Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Liturgical Role of Flying Fish Puppets

I can't stop thinking about my friends who work with and attended the National Association of Pastoral Musicians annual convention meeting this year. They are among a group that is doing its best to turn this institution toward making a productive contribution, step by step, toward excellent liturgy.

It is not an easy task, for this organization's roots are in the postconciliar period when destructionism was the prevailing drive. And though the organization is ostensibly about music, this was back then and is now just the opening theme for a full-blown liturgical agenda that embodies the archetype of liturgical rupture. Whatever is old is out and whatever is new (except not really new; more like late 60s chic) is in.

Still, some very good people have been working to change this. There are chant workshops. There are organ workshops. There are subcommittees devoted to special tasks. There are good books being published and distributed in an effort to re-catechize the baby boomers and somehow put that generation through a kind of liturgical detox program. It's all such hard work.

And yet, in the end, there is the problem of flying fish puppets.

Or maybe it is the "flying red octopus god on a pole," as one youtube commentator believes. Regardless, the fish/octopus is the thing for which this NPM liturgy will be remembered.

One wonders how these decisions come to be made. You are in the planning meeting and one person suddenly says:

"Listen, here's a great idea. Let's get a 30-foot pole and put a fish kite on it and wave it around the National Shrine as the lead of the procession. It will seem to be flying over the heads of everyone, except that of course there will be a guy in the front with the pole controlling it. That's a great way to begin the Mass."

At this point, under normal circumstances, someone might raise some doubts.

"You know, I'm not entirely sure that this idea is wholly consistent with the liturgical spirit we are seeking here."

Another comment:

"Yes, true, and remember that this Mass is supposed to serve as a kind of model of where we are going as an organization. It's a big Church out there, and a flying fish isn't to everyone's taste."

Then someone else might pipe up and say something like:

"As much as I find that idea creative and compelling, I'm somewhat concerned that the flying fish kite will be widely seen as a distraction. Not that it is! I'm just saying that a substantial number of observers might regard it as such."

A few others might add to the mix, and then the group could kill the idea, however reluctantly.

But that did not happen. And because I was not in the planning meeting for this event, I of course cannot know for sure what happened at this meeting. It is actually possible that this flying fish puppet was the most moderate and solemn suggestion to emerge from the planning meeting -- a compromise of sorts. Someone might have suggested an entire rolling float with giant sea creatures. Maybe someone else wanted a huge pirate ship with 12 large puppets to symbolize the Apostles. Maybe someone else thought that a giant ferris wheel should have been lowered from the ceiling with gauzily dressed liturgical dancers doing air acrobatics.

All of these suggestions might have been rejected, as the group settled on a more conservative approach as a compromise with bourgeois sensibilities. After all, there is something of a niche market for these things.

Regardless, the end result is what it was, and notoriously so.

Still, is the whole idea just completely random and absurdist, as it would seem? What is the justification or symbolism here? Well, you might not think such a thing could exist, but I just finished a fascinating article by John B. Buescher at the Catholic World Report. He is a widely published author and a specialist on 19th-century cultural symbolism. He traces the huge puppet ethos to the Russian revolutionary spirit of the times.

It was revived again after the Bolshevik revolution, and the American enthrallment with the results:
After Moscow’s “Park of Culture of Rest” (Gorky Park) opened in 1928, artists held workshops there and erected ephemeral displays of large propaganda puppet figures, often including priests with rosaries cavorting with industrial bosses. Such outsized and malevolent figures kept their place in Soviet agitprop, as well as in Leftist artists’ circles abroad. It was from these circles that “radical puppetry”—as a Leftist, revolutionary project—was born.
I had no idea! This must account for why puppets keep popping up at Occupy Wall Street protests and various political parades. It's an attempt to demonstrate mockery against hierarchy and elitism, to push a carnivalesque environment at the expense of staid traditional forms.

My friend Adam Wood further explained that the contemporary roots are with "Bread and Puppet Theater," some weird 1960s thing signaling protest. Wikipedia has more.

No one can know the thinking here or if the committee that pushed this through was even aware of the reason. Some have suggested that maybe it was a typo in the copy of the General Instruction. Instead of Roman Rite, it said Roman Kite, and instead of Introductory Rite it said Introductory Kite.

And perhaps, too, some people had regrets as they saw a flipper from the fish nearly get toasted by the Paschal candle.

What is profoundly disturbing is the utter disregard for the inherent power and beauty inherent in the Catholic liturgy as given. Catholics have long suffered under such antics and we have suffered so long that there are no more tears left. All we can really do is roll our eyes and laugh. It's our way of dealing with things that are beyond our control or comprehension.

And, in the end, you might consider the demographic point. The video is in this post. Watch it and see how many young people are in attendance. That tells you where this ethos is headed.

And before you let one giant fish characterize an entire organization, please remember that there are people who were in attendance here -- good people who want to do the right thing -- who are as mortified as you and I. They knew this post would be coming. They dreaded it. It breaks their hearts in so many ways. And yet, they press on. There's always next year. Maybe the good guys will prevail in the end.

In an ideal world, there would be no power struggle. There would only be the liturgical books and a desire to present the liturgy as received. It's not an impossible ideal. It is a only a matter of putting down our poles and puppets and falling in love again with the much more profound meaning embedded in the authentic ritual itself.

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