A (probably) Lutheran church in Búðir, Iceland, 2015.
There is a difference, I think, between “church-going,” “religious,” and “spiritual.” I was raised a church-going Lutheran. What I mean by this is that we went to church regularly on Sundays, we participated in many of the activities sponsored by the church — Sunday school, Christmas programs, children’s choir, confirmation, youth group — but outside church, in the rest of our lives, we were not religious. We did not pray regularly before dinner, we did not discuss the Bible, or use what was being taught at our church in an overt way. Jesus was not in charge of our lives, we did not do things “for Him.” Does that make sense? For us, church was another community, like soccer teams or my mom’s work friends. Growing up going to church was a positive experience for me, and one I think about fondly. I feel lucky that this is the case.
Church was an extension of our social lives, and it was an opportunity for us to learn outside of school - not only about the Bible, and Christianity and Martin Luther (shout out to the 95 Theses, baby) but about community service, about humanity, about considering our lives in a different context. It was an opportunity to express ourselves in a different way, have different friends, share different experiences. We all contain multitudes, and for me, growing up church-going is one of those multitudes. I studied literature and anthropology in college, and going to church gave me an intellectual basis for living in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society. It has helped me understand art better. I am grateful for that.
Easter Sunday, bonnets and all, circa 1995.
Also, as a kid, it was generally fun. Our cousins and close family friends attended the same church. None of us took the religion part of it very seriously (though I dabbled a bit in that between 7th and 8th grade, tried “witnessing” on like an Easter dress to see if it fit me; it didn’t), but we also did not sneer at it. We participated earnestly but not seriously. I liked performing in the Christmas program and choir musicals (some of my greatest roles include Noah in 4th grade, the only visible “pregnant” Virgin Mary via a Christmas throw pillow in 6th grade, and Moses in 8th grade). I liked volunteering at soup kitchens and dropping off Thanksgiving dinners to folks who needed them, singing Christmas carols at nursing homes. The barrier to entry of this kind of stewardship (to use a church word!!!) was so low, it seemed silly not to do it. It could also be clocked as “National Honor Society” service hours for that all-powerful College Application. We even had the chance to travel sometimes, which, to state the obvious, was important to me. And what’s more, because our church was located so close to our local college campus, we raised funds for these trips by parking cars for football games, and even doing that was fun.
Church children’s choir really gave me swag, apparently, circa 1993.
As a lapsed Lutheran these days, these activities as a kid serve as a baseline for what I consider innocuous “neighborly behavior,” as well as a few good party stories. Yes, I once went to a National Lutheran Youth Gathering in Atlanta where I attended services at the Georgia Dome with 30,000 fellow Lutheran youths. Yes, we saw the band from Drumline perform there, and yes, I have seen the Christian rock band Fishersnet live more times than I care to count. Yes, I listened seriously when 17 year-old camp counselors told my then 13-year-old self that they knew my brother from their “wicked days,” and that they weren’t kissing any more boys until marriage. Yes, I once celebrated my 14th birthday at a Hooters with my youth group, who encouraged me to climb up on a bar stool and do a “salt shaker" dance with a host of Hooters waitresses. No, I don’t regret any of it.
Churches of course come out of religion, which is an ancient cultural phenomenon. We, meaning humans, invented religion. Culture, as I have come to define it for myself, is how we make meaning of the world around us. Religion, faith, the creation and participation of church practices, are part of culture. It provides humans a way to understand and make meaning of the world around them, and something we have been doing since before we were even human the way we are now. Funerary practices go back to the Neanderthals and whatever species of homo was around then, too (homo habilis? homo erectus? homo sapiens? My physical anthropology knowledge is rusty). Preparing the dead for an afterlife is arguably a cornerstone of many religions, and has been for thousands and thousands of years. Even those of us who are not *religious* (or even church-going anymore) do this. When my brother died, he was cremated. We sent him off from this world with things we thought he would want or need: a blue sweater, a Milan Kundera novel, a blank check, Buddhist prayer beads, pages from one of his notebooks, a photo of his children, and a small bottle of booze. When I die, I will hopefully have time to make a list of the things I will want to take with me away from this world.
What still draws me to going to church (which I do when I am home and my mom asks me to go with her) is the ritual participation: hymns, prayers, sung or said out loud in unison and in community with everyone else there. I think my interest in dance music is borne out of this as well. True heads have always considered electronic dance music to be a spiritual experience, and I understand how and why. It can be meditative and therapeutic, like praying, like singing hymns. Both scenes can bring about a stillness, an inner quiet, where I can just sit with and consider myself. These scenes feel liminal, like those hours are outside the linear timeline of my life.
Iconic DJ Jeff Mills playing a live vinyl set at Contact Tokyo, November 2019.
Both scenes are ones that I seek out in the world - a good vacation usually has both religious structures and club smoke. Visiting either is a bit like a pilgrimage.
A fresco (?) in a Mexico City church that brought me to tears, Mexico City, 2018.
When I visit a church, it’s almost always Catholic. I almost always light a candle; for my dad, for myself, for all of us. I almost always say a little prayer I saw on a Children’s Defense Fund poster in the basement of the house in which I used to babysit: Dear Lord, be good to me, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.
I have read this over and over and over again (her newsletter absolutely rules)
I hate how much I enjoyed the Ernest Hemingway documentary, and how annoyed I am about how handsome and talented he was
this hits, for a night owl like me
for those of us dreading sweaty girl summer
“Good luck finding the first baby!” (also note the 78,000-year-old funeral!)