Sunday, May 5, 2013

Against applause

The month of April, rewarding as it was in most every way possible, was draining.  Between going to Kansas for candidacy and to Charlotte for a trustees' meeting, on top of the typical end-of-semester round of exams and papers and such, the return of chemotherapy this past week and the Sprunt Lectures on campus served to remind me I'm just not physically up to things the way I normally would be.  I don't claim to be a primo physical specimen, but normally I can mow the front lawn.  Not today.

One of the things fatigue does to me, frequently at least, is to unleash my tendency to snark even more than usual.  So, when obliged to attend a concert last night that, in retrospect, I shouldn't have done (better to have gone to bed early), some of that snark made its way onto Twitter and/or Facebook as a coping mechanism.  One of those responses, however, turned out to have more than snark behind it; it resurrected in me something that has bothered the daylights out of me for a long time.

I really don't like applause.

You're waiting for the end of the sentence, right?  That should be "I really don't like applause in church, right?"  Well, it's true, I really don't like applause in church, and maybe I'll get to that before this rant is done, if I hold out that long.  But in fact, the sentence, odd as it may seem, is complete.  I really don't like applause.

OK, here's my problem:  applause is a one-size-fits-all reaction to a plethora of performance types and styles that really deserve very different reactions.  Just taking music for an example:  I like, just to be a bit random, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing," John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," Shostakovich's Eighth String Quartet, Chadwick's "Jubilee" from the suite Symphonic Sketches, Weather Report's "Birdland," Buck Owens singing "Act Naturally," Louis Jordan's "Choo-Choo-Ch'-Boogie," Josquin des Prez's masses, gamelan music, ... o.k., is the point through? I like bits of a lot of different kinds of music, and I'll guess many of the folks who read this (to the degree that there are many folks who read this) are of similar eclecticism.  Now my question to you is: do all those different kinds of music evoke the same reaction in you?  Good grief, I'd be seriously worried about someone who had the same emotional reaction to Adagio for Strings and "Choo-Choo-Ch'-Boogie." But somehow, applause is the default reaction our audience culture has absorbed.  Yeah, I can whistle or stomp my feet for the Louis Jordan piece too if I'm so moved, but in truth after a really good performance of the Adagio the last thing I want to do is applaud.  But what else have I got?  A totally silent concert hall would probably freak out the performers, I'm guessing.  And yet that might be the most honest, gut-wrenchingly real reaction to that piece.

Ultimately applause just feels insufficient.  It works just fine for some things, but certainly not for everything.  And yet every now and then you get this strange audience that seems to be doing nothing more than waiting for the end of the sound, vying to be the first to clap.  I truly can't wrap my mind around that mindset.

Suffice to say I really don't find applause in worship to be a great reaction either.  My reasons are different, though: applause is a thing audiences do, and (hopefully!) a congregation is not an audience.  The congregation is the worshiping body.  It sings.  It prays.  It passes the peace.  It eats the bread and drinks the wine, or juice, whichever constitutes the elements of communion.  Maybe, in some places, it moves.  It doesn't applaud, or somehow I can't see how that really works as a gesture of worship.

People will disagree, and so be it.  But I guess I need to say that a congregation has, or should have, so many other obvious and active physical moments of participation in worship (and yes, listening does happen in worship too) that there would be no particular reason or need to applaud.

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