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Studying Multimodal Religion

The study of Christmas concerts in churches is based on a combination of social semiotics and sociology of religion. Social semiotics is a theory of meaning-making in different social contexts; thus, the theory has both a textual and a social focus. Concepts from social semiotics remain more focused on texts than on the social context, and key researchers such as Theo van Leeuwen (2005: 1) recommend that the theory should be linked to other social theories. Sociology offers a theoretical basis for understanding the context of the texts being studied. While social semiotics and sociology partly overlap one another, they relate differently to their object of study. Sociology traditionally studies social contexts and focuses to a high degree on verbal texts, while social semiotics studies a broader set of modes, or forms of expression. The combination of disciplines can prove fruitful, as sociology has rather poor conceptual resources for analysing multimodal expressions, while social semiotics needs elements taken from sociology in order to describe the social contexts in which the cultural expressions are embedded.

Social semiotics, then, relates to a multimodal concept of text (Kress 2010). A central feature in the social semiotics tradition deals with how combinations of different modes or semiotic resources - verbal, auditory and visual - are used in different social contexts. In the following presentation of a qualitative study of Christmas concerts, we will discuss how this multimodal interaction can affect the meaning-making in the relevant texts, as well as how the use of multimodal data can influence the researcher's viewpoint and forms of interpretation.

Various modes have different ability to create meaning - in social semiotics often called 'the affordance of a mode'. A photograph, for example, may arouse strong emotions in a reader who has only cast a glance at it, while verbal language provides greater opportunity to construct an argument over time. Music is well-suited to immediately re-creating a mood through the cultural connotations and the memories it evokes. The emphasis of the different modes in the compound expressions and time the receiver invests in the meaning-making activity are important premises in the process of interpretation.

Christmas Concerts: An Evocative Ritual

In our study of Christmas concerts in Norwegian churches, we have come up with a typology of such concerts. Local amateur concerts can be found in different versions. They are an arena for displaying the richness and versatility of singers, musicians and choirs in the local community. As such they can be said to contribute to a kind of civil religion on the local level, intertwining a Christian heritage with local cultural patriotism. A similar version is the amateur congregation concert, where the artists have a connection to the congregation. In all such local concerts, a significant part of the audience consists of family and friends of the artists. Proud parents and grandparents often admire the efforts of their young children and adolescents.

Another type of concert is the musically ambitious concert, also called the classical music concert. These are usually organized in cathedrals and cathedral like churches, often with a rich and resourceful musical life. Bach and Händel and other composers in the oratorium or cantata styles are often presented at such concerts.

Thirdly, we have the commercial entertainment concerts with popular music, often touring in December and visiting several churches. While the Christmas concerts using local musical resources have a much longer tradition in Norwegian churches, commercial concerts started in the late 1980s, and their popularity increased during the 1990s. We will return to some characteristics of these concerts.

Christmas concerts in churches have become an important part of church rituals for many Norwegians. In January 1912 we conducted a quantitative survey through TNS Gallup, giving a representative picture of participation in Christmas concerts in churches among Norwegians over 18 years old in December 1911. It turned out that 31 per cent - almost a third of the population - had attended at least one such concert before Christmas. Most of these visitors attend only one concert. Only 3 per cent of the population go to church for these concerts three times or more. The concerts presenting local amateur artists attract the largest audience, even though the commercial entertainers get more media attention. The survey shows that the popularity of these concerts seems to have stabilized over the past five years, after enjoying a period of increasing attendance.

Who goes to Christmas concerts in churches? Attendance increases with age (although we do not have data on concert-goers under 18). More women than men attend. People with a low level of education go more seldom. The commercial and local concerts seem to especially attract middle-class people, often in occupations within education and welfare. There is also an (admittedly weak) tendency that people with high academic education attend classical concerts more than average. Although regular churchgoers are over-represented in the audience at all types of Christmas concerts, they are joined by many others, as there are many more visitors to such concerts than to ordinary Sunday services (Lovland and Repstad 2013).

In December 2006 and 2007, we spent several evenings at Christmas concerts in churches in and around Kristiansand, which is a city in the southernmost part of Norway with a population well over 100,000, if you include nearby communities. We attended several concerts, as did a few of our colleagues and doctoral and master students, each equipped with a fairly detailed observation guide that we had prepared. We analysed field notes from nearly 30 Christmas concerts. Most of the concerts took place in the Church of Norway, but we also visited concerts in so-called free churches - Lutheran as well as Pentecostal.[1] The study has been followed up in recent years by our more sporadic visits to church concerts.

Christmas and Christmas celebration are phenomena affecting most Norwegians, although there is a big difference in how this holiday season is experienced and interpreted. For example, some people feel that the Christian interpretation of Jesus' birth is central to the holiday, while others emphasize the folk-cultural interpretation of the holiday, with Santa Claus as the main character of the festivities (or his Norwegian cousin the nisse). One can also find combinations of the two beliefs, including the child in the manger and Santa handing out gifts, or where the use of light - physically or metaphorically - can be interpreted both secularly and in a Christian manner. Celebrating Christmas may be about family and joy as well as the commercial pressure to spend money, or it can present a challenge for people to show Christian charity to others less fortunate than they are. Many people experience and interpret the Christmas celebration in many ways and declare their different interpretations in different contexts. We perhaps run around town busily going Christmas shopping before enjoying making gingerbread cookies with children and grandchildren while humming along with a Christmas hymn being sung on the TV in the background.

The aesthetic expression conveyed from a Christmas concert opens up for experiences that can be interpreted in many ways. The public often meets a startling puzzle of audio, verbal and visual elements which, to a greater extent than a traditional liturgy or sermon, allows for a complex aesthetic experience. While people encounter open symbols such as lighted candles and stars, first and foremost it is the music that brings back memories of past experiences. The situation encourages an immediate experience. The audience spends an hour or two of their pre-Christmas time at the concert, and the situation does not encourage repetition or clarification of ambiguities. It is this situation that must be in the researcher's focus. A thorough analysis of various parts of the concert, for example an isolated content analysis of the old hymn texts, is less interesting to us, since they do not have functional load in this situation.

We conclude that experience is more important than the doctrinal content. Puzzle pieces are put together to provide space for various forms of faith, including some Christian elements, although not necessarily expressing a clear dogmatic standpoint. We have noted that many of the songs have ambiguous texts. Several of the songs contain words like light, darkness and stars, while others contain thoughts about love. In many cases the texts can be interpreted religiously, focusing on God who in his love for mankind brings light into the darkness of the world. But without a Christian frame of reference, the songs may be heard as referring to human conditions (love between man and woman, and so on). The star may be either the Star of Bethlehem or a completely ordinary star.

We have seen that most Christmas concerts try to build bridges between church and general culture. The religion of humanity card is played at almost all the concerts, in commercial as well as local amateur concerts. The concept religion of humanity is borrowed from Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas (2000), where it is opposed to religion of difference. A religion of humanity in general connects God with human endeavour for a better world, while religion of difference stresses the distance between a strong and strict God and a sinful world in need of strict moral rules and grace from God. Woodhead and Heelas devote a great deal of attention to what they call experiential religions of difference, a type which combines subjective experience with a firm dogmatic framework. Pentecostal, charismatic religion is the main example of this type of religion, which carries with it quite a lot of potential inner tensions, as subjective experience may lead away from the dogmatic heritage. We have found some examples of experiential religion of difference in a few concerts in so-called free churches. However, the main tendency in the Christmas concerts seems to be in the direction of experiential religions of humanity, combining a friendly and liberal religion with an appeal to the senses. As we shall see, this is especially what we find when we include not only verbal texts, but also the whole range of semiotic resources in our analysis.

Old Christmas hymns and Norwegian folk songs are easily followed by local versions of Elvis' 'Blue Christmas' and songs in the American crooner tradition, like 'White Christmas' and 'Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire' (which is by no means intended as a discreet warning to stay on the narrow path). The aesthetic expression is influenced by the commercial Christmas culture. For many people Walt Disney is a more important supplier of Christmas spirit than the church, and during Christmas concerts the religious and commercial Christmas spirits tend to melt together, accompanied by 'When You Wish Upon a Star'.

Only a few decades ago, there were intense discussions among church people about what kind of music and lyrics could be played in churches and chapels; today, all kinds of musical styles seem to have access. To the extent that objections are raised, they seem to be more an expression of middle-class taste than one based on religious or theological limitations. So, we may expect rap and hard rock in churches when new generations with new tastes take over leading positions in churches. So far, however, they have not passed through the church doors in December. As for song lyrics, anything goes as long as it is not explicitly at odds with what may loosely be called a positive worldview. To name just one example, we have listened to merry Swedish summer love songs performed by Swedish pop singer Lill Lindfors in a Christmas concert at the cathedral in the city of Kristiansand.

Over the years, the audience as well has gained access to a broader menu of expressions. For instance, applause is now not only accepted in churches, but often actively encouraged. This is a clear liberalization compared to the situation found only a couple of decades ago, when God alone should be praised, not human endeavour. Still, a few elderly people hesitate to clap their hands in church; however, the ice is always broken when somebody under 14 is on stage, singing, playing or dancing.

Although practically all the concerts we attended communicated a soft and friendly Christianity, they are not without Christian content. Even if references to Hell and perdition are completely absent, references to God's power are not. In songs and what is said between songs, it is expressed and taken as a given that a small child in a manger has represented an important divine intervention in the history of mankind. However, the musical expression has the strongest functional load during concerts. The still popular Christmas hymns from eighteenth-century Danish Pietist poet and bishop H.A. Brorson often have lyrics expressing 'hard' dogma, containing a pessimistic anthropology and describing this world as a 'valley of tears'. However, the soft, warm and evocative packaging makes the whole setting quite harmless. The valley of tears become almost cosy in a context of harmonious music, nice people and small talk about childhood Christmas memories made by the performers between songs.

The American sociologist Randall Collins offers an understanding of how rituals can generate what he calls emotional energy. According to Collins, the starting point for rituals is that two or more people form a group identity. This need not be a close relationship, as physical proximity is enough. This group must also be delimited from other individuals or groups in some way. The group must have a common focus of attention on a common object. Such a situation can generate emotions that can be exacerbated by the fact that participants are part of a rhythmic, regular course (Collins 2004).

It is not difficult to place the Christmas concerts into such a model. The people attending a Christmas concert are gathered physically close to each other. Sometimes they also know each other because they belong to the same church or local community, but this is not a prerequisite. Moreover, while these concerts are usually open to all who wish to participate, the architectural style of the church makes it easy to define who actually participates and who does not. However, borders against non-participants are seldom thematized, so the 'we-feeling' is not created or strengthened by highlighting the distance from 'the others out there'. Such aspects are not the most salient at the Christmas concerts as ritual events. There may be talk about the positive value of the faith community as well as similarly positive talk about the local community. In addition to the collocation, the audience also has a common focus of attention. They are there to hear and see the musical programme. The concerts are also included in a rhythmic cycle following the calendar and the church year, and each concert features a number of repetitive similarities.

Arild Danielsen also makes use of this theory in his study of art and culture events describing the emotional energy that occurs as a mindset or a mood:

Those who take part in a ritual will not only focus on the same concrete or abstract object, but also be elevated into a more or less clearly pre-defined mindset. (Danielsen 2006: 122)

Mood or mindset is a concept matching well the emotional energy we experienced at many concerts. Danielsen also writes that eventually a synchronization of attention and emotions occur among the participants. Such synchronization allows participants to experience a strengthening of their own emotions, and they thus experience an increased emotional intensity. The Christmas concerts we attended ended almost without exception with the audience standing up and singing the old hymn 'Deilig er jorden' [Beautiful Saviour] together. Although field observation does not give us access to people's thoughts and feelings, we often experienced a quiet, reverent and thoughtful mood among those leaving the church after singing.

  • [1] For a more comprehensive report on this qualitative study of Christmas concerts, see L0vland and Repstad (2008). The only English publication from this study so far is Repstad (2008), dealing mainly with Christmas concerts in churches as a phenomenon helping to maintain vicarious religion (Davie 2007).
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