Guest Letter to an Invisible Church: no. 3

[Amidst the ether of a new semester, we endeavor to press on writing letters to no one and continue to not care if we still don’t really know to whom we address them. In the Guest Letters Series, we’ve had this, and this, and now, we have this: Tom Mathe (yes, Annie‘s beloved spouse). It’s spicy, it’s hard to swallow in places, and, of course, it has references to Rocky Horror Picture Show. Duh.]

Dear Church of the Holy Abstraction,

I want to go to church.
It sounds like something basic, like going to the movies.
I don’t go to church.

Here’s why: if I were to continue likening going to church to going to the movies—which is not much of a stretch considering the ways in which the church often to regard itself (Let’s entertain them! Let’s confuse them into thinking they’re watching a production!)—then I’d say that the churches I’ve attended recently are akin to those tiny one-screen theaters with old torn-up seats where people go to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight; meaning it’s a good time if you’re dressed the part and can play along, (sometimes the building even has character) but going to see some bizzaro-rendition of “Sweet Transvestite” every Sunday isn’t going to be enough to keep me satisfied consistently.

Take, for example, the last time I went to church:
The service opened up with the typical worship music of the more contemporary church service. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing (though organs haven’t pepped my soul in a while now, either) but I just don’t understand it. The lyrics tend to be centered on the singer, putting words into their voluptuous, red-painted mouths—words based on some elusive moment of spiritual crescendo that the three chords strummed on (or solo-ed over? Really?) do little to uphold. I’m told to sing that “in all I do, I worship you.” (Do I, really? Because I don’t think I do. I think that’s one of the many reasons that I’m in church. Am I lying this into truth? Are these the habits I’m to be establishing?) I’m also reminded in these breaks-into-song of little tidbits of Christian belief, focused on in strange, repeating imagery. “It’s the blood!” (Wait, it’s blood that saves me, not the action or the forgiveness itself by my creator, but that violent, pooling, clotting image of blood drying on dying skin, seeping into the wood of the cross? Where do I get my hands on this magical elixir? Oh, you have some? No, that’s just grape juice. I can tell by the sheer lack of clots and the high-fructose corn syrup flavor. Was Jesus a diabetic? Your imagery is weird.) I’ve had to deal with trying to bite my tongue, trying to avoid thinking about the lyrics, trying to stop analyzing text during this phase of service for years now, and frankly, I don’t appreciate having to do that. If I did want to do that, I’d watch B-and-C-level horror movies from the 80’s.

Then we get the most brilliant sermon: the pastor—like the kindly ticket-taker with stories to tell—who is the only reason my wife and I keep bringing ourselves back to this particular theater, delivers a well-thought speech on our lack of knowledge, nay, our blatant hypocrisy as a culture in regards to prayer. Jesus said (can I get this in red? I just don’t want anybody to be confused and think that Peter was actually the master orator of the group) “Go into your room and close the door.” He then went on for about twenty inspiring minutes, focusing on Jesus’ example specifically and explaining to us the best that he could that a great deal of what passes in the Christian culture as prayer is actually what Jesus says not to do. “Don’t be like the hypocrites.”

And now there’s a bit of strength in my gut, and I’m feeling like “church is the best thing ever!” as though, for some reason, this tiny little one-trick theater decided, out of the blue, to cut from the same first act they always play to the second act of “Days of Heaven.” I am happy because I finally feel like there’s a church that gets it, at least a little, and I don’t have the time in my fleeting joy for this to make me sad. (Or to think that perhaps the drastic cuts will make for a strange final product, but whatever, I’m in the moment!)

Then, what is the next thing to happen? Worship Team, ho! Solo-guy comes up to the mic. “Can you please join me in prayer?”

I don’t know. Can you stop strumming that pseudo-atmospheric chord through your saccharine effects board? (Flange isn’t going to bring me closer to the Spirit.) Can you open your eyes and look at me? Can you provide me with a room into which I can go, and a door on that room’s wall that I can shut behind me? Were you even listening? Can you hear yourself? You want to put the words I say in prayer into my mouth as well?

Suddenly I’ve got a knot in my stomach, as though I’m struggling to digest a Frank-N-Furter, and everything is all Rocky Horror. The worship leader is dressed in Tim Curry’s underwear, and I can see that in Act III it’s back to getting us all to become citizens, not really of heaven, but simply of whatever place is the opposite of Transsexual Transylvania, and by way of a few radiant and brilliant shots in the midst of it that come off more like a glitch (or an experienced projection-operator who is as tired as I am of the Show) than like a cohesive production I’d ever want to revisit.

Waiting in Line,
another sleeper

Thomas Mathe is an MFA student at Goddard College, which means he’s writing a novel (about ghosts) and reading a lot. He is married, and is perhaps a bit too into comic books, Vladimir Nabokov, and the films of Terrence Malick. He is a proud member of the Brochecos trivia team, and would totes be into getting “kits” to that effect if his teammates were interested. When he gets a dog, it will be named Max Fischer Mathe regardless of its gender.

About bp

I'm writing a book. It's called, Wake, Sleeper. My writing revolves around this idea of art: attempts to recover what is lost.
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4 Responses to Guest Letter to an Invisible Church: no. 3

  1. Eve A. says:

    I like your reference to Rocky Horror. I went to Rocky Horror almost every weekend from the age of 14 to 15. The funny thing is none of us were especially into the movie. It was fun, a good excuse to sing along, and of course smoke clove cigarettes in the lobby, but I didn’t really get why we went every week. It was more of a social thing.
    Similarly, I wonder that about church now. I actually still enjoy it, although I don’t go that frequently, but I do wonder what I am aiming for.
    I go to a liturgical church, I realize this is not for everyone, but when I first came I had really similar issues with modern worship styles. The songs did tend to constantly repeat phrases like ‘in all I do I worship you,’ and while they seemed like good goals, the fact remained that they weren’t true at the time, probably to anyone. I hesitate to have this conversation because the modern vs traditional worship question is such a personal one. I’m definitely not trying to ‘sell’ it. But what made me love liturgy was an almost zen quality in which the ritual helped me to overcome my constant analysis of the theological basis of the songs.
    Every week we say, “we have not loved you with our whole hearts, we have not loved our neighbors has ourselves.” I can’t say it any better than that.
    All you said about the span of emotions you go through during the service, like church is the best thing ever to feeling like words are being put into your mouth, I totally resound with. I want to be into the emergent church thing so much, but every one I’ve ever been to felt like “traditional church, now with 20% more relevance!” sounds awesome, but relevance to what? I’m still trying to figure out how to pray. I feel so crippled, and no comparisons to pop culture will change that for me right now. Saying the Nicene creed over and over may not either. My priest used to tell this story about a seminarian who had issues with the Nicene creed and didn’t feel like he should say it. His teacher said, “It’s not your creed!” But keep saying it and maybe it will be one day. Since I actually want it to be true I guess thats a good place for me to start, although I may still be at the level of smoking cloves in the lobby and wearing fishnets.

  2. bp says:

    “…with 20% more relevance” was the best line ever, as was it’s follow-up question (“relevance to what?”). This is a huge and…relevant question, and something I will be thinking about for the rest of the day. It smacks of awesome truth-stuff. Yay truth-stuff!

    Also: am I wrong to think that Tom’s final parenthetical: “an experienced projection-operator who is as tired as I am of the Show” is actually an incredibly compelling metaphor for God, particular in the context of Tom’s argument that ‘relevant’ churches are too often master showmen? Could it be that even Christians can be guilty of creating their own take on a “clockmaker”?

    • Eve A. says:

      Oh totes. But no one can define the clockmaker, and as long as we know that I don’t think its too bad to employ “the christian imagination,” as Lewis put it. Where it gets problematic is when we start to believe our take on God is “the one”

  3. Pingback: Guest Posting | What I'm Reading; or Why

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