Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Jacob wrestled the angel

It has taken me days to write this entry. Bear with me.

Symphonic Choir has begun rehearsals for graduation. Naturally, being a choir college, we all sing a great deal in the graduation ceremony, and the entire school is required to be there and sing together. The music for graduation was introduced on Monday. It is all Christian. We are not singing one secular piece. The graduates are singing a secular piece by one of the composition majors, and that's it. And the texts are not as inclusive as many Christian hymns are. Here is a sampling:

"Rejoice, ye pure in heart! Rejoice, give thanks and sing! Your glorious banner wave on high, the cross of Christ your King."

"March we forth in the strength of God with the banner of Christ unfurl'd; That the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world; Fight we the fight with sorrow and sin to set their captives free; That the earth may be fill'd with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea."

"Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee."

"Take my will, and make it Thine: it shall be no longer mine...Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee."

"O, Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end."

Participating in a secular ceremony at a secular school and knowing that everyone was being obliged to sing these texts would cause me problems regardless of my religion. But being someone who is not Christian, this is personally very disturbing as well.

To date, I have been forced to be flexible in my approach to sacred texts, since so much of the music I work with is sacred. I have no problem singing sacred music in concert and honestly and fervently delivering what the composer has created. I love performing the Gesualdo Tenebrae Responsoris for Holy Saturday that Kantorei is working on. Bach and Beethoven present no problems. Nor do current works - everything my chorus sang at the fundraiser last weekend was sacred, and one was a piece by our resident composer. I have no problem singing great, emotional music, nor do I have a problem helping other people to worship. If my music-making helps someone to feel a spiritual connection to God or anything else, then I am happy about that.

But I do have a problem being forced to worship myself. I do have a problem with singing sacred music in a context where it is assumed that I share the beliefs stated in the texts. And I definitely have a problem singing the above words in a context that is supposed to be by definition inclusive, celebratory, personal for the community participating, and secular. This is graduation, after all, not a service.

Another aspect is that if I respect other people's beliefs, and I respect their statement of those beliefs, then I am being disrespectful if I say those beliefs myself while not believing them. And it seems odd to me that people who do hold those beliefs should not feel the same.

Incidentally, this experience has forced me to realize that I really am UU. I have for the past several years described myself as a "lapsed UU", tongue somewhat in cheek. But it was not until the graduation music forced the issue that I realized the UU principles are not just something I agree with, they are my core beliefs. There is nothing that I believe more strongly than that every person should be free to search for what is true and right in life. And so I cannot sing "March we forth in the strength of God with the banner of Christ unfurl'd; That the light of the glorious gospel of truth may shine throughout the world" when I believe that I have no more claim to know what the truth is than any other thoughtful, spiritual person. After all, those are quite insulting words to sing to a fairly diverse community.

The main problem, however, is that I can't keep from breaking down in rehearsal. Being forced to sing about carrying the banner of Christ into battle is just too deeply insulting and hurtful to me, and although all of the reasons above are true, I can't quite effectively communicate the root of my hurt. I almost cried on Wednesday, and I really, really almost cried last Friday - I couldn't read all of the music sometimes because it became blurry. So, I decided steps had to be taken. I knew I wasn't alone in my feelings - AN shared them, which helped. And so I had a meeting with DM Friday afternoon, in which I laid out my problems with the texts, and ended up breaking down in his office. He told me that my feelings were shared by other students, and if I didn't want to be in the choir for those reasons, then I would be excused. He also said that I could determine the extent of my involvement with the ceremony. He let me explain as much as I needed to, and listened very hard, despite the fact that I think he could read my mind on the subject the moment I entered the conversation. I often feel that way in talking to him - conversation can spark along the wires at an incredible rate because he always immediately groks what I am trying to say. Not just understands, groks. In the same way that I always sing better in the presence of my voice teacher (whose initials are also DM - that'll get confusing!) I always think better and communicate faster in the presence of DM. Signs of good teachers, I suppose. Perhaps someday people will think more clearly in my presence.

Come to think of it, DM often says, when teaching conducting, that the best way to make something happen beautifully is just to listen for it. Perhaps the same works for conversation - if you just listen to someone hard, it will come out more truly.

I decided this weekend that I shall go and sit in the audience. I will sing along with the Lutkin "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," because I have sung it before, and I can sing it to the graduates in good faith. But I will not sing the others, and perhaps graduation will manage to be a positive experience yet, rather than the miserable experience I know I would have singing in the choir.

Now, that's not all, of course. The above music was chosen by a student committee. You can bet money that I will be on that student committee next year (see? I am a UU) and will insure that this sort of discrimination doesn't occur again. (For the record, I was informed that the committee decided to choose this music because it has traditionally been sung at graduation, and they decided to try to make other parts of the ceremony more inclusive to other religions. I'm afraid having the local imam make the opening prayer doesn't quite make the ceremony more relevant for me.) My friend AN, however, was unwilling to let the issue rest until next year. She formed a petition, and I helped her collect signatures, requesting that secular music be required to be a part of the graduation ceremony. She meets with the Dean tomorrow. Hopefully she will help initiate a permanent policy. We shall see. The bulk of my contribution will be research done over the summer for works for organ and chorus (or brass and chorus) that are appropriate for graduation. Part of the problem is surely that the student committee didn't feel they had many options - I suspect they may have only looked at past Westminster graduation ceremonies for their ideas.

This issue has consumed me for the past week. I have entered into a great many discussions with people, which is the best outcome of this whole event. One particularly interesting conversation happend today with a rather naive South Korean who said, "Oh, I just assumed that all Americans were Christian, even if they didn't all go to church." (Being deeply Christian herself, she seemed quite sad to find out she was wrong.)

So, obviously, this whole tempest has been of some value, if I'm able to get people who make wide-ranging assumptions to reconsider their preconceptions. Also, I tend not to broadcast my atheism, because I worry that it will either make my Christian friends feel attacked, or else sad. I sometimes feel that just saying the phrase "I'm an atheist," no matter how politely, is perceived as a slap in the face. But if there are people at my school who think that all Americans are Christians, perhaps I've been too circumspect.

There is one final slant to this whole business that is personally important, even if it's not crucial to the plotline. On Friday, after my emotional meeting with DM, I had conducting class. We're working on Bach's St. John Passion - we all have different bits of it that we're working on. So on Friday, several people got up to conduct their chorales. The chorales in this work are rather heart-breaking. The whole work is, really, but the chorales are simple, and nuanced, and direct, and express the emotions of the congregation watching the story unfold. In the middle of class, in the middle of one of the chorales, I started crying - I couldn't help it. It was definitely related to the events earlier in the day, but I still can't articulate to myself exactly how. It was something to do with so recently having broken down, and feeling so wobbly...it had something to do with being confronted with music that was deeply, personally expressive...it had something to do with being allowed to approach the music and not having it thrust upon me...it had something to do with, after becoming so angry and frustrated with the indirect effects that Christianity was having upon my life, being presented with something very near its essence.

When DM was describing to us in conducting class the way in which Bach sets text in the St. John Passion, he pointed out to us that evil or negative characters or ideas are presented very chromatically, and good or holy characters or ideas are presented very tonally. He said that this reflects Bach's idea of tension or unrest being a negative state, and resolution, calmness, and repose being positive states. I suddenly thought of how this is true of so much art. Most plays, for example, set up a problem that must be solved, or a tense or unbalanced state that must come to equilibrium. And although I understand the reasons for equating tension with bad and resolution with good, I think the opposite may be true of my relationship to religion in general, and Christianity in particular. I can't decide to ignore it - without Christianity, Western art music would be so vastly different that it defies imagination. I will be interacting with this religion in an intimate way for the rest of my life. But if I ever come to a resolution with it, that will mean that I have given up engaging with important and crucial ideas. I think where my musical interpretation is concerned and where my humanity is concerned, mental resolution will only mean mental stagnation. I cannot finally make up my mind about a topic as broad and deep as this, because my philosophy can never be complete. My state of grace will be unrest.


  1. Anonymous12:26 AM

    I think you are making the right decision. This is a cop-out thing to say, because I think that anything you do will be the right decision, but hear me out. The reason you are making the right decision is that you are thinking about these things critically and doing what works for you, which is precisely what you need to do in this situation. As luck would have it, it also seems like you are doing something good for the community, by bringing attention to the issue, no matter how challenging that is for your concentration level and ability to focus on day to day things. I commend you.

    I am also glad to hear that you are not similarly troubled by all Christian music - not because I think there's anything so great about Christian music (or even Christianity) but because so much of your life as a choral conductor will butt up against music created for the purpose of celebrating Christianity (and even converting others to the faith). I would hate to think that you would face this sort of wrenching every time.

    On another note - This is not the firt time that I have been completely puzzled by people's confusing multi-denominationalism with inclusiveness. We are constantly reminded that the U.S. is among the most "faith"-ful nations in the world, and that most of that Faith is Christian. It's very, very troubling (and I am glad that someone, at least, taught one Korean woman that not all Americans are Christian.). I mean, what's so wrong with being an Atheist? I have heard several people say that they would not elect a president who was not god-fearing, although they wouldn't care what religion the candidate belonged to. I understand wanting a president with humility (i.e. a president who believes there is something more powerful than him or herself) but come. on. I don't happen to be Atheist myself, but I would like to think I could be, without being ostracized. When did secularism become a bad thing?

    Anyway, good luck. I hope that, if the petition succeeds, it might enable you to enjoy the choir.


  2. Anonymous6:40 AM

    I'm trying to formulate a worthy response to this post and...bah, my brain won't work. I think it's really important for you to be on the commitee for next year. And thank you for helping to teach people that not everyone in this country is Christian.


  3. Your title for this post made me smile in recognition, because I find the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel very personally relevant. When he completed that wrestle he gained a new name, Yisra-El -- "Wrestles with God" -- which is how my faith-community came to be known as the Children of Israel. So in a way, the wrestle you describe is central to my understanding of what it means to be religious.

    I deeply admire your convictions, and the fact that these words and ideas are important enough to you that they make an impact when you sing them. And I applaud your plan to sit on the committee that makes these decisions for next year, because that's a great way to empower yourself (corny word; useful concept) in this situation.

  4. Skyler5:46 PM

    I'm so glad Some Person In Authority finally LISTENED and addressed your concerns, though I wish they'd changed the music instead of just having dissenters sit out.

    As a part-Zen-Buddhist-part-pagan-Goddess-worshipper, I'd find those lyrics upsetting even as a casual attendee, let alone a participant--unless the graduation was for an evangelical theological seminary!

    I look forward to your impact on next year's graduation. You go, girl!

  5. Anonymous12:02 AM

    I was raised liberal and wacky Christian, and I would be deeply troubled to hear or sing lyrics like those in church, let alone at a graduation ceremony. Christianity itself, as I learned it, is no more intrinsically evangelical than nanotechnology. The Rev. when I was a kid used to give the same talk every year during the Christmas candlelight ceremony: hold your candle upright and let the people next to you reach for it; don't shove it at them and drip wax in their laps. It disturbs me too that anyone should believe all Americans are Christian, that so much of the music you sing seems dominated by Christianity, and most of all that people should think Christianity and domination must be bound together.

    I respect you immensely for wrestling with both the enforcement to put passion into words you don't believe and the questions of faith it raises. Grace in unrest -- that seems to me the state of any art or science and even any faith. Stories are patterns that reveal motion (one essay I read gave two basic plot lines, Illiad and Oddessy -- everything starts out well and goes to pot or everything starts out in hell and reaches some kind of higher ground.) Order doesn't mean stasis. And the last time I got to my home church, the married couple who lead it now responded to the current political call to get back to basics: ok, let's look at the story at the heart of our faith and recognize there's damn little stability in it. A newborn, a procession of strangers, long slogs in harsh contry, farmers after a long day. I don't mean to preach at you. Just, people who want to go out and think can belong to any faith or none... I don't think real belief and intelligence are separable. There are geeks everywhere.

    What faith isn't a struggle? I think faith is story, finding order in all this shifting ground. Creative. Listening. Stories are expandable. I've heard there are only seven plots in the world, and how many million tales remake them and remake them and remake them? It's one thing to try to understand a story I have never read before, to hear different symbols and chords, feathered serpents and red rock mesa and hunched flute players and twins and bulls and double-headed axes, and try to translate. It's another to have someone try to tell me how to read. There are things I cannot do, like call bad writing good, and I've wanted to cry when someone tried to force me to. You have to stand firm, times like that. You have real guts.

    The song lyrics you quoted - many are about stasis, about a controlling of thought that as far as I'm concerned isn't faith or religion of any kind. The short version of all that is, good for you. I'm with you all the way, and I'm sorry you've had to deal with this. And very thankful you have people there to talk to.


  6. To Betsy:

    Thanks for your response! But as for "...not because I think there's anything so great about Christian music..." - well, I think somebody needs me to make them a mix CD. :)

  7. To Julia:

    You're welcome. Thanks for speaking up. :)

  8. To Rachel:

    I'm glad it made sense to you. You're one of my...er...foundation stones of reference, if that makes sense, when talking about religion, and it's always important to me when you understand. And the end of the story of Jacob is fascinating. As always, it's good to know I'm not alone. (Does this make me an honorary member of the Children of Israel? ;)

  9. To Kate:

    Thanks for getting my back. :)

    and most of all that people should think Christianity and domination must be bound together.

    I battle this every day, and in my language I often fail (saying "Christians" when I mean "the religious right", for example.) Luckily there are people here at this school that are really helping me understand what Christianity can ideally be.

  10. To Skyler:

    Well, the Some Person In Authority actually didn't have the authority to pick the music - that was students. So they don't really have the authority to change it, either. And it's far too late, now, b/c there are so few rehearsals for graduation to start with, and now they're more than half over. The goal is to revise the ceremony next year.

    It's really a problem of educating students, and b/c the school is so small it ends up being very insular. Good thing they've got me now. ;)

    -Sister Machine Gun of Diversity

  11. Anonymous2:44 PM

    As you can perhaps tell, I'm slowly starting to read livejournal again, after a several-month hiatus, and now I feel I understand better where you're coming from with this. Our alma mater, after all, made a point of using almost entirely secular music for Convocation and Baccalaureate, the closest events to compulsory chapel still used at the school.

    Like Kate, I was raised a liberal Christian (perhaps not so much wacky, though my father, a minister, was a serious believer in ecumenicism, across religions as well as Christian denominations), and I never liked those hymns with militaristic overtones. I think it's a great thing that you spoke up about this, and are working to find alternatives. Perhaps we and people we know should wrote and/or commission secular music for voices and organ/brass?

    -Josh, aka Sibling Jackhammer of Forgiveness