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December 2017

52 Albums, Week 52: The Weavers At Carnegie Hall

Sometime in the early 2000s I went in the library and I ran across a CD of The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. I don't know why I checked it out; maybe because it had Pete Seeger name on it and I always liked his voice and music. When I got home I played it straight through. It was undoubtedly the most purely enjoyable CD I had ever heard. The Weavers had a joyful and relaxed playful spirit about them and the songs were all ones I like or instantly learn to like.*

 The Weavers’ good musicianship was a delight. My favorite cut is “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” It has the perfect blend of joy and trials that characterize a good marriage.**


 I like Seeger’s non-bluegrass banjo, as featured on “Darling Corey.


 They also had good humor. There was a running gag throughout the show on the words to “Greensleeves”. There were also some more serious songs, like “Sixteen Tons”. In fact the album gets more serious as it proceeds.

 The voices are not that great, except Seegers. Ronnier Gilbert’s alto is too harsh and Lee Hayes’s baritone sounds like he has something in his throat. My least favorite song is the last one, Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”; It is musically pretty flat.

 There is a lot of controversy from all sides surrounding the Weavers, especially Seeger. Seeger was a communist who early on distanced himself from Stalin and Soviet communism, but his reputation lingered. Seeger was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He was unable to perform on national television until a 1968 Smothers Brothers broadcast.

 The Weavers have also been criticized for lifting “Wimoweh” from the South African singer Solomon Linda’s “Mbube” without sufficient compensation.

 Linda’s version: 

 Weaver’s version (“Wimoweh”): 

Then there was the question of authenticity, commercialization, and exploitation. They certainly popularized the American folk tradition for a broad audience. This concert and the recording of it may have been on of the most important events precipitating the folk boom of the late 1950s and early 60s, paving the way for a Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Peter Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, the Smothers Brothers, and Bob Dylan, whom Seeger strongly promoted early on.

Here is a closing shot: “Pay Me My Money Down”:

 *My tastes tend more in the direction of pop than most of those who contribute to this series. First of all, I'm not as interested in the lyrics, although they sure don’t hurt. Nor is “authenticity” particularly important category, since I don’t really understand the boundary. My criteria are melody, harmony, arrangement, complexity and theme. A really good voice doesn’t hurt, either. Which makes it odd, I suppose, that I'm a big fan of those Neil Young albums. I’m also a hopeless romantic.

 **Not all the videos in this review are from the concert at Carnegie Hall because there aren’t very many on Youtube. The original song order from the 1955 recording, if you can find it, is much better than the strange playlist on Spotify, which seems to be In a random order. Or perhaps the Spotify list is in the order in which the songs were actually played. I made my own playlist on Spotify,

 1. "Darling Corey" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:58

2. "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" (traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 3:14
3. "Pay Me My Money Down" (Parrish) — 2:36

4. "Greensleeves" (Traditional) — 2:39

5. "Rock Island Line" (Lead Belly) — 2:19

6. "Around the World" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:37

7. "Wimoweh" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:46

8. "Venga Jaleo" (Brooks) — 2:09

9. "Suliram (I'll Be There)" (Campbell, Engvick) — 2:05

10. "Shalom Chaverim" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:02

11. "Lonesome Traveler" (Hays) — 1:59

12. "I Know Where I'm Going" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:51

13. "Woody's Rag/900 Miles" (Woody Guthrie) — 1:34

14. "Sixteen Tons" (Merle Travis) — 2:03

15. "Follow the Drinking Gourd" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman ...) — 2:09

16. "When the Saints Go Marching In" (Traditional) 2:15

17. "I've Got a Home in That Rock" (Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 1:48

18. "Hush Little Baby" (Campbell) — 1:03

19. "Go Where I Send Thee (One for the Little Bitty Baby)" (Traditional, arranged by Gilbert, Hays, Hellerman) — 2:35

20. "Sylvie" (Lead Belly, Lomax)

21. "Goodnight, Irene" (Lead Belly, Lomax) — 4:02

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.

A Quick Question

I'm supposing that this will only be seen by people who read the blog fairly regularly: do you ever use the sidebar links to other blogs, the bit labelled "Elsewhere"?

I never do, and it hasn't been updated in I don't know how long, so that I don't even know if the sites referred to are active or for that matter extant. So I'm thinking about getting rid of it and wondering if anyone would miss it.

52 Albums, Week 51: Takk... (Sigur Rós)


I first heard Sigur Ros around the year 2000, but at the time I wasn’t much taken with them and they fell off my musical radar until I unknowingly heard them again in 2008. I had watched the movie Breaking and Entering and was struck by the song that played over the closing credits. As it turned out, it was their song “Se lest,” and I traced it to their 2005 album Takk. Around this very same time a friend who was visiting England saw the video for “Glosoli” in some sort of church service or religious gathering. When I emailed him to tell him about Takk… he responded by saying he had been planning to write me about “Glosoli” in his next email. Not long after that I watched the documentary/concert film Heima, and it’s that, really, that turned me into a fan.

This album then is near the top of my all-time favorites list, being my favorite release from one of my favorite groups. Most of the songs are in the band’s native Icelandic, although their made-up language “Hopelandic” appears here and there, and is featured on three of the album’s tracks. Musically the album does a lot with time signature variations, which makes it somewhat more interesting rhythmically than your typical rock album, even if most of the tempi are on the slow side. There’s only one song I don’t really care for, and even that one I don’t think of as bad, just so-so.

Takk… opens with the title track, a two-minute long ambient introduction leading directly into “Glosoli,” the video of which Mac has posted here a number of times. Following that is probably the album’s best known song, “Hoppipolla” (“Hopping in Puddles”), which has been used in several films and TV shows and reached the Top 25 on the UK charts. It’s the most accessible, “radio-friendly” track on the album and like “Glosoli” has a great video:

For “Se lest” (“I See a Train”) the song that prompted me to buy the album, I’m including the live version from the Heima film. I love the shots of the audience, especially the children, and the use of the local marching band for the horn section is a neat thing. Heima is full of beautiful footage of Iceland, like the shots that appear in the video. By the way, the word written on paper as the song begins is the name of the town where that particular song was filmed. The band had done free unannounced concerts all over Iceland, and the film documents the various towns in which the performances occurred.

“Saeglopur” (“Lost at Sea”) was another popular track from the album, also used in movies and on TV, perhaps most prominently in a video game ad for “Prince of Persia.” This one starts quietly, but like “Glosoli” turns a good bit noisier a couple minutes in.

For me the highlight of the second half of the album is the soft and lovely “Andvari” (“Zephyr”), which ends with a breathtaking section featuring the strings continuing to play by themselves after the band has faded out. It’s my favorite string arrangement in all of pop music, with the unusual time signature adding to, rather than distracting from, the peaceful beauty of it all.

The album ends with another quiet song, “Heysatan” (“The Haystack”), mostly voice and piano, a very fitting way to close the album.

I don’t want to get rhapsodic about how much I like this record, so I’ll just say that what I find most attractive is the combining of strong melody with sheer power. I’ve always liked bands that were able to pull that off (Chameleons, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive) and I think that Sigur Ros may be the epitome of that. Listen to Takk… or watch Heima and I think you’ll see what I mean.

--Rob Grano

Sunday Night Journal, December 17, 2017

One of the things that make being a pessimist less enjoyable than it might be is that the pleasure of being proven right about the impending collision with the oncoming train is substantially diminished by the discomfort of experiencing the collision itself. On balance, I would rather be wrong than right about many of my predictions and expectations.

Recently someone remarked that the culture of Catholicism on the Internet seemed to be dominated by those whose motto was taken from Flannery O'Connor's Misfit ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"): no pleasure but meanness. You can certainly see his point, and of course it's not only the Catholic subculture that has this problem. It's everywhere. I'm not on Twitter, and I don't think I ever will be, so my impression may be distorted, but that impression is that some very large portion of what goes on there consists of people savaging each other, and sometimes of a large number of people attacking one person in what can fairly be described as a verbal lynch mob. 

Almost twenty-five years ago, in the Fall 1993 issue of Caelum et Terra, I published a short piece in which I considered the potential for the world of online communication to increase the level of hostility in the world rather than to bring people together. I don't think I had heard the term "World Wide Web" at that point. It did exist but if its existence was known to me at all I'm fairly sure I hadn't yet experienced it, as the original browser, Mosaic, had not yet been introduced to the world at large. But I'd had five or six years of experience in pre-Web online forums, including Usenet, the text-only discussion groups on the Internet, and at least one of the commercial services which provided similar capabilities by subscription. (America Online, or AOL, you may remember, was pretty big at the time.) And I'd seen the way people could turn on each other with startling viciousness.

That piece was called "Global Metropolis," and I've thought about it often since the Web changed our lives so strikingly. But I don't think I'd read it since it was published, so I decided to dig the magazine out of the closet and, if it still seemed relevant, spend some of the time this evening when I would have been writing typing it in instead. Well, I did find it interesting as a view from 1993, and at least part of it seems pretty accurate. The next-to-last paragraph is the one that seems a fairly accurate prediction of the Internet's potential for exacerbating rather than pacifying conflicts.

I sometimes think it might be more accurate to say that we are creating a global metropolis, a violent one like those of the United States, where people perceive each other socially either as naked individuals in isolation from family and community, connected, if at all, by financial ties, or as anonymous components of a class or race. In these great warrens, people live in close physical quarters but without much sense of belonging to the same community; with, in fact, a dangerous sense of having tribal enemies everywhere. What this combination of proximity and anonymity has done for the great cities, television, along with increasing economic interdependencies, may perhaps do for the world at large: to increase both the level of tension and the degree of isolation.

You can read the whole piece here (it's not very long, about a thousand words). I certainly didn't imagine anything like Twitter, which as far as I can tell is an active deterrent to substantial discussion, which is actually intended to reward the quick and superficial remark. The glimpses I get of it make me think of an enormous number of dogs barking hysterically and ineffectively at each other. And if I had imagined it I would never have dreamed that we would have a president who sits in the White House and uses such a ridiculous medium to bark at anyone among the citizenry who annoys him.  

I'm not saying that the Internet in general and "social media" in particular are altogether bad--I mean, here I am. And I even have a Facebook account. Still, it seems that the "bringing people together" effect of it is very often to bring them into tribes united by their detestation of another tribe, and thereby to purify and concentrate their anger. The net did not cause the political divisions in this country, but it is certainly exacerbating them.

Still, when I look at the people around me going about the ordinary business of their lives, I don't see this division, and that's a hopeful thing.


A couple of weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent our priest made the point in his homily that Advent is as much about the Second Coming as it is about the Nativity. "We await the birth of a sweet little baby who will one day destroy the world," was more or less the way he put it. 


While watching The Crown on a chilly evening last week I discovered that my old dog, who is too blind and deaf to notify us of strangers in the vicinity, still is capable of service as an all-natural toe warmer. 

ToeWarmerI enjoyed The Crown considerably, by the way, and I think my wife enjoyed it even more. It's wise to keep in mind that they filled in some historical blanks with their own speculations and that it's a mixture of fact and fiction, not a documentary. Claire Foy's performance as Elizabeth is extremely convincing. I must say, however, that I remain puzzled to say the least about the function of the British monarchy.

Have I mentioned that we also recently watched the third series of Broadchurch? I suppose it's not surprising that I didn't like it as much as the first two, but it's still very good. There is apparently little to no chance of a fourth series, which might be a good instance of quitting while you're ahead, but this one left an important matter unresolved, which is a little frustrating. Well, maybe it isn't unresolved--maybe that was just the end of...well, if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't I shouldn't say any more.

52 Albums, Week 50: Joshua Judges Ruth (Lyle Lovett)

Joshua Judges Ruth_html_caf20e30fff094e5

Sometimes music feels like the soundtrack to your life. I have been avidly listening to Lyle Lovett since the release of his third album, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Also since that time, I have seen him in concert as much as has been possible without traveling a long distance. I managed to make each of my wives and my parents converts to the Lyle Lovett cause. That cause is simply music played brilliantly, being a classically cool performer, with quirky songs that cross many genres of musical style. David Bowie was the musical hero of my youth; Lyle Lovett has filled that role in my adulthood.

Joshua Judges Ruth was released in 1992, and typing that makes me wonder in a vague sort of way where I was in life twenty-five years ago, besides just geographically and employment-wise. Having purchased the aforementioned previous album I of course also bought this one and recall being more entranced with it than its predecessor. I guess the “where I was in life” comment goes back to my first sentence about music being a soundtrack to your life. How is it that at whatever age I was then I was so taken by Lyle Lovett’s music?

The first time I saw him on tour must have been in support of this album, so the set list was heavily filled with its songs. If you have ever seen him in concert then you know that Lovett has a knack for between song banter; he is quite funny, and at least it seems that most of what he says is spontaneous. After (or, maybe before) singing the opening track, “I’ve Been to Memphis”, he explained to us that the refrain had nothing to do with any part of a woman’s anatomy. It goes:

Sherry she had big ones
Sally had some too
But Allison had little ones
What hate to go to school

This is a good example of how Lovett likes to do amusing things with lyrics to catch the listener off guard.

“Church” is the second track, and is the only song that Lovett seems to play at every single live show; at least all of the fifteen or so shows I have attended. It is an amusing story about attending a church service where the preacher goes on and on, not allowing anyone to leave. The album version has what sounds like a full gospel choir, so I enjoy it in concert when he has many back-up singers with him, and not as much if it is only he and the band. It is a fun song, and along with the opening and closing tracks, one of only three upbeat songs on the album. That does not sound like a ringing endorsement (lack of upbeat tracks), but these songs are so good, so well played by the musicians, and so meticulously sung by Lyle Lovett that I really feel Joshua Judges Ruth is the high mark in his catalog, more so than even Pontiac, his second and very highly regarded album.

“North Dakota” may be my all-time favorite LL song. It is just lovely, with backing vocals by Rickie Lee Jones, and tells us about cowboys in Texas and in North Dakota. I am always very happy when he plays it in concert. Here is a video of the album version:

“She’s Already Made Up Her Mind”, “You’ve Been So Good Up To Now”, “All My Love Is Gone”, and “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To” all fall in the realm of man who has been wronged to some extent by a woman and is now unhappy. The last one does at least give us a little LL humor with its title. The first time I heard him play it in concert he introduced it as being “about the happiest woman in the world, my ex-girlfriend”. The older I get the more these songs kind of make me sad, but in an appreciation of art melancholy kind of way.

“Since The Last Time” and “Family Reserve” are exceptionally well-written and interesting songs about death. The first is rather long with a lot of set-up to eventually lead you towards the surprise ending, which is that the singer is the person dead and in the coffin at the funeral described:

I went to a funeral
Lord it made me happy
Seeing all those people
I ain’t seen
Since the last time
Somebody died

While “Family Reserve” describes how we never really lose our loved ones because they live on in our memories:

And we’re all gonna be here forever
So mama, don’t you make such a stir
Just put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve

My own “family reserve” seems to be getting smaller and smaller, and listening to this song recently made me tear up a little. Again, there is humor abounding within a song with such a morbid theme.

Despite all of this sadness, loss, and melancholy LL chooses to end Joshua Judges Ruth on an upbeat and funny note with “She Makes Me Feel Good”. He has found love again, if perhaps not with quite the right girl:

She’s got big red lips
She’s got big brown eyes
When she treats me right
It’s a big surprise
She won’t do anything
That she said she would
She makes me feel good
She makes me feel good

I will attach one more video, but it does not have any songs from JJR, instead it is a fairly recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert featuring Lyle and his fiddle player Luke Bulla (who is really great). The story goes that Lyle contacted NPR and asked if he could perform for one of their Tiny Desk concerts, they obliged. It is just under 18 minutes, and a lot of fun. Three songs, banter, two performers. Watch this and you may want to catch Lyle Lovett in concert next time he plays in a city near you.


--Stu Moore is in need of finding the woman described in “She Makes Me Feel Good”. But then again, he might not be able to handle it.

Sunday Night Journal, December 10, 2017

Somehow or other I've become Facebook friends with half a dozen or so people who know a lot of theology. Some are professional theologians (i.e. they are theology professors) or just have studied it extensively. Several of them seem to be very excited about René Girard. I'd never read anything by him and really only vaguely recalled having heard of him, so I decided to read one of his books. I chose I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, I think on the recommendation of one of those Facebook people. 

I finished it a few days ago and...well, I'm not sure what I think, though I can certainly say it was interesting. One of the blurbs is from the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who advises the reader to "prepare to be changed" by this book. My reaction to  that was, approximately, Yeah right. But having read the book, I could almost say the same thing. Only almost--I'm not exactly a disciple, but I think the book is going to stick with me, and Girard does show us a way of looking at things unlike anything else I've ever encountered in the theological line. That of course isn't saying a whole lot, as I haven't read very much theology, but a number of people who have seem to think it's true. 

There's an overview of his life and thought in his Wikipedia entry. Sometimes those are questionable, of course, but having read this book I'll vouch for the accuracy of this description:

Girard's fundamental ideas, which he had developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e. all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

Girard's thought seems to have puzzled some readers, not only in the sense of being puzzled by his ideas but of being puzzled as to what exactly those ideas are. For that reason, I assume, the translator of this book (originally published in French)  provides a foreword in which he these ideas explicitly in a numbered list (1-10). (Not a "forward" (!) as I see more and more often in discussions of books.)

That first idea, that all our desires are borrowed from other people--we want what others want, and learn those wants from  models, beginning with our parents--seems so obviously wrong, so obviously at best a partial truth, that I keep thinking I misunderstand it. All these very intelligent, very knowledgeable people who esteem Girard so highly seem to understand and accept it; if I don't, it must be my error. Or at least there's a good chance that it's my error. Note that these are all people whom I have reason to respect intellectually; that is, it's not just their academic credentials that I respect, as those lost their association with good sense in my mind a long, long time ago.

Obviously this mimetic desire operates in some cases: we only want the blue ribbon in a contest because we want the prestige it symbolizes, and we absorb the whole idea of prestige, and attach value to it, by the influence and example of others. We learn manners and to a great extent virtues and vices from others, and rivalries involving them can easily arise. But surely there are many desires that are not mimetic, and Girard does not seem to limit his claim very much. The translator seems to say that Gerard asserts this for all desires except the instinctive, but he doesn't go into much detail. So perhaps the range of desires which he counts as instinctive is much greater than I think. 

Take the desire of a child for ice cream, for instance. Most of us learn this desire the moment we taste the marvelous substance. No one has to tell us that it's something we should like. We don't have to observe our parents enjoying it in order to desire it for ourselves. I could multiply instances of this sort a great length, and so could you. Men don't desire beautiful women primarily because other men do, but because they are beautiful, and a man's immediate spontaneous reaction to the sight of them is to desire them. That desire begins with instinct, certainly, but goes well beyond it. 

And "mimetic rivalry"? Yes, certainly, rivalry for a desired woman (to continue the last example) can certainly produce conflict, and envy and prestige play a part in increasing the conflict. But they aren't its root. I would think that in a great many cases, including both my examples, scarcity is at least as much a contributor to conflict as rivalry. Ice cream usually has to be shared, and every bite that my siblings eat is one that I don't get. Not all women are beautiful, and any one beautiful woman is desired by more than one man; they can't all have her. Or consider the desire for wealth: it is in part a means toward the satisfaction of desires that are thwarted more by scarcity than by rivalry as such. 

So before I'd read a single word of Girard himself, I seemed to disagree with him. I'm going to stick with "seemed" there because I'm still allowing for the possibility that I'm misunderstanding. Like I said, the objections seem to me so obvious that they must not apply to what Girard actually means. Perhaps the examples of desire I've given are ones which he would count as instinctive, and therefore outside his sweeping assertion. If so, it would help if he made that clear. And perhaps he does in other books. (And if any Girardians read this and can straighten me out, please do so.)

Why, then, do I say that Neuhaus's prediction of the book's effect might be true for me? Why did I proceed from skepticism to excitement about the book? Because, having mentally registered my objection to at least part of Girard's premise, having placed some limits on its applicable scope, I found that it does shed a great deal of useful light on the relationship of Judeo-Christian religion to human culture. The "Judeo" part of that is not a formality, as Girard very explicitly includes both the Old and New testaments in his analysis. Let me see if I can briefly sum up this relationship:

Human culture, Girard believes, is produced by the efforts of a community to mitigate the effect of intra-group violence caused by mimetic rivalry. Conflict intensifies and if not somehow resolved and dissipated will destroy the community. The mechanism for doing this is the scapegoat: the community unites in blaming one person, kills him or her, and is restored, at least for a time. The cycle repeats itself. The release of collective violence against a single victim makes the continuation of a culture possible, i.e. prevents its self-destruction. Often the victim is, after the fact, accorded a god or god-like status by the (unconscious?) conviction of the community that the sacrifice of the victim is the direct cause of the restoration. 

In order for this mechanism to work, the community has to believe, at the time of the killing, that the victim is in fact guilty and deserves to die. The victim must truly be, in the eyes of the group, responsible for the trouble which it is experiencing. This conviction is the work of Satan, who was also responsible for the trouble in the first place. By the victim/scapegoat mechanism, Satan casts out Satan. But the casting-out is temporary. It is based on a lie about the victim, and the violence of mimetic rivalry sooner or later returns. 

What Judeo-Christian religion does--uniquely, according to Girard--is to unmask this cycle, to reveal the actual innocence of the victim, and thus to expose the Satanic power of the scapegoating mechanism. And to expose it is to end its power.

Girard elaborates all this in some detail, though perhaps still not enough, which may cause me to read more of his work. Is he really accurate, for instance, when he grounds all of non-Judeo-Christian mythology in the single-victim process? I'm not knowledgeable enough either to agree or disagree with this.

Through most of the book I tended to applaud Girard's passing observations more than his principal thesis. It is in the latter part that he really makes his mark on me. He winds up his story with an explication of the place of the victim in contemporary secular culture, and it was there that I most often found myself getting excited, saying Yes!, and marking passages. I just counted and I've placed thirteen book darts (what?) in this book. That's a good many for a relatively short book (193 pages).  One of them marks the entirety of Chapter 13, "The Modern Concern for Victims." Here he makes the case that such a concern is almost unheard of in pre-Christian cultures (I think in fact he would remove the "almost.") 

This is, as usual, going on a bit too long for a blog post. I'm skimming Chapter 13 in search of a quote that will serve as an example of Girard's insight. It's hard to isolate one bit, but I'll make do with this:

There is just one rubric that gathers together everything I am summarizing in no particular order and without concern for completeness: the concern for victims. This concern sometimes is so exaggerated and in a fashion so subject to caricature that it arouses laughter, but we should guard against seeing it as only one thing, as nothing but twaddle that's always ineffective. It is more than a hypocritical comedy. Through the ages it has created a society incomparable to all the others. It is unifying the world for the first time in history.

To some extent this is a variation on the oft-made point that our society is living on the moral capital of Christianity. Girard seems to be a little hopeful that universal concern for victims is a sign that Christianity is still very much alive and well. But he also wonders (I think) how this will play out when separated from its foundation. At any rate I wonder that. Right now I'd say that the signs are not encouraging, that the secularized community of concern for victims is now characterized by mimetic rivalry in victimhood, is tearing at itself, is therefore in search of a scapegoat, and is looking toward Christianity as a candidate for that role. 

It's probably inaccurate to classify this book as theology. It's more a species of anthropology--religious anthropology, maybe. Whatever it is, it's worth reading. If the list of things I really, really want to read were not so long I think I'd immediately re-read it.


This afternoon I went Christmas shopping with my wife at the local Barnes and Noble store. I had not been in one of those for a long time, some years at least. Browsing the shelves there made me actively question the notion that reading is in itself a good thing. What a lot of drivel, some harmless and some not at all harmless, is on display there. You would be better occupied in staring at a tree then reading most of it. 


It's almost the end of the year. Does anybody want to do 52 Things next year? I think we considered 52 Poems. I would be willing to do that. However: as I've said before in this context, if I say it's going to be 52 Things, I want it really to be 52. It will really bother me to miss a week. I know I can't count on other people delivering something every single week, so I have to be prepared to do it, and I'm finding that to be more of a distraction that I can really afford (my book is not going well at all). It shouldn't be, but I have trouble concentrating under the best conditions. So if we do something this year it will have to be something for which I can do a post without actually writing anything. Poems would work, as I could just copy-paste the poem into a post, or link to it, without necessarily writing any commentary beyond "Here's one I like." 

If we should decide to do poems, I would have some specifications for how they're submitted to me. Nothing too complicated, but formatting poems for the web can be time-consuming, so I'd like to have them in a form where they can just be copied and pasted. Details if we decide to do it. 


This picture was taken a few minutes before 11pm Friday night. I was on my way to Christ the King church in Daphne for my hour of Adoration. Yes, it was taken from the driver's seat of a car in motion. No, I should not have done it. But snow is so very, very rare here that I wanted to capture the image. It was really much thicker than this. I guess a lot of it just wasn't bright enough for the camera to catch.


I've been living in this general area since 1990, and I think this is only the third time that there's been enough snow to leave a visible accumulation, though only for a few hours. This is midnight at Christ the King.


52 Albums, Week 49: Suburban Light (The Clientele)

Clientele-SuburbanLight-2One rainy Saturday evening in 1976 I wandered into the only serious record store in town. By “serious” I mean it was like the record shop in the movie High Fidelity—the owner, Paul somebody, and most of the people who worked there were passionate music lovers, zealously evangelistic for the music they loved and mercilessly contemptuous of anything they thought at all meretricious. Having more than a little of the obnoxious music geek in me, I often got into lengthy discussions and arguments there. The store was dim and dusty and crammed with record bins of unfinished wood, not much better built than packing crates, and generally had a slovenly look about it, which was quite misleading, as the stock was meticulously organized. And if you still had trouble finding what you were looking for, most of the staff knew exactly where to find it, or could explain when it was expected or, possibly, why they would not soil themselves by stocking it.

I wonder if there are still such stores. In big cities, I suppose so, but this was a small college town, and the store is long gone. I moved away, so I don’t know for sure when it folded, but I don’t think it survived the transition to the cd era; somehow the cd was never quite as romantic as the lp.

The reason I had nothing to do on this Saturday evening was that I had recently been on the losing end of a breakup. Maybe I was looking for company at the record store. And, thinking back on it, I expect I had unconsciously decided to buy myself a present, an album I’d never heard before that would give me something besides her to think about for a while. The bright friendly windows gleaming through the heavy rain, full of new releases and rarities, were as inviting to me as a bar might have been to someone more convivial. I went inside, shaking off the rain, and found the store empty except for Paul—it was Saturday night. After a few pleasantries he left me alone to browse. I made a mental note not to stay past his nominal closing time, even though I knew he wouldn’t chase me out. An aging unmarried hipster with wire-rimmed glasses, hair vanishing in front and pony-tailed in back, pudgy, he didn’t have anything better to do, either.

I couldn’t find anything I really wanted. In a what-the-hell sort of mood I started browsing the expensive imports and collector’s items, something I rarely bothered to do, as I couldn’t afford them. In the second category I found a used copy of an album called Suburban Light. I’d never heard of it or of the group, but something about the title phrase appealed to my mood, as did the cover art.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“The Clientele? Oh yeah, that’s great. A totally unknown classic. It came out at the end of 1966 and flopped, then the critics rediscovered it a few years ago, but it’s hard to find. Sort of early psychedelic English kind of thing. It doesn’t sound like the Kinks but since you like Something Else so much you’d probably like it. Bring it here.” Another nice thing about the store was that Paul remembered your tastes: Something Else was one of my top five post-British-invasion/pre-Sgt. Pepper English albums.

I took it over to the counter. He slipped the disc out of its jacket—although it was used, it seemed to be in very good shape—and dropped the needle, expertly, on “Reflections After Jane.”

It was beautiful and under my circumstances almost preternaturally appropriate, so that was enough. I bought the album, even though it was outrageously expensive at something close to twenty dollars. I was so bowled over by the song that I probably would have paid that much for a 45. I thanked Paul, hurried back to my apartment in the rain, and spent the rest of the evening listening to the album several times in a nostalgic haze. It turned out that “Jane” was probably the best thing on it, but at least half of the songs were in its class, and if it didn’t quite deserve the “classic” designation it was certainly a very happy discovery.


Except for the description of the music, and the fact that I was living in a small college town in 1976, the preceding is pure fiction. But it’s very believable fiction: that’s what the music sounds like, and that would have been an appropriate time, place, and manner in which to discover it. Suburban Light actually came out in 2000. Its best moments capture a mid-‘60s feeling in a way that anyone who has either actual or vicarious nostalgia for the time won’t be able to resist. It’s definitely one of my top ten mid-‘60s-English-pop-revival/nostalgia albums. And I hear it’s not even their best.

(This was originally written and posted in July 2007. I've heard a couple of other Clientele albums since, and they're good, but haven't grabbed me the way this one does.)


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, December 3, 2017

The 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, as dated from Luther's famous 95 theses, is almost over. From my perspective it seems to have been a rather muted observance. One local Presbyterian church which I pass by occasionally has a big sign out front announcing it, but offhand I can't think of any other visible evidence of it around here. But then I suppose it's not something that most Protestant churches would treat as a major public event. Maybe part of the reason--if my impression is even accurate--is that its legacy is so fragmented in this country. It's a long way, both chronologically and theologically, from Lutheranism to non-denominational evangelicalism. 

The discussion of the anniversary in Touchstone, which describes itself "A Magazine of Mere Christianity," and is genuinely ecumenical in a way which I share, and whose writers tend a bit more Protestant than Catholic or Orthodox (I think), has been distinctly muted. I don't think it was discussed at all outside of the September/October issue, and there is certainly no Protestant triumphalism there. There is a brief history of the "Reformations" by James Hitchcock, who is Catholic, which, as the title suggests, treats not only the birth of Protestantism but the reforming movements within Catholicism at the time, all pretty objectively, not pressing the point of who was right and who was wrong. (You can read it here.) The lead editorial, which usually presents an opinion representative of all the editors, stops very far short of treating the birth of Protestantism as a good thing. (You can read it here.) I suppose the similarly-minded First Things must have dealt with the subject this year, but even though I'm a subscriber (after many years of reading only the bits that they put online), I have not been reading it regularly. (That has to do with the fact that my subscription is electronic-only, which I should probably change--the "out-of-sight-out-of-mind factor is at work).  

A Catholic naturally has some difficulty in using the word "Reformation" alone to describe the events of 1517 and after which produced Protestantism. I have to qualify it: not "the Reformation," but "the Protestant Reformation." (I resist the practice of some Catholics in calling it "the Protestant Rebellion" or "the Protestant schism" even though the terms are technically accurate, because they sound unnecessarily negative.)

I recall a conversation with one of my uncles shortly after I became Catholic. He was not hostile but, as I think tends to be true of Protestants raised in parts of the South where Catholicism is, at least until recently, almost nonexistent, he didn't seem ever to have considered the possibility that the rise of Protestantism was not a good thing. "Could you have had reform without Martin Luther?" he asked me. Well, yes. Luther did nothing to reform the Catholic Church. He repudiated it, left it, and took half of Europe along with him. You can argue that his rebellion goaded the Church toward reforming itself, or that reform would not have happened if he had not rebelled, so in that sense you might argue that he was necessary. And it should go without saying that reform was desperately needed. But the reformation was not his work.

It's difficult now to speak of Protestantism as such in any general way. The term encompasses so many beliefs that the only really accurate description of the whole field would be something like "forms of Christianity which are neither Catholic nor Orthodox." What does a conservative Baptist have in common with a progressive Episcopalian? Almost nothing beyond a historical separation from and continuing opposition to Catholicism. (Even the Anglo-Catholics are more Protestant than they want to recognize.) 

Similarly, as has often been observed in recent years, an orthodox Catholic has more in common with an orthodox Baptist (for instance) than with many "progressive" Catholics whose theology is not really distinguishable from that of progressive Protestants. My casual working definition of "Christian" is that it includes anyone who can say the Nicene Creed and mean it pretty much as written, with a bit of wiggle room allowed on the definition of the Church. I might therefore be more inclined to give the name to some Protestants than to some Catholics who seem not to believe the traditional teachings of the Church. This, however, neglects the Catholic concept of the Church as mystical body of Christ, in which "Church" refers to a specific visible body. That progressive Catholic and I are still members of that body, unless he has done something so dramatically wrong, or denied the teachings of the Church so clearly, as to be excommunicated. And however much I might have in common with that Protestant, he is not a member of that body. In Catholic eyes this membership has a supernatural aspect which my friendship and theological kinship with a Protestant does not.

The existence of the gulf can't be wished away. One of the strengths of the Touchstone/First Things approach to ecumenism is that it does not attempt to ignore substantive differences; their Catholics are Catholic and their Protestants are Protestant. It's not possible to eliminate the gulf by saying "Well, we agree on the essentials, so let's not worry about everything else," because we don't agree on what is essential. Much of what Catholicism regards as absolutely essential--for instance, the authority of the Church--is not just inessential but flat wrong from the Protestant point of view. 

I have the impression, based on very limited data, that the tendency of orthodox Protestants now is more to lament than to celebrate the Protestant Reformation: as a sad necessity, maybe, but still sad. There's an increasing willingness to concede that it was a tragedy, and that it resulted in a state of disunity is contrary to the will of God. That's actually a pretty long way from Luther and Calvin, I think. This piece from several years ago by the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas is a good example.

Now that so much is going wrong in the contemporary secularized world, there may also be more of a willingness to admit that the development of Protestantism is linked to the dominance of secularism and the diminishment of Christianity. It seems pretty obvious to me that the skepticism that the first Protestants turned on the Catholic Church is related to the skepticism that was soon turned on the Bible and on Protestantism itself. I won't say that Protestantism caused the various more or less atheistic developments which have transformed what used to be Christian society, but it seems pretty obvious that it was a part of that larger trend, which perhaps has roots much deeper than we can see.  If Luther can defy and deny the Church, why can't I deny and defy Luther? That happened within Luther's lifetime, and just from the anthropological point of view seems an inevitable tendency. At any rate the connection between Protestantism and modernity is pretty much taken for granted by a lot of well-informed people, many of whom take it as an obviously good thing.

The theological arguments for Protestantism don't have much force for me anymore. The concept of scripture alone as the source of authority for Christians now strikes me as almost self-evidently wrong. It seems starkly obvious that Protestantism began in the 16th century, while the Catholic and Orthodox churches began in the 1st, and therefore that only they have any remotely plausible claim to be the early Church continued into our time. The worship of the Church in the beginning looked like theirs, not like a Baptist service. And so on. But though I don't think highly of Protestantism as a body of doctrine, I think very highly of many Protestants, among whom are most of my relatives and many of my friends. I'm grateful for everything I received from my Protestant upbringing (Methodist, to be specific), and would never repudiate it. But as Hauerwas says of Reformation Sunday, the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation "does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure." 

I'm not going to end this with any sort of prediction about the ecumenical future. Well, ok, just one: the official talks between the Catholic Church and various Protestant communions will never result in formal unity. I won't even speculate about whether any other path to unity exists or can succeed. But I'm pretty sure that one won't. 

I lifted this picture of my childhood church, Belle Mina Methodist, in Belle Mina, Alabama, from the church's Facebook page. I don't think they'll mind.