Tokens: A Review by Randy Spivey

This week, we're pleased to feature a review by Randy Spivey of our previous Tokens Show from last November. Your next chance to experience Tokens will be this Thursday, March 7, 2013. A limited number of tickets remain available via our Tickets page. "Bad Liturgy leads to bad ethics." – Hauerwas

There are very few rooms like the Ryman Auditorium. Other rooms can be greedy rooms that sound can never fill up, rooms that take all you offer and are never satisfied. Then there are rooms that take all your sound indiscriminately, as if it doesn’t quite know what to do with it, bouncing every echo every reverberation, losing the clarity and purity of the sound. The Mother Church is not greedy, nor is she indiscriminate. The stained glass and the wooden pews embrace what you give her, caring for each note separately and distinctly. It is a joy to be in that room with musicians that understand, who love and appreciate the room for how it cares for sound. I saw Elvis Costello do an abbreviated set there once—just Elvis and an acoustic guitar, and he loved the room. He spent the evening playing with the room, playing with the sounds, walking farther and farther away from his mic, grinning widely in the embrace of the Mother Church.

Token’s presentation of the Welcome Table was a night full of people who loved the room.  From the beginning, JohnnySwim (Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez), backed by the Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys, pulled the crowd into the present and the past of the Ryman. They tore into their song, “Home” and let the song blend smoothly into a beautiful, playful tribute to Johnny and June’s “Jackson”. Calling to the past from the present, not just for memory, but for guidance. From the beginning, the players were determined to stretch the room, never settling into the comfortable expectations of genre. With Daily and Vincent high and lonesome harmonies, tearing at the timbers of the planked ceiling, with the McCrary Sisters powerful voices ripping up the floor boards and testing the structural integrity of the stained glass, with the substance and grace of Vince Gill and the Nashville Choir; the Welcome Table filled the room.

As good as the music was, the Welcome Table was also good liturgy. Lee brought together a group of wonderfully talented artists to benefit Room in the Inn; to help fill tables that were empty, to help ease bodies that were tired and cold, and in short, to bring good news. The Welcome Table’s music (and even the comedy) shaped our focus, pulling us always towards the hungry, the alone, and the outcast. The Welcome Table asked us to take each reality and pick it up and turn it over in our hands, before allowing us to sing along with Buddy Greene the almost, dirge-like, “O Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” That is good liturgy.

I love these Tokens Ryman shows because Lee will not leave the room alone. He insists on reminding it (and us) of what it was and what it could be. The room was a church; a room where good news was always meant to be proclaimed—an offering of grace to the city. To fill it with sounds, however beautiful and breathtaking they may be, and fail call pain to account and proclaim good news falls short of the intended purpose of the Mother Church.  It leaves those sounds, however beautiful and breathtaking, with out a home, without a beginning, and without a table around which they can be embraced, understood in their depths and cherished. Lee would never do that to the room, or the beauty he brings into it.

Stanley Hauerwas once said that “bad liturgy leads to bad ethics.” I think he was right about that. I also believe that the inverse is true, that good liturgy, liturgy that calls the pain, evil, and suffering in this world to account and proclaims a new day, leads us to live in the ethic of that new day. The Welcome Table did just that.

If you were not at the Welcome Table, you missed church.

Randy Spivey is the Academic Director for the Institute for Law, Justice and Society at Lipscomb University. His essay “Questioning Society’s Criminal Justice Narratives” appears in And The Criminals With Him.