Tag Archives: “Messiah”

The Stockton Oratorio Society visits St. Matthew’s Baptist Church

Last week, I ventured far from my usual Sunday morning territory. I’m a Quaker, and regularly attend worship at the very small meeting where I’ve been a member for 20+ years. When I say small, I mean that attendance averages fewer than 12 people. Our worship is based on silence. We are listening for that still, small voice. If someone feels moved, they speak. Sometimes we spend our hour together in calm silence. This is my chosen spiritual path.

But I love to sing! I sang in church choirs from the ages 6 through 17, before I found Quakerism (at age 30+). This year I joined the Stockton (University) Oratorio Society in order the sing “Messiah” in December. The Oratorio Society was invited to sing at the Sunday service of a local congregation, and November 15 was the day.

St. Matthew’s Baptist Church is a megachurch. We were asked to sing at their celebration of 28 years of service by their pastor. We were invited as a choir, but the real agenda was hospitality, with a grain of missionary zeal. I never figured out if our St. Matthew’s hosts knew there were non-Christians among the choir, in addition to Christians who were not (by their definition) “saved”. The choir’s status as part of a public university should make it obvious, but…

St. Matthew’s sent their bus to pick us up. What did we find?

The congregation and the building are huge! The sanctuary seats 2000. It was almost full. You could get lost looking for the ladies room. Because of the size of the sanctuary, a high tech, high quality sound system was in use.

A service at St. Matthew’s is carefully choreographed. Nonetheless, participants stand and call out spontaneously. The mood was energetic and very, very happy.

General observations:

  • Gender roles at St. Matthew’s are traditional. Men fill the visible leadership roles. Training for ministry may be restricted to men.
  • The idea of noise induced hearing loss hasn’t been introduced. If I attended regularly, I’d use earplugs, the kind from the drugstore that make loud sounds seem further away.
  • Theology is important at St. Matthew’s. Religion is both emotional and intellectual.

Singing at St. Matthew’s was a real high! There was the usual rush that comes with performance, without the anxiety and formality of a concert. We plunged into an unfamiliar venue, gave it our best and were rewarded with noisy, delighted enthusiasm. Yes, I’ll do this again!

One of my reasons for visiting St. Matthew’s was to increase my understanding of African American life. (It’s ridiculous how little I know of these neighbors I’ve lived alongside of for so many years.) I’m distressed by the accumulating evidence that America is (still) a very racist place. I was happy to see the strength of community and vitality of leadership at St. Matthews.

We were invited to stay for lunch. I thought the whole church was having lunch, but it was a special spread for our choir, to fortify us before the trip home. Thank you, new friends, for a great Sunday morning!

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“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins

I read this for a discussion group. Not the whole book, just chapter five, entitled “The Roots of Religion”. The framework here is evolution, both biological and cultural. I’m comfortable discussing biological evolution, since my life is full of biologists and the natural world is a major source of entertainment and enjoyment for all of us. I think evolutionary theory is sound. Cultural “evolution” is another story.

First of all, Dawkins tells us that all human cultures have religion. I’ve been under the impression that Confucianism and Taoism are better described as philosophies, since they don’t rely on the supernatural and don’t “guarantee” life after death. I’m sure Dawkins deals with this someplace.

Dawkins attitude towards religion is negative and condescending to an extreme. He thinks “believers” are totally irrational. Most of my friends in the discussion found this annoying and felt Dawkins damaged his case by being so unpleasant. One person found him “bracing”. Maybe we need some relief from having to treat ALL religious viewpoints with careful respect. Some ARE “better” than others.

Dawkins takes a big leap when he treats cultural “memes” as self replicating and therefore just like genes. I’ve barely grasped the concept of memes. There’s no way I can grant the idea of “cultural evolution” the same status as the contemporary, very well developed and useful theory of biological evolution.

A few days ago, I watched and participated in a “religious” event, a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. Can something so complex, enduring and moving be categorized as a “meme”? Not by me. No, I don’t believe every word of it. I don’t expect to be “raised incorruptible”. But there’s room in my life for mystery and for aesthetic appreciation, and in ways I can’t explain, for belief.