One of the most popular stories of our time is being unfolded in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books, which to date have sold over 25 million copies, been translated into 40 languages, and been adapted into the acclaimed TV series Game of Thrones, which begins its much-anticipated fifth season April 12. Faith and religious practice are major elements of this saga--belief in the Old Gods, or the New Gods, or the Lord of Light--and Martin himself has talked about parallels between faith in and worship of the seven New Gods (actually seven facets of a single deity) and the faith and worship of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church.
In the second novel in the series, A Clash of Kings, we find a scene where on the eve of a major battle, Sansa, a teenage girl from the noble Stark family, is drawn by the sound of singing into a church or "sept" in the kingdom's major city, King's Landing. The scene is described as being very much like walking into a cathedral or a beautiful historic church today: candles are lit, light streams through stained glass, and the space is filled by a gathering of people who would not normally gather.
King's Landing is normally a place where rigid divisions are enforced between noble and common, knights and mercenaries, rich and poor. But on this occasion, after Sansa lights a candle to honor each of the aspects of the One God, she finds herself squeezing in between an aged wash-woman and a young boy dressed in fine linen, and joins them in singing a hymn asking the Mother to spare the sons who are fighting and the daughters who will suffer rape and degradation in a defeat.
Sansa lifts her voice in song, we are told, "with grizzled old serving men and anxious young wives, with serving girls and soldiers, cooks and falconers, knights and knaves, squires and spit boys and nursing mothers. She sang with those inside the castle walls and those without, sang with all the city. She sang for mercy, for the living and the dead alike."
In a dark world filled with strife and division, greed and hatred, people from all walks of life come together for a prayer service in the sept, and there they find comfort and community. It's a remarkable reminder from popular culture of the power of worship to bring people together and to offer at least momentary insights that we are much more alike than we are different.
A few years back, though, sociologist Robert B. Putnam offered provocative data in his Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Our growing problem as a culture, he said, is that we no longer do things in community. Fewer and fewer Americans eat dinner together, belong to clubs or go to meetings, even have friends over. The title came from one of Putnam's most interesting factoids, that even though more of us are bowling, it's no longer in bowling leagues: we are even bowling alone.
When people no longer feel a connection to others, the fabric of our society unravels, and Bowling Alone is one of many sources to suggest that our loss of community is damaging us emotionally and spiritually. Lillian Daniels wrote a Huffington Post column "Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me", and one of its laments was that the "spiritual but not religious" impulse simply represents American individualism at its worst. It isolates us. It creates people fundamentally lacking in the gifts proffered by community, among them courage. Her conclusion was that it even makes us boring:
"Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself."
So, sociologists measure it, pastors lament it, and atheists too recognize that our tendency toward solipsism damages us as human beings. Alain de Botton, in his best-selling Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, laments the many things that people of faith traditionally possess that all people ought to have. One of those things is community, most particularly a community made up of a variety of people drawn together from outside a person's normal limited circle of acquaintances--something like the community that Sansa Stark discovers in the sept in A Clash of Kings. And although de Botton finds church services illogical and frankly boring, he says that, of all things, the Christian Eucharist offers the very best example of how to create community among a diverse body of people.
By the end of the liturgy, he suggests--after the singing, the lessons, the sermon, the prayers, the bread and wine--participants should be shifted "at least fractionally off our accustomed egocentric axes." Its rigidly-defined framework and its focus on a communal meal should, he argues, "inspire visitors to suspend their customary frightened egoism in favour of a joyful immersion in a collective spirit--an unlikely scenario in the majority of modern community centres, whose appearance paradoxically serves to confirm the inadvisability of joining anything communal."
What common worship does--as de Botton recognizes--is make something whole out of scattered individuals. It encourages them to drop their usual force fields holding everyone else at a distance.
Here's what happens when we come together to worship: We set aside a space where people come anticipating a certain people to happen. By creating a setting, by making it a place where at a certain time, certain events occur, we tap into habit, ritual, functional fixedness.
By bringing together a group of people gathered not because of their age, race, occupation, or wealth but because of their commitment to shared values and experience, the liturgy breaks down the divisions between us.
By asking us to leave our worldly concerns at the door, the liturgy invites us all to consider something higher, nobler, more sacrificial than the values of the culture around us.
And by providing us with comfort, courage, and community, common worship encourages us to believe we can actually attain that higher calling--together.
As George R. R. Martin reminds us, the world can be a hard, cold, and frightening place.
But together, our voices lifted in worship, we sing against the coming of the dark.