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church is our classroom « Plebian Design: Blog

Archive for the ‘church is our classroom’ Category

Church is Our Classroom Part VIII: Abundant Life Church

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Abundant Life Church
Pentecostal
May 31, 2009
http://alccambridge.org/

It was a perfect Sunday morning. I had gotten there first and was definitely nervous opening the door. Based on the website, out of all the churches we’d been so far, I knew that our outsider status would be most obvious here. The second I stepped inside, a man greeted me with a firm handshake and a “Good morning, brother.” And then another past the vestibule. As I went to sit somewhere near the back, a woman gently ushered me up the aisle, inviting me to get closer. (more…)

Church is Our Classroom, Part VI Church of Latter Day Saints

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Church of Latter Day Saints
Mormon
May 17, 2009
Website

There was a light rain as we ascended the the stairs into the Church. Jeff noted that the building looked more like a school than a Church. It did, with its solid white Jeffersonian columns. Inside the pews were packed. We did not know at the time, but today was a special event. Almost four hundred people were there to participate in a thirty-four state wide conference being simulcast from Utah. We grabbed the last row in the balcony section.

Their mastery of technology was impressive; the live media show was carried out with precision. A small digital clock counted down on the projection screen as a Church official carried on with public thanks and votes of hands. There was much talk of brothers, wards, high priests, and voting on various offices. When the clock hit 00:00, Bruce D Porter of the Seventy took the podium onscreen and began his speech, all the way from Utah.
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Church is Our Classroom: Part V Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church
http://www.gbgm-umc.org/harepumc/
May 10, 2009 (Mother’s Day)

Looking at the small cavern above the altar for the organ player, it occurred to me that organists were some of the original DJs. Up there in their little chamber, fingers jamming on the keys, looking out over the crowd, putting the pedals to the metal, dropping bass lines.

Jeff couldn’t make it this week, so initially I thought I’d skip Church. But I actually wanted to go. I’m noticing that it is becoming less of burden to wake up on Sunday for church. I was looking forward to this structured time set aside to think about things. What new connections would I make? What previously recorded material would be accessed, unhinged, and layed down anew in my brain?
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Church is our Classroom - Part IV.2 Christ the King

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Christ the King Presbyterian Church
Sunday, May 3, 2009

(I am writing this deliberately without referencing or reading Eric’s post about the same church, hopefully we offer different viewpoints).
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Church is our Classroom: Part III Faith Lutheran Church

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

April 19, 2009
Faith Lutheran Church, Cambridge, MA
Lutheran

After Easter Sunday we were looking for a smaller, more intimate, but still very feelgood/positive environment [I've heard a lot about some stern services and really am working my way into that]. The point here is that they’ve all got different methods of creating a viable meme, so how do we look into the details and figure out what they’ve got right? How do we design something based on these inherent attractions people have to certain rational or emotional responses? They have already studied this for 5,000 years, with the advantage of only the most basic scientific method [trial and error] and have come up with some very useful rules of thumb, however implicit.

Science has the potential to lift our spirits as well; as Carl Sagan said:

“In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
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Church is Our Classroom: Part II Trinity Church

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Easter Sunday, 2009
Trinity Church, Boston
Episcopalian

It was Easter Sunday and we wanted to be blown away. So we chose Trinity Church. It is a Boston landmark, doubled in stature by its crumbling reflection on the side of the Hancock Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. My fellow anthropologist, a non-practicing Jew, had never been to a Catholic mass and so I was looking for something to knock his socks off. My girlfriend advised me that Episcopalian mass would be a close approximation, and Trinity is the biggest, badest cathedral in these parts.

Upon exiting the vestibule into the main cathedral, I could not help but fall awestruck. I kept imagining the experience of a peasant coming in from the field, into the most grandiose ornate structure—maybe the only piece of architecture—for hundreds of miles. How could this building not be a miracle-birthing womb? Even today, among modern feats of architecture, a cathedral of such enormity can evoke chills in the heart of the most frigid atheist. Believer or not, that curious vibration of fear and awe gets you in the bones.

It was Easter and the orchestra was pumping. Horns, chorus, and the seat-rumbling pipe organ, all in step. I got to thinking about the holiness of reverb. Could the spiritual-visceral pleasure it induces come from its being a sign of open space, of fortified shelter? A sort of emotional echo location. That led Jeff to ponder our emotional reaction to echoes as related to the acoustic fingerprint of caves.

Really, what would it all be without music? The positive feedback loop of art and religious ritual, about which I have been reading, is so apparent. It’s an impressive cycle; music inspires, inspired by the music of inspired believers. And so on.

As the church slowly filled up and we sat waiting for mass to begin, I panned the pews of backs of heads before me. Shiny white bald-domed daddy, kid, kid… kid, mom. Church—especially Easter—is a family affair. One by one, hair gave way to face and heads began to turn toward the back of the Church. Had we been impalas grazing in the pews, our heads would have turned like dominoes after the first few. But no, this wave of head turning was trickling and tentative. An amazing little demonstration of the interplay of epigenetic and cultural forces. I really want to turn my head, but it might be rude to stare at the guy behind me or I don’t want to be a sheep and do like everyone else, but wait, I can’t resist, what are they all looking at

The clergy and posse entered with pomp. The entire congregation stood and sang Hallelujah in unison. It had an almost chummy, Das Boot feel to it. It was one of those tunes that everyone knew real well. The orchestra screamed and the rafters shook. One of the altar girls held a twenty foot pole with streamers on top, which she moved in a figure eight pattern high above. I felt a quiet comfort in her patterned geometric movements.

Part way through the mass came a moment where half the congregation remained standing while the other half sat, a divergence in the details of ritualistic practice among worshipers. Subtle as it was, this split was telling of the evolution of ritual within a religion, of its temporary status.

Reverend Anne B. Bonnyman gave the homily. I realized the power of this ritual, to interpret the ancient texts of the bible in contemporary terms. It is a descendant of the most ancient story telling traditions; this is how myth is spread, via the mouths and ears of people. She incorporated humor, poetic repetition, metaphor, and abstraction in her speech.

Shortly after I whispered to Jeff that receiving Communion might be overstepping our bounds as unbelieving visitors, he pointed to the page in the bulletin proclaiming all visitors welcome to receive the Holy Communion. So we joined. I suddenly flashed back to that self-conscious march to the altar from my youthful Catholic church-going days. In my zeal to drink the Lord’s blood, I accidentally sipped from the dipping cup. (Catholics don’t dip, they just sip.) It tasted like a port, but could have just been what wine tastes like after three hundred people dip their fingers in it.

There is a curious lack of emotion in the sound of a thousand Episcopalians reciting prayer. This has always been a strange aspect of mass for me. Group prayer can sound oddly like a lifeless going through of the motions. This quality is reminiscent of the trance-like chants of some American Indian cultures. At the same time, this is not the case with the more boisterous houses of worship of certain Christian sects.

The strongest flashback came for me at the end of mass. The exit was always my favorite part. Not so much that it was a sigh of relief because it was finally over, but a pleasantness in the weekly ritual of walking out past the girls I had crushes on in their Sunday dresses, the jovial look on my dad’s face, the shaking of hands, the act of passing from the solemn darkness of the church out into the warm Sunday sun, an exhalation and return to life. The communal bonds sewn by the mass were so visible in this moment.

This visit convinced me that we were on the right track, that just showing up to Church is rewarded with deeper understanding; that religious details read in a book will never jump off the page and inhabit the imagination like these same details experienced in the first person.

Church is Our Classroom

Friday, April 17th, 2009

If we ever want to turn our classrooms into churches, we must first make church our classroom. Before you vehemently counter that our classrooms should not be turned into anything like a church, allow me to explain. We are at a point in history not only where the scientific method can shed light on the origins of religion, its adaptive value in our species’ evolution, the efficacy of its rituals, its neurological bases, and so on, but where religious fruits can grow in scientific soil.

Religion is often called upon by scientists to adjust its theology to new scientific discoveries. This bending process happens at a snail’s pace, so slow that most of the time it doesn’t even look like it’s happening. It is time for science to step into the classroom of religion; not just to empirically take note of its place in cultural life, its modes of teaching and dissemination, its leveraging of emotion, and it’s long journey from evolutionary origins to culture, but to apply the knowledge gleaned to itself.

The pursuit of turning science and evolution into a new religion is easy to misconstrue. Jerry Coyne writes, “Scientists fear that if evolution became anything like a religion, it would be abandonment of its main tool for understanding nature: the resolution of empirical claims with empirical data.” There are strategies, however, for attaching emotion to scientific empiricism and for making it special by leveraging our innate aesthetic response, without compromising its core principles.

Efforts are underway. The science museum. The integration of art into the classroom. Sesame Street. 321 Contact. Seed Magazine. Carl Sagan. Discovery Channel. Time Warp. PBS. Unweaving the Rainbow. (Stay tuned for links.)

It is not the monotheistic conception of God that we must find in evolution and science, but the spiritual realities that our hominid ancestors discovered. Perhaps it is better phrased as finding spiritual realities in science or imbuing science with a mystic glow. Einstein felt it. Carl Sagan felt it. Francis Bacon, too. E.O Wilson sees it.

In ethological terms we realize that science is a baby, born only 500 years ago. On top of that, it is one of the most unintuitive modes of thought. The first stirrings of religion can be seen as long as 100,000+ years ago. It was in this early period that the myth was born as an effective compressor of emotional information.

The new myths must tell the awe-inspiring stories of science. The new hymns must breathe the true depth of our history into our bones. Religious rituals incorporated artistic activities into a highly effective positive feedback loop. The new rituals can use art in the same way to create emotional involvement in science; not to incorporate emotional involvement into the scientific method, but to link emotion -  to quote E.O. Wilson, the modication of neural activity that animates and focuses mental activity - with the mental activities of science.

In our personal efforts to understand religion, we recently embarked on a church tour. Each Sunday, we will visit a different church in the Boston / Cambridge area. Part anthropologist / part student, we enter with open minds, observe, and participate in holy rituals. It is a vital piece of our conversation with religion, art, and science.

Can science assuage the existential anxieties that religion has so adeptly adapted to deal with? If it is to ever come close, science and evolution must be made to inspire the deep sense of mystery and wonder that the world’s religions have articulated for thousands of years. The way to find these spiritual realities in science is the same way religion found them, through art and ritual.