Christmas Music

While reading about holidays recently, I came across the idea of Christmas as a cultural holiday as well as a religious holiday. Now that it’s here, it feels like a little of both. My wife grew up in a musical family and Christmas music was a large part of her experience of the holiday. Although I grew up in a family where the religious aspect of the holiday was as preeminent as it could be with young boys, I don’t recall music being much a part of it. Perhaps we had enough of Christmas carols in church and on every shopping excursion. I don’t recall having a record player beyond maybe a close-and-play for our few 45’s. Now a large part of our holiday experience is the music. We listen to contemporary secular and classical religious and, to borrow an expression from popular parlance, it’s all good. Music spans the sacred and secular and suggests that we might all get along if only we were willing to try.

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Scanning our shelves we have a wide variety of Christmas music. It begins with Medieval carols and spans to a Very Metal Christmas and the most recent Pentatonix album. Even Amy Grant has a place in there from my college days. Like a kid I awake early on Christmas, from the long habit of getting up around 3:30. The house is quiet and, rare for New Jersey even the street outside is silent. In the hush I can still hear a kind of music. The music of peace, of a dream, of an ardent hope, of Christmas.

Christmas is all about sharing. We know Jesus of Nazareth was unlikely born this time of year, but we take it as a symbol. The peace of a silent night is best enjoyed in mixed company. With the political rancor of exclusion burning in our ears other days of the year, maybe we could think about sharing today. Sharing our land. Sharing our sense of hope. Sharing our music. The world could be such a wonderful place if we would only listen for Christmas.

Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?

Secular Sacred

IMG_1472On a family walk in the woods, along came a spider. Actually, the spider had already been there quite a while, given the amount of work that its web represented. Few sing the virtues of spider brains, but there is a captivating symmetry here, an aesthetic that nature endows on the work of one of its most feared yet skillful creatures. As I ponder this web, I can’t help but to consider the word sacred. Oh, I don’t suppose the spider is worshipping an eight-legged, arachnid deity, but there is something more than simply utilitarian about its creation. And I wonder why the sacred is so often shuffled off to the realm only of the religious. Increasingly scientists and philosophers are using the word sacred for a trope when superlatives fail. They don’t mean a guy with a beard on a throne in the sky, but rather those things that give us pause in a busy life to stop and think that something more is going on than just the electro-chemical storm in our heads.

At the risk of offending some, the sacred need not be tied to the gods at all. It is, rather, a sense of reverence toward the amazing world in which we find ourselves. Yes, this web can be measured with precision. Its arachnid host captured and studied. We can count the number of insects it catches as a measure of its efficiency. All this and we still won’t have encapsulated the web in its entirety. The sacred is like that. I don’t know why it is that I find some places special. Why it is I linger outside where my childhood homes once stood, or on the hill where stood the hospital in which I entered the world. Although I’m not divine, these places are sacred. So I pull the car to the side of the road and stare at that lot where our house once stood. It was a web. Fragile and necessary. And it was on the edge of the woods.

A walk in the woods is a form of rebirth. Some of my earliest memories are wandering among the trees. I was, like many children, terrified of spiders. No doubt there were thousands of them here. And yet I cannot keep away. Perhaps it is because nearly every day of the week I trundle to Manhattan and there is nothing around me that doesn’t bear the scars of artificiality. I don’t recall the last time I saw a spider in New York City, apart from a man in a blue-and-red costume pretending to be one. I’m sure they’re here. I’m sure they spin their webs and there are those who marvel at how complex and beautiful they are. The unexpected spider will always frighten me, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, however, when I come upon a web, that I haven’t met the secular sacred once more. Especially if it’s on a stroll in the woods.

Credo Universitas

DeclineSecularUniversity“I am a Christian gentleman and I teach my course as a Christian gentleman.” The quote was made to me by a colleague at a state university, regarding a former professor of Hebrew Bible, or, in this instance, “Old Testament.” The idea rankled me a bit. You see, religion departments come under pretty constant attack for such things, since in the secular university—especially one that receives state funding—the disestablishment clause looms large. How can one simply bring one’s personal beliefs into the classroom as if normative? I suppose that’s why C. John Sommerville’s The Decline of the Secular University gave me pause. Sommerville, an emeritus professor of History at the University of Florida is no crackpot. He raises some major questions that universities, of all places, should be debating.

While Sommerville is not a scholar of religion per se, he has written about religion before, and he raises some vital questions regarding the secular enterprise. It should be no surprise that secularism can become a kind of religion, especially since the definition of “religion” is anything but fixed. We still don’t relally understand what religion is, except that every human seems to have it. Some call it rationalism or science, but it is essentially belief. None of us has direct access to reality as a Ding an sich, and we all choose to believe senses, reason, and tradition, to varying degrees. Our universities should teach us to be skeptical, but can they excise belief all together? To do so would be to reduce students (and that endangered breed, faculty) to sub-human.

What is it that makes the educated so afraid of belief? I suppose it must feel like weakness to a harsh rationality. Like the implacable Romans of celluloid fame, unmoved by human emotion. Mr. Spock in charge of the nursery. Religion is quite at home in the realm of emotion, and like it or not, humans cannot survive by reason alone. We need our feelings—survival instinct, by itself, is not always rational. As a society, however, we’ve downgraded religion to the point that universities have trouble taking it seriously. I’m sure it would open a few administrators’ eyes very wide to sit in on the religion classes I’ve taught at secular schools. Although most of the students are not majors, all, in some sense of the word, are believers. Sommerville’s book contains much that is challenging, but I think his thesis is absolutely correct: any institution that claims to be human, but removes the possibility of belief, is deluding itself and all its customers.

Civil Lies a Ton

Often I began my classes by asking a basic question: if something pervasive, invisible, and very powerful were affecting you daily, in all aspects of your life, would you want to know about it? I don’t recall too many sleepy shoulders shrugging. We want to know what it is that is impacting us on a daily basis. Of course, I meant religion. Our secular society has a peek-a-boo affinity with religion; if we close our collective eyes, it will go away. Time and history have long put the lie to this idea—religion is a deep and pervasive force in society, and it is not about to go away. In our one-size-fits-all culture, however, we like to think that the bottom-line of greed and personal promotion will satisfy everyone. Statistics, however, seem to indicate otherwise. Not just America, but the world is a pretty religious place. I have always wondered at the strange elitism that considers itself above the influence of hoi polloi (in the literal sense). “If I’m not religious,” so the reasoning goes, “then no sensible person can be.” And we ignore religions until they explode and then go on ignoring them some more.

Although my career hasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped—I am an academic through and through—I still believe in the conviction that got me started down this rough and tangled trail. Religion is important. It is important to understand because it is very much a part of what it means to be human. Even those who are not religious have had to switch off an instinct that every child feels during a thunderstorm, and every adult feels at a time of deep, existential crisis. We may not believe, and yet we believe we believe. Religion is part of us. If we ignore it, we become strangers to ourselves.

I often look at our insipid culture. Sure, the internet provides hours of entertainment, and even some bits and pieces of knowledge. We have, however, consistently devalued those things that make us civilized. Art, music, literature, and yes, religion, all played a part in the very founding of what we consider civilized existence. Prior to that we were hunter-gatherers, roaming after the necessities of daily life. While our institutions of learning struggle to make entrepreneurs believe they still have value, we train our children to hunt and gather. It may not be food, but it is something not so different from food. Only money truly satisfies. If there were another way of being in the world, it might imply—why, it might imply that there is something more to be gained from life. And since that idea is a religious one, it is safest to ignore it and pray it will go away.

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Ring

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So goes a trite little statement meant to calm the fears of new students of biblical studies who worry that the historical record for biblical events is so sparse. The professor can head off many confrontations by declaring that such-and-such an event could have happened, but if it did it left no mark on the historical record. As I was watching the Japanese movie Ringu last night, I wondered about the apparent absence of religious imagery or themes. I am fully aware that not all horror movies have religious components, but the juxtaposition of religion and fear is so common in the western world that it often shows up in scary movies. I wondered if this translated to other cultures or not. Ringu is a decidedly creepy ghost story that creates considerable tension with little gore and not much in the way of special effects. The social commentary is evident even without the benefit of first-hand knowledge of the culture. The paranormal pervades the film.

Christianity is the matrix of many scary movies made in a North American, or even European, context. Although I have read about Buddhism and Shinto, and even occasionally taught courses on “World Religions,” my knowledge of eastern religious traditions is admittedly still quite basic. I can usually spot a biblical allusion a country mile away, but subtleties of foreign religions are harder to discern. Although many religions coexist in the United States the overall context is still Christian—there can be no doubt for anyone who follows politics. Japan is, like America, largely secular. The religious base, however, tends to involve both Shinto and Buddhism and I’m not sure which, if either, forms the recognizable “religious” basis of the collective consciousness. In many ways “religion” only applies to the Judeo-Christo-Islamic model. Much could have been transpiring in Ringu that I simply missed.

After the first mysterious death in the film a short sequence of a family in mourning is shown. Clearly this is what we in the western world would consider a religious context. The decision to try to calm the avenging ghost by uncovering her murdered corpse also conforms to what we might term religion. The fact is, these are very human concerns. Religions throughout the world treat death with a religious reverence since it is the great mystery of the living. Religion frustrates many scientists just for the fact of its mysteriousness. So, does Ringu revolve around religious fear? I don’t know. With the karmic implications of the story-line I would suggest that maybe it does. I’ll remain agnostic on the point, however. The same goes for the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Is it or isn’t it?

Unanswered Questions

Attempting to write a blog post everyday on the single subject of religion can be a challenge when you don’t share the freedom of the Internet with most faculty. Once in a while a topic just drops in your lap like a gift from God. It helps that New York City is such a religious place. Despite the many critics who claim New York is godless and completely secular, it my experience there are a goodly number of the godly in it. It is not uncommon to see street preachers on a sunny day (apparently God has less need of saving on rainy days). On my way home from work today I was presented with a tract in which “God Answers Your Questions.” It was a little odd that the acolyte with the tracts knew what my questions were, but since the leaflet quotes extensively from the Bible it must be true. From this pamphlet I learned what my hidden question were.

The first question, rather flatteringly, states, “I am young yet, and likely to live for a long time.” Once I’ve been buttered up, the other shoe drops: “Why should I think of eternal things now?” Rather than the Bazooka Joe Bible verse, I thought I might field that one myself. I grew up thinking about eternal things on a nearly daily basis. By the time I was in high school I was somewhat creepy about it. In a college course on the psychology of death and dying, we were asked how often we thought of death. My honest answer was, “every day.” Now, a person with that kind of background may be overthinking this a bit. Death is a relatively simple matter: you need do nothing to achieve it eventually. I had been taught that if you worked to make sure you were honest and true, it would be rewarded. I was fired from my first job for being true to what I’d learned with intellectual honesty. I thought about death a lot.

Death, given its finality, is a universal religious concern. Some religions offer an afterlife—generally it is not an option—while others do not. The life well-lived is its own reward. Others suggest what seems to me a more insidious option: reincarnation. Those religions that take this approach are generally honest up front, stating outright that life is suffering. Reincarnation is goal-directed: break the cycle and achieve Nirvana. And there is no reason to flatter people with the long life yet ahead of them. The evangelist ignored my white whiskers and gave me an anonymous tip for salvation. Perhaps all I really needed was a sip of cold water. Having spent the better part of one life thinking about its end, reincarnation could be a cruel reprisal indeed. I don’t need to worry, however, because I’ve got the answers—along with the questions—right here in my pocket.