Friday, November 8, 2013

Johnny Cash, Comedy and Fellowship: The Sunday Assembly (‘Atheist Church’) Meets in Nashville

Posted By on Fri, Nov 8, 2013 at 3:20 PM

British comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans are in the midst of a worldwide tour to promote The Sunday Assembly, their notion of “a godless congregation that celebrates life.” Thursday night they came to Nashville, the only Southern stop on the nine-city U.S. leg of their 40-city global trek.

Around 75 people gathered in folding chairs in a venue called The Building, just off Five Points in East Nashville, curious to hear just what kind of gospel the antic-yet-earnest Brits are spreading. Despite reports from other cities, including the comedians’ home base in London, The Sunday Assembly isn’t a concept that is easy to figure out.

Evans and Jones were invited by organizers of The Sunday Assembly Nashville, including artist Landry Butler.

As Jim Ridley explained on Country Life earlier this week, The Sunday Assembly Nashville “promises a lot of the things people traditionally get from church services: music, fellowship, a raising of spirits and voices. Just, y’know, without the dude in the sky.”

The Sunday Assembly motto includes three principles, “Live better, help often, wonder more,” and the theme of this evening was “live better.”

The show kicked off with a live band playing Folsom Prison Blues, with the audience encouraged to stand, clap and sing along.

Then came a brief introduction by Jones, a gangly comic with a beard, a blond mane and a one-two punch of wildly unrestrained enthusiasm and self-deprecating wit. (He and his buddy Evans frequently use the form of outreach known as “reaching out your arms and hugging people.”)

Next, Butler recited a spoken-word piece, followed by the local speaker of the evening, Nashville psychotherapist Steven Davidson, Ph.D.

The crowd was diverse in age, and before his address, Davidson warned that he would be talking about sex, since his specialty is clinical sexology. But his presentation wasn’t particularly graphic. No pictures, no body parts mentioned. It centered mostly on understanding ourselves and the negative portrayals of sex we’re exposed to in society, learning to express ourselves and communicating with our partners.

In his closing remarks, Davidson briefly mentioned celibacy as one of a person’s many options, and comedian Jones ran with that, pointing to his own appearance and saying the best way to become celibate is to “grow a beard and look like a shipwrecked Bee Gee.”

Other highlights of the evening included the singing of “Imagine” by John Lennon (the secular humanist anthem), a round of an icebreaker game that involved clapping, and Jones’ keynote, where he talked about his belief that there is no afterlife. Because we come from nothing and go to nothing, he said, we have to make the most of our life on earth.

Jones mentioned that his mother died when he was just 10, and what a devastating blow that was, but said he’s now learned to be grateful for the 10 years with her that he had.

He mentioned the “positive psychology” work of Martin Seligman. (Local organizer Butler later mentioned that this was the work he studied while at Trevecca University, and that was part of what drew him to The Sunday Assembly.)

Jones talked a lot about trying to self-induce gratitude, and while that may sound like a dismal self-help cliché, he turned it into a genuinely funny comedy riff.

The evening ended with a rousing sing-along to “Hey Jude.” (This being Nashville, somebody stepped up from the crowd to melisma the heck out of it at the microphone).

Then came announcements of future meetings, followed by apple cider and chatting — what church folk call fellowship.

After passing a cardboard box for donations (which Jones said will go to local organizers to cover the cost of renting the venue and other immediate expenses), Jones and Evans moved around the crowd, talking and hugging (in Jones’ case, sometimes executing a crane-like bend due to the height differential).

Evans said she’s been a fan of Nashville for a while; she visited in 2010 on her honeymoon, which included a trip across the U.S. and a stop at Dollywood. “We have buskers in London, but the buskers here are so good,” she said. “Why are they not all signed?” Positive thinking, indeed.

According to David Lyle, another local organizer with Butler, Nashville almost didn’t make it on The Sunday Assembly tour.

“Atlanta really wanted it,” he said, with a slight touch of glee. You see, somehow the interest generated on Nashville’s Eventbrite page got mistakenly overestimated in London.

“I told Sanderson we only had six people,” Lyle said. But despite the numbers, Jones decided to keep Nashville on the itinerary, Lyle added.

“Sanderson told me, ‘I have faith,’ ”

The Sunday Assembly Nashville plans an informal get-together for brunch at Bongo Java East at 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 23.

The next official Sunday Assembly is set for Sunday, Dec. 8, at The Building, 1008 Woodland St. Visit the Facebook event page here.

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