Archive for January, 2012

Abp. Lazar Puhalo: “When you moralize a social issue, you have no hope of ever solving it”

In the comments for the “No religion, please, we’re postmodern” bit from last week, I suggested the following:

The trouble seems to be — and this is one of the things that I might take from the problems that these “young people” are expressing about church — that churches in the present-day have thrown out so much of what made them what they were in order to be “relevant”, and are thus left with not much more than a collection of moral shibboleths and Bible verses that seem virtually impossible to take seriously in the world that they’ve accommodated in their trappings, that there’s just no “there” there anymore.

With that in mind, I give you Abp. Lazar (Puhalo) on a Canadian program called The Standard (not entirely sure when this ran):

At 1:32:

When we… reduce religion down to a moral code, or to externally appropriate behavior, then morality as a legal code like that becomes a heresy because it’s a substitute for a life in Christ, and it’s also a substitute for an inner transformation of the heart. Anything which leads us to arrogance, condescension, pride, to judge and condemn other people, is completely contrary to the teachings of Christ, therefore it’s a heresy. So morality can become a heresy as a substitute for a life in Christ, as an alternative to an inner transformation of your own heart, and as a platform from which you can judge and condemn other people… Another problem, really, is that when you moralize a social issue, you have no hope of ever solving it… we’re really putting our foot on their head and shoving them down deeper into the darkness.

I find some of Abp. Lazar’s jurisdictional history a bit, shall we say, colorful, and I would want him to clarify a few things in a setting not quite so ruled by the clock, but I do wonder if there isn’t something worth pondering here. I have heard it suggested that his view is simplistic and unscriptural; I would say that it is simple, perhaps, but I’m not sure about simplistic, and while it may be simple, it’s definitely not easy. Unscriptural… well, among other things, I am reminded of verse 1:22 of the Epistle of St. James, which my friend Hal Sabbagh has been quoting a lot lately: “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, thereby deceiving your own selves.”

Anyway, I’m not going to get into a line-by-line analysis right now, but this seemed worth throwing out there given recent discussion.

The ison problem

There’s something about the use of a drone that automatically puts it into the category of Something Not Us for the Western ear, at least on this side of the water. It seems to dislocate the listener either geographically or temporally, maybe both. This seems to be true whether we’re talking about Scottish bagpipes, reconstructions of medieval music, or — you guessed it — Byzantine chant; the drone itself functions as what various disciplines call a “chronotope“, something that represents, or maybe is evocative of, information about time and space. More simply, the drone calls to mind other places and other times for our ears, and if I had to make a really prosaic guess, it’s because American music by and large doesn’t use it. That’s actually more of a significant point than it presently seems; I’ll get there.

The first time I was ever exposed to music that employed a drone where I was aware it was doing so was singing the Byzantine-ish choral compositions of John Tavener in my first concert with The Tudor Choir way back in the fall of 1997. That’s a story for another time, and has an active role in a different narrative presently in progress, but what I can say for now is that that particular bass section wailing away on the drone in the amazingly resonant acoustic of St. James Cathedral in Seattle was transportive. It was so simple, so distinctive, so grounding, and so powerful.

A similar experience was to be had seven years later in Auer Hall at Indiana University, when in May of 2004 Cappella Romana performed their Fall of Constantinople program as part of the Bloomington Early Music Festival. Again — that particular group of singers on the ison, in that hall… it was something else.

As much of a sine qua non as ison seems to be for Byzantine chant on initially hearing it, however, what also seems to be the case is that it is so easy to get wrong. First of all, the so-called “Western ear” (whatever that really means) has the impulse to harmonize the melody, usually by making up a line that moves in parallel thirds, and once you’ve done that, it’s a quick hop to treating the drone as a bass line that needs to move according to the requirements of functional harmony. Follow the Bouncing Ison.

Most music in the world is modal. That means it is categorized and organized according to different kinds of scales that themselves are used for different kinds of melodies. Western music, which frankly represents a small portion of the world’s musical output, is, for the most part, not. It is tonal, which means it has whittled down the modes to two, major and minor, and has instead focused on building vertical sonorities that have particular functions based on building up of harmonic instability and subsequent resolution of that instability.

Something else Western music tends to be, at least on paper, is tuned so that all keys sound exactly the same except for the range. I had a music theory teacher who once said, “Before all of this equal-tempered nonsense, keys actually sounded like themselves and there was actually more of a musical reason to modulate [change keys].” Most modal music, however, is not tuned this way. And, really, in practice, Western music resolutely holds on to some of the old way even if we’re used to sanding off most of the corners. Singers and fretless string players have to carefully tune thirds and distinguish sevenths from leading tones, for example.

Quick demonstration of the difference — here’s the Christmas carol “What Child Is This”, a melody using a minor scale and arranged for choir using rules of tonal harmony:

Now, here’s the original melody, “Greensleeves,” using the Dorian mode rather than our typical minor (that is, Aeolian) scale:  I had a devil of a time actually finding a decent version of Greensleeves on YouTube, so this probably isn’t as clear of a demonstration as I’d like it to be, but hopefully some of the difference of character comes through.

To begin with, Byzantine chant is modal and not tonal. For purposes of liturgical organization, there are eight modes; in actual musical terms, however, depending on how you count them, that number is probably doubled. This is why harmonizing it ultimately doesn’t work, and why the automatic tendency some people with very decent ears have, to place the ison on whatever the lowest note is that they perceive can function as the root of a major or minor scale, is not only wrong, but robs this particular musical idiom of its proper character.

A somewhat more subtle point is why the ison needs to not move in parallel to the melody as though as it’s a bass line, and that’s because it’s not a bass line.

Let me say that again for emphasis: it is not a bass line. Therefore, it doesn’t need to, and in fact shouldn’t, move like one.

Here is an excerpt from the essay, “A Brief Overview of the Psaltic Art”, that starts out the Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide that just came out:

The Psaltic Art is… strictly monophonic [emphasis in the original]. In other words, it is performed by a single cantor or a choir singing one melody in unison… It should also be noted that psaltic melodies are frequently accompanied by the ison (drone), which is a constant humming of a single note (the root of the main tetrachord in which the melody is moving). This… practice is sometimes considered a form of proto-polyphony. However, its primary function seems to be tonal stability rather than “harmonic” enrichment of the melody (p. iv).

So, it is not intended to be harmonized, and the drone is intended to provide stability — that is, a structural foundation — for the melody rather than instability — that is, the harmonic function of a bass line. Not only that, where the drone is pitched has to do with where in the scale the melody is, which itself is a function of what mode the melody employs. If you’re in the first tetrachord (that is, the initial division of four notes of the scale) of sticheraric Plagal Fourth Mode (a/k/a Tone 8), the ison is not  going to be sung on the same pitch as a melody written in irmologic Fourth Mode (a/k/a Tone 4) — and yet, that’s exactly where some people instinctively want to put it, and if you gently point out to them that there actually is a right way to do it, ask them nicely to do it the right way, and even if you sing it the right way in their ear, they will adamantly insist that the two modes must be the same by shoehorning them into the same Western framework of tonal harmony.

It has been suggested to me that this constitutes “organic development”, and that we don’t need to treat the Byzantine modes as anything special when there are twelve major and twelve minor keys in Western music. I cannot agree; what this constitutes is, plain and simple, doing it wrong.

Can we agree that there is a right way and a wrong way to do this stuff, and that stubornly improvising harmonies in thirds and making up drone notes that are on the wrong pitches and not functioning within the musical texture the way they’re supposed to, no matter how much you may like to sing that way for yourself personally, represents singing it the wrong way? We can deal with equal-temperament later — first we have to at least come to terms on the fundamental approach towards the music. Are we going to learn to sing it the way it’s supposed to be learned, or are we going to insist that we get to sing it in a way foreign to its nature because we’re American and thus special?

And please don’t bring up Russian music. If Obikhod is what you’re thinking of, well, there is Russian liturgical music composed before Russians started learning composition from the Italians that would singe the hair of your toes.

Why does this matter? Is it because we musicians want to control everything and force all of the regular folks in the congregation to either shut up or to do things our way? No, it matters for the same reason that you don’t get to make up your own version of the Lord’s Prayer to say when the time comes in the Liturgy for the congregation to say the Lord’s Prayer, or your own version of the Creed. It matters for the same reason that iconographers are supposed to depict the Mother of God’s veil as red and the rest of her clothing as blue, and not make up a paisley print and polka-dot pattern. It matters for the same reason that we’re supposed to use a particular kind of stamp on the Eucharistic bread rather than carving our names into the loaf. There is a way things are to be done, decently and in order, and we don’t just get to make up our own way of doing things, even in the name of “participation”. There is this impulse among some people to special-case music so that these concerns don’t apply in that sphere, and I really don’t get it. On a broader level, how I might put it is that I have never myself experienced a musical scenario where people can successfully argue that they have the right to sing wrong notes, but that comes very close to what I sometimes hear given as the response to these issues.

Update, 30 January 2012, 7:04am — I made a big point of saying that American music doesn’t generally use drone and that that was something important I’d come back to, and then I forgot to come back to it. Hazards of blogging right before you go to bed.

A related idea — I’ve had some very interesting conversations with people that lead me to believe it is possible to simply be culturally uncomfortable with monophonic music. I don’t have a clue how or why this could be, but I’ve had people tell me before, “Do I have to sing melody? Can’t I just make up a harmony? It feels wrong not to in my voice.” A couple of my attempts at Orthodox hymns that would employ some features of American folk music have met with the reaction from more than one person, “Hey, nice melody. When are you writing parts?” Explaining that I’m intentionally writing a melody to be sung in unison usually generates a confused stare and the question “Why?” asked in such a way that tells me I’m not going to be able to explain it to them.

Back to drone. I’m hardly an expert on anything, let alone American folk music, but I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head that use drone. Drone is usually discussed as a characteristic of either medieval music or “world music”, which subtly makes it a different beast than it would be living in a part of the world where it’s a characteristic of the local “folk music” rather than “world music”. I hesitate to go whole hog and say that we’ve constructed an orientalizing narrative about kinds of music that use drone, or that’s it’s a feature of “primitive” music whereas harmony is how “advanced” societies think of music, but I think there might be some relevant thoughts there.

In any event, because it’s not a feature of American vernacular music, as soon as we hear it, we know it’s either from the old country (whichever old country that might be) or just plain old. That at once seems to validate it as “authentic” and also prompt some people to look for sharp corners that need to be filed off. The chronotope is a double-edged sword.

My solution is education; cantors need to be able and willing to explain what it is, what it’s doing, and what the right way to sing it sounds like. This has to work both ways, however; people need to be willing to ask, “How is this supposed to be done?” and then willing to follow the instruction they’re given. Unfortunately, I’ve seen instances where the attitude is, “If I can’t sing it along with you in a way that seems instinctive and natural to me the first time I hear it, then you’re excluding me from participating.” It’s a tricky business, to be sure.

Fleshing some things out

I realized yesterday after I hit “publish” that outlining my religious development is going to be terribly dull reading if I stick strictly to that topic and that topic alone, and probably pretty dull writing, too.

A few hopefully more-colorful details: you may have noticed that, when the guy at church was trying to strongarm me into standing, I wasn’t running around like a cat chasing a laser pointer dot, I wasn’t screaming my head off, and I wasn’t playing with the myriad of Star Wars action figures that I had at home. I was sitting quietly and reading.

My parents claim that nobody taught me to read. That strikes me as unlikely (check back with me again in four years on that one), but at the same time, I don’t remember ever actually learning to read. In any event, reading was how I instinctively occupied my time as a little kid, and I wasn’t intimidated by “grown-up books” even if I didn’t necessarily understand everything. I was memorizing passages out of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos from the time I was four. By the time I was seven, I found my way into Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, C. S. Lewis, Greek mythology, Madeleine L’Engle, and much more (including some potentially unlikely stuff for a little boy, like Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language, the first boarding-school book I recall encountering). When I was five or thereabouts, my parents got me this Reader’s Digest collection of articles on various topics called Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, and I read that thing cover to cover probably ten times by the time we left Wenatchee. In its pages I read about regression hypnosis, St. Christopher having a dog’s head, Jack the Ripper (as well as Spring-Heeled Jack), cybernetic implants, the Shroud of Turin, Bridey Murphy, Stefan Lochner’s The Last Judgment, and hundreds of other crazy things. I have no doubt that being so exposed to such an crazy range of topics so early on influenced how I perceive and process the world around me, but there we are. I like to think that at the very least, it helped to inspire a sense of wonder.

My formational religious reading was mostly the old Golden Press The Children’s Bible, which to describe as dated is nowhere near adequate, but it was what it was. Besides that, my mom gave me a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism. I wouldn’t say that a huge deal was made out of this, and it was sort of treated more as a curiosity, an heirloom, than anything I was to take seriously.

Probably like every other kid born around the time I was, the other overarching obsessions were Star Wars and the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. I can remember being in the movie theatre at the age of three for the 1979 re-release of A New Hope, and I got the Death Star playset as a Christmas present the same year. I don’t know for sure that I remember seeing Superman: The Movie  in theatres, but it was the first movie I remember seeing on VHS, probably c. 1980 or so, and I saw Superman II probably five or six times in theatres. For after-school cartoons, I was a Star Blazers kid all the way.

And between 1982 and 1983, Tron and WarGames came out, which guaranteed that even to this day, Kevin Flynn (“BECAUSE, MAN! …somewhere IN one of these… MEMORIES… is the evidence!“) and not The Dude is the iconic Jeff Bridges performance for me, I naturally think of Global Thermonuclear War and not a Ferrari when I see Matthew Broderick, and I’m trying to imagine how my digital alter-ego is delivering my e-mails.

Then there was Charlie Brown. Yes, I had started carrying around a magnifying glass by this point, and certainly had the deerstalker hat and trenchcoat a bit later, but during those early elementary school years there was no literary character with whom I identified more fully than Charlie Brown. You’ve Done It Again, Charlie Brown! was a collection of strips I think my mother brought home for me one day when I was sick, and it was but the first of many, many more. I had devoured enough of those little Fawcett-Crest paperback collections by the time we moved to the Seattle area to have completely internalized the persona. I wanted to legally change my name. I know I’m not exactly unique to have had this particular childhood hero — that’s what made Peanuts so compelling for so long, after all, Charlie Brown’s Everykid status — but the thing is, I was awkward, even as a little kid I always felt like I struggled to get through the day, and I really did have a head round enough to be mistaken for a bowling ball. In general, while I was apparently a naturally gregarious and friendly kid, that made me fresh meat for other kids almost from day one.

Well. There was me being a naturally friendly and gregarious kid, yes. There was also the fact that I got bumped up a grade two weeks into kindergarten because of what I was reading (and supposedly that was a compromise with my parents, because the school wanted to put me in fifth grade or some nonsense like that). There was the stuff I was reading, like D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (to say nothing of the subsequent conviction that I could build a working time machine out of spare computer parts, and to say nothing even further still of my actual attempt to do so). Yyyyeeaaaahhhh… there was no way I wasn’t going home in tears after school most days. I had a couple of friends that I spent a good amount of time with, but in some ways I got along with their parents better than I got along with them.

Somewhere in here — I must have been five or six tops, and it was on a drive between Wenatchee and Seattle, for reasons that are presently escaping me — my mother said, “Richard, when you’re older, I’m taking you to Europe. I went when I was young, and it’s something I really want for you.”

The final detail I’ll give for now is the piano lessons I started when I was five. My dad had bought a beautiful Yamaha upright grand, and shortly thereafter I found myself being taken to a music store for my first formal music instruction. To bring this all back around to reading, the story my parents tell is that at the first piano recital, I sat in the audience reading a book. When it was my turn, I put the book down, went up to the piano, played my pieces, then returned to my chair and went back to reading.

By the way — hopefully it’s clear that all of these details are in no way comprehensive or anything other than impressionistic (however well-remembered I think they are) or given from the perspective of the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, and give no more and no less than exactly the picture I wish to give. If you want accuracy and objectivity you’re going to have to get it from Mrs. Plouff, my first grade teacher, and I don’t have a clue where she is these days.

Be all of that as it may, hopefully this spices things up a bit.

Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church, Emmaus, PA

As I mentioned, Fr. Andrew Damick has been kind enough to invite me to disseminate some of my crazy ideas about Orthodox church music at his parish. I’ll be talking on Saturday, 3 March at St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Fr. Andrew just posted a schedule for the day on the church website, and he has created a Facebook event. I should note that the flyer marks the first public mention of the St. John of Damascus Society, which hopefully means I’ll be able to talk more about what that is shortly. Anyway, if you’re anywhere close to that neck of the woods, by all means please come!

New release: Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide, Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music (GOA)

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has released for purchase by the general public the textbook used by the Archdiocesan School of Byzantine Music. My copy arrived in the mail today, and while I haven’t had a chance to sing through the whole thing or thoroughly read through its contents, at first glance it looks wonderful and quite handsomely put together. It’s very similar in a lot of respects to the Margaziotis exercise book that’s floating around out there, except that it’s written in English and includes both an overview of some of the theory and an essay outlining the history and key figures relevant to the Byzantine musical tradition. There’s also a CD, and while the Margaziotis pdf has musical examples embedded, the CD introduces all of the exercises in English as well.

Here is the table of contents:

  • Acknowledgments: Archdeacon Pantaleimon Papadopoulos, ASBM Director
  • Foreword: Dr. Demetrios Kehagis, ASBM Instructor
  • Introduction: A Brief Overview of the Psaltic Art, by Grammenos Karanos, Ph.D. in Byzantine Musicology, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Music, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
  • Byzantine music theory and practice
  • Chanting with melos
  • Definition of terms
  • A synoptic theory chart & reference
  • Index of Byzantine music characters

Here is the book opened and compared with the full-size photocopy of the Margaziotis book that I was given:

And, mostly for size purposes, here it is compared with a standard Anastasimatarion:

The CD of musical exercises is nicely and clearly sung, and among other things, I think it will be of help to people who are trying to figure out where the intervals are in their own throats.

Anyway, I’m really impressed with the care that’s gone into presenting this material to an English-speaking audience, and on the whole the exercises seem very consistent with the method used in the Margaziotis. If somebody has worked through Fr. David Barr’s materials and figured out how to understand the version of Byzantine chant that’s filtered through Western music theory well enough that they want a new challenge, this book seems like a worthy next step.

The one potential downside is that the musical examples from actual chants are all in Greek, so you need to either be able to read the Greek characters or have access to somebody who can teach the hymn texts to you phonetically. The next step after this book is going to be a Byzantine music theory and exercise book that’s not just written in English, but also uses English music examples. Factoring that out, this publication looks to be the state of the art in terms of educational materials that make learning Byzantine chant (including notation) accessible in English. I’m quite tempted to order five copies to have on hand for people in my choir.

I would very much like to think that the Antiochian Archdiocese, particularly given some things said recently by higher-ups about wanting a renewed emphasis on the Byzantine chant traditions of the Patriarchate of Antioch, would take some cues from what the Greeks are doing with the Archdiocesan School. Right now there are scattered efforts to do things, but nothing systematic so far as I can tell.

You can order Byzantine Music: Theory and Practice Guide from the link above.

Everybody’s got a story

I have never particularly wanted this to be “a convert’s blog”. I am an Orthodox Christian, yes, and a convert to same, and that’s one of the things I write about, but hardly the only thing. This is basically my notebook for interesting things that happen to me and the things that occur to me that I hope will be interesting, and I’ve written about my experience as an Orthodox Christian but also about religion as a broader phenomenon, movies, music, travel, language, school, and so on. There are big things that have happened to me I have specifically not written about, either because discussing them publicly will either be awkward, send the wrong message to certain parties, and maybe they’ll just be boring in the context of a blog.

My conversion experience falls under the last of those categories. There was a time when I was devouring convert stories and eager to tell my own to whomever might listen, but after awhile I realized that it The Journey of the American Orthodox Convert had become its own genre with its own tropes. Much like, say, Rush, it’s a kind of product that is principally interesting to other people who produce the same kind of product (and I speak as a Rush fan), and while that’s not to say that people don’t encounter such an account for the first time and find it meaningful (after all, I had to become a Rush fan), the Next Great Conversion Story isn’t, I don’t think, really the cultural lack that somebody like me needs to be desperate to fill. I’m happy to tell my story if people ask, but the other problem is that if the chrism oil going on the forehead is the telos, the happy ending and the whole point of the story, then that’s a truly unrealistic picture of the Christian life. It’s really not a matter of being dunked and/or basted, everybody saying “Seal!”, receiving the Body and Blood for the first time, going home, and then everybody lives happily ever after on a diet of incense, icons, and chant, all covered with awesome sauce. That’s no more true than the wedding being the end of the story for a relationship — and also recall that the normative experience for an Orthodox Christian would be infant baptism, which makes these kinds of convert stories not just outliers, but self-selected outliers. Anyway, there’s still a life that has to be lived afterward, and that’s the real story and struggle. I’ve seen my share of converts who fall off as quickly as they jumped on, and I think it’s because they weren’t adequately prepared for that, perhaps due to the unrealistically rosy picture that some convert accounts paint.

Still, some of my recent posts, I realize, perhaps need more context. I came very close a couple of times to referencing things that happened to me during my path to being received into the Orthodox Church, and I realized that they wouldn’t make any sense without the whole story. So I left those things out. I told somebody recently that I’m no good at apologetics, because what I find convincing is a result of some points that are a little too peculiar to me, but I should probably explain what those points actually are.

Here’s the thing — I’m really terrible at short versions of stories, as anybody who is the least bit familiar with me or this blog probably knows (and certainly as the board members of the St. John of Damascus Society know by now). I also really really really don’t have time to just write a novel right now, so this is going to get split up into multiple posts. It’s entirely possible that it may not happen linearly. Nobody’s exactly begged me to write this, so I’m certain the three of you out there who read this won’t care, but just so we’re all clear. Don’t make me pull this car over.

Where I will start for now is that my first real “religious” memory is being baptized at the age of three on Easter Sunday, 6 April 1980 (right in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis, and evidently the same day the Paschal greeting was first given in Hebrew by Pope John Paul II), in Anchorage, Alaska at St. Mark Lutheran Church (way back in the day when it was LCA rather than ELCA). I got dressed up in a sailor suit, and what I remember is that my godfather (Karl Bartholomy, my dad’s best friend) picked me up by my ankles and dipped my head in the baptismal font. That’s about all of that I remember, but my mother provides an account in my baby book:

Richard was baptized on Easter Sunday. It was a lovely and very special ceremony. Karl lifted Richard up to the baptismal font and the highlight was when they lighted a candle and gave it to Richard to hold. He wore a little white sailor suit with gold buttons, a red tie and his black water boots! (His new sandals were too small.) Uncle Dan [my mother’s brother] couldn’t make it as he lives in Seattle. But Mimi [my paternal grandmother], Great Grandpa [my dad’s maternal grandfather] and Alma came up especially for Richard’s baptism! He was so cute and sweet and such a good boy. I took my first communion on that day too. So it was all in all a very special day. (Karl and Nancy camee from Fairbanks just for Richard too.) And Daddy came to church!

Huh. I actually don’t think I knew that Mom took first communion that day. She was 25, and my dad was 34.

My mom and I went to St. Mark’s semi-regularly, as I recall, but my first memory of regular church attendance was when we moved to Wenatchee, Washington towards the end of 1980. We went to Grace Lutheran Church, and what I principally remember are a) not really wanting to go because I liked to sleep in on Sunday morning, b) sitting in a pew at some point during the service and reading a book, minding my own business, and some dude standing behind me thumping my shoulders to try to get me to stand up, c) the pastor giving me a blessing at the rail rather than communion, and d) being entranced by the candlelight service at Christmas Eve. It’s the only aesthetic point I remember at all about my Lutheran experience, truth be told.

If it’s not evident by now, there was no particular unity of faith in our little family — my dad, as I understood by the time I was five, is an avowed atheist. More on that as it is relevant.

This manner of being didn’t last long, as in 1984 we moved from the east side of the mountains to the Seattle area, at which point much about how my family functioned in relation to Christianity changed. So much, in fact, that it’s going to have to wait for another post.

No religion, please, we’re postmodern

It is reasonably common that I do my grocery shopping after Divine Liturgy on Sunday. That tends to mean that it’s harder to keep wine and beer around the house with this state’s antiquated liquor laws, and it’s something of a pain, since it usually takes two or three stops total depending on what all I need (Starbucks for coffee beans, the local food co-op for most stuff, and then a conventional grocery store for a small handful of other items, which still leaves me having to go to a butcher shop that isn’t open on Sundays at another time during the week), but it’s more often than not the most convenient time for me to go.

Today, in line to pay for my staples of cheese, Honey Bunches of Oats, and bananas, the headline of the local paper grabbed my eye — “Losing their religion: Young people rejecting organized worship at an unprecedented rate”. (Note that, while I’ve linked to the story on the Herald-Times website, it will be virtually useless to you, so to speak, unless you’re a paid subscriber — the H-T apparently is enough on the fiscal bubble to be concerned about using their website as a loss-leader, and as such headlines are the only content they’re comfortable letting you see for free.) I was intrigued by what local angle the piece might have and bought the paper; Bloomington is certainly still within the borders of the Bible belt, but Indiana University on the whole is about as secular of an institution as they come, so religion is everywhere in this town (I remember a Distinguished Academic Visitor coming to Bloomington a few years ago and telling his host, “I can tell I’m in small-town America because of all the f–king churches”) but to an extent that just means that it’s ignored by more people. There is a Knights of Columbus pro-life ad on a huge billboard right in the middle of downtown, but then the town’s buses were sporting the “You can be good without God” cards a couple of years ago too.

As I was poking around to see if there was any way to find the full story on the web, I realized that the H-T story was largely a re-digesting of some reports that various news outlets have been covering for the the last month. There’s a Baylor University report on religion as well as statistics released by LifeWay Research, USA Today ran a story about them on Christmas Day (using roughly the same headline as the H-T), and GetReligion did the obligatory analysis of the USA Today piece. Still, there’s a bit of a local angle with some representative quotes from IU students and a couple of area clergy, starting with one Elyse Kienitz:

[She] says during her teenage years, her parents forced her to attend a Lutheran church where her father served as music director.

“It was a family obligation for me and my four siblings… Church just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t apply what I was hearing to my daily life.”

[…] [C]limbing out of bed at 6:45am each Sunday to attend the 8 a.m. service was sheer torture. So when she turned 20 and moved… to Bloomington, church ceased being part of her life.

“I know for a lot of people the church is a source of refuge, and I kind of envy that,” Kienitz said. “But I’m an agnostic. I need absolute proof before I believe. Creationism is not valid in my opinion. I believe in Darwinian evolution.”

I have mixed feelings about how seriously to take this, truthfully, and it has less to do with Ms. Kienitz and more to do with how the reporter chooses to present the story. Creationism is elided with Christianity and church, which is one problem, but another problem is that the writer seems to betray bias off the bat by saying that Ms. Kienitz was “forced” to attend. Now, I’ve been the five year old kid lying in bed on Sunday morning hoping that Mom just forgets to wake me up, but “forced” is a bit much. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is that the relationship between religion and family ties isn’t really explored at all, but it’s clearly there in this case, and once it’s not there, bam, the kid’s done. So what’s the extent to which this “rejection” of religion by young people is a function of a mobile society?

Then there’s Stephanie Partridge, who “made some friends in church, but it wasn’t a good fit for me”:

“My spirituality is pagan and nature-based… Organized religion doesn’t work for me because my spirituality is extremely personal and sacred to me. I wouldn’t be who I am without it. I meditate and pray at home and in nature, and that allows me to find peace of mind in the midst of chaos.”

So, “spiritual but not religious”. Bob Whitaker, senior pastor at Bloomington’s Evangelical Community Church, characterizes this issue as the desire “to adapt a religion to fit their personal desires and don’t feel they need community to shape and guide them, and to shine a spotlight on their character and motivation[.]” I’ve never been of the “spiritual but not religious” persuasion; it’s always seemed to me to treat religion as a taste in accessories, a more-or-less personalizable sensibility. I’ve got to be check my own tendency to be snarky about that, because I’ve certainly exercised my own personal choice where religion is concerned, and I have done so more than once, but it has always seemed obvious to me that a “spirituality” that is exclusively personal is essentially an exercise in self-justification.

Even if that’s the case, however, are those who feel that way coming by it honestly in our culture? We’ve taken so many things that used to be experienced almost exclusively in a communal context and made it possible for the general population to experience them now in a 100% user-defined bubble. Music is no longer something one hears in the context of a gathering; it’s something that an individual listens to in order to shut out the rest of the world. Movies and TV are watched on personal devices that require no interaction with anybody (except maybe the screen). Work is done from home. We can shop for almost anything we could possibly want without ever having to interact directly with a person. Even friends and family have been fed through the individualized electronic pipe via Facebook. So why would religion be any other way, particularly if church is just going to repackage everything in a language that’s trying, usually poorly, to ape what you’re feeding into your brain through the earbuds? It makes it “accessible”, but does it actually make it worth anybody’s time in the long run? This is a question I would be very curious to hear the “bishop of Facebook”, Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh, consider.

Is the real issue perhaps not that we’re in a post-religious world but a post-communal one? Is seeing a need for physical interaction with a real person in a geographical location something that has simply become itself a quaint throwback?

Ned Steele, a local Methodist pastor, says that church is “just not relevant to that age group [of 20-somethings]:

“People in their 20s believe in scientific research and truth, and when they come to church and hear about creationism they feel like they’re back in the Middle Ages. Too often the church is judgmental when it comes to different lifestyles and sexuality; and we preach the exclusivity of Christianity too much, as if other paths to God don’t count.”

This is a fascinating statement. 20-somethings believe in “truth”, but they apparently don’t want to hear that Christianity is the “truth”. (I’m curious what else one would go to church to hear.) So what is it they want to hear about truth? That truth exists, but that the truth is that there isn’t really any truth beyond that truth we pick and choose for ourselves?

Again, let’s perhaps concede that maybe these 20-somethings are coming by it honestly. Truth is what can be reproduced in a laboratory, truth is the homeless person on the street, truth is the real story behind this or that person’s public ascendancy — might it be fair to say that “truth”, as understood in our present-day collective mindset, is a construct that itself is actually never constructive?

I don’t quite know what to think when I hear about “young people” “rejecting” Christianity. I’m not going to lie, some of the things expressed by Ms. Kienitz and Ms. Partridge resonate with me, but it stopped being a family matter for me in seventh grade (and was really only imperfectly so to begin with), so whatever I believed I had to own for myself early on, and the questioning that some of that prompted in me was only of the dominant Evangelical Protestant paradigm, not of Christianity itself or the overall need for a worshiping community. If anything, my problem in my teens was having been brought up to consider the continuum between Evangelical Protestantism and non-Christian cults to be minuscule, so that when I found early on I could not honestly identify as an Evangelical (nor, as a couple of folks made clear, did Evangelicals want me to identify with them, if I wasn’t going to believe certain things) and thus was led to believe I perhaps shouldn’t even consider myself a Christian anymore — well, I craved the community that Evangelicals seemed to be telling me I couldn’t have. Would I have felt the same way if I had Facebook and an iPod? Hard to say.

There’s the whole matter of solutions looking for problems I brought up a little while ago. I’m not sure what to say about what problems these people actually have, except to say that they want to know what Christianity actually has to do with how life gets lived in 2012, and probably they want to know in terms that don’t make it seem like a dated museum piece or in terms that don’t come across as reactionary. But how do you that in a way that doesn’t make church so secular-looking that there’s no real point in going to church anyway? If church is going to look like a hipster coffee shop, well, why not just go to a hipster coffee shop and listen to one of Mark Driscoll’s podcasts over your cappuccino? The coffee will be better, and frankly so will the music, probably.

A friend of mine was talking about how his priest handles skeptical youth by saying, “That’s okay that you’re questioning those things. We love you anyway. Keep coming.” Maybe rather than trying to keep up with “who” the 20-somethings “are”, it’s better for the Church to remain steadfast in what she is so that the 20-somethings know that they can always come home and know that their room will be ready — but maybe even that’s going to be waiting for calls that never come.

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