success stories

Posted November 14, 2003

Palestrina Was Not in Vogue

The counterculture struck at God himself. How much damage was done?

By George Sim Johnston
Thursday, November 13, 2003 12:01 a.m.

A few years ago, while visiting college campuses with my son, I witnessed an odd but recurring phenomenon: Our student guide would be showing us around a beautiful New England campus -- all arches and spires and ivy -- when we would abruptly stop in front of a building of incredible ugliness. Either a science center or a library, it looked like the Death Star about to become fully operational. Or an auto parts warehouse that had escaped from some malevolent industrial park.

"Oh, this," the guide would say with a cringing gesture. "It was built in the early '70s. We try not to notice."

Such moments of cultural dissonance come to mind while reading Mark Oppenheimer's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" (Yale, 284 pages, $30), a study of the effect of the 1960s and early 1970s on our relationship with God. According to Mr. Oppenheimer, most Americans did not respond to that era's cultural upheavals by joining ashrams or doing TM. Rather, they brought the revolution into their churches and synagogues. And the results were striking: radical lesbian Episcopalian priests, Catholic Masses that sounded like Peter, Paul and Mary concerts, and Unitarians channeling whatever the Zeitgeist had to offer.

But was the era of lava lamps, bubble-gum music and appalling architecture a propitious moment for churches and synagogues to open themselves--some might say, surrender -- to the secular culture? Did anyone really benefit from this?

Mr. Oppenheimer seems to think so, telling us that the innovations got people "involved." By importing big chunks of the surrounding culture into the previously hushed precincts of the sacred, religion was simply doing its job of selling itself. Much of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" is a chronicle of how this process unfolded. There are well-researched chapters on the pre-emptive surrender of Unitarians to everything from gay rights to ESP, the flight of some Jews into communal isolates where dope was available along with the Torah, and the willingness of Catholics to exchange Palestrina for acoustical guitars.

As a Catholic, I naturally took interest in the chapter "Roman Catholics and the Folk Mass." It is not quite accurate to imply, as Mr. Oppenheimer does, that all the liturgical changes that occurred in the Catholic Church after Vatican II were decreed by the council. Some indeed were, but most, including altar tables facing the congregation and the abolition of polyphony and Gregorian chant, were not. Nor were they asked for by the laity. They were the work of a determined minority of clergy and liturgists who had a horror of anything smacking of the transcendent. "Horizontal" was in; "vertical" was out. As a result, we found ourselves on Sundays singing pop jingles like "On Eagles' Wings," a song that makes "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" sound magisterial.

Mr. Oppenheimer is correct to say that the way we worship deeply affects our notion of God. But he does not really connect the dots. His discussion is glancing, almost annoyingly sociological. Yes, people in various denominations discovered guitars, sandals, hugging and identity politics. But what was really going on here?

At least in the Catholic Church, an increasing number of worshipers began to treat their faith primarily as an exercise in self-esteem, even while doctrinal teachings remained in place, and the church experienced an invasion of the "therapeutic." The model of the human person, as presented by certain theologians and even some catechisms, was of a little god in a universe of "options"--self-affirmed, plotting his comforts, quick to "follow his conscience" when he wanted something he maybe shouldn't. By the late 1960s many Jews and Christians had managed to domesticate God into an affirmer of personal preferences.

None of this registers with Mr. Oppenheimer, who is mostly content to report the surface manifestations of the Me Decade without touching on the deeper issues, such as the validity of supernatural faith and the proper role of religion in public life, and without asking whether a secular culture benefits in the long run from denominations that simply do its bidding.

Undoubtedly, a church or synagogue should update its usages so that it can communicate with the surrounding culture. But shouldn't this be done with caution, along with the conviction that a well-grounded faith has more to teach the surrounding culture than vice versa? When a religion simply signs on for the prevailing aesthetic -- which in the period under consideration was dismal -- and refuses to be "judgmental" about any behavior not proscribed by fashion, then it is in trouble.

Mr. Oppenheimer does usefully remind us of the good that religion can do when it stands against prevailing notions. The civil-rights movement in the 1950s, for example, was overwhelmingly religious in its leadership. But the question he never raises is whether these countervailing values will be around if religion keeps accommodating itself to the spirit of the age.

Mr. Johnston is a writer in New York.