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Friday, February 3, 2017

Week 2: Submarine, Day 11: Staying Dry in the Rain Room

Week 2: Submarine
Day 11: Staying dry in the Rain Room

A Word for Eyes Day: 
"Performative Architecture" n. Structural design that allows active engagement between artifacts and environments and their users and inhabitants.

"You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water."
Psalm 63:1

In the Curve Gallery of the Barbican arts centre in London, there's a 100 square meter space in a darkened room in which rain falls perpetually. Because of motion-sensing cameras and body mapping technology, no matter where you walk in the room, the rain won't fall on you. You might feel the humidity of the air, and the wash of white noise will encapsulate you no matter where you move, but raindrops won't land on you. The only way to get wet in this constant rain is if you run fast enough to fool the sensors.

There are a few videos of the Rain Room experience on the web to explore. This is a good one:

Imagine what it's like to walk through that room. What would you do? How would you move? Where would your imagination go? That's really the art of it. That's the exhibit: people watching. Even if it is just about watching yourself. This unique space invites unique behavior. One of the designers of the Rain Room, Florian Ortkrass, said, "All the things we do, they are kind of nonsense without someone else being there." There's something unintentionally profound in that statement, and there's something beautiful to me in how fascinated we can be with each other and with who we are as people.

Charlie Mackesy, one of my favorite fine artists, once commented on how he believes that people generally don't draw pictures without a kind of underlying purpose. He said of this reason for his art, "Jesus quietly introduced me to a journey into finding people really beautiful, which is how my art really began. Because I felt inside me he was going, 'Look. How beautiful is that guy sitting on that bench?' And I would have never noticed him before." The Rain room invites people to that kind of raw wonder of just enjoying who they are and enjoying the people around them with a stripped down kind of bare aesthetic ingestion of human nature. They stand and think about meaning, they run and try to get wet. They close their eyes and breathe. They lift their arms or twirl. They walk through with camera phones. They chat about memories of getting soaked in the rain. They look to see if the staff are around before stealing a kiss. People do people things, and it's great.

I want to say something about what the concept of this installation does to me, but I don't want to steal this moment from you. I want you to let that performative architecture speak to you what it needs to and for you to take it on its own terms. Maybe take a second and imagine yourself walking through this rain that doesn't get you wet. Before reading on, if you are comfortable sharing, comment below about the thoughts or feelings or memories that come up for you, or the way you imagine yourself interacting with the room. I'm curious to see your particular wonder, or quirkiness, or beauty.

When I think about the Rain Room, my mind goes first to silliness... I'd like to take a big bucket in there and shuttle it across the floor, sliding it as fast as I could to see what it could gather. I also imagine taking a big piece of foamcore board in and trying to fan water onto dry people from within my own rain bubble. I'm devious like that. But the more I really give it some thought, the experience of the Rain Room brings something more sacred to mind. That sight of rain falling around me, but not getting me wet makes me remember times of worship when I felt that everybody around me was connecting with God, but I wasn't. Maybe it's the image that I have posted here that makes me think of this, because it looks like a common posture of worship (if your church isn't too white or Baptist). Have you ever been there? In a big room where there weren't many dry eyes and you just weren't feeling a thing? What's worse is when you see people having some kind of authentic encounter, or at least some kind of emotional religious experience, and you don't just feel dry, you feel like, "This is all really freaking stupid." That's not a fun place to be. You can't just snap your fingers and connect. No matter where you go in the room, the rain doesn't fall on you. Sometimes I feel like an undercover atheist at church, and that's really the only place I remember feeling that way. Why?

If you've never had that experience, well, congratulations. I suspect you are genuinely more holy than me (which is my passive-agressive way of saying you are full of crap and I'm judging you through your web browser.) For the rest of us mortals, what are we to do? Well, first, let me suggest that there's no one-size-fits all way to connect with God, just as there is no homogenous way in which He blesses us with strengths and gifts, and there is probably not just one way to understand this dynamic. This isn't just true individually but corporately as well. At one time God thought his people needed to hear from a man carrying stone tablets, at another he would move nature to speak, and at another he thought they needed a naked performance artist prophet who ate meals cooked over dung and waged mock war on clay model villages. God can flex with the times, the styles, and the set of ears he has in front of him.

Once you think of the simple impact of cultural upbringing on a person's sensitivities, the need for diverse ways of engagement with God becomes pretty obvious. You wouldn't expect a French Trappist Monk who has spent decades cloistered in relative silence to come into an Evangelical American megachurch with lights, fog, frickin' laser beams, and giant Marshall stacks blasting guitar riffs into the masses to just start shouting "Hallelujah" and waving his arms and doing that weird hopping, arms-stretched out dance thingy that some white churchy people do. That doesn't mean that brother Pierre can't connect with God, or even that he isn't connecting with God in that particular moment. You wouldn't expect a kid from that same megachurch to feel moved by and connected to the tunes of Tibetan throat singers or to know how to dance to zydeco music either. Sometimes our feelings of spiritual disconnect in our faith communities have to do with the fact that maybe they aren't the cultural or musical environments that our hearts are at home with. We can forget that when everybody around us seems to be getting something while we are not. We can begin to think, "What's wrong with me?" or "What's wrong with them?" when we don't see the scenario from a broader perspective.

It's a good and vital thing to let your heart travel, to see God in people and places you've never acknowledged Him before and through expressions that are unfamiliar. Streeeeeeeetch! Think of it as a spiritual discipline that will grow your love and make you more fun to be around to a broader swath of humanity. If you've ever learned another language and used it in conversation, you know this well. The horizons of your love grow with the breadth of what you can enjoy and understand across cultures and traditions. What once seemed foreign and strange to you will become dear and familiar and give you new ways to imagine and engage with the world. In my experience, this keeps us young and humble at heart as well.

This said, It's totally o.k. and normal that your heart has a kind of home base for expression and connection, whether that is your culture or your location or the styles or sounds you like, or your language, or your boundaries. That's really unavoidable and the particularity of it makes you interesting and unique and really important to your tribe. But here's the thing: As soon as you make your place of worship so culturally homogenous that you feel like you really connect there all the time, you will limit its scope so that it culturally alienates others and makes genuine hospitality very difficult. This is as true of teaching styles, visual aesthetics, and fashion as it is of music. This is a big reason why church music is so often a kind of watered down, neutered fluff. We try to do something that everybody will like, and it becomes less honestly an expression of somebody from a genuine and particular place, perspective, and moment. The lowest-common denominator removes us from the stories that connect us to what is real down here in the dirt.

The oft-chosen alternative to watering everything down into a monoculture is to isolate worshipping communities along lines roughly aligned with which radio station their congregants have their car stereos tuned to and, secondly, which theological prejudices their pastor holds to. So we get Surfer church, or Sons of Anarchy church, or Soccer Mom church, or Adoption Advocacy church, or the Church of the Poor, or Cowboy Church, or the Ministry of Silly Walks, or Our Lady of Many Hearing Aids, or Tattoo Church or the church of whatever our cultural anchor point may be. These kind of monoculture churches are often intended as outreach ministries and the need they address is obvious, especially for people who feel that their subculture is not well enfolded by wider society. A Cowboy probably can put his guard down enough to receive from God in the safety of Cowboy Church. But exclusive subculture churches are a bit doomed from the beginning to be places that nurture resistance to cultural outsiders that Jesus would enfold, nurse narrow or arrogant ways of thinking, cut themselves off from the broad wisdom of Christ's body, and don't really equip people to live out their faith in the very diverse real world. What's more, if somebody on the inside of one of these churches has a change of cultural identity, they won't feel like they belong anymore. Now before you say "amen" to all this, ask yourself, how are most of our denominations all that different?

We are in a new time when our cultural identities are blurred by nature of our internet access, our phones, our global economy, and our many means of transportation. This may be another dynamic that adds to our sense of being alone in a crowd at church. Maybe we see something that others in the room just don't see. Maybe we have googled something from the pews and seen that the pastor hasn't given other perspectives a fair shake. Maybe our simple awareness that there ARE other perspectives and that our exposure is limited makes it hard for us to live in the moment, as we are becoming so enculturated with a vantage point that's above it all, critical, evaluative, external, and meta. I think the more you study theology, the more you engage cross-culturally, and the more broadly you listen, read, watch and consume media, the more likely you find yourself in this disconnect. I feel similarly about watching movies. Once you begin studying film you can't simply just get lost in a movie without analyzing why certain angles were chosen, why the kicker light was placed where it was, why whichever particular color grade was used, or why the actor were blocked as they were, or why this was a jump cut and not a dissolve. It's hard to get swept up in the story while you are dissecting the story teller.

We can't put the clock back on this. We can't cover our ears, put on blinders and pretend that we can't step outside of one perspective and see things from another in today's world where we can be steeped in multiple ideologies at once. That's not a bad thing. It may make us more discerning, ultimately. But it leaves the question, how and when do we just have an authentic encounter with God? Is there such thing as a "religious experience" that isn't mediated by some kind of culture, or person, or song, or heck, even this devotional? Well, if God is real, then yes. He's not contained in these perspectives any more than he can be contained in a statue or a temple or a church. And maybe he is the one hammering away at our icons, upending our images of Him because they have become idols. If you feel like you're losing your religion, and you can't feel any rain, maybe that is because you are totally immersed. Maybe you are being baptized. Maybe you are so far under water in his presence that you don't know you are wet. He shattered your idols and tossed you out there into the abyss where all there is is Him. Do you feel the energy of that silence, that slight turn before you rocket to the surface and out into the air again? I do. I'm praying that for our whole culture. That God will do this great iconoclastic work and be reborn in our minds and hearts and experiences. But we're going to have to let go of a lot, just like we always have.

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