I chose Lake Forest Church and the Davidson Hillel as my sites of study. I used a participant-observer approach in conducting field research for this paper. To that end I attended two 9:30 AM Sunday Lake Forest services with several other Davidson students on April 18 and 25. I followed this up with several interviews with students as well as informal mingling after the services. To study Hillel, I attended a Shabbat service on Friday April 30 as well as a special Passover Seder service. Again, I also implemented background research and interviews (informal and formal) to gather data. In approaching both sites I strove to capture the entirety of the experience by placing myself as closely to the mindset of the religious participant as possible, to the point of singing, eating, and praying with them.
Davidson College Hillel
The Hillel is a college organization with a student leader and a rabbi, who is part of the college Chaplain’s Office. They invited me to a Passover Seder (a special occurrence) as well as a Friday night Shabbat service (a regular event). At the Shabbat, when I arrived individuals were sharing pizza and talking; very quickly after I arrived, however, the yarmulkes were handed out and we gathered into a tightly-knit circle. The rabbi said some opening remarks, handed out prayer books, and the service began.
The attendees of the Shabbat, myself aside, consisted of the student leader of Hillel, the rabbi, another non-Jewish anthropology student, and a father, wife, and son. The family was a member of the rabbi’s congregation in Lake Norman; the college services are open to anyone who wishes to attend. The paltry turnout was a matter of great consternation to all present. The student leader pointed out that there was a baseball game at the same time, and that eight of the baseball players were sometime attendees. On the other hand, the rabbi spoke generally, offering that it was typical of Jews that “five people will show up for Shabbat and one hundred and fifty-five will show up for Passover Seder.”
This scene did not, as one might expect, occur in a dedicated worship space, such as a temple or synagogue, but rather in a room in the College Union often used for lectures, concerts, and other secular events. When I asked the student leader of Hillel whether he felt there existed any association to be drawn between the historical plight of Jews, especially before the establishment of Israel, and the “homelessness” of the Jews on campus, he found it interesting but demurred, speculating that they would soon have a physical home. At this point the rabbi chimed in, opining that he had a dream of a Davidson that was 10% Jewish. Their estimate was that it was currently 7%; I declined to point out how far this proportion would be from the local or national population.
Because neither the Shabbat nor the Seder (Lilly Gallery) was in a dedicated worship space, it was even more important to take extra steps to evoke a mood of religiosity. Moreover, in a college where most Jews “just try to be white people,” carving out a space of one’s own seems especially important. In the Jewish Shabbat service, there is an opening section of prayer and recitation which is not actually part of the service. The rabbi explained that in big temples, people would continue socializing and become slowly quieter as this section grew to a close, because it was a way to usher in a state of mind that was conducive to thinking about God. The primary signals, however, of a religious mood during the Shabbat are the donning of the kippah (yarmulke) by all males present, and the use of Hebrew to recite the ancient scriptures. Even before all of this at the Shabbat, members sit around eating pizza, with pepperoni conspicuously absent—the first sign of Jewish ownership of the space.
At first Hillel does not seem anywhere close to as modern as Lake Forest; the Jewish services are in ancient languages, after all. The Passover Seder requires Jews to eat various very traditional foods that would be impossible to locate in a normal supermarket. The Seder has particular emphasis on history, as it follows a highly specific order that has been repeated by Jews across the globe for centuries. Indeed, the Seder is extremely unifying in the Jewish community: at Davidson, it attracted around 150 attendees, compared with seven for the end-of-year Shabbat. It is a time to identify with the larger Jewish community, but also a time to identify with sufferers of all kinds.
In several ways Hillel is very contemporary: to cite one striking example amongst many, during the Shabbat one prayer was sung to the highly untraditional tune of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” In keeping with Reform theology, God was mostly ungendered. Reform Jews also include the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs in prayers. Songs and prayers were performed in English as well as Hebrew and Aramaic. The Seder featured a microphone and was sped up to accommodate the day’s demands.
The Passover Seder is a microcosm of Jewish emphasis on one’s place in history, but for the Reform Jew its meaning has transcended the Jewish struggle to apply to all narratives of slavery, exile, and escape. Seder occurs once a year in the spring to commemorate the scriptural account of the angel of death visiting Egypt but sparing those Jews who made a mark over their doors. This ceremony was marked by an almost paradoxical sense of meaning derived from history but applied to the present. The Seder is highly ritualized, including foods which must be prepared in specific ways, but the rabbi’s version was contemporary and improvisational. It also recognized differences within Jews: there was a choice offered to Conservative Jews to leave to wash their hands at appropriate times (Reform Jews take this command less literally). The story of the Passover was explicitly linked with the passages of several other oppressed people out of slavery, such as the American Civil Rights Movement. This rendered the passage of the Jews out of Egypt especially salient to the modern Jew, who should seek to help others out of exile as they once were. The metanarrative of escape from slavery is considered universal, and—a hallmark of Reform Judaism—social action is thereby made central.
This application of the spirit behind Jewish literature is typical of the Reform tradition, which seeks to take Judaism “to its beginning.” The letter of the law is less important than its essence; the rabbi lamented the many Jews who were observant ritually but not practically (i.e., they left their religion behind when they left the temple). For example, the Shabbat service was conducted even though it did not reach a minyan (quorum), because the rabbi felt all involved knew the thought behind the minyan and could better serve God by going ahead with the service. This project of reclamation will be important to keep in mind as I explore the Lake Forest Church.
Physically, the Lake Forest building embraces modernity. The church is only several years old, and the architecture is modern. There is a large lobby with lounges on either side. This is where coffee and hot chocolate is served before the service and where bagels are served after the service. This encourages people to mill about and talk to one another about their lives, creating an inclusive community. Entering the main room, one quickly notices several aspects of the room that differ from traditional churches. Firstly, instead of pews, there are rows of chairs, which are angled towards the stage instead of all being parallel as is common. There is no religious iconography: no stained glass, no crosses, no altar or pulpit. This seems designed to create a less hierarchical relationship between the pastor and the people. The stage itself features Ikea-style decorations around the setup of the band that plays Christian rock at the beginning of every service.
Given the lack of iconography, down to the absence of pew Bibles or hymnals, how does Lake Forest evoke a mood of religiosity in its congregation? Whereas other churches may use other visual, aromatic, or linguistic signals, Lake Forest primarily uses music. The Christian rock music played a less explicit but equally effective role in signaling a religious mood. Individuals would continue filing in as the band played its five-song set, which some sang along to. The church augments the music with video: so that the audience can sing along, the lyrics of a song are projected onto the three large screens behind the stage. Lyrics are superimposed upon suggestive imagery that changes based on the mood the song is supposed to evoke, ranging from footage of tornados to depictions of the Passion of the Christ. The leader of the band was clearly a specialist whose expertise expanded past music and on to religious affairs. He guided the service through the songs and prayer up until he handed the service off to the main pastor.
My estimate of the number of individuals in attendance at the 9:30 services was somewhere around four hundred people, twenty-five of which were Davidson students. The congregation at Lake Forest seemed to be diverse in some ways but homogenous in others. As a very modern, nondenominational church it attracted individuals from all kinds of spiritual backgrounds, from nonbeliever to Catholic to Baptist. Because the church eschews identification with a larger denomination, attendees at Lake Forest very much have a relationship with Lake Forest itself; it cannot be interchangeable in the way Catholic services are, noted one formerly Catholic attendee. Whether or not it is correlated with the diversity of backgrounds attracted at Lake Forest, individuals also showed very different reactions to worship practices. Some stood with arms crossed, refusing to sing along with the Christian rock songs, but some sang enthusiastically, with eyes closed and the right hand raised in praise. As this practice of praise is particularly strong in Pentecostal and Baptist strains of Christianity, that it is implemented un-confrontationally at Lake Forest testifies to its inclusivity, which is stressed at every turn.
On the other hand, the congregation was also very homogeneous in some very noticeable ways. It was nearly completely Caucasian. Importantly, there were no attendees that I ever saw or spoke with above the age of about 60-65. Furthermore, based on an admittedly imprecise survey of the cars in the parking lot, the congregation seemed squarely planted in the upper middle class.
I witnessed a testimonial during each of my two visits to Lake Forest. The first was made by a woman in her late thirties. She had been raised Catholic and became disillusioned with the Church, especially after going to college and getting a job. After marrying, she moved into a new neighborhood and became pregnant, but had a very difficult time delivering the baby. The doctors were not sure if it would survive; her neighbors, a group of which attended Lake Forest, invited her to church and let her know they were praying for her family. She eventually accepted their invitations to attend and “began to believe again.” The second testimonial I saw was presented as a videotaped interview that took place in a member’s car garage. The member professed to be a “born doubter,” and said that Lake Forest was the right place for him because it valued individuality in approaches to the Bible over conformity.
Is it possible to convert to a single church rather than a religion or denomination as a whole? If that church has a specific lexicon through which one begins to articulate one’s orientation towards the universe, then yes (Klass 1999:397). At this point it becomes possible to delineate more clearly that there are two kinds of attendees at Lake Forest: those who ‘convert’ and those who do not. The difference is in attitude toward Lake Forest versus other churches. Some individuals clearly believe that Lake Forest’s nondenominational approach is the best way, whether that means the closest to the intents of Jesus or the most effective for the modern world. The testifiers I listened to fell into this camp. Other individuals are at Lake Forest now but have not lain aside identification with a denomination; most of the students from Davidson that I spoke with fall within this classification. They are simply attending the best church for them at the time.
Lake Forest’s motto is “For people who’ve given up on church but not on God.” Considering the organization’s full name is Lake Forest Church, this slogan requires closer examination to avoid seeming like a contradiction, which it is not if understood in the language of the Lake Forest Church itself.
The motto is really very central to the mission of the church. It is featured in large font on their webpage. It was alluded to in both of the services I attended as a point of pride for the church. But what does it mean in practice? First one must figure out what is meant in the motto by church. Church, in this negative sense, is an obligation; it is an institution, and one that exists for its own sake and not for God’s; it is rigid and dogmatic; it is “pipe organs and priests,” in the words of the pastor. Church should not be, says the website, “a weekly gathering or a building or institution, but a living organism.” Moreover, it should not be exclusive: it should welcome “those whom Jesus welcomed.”
Lake Forest’s motto echoed in my mind statements I had heard at a Baptist church some months before. The Baptist preacher, in the heat of his sermon, yelled that “I don’t have religion. I have Christ Jesus!” This seems just as paradoxical as the Lake Forest motto; isn’t Jesus a religious figure? It seems that, like the Lake Forest congregation, the Baptist preacher was trying to distance himself from the “pipe organs and priests” of highly centralized, institutional religion. The similarities between these congregations did not end there. Like Lake Forest, the Baptist congregation was nearly all white. People dressed in everything from shorts to suits. Music at both churches came from electric guitars and singalongs rather than choirs and traditional hymns. Finally, the Baptist service also features audience participation in which individuals give account of positive changes in their relationship with God, just like the testimonials at Lake Forest.
Lake Forest, then, is not the only church leaving behind tradition. Christianity in America is moving in a nondenominational direction: Americans identifying as “generic Christians” increased from 14.8% of the general population in 1990 to 32.1% in 2008 (USA Today 2010). Lake Forest Church is not unique in its presentation of its relationship with organized religion; traditional denominations are simply becoming less popular in America. In the opinion of one attendee, Lake Forest avoids doctrinal squabbles by focusing on the basics and never focusing unduly on esoteric matters. To this end, Lake Forest remains “accepting of the presence of all kinds of views, while never leaving the truth behind.”
If religion is articulated through symbols, what are the powerful symbols of the Lake Forest and Hillel versions? This seems particularly difficult in the case of Lake Forest, which, as noted above, purposefully eschews traditional Christian iconography. But being hard to find is not the same as not existing. For example, Lake Forest collects donations just like any church, but does so by passing around a jeans pocket, instead of the ornate bowl found in many more traditional churches. These offering bowls are sometimes adorned with religious imagery (i.e., crosses) and can be made of shiny metals. On the contrary, in the local context, jeans are part of the uniform of the everyman, making the church seem more accessible. Using a jeans pocket to collect offerings is a signal to both the origin and destination of offerings. It is also a conscious contrast with the practices of traditional churches. For the Lake Forest attendee, the jeans pocket encapsulates the crux of the Lake Forest experience in the way it attempts to reconcile the fractured nature of Christianity in modernity by focusing on issues that encompass all Christians.
Passover Seder is highly conducive to symbolic analysis because many of the foods are explicitly eaten to symbolize experiences in the Passover narrative. For example, the bitterness of the maror herbs is supposed to remind Jews of the bitterness of slavery. Likewise, Jews must drink four glasses of wine on Passover, one for each of God’s promises—to “bring out,” to “deliver,” to “redeem,” and “to take.” This imagery is very much focused on the narrative of the Jewish people.
This stands in contrast to Lake Forest, which primarily orients itself (in part through symbols) in relation to today and today only. The referents of its symbols are present in the lives of its attendees. Contrastingly, the referents of the symbols in the Jewish Seder are overwhelmingly situated along the axis of history. The brand of Christianity presented at Lake Forest, in fact, seems to strive for historylessness: “pipe organs and priests” are institutions of the past. Lake Forest is not fundamentalist, but it does seek to erase what it sees as damage done to the Christian endeavor by the Church-as-institution. It does this in part by explicitly claiming to reject almost as rivals the institutions that have built up around Christianity over the years and return to its original mission, stripped to its core.
This arrangement is clearly exhibited by the stories told by each respective congregation. The Hillel focuses on historical stories, particularly ones that explain current practices. The question “Why is this night different from all other nights?” is the anchor of the Seder. The answer to this question—broadly, because it is a night to remember the escape of the Jews from their plight in Egypt—is inherently historical and narrativistic. Much of the discussion at the Shabbat I visited centered around the question of how modern Jews should interpret the laws of Leviticus, many of which seem outdated now. By couching their answer in the historical ‘spirit’ of the laws and discussing the teachings of various Jewish theologians, the Hillel members viewed modernity through a historical, collective lens. When these members talked about Judaism, they referred not only to their own beliefs and practices but to an organic cultural force through which they traced their identity back for thousands of years.
The rabbi might have appropriated a modern reggae song, but only to sing a traditional prayer; on the other hand, the Lake Forest band played all original songs. The stories told by members of Lake Forest demonstrated 1) a commitment to Christianity as an individual experience and 2) a vision of Christianity without history. The testimonies offered demonstrated an emphasis not only on the individual (they were highly personal and personalized) but also on religion as a social resource for dealing with the world. The Jews told stories about historical exiles, but the Christians at Lake Forest worried about a current “culturewide spiritual depression.” Whereas Hillel constantly reevaluates the course of Jewish history, Lake Forest jumps straight to its core principles and applies them immediately. The significance of such symbols as the jeans pocket is directly linked with the audience’s feeling towards its traditional counterpart, and so will only retain power as a symbol so long as disregard is felt for the institutions behind the silver-plated offering bowl. Their Christianity is refashioned anew by every individual, in theory.
As noted above, both of these organizations are involved in projects of reclamation. It should be noted that while reclamation is a part of rhetoric of fundamentalism, neither group satisfies identification with that label (Eller 2007:276). What they are after is the establishment of an accessible social resource through which they can articulate their place in the world and navigate the problems within it (Geertz 1993:106). Both organizations but Lake Forest especially catered to the kind of individuals Levitt identifies as “the questioning faithful” and the “self-help faithful” (2007:97-106): they are focused on satisfying the requirements of modern, diverse individuals and must therefore be pliable enough to meet variegated demands.
Both Hillel and Lake Forest vigorously engage with the resources and problems of modernity. Their approach to history, however, is divergent: Hillel engages with the past, while Lake Forest disengages. In doing so, perhaps each models the cultural background from which it gathers its adherents while simultaneously providing an option for how to continue to understand one’s place in history and modernity (Geertz 1993:93). Meaning can be defined in terms of relation to history, as demonstrated by the Jewish emphasis on narrative, or in terms of relation to contemporary counterparts, as demonstrated by the Lake Forest emphasis on difference in comparison to other existing Christian counterparts (as evidenced in the testimonials).
Eller, Jack David. Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Geertz, Clifford, Religion as a cultural system. In: The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. Geertz, Clifford, pp.87-125. Fontana Press, 1993.
Grossman, Cathy Lisa. "Most Religious Groups in USA Have Lost Ground, Survey Finds - USATODAY.com." News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World - USATODAY.com. 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 05 May 2010.
Klass, Morton, and Maxine K. Weisgrau, eds. Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1999. Print.
Levitt, Peggy. God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape. New York: New, 2007. Print.
 Without instrumentation. If I had to pick a more specific topic to study, it would be the musical programs presented in each organization, which I haven’t had room to explore at length here.
 However, the front of the room is dominated by a large stage surrounded by three huge projection screens with display his every move during the service, which suggests that the relationship may still be hierarchical but in a less recognizable manner.