Menus Subscribe Search

Over the Speakers

holy-name-church

Holy Name Church in Manchester, England. (Photo: Michael D Beckwith/Flickr)

A Tale of 2 Cultures: We Live in a Stadium, but Need a Sanctuary

• July 07, 2014 • 10:00 AM

Holy Name Church in Manchester, England. (Photo: Michael D Beckwith/Flickr)

We need not only to attend events but also to take the time to attend to what happens and reflect on those events in the moment.

Last month I was at a post-commencement party, at which the wife of our college president commented on how many degree recipients milled about during the three-hour outdoor ceremony. Some had to use the restroom, to be sure, but others decamped to talk to family and friends rather than sit through the awarding of degrees to over 1,500 graduates. Having sat through commencement myself, I know the temptation and take note of colleagues who bring books to while away the time. We all treated commencement the same way we might have treated a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

The experience contrasted greatly with a wedding I officiated in May. The couple asked me to invite the guests to put away their cameras and smartphones and not only “attend” the wedding but also “attend to” what was going on. No texting or tweeting; be quiet and stationary, and stay focused.

Over time, humans have learned how, under certain conditions, to sit still and give someone or something undivided attention. Such learning, though, runs counter to who we instinctively are. We are hardwired to pick up the slightest distraction in our environment and to move toward or away from that distraction. The popularity of events such as Wimbledon and the World Cup reminds us that most of us feel far more at home in stadium culture—getting up, moving around, making noise, attending off and on—than in sanctuary culture.

Beyond lower blood pressure and better health outcomes, sanctuary culture at its best forces us to see and hear more of the world around us. It helps us to see and hear that world better.

As I said, many of us at commencement participated in stadium culture, examples of which range from the two-year-old flower girl at the wedding, who sat and stood wherever she wished and made quiet noises to herself, to our behaviors at a rock concert or a filming of the Voice, where audience members are expected to be loud and active. Sanctuary culture, in contrast, finds us relatively quiet, making sound when we are invited to do so (for example, congratulating the bride and groom after the kiss or applauding a performance at a recital) and—above all—staying in one place and not moving around.

Both cultures benefit from technology. Dimmed lights in an auditorium and spotlights on a stage signal sanctuary culture; devices used to photograph and instantly disseminate the experience return us to stadium culture. Both cultures have long been with us, with lectures and libraries and sacred liturgies from christenings to funerals favoring one culture, and with sporting events and marketplaces and secular liturgies from bacchanals to barhopping favoring the other.

Technological advances that help us enter into sanctuary culture are mostly architectural: Spaces that limit auditory and visual distractions and focus attention in one direction come mostly through design, though we speak of natural cathedrals such as the Grand Canyon. And though architecture can assist stadium culture—think of the new soccer palaces in Brazil—the chief technological feature that makes stadium culture possible is multi-directional stimuli, from visual and auditory to tactile and olfactory (think of a dance club with its lights and sounds and other sensations). In short, technology can concentrate attention and distribute attention; it can help us meditate and be more inwardly focused as well as to help us mediate and be more outwardly focused.

In our multitasking world, it should be clear that the preponderance of technology today skews us in the direction of stadium culture. Broadcasting sanctuary culture demands the constant stimulation of multiple camera angles, a concession to stadium culture. Moreover, it is not enough to experience something; I tweet, I blog, I post, I share, therefore I am.

Yes, sharing is an important component of sanctuary culture for those who participate in it in the moment, for those who are present. But our current world doesn’t give us as many opportunities to participate in sanctuary culture as it does stadium culture, to truly be somewhere and only there. Add to this the fact that many of us are avoiding sanctuary culture in our choices of activities, preferring to be in many places at once.

Consider the recent Pew Research Center report, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” which has received a great deal of coverage for how it quantifies the gap between “consistent conservatives” and “consistent liberals”: “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” If you dig deeper, you read about lifestyle preferences that distinguish liberals and conservatives. One of the widest chasms that separates the two groups emerges from how they view art and theater. “And while 73% of consistent liberals say it’s important to them to live near art museums and theaters, just 23% of consistent conservatives agree….”

I teach music that historically has relied on people being able to enter into sanctuary culture, so this liberal-conservative divide disturbs me. I also marvel at the conservative Christian obsession with praise teams and rock music, which renders many evangelical services today more like stadium-style entertainment than sanctuary-style reflection. Religion by itself is no guarantor of sanctuary culture.

Finding and expanding sanctuary culture is mostly a matter of intention. The buzzword of the day—mindfulness—moves toward the center of sanctuary culture. Pausing long enough to reflect on what we’re hearing or seeing or doing throughout our lives moves us toward sanctuary culture. Resisting the temptation to document our experiences through selfies or tweets allows us to try on sanctuary culture. And being with and around others who are actively pausing and consciously experiencing something they know to be wondrous—be it nature or music or liturgy or art or a wedding or a commencement—brings us into sanctuary culture.

And beyond lower blood pressure and better health outcomes, sanctuary culture at its best forces us to see and hear more of the world around us. It helps us to see and hear that world better. And if the history of lectures and libraries and liturgies shows us anything, the deliberation inherent in sanctuary culture, more than the carnivalesque nature of stadium culture, holds the key to make our world better than it is today.

Steve Swayne
Steve Swayne, a contributor to The OpEd Project, is the Jacob H. Strauss 1922 Professor of Music and the music department chair at Dartmouth College. He has received fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition to his work at Dartmouth, he has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at the University of California-Berkeley.

More From Steve Swayne

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.