I wrote a column for City Pages this week, but it got killed because there wasn't space for it. It should run next week, but given the way the newspaper biz is going, I'm putting it here to make sure it doesn't get stale and/or before City Pages is filled with Village Voice Media wire copy.
Date To Church
By Jim Walsh
In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, Mark C. Taylor, a religion and humanities professor at Williams College and the author of the philosophy-photography collage-poem Mystic Bones wrote about the prevailing "religious correctness" on college campuses.
"More college students seem to be practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in my 30 years of teaching," writes Taylor. "For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty."
I was raised Catholic, but I stopped going to church when I was 14 years old; I'd heard and had enough. I have largely stayed away, because of the narrowness and lack of mystery Taylor gets at, and because I can't stand the taste of wine when it gets turned into Kool-Aid.
These days I go to church when I feel like it, and, as it turns out, I felt like it on Christmas Eve. I was in the mood for the stained glass, the music, the incense, words like "begotten not made," and the meditative sight of two candles on the altar, separated by a chasm of hosts, wine, and the Bible, but still somehow sharing the same flame.
And then, much to my skeptic-ass surprise, I had an experience with mystery that calls into question every certainty about what I expected to find that night in the little church in South Minneapolis that my mom, wife, and kids go to much more frequently than I.
A few days earlier on my blog, I'd written about Rickie Lee Jones's magnificent new album, Sermon On Exposition Boulevard. She made the record by improvising to her collaborator Lee Cantelon's book, The Words -- a collection of Christ's unfiltered, unadulterated, unexplained words. Sermon is a mystical masterpiece that works in service to the miracle and purity of beauty; it worships beats as much as language, and arrives late to the pop-cult party with the sort of nuances and musical/vocal black magic that, I'm afraid, only the spiritual refuge-seeking and otherwise quietly damaged will hear when it comes out February 6 on New West Records.
"We're falling up," sings Rickie Lee Christ early on, giving wings to the notions that "music is love" (Jeff Tweedy), "Jesus is love" (bumpersticker), and "blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love" (Hamilton Wright Mabie, on Christmastime). I especially like that last one, for it's idea of love as something subversive -- "a conspiracy of love," in the face of haters and the cold, cruel world -- but the beauty of the Jesus-Jones record is that it will play all year, and every year after that, and doesn’t relegate its love to a couple weeks in December. I concluded my blog entry like this:
"'I tell you what, you gotta take it back from them,'" she/he instructs; talking here about faith and love and weathering the storm, staying strong, and reclaiming all the good stuff from the creeps who have co-opted it. In the end, that's the main point of this sprawling Sermon, which suggests that love has much more to do with you and I than with a toy baby in a manger or some dead guy on a cross."
Straight away I got an email from someone who cited the last sentence as more of the same Christian-bashing that she's grown so tired of. And here I thought I was testifying or something. I sighed and replied and got ready for church.
It's a tiny Catholic church, on the corner of S. 38th St. and W. 4th Ave. in Minneapolis, land of Lutherans and Somalis. Across the street is a Baptist church that often sounds like it's coming off its moorings, given all the singing and rejoicing that erupts from inside. A few blocks up the street is St. Joan Of Arc's, the socially conscious mega-church that the Archdiocese reassigned our former pastor, Father Jim, to last year. When Christ's CEO (Archbishop Harry Flynn) did that, he basically ripped the heart out of an entire community, because we'd all -- and I include myself and a few other non-joiners here -- been nourished by his easy message of love one another and look out for each other. When that was replaced by a revolving door of cookie-cutter preachers and drive-by theologians, attendance dropped dramatically.
On Christmas Eve, I put it all aside and put the family in the station wagon and put the Christmas music station on the radio, and then grooved to the warm handshakes and candles and lights and basked in the singing and old-school neighborhood city church community. Then I sat down in that pew and girded for another uninspired sermon that would surely bring the whole thing down; another non-epiphany in a place where a mini-epiphany or two had become the standard.
Father Jules, the new priest, from the congo, was the headliner. His sidekick was a South Korean missionary by the name of Father Peter, who, when he hit the altar, bowed three times to the congregation, in keeping with his Eastern "I bow to the divinity in you" namastic roots.
Because his African accent is so thick, an actress friend of ours is teaching Father Jules diction, but he made Father Peter, the Korean, sound like Hugh Grant in comparison: Whenever Father Peter pronounced the Lord's name, it sounded like "gee-whiz," much to the delight of my 11-year-old son-squirrel.
The two men stood at the altar. As the Asian man stammered his way through a reading from the Bible, the African man put his hand on his back, turned the pages, kept his place, and encouraged him.
Then the Asian man, who took care to introduce himself as being from "South Korea," took to the pulpit. He didn't fire and brimstone it. He didn’t talk about judgement day or the miracle of gee-whiz's birth. He was gentle. He talked about universal love between all brothers, sisters, all races, no matter what, no war. When he smiled, nervously and joyfully, he looked like he was 14 years old. When he finished, he said, "That was my first homily in English."
The full house clapped.
Jim Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or 612.372.3775