Members of the Worship Committee couldn't bring themselves to get really angry at Betty Simmons for providing "lunch." They had determined long ago that elaborate goodies at every meeting was a tradition that had expired with gender-based Bible studies—the Men's Society vs. The Martha Society (and why was it never called Women's Society?). Everyone agreed that in a culture already cholesterol-sensitive, there would, henceforth, be no more late lunches—nothing but coffee, or, preferably, apple juice.
Everyone agreed—but that was before Betty was appointed.
Betty didn't know about the decision, but she sure knew how to bake. German chocolate cake. Cream puffs with real whipped cream. Ice cream torte with a crust of crushed Oreos. Fruit pizza, with sliced strawberries afloat on a lagoon of cream cheese ... She didn't do it out of spite or for some desire for one-upspersonship. Mid-meeting, she'd simply slip away momentarily, pull on a checkered apron, and, with the same pearl-handled spatula each week, unload the goods on her own china. She didn't appear to regard her baking as a burden; nor did she ever whine, Marthalike. She simply loved to bake—a gift the other women members of the committee silently regarded with equal portions of awe and guilt. The men loved it, although they said nothing.
Betty was obviously a token member. The worship committee was composed of two English teachers (litany writers), three musicians, an artist for church banners, the pastor's wife (an M.A. in Theater Arts and a marvel at children's sermons), a professor of mathematics who was an expert in Gregorian chant, and, of course, an elder (albeit a progressive one) to try to keep the committee in tune with consistorial sensitivities. All of them and Betty, who everyone understood was chosen simply because she represented a kind of naive approach to liturgy, someone with the sensitivities of the masses.
Knowing who the committee members were and how Betty fit in may make it easier to understand what happened when one September evening, out of nowhere, Betty suggested that she thought it would be a great idea for First Church, come Christmas, to put together a live nativity scene. After all, she said, Springfield did it last year and had a traffic jam for more than three hours, three nights running.
Bud Lemmons, an organist, wondered silently about frostbite.
"We've got plenty of farmers in this church. We wouldn't have any trouble getting animals," Betty said. "And we have this spacious front lawn, close to the street. We could draw a wonderful crowd."
Andrea Forsyte wondered about the space between Betty's ears.
When no one said a word, Betty shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know," she said. "It just seemed to work pretty good for Springfield—they even got on the news."
Most of the congregation regarded the Worship Committee as an ecclesiastical think tank—precision intellects, persuasive speakers. But that night, in the wake of Betty's suggestion, there was nothing but silence, largely because everyone else, even elder Rynen, felt the proposal was almost gauche. A live nativity scene? The idea was at best sophomoric.
Betty looked around at ashen faces and understood that she'd obviously said something offensive. "Is it wrong or something?" she said timidly. "Is it against church order?"
Rynen looked at Andrea, hoping that a woman might be able to handle Betty more deftly than he could.
"I'm sorry," Betty said. "I just thought I'd bring it up."
"No, no, no, no, no—don't be sorry" Rynen protested. After all, he didn't want her mad. "Let's talk about it a minute here." He stepped cautiously into his role as chairman. "Andrea, what do you think about Betty's idea?"
Andrea Forsyte had the kind of sickly look one wears after a late-night orgy of Haagen Daze. She knew Marv Rynen was simply delegating his authority by asking her to douse Betty's enthusiasm. That was just like him—delegate, delegate, delegate—especially to women. So she threw up her hands in front of her face. "I don't know," she said. "Could we pull it off?"
Rynen swallowed hard.
"I'm sure we could get volunteers and—I'll help with the costuming," Betty said. "I can sew." It was painfully obvious that her enthusiasm had long ago boarded a runaway train.
Dr. Rumbaldt, the professor, coughed before speaking, as if to draw the others' attention. "I don't know if it's a good idea," he said, and everyone sat back as if some long-awaited liberation had finally begun. "We'd need some kind of permit for the animals, wouldn't
"Frieda Waanders is on city council," Betty said. "I don't think that would be a problem. After all, they're doing these nativity pageants all over the country. I mean, it's a big thing."
"Maybe we should appoint a committee," chairman Rynen said. "It's only September. We could appoint a committee and have them study the idea. Ah, Andrea, how about it?—will you serve? And Dr. Rumbaldt?—and Laura?—and how about you, Les—you'd make a pretty decent wise man yourself with that beard."
"Could I be on it?" Betty said. "I mean, it was my idea."
Andrea wasn't going to let the opportunity to bludgeon Marv Rynen get by. "Betty really has to serve, Marv. She's right—it was her idea."
"And you'll chair it, Andrea?" he said, fangs bared.
"I really can't," she said. "I've got a play coming up once football season is over—and it's going to be a musical."
Betty's eyebrows had begun to fall, to curl in fact, for the first time in the six months since she'd been on the committee. "Am I out to lunch on this or something?" she said. "It was just an idea. I get the feeling the rest of you think it's silly or wrong." She brought her hands up in front of her, palms together, as if she were about to pray. "Would someone explain?"
No one spoke.
"I'm sorry," Betty said. "Maybe I'll just get lunch." She looked around, then stood, backed up her chair, and marched away into the kitchen.
"It's boorish," Andrea said, once Betty was out of sight. "It's exploitive and ahistorical."
"At a minimum it's sensationalists," Dr. Rumbaldt said. "Besides, I think it's pushing the limits of the second commandment. What are we going to use for Jesusósomebody's kid? Who's going to let a baby stay outside that long? This is the Midwest, after all, not the desert Holy Land."
"It's simply garish," said Laura, the resident artist. "I don't care about the theologyóit's got the finesse of nickel-and-dime art deco. It's bona fide kitsch."
"But is it wrong?" Les said. "I mean, is it somehow wrong?"
"How do you mean wrong?" Laura said.
"I mean, does it violate something substantial?"
"My taste," Laura said.
"I think it's atrocious," Rumbaldt said. "I think it's a travesty of the dignity of the night. Think of all these people driving by and gawking at a cartoon crecheócomplete with defecating cattle. Contrast that with the splendor of Eliot's poem. My word, consider the Magnificat. Wow," he said, rolling his eyes, "we've come a long way, baby."
"But is it wrong!" Les said. "Nobody's answered my question."
"Let the Foursquare Tabernacle put it on," Andrea said. "It's their kind of thing. Our profile is more high church, isn't it? What kind of image are we trying to project here—"
"What is this, marketing?" Les said, leaning over the table in a whisper. "Why are we against it?"
"Next thing you know, she'll want the crucifixion," Laura said.
"It's been done," Les said. "But I'd suggest that we need more than our collective sense of good taste to deal with this. You know the problem," he told them. "If somebody's doing it—and it's getting publicity—then we come off just sitting on our hands again—too uptight to try anything new, frozen dead beneath the ice cap of good taste."
"What's the motivation?—is it evangelism?" Andrea said.
"Simply spectacle," Laura said.
"Innovation," Dr. Rumbaldt claimed. "Something 'different'—the gospel of our whole society nowadays. Nothing but a show—pure entertainment."
"Sentimentalism, cheap theology, a desecration," Laura told them. "Is that strong enough?"
"I think it's a problem of humanity getting in the way of the gospel," Bud said, "people standing there taking the spotlight off the real meaning of—"
"Like special music?" Les said.
"—the show overshadowing the truth—you can't see the forest for the trees."
Les shook his head. "Is it somehow preferable to have a Sunday School Christmas program?" When no one spoke, Les took a deep breath. "Someone explain the difference."
"At least in the program no one plays God!" Rumbaldt said. "Ach, it's not in good taste. It's a horrible idea—a sacrilege, plain and simple."
"Then you tell her," Les said. "You tell her it's a sin." Everyone was silent.
When Betty came in, aproned, she held a stack of dishes in one hand and a mincemeat pie in the other, her spatula jutting forth from beneath already cut pieces. "I thought we might be talking about Advent," she said, "so I tried to think of something appropriate." She sat the pie down and began apportioning pieces. "It's a little more runny than I would like, but getting the consistency just right is so difficult with mincemeat—you know what I mean?"
"Of course," Rumbaldt said.
Once she had dished it up, she passed each plate along individually, then sat, fork in hand. "Well, where are we?" she said. "What did I miss?"
Andrea scowled at Rynen, Rumbaldt picked at his raisins, and Laura tried to smile.
"So, come on," Betty said. "What do you think?—right out here on the lawn, big spots. Wise men and shepherds."
It was Les who finally broke the silence. He told Betty that it was really terrific pie, the best mincemeat he'd ever hadówonderful pie, in fact, perfect—to which everyone, in turn, exuberantly agreed. It was marvelous pie, they said. "What great pie, Betty," they all said. "What absolutely great pie."