My wife and I (along with, I suppose, our son) are in search of a new spiritual home. We have always felt that the church, first and foremost, ought to be a community within which one should find oneself, and, as such, the church ought to be a place one can call home. Having been burned in ministry and estranged from our spiritual home, this weekend was to be a time set aside for finding a new home. In other words, we were supposed to go to church yesterday. It didn't really matter which church, since we have no idea where we'd like to set up our new spiritual home. But, per our own, self-imposed rules, we were supposed to go to church.
A series of events beyond our control which certainly involved an inexplicably fussy baby conspired to keep us from going to church. So, in the afternoon, rather than sleeping through, er... I mean, watching football games we set out in search of a new spiritual sanctuary. We went to the heart of suburban secular religion, the place in which many of us find our sacred community and meaning (however hollow) in life. We went to the mall.
I mention this in part as a confession, and in part as an explanation. I've always wondered why it is that I go to the mall. It certainly isn't because I have the money to actually buy anything. Nor is it because I love teasing myself with all of the things I can't afford to buy. It certainly isn't because I like hanging out at the mall - I'm in entirely the wrong social demographic for that. I'm too old to pretend I'm like the teenagers who go there just because they need a little bit of freedom from their parents, and I lack the polish, material wealth, and apparent superficiality of the various assortment of soccer moms and other adult mall creatures.
Perhaps I go to the mall because it gives me a chance to remember, as I look at and listen to the various forms of advertisements, all of the fallacies they taught me in my college Logic class. Rarely do you get a chance to see so many people willingly persuaded to do something foolish by such obviously bad arguments. But, I suspect I really go to the mall for three reasons:
1. It gives me a chance to get out of the house without having to think about what it is that I want to do while I'm gone.
2. It gives me a chance to complain, and I always need something to complain about. When I go to the mall I get to a.) complain about having to go to the mall in the first place, which involves fighting through traffic to get there and a sea of people to get anywhere once I'm there, and b.) complain about putting up with all sorts on nonsense from the people who are trying to sell me something.
Once I asked someone how they were doing, and they said, "I can't complain." I thought that, if they were serious, then they are missing something essential to being human. We humans can complain about anything. It is one of our gifts. Absent anything else to complain about, we can even complain about not having anything good to complain about.
3. It gives me a chance to force my wife to listen to music she would never voluntarily listen to, at volumes she would never voluntarily expose herself to. I tell her that second hand noise pollution may be an urban (or at least suburban) blight, but, by God, it's my blight.
In August, confronted with the unalterable fact that we are parents, we bought a minivan. I had thought that the act of buying a minivan would have suck all of the remaining youth from my soon-to-be-soulless body (though my wife insists that buying the van was my idea from the start), but there are actually some good trade-offs. The first of these trade-offs, and the hardest for me to either admit to or accept, is that the van drives better than my car. It has a smoother ride, does better on the road, and even has a great deal more pick-up. I took this realization hard, because I am an American male, and it turns out that we American males have way too much of our self-esteem tied into the vehicle that we drive, but that's a subject for another post. Another good trade-off is that it is much easier to fit the baby, and the ten thousand pounds of accessories which go with the baby, into the van. But, perhaps the best trade-off is that it turns out the van actually has an amazing stereo, as opposed to the piece of crap in my car.
This fact leads to some great arguments. For instance, after I put in a cd and turn the volume up to the appropriate level, she tells me that it hurts her ears. And, of course, if it hurts her ears, what must it being doing to the baby? I respond, "What? I can't hear you! What are you saying? You'll have to talk a little louder!" To which she replies, "See?" I, in turn, say "What?" and we go back and forth like that until she just turns the volume down herself.
In my defense, at least I don't damage the ears of people outside my car. I only inflict permanent ear damage on those inside my car, and if you get into my car you ought to, knowing me, be able to anticipate that and take certain precautionary measures such as... I don't know, maybe wearing earplugs?
Now, I don't mean to listen to music so loudly. It's just that I want to be surrounded by sound, organized sound. Sound which wraps me up in its arms and lets me know that everything's OK. Sound which, in some inexplicable, indescribable way, makes life worth living and provides life with meaning. That organized and organizing sound is music, and music, for me, is a very mystical thing. Music, if you really know how to listen to it, is not just something you hear. It's something you feel. You feel it in the very fiber of your being. Your bones resonate with it as you become one with it and it becomes one with you. Of course, if you really know how to listen to music then you don't have to blast everyone's ears to feel it in this way. But really, ask my parents. I've never been a good listener. So, I play it LOUD, OK?
When I was a preacher I used to tell my congregation many things which I suspect they didn't appreciate. The least appreciated thing I used to tell my congregation involved a notion of music as the Word of God. We Christians usually hold that Jesus is the Word of God (see the divine Logos of the Gospel of John, for instance) or that the Bible is the Word of God, or that both Jesus and the Bible constitute the Word of God. And, of course, we hold this for good reason. We often hear the inaudible voice of God through the text of the Bible and the example of Jesus. But, if by the Word of God we mean the way in which God speaks, then we have to acknowledge that God does not just speak through these things.
I used to tell my congregation that the Word of God is neither fixed nor dead. It is very much alive, and active, and working in new ways, constantly seeking to draw the world nearer to God. This idea is, of course, not unique to me, but it is important to me. It tells me that God cannot be limited to our beliefs about God. It tells me that God does not speak in the way that we expect God to speak, nor does God say what we expect God to say. It says that we can find God anywhere, in anything. And we can find God in music.
In fact, in my current spiritually impoverished state, I do not experience the presence of God the way I used to think that I did, nor do I hear the inaudible voice of God the way I used to think I did. Unfortunately I rarely experience the divine in the usual way, which is through religion. I expect that is a temporary problem, but a very real problem nonetheless. Right now I experience God almost exclusively through music, so it is very important for me to hold that music can be a part of the Word of God.
Music is art for art's sake. [note: by music here I mean the interplay between melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. I am not here considering lyrics.] It does not represent anything other than itself, it does not communicate anything other than itself, it does not mean anything other than itself. Music simply is. Music simply is itself. And, simply as itself, music is beautiful. Music, as part of the Word of God, teaches us to simply be, to simply be ourselves, and, as such, to be beautiful.
Most of us are searching for something, some kind of purpose, some kind of meaning in life. But what if the point of life is simply to live? What if God just wanted to share the existence, and to share it with us? Would that be so bad?
Music as part of the Living Word of God confronts us with a beauty of meaninglessness, the beauty of simple existence for the sake of existence.
What does all of this have to do with my trip to the mall? I don't know, and I don't have to know anymore. I simply have to decide, each and every day, that life is beautiful, and worth living. Music, listening to music and feeling music, helps me do that.
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