I am a minister. Maybe that is why people give me strange looks when I tell them I am a big fan of Amanda Palmer. I guess the word “minister” conjures an image of uptight, scowling old men with nostrils permanently flared from sniffing out the faintest scent of the carnal. When confronted by someone as free-spirited as Amanda—who is prone to displays of public nudity; uses the word “fuck” with both ease and power (it is, after all, her middle name); writes, sings and screams songs like “Do it With a Rock Star” and “The Killing Type;” and uses social media to share much of (if not every corner of) her mind—I guess I am supposed to immediately condemn her or run away screaming.
I may be expected to condemn, but instead I find myself drawn to Amanda Palmer’s work and her world. Her songs, her TED talk, her blog, her insistence on connection with her fans and even with her haters have all reinvigorated—resurrected, really—my passion for ministry and my vision of what liberal religious community can be.
Truth be told, I love all of it: the uninhibited self-expression; the nakedness of body, mind, and soul; the unabashed insistence that the power of art can change us and therefore change the world. “We are the Media!” Amanda Palmer sings. I want to add: “And we are the Church!” Or maybe: “We are the Sacred! We are the Holy! We are Everything That Matters and everything beautiful and ordinary and amazing…
Amanda Palmer makes me think about church. Yeah, church: the place where, for centuries, power and greed and transcendence and sin and art and ritual and life and death have been playing their parts in a grand mythic drama. Church: the place where people try to work out what it means to be human and how to make life more graceful and meaningful. Church: the one thing that has both saved my life and broken my heart so completely that I ran away screaming in pain and fury. And yes, church. The community that always draws me back and helps me recognize and serve something larger than my own ego, something like Hope. Even though I am often frustrated at the forms the institutional church takes, I can’t shake my conviction that if we don’t despair, we can return the church to being a catalyst for empowerment, inspiration, justice, and liberty in our own hearts and in the world.
Alfred North Whitehead called God “the poet of the world.” The central story in every religious tradition is always the story of creation: God dividing light from darkness, the Goddess giving birth, or Turtle rising from the primordial ooze with the muddy earth on its back. These primal stories are the centerpiece of religious myth not only because we humans are eternally curious about our origins, but because the ability to create is and has always been considered sacred. For centuries, if you were looking for art you went to church, where poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and composers were lauded for their ability to make a way for the sacred to enter the ordinary world. Beauty and creativity were portals to the holy.
Amanda Palmer’s work is a torrid, sweaty, sex-in-public affair with creativity. In the Punk Cabaret story of creation, creatrix and creature refuse to be separated by theological hierarchies, and are instead consenting partners in an ecstatic and slightly dangerous bump and grind. Bodies are celebrated, even flaunted, without embarrassment. After all, if it weren’t for our bodies, how would we create or experience all this beauty?
This, for me, is an awakening. For decades I have struggled with the ugly dichotomy that separates body from spirit and declares the material, the physical, the carnal to be dirty and sinful. I was moved to tears when I read Walt Whitman’s declaration, “If anything is sacred, the human body is!” That sacredness is too easy to forget, yet listening to Amanda Palmer’s music I feel the urge to move rise up in me and am reminded that my earliest spiritual or religious memories are of dancing. In dance class or at home alone with my record player, I experienced my whole heart and body absorbed in one transcendent “Yes!” I knew, as a child, that both the dance and the dancer were holy. I knew that I was inseparable from The Sacred.
I know, of course, that religion—especially Western Christianity—is responsible for much of this denigration of the body. I know that the unholy desire for power and empire led to the creation of systems and theologies that dismiss some bodies—brown bodies, female bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies—as worthless and only to be controlled. I see the results of this thinking in policies that demean and punish those who wear these bodies. I see this and I know that many will be unable to believe that religion, complicit in so much evil, is worthy of anything but disdain. I know. I see. I tremble.
And yet I cannot just walk away. I keep being drawn back. Or, to use an older term: I keep being called back.
You see, I didn’t go into ministry because I wanted to reenact dusty rituals, all the while keeping my hair neat and my overcoat buttoned. I didn’t go into ministry to write twenty-minute essays more conducive to checking one’s watch than to checking in with the state of one’s soul. I didn’t go into ministry to be considered an employee with a three word job description: keep people happy.
I went into ministry because I long for transformation. I long for revolution. I am called to make this world better and to heal what brokenness I can. I am called to help create communities that empower all of us to encounter and respond to the All that is bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us, and bigger even than anything we can imagine. I am called to look for and help create communities that are engaged in the work of the spirit together. Communities that are a lot like the crowd at an Amanda Palmer concert or telling their truths and tweeting love and support for one another on a Friday night, tagging Amanda in every post.
I imagine a church where every sweaty, glitter-drenched, dancing body is welcome. I imagine a church that can be loud and bold and angry when necessary. I imagine a church where we notice the many who say, “No one sees me,” and take time to stop, look them in the eye and say, “We see you.” I imagine a church where everyone is invited to not only attend the show, but to be part of it—to engage soul-deep in the art of living an authentic, embodied, meaningful life.
That’s the church I imagine, thanks to Amanda Palmer. That’s Cabaret Church.