On some varieties of religious experience.
Are you all being friendly to your neighbor? Are strangers meeting strangers? I mean, that’s point isn’t it? …I don’t know what the point is…but, yeah…
Victoria Legrand, between songs at the Beach House concert
And then it’s dark again
A new development
Wishing that it meant
Beach House, “Sparks,” Depression Cherry (2015)
I spent a recent Saturday evening beside an old friend from middle school, in a wide dark room, surrounded on all sides by strangers swaying in slow syncopated rhythms. We gazed all together in reverence toward a stage, as though to an altar – a sort of church. The band Beach House were our clerics, exalting our communal space in ethereal song.
If you’ve read any of the posts on this blog – or if you’ve talked with me for even five minutes – you know I’ve got the religious bug bad. I spend probably far too many of my waking moments considering my existence as such: what the hell all of this is for, who and if God is, what it means to be authentically human. With a million ways of putting the problem, a million responses held in my open hand, things still get no more lucid when subjected to endless analysis. So spitting in the face of imminent futility, let’s raise the whole deal again. (This is your chance to duck out before things get weird.)
Some of the posts on this blog have considered alternately the prospect of grounding morality in a religious metaphysic, what it means to be a fundamentalist in terms of religion (or anything else), and how religious and political ideologies can be both symmetrical and oppositional to each other. So many of those posts dealt with the answers we (or I) try get out of religion – something articulable, rational, and true about the nature of this reality. In this one, however, I want to get at the experience of religion – what sort of experience we look for in worship, what sort of feelings keep us coming to church, and why we want that kind of feeling.
Depending on the sort of worship you’re familiar with, a concert can be rife with religious feeling. On the other side, if you’ve spent any time in a Protestant charismatic or non-denominational church, you may even have heard the complaints that worship services themselves have become too much like rock concerts. There are the multi-colored lights, the electric guitars, digital keyboards, lead and back-up singers. The traditionalists, who would prefer hymns and organs (which are holier than guitars), aren’t wrong that the categories are dissolving between the sacred and the secular. The walls are coming down on both sides (and, as it happens, going up more rigid and schematic than ever among fundamentalists, both religious and otherwise). Consider the relatively recent phenomenon of “Contemporary Christian Music,” a postmodern emergence, which arguably started with hippy converts to Christianity during the 1960s “Jesus Movement” – these kids didn’t have shoes or jobs, but they had guitars and a simple love for their Lord. The style of CCM, as this music came affectionately to be called, morphed with the rest of culture, eventually becoming the prefab, easily-churn-out-able sort of pop music we know and love today. Fortunately for myself, a young child of the 90’s, I got introduced to the stuff on my dad’s car stereo as he drove us to school every day. He loved the 80’s hairband-style CCM, which he discovered epiphanically in his twenties and preserved every year in the ears of his kids. (And to be honest, all three of us can still get down to “Breakaway” by Idle Cure.)
Obviously, the mark which has always distinguished Christian music from secular, in any genre, is the lyrics: the message. Christianity wanted a music which could compete with worldly rock music (the success of this project is debatable), but which both comported with the worldview and values of its makers and also could stand up to the scrutiny of religious watchdogs who previously assigned all music which sounded like rock to the massive anti-Christian rubbish heap of culture. CCM became more popular—enough to have its own radio stations in every major American city, with millions of listeners every week, even today—and the form of church sanctuaries shifted from chapel, nave-and-transept types to higher-capacity auditoriums, which began, perhaps, in the 1920s with Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple. Church auditoriums today, in some denominations, are built to put on a show, particularly one which revolves around music. The drum set, the piano, the fancy light-sources, the large amplifiers—these have become constant focal features of many church altars and stages.
I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m saying that what interests people outside of the church will often interest them inside it as well. Especially younger people. I know for a fact that some of the same people who will pay money to see Taylor Swift in concert will also pay money to go on a Christian young adults’ retreat to worship in an auditorium other than their home church. The room goes dark, the stage lights rise, the strum of a guitar cuts the silence, and suddenly everyone is singing along with whoever holds the mic and truly feeling, for the first that week or month, together and alive.
The same things happened at this Beach House concert. At one point, I even felt the impulsion to close my eyes, as I had at many youth retreats, in order to focus in on the moment, to feel the pull of the sound without getting distracted by the rest of my fellow congregation, to submit myself to the move of a Spirit. Perhaps in this simultaneous crowd sensation, we communally get our fingertips on some version of the numinous in human experience, the ineffable. We experience a sense of creature-feeling, that this music proves existence holds potentials higher-than and other-than the smallness of our conceptions of it. I half expected some confident and enlightened voice to begin speaking in tongues from the back of the concert venue. The ecstatic syllables would wander into the air, linger, and become absorbed into the lovely noise, uninterpreted.
Still, at a Beach House concert in Lawrence, Kansas, certain departures from contemporary Christian worship experience are irrepressible. These departures are signaled in the aesthetic moves on the part of the performers, and they reveal the nature of this step of a post-religious pursuit for religious feeling. Here the lyrics, the sonic texture, and visual phenomena come together into a gesture of a whole way of being, at that moment.
They knit together a sound which is neatly structured, a tight order of instrumental tones and rhythm machines, and yet somehow the combined effect of the nearly mathematical aural architecture expands to fill the space in which the music is played. For about the whole first half of the show, they had the stage backlit only, so that you could not see the faces of the performers, but only their silhouettes against a backdrop of projected starlight or a deep cherry-red. There was extremely little commentary between songs, and the lyrics which Victoria Legrand sang—in a voice loosely dignified, like an echo isolated—only gesture sidelong toward any referential meaning. “…levitating cause we want to / When the unknown will surround you / There is no right time…”
The effect of all this – the dissolution of personality in the careful but expansive aesthetics, the stretching together toward a sky stippled with distant lights, levitating all together toward who knows what – felt like a religion of being, of being without answers. This religious worship serves a congregation who wishes to come into communion with the ground of reality, with transcendent truth, like congregants of any religion. But here we swim in a creature-feeling which is devoid of concepts: the concepts have withered, combusted in their inadequacy. Perhaps this sense is present in the evanescent desire of Beach House’s song “Myth”:
You say just what you need
And in between
It’s never as it seems
You can’t keep hanging on
To all that’s dead and gone
If you built yourself a myth
You’d know just what to give
Or let the ashes fly
If our concepts have failed to materialize, if they have burnt in the crookedness of the sun, still there is reality all around us, refusing to be understood. And still, many of us want to obtain a sense of being rooted in it, to achieve some state in which we can say “Here, we are.” All together—amid this sound, under these lights, feeling this all together.