Doonesbury, Gershwin, and the Mash-up, Multi-Faith Metaphor
In today’s “Doonesbury,” Garry Trudeau acknowledges the interfaith zeitgeist. In the strip, a medic informs a military chaplain that a patient is going to survive and won’t need last rites, after all. The medic notes that the patient “was worried he wasn’t eligible for rites. He’s from some sort of multi-faith family.” The chaplain replies that this would not have been a problem. The medic asks, “You do mash-ups?” The chaplain responds, “It’s not pretty, but yeah.”
In a handful of words, Trudeau touches on several key interfaith family issues. First, note his use of the term “multi-faith family,” which indicates to me that perhaps my insistence on using “interfaith,” which I defended in a recent blog post, is indeed behind the times. Trudeau has an ear for the sound of the future; I am reconsidering my stance.
Calling an interfaith prayer or ceremony a “mash-up” is awfully clever, and appeals to me as a tech-savvy adult (and obviously would appeal to my iPod-addicted teens). On the other hand, I think I will resist taking up this term. I am just too old-school I guess. To use a musical analogy, when I hear appropriated bits and pieces of music in a current hit, I enjoy them, but for me, the joy is in using the mash-up as an opportunity to teach my children about the original music being mashed.
For instance, both my teens and I love Sublime’s 1996 hit “Doin’ Time.” My kids happen to know that it is based on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” because I sang the original to them as a lullaby, and because my father and my son both play the tune as jazz pianists. We are educated insiders, we get the reference. I worry about kids who are ignorant of Gershwin, who don’t understand that Sublime did not actually write the hook on which they are caught.
In the same vein, I worry about mash-up interfaith prayers or services: unless our children understand the references, appreciate the originals, they lose the historical context. I believe interfaith children should be grounded in the classics, in the rites and rituals of both their Christian and Jewish heritages. Am I just uncool?
At the same time, I understand the gleeful power of the mash-up. My teens, all teens, resonate with the harmonics and the dissonance, the new produced by combining and overlapping old tracks. They have an intuititve understanding of Ecclesiastes (that “there is nothing new under the sun”): that all religion, and art, evolve through recombination.
Trudeau also touches on the reality that clergy are acting, by necessity, as deejays: they are innovating, riffing on traditional rites for every life transition, in order to accomodate their interfaith flocks. Often, they are writing and performing new rituals quietly, without permission from institutional authorities, because institutions lag considerably in comprehending that this is the dawning of the Age of the Interfaith.
Trudeau also hints at the truth that many clergy are ambivalent about their roles on the cutting edge of creating and leading interfaith liturgy. “It’s not pretty,” the chaplain sighs. The mash-up makes her long for the original, the unadulterated Gershwin. But Gershwin, in Porgy and Bess, was appropriating, transforming, mashing-up the African-American gospel form with jazz and opera. And religions have been cross-fertilizing since the beginning of time. There is nothing new under the sun.
Finally, Trudeau refers, obliquely, to a conundrum facing this first great generation of interfaith families as we age: how do we gracefully ritualize the end of our lives in an interfaith world? I personally know a Jewish man whose wife was exhumed after someone decided to enforce a prohibition against non-Jews being buried in a Jewish cemetery. My own mother, after more than fifty years of interfaith marriage, makes nervous jokes about needing to do a deathbed conversion before she can be buried in our family plot. Our interfaith community is seeking a solution: a final resting place for interfaith families. Or, if you will, a final mash-up.