Sunday, May 10, 2009

Booth and Booth

This morning we went to the first worship service the Salvation Army held at the newly opened Kroc Center in Coeur d'Alene. If I were to describe the service, I would say it was more on the formal side, but not much different from how I remember things growing up in a Southern Baptist church, although the Salvation Army belongs more to the Wesleyan-holiness wing of evangelicaldom, which is an outlook that most Southern Baptists are not comfortable with. Of course, in the Salvation Army, they do wear the uniforms, which is part of the quasi-military organizational legacy handed down from General Booth. Since it was a special dedicatory service, they had the S.A. brass band come out from the Seattle Temple. Believe me: the band was exceptionally good and definitely loud. Bands are very good for outdoor evangelism—or what we aged Jesus Freaks would call "street evangelism"—because without fail, brass bands attract attention. Beside the band that was here on a visit, they did have their home worship team which employed the more common keyboard and guitar instrumentation. They were equally as good.

Since it was a special dedicatory service, one of the leading officers came up from Los Angeles to preach a sermon based on the start of the St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, during which he happened to mention, by way of illustration, the paperwork rigamarole he had to go through with collecting his Social Security. After the service, I managed to bump into this preacher afterwards, telling him that I hoped in the future I would have my papers in order as well when the bureaucrats ask for them. He was an affable fellow, and I asked him if he knew about Vachel Lindsay's famous poem, which is the one entitled General Booth Enters Into Heaven. This was the poem that describes Booth marching into heaven, playing a big bass drum and leading behind him the souls that he during his ministry had led to Christ. Now the preacher, whose name unfortunately I don't remember, said that, yes indeed, he knew it and that he had studied it in school.

In other news, I am reading through Thomas Merton's autobiography "The Seven Story Mountain," which I had picked up at a book sale at the local library. Though I am only 25% through the book, I have found Merton to be a very good writer. At the time he wrote his book, he was already a Trappist monk, and his evaluation of his youth is quite honest although sometimes a little over-critical of himself. But his writing is very engaging and serious, but when he does show his humor, it's usually of a subtle and ironic kind, rather than being overtly exuberant. In section V, of chapter 3, he had this to say about his youthful cockiness back in the early 1930s:
For it had become evident to me that I was a great rebel. I fancied that I had suddenly risen above all the errors and stupidities and mistakes of modern society—there are enough of them to rise above, I admit—and that I had taken my place in the ranks of those who held up their heads and squared their shoulders and marched into the future. In the modern world, people are always holding up their heads and marching into the future, although they haven't the slightest idea what they think the "future" is or could possibly mean. The only future we seem to walk into, in actual fact, is full of bigger and more terrible wars, wars well calculated to knock those upraised heads off those squared shoulders.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that adolescents start out thinking that they know everything and have everything figured out. The irony behind Merton's words is tied to the reader's realization that he is describing his youth prior to the onslaught of World War II, which would come not too many years later, and in which many men marched and died.

Nowadays, many people think the future is going to be like what they see in Star Trek: ever-progressive, sexually über-liberated, completely godless (except for some kind of Moral Therapeutic Deism, possibly administered pharmaceutically), and boldly going into whatever, forever and ever, ad secula seculorum. I think Jacques Attali believes the same thing, basically, but with added sturm und drang on the way there, as we stumble into our final global hyperdemocracy.

Nevertheless, I recollect reading a critical biography about Merton some time ago. Although I must say that I admire Merton's writing style, at least in this book, I can't say that I entirely admire him as a xtian mystic. Because after reading that biography, there was much about him that struck me as being overly "professional" or too self-consciously "studied" about his mysticism. As I recall, one psychologist remarked, in so many words, that Merton was the kind of person who would set himself up in the middle of Times Square in a booth with the word "MONK" emblazoned on top of it, in big flashing neon letters. To say that might have been a little unfair. But then again, maybe the biography I had read was too critical.