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?
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.
To enter the ritual area, we had to pass under two giant stalks of wheat and walk through a long black-curtained tunnel. The passageway seemed designed to create the illusion of passing from one world to another, from our secular society to something more sacred; it was a birthing canal of sorts. I played along with it, until I noticed the guy walking next to us peering through the curtain to see where we were headed.
"I don't think you're supposed to peek," I whispered.
"I do a lot of things I'm not supposed to do," he replied, a bit defensively.
"It's a control thing," he added.
That was when I realized the Techno Cosmic Mass would be, aside from a new form of church service, a place where people felt comfortable confessing their sins to strangers. It was only later that I realized if you don't tell your shortcomings to a stranger at TCM, you're not going to tell them to anyone. There was no room for sin at the Techno Cosmic Mass.
The Christian religion is based on a simple premise: We are all sinners, every last one of us. It is only through the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, God's emissary on Earth, that we are saved and absolved from our sinful ways. It's a theology that, for a variety of reasons, some doctrinal, some societal, became a dominant world religion. The masses, many of whom had suffered through plagues and less-than-beneficent pagan gods, liked the idea of a merciful God who would sacrifice His only son for our salvation.
Matthew Fox has a different take on the sin/redemption theology. In his book, Original Blessing, he doesn't mince words: "Western civilization has preferred love of death to love of life to the very extent that its religious traditions have preferred redemption to creation, sin to ecstasy, and individual introspection to cosmic awareness and appreciation. Religion has failed people in the West as often as it has been silent about pleasure or about the cosmic creation, about the ongoing power of the flowing energy of the Creator, about original blessing."
The way out of this obsession with death is Via Positiva, which happens to be the first section of the Techno Cosmic Mass. Via Positiva, best I can determine, has multiple purposes. Chief among them is that we understand God's blessing radiates from all living things -- the trees, the grasses, the plants, the air, the critters -- a reality that Western people have failed to notice, since we're too busy reading our e-mail. The corollary here is we are all connected; on some subatomic level, we are all related, all of God's creations, human and animals and plants. The way to feel your connection with all of God's creation, according to Fox, is through dance. "All things are interrelated because all things are microcosms of a macrocosm," he wrote. "And it is all in motion, it is all en route, it is all moving, vibrant, dancing, and full of surprises."
It's not surprising, then, that the centerpiece of TCM's Via Positiva is dance. DJ Ronan Hallowell, who flew in from San Francisco to get our backfields in motion, set the tone with thickly rhythmic dance music, obviously designed for people who frequent rave clubs, not jazz bars. Some 500-plus congregants began manipulating their bodies, in whatever way the spirit moved them, around a large circular area that served as the ritual space for TCM. They danced inside the perimeter of 12 giant elevated video screens that surrounded them, and around a small gazebolike structure with 12 slide projectors placed on top, aimed at the video screens.
Anneliese, who's a deacon at her Presbyterian church, turned to me and shouted over the techno tunes: "I'm really not from a dancing religious tradition."
"Is that why they call you the Frozen Chosen?" I asked.
The notion of dance as prayer is not new, as Matthew suggested in our phone conversation. Almost all religions, at some point in their history, have employed a form of "ecstatic dancing." The goal of ecstatic movement is to transport dancers out of their regular modes of awareness, or as the etymology of the word "ecstasy" suggests, "to drive (one) out of one's senses." But is that really prayer? I asked a Catholic priest what his definition of prayer is, and he said it's "a relationship of the total person to God." Could dancing be considered prayer? Absolutely, he said.
Still, my main problem with TCM's form of prayer was its lack of structure, its lack of intellectual handles for my mind to grasp onto. Without the booming voice of a minister to guide me through the prayer, my body was a lost pilgrim, searching for meaning in a barrage of techno beats. I noticed I wasn't the only one. I spotted two older men sitting in the chairs that Fox had designated for "invalids" only. One was wearing a glow tube around his head like a sweatband; both were wearing glow tubes around the neck. They were large men, and despite their psychedelic sticks, they had a rough, masculine air about them. I explained to them who I was and why I was there. Then I asked why they weren't dancing. Jim said he was merely keeping his friend Robert company. Robert, 45, had recently injured his leg in an auto accident. Jim proceeded to tell me, in no small detail, about his spiritual path. I interrupted to inquire whether he felt like he was missing out on this form of dance/prayer.
"No," the 69-year-old Jim said without hesitation. "I'm cosmically connected to the people right now."
Matthew Fox's detractors take aim at his Pollyanna theology and worldview. Perhaps for good reason. During a transitional period in TCM, Fox began to catalog a short list of the world's problems: separation and competition, war, violence, male over female. He paused for dramatic tension and then pronounced, "Let's get over it." It wasn't exactly the kind of statement that would inspire warring nations to put down their weapons, but the congregants applauded, the virtual definition of preaching to the converted.
Fox's critics point out that his theology tiptoes around the dark side, the shadow, the negative aspects of religion and human nature. The more generous of his detractors believe Fox's theology is merely an over-reaction to the abuses of the Catholic Church, which he experienced firsthand and read about during his historical studies. They believe he has swung the pendulum too far the other way, to a theology that ignores sin and embraces an overly optimistic worldview. As one Catholic priest put it, "There has never in the history of the world been a successful society built on the idea, 'Let's all get along.' " Like it or not, people do commit acts they regret. Christianity serves up Christ to forgive those sins. Fox serves up Via Negativa, the second stage of TCM.
With Via Negativa, Fox walks a very thin tightrope. On one hand, he accuses Christians of loving death, but on the other, he claims they embrace too much light as well. "The religion of Positivism is almost all light. And the sentimental hymns that ignore the dark or reduce it anthropomorphically to human sin and therefore to salvation contribute to the excessive lighting of the world," Fox writes in Original Blessing. "What price have we paid as a people for all this light? We have become afraid of the dark. Afraid of no light. Of silence, therefore. Of image-lessness. We whore for more -- more images, more light, more profits, more goodies."
The solution, says Fox, is to let silence be silence, let pain be pain and let nothingness be nothingness. This is the Via Negativa.
At TCM, Via Negativa took the form of images and music and silence. As Gwendolyn Mallett sang a mournful version of the traditional spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," projectors flashed images of urban decay, a homeless man, a dead baby, a soldier with a machine gun, a starving black child, a jail cell and, pointedly, religious icons. As we sat on the floor, we were urged to "enter into the darkness of [ourselves]" and "give a sound to give the pain a name." Russill Paul, a respected unitarist and chanter who has performed for the Dalai Lama, began uttering wordless vocalizations, faintly Middle Eastern and loaded with heavy emotion. A man next to us was crying openly.
Later in the TCM service, I approached the man who had been weeping, hoping to understand the source of his grief, particularly a grief so public. Were the images affecting him? The music? Or was it, as I assumed, something much more personal and deep? I interrupted him as he was waiting for the communion bread during the third stage of TCM, Via Creativa (the sacrament, incidentally, has been modified to reflect a "universal" body, not Christ's), and asked him about his experience during Via Negativa.
You look like you were greatly affected by the ritual, I said.
"I'm cursed to be a panentheist," Vic said cryptically. (I later learned that Fox has created a new word, "panentheist," which he defines as "God is in everything, and everything is in God.")
Cursed?, I wondered.
"Every curse is a blessing, and every blessing a curse. Fox teaches that," Vic replied.
But I still wanted to know what had moved him, so I asked again.
Vic looked me up and down and said, "You're young. When you're middle-aged like me, you'll understand."
Then Vic gave me his card and suggested that I call him when he returned to Dallas. He said he could tell me more about Matthew Fox. He really wanted to tell me more about Matthew Fox. He seemed to be making assumptions about my spiritual life, or lack of one.
I was feeling a little Negativa myself now.
Strangely enough, the Techno Cosmic Mass does not have its roots in the New Age mecca of California, where Fox is the president of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland. TCM actually came from a far more unlikely source: Sheffield, England. A group of progressive Anglicans, young congregants who grew up in the town's techno scene in the early and mid-'80s, started a group called the Nine O'Clock Service to combine their passion for dance and religion. They found a sympathetic home at St. Thomas, Crookes, where in the late '80s NOS started hosting Planetary Masses, the forerunner of the TCM, every Sunday at 9 p.m. It quickly grew in popularity.
By 1993 NOS left St. Thomas, although the reasons are still debated in Anglican circles. Some say NOS simply became too big for the church; others say NOS became "too big for its boots." Whatever the reason, NOS and the Planetary Masses moved to the basement of a sports complex in the middle of Sheffield. It's telling that a year earlier NOS had made a different kind of shift, a theological one: It began to embrace the theology of Matthew Fox.
This theological shift would prove to be a lightning rod of controversy when in 1995 one of the main forces behind NOS, an Anglican priest, was accused of sexual misconduct with a congregant. The British press, long known for its love of scandal, immediately branded NOS, with its sensuous music and movements and its idealism, a cult. Even some in the Anglican church, which had given its seal of approval to NOS and the Planetary Masses, were beginning to question the Fox connection.
Mark Stibbe, in an article that appeared in The Church Times, said he wrote a letter to the bishop after attending a Planetary Mass in the months before the sex scandal. His letter, he wrote in the article, was a response to his increasing concern about the theology of the event.
"I believe that NOS is well down the slippery slope towards that neo pagan idolatry of creation which we see everywhere in new Age Spirituality," he wrote the bishop. "They have not realised that there is a way of embracing the physical, the sexual, the ecological, which is thoroughly Christ-centered and orthodox. As such I believe dangerous times lie ahead for them. Indeed, I felt tremendous grief last night -- which I sensed at the time was the grief of the Holy Spirit."
Well before the sex scandal broke, however, Fox imported the Planetary Mass, informally referred to as the Rave Mass, to the United States for its debut at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the Gothic structure that's home to the Episcopal Diocese of California. Thirty-five Anglicans from Sheffield flew to the Bay Area to help stage the event on Halloween weekend 1994. An invitation-only crowd of 300 arrived for the Planetary Mass, including, according to one report, Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. It received a less than warm reception from a reporter for Episcopalians United.
"The Rave Mass I attended on Halloween weekend in San Francisco was the most oppressive spiritual experience I've known in more than 10 years as a religion writer," wrote Doug LeBlanc. "The Rave Mass was not oppressive because it expressed Christian truth in a new liturgical form, but because it supplanted Christianity with a careless brew of paganism, manipulative imagery and an environmentalist hysteria unmatched by any apocalyptic street preacher."
The cold response from the Episcopal reporter notwithstanding, the Planetary Mass soon became a regular event at Fox's university, adopting the name Techno Cosmic Mass along the way. TCM spread out from there, thanks to UCS divinity students such as Edina Preucel, who attended a Rave Mass in November 1997 in the Bay Area and less than a year later launched her own version in Boulder, Colorado. She has already hosted another TCM in Boulder and plans to stage four more next year.
Like Preucel, Houstonian Evan Daily also encountered TCM as a divinity student at UCS. It was last October. Preucel had just arrived back in Oakland following the debut of TCM in Boulder. She was, in the words of Daily, "literally raving" about it. After his own TCM experience just days later, Daily decided he would try to bring the ritual to Houston. He gave himself a year to do it.
Daily would need the time. As it turned out, the Techno Cosmic Mass was too radical for mainstream religion. Daily estimates that at least 15 area churches resisted the idea of the Techno Cosmic Mass, either by refusing to host it or by refusing to post its flyers on their bulletin boards. "People were really threatened," he said.
But Daily is fortunate. Unlike Preucel, who must raise money with her nonprofit company to stage the Boulder-area TCMs, Daily could afford to foot the bill himself. The son of a physician, Daily comes from money, but he has also done well for himself in the bull market. It has given him the time and resources to pursue the things that interest him: Aside from being a divinity student at UCS, he is also a licensed therapist. Daily says he decided to produce the Houston TCM, at a cost of more than $30,000, as a gift to the community, as a thanks for all the good fortune he and his family have received over the years.
Daily has even launched a nonprofit, Heartstorm Productions, with the idea of staging more Techno Cosmic Masses in Houston. If the debut of TCM is any indication, he may have a nascent congregation on his hands.
The last stage of the Techno Cosmic Mass is the Via Transformativa. The really intense ecstatic dancing occurs then.
As a DJ laid down some fast and funky beats at the George R. Brown, the circle filled with a dazzling assortment of people. One sixtysomething man wiggled and shook until his business suit was drenched in sweat. A 30-year-old woman, in bare feet and sheer flowing fabrics, danced by herself in stylized ballerina poses. A young couple, two strangers until a minute ago, silently crossed paths and began mimicking each other's movement, like in some judo exercise. An overweight middle-aged woman in a Christmas sweater walked aimlessly through these ravers, claiming her best dancing days were already behind her. Then the music stopped, the recessional song was sung, and the ravers were sent on their way.
Except that several people continued to hang around. Such as Aaron and Yvonne, a pair of twentysomethings who were holding each other tightly on the dance floor. Part of their public display of affection was due to their recent engagement, but another part was clearly due to TCM. Yvonne, a rave clubgoer for five years, had finally found what she was looking for: a place to dance and find transcendence without all the drugs of many contemporary raves. I asked them if they belong to any church. They both laughed through all the metal they had inserted into their faces and ears.
"This is our church," Yvonne said.
E-mail Tim Carman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.