Something I'm working on to send off to a journal. This is an early draft. I plan on elaborating the need for experience in the second half. Just don't have the time at the moment. Feel free to comment.
“This is a religious experience,” the lady behind me said with satisfaction. I was unsure if I wanted to turn and ask if her church was accepting members, or to say, “How sad of a religion you must have.” Rightly so, we were at an event that contains everything a religious experience should have. There was an opening song where everyone sang together, which clearly signified the start of something important, namely a procession of people wearing clothing that were certainly out of the ordinary. It appeared to be the case that a certain degree of authority was associated with the strange clothing worn by the men in procession. With the procession came wafting scents that were not the norm for the average American. Most people could only experience these odors here, which was demonstrated by seeing others breath a little deeper upon entering the room or holding one’s nose a little higher, so as to capture as much of the scent as possible.
Upon reaching a raised platform in the center of the room, one older gentleman stepped forward, clearly the emcee or president, and gave a greeting, which the assembly returned to the president in their own way. More music and singing followed. Men cried. Women wept. Hats were removed. Banners were waved. The singing ended almost as abruptly as it began. Another gentleman came forward to read from a book after the second round of singing ended; he was said to speak on behalf of another who was not readily present at the celebration.
After the second man who spoke on behalf of another was finished, the band struck up another song and a second precession was seen making its way to the raised platform. This time, a barrel was carried in by several large men and set on a sturdy table in the center of the elevated platform. There was much gusto from the assembly when the barrel was seen in the procession – even more when the barrel was placed on the table with a heavy thud.
The original president stood before the barrel and said some words to the assembly. A young man handed him a strange round wooden hammer and a bent metal tube. The president carefully lined up the metal tube to a location on the lower end of the barrel. The assembly was quiet. The president gave a few practice swings to make sure he would be on the mark. Finally, on the last swing he hesitated at the apex of the swing just a moment -- the silence thickened – and with one great strike he drove the metal tube into the barrel. The assembly erupted in affirmative cheers, as did the contents of the barrel seeing that it sprayed those in the immediate area.
The president lowered a mug, filled it with some of the barrel’s content, raised it high to the assembly’s mighty cry, and took a drink. The assembly in a moderated disorder processed up the steps and to the barrel where they, following the president’s lead, did likewise – each partaking in the same drink. Some even had a mug in each hand. Of course there was music, dancing, and singing to end the whole celebration.
Despite the similarities to any liturgical celebration, I was not at a liturgical celebration. I was at an early German-Oktober Festival. Yet, there were few things about the festival that were not liturgical. So I do not blame the lady who stood behind me for calling a non-religious ceremony a “religious experience” when all religious experiences prior to this festival followed a similar pattern, a similar ritual. What else was she to think? There was ritual, music sung by the assembly, readings, preaching, a sharing of food, processions, extraordinary sights, sounds, smells, and a communal celebration combined with an element of surprise. Yet, any good liturgist, like my grandmother who has no education past high school, knows that the liturgy is more than the sum of its parts.
The real question that comes to mind is not why did the lady behind me mistake a German cultural celebration for a religious experience? Instead, what has happen to our liturgical celebrations that a German Festival looks more liturgical than the average religious liturgical celebration? Why is there a greater experience, which is other worldly, at this German Festival than in the halls of many American Churches? Has anyone ever wondered that a reason people do not go to church anymore is not because they don’t believe, but because they do not receive any kind of religious experience at church?
If the current liturgical experience found in most American churches must be described only ‘mundane’ will do. That is, liturgies are giving people an earthly experience and not a spiritual or heavenly experience as it is found in both the book of Revelation and in Jewish liturgy (Exodus). If people want an earthly liturgical experience Starbucks on a Sunday morning will suffice just fine as nearly all components of a liturgical experience can be found at the coffee shop.
Still, the lady’s comment is telling. Americans want religious experiences. Yet, in a culture where religious indifference is becoming creed, while religions across the board are becoming valueless commodities, how does a church set itself apart to provide its people with an experience that is something they cannot receive at a Starbucks on a Sunday morning, while lying on the couch watching House, or at a bible study on a Tuesday lunch hour? In other words, how do we make (if we ourselves can) church a supernatural experience? More rightly, how do we, through the means of earthly things, help the assembly see that the mass and liturgy is supernatural?
The reality is that we live in a society that thrives on experiences. I can make an equally good cup of coffee at home as the one I buy at Starbucks or purchase an equally good cup at Burger King, but coffee houses dominate the coffee enterprise. The reason for Starbucks’ dominance is that it provides not just a service to its customers but also an experience and charges four dollars for that experience. Churches might benefit from studying Starbucks and other businesses. However, one thing is certain, churches can no longer be a dumping ground for services – a place only for the drive-through reception of sacraments and graduation from Religious Education. Churches must become palaces of experience. If churches do not provide their congregations with religious experiences the congregations will go seek it and find it in worldly things, worldly places, and worldly experiences.