Breaking through the Screen of Cliché
I sat in an Episcopal church in New York at the 1 p.m. service on Good Friday. The church, a solid neighborhood parish, had survived for nearly two hundred years; outside through the dense bottle-glass windows, pear trees were coming into bloom. I was a stranger there; I live most of the year in California and am rarely away from my home parish on Good Friday. I felt both alert and shy.
And that is why it took me a while to understand what was happening in that Good Friday service in New York – what the feeling was that sat on my heart and clouded my mind.
The priests walked in at a stately pace. They were beautifully vested. The choir, for which this church is famous, assembled above us in a loft. The presider sang Blessed Be Our God. Everything that could be sung was sung: Psalm 22, John’s Passion (with, remarkably, the tragic and horrific language regarding “the Jews” left unchanged). The preacher preached.
But something was wrong.
The overall feeling was an anxious perfectionism, as if a hostess were constantly adjusting her tablecloth at a dinner party, a desire to get things exactly right.
I was getting twitchy, irritated. I wanted to run out of the place but I could not, so I felt oppressed, the heavy hand of obligation firmly on my back. Sitting there, I finally identified what it was that I was feeling: friends, I was bored. I was bored the way I am when I listen to someone telling me nothing new or when someone gives me prepackaged, generic phrases in place of authentic feeling and experience. I was bored the way I was in fifth grade when the teacher went through a lesson I had already studied and understood. And I realize, as I write this, that it is almost taboo to admit to boredom in church.
That was brought home to me at the Yale conference to which this Reflections is dedicated. At a break, I said something to a youngish minister about being so bored in that service I could have cried. She replied, with some irritation, that perhaps boredom “was part of going to church,” as if it were a rung on a spiritual ladder. Boredom, a new form of spiritual discipline. OMG.
A few months later, in the summer, I taught a week-long class at YDS on writing. My students were graduates of Yale; most of them were clergy.
“The Whole Thing is a Lie”
In the syllabus, I wrote that many of us were taught writing by people who meant well but did not really know how to write. “Add church lingo and religious clichés and you’ve got writing that often ends up solipsistic or, worse, dishonest,” I said. “Participants may find that faith can be clarified or revived by the practice of good writing.”
As the class began, my Good Friday experience was still on my mind. On the second day, we “work- shopped” a manuscript by a woman who serves a parish on the eastern seaboard, a newsletter article about “celebrations.” I had been worried about this manuscript from the moment I read it. The word “blessing” was used a number of times without a full sense of what was meant by it. The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were quoted and so was the Oxford English Dictionary. I felt as if the writer were circling a subject that lay off to the side. It did not add up. I was bored by it.
In the class, I asked the author if there was anything she wished to say to us before we dove in.
“Yes,” she replied. “The whole thing is a lie.”
A collective gasp went up.
“It’s a lie,” she said. “I don’t really like celebrations. Or at least not all of them. I am not sure they are ‘blessings.’ I don’t even know what ‘blessing’ means. I was asked to write this the day before it was due for the church newsletter and I wrote it as if I were asleep, read it over, hated it, and sent it in.”
We burst into applause.
The week went on that way; student after student found the places in their manuscripts where either a lie was told or the truth was obscured. On the very last day, I asked a minister from Virginia exactly what she meant by the phrase in her sermon about “being cleansed by the blood of Jesus,” and after some thought, she replied, “I don’t know.”
I realized that week that my twenty-one students, as bright and lively and passionate about their work as you could find in ministry, were victimized by the same thing that so oppressed me in that church on Good Friday: the deadening force of words that are no longer enfleshed or carry meaning. And, although I can’t be sure this was the case in that church on that Friday, I will bet that there, too, was the fear of telling the truth about one’s experience. Add to that, inside-the-beltway lingo, cheery optimism, unearned hope (those hasty flourishes of hope tacked onto the end of a sermon or article without letting the material itself lead us there). Getting things right. These are pitfalls of religious writing and they are pitfalls of church practice.
One of the talismanic pieces of writing I keep near me as I write is an essay about Vincent van Gogh by the art critic and novelist John Berger. In “The Production of the World” Berger describes going to a gathering of socialists in Amsterdam, an annual meeting he had attended for many years. But something was wrong. He felt separated from One of the talismanic pieces of writing I keep near me as I write is an essay about Vincent van Gogh by the art critic and novelist John Berger. In “The Production of the World” Berger describes going to a gathering of socialists in Amsterdam, an annual meeting he had attended for many years. But something was wrong. He felt separated from himself, depressed. “The connection between words and what they signified had been broken. It seemed to me that I was lost; the first human power – the power to name – was failing.”
Nothing seemed to work for Berger: joking, lying down, drinking coffee, not drinking coffee. Finally he decided to go to the van Gogh museum to see a friend who worked there, not to see the paintings. He needed van Gogh, he writes, “like a hole in the head.” But as he walked past “The Potato Eaters” and then “The Cornfield with a Lark,” he could not help but glance at them. Then he stopped and looked. Within two minutes, he was reassured, calmed, restored.
Writing about it, Berger says some wise things about the nature of great paintings and the nature of making art. He says events in life are always at hand. But the coherence of events is not. He calls that coherence “reality.” And reality, normally, “lies behind a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.”
Reality, he concludes, “is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held – I am tempted to say – salvaged.”
I think we were trapped in that Good Friday service and in many of our church services and in our writing about faith, behind the screen of clichés. The connection between words and what they signify has been broken. The first human power – the power to name – is failing. For one reason or another, we choose not to break through. It is a screen of our own making, and one foisted on us, too, by a culture that desires clichés, to keep itself safe, to establish habits, and consolidate power. I struggle on this ground as much as anyone else: I have spent over a year trying to write a third memoir about faith without finding a way to speak truthfully about my experience. Part of my trouble is that I am simply afraid; another is that I want to be popular.
Jesus refused to keep safe. He neither ducked his circumstances nor ignored them. He described the present, as the biologist David Ehrenfeld has said about authentic prophecy, with exceptional truthful- ness and accuracy. In his presence, no one got away with very much. I think he must have lived almost his entire life on the far side of that screen.
This is the antidote to boredom and business as usual. And it’s where I hope we go when thinking about the future of congregations. A faith community needs to be a place where we break through the screen that surrounds and tempts us, and learn how to live.
Nora Gallagher is the author of Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith (Vintage, 1999); Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace (Vintage, 2004); The Sacred Meal (Thomas Nelson, 2009), and the novel, Changing Light (Vintage, 2008). She is preacher-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Church, Santa Barbara, CA., and on the advisory board of Yale Divinity School.