Faded Glory

Posted in: Current Events,history,Popular Culture by bill-o on September 26, 2010

The musician and entertainer Liberace (1919-1987), a.k.a “Mr. Showmanship”, was the highest paid entertainer in the United States from 1950 to 1980. Known for his lavish, over-the-top costumes, candelabras on his piano, and bubbly personality, the Milwaukee-native, Polish-American rose to stardom both through musical talent and by personality.

Known in his later years primarily for his Las Vegas acts, Liberace opened the museum that bears his name in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1979, as the place where his costumes, pianos, candelabras, jewelry, and even his cars could be displayed for the public to see. The museum was one of Las Vegas’s most popular tourist attraction through the 1990s, as it served as the place where Liberace’s fans could come to celebrate his memory after his death in 1987.

After the year 2000, the Liberace Museum began to decrease in popularity as his older fans began to die and younger adults did not know about him any longer. (Even the young children who might have remembered seeing Liberace on the “Muppet Show” television program are now in their 40s, by the way.) Finally, a few days ago, the museum announced that it was being forced to close its doors to the public on October 17, 2010, because of bad investments by its underlying foundation and because of poor attendance. The man who was once a superstar in the United States is now largely forgotten.

Faded glory.

You can read more about the closing of the Liberace Museum at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/18/us/18liberace.html

Visit to Solomon’s Porch

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on November 08, 2009

In addition to a visit to Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, Shadows and Symbols also had the opportunity recently to visit Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Because Solomon’s Porch is a much smaller faith community than Willow Creek, I’ll be keeping many of the details of the service/meeting at Solomon’s Porch purposefully vague. Since the service at Willow Creek had more than 10,000 attendees, there was really no expectation of privacy for what was said or heard there by anyone present. On the other hand, the meeting at Solomon’s Porch had only 100-120 people present; so, even though their meetings are open to the public, there should be a much greater expectation of privacy for any services that are held there, and I’ll be respecting that here.)

Just walking into Solomon’s Porch is a wonderful experience in itself. Meeting in what used to be a moderately small and traditional church building, Solomon’s Porch has completely redesigned what most of us would expect to see when we enter a church. Instead of pews or rows of stacking chairs, one is greeted by circles of easy chairs and sofas. In the middle is a stool that can be rotated for the speaker to see everyone. The concept is similar to theater in the round. The part of the room that used to be for the choir also has sofas and easy chairs. The only difference with the old choir area from the rest of the room was that it was elevated slightly. Most traces of traditional church building symbols, such as a pulpit or altar, were also not present. A large wooden cross, however, was visible above the old choir area. Solomon’s porch is also an artist’s colony, and several original paintings from that artistic community are visible next to the wooden cross above the former choir stage.

After a period of time, the music band, a group of about four musicians, began to play a set of original songs, each evidently composed by musicians within Solomon’s Porch. The music was great, refreshingly original, and one of the best parts of the service. The lyrics of the songs were definitely original as well and somewhat open-to-interpretation as per exact theological meaning. Periodically, the music stopped and gave way to what I might term “a light touch of liturgy”.

Rather than a sermon from one pastor or preacher, there was a guided discussion time, with readings from Bible on two projection screens on both sides of the church building. This part of the service was led by the leader of Solomon’s Porch Doug Pagitt. The thing that I noticed (and respected) the most about this was that, rather than shying away from controversial subjects, Mr. Pagitt and the congregation took theologically difficult subjects head on.

The pace of the service was leisurely and the exact starting and ending times of the service and the parts within in it didn’t seem to matter or be important. In fact, Solomon’s Porch is really a community experience rather than a church service, as you would commonly think of it. So if you’re ever in Minneapolis on a Sunday night, I’d highly recommend a visit to Solomon’s Porch.

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Visit to Willow Creek Community Church

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on October 14, 2009

Sorry for no posts lately. Shadows and Symbols has been on travel recently, including visits to two interesting churches. I’ll be describing my impression of these visits in the next two Shadows and Symbols posts.

Willow Creek Community Church is the third largest megachurch in the United States. Its main campus is located in the northwestern Chicago suburb of South Barrington, Illinois. I visited Willow Creek’s main campus recently for its Saturday night service.

The Willow Creek facilities are massive. Just driving up to the parking lot is like driving into the parking lot of a basketball or hockey arena or a large shopping mall. Parking attendants guided our car through each part of the parking lot to our parking space. After leaving our car, we entered one of the large number of doors into the main campus building. We walked down a wide hallway that led into the open air cafeteria. Food service lines, where people could buy cafeteria food, were visible on the right side as we walked into the cafeteria area.

Rounding another curve, we finally approached the main auditorium. And I say main auditorium because there is another smaller, overflow auditorium next to the lake on the left as we walked past the cafeteria. The main auditorium can seat thousands of people in theater-style seating. The very large room is divided into balcony, mezzanine, and main levels, each separated by escalators.

After taking our seats near the front of the main level, the house lights were dimmed and a set of drummers on the stage began a series of energetic beats. After a period of three minutes, two large choirs filed onto the two sides of the stage. A handful of  praise singers or leaders also came onto the stage and positioned themselves at the front of the stage and began leading the congregation (audience) in a series of fairly simple praise songs. Two very large projection screens displayed the lyrics for each song in English and Spanish. The volume of the music was loud but not overpowering. It seemed clear to me that the volume for the music had been carefully considered and calibrated.

The overall experience of the Willow Creek music for me was that it was very professionally produced and managed, but that it was in no way a transcendent spiritual experience. For me, probably the best part of the music service was the scripture reading by the song leaders during a musical pause in the middle of the songs.

After the music, there was a series of announcements and a brief video presentation. After this, Willow Creek senior and founding pastor Bill Hybels came onto the stage to give his message, which lasted about 25 minutes. Bill Hybels, one of the foremost proponents of the “seeker-sensitive” movement for churches (although that’s a term that I don’t think that Mr. Hybels uses), gave what appeared to be a completely scripted message. During the message, Mr. Hybels did explain his approach to evangelism, which is closely linked to local churches. Other than, perhaps, the importance of evangelism and its link to the local church, there was little that was spiritually challenging or profound during this talk. There was some mention of fighting poverty and social justice, but this seemed to me to be dissonant to the ears, hearing it inside of one of the wealthiest church facilities in the United States.

I would like to stress that there is no spontaneity whatsoever during the Willow Creek service. Nothing is given to chance or surprise, and every action appears to be scripted down to the nearest second. The lighting in the auditorium is fairly dark, so it is difficult to see one’s neighbors or read anything (such as a Bible) other than what is on the projection screens. The setting made it impossible to interact with other people during the service time, other than a brief time of saying hello to one another near the beginning of the service.

Shadows and Symbols did appreciate some of the people that I met while visiting Willow Creek, including some of the other congregants and ushers. I also appreciated that people genuinely seemed to be pleased to be there and were positive about their experiences at Willow Creek. Willow also had none of the very visible displays of the American flag, such as Matt Pritchard of At The Margins saw when visiting the largest megachurch in the United States, Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas. In fact, the Willow Creek auditorium displayed no typical church items or symbols of any kind, such as a cross, a pulpit, or an altar.

However, that being said, Willow Creek appeared to Shadows and Symbols to be overproduced and too large in numbers. A person could both enter and exit the service anonynously, with no meaningful contact with other people within the church community. While respectful of Mr. Hybels’s innovative approached to evangelism, I encountered really nothing that could be said to be a spiritual experience. A completely secular presentation could have been substituted for the Willow Creek service and it might have produced about the same level of spritual transcendence or sense of community.

Hidden Treasure

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on April 18, 2009

By now, many of you have already heard of Susan Boyle. She’s the amateur singer whose appearance on the third season of the television show Britain’s Got Talent has received critical acclaim throughout, not just Britain, but the whole world.

Boyle, 47 years old and unemployed at the time of her television tryout, lives in a village in Scotland. She had put her own singing aspirations on hold to take care of her ailing mother, who died in 2007.

When Boyle first stepped onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent, both the audience appeared to be skeptical, because of her seemingly unattractive appearance and her age. Yet once she began to sing, many in the audience sensed that they had just heard the voice of an angel.

We can be reminded of many things from Ms. Boyle’s experience and the worldwide reaction to her.

1.  Appearances Are Deceiving.  Ms. Boyle’s simple and plain appearance hid the tremendous and beautiful talent that she has inside of her. Ms. Boyle, who also has learning disabilities, even refuses to consent to a makeover. The Western world has just spent a generation focusing on looking at appearances instead of paying attention to the importance of the substance that lies beneath the surface. That now needs to change and is beginning to do so.

2.  Age.  Typically, if someone doesn’t “make it” in the music industry by about age 30, then they usually won’t ever be very popular nor succeed in the music business. Ms. Boyle is 17 years beyond age 30, yet she was catapulted to worldwide success in one audition. Perhaps this is an indication of a growing respect for and appreciation of middle-aged and senior people and their talents, let alone the wisdom and experiences that they have to share.

3.  “I Dreamed A Dream”.  Ms. Boyle’s audition song was “I Dreamed A Dream” from the musical Les Miserables. As Wikipedia says, “[t]he lyrics [of the song] are about lost innocence and broken dreams”. In the musical, it is sung by Fantine, who was forced into a life of prostitution in the midst of the harsh social conditions of early 19th-century France. The song is Fantine’s lament over the unfair treatment that she has received in her life. How many of us have passed by those in the world around us who are poor or disadvataged? How many times did we easily dismiss the fact that they too, just like us, have dreams and hopes for themselves and for their families? That they too have hidden treasures and talents inside of them?

4.  Silencing Skepticism.  Let’s face it: we in the Western world live in a skeptical age. Yes, skepticism may have come first to Britain, but Americans, for example, aren’t exempt from a growing climate of suspicion and doubt about other people. Ms. Boyle’s first steps onto the stage drew clear laughs of skepticism. Yet once her “hidden treasure” was revealed, all doubts were overcome. Likewise, discovering true spiritual treasures silences the skepticism in our own hearts and replaces it with faith and joy.

Please also read James Martin’s article about Susan Boyle:


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You may not realize this but there is a web site dedicated to interpreting song lyrics. This site is called, interestingly enough, www.songmeanings.net. On this site, people are invited to post what they each think are the meanings (interpretations) of various songs.

For me, what is often most interesting about this site is not the interpretations themselves but the fact that the posted meanings so wildly diverge. (For example, type in “Hotel California” and read the possible song meanings that are posted there.) How can everyone listen to a popular song and yet come to such clearly different views of what the song really means? Didn’t the songwriter have only one interpretation in mind when he or she wrote the song?

Now let’s take a recent popular song, “Bottle It Up”, by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles. Please go to the following part of songmeanings.net to see both the lyrics of this song and its possible meanings:


(Please Note: You’ll need to be familiar with these lyrics in order to understand the rest of this post.)

For those of you who don’t already know, “Bottle It Up” is one of two popular songs by Ms. Bareilles, the other one being “Love Song”. On songmeanings.net, “Bottle It Up” is described as being “cute”, about relationships going too far too fast, about a guy who’s too emotional in a relationship, or about Ms. Bareilles record label being too controlling. Evidently, what Ms. Bareilles had in mind was the last one in this list: her record label wanting to have too much of a say about her songs. See:


With this interpretation in mind, I listened to the song again and it made a lot more sense. The first half of the first verse and the third verse represent the record label talking down to Sara. The second half of the first verse, the second verse, the chorus, and the bridge are Sara responding (a very brief summary: “I do it for love.”).

Yet I’d like to suggest here an even more expansive and spiritual meaning of this song. If you take a look at the words of this song, the parts of the song where the record label is speaking can be viewed as being religious institutions. Just as a record label could be overly controlling of one its artists, so can a religious system place chains on the hearts of spiritual seekers. The parts where Sara is speaking can be seen, of course, as genuine love responding to religion and beginning to move beyond it.

First, notice how religious systems talk down to people: “Babe”, “Little Darlin'”, “kindly shut up”. And look at how the ultimate goal of institutional religion is everyone keeping up their end of the bargain, which is the essence of contractual law. Now there is nothing wrong with contracts, but they can’t in themselves lead themselves to the fullest expressions of true spirituality: faith, hope, and love. Without active traits like these in our lives, contracts (laws) can become mere tools for threats or manipulation.

In the third verse, the speaker talks in both the singular and in the plural, just as the singular “law” can be the plural “laws” and both mean essentially the same thing. The line “killing me sweetly” at the end of this verse plays on the words from Roberta Flack’s song “Killing Me Softly”. This is a subtle emphasis on how institutions love what is sweet (sugary). Sugar tastes good to eat, after all, but it provides little long-term nutritional value.

Religious institutions also love to “bottle up” an expression of reaching out to the divine and then try to repeat it over and over again, even when such old ways of doing things may no longer be necessary or appropriate.

The first verse turns like a door hinge on the word heart and how it can be seen in two different ways. Religious systems see the heart as something to be mechanically manipulated into “doing the right things”. Thus, we see the words “Get to the heart of it”. This is a command to strip things bare down to a cold and dry essence. Anything outside of certain predefined boundaries is not good. The turning of the first verse comes with the use of the s word, which represents a strong “push back” by the spiritual seeker. “No, it’s *my* heart, not yours!” The second verse describes a contrasting heart: one that blooms like a flower. It is delicate and beautiful. Here, knowledge in and of itself is not desirable (“I don’t claim to know much”), whereas love is gentle and encouraging.

The bridge of the song talks about maturing from law-based religion to love-based spirituality. Yes, when we are young and immature, rules (laws) can be useful. They tutor us, if you will, until we become spiritual adults. At the end of the bridge, religious (institutional) laws promise more laws (“resolutions”) as being the solution for all of life’s problems. The “new year” reference speaks of time, and the word “never” in front of it refers to what is locked in time. It can never be eternal. (In contrast, the word love is repeated eight times; eight is often seen as the number that symbolizes eternity.)

The ultimate expression of love comes overlaid upon the last time the chorus is sung. The essence of love is that you have to give it away before you can get it. This is something that goes beyond contracts and laws. At its highest expression, it is the laying down of one’s life for others.

God is love. In his eternal presence, love and not law will be the only guiding principle of interaction between one person to another. The “garden of love” was Eden where people and God met face to face and interacted purely on the basis of love. Where there was law, there was only the law that God made with himself. And so it will be again for those who love him.


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