The Charism of Eccentricity

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The 18th century was a Golden Age of clerical satire – and clerical eccentricity – in England. (Source)

What a day of loons it has been. After discovering the narrative of that wandering bishop which I brought to my readers’ attention earlier this afternoon, I have since come across two wonderful articles about the venerable tradition of eccentricity in the Church of England. The first is over at the Church Times. The Rev. Fergus Butler-Gallie, a curate in Liverpool, has written a book entitled A Field Guide to the English Clergy (One World Press, 2018). In his article at the CT, Butler-Gallie provides a taste of what is assuredly a very fun book indeed. Take just one of the bizarre figures he profiles:

William Buckland, a Victorian Dean of Westminster, became obsessed with eating as many animals as possible, from porpoise and panther to mole fricassee and mice on toast, even managing to gobble up the mummified heart of King Louis XIV while being shown round the Archbishop of York’s stately home.

He was no fool, though. The first person ever to excavate an entire dinosaur skeleton (although he was more interested in other prehistoric remains, writing on a desk made out of dinosaur faeces), he once disproved a supposed miracle in France by being able to prove (by taste, of course) that a supposed saint’s blood was, in fact, bat urine.

Or consider this parson:

The Revd Thomas Patten was a real-life Dr Syn, helping to run a smuggling operation on the north-Kent coast. Patten would preach interminably boring sermons until a parishioner held up a lemon, a sign that someone had agreed to buy his drinks for the evening at the tavern opposite, at which point he managed to terminate the service with astonishing alacrity (a ruse, I’m sure, no clergy reading this would even consider replicating).

If the rest of the book is as fascinating at these anecdotes suggest, it will be a classic in no time – right up there with Loose Canon and The Mitred Earl. Apparently it’s been getting rave reviews. (I’ll add that if any of you are looking for a Christmas gift for your favorite Catholic blogger, it’s going for under £10 at Amazon).

Today I also came across an article about one of Butler-Gallie’s subjects, the Rev. R.S. Hawker, also known as the “Mermaid of Morwenstow.” Alas, as I am not a subscriber to The Spectator, I cannot read it. Those who can are encouraged to do so.

One of my favorite clerical eccentrics whom I doubt that Butler-Gallie covers is the Rev. William Alexander Ayton, vicar of Chacombe in Oxfordshire.  A Victorian Freemason of extraordinarily deep occult learning, he maintained a clandestine alchemical lab in his rectory basement and claimed to have made the Elixir of Life. However, this adventure ended in sadness. He only tried one quaff and, finding that it made his hair fall out, the sensible vicar sealed it away on a shelf. In his old age, he discovered that it had congealed and was quite unusable. He also translated the Latin life of Dr. John Dee. With an inveterate fear of Jesuits, his own bishop, and “the gnomes,” it’s no surprise that Yeats – his comrade in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – once called him “the most panic-stricken person” he had ever met.

Though of course there are few stories of clerical eccentricity as amusing as the infamous dinner related by Brian Fothergill in his life of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry. Fothergill tells us that

On one occasion when a particularly rich living had fallen vacant he invited the fattest of his clergy and entertained them with a splendid dinner. As they rose heavily from the table he proposed that they should run a race and that the winner should have the living as his prize. Greed contending with consternation the fat clerics were sent panting and purple-faced on their way, but the Bishop had so planned it that the course took them across a stretch of boggy ground where they were all left floundering and gasping in the mud, quite incapable of continuing. None reached the winning-point. The living was bestowed elsewhere and the Bishop, though hardly his exhausted and humiliated guests, found the evening highly diverting. (The Mitred Earl, 27).

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Hervey also built what must have been one of the greatest gems of British Palladian architecture, Ballyscullion House. Alas, it is no longer extant, but has been reduced to a respectable if far less elaborate mansion. (Source) For a 3D model, see here.

If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that Anglicanism as lived in history is not a dry religion.

Allow me to indulge in a bit of crude cultural observation. It occurs to me that the national church of the English would inevitably partake of that quintessential English quality – eccentricity. Americans don’t produce real eccentrics. We breed individualists and, less commonly, outright weirdos. But the great British loon is mostly unknown to us. Eccentricity requires a certain localism, even an urban one, that has been mostly lost in the sprawling homelands of the American empire. Suburbs don’t produce eccentrics.

And more to the point, why should strangeness be so unwelcome in the Church? Why should the Church be bland and conformist and comfortable? Why must we labor on through the nauseatingly boring bureaucratic lingo and platitudinous sound-bites that so often seem to make up the bulk of our ecclesisatical discourse? Where is the sizzling fire cast to earth? Where is the light and heat of the Holy Ghost? In reviewing the proceedings of the recent Youth Synod, I was dismayed to find so little that genuinely spoke of the sacred. It so often seems that our Bishops are more interested in crafting a Church of the self-righteous liberal bourgeoisie than they are in the Church that Jesus left to His Apostles.

Eccentricity may not be a strategy, but it’s at least has the potential to become a reminder that the supernatural reality is completely other. As that Doctor of the Church, David Lynch, once said, “I look at the world and I see absurdity all around me. People do strange things constantly, to the point that, for the most part, we manage not to see it.” Well, God does far stranger things far more often than we do. Eccentrics – especially the Fools for Christ – can speak to that.

Butler-Gallie gets at this well in his article when he writes,

Church of England with more rigour and vigour might have its appeal, but the evangelising potential of the strange increasingly appears to be a casualty of the drive to be more, not less, like the world around us. An embracing of our strangeness, failings, and folly might free us to eschew conversion via tales of our usefulness — be that in pastoral wizardry, wounded healing, or nifty management speak — and, instead, “impress people with Christ himself”, as suggested by Ignatius of Antioch (who, though not an Anglican, did share his fate with the 1930s Rector of Stiffkey, both being eaten by a lion).

…Perhaps less strangeness is a good thing. It is certainly an easier, safer thing from the bureaucratic and behavioural point of view. I’m more inclined, however, to agree with J. S. Mill — hardly a friend of the Church of England — who suggested that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.” Or, to put it another way, a Church that represses its strangeness is one that is not more at ease with itself and the world, but less.

I can only applaud this point. Ross Douthat said much the same in my own communion when, in response to the Met Gala last Spring, he suggested we “Make Catholicism Weird Again.” Or what Fr. Ignatius Harrison CO was getting at when he gave that wonderful sermon on St. Philip Neri’s downright oddity. And though Flannery O’Connor may never have actually said it, I can’t help but agree that “You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you odd.” Indeed, my readers will know that I have hammered on about this point ad nauseum. Butler-Gallie’s writing encourages me to keep at it until we in the Christian West more widely recognize the charism of eccentricity.

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Prelates dancing to the Devil’s music. (Source)

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Flannery O’Connor and the Protestant Ex Voto Tradition

Recently I came across a very strange song from an equally bizarre album. The song was “I’m Not Handicapped, Just Inconvenienced,” by Gary Dee Bradford. It was on his 1979 album of the same title. The piece is a chilling mix of bad ventriloquism, preachy Carter-era Evangelicalism, and awkwardly poor singing. Which means, of course, that I loved it.

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I’m curious what’s on the full album. (Source)

I soon found out that Bradford, who suffers from a rare physical disability called phocomelia (he lacks arms and has hands at his shoulders), produced a few other albums. Although he produced his most recent work in 2002, most of his output came in the 1970’s and 80’s. In one of the only other songs by Bradford I can find online, 1977’s “Good Ole Gospel Music,” we can hear the prepubescent Bradford sing in a high and eerie voice about the superiority of his chosen genre:

It is the sweetest love song
Ever heard by mortal man.
If we had more Gospel Music
We’d have a better land…a better land!

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Gotta love that 70’s montage work. (Source)

It’s catchy, I have to admit. Even if it’s not exactly Mozart.

It would be easy to make fun of the sheer cheesiness of Bradford’s records and write them off as one more episode in the history of odd music. But in fact, Bradford’s albums deserve more respect than that. They tell us something about the history and spirituality of mid-20th century American Christianity. Bradford wasn’t working in a vacuum.

American Gospel music, particularly that brand of Gospel that flourished in the predominately white churches of the mid-century South, has roots in the musical traditions of Appalachia. One of the most common and longstanding song forms found there is the ballad. Appalachian ballads often tell stories of woe and redemption, sadness and hope. When given a religious inflection, they become the musical versions of faith-sharing, testifying to the work of God in redeeming poor sinners. They are also the Protestant equivalents of the Catholic world’s longstanding folk ex voto tradition.

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An example of a Mexican ex voto, 1853. (Source)

The ex voto is a little painted image offered by a devotee in thanksgiving to Christ, the Virgin, or a saint for a perceived blessing. Usually, the scene of the miracle is depicted in fairly simple (or what the art critics would call “naive”) terms, with a short, handwritten narrative describing the incident below. They are emphatically not “fine art.” Ex votos are the result of folk piety, and they depict the most fundamental relationship of the worshiper and the supernatural, the body and the invisible world, faith and crisis.

There’s also a uniquely New-World flavor to the ex voto form. While examples abound from most historically Catholic cultures, the most exemplary tradition of ex votos can be found in Mexico. Indeed, the ex voto has become one of the country’s national art forms, often stylized and reinterpreted by contemporary artists. Frida Kahlo even collected them.

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An ex-voto of a woman stabbed in bed, owned by Frida Kahlo and believed to have inspired her own painting, “A Few Small Nips.” (Source)

We can see the same kinds of spiritual impulses behind a whole wave of calamity-themed songs in mid-to-late-20th century Gospel. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, in a Protestant context, the ex voto takes an audible rather than visual form. Take, for example, Jerry D. Brown’s A Crippled Boy’s Prayer and The Fuller Family’s slightly earlier but almost identical A Little Crippled Girl’s Prayer.

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Not a great song, but it makes sense as a sort of ex voto. (Source)

Sometimes, the album as a physical object mirrors the makeup of an ex voto. The back of the albums often carry long messages of praise and thanksgiving in spite of the various afflictions the artists suffer from. For example, on the back of A Little Crippled Girl’s Prayer, we read the words of wheelchair-bound Marsha Fuller:

It’s so great to be a Christian and serving such a great God. He has given so much to me, for most children with my disease lead a quiet life and never have the opportunities that I have had.  At the age of three He gave me a voice to sing with. And three years later God inspired me to write two songs. Since then, I have written four other songs and made two recordings. He has also blessed me in other ways. He gave me a wonderful Mom and Dad whom have loved and cared for me so much. He gave me a wonderful brother, Gene. You don’t find too many twenty-year-old men who loves to sing for the Lord the ways he does. As a family we have had rough times together. Sometimes we didn’t know where the next meal was going to come from because of hospital bills, but, God has always pulled us through. Our house might not be the biggest and our clothes might not be the finest, but as long as we stay true to Jesus someday we’ll have a mansion that outshines the sun. We truly hope that you will be blessed by our message in song to you. Yours in Christ, Marsha Fuller

There was a veritable cottage industry of Christian albums by blind, amputee, or otherwise disabled artists that flourished in the middle of the twentieth century. To give a few examples:

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Denise’s Closer to the Savior, probably from the 1960’s or 1970’s. (Source)

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Another blind album, It’s Me Again, Lord by Judy & Barbara, the Blind Slye Twins (Source)

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Benny Dean’s I’d Rather Be Blind (In My Eyes Than In My Soul). A bit on the nose. (Source)

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Here’s Something Special from Jeff Steinberg. Note the hook. (Source)

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“Truly a Miracle of God!” (Source)

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Richard & Gail Miller Sing the Gospel of Love. (Source)

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Sandra Kay Hyler in “Through Prayer I Found An Answer.” (Source)

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Another offering from “Little Richard Miller,” this time with cover art that closely if unintentionally replicates the ex voto model. The full album is online for your listening pleasure. (Source)

These musical works differ from the mainstream of Protestant aural culture in that, even when the songs themselves are classic hymns or are just covers of more obscure songs by disabled artists, they take on a new, personal, and highly-charged meaning in the context of public disability. The artists are not just performing music, they are performing both disability and Christianity – indeed, they perform their disability precisely as the core of their Christianity, and their Christianity as intimately bound up with their disability. The singer born without arms or the blind crooner or the organist missing her hands can all achieve a new status as an icon of model Christian disability. Their performance points towards the hope of a transfiguration that surpasses disability in the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, their physical or mental incapacity is often an implicit analogy for the spiritual deformation, blindness, or weakness found in the more conventional Gospel ballad. The healing of both comes from Jesus.

Mary Douglas, among other anthropologists, has noted that the body physical is often used as an analogy of the body politic. The symbolic representation of the individual corpus speaks to the social body at large – culturally-coded anxieties about the limits of the physical body frequently point to an underlying anxiety about threats to the community. Should it surprise us that the most visible flowering of this disability-obsessed genre came at a time when the culture wars were starting to animate the full force of Southern and Midwestern Protestantism into a politically active bloc with an agenda for cultural change? Surely that socio-political context stands behinds Gary Bradford’s “better land.” The Evangelical doom song, with perhaps its best representatives in the Louvin Brothers, rose to prominence at much the same time.

The fundamentalist folk spirituality that these songs present are a major cultural context in the wonderfully disturbing, deeply Catholic work of Flannery O’Connor. In her short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” she injects it into her description of a Southern freak show. A hermaphrodite addresses two crowds – one made up of men, another of women – before displaying its unusual genitalia. The freak says,

“I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing. (The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor 245).

Later, the hermaphrodite leads a kind of religious service centered on its own experience of God’s Providence.

She could hear the freak saying, “God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,” and the people saying, “Amen. Amen.”
“God done this to me and I praise Him.”
“Amen. Amen.”
“He could strike you thisaway.”
“Amen. Amen.”
“But he has not.”
“Amen.”
“Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?”
“Amen. Amen.”
“If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.”
“I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.”
“Amen.”
The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep. (Ibid., 246)

O’Connor, who suffered from lupus herself, draws a parallel between the freak’s preaching and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. In the two episodes, we can perceive both the sovereignty of God’s Providence and the sacramental capacity of matter to bear God.

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A holy card depicting a monstrance, used in Benediction. (Source)

It strikes me as intuitively sensible that O’Connor should have chosen precisely this story to contrast Protestant and Catholic music. Early on in the story, two young Church of God men try to woo a pair of Catholic sisters by singing a Gospel hymn, complete with guitar and harmonica. The girls, who have been educated at convent school, bite back their giggles and respond with the Tantum Ergo. One of their suitors is more right than he knows when, puzzled and slightly disapproving, he calls it “Jew singing.” The two forms of music, though standing in an apparent contradiction, together anticipate the underlying sacramental truth presented by both the Protestant and Catholic services that conclude the story.

O’Connor makes much of Protestant devotional culture in one of her novels, The Violent Bear It Away (1955). It is the story of a boy called to prophesy, of his skeptical schoolteacher cousin, and of the battle they wage for the soul of a mentally disabled child. At one point, we come to the performance of a family of traveling musical missionaries. The high point of the act comes when their little daughter emerges from behind the curtain to preach a rousing sermon. In the course of her preaching, she delivers what may be the book’s central message:

“I’ve seen the Lord in a tree of fire! The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean!…Burns the whole world, man and child…none can escape…Are you deaf to the Lord’s Word? The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean, burns man and child, man and child the same, you people! Be saved in the Lord’s fire or perish in your own! Be saved in…” (The Violent Bear It Away 134-35).

O’Connor is fond of granting the most clear-eyed spiritual vision to the children in her stories. Many have profound experiences of grace that mark them forever, or they bear testimony of the invisible world’s dangerous immediacy to more skeptical characters.

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This album makes me think of O’Connor’s 1955 The Violent Bear It Away. (Source)

That includes O’Connor’s disabled children. “The Lame Shall Enter First,” one of O’Connor’s most emotionally crushing short stories, is a close companion to The Violent Bear It Away. It tells the story of a well-meaning social worker, Sheppard, who takes in a clubfooted juvenile delinquent, Rufus Johnson, hoping to steer him towards a productive life. Although he can overlook Rufus’s constant spite, Sheppard is exasperated by the fundamentalist beliefs he clings to. Rufus is convinced he is going to hell, and starts to talk about it with the social worker and his impressionable young son. He steadily grows into the role of preacher even as Sheppard tries desperately to “flush that out of [his] head.” I won’t get into any spoilers, as the story has a wrenching, unforeseen climax. I’ll just say that Sheppard finally realizes he has failed only when Rufus cries at him,

“I lie and I steal because I’m good at it! My foot don’t have a thing to do with it! The lame shall enter first! The halt’ll be gathered together. when I get ready to be saved, Jesus’ll save me, not that lying, stinking atheist, not that…” (The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor 480).

Sheppard attributes all of Rufus’s bad behavior to the emotional effect of his clubfoot. But Rufus finds his one hope of salvation in the fact that he has a disability that, according to the logic of heaven, will ensure that he enters the Kingdom first. For Rufus, as for so many of the artists mentioned above, it represents both faith and hope (if not yet charity). Sheppard is too blinded by his prejudice and his loneliness to see that. The results are calamitous.

Rufus’s underlying insight speaks to a truth often forgotten in the Church’s treatment of the disabled. Those with disabilities are not “problems.” It’s true that they may have some special needs with regards to access, attention, etc. But at the end of the day, they are people who have the same basic spiritual needs as any other human beings. They, too, can embody and image Christ – often better than those of us who are blessed enough to be of both sound mind and body.

Gary Bradford himself has spoken publicly about this issue before. Some time in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, Bradford – by then an adult – gave an interview with a Christian television network. He says,

In the past…so many of our churches, and so many of our people in our church in the past, it’s been the place for the good, the well-bodied, and the abled…And the Church isn’t to be like that; the Church is to take all.

Of course, the other great danger is to place too much emphasis on the disability and not enough on the person who has it. The “magical disabled person” should not become a trope in Christian life. We can’t load our disabled brethren in Christ with that moral freight. It isn’t fair. The disability Gospel genre fosters precisely that kind of harmful thinking; perhaps that is its greatest cultural fault.

I think we can avoid either extreme – neglect or overemphasis – by focusing instead on the individuality and personhood of every disabled Christian. Insofar as the disability Gospel song is an ex voto, it may seem to correspond to a certain type. Catholic ex votos usually do. But that’s only to the outsider who beholds the ex voto. For the one who makes it (or commissions it), the story it tells carries intense and highly particular personal meaning. Put another way; Sheppard may not grasp the hidden meaning of Rufus’s club foot, but Rufus does.

The same goes for the Protestant ex votos we find in this genre. They may seem to correspond to the demands of a cottage industry, but they all epitomize and present individual experiences. That particularity is the best thing we can take from this strange, lost genre of Christian music. There are no generic souls, abled or otherwise.

 

Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

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A depiction of Pentecost (and thus Our Lady of the Cenacle) in an illuminated A from a Lombard antiphonal, 1430’s. Attributed to Stefano da Verona and now in the possession of the Getty Museum. Not a Bible, though. (Source)

Erasmus, that mercurial fellow of the Renaissance who did so much damage with such good intentions, hoped that the humanist scholarship then revolutionizing Biblical studies would produce a popular spiritual awakening. He foresaw a time when, the Bible having been translated into vernacular languages, “the farmer would sing parts of the scripture at the plow, the weaver hum them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of his journey with like stories.” What he got was the Reformation.

Those of us Catholics who have the benefit of historical hindsight can perhaps treat Erasmus with a degree of charity. He did not foresee the storm that he was helping to prepare. At best, his image of the Word-infused society is one that we can and ought to strive for. But things have gone rather differently in what used to be Christendom. The plurality of conflicting Biblical interpretations, stemming both from theological divisions and from theologically-motivated translations from the standard scriptural texts of pre-modernity, has eroded the communion of the full body of Christians. Though by no means the only factor in secularization, this loss of even the pretense of unity significantly impaired the Church’s evangelical witness.

But of course, certain divisions along theological lines always existed in pre-modernity as well. Heretics, mystics, and scholars often disagreed with the orthodox establishment over various exegetical points, and sometimes those divisions were backed by political force. So, what made the Reformation different? Perhaps it was the material condition that stands behind Erasmus’s vision – the advent of the printing press. After all, the mass dissemination of information that the printing press spread and entrenched the Reformation (and the Catholic Reformation) as early as Luther’s first moves in 1517.

But I wish to speak less of early modernity and more of our own era. And, standing firmly in our present moment, I must conclude that printing the Bible was a mistake. Or, to be precise, the mass production of Bibles was a mistake.

An Observation

Walk into any sizeable book store – a Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million, perhaps. Wander the shelves and you will no doubt eventually come upon the Bible section, sometimes rows and rows of it. I recently did, as I have done many times before. On this recent occasion, I came upon more Bibles than I could count. There were dozens of different translations into English, often sold by competing Bible companies.

Leaving aside that variety, I was struck by the sheer overwhelming diversity of the Bibles as physical objects. I found Bibles in boxes, Bibles in plastic, Bibles in hardcover and paperback. There was an art-journalling Bible that seemed to combine the recent coloring fad with the word of God (curiously, there seemed to be no human faces in any of the images, rather reminding one of another religion’s sacred art). There was a “Rainbow Bible,” not a camp copy of the scriptures but a text pre-highlighted in various hues to illustrate thematic points. There’s a C.S. Lewis Bible for those who like to take their Jesus in leonine form. There’s a Lego-illustrated Brick Bible, and, let the reader carefully note, it’s not the same thing as The Brick Bible for Kids. Erasmus would be pleased to see that there are occupational Bibles, such as Bibles oriented to students, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and soldiers. There’s even an American Patriot’s Bible.

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This is a real thing. (Source)

But perhaps the greatest division beyond the inevitable Catholic/Protestant scriptural distinction is gender. Many of the Bibles (and Bible accessories such as carrying cases) are very clearly oriented to men or women. For instance, who is the intended buyer for a Bible in pink pleather binding with floral design on the cover? And who is targeted by a camo Bible carrier with the words “Armor of God” on it? One could cite similar examples ad nauseam. Again, go to your local bookstore. While you may be more likely to find a Bible section in the South or Midwest, I’d wager you could locate one in almost any part of the country. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Some of these phenomena are not limited to Protestant Bibles, though Catholic Bible companies clearly lack the inventiveness and marketing ingenuity displayed by purveyors of Protestant Bibles. They are guilty of another sin. Mostly, Catholic Bibles just look bad. Many of them are just dumpy paperback bricks that no one wants to read, let alone have around the house. When your Bible fails even on a coffee table, you know you’re doing something wrong.

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

First, they enlist the Word of God in the maintenance of fallible worldly systems such as the nation, the state, the military-industrial complex, and various forms of social authority, thus stripping the Word of its critical power.

Second, they subtly encourage an unhealthy personalization of spiritual life. We are not Christians alone with God, but part of one Body of Christ. Ultimately, we can’t really own the Bible – not by ourselves. It can never be a private document, subsisting in a personalized meaning.

Third, in a perverse inversion of the last point, these trappings turn the Bible into a physical totem of a human subculture with its own recognized social-symbolic markers and status symbols. The Bible does not belong to the world of conspicuous consumption.

Fourth, the gendering of the Bible is a uniquely vicious practice, probably intended for what are innocently if cynically capitalist reasons. These Bibles sell, no doubt. But they also reinforce problematically rigid gender norms which speak to a wider cultural bifurcation of the Word of God into a Gospel for men and a Gospel for women. I have seen this phenomenon with my own eyes in both Evangelical and Catholic contexts. I have known people who have suffered because of it, some even falling away from the Faith entirely. Have we so easily forgotten the words of St. Paul that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Gal 3:28 KJV).

Fifth, these trappings commodify and trivialize the Word of God. The Bible is something to be sold. It becomes one item in the marketplace among many others. If you don’t like it in black, you can have it in any color under the sun. You can get a version that says things the way you like. The capitalist system affords the Bible no special treatment as a text; it is a book to be sold like any other book. And how it sells!

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

There are those who will here object that I am taking too material a view of the Bible. After all, they will say, isn’t it better that the message of the Bible is dispersed far and wide, even if some of the editions are trivial or problematic? Why should it matter if some editions have silly themes or appear as commodities among other commodities? Isn’t it worth it?

I take exception with this attitude for a few reasons. My first is purely sectarian, in that, as a Catholic, I object to the unaided reading of scripture and the erection of private judgment as any kind of rule in its interpretation. The Church is the preeminent exegete, and without her, we are liable to fall prey to our own sinful reasonings. Some Protestants will find this objection unconvincing; Catholics, at least, should find it uncontroversial.

But the issue cuts deeper than that. We should treat the Bible as a sacramental. It is not just any book. The visible scriptures convey grace by summoning the heart to an awareness of what is invisible. And this precisely because we, as human beings, are sacramental. We are body and soul, matter and spirit. Our religious lives are healthier when both are brought together under a common obedience to Christ in a biune ministration of grace. The sacraments are fitted to our nature. So are sacramentals; so are the scriptures. Turning the Bible into a personalized commodity cheapens its quality as one of the paradigmatic sacramentals.

We ought not lose sight of the fact that this deadening process of commodification, however far-rooted it may be in history, has taken off with alarming speed in our own time precisely because of the cultural features of postmodernity. We live in a sign-saturated age. Both words and images fill our view at almost every waking moment, whether they be painted, printed, written, or digital. And signs, like coins, lose their value with over-production. Is it any surprise then that narrativity has become strained as well? Can we be shocked that those explanatory schemes which once held together our culture and our own personal sense of meaning have long since melted into air? Nothing has survived the thoroughly American logic of consumerist capitalism; can anything withstand the acid-bath of “innovation?” These questions have been with us since the 1970’s, when philosophers first began to take note of, as Lyotard called it, “the postmodern condition.” They have yet to be fully resolved.

One other feature of postmodernity with direct bearing on our subject was first examined by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin notes that, in premodern conditions, art objects were imbued with an “aura,” a sense of absolute singularity and unique presence that belonged to the artifact under the eye of the viewing subject. It was this quality that bound art to its original context in ritual. Indeed, some of you may notice that this idea is latent in Aquinas’s idea of claritas, without which nothing can be beautiful. But in an age where art can be reproduced again and again, an image can proliferate, as can the experience of seeing the image, without any of the unique presence that comes from contact with the original. We have witnessed the “decay of the aura.” And since, in Benjamin’s words, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition,” then the “tremendous shattering of tradition” in postmodernity has thoroughly dispensed with the aura.

Bibles used to have an aura. Before the advent of the printing press, Bibles were expensive, rare, hand-crafted codices, often illuminated with historiated capitals and copious illustrations that drew upon pigments as rare as lapis lazuli and gold itself. So were other prayer-books – and the Bible was indeed meant for prayer. For the monks who labored over their manuscripts in their scriptoria, the Bible was not just a status symbol for the noble or prelate who had ordered it. The Bible was a liturgical book; the monk knew the scriptures precisely because of his immersion in the liturgy of the Church, which at Mass and the eight offices of the Opus Dei presented the Bible to him as the very marrow of prayer. The Bible belongs to the liturgy, for both reveal Christ.

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The Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris, 1411. Now in the British Museum. (Source)

The Psalter, which is prayed in full by Benedictine monks each week, was yet another stand-alone portion of the scriptures that was often luxuriously illuminated as sacred art. The Books of Hours were also richly illuminated. These declensions of the Divine Office especially intended for laymen are yet another example of a scriptural prayer-book that was routinely infused with an “aura.” Those of us who have been lucky enough to see illuminated manuscripts of any sort in person can attest that they’ve still got it.

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The letter B from the Breslau Psalter, Psalm 1. (Source)

At a certain level, the question of the “aura” is a purely natural one. But the “aura” points to a supernatural reality, the underlying sacramental possibility of all creaturely matter. Because the Word has taken flesh in Christ, matter can take on divinity – it can become theophoric, bearing God, and theophanic, manifesting Him.

The aura inspires reverence. And it is meet and right that the very book where we find unfolded before us the Face and Name of God, the Bible, should make us turn towards heavenly things. The Jewish mystical tradition provides insights into the profound holiness of the Bible. We read, “We have learned that the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Torah…And there is no Torah but the Holy One,” (“Zohar” 2:60a, Beshalach). Likewise, St. Augustine would find much to agree with in the words of the Jewish mystic who writes,

It is also true that the upper root of the holy Torah is in the highest level of the worlds that are called the worlds of the Infinite Godhead [Ein Sof]…That is why the Sages say that the Torah preceded the world, that is it preceded all worlds. For they even say that it preceded the Throne of Glory. (“Nefesh Hachaim” 4:10).

The truth at the heart of this mystery is that of the Logos, the Word who is God, manifesting himself in creation, in natural law, in revelation, and then definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the holiness of the Bible partakes of Christ’s own divine holiness. Our starting point for any discussion of the scriptures as physical texts must be the sentiment that Louis Bouyer describes,

“No man can see God and live”: this means that the vision of God would bring death to a human being. The idea contained in this saying is a basic idea of the whole of Jewish revelation which we have lost all too completely, for with it we have lost the sense of the sacred, that is, ultimately, the sense of God. If anyone has not understood…that not only for men, but for all other creatures too, God is the Sovereign, the Utterly Other, the Pure, the Inaccessible, then he does not know what God really is. (The Meaning of the Monastic Life 41).

Once the aura has decayed, what are we left with? We are like those benighted souls described by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who “carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms.” Was there ever a more apt description of what we have done to the Word of God, materially and spiritually? For when we commodify the Bible, we commodify its message. When we objectify the Bible, we objectify its message. When we trivialize the Bible, we trivialize its message. Is there anything more dangerous in a world grown cold to the Gospel? The same can be said of the liturgy. Banality in the ars celebrandi vitiates the aura embedded in the ritual. We have a responsibility to maintain higher standards.

A Return to the Family Bible

Let me be very clear. My objection here is to both the mass proliferation and the sheer diversity of Bibles on the market. These two phenomena, even more than the underlying condition of their quality as printed material, have destroyed the aura of the Word of God. But I should note in all fairness that many Christians, at least in the English-speaking countries, used to maintain a strong sense of the Bible’s auratic sacramentality. That time-honored institution of the Family Bible, often an enormous and ornamental tome passed down from generation to generation as an heirloom and a testament of enduring faith, once preserved a kind of aura. What undermined this institution and the kind of home liturgies that once sustained it? Was it the Gideons? Was it the travelling Bible salesmen satirized so acerbically by Flannery O’Connor in Good Country People? Or was it the broader cultural force of capitalist individualism exacerbating the collapse of narrativity and traditional community, rendering the search for salvation even more personal – and thus lonelier and more consumerist – then ever before?

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A typical “Family Bible” of the nineteenth century. (Source)

I recognize that I am complicit in this problem. I own several Bibles, not all of which were gifts, and not all of which are very good. But I believe that most of us Christians are bound up with the cultural conditions which have produced so many and such shoddy copies of the scriptures. We can’t start to imagine a better way until we re-assess our relationship with the sacred. While it’s impossible to go back to the scriptoria of Cluny or Clairvaux, we can begin to appropriate their view of the Bible as a liturgically-grounded manifestation of the Divine Word. Perhaps we can start to produce more beautiful Bibles – even auratic ones. More depends on it than we might think. After all, the illumination of the page was always an anticipation of and metaphor for the illumination of the soul.

The Music of the Holy Ghost

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A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983). Clips from Tarkovsky’s films are often incorporated into the Rev Army’s music videos. (Source)

Not long ago, I came across a new band. What a singular group it is. Their music crosses and confuses genres. They produce content at a far scarcer rate than other musical acts. Even their name, taken from a Buñuel film, sets them apart from most of the offerings one comes across today.

Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a cult gem. The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus has been on the scene for quite a while. Almost thirty years ago, they released their first album, The Gift of Tears (1987). Since then, they have only come out with sporadic releases, such as 1990’s Mirror and 2015’s Beauty Will Save the World. The long hiatus has well earned them the title of “One of music’s most elusive and enigmatic acts,” as we can read on their BandCamp site.

Tim Cooper has a great review of their work over at The Quietus:

…the attention-averse trio, who regard themselves as a creative collective rather than a band, make wildly eclectic music rooted in liturgical texts and ecclesiastical iconography, contrasting ethereal beauty with stark brutalism. Celestial choirs rub their cassocked shoulders with squalls of industrial noise, political speeches are interwoven with celluloid dialogue, instrumentation ranges from sombre neo-classical piano to pounding dance beats by way of folk, free-form jazz and experimental psychedelia.

They draw together a variety of spiritual and cultural influences: folk Catholicism, peasant mysticism, Russian Orthodoxy, the experience of post-Soviet Europe, Simone Weil, Welsh poetry. Their work can, I think, be described as sophianic, but it is a sophanicity carefully drawn through the harried cracks of the fallen world. The truth that the Rev Army grips and holds up to the light gleams all the more for being refracted in the shards of our earthly mirror.

Here are some favorite songs with their proper music videos, many of which are just as important for the meaning of the piece as the score itself.

Come Holy Spirit” – the very first Rev Army song I discovered. A bit too much flute and too many drums for me, but it was different enough from anything I had ever heard that it caught my attention.

Bright Field” – the first one that captivated me. The upward lift of the music combined with R.S. Thomas’s stirring paraphrase of the Gospel, not to mention Tarkovsky’s silken, dreamlike visuals, all together inspire something like wonder. Whenever I listen to it, I am reminded of a poem by Rilke.

After the End” – a simple and haunting French ditty set to the grainy images of villagers at prayer. They seem to be visionaries.

Psalm” – a few women chant in English against an increasingly dissonant shower of quasi-industrial background noise. The juxtaposition strikes me as an artistic model of transcendence through persistent prayer.

Repentance” – the most Flannery O’Connor thing you will ever see or hear. I’ll just leave it at that.

Théme de l’homme qui n’a pas cru en lui méme” – a Latin-flavored and occasionally jazzy piece featuring footage from a (staged?) Spanish Lenten procession. In case you hadn’t already noticed, the band is extremely Catholic.

Joy of the Cross” – another Lenten procession, but this time with a soft-edged folk music that makes me think of Fleet Foxes.

Before the Ending of the Day” – the Compline hymn surrounded and supported by an airy yet pulsing larger song. Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev provides the meditative visuals. Note that one of the commenters on YouTube wrote, “Please keep making more of these. This helped still my soul.”

Something epicletic moves through their music. But one can find that quality in lots of other work. What sets the Rev Army apart isn’t just their obsession with the Holy Ghost, nor their stylistic eclecticism. It’s their powerful sense of mystery. They never shy away from the divine darkness with which the Holy Ghost enshrouds His manifold works of grace. How refreshing, in an age of “Spirit of the Council” muzak and shallow “praise and worship,” to find music that is overtly Christian and even mystical without ever becoming preachy, dated, or emotivist. They treat their subject, the perennial and universal longing of the human heart for God, with a rare artistic and spiritual sophistication.

Caught up in marvel at the saving mystery of the Holy Ghost, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus is the real Catholic charismatic revival.

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An icon of the Descent of the Holy Ghost. (Source)

7 Protestant Songs with Surprisingly Good Theology

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No altar in sight, but boy can they sing. (Source)

Flannery O’Connor once famously remarked that conservative Catholics had more in common with fundamentalist Protestants than they did with liberal Catholics…hence the many strange prophets and preachers she raises up in her Southern Gothic fiction. While we could probably contest her claim in some ways, she is indisputably right in other respects. Protestants, particularly those of the deep South, have preserved a sense of sin and grace lost in many churches. And their powerful hymnodic tradition has helped foster American music for generations.

As an ecumenical gesture à la O’Connor, I thought I’d review a few Protestant songs that contain important and salutary theological insights. In doing so, I want to get beyond the well-known classics like “Amazing Grace,” “Come Thou Fount,” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” and look instead at songs that may not be as familiar among Catholics. I am also excluding Anglican and Wesleyan hymns, since most Catholics (at least, English-speaking ones) will be well aware of them from their parish Masses.

One thing that I hope will be clear in this list is how different all of these songs are from the kind of music current in Evangelical (and some Catholic) circles today. Unlike so much Praise and Worship music, it’s impossible to reduce these songs to a subjective, emotivist, “Jesus is my boyfriend” spirituality. I don’t mean to suggest that they keep clear of deeply personal, even existential, questions of faith and morals. They live and breathe in a world where those issues are deeply present. But even among the loopier ones (see numbers 4 and 7 below), we are dealing with a faith that lies in objective, concrete beliefs. Consequently, the lyrical form those beliefs take is highly articulate. Protestant music has suffered immeasurably by the loss of the King James Bible as the translation of choice throughout American Christendom. Many of these songs, all of which come from a period of attachment to King James, more or less reflect that hieratic idiom.

I. George Jones, “The Cup of Loneliness”

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George Jones was known for his religious songs, particularly in his early career. (Source)

One of the masters of Country Music, George Jones will no doubt be familiar to many of my readers. But his early song, “The Cup of Loneliness,” may not be. Catholics in particular should take note of this offering. Here are the lyrics in toto:

I say Christian pilgrim so redeemed from sin
Hauled out of darkness, a new life to begin
Were you ever in the valley where the way is dark and dim?
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?

Did you ever have them laugh at you and say it was a fake?
The stand that you so boldly for the Lord did take
Did they ever mock at you and laugh in ways quite grim?
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?

Did you ever try to preach, then hold fast and pray?
And even when you did it, there did not seem a way
And you lost all courage, then lost all you vim
Did you ever drink the cup of loneliness with him?

Oh my friends ’tis bitter sweet while here on earthly sod
To follow in the footsteps that our dear Savior trod
To suffer with the savior and when the way is dark and dim
The drink of the bitter cup of loneliness with him…

This is simply good ascetic theology, delivered in the spiritual context of mid-century American Evangelicalism. In the last stanza, when we are exhorted “To suffer with the savior,” we must remember the theology of suffering passed on to us by so many saints through the ages, from the Martyrs and Confessors forward. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church 618, we read:

The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”.452 But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men.453 He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow (him)”,454 for “Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps.”455 In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries.456 This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering.457 Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.458

And how do we unite our sufferings with Christ? Through prayer, through fasting, and above all, through the Eucharist. The literal “cup of loneliness.”

II. Traditional, “This World is Not My Home”/”Can’t Feel at Home”

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The cover art for Ben Babbitt’s album, Kentucky Route Zero – Act III. (Source).

A Bluegrass favorite. I first encountered it in a magnificent video-game, Kentucky Route Zero. As a side-note, let me strongly recommend that game to anyone who likes David Lynch, Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, film noir, science fiction, or bourbon. The artfully written story about several strange characters moves through hauntingly beautiful minimalist landscapes. It is, in short, a work of art. If you have the time, play it.

More to the point, the music is excellent. The deep and delicate cover of “This World is Not My Home” by Ben Babbitt in Act IV of KR0 is my personal favorite rendition of the song, though I also appreciate the old version the creators used in their original Kickstarter trailer. And the Carter Family produced a classic cover.

Consider the lyrics:

This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through.
My treasures and my hopes are placed beyond the blue.
Many friends and kin have gone on before
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Oh Lord, you know I have no friend like you
If heaven’s not my home then lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Here in miniature is the homo viator, a spirituality that calls us to renunciation and subsequent embrace of “the one thing necessary.” The 47th Instrument of Good Works according to St. Benedict is “To keep death daily before one’s eyes.” The song’s narrator is a man who does precisely that. As in “The Cup of Loneliness,” we encounter a basically sound ascetic theology, only this time coming from the very depths of Appalachia.

And that’s not all. In a later verse, we hear:

I have a loving mother up in gloryland
And I don’t expect to stop until I shake her hand.
She’s waiting now for me in heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

There are two ways to read this verse. Given its Protestant origin, it almost certainly refers to a literal, biological mother. Anyone who has lost their mother can relate to the feelings the verse expresses. But Catholics know that we all “have a loving mother up in gloryland.” One of the reasons I love this song is that, by drawing upon universal experiences, it can bear a number of equally legitimate spiritual meanings.

III. The Whites, “Keep on the Sunny Side”

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Texas-based country group, The Whites. They’re famous for performing regularly at the Grand Ole Opry, often alongside their frequent collaborator (and family member), bluegrass artist Ricky Skaggs (Source).

I know that this cheery song is considerably older than its famous rendition by The Whites, as heard in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). But I enjoy that version more than any other, and I recommend it to you.

We could easily dismiss this song as an expression of Joel Osteen-style naive optimism. But that would do a great disservice to the spiritual vision presented therein. The very first line takes a more realistic view of things than Osteen ever has:

Well there’s a dark and a troubled side of life
There’s a bright and a sunny side too
But if you meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.

At no point does the song ever swerve from considering the felt reality of evil. Bad things do happen, and to good people. But the song refuses to linger on the sorrow of “this valley of tears.” Instead, it calls us to rejoice:

Let us greet with a song of hope each day
Though the moments be cloudy or fair.
Let us trust in our Savior always,
To keep us, every one, in His care.

A hope that does not take the possibility of despair seriously will falter. But a supernatural hope that stares despair in the eye and does not blink – that’s what the Holy Spirit seeks to create in us over the course of a lifetime. “Keep on the Sunny Side” is preeminently about that stronger sort of hope, a trust in God’s Providence founded on the singular sacrifice of Calvary.

IV. The Louvin Brothers, “Satan is Real”

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There’s a lot going on here. (Source)

I unironically like this one by the Louvin Brothers, even with (or because of?) its dated, somewhat campy ethos. I mean, just look at that cover art. And while the long monologue that makes up the bulk of the song is *just a little much,* it’s a good snapshot of what a certain kind of American Christianity looked and sounded like in 1960.

The refrain is where the song’s theological merit can be seen – or, rather heard.

Satan is real, working in spirit
You can see him and hear him in this world every day
Satan is real, working with power
He can tempt you and lead you astray

From the perspective of Catholic demonology, the Louvin Brothers are not wrong. St. Anthony the Great would certainly agree with their diagnosis.

Admittedly, they may have had a little bit of an unhealthy obsession with the question of demonic influence (the album includes another Satanic-themed song, and on another album they dramatize a dialogue between “Satan and the Saint“). Fair enough. Nevertheless, given that so much of our own hymnody is so obsessed with a false, flimsy, feel-good image of Christ and the demands of the spiritual life, something as overtly anti-demonic as “Satan is Real” strikes me as a good, if somewhat ridiculous, corrective.

V. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Up Above My Head”

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It is perhaps spiritually significant that in nearly all her famous photos, Sister Rosetta can be seen looking up – as if she can see the very angels above her. (Source)

I mentioned at the start of this essay that Protestant music has had an enormous influence on the development of American music as such. Two particular communities, broadly construed, have made especially important contributions to that tradition: Appalachian churches, and the Black church. I have already drawn out some of the fruits of that former school. I would be remiss if I did not mention the latter.

I mention all this here because my fifth artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is unusually important in the history of music. A pioneer of at least four different genres – Country, Rock and Roll, R&B, and Gospel – she has tragically been forgotten by most people today. Virtually all of her joyful songs could fit in this selection, but for the sake of brevity, I’d like to offer her signature piece, “Up Above My Head.” The message is simple enough:

Up above my head
(Up above my head)
I hear music in the air
(I hear music in the air)

And I really do believe
(Yeah) I really do believe
There’s a Heaven somewhere
(There’s a Heaven somewhere)

There’s not much else in the lyrics. Simply reading the text won’t give you the full depth of the spiritual message Sister Rosetta is trying to communicate. But once you listen, you’ll understand why I chose it. “Up Above My Head” is one of the best, most affectively sound expressions of hope in Heaven that I know of.

VI. The Harmonizing Four, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”

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This whole album is very good. (Source)

This old Negro Spiritual, as recorded by The Harmonizing Four and many other artists over the years, features unadorned by theologically powerful lyrics. Take a look:

I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
Oh, His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

Why should I feel discouraged?
And why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
And long for Heaven and home?

When Jesus is my captain
My constant friend is He
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me

I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
Oh, His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me
He watches me

Here, the simple lyrics concisely present one of the key doctrines of Christianity – the omniscience of God. The fact that God is all-knowing, however, should not fill us with dread, but with peace and joy. There is a tremendous existential point here. We are never alone. We never face life and the myriad questions of our being as atomized individuals. Rather, we are seen, we are recognized, and we are loved absolutely. We need not surrender to “the shadows” of discouragement and loneliness, as the second verse relates.

The hymn tells us quite a lot about the relation between God, His creation, and ourselves. It is a little spiritual masterpiece.

VII. The Louvin Brothers, “The Great Atomic Power”

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Once again, there’s just a lot going on here. (Source)

Alright, I’m mainly throwing in this one for fun. It has a specious, somewhat rapture-based eschatology. But given current events, its central message may be worth pondering.

Are you, are you ready
For that great atomic power?
Will you rise and meet your savior in the air?
Will you shout or will you cry
When the fire rains from on high?
Are you ready for that great atomic power?

Strange to think that only a year ago, these lyrics would have been a simple and somewhat overwrought remnant of Cold War anxieties. Wonder of wonders, everything old is new again!

 

The Seven Sacraments in Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O’Connor at her farm, Andalusia, with one of her beloved peacocks. (Source).

Flannery O’Connor’s name is synonymous with the American short story tradition. What sets her apart from her peers, besides her mastery of plot and her succinct, grotesque style, is the deep concern for issues of faith and grace that animates all of her stories. As O’Connor once put it, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” There is a certain delicious cruelty to her work. The nasty fates she metes out to children, let alone the adults who deserve what they get, rank her with the best of the gothic writers (and a humorous one at that—we can only imagine the hysterical laughter that something like Der Struwwelpeter would have provoked in her).

Yet O’Connor never show us violence for its own sake, nor for mere moralizing, nor as a ploy for cheap entertainment. Violence is the only outlet for grace in a fallen, “Christ-haunted” world. Her pages are choked and sodden with the precious blood that flows from the Cross.

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The Seven Sacraments, Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1448. O’Connor provides us with a (southern) gothic view of the sacraments. (Source)

It is a commonplace among critics that O’Connor’s writing is deeply sacramental. But to my knowledge, no author who has made that claim has also tried to find the fullness of the sacramental system present in her work.

I maintain that all seven sacraments appear in her fiction under different guises. Very often, we are given only implicit or twisted versions. It is common in O’Connor’s dark narratives to find flashes of grace in the inverse of sacraments; the truth emerges through its own negationhence her heavy use of violence. But all seven are all there, for those who “hath ears to hear” (Matt. 13:9 KJV).

In giving short descriptions of the following stories, my effort is not to justify my choices so much as to provoke further reading. As such, I will keep my descriptions succinct and relatively spoiler-free. Those who have read them may be able to see where I’m coming from. Those who haven’there’s some summer reading for you.

Baptism“The River”

This is one of O’Connor’s more overtly sacramental stories. The young son of irreligious parents accidentally gets himself baptized by a preacher in a Southern riverwith lethal consequences.

Honorable mention: The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor thought about baptism a lot, probably because, as a rite of initiation, it is so centrally connected with questions of faith.

Confirmation“The Enduring Chill”

A sick and snobbish intellectual. A garrulous Jesuit. An overt reference to “A Simple Life” by Flaubert. Sometimes, the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel quite the way we expect.

Eucharist“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”

The only short story I know by any author that quotes the Tantum Ergo at length. There’s a good example of the “Red, Eucharistic Sun” motif that O’Connor was so fond of using. And lovers of the weird O’Connor will find her incarnational vision at a particularly grotesque note in this story.

The thinkpiece that uses “Temple” to discuss contemporary gender identity issues, sadly, has yet to be written.

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O’Connor knew how to use a Protestant idiom to communicate Catholic doctrine. (Source).

Confession“The Lame Shall Enter First”

At one point, the liberal main character’s office is compared to a confessional. In confession, however, you hope that a good priest will comfort those who need comfort and afflict those who need affliction, for the edification and sanctification of all. Not so in Sheppard’s benevolently atheist bubble.

Marriage“Parker’s Back”

In this remarkable narrative, one of O’Connor’s most Catholic stories, we read the story of a marriage broken apart by a dramatically visible expression of extraordinary grace. Theological and moral Puritans won’t be pleased by the implications.

Holy OrdersWise Blood

What happens when you really, really, really don’t want to accept your vocation? You end up like Hazel Motes, and chase after a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” The last chapter can be read as a meditation on the Imago Dei.

Unction“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

If only for that incredible, climactic line spoken by the Misfit, “She would of been a good woman…”

I may try to expand this list into a real academic work some day. For now, take this list for what it isa few reading suggestions for those of you who, like me, enjoy O’Connor, Southern Lit generally, and Catholicism.

Also peacocks.

Lots of peacocks.

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Cover of The Complete Stories. (Source).