Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Boredom. The Newest Crisis?

Boredom is the newest crisis facing our country today. I just read this in a book catalog promoting a new book on religion and boredom. At first I was inclined to dismiss the notion. Left to my own devices, I’m never bored. I find life infinitely fascinating. I read constantly, and write daily, and love to think about things and listen to smart people talk about things. I don’t get boredom. But on further consideration I have to admit that when it comes to organized religion, especially religious services, I am bored out of my mind.

Jewish liturgical yoga—the incessant standing up and sitting down during our services— bores me. We should do one or the other. I prefer sitting in a chair that offers true ergonomic support so that I can comfortably slip into a meditative state. Few churches or synagogues provide that. I wonder if we should build sanctuaries with Back Saver chairs in them. Probably not: it would make it too easy to fall asleep during the service. Maybe that is why we keep jumping up and down—it keeps us from falling asleep.

Most liturgies bore me. The language is flat and the reading is flat and the content is flat and it leaves me, well… flat. We never say anything that excites me. Either we are reading something so trite that I can’t affirm it with any enthusiasm, or something so inane that I can’t even be bothered to argue against it. Take the idea that God is the Lord of Hosts, for example. What is that? I imagine God presiding over a Toastmasters-like gathering of hosts and hostesses. Is the best we can do in a democratic country: reduce the King of Kings to the Maitre d' of maitre-ds?

The music in most synagogues and churches bores me as well. Christian praise music is fun for about three minutes, and then it becomes trite and tedious. The lyrics are insipid and reduce Jesus to a one-dimensional cartoon. Hasidic niggunim (wordless melodies) are more palatable to me, but these too become tame after a short time. And I am put off by liberal Jews forcing out a few di d’d’di niggunim as if a niggun could make up for a theology that pretends we haven’t read a science or philosophy book in 300 years. Why is it that I can listen to Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger over and over again without getting bored, but I can’t take synagogue music two weeks in a row?

Most sermons bore me. If it’s on the Gospel, Jesus turns out to be a prototype of Dr. Phil, and if it is on the Torah, the rabbi has to jump through hoops to make the text say what it clearly doesn’t say. I love Torah because it is upsetting, and all efforts to make it safe are robbing Judaism of any relevance.

So maybe boredom is our problem, at least when it comes to religion. I have no idea how the book that sparked this line of thinking deals with boredom, but I suspect no amount of esthetic or institutional change is going to fix this crisis. We can train our clergy to be more entertaining, but that won’t really help when the content is essentially irrelevant.

So religion is going to stay boring for a long time. Why? Because we are boring. Our services reflect ourselves. If there is a God we must bore the crap out of her.

So what can we do? First, stop being bored. Do something that ignites your passion. Then, once you remember what it’s like to be on fire that way, refuse to attend any worship service that douses that fire. Demand the same quality of thought, music, poetry, and speech in your place of worship that you would from a commercial venture. Refuse to be bored. Refuse to join a community that bores you. Refuse to support clergy that bore you. Refuse to sing boring songs, and read boring prose and poetry. Demand more.

You probably won’t get it, but at least you won’t be bored. That’s one crisis down, a few dozen to go. Health care, anyone?


briankb said...

(large, very vocal snort)

Yeah, right. In my experience, and I am a music director at a mainline Christian church, most people attend so they can be bored. Being bored means not challenged, not actually required to engage the mind with the body. Christian pop is all about channeling boredom while most hymns, even the really well written ones, are performed to induce a coma. Without boredom (and the sleep that attends it) the congregation might actually listen, think (O crap) and demand far more than the average church leader wants to produce.

AaronHerschel said...

To Brain:

Indeed. Hence religion is the opiate of the masses.

To all:

As regards the post in general, I just thought I'd share a (hopefully not boring) poem about boredom from John Berryman's bizzare book The Dream Songs. Oh, the "Henry" in line 11 is the main character in Berryman's book.

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Steven Maimes said...

Yes, most of religious institutional (church or temple) liturgy is boring... We can, however, use liturgy to inspire us - and this is often a private matter... It is difficult being truly individual. Thanks for sharing your individualistic opinions that are also shared by many of us.