Monday, October 19, 2009

Talking about The Divine is like teaching someone how to sing

I love Early Christianity.

In Early Christianity (and Christian Science), GOD IS LOVE.

In fact, you could throw out everything else and just meditate on that.

And who knows what it means.

That’s why we need the other words. And that’s where it all becomes a mess. Because while “God IS Love” makes a good bumper sticker, it’s a lousy users manual. And for most of my life I’ve thought The Torah, The Bible and most scared texts should be user manuals for human being. Or at least, I thought that religion is there to explain the world. It’d be great if it had an index where you can find out what to do in every situation (and some contend that the Torah has a lot of that in a specific way – e.i. if you want to now what to do when a neighbors Ox gores yours) and the New Testament has a lot of that in glittering generalities. (“Do unto others...”) But I personally have never found these texts very clear, even if I’ve found it most interesting.

So, I was listening to an interview on NPR this week with Harvey Cox, a Harvard Divinity scholar, about his book "The Future of Faith". He talks about Christianity in three parts. Pre-‘Church’, The Church (starting with Constantinople) and followed by not just Protestantism, but a more recent complete separation from dogma and back to a direct, personal relationship with God (and Jesus) which can be viewed as a return to a kind of early, dogma-free Christianity.

Cox spoke of Paul’s letters. Letters to early followers of The Way. Jews who didn’t think of themselves as Christians. People who had no codified creed which to follow. The ephemeral nature of The Divine which he was attempting to articulate – free from the pageantry of later Christianity has a radical purity and distinct from the God of the Torah. It’s also hard to convey. And so the bible filled with metaphor and parable.

While the Torah takes the radical step of dispensing with the idea of God as an actual physical being, it still can’t get around constant anthropomorphization of God. HE is spoken of with gender, limbs, and emotion. I mean, He can frown. What’s worse than being frowned upon by God? Just imagine that face of disapproval filing the inescapable sky.

And while She may only manifest her presence on Earth in rare moments in the form of (wonder twin powers activate…) a flame, we still know what a flame is and we can still point to it and say, “There is God. There. Communicating with us. With language.” No matter how magical Her manifestation may be. It’s understandable.

Problem is, that sets up some seriously false expectations, because the Divine doesn’t work that way. These descriptions have been destructive to our imaginations. While we’re instructed to make no graven image, our minds can construct an image of God as manlike nonetheless.

While Judaism was a quantum leap forward in religious thought with its embrace of monotheism. And while it BEGAN to promote the idea of an unimaginable, omnipotent, omnipresent God, the description in the Torah seems like a crutch to get to something more radical – Early Christianity.

And here we find God as idea. God as metaphor.

But to grasp this has been unattainable for me.

Why can’t someone have just come up with some plain language to explain it all. If God is so great and powerful, this should be a no-brainer. Instead, we leap from simple metaphor into grand, ambiguous parable.

And I grow frustrated wanting, to know why we can’t just say the thing itself. And KNOW.

And sitting there in the car, having my NPR moment, considering Early Christianity, my own love of the Love Jesus supposedly spoke of, my failure to embrace that without questioning it - thereby destroying love in a relationship, and it struck me…

Talking about The Divine is like teaching someone how to sing.

If you’ve ever had a voice lesson, you may have experienced a teacher trying to speak to you both in technical terms (breathe with your diaphragm) and in metaphor (think of it like you’re coming over the note). But neither are direct means of describing the thing itself. That thing everyone agrees exists. The voice. Voice exists. Song and singing are undeniable. Even deaf folk believe in the voice’s existence though they can’t hear it themselves. But what is it? And how do you make it? And how do you teach someone to sing? You have no nerve endings in your diaphragm, so you can’t actually feel it the way you can feel your fingers over a keyboard. There is no such thing as a note with a physical presence that one can go over or under. And though it can’t be felt directly and is without form…yet singing IS.

Even the most experienced voice teachers have trouble conveying what to do and they go to extremes to make themselves understood. I had one who only talked about singing as it relates to sex: “When you sing the high A it should feel like you’re about to cum. I want to see it in your eyes, and even in your face, but don’t tense your body.”

They go into long philosophies about the origin of song in animals “It is in essence a means of attracting a mate. That must be your goal any moment you sing.”

Or you get physical crutches to engage in ‘til you’re singing the way they want “Lie on your back and lift your head and legs (like boat pose in yoga). Now sing.”

None of them can just tell you how to sing. It’s enough to drive a man crazy.

Worse. Some teacher’s metaphors make sense to you, but not to others - and visa versa.

One kept telling me, “Sing out of your back. Not your mouth. You mouth makes no sound. Sound is vibration and that which is most solid vibrates most. Sing with your bones – in every direction - always omni-directional.”

OK. Soundly reasoned with biophysics, even if it goes against our agreed upon knowledge of what is (we put a mic in front of our lips cause that’s where the sound comes from, right?) but even if he is correct, tell me HOW? How do I sing with my bones multi-directionally?

And then one day I figured it out. Correction. One day I did it. And tt wasn’t in a voice lesson.

I was engaged in a Suzuki duel.

Suzuki (not the musical training method) is a form of theatre training (thanks Tadashi!) that is like an unending boot camp. The forms feel like a martial art. And there is enough stomping as hard as you physically can that you think you’re going to shatter your own tibia. Sometimes it requires moving profoundly slowly. Other times, you can’t move fast enough and even harder stop moving fast enough. It makes powerful performers with extraordinary endurance and focus.

Here’s a little taste of it.

I only did a few duels in the years I trained with the Siti Co. It’s a fairly advanced training. In a duel, you speak a text while going through a form. (Basic 1: Stomp. Slide, slo-mo full squat (the length of a full sentence), and back up again - all moving at the same rate of motion – except for the stomp.) And you do it facing someone else while holding a Japanese wooden sword between you - held up by pressing a point into each of your navels. As you move through the form, your core must move in perfect synch with your partner or it will fall. Still, it’s a “duel”, not a collaboration. You must challenge the person (and win?) as you work with them.

Or so I was guessing. And as in much Japanese training, they don’t tell you really what to do, much less how to do it or why you do it - until you do it wrong. Then they correct you.

To work at full force and to stay together is a feat. Ideally, I figured, one person can inspire the other to new heights of speed, force, and concentration.

The pair that went before us was weak. The sword kept dropping. Their voices were faint – distracted by the task of speaking in unison while co-coordinating their own body with someone else’s.

The teacher wanted to make a point. So, up next, I got the teacher for my partner. A teacher I didn’t actually like all that much. He was going to show how to destroy someone in a duel while working with them…and I was the subject. And I was having none of it. These people didn’t know me as a singer. They had no idea of my voice.

And so I went into the duel, Objective: Destroy before being destroyed.

We squared off and with no starter’s pistol, began. And the text exploded from my being. It was a standard choice for the training: The opening lines of Dante’s Inferno:


I filled the room. My body was shaking. I lost track of where I was. I nearly collapsed.

I was singing with my bones. Thundering through my back. Deep into the ground and straight out the top of my head.

When in mortal combat with my enemy, without thinking, it all became clear when I needed to use the knowledge of the indescribable.

It would take another year before I could channel that discovery into consistent, sustained, controlled voice, but like the balance necessary to ride a bike, once discovered, it was not to be unfound.

Perhaps it’s the same with God. The illusive nature of The Divine requires a teacher you can hear, at a time in your life when you’re able to listen in a situation that requires you discover the Truth or Die. And maybe I’ve never faced that and so my divine body has still to learn to sing from my bones.


  1. I have a new business idea for you: a website called Ask God (unfortunately someone already seems to own the domain). It's a little like the, but it is specific to religious User manual type questions...if my neighbor's ox gores mine....but askign modern questions like "if I bought a CD then lost it, and then I pirate that same CD from my that actually stealing and wrong?"

  2. Well bro, I think Chabad have the corner on that market, and here they have REAL rabbis answering questions with real answers.

    I just muse about, tossing ideas around like frisbees.