Monday, January 28, 2008

A Couple of Red Flags

A friend led (as organist/choirmaster) vespers last evening at St. Olaf College. (It was in partial fulfillment of the requirements for M.S.M. degree through SO and Luther Sem.) The order was pretty much Evangelical Lutheran Worship, which once again showed that its collectors (or whatever they thought of themselves) deem familiarity with a rite something to be despised and made just enough changes to the vespers rite to make me constantly not sure what was happening next or what the musical tone might be. (Way to go, ELCA boys and girls! The changes were clearly not really necessary, since a lot of the music came directly into ELW. But at least a few “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” references were avoided – especially “Father.”) But aside from that an one or two other oddities, my friend designed a really nice office, with a cute children’s choir (not especially effective – if only because of the acoustics in the chapel) and a terrific, small adult choir (formed by invitation of people whose voices blended beautifully).

But what really got me was the recently remodeled Boe Chapel in which the office was prayed. There were two big errors, to my eye, that distracted me throughout the office. First (and probably less serious compared to the second), the organ console has been moved from the balcony/loft to right down front and center behind the free-standing table/altar, placed so that the organist faces the choir which sits between the console and the back wall, with his back to us. The result is that we are given more insight into the busyness of an organist during a worship service than I care to have: When prayers were going on, when we ordered into silence, and the like, the organist had to prepare the next piece of music, so there was rustling of pages and moving of books and checking of bulletin. In a school with a strong music program for church musicians and for an event of the Master of Sacred Music degree, this showed all the wrong touches.

Now I know that organists must be busy; that goes with the territory. But when the organ console is behind the worshippers (or as was the case at Gettysburg Seminary, where the console was integrated into the split choir, perpendicular to the worshipping community and more or less blocked by half the of the choir), he or she is able to do the busy work without distracting the pray-ers. To the contrary, when the console is front and center (and especially when it is oriented in the same direction as the worshippers), all that busy work is magnified and made to compete with the rest of the “business” of worship.

Lord, help congregations, design teams, and architects understand that.

The second thing was the magnificent display of the flags of many nations, which display hangs from the top of the walls at either side of the nave. Now I imagine (I didn’t even bother to ask) that the flags are meant to represent the nations from which Oles come to study at “Princeton of the Prairie” (my disdainful moniker for this Lutheran school). And, God knows, Lutheran colleges are all about affirming diversity and people’s good feelings about themselves and their preconceptions of how the world is structured. Campus pastors can claim lots of support for being “sensitive” to the needs of the students – which needs probably include being affirmed as SOUTH Koreans or “Americans” (by which is meant USAmericans, since Mexicans and Canadians have not claimed the entire continent for themselves) or Norwegians (as though the Dale sweaters – on sale for several hundred dollars each in the college Bookstore – were not evidence enough of that).

But that doesn’t change the fact that it is wrong to display national flags – or any other flag, for that matter – within the nave. While it is common practice, and especially among Anglicans and “conservative” evangelicals, I guess, it is still theologically and ritually and liturgically wrong.

Flags represent divisions in the world – and in most cases, artificial divisions, at that. (What, for example, calls for dividing North Dakota from Manitoba, when the landscape is the same, Icelanders live on both sides and commune and commute back and forth regularly? Or what is the logical reason – really – for the boundaries of “Iran” or “Iraq”? You know the answer to that – Western hegemony and arrogance.) The divisions are human-inspired and human-configured. And they give the lie to Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel that in Christ, there is no East or West, Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.

As Bill Cavanaugh so convincingly explains in “World in a Wafer,” (which you can read here), the liturgies of the Church – the Eucharist preeminent among them – are the enactment of the God-driven end to such earthly divisions. As God is One, so is the Body of Christ one – no longer defined by national identity, gender or sexual identifiers, economic status, or anything else. So when churches mount nationalistic banners in the worship space, one of two things happen: Either they disregard the importance of images and artifacts in the forming of people’s culture or they sanction (in the sense of validate) the very supposed reality reflected in the images and artifacts.

When churches hang or otherwise display national flags, they baptize an us-versus-them worldview that is incompatible with the Gospel. That is blasphemy, in short – the same as mounting statues of Shiva or the Buddha in chapels around the nave represents a return to the worship of Baals. (I can imagine that there are places that do that, but I pray that my imagination is overactive.) No god is more demanding of sacrifice and subservience than is the god of the nation (see another Cavanaugh article: “Killing for the Telephone Company,” here), and consequently no service must be more strenuously and tirelessly resisted than that directed to the god of the national culture.

Civil religion is a religion in competition with worship of the One True God, in other words. And for a congregation to give in to symbols of that civil religion is false worship, regardless of the touchy-feeling reasons given for excusing or justifying it.

Campus ministry is fraught with difficulties. But one can reasonably expect that colleges of the Lutheran church will think seriously about the implications of their curricula, their academic and student-life practices and policies, their sanctioned activities, and the designs of their spaces – most especially their worship spaces. On this, I think St. Olaf has failed the test.


-C said...

I didn't attend this Vespers yesterday, opting instead to attend a hymn festival (which was, as I predicted, wonderful).

But to your 2 points here I add a resounding "Amen!"

Organists should be heard and not seen, for just the reason you outline, but also so that the "performance" aspect of playing does not become a concern.

And also in agreement, 2 thumbs down to the flags in church thing. I don't care how many flags you wave - even if you, for the sake of inclusivity, wave all the flags for every cause or nation in the world. Flags are generally about pride, and pride has no place in the church (that goes for all kinds of pride).

OTOH, I heard the Vespers service was "wonderful."

Kate said...

It really was a beautiful service, and I felt privileged to be a part of it. Absolutely, soaringly restful, meditative and prayerful.

And I do agree on both points you raise, Dwight.

As an alum of St. Olaf, I can tell you that the flags have been there since as long as I can remember. I disliked them when I was a student there 30 years (yikes!) ago, and I deplore then now. Flags do not belong in God's house. We have had this discussion before in several venues and there's nothing new about the debate that changes my mind.

The re-modeled sanctuary is intended to function not just as a sanctuary, however, but also as a concert space. I believe that is why the decision was made, for good or ill, to place the organ where it is.

The flags? Ummm, do they provided any acoustical assistance? There sure are a heckova lot of them.

-C said...

"The re-modeled sanctuary is intended to function not just as a sanctuary, however, but also as a concert space."

Perhaps this is also an issue. REmodeled or not, a sanctuary is, by definition, a holy place. When we try to take a holy place and make it flexible enough to also be something else, I wonder if such an effort will always fail on some level?

Just my 2 cents (oh, I guess it's 4 cents, now.)

Dwight P. said...

I have been told, off-blog, that the console is "moveable," so it need not always sit front-and-center. That's some consolation, I suppose.

-C said...

Console - ation?

Very punny.

Dwight P. said...

I was trying to sound a more dignified note. But then you had to pipe in!