Last Sunday, the Wife and I, for the first time since we were married, went to church. We've been trying since we moved to LA to find some community, meet some people we could maybe cultivate as friends, and church seemed one place to start. We didn't go solely for the social aspects--we both of us want to develop a shared spiritual life--but I'd say our main goal (well, my main goal) was to alleviate some of our loneliness.
Before you can go to church you have to chose a church, and in a city where you're a relative stranger, this is not as simple a task as it sounds. What we ended up doing was exactly what you'd expect we'd do--we used Google. (Yelp, also, maybe, for all I know--the wife was in charge of this part of the mission) We came up with a list of top candidate and, on Sunday, we started at the top of the list--at a Methodist church in North Hollywood. Why Methodist? In part, because my wife was raised Methodist. Also, the church we got married in was Methodist, and both liked that a lot during the time we were there.
On Saturday night we went to bed early, and on Sunday I got up, showered, and for the first time since I've lived in Los Angeles, put on a pair of slacks and a formal jacket. If I'd been in Houston I would have worn a tie, but I assumed that California church would be much more informal than the churches of my childhood, and I didn't want to stand out. I was right too--even with no tie (just a jacket) I was more dressed up than at least half the men in the church.
The church we chose was built at the turn of the century--making it ancient for the San Fernando Valley--and had the comfortable, homey vibe that comes with things that have been around long enough to find their place in the world. Outside the doors, a friendly older lady manned the information table. Immediately recognizing us for first-time visitors, she welcomed us, thanked us for coming, and encouraged us to stay after, for fellowship (i.e. coffee and conversation). Then we went inside.
The church was relatively small (in size and congregation). The interior was done in a style I think of as "Mid-Century Califonria Mission" (not what it's actually called, I'm sure). Lots of natural wood and brick, with lantern-y carriage light/chadeliers hanging from the rafters. At max, I'd guess it could 500 people; attendance at our service probably numbered around 100.
The minister ("Reverend Joey") wore no stole or specialy priestly vestament--just a jacket and tie. He opened the service by standing up and talking to us racism (It was Martin Luther King's birthday). Using an incident from Cornell West's Race Matters as a starting point, he described his own personal failure in combatting racism at the church. Years ago a parishoner made a racist comment to Reverend Joey and he merely stopped talking to the man, instead of confronting him. That incident still bothered him--he accused himself of cowardice--and his reflections on his own personal failings were very moving. He was a decent man, Reverend Joey.
After that, we sang hymns. That would have gone better, I think, had the church been more crowded. As it was, the singing had a tentative, bedraggled quality. Amidst the hymns, there were the usual church goings-on: The Lord's Prayer, call-and-response between the minister and congregation, and a pickaxe-throwing competition with all invited to strip down to their shorts and compete in a sawdust ring they'd made in the middle of the church. (No no. It was really daggers they used--not axes).
A slight oddity (to me): about halfway through the service, a member of the congregation got up at the front with an acoustic guitar and performed "(Pride) In the Name of Love." He sang it very well, but it did still seem to make the church feel a little like a college coffee shop. They also had a moment where all the kids from Sunday School were brought to the front of the church to be taught about equality. Their teacher (Muffet) had brought in several bags of Oreos to serve as symbols for an extended parable about human similarity. The gist: Oreos now come in a million varieities (they make one now with three cookies and two layers of cream!) all of which look different on the outside. But, they're still all Oreos. (I.e., the same.) The same is true of humans. We all look different from without, but inside, we're all made up of sugar, cornstarch, and hydrogenated chocolate. (Wait, no).
Muffet's thesis raised, to me, some interesting ontological questions, (e.g.: the sameness of human beings is determined by our joint awareness of what consitutes a person, whereas the sameness of Oreos is decided by executives at the cookie compnay, who could, at least in theory, put out a piece of carrot between two pieces of celery and call it an Oreo) but with all the squirming eight-year olds on the altar holding Oreos, they weren't susceptible to deeper exploration.
Then we sang some more. There was a reading from the Bible (from the book of John--the wedding feast at Cana), done poorly and quickly (by a man in short sleeves!) That one reading ended up being our only encounter with The Bible. In fact, odd as it sounds, the service actually featured very little talk of God. Most of it, as I've said, involved singing--the only book we were ever called on to use was a hymnbook. To be fair, the Methodist hymnal also contains many of the church's prayers. Still, I didn't even see a Bible in our pews, although the wife assured me one was there. The point for most of the people there, seemed to be not so much to cultivate a sense of spirituality, to grow in faith, but to cultivate a sense of decency and to grow in friendship.
I don't know why the absence of God bothered me; I'm probably an agnostic, most of the time. I suppose looking back I wanted someone there to challenge me, to make reexamine my faith (or lack thereof). At minimum, I wanted some kind of intellectual takeaway--to be made to think about something. If Rev Joey had spoken, during the sermon, about his interpretation of the water turned to wine (and he could have; the man clearly knew his theology) that would have been something. Instead he delievered an uninspiring discussion of God's plan for us in our lives and how we find signs of that plan. (We don't, was the core answer: we just trust it's there).
We didn't stay for the after-service fellowship. At that point, we'd exhausted our courage for trying new things. Having to talk to a lot of people we didn't know seemed more than we could handle.
Which is not to say that the experience wasn't, on the whole, pleasant. It was. The question is, should 'pleasant' be what one seeks in a church? I don't know. I was made, in my youth, to attend a conservative Episcopal church. In a million years never would a minister there have spoke about Cornell West. Never--ever--would someone at that old church be allowed to come up to the altar and sing--even with a piano. An acoustic guitarist would have been refused entry at the door. Nor would any of their Priests allow themselves to be addressed as "Joey." It'd be Joe, or more likely, Joseph. And, as I've noted, the Episcopal priests dress up--they have stoles and vestaments and chasubles and albs and perukes and diadems, and all sorts of complicated accoutrements. Also, those priests, during service, talk about The Bible--quite a bit.
On the other hand, I never liked my old Episcopal church. I never went willingly, and even now, when I'm made to go back, I find it fairly objectionable. (The last time I was there, for my grandmother's funeral, the sermon infuriated me so deeply I still haven't forgiven the priest). The Texan church, though thriving and lavish, and very well-attended, seems, to me cold, intolerant--even somewhat bigoted. I LIKED that this new California church tried to make us reflect on racism. It was appropriate, given the occasion. I liked that the congregation was not all white. I liked that some of couples there were gay. To people from the South, it all may sound a bit too...California-y, but to me the congregation felt like a honest picture of America--what it is, not what it was. So, though the part of me that was raised in a wealthy conservative enclave of the South dislikes seeing anyone at a church not wearing a suit and tie, another part of me appreciates that maybe not everyone who goes to church owns a suit and tie. And anyway, isn't it more important that people go to church, than that they wear the correct outfits?
So it's not the exterior informality I think that bothered me about this new Methodist place, but rather its excessive desire to be liked. My biggest problem was, it wasn't difficult. It could have challenged us more--challenged our faith or, at least, challenged our minds. I didn't leave knowing anything more than when I came in, and that's a problem. The bigger problem, though, is that in trying to hard to be accessible, this new church became forgettable.
It's the same fate that popular entertainment suffers when it tries too hard to be accessible. Trying to be liked makes you cautious, and that makes you boring. (The worst music ever is not 12-tone atonal, or rude aggressive punk, it's elevator Muzak--music that, in trying to offend nobody, offends everybody). You don't want to risk alienating people. You don't want to challenge them, to put out ideas they might find difficult or unpleasant.
But Christianity, faith, is challenging--at least, it should be. This, of course, is one of Kierkegaard's great insights--that faith is difficult. It's odd, it's inexplicable, and above all else, it isn't comfortable. God shouldn't be some benevolent Dickensian uncle, ready with sweetmeat and a fond pat on the back. He isn't Dumbledore--at least he shouldn't be.
At least, he shouldn't be for me.
I don't know. I'm going off topic here, a bit, and I'm certainly not ready to go into a wide-scaling of my own religious sentiments. For now, the plan to try out a few more churches, and see how they compare. For our next attempt, we might seek out one with a bit more pomp about it. Ideally it'll be one where women wear long, formal gowns; where the priests speak only in Aramaic; and where the service features a mix Gregorian chants, memorized recitations from the Septuagint, and ritual flagellation. It should be good.