Songs without a song.
Today I’m thinking things I’m not sure I’ll think tomorrow. I’m not sure that’s a general declaration of Why I Write — what could be more boring? — but it occurs to me. –wa.
In Sunday church I was always struck by the anticlimactic — because episodic — nature of the Bible readings. We’d get less than a page-long excerpt from an Old Testament book, one from the New, and then a bit of one of the Gospels.
The gospel reading, centerpiece of the Liturgy of the Word, made sense as a public performance; those books are structured as series of discrete biographical episodes anyway, so each week Jesus would turn up somewhere (to preach, to rabble-rouse, to die), say his bit, confront a nonbeliever, work a miracle, and then move on having impressed or been murdered by everyone. Clean and clear.
The Old Testament readings worked variously well for this purpose — David vs Goliath is a perfectly fine public readaloud, but… Consider the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 2019, which begins with Genesis 3:9-15 (plus the oddly decontextualized verse 20), the judging and cursing of Adam and Eve: with no preamble we hear God interrogating Adam in the Garden, then with a quick question for Eve, and finally pronouncing Adam fucked for all time and don’t come back.
But we don’t see Adam and Eve walk out of the Garden into Nod, and we pick up in the middle of things, without so much as a ‘Previously on All My Children…’
Admittedly this is an album track — Monday readings are for the hardcore fans — but this is a weird way to do worship-business. It’s assumed, on one hand, that the crowd is familiar with the hits: ‘Adam and Eve’ is one of the best-known myths in the Western world, along with the Resurrection and Christmas and such. Yet the reading picks up and stops in the middle of a flow of action and experience that is, or would be if given the chance, instructive in its continuity; it’s all one story, after all. Adam gets cursed on that Monday, but Eve presumably doesn’t get hers until 2021 (Genesis 3:16 isn’t in the 2020 liturgical calendar), uncoupling the LORD’s Pain and Monogamy Decree to Eve from his general ‘Everything will be bad henceforth plus you won’t get along with your wife and kids’ gift to Adam. It’s literally one more verse — why not stick them together?
Plus Genesis 3:8 is Adam and Eve hiding from God in the first place, which admittedly is a good cliffhanger and which makes sense theologically (direct consequence of the first Sin) but which is, I think, unsatisfying and weird-in-the-bad-way as a structure for imaginative/affective worship. Why not overlap a verse on each end, to give context for the punishment? It certainly saves the priest the mild annoyance of
spinning explaining for the billionth time why Adam and Eve are in trouble in the first place…
Never mind the difficulty of presenting, say, Paul’s Epistles a little bit at a time, breaking up the flow of his thought and the growing imagistic momentum to keep Mass below 50 minutes, relying on Significance (criticism!) to do retrospectively what the text is denied the chance to do for itself. And the Song of Songs? Revelations? Poetic/visionary allegories deserve a little room to breathe. The Liturgy of the Word leaves none.
Mind you, I was struck but not (then) bothered by this approach.
The downsides, I hope, are obvious. Dividing verses ‘thematically’ — or more often arbitrarily — rather than according to narrative logic means having no flow whatsoever from session to session, outside the serial-narrative Sweeps Week periods of the liturgical year (Holy Week, Christmastime). Indeed, those are the only periods of the Christian calendar that capture the feeling of the Bible’s ‘books’ as books, and the only times (in my experience) that the story of Jesus as presented in Mass bridges the gap between more or less mythicized historical account and fantastic fabrication. Plus then an enormus burden gets placed on the priest to connect all the readings, which lemme tell you Not All Priests are equally gifted at this. The task would be easier if the readings weren’t cut up in a way perversely resistant to ease of entry.
As a kid I didn’t care about any of that, though I was bored by almost every single sermon I ever heard in a Catholic church.
What I loved was the sense of something unsaid and mysterious, which particularly came through the Old Testament readings. The general approach is for the lector to slow as they approach the end of the reading, look out at the congregation, treat the whole thing as if it were a big deal — this is all part of the effect, and after all, isn’t it a fucking big deal? — and to drift off, in a sense, respectfully stepping down from the lectern and kneeling before the Vault Where Jesus’s Metaphor-Body Is Kept… The sacrifice of narrative coherence buys you a sort of anticomplementary sense of echoic deep time, of one story (the story of God and Us) ramifying through time, since whatever came before time. If you’ve never spent a year attending a church1 it might be hard to understand what this is like, this slow unfolding of a theological meaning-system built on narrative components both simpler and more complex than the elaborated theology itself, this impregnation of every little arbitrary piece of Story with ‘holiness.’ It differs from, say, working through a writer’s corpus or the run of a serial TV show in that the tempo and arrangement of the Tale are entirely outside your control, which is handy as ‘You are not the center of anything but your own experience, which certainly seems like everything’ is one of the complex lessons of every wisdom tradition and yes Christianity is one, or rather contains several…
A funny thing about Catholicism, for young-me and in this morning’s retrospect, was that each year of Sundays did have a vivid, powerful Story — in winter a hero-messenger arrives, in spring he’s killed but returns, defying death — yet that story-year was made of broken jumbled pieces assembled according to a logic that I now find much worse than counterproductive. Catholic presentation assails you with its Significance, meanwhile sacrificing the utterly strange power of the stories themselves. It works unsurprisingly like capitalism or state-building: in the rush to render the local-mysterious institutionally legible — readable and controllable by the state, the governing body — we smother both its locality and its mystery.
Yet a mystery-sense was there — it just wasn’t allowed to come from the texts themselves, but was rather manufactured. The portentous recitation of Scripture did the ancient works a disservice, binding them to theological domesticity: the prophets recast as teaser-trailers for Jesus, the Psalms allegorical snippets and motivational phrases rather than songs, the Gospels just-so stories rather than fictionalized episodes from a real man’s life, the Epistles brief diary entries rather than interventions in the workings of real (brave, isolated, connected) churches in a real (scary) time. And so the Church makes up for this choice — what else can they do? — with ‘mystery, magic, and ritual’: the energy of the state parasitizing the odd primal energy of the ancient books themselves.
I wish we’d read the Bible ourselves, not just heard weekly snatches on drive-time radio station WGOD.
I wish (in a quieter, colder voice) they trusted people — trusted the old stories rather than their Story, the ancient ways over their Way.
- …or church-equivalent, you know what I mean. ↩