Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Procrastination and preserving evidence are both strategies that work for me. Now I have time to work down through those piles of material that I showed earlier and I am not susceptible to the paranoia and despair of those who have no piles of paper to see again with more experienced eyes.

When I enrolled at Meadville/Lombard, I was in a program that ended in a Doctor of Ministry degree. (D. Min.) Most ministers earn Masters of Divinity degrees. The DMin program had a University of Chicago MA embedded in it, which is why I went to M/L. One of the requirements of an MA is beginning mastery of a foreign language and I chose French. (Which is the only reason I can stumble through some of Tim’s work, since French is a more universal language for his boys.) Subsequent students thought all this was just too difficult and campaigned until both the MA and the foreign language were dropped.

The D. Min. (which is technically a four-year program) ended in a thesis, but I could not get my thesis approved and eventually was awarded an M.Div. to get me off the books. I was not alone. The fault was both mine (I never quite got hold of what they required and rejected it as a dumb requirement anyway) and theirs (they used our work to “prove” their own ideas). It was the system’s fault. But I’m out of the system now.

I find that the rough notes and the literally scissored and taped raw text (no computers yet) are more interesting than the final copy I hold in a three-ring binder. My subject was a poetic or rhetoric or scaffold for interpreting and designing a worship experience. One of my exasperated advisors, Wendy Olmsted, a very much admired and accomplished professor of rhetoric at the U of C, said, “I do not think a 500 page justification of an alternative to Christian worship. . . was necessary. You sound to me so immersed in your new world that going back to 'gothic gray' does not seem quite the thing.”

She was quite right. But I needed several things and some of them had not developed yet, though some people were about to create the very stepping stones I needed because they were emerging from the culture at the end of the Eighties. I’m talking about anthropology, brain function, and rhetoric, both method and content. From now on I’ll be weaving those threads together, but I have been pulling them in all along.

This is the kind of thing I’m finding in raw notes, but I don’t know whether I thought them up or found them somewhere. A list entitled “The Task of the Worship Leader.”

1. Prescriptive or reconciliation.
2. Kindling of sacred space and time.
3. Articulation of symbol structures.
4. Compiling the raw experience.
5. Isolating the “invariant core.”
6. Using symbols efficaciously.
7. The ethics of authenticity.

Looking at them, I suspect they came out of me. I would add to number one, “creation and transformation” or maybe that’s number eight. These were “deduced” ideas that I drew out of worship experiences I had experienced in several contexts including the Catholic Mass, Blackfeet bundle-opening, and created Unitarian ceremonies like water-mingling. I included an article from a pastoral counseling journal in which a minister justified the invention of a marriage ceremony between a living bride and a groom who had been killed hours before the ceremony, and the grueling Andean survival described in the book, “Alive!” which a local priest interpreted cannibalism as a literal communion of blood and flesh. Tim’s sort of work is very relevant, particularly when he was in San Francisco with a partner doing what he thought was sex work, often specializing in soldiers or cops. I would interpret them as ceremonially relieving post-traumatic stress syndrome. When you think of it that way, S/M becomes highly relevant.

The key to it all is what fMRI’s can show on a screen now: that the brain is a complex of interactions, always transforming itself in response to senses and thought and therefore always transforming our inner mental and emotional state to suit the situation. The first task of the celebrant, whether using traditional material or innovation (not just word, but also movement, projections, music, enactments), is to create the safe space in which to shift into what we might call “worship mode” because while in that inner state, one is very much vulnerable both to oneself and to aggressors from outside the context. It is a little like being hypnotized, but I would maintain that hypnotism, acting, dreaming, therapy, and other creative states are subsets of the same thing that worship is. I find confirmation of this is the thought of others, like D.W. Winnicott.

Victor Turner and von Gennep called this crossing the limen, which is just a fancy word for threshold, as in the threshold of a door. One must be safe inside that place and one must emerge at the end; or the creative achievements made inside (possibly changes in identity) can not be added to one’s daily life. It is very serious stuff and that’s why number seven on my list is “the ethics of authenticity.” Abuse leads to cults and madness. It's often terrifying.

Part of my thinking came out of a paper I was assigned by a UU ministerial association study group: “Explain to us the difference between female worship and male worship.” There was a lot of resentment of prescriptive and patriarchal forces at the time. My analysis was in terms of women wanting to go “into” the liminal state and not come out. It was like making love or nursing a baby and they wanted to stay in that “ecstatic” state. But men found liminal space dangerous and it was hard for them to enter -- once in, they wanted out quickly. This idea came from observing our own vespers services, which varied between traditional and experimental. The women came early and sat meditating beforehand. They left reluctantly. The men hustled in at the last minute and leapt to their feet as soon as they thought it was the end. This is a kind of cultural anthropology and might not hold true outside that context of educated, driven, professional men. You might have to drug them, i.e. get them drunk or high! They want and need control.

See what Wendy means about a 500 page justification? I still might not be capable of it, but if not now, when? Take my hand -- I'm a little frighened!

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