Human microphone: liturgy and pedagogy

By Donald Schell

Just what concrete steps should we take to make a new economic system that’s NOT-

– ruled by a few

– economically unjust

– chronically violent


– religiously legitimated ?

Occupy Wall Street? Actually these four eerily familiar bullet points are Marcus Borg’s description of the ‘four central features’ of ‘the ancient domination system,’ that prophetic voices in the Bible – among them the Deuteronomic code, all the writing prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus, and St. Paul – consistently protest.

Still it’s easy to imagine a contemporary chorus of voices – the human microphone – echoing a leader phrase by phrase as s/he calls out these four ancient marks of economic tyranny at any of the Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy gatherings around the country. Where it gets really eerie is the steady complaint in the banking industry and among established politicians that this is protest without program.

Is there some good reason Biblical prophets don’t offer programs and proposals to improve things?

Why didn’t they offer administrative corrections and proposals to regulate the king or fat bulls of Bashan, procedural corrections for the Roman provincial governor, clear wage and profit sharing demands to vineyard owners, or legislative proposals to pass on to the Roman Senate? Could it be that they trusted or hoped the Spirit would work through people’s heightened discontent and utopian vision of what might be? Did they believe there could be intrinsic, sustained power (and inspiration) when people see and reject a system gone wrong and glimpse, how ever faintly, what justice might look like? Could the weak and lowly actually inherit the earth?

In my last piece at the Café, “Like Repeating Fifth Grade,” I quoted a first-time visitor to Episcopal liturgy who’d told a priest colleague that our text-driven, reading together means of achieving liturgical solidarity felt like going back to fifth grade, and I offered my wish or hope to that experience, speaking as a liturgist and Christian educator,

“In the ‘how’ of liturgy planning (and space design), I’d like us to give serious attention to the radical improvement of singing that happens when people are facing other people, and to encourage the affective power in praying that’s evident when we can see feeling on the faces of others formed in God’s image.”

Among several useful responses and reflections to that Café piece, Dave Paisley wrote –

“So how come most churches are regimented rows of pews that just face forward, focused on the altar? Really, how many people come to church for a music lesson? Gregorian chant? Obscure arrangements of 15th century hymns? These are the acquired tastes of multi-generational Anglo-catholic ascetics that just don’t translate well to the “real world”. . . .As for atomization – think of your average football game or rock concert – people there don’t socialize with their neighbors, but they feel a strong sense of community and can walk away from the event feeling like they were part of something fantastic without ever having exchanged more than an “excuse me” with their neighbors as they stepped past them on their way to the bathroom. Until the church gets out from under the outdated pomp & circumstance it’s pretty much doomed to be a relic of a bygone era. Apparently it’s OK to be avant-garde socially, but hillbilly backwards in every other respect.”

I appreciate Dave Paisley’s offer (and wake-up call) on behalf of immediate, cultural relevance. If we’re going to depart from pervasive norms, we’ve got to have some good idea of where deviance will take us, we’ve got to have some sense of what we’re doing together, and we’ve got to know how a new practice takes on the familiarity that makes ritual actually work.

What is familiar and makes sense to us? What are our rituals of solidarity? It seems to me that church and broader society have quite different answers, so the descriptions

Dave offered has me wondering what we can learn from lecture hall, football game, and rock concert about our common humanity, and what in our humanity might ask different kinds of practices for formative expression. I have to admit that I get restless and skeptical in lecture format teaching (or liturgy), that I don’t attend or watch football games, and then I’ve been to two rock concerts in my life. So, Dave’s nailed me on sharing ‘the acquired tastes of multi-generational Anglo-Catholic ascetics.’ I happily admit that I loved those black and white photos of mass at Christ Church, New Haven Derek Olsen posted in his Episcopal Café story on church ethos. And it’s accurate coming and going – I am also grateful that our church manages to be (more or less) “avant-garde socially and hillbilly backwards in every other respect.”

I do worry that electronic media when I’ve seen it used plays to our isolation and (like print media but more so) imposes an external authority over a gathering. So, back to Occupy Wall Street, I’ve been excited to watch and listen to video of human microphones. The call and echo ritual of the Occupy gatherings around the country was invented as a way around a new generation of civic ordinances gutting the Constitution’s protection of public assembly and protest speech.

City ordinances against demonstrations using megaphones or P.A. Systems without special permits are intended to limit free speech. It’s sad, but there’s nothing new or interesting there. History gives us a long list of tactics to the same end – censorship, exile, crucifixion, torture, intimidation, police standing ‘unable’ to control a mob, media silence.

But what did the political and logistical demands of communicating in an unlicensed assembly produce? A practical solution that forges strong cohesion, and perhaps a kind of communion among group members.

Two articles on the human microphone phenomenon offer a neat, contradictory opinion guide without either noticing that we’re talking about how liturgy and all ritual assemblies work.

Richard Kim wrote “We are all human microphones now,” for The Nation – it’s his appreciative response to hearing and watching human microphone.

And L.E. Dyer wrote ‘”Human Microphone” tactic: Scary or just Moronic?” from a near-opposite, dismissive (or concerned) perspective.

For liturgist or Christian educator, familiar questions in planning rite or learning re-echo with these voices in the street. With the human microphone we make forced discoveries. No-tech communication methods throw new light on what kinds of communication and what rituals establish solidarity. And, though I think she’s misread what’s the holy anarchy and hopes for organic consensus making in the Occupy movement, Dyer raises useful questions

– do ritual voice and action inevitably lead to group-think?

– is the fellow-feeling of protest a precursor to violence?

– how can creativity and new thinking emerge in a highly structured group setting (like a liturgy)?

The questions aren’t new. They were common concerns in the Roman Empire where urgent need for control looked to prevent any emerging troublesome solidarity among conquered peoples. They’re the reasons that drumming was banned with the slaves in the Southern U.S. and they were the impetus that birthed the dance forms of Capoeira that veiled martial and spiritual training from slave owners in Brazil. Group work and group solidarity CAN birth freedom as St. Paul implies saying, “We have the mind of Christ” and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

Dyer’s critique is based in the reality that any ritual repetition that numbs the mind and steels the heart can and probably will eventually erupt in atrocity. Even seventy years later watching poor quality black and white tapes of Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies, I feel conflicting body responses and wonder how something can be both morally gut-wrenching and compellingly spine-tingling at once. Programmed, manipulated solidarity that kills critical thinking and conscience makes a dangerous tool in the hands of a destructive leader, whether the result is mob rag against a scapegoated enemy or mass suicide, Jim Jones’s followers obediently heeding the P.A. amplified command to drink poisoned Kool-Aid.

But ritually forged solidarity can go somewhere quite different, because “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” What difference in leadership and in participation turn liturgy (or public ritual like the human microphone) into a jazz-like creative process capable of revealing and loosing love, beauty, and discovery? That discovery process, ritual forging a common mind that blesses freedom, is the common inspiration for mass at Christ Church, New Haven and the Eucharist for OccupyBoston , and both liturgies share with the rest of the Occupy movement foundational learning processes that give us language (music, gesture, and sound), selfhood, and one another.

Our humanity and individual experience is born from call and imitate, repetition, repetition, call and imitate, repetition, repetition, repetition, issues in discovery, freedom, autonomy. We watched it again when our new grandson discovered the communicating power of imitation (leading and following both), sticking out his tongue. The stage passed so quickly, and not so many months later were excitedly cataloguing his words. But speech and communication in relationship follows the same learning and formational pattern. I love the memory of how my eldest daughter back from college and baking cookies in the kitchen found herself teaching her baby brother not to touch the hot oven door. I walked in just as she said, “hot!” reaching her hand out toward the oven door, but drawing it back abruptly before she did touch. “Hot!” our youngest repeated, his first word, or actually the twentieth iteration of the same first word. They’d been repeating the revelatory sound and gesture back and forth to waves of laughter. “Don’t bother us, Dad,” she said, “We’re communicating.”

Imitation and repetition had led them into the joyful communion of discovering not just a first word but also his discovery of how language worked and a shared glimpse of language opening to rich human relationship. Ritually, they rejoiced to linger in their discovery, joyfully watching it deepen and grow.

Ritual speech or music-making birth human communion and take us to their source, the discovery point of communication. BUT solidarity often issues in violence. What difference in leadership or in the assembly or in the practice takes ritual toward freedom and moral courage? Isn’t imitation the path to mindless conformity? How does the imitation of Christ foster and bless our individual personhood? What kind of leader and what kind of group make this a practice of freedom and joy rather than a practice of readily manipulated, violence-prone elation? Consider how jazz happens (and for that matter how some parts of Baroque music happened in their time). It shows us the foundational building blocks of learning and that learning happens where the joining together of Spirit makes us fully human. I don’t think any of us have wholly satisfactory answers, but we can begin by noticing where solidarity issues in freedom and compassion and creativity and noticing where it issues in the opposite.

Holding the question of discernment (or method) in mind, let’s return to Marcus Borg’s description of the Bible’s repudiation of the ancient system of economic domination to ask how we listen to the human microphone to find the challenges and inspirations that won’t make sustaining corrections to a system that’s steadily widening the circle of poverty. Might the human microphone help us hear and feel how mirroring with voice and body, we take the Beatitudes to heart? Is the power of God actually manifest in the voice of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, and the mourning?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Past Posts