It’s a Saturday night in mid-December, and despite the freezing temperatures and the impending tempest of finals, Angell Hall Auditorium A at the University of Michigan is packed. Students and families have crowded into the rows of cramped seats, and there’s a folding table along the back wall piled high with veggie trays, cookie platters and boxes of Entenmann’s Little Bites. The biannual Good News Christian a cappella concert is about to start.
The performance begins with a video, projected on the screen at the front of the room. In the video, Good News members do a variety of skits about the ordinary stresses of college life: an awkward date at Bubble Island, a looming exam, catching the flu at an inconvenient time. All this, they explain, is why they feel a bit unprepared for the concert — but the show must go on. The video ends with the Good News crew opening the doors of Auditorium A. As their on-screen counterparts enter, so do the flesh-and-blood members of the group. The lights turn back on, and the show begins. Whatever I expected from a performance by the University’s only Christian a cappella group, this wasn’t it.
A few weeks before the concert, I spoke to two Good News members at a tiny table in the South University Espresso Royale: LSA sophomore Maica Mori and Information graduate student Luke Thompson. Mori is in her second year with Good News, and Thompson is in his fifth (he’s been a member since his sophomore year of undergrad). Both Mori and Thompson arrived at the University unsure about how they would integrate their faith into college life.
“I knew I wanted to be a part of a singing group,” Mori explained. “A capella seemed cool.”
When she stumbled upon Good News online, she was intrigued. “I felt really strongly about Good News,” she said. “Joining it has been one of the best college decisions.”
“My sophomore year, I tried to get more engaged with the University,” Thompson said. “I thought I would try to embrace the faith I’d been brought up in and just see if that would help me get to know people and understand my faith better.”
Singing has always been important to both Mori and Thompson, as both a part of worship and outside it.
Thompson grew up Lutheran, and since coming to college, he’s tried out a few different churches in southeast Michigan. He recently settled on Zion Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Detroit, a 600-seat neo-Gothic stone building located down the street from the historic Senate Theater.
Mori was raised Apostolic Pentecostal, a Christian sect with wildly different traditions than Lutheranism.
“I grew up going to a church that has a lot of bands, worship, music, open worship every Sunday,” Mori said. “So I’m used to collective singing Christian songs,”
“And I come from a bunch of stoic Germans,” Thompson joked.
Good News members were raised with all kinds of Christian denominations, which Mori and Thompson believe is part of the group’s strength.
“I grew up in maybe a kind of an older style of church,” Thompson said. “So seeing people who worship in a different way — people who have emotion as more prevalent in the way they worship — it sort of teaches me about how they understand things and I’m able to impart stuff I’ve learned in a more traditional setting.”
“You can come from a very specific denominational background, but then when you come to Good News, you can meet other Christians and see different worship styles and different ways that people live out their faith,” Mori added. “It really causes you to grow as a Christian.”
Mori explained the Apostolic Pentecostal traditions are much more emotive than those of the Lutheran services Thompson grew up attending.
“It’s the complete opposite side of the coin,” she explained. “It’s a newer (type of Christianity), a whole mixed bag of people. It’s very much big displays of worship. It’s completely different. I visited Luke’s church before and it’s the traditional cathedral thing — the priests came up and they did the goblet of wine.”
At her church, things are far less formal. “It’s very much open,” Mori said. Sometimes, she explained, people even dance during services. “If some people show emotional displays, it’s completely acceptable. If people are crying, things like that.”
Though she began college unsure of how faith would fit into her new routines and rhythms, Mori explained the strength of other Good News members’ devotion has helped her realize that a life with God is the one she wants and needs.
I asked Mori if Good News has changed the way she thinks about religion.
“In more ways than I could talk about with our time,” she said. “It was really cool because coming into college I had this thing, like, I didn’t really want to go to church as much as I used to. My faith was really waning. I would talk to God sometimes and be like ‘God, to be honest, I might take a break from church, I’m not really sure about this.’”
After joining Good News, her initial uncertainty evaporated. Mori said it is the specific blend of community, singing and faith that makes Good News such a good fit for her.
When I asked about the primary goal of the group, they explained the group doesn’t really have a single, defined aim.
“It’s kind of a fun question,” Thompson said. “I think if you ask different members of Good News, you’d get slightly different answers. I mean, ultimately we’re united around the Good News. We want to tell people that are Christian or people that are not Christian that Jesus died so that they could be forgiven.”
“It’s a prayer set to a tune,” Mori explained. “It’s worship set to a tune.”
Music for prayer is nothing new.
“Gregorian chant is like the first a cappella,” Thompson said, “There are reasons they would sing instead of speak everything. There’s a long history in Christianity of using music to express prayer. It’s thousands of years old — we’re just adapting it to the times.”
To prepare for their performances, they spend the first hour and a half of rehearsals singing. The last 30 minutes are devoted to fellowship.
This can take on a variety of different forms. Sometimes members of Good News meet in a stairwell in the Modern Languages Building to sing and worship. Other times it’s bible study, games, prayer or announcements.
“You meet people who are passionate about music and who are passionate about God,” Thompson said. “You get these situations where everybody is definitely different people but we’re able to unite. We’re not just uniting in the way that a lot of choirs do, where you’re uniting because you’ve got to make this music sound good. We’re united in our faith, ultimately.”
As someone who doesn’t take part in organized religion, my discussion with Mori and Thompson gave rise to questions I knew they probably couldn’t answer. I wondered, in the way I think all agnostics and atheists do: How are you so certain? Do you ever have doubts? But these didn’t feel like questions I could ask them. I was there to learn about Good News, not to interrogate the basis and tenacity of their faith.
The closest we came to discussing the experience of belief — the actual physical feeling of piety — was when they talked about singing. They told me about the overwhelming sense of peace and harmony they felt, strong enough to break through stage fright. About performing a solo, surrounded by their friends, their brothers and sisters in Christ.
This, at least, felt as though it shared a boundary with something I could understand. It reminded me of something I learned about two years ago in a class whose material mostly escapes me now.
I took Sociology 100 my freshman year. The class blurs together with the rest of first semester: milk stained with dining hall cereal, the bridge to the Hill, long evenings lost in the strange rush of explaining my whole life to new friends. But one concrete lesson I have not forgotten from Sociology is something LSA lecturer Terence McGinn told us about concerts. Bear with me. I promise this connects to Christian a cappella.
A few years ago, McGinn had a student who wrote an honors thesis about the sociology of concerts. The student was interested in the experience of euphoric connection that many concert-goers report feeling. I found the thesis online. It begins with the author, Jeffrey May, LSA ‘10 and current Michigan Law student, describing his own powerful sense of ecstasy during a cover of the Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place” by The String Cheese Incident.
I confess that I was already intrigued. I love “This Must Be the Place.” A few months ago, some Saturday night when it was still warm out, my friends and I sang it together as we walked home. We were on the corner of Washtenaw Avenue and South University Avenue, waiting to cross the street, and I remember how that moment made me feel more deeply what I’ve always sort of known to be true: that the chimerical promise of whatever is next will always be eclipsed by the hugeness of our anticipation. The memory of the stuff we were waiting for will fade, and what remains is everything else: dancing in someone’s living room while the sun sets, the quiet walk home.
“I’m just an animal looking for a home and / share the same space for a minute or two.”
I think the most tender, supreme pleasures of friendship and community come when we acknowledge the shared things (God, the Talking Heads) that make us feel our own expansiveness. Still, it is — and I say this self-consciously — far easier for me to understand Jeffrey May’s exhilaration than it is for me to imagine Mori or Thompson’s.
When I listened to The String Cheese Incident’s cover of “This Must Be the Place” on Spotify, I thought it was just all right. May even admits that he didn’t initially think much of the rendition. But as the music began to build upon its own energy, something changed for him.
“As the last verse commenced, I started to feel as though I was possessed by an outside power, and my whole body swelled with an alien energy. With this possession came a feeling of empowerment and a sense of peace and calm — everything was finally alright,” May writes. He hesitated to tell anyone about this experience: “I thought that they would have no understanding of what I had seen and experienced: a chance encounter with what I could only desperately call the divine, the transcendent. Had I found God?”
I’ll spoil the thesis here: May decides that it wasn’t God. Instead, he thinks it was collective effervescence, a theory proposed by sociologist Emile Durkheim. Collective effervescence is Durkheim’s way of explaining the heightened emotions that result from participation in a group activity. He argues that being in a group of people who are all on the same page — thinking the same thing, doing the same thing, hearing or singing the same song — can result in a sense of group identification so electrifying that it feels otherworldly.
The word effervescence first came into use in the late seventeenth century. It comes from the Latin word effervescere, which means “to boil over” (ex- meaning “out” plus fervere, which means “to boil”). It wasn’t until the 1800s that the word took on its current meaning: vivacity, liveliness. I like to imagine emotions bubbling and boiling over and making a mess. If only we could always let our interior life express itself this plainly: a temperamental liquid, prone to spilling.
This might all seem only tangentially related to Good News, but as someone who isn’t religious, the idea of collective effervescence helps me understand why participation in this group is so important to its members. College necessarily involves finding out which communities or friends speak to our multitudes, our peculiarities and incongruities. We discover which groups draw out our most interesting selves — which ones make us feel effervescent — and which groups we find tedious and limiting. In Good News, members are allowed to be Christians, college students and singers, all at once. It’s the recognition of the overlap between these identities that makes the group so special to its members.
I began this article with the intention of surveying niche clubs and organizations on campus. University tour guides tout the huge selection of student organizations — more than 2,000 — and I wanted to write about the most unique of the bunch. I thought I knew what the core of the story was going to be: that there are many, many clubs on campus, all of them addressing some specific intersection of identity and interest, all of them strange and silly and quirky and important. I interviewed the president of Craft Beer Club, the co-founder of Game of Thrones Club, the president of Cubing Club and the founder of CurlTalk. I couldn’t seem to go beyond the surface of the questions I was asking, though.
It wasn’t until I spoke to Mori and Thompson that I realized what these clubs have in common is not simply their specificity — it is the fact of their communality. Singing, praying, drinking beer, watching Game of Thrones, solving a Rubik’s Cube, celebrating natural hair: These things can all be done alone. There must be something special, then, about doing them in a group.
Fall of my freshman year, I joined Leim, the University’s only Irish dance group. I did Irish dance for about eight years growing up, and I wanted to keep dancing in college. As a kid, we mostly did solo dancing. Ceilis (group dances) were reserved for special competitions and our annual Christmas shows. But in Leim, we exclusively did Ceilis, and it reinvented Irish dance for me. I was in Leim for just one year, but it was exactly what I needed at the time: a tangible tie to my childhood, a group with whom I could feel identified beyond explanation.
In Leim, we didn’t talk while we were dancing. We were silent, hearing the music, feeling it, remembering the steps, moving our bodies together to make something bigger than ourselves. We held hands in a circle. We moved in and out and formed a line. Sometimes, before we got tired and cranky and forgot what we were supposed to be doing, the separation between our bodies and the music seemed to shrink to nothing. The sound was inside us; we needed it in order to dance and it needed us in order to play.
I may be biased, but Irish music seems to open itself up particularly well to this sense of interconnectedness. How delicately layered are its intricacies, how clean the sliding notes — the kind of sound that longs for movement. For me, there has always been a pure joy in the way the song fits the dance, in the body memory it inhabits. It engenders certainty. It speaks us into conviction. Surely this can’t be so different from singing Christian a cappella.
James Verini wrote in the New Yorker that “This Must Be the Place” is the song that explains the Talking Heads. “It’s been covered by Arcade Fire, MGMT, and the jam band The String Cheese Incident, among others,” he writes. “There are books named for it. Hip brides march down the aisle to it. It’s quoted in mawkish editorials.”
What he means, I think, is that “This Must Be the Place” has become synonymous with a sort of ironic sentimentality, a wistful self-awareness that feels particularly easy to pin on young people (and people who miss being young). This article might very well be the mawkish editorial that Verini dismisses. But I’d much rather be mawkish than apathetic. I’m thinking of Leslie Jamison when she wrote, “I want our hearts to be open.” It seems both especially easy and especially hard to have open hearts in college. We want to be known for who we are, but we also wonder: Who are we? Perhaps having open hearts is the problem and the solution; we find those who make our hearts feel open by first opening them.
Humans are pack animals, college students even more so. We want to figure it out. A pizza is ordered; a final is failed; we call home. We call each other. We try to find the people who will help us move forward into the future and for whom we are able to do the same — the ones who bolster our certainty that the world is endlessly capable of containing whatever we can manifest.
Verini writes, “‘This must be the place’—it’s not a statement of certainty, is it? It’s not ‘This is the place.’ It’s more ‘This is what someone said the place was.’ It’s even a little desperate. ‘I don’t know what I’ll do if this isn’t the place.’”
College: Someone once told us that this was the place, and now we’re trying to see exactly what kind of place that is, and where within it we are supposed to fit. This must be the place — but only because we’re here together, because it’s all happening right now and this is where.