After some posts dealing with very gloomy matters, I feel that something more cheerful is in order (if only to cheer myself up—these days I shy away from opening the newspaper in the morning—an experience probably shared by some of my readers). As often happens to me, a minor news item sent me off musing about broader matters.
On September 15, 2014, Religion News Service carried a story about the following incident: The Reverend Johnnie Clark is pastor of Rehobeth United Assemblies, a Pentecostal church in Columbia, South Carolina. He was sentenced in municipal court to one day in jail for the misdemeanor of “public nuisance”, in this instance consisting of repeated violations of city noise limits. [I don’t know anything about municipal statutes in South Carolina. But I had to think about a local law in Massachusetts I encountered when my family and I used to spend summers in the Berkshires. The town we stayed in had a weekly newspaper that, among other things, reported on cases tried in municipal court. One misdemeanor that came up regularly was for an offence called “making unnecessary noise”. I loved that concept, and since then have regretted not living where such a law is enforced!] The Columbia church of the story has been in this location for twenty-five years without any problems, but noise emanating from its worship services has been bothering owners of newly built houses on the same street (could it be a case of gentrification?). The story specifies the offending noise as “singing and shouting, dancing and drumming “, as is characteristic of Pentecostal worship. When complaints started to come in, Pastor Clark asked in an interview “How can you declare a church to be a public nuisance?” After he ignored numerous citations, the heavy hand of the City of Columbia finally descended on him. I will stipulate that during his day behind bars he was treated with the courtesy customarily accorded a man of the cloth in this very religious part of the country; I have not followed up the story, thus do not know whether in the meantime the pastor and his congregation have been limiting themselves to decibel levels deemed acceptable in polite society.
There is ample Biblical warrant for noisy worship. Perhaps King David was the prototypical Pentecostal when he sang and danced before the Ark of the Lord as it was brought to Jerusalem, along with his men, “making merry… with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals… and with the sound of the horn” (2 Samuel 6). Perhaps Michal, the daughter of Saul, who rebuked David for this unseemly behavior, was the prototypical guardian of properly polite etiquette. The mention of “joyful noise” is repeated in several Psalms, for example in Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing”. One version of this call to merry worship, in the wonderful cadences of Elizabethan English, has a favored place in the order of worship of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Members of more sedate Christian communions, such as Anglicans or Lutherans (let alone Presbyterians), are inclined to think that Pentecostals, their arms raised and their vocal chords in full throttle, are following the Davidic example too literally. Which reminds me of the only Pentecostal joke I know (perhaps the only one there is): What do you say in a meeting of Pentecostals if you want to know how many of them want coffee during the break? – “Those who want coffee during the break, please lower your hands”.
Noisy worship is not limited to Pentecostals. Revival services in American Protestantism have been quite noisy (even in the absence of “speaking in tongues”), and have been the soil from which sprang the powerful tradition of Gospel music. The development of African-American Protestantism cannot be understood apart from this tradition, brought to its fullness in the full-throated singing of black choirs. When it comes to liturgical paroxysms, no other Protestants can best the Shakers, who came to America from England in the eighteenth century. The name derives from their practice of sacred dancing, with wild physical gyrations, men and women moving in separate circles. One of their favorite songs went “Shake, shake Daniel – shake the devil out of me”. The Shakers were an offshoot of Quakerism (one of their early nicknames was “Shaky Quakers”, to distinguish them from less shaky ones). Perhaps the Shakers were reacting against the distinctive Quaker practice of “waiting worship” – everybody sits waiting in silence (if “shaking” at all, inwardly rather than bodily), until someone in the congregation feels “called” to speak. This (I have witnessed it) can be a dreary business, and after a long spell of it one may well be “called” to get up and shake out the devil with Daniel!
As I pointed out, Anglicans and Lutherans belong to the sedate party in Christendom. Mellowness is one of the most attractive attributes of the famous Anglican “via media”, in worship as in theology. As a mother said to her young children: “Stop jumping up and down—we are Episcopalians”. Lutherans actually fancy their reputation for feistiness. If it comes out anytime, it is when on Reformation Day they sing “A mighty fortress is our God” (composed by Martin Luther himself, the feistiness comes out even better in the German original: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”, perhaps translatable as “A feisty fortress…”).
I think this attribute of Lutheran faith comes out more strongly in its hymnody than its theology (Johann Sebastian Bach as Reformer number 2). The note of joyous triumph comes out exuberantly in Eastern Christian Orthodoxy. Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent out envoys to Constantinople and Rome, to advise him which branch of Christianity to choose. According to tradition, the envoys reported that, when attending the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, they experienced heaven on earth. I suppose that the Roman Mass, if properly performed, can provide adumbrations of such an experience. I once experienced an earsplitting case of Catholic noise when I once visited the cathedral placed within the royal palace of the Escorial in Madrid. The cathedral has (if I remember correctly) three organs, one high in front and the other two high up the walls on the two sides. The organist sits in the midst of this array in what looks like the command bridge of a battleship. He plays all the organs simultaneously—an impressive acrobatic feat. There are pieces of music that can only be played in the Escorial. This stereophonic construction provides a unique and immensely noisy experience of being inside the music.
Obviously I cannot here attempt a quick tour through noisemaking in different religious traditions. That would be a lifetime project for somebody. The boisterous festivals of Hinduism alone could occupy years of work. Just a few cases:
The shofar, still sounded in synagogues today on High Holy Days, is clearly descendent from the horn mentioned in the Biblical story about the entrance of the Ark into the City of David. Hasidic Jews have a long tradition of celebratory dancing (Shake, shake, O Israel?) Cantors, professional singers in synagogue services, sometimes become celebrities alongside famous rabbis. In Islam, reciting the Quran is an art form, the best performers also treated as celebrities. Sufism, the mystical strain in the Muslim tradition, has produced the Whirling Dervishes. One of their founders was the great mystical poet Jalaluddin Rumi. The Dervishes are still practicing their ancient ecstasy-producing dance in Konya, in Turkey, where their order originated. The call to prayer, pronounced from the minarets that adjoin most mosques, can also be an art form. It is now commonly enhanced electronically, which makes for a powerful nudge to begin prayer. On my first visit to Jakarta (incidentally the capital of the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world) my hotel was located next to a mosque. At about five in the morning the electronic call to morning prayer woke me up and made me jump out of my bed (in alarm rather than pious intent). A recent referendum in Switzerland prohibited the construction of new minarets throughout the country. Unlike the pealing of church bells, the loud Arabic calls to prayer evidently threatened the very core of Swiss identity.
The German scholar Friedrich Heiler (1892-1967) wrote a book simply titled Prayer in the English translation (1932). It was a massive feat of scholarship, a compendium of forms of prayer throughout religious history in different parts of the world. From time immemorial human beings were reaching out to whoever or whatever they believed to exist in the universe. Prayer is that reaching out. Some prayed in solitude, most communally; some silently, some with noise produced by human voices or every conceivable kind of musical instrument. When I first read Heiler’s book many years ago, it made me sad. What struck me was the desperate longing in which so much prayer originates—reaching out hopefully into the vastness of the galaxies. Of course there have always been people who felt certain that their prayers were being answered. An atheist holds the view that there is nothing “out there”, that we are alone with our longing. Religious believers, even if they are not certain, will propose that we are not alone in a universe that does not care about us. Since Rumi came up before, I will quote one of his poems (it exists in different versions). The poem succinctly expresses the proposition that there is indeed someone “out there” who is real and who cares for us:
I prayed to you in the morning, and you did not answer me. I prayed to you in the evening, and you did not answer me. I prayer to you for many years, and you remained silent. Then one day I heard your voice. You said: In my silence I spoke to you.