New Time Religion Part II: House of God
A defrocked priest at the University of Creation Spirituality promotes a post-denominational religion that combines medieval Christian mysticism, socialism, yoga, and techno music.

By Summer Burkes

EVER SINCE WE humans figured out how to be vain and make money, the idea of one religion (yours) being the "right" one has remained a cultural bastion, the proud child of xenophobia and alleged genetic superiority. In recent history though, multiculturalism has caused more-enlightened Westerners to rethink the idea of one-god-per-household: cross-immigration exploded with industrialization, media outlets like PBS and National Geographic made the study of religion available to the lazy masses, George Harrison went to India and came back with some bland songs, and selfish ex-hippies invented New Age. Today those who were collared in Vacation Bible School for asking if their Hindu friends were really going to hell and suggesting that Buddha sounds like an OK guy -- if not total atheists by this point -- probably wouldn't mind some guilt- and imperialism-free spiritual reassurance. As if on cue, the Rev. Matthew Fox, defrocked Episcopalian priest and founder of a small university in Oakland, has invented a bizarre, well-thought-out mutt of a religion called "Creation Spirituality" that combines (among other things) Christian mysticism, yoga, the big bang theory, multimedia technology, socialism, and techno music. And at last Sunday's "Techno Cosmic Mass: In Praise of Angels," Fox provided a space for about 350 people to "creatively explore" alternative means of worship and shake a spiritually driven tail feather.

Near the deserted 19th Street BART stop in Oakland, a cavernous, abandoned five-and-dime store has been transformed into a painstakingly elaborate rave scene, complete with slide projectors, murals, lighting systems, Day-Glo paint, and giant mirrors. Ambient music and mounds of fragrant herbs tossed on the floor add to the atmosphere. Upon entry, everyone receives a "blessing" and a program, which says, "Some parts of the Mass may work for you and others may not. We ask that you take that which works and place the rest aside with respect." The crowd (all ages, largely white) mills about perusing four elegant altars that symbolize the elements in the four corners of the dimly lit room. Fox takes the stage to deliver some opening comments.

"Worship has become so boring that even the angels have left," quips the spry, articulate host in his welcoming "greeting." Matthew Fox, a Dominican priest, was marginalized and finally fired by the pope's henchmen for his radical (for them) beliefs about such topics as mysticism, feminism, and social justice. He witnessed his first rave-mass in England last decade and decided to popularize the post-denominational, multimedia-fueled movement over here. Followers of Creation Spirituality believe in active group participation as a means to invoke the spirits, and at the Techno Cosmic Mass, Fox exhorts the crowd to "pray hard, dance hard, and sweat hard" rather than accept being preached at. Fox points out that in one African language, the word for breath is also the word for dance and spirit. He would not be popular at my Evangelical junior high school. Wouldn't be popular in the movie Footloose either.

Far from the attention-tyrant one expects of the leader of a budding religious movement, Fox turns most segments of the worship over to quite a diverse group of hosts: a Jewish woman sings a hymn, an African American woman leads a gospel-choir sing-along, an Asian man conducts a relaxing group yoga session, and an Episcopalian woman quotes medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Fox returns for a short sermon on the nature of angels, their presence in almost every religion, their trivialization in modern culture, and ... my mind starts to wander, just like in real church. "So! Let us pray with these angels," Fox intones and then puts the microphone down. Techno music blares from all sides, and after a split second's hesitation, everyone gets up to get down. Old women wave their arms, leotarded modern dancers shake maracas, Deadheads do that chicken-dance they do, revelers whoop and holler, and a man with a baby strapped to his chest gallops through the throng. I spot an eight-year-old gleefully stomping up and down next to his parents, and I get a flash of jealousy. Religion shouldn't be this fun. Should it?

After about 20 minutes an Indian musician brings the crowd's adrenaline back down with an "om nama shiva" chanting session. The next part of the mass, titled "Negativa," shows where Creation Spirituality diverges from touchy-feely New Age twaddle. Fox encourages the now-sobered throng to shout out bad things ("Anger!" "Racism!" "Advertising!" "The Starr report!") and then begins what he calls the "detox ritual." The screens above project sad and infuriating images of poverty and war to ominously symphonic music, the sucker-punched vibe that washes over the gathering is unmistakable, and Fox tells the crowd to holler out their bad feelings. (Yikes, it sounds like the apocalypse. I hope no one's dosing.) The crowd then stops hollering and harmonizes on a major chord, "turning pain into joy." The vibe poignantly and instantly returns to one of celebration. There's another moment when the crowd speechlessly greet one another by roving around and touching palms; the silence makes the episode cinematically creepy. This part of the service I "place aside with respect."

The third part of the mass, titled "Creativa," ends with a communion, not the kind with the morbid yum-you're-eating-Christ's-flesh sort of symbolism but with a Native American food-as-nature-as-us-too sort of symbolism. To Indian sitar and singing. With white zinfandel and wheat bread. (California Ÿber alles, no?) The techno dance starts again for the "Transformativa," and although I must admit I feel something, that feeling doesn't stretch to a sudden embrace of a musical genre that's actually employed in seven reservoirs along the Thames to keep salmon from getting too close to tempting-yet-deadly reservoir pumps. Trance and dance (and drugs, come to think of it) have been a part of most of the world's religions forever, though, and epiphany can't come easily without a sense of abandon. So, in this multimedia-driven context at least, techno music does actually make religious sense. But I still can't dance to it.

Copyright © 1994-98 San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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