Thursday, May 13, 2010

Violating contempoary taboos

Of all the magazines I read either  online or the old-fashioned way, Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity is the one I come closest to reading from cover to cover. The magazine exemplifies what I have elsewhere called honest ecumenism. It draws writers from across the spectrum of Christian orthodoxy, emphasizing areas of fundamental agreement without blurring doctrinal difference. It is also just a very interesting, readable magazine. In this issue I turned immediately to articles about two subjects of particular interest to me: C.S. Lewis and Sacred Harp singing.

Sacred Harp or "shape note" singing is described in an article by Philip E. Devine in which he not only recounts the origins and nature of the music but the social environment of the "sings." The participants are diverse:
People who believe not a word of them sing ancestral texts with every sign of commitment. This may not differ much from the spirit in which many people attend church, but is remarkable nonetheless. It seems that there is a stratum of our souls that is never secular, that resonates with a world-picture that in our sophisticated moods we find hopelessly "primitive." ....

In doing this, it violates two contemporary taboos. The first is the one against dogma, in a world where relativism is all but mandatory. Though the songs admit doubt on the singers' part, the truth of the doctrines expressed is never in question. There is no place in the world of Sacred Harp for such ideas as a "life style."

The second taboo is the mention of death. At no point can someone who takes part in a shape note sing forget that he is born to die. Sometimes the recognition of this fact is plaintive, as in "Idumea." Sometime it is joyous, as in "I'm Going Home." Both of these songs were used in the movie Cold Mountain, to convey the culture of the defeated white South. As one young man put it at a singing, "Death is happy!" Yet the songs also remind us,
Death, 'tis a melancholy day
To those who have no God
When the poor soul is forced away
To seek her last abode.

In vain to heav'n she lifts her eyes
For guilt, a heavy chain
Still drags her downward from the skies
To darkness, fire, and pain.
And sometimes both death and dogma come together in a triumphant acceptance of death and a breathtaking confidence in the possibility of a happy immortality:
Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death's alarms
'Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
To call them to his arms....

Thence he arose, ascended high,
And showed our feet the way;
Up to Lord our souls shall fly,
At the great rising day.
The other article, by Donald T. Williams, defends the validity of C.S. Lewis's "trilemma." Lewis argued that what we know about Jesus doesn't permit the interpretation that he was simply a great moral teacher and exemplar, but that we must choose between "Lord, Liar or Lunatic." Williams responds to those who argue that Lewis creates a false dilemma by too severely limiting the options.

I haven't read much else in this issue of the magazine yet, but I will.