Simple gifts

Shakers dance

Who will bow and bend like a willow
Who will turn and twist and reel
In the gale of simple freedom …

– Shaker spiritual

John Ciardi said that the poet is known by the valor of his refusals. So too the saint. But the austerity of self-limitation is not what we might have expected from the Wooster Group, the edgy New York City troupe long known for its Dionysian blends of experimental theater and multimedia technologies. Their latest production, however, not only reincarnates the music of the Shakers, it does so with a minimalist restraint worthy of that nearly extinct American sect.

Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation presents all 20 songs from side A of a 1976 LP recorded at the dwindling Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After the liner notes for each song are read aloud, four women in plain 19th century dress sing along with the actual spinning record as it is transmitted to them through wireless receivers. The voice of Suzzy Roche is especially haunting, lean and lonesome and saturated with pastness like a faded tintype. While we listen to these contemporary reproductions of long departed voices, we sometimes hear the faint traces of the original recorded sound leaking into the room from the women’s earpieces. As the New York Times has written: “The aural effect is subtle and eerie, suggesting a kind of phantasmal possession of the present by the past or, if you prefer, the eternal.”[i]

Sitting quietly, passive and still, replicating out loud what they are hearing in their ear, the singers seem to be channeling something not of their own making, a transcendent voice entering the present world by first passing through their own souls and bodies. It feels like the spiritual ventriloquism of biblical prophecy. What shall I sing? Sing this. How fitting for a repertoire which the Shakers often attributed to the gifts of unseen spirits or divine inspiration.

The contrast of the singers’ personal inexpressiveness with such passionate, ecstatic and sometimes eschatological song texts (“with leaping and with dancing / we’ll hail the jubilee”) only strengthens the sense of otherness. What they sing does not come from them, but through them. It is not a spontaneous construct whipped up by emotional display. Such unassertive transparency achieves a strange oracular force. We hear a message from beyond.

Even when the singers rise from their chairs to approximate the original Shaker dances, it is not an exaltation of the self, but a yielding to the higher rhythms of divine choreography. As they reel, turn and twist to “shake out all the starch and stiffening,” they do not express. They surrender.

When I saw this compelling performance the other night in Los Angeles’ Redcat Theater, I was transported – whether to the past, or to the eternal, who can say? But I came away touched by a larger world than my ordinary domain. Voices distant in time had spoken to me. And is this not analogous to the eucharistic liturgy? We listen to ancient voices as if they were here and now, and speak their words from our own lips. Transparent presiders at the altar reproduce actions first performed in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. If we manage to keep our ego out of the way in the liturgy, the eternal Word, like that 1976 Shaker recording, may be heard and received in the fresh particularity of the now.

Some of the Wooster Group might take issue with my theological interpretation. Frances McDormand, the ensemble’s best-known actress, has resisted the religious dimensions of the Shaker tradition, preferring to stress the communal qualities of their musical environment. “It’s not religiously based,” she said in an interview. “It’s more poetic. There are parables to it, but it’s not about Jesus so it’s a little bit easier to take.”[ii]

Such indifference to Christian theology and practice is the common currency of secular modernity, the default position posing a perpetual challenge to those who would speak of faith. Many people think of Jesus and Christianity as something over and done, at least for them.

And yet, here is a cutting edge theater troupe performing religious songs without irony or ridicule, in a creative simulacrum of the otherness of the music’s reputedly transcendent source. While I won’t presume to baptize the Wooster Group, or attribute overt belief where it is explicitly denied, I still wonder whether there might yet be something larger at work in the world than any of us are able either to understand or admit. Whatever the Wooster Group actually thinks about what they are doing, and whatever ideas I might have about it, the “simple gifts” of love and delight go on being given and being received. Whether the mechanism of that exchange can be adequately described or named is perhaps the least important part of the whole thing. Experience trumps the language we put to it. In the end, you don’t need to possess the perfect map before you can dwell in “the valley of love and delight.” You’re already there. Its song is already whispering in your ear.

[i] Ben Brantley, The New York Times, May 29, 2014

[ii] James Kim interview with Frances McDormand, KPPC radio, Jan. 21, 2015


Faith’s endangered habitat

Teton presider

American Christianity is in numerical decline – no news to the inhabitants of graying churches. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 20% of the population has no religious affiliation. Just five years ago, that number was 15%. Among adults under thirty, 32% are unaffiliated, with little prospect that they will become more religious as they grow older. According to the study, affiliation does not increase as a particular generation advances through the life cycle. The younger generations will remain less affiliated even as they age. If each succeeding generation continues the trend of rejecting institutional religion, will churchgoers become an endangered species?

The habitat for practicing believers has certainly been compromised. The inanities and hypocrisies of media evangelists, the ignorant ravings of fundamentalists, the hatred and violence of religious extremists have all marred and polluted the public landscape of religion. But that in itself need not be fatal. Christianity has a venerable history of toxic clean-up campaigns, with saints and prophets leading the way. A far more serious threat is the steady shrinkage of habitable environments for faith communities, as individualism, materialism and secularization encroach steadily upon the perceptions and behaviors that make religion sustainable. How can the community of God’s friends persist when God has become, for so many, not just unnecessary but virtually unthinkable?

Modernity has, over the last 500 years, gradually detached western culture from transcendent necessities. God is no longer assumed to be the creator and sustainer of every moment, the all-encompassing reality in whom we live and move and have our being. While individuals might retain a strong personal connection with God, the social world is seen as a self-governing reality, not requiring reference to anything “higher” or “beyond” in order to function or develop. Once the sacred dimension was expunged from the world, and “the last king had been strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” human life could achieve full independence from the constraints of any sacred order or transcendent reality beyond itself.

With God demoted from the ever-present sustainer of life to its original but now absent designer, it was not long before God seemed no longer necessary at all for the construction of meaning or purpose. As Charles Taylor writes in The Secular Age, “The modern social imaginary no longer sees the greater trans-local entities as grounded in something other, something higher, than common action in secular time.” In other words, the inherited modern culture in which we live and move and have our being has no apparent or practical need of God to explain things or provide the sources of human flourishing.

When Christians worship or pray or converse among themselves, they radically contradict such premises of modernity, but in the largely unconscious, ingrained, or automatic behaviors of everyday living, it is hard not to find ourselves reverting to the default position of the culture: simply acting without God in mind. Or in our bones. In the words of German theologian Eberhard Jüngel, “It would appear, then, that God has no place in our thought and thus has no place in our language. [God] does not occur, has no topos (place, position).”

This “placelessness” of God is what I mean by the erosion of sustainable habitat for communities of faith. If God has no place in the behavior or even the thought of so many people, why would religion make any sense at all to them, except as a provider of purely human benefits such as community or charity? No wonder the churches dwindle.

Then what do we make of these statistics: 68% of the unaffiliated say they believe in God, 58% feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, 37% call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” 30% have had religious or mystical experience, and 21% say they pray every day. Evidently many are still trying to retain a connection with something deeper than the everyday, with a necessary mystery beyond themselves. However, only 10% of them are interested in seeking religious community. Most would rather be spiritual but not religious.

I’m not sure that’s really possible. We might wish to declare independence from the limitations and messiness of human institutions and opt for the purity of personal practice, but “bowling alone” (to cite Robert Putnam’s famous term for the erosion of civic and communal engagement in America) misses the point of engaging our deeper selves.

Christians say we are made in the image of a Trinitarian (= social and interdependent) God, and we best praise and contemplate and grapple with that communally complex divine reality in the company of others: not only joining with the local worship assembly or even the wider Church on earth, but with the friends of God in every age who cry “Holy!” for all eternity, dancing with the Triune Love Who Loves Us. You can’t worship by yourself anymore than you can be in love by yourself. Worship needs a choir.

Even in private prayer, you use words and images supplied by tradition, and reinforce deep connections with others now absent from you. Even beholding the beauty of a sunset, you do it in company with the poets and painters and photographers who have given you an eye for the beauty of things.

The difference between solo spirituality and religious belonging is like the difference between a lion in the zoo and a lion on the savannah. You need a broad and healthy habitat to flourish. Can the habitat of faith and worship survive and be restored? Will things which were cast down be raised up, and things which have grown old be made new?

God only knows.