Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Church of Glee

A friend of mine has recently got into evangelism. He invites me over for dinner once every week or so and we watch four or five episodes of Glee. I usually drink too much wine, miss the tube and fall asleep on the bus, ending up lost in the hell-hole that is the Paddington basin at 1am, frightened and alone.

Anyway, given this protracted viewing I have worked out the script-writing strategy behind the program. Basically - choose 2 or 3 massive 80s power-pop ballads. Slip in a few Mean-Girl-esque bitchy lines and for the other 30 minutes have beautiful people flimping and flomping about with pained/ecstatic expressions.

And it’s the best TV ever.

What is so awe-inspiring about it is that even when it is dealing with some pretty dark subjects it manages to be utterly, relentlessly up-beat. Whether it’s teenage pregnancy, paralysis, being disowned by your parents, assaulted or dumped the answer is always a perfectly choreographed, perfectly arranged ballad. There is something eschatological about it as though every human experience is raised to an absolute pitch of expression and then released in a communitarian outpouring of polyphonic soul.

Don’t ever go running with the Glee soundtrack though. It literally becomes impossible to take breath.

Anyway I was thinking about this as I read a newly added friend’s blog, who seems to come from a more charismatic tradition. She notes that charismatic worship consists of ‘dramatic... HUGE statements’, and questions whether we really ‘mean’ it or ‘feel’ it. She wonders whether inserting “I’m trying to” before some of these phrases might make them a bit more honest. But as she herself notices, “I’m trying to surrender everything” or - I’d really like to rise up like an eagle - or - I wish I actually did want there to be nothing I desired that compares to you - don’t have that Glee-good feeling that’s going to make you feel close to God or transformed in any way.

This perhaps is a strength for traditional hymns in that they tend to be creedal statements, which don’t make presumptions about what sort of place you’re in or exactly what you’re expecting to happen. And while it may be easier to throw heart and voice into “My Jesus, my boyfriend, this song is all about me”, most Anglo-Catholics manage a similar joy with “Jerusalem the Golden” - except maybe for that high F, before which some quite rightly get a little faint.

Anyway, the same thing came up at a recent training meeting with some curates from central and west London. Certain evangelical priests confessed to feeling really low on Sunday mornings, not being able to get out of bed etc. and I suddenly thought - omg how freaking stressful it must be to feel you have to create this gleekmosphere of transcendent praise, to tease out emotions so as to force the sort of confrontation needed for conversion, to deliver that raw emotional force to make people vulnerable. I’m not being disingenuous here - these are Godly people, though of course God is not necessary to create this kind of atmosphere - but I’m not surprised that it would be totally exhausting.

My church takes an easier approach to creating atmosphere and invokes the Spirit for Pentecost by lighting shots of sambuca at the back of the church. And I know what you’re thinking - how Presbyterian with your individual shot glasses. But seriously a shared chalice of flaming sambuca would be a death-trap.

But should we gleek our worship? My mother used to call me Pollyanna but even I’m not sure we can trip through life gleeking up the crap that happens in four-part harmony. Not unless we’re Bono. There is something eschatological and something beautiful about Glee but if you tried singing through other people’s problems they’d probably just think you were an asshole. Or if they’re your problems you're likely end up like Britney trapped in a tragedy of parodic art-imitating life-imitating awfulness.

Glee club gives its own warning to wannabe Glee churches:

“Glee club... it's about expressing yourself to yourself.”
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