By Rev. Jeff Keuss, Professor of Christian Ministry, SPU
An excerpt from Your Neighbor's Hymnal, published by Cascade Books
Faith is a tricky term to define and even harder to live out. For some, to have faith is to adhere to certain doctrinal affirmations and creeds. For others, faith is essentially wishful thinking akin to hopefulness where one believes that, as Julian of Norwich mused so long ago, “all manner of things shall be well.” Others see faith as living into the seemingly improbable or impossible, or an exercise in supreme trust as one leaps into the unknown with complete abandon. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is credited with having framed the notion of the “leap of faith” whereby faith is not merely just an intellectual ascent, but a visceral all-or-nothing commitment of body, mind and soul. Is faith ultimately what we have in ourselves? In other people? In God?
Listening to pop music is in itself an act of faith akin to Kierkegaard’s notion of the ‘leap of faith’. For some this leap is provoked by a strong push or awakening that something needs to change often in the form of conviction. To be convicted by something as an act of faith, it is to become in some ways to overcome and overwhelmed, thoroughly convinced, to the point that you are standing at a crossroads and what you now know is incontestable and life as you know it changed forever. An example of such a moment would be a near death experience, falling in love, or even hearing Marvin Gaye or Johnny Cash singing for the first time; one may call it a life-defining event. Theologian James Loder sees such moments as acts of faith for both the secular and sacred come together in such life-defining events. It is in that these “experiences we want eventually to understand in Christian terms are precisely those that reopen the question of reality because the subject of the experience has been convicted by a spiritual presence far greater than the subject him or herself.”1 While Christians may take faith to mean a particular line to a deeper understanding and relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ, faith can start in many places outside the church, including a seemingly simple pop song that stirs within us something greater than ourselves.
As privatized and individualistic as some people deride pop music as being, it is a medium that continues to encourage people to have life-convicting moments that will move them to play and eventually live out the music for all to hear, joining strangers together through the song and to thereby takes the story public in ways that the closed off life of many church goers often does not on a day-to-day basis. My friend Rev. Beth Maynard, an Episcopal priest, faculty member at Gordon Conwell Seminary and author of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog recently spoke at a conference on the music of U2 I was attending on the role that listening to music together in a live show can play in forging a sense of meaning not only for the musician but for the audience members.2 Drawing from the Christian tradition of worship, Maynard sees modern music fans and concert goers enacting a practice deep in the liturgical tradition known as leitourgia.
Leitourgia as Fan Faith
As noted by Maynard, the word leitourgia is a Greek term used in the early Christian communities to mean a public act that expresses the mission of a people, something done in the open and not behind closed doors. Maynard cites David Fagerberg’s study Theologia Prima in looking at how the term grew in usage in the early Christian communities and notes that the term becomes more and more associated with “actions expressing [a] city’s relations to the world of divine powers on which it acknowledged itself to be dependent.”3 In the early centuries of Christianity, leitourgia was a term to denote public rather than private gatherings whose focus and intent was essentially to bring light into darkness and challenge the prevailing social and spiritual assumptions of the time. By public it meant that everyone is invited to participate and find their voice in this reality. As Fagerberg goes on to say, “the early Christians chose the term leitourgia for what they were doing [because] it signaled that they did not think themselves to be doing [a service closed off in meaning from the rest of the world], but they were doing the eschatological work of making Christ’s kingdom present… [embodying] the presence in this world of the Kingdom to come.”4 Faith in this way is that which is so real, so pervasive that it has to be made public and shared, drawing others into the song and challenging the heartbreak and nihilism of an age and offers an alternative reality for all to see and hear.
In many ways this ancient notion of leitourgia is the faith of the pop music fan as well. This desire to take something so core to who we are and continue to seek expression regardless of what others may think of us is seen the moment someone becomes so taken with a song and an artist that they play it on repeat for days on end, wear the concert T-Shirt, follow the bands Twitter feed and Facebook updates, and have to tell people about this song and artist as a way of keeping the world on alert. This is when people forgo the norms set by the culture around them, throw care to the wind, and run fully into expressing something bigger than themselves. A classic example of this is seen in the movement from day-to-day life and then attending a rock concert. I recently attended a U2 show with a number of academics (imagine that crowd for a second!). Many of these people were accomplished professors who had written in areas of literary theory, economics, history, sociology and theology. However, once we stepped into the arena for the rock show and the boys from Dublin took the stage, what had been reserved and mediated discourse became a full-bodied fanfest—PhDs jumping up and down, pumping their fists in the air, dancing in the aisles and singing along with the thousands of fans gathered under the full harvest moon of November. Amidst the music and flashing stadium lights, people forgot themselves in all the right ways and joined together in chorus after chorus after chorus. Basically, people found faith in something other than themselves and gave themselves over to it even if it was only for a moment. Alexander Schmemann, writing from the Russian Orthodox tradition states that for the early Christian community leitourgia was a public expression that was the end “of the ‘sacred’ religious act isolated from and opposed to the ‘profane’ life of the community.”5 No longer do we keep we are passionate about separated from how we organize and live out our lives in the public sphere. To have fan faith in the spirit of leitourgia is to ‘out’ yourself as a fan and by doing so is to have that shape how and why you live in the world. Your priorities change, the people you gather with and for change and this is not kept locked up but expressed through one’s life for the entire world to see. As Schmemann makes clear in reference to the very public expressions of faith in the public sphere for the early Christians, “the pseudo-Christian opposition of the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material,’ the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular,” is denounced, abolished, and revealed as a monstrous lie about God and man and the world.”6 It doesn’t take a rock show to see this full-bodied faith take hold with a pop song. Just look at the car next to you at the stop light when you hear the thumping of the subwoofer pounding your windows—heads bobbing to the beat like a scene from Wayne’s World, lip-syncing along to the song and belting it out with all the passion of an American Idol finalist. Watch the commuters on the bus with their white iPod earbuds. Their eyes are closed, but they’re fully alive in ways they won’t be during their workday. True, there is pop music fandom that draws people into the trivial and mundane just as there are some Christian worship services that celebrate the consumer culture more than critique it or provide an alternative. But the drive to find something larger than ourselves and make it public is a starting point – even a shallow faith is better than no faith at all. And in this we are to celebrate rather than to too quickly denounce the fan faith that permeates the culture around us. As I mention in my book, rather than work so hard to convert people to Christian subculture, perhaps we should spend some time in “our neighbor’s hymnal” – the music that means so much to them already – as see if perhaps our hymnals need to be put side by side rather than replacing what God is doing already. I believe the church will find that “our neighbor’s hymnal” is filled with songs that are sowing the seeds of faith and pushing for a form of life that is larger than the mundane and points to a transcendence worth paying attention to. People continue to come to pop music as a demonstration of faith in something more than what we often see and do in the so-called real world. Perhaps we as the church would do well to journey into such a faith for a season and see what God has for us there.
1 Loder, The Convictional Moment, 7.
2 Rev. Beth Maynard, “U2 Live: Where Leitourgia Has No Name” presented at the U2: The Hype and the Feedback conference North Carolina State University, October 4, 2009. My thanks to Rev. Maynard for sharing her insights from her paper with me and providing resources and valuable insights for this notion of leitourgia.
3 Fagerberg, Theologia Prima: What Is Liturgical Theology?, 11.
4 Fagerberg, 83.
5 Schmemann, For The Life of the World. 26.
6 Schmemann, 76.