When the obituaries for Patrick Leigh Fermor were coming fast and thick a couple of summers ago, it was rare to find one able to resist employing a certain mathematical formula to describe the great travel writer. For these eulogizers, he was not so much a man we knew nothing about, than the sum of several men with whom we were already familiar: Graham Greene, James Bond, Lord Byron, T.E. Lawrence, Bruce Chatwin, Tin-Tin. The primary lesson to be learned from these essays was, evidently, that Fermor (traveler, writer, soldier, bon vivant) was unfathomably cool and that we are lucky just to have shared the same century as him.
I’ll leave to his biographers the question of who, exactly, Fermor was as a man, and take as my more modest subject the uncontroversial observation that, for all he was, he did not appear to be very much like the seventeenth century pastor-poet George Herbert. Herbert was not a traveler. He was not the life of the party. He was not known for his encyclopedic knowledge of French wine or Greek topography. He was not known to carry on passionate, epistolary affairs with duchesses in the twilights of their wealth. Herbert was simply a pastor of a small church in Bemerton, England and wrote poetry. The finest of his poems are found in a slim volume he titled The Church. Yet it is a poem by Herbert that Fermor chose as one of the epigraphs for his most famous book, A Time of Gifts.
Herbert’s poems are the honest, sometimes playful, always peculiar, recordings of a soul in conversation with itself, its church, and its God. Spiritual, not physical, movements supply the verbs, and when a resolution is reached it is often in the form of submission to mystery. Indeed, the binding motif of the collection is that of a church (hence the title), a structure weighty and immovable, and the very antithesis of the open-road freedom Fermor seems to celebrate in his book. Herbert the man, and the poems contained in The Church cover a lot of emotional and spiritual ground, but literal ground-covering is not one of them. They are certainly not the kind of poems one imagines filling the head of an adventurer. Yet, for all this, it is Herbert, not Byron or Baudelaire or Horace (poets we might imagine to be more sympathetic to Fermor’s manner of living) that he chose as the literary pace-setter for his book.
Fermor’s book is a memoir of the author’s walk across Europe in 1933, at the age of eighteen. More than this, though, it is a requiem for the old Europe of gypsys, aristocrats, and micro-cultures of mountain villages untouched by the outside world. Fermor wrote A Time of Gifts forty-four years after the events he depicts in the book had taken place. But, with a world war, the social explosions of 1960’s, and the rubble of nearly every cultural institution he had begun his life assuming would last forever lying between the two events, the span between the occurrence and the writing is greater even than what the common arithmetic of time implies. Just as the world had grown old, so too had the boy. One way of measuring the twentieth-century’s destructive force is to count up the lives that were lost. Fermor’s book measures it by showing off the continent in one last resplendent burst of history, language, and poetry; a vibrant bouquet of manners and characters; a kind of Last Supper for Western culture before night’s final coming.
But when the book begins, Fermor is just a bookish eighteen year old, with an itch that he thinks only a long walk can really scratch. Thinking back over the decades, Fermor sees his youthful self reflected in this poetical cry from Herbert:
I struck the board, and cried: “No more;
I will abroad!
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine?
My life and lines are free…
At first glance, the selected quotation does nothing more than accomplishes the task asked of any epigraph: it introduces to the reader the theme of the book and situates the author within legitimizing literary company. The opening lines of The Collar accomplish the first, and the name of the nearly canonical, George Herbert, beneath the lines, gives Fermor’s book a kind of weightiness-by-association.
But for those familiar with the poem (or, indeed, the dominating ideas and doctrines of the poet), the epigraph can feel like an opportunistic mis-reading. It is true that the sentiment expressed in these opening lines is sustained for twenty-eight more lines, but then they are dismissed as the ravings of youth. The poet hears the voice of his Lord calling him; he quiets himself and rests his walking stick in the corner once again.
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied My Lord.
The poem can be thought of as a prolonged treatment of Augustine’s famous prayer from Book 1 of the Confessions: “We are restless till we find our rest in thee.” For Fermor to leave us with only the first five lines of The Collar would seem as intellectually dishonest as truncating Augustine’s famous line to read, simply, “We are restless…”.
Herbert’s poem has two kinds of movement to it. The first is the most obvious one: the wild youth is calmed by an outside voice, the voice of his “Lord.” The other is more subtle, where the speaker engages in a coded dialogue with his own subconscious and every complaint contains, if not always its precise opposite, at least a complicating multiplicity within it. To “strike the board” could mean to pound the desk in frustration at one’s sedentary life, or to strike the communion altar (often called “the board”) in an act of rebellion against God. To complain of having “no harvest but a thorn” (as he does later in the poem) captures both the sense of tedium of unfulfilling labor, but also the thorns of Christ’s crown - a harvest rich, indeed. Even the poem’s title contains a play on “collar” and “cholar.” Is it the restraints in the speaker’s life that causes discontent (“the collar”), or is he simply an angry, choleric man, whose discontents are a result of internal strife?
We hear a similar harmony of voices in A Time of Gifts in how the experience of Fermor’s younger self is overlaid with the circumspection of the man he has become. The eyes are those of the boy, but the understanding, the interpretation, the unique mix of the poetic and the anthropological that interpret the boy’s observations - those belong to the author. The boy sees a lot, but understands only a fraction of what the years will eventually reveal to him.
We need not over-emphasize the connection between Fermor and Herbert and require that the poem be read as an allegory for Fermor’s whole life. The poem is not a Citizen Kane, rosebud-like, utterance that holds the key to his inner life and motivations. It is simply a poem he fancied and that resonated with him. But we can presume, as well, that he was a careful enough reader and respector of the poet not to make his meaning so very different from Herbert’s own. What that leaves us with is a complicated poem enjoyed by a complicated man - enjoyed especially, we can suppose, because he saw himself in it. In this way, Fermor’s use of the poem suggests that he believed that traveling is never as simple a matter as we believe it be when we are young. There are other voices besides that of our own restlessness that deserve to be heard.
That Fermor yielded to these reforming voices is clear as a matter of biographical fact. Though termed a “travel writer” all his life, he chose for himself a place of great permanence in Greece, literally hewing from the rock there a domicile where he would live for several decades, tasting the riches of culture that require no geographic conquest: reading, writing, and food with friends. He might more aptly be called a “place writer,” for even in those books where he describes his movements, it is always for each place’s particular historical and linguistic terroir that he reserves his most lavish prose. Though a profligate spender of words, he does not spend them on himself or on the glories of the open road. He is, thankfully, no Jack Kerouac.
His attraction to the rocky coast of Greece underscores just how appealing the idea of a cohesive European story was for him. The major metropoles of the continent and its too-often painted rural vistas were largely ignored in favor of a Europe of eastern steppes and mongrel languages, a Europe as wild as anything Claude Levi-Strauss ever stumbled on in the jungle, where Aphrodite might still rise from its seas and Grendel sleep in its forests. As he saw European cultural suffer the degradation inflicted on it by the twentieth-century, perhaps it brought him comfort to retreat to its headwaters in the land of Hesiod and Homer. When he did travel, it was as if to view his favorite subject from a new and exciting angle. If all of European history could only have shifted poses for his pleasure, one can imagine Fermor being happy never to have moved again.
Though George Herbert was no traveler, he understood the importance of place and filled his collection of poems with the stone and concrete of his faith: poems titled Sepulchre, The Altar, The Church-Porch, Church Windows, and The Church-Floor. There is one, too, called Home that contains many of the same complaints as The Collar. Again we hear his sighing, his disappointment over his labor’s meager harvests, and the youthful cry from The Collar transposed into the key of an old man, uttering, finally, that “my free soul may use her wing.” The transposition is vital. It is not the body that is free, nor the “life and lines” of Fermor’s epigraph, but the soul.
What have I left, that I should stay and groan
The most of me to heaven is fled:
My thoughts and joys are all packt up and gone,
And for their old acquaitance plead.
O show thy self to me,
Or take me up to thee.
In such a poem, Herbert imagines the the traveler’s path as changing with age, no longer lying in latitudinal paths across civilization, but upward, on a trajectory reaching toward a final rest where already his “thoughts and joys are all packt up and gone.” The closing lines of The Collar recasts the great travel writer’s legacy as an advocation of deep and abiding stillness, not movement. In that way, Fermor’s decision, in his last weeks, to return to England became one last rejection of the traveler’s incessant lie about rollings stones who gather no moss. For both men - Fermor and Herbert - the moss was beautiful.
John del Re’s farm is near to Washington D.C. in only the strictest cartographical sense. In every other way, it is a world apart, especially in early June when the north Virginia hills are green and every tree and bush is in bloom and the horses (not broken-down field ornaments, but the real stuff, huge and bay-colored) fleck the neighboring farm pastures. But it is almost midnight when my friend Brad and I arrive with two sleeping five year-olds to camp in his field, and we see none of this until the morning. We had made the drive up from North Carolina to hear a preview singing of The Shenandoah Harmony, the largest new four-shape hymnal of its kind to be published since the Civil War. We were there, if not exactly at Mr. del Re’s invitation, than at least at his acquiescence.
The Shenandoah Harmony was begun by John del Re and his daughter Leyland as a preservationist project to compile into a single volume the best of those songs Ananias Davisson had spent the early part of the nineteenth century publishing throughout the region. In its final form, however, The Shenandoah Harmony represents an exciting combination of that historically minded project with one that may prove even more valuable. For historians we have; what we lack are precisely the kind of practical, tangible, demonstrations of the continuity of the past into our present lives that The Shenandoah Harmony represents.
Of the four-hundred and fifty-seven hymns in The Shenandoah Harmony, fifty-one are written or arranged by living members of the singing community. If that ratio of living-to-dead still sounds slanted toward the dead, keep in mind that The Sacred Harp (the most popular shape-note hymnal still in regular use) contains even fewer living composers (and certainly none born in the 1980s). Shape-note singing is often called a living tradition, and I take there word for it, but its nice see that its canon of songs has some elasticity in it. It’s that elasticity that separates a true participatory tradition from mere preservation, and to come across a group of singers singing a shape-note hymn written in 2004 is about as surprising as discovering a group of Civil War reenactors using real slugs.
From the del Re farm in Boyce, we followed the caravan of cars the next morning into Millview. At the small, unused schoolhouse where we meet, the singers sit facing one another in the shape of a square, each side of the square consisting of a single harmonic part (soprano, alto, tenor, or bass) and stacked as many rows deep as necessary to accommodate the singers who are present. When the first song begins, the sound is nearly deafening and the thin wooden schoolhouse walls seem to vibrate, and our bodies with it, in a thrumming, quivering mass of voices. My daughter makes a concerned escape outside to explore the covered plates of potato salad and pie.
But a good group of singers doesn’t plod with their voices so much as skip around with them. And where these old fuging tunes truly add to the repository of human emotion is not in their dirges (though imagining what Hildegard von Bingen would have composed had she been a burley tobacco farmer and had eight kids would get you be pretty close to that), but in the music’s big-bodied, sinewy nimbleness and the reverent joy with which it is brought forth. The elemental harmonic intervals of fifths and octaves, purposefully pitched high in the vocal range for maximum volume, the trading off of vocal lines, the staggered entrances and exits, the endless echoes, repetitions, calls, and responses give the music an unanticipated buoyancy.
And in the middle of it all stands a leader, first among equals for one song only before yielding his place to another, each one keeping time in a way unique to themselves: one with rigid chopping motions; another with a conductor-like fluidity; another with a wagging, scolding finger; another pivoting about to face and smile at each side of the square in turn; another pointing at the singers as though conjuring their voices by magic; another accompanying his silent pendulating hand with the dull thud of a boot tapping against the wooden floors - the only sound present in the room save that of the human voice and the wind blowing through the open window. It is the musical equivalent of a bear moving swiftly through the woods.
We all have an image in our minds of how a backwoods Christian ought to look, and here, at the schoolhouse in Millview, I have my eyes trained to single out those who fit my image of the true-believer. I see a stern woman with a long single braid down her back wearing a long skirt, but she is here with her girlfriend. They are not down from the mountains and, one assumes, not on speaking terms with the eighteenth century Puritan hymn-writers in The Sacred Harp. I also learn that the carpenter with a Mennonite-style beard practices eastern meditation, not glossolalia. And as I sit down to eat lunch, it is with a Shakespeare professor and an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department. Promisingly, there is young couple with a baby named Calvin. Perhaps named for John Calvin? I hope, but don’t get around to asking. They are all warm, generous, thoughtful people with beautiful voices who let me sleep on their farm and eat their food, but the spiritual heirs of New England Puritans and Primitive Baptists, they are not. And they’d be the first to tell you so.
I talk at lunch with Susan, the attorney at the Justice Department, about those who do consider themselves the lineal theological descendants of the original hymn-writers. Their singing sessions are different, Susan says, more sober-minded; more duty-bound; sadder, even, as so many songs in The Sacred Harp have come to be associated with some now-deceased member of the congregation, buried even now in the churchyard out back. Singers have their favorites, their signature songs that they always lead and that no one else will lead, and when a singer dies, their signature song is silently retired, like a baseball team retiring the number of a hall-of-famer. A stranger visiting such an event will inevitably choose a seemingly innocuous song to lead, make her way to the center of the square, call out the hymn number and commence to lead the singing, only to find, by the end of the first verse, that half the singers in the room are crying.
The peculiarity of lawyers, professors, and mystic carpenters singing Puritan hymns, while worth noting, is really no more strange than the New York Philharmonic playing Handel’s Messiah or, for that matter, the very existence of Christian heavy-metal music. There is something incongruous about it, but to state such a fact is to almost immediately exhaust its importance. Shape-note singing is simply attractive to those who enjoy the music and enjoy being part of a community lived outside the ordinary currents of modern life. And that is the bulk of their commonality with the religious practitioners of the singing, though one group lives on the outside for the preservation of their souls, while the other lives on the outside because it suits them.
That was all last June. This February, nearly a year after the preview I attended in Clarke County, The Shenandoah Harmony was finally published. I got my first look at the book at the Annual North Carolina Shape-Note Convention (a big title for the small group that spent a happy Saturday singing and eating biscuits in the annex of the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church). Brad and I went again, our daughters now six. My first sensation at seeing The Shenandoah Harmony was one of relief at what a handsome object it is: hard-bound in gray cloth, slightly leaner than The Sacred Harp, but still oblong in shape, containing slightly browned pages filled with the curiously shaped note-heads that give the singing style its name. And there is the index of composers, full of birth years like 1761 and 1821, but also, splendidly, importantly, dates of 1978, 1957, and 1989.
Yet the book remains immensely practical, containing helpful hints and bibliographies for further investigation. This pedagogical dimension to the book, rather than representing a necessary dumbing-down for modern users, is precisely in character with the very earliest of the colonial-era singing masters who developed the shaped notes as a method of teaching the musically illiterate. Though there are communities and sects that have so immersed themselves in the style that the singing appears as complicated and serious as any Bach oratorio, in its native form, shape-note singing was always a bit of a game or puzzle, like contra dancing with your voice.
Shape-note singing got a publicity boost a few years back when PBS ran it’s documentary “Awake, My Soul.” This kind of attention is always a mixed-blessing, since whenever public television produces a documentary about something, chances are that the documentary’s subject is past its prime, if not officially dead and gone. Documentaries share a lot of the traits of a taxidermist in that way. Sometimes they share the traits of the hunter, too.
The community weathered the storm of approval with good cheer (even if it did annoy those singers, like me, who take particular pleasure in activities of which public media personalities either don’t approve or don’t know about). After all, it is not always the obliviating hand of time that kills tradition, sometimes it is the domesticating voices of a cooing media. But the shape-note singers are deaf to the congratulating voices of the world because they know they will soon be forgotten again and be forced to forage for survival in the usual way: having babies and raising them up to do the same, and sing the same, as them. The Shenandoah Harmony adds an important codicil to that inheritance.
It’s the rare Southerner who feels entirely at home in his time or place. That is true now, as we scramble as a region to preserve every old recipe and tobacco shack we can before the great flood of modernity washes them away, and it was true in the old days, when a fundamentally agrarian region looked longingly toward what seemed to be purer embodiments of the good life in Europe. It was thought that, with a northern culture running wild with capitalists and puritans, the South had nowhere else to turn but to Europe for support in cultivating its gentility. The form that this gentility took—whether in Anglo-Saxon-influenced Appalachia, or in the French- and Caribbean-influenced Deep South—can be credited to whom the region’s inhabitants most often dressed up as. Never a culture to blush at hypocrisy—or deny the aspirations within it—the South has always believed that you are what you pretend to be.
This theory resurfaced in my mind while I was reading a series of profiles of prominent evangelicals that the journalist and historian Molly Worthen has published over the last several years. A history professor down the road from me at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ms. Worthen’s essays on pastors like Doug Wilson and theologians like Al Mohler and Francis Schaeffer often focus on their respective efforts to civilize their churches’ manners, even while moving their churches’ theology in the apparently uncivilized direction of John Calvin’s Geneva, circa 1536. Worthen details their preoccupations with the trappings of bygone eras (more sherry! more leather armchairs! more dusty books!) and finds their atavism both illuminating and unique. In one of her more cutting pieces, she writes, “Many evangelicals seem to idealize a long lost arcadia where professor-clergymen praise theology as queen of the sciences and manly Livingstonian missionaries conquer Africa in the name of Christendom—rather than Britannia as she truly is, secularist, multi-cultural warts and all.”
When Ms. Worthen and I spoke last December, I asked her whether she had a personal connection to her subjects. She described her reporting as strictly professional, and her goal as one of simply “getting the story right.” As an academic, she’s interested in the history of ideas; as a journalist, she’s interested in how those ideas—often several centuries old—manifest in the homes and churches of Christians. Thus, she writes about figures in Protestant America who actually matter, and appears to understand the difference between influence and fame. There is, thankfully, little mention of Joel Osteen, Pat Robertson, or Rick Warren in her pieces, except as the occasional foils for the rabble-rousers she prefers to write about. I find smugness in some of her descriptions of these men, but when Ms. Worthen and I spoke on the phone, she had nothing but kind words to say about them. “Even those with abominable views have been, to a person, charming,” she told me, and she assured me that she believed their scholarship to be sincere and intelligent. If anything, she merely wondered if the enthusiasm of some of their students will be ridiculed in a post-academic world unappreciative of cowls and after-lunch pipe breaks.
It isn’t just that there are many evangelicals in the South, though, that makes Worthen’s observations relevant, but that her essays portray an evangelical culture that relates to the dominant culture in a way that resembles the South’s historical relationship to the United States. Both evangelicals and Southerners live (arguably) marginalized existences, with all the attendant self-doubt and self-justification that can often be found among a minority culture, and both look backward to an earlier time, when the wider culture was kinder to their values. Both the South and the evangelical movement within it liken themselves to the deposed kings and defenders of civilization. The fiercest among them also see themselves as the future kings of civilization.
To those who occupy the center, the margins are sometimes viewed as one general place. This can be true geographically, in how urban dwellers will conceptualize the countryside as a single stretch of irrelevance, suitable for anthropology and little else, and this can be true intellectually, as when wisdom is assumed to emanate from a single cultural wellspring of accepted truth, and ignorance assigned to any who refuse to drink. The task for the regionalist is to distinguish herself from the provincial. The task of those accused of cultural philistinism, like Wilson and Mohler, is to distinguish disagreement with culture from ignorance of it.
The Southern Agrarians in the mid-twentieth century had similar battles with those who confused regionalism (which the Agrarians considered a good thing) with provincialism (which they considered an embarrassing distortion of regionalism). To the poet Allen Tate, provincialism was simply “regionalism without civilization”—the writers’ job was to instruct their compatriots in the manners of civilization. The pastors and professors that Ms. Worthen profiles, like the Southern Agrarians, are tasked with instructing the faithful in how to intelligently and winsomely engage with the world, while convincing journalists and historians like Ms. Worthen that such intelligence and winsomeness are already natural, organic features of their churches. And, on either side, they are confronted by those Tate describes as having “lost their origins in the past and its continuity into the present, and [who] begin every day as if there had been no yesterday.” The aesthetic habits and wide-ranging libraries that Ms. Worthen describes with mild amusement suggest that the corrective lies not just in old ideas, but in pairing ideas within an old way of living. Thoughts not enacted are irrelevant.
Ms. Worthen knows all this, but for the sake of making her journalistic point, she sometimes feigns ignorance. Why possibly does a Southern seminary president flaunt his vast library and cultural mastery? Why do earnest young students at a small Idaho college revel in old Oxford academic regalia? Why do even the strictest Protestants love the almost certainly heretical C.S. Lewis? She pretends not to know, but of course she does know. All this is the dress code of a particular intellectual community paying homage to their golden age in the hopes that there’s still some gold to be mined.
We all steal from the past to plug the gaps we perceive in the present. Just as there are a multitude of diseases endemic to modern life, there are a multitude of places and epochs that we adopt as the proper medicine. The environmentalists extol and attempt within bounds to resuscitate pre-industrial sustainability practices. Those most concerned with the corrosive effects of mass media and consumerism retreat to an ambiguous nineteenth-century lifestyle. Bookish Christians adopt the trappings of the most bookish Christians from the past. There is no great shame or embarrassment here, simply an observation about the quirks and proclivities of different communities. You know, the past isn’t even past, and all that.
Our town’s Christmas parade was last Saturday, an event that presents, for our consumption, a rare and confusing mix of civic, material, and religious celebration. Parades, like the downtown stretches they occupy, lure us with the promise of a taste of America’s golden past. And we go, with not a small amount of self-consciousness, each trying to play our small part in the theater of the occasion by whistling some Sousa tunes or letting our children stroll the sidewalks barefoot. It doesn’t take long, though, for the self-consciousness to wear-off and to find oneself genuinely enjoying the event. There’s something for everyone at the Christmas parade: candy, neighbors, competitive jump-rope clubs, first-rate high-school marching bands, local businesses advertising their services from open-top classic cars, and—new this year—disgruntled men with grievances to air. What’s not to love?
This grievance airing came courtesy of the owner of the town’s old shopping mall. The decades have not been kind to the mall, which wasn’t much to speak of even in its youth. Ours is an aspirational kind of town (we call the town dump the “Citizen Convenience Center”) and we have no use for tacky malls visible from the interstate. The town could hardly close the mall down (though I’m sure they tried), so the most recent battle has been over the presence of a large, plastic sign that hovered beside the interstate. It comes complete with movable letters capable of spelling out various messages, like “99 cent tube-socks, now!” or “Jesus Saves,” depending on the occasion and mood of the owner, a Mr. Martin, who finally relented and replaced the sign about a year ago. The mall’s new sign fits the town’s aesthetic doctrine—it is brick and monochromatic. Best of all, none of its letters can be rearranged.
Nothing else about the mall changed, but the town has chalked the loss of the sign up as a win, and Mr. Martin seems to have chalked it up as a bitter loss: At the parade last week, the old sign returned, in all its tackiness—a clenched fist raised against the town’s gathered masses.
It was propped up on a big flat-bed trailer. The sign was as large as a quarter horse or freight train up close, bigger and more formidable than when seen from the distance of a passing car. I wanted to shout out in jest, “It’s back! It’s here! They can take our signs, but they can never take our freedom!” I quickly checked the face of the truck’s driver to make sure it wasn’t painted blue and white, like in Braveheart, half hoping, half fearing it would be. The sign’s letters had been rearranged one last time: “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”
There’s subtle menace behind statements like that, just as there’s menace behind the act of parading a wholly despised sign down Main Street. But it’s Christmas time, and if a man can’t throw a punch or two now, in this most holy of seasons, when can he? So Mr. Martin towed his reminder of both his presence and his understanding of the holiday serenely behind a large truck.
Christmas is that wonderful time of year when Christians get to watch Federal government workers go to great effort to avoid saying a sentence that begins with “Christ.” This isn’t persecution so much as a rather flattering acknowledgement on their part that Christianity is not fit for polite company. It is a hollow victory that Christians gain when they convince judges that the municipal display of nativity scenes, crosses, and other accoutrements of the faith do not violate the Constitution. To do so requires arguing that religious imagery is so neutered by history and cultural familiarity that it no longer means much of anything at all.
But, like Whitman, I “make short account of neuters and geldings, and favor men and women fully equipt.” Far better, it would seem, for one’s faith to be universally viewed as so potent and soul stirring that any government dabbling would seem absurd and dangerous for all involved. Such a religion would be “fully equipt” as Whitman understood the term. It was said that the French people were never more free than when they were occupied by Germany because the occupation injected a dose of rebellion and courage into daily acts that would have once seemed banal. So it is for Christians at Christmas time—we get to say “merry Christmas” like it’s the first part of a password. Say “merry Christmas” back, and you’re part of the resistance, and we smile at each other like we just finished singing “La Marseillaise” together at Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.
These annual Christmas battle cries make me envy the chicken sacrifices of Voodoo, a practice that is untamable by advertisers and marketers. I’m quite sure that Haitian witch doctors never have to explain to their followers that spirits are the true reason for ritual tribal dances, or explain to their children that not everyone who sacrifices chickens is really practicing voodoo.
A statement like “Jesus is the reason for the season” carries a reformatory tone. It suggests that our culture once knew this fact, that it has since forgotten it, and now must be reminded again in order for Christmas to be properly celebrated. But short of a Third Great Awakening, no such proper celebration is really possible. Far better for the season to be divided: for me to worship the coming of the incarnation of the Word made flesh, and for others to get a few days off of work and help boost the economy with their spending without a word of Jesus on their lips. It is right that the name of Christ (even if somewhat disguised by the word “Christmas”) no longer finds itself glibly stenciled on greeting cards and blinking in neon lights in shop windows. Between a culture’s silence and its sacrilege, I choose silence.
Gone are the days of field research when a renegade ethnographer would pile his hefty recording instruments into the trunk of his car and set out on the back roads of the American South in search of that region’s authentic music. This was the method famously employed by the Lomaxes, John and son Alan, during the first part of the twentieth century. They drove around and held a microphone up to men and women who knew no other way of singing, and whose voices the Lomaxes, with their pan-musical minds, understood as wonderful and unique and worth preserving before the music they made was lost forever.
Nowadays this method is little more than a relic, the stuff of Indiana Jones, belonging to a simpler time—modernism, say—and the notion of authenticity itself has become antiquated. Take the folk musicians recorded by John and Alan: most of them are dead. Players now aren’t folk by virtue of natural inclination, but because of their heritage or rural upbringing. They decide to play folk music. Even a revered and seemingly ancient folk singer like Doc Watson (dead this year at the age of 89) began his musical career playing electric guitar for a Rockabilly band. Even Doc, as “authentic” as he is viewed to be, first put down his electric guitar before he picked up an acoustic one and started singing the songs of his ancestors.
The disappearance of these unself-conscious artifacts of traditional culture is an immeasurable tragedy for people who take great stock in authenticity. For them, technology is to blame. To know why traditional cultures are diluted in the mainstream requires no further analysis than counting the TV satellite dishes on the roofs of mountain cabins and farmhouses along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Send your local ethnomusicographer out into the field with a tape recorder today, and he’ll come back with a recording of a gravel-voiced man with a drawl singing Hotel California with intense, unalloyed feeling. Yet traditional cultures are being carried through other mediums. In fact, they’re gaining popularity—and not despite technology, but because of it.
I realized this while watching a CNN piece on Andrew Hamblin, the snake-handling pastor of Tabernacle Church of God, in Tennessee. This preacher has his bona fides largely in order. He lives in the mountains, speaks in a thick accent, and has married and sired children on a pre-industrial biological clock: a wife, three kids, and a church all by the age of twenty-one. But he didn’t learn about handling snakes from his father or from a kindly, elder snake handler in the community, as our notions of authenticity would have it. He learned about it from TV.
I’m not inclined to read books about business, but Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail (2006) made enough of a stir when it was published that its general conceit penetrated even the deep belles-lettres bunker I inhabit. Its premise is simple: the days of Thriller-like album sales are over; it’s time we all started trying to make money “selling less of more.” Modern consumers are scattered, niche oriented, and fickle in their demands. The book’s title, and its primary theory, the “long tail,” reference the shape made when this consumer distribution is charted: rather than the traditional cluster of tastes, consumers’ individualism spreads out, creating a tail to the graph.
Netflix is the author’s primary example. Americans don’t just want blockbusters anymore: they want campy horror flicks from the ‘80s, too; they want quirky indie comedies starring Laura Linney; they want to watch rare Swedish-language films from the fifties. What TV homogenized in our culture, the Internet has fragmented. Three cheers for the Internet!
Which leaves us with our young man in Tennessee, who is not practicing the faith of his fathers, but the faith of someone else’s father, which he learned about by watching a documentary and which he now promulgates using Facebook. Let me write that again, for effect: a snake-handling minister in Tennessee is on Facebook.
Since, as I said, this man’s bona fides are otherwise in order, I feel justified in attributing his church’s practice to a genuine, geographically specific outgrowing of a traditional faith practice. How he fell into the practice (TV) registers only a minor deduction for style on the ethnographer’s scorecard. It does provoke the question, though: what if snake handling goes the way of yoga, evolving from an outlying curiosity into a mainstream practice? What if snake handling replaces church-lobby espresso bars as the pièce de résistance of bourgeois church life in America? Will it still be an expression of an Appalachian faith practice, or will it be something else? When does the “long tail” represent the sustaining of something already there, and when does it create something new, altogether?
Until the latter happens, Hamblin’s church offers some evidence of the possibility that there remains a distinctive Appalachian culture that is not built solely on the habit of history (therefore being vulnerable to erosion), but on actual choice. For Andrew Hamblin, we can only assume that the long tail of consumerism was laid out before him, and that he had the choice of making himself into any kind of believer he wanted to be (or no believer at all), the same as any other young man in America. And yet, among all these choices, he chose handling. For him, the long tail had a rattle on the end of it.
The long tail produces a different kind of authenticity these days. It’s rare that we encounter any kind of cultural expression that remains untainted by exposure to the banality of People magazine, daytime television, and fast food. Those days are over; we are living in a self-conscious, online world. But there remains the hope that a new kind of authenticity is possible. Our folk singers are now self-consciously folk singers. Our snake handlers are now self-consciously snake handlers. These cultural expressions are no longer sustained by ancestral rite and geographic isolation alone, but by practitioners who authentically love them and feel passionately enough about them to blow otherwise dull cultural embers red again. Not all deserve to glow hot, but they at least deserve to die democratically. Vote now on Facebook.
Twelve years ago the loose confederation of Nashville musicians known as Indelible Grace were an anomaly in Christian music. They weren’t out to become famous for sounding like kosher editions of secular bands and they weren’t out to create music for churches that furthered the trend of tunefully sentimentalizing faith. They were out to make music the way jazz musicians once did: by taking a particular canon of songs (in their case, seventeenth and eighteenth century hymns) and making it their own. These days, when everything old is new again, and even the most conventional of suburban housewives find themselves busy growing backyard tomatoes and making homemade penicillin in petri dishes above the kitchen sink, a coterie of reformed Presbyterians setting old hymns to riffs on a pedal-steel guitar might not seem terribly strange, but believe me, when they started out, it was.
A couple of weeks back I had the opportunity to sit down after a show with Matthew Smith, a founding member of Indelible Grace and solo artist in his own right. We talked between mouthfuls of Brunswick stew about the role of music in churches, the creative force that is Nashville, and what the centuries-old hymn texts he adapts for his own music mean to him. It was a scattered kind of interview, with frequent trips to the kitchen for more beer and occasional parenthetical asides with Kenny Hutson, the guitarist, pedal-steel player, and compendium of country music history currently touring with him. Matthew Smith speaks in thoughtful, measured sentences. Kenny Hutson once held Otis Redding’s dentures. It’s good to have both sorts in a band.
Christians make for awkward rock stars. They’re humble, unassuming, hang out after shows to talk to you even if you aren’t all that pretty, and usually don’t smell like cigarettes. In this tradition, Matthew Smith schedules his shows early in the evening so kids can come, but upends it by slapping their precious little souls with ninety minutes of seventeenth century hymns set to country-tinged folk-rock. Its not unusual for a musician to cast an occasional line into their mother’s hymn book to get themselves through a spell of writer’s block, but those hooks usually bring up pretty small fish: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance.” Not exactly the stuff to make a sinner squirm in his pew. But when Matthew Smith casts in his line, he pulls up the big stuff: songs of sin, sickness, blood, death, hell, heaven, suffering, pain, crucifixion, forgiveness, propitiation, redemption. Material that not even Johnny Cash dared to touch.
There is more to this, though, than Indelible Grace simply having discovered a way of distinguishing themselves in a crowded musical marketplace or a more-historical-than-thou posture to shove in people’s faces. These texts are rich poetry and continue to speak. Matthew Smith isn’t necessarily motivated by a conviction that what people need to hear is knotty theological doctrines set to rhyming couplets (though this writer might have such a conviction). He puts it like this: “I just want to sing songs about the gospel that help me.”
In our conversation, Matthew expressed concern that the lyrics to one of the most popular songs on his new album is written in the past tense. It’s not that he doesn’t like his song “Redeemed, Restored, Forgiven” (he did, after all, compose the melody and arrangement for it), it’s just that he’s troubled with the possibility that its popularity with churches stems from some latent prejudice these congregations have in favor of past, rather than present, suffering. Singing about the Israelites in the desert doesn’t take a lot out of you, emotionally, and doesn’t help develop a great deal of empathy for your neighbor. He wants to make suffering acceptable in churches and feels that too many years of singing “and now I’m happy all the day” has truncated our emotional repertoire.
Hymns—like certain kinds of primitive blues or country music—both attract and repel modern listeners. In the music’s sorrow and spitting-out of pain and suffering, we feel our common humanity and, beyond that, our souls somehow essentialized. But we also feel our historical isolation and our material privilege. We are cut off from the particulars of the world that those songs embody. We do not fear the boll weevil. Jealous husbands rarely resort to poison anymore. Rousing death-bed speeches are discouraged by hospital orderlies. We are orphans of history, cut adrift from our ancestors on reefs of technology and affluence. We want to own the pain that traditional music expresses, but feel disingenuous about it. We are not, after all, sharecroppers. Not even the sons of sharecroppers. But we go on listening to Son House and Uncle Dave Macon, and singing the hymns of Isaac Watts because we intuitively sense that, external optics aside, the rich material life we live is not really so different from a sharecropper’s once we get down to the bones. Our hearts are the same, we think, and so, too, our fears, our depression, anxiety, heartbreak. In the end, Son House didn’t sing the way he did because he suffered more than anyone else, but because he expressed it better.
In the show that prefaced our conversation and during our late-dinner talk, Matthew seemed attuned to both the kind of suffering we experience first-hand (our own sickness, our own financial ruination), and the suffering we experience from a distance, when we read the newspaper or listen to the news. He sees the biblical story of Lazarus as illuminating both kinds. Sometimes, in our suffering, we are Lazarus: suffering, sick, dying, dead. But more often, we stand beside the sick bed, outside the tomb. In the Lazarus story, we stand where Christ does. But—and this is what Matthew Smith latches hold of—even in our position as observers of brokenness, cruelty, and injustice, we, like Jesus, still suffer. Jesus still weeps. We suffer actually and we suffer sympathetically. There is a place for both. Any man’s death diminishes me. Laid alongside his CDs on the merchandise tables in the lobby are child-sponsorship brochures that appropriately underline his belief that we both deserve to own the pain of a universal brokenness, yet are privileged materially enough to feel a holy pressure to give sacrificially to diminish it in some small way.
Those are the heavy moments of the night. We do some laughing, too, trade barbs about The Louvin Brothers, joke about Kenny’s days backing the enigmatic Bill Mallonee in his band Vigilantes Of Love, and return to identifying what truly makes Nashville a unique place to make music.
He calls it “song city,” not just “music city,” much less “country music city.” It’s a place, Matthew says, where the song is king. You can be anybody from anywhere, and if you can write a song, the city will make room for you. Hymn texts are a good fit in a place like that, and not just because of Tennessee’s gospel music past. They come to us both as strange and foreign, ready to be re-imagined and reused for new audiences, new worshipers; yet they come to those new audiences bearing the seal of history’s approval. They survived. And if they survived, they deserve to be used again. When originally written, those texts assumed a Christian’s familiarity with suffering; this time around, they teach a Christian how to suffer in the first place.
(Matthew’s music can be enjoyed here: http://www.matthewsmith.us)
“Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized—The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator.” —“Parker’s Back”
By now you know the story of Cecilia Gimenez, the simple old woman who, in an act of terrible charity, painted her own clumsy rendering of Christ over a famous nineteenth century church fresco. In a single, dramatic act of incompetence and yellow paint, “Ecce Homo” became “Ecce Mono”—behold the monkey. It happened in Zaragoza, Spain, but if there was anything like poetic justice left in the world, it would have happened in Georgia fifty years ago so we could have gotten Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on the matter. After all, the story isn’t really an art history story, it’s a religion story, an outsider story. It’s a story that shows the divide in society between faith as a cultural artifact and actual religious devotion. In O’Connor’s hands, the old woman would have won, the fancy people from the city would have lost, the garish monkey-boy rendering would have been imbued with miraculous powers, a lame child would have beheld the figure weeping, a self-righteous priest would have been brought to heel, and someone probably would have been shot in the road.
But even sixty years after her death, we can get an inkling of her thoughts on the spiritual power of crude iconography by flipping back through our yellow-paged edition of her stories and reading “Parker’s Back.” There’s a fight about a painting of Christ there, too, pitched between the rigid show-piety of Sarah Ruth and her husband’s wild, foolish sense of the divine power in a tattoo of Christ. The repulsion that Parker’s wife felt on seeing her idea of Christ made so fleshly, so normal, so profane and ugly on Parker’s back is not so very different from the repulsion expressed at the defacing of Christ in the church. Though she professes great religious understanding, when Sarah Ruth sees the tattoo she fails to recognize the face of Jesus. “It ain’t anybody I know,” she says.
In the Zaragoza fresco story, those most troubled by the new painting seem to stand in the place of Parker’s wife. They scold, they mock, and then they sell “Monkey Boy” halloween costumes done up to look like the new painting. The original fresco painting conforms to our usual conception of Christ (familiar, calcified, historically removed), while Ms. Gimenez’s sloppy repair of the original produces a cultural statement roughly equivalent to “it ain’t anybody I know.” The misundering has little to do with the actual painting itself, though. If the twentieth century was good for nothing else (and it probably wasn’t), it was at least good at eradicating any instinctual prejudice in favor of representational art. In 2012, we pay good money to see Damien Hirst dot paintings, and really, if you had told me that the botched restoration was an early Tahiti painting by Gauguin I probably would have believed you.
The fault line that interests me, here, is not the one that separates good art from bad art (though undoubtedly that line exists), but the one separating an understanding of religion that relegates the artifacts of faith to the past and appoints curators as its guardians and an understanding of religion that sees faith as alive and kicking and appoints no one but its own devotees to guard its treasures. This is the real story: There’s a woman in Spain who took spiritual offense at the deterioration of a painting of Jesus. Her act—while a cultural horror—places her in the company of the woman in the gospel stories who subjected herself to the disapprobation of the disciples when she poured costly perfume on Christ’s feet.
In one very important sense, the tourists who now flock to Zaragoza go to see a fresco whose meaning has changed. They stand like O.C. Parker in the tattoo parlor, unmoved by the familiar images of Christ, hoping for one strange and shocking enough to match the strangeness of their own lives. But it is innocence, too, they want: some symbol of guileless devotion, where history’s icons are not separated from our devotional life, but as useful to it as a pair of shoes, as personal as a rosary. The nineteenth century is an eternity ago for an art lover. It is yesterday for a follower of Christ, visiting her neighborhood church to pray, troubled by flaking paint.
It turns out that the world has more than enough antique frescos and too few symbols of pure, unconscious love. A church that began as a location of religious worship was transformed in the last century to a site of artistic devotion, and finally, this summer, transformed again into one of pop-cultural hilarity. If that was all there was to the story, you might have a tidy, cynical, view of Western Civilization in miniature: faith to reason to cheap amusement. But that would, I think, underestimate the potential O’Connor saw in the heart to roar inside “like a great generator” when confronted with the mystery of God made visible, even crudely visible.