Connections 20 July 2008
In a July 20 Connections column David Kitchingman shares a not altogether facetious reflection on a religious experience at Dunedin's Carisbrook rugby ground
Must tell you about a centenary evening service I attended last weekend. It was packed – 29,126 souls. I felt a bit self-conscious in the front seat, but nobody else seemed to be. They would have been regulars who have no idea of what it’s like to be a visitor. At least I had a good view. There wasn’t a single cross in sight, but two crossbars. I was right beside the massed choir. I know you don’t trust my musical appreciation, but I think they were singing in unison. No question about their commitment – they never sat down the whole night. Actually, I’ve seldom been in such a prayerful atmosphere. It felt like Mornington, with Maori included in the call to worship, but Carisbrook added four other languages, Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, and Afrikaans. Just as well I’m now more used to dance in worship (thanks to Barbara Snook) – Carisbrook had a ladies’ ballet and a male haka.
Once things really got going, though, the musical backing wasn’t so strong. Instead of a proper organ all they had was one whistle, and a pipsqueak at that. A funny thing I noticed was how the hymn numbers on the board kept changing – but it showed a commendable degree of responsiveness. What was really different was how they had taken up the offering weeks before – but it certainly saved time on the actual night. I need to pass as far as the sermon (if that’s the right term) was concerned. It was a good try, but I got a bit offside with it. It kept switching from right wing to left wing. But there were two conversions, so I mustn’t criticise.
I recalled that Andy Griffith has studied the American brand of the religion. He had been on his way to hold a tent service at a college town and got caught up in something like Carisbrook. He came up with a theory about what the “two little bitty bunches” of men were doing. “It was that both bunchesful of them wanted this funny lookin little pumpkin to play with... They couldn’t eat it because they kicked it the whole evenin’ and it never busted... It’s some kindly of a contest where they see which bunchful of them men can take that pumpkin and run it from one end of that cow pasture to the other end without gettin’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’.”
One thing I liked about Carisbrook is that they have a half time. I’d brought along the April issue of New Internationalist and had time for a quiet read – the lighting was excellent. There was an article on “The triumph of triviality” by John Schumacher. “Triviality leads, followed closely by Superficiality and Mindless distraction. Vanity looks great while Profundity is bringing up the rear. Pettiness is powering ahead, along with Passivity and Indifference. Curiosity lost interest, Wisdom was scratched and Critical thought had to be put down. Ego is running wild. Attention span continues to shorten and no-one is betting on Survival... Not even God has been spared. Once a potent commander of attention and allegiance, God has been gelded into a sort of celestial lapdog who fetches our wishes for this-world success. Nothing is so great that it can’t be reconceived or rephrased in order to render it insubstantial, non-threatening or – best of all – entertaining.”
That little whistle blew again and I had to pay attention to the serious business of the second half. A few brain cells (maybe a significant minority) kept on thinking about the word triviality. I was a bit annoyed with Schumacher for bringing God into it. After all, triviality doesn’t even occur in the Bible, so it can hardly be a sin. But somebody by the name of Ernest Keen has written a book about Ultimacy and Triviality in Psychotherapy, so I suppose it could creep into religion. If so, then it’s time to go on the defensive. What is triviality? Is it really that bad? Is child’s play trivial? Even Lord Robert Winston knows a bit about the importance of child’s play, so what’s he been doing coming over here to criticise us for being obsessed with sport? I’m sure he has some good ideas about improving our OECD ranking, but I get the impression he and Schumacher have slightly different views on triviality. For Schumacher the most pressing question of our age is: “Can a highly trivialized culture, marooned between fact and fiction, dizzy with distraction and denial, elevate its values and priorities to respond effectively to the multiple planetary emergencies looming?”
At the end of the service we were warned (for about the third time) about stepping onto the sanctuary and threatened with arrest if we did. Obviously Carisbrook takes things pretty seriously. I got to chatting with one of their members on the way out and even lent her my copy of the magazine article. I said it had been interesting to compare our two denominations, and invited her to come along to one of our services. My ruse of lending her something to be returned seemed to work. She said that she would love to come and check us out sometime. Should be interesting.
P.S. You may not have heard that we lost the rugby test against the Springboks. But do you know something? I was right there beside the grass; I could see with my own eyes – and it wasn’t a level playing field! Not a trivial matter.