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Playing In Church

In a follow-up to last week’s thread about the Cat In The Hat Eucharist [1], a reader sends in this terrific post from Reader John [2], a choir director at an Orthodox parish in Portland, Oregon. Reader John criticizes the Seussian liturgy, asking why it is that we feel the need to make serious things childish for the sake of children. Excerpt:

 We don’t pave children’s streets, build children’s houses and construct children’s airplanes?  They seem to do just fine.  Children always aspire to be adults.  They like to approach adult-dom.  I’m not sure how much they like adults to approach kid-dom.  Kids assume that the realm of adult life is stable, and that kid life is in flux.  Why do adults think that kids want adults to go backward and make their world the status quo?  Did you, as a kid?  I didn’t.

He makes other great points about the false distinction between seriousness and joy. Being gloomy and rigid in liturgy does not mean we are serious, but neither does turning something serious into something juvenile create joy. Reader John:

If in our liturgical observances and celebrations we are getting bored, the Cat in the Hat will provide no cure.  If our children aren’t aspiring to be grown-ups, and are not feeling welcomed and invited in our celebrations, introducing flippant “merriment” and out-of-place “play” isn’t going to rectify that situation.

If Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, it cannot be manufactured or devised, planned or contained.  It can be sinned against by hypocrisy and idolatry.  It can be suppressed by the legalist and judgmental.  But where the Truth is proclaimed and lived with integrity and authenticity, it will abound. And it will spread.

And children will catch it.

Read the whole thing.  [2] Really, do; it’s marvelous.

I don’t know about you, but I could never take seriously as a spiritual leader again a priest who thought something as irreverent and trivializing a Cat In The Hat mass, or a clown mass, or any such thing was appropriate. Then again, when I watched the hippie-Jesus musical Godspell [3] for the first time a decade ago, I felt like Beavis and Butt-head gawking at a Milli Vanilli video [4].

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28 Comments To "Playing In Church"

#1 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On August 5, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

One of my kids thought that kids had it good, and regretted the losses inherent in growing up.

“Growing up is awfuller,
Than all the awful things that ever were.”

#2 Comment By Josh D Brown On August 5, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

A married couple I know do something called “clown communion.” I wouldn’t say it’s ridiculous at all. The first three times I watched it resulted in many tears shed. It beautifully encompasses the full, and often paradoxical, spectrum of joy and sorrow we feel at the sacrifice of Christ. It starts off as silly but ends up punching you in the gut. Especially as you watch the Blood of Christ being poured out from a cross on the altar. I don’t condone making belief appear juvenile or foolish. But if King David wants to dance naked for his joy in the Father, all I can do is cover my eyes.

#3 Comment By Will in Mississippi On August 5, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

There a contradictory tendency of exposing children to things in advance of their years, particularly thought not solely involving sexuality, and then at the same time striving to prolong childhood by adapting things including education and public spaces to a preteen rather than adult expectation. It’s something that’s struck me–and indeed often irritated me–for a long time. My concern is not so much to protect children from “adult” images and themes as to aid their growth into adult experiences. Following the service at church and particupating rather than entertaining themselves or being entertained by frantic parent is one example. Being able to speak with adults and teenagers–i.e. carry on a conversation–rather than act childishly is another. Moving away from “children’s books” with their simplistic form, content, and vocabulary to something more substantive is a further example. Exercising self control to participate in family activities with adults is an important skill that seems more evident in it absence than practice these days.

Now obviously a three year old or a six year old will be different from a ten year old. As a parent, I know you can’t expect an adult attention span from you children. But you can work toward it as they get older, especially when they pass what used to be called the age of reason around 8 0r 9. As Rod says, it hard to take trivialiazing and irreverent seriously and children smoke phonies pretty quickly.

#4 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 5, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

Actually, we do produce airplanes and houses and such for children, they’re called “toys”. And likewise, there’s plenty of secular literature for kids as well.

And whenever we do these things in the secular realm, there will always be adults complaining about how childish these things are. Grown-up movie critics will gripe that a flick for kids didn’t make them laugh, or contained too many poop jokes (as opposed to raunchy material of a more adult nature), or had a contrived or ridiculous plot.

On the other hand, there are plenty of things produced for kids which are crap, and even the kids think so.

As far as liturgy goes–liturgy (minus its spiritual significance) is an art form; and like many art forms, it appeals to some and bores the heck out of others. When it comes to many adult art forms–symphony orchestras, non-interactive museums, the opera–the solution is obvious: hire a sitter and leave the kids at home. But when it comes to church, that isn’t an option.

#5 Comment By Jake Lukas On August 5, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

An Orthodox convert, I come from a culturally protestant family. I say culturally because regular religious observance is something chiefly expected of old women and briefly expected of families when they have young children. There is, however, something of a family tradition with which I’ve never been comfortable. At large family gatherings, a young boy is most frequently asked to pray the blessing. These prayers generally come in the extemporaneous, “We just ask you, dear Lord,” form that many from rural parts will recognize, only as imitated by an 8 year old. I think this is done first because the men are not particularly religious, second because the elderly women remain firm believers in patriarchy long after the patriarch has deceased, and third, and most importantly, because so many think it is cute to see a child do this.

In several of the protestant churches I’ve attended, likewise, there are separate children’s sermons, where the kids come to the front and gather round the pastor as he tries to explain the day’s reading to them. The method often involves, “Can anyone tell me…?”, style questions and it inevitably sounds like he’s talking down to them. But, of course, most of the children are too young to pick up on this and many still answer and participate enthusiastically. When they do so, we find parents grinning and chuckling approval at the cuteness of it all.

This is all well enough while the children are quite young and still enthusiastic about any special attention they may receive. But as they grow older, as they make that fast leap from 8 to 13, they can end up with a different message: religion is something for children, right alongside Santa Claus and Trick-or-Treating. It isn’t something to aspire to, it isn’t something taken seriously by adults, and, most damning for a 13 year old boy, it’s cute. I’ve long suspected–at least as far as where I’m from is concerned–that this is a prime factor in the alienation from religion that occurs in adolescence and the subsequent coolness toward religion one sees in many men. In a word, I think such flippant and trivializing treatment of religion is damaging to religious observance.

#6 Comment By Axon Parker On August 5, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

Charlotte Mason told us a hundred years ago that children do not like what she termed “twaddle”. Children are born persons, capable of understanding ideas and appreciating beauty. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay learned from both her mom (Edith Schaeffer) and Ms. Mason and said it beautifully in the book, “For the Children’s Sake”. I wish church leaders were required to read both of these ladies. They might actually learn something.

#7 Comment By Peter On August 5, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

Let’s have some coverage of the swelling movement of traditional liturgies and groups like the Catholic Music Association of America or the New Liturgical Movement, the growth of traditional religious communities wearing habits, etc. It’s too easy to keep picking on the dinosaurs who are still fighting the battles of 1975. Thanks.

With all respect, I’d like to suggest that the “I care so much about Western culture that I’m going to point out as many flaws of the Catholic Church as possible to raise awareness” is an effective strategy. I find plenty of reasons to be joyful as a Catholic, and I would love for you to do a bit of digging and highlight these once in a while.

[NFR: What are you talking about? The Cat In The Hat Eucharist was Anglican. Don’t be so defensive. — RD]

#8 Comment By JonF On August 5, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

Re: In several of the protestant churches I’ve attended, likewise, there are separate children’s sermons, where the kids come to the front and gather round the pastor as he tries to explain the day’s reading to them. The method often involves, “Can anyone tell me…?”

I attended an Orthodox Church in Florida where the priest did exactly that.
His adult sermons afterward however were actually interesting, consistently the best homilies I have heard in an Orthodox Church, where homiletics is often woefully neglected.

#9 Comment By DS On August 5, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

It depends on how you see church. In the Catholic and Orthodox and Anglican traditions, church/mass is inherently ceremonial and sacramental, which lends itself to the serious atmosphere that is violated with a Dr. Seuss hat.

In other traditions, and I’m speaking specifically of evangelical churches, the atmosphere of the service is more akin to a Bible study or a classroom lecture, albeit one that’s wedged between a bunch of second-rate songs.

An evangelical church service is not ceremonial at most churches and usually does not involve a sacrament. It’s not a lighthearted affair, but variety and humor are not out of place. If there’s an occasional goofy step out of character, like a Dr. Seuss hat, it’s not sacrilege even if you dislike that kind of thing.

Where goofiness doesn’t work is where you try to shoehorn it into a sacrament, so it doesn’t work for an Anglican service, just as it wouldn’t work during an evangelical church’s communion or during a prayer, which are very serious business even if the teaching portion of the service is not.

Meanwhile, Jake Lukas makes a great point. If your kids are fed nothing but milk, they will never know the taste of meat.

#10 Comment By RB On August 5, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

Shoot, Rod, where’s that post from awhile back that had an essay about how children’s toys used to be minaturized versions of real toys, designed to integrate children into the adult working world, but now toys are often designed to segregate children from the working world with a new concept of “play”?

I know my kids are happiest when they are Really Useful Engines. They like knowing they’re needed and capable. Their play is serious learning, and it’s a mark of confidence and respect if I accomodate their learning and not with easily breakable, injection-molded stuff. I know I would feel pretty patronized if my husband gave me a My First Novel! kit with a big chunky spiral-bound notebook and a fat foam-covered fake quill pen with an inkwell that coos “Genius!” every time I pretend-dip it.

Besidea, parents all know the best part of all the expensive plastic toys are the boxes they come in.

I don’t personally see the presence of bright colors as a good marker for juvinility. I like bright colors myself, and I think our culture is unnaturally somber sometimes. Adults love color, and that’s right and good. I love stained glass windows and vivid dresses.

Yesterday I had to take my squawking 6- month-old out of thr chapel during the quietest, most sacred part of Sacrament Meeting. I left my 7-year-old daughter in charge of my 2-year-old daughter. When I got back, I was relieved to find they were both still sitting in the pew, copying the people of all ages around them–arms folded, heads bowed.

That was probably possible in part because my 13-year-old son, an ordained deacon, was the one passing the sacrament to them, and they saw his example, and because the people around them are neighbors and friends who are willing to sit with other people’s kids and remind them to be reverent in the chapel. I don’t feel like I’m a great mom; instead, I am fortunate to be part of a community that expects this of children, and is tolerant of extra noise and motion while children are learning.

I think people really underestimate children sometimes. Children instinctively want to fit into adult society and are capable of it. I’ve taught Sunday School to ages 18 months up to adult classes, and teenagers may seem less reverent than adults, but it’s only because grown-ups hide their wiggliness and inattention better. It’s easy to blame kids, though. So that’s what most adults do. Especially the ones who are easily distracted.

#11 Comment By Charles Cosimano On August 5, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

I still think the Cat in the Hat eucharist was cool.

There is no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish every once in a while.

#12 Comment By lasorda On August 5, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

The “youth mass” scandalizes my kids. They want to be let in to the grown up world of the Church, not patronized by a 67 year old gay man in a kelly-green, double-knit chasuble. My 8 year-old would be much more interested by this sort of thing [5] than by some soft looking geezer making bad jokes.

#13 Comment By Emily On August 5, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with you, except for the “Godspell” insult. I understand it’s format isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the script is lifted directly from Scripture and the message is unmistakably powerful. The movie you linked to is definitely dated, but I’ve seen several contemporary productions (and was part of one) that effectively used humor, music and modern references to bring spiritual truths to light that would never otherwise make it into a secular theater.

It’s important to note, though, that “Godspell” is entertainment, albeit spiritually-based entertainment. I would never orchestrate a Godspell Liturgy (the mere thought makes me cringe.) I just think it has artistic and musical merit. Then again, I thought Breaking the Waves was disturbing and ugly, so I guess we’re even! 🙂

#14 Comment By Will in Mississippi On August 5, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

“I think people really underestimate children sometimes. Children instinctively want to fit into adult society and are capable of it.”

That’s absolutely correct. It’s why I blame adults who don’t encourage that natural desire, but instead subvert it and often in doing so make things unpleasant for everyone. What an ealier poster described aptly as “twaddle” drives most people away most of the time. Why not challenge children to fit into adult expectations more often? I think there would be some positive surprises.

#15 Comment By JB On August 5, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

Peter: the “habits” seem like overkill to me. Nor does the wearing of habits seem like an important issue one way or the other compared to abortion and starvation/malnutrition and war, all of which the Church should be constantly opposing and working to minimize.

#16 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 5, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

It’s rare that I find cause to chastise our good Charles for poor word choice (ahem, ahem) but this time I must.

My friend, there is a world of difference between childish and childlike. We expect certain behaviors from children (based on their age). That constitutes “childish”.

We also seem to lose sight and awareness of the distinct perspectives a child employs. When we “re”-discover it, we are astonished by it even while treasuring it. To be “childlike” should be something every spiritual leader can do, if only to help the rest of us experience it again.

#17 Comment By JB On August 5, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

lasorda: funny, the permanent deacon at our old parish — the one assigned to the children’s CCD classes, including communion and confirmation preparation, also has stereotypical homosexual voice and mannerisms, to a degree which is sometimes mildly irritating or distracting.

Much more important, however, he was a guest lecturer at our church-required marriage-prep class and for some reason thought it appropriate to slip in a couple of very partisan, wise-ass political remarks. Such as saying that he “hoped the President would win re-election, and was sure he would be President for four more years ‘if THEY don’t kill him, of course,” appearing to people (like my wife and me) who did not support the President’s re-election.

Disgusting how many left-wing anti-American freaks, strange little people who know neither the rewards nor the challenges of being married and raising a family, have managed to worm their way into the priesthood and deacon ranks of our church.

What bothers me more than this rude, inappropriate interjection by the deacon is that the church did nothing when we told them about it. What does that say about the priest (a supposed conservative) or his higher-ups?

#18 Comment By Peter On August 5, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

Please feel free not to post my comments; that’s fine, but I do hope that you will take seriously my suggestion that you focus once in a while on the positive contributions of contemporary Catholicism and the seriousness of the many rank and file Catholics who faithfully serve Christ. I enjoy your writing, and I am very grateful for TAC, but the relatively constant harping on only the worst aspects of a huge Church does you a disservice, IMHO.

#19 Comment By Jim On August 5, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

Axon Parker and Will in MS:

Absolutely right. Sadly, “twaddle” isn’t just limited to some Anglican priest’s misguided revelry; it has invaded every aspect of our culture’s ability to parent, whether from an institutional perspective or from a parental perspective. The soft bigotry of low expectations isn’t just a race concept or an educational concept.

#20 Comment By Peter On August 5, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

When I made my second comment, the first hadn’t come up, so I hadn’t seen your response. Thank you for it.

At the end of this post, you called the liturgy in question a Cat in the Hat ‘mass’ and made reference to clown masses, too. I apologize for not following the link and assuming that you were referring to a Catholic liturgy, but I don’t think I’m being defensive, just pointing out a certain trend.

#21 Comment By Bernie On August 5, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

Well said, DS. As a Catholic, I experience sacramental worship. For me, the key is an overall sense of reverence – not dourness – reverence. An appropriate joke by the priest during the homily is fine. If a little child screams out something cute with no spirit of disrespect, I expect smiles.

There is a line, one that is difficult to capture in words, that can be crossed from serious/reverential to dour or flippant or disrespectful. How we dress, if we are sure to get to the service on time, how we act during the service, etc., will be our reaction to the holy and reflect what kind of worship we think is due God. And our children will note this.

St. Therese (she that made famous her “Little Way”), said something to the effect that she learned more about God by looking up into her father’s face during Mass when she was a little girl, than by almost by any other experience of her life.

#22 Comment By Peg On August 5, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

Rod, I’m sorry, but at rock-bottom when I read things like this, I end up feeling you’re missing the point…and feeling a *lot* like your reaction has more in common with Ruthie’s reaction to your importation of bouillabaisse than to anything critical to true and authoritative worship.

It keeps coming down to a feeling that for many people, holiness and silliness can’t occupy the same ritual space.

That may be true for some people. It may be true that some of you simply can’t accept the silly and frivolous as being part of holiness or worship.

All I can say is that for some of us, holiness that can’t take regular doses of the silly and playful isn’t holiness. To *us* it’s piety for form rather than substance. A sort of idolatry of ritual over meaning.

I know others don’t feel that way. I truly do. But it’s important to understand that those of us who don’t agree with that feeling are not being base and trivial — we’re holding to what, for us, is an equally serious position regarding what is sacred.

I do accept that many of you do not agree…and I struggle to accept that many of you do not agree in good faith. That you really, passionately believe this. But it doesn’t change the fact that from my position it ends up feeling like you’re mainly disgruntled that we’re cooking frivolous, disrespectful bouillabaisse over here, when every righteous person knows fish stew’s got to be fish stew.

#23 Comment By Bernie On August 5, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

“All I can say is that for some of us, holiness that can’t take regular doses of the silly and playful isn’t holiness.”

Peg, I certainly agree with this sentence. Just as nothing makes a parent happier than to see his or her child happy, I think God delights in our playfulness and silliness. To me, it’s all a matter of what context the silliness or playfulness occurs. When is it appropriate, and when is it not appropriate? Because of Catholic belief about the meaning of the Mass, these would not be appropriate during the consecration of the Eucharist, the reception of the Eucharist, etc. They would be very welcome in a bunch of other types of church events!

#24 Comment By David J. White On August 5, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

I would never orchestrate a Godspell Liturgy (the mere thought makes me cringe.)

Would that there were more like you. I was in Catholic school and attended CYO camp during the liturgical nadir that was the early 70s, and I remember plenty of Masses that featured “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and “Day by Day”. I seem to remember at least one Mass where someone (I don’t remember whether or not it was the celebrant, but I don’t think so) gave the homily dressed as the Jesus character from Godspell.

#25 Comment By Richard Barrett On August 5, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

One point, and that’s about the invocation of the image of King David dancing “naked” in front of the ark. A friend of mine is a PhD candidate at University of Chicago studying Hebrew philology, and he recently posted the following:

“Alright, let’s get something straight, King David did not dance naked before the ark. The text specifically states that he was ‘clothed in a linen ephod’ (2 Kings 6:14), which was a priestly vestment. Certainly he danced, probably in accordance with accepted liturgical form, and he offered sacrifices. The scandal was perhaps that a king would take upon himself such a priestly role, as his predecessor Saul had done receiving great censure from Samuel. (This was, however, an accepted practice in the Ancient Near East.) Michal’s censure is introduced with sarcasm ‘How glorious was the king of Israel today’ (6:20), and should be considered to proceed in such a manner in describing his “uncovering” (niglah). This is perhaps a reference to the fact that David would have removed his kingly vesture in order to put on the priestly vestments, thus ‘uncovering’ himself from his kingly dignity. The word translated by the NKJV as ‘undignified’ in v 22 should probably be understood that he will ‘be considered more contemptible than this,’ taking the niph’al of qll as meaning ‘to be lightly esteemed or thought of as contemptible.'”

Make of that what you will.

#26 Comment By Erin Manning On August 5, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

Well, as a Catholic, I agree with Rod’s post here, and would further add that the day cannot come too soon when the Rite of Dismissing the Children So They Can Go Color Things comes to a screeching halt. This is not to insult the people who help with that task, because I believe they are well-intentioned, but the whole thing seems to have arisen out of a widespread misunderstanding of a little-known Church directive, and it ought to be reined in as soon as possible.

#27 Comment By johan On August 6, 2013 @ 12:29 am

What I see being lost is the idea of reverence in worship. A bit of lightness is ok, but when it is sustained for several minutes it is a distraction.

#28 Comment By Franklin Evans On August 6, 2013 @ 9:03 am

The Conservative synagogue to whom we entrusted our children’s introduction to religion had a very simple attitude about children. Granted, at 13 Jews are welcomed into the adult congregation with great ceremony, but prior to that the rabbi there makes it clear: this is all about family, and we will include our children in everything we do.

At the end of every Saturday service all of the children in the Hebrew school come up to join the adults. Every adult given responsibility for those children come up with them, and there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the congregation is also a family.

When my daughter’s now-husband proposed to her, there was no doubt in their minds that the her rabbi would conduct the wedding ceremony. You see, she’s his daughter, too. It showed ever so clearly during the ceremony.

My admonishment to Charles is respectfully offered to the rest of you. If the practice becomes childish, I see no reason to not speak up about it. But the wonder and pureness of joy of the childlike cannot be denied, and those who would try to keep it from our spiritual lives are to be pitied. 🙁