The Most Religious Song in the Songbook

The Most Religious Song in the Songbook January 1, 2016
Popcorn Tree
The Popcorn Tree

Name the most genuinely religious song in the songbook that the LDS church has approved for the Sunday spirituality of children.

For outsiders, the LDS church (often mis-identified as the Mormon church) has made a great effort over the past half-century to restrict decision-making power among adherents to the smallest possible number of men, residing in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. All matters of LDS spiritual life are determined by Salt Lake City fiat, from what notions of god are “true”, to things as trivial as whether or not a person can blow a trumpet in an LDS chapel (that would be: no).

The bewildering exception is excommunication. SLC HQ does not allow local leaders to balance their congregations’ checkbooks, and does not even allow local leaders to decide how long services will last. But in the case of excommunication—the eternal, spiritual execution of members—local leaders are, for some reason, entirely free to act as they will.

Never mind that head scratcher, for the moment.

The SLC centralization of (just about) everything LDS means that there is a single children’s songbook that is permitted in the Sunday gatherings of LDS children anywhere, everywhere, in the world.

As it happens, the one thing my local congregation still allows me to do is play the piano for children’s services. For awhile, I was playing the organ for general services, but I got myself fired from that job by opting to play “Rock of Ages” during the LDS equivalent of communion. Apparently, this was a choice so inappropriate that I had to be stripped of my organ-playing keys, though no particularly compelling rationale against “Rock of Ages” as a sacrament hymn has ever been offered.

Never mind that, either.

I quite like playing the piano for the kiddies. I mostly disagree with what the approved songbook teaches them, and I mostly keep my mouth shut about it. The kiddies mostly prefer what we call “wiggle songs”, anyway. These are innocuous ditties that allow kids—who are forced by SLC- fiat to sit still for long periods of time—to jump around, make noise, and say silly things that have little to do with the mind-numbingly boring dogma that SLC has decided they must learn. This is to say that the “wiggle songs” let kids be kids.

I had something of an epiphany this past Sunday while one of these wiggle songs was working itself out. It struck me that one of the pointless, meaningless wiggle songs that I, myself, sang a thousand times as a child without giving it a second spiritual thought, is the most genuinely religious song in the children’s corpus. Maybe in all of the LDS church’s approved music.

There is a song—approved by SLC for the singing of LDS children—that chronicles the experience of an anonymous individual on what seems to be a Spring day. This anonymous person looks out of a window to see an apricot tree in bloom. That vision inspires in the anonymous individual a rather glorious vision:

I looked out the window and what did I see?
Popcorn popping on the apricot tree.

This vision sends the anonymous individual into a medieval reverie, in which he or she inhabits a meta-self that co-inhabits the world of popcorn-bearing tree branches.

I could take an armful and make a treat,
A popcorn ball that would smell so sweet.

Which brings the ditty to its crescendo, and the anonymous individual to his/her most religious of religious realizations:

It wasn’t really so, but it seemed to be,
Popcorn popping on the apricot tree.

No song in this approved songbook even nearly captures the essence and value of religion so well as this putative wiggle song.

As this song teaches the impressionable young minds of the next LDS generation, realities are multiple, and coexistent, and the boundaries between them are permeable. The creative play we undertake, including ritual, brings realities alongside each other, and engenders and enhances the experience of them. We can understand religion—a concept of relatively recent invention, incidentally—as the human activity that labors to reveal and to overlap realities.

Which is not to deny empiricism or positivism, at all. The wiggle song has figured out that some things aren’t really so, but only seem to be. In a perfectly empirical, positivist way, what seems to be can be experienced just as it seems, in the rational here-and-now.

There’s some of Dewey’s “postulate of immediate empiricism”, here, of course (and, certainly, what Dewey had to say about religion when he wasn’t talking about religion is a deeper analysis of religion than what emerges about religion when he was). “Things are what they are experienced to be,” Dewey asserted, and “every experience is some thing.”*

The apricot tree is, indeed, just that. And when we play—when we jump around, make noise, and say silly things—we can experience the apricot tree and its blooms as something else, as well. That experience is not diminished or undermined by the acknowledgement of the noisy, jumping, silly activity that brought it about.

It’s a great, glorious thing that the attempts to make LDS-Mormon life globally uniform still admit this affirmation of what children intuit, naturally: the experience of a popcorn tree outside a Spring window can be as real as anything else is real, and this experience does not make the apricot tree not an apricot tree.

That’s why “Popcorn Popping” is the most genuinely religious song in the LDS church’s children’s songbook. And I don’t expect any song to unseat it, until SLC decides for everyone that popcorn must be popcorn, and commissions a sad rewrite of the best lyric in Mormondom, thus:

It was lit-er-all-y so—a popcorn tree, because:
Salt Lake City Correlation said it was.

Happy Playful New Year.

*Dewey, John. “The Postulate of Immediate Empiricism”, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods 2.15 (1905): 399.

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