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Saturday, October 4, 2003

Too much C Major.

I mocked Andree Seu's overwritten diatribe about Unitarian Universalist worship last night. Now for some further commentary. Strip away the precious anachronisms in Andree Seu's prose, ignore the fact that there isn't much of a thesis holding the essay together, and overlook her triumphalistic Christian superiority complex. Is there still a valid bit of criticism in her critique of Unitarian Universalism?

Yes, there is. But it doesn't quite have to do with Jesus.

The flaw in liberal religion as it is widely practiced in Unitarian Universalist churches can be characterized in many ways, but since I'm working on a sermon about the art of worship this weekend, I'll call it "C Major idolatry." Our worship style, which we tend to regard as intellectually sophisticated and rational, is usually thematically and aesthetically unmodulated. We seem happiest practicing our religion in the bright, confident key of C Major ("Joyful, joyful!") while belittling anything that doesn't sound quite so chipper. D minor, on the other hand, is not our cup of tea — so morose, so medieval, so "original sin."

William James poked at what he called "once-born" faith (and the footnotes in The Varieties of Religious Experience make it clear that he's talking about Unitarians): "I mean those who, when unhappiness is offered or proposed to them, positively refuse to feel it, as if it were something mean and wrong. We find such persons in every age, passionately flinging themselves upon their sense of the goodness of life, in spite of the hardships of their own condition" or — he might have added — in spite of what they hear in the news and see around them. Some religious liberals strike me as desperately optimistic, eager to believe in the inherent benevolence of nature or themselves or rationality. We like C Major and clear glass.

We often pick a topic, a theme, and then run it into the ground in our worship services, selecting liturgical texts, hymns, readings, and sermon illustrations all to make a single point. (Moral: It is very good to be good. Voting is important to democracy. Hooray for community!) Last month I attended a service where all three hymns were "gathering" hymns — 358, 360, and 361 — which struck me as just a bit much. There's a rhythm to worship, which Von Ogden Vogt regarded as a dramatic art alternating between inward and outward motions. Or, to stay with the musical analogy, good worship includes major and minor and modal keys, loud passages and soft passages, staccato and legato passages, moments of tension and moments of resolution. The problem with a lot of what passes for Unitarian Universalism isn't just that it's naively optimistic, cheerfully syncretic, or blissfully ahistorical — although these are usually my complaints — but that it's often tone-deaf to the variety and complexity of our actual lives. That's what blinds us to the Christian tradition, because we have identified several basic dilemmas in the human condition as distinctive flaws of Christianity; we don't recognize B-flat minor as anything remotely related to us, you might say, but we see it in the story of Jesus, and so we work to keep the text and the tune out of our churches.

If our churches approached worship more thoughtfully and multi-dimensionally, we'd have much less difficulty coming to terms with the Bible and with our own Christian roots. We also do better at reaching people in a wider range of life experiences.

Incidentally, I'd offer a similar critique of conservative Christianity, which often thinks that the gospel is a praise song (G Major!). "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind" is a tall order, because we're a lot more complex than any tradition I've encountered quite knows how to dramatize.

Correction: I erroneously assumed that Andree Seu is male. I have corrected the pronouns here and on an earlier post about her essay.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 4 October 2003 at 2:28 PM

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Tom Schade:

October 5, 2003 09:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

Excellent presentation of the lack of emotional range of much Unitarian Universalist worship. As I work with the Singing the Living Traditon hymnal, it is this general uniformity of tone that limits its use. I can live with the lack of explicitness about God and Jesus. I am used to that and there is something perversely honest about it. But that everything has a happy ending, that we are always justified, and all the dangers and shortcomings are out there -- this is what makes it difficult.

But think about this: this emotional tone of worship is what is attractive to our congregants, frequently. What frightens me the most is that we might be a religion of organized denial.


October 6, 2003 12:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

The absence of "confession" from our worship is striking. Maybe the most provocative form of temptation we need to find ways to offer is this: we need to tempt people toward more emotional and intellectual complexity, toward humility, perhaps even toward tragedy. That will take some imaginative work.

Oh — I want to clarify the very last sentence in my post: "we're a lot more complex than any tradition I've encountered quite knows how to dramatize" should say "we human beings are a lot more complex . . ." I realized it might sound like I was just talking about religious liberals.


October 6, 2003 03:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

The lack of confession is all the more poignant today on Yom Kippur. Do UUs commonly do Yom Kippur?


October 6, 2003 08:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ah yes, the "sick souls" and the "healthy minds." To quote the Budweiser add: TRUE. James had it right. Some just gravitate toward guilt and others do everything in their power to avoid it.

As an Episcopalian, I find your post interesting because I've always thought that it seems like SO MUCH WORK to plan a UU service. And there are so many potential pitfalls from offending someone with the choice of readings to merely allowing the service to have a hollow ring to it because of repetitive hymn choices. Kudos to all the UUs who pull it off well every week. As for me, I appreciate falling back on the prayer book and accepted hymn sources. I like the Episcopal service because there's room for creativity while also always having something familiar.


May 24, 2005 12:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

I just did a tally of keys found in the new, 74-song hymnal supplement "Singing the Journey" (which, by the way, will debut at GA next month). 47 Major key, 27 Minor (including Dorian mode, which is quasi-minor). The big winner was not C, however, but F. F Major and it's relative, D minor (also known outside of music theory circles as "1 flat"), account for 33 songs in the book. No other key comes close to that number, with G Major/E minor ranking a distant second with 10.

Anybody care to do this with STLT? I'm not wading through 400+ songs...

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