First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas is renowned for the time in which a single Sunday service brought over a million dollars *in the collection plate*. Imagine my surprise and mild pleasure, then, when the Baptist church to which I accompanied my friends this morning was in a suburban home, in the somewhat upscale Firewheel subdivision of the town in which I maintain my office.
I cannot recall attending a full service in the living room and sitting room of a private home before, though I've often read of little churches that operate that way. When I remarked on the novelty to my friends, they pointed out their suspicion that yet another church was across the street. Apparently, the eagles gather even in the driveways of suburbia.
As I'd been warned, the service utilized that curious confection known as "contemporary Christian music". Southern protestantism
has evolved a really fascinating repertoire of songs written between 1880 and 1940 which are meaningful and a great deal of fun to sing. These hymns tend to bear heavy influence from the African American spiritual tradition, but with accretions added by the southern WASPs who adopted them. These "gospel" hymns, coupled with a few of the "classic" hymns from classical music, work out very well for most protestant churches. In recent years, though, the perception has arisen that these hymns, which tend to speak of the stark realities of the xtian faith in terms which are not particularly peppy and sometimes can involve use of the word "thee", are not of the correct pop sensibility for modern ears. Hence, in the 1970s through 1990s, an entire Tin Pan Alley of "contemporary" songs has arisen. Now, for me, "contemporary" music of the era 1970 through 1990 involves a fair bit of heavy synth use (or very rough and ready acoustic guitar), more than a share of dissonance, and a sort of immediacy based on idiosyncratic lyrics attuned to the odd culture in which we live. However, this is not what is meant by "contemporary Christian", which tends to be music based on easy to follow lyrics of praise set to music that is simultaneously at home in either a school play or a short-run Broadway musical.
This church, I was intially sad to see, eschewed all the wonderful old hymns I knew in favor of this "contemporary xtian" stuff. They handed us out a lyric sheet for songs all written in the 1990s. But here is the paradox--although I was entirely ready to dismiss the music, in fact I found the melodies easy to follow, easy to sing, and theologically more in line with my views than virtually all of the other messages of the service. The scriptural tag is something like not judging lest "ye" be judged, and let me tell you I can suspend a lot of judgment if the notes of the song actually fit my limited vocal range. I still wish we could have sung "How Great thou Art" and "Shall We Gather by the River".
The service had many elements which differed from either my Methodist upbringing or my Unitarian Universalist adulthood. This church was particularly missionary-attuned, and we heard a talk by a 25 year old woman about to head to a country not often frequented by Americans which is home to another of the major world religions, whose name we were told but enjoined not to repeat, because proselytizing may not be safe in that country.
I liked the speaker; she seemed real and earnest to me. At the same time, all the serious misgivings I have about the traditional "missionary" model, in which people of other cultures are to be "saved" from their own cultures and converted to US protestantism, troubled me. I have one of those conflicted feelings. I was dismayed by a reference in one of the handouts that equated a long-respected major world faith with the work of the "evil one".
On the one hand, freedom of religion is one of my deepest core values. I want every country safe for the preaching of every belief system, whether the Baptist faith, the Wiccan faith, or atheism. On the other hand, the historic interconnection between missionaries and colonialism, coupled with the virtual complete failure of such evangelism in countries subscribing to the "world" religions of Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism, make me question the entire "missionary" model. It's not just that I don't accept the doctrines of the church involved in substantial measure, though I don't. It's more that we have so much to do that this model does not address.
People are starving and in pain all over the world. I hope I do not seem unkind or insensitive when I say I wish to see less conversion and more alleviation of suffering. That samaritan in the oft-told tale did not convert anyone to the God of the Samaritans. He just healed the wounds of the man in pain. Whose was the greater Grace?
The sermon was given by a seminarian who posited the notion that Paul's Letter to the Romans, third chapter, which describes how one might be "justified" (or saved) by faith (a fascinating Pauline concept) was the most important part of the Bible. He did a good job speaking, seeming both "in touch" with real life, and yet a solid Dallas Theological School seminarian. I'm no theologian, but my own favorite Bible passage is from one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians which points out that even if one speaks in the tongues of men and angels, if one has not got love, one is nothing.
The service concluded with a communion, an infrequent event at Baptist churches, in which it would have been inappropriate for me to join. As the others partook of a "host" of crackers and grape juice, I stood and thought how even though I personally dislike belief systems that tell people that one set of folks is "saved" while another is eternally "damned", my own belief system requires me to tolerate, if not agree with, other folks of good will as to their own beliefs. My own view is that if one believes in everything--or nothing--that one has a duty to Truth to adhere to that belief. People who do not see a God that I see must be true to what they do see. Indeed, I am not sure anymore that some of the "answers" we seek in religion are even asking the right questions. I am very attracted to the xtian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German man executed by the Nazis. In his letters sent from prison, he thought aloud about a religion in which we no longer use God as a crutch to excuse our own failure to help other people. We must live as if God were not there, he said, in God's name. Even this limited "God-talk" would be off-putting for many. Being a non-theologian, I might say the simpler thing that we have too much to do about helping each other to get lost in how we describe the indescribable.
But I realized that I must respect the right of these folks of good will to assert belief(s) disparate from mine, whether in my God, a different God, or no God at all. Freedom of religion is easy, of course, if you only tolerate folks of your own belief.
After church, many of us went to a New Orleans style restaurant, where I had a very good gumbo and enjoyed the company of these very interesting people. One of the church elders had strong Arkansas connections and I had practiced law with someone's brother. These were kind people. I would go back to their church, though I will never hold their views.
Sadly, sleep seemed to command me like a divine Master this afternoon. The sleep patterns I've got have been "off" all weekend. Perhaps it is that my wife is out of town. Perhaps it is that they just get "off" sometimes. I hated to lose my afternoon to sleep. I did get up and do some work at the end of the day.
I got a nice e mail from asphalteden, which also brightened my afternoon. That reminds me--he had uploaded his picture into the Hypnos Forum "picture day" in the "Suggestion Box" thread. I'll have to go check if the hypnos owner, the ambient musician, mgriffin, uploaded the one of me that I e mailed him. Perhaps there is still time for me to take another walk, and commune with the God I see, and which I welcome all to call God, nature, truth or merely a physical universe.....