Right on

Maybe it took almost 500 years, but the Catholic Church has adopted some reforms originally demanded by Protestants.

Today, in turn, some Protestants are borrowing ideas from the Catholic Church. In an effort to feel more in sync with other Christians, some denominations have created their own Bible-reading schedules similar to the Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary; they are literally on the same page as others using that same guide. Traditional elements such as more frequent communion, celebrating Lent, or Stations of the Cross strengthen ties between Christians around the world.

The Protestants who came to these soils may have achieved the religious freedoms for which they set out, but lost something vital along the way. How else to explain the “Plan of Union of 1802” when 2,000 independent Congregational churches traded their autonomy and name for the Presbyterian structure and title?

The pilgrims and pioneers yearned for autonomy, to be free of directives about how to worship or live. The Plymouth Rock Society Toast summed it up: “To a church without a bishop and a state without a king.”

But perhaps the only thing more American than to fight for freedom is to achieve freedom and then look longingly at severed ties. It’s the same struggle I experience on a most intimate level. I want to make my own decisions about spirituality but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to trudge the path alone.

Protestants may be turning back to the Catholic Church for inspiration—but they’re reaching forward too. It wasn’t until I was further along in this journey that I could reflect on some of my earlier church visits and see how popular culture, particularly trends in music, were being incorporated into the services of more established denominations.

“Are you here for the contemporary or traditional service?” a young man inquires of me at the chapel door of a Presbyterian church just a few months after I started my church-going.

“What’s the difference?” I ask. This is the first I’m hearing of two services.

“The music mostly. I think. I don’t know.” He looks around self-consciously. “I always go to the contemporary one. I’ll get Pastor Jeff. He can explain.”

He returns, tailed by a baby-faced man in an enormous blazer. Pastor Jeff has recently lost 100 pounds or he just likes really loose-fitting clothes. Either way, it makes him appear even younger than he already seems, like a kid wearing his father’s suit.

“You’re visiting us today!” He exudes oodles of confidence. He is handsome in a clean-cut way. I nod, picturing him in Christian camp as a teenager, all the girls chastely fawning over him in the mess hall.

“Right on,” he says enthusiastically, using a phrase I associate with surfers. He explains that the contemporary service uses newer “rock” songs and guitar, whereas the other features older hymns and a choir. Besides this, they are the same: identical message and readings and sermon. “The newer music rubs some of the older folks the wrong way,” he says.

I choose the one starting immediately—the contemporary one.

In the main sanctuary, Pastor Jeff says a few words of welcome and then disappears into the corner. Suddenly, a loud guitar riff fills the chapel. I scan the room to spy what I had previously overlooked: to the side of the altar sit the accoutrement of a full rock band including drums, bass, keyboards and two backup singers sandwiched between tall concert speakers.

The pastor spins to face us, an electric guitar strapped to his chest…

Save Me

Save Me is the name of a new 30-minute “situation comedy” that debuted on NBC last week. I had been seeing commercials for it for a few weeks and I recognized the lead actress, Anne Heche. I’ve enjoyed some of her previous work and was intrigued by what appeared to be the show’s strong religious theme, especially on a big television network during a “primetime” slot. How would the show’s creators mix humor and faith? Would it work? Would anyone watch? I had to find out. On its premier night, two back-to-back episodes of Save Me aired before a rerun of old-favorite The Office, providing an hour-long sample in one sitting.

Here’s the show’s premise: Heche plays Beth, a 30-something wife and mother to a teenage daughter. She and her family live in a nice house on a charming tree-lined street. It looks ordinary. But things are about to change!

The first scene shows Beth in the middle of the night standing at her open fridge hunting for something to eat. Mascara raccoons her eyes and she’s obviously drunk. She begins to greedily devour a huge hoagie. She starts to choke. She crashes to the ground. She dies.

I’m thinking: How’s this going to work? Two minutes in and the main character is deceased. I’m wondering if she’ll come back as a spirit to hover over her family members like Touched by an Angel except hilarious. In the morning, her hunky husband comes into the kitchen to find his wife…alive! She greets him with sweet, overflowing exuberance. The audience is meant to understand this is a brand new demeanor for her. In quick flashbacks and with the help of a voiceover, we see that Beth’s life had been circling the drain. She had been partying way too hard, and making a complete fool of herself at social gatherings. Her friends are avoiding her, her daughter hates her, and she readily admits her behavior has driven her husband into the arms of another woman. Basically, she’s a sad sack of a lady: pretty on the outside but loathsome on the inside. Not at all the sort of person one might expect God to speak to directly (or, perhaps, just the sort?), but that’s exactly what Beth realizes is happening.

The audience never hears God talking to Beth. She insists that the voice is audible and, in a politically correct detail that might appeal to contemporary tastes, she describes it as “gender neutral.” She refers to its source as “He/She.” It tells her things that are about to happen or that she shouldn’t otherwise know. If any of her friends is inclined to doubt Beth’s new skill, it appears to be accompanied by an ability to channel electrical currents. When her husband’s mistress shows up on the front lawn, Beth seemingly cracks her over the head with a lightning bolt in front of an audience of neighbors.

A neighbor invites her to church, and Beth’s face lights up. If she was ever a church-goer it was a lifetime ago, but it suddenly seems to her like the best idea. The church scene is idyllic: congregants milling and chatting congenially, one strumming a guitar leading a sing-along. It’s a None’s fantasy of fellowship and good vibes. No mention is made of the denomination, but Beth instantly feels at home. She grabs the microphone to sing the hymn, baffled that she knows all the words by heart.

She confides in the minister that God is talking to her. He seems not-at-all surprised. In fact, while they’re together another congregant approaches to deliver a “message from God.” This congregant is obviously mentally ill, so the minister might assume that Beth, too, is a bit deranged.

Is this a show about a woman whose near-death hoagie choking somehow changed her brain to be more God-oriented? Or is it about a less-than-perfect suburban-mom-turned-prophet? Or both? Either way, its appearance on mainstream television raises some interesting questions. Are we hungrier for spirituality than we recognize?

This quirky show probably won’t last. Its premier at the start of the summer season is apparently a bad sign. However, the network has a handful of already-completed episodes that are supposed to air in the coming weeks. I’m curious to see where it goes.

So far, the messages God provides Beth are mundane. He/She tells her the location of her missing daughter (the park) or to return a cappuccino machine she stole from a neighbor. It’s not that this isn’t good information to help her be a more attentive mom and sympathetic friend, but I’m wondering if she’ll move from fixing her own wrecked life to helping heal her community or even the world. Can she be a real prophet if her mission never goes beyond her street?

I’m also curious to see if the show will explore why Beth had become so messed-up in the first place and how her new-found connection to the divine addresses whatever pain had worsened her predicament. Will the storylines stay superficial or will they attempt to say something profound about the human condition? Can a sitcom be used to explore faith in a meaningful way? What does it suggest that the creators of this show are even trying?

A common heart

I think Luther would be happy that modern Catholic congregants are no longer forced into passive obsversation. Many can choose to get involved.

At the mass I am attending today, the priest is assisted by a small group of helpers of all ages and genders who have signed up in advance. One person carries the Book of Gospels and does the first reading and the Responsorial Psalm. Another is responsible for the second reading and the Prayers of the Faithful. Younger altar servers carry the cross and candles.

The priest and his helpers walk down the aisle in a processional sequence explained on several printable pages on this church’s website. It spells out every detail: when to bow at the altar, where to place the candles, how to move from one spot to the next. Perhaps on some days, some priests will venture off script to say a few words of their own. The priest who is running the show on this day stays true to every word and movement handed down to him by a higher authority. My thoughts rise like a helium balloon, freed by this spectacle that feels strangely reminiscent—though of what, I’m not sure.

I imagine myself as one of a huge brigade of soul soldiers stepping in unison. Day to day, the congregants here know that millions of others across the globe are reading the same Bible selections, contemplating the same issues, experiencing the same basic service. It’s like the menu at a McDonald’s or Starbucks: items arrive exactly as you expect. But this is more than Big Macs and Frappuccinos. It’s a connection to the infinite, to a higher power.

Here lies the crux of all religious innovation: do you accept a product as-is, and the backing that comes with it? Or do you opt for something new and risk standing alone?

I rein in my musings only to have them float off again.

Being in the Catholic church keeps hurling me back in time because the connection, I see, is not just to others living around the world today, but to previous generations; it offers a continuity with the past that even new denominations must honor. Here is an ancestor they have in common. I picture the face of my great-grandmother who, by the time I met her, was toothless and whiskered and blind; her name, Aphrodite, did not quite suit her.

Then I recall a day I haven’t thought of in years. My grandmother and I are on an errand to drop off her special finikia cookies for the upcoming Greek Festival. The outside of the Orthodox Church in downtown Dallas is pure white—smooth stucco with a big mound in the middle like an overgrown igloo, its ancient ways preserved on ice by the long-ago split with the Catholic church.

Tables are being set up in the courtyard and in the hallways. Grandma lets go of my hand. The door of the chapel is ajar, and I can see a sliver of bright red so incongruous with the pearly exterior; I am drawn to it. Opening that slit and stepping through was like performing an autopsy, peeling away the smooth skin to reveal a beating heart. Bright red carpeting lined the aisles leading to the altar, like arteries carrying me along. The ceiling was painted with faces motioning for to me to look up. The light reflected off the abundant gold paint in the murals, creating a warm glow; a smoky sweetness lingered in the air. So otherworldly did this seem—so unlike the corridor outside where kids were running around and boxes of baklava were being dropped off—that I felt like a character in my favorite book the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, stepping across a threshold into a different dimension.

My grandmother, her grandmother and all our mothers before that, we each had our individual heart in our chest, the one that pumped blood and kept us alive, but this was a heart we shared—one that beat through generations.

Back to beginnings

Perhaps I’ve become distracted by spirit worlds and heavenly realms and future paradises. The colorful plot twists of Christianity’s evolution have captured my imagination. I have to remind myself what this story is really about, and my original question of how it speaks to regular life lived right now.

All of it goes back to a person called Jesus and the core values he expressed during his time on Earth. His was a message of love and sacrifice. Through his example, I am meant to feel loved so that, in turn, I can do my part to love and care for humanity. I am meant to grow comfortable, confident even, walking this planet with the knowledge that my life as I know it will not last long. I have to concentrate to allow this core lesson to resonate in my chest.

Each time I step foot in a church or sing a hymn or read a Bible verse, am I supposed to automatically return to this basic message—triggered like a buried memory?

Not long ago, with my Martin Luther picture book in hand, I had imagined the experience of worship in a Catholic church as one of passive observation: ritual as beautiful, remote spectacle. I have stepped foot in countless Catholic churches as a tourist both here and in Europe and admired the opulent interiors that, even when not in use, are alive with statuary and reflective surfaces.

I may have come a long way on this journey, but it doesn’t compare to the distance the Catholic Church has traveled—first to the Atlantic shores of this continent and then towards the Pacific.

The plain and intimate chapel I walk into is surprising. The walls are stark white, the furniture simple. The one bit of sparkle comes from the flames of two candles atop the modest altar. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was a Protestant church.

As I take a seat in a basic wood pew, I conjure the image of a pampered and perfumed lady making her way across the American plains in a covered wagon. Each stage of the journey, she sheds a facet of her fancy facade. Illness forces her to trade jewelry for medicine, the wind takes her silk scarf, the sun freckles her porcelain skin. Finally, she arrives at her destination indistinguishable from the other pioneering women who’ve made the same journey: weathered, weary, and windblown.

The only initial indication that this is an outpost of the mighty Catholic Church is a fat book tucked next to the hymnals, which I pull out and flip through. In this volume, every mass of the entire year is spelled out. The “lectionary cycle” insures the Bible is completed on a regular schedule, mandating which parts are read when. The format, authorized by the authorities in Rome, is shared by Catholic churches all over the world: first, a reading from the Old Testament or, at specific times of the year, books of the New Testament; a responsorial Psalm that is, ideally, sung; a second reading from one of the New Testament Letters (only on Sundays); and finally a Gospel reading. Throw in a few hymns and communion. Bada bing, bada boom! You’ve got a service.

Even the communion wafers are mandated. The priest hands each person a tasteless disk of unleavened cracker. No random chunks of misshapen loaves here. Someone, somewhere, is in charge of purchasing Lord’s Supper supplies from a centralized source.

Consistency is key; codes and canons have standardized the practices. It’s a reminder that this denomination has a figure who’s something like a king, a human who speaks on behalf of God. While each church is a finger or toe of this single body, decisions are made by the head. It’s in part what Luther was reacting to when he wrote his manifesto of desired reforms. He wasn’t so much opposed to the consolidated power as what it meant: mandates or traditions he found disagreeable could not be easily changed.

Yet in the 500 or so years since Luther, the Catholic Church has made significant changes, some of which are exactly what Luther was calling for in his day.

As the day’s service unfolds, I imagine what Martin Luther might think if he were sitting next to me…

Movie review

Dear readers,

I’m introducing the occasional movie review to my blog. My goal is to dip my toe into the ever-expanding genre of faith-based films and to assess the stories through the lens of my growing understanding. I usually see mainstream secular productions, so this genre is new for me.

Here’s my methodology for selecting movies: I dig around Netflix’s faith and spirituality section. I read the little description and, if it sounds intriguing, I add it to my queue. Please share your movie suggestions. If it’s a newer release, I may need to wait for it to come out on Netflix.

First up: Baptists at our Barbecue

This romantic comedy, released in 2004, follows an unmarried Morman man who relocates from Utah (at age 29, this is his first time leaving the state) to a small fictional town in Arizona with a population that is exactly half Mormon and half Baptist. I initially jotted the title as Baptists at THE Barbecue, but quickly realized my mistake. Mormons are in charge of this shindig. I also thought the attractive young man and woman on the poster would be from different denominations like proper faith-crossed lovers. But no, she’s Mormon too. Not coincidentally, this film is released by Haelstorm Productions, an outfit dedicated to Mormon entertainment.

The movie opens with a quote from religious critic Harold Bloom (apparently Mormons appreciate the praise this Yale scholar has heaped on Smith). The text on screen reads: “The most significant development of 21st century religion will be the relationship between Mormons and Baptists.” When Bloom wrote these words, he might not have anticipated the dramatic rise in Nones. Reading Bloom’s quote, I anticipate some explanation as to the source of tension between two significant American denominations. I’m hopeful for an indication of how the relationship will play out.

The cause of the feud between the Mormons and the Baptists in the town appears to stretch back several generations; it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys in that its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint. As far as I can tell, the differences are silly. The Mormons don’t drink liquor and have funny names; the two main Mormon characters are called “Tartan” and “Charity.” The Baptists have ordinary names and aren’t opposed to moderate drinking. One Mormon character shouts, “They don’t believe in Joseph Smith!” A Baptist calls Tartan a “stupid water drinker”—an apparent dig at the Mormon communion drink of choice.

The Baptists have a real church building but seem to prefer gathering outdoors to listen to their preacher deliver fire and brimstone sermons. The Mormons don’t have a permanent structure, but they acquire a double-wide trailer, half of which mysteriously goes missing. The missing half is never found, but after the “All Faiths” barbecue that Tartan and Charity organize, some inroads are made at the two groups getting along. The sign outside the gas station that read, “Baptist discount” is replaced with one that says “Caffeine-free coke.” Perhaps the Baptists are beginning to see the wisdom of a stimulant-free lifestyle. After the talent show portion of the barbecue, at least one Mormon-Baptist romance brews—but only between minor characters.

While the Baptist/Mormon relationship is supposed to be the main dynamic here, I couldn’t help but notice a conflict brewing within the Mormon congregation. One uptight lady, Sister Wingate, sports an unfashionable hairdo (reminiscent of those worn by the women of some high-profile polygamous cults) and seems to represent an outdated mentality. Tartan tells Sister Wingate that the reference in the Bible to God making the earth in seven days is not literal; she accuses him of “preaching blasphemy.” Sister Wingate and her husband have a huge house (hint hint) where services were held before the double wide arrives. She has forbidden singing and music. In moving to the trailer, the congregation rejoices as boxes of hymnals arrive. Sister Wingate considers switching denominations.

Yet, the issues within the Mormon group aren’t unique to the denomination; if anything, they speak to trends in Christianity in general. On qualities that might be considered uniquely Mormon, the two characters seem to agree. Both Tartan and Sister Wingate look for “signs” to guide their decision-making, just as Joseph Smith suggested. Tartan asks Charity if she prayed about their budding romance and felt a “burning sensation” in her chest. Sister Wingate’s attitude improves when she goes to the top of a mountain to seek guidance about the changes taking place and the “mountains hum their approval.”

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers’ weave in little nods to the ways in which Joseph Smith’s influence is still appreciated and, perhaps at times, overstated. Protagonist Tartan emulates Smith’s reverence for place and the biblical significance of North American continent when he acknowledges that the events occurring in the little Arizona town are so profound he wouldn’t be surprised if “the ten tribes had a reunion here” (a reference lost tribes of Israel). Yet, the filmmakers seem to be aware that such veneration of Joseph Smith can be taken to unrealistic extremes; the audience is meant to laugh when one elderly character insists it was Smith, not George Washington, who “chopped down that cherry tree.”

A flutter

The year of the “Great Disappointment,” when Jesus didn’t return in 1844, Joseph Smith was gunned down by an angry mob in Missouri; apparently they didn’t much appreciate his ideas about plural marriage in part because some of his would-be “wives” were already married. Smith was, by all accounts, an exceptionally magnetic and good-looking guy so it was sort of like if Brad Pitt came to town and put out a shingle that said “wives needed.” Otherwise sensible ladies might have been compelled to shove a few belongings into a purse and yell, “catch ya later!”

Smith was killed in June of that year, just a few months before Jesus missed his October cutoff date. How abreast Smith was of the prevalent messiah deadlines is unclear, but it’s a safe assumption that he was at least in tune with the popular anticipation and died believing Christ’s return was eminent because much of his church’s theology hinges on this point.

After the service, we break into smaller groups for further discussion. The men stay in the main chapel for their meeting, some of the women gather to go over charitable duties, and the rest of us are invited to join study groups. It’s a beginner’s class for me, and down a long hall to a back room with rows of plastic school chairs and a teacher expecting twins soon; she has a hard time getting close enough to the chalk board to write.

I am given a copy of a thin book called “Gospel Principles,” comprised of 47 short chapters designed to introduce the faith to newcomers. Today we discuss the chapter called “Signs of the Second Coming.” It outlines all the usual stuff like war and pestilence.

Flipping through the booklet, I notice photos of regular people doing boring, everyday stuff peppered with over-the-top illustrations of Jesus and intergalactic cloud bursts. The artwork perfectly captures Mormon’s dualism: earth-bound responsibilities side-by-side with celestial fantasies.

Only a single hint of something exotic occurs the entire day. It’s during the service at the blessing of a newborn. In a frilly bonnet and ruffled dress, she looks like a doll. Her father carries her to the altar and a group of men gathers, each putting a hand to the baby. Together, they wish only good things for this precious life, but something about the sight of a fortress of men surrounding a tiny girl sends a tingle up my spine—whether for being creepy or just odd, I’m not sure. I’m reminded that men in this denomination are considered priests during their human incarnations and that beyond this life they hope for a powerful promotion.

For a second, it’s like the diaphanous drape flutters open and I get a quick glimpse of the quirky ceremonies that supposedly take place in the hidden chambers and back rooms of Mormon temples everywhere. From what I surmise, believers act out momentous occasions; they might pantomime death, make believe meeting God, and pretend to travel through the afterlife. These rituals are the elaborate secret handshakes in a cosmic clubhouse. The baby remains motionless for the duration, then the men return to their seats and the curtain closes and everything is normal again.

Smith encouraged people to make up their own minds. In his writings, he instructs anyone who is unsure about a topic to plant a seed of a question in their hearts and observe the answer that grows. This would seem an invitation to any divergent opinions that may arise, even a change as radical as ditching a central principle of the faith. Smith must have understood that faith isn’t something one can set like concrete. The history of Christianity, especially on these soils, is an endless series of modifications to create practices more meaningful or palatable to contemporary tastes. Over and over again people have taken the parts that work for them, and discarded those that don’t.

Orderville

What was I expecting from the Mormon service? I guess after reading about Joseph Smith’s theology, I was worried it might be like a page ripped from a science fiction novel. Taking my seat, I scan fruitlessly for the cast of oddball characters; disappointingly, I spy not even one “homeboy” or biker dude, as suggested by the Mormon commercials.

No, the big room is filled with my best but most boring neighbors—the ones with meticulously-kept lawns and who never park their cars on the street. These are the foot soldiers of the garage-proud army who “accidentally” leave their automatic garage doors gaping to show off how well tamed they keep spaces so vulnerable to filth and chaos. As if a tidy garage is a reflection of the purity of the soul, a final step of getting right with God.

One of the Mormon settlements before Salt Lake City was called “Orderville,” which I thought sounded like a terrible name but now realize was a term of endearment given by these experts at organizing people and spaces. I understand why new converts might be inclined to join these individuals so skilled at taming the wildness of each new frontier.

The day’s proceedings are decidedly earth-bound. The program doesn’t include an official sermon, just regular congregants who give brief talks; it seems everyone is encouraged to commit to one of these from time to time to make up the bulk of every service.

Today, two teenage girls share the podium, each dedicating a few minutes to the topic of volunteer work. They are, like, totally into it. Next, a young man elaborates on the theme of righteous living. It is real, real important. None of the speakers demonstrates particularly stellar oratory skill; they are as awkward and bumbling as I would be up there.

Most of the remaining time is dedicated to an administrative matter: this ward is splitting in two. I can’t believe my luck to be here to witness the reproductive process this organism of a denomination has used to grow so mighty over the last 100 years.

Apparently the population of Mormons in the vicinity of my house has climbed steadily for the last decade and now the congregants who show up at this time slot are too numerous. The pews are not enough and the addition of several rows of folding chairs is no longer sufficient and often latecomers are left to stand at the back of the chapel. The Assistant Bishop whose domain includes several wards takes the podium to say a few words regarding this matter. Starting the following week, he explains, one portion of this ward will show up for the 1 o’clock service and the other will begin at the new 3 o’clock slot. Like everything else, the division is determined by the location of each family’s home.

He acknowledges how difficult this transition is, especially because the group has been worshipping together for many years and close ties may tempt some to choose one time over the other based on friendships rather than street addresses. He stresses the importance of abiding by the rules. He assures us that over time we will grow not only comfortable with, but even to love, our new ward mates and he hints that soon what began as this one ward may require a brand new meetinghouse. I sense chests welling with pride, and the seeds of determination silently sprouting. Slowly, taking cues from nature, one ward split at a time, the Mormon Church will expand. It’s all so rudimentary. Anyone who has ever participated in a campaign or community organizing effort will recognize the nuts and bolts of this discussion.

For the first time ever, I actually know the hymns. We sing Come All Ye Faithful and Joy to the World even though it is over a month until Christmas. Despite the inclusion of verses I had never heard, the familiarity is comforting.

Most of what unfolded that afternoon seemed as elementary as the water we drank in place of wine for communion.