On a summer’s day when I can work with the windows open, I hear the bells of a local church. We haven’t been in our current location long enough to know for sure, but they seem to come from the direction of the United Methodists. Around noon each day they ring out hymn tunes to which I often find myself filling in the words. These are traditional hymns that I’ve known from childhood, and there’s an easy familiarity about hearing them, although my own spiritual journey may have taken me in different directions. The sound of bells is so pleasant, I think, that nobody really objects. Then I wonder about what I thought.
Music in public places does impact other people. Consider the heavy metal or rap booming out of a passing car with the stereo turned up too high for human consumption. Or jazz in the park. Music impacts other people. What, I wonder, is the message those of other religions hear along with these old hymns? Do they suggest more than the praise of the locals for their version of the Almighty? Is there some subtle proselytizing going on? Is the music for members of the parish only, or can outsiders hear it and be free of obligation? In many ways this encapsulates, I believe, the conflicts rife throughout our nation. Traditionalists who see nothing wrong with “white” Christianity spreading its message but who object to a mosque being built in their community would likely find church bells comforting, even if they personally don’t attend. Those from the outside, meanwhile, hear a message of cultural superiority.
Some sects feel compelled to praise God vocally, often and enthusiastically. Their religion insists they do so. Hymns ringing from the steeple, even if they’re not exactly your brand, participate in that mandate. The deity likes to be adored. (Think Psalms.) This specific divinity, however, isn’t alone. Perhaps beyond the bounds of where these sound waves flatten out to inaudibility, there are others with religious beliefs often older. They too have rules about how to behave. They may not be friendly to those who come bearing a new message of a new truth. Globalization follows in the wake of technology and no god beyond the laws of physics oversees tech. Our smartphones have made the world a much smaller place. In such tight quarters, sounds carry. Church bells, innocent as they seem, may be heard as a war cry. But I wouldn’t suggest such things on a day so pleasant that I can work with my windows open and listen to the bells.
A friend, knowing my penchant to watch the skies, sent me a story about the British and the weather. The story by Alastair Sooke on the BBC’s cultural page is discussing Alexandra Harris’s book Weatherland. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book (yet) but the report of it appeals to someone who’s written a book on the weather, but for a much older timeframe. According to Harris, according to Sooke, the British are rumored to be obsessed with the weather. While living in the United Kingdom, my wife and I observed this. It is not merely casual conversation when someone discusses the weather. It is a serious topic. For a nation so accustomed to rain and gloomy skies, the weather has a religious import. It rarely goes without comment. I suppose that’s the point I was trying to make in my book. The weather is important. Vital, in fact, to human survival.
What really caught my attention here, however, was Harris’s observation that weather is used to characterize mood. Sooke mentions ice and snow and melancholy. The image is vivid: early Anglo-Saxons turing a wary eye to a winter sky with its low clouds and preternatural chill. It is so universal, it seems, not to require comment. Yet at the same time, weather can be a great trickster. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the image of the Arctic north filled him with an inexplicable joy. Winter can be fickle that way. In the world of the Psalmists, rain was a blessing and a weapon. How you look at it depends, well, on your mood.
The British may take their weather more seriously, on a day-to-day basis, than those of us across the Atlantic. We tend to treat the topic casually. In reality, it is just as serious here. Drought, which has gripped the western half of the country for about half a century now, is a serious concern. Winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes. A lightning storm can still be a theophany. (One awoke me in the middle of the night, just hours ago.) Weather impacts our bodies as well as our moods. It is all-pervasive, but we generally don’t like to articulate it. I suspect our understanding of the weather says more about us than we’re willing to admit. Our British colleagues, however, are less squeamish about the topic than we tend to be. There’s more to the sky than it might appear.
Posted in Bible, Books, Britannia, Environment, Posts, Psalms, Weather
Tagged Alastair Sooke, Alexandra Harris, BBC, C. S. Lewis, Psalms, Weather, Weathering the Psalms, Weatherland
Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons
Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.
These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.
The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.
Posted in Bible, Literature, Posts, Psalms
Tagged asterisk, Classical Greece, cross, dagger, death, Nashotah House, obelus, Psalms, textual criticism, typography