Tag Archives: tradition

Secular Sainthood

10 Jun

If the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, then our spiritual icons must appear in ad space. In an America where people are less spiritual, and more ignorant of their own history, something has to take its place–therefore we have secular saints.

This is nothing new–in fact, there’s a term for it–“civil religion.” In a young country such as ourselves (and 300 years is pretty young), America had to invent a whole mythology and founding fathers to lionize and exalt. Since the best example of a working republic was Rome’s, our national buildings emulate Roman design consciously. Without a state church, we had to take away most of the direct religious connections, and appealed to unifying concepts (such as the Ten Commandments).

The recent change in our civil religion has been who we choose to venerate. Since we learned that our founding fathers were just flawed white men whose beliefs do not match our modern sensibilities, there has been a push to eliminate the old gods in favor of the new. In this case, Valley Metro in Phoenix has pushed to have a local artist create these beautiful pictures of 19 historical women to honor Women’s History Month.

Okay, let me get off my soapbox briefly to say, “These pictures are really good.” We should celebrate the founding mothers as well as the fathers. It was a little harder to be a big splash as a woman two hundred years ago, so our examples are far more recent. Now I’m going to take my fairness hat back off and ask, “Don’t these pictures look a LOT like Orthodox Christian icons?”

There’s a flower around their head (cough, cough… halo), one of them is holding an paint wheel like a cross or a book, and they all stare down at you like they owe you something. Like saints, these women are to be venerated; their lives are examples of how we should behave. Rosa Parks, Sally Ride, Harriet Tubman… women who broke traditional standards and succeeded. We made sure to throw in as many ethnicities as possible, regardless of how much it makes sense. For example, Jumko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Seriously? Or take Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American to graduate from an American school of nursing. Who cares! You could have used Elizabeth Blackwell, first female American doctor, but we already hit our limit of pale skinned women.

What I wonder is how long these new secular saints will last before they are replaced. How long will Madam C. J. Walker last as “the first Black woman millionaire in America” before her belief in self-reliance and her relationship with the wealthy overwhelm her ethnic status? How long will Judy Garland’s role as a gay icon last when people stop watching The Wizard of Oz? The problem with creating new gods is that they don’t have a tradition to support them when the next generation comes along. But maybe that’s the point–new gods for a new generation, nothing stable, everything politically correct? Maybe I’m being hyper-critical about a bunch of urban art. Let me know in the comments below! Then if you want some more ephemeral art, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too expensive to support the arts, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

Survivor of the Worship Wars

2 Jan

When I saw a post from a “Survivor of the Worship Wars,” I had ask myself–did I miss a war? Was there a terrible battle that left thousands of faithful dead? Better question–what the heck are they talking about?!

The “Worship Wars” are the fights between people who lead services and the congregations who participate. Generally, people don’t like new things in their service, and don’t want to try new things, and the guy or gal who’s responsible for leading the service gets bored with the same old songs and tunes. In the end, some will like them and some won’t, and in the 60’s, this led to the break-off of the “contemporary service” from the “traditional service.” Some churches do both, some only choose one.

In a way, the wars are over–as I said, you either choose one or the other style, or you allow a separate space to do both. However, the tension that led to that still exists today. For example, our previous synagogue used to do a Sephardic Orthodox service, but used Shlomo Carlbach tunes. That may sound like gibberish to you, but back in the 60’s, a young Chabad (ultra-orthodox missionary Jews) rabbi named Carlbach decided to abandon his tradition in order to meet young hippie Jews where they were. As a result, he started his own synagogue, went on tours all over the world, and generally brought love and joy to his services. (That’s one interpretation.)

We chose that shul because we loved the music, we loved the traditional service, but we hated the politics and expectations that usually come with the traditional service. Your worship style often defines your worship location.

When I was growing up, I was in choir, and we used to groan when our director would bring out some piece of experimental whatsis. But we would go through it anyway. Sometimes it actually worked–most of the time, it landed with a dead thud. And any time you tried out a new hymn… or God forbid, a different tune to existing hymn, people would very grumbly.

So how do you avoid the worship wars? Well, our author points out the very important lesson that all service leaders need to learn: go slow. Just starting out and having to adjust to your personality is often as much as the congregation can take at first. Our rabbi used to teach us one new tune to an established song, and then she would repeat it the next week, and the week after, until we got it. Sometimes it would stick around, sometimes we’d return to the old “funeral dirge” style we were doing (Jewish music has a lot of minor keys), but it was always baby steps.

Change is good and acceptable and inevitable, but people come to your service because they like the style as it is now. That might not be enough people to sustain a congregation, so understand that change is also painful, and you may lose folks while you’re trying to draw in more. I guess it depends on what your end goal is–are you just trying something new because you’re bored? Or are you trying to move the congregation in a certain direction? Either way, change takes time, and the faster you move it, the more resistance you’ll get.

Are you one of those who likes that “old time religion?” Do you like it, but only go on major holidays? Do you think “contemporary worship” is too pop-heavy and terrible music? Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? Let me know in the comments below!

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