What is religion? part I
by Collie Collier
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 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.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:
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.
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.
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."
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