Advent adventures in worship (Part 1: The Electric Eschaton)

Multimedia liturgy at Greenbelt Festival in 2006

Multimedia liturgy at Greenbelt Festival in 2006

When I engage in worship design, there is usually some kind of balance – or tension – between tradition and innovation. Tradition is valued for its accumulated wisdom, its hard-won knowledge of what works and what is fitting or ‘true.’ Tradition grounds worship in a shared language and culture by which we are deeply formed over time. And the stability of tradition as something familiar and repeated makes it a repository of meaningful associations, memories and feelings for the community.

Innovation is equally valuable, not only as an antidote for rigidity, staleness, and the idolatry of accustomed forms, but also as a welcoming of divine surprise and the freshening winds of the Spirit. Whenever we enter a new environment, our senses go on heightened alert until we get our bearings. We need to pay close attention. You can’t sleepwalk through strange territory. And so it is with innovative worship. As Jesus counseled, it is imperative to ‘stay awake,’ and even slight shifts in the forms and practices of worship can help this happen.

As the liturgical season when the old is judged and found wanting and the new is never quite what anyone expects, Advent seems particularly suited to a disruption of routine and the intrusion of novelty into the worship experience. Unusual texts and music, film clips, drama, choral readings, dance, and generous silences are among the options. I once showed up as John the Baptist, walking barefoot up the aisle of a congregation who (except for the rector who planned this surprise) did not know my face. I shouted about broods of vipers, warned them to repent, and urged them to keep watch for the One who is coming. Then I left as suddenly as I had arrived. Reviews were mixed!

The two most adventurous Advent liturgies I have curated were both a long time ago, when experiment was in the air for both the culture and the church. Whether such experiences now seem merely aberrant curiosities, relics of a vanished past, or pioneering models with continuing resonance for emerging forms of church, others can judge. But if you will indulge me, I would like to read them into the record, for what it’s worth.

The first took place in 1968 at the chapel of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was in my last year of seminary. Every senior was required to preach once to the community, and my turn came in the third week of Advent. Since I was experimenting at the time with both 16mm film and audiotape collage, I decided to do a multi-media sermon, which I called The Electric Eschaton.

1968 was a year of apocalyptic turbulence, so there was no shortage of material for Advent preaching. During the summer and fall I gathered hours of audio from television and radio: news, commercials, fragments of movie dialogue and TV shows, as though they were pieces of a great cultural puzzle that could collectively convey the dynamics of a world in upheaval. There was no Internet for searching and downloading. There weren’t even VCRs. Anything I taped was acquired during live broadcasts, using a cassette recorder with a microphone placed near the television or radio.

As a child I had been fascinated by the random sampling of sounds produced by the continuous slow turning of an AM radio dial late at night. Pulled out of context and juxtaposed with one another by pure chance, these slices of voice, music and static together created their own kind of coherence, both familiar and strange, like utterances from a Delphic oracle or the collective unconscious.

When an old school friend, John White, played me his own experiment with sound collage in June of ‘68, I was hooked by this fascinating art form. I would return to seminary in the fall with a box of tapes to begin the construction of The Electric Eschaton, mixing my collected sounds with bits of rock and roll, hymnody, and poetry recordings. From Wolfman Jack to Humphrey Bogart, Mick Jagger to Soupy Sales, E. E. Cummings to Frank Zappa, The Wizard of Oz to Johnny Guitar, the voices are wildly diverse. And the juxtapositions are often intense. A choir sings “O come, O come, Emmanuel” while a jazz singer screams in anguish. The sounds of police beating demonstrators at the Democratic Convention is accompanied by an ad for “the cleaning breakthrough of the century … with fantastic power to break down and disintegrate dirt and stains.” The collage begins with the blustering of a faux deity, the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz, and ends with a plaintive supplication for deliverance to whoever might be listening (“please don’t be long, please don’t be long”).

You can listen to The Electric Eschaton (20:25) here (headphones recommended):

Is this all just sound and fury, signifying nothing, or as the postmodernists have it, an endless play of signifiers with no final meaning? Some may think so. But to me it was an explicitly theological project, where human longing and divine reality were foundational assumptions, though much of the work was a product of intuition and chance rather than formal design. It felt, like all art (and prayer?), both playful and serious.

Recently I read about a 1951 John Cage performance (“Imaginary Landscape No. 4”) where 12 people each sat by a radio on stage, turning the dials according to a “score” created in advance purely by chance (the throwing of coins). And whatever came out of each radio was in itself a matter of chance. For Cage it was an effort to erase all will and let the combinations of sound happen without his control. In doing so, Cage said, “I saw that all things are related. We don’t have to bring about relationships.”[i] The Electric Eschaton was not as random as Cage’s work, but it perhaps shared with him a sense of pattern underlying the flux of things.

In the laborious assembly of so many fragments, I kept hearing key Advent themes: “I am waiting” … “I can’t reach you” … “what took you so long?” … “it’s so hard loving you” … “so tired, tired of waiting” … “please answer the stupid phone” … “I hear you calling my name” … “here it comes.” A Dantean sense of humanity lost in a dark wood was also pervasive: “my burden is heavy” … “can’t we have something to feel” … “I see a golden calf pointing back at me” … “he could not live much longer with that poison in his system.” And there were echoes of Isaiah in all of it: The people that walked in darkness… What shall I cry? All flesh is grass …. Comfort, comfort my people.

The sermon was performed in a packed chapel at Evening Prayer. There was no one in the pulpit, only a silent, flickering television – a bit of subversive parody, challenging my own apparently absent authority as preacher. Slide and film images were projected on large screens while the sound collage filled the space. When the last strains of “please don’t be long” faded out, the projectors shut down and a jazz drummer began to improvise in total darkness while several female voices shouted out phrases from the liturgy (Lighten our darkness!). After a minute or two of this, drummer and voices ceased, and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the famous theme from the year’s trippiest film, 2001) came on full volume, followed by the joyous ‘na-na-na’ chorus of “Hey Jude.” The chapel lights were switched back on for the Beatles song. Most of the people began to dance and sing in a great spiral. The scheduled benediction and closing hymn seemed superfluous at that point, so the presiding minister just let the dance play out as the liturgical finale.

So what happened that night? The sound collage had been a great Advent cry in the darkness, often painful and stricken. What could a preacher have said at the end to counter the cumulative force of that collage? Beautiful words by one person to a seated congregation would not have sufficed. The divine “answer” had to be nonverbal and eventful: first the Strauss, then the dance. As it turned out, a community united in embodied joy proved unimaginably eloquent. The dance was not a rebuttal of the darkness, locked in the dualism of perpetual combat. It was rather an ecstatic overflow of being that the darkness could never comprehend.

[Part 2 will appear in my next post]

[i] q. in Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012), 175