Performing before the Areopagus
By Michael Racine
Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I was passing through and observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed, “To an unknown god.” (Acts 17:22–23a).
So the apostle Paul began his famous speech at the Areopagus in Athens. Were he to pass through modern-day Boulder, Colorado, one might expect a very different assessment of the situation. The women and men of Boulder, according to Gallup, are in close contention with those of Burlington, Vermont, for the title of least religious city in the United States. And yet, the leaders of Pine Street Church see in Boulder an opportunity to bear witness to the gospel much as Paul did in Athens so many centuries ago.
Paul’s genius, as expressed in the Athens speech, lay in identifying his audience’s interests and speaking in their idiom as he shared his gospel message. The narrator of Paul’s story tells us that “the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21); Paul then plays on this craving for novelty by announcing that he will tell the people about the “unknown god” they worship (v. 23b). And because the crowd consisted of Epicurians and Stoics, Paul grounded his theological argument not in quotations from the Bible, but in a line from the ancient philosopher Epimenides and a verse from the poet Aratus (Acts 17:28).
As Pine Street Church seeks to communicate Christ’s message of love and hope to the agnostics, Buddhists, atheists, former Christians, and otherwise non-churched people of Boulder, the language they have begun employing is that of popular musical artists, from Johnny Cash to Radiohead.
Pastor Bob Ballance is an adventurous man, up for anything. He was called to Boulder five years ago because he had a history of helping churches that were stuck. And one of the first things he did at Pine Street, besides taking out a loan and bringing the church building out of disrepair, was to recruit a group of young people onto the church’s previously almost-nonexistent staff.
Among those recruits was David L’Hommedieu, then a graduate student in the opera program at CU Boulder, who had been attending the church as a paid singer in its choir. David shared with me how Bob’s sermons held his attention in the choir loft in a way he had not experienced before. (Throughout his early years singing in churches with the American Boychoir, David had heard many sermons, but they mostly bored him.) His most powerful, soul-stirring experiences had always come through the making of music—and not necessarily “religious” music. But if we believe, as Paul affirmed in Athens, that in God “we live and move and have our being”—that is, that all of creation and all of life exists in and belongs to God—then distinguishing between “sacred” and “secular” music is a dubious business anyway.
As a young musician with a graduate education, David stands in many ways as a representative of the artists and academics who populate Boulder. Now that he is co-music director at the church, David seeks to engage those peers through the music that he finds most meaningful, whatever its source.
A bold, first step was made last year, when the church swapped its usual Good Friday liturgy for a complete performance by the Pine Street Band of Till the Sun Goes Black, an album by Canadian singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne. In between songs, readings from the Passion narrative set a context in which to reflect on the album’s themes of love and loss. That event garnered much positive feedback, so the Pine Street Band stepped out again this Good Friday with an uninterrupted performance of Radiohead’s unconventional yet best-selling album, Kid A. The melodies in that set are deliberately mechanical, almost all the sounds on the record are distinctly electronic, and even the lyrics have been cut and pasted from various sources so as to be quite disjointed. The effect of all this is an album which lives in a world of brokenness and confusion, a world which one reviewer described as being “in a spiritual crisis and in search for sensibility.” Seeing in this ample fodder for Good Friday reflection, the team at Pine Street gave some introductory remarks to lay a frame around the theme and its connection to Jesus’ suffering for a broken world he loved, and then the band did what they do, speaking through their art.
What then? What now?
Other participants in the Congregations Project were not only inspired by the Pine Street team’s fearlessness in trying something new, but they were also impressed by the excellence of musical craft that they employed in putting on a remarkable performance. The Good Friday concert succeeded both in attracting a large audience of non-Christians and in moving that audience deeply. The questions put to Bob and David, then, mostly concerned matters of follow-through. Now that the church has caught these people’s attention, how will it continue to engage with them? If many in Boulder had a prejudice against anything church-related, this musical offering was surely a useful step toward breaking open their previous ideas of what the church can be. What could the folks at Pine Street have communicated post-concert, while those minds and ears remained open? What will they do to build on the success they have had?
These questions remain open as Bob, David, and the rest of their team in Boulder continue to try new things and navigate through largely uncharted territory. But Bob and David also take with them encouragement and inspiration from the other church teams, students, and faculty involved in the Congregations Project. And so far, things are looking good. Five weeks after the conference, Bob writes:
Things are going really well. Our attendance has held up during the summer months, and our worship is moving forward in ever-more creative fashion. Additionally, we’re having an influx of more young adults while our senior adults continue to offer a warm welcome.
Carry on, friends, and God speed.