Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sacred Secular

I had a chat with a friend at New Years about the idea of starting a church thingie. It was a good conversation, but things started to get a bit weird when we talked about music. The conversation went kind of like this.

She asked what kind of music we were going to do. I said we'd have an electronic band.

"Oh, then Christian rock," she said.

"No," I said, "it would be music we know. Songs from the radio. Any good song."

She looked puzzled. "You mean songs that say God in them."

"No," I said again, "just any good song."

She frowned slightly. "So then it's not really going to be a church. It's going to be more of a secular thing."

"No," I said, and tried a visual tack so that she might see what I meant. "We might have candles burning while we sing the songs."

"You mean you'll just sing anything?"

"Not quite. They have to be a good songs."

"What do you mean by good? You mean it talks about spiritual things?"

"I just mean it has to be a good song. Good tune, good words, good feeling."

I tried to explain how songs don't become "holy" when they mention God or other religion words. They're holy because they are cries of the human spirit, and that human spirit is intertwined with the Spirit. We need to listen to those songs as much as we need to read nature in a dried leaf on the sidewalk or to take time to hold a friend while she cries. There are sermons everywhere.

But it wasn't my friend's fault that she couldn't understand. She's a product of the Modern culture, and that culture says that what is secular is not sacred, and vice versa.

Sometime around the trials of Galileo, our culture split into the secular and the sacred. Before Galileo, there was only the sacred. But the Modern culture had to invent the secular to rescue many important values (knowledge, truth, fairness, etc.) from the clutches of the doctrinal empire-church of the time. The sacred was pushed to the sidelines, and it became less and less relevant to "real life" as time went on. So the sacred built their own trenches and solidified their sacredness within their walls.

We're left with a strange split in our culture. Something is either sacred or it's secular. It can't be both. Note the odd parallel universe of Christian culture in the States: there are Christian rock bands, Christian romance novels, Christian coffee shops, Christian chocolate makers, etc. As if somehow, the other stuff was tainted. And how many secular people ever venture into these Christian domains?

I think this split may have had something to do with the poor US news coverageof the kidnapping of the four peacemakers in Iraq. (Okay, there might have been just a little political influence on the networks, but just follow the argument...) Both the sacred and the secular camps didn't know how to deal with the story. The secular people appreciated the peace message and the Gandhian nonviolence perspective, but they wanted to distance themselves from the Christian side of the peacemakers' efforts. that churchie talk turned them off. Meanwhile, the dominant churches didn't know how to deal with the peace and Gandhian side of the peacemakers' message. To them, peacemaking and nonviolence issues are secular, not sacred. Moreover, obedience is Christian, so civil disobedience and activism is secular. Neither side could claim these people as their own, so they were treated as anomalies, wingnuts, dangerous eccentrics.

Our culture has compartmentalized life into the pockets of sacred and secular so efficiently that it's difficult to walk in between. Quakers know this well because we try to live in that in-between zone. But many meetings have to deal with newcomers who perceive of Quakerism as a kind of secularism, so they come to meeting to flee the sacred. They don't like ministry or discussion to "drift" into areas that are too spiritual or use too much godtalk; otherwise, things become too much like a church. If the meeting doesn't help these newcomers understand the fusing of sacred and secular in what we do, we end up secularizing our meetings. The sacred gets eliminated, and we end up with a Sunday Morning Tea for Social Activists.

The meetings that are organized as churches likely have the opposite problem: things become churchified and sacredized to the point that the secular gets crowded out.

Churches try to make the sacred look and feel very different from the sacred. They use different words: a seat is a pew, a song is a hymn, a talk is a sermon, and everybody uses ancient words like Alleluiah and amen. And they even have a special word for something secular that sneaks into a sacred setting: sacrilege. In many ways Quakers do this language thing too. It's a way of marking a secular concept as sacred in this particular instance. But really, why are we doing this? Are these concepts not sacred all the time?

At the church thingie I want to develop, I want to have coffee, bread, and a toaster at the back near the entrance. When people arrive, they will serve coffee to and make toast for each other, and especially for newcomers. Most people would consider a toaster very secular, very unsacred, not the sort of thing to have in a church. But in this context, the toaster will be a holy thing, the basis of a ritual of service and ubuntu, a sacrament not unlike the bread-and-wine thing of Christian churches. Afterward, any time someone makes toast, they will think of the holiness of the act.

We need to learn to see the Light in that secular world, without trying to separate it from its secularity.

If we treat everyone (and everything) like the messenger, maybe we'll get the message.


At 3:43 PM, Blogger Dave Carl said...

Holy Toasters, Batgirl! I like it!

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Chris M. said...


This is brilliant! Having spent perhaps too much of my life and income investing in listening to music, largely for its transcendant qualities, I love the idea of "good" songs.

Of course, you have to be careful how you define "good" music because it's so tied up in cultural/consumer identity. Many seekers may carry around heavy baggage relating to musical taste (I know I do).

I can usually tell within five seconds of landing on a Christian rock radio station, because it sounds so bland. Then they start singing about "You called me" or they use a few key words like "cross" or "grace" or something and then it's confirmed. Blech. (See? Baggage! I have lots of baggage!)

So, go for it!

At 12:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm. I like it, too. But isn't it true that ALL fruit from the tree of knowledge is deadly? Doesn't matter whether it comes from the "good" or "evil" side...from the so-called "christian" or "secular"'s all part of "this world."

At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

pardon the anon nature of my comment Im not a google account member and I almost never comment on sites but I wanted to respond to the previous posting. The bible does not say 'all' fruit knowledge is deadly. That sounds as if you are saying anything to do with knowledge, facts, reason, the intellect is evil. This is not what the 'tree of the knowledge ' is. Remember its not the 'tree of knowledge' but the 'tree of knowledge of GOOD AND EVIL' according to the scripture. If you read the hebrew and the septugiant Greek (septugiant bibles were written in greek 300 plus years before Jesus for jews who did not speak hebrew as most spoke greek just like most speak english today) it gives the hint of what it means 'of good and evil' The word for evil is 'porneria' which means cleverness or 'sneakiness' (still today in modern Greek). This is the tree of PLAYING GOD in other words YOU deciding what is Good and evil, NOT the tree of mere 'knowledge' as if knowledge or knowing things is a sin.

Im an Eastern Orthodox christian God bless and keep you in Christ.

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS also a note to nancy: love your blog Im a Canadian as well. all the best, Y

At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Nickolaus Pacione said...

I came across this problem in 1994 because I had friends who listened to Christian Metal exclusively while I would openly listen to Metallica and Iron Maiden. Some people might say those bands are satanic where I beg to differ because Metallica would be watching cable new channels for some of their material. If I listened to Christian rock exclusively, I would lose my potency of what I do as a horror writer.


Post a Comment

<< Home