November 24th, 2008

operesque

Getting religion

Yesterday the demonic Momus, his demonic girlfriend, and demonic friend David Woodard did something utterly unexpected: at eleven o'clock we all wrapped up in warm scarves and, crunching across freshly-fallen snow, went to church.

The Mount of Olives church (Oelbergkirche) is a cute little evangelical church by the canal that divides Kreuzberg from Neukolln. I can't remember when the last time I went to church voluntarily was; perhaps never. And that, in itself, seemed like a good enough reason to give our local church a try.



I did go through a Christian phase at about the age of 12, although I suspect it was something to do with liking the design of the Scripture Union logo and wanting to collect their didactic pamphlets, which qualified (with their sans serif typefaces, orange and grey two-colour layouts, and staples) as the kind of boring books I enjoy. Later, I made advertising posters for Scripture Union meetings I never attended. It pleased me to be a sort of embryonic ad man with God as my only client.



This trip to church with David and Hisae brought out some thoughts:

1. The musical standard at the Mount of Olives church was amazingly high. A choir of about ten people made a lovely sound, and the organist up in the hayloft played passages of Messiaen.

2. That made me think that I'd been paying attention to pop music because -- for instance -- David Sylvian incorporated a Messiaen feel in some of his early solo work (like Pop Song, below), but that I'd have found a lot more of this stuff in church than in pop music.



3. I also thought that church, quite apart from being a place where religious people go, is also a place that has kept music-making alive down the centuries.

4. The sermon also reminded me that church can be an alternative political structure, a place where people meet and opinions can be formed outside the regular political and media structures.

5. Since I'd just been looking at the Patti Smith documentary Dream of Life, which contains a pean to CBGBs -- a typical rock toilet I disliked quite intensely when I visited it -- I couldn't help comparing the simple white interior of the church favourably with the aesthetics of nightclubs and rock dives. A church has better acoustics (less bass, a vaulted roof), more subtle and sophisticated music, beautiful lighting (no lasers, but sunlight filtered by stained glass) and a certain threshold of attention and seriousness which I appreciate.

6. There's also something extraordinary that happens in a church that doesn't happen in clubs, though perhaps it does in some gigs: you hear your own voice mingled with the voices of people around you. You're making music as well as consuming it. At the Mount of Olives, the conductor had sections of the congregation sing in a round, and the result was rather gorgeous.

7. There was a moving moment when people from the congregation came up one by one to light a candle and remember someone close to them who'd died, saying a few words about him or her.

8. Afterwards we went over to eat lunch in our local hostelry, and the minister arrived with his posse! He came over and sat with us long enough to explain some of the service (this was "Eternity Sunday", the last ordinary Sunday of the church year). I didn't ask him about the most cultish and cannibalistic moment: when the congregation (but not us) formed a circle and drank "Christ's blood" and ate "Christ's body".

9. Now, naturally I haven't dispensed with my objections to Christianity. I still think the religion did enormous harm by stamping out indigenous folk religion, which was much better in harmony with agrarian fertility cycles. And I resent Christianity for stealing the pagan winter and spring festivals and mapping them, quite fraudulently, to events in the life of Christ.



10. Afterwards, David, Hisae and I went to a different sort of religious ceremony, one closer to my heart. Jan Lindenberg, just back from his Japan trip, was showing his slides, many of Shinto objects and shrines. Since returning, Jan has been unable to sleep in a bed or use Western furniture. He's moved his whole room onto the floor. The little circle we formed around a kotatsu table bearing cake and the various types of tea Jan had brought back from Japan was a ceremony in the church of my true religion.