The Sunday church service the morning after the ATG Messiah (and the effort to do it justice in my review) is like a meditation on what does and does not work in a ritual.
As I ponder Christianity I keep coming back to one central idea, that I never see anyone state. It’s important in understanding why people desert the church & to perhaps understand what brings some of us –me for instance—back.
(I wonder, too, if it’s relevant to people also deserting opera, but that’s a parenthetical thought, for now).
Religion is hard. Is that a crazy idea? I don’t think so. In other centuries –when churches were full and believers were the norm rather than the exception—I don’t believe (excuse the choice of words) anyone noticed how difficult it is to do Christianity well –or any other religion, I reckon. It’s not a thing, but rather it’s a process, involving human interactions. I suppose we might call Christianity a discipline, both the practice of the faithful and the ministry as well.
The main thing though is to recognize that while disciplines are sometimes practiced well, sometimes…? Not so well! Is it a radical thing to say that Christianity has been let down by shoddy practice, arrogant clergy & entitled elders not putting the stewardship of the religion high enough in their list of priorities? If they were neglecting that care in the service of others –for instance, forgetting to properly recruit members in their lavish care for the sick, or the poor? I’d feel better.
But of course that’s not what’s happened, has it…
As I watched the service this morning my experience –a joyful one to be sure—was thoroughly informed by the ATG Messiah experience from last night. I was struck by how something that’s overly familiar –whether it be a Christmas carol, or a passage in Messiah—benefits from being made unfamiliar, breaking out of the strait-jacket of ritual. I was going to talk about semiotics and signification, but i am already risking losing the 2 people who might be reading this, so i will stifle the impulse to be pompous & academic. I will try to be simple & intelligible.
In a church –as in the opera house–the newness, the departure from familiarity & ritual is inherently unsafe and risky. While it’s not so uncommon to speak of performances as risky, we don’t usually associate risk with church: and maybe that’s the problem. But I connect this to one of the central conversations in opera, concerning Regietheater (aka “director’s theatre”). While opera is often understood as moribund –if not dead– for its respectful treatment of a large body of old works, a more radical approach would be to seek to make a familiar piece of text seem unfamiliar.
I am reminded suddenly of a regular blog written by Rev. John Elford, a Methodist Minister friend of mine called Keeping Jesus Weird. How better to understand the Gospels –or Handel’s Messiah—than to seek to make the repeated and the familiar seem new and even problematic? to seek out the edgy and the strange instead of sweeping it under a rug.
That’s what I especially welcomed in the AtG show last night, and i realize, that’s also what I seek out in church each day. If our texts or performances don’t feel fresh and new, they’re old and stale.
It’s true with theatre and opera. It’s true with bread and wine. Why shouldn’t it also be true of ritual? If that weren’t difficult enough –finding the right creative path– one needs to balance also with the competing preferences of the congregation / audience (between those seeking the preservation of what is, with those seeking something new). I like some familiarity. Am i average, normal? I wonder.