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Skeletons in the Closet: Reflections on Rites and Community

Before I begin on this erratic and perhaps erroneous venture, I feel it necessary to explain a bit of background, firstly, by apologizing to the illustrious Jonathan Pichot. The poor man has been trying to pry this article from me since its original publication in the Pacific Union College Campus Chronicle in the fall of 2007. But I would not, could not, give it to him, for reasons which I will make clear below.
In the meantime, here, in its original, unedited form, is an article published in the 2nd issue of the Campus Chronicle’s 84th volume.
A Change of Clothes: Reflections on Week of Prayer
The speaker paces back and forth erratically, his voice crescendoing and falling, a constant rhythm like the incessant waves on an uninterested beach. There is the rustle of a thousand notes being passed, the gentle breeze of five hundred whisperers as five hundred heads incline to hear. Silence for a moment as the speaker reaches a climax point; he winds back down in preparation to gear up once more, and disinterest returns to the inattentive audience.
This is last week. This is last quarter. This is last year. This is every year.
We’ve heard it all before. And we’re bored. We’ve been bored.
I am an Adventist. Had you asked me this question last quarter, even three months ago, I would have given you a different answer. Of course, I am a sixth generation Adventist by ‘blood.’ My great-great-grandfather graduated from Healdsburg, and every generation since has been a PUC grad. Nevertheless, I went through that time of the Everlasting No that we all will someday encounter; simply put, I put my beliefs in the blast furnace of doubt and cranked up the knob, not just to see what would happen, but because I needed new clothes. Now begins the explanation.
Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle formed a metaphor in Sartor Resartus comparing religion to clothes. We cannot fully understand God (or whatever you’d like to call your transcendental signified), and so we must put on the clothes of religion to try to make Him (or Her/It/Them) more understandable. We know it’s not the best way, but we make the clothes fit our idea of God. When that idea changes, grows, evolves, we clearly need to try on new clothes. I’m six and a half feet tall—it would be ridiculous for me to still wear the clothes that I did in eighth grade, when I was 5’ 8”. The point can be made that religion is divine, above change; pause a moment and consider the following:
We, as humans, are beings of lack and desire. This is always, always, evident, in everything we do. We have gaps, we strive to fill them with what we know will turn out to be what we need, and once we get there … it’s not so great anymore. So, we need something new. This, despite what one may wish to believe, is healthy; it’s what keeps us moving as a species, as a people, a society. We lack fulfillment, be it in terms of our major, our *cough* cafeteria food, our boyfriend or girlfriend (or lack thereof), so we desire and seek. We try on new clothes, we take them off, we move on.
And there’s our problem. This is why, when a passionate, if sometimes immature, speaker like —— —— screams out his point into the church, the echoes of his point are smothered in the whispers of the audience (myself included, trust me): our clothes are old. Perhaps to grandpa Carel, way back in Healdsburg, Week of Prayer was a highlight, a time to engage in monologue about God. But we, in our postmodernist bubble, need more than that.
How many times have we heard a sermon about David? Too many. And how many times has the moral of the story been that everyone can be a hero? Every time. Spice it up with surfer lingo and pop-culture references, throw in the occasional sexual allusion, and what do you have? The same story, the same clothes, with ugly patches sewn on. I’m sick of it. And most of you are, too.
Before you start heaping kindling on the stake and sent out the villagers to drag me from Stauffer, please keep in mind these two words: praise music. Hymns, which were songs of devotion to our parents’ generation, don’t cut it for most of us. So what do we do? We throw away the old clothes of the hymnal (mostly), and try on the new clothes of modified rock music. It’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do; obviously, not everyone is going to be thrilled, but that’s the price we pay for progress.
Way back in the 90’s, the Sabbath school David was great. It met us where we were, with absolute truths and clear-cut morals. But, as we are plunged into this mess that is postmodernism, absolutes are outdated. Society evolves, ideology changes, people change – but religion insists that it doesn’t need to. We get the same David story, the same take on the same parables of Jesus, the same “You’ll never walk alone” mantra that we’ve been fed since Kindergarten at ____ Adventist Academy. Week of Prayer has become Week of Bordem, Colloquy has become Hear-basically-the-same-story-oquy.
We are continually told to be “in the world, but not of it,” but there is a problem with that idea, other than the fact that it is a Sufi saying applied to a Christian Bible text: we too often forget that we are “in the world,” and the world is changing. As we consider our plans for how our generation will define worship, starting here, at PUC, it’s time to face the facts: the clothes are old, they don’t fit, and they’re starting to smell bad.
So what are we going to do about it?
Initial reactions to this piece were, to put it mildly, rather hostile in nature. And with valid reason, I suppose. One of the major criticisms voiced was that I posed questions without answering them, poked holes where they did not belong without filling them, and fired bullets unabashedly without bothering to clean up the mess. For this reason, and this reason alone (other than time constraints), I held back this article from publication with Spectrum.
With delusions fitting to an idealist of my age, I felt that I would not republish this article until I had answers to my questions. Now, ten months older, and of course, much wiser, I see the folly in that desire, but I do feel that I have dug deeper and unearthed … more questions. Which, let the reader understand, is not a negative occurrence in the slightest.
The question I posed, as I would learn in Dr. Greg Schneider’s Honors class, was one of rites. My article called into question the perceived time-transcendent nature of rites, specifically rites of worship, which, naturally, upsets those who feel that the rites of Adventism are proper in all circumstances. According to Emile Durkheim (and forgive me, o ye masters of sociology, for this abhorrent summarization), religious sentiment is a result of a sense of community. Would it not then naturally follow that rites of worship are those which evoke that communal effervescence, those comings-together from which emanate a feeling of belonging, and of something greater?
It was unknowingly on this basis, therefore, that I posed my question: Do our rites fulfill their function? Does Week of Prayer still evoke a sense of community between students, between Adventists, between us and God?
My answer, obviously, was an everlasting no. But before I could settle with that answer, because God or whatever force is in charge has a sense of humor, I posed another question to myself: Does Adventism—or Christianity, for that matter—serve its function? Do the rites of Adventism, the nature of Christianity, the essence of institutionalized religion, still serve their purpose?
Let it not be thought for a moment that I feel original in the ‘discovery’ of this question (as a student of Literature and History, I know that none of my thoughts are ever original), but I do feel that time is cyclic, and that these cycles are eternal and valid. This question is, obviously, still as relevant now as it was when Luther pounded his theses into the door. We find ourselves drifting in the wake of modernism and postmodernism, floundering in the sea of plurality, torn between the lands of intellectual atheism or agnosticism and emotional, faith-based theism.
Increasingly, there are those of us who, as another Spectrum writer stated, declare ourselves ‘cultural Adventists.’ Adventism itself is a community, an enveloping bubble, and one in which we feel safe. The question with which we must wrestle, however, is whether or not it is acceptable to be a cultural Adventist without being a religious Adventist. This is a problem which has plagued me way back since Winter Quarter this last year.
And, surprisingly, I bring an answer. It may not be a right answer, certainly not the answer, but definitely an answer.
If rites and religion stem from a desire for and a sense of community, so long as Adventism will take us sans seven-day creation, sans sanctuary doctrine, sans whatever dogma we choose to reject, so long as the bifurcation between fundamental and progressive Adventism (or Christianity in general) remains one of theory only, perhaps there is no difference between being a religious Adventist and a cultural Adventist. If religion is community, and we find our Adventism in our community, is there, in fact, any difference?
If there exists no difference, if we really can find our communion with God through our brethren and sistren, then I say Amen to Adventism (but I won’t clap). However, I fear, rites all-too-often develop into traditions which take precedence over the participants. Irrelevant rites, forced on individuals or groups resistant to those rites—be it the actions or the theoretical reasons behind them—break up community.
In the end, appropriately, we come full circle. If we are to retain community, we must ensure that our rites do, in fact, create that effervescent bond. And I will take a stand on something (which is quite un-postmodernist of me) and say that we, Adventism, as a whole—fundamental, conservative, liberal, progressive, radical, even Southern Californian—need to take a good, hard look at our rites, and decide how many of them are worth losing community.
Of course, we must not forget our history. Transient community, the kind which dies every generation, cannot provide that effervescence with the same power. It is for this reason that institutionalized religion is so attractive; the rites and dogma we hold our not just ours, they have been ours for centuries, millennia, and will continue to be. Even if this sort of attitude is a bit narrow-minded, it is a valid point: rites which connect only to the present are, in reality, not much of anything. The line we walk, then, is the tremulous line between the fixed system and the deviation (tip of the hat to Edmund Burke). We must keep our rites relevant, yet reiterate their retention of past community.
To keep community, rites must be relevant, and secondary to the communal spirit itself. To maintain their validity and potency, rites must connect us with the past. One could hammer out a list of any number (say, 28?) of criteria by which these two factors could be judged, but I will leave that to another individual and/or article. I will say that it is only by fulfilling both of these principles that we will retain both our rites, and our community. Week of Prayer, whatever its original intent, is but a metaphysical drop in the cosmic, transcendent pool of Adventism, Christianity, religion. It no longer signifies, it no longer connects, no longer invigorates, no longer ties. It is, to put it bluntly, dead.
The reason that I find it necessary to describe the death of this rite in more than two-thousand words can be put just as bluntly: we must make Adventism signify for all Adventists, cultural, religious, whomever. Without signification, rites will die, and without rites, there will be no community. And I want to believe we can all agree that we would much rather deconstruct and reconstruct our rites, and thereby keep our community, than let Adventism molder with the old clothes.
Peter Katz is a third-year student at Pacific Union College, where he is majoring in British and American Literature (BA), European History (BA), and Music (AS), as well as studying in the Honors Program. Peter hopes to go on to a PhD in 19th Century British Literature, become a published essayist and poet, and teach English at the college level (possibly at PUC, if they would take him back).

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