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The presidential campaigners’ sermonizing about America’s moral mission in the world reminds me of the tedious sermons I’ve sat through over many years on the organist’s bench. Some of the most interminable of these were endured in a Presbyterian church on the San Francisco Peninsula, just twenty short miles from the Gomorrah of San Francisco itself. In that church American family values were defended with great vigor, all the more energetically because of the depraved threat looming—or perhaps beckoning as it loomed—just to the north.
My last Sunday at that church came in the middle of the first term of Bill Clinton, the political embodiment of the perpetual contest between the spirit and flesh. His politics resembled those of the Christian crusader, even if, behind closed doors, he sometimes adopted postures other – at least in moral principle — than that of the missionary with his own apostles.
The second century A.D. was no picnic for Christians, unless your idea of a good time was being the midday lunchmeat for a pride of lions. Nonetheless, the leaders of the early church exhorted their followers to challenge the Romans and in so doing to be thrown into the arena. One of the chief proponents of martyrdom was St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was not particularly modest in predicting how he would act if he were to confront the lion on the hot sands of the Coliseum: “Let me enjoy these beasts whom I wish much more cruel than they are, and if they will not pursue me, I will provoke and draw them toward me by force.” Sadly, this saintly desire is a precedent rarely followed in our own time.
Back during Ignatius’ day organists were pumping up the crowd at the Coliseum as Christians were being served up to hungry animals. I think it completely fitting that the organ should have taken its place in both the Roman arena and subsequently in the Christian sanctuary: many of the followers of Jesus have a taste for blood sport. In the early Christian era the believers themselves provided the fodder — and if we are to believe Ignatius they were supposed to enjoy it. But ever since Constantine sanctioned Christianity some two centuries after Ignatius, it’s been the Christians who have been in charge and it is the whole earth that has become their arena. The zeal that led early Christians martyrs to yearn for the cross, the lion, the wheel, and all the other tools of their trade, has since inspired one hundred generations of Christian missionaries to turn the screws on the rest of the world.
Like the Latin organists before me, I enjoy watching Christians ply their trade, although I must admit that the saccharine probity of an American Presbyterian Church is a long way from the riotous splendor of the Coliseum. I had fairly good viewing at a position I once held as organist in a concrete monstrosity nestled amongst the ranch houses of San Carlos, California, a swath of suburbia that sprawls from the tidelands of the San Francisco Bay to the foothills of the Coast Range.
The pastor’s sermons were a bricolage of horrific stories and trite apercus scavenged from pulp anthologies used to pad out modern, whitebread Protestant oratory: a Polish woman jumps out of an apartment building because she slept with a music impresario so that her fiancé, a pianist, could get his big break; she leaves a note on the mirror which reads “I am dirt”; in the year 1937 a father must throw a switch bringing down a railway bridge in order to prevent a passenger train from plunging into the Mississippi, but he sees that his eight-year-old son has fallen into the giant gears of the apparatus; the father throws the switch and mashes his son, thus saving the lives of the passengers who remain in total ignorance of his sacrifice. The pastor’s greatest theological insight remains forever etched in my memory: “God is like Burger King: You Can Have It Your Way.” Astoundingly, the congregation seems to love these sermons.
The pastor got divorced, an event that led to tearful homilies delivered along with his wife. Inevitably, the failure of their marriage implied a disdain for family values and the pastor was forced to look elsewhere for employment. He made a successful transition, to deliver his sermons to a huge congregation in Houston, Texas where Lloyd Bentsen was one of the parishioners.
After some thirteen months of employment at this religious establishment I came to my last Sunday. My final service happened to coincide with “Missions Sunday,” the annual visit of one or more of the missionaries supported by the church. There were two representatives in attendance. The first spoke for about ten minutes. Everything about him was conservative. He was billed as an expert on Islam because he had spent some years in sub-Saharan Africa. Two years prior he had been on a plane from Somalia that brought 42 Muslim women back to America. Two of these woman were visibly pregnant: “If these two unborn children survived that meant that the Islamic population of the U.S. would grow by 44. But what about the Christian population of our country, what will we do about that?” This woke me out of my slumber behind the organ console. I began to think of all the nasty questions I would ask this crackpot during the fellowship hour after the service.
Missionary Number Two delivered a lengthy sermon. He was a spritely man in his late 60s who wore a white cotton tunic adorned with a brightly colored Coptic cross. It had been made for him by one of his converts from the Ethiopian village he had lived in for nearly twenty years. The packaging was feel-good, granola nice guy just back, but the contents were right out of the nineteenth century.
His discourse was littered with the rhetorical flourishes of colonialism. He had devoted his life to bringing the gospel “to every tribe and tongue, to the darkest corner of the globe.” His travels had recently led him to a town in the northeast corner of India. On his arrival he was overcome with joy to see a banner across the main street that read “THANK YOU FOR THE GOSPEL.” The inhabitants it seems were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Welsh missionaries. This was a great success story: “These Indians had been the head-hunters of the region, but the missionaries had converted them from bloodthirsty savages into God-fearing Christians.”
“You remember that it used to be said that the sun never sets over the British Empire, well you can say the same about our empire, the empire of Christ.” This comparison was unwittingly apposite, since Christianity missionaries were central to the work of the British Empire.
After the sermon it was time for the final hymn, “O Zion Haste,” one of the great nineteenth-century anthems of the missionary project. The text extols those who would bring the light of the word to the Hottentots.
Them came to my postlude, and I was determined to have the last word. I decided simply to follow through on his comparison to the British Empire by playing a rousing verse of Rule Britannia. Just before the final three chords I paused for a cadenza featuring the Ringling Brothers theme tune, then ended the piece not with the triumphal major flourish but a sinister minor cadence. I looked up to see the Director of Music pacing toward me. “Thank God you’re leaving,” he said with a kind of grin. “God’s got nothing to do with it,” I said as I beat a hasty retreat down the back stairs.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com