Dance Fervor

Postmodern theologian Matthew Fox wants to get religion back on its feet again with the Techno Cosmic Mass

The George R. Brown Convention Center, with its patriotic, primary coloring and its cartoonish nautical motifs, would seem like the last place in Houston to have a spiritual experience. The Cullen Sculpture Garden, yes. The Rothko Chapel, of course. Hell, maybe even Houston Raceway Park, if you happen to hit the trifecta. But the cavernous convention center with all the personality of an outlet mall? Get serious.

But there we were, my wife and I, standing in line in Exhibition Hall D at the George R. Brown, preparing ourselves, maybe even bracing ourselves, for the Techno Cosmic Mass, a two-and-a-half-hour four-part service that combines multimedia technology with music, dance and religious doctrine seemingly swiped from every corner of the globe. TCM is the brainchild of Matthew Fox, the California-based postmodern theologian who is trying to teach the world that praying isn't about getting down on bended knee and supplicating before a paternal God in humility and shame. He'd prefer you to shake your ass for the Almighty.

I was fascinated with Fox's brand of theology, which apparently is a patchwork of ideas borrowed from Christian mystics, Eastern religions and pagan traditions. I'd never really gotten much out of the Methodist Church as a child, and try as I might to find an alternative place of worship as an adult, I still ran into the same problem with every service I attended: I couldn't sit still for an hour. Or worse, I couldn't stay awake. So when Fox told me, several days before he appeared at the convention center for Houston's first ever Techno Cosmic Mass, that TCM was about putting ecstasy back in religion, I was eager to learn more. Most of my interest lay in a personal behavioral tic: I get most of my best ideas by moving around, pacing, running laps at Memorial Park. I've read that it's called "kinetic intelligence," and if it works in the secular world, why not in the metaphysical one?

Church service for the 21st century: Not a pew in sight.
Church service for the 21st century: Not a pew in sight.
Church service for the 21st century: Not a pew in sight.
Jerry Hattan courtesy Red Rooster Films
Church service for the 21st century: Not a pew in sight.

Over the phone, Fox explained that "dance is an ancient way to pray," that it was once regularly included in the spiritual rituals of the African, Jewish, Celtic and Native American cultures. In modern churches, pews are bolted to the floor and closely aligned to each other, preventing any real movement as people are pretty well frozen into sitting, kneeling or standing positions. We've become sedentary spiritual beings, our bodies divorced from our souls like feuding relatives. I asked Fox where it all began to break down, and he threw the blame on the founding father of the printed word: Johann Gutenberg, whose namesake press cranked out his famous Bible in the 1450s. "Our fascination with the written word," he said, "pulled us away from the experience of breathing and connecting together."

If Fox is trying to bridge our right and left brains, he's also trying to draw up a peace agreement between science and religion, a war that has cost many lives and careers and inspired more than a few stupid statements, including the whopper of all time: The Earth is only 8,000 years old. Creationists, whose minds are chained to a literal interpretation of the Bible, have to fall back on some tortuous theory to explain the relative youth of the globe, including a now mostly discredited "moon dust" theory. But Fox has developed a theology, which he calls Creation Spirituality, that isn't "human-centric." Instead, it focuses on "all God's creations." By using molecular theory and making some amazing leaps in scientific logic -- he compares the chemical makeup of the sun to humans', glossing over the tricky problem of how chemicals could have evolved into human cells -- Fox wants us to be in tune with all of nature, which scientists believe to be 4.5 billion years old, and not just human nature, which at best is nine million years old. To Fox, focusing on only humans ignores 4.491 billion years of potential spirituality.

This kind of thinking didn't exactly endear Fox to his previous employer, the Roman Catholic Church. The former Dominican priest was expelled from the order for, among other things, calling God "a child," aligning himself too closely with Native American spirituality, refusing to condemn homosexuality and emphasizing "original blessing" over "original sin."

Matthew Fox, in other words, is a radical, the latest in a long line of radicals to go toe to toe with the Catholic Church, starting with Martin Luther in the 16th century and progressing through to 20th-century gay-rights activists.

Some radicals create their own religious movements. Others are exiled and silenced. It's still too early to tell where Matthew Fox will land on that continuum.

The Techno Cosmic Mass on December 9 may be the first event held in the George R. Brown that didn't require overhead lights. The hall was dark when Anneliese and I walked in, save for the rack lights that the organizers had hung over the ritual space. The minimal lighting lent a shadowy, gothic, almost cathedral-like ambience to the blue ventilation ducts that snaked their way across the ceiling, many feet above our heads. Once inside the hall, we picked up our glow sticks, those fluorescent tubes usually reserved for rock concerts and circuses, and promptly waited in the screened-off staging area with the rest of the sheep. Our congregation for the evening was a motley crew: white men in suits, young women in flowing fabrics, children who used their glow sticks as light sabers.
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