jesus' teachings, at that time so soon after his death. I can see how Paul's teachings would potentially alarm them, much as the clown mass initially looked rather alarming.

From the bulletin (with a few notes of my own for clarity):

1 Corinthians 3:

18 You should not fool yourself. If any of you think that you are wise by this world's standards, you should become a fool, in order to be really wise. 19 For what this world considers to be wisdom is nonsense in God's sight. As the scripture says, "God traps the wise in their cleverness;" 20 and another scripture says "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are worthless."

1 Corinthians 4:

10 For Christ's sake we are fools; but you are wise in union with Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! We are despised, but you are honored! 11 To this very moment we go hungry and thirsty; we are clothed in rags; we are beaten; we wander from place to place; 12 we wear ourselves out with hard work. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are insulted, we answer back with kind words. We [sic] no more than this world's garbage; we are the scum of the earth to this very moment!

1 Corinthians 1:

18 For the message about Christ's death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God's power.
Heady stuff, I imagine, in that time where ordinarily power was life, and powerlessness an evil to be devoutly avoided. Considering the tiny new sect of Christianity was less than 50 years old when those perplexing lines were penned, and that its leader had been crucified by those in power, this must have been truly a religious mantra or koan requiring meditation and revelation to understand.

Unfortunately, I suspect the little cult was also already riven with factionalization as well... much like today:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, --in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil.

-- Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities
Ah, well... we live, we learn, we forget and do it all over again. Back to the present: the bulletin for the actual ceremony seemed to have some nice points in it too. I've noted a few of them here:
  • The word "clown" originally meant "clod" -- a lowly sort of person who did the lowliest of tasks.

  • The clown's historic makeup is a symbol of death and resurrection. Thus, a clown's face is a reminder that we are on a journey from death to life, the classic Easter message.

  • A historic clown axiom is: "the most powerful person in the world is the one who can give power away." The cross, symbol for death and suffering, became a symbol for victory and life... Jesus calls us to give away power, to be servants, to be foolish for Christ in a world that sees the giving away of power as foolishness.

  • God is not rational or logical by human standards. Look at the delightful and illogical looking animals -- giraffes, anteaters, etc. Most of the Judges in the Old Testament wouldn't have made it through the first round in an interview process! The Prophets -- one who saw wheels in the air, another who was swallowed by a great fish, one who marries a woman of the streets -- none of it seems rational. Jesus' command: Love your enemies, "take up your cross," be like a child, become servants. These are illogical by the world's standards.

  • God works through principles of comedy. In comedy there is the "bringing down" of someone, and through a non-heroic means, the person is lifted up higher and better than before. That is what happened in the conversion of Paul. This is what happened in the Old Testament to the people of Israel. In fact, that is what happened the first Christmas. God down to humanity [sic], and through an apparent non-heroic savior was lifted up in such a way that we can catch a glimpse of God in human flesh, and we are uplifted, too.

We are called to be "fools for Christ's sake," to be weak so that others can be strong. What an honor and privilege that calling is!

Interesting. Bizarre sounding, but still thought-provoking. However, one of my pet peeves is people raving about how awful or wonderful something is when they've not even bothered to experience it for themselves. I wanted to be fair when assessing this rather peculiar sounding service, so I watched the video of the service -- all hour and a quarter of it.

The video

I was surprised -- it was really rather nice!

Christ without gender

There were a couple of interesting side effects of the clown costumes. The one which most startled me was their unexpected androgynyzing effect. For example, one of the clergy members was dressed as a small, ragged Charlie Chaplin look-alike, which I found poignantly apropos.

I've always liked the pathos of Chaplin's sad faced hobo "everyman," who always did his best to survive with gentle dignity the uncaring coldness of life. His presence there spoke volumes, I thought. After all, if anyone could be seen as needing a bit of Christian kindness, and as always being grateful for any freely offered helping hand, surely it would be him. When Jesus speaks of doing kindness to him every time you do a kindness to any of his children, I always thought of someone like Charlie Chaplin's Little Hobo.

The clergyman portraying the hobo did a very nice job, too, so you can perhaps imagine my startlement when he spoke -- and it became clear he was actually a woman! Mentally reviewing, I realized I'd assumed most of the clergy were male, but in actuality it really wasn't clear. The clown suits and the mime's outfit both were gender obscuring. Frankly, considering there's supposed to be no male or female in Jesus, I thought that was quite thought-provokingly smart of them -- even if it wasn't deliberate.

Gesture & silence as symbol

The mime who interpreted the first verses of Genesis amazed me -- I found the performance quite poignant. The gestures were slow, graceful, and evocative; when coupled with the sound effects it became a surprisingly effective means of communication. You could hear the cosmic wind of God's voice over the gathering waters of the universe, you could see the reverent wonder on the mime's face as (s)he saw the beginning of Light, or "touched" a new-made tree. I couldn't help but smile at the plaintive singing calls of whales as they were created and formed and, at one point, gently but firmly nudged off into the new oceans.

The closing had spoken words as well as sound effects, including some famous statements from a few of humanity's more damaging self-created disasters. It was bittersweet to watch the expression of pained understanding, to realize free will doesn't just allow humanity to make its own individual choices -- it also makes their deities suffer while watching the inevitable growth pangs in the journey to knowledge and understanding.

The lack of vocal communication in the service was ultimately quite fascinating to me -- it made all the gestures far more significant and fraught with meaning. You could tell everyone was really, truly there in the moment, doing their utmost to share their meaning solely through body language and sound. As someone who believes in actions more than words, the clear reverence and joy they were embodying was extraordinarily meaningful -- startling so, in fact, as I'm most used to monotone sermons, which are long on words but short on emotion.

It's true the meaning of specific interpreted verses was occasionally not absolutely clear, which I later found was a big issue for the service's detractors. However, it's not like we always completely understand the absolute and ultimate meaning of Biblical verses either. Even when you're reading the original archaic Aramaic or a more recent Latin translation, the Bible's message is still occasionally referred to as a holy mystery.

Religious inclusion

One of the other things I particularly liked about the service was the deliberate inclusion of the congregation in the ceremony. I don't just mean the Eucharist, either -- I'm talking more about the clergy not all staying up on their pedestal/stage, away from the people. Frankly, I've never thought religious services should be treated like art performances, so it was nice to see the clergy several times move out to do things with the crowd.

The time I liked best was when the clergy exchanged slow, gentle hugs and touched foreheads with each other, then with the congregation seated on the aisles -- and then encouraged them to turn and do the same to the other congregation members seated next to them. It was nice to see the people quietly greeting and hugging each other; shared joy and reverence is always nice to see.

Music, the food of love

The music, which included wordless choral arrangements, was lovely and harmonic, and included one piece I recognized as a classic church hymn (I didn't recognize the others). The choir, which was also dressed a bit unusually, seemed to be enjoying themselves, swaying along with the music they were singing.

It was nice to see the congregation continue to sing the final hymn along with them at the end of the service, as the clergy all processed out. I was pleased to see the congregation seemed happy and comfortable enough to stay and sing through to the end, showing they weren't discomfited. It was even nicer to see them sticking around to chat and laugh with others afterwards once they exited the church.

As a friend of mine who saw a bit of the video over my shoulder said, there didn't seem to be many smiling people in the close-ups. However, as I amusedly replied, when do you ever see people smiling in church? True, I wouldn't have taken communion in that service, but that's no indictment on the clergy or the service -- I've never taken communion. I've carefully considered the implied offered "bargain," and I've never felt able to live up to my side of it. Until I do, I don't feel it would be right of me to accept communion.

Thinking about it, I remember only two or three people who seemed negative, as opposed to neutral or happy. Curiously, they were all middle-aged or older white males, which I found fascinating. My thought was maybe they were indirectly upset at the subversion of the established religious hierarchy -- because maybe that also suggested the assumed second-class status of women and non-whites isn't divinely ordained either! Gosh, what a concept.


That was a little sad, but not really that big a deal -- 2 or 3 unhappy guys aren't uncommon in a congregation of about 360 or so. Further, when I checked the on-line bulletins for the two previous months I saw it was a slightly higher than usual number of attendees -- so that was good also.

No, what really blew me away was the almost quivering, foam-flecked rage of some of the supposed Christians on-line who wrote about this Eucharist. I'm not exaggerating with that choice of phrasing, unfortunately -- here are some of the quotes:

From one blog: "I don't know what translation these people use and I don't want to know... can't have any dignity... self-indulgent tripe... ridiculous displays," and later in the Comments section of the same blog: "I weep" ... "Couched within the absurdity of absurdities, lies the dismantling of all that is sacred to those who know the Risen Lord."

Another blog's lengthy Comments section contained the following gems: "like a train wreck I can't take my eyes off of" ... "offends me to the deepest core" ... "demonic" ... "effectively inviting the general population to eat and drink to their own condemnation" ... "I didnt [sic] look to [sic] close for too long but I saw enough. I didn't want to have those images burnt in my mind which would make me sick and mad for the rest of my day" ... "unspeakably repugnant... grotesque mockery" ... "wondering if the world was truly and finally coming to an end" ... "it places our interpretation of the Word above the Word itself" ... "bordering on evil" ... "it's an act of aggression."

In yet another blog you find the following, "If you are able to stomach it... be very afraid... see why the Episcopal Church in the United States is dying... Thank God that the Episcopal orders are invalid... I hope you haven't eaten yet... No doubt they will go out to their coffee shops, and book clubs the next day and talk about how much of a spiritual event it was."

From the comments: "I'm still experiencing shock. I have to go pray. I doubt if I feel right [sic] for quite a while... How can people take something so beautiful and turn it into something so awful? The creep factor is off the scale" ... "creeping me out... made me feel very sick... sort of like dirty almost... demonic" ... "blashpehmous [sic] abomination" ... "apostacy"

And finally, from a Live Journal account: "utter disrespect... calculated weirdness... implied deconstruction of all revelation, from Incarnation to Scripture to Sacrament to human language itself."

Say what?!

To misquote a delightfully pragmatic friend, "Dude, WTF? Did a clown kill your dad or something?!"

To be fair, I should not include only the negative. Refreshingly, there were a very few folks who actually watched the whole ceremony and spoke well of it. One person, in fact, mentioned it was the best rendition of Genesis they'd ever experienced.

I wish more folks had spoken up who weren't just writing in their kneejerk reactions, but at least there were two or three who did. No, I wasn't one of them. Call it cowardice or laziness if you like, but I'd rather finish this Firestarter and link it in, instead of trying to address the issue piecemeal.

In the end, the comment which I found saddest was the following: "I am not an evangelical Bible-thumper of any type -- just an ordinary Christian believer who does not like to see my religious symbols desecrated by nonbelievers no matter how sincere they may be."

Unfortunately, I think the writer misses the point: these were not nonbelievers. They were devout members of the Christian religion, holding a religiously meaningful ceremony.

I emphatically do not espouse mockery of the symbols of another's religion. Let's be very clear here, though: that's not what was happening in this ceremony. No mockery was implied, and the clergy treated their holy symbols with visible awe and reverence.

"I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member!"
-- Groucho Marx

We can say someone is not of our particular flavor of Christianity, and we can throw them out of our club or church. However, we emphatically don't get to say whether someone else is actually a Christian or not, because we can't see into their hearts. In the end, only the Christian god gets to say who is or is not a Christian! For us to believe otherwise is grossest hubris.

Was the ceremony actually holy? Literally, God knows. Frankly, I've often wondered what holiness remained in empty ritual phrases routinely parroted without belief, caring, or love. How can we condemn reverent silliness, when we routinely have to cope with clergy who are smug, greedy, hypocritical, or self-righteous? This ceremony at least had heart.

Reflection & interpretations

So what are my objections to the objectors? Well, something that rather disturbed me were all the comments regarding the hearing of the spoken "Word" being a requirement for understanding and salvation. Do these so-righteous commentators really believe you must hear and speak the Word in order to be saved? Surely they're not truly saying there's nothing but automatic damnation for those who cannot hear or speak?

Further, how do they know they really understand the true Words of their god? Have they forgotten what they're reading is a "best-effort" translation from other now-dead languages? Maybe they should go back to the original printed Latin verses -- or better yet, the original ancient Greek and Aramaic. Heck, if they want to spout off about really complete religious understanding, they should wait until their deity personally speaks to them.

Regarding dignity, I suspect the objectors are projecting a little of what they want, instead of what their god wants. The great majority of Old Testament prophets talk about speaking with YHWH as a terrifying, mind-boggling, body-straining experience. Having what looks like foaming epileptic fits surely can't be categorized as a calm and dignified experience -- yet that's what the prophets (and Mohammed also, interestingly enough) describe when they're "touched" by God.

For that matter, perhaps the objectors should remember Jesus himself wasn't that big on inflated personal dignity, dogmatized pomp and ceremony, or being constantly kowtowed to. If he was, surely he'd have hung out with the ritual-bound scribes and Pharisees? Instead he hung around with and taught slow-witted peasant fishermen, despised tax collectors, and second-class women.

He could have maintained the status quo quite comfortably, but he didn't -- he shook things up, shocked bystanders, and made people think. Wouldn't it logically follow that it's up to Jesus -- not us with our imperfect understanding -- as to whether worship of him is suitably reverent or not?

Had this occurred in some Third World country, would all these currently furious Christians have just amusedly noted the "child-like naiveté of the natives' understanding of god"? What if the priest had dressed in a three piece suit instead of the clown suit, or the usual costume -- would that have been all right? If so, why is that so much worse than a clown suit? What if all the priest owned was jeans and a T-shirt -- wouldn't the priest then have faithfully performed Jesus' injunction to own only the bare necessities?

Humor is classically the way for the oppressed to laugh at the cruelties and injustice of life. How is this any different? This is humor for the powerless, directed at the pompous and self-important -- and it looks like they're upset.

The clownish outfits didn't really disturb me that much, since they reminded me of the medieval mummers plays. Would our modern religious "costumes" be any less ridiculous to a person of Jesus' time? Odds are we'd be shocked by a church ceremony performed during that time period, after all.

In the end, I'm not sure what all the fuss was about. I find these reactions rather sad. Is their faith so fragile that they can be shaken to their core by someone different than them, performing one Eucharist in an unusual manner?

I'm still thinking about this, and I may have more thoughts next month. Until then, may you all find both what you need and what you seek.

Reader comments

06.08.05: Anvil*'s thoughts

(and my reply)

Oh my, clowns in the church.
What next fishermen/carpenters/prostitutes/beggars/lepers

History records one teaching by example. Attempting by word and deed to break down hollow dogma where rich trappings and ceremony cloud meaning and intent as well as any traveling magic show. Those actions speak of reforming hearts and minds and not in creating new institutions of religious elitists.

Preferring to remember him as a teacher myself. Someone very approachable and amiable to converse with. I do not dwell on his death and will not glorify his torture over his having lived. So many seem determined to keep him forever nailed to a cross, silencing his intent for their own.

You've noticed that too -- that almost ghoulish desire to keep him constantly writhing in painful torture? Some of the saints and Stations of the Cross in European cathedrals actually scared me as a small child. They were incredibly bloody and horrific. ;-p

I always thought that focus on Jesus' death a rather unpleasant one; apparently it's also a recent development. From what I've read, and if I'm remembering correctly, it was more Easter and the Resurrection which was glorified in pre-Victorian times. I wonder what caused our perverse preoccupation with death and pain? It's certainly epitomized by Mel Gibson's horrific snuff film "
The Passion of the Christ."

I quite agree: I'd rather remember Jesus as a quietly intense, simple and sincere teacher.

01.31.06: Rob's thoughts

(and my replies)

(I'm not mad, I like this kind of conversation! ;) )

Welcome! I'm glad to hear you enjoy this type of conversation, and happy to engage in it with you. ;)

I read through your writings on religion, and (to me) it seems not so much an exploration of the nature of religion but rather an exclaimation of why the most organized of the major religions (Catholism?) get it wrong. You do this without seeming to understand the theology behind Christian masses (I assume, because you never try to address the sacrements of a standard mass as a counter-example example to the clown mass.)

Oh, dear. If you feel my articles were more about how organized religion "gets it wrong," rather than about the nature of religion helping to form fundamentalist thought, then I've obviously not been clear enough in my writing -- which is a disappointment to me.

My goal in these particular Firestarters was to try to comprehend what might cause folks to be so hatefully enraged at what appeared to be a strange but respectful religious service. From there I began to wonder how they could possibly believe they
personally were the purveyors of all that is right and true in the religion.

How could they think religious rituals must be done the same way for ever and ever without fail -- always and only the way
they thought things should be done? How could they believe they were the arbiters of deciding which religious sacraments or masses are "real"? Shouldn't that be the job of their deity? I wanted to explore possible reasoning and motivation for this behavior.

Also, if I correctly understand your statement above, you seem to believe Catholicism in particular, and perhaps the other "most organized of the major religions" in general, have a theology behind their masses which obviates any need or desire for Clown Masses. I'm getting the impression you have particular sacraments in mind; may I ask which they are, and how you believe their theology refutes any other possible type of mass?

If you are going to hold it against people for reacting to a "Clown Mass", explore why.

Umm... I did. In the very next Firestarter, in fact. ;)

Just because a people have a consistent, unified view, it does not mean it they are "elitist" or oppressive. And even when they do, it does not go so far as to suggest they are opposed to the different angles other religions offer. Understandable, when masses such as the Clown Mass are performed, it looks more like a stunt. It appears to be anaffront to a standard mass, because such approaches to religion are rarely put into theological and philisophic context. For this reason, this lack of acedemic, theological context, it instead seems relativistic. And to religions like Catholism, relativistic worship is not highly reguarded because it devoids sacrement. It's structureless spirituality, devoid of a unified, singular meaning.

What do you think?

Oh, I don't think a consistent and unified view automatically creates elitist oppression, and if you read the two Firestarters again I suspect you'll see I never stated such. I'm not sure I agree with your assertion that an oppressive elite is necessarily tolerant of other religions, however -- that's certainly not been my experience, nor have I read about such an occurrence in history.

I'm also fairly sure you did not follow the links I had to the information the church provided for the Clown Mass. I thought those handouts gave a very nice theological context for why the Clown Mass was performed. However, if you've not read any of the handouts nor seen the actual mass, I can certainly understand your believing the entire thing was nothing more than an attention-grabbing, relativistic stunt.

I'm not sure why a secular context (regardless of whether it is academic or philosophical) for a religious ceremony would be helpful to those religious individuals who choose to participate, however? Further, while Catholicism is very fond of highly structured hierarchy, that doesn't necessarily mean they are
correct... merely that they're good at creating long-standing hierarchies. ;)

Finally, from your emphasis on Catholicism I get the impression you believe the Clown Mass was held in a Catholic Church. However, if you follow the links I provided you'll discover this was an Episcopal mass at an Episcopal church.

Thank you for writing! I enjoy feedback; hope to hear back from you again. Cheers! ;)