The 20th century artist Salvador Dali proved nothing if not a strange and somewhat divisive figure. You may not know his name, but you know his art. The Persistence of Memory stands as probably his most famous work. It’s the one below with the floppy clocks.
While the merits of surrealist art remain up for debate, surrealism never can surpass the weirdness we find in reality.
I submit to you Wednesday’s Beyoncé Mass as proof.
One can see a short and sympathetic rundown of the Mass here with a few short video clips. See also the order of service below.
No, dear reader, it did not occur in your own backyard. It occurred in San Francisco, and nothing there quite qualifies as a backyard. Even so, Grace Cathedral spent Wednesday evening conducting a Mass featuring the music and celebrating the person of pop artist Beyoncé. In traditions using the language of “Mass” the worship service has as a necessary component, the observance of the Eucharist, what other traditions (including my own) call The Lord’s Supper. The Very Reverend Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young seemed concerned his congregation might hear criticisms from fundamentalists of Grace Cathedral conducting Beyoncé worship rather than the Lord Jesus. Perhaps I could brush up on my contemporary Episcopalianism, but it would seem to celebrate a person other than Christ himself in conjunction with the Eucharist stands as exactly that: worship of the other person.
I do not purpose to write criticizing Beyoncé today; I do not count myself among her fans, though she and her husband (hip hop icon, Jay-Z) would certainly receive welcome into my home. I lack comfort at much of the imagery and messaging she uses, but such things do not enter my purpose here. Instead, I raise the concern of idolatry of our hearts.
Our? Yes, our hearts.
As noted above, the Mass always involves the remembrance of the crucifixion of Christ. The taking of the bread and the cup serves as a robust memorial of the breaking of the body of Jesus and the pouring out of his blood. Partaking in such actions in some countries gets a person killed because it specifically worships Jesus. He said the cup represented his blood poured out for the purpose of forgiveness of sins. To observe communion agrees with Jesus on matters of sin, one’s need for forgiveness, and the necessity of Jesus’s blood to make forgiveness of sins a reality. In a parallel text, Jesus describes his work as establishing a new covenant in his blood. The observance of Communion stands as no mere religious rite; instead, it specifically represents Jesus in his death for the sins of those who would join in the new covenant.
So the question rises: what has Beyoncé to do with the crucifixion? Behind the previous question lies another: what cultural influencer of any sort deserves recognition along with Christ Jesus in the remembrance and thanksgiving of his death? Did the sermon recognize the cross of Christ spoken into and over the subject matter of Beyoncé’s music? Or rather, did the person of Beyoncé receive praise alongside him?
At this point I expect many folks to sound their amens and harumphs. Indeed, we worship the God revealed in Christ Jesus and none other. However, we watch ourselves to ensure we do not commit the same idolatry. Every one of us has a tendency to find celebrity impressive. No, you may not care about Beyoncé or anyone who’s won an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, or Tony. When James told his readers to exercise caution in their treatment of the rich, he did so because every person has his own celebrity. One might scratch his head at the celebration of a pop star, but he may find himself susceptible to a person representing his own interests. Perhaps a sports figure or a politician or a scholar would serve as an idol for a given individual. As Calvin said, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” While Grace Cathedral committed an idolatrous act in their Beyoncé Mass, indignation and outrage make no difference if we will not find our own idol shrines in our hearts and topple them.
Merited or not, Beyoncé holds a place in the hearts of at least the 900 people who attended the Beyoncé Mass. Such an attendance only proves the fact of the desperate need to communicate Christ the Savior to the people of the world. Whatever suffering, excellence, or any other thing anyone might find compelling about a celebrity, that celebrity will never eclipse Christ. On the day Beyoncé sings no more, Christ will still sit upon his throne interceding for the saints he purchased by his blood. The questions remain: does he intercede for you? Does your own life point those around you to exalt the Crucified and Risen Savior, or does it indicate an idol?
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, I.11.8.