Wednesday 6 July 2016

What do you mean, "religious?"

Godspell’s all around you this July, here in our little corner of central Alberta.  It’s a show, a musical, with a great story, some great songs and a great cast of local young people who are pretty amazing performers.  You should go see it.  It was in Settler July 1-3, but if you missed that, you can see it in Camrose July 8-10, Bashaw July 15 and 17, Lacombe July 22 and 23 and Drumheller July 29-31.  Tickets and information from or message me.

There.  Commercial accomplished.

Hang on, though, this whole thing isn’t just an advertisement.  Let’s talk about religion for a moment.

I’ve had a few people ask me if the show was really religious, so I was already wondering about that when one of the cast members came into rehearsal a few weeks ago and told this story.  He said that he’d told a friend that he was in Godspell and they responded “I didn’t know you were religious.”  He said he didn’t know what to say to that - he thought he was just in a show, a show with a great story.

Some people might not even get past the title, Godspell, because they think it’s religious.  The old english origin of the word godspell is a contraction of the words for “good” and “story.”  Which the show is, by the way: a good story.  By the Middle Ages, it was more commonly understood as meaning “God’s story” (still a good story) and used as “gospel,” meaning both the stories in the Bible and a story that is “true,” as in the expression “the gospel truth.”

So here’s what I think about that.

I think, first of all, that “religion” is the framework and structure that we put on what we believe in order that we might organize it and understand it better.  Because we human beings do that, we like to understand things.  At least, we try to understand things, even things that may seem to defy understanding.  Religion is all the interpretations, traditions, rules, moral codes and ideas that we human beings have come up with from the stories themselves and from the history of living with those stories.

The point is, I think religion is a human construct and is just as fallible as the people who make it.  It may, indeed, be divinely inspired or spiritually created, but it is, nonetheless, our own creation.  It’s ours.  That’s why I believe, for example, that there’s one God, but we all come to God in different ways.  It also means that religion can be capable of great good and, well, the opposite.  And it has been.

It’s no wonder “spiritual but not religious” is such a thing for people who have a sense of the spirit or an understanding that they believe in God or follow the teachings of Jesus or other holy figures but they don’t want a particular system or tradition.

It’s obviously a complicated issue.  You know it is when people write whole books about it and I’m not trying to do that here.

What I’d like you to know is that God’s story is a good story.  Not good just because it’s entertaining, moving and inspiring, but because it’s full of love and hope and what is true about how we could live together.  The Gospel of Mark begins with the words “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus” for a reason: that’s what’s in the story.

That’s what’s in Godspell.  It’s a good story from which we can learn many things, acted out with an energy and enthusiasm that, frankly, you won’t find in many religious organizations anyway.  In fact, that’s kind of the point of the play.

Back in the 1960’s, John Michael Tebalak was inspired by a book by theologian Harvey Cox called ‘Feast of Fools.’  In it, Cox asserts that the world needs more festivity and fantasy, more joy and more engagement with a vision of what the world could be.  He looks at this from a theological perspective, in particular, and suggests that the manner in which we tell our stories needs to change in order to inspire the radical change the world needs.  Godspell does just that.

It isn’t about religion.  It’s about finding wonder in a wonder-filled story, about learning from parables told in a joyful, often child-like way, where wisdom can be found in the guise of a “fool,” much like in Shakespeare or ancient folk tales.  It’s about seeing a story played out before you from which you find understanding of what’s true because that’s what’s at the heart of the story.

Religion’s not inherently bad, anymore than we human beings are.  We’re made in the image of God, remember?  (Genesis 1:27)  Wherever our life experience leads us, our default setting is good.  Religion is capable of doing great good, just like we are.  It’s just not the whole story.