Saturday, April 3, 2010

Spring Rites and Rituals

I've been listening to the soundtrack from Godspell, that old musical from the 70's that envisioned Jesus and the disciples as a group of clowns. I tend to hate most of the music that churches choose for Holy Week, and I try to use Godspell as an antidote.

I think that Godspell was the first play I ever saw. We lived in Montgomery, Alabama, and we travelled to Atlanta with a group from our church to see the show. I was seven years old, and my mom tried to explain what we were going to see before the play started. I fell in love with the show then, and have loved it ever since.

My poor parents had no idea what they were about to put into motion. Here were theological ideas set to a rock beat, songs that I could even sing. Here was Jesus, putting on little plays and skits. Here were people dressed not in their Sunday uncomfortable best, but in goofy clothes that I would never be allowed to wear to church. My enduring question for the next decade or two: why couldn’t weekly church services be more like Godspell? My parents, though surely this discussion wearied them, always tried to defend their faith, but they must have had one eye on the cults and strange religious trends sweeping the nation in those very strange, Jesus-soaked 1970's. They must have worried that I would leave the Lutheran liturgy and wander to strange places where they'd never see me again. Happily, I did not.

I've often wondered if people who fall in love with Steven Schwartz via later shows like Wicked go back to discover Godspell and recoil. To me, it seems a natural trajectory, but I've followed the trajectory all along, so I'm not unbiased.

My dad taped the soundtrack on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and then made a cassette tape for my sister and me. Does anyone still use a reel-to-reel tape recorder? I remember working as a college d.j. in the mid-80's, and everyone was most impressed that I could work the reel-to-reel. By then, most tape was done by cassette, which had vanquished the 8 track. But think back to the 70's. Do you remember those pre-boom box cassette tape recorders? I remember falling asleep with the tape recorder softly crooning the Godspell soundtrack; the tape recorder was as big as a shoebox, and I curled my little body around it so it wouldn't bother my sister.

Those songs have worked their way into my bones. As I listen to the soundtrack as a grown up, I'm pleased with how theologically sound they are, since they are permanently stitched into my memory. Once again, I'm reminded of how music helps us remember things. I always tell my students that if they want to memorize anything difficult, they should figure out a way to set it to music.

Even the hymns that I love to hate this time of year work a similar magic. My spouse has been singing "The Old Rugged Cross" in a trembling bass voice, and I can sing right along.

At least I like most Easter music, although the cantata that my church's choir (including my spouse) has been practicing is a little too pippy-poppy for me.

How strange that I love the music of Godspell, which was criticized for being too rock-n-rolly in its day, but I dismiss the Easter cantata for something similar. Yes, I am officially old.

So, here we are at the Saturday before Easter, when even the non-religious might celebrate by dying eggs and participating in other ancient pagan fertility rituals. At my house, we might grill some steaks and open some wine--after my spouse gets back from noon choir rehearsal, of course. I might go out and buy some art supplies or cloth--my annual creativity retreat approaches. Or maybe I'll get a heart rate monitor so that I can take my Spin classes to another level. Maybe I'll bake some hot cross buns (although I should have done that yesterday, for Good Friday). Or maybe I'll just enjoy an hour or two of quiet and sink into a book.

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