From the Book of Exodus:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 20:18-21 – April 26, 2012)
The rest of today’s Daily Office reading from the Hebrew Scriptures sets out the Ten Commandments. My first thoughts were of those and wondering whether the course of world history might have been different if the Lord had laid out those laws in an affirmative rather than a negative style. You know – said something like “You shall hold all life in reverence” rather than “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:13) or “You will respect your neighbor’s right of possession” rather than “You shall not steal” (Exod. 20:15). But then the ending verses caught my eye and I immediately thought, “Incense!” ~ OK, not immediately … but I did think of incense and liturgy. Smoke and lightning and loud noises and a leader separated from the people to do special things vis-à-vis God (so the people don’t have to do them for themselves, because – God knows! – those things are downright dangerous!). Skip forward several generations and you have the liturgy of the Temple . . . skip forward several more generations and you have the liturgy of the Church. As I thought about today’s Exodus reading, I realized that the liturgy of temple and church is about recreating Sinai; liturgy is an attempt to experience in the here-and-now what the Hebrews experienced in this encounter with God. And I began to ask, “Is this what has put us on the trajectory of irrelevance and disbelief?” ~ The stagecraft of temple and church became the stagecraft of the theatre, of vaudeville, of burlesque, of the stage magician. There is very little difference between staging a good worship service and staging a good theatrical or musical production. Use of “props”, use of lighting, use of stage technique . . . it all started in the temple and the church, and was borrowed by the entertainment stage (in fact, one might argue that the Western European way of staging dramas and other forms of entertainment in some sense originated in the church with medieval “passion plays” and whatnot). And now, today, the flow is in the opposite direction: the staging techniques of the rock concert have replaced the formal liturgy in many independent congregations and so-called megachurches. This is so well-known that there’s even a very funny parody of the situation on YouTube. ~ When these techniques of stagecraft moved from church to secular stage, however, the reason for their use changed. No longer was the intent to recreate an experience of the holy, the numinous, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, rather the intent was to deceive. Well, that may be overstating the initial change, but truly the secular stage’s use of “smoke and mirrors” is to create a fictional illusion of reality, and when used by magician’s its function is to mislead the observer. It is not without cause that the term “smoke and mirrors” has entered the modern lexicon! ~ So I began to wonder . . . even if we do really great job of staging the liturgy in all its glory – beautiful music, loud “noises” from brass and organ, lovely flowers and candles, the sweetness of incense, the splendor of colorful vestments – is all that stagecraft pointing toward God-at-Sinai, or is it raising a barrier of “smoke and mirrors”? Is a public, which now looks beyond stagecraft and understands that on the secular stage it masks that which is untrue, made skeptical by its use? I have to admit that I don’t know, but I wonder if today’s attitude toward religion, an attitude of disbelief and irrelevance, might not find some of its origin here. (On the other hand, I also have to admit that I don’t intend to stop celebrating the liturgy with as much care and good stagecraft as possible!)