The Sara F. Wells Jones Religious Arts Society

Sara Jones was probably the most religious person I have ever known. Born the daughter of a sharecropper, she attended Boston University in the 1920s, where she argued eschatology with learned men of an era that brooked little dissent from women, much less black women whose speech betrayed the rural South. Sara argued with the determination of a sidewalk evangelist. While serving in the navy she wouldn’t hesitate when moral conduct was unacceptable. In Sara’s presence, if the booze was flowing too freely and some admiral had his hands on the women, or women had been in sailors’ laps at too many places at the table, an officer’s rank was no protection from an assault on his dignity. Sara’s moralism was just as merciless when it applied to her own conduct. I didn’t know her until her hands were so arthritic she couldn’t open a pickle jar, but she felt the affliction was God’s retribution on hands that had signed requisitions for bombs during the Korean War. She had three sons, two of them noteworthy, but the third I didn’t even know existed until her funeral. Apparently he was illegitimate, and the shame followed her even in old age.

At times it seemed Sara belonged in the asylum to which her husband had once gotten her committed, but she had held many responsible jobs. After her stint in the Navy, for several years she managed a large apartment complex in Chicago. She had government jobs and worked at the IRS. She could tell hair-raising tales of guilt money at the IRS. She said thousands of dollars comes in every year, cash in envelopes without return addresses, that people send under no duress from the agency but to appease their consciences, most of which goes into the briefcases of executives. Sara had also worked in hospitals and was so repelled by doctors and hospitals that she only went involuntarily even when she broke a bone that had to be set. When the fracture had healed, she never did go back to let them remove a steel pin that was supposed to come out. When anybody tried to reason with her, she would tell the story about a conversation she overheard among doctors. “Put the patient in misery,” she claimed they said, “And the family will mortgage everything and draw out every dollar to pay for treatment.” She also described the way they put one patient in such misery… .

If the story about mercenary doctors didn’t suffice to keep people from taking her to the hospital, Sara would claim to be a Christian Scientist. It wouldn’t surprise me if she were that too. She knew prominent ministers and rabbis all over town and had outlived some of the best of them. Besides the church paraphernalia around her apartment, she had Torah tablets on the doorpost. She had been made a member, honorary perhaps, of Temple de Hirsch Sinai, and she never desisted in lambasting a Rabbi there for permitting rock and roll music on the premises during a wedding that she had attended. If Sara had regularly gone to any of the churches on her circuit, it might have softened her prophetic assault on everything dubious or modern. As it was, she had an arcane Biblical mandate to challenge everybody in her path.

I got acquainted with Sara more than twenty years ago through an organization she founded for the promotion and exchange of religious art among churches and synagogues. Early in its existence the organization was funded in part by the Seattle Arts Commission. Sara knew a succession of mayors, one of whom helped her grant application through the process. Sara probably scared the commissioners into support with more of her stories. Now support for a church related organization would be unthinkable. The Religious Arts Society had an annual concert at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral or First Baptist. It was an exercise in incongruity combining selections from Handel’s Messiah or the Brahms Requiem juxtaposed with black spirituals, an Irish tenor, known for his renditions of The Star Spangled Banner at baseball games, singing Malotte’s Lord’s Prayer, readings from the Bible or dramatic bathrobe enactments of King David’s psalms, children pounding on instruments, and here and there a guitar picker or folk singer. The only guitar player and singer ensemble that lasted more than a couple of seasons was a rabbi-and-daughter combo which reprised nearly every year until the girl went to college.

This organization made me aware of the distinction between Black spirituals and Gospel music. Choirs that sing spirituals are dangerously near extinction. To my everlasting joy I was privileged to hear and occasionally sing with a group from an Adventist church that I met through the Religious Arts Society. They were known as Les Chanticleer. Mildred Tuggle, the director, had scrounged the back shelves of music stores all over the country, finding repertoire for her choir without any research grants and getting little recognition for what she was preserving. The group used to tour extensively, singing at NAACP conferences and such things in addition to church meetings. They sang standards of the genre such as Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep, City Called Heaven, or My Lord Delivered Daniel along with lesser-known works by Bond, Burleigh or Boatner. This choir was the genuine article. The tenors and basses could really sing in counterpoint to rich altos and sopranos. Their songs made the rafters ring. Since then the choir has had trouble getting engagements and keeping people interested, but their credits were so extensive at one time that they got onto the rosters of booking agencies in the Northwest. When The Andy Williams Show was resorting to Christmas specials in places like Seattle’s old Paramount Theater, Les Chantecleer were hired as a backup chorus for Andy’s holiday nostalgia fest, probably without full appreciation of the racial and musical constituency of the group. But, Mildred had a contract and the funds to supplement her ranks with whomever could be found to quickly learn Winter Wonderland and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. I got into the act on a rare snowy evening for Andy’s tap dancing and the chorus’s backup of wah wahs. I can testify that the spontaneous singing up in the prep room, by a choir in high gear warming up on standards of their own repertoire, was worth much more than the price of admission downstairs. Some of the choir members were shocked at the band leader’s tipsy jesting, and Sara Jones, who of course hadn’t missed this occasion, let me hear about it all the way home.

Sara, as one might expect, detested pop music and jazz. Her celebrity son in Hollywood was playing the devil’s music as far as she was concerned, a sentiment in which many of us in the Religious Arts Society were inclined to concur. No doubt, it was partly her son’s prestige that got people to take Sara seriously when she called them about participating in her events. She always invited him and he would send flowers with a note conveying his regrets. When the master of ceremonies would read the card, Sara’s reply would be squinty eyed and feisty from under the brim of her bonnet. “They send flowers to dead people,” she would retort, or some such thing. She loved her son and prayed for him. She defended him; Solomon had had more wives. But she wasn’t interested in using his success to promote art in a contrary tradition. One summer at St. Mark’s Cathedral, television cameras showed up in the parking lot before the annual concert. Sara sent them packing back to their studios in the news-team vans in which they had arrived. Nobody was going to turn these sacred festivities and potluck luncheon into a media circus.

Sara attracted attention even while shunning the media. She wrote letters to governors, senators, and mayors. Every new mayor got a Bible in the mail from her, and she expected him to read it. When a lesbian was elected to the city council, Sara wrote Sam Smith, council member and long-time moderator, recommending that the Bureau of Vital Statistics be closed. That was before lesbians had children. Sara was anti war. Heaven help us had she been an animal rights activist! To my knowledge her only foray into Noah’s territory was a letter she wrote to executives of a food conglomerate objecting to overcrowding chickens and forcing them to lay jumbo eggs! Sara’s letters were always immaculately typed and hilarious. Into her ninties a sense of humor never left her. She knew what she was doing and might have observed that Jesus was always able to draw a crowd. He put on some dandy potluck luncheons from a few loaves and fishes, but it probably wasn’t the food that kept people interested. May it be suggested that the artistry of his discourses had something to do with it?

The Religious Arts Society exhibited artistry from churches in many traditions. It was nothing short of amazing to me when idioms that seemed exhausted of any innovation that could restore their original power suddenly moved the earth beneath me and communicated a humanity more profound than anything contrived by cinematic effects or that of many classical masterpieces. Some of the dreadful music and artistic traditions of the church have become travesties in which it is nearly impossible to recognize the meaning they must have once been able to convey, but a skillful practitioner can still use them in a metaphor that makes even the most cynical modern secularist let down his guard. Finding instances of such artistry is a haphazard affair. One is often in for something akin to culture shock, but having once survived the period of adjustment, the trip to a church where the tambourines are shaking or, for that matter, to hear the choir at a Presbyterian Church just down the street is often a great deal more than could have been imagined or hoped. It would seem that exchanges of the sort provided by the Religious Arts Society could go a great distance toward unity in spirit, if not in polity, among various denominations of the church. The church universal contains a great deal more diversity than most of the organizations making noises about diversity. If this abundance were more visible, it could do Christians a world of good. The process may lead to a winnowing out of some of the charlatans in our midst, which would also be to the good. Finally, the metaphors used to communicate Christian doctrines would have to be improved if they are to get a hearing outside the walls of our meeting places. There might be less preaching exclusively to the choir, if the choir were singing in public more often.

What of the metaphors themselves? Are the cultural artifacts that turn up in churches powerful enough to be mainstreamed or integrated in any way into society? A moment’s reflection on this rhetorical question leads to the obvious conclusion that they are already part of our cultural landscape. We need to start thinking more like artists to become aware of them and use them as we have begun to use abstract legal and political discourse and as the church historically has used philosophy. A little more reflection leads to the conclusion that rational people think in images more fluently than they do in abstract deductive arguments. If we want to be able to effectively contest our issues in public, we are going to have to grapple with the monsters already engaged there, many of them brought to life by Christians who have preceded us.

It is probably a good thing that Sara was unwilling to let TV cameras into the cathedral. Before we try to harmonize our voices in a public Fourth-of-July celebration or Christmas Oratorio, the church could use more rehearsals of the sort provided by the Religious Arts Society. There is nothing quite like the refreshing new perspective that is obtained by getting what we do every Sunday out of its habitual milieu and before people who may be familiar with the text we sing but perplexed by its musical setting. Refreshing is perhaps a euphemism for having cold water thrown on you. It’s the effect one can imagine if instead of religious television enthusiasts a bunch of Episcopalians became the captive audience in a television church, or the obverse situation of an audience that thrives on religious television at St. Marks Cathedral. The result would probably be unpleasant, but on a more manageable scale, if the exercise could be sustained, it might have the beneficial effect of winnowing out, not only the charlatans, but some of the excesses. It is a fact that Episcopalians can enjoy Gospel music without the big-hair accoutrements. Musicians from many black churches appreciate Handel or Brahms. Texans contribute a great deal of money to the New York Metropolitan Opera, though they are only a radio audience for the Met’s broadcasts.

Despite the obstacles, the goal would be to someday have that Fourth-of-July celebration in a public park with a multi-denominational choir singing good settings of The Star Spangled Banner and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and once a crowd has gathered, for the people willing to listen, music representing the best of our church traditions. It could be one swell picnic! Much better than little enclaves of oddly ornamented church groups scattered around the park on a summer holiday, better than the ecumenists dialoging in academic settings or plotting a re-imaging of Biblical theology. The best thing about it would be that religious affiliation becomes indistinguishable while people are waiting for the hamburgers to come off the grill, or, among Adventists, waiting for a slice of cherry pie. Lots of onlookers might start to remember when all this was legal and help us send the ACLU packing with the dispatch Sara used on the TV crew.

That under our belt, Christians in many communities might be able to marshal the musical and financial resources to scare the hell out of everybody with a Verdi Requiem. Imagine massed choirs at the city arena on Good Friday. It would have a somewhat different impact on the community than a Billy Graham crusade. The Verdi Requiem was written for the theater, not under the auspices of the church, but it grabbed the churches’ most demonstrably effective images to eulogize the passing of Verdi’s idol Alessandro Manzoni. I don’t think anybody is going to complain if we borrow our material back. Performing it in public is still perfectly legal.

Musical/dramatic metaphors from church traditions may be difficult to bring off in public, but there are many areas that verge on conventional morality that are not incorporated into music done in church services. Love songs clearly have something to do with family values. They are the stock in trade of a recording industry that could be accused of contributing to the delinquency of minors and abetting juvenile behavior among thirty somethings, forty-and-fifty-somethings who should know better, and even senior citizens. Are the religious music moguls turning out anything that can compete with this and start turning back the tide of immorality washing up on our doorsteps? If they would, maybe they could employ their poet bards in process of regeneration someplace more suitable to their craft than in church, and we wouldn’t have to listen to oozy love songs to God on Sunday morning.

Political conventions in American politics have been compared to camp meetings of the revival eras in our history. It is somehow fitting that religious conferences are becoming major events for political organizing. These metaphors are interesting, but the archetypes and the metaphors sometimes fail to communicate, yet people, at least in Western cultures, continue to be indoctrinated and make decisions based on them. Time was when a lot of Americans breathed a sentimental consent hearing: I’m satisfied with just a cottage below/ a little silver and a little gold/ but in that city where the ransomed will shine/ I want a gold one that’s silver lined. Now a lot of those folks are putting their money in gold to stave off the ravages of inflation and hide their financial affairs from the government. Apparently the old metaphor isn’t working anymore and we’re going to have to find more compelling motivation for cheerful persistence in the often-unrewarding responsibilities of everyday life. Is there sufficient spiritual energy to sustain us in the hymn that goes: Living for Jesus a life that is true/ seeking his blessing on all that I do? A prudent and reasonable answer, I think, is it all depends.

Whether the lines of the old songs ring true depends on the depth of character of the singer. When the character of the singer is compromised, somewhat shallow, unschooled in the larger theological framework from which the meager poetry gets its punch, as is most frequently the case, it depends on technique. This is where it gets difficult. A good person, exceptionally persistent in adversity, who has shown strength overcoming hardship, or who is faithful in spite of human failings, can sing the simplest lyric without embarrassing everybody. If they can carry a tune, it just might suffice. People who haven’t seen anything admirable in so long they’re numb may be convicted and the secrets of their hearts laid bare. In just about every other case I know of, more is going to be necessary than meager art. In the absence of exceptional humanity, we’re going to have to rely on technique. Occasionally you find great art in combination with profound humanity and great artistry, and the earth moves. In most cases, in the presence of lesser mortals, that is to say people who have not suffered the kinds of things that require such strength of character, we need better art and artistry.

Who knows what Mozart was really like. Was he Don Giovanni? Given his position of privilege from a youthful precocity it seems more likely that he was the seducer than that he was the feckless, though virtuous, Ottavio. But, his music knows nobility even if he was not himself noble. Maybe he could only imagine things as they should be. The Marriage of Figaro is effective on so many levels that we marvel at its capacity to make us perceive and feel so many important things. Virtuosity without virtue? Possibly. But again, nobility is rare, maybe only an ideal in times like these. We need artists who can show us the ideal, whether or not they can embody it.

Artistry in the church on the threshold of the twenty-first century should be the finest we can muster. Music in church services should be the best music available played or sung by musicians with good technique, because finding musicians who are good enough people to inspire us without technique is an undependable prospect. This doesn’t mean we showcase deadbeats. It is simply a matter of auditioning singers and selecting music that has proven its dependability rather than relying on good intentions. Then the larger quest becomes that of finding music that can be depended on to elicit the hidden things. We need to bring the metaphorical monsters out of hiding and slay them. Church may not be the best place to do some of the music that is most able to accomplish this. Then we have to be careful not to defeat our purposes through abstraction. Confinement to the church building and services may unnecessarily eliminate some of the best music. Explaining everything in it can be as deadly to the performing arts as it is to the reading of the Bible. Imagine a performance of The Magic Flute preceded by a long dissertation on music theory.

If we are going to try to do something that doesn’t quite belong in church but brings to life subliminal ideas for those schooled in Western culture, probably we won’t want to start with something that confuses Christians and completely mystifies secularists. The Wolf-Ferrari oratorio, La Vita Nuova, conflates images of Dante’s idealized love for Beatrice with ideals Catholics venerate in the Virgin Mary. This is going to be a risky proposition, not to mention musically difficult, requiring as it does orchestra, exceptional baritone and soprano, and children’s chorus in addition to regular chorus. If these resources were available, it would be safer to do the Brahms Requiem and find something suitable for the children. Opera companies deal with issues of marketability and comprehension for somewhat different reasons. They think they have to produce crankish modern works. Sometimes they give us something good, but even then, Seattle Opera’s War and Peace had to wait until people were satisfied that the company could do Rigoletto, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro, etc. If, after a couple of seasons of music that builds confidence among our combined churches’ ensemble and trust in the audience, everybody is looking for something adventurous, the Wolf-Ferrari may be just what we need.

Let’s look at the problem on a smaller scale. We have a church choir that manages to provide serviceable high church anthems at least a couple of times per month. The choir members are busy, but come to rehearsals fairly regularly. They have sung in school ensembles or played in the band, so enough of them can read music to keep things going. Maybe there are a couple of solo quality voices, or the church budget can manage to pay section leaders and occasionally a few string players. Probably, somebody knows of other choirs in much the same condition at other churches, and somebody probably knows of a community chorus that is also trying to stay afloat in the sea of administrative overhead and costs with which most arts organizations contend. There are really a lot of possibilities here. The community chorus may be delighted to join forces with church groups and have several expansive halls in which to perform. But wait a minute. What about the guitar players in our churches? And all the folks who want to sing folk choruses?

Before we can sing music that works in the community at large even when the singers are not spiritual giants, we have to deal with middle class music. Lots of people prefer callow choruses. We can’t just send the guitar players to a church camp someplace where summer never ends. Churches with a sizable constituency of folk singers at odds with traditionalists often fail to resolve the problems this situation raises. Some find themselves dealing with emotions of an intensity the church hasn’t seen since the wars of the Reformation era. And this adds to our public credibility problem. In the same way as secularists dismiss Christian theology and its cultural legacy because of the Reformation wars, our neighbors are repelled by the feuding factions of local churches. It used to be said that music is a universal language. In the church it has become an almost universally contested language.

Music from the period of Western standard practice with its roots in the classic period is better than the departures represented by Wagner and Schoenberg, and it is better than pop music. I’m not going justify this dogma here, but I’ll persist in it with tenacity exceeding that of Sara Jones in her convictions. If the church is going to speak with any moral authority in the world, it is going to have to celebrate its truths with music that is up to the task. God chose to become incarnate in a human being, not a frog or even the most adorable puppy. To sing of the incarnate Word, we should find the highest forms of music available and learn the idioms of this music just as our seminarians need to learn the Hebrew and Greek idioms of the Bible. There are circumstances where the best that can be found is not up to the standard of that available to educated Americans, but that doesn’t change the situation in affluent American churches. Having said that, I am willing to concede that we are not going to solve our practical problem on the basis of which music is better or even more suitable for our purposes.

I think the problem is one of alienation, not one of musical form. Lots of guitar players have classical music in their record collections and most choir singers have been to summer camp for singing around the fire to the strumming of guitars. But once somebody has connected with a community of one cultural disposition, it is hard for them to imagine giving it up. In a manner similar to conversion to Christianity in a Muslim society, conversion to classical music alienates people from much of the old culture and more importantly from people who still value the old forms. Still, in absence of coercion, it is often possible to find areas of convergence between cultures. All people are made in the image of God. We might expect large areas that can be shared by Muslims and Christians. In the same way there are probably areas that can be appreciated by both classicists and infidels.

What seems to have happened in the area of church music is that, in the larger culture within which American churches exist, popular music idioms shared by baby boomers and succeeding generations of pagan savages are tending to overwhelm civilization and decency. When church services sound like a pale imitation of incantations at the coliseum, it is not surprising that thirty-somethings don’t feel much loyalty to Christian incantations. It’s just another ritual and not a very good one at that, because, most places, the show isn’t as entertaining as the circuses at the coliseum. An hour listening to National Public Radio’s program, The World, is enough to verify that boomer music is invading even the territories of Indonesian cults. You hear throat singers from Borneo backed up by what sounds like Barry Manilow’s band.

Maybe in some backhanded way this should give us hope. If Indonesian throat singers prefer tonal scales and harmonic progression once they’ve heard it, there may be grist for the mill that drives musical standards at conservatories and academic discussions of music in general. We can at least eliminate the nihilism of most twentieth century music. But how are we going to get the guitar pickers to repent?

It seems the only hope is something like Sara’s Religious Arts Society. A good jolt of real diversity and the ensuing culture shock could unsettle everybody enough to talk to one another. When we start searching for something we can do together, we might find that music that can be written down in standard notation is necessary. From there it isn’t too far to polyphony and more ambitious programming. In the mean time, we can enjoy the differences, because there is some real poetry to be found in our midst. If nothing else we can get acquainted again. The church really does need all of its members. Some of the humblest types find ways to restore the meaning and dignity of old forms. Even some old classicists can be revived.

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