Sunday Night Journal 2005 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — December 25, 2005


The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder…
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree…
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience….
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

—T. S. Eliot, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

I was a child in 1954 when Eliot wrote those lines, and I can’t say that I experience the Christmas tree as I did then. But neither must I say that my pleasure in it has disappeared, and I certainly have not forgotten my childhood experience. There is a great mystery in the fact that no one would recognize that six-year-old as me, and yet the consciousness that beheld the tree in 1954 is the same one that beholds another tree in 2005. To sit quietly looking at the tree remains one of the deeper pleasures of Christmas for me, one for which there are often more opportunities in the days of Christmas following Christmas Day itself, which is to say during Christmas proper. In other words, this is only the beginning.

Sunday Night Journal — December 18, 2005

Stained Glass and Organ Music

I listen to a lot of recorded music. Too much, really. That overused word “addiction” could perhaps be legitimately applied to my habit, and I find it useful but very painful to give it up or at least cut it way back for a while, which I often do during Lent. And my tastes are very wide-ranging. But there’s one kind of music of which there is little or none among my recordings: organ music.

I’ve always found the organ to be, frankly, rather tiresome in recordings. Even a good recording and a fairly decent home stereo just can’t do it justice. It’s an odd instrument. It can sound more notes simultaneously than the piano, and unlike the piano it can hold them for a long time. This, in combination with the similarity in tone among these notes, can result in a muddled quality. Its majesty can easily tip over into pomposity, and pomposity into something almost silly: because it’s so big and complex, and its elaborate mechanism is so slow to react (in comparison with other instruments), it can have a sort of dancing-elephant quality.

But in its proper environment—say, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile—it is matchless. I found myself thinking today at Mass that it is not the organ alone but the combination of the organ and its building which constitute the instrument. I know almost nothing of the complex lore of these instruments, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that what I just said is a commonplace.

Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Jane Studdock is beginning to feel a renewed interest in the Christianity in which she was raised. She remembers the stodginess, the “stained glass attitudes” of the Christians she knew, and then “…in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like.” Something like that happens to me whenever I hear the cathedral organ. Gone is the pompous blare that I remember hearing from my stereo speakers, gone is the dancing elephant: in their place are golden majesty and glory, the sound we might hear if the sun himself could sing. It’s a sound that is felt as well as heard, but it isn’t so loud as to be punishing and destructive, like live rock music. It does not crush, but exalts.

Stained glass and organ music have been unfashionably “churchy” for some time now, but there is a reason why Christendom, having invented them, remained attached to them for hundreds of years. It’s mainly the unfortunate propensity of mankind to become bored and to seek novelty that has made them fall out of favor. But plainly we have not come up with anything better, and it’s time we encountered them again.

Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2005

Solemn Advent Vespers at the Cathedral

You can’t read much in the history of Christianity without running across the story of the 10th century Russian emissaries who, being sent by their ruler Prince Vladimir to discover the true religion, decided that they had found it when they witnessed the Divine Liturgy in the Church of Hagia Sophia. “For we knew not,” they told the Prince, “whether we were in heaven or on earth.” I don’t think anyone—at least, anyone who knows the state of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church—has much hope, still less expectation, of having such an experience in any Catholic church in our time. But it can happen. It has happened to me.

For some years now, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama (that’s mo-BEEL, not MO-buhl) has offered solemn vespers on the Sundays of Advent. I haven’t attended as often as I would like; the cathedral is twenty miles away and for one reason or another it has more often than not been inconvenient for me to take the time. But it was at one of these services a few years ago that I had a momentary taste of what it might actually feel like to praise God in heaven, and I knew that there might be more than metaphor to those images of the redeemed singing eternally there.

The idea of an endless church service sounds more like hell than heaven to most of us, and is one of the reasons why people say those very ignorant and foolish things about preferring hell because it will be more interesting than heaven. But that’s a defect in us, and in our modes of worship. I have spent many years complaining, sometimes bitterly, about the drab and deadening quality of most Catholic worship: ugly buildings, wretched music, lifeless language. So it delights me to be able to report a ray of sunlight in the gloom.

The interior of the cathedral is beautiful and has unusually fine acoustics. For a cathedral, it’s rather small, and so an organ and a small but talented and well-directed choir can fill it with sound. The choir director knows how to use the space, with long slow lines of chant and polyphony that have time to bloom sonically. Most of the texts are sung, which means that our dispirited liturgical translations have little chance to work their negative spell. There is no badinage whatsoever. Offhand I don’t in fact recall a single word spoken this afternoon that was not part of the liturgy.

Above all, I think, there are two things operative here that make this service so worshipful: the first, the sine qua non, is reverence, and the second is a kind of taste which follows from and is supported by reverence. I don’t mean simple aesthetic taste, although that’s important. I mean also a sense of propriety as to what is compatible with reverence. The worst days of marginal competence in Catholic choirs may be over—I hope they are over—but I have heard any number of capable choirs sing a hodgepodge of peppy pop-worship songs and traditional hymns which always somehow seem to be calling attention to themselves, a quality strengthened by too-prominent placement of the choir and all their guitars, amps, mikes, keyboards, and mixers at the front of the church. In the cathedral the choir is in a traditional loft at the rear of the church, and the sound floats out into the huge reverberant space above us.

This reverence doesn’t seem the least bit strained or inauthentic, nor this taste self-consciously exquisite. Rather they seem to be the natural unforced result of a sense that we are approaching God and that our understanding of Who He Is leads naturally not to any sort of shallow conviviality but to a respectful attentiveness that necessarily becomes an external and internal quiet, because its object is outside itself. Nothing, therefore, seems directed toward the nurturing or manipulation of our feelings. The music is at the service of the texts. The texts are at the service of the Advent message: Something wonderful is about to happen. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

The only disappointing thing about this afternoon’s vespers was the slight attendance. I don’t think more than fifty people were there. If anyone in the Mobile area is reading this: there’s still one more Sunday in Advent.

Sunday Night Journal — December 4, 2005

Let’s Get Religion Out of the Biology Textbooks

I’ve been thinking a lot—“brooding” might be an applicable term—about evolution, materialism, and the nature of science. It seems plain that materialists, in their eagerness to suborn science in aid of their views, have drawn conclusions that aren’t supported by the physical facts. And it occurs to me that the almost violent objection of the scientific establishment, which I think can fairly be called predominantly materialistic in philosophy, to the concept of intelligent design may be a tactical mistake.

The charge against intelligent design is that it is not science. As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, if “science” means laboratory or experimental science, it is indeed hard to see how ID qualifies. But the same objection applies with the same force to the materialistic conclusions drawn from facts by doctrinaire evolutionists.

One need not be a scientist to see this. It requires only common sense and open eyes. A week or so ago I ran across a brief article describing the relationship between the chromosomes of chimpanzees and humans, which was presented as a vindication of Darwinism. But what struck me was that it was nothing of the sort. It did not even touch on the Darwinian mechanism—common descent by means of chance variation and random selection. It illustrated a resemblance: a striking and fascinating resemblance, and an even more striking difference which nevertheless emphasized the connection between the two. But it was only evidence of common descent if you brought that assumption to the data. (My apologies for not citing the piece; I ran across it on the net, failed to bookmark it, and now can’t remember where it was.)

I’m not particularly concerned to deny common descent. Once you’ve conceded ground on the literal interpretation of Genesis, which I’m willing to do, there’s no particular difficulty in accepting the idea that the human body has as its ancestor some sort of ape body—no problem in the idea that God used, so to speak, existing material with a long developmental history to receive the first human soul. Granting this, and granting that the transition from ape body to human body was gradual, the facts do not supply any reason whatsoever to believe that the changes were the result of the Darwinian mechanism or any other array of purely material causes. Let me emphasize that: no reason whatsoever. The facts can tell us at most only that a very complex transition seems to have occurred; they tell us nothing at all about how it occurred.

If scientists want to take material causes as a working assumption for further investigation, that’s fine. That indeed is what they are supposed to do. But when they go beyond this and declare their certainty that purely physical forces have produced the unimaginably complex structures which fill the cosmos, still more when they imagine that they have disproved the existence of God, yet more, absurdly and unacceptably more, when they declare the question closed, they have stepped far beyond the facts and beyond science, and are pretenders to knowledge which they do not have.

I think the time is ripe for theists of all stripes—and for that matter rationalists who can see the question of intellectual integrity at stake—to press the attack here. It is no more tolerable in a secular biology textbook to state materialist conclusions on these questions than to state religious ones. If science, and, more to the point, spokesmen for science, would get out of the philosophy and theology business, the level of acrimony in this controversy could be greatly reduced. Unfortunately the tactic which comes immediately to mind for this effort is the very acrimonious one of the lawsuit. But that battle is already under way. The scientific establishment is making legal war on any attempt to include the idea of purposeful design in scientific education, and that, as I mentioned above, may be a tactical mistake. Darwinism and Intelligent Design are both attempts to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of origins. Neither has been proved or is, in my opinion, likely to be proved, by physical evidence alone. We are constantly being told that science textbooks are no place for religion. Very well; let’s get all the religion out of them.

Sunday Night Journal — November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving Morning

The street in front of my house is unpaved. It used to be an ordinary gravel road, but a few years ago the city came in and covered it with some sort of dark gritty stuff that looks and feels like it could be old pavement ground to bits. It’s coarser than sand but finer than gravel and gives the street a dingy appearance.

The wooded areas which surround the house still show, and will continue to show for some time, the effects of the hurricanes and tropical storms we’ve had in the past two years. There are fallen trees decaying in place among the living, and the living ones have a threadbare look, having lost many of their smaller branches. Many of them lean southward because the main force of hurricane Ivan, which had worse winds than Katrina, came from the north. Along the street and among the trees there is still a certain amount of storm debris, piles of leaves, pine needles, and branches swept along by the water that came all the way up the street from the bay during Katrina until they were blocked, where they accumulated and were left in heaps when the water receded. All of which is to say that our street does not provide a very beautiful walk these days, although to my taste greenery (which we have almost year-round) is almost always pleasant, even if it’s not in the best condition.

On Thanksgiving morning I went out fairly early to walk our two dogs. When I stepped out of our driveway and turned to the east, the same old street was transfigured. The street turns a bit just past our house in that direction, so that it almost seems to end. From this apparent end, and over my neighbor’s house and the woods behind it, the morning sun was shining straight along the street. There was a bit of mist around, just enough to hold and magnify the golden light. The surface of the street itself was shining. It might have been the path to an enchanted castle.

I often speculate about the creation, Eden, and the Fall. I don’t know how to reconcile the Genesis account of a paradise with the story the scientists tell us, of a very old world and a very old human race that developed out of the same sort of nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw that we see around us now. Maybe the sight of my street on Thanksgiving morning was a hint. Maybe the first conscious male and female homo sapiens did indeed inhabit a world that looked more or less like our own, but was transfigured for them by the sensible grace and presence of God.

Sunday Night Journal — November 20, 2005

Is Evolutionism Science?

The indignant charge I keep hearing against the theory of intelligent design is that it isn’t science. As best I can tell this complaint can mean one of two things: either that ID allows for the possible existence of non-material reality, or that it is not an experimental science. The first of these is just materialist philosophy trying to pass itself off as science. But the second, I suppose, is true. I’ve always thought that the function of ID is necessarily only negative. It seems to me that the term itself might involve a bit of over-reach, because it can only hope to show that the theory of development by accident is inadequate to explain the facts, not to prove positively that any other mechanism is operative.

The Darwinist antagonists of ID say that it is non-testable and non-falsifiable, and has no predictive power. How could one test it, they say?—wait around for God to create something? And they seem to find this a very witty and telling question.

But it strikes me, as a layman, that this charge can just as easily be made against materialistic evolutionism—let’s call it evolutionism, for convenience. The simplest claims of evolutionism are not, as far as I know, contested by any one, even the young-earth creationists: everyone agrees that organisms undergo modifications which are passed on to their progeny, and that if conditions favor the survival of individuals with a certain modification it will eventually become a characteristic feature. This sort of evolutionary theory has been understood and put to practical use for millennia, although, obviously, no one had any idea of the mechanisms involved. What is only predicted by the theory, and in principle can never be verified experimentally, is that chemical and genetic events are sufficient to account for the entire development of the cosmos, including the presumed evolution of our planet from lifeless rock to the home of millions (billions?) of species, including one which has the ability to ask how it came to be here. How could one test this?—wait around for evolution to create life on a bare rock?

There are three great transitions which, I think, are likely always to remain mysterious: that from nothing to something, from non-life to life, and from life to consciousness. The first of these is inherently unknowable, and evolutionists seem content to ignore it—understandably enough, because it shakes their whole edifice. As for the second, I’m aware that some scientists claim to have produced in the laboratory minute changes in both non-living and living materials of a sort that they believe might be involved in the evolution of life on the grand scale. Although I’m not remotely qualified to pass judgment on their real significance, I think I’m entitled to say, as a reasonable person exercising reasonable judgment, that they do not constitute anything approaching a proof of the dogma that no causes other than material and accidental ones are required to produce everything we know, up to and including human consciousness. And as for that third transition, well, I can’t think of any bigger leap of credulity than that taken by those who assume that consciousness is a by-product of the activity of the brain. There is no evidence whatsoever for this; it is a logical deduction from materialist premises, but no more.

How can evolutionism ever conceivably be anything more than an hypothesis? Its adherents insist that science in general would be retarded significantly if it could not proceed on the assumption that evolution works more or less as they describe it. I don’t see why this should be true: why it is necessary to make so many hypothetical postulates about the origins of things in order to study them as they presently are? As a matter of pure logic, the fact that all living things share fundamental building blocks, and that they can be grouped into smaller categories on the basis of more specialized components (e.g. bones), doesn’t imply common descent from the more simple to the more complex any more strongly than it implies the sort of design that we practice every day—i.e., variations on certain basic ideas and features. (I understand that there are other reasons for believing in common descent, but the existence of common features has never struck me as very persuasive one way or the other.)

Would it really damage science so badly to admit that we simply don’t know, and probably never will know, exactly how things came to be? What drives someone like Richard Dawkins to venture so far beyond any knowable facts in insisting that evolutionism is proven? And whose is the real offense against the method and spirit of scientific investigation?

Sunday Night Journal — November 13, 2005

Ending Up

Twenty to thirty years ago the first wave of young orthodox Catholics formed not only by Vatican II but in reaction to the errors that followed upon it, formed perhaps above all by the exciting early days of the papacy of John Paul II, began marrying and raising families. Many of them were converts or reverts. They were filled with good intentions and high expectations, determined to live out their vocations as Catholic parents in a way that could hardly avoid being in opposition at least some of the time to the prevailing secular culture. My wife and I were among them, and we’ve met many others along the way.

Most of these have been reasonably successful, but I know of some fairly spectacular crashes: divorces, children going seriously astray, and in general all the ills that beset society at large, to which no family is completely immune and from which no family is completely isolated. Daniel Nichols relates, on the Caelum et Terra blog, a particularly sad story of a woman abandoning her husband and children. Daniel’s point is not so much the particulars of that situation as the scandal of easy annulments in the Church today, but I found myself brooding over the situation itself. How does a couple come to such a pass when, unless one of the spouses was deliberately deceitful, both had begun with the best of intentions to live a Catholic marriage?

And beyond such highly visible tragedies, I know—I expect everyone knows—of Catholic families which appear from the outside to be fine and faithful, but which have serious internal fractures. Or parents who have become perhaps too well-adjusted to the culture, and whose children are fallen-away or nominal Catholics.

I think one reason these things trouble me is that somewhere in some sub-rational part of my mind there is a stubborn belief that if parents try to do the right thing God will see to it that their marriages work out and that their children remain in the Church. I emphasize that this is not rational, and I don’t need to be reminded that the effects of original sin persist in spite of the sacraments, and that personal sin is a stubborn thing, never entirely or perhaps even mostly eradicated. I know, I know. And yet the question keeps presenting itself to my mind: how can things go so wrong? There is no definite answer to that, but, doctrine aside, every sensible person knows that things will go wrong in this world, no matter how hard we try. That’s why they call it a vale of tears.

It helps to alleviate the melancholy of contemplating these situations to remember that in none of them do we know the end of the story. Many years ago, in the mid-1970s, I made the decision, for purely pragmatic reasons, to give up my plans for an academic career in literature and to take up a practical trade, studying computer science. Some time after that I ran into an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen for five or six years. We were standing in line for something or other and briefly catching up on what each of us had been doing. I told him I was learning to be a computer programmer and added, perhaps a bit defensively, that this was an odd place for me to end up. He replied, “Well, maybe you ain’t finished ending up yet.”

That remark comes back to me often. Those disasters that I mentioned are stories still in progress. I sometimes hear people who read The Chronicles of Narnia complain of or lament what seems to be the loss of Susan, one of the four siblings who enter Narnia. In one of the late books in the series she is no longer present, and the other three are given to understand that her interest in worldly things has taken her away. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but I’ve never taken it to be the final word on Susan’s eternal destiny. She is on the wrong road, clearly, but as far as I remember it is not stated that she will never regain the right one and that she will not, by some other and harder route, eventually enter Aslan’s country. No one still on this earth has finished ending up yet. And it’s worth remembering that this is no less true of those who seem to be doing fine as of those who are in desperate straits.

Sunday Night Journal — November 6, 2005

Robert Johnson and Me

Over at The Corner, National Review’s blog, several people recently were playing a variant of the degrees-of-separation game, in which you count the number of persons linking you to some famous and important one. They were counting handshakes—John Derbyshire, for instance, had shaken hands with someone who had shaken hands with Trotsky. All very entertaining, but I didn’t give it much thought until a day or two ago when I was listening to Robert Johnson, feeling the strange deep movements of emotion that listening to the blues generally produces in me, and I remembered: I once shook hands with someone who had shaken hands with—or at any rate knew very well—the King of the Delta Blues, as an old LP compilation of Johnson’s music described him.

It was in 1969 or 1970, at a club in Tuscaloosa. I had gone with a friend, known as Kim because his last name was Kimberly, to hear the bluesman Johnny Shines. Although he wasn’t as well known as Johnson or Muddy Waters, he was of their generation and played their kind of music, and he played it very well. When I heard him he had a bass player and a drummer and was playing electric guitar, but he was close enough to the country blues of Robert Johnson that he could hold your attention just as well (as I found out a few years later) with only his own acoustic guitar.

It was a great night. Kim was a capable musician, good enough to have earned a living at it for a while, but I hadn’t known he could play blues harmonica, or harp as it’s generally called. He had brought a couple of harps with him and after a beer or two, during a break, he went up to Shines and asked if he could sit in. Although I couldn’t hear what they were saying, it looked to me as if Shines didn’t really think this was such a great idea, but maybe he figured that since he was playing to an audience of mostly white college kids he might as well humor this one. At any rate, he agreed.

Kim pulled a stool up onto the little stage, on the other end from Shines, and the band started up again. Kim sat out a few verses and then Shines gave him a brief nod, giving him a chorus, as if to say go ahead and get it over with. But Kim played with authority, and everybody heard it, including Shines, who looked around at him with an expression of mingled surprise and respect. For at least the next thirty minutes or so, Kim was part of the band.

Well, this music is intoxicating enough under any conditions, and in combination with actual intoxicants I did something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. At the end of the set I went up to Johnny Shines and shook his hand, thanked him for his music, and told him what a thrill it was to shake hands with somebody who had known Robert Johnson.

I suppose this was less than flattering to him, and he didn’t seem particularly pleased. I hadn’t thought it about the incident for many years, but when it came back to me the other day my pleasure was as great as it was irrational. I couldn’t have been more delighted if I’d discovered or remembered a connection to T.S. Eliot or another of my literary heroes.

That handshake means more to me now than at the time it occurred because I have over the years become more and more deeply aware of how much the blues means to me. I am hard put to account for the intensity of my feeling for this music. Someday I intend to write at more length how I first encountered the genuine article in my teens, at the home of an aunt and uncle who had a pile of old 78s and introduced me to Big Bill Broonzy, Furry Lewis, Leadbelly, and others when I was a teenager in the early ‘60s. (Yes, I know, Leadbelly wasn’t mainly a blues artist, but his work is part of the same musical world.)

At the time, and for a long time afterward, I liked it only as music, the way I also liked, at the time, pop groups like the Byrds. Now, though, if I had to choose between taking some of my blues recordings and the those of the Byrds or the Beatles to that postulated desert island, I’d pick the blues. I would in fact be hard put to choose between T.S. Eliot and the blues.

Of course a lot of people like the blues, and a lot of people like it a lot, but I don’t know how many people regard it as indispensable. Part of it, obviously, is just a simple liking for the sound, particularly the sound of blues guitar. I know exactly what B.B. King meant when he described hearing Bukka White’s slide guitar for the first time: “the sound...would go all through me.” And part of it is the pure human truth of many of the lyrics, so often so pithy and wry and plaintive:

I mistreated my baby
And I can’t see no reason why

But my feeling for the blues goes deeper than that, into a sense of connection with a tradition. It may seem false, and would certainly be unwelcome in some quarters, for a white man to make any sort of claim to personal membership in that tradition, which comes from a culture which existed alongside and was oppressed by the one of which I was directly a part and a product. But the two cannot be separated so neatly. As a white boy in the rural south I was surrounded by the culture which produced Robert Johnson. When I hear him and others like him, I hear not something exotic but the voice of people I know and love. The only other sort of music that has this effect on me is certain English and Scottish folk music, particularly the devastatingly understated tragic ballads such as “Sir Patrick Spens,” and old-time country and bluegrass music like the Carter Family.

I wonder whatever became of Kim. The last time I saw him, a few years after the night he played with Johnny Shines, he was on his way to Naval Aviation flight school at Pensacola.

Sunday Night Journal — October 30, 2005

Rosa Parks, RIP

I was only a child at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott. I didn’t know what it was, but I was old enough to read, and I remember seeing the word “boycott” in newspaper headlines and being puzzled by it. Obviously it had to do with boys, but beyond that I couldn’t make much sense of it. It seemed to be something serious—I may have picked that up from the adults. I think I had some inkling that it involved people refusing to ride buses, and was puzzled as to why there was anything wrong with that. I certainly would have been more than happy to give up riding the school bus.

Ten years or so later, as a teenager in the middle of the ‘60s when the civil rights movement achieved its greatest successes, of course I understood. Those who never knew the segregated south have difficulty understanding what a different world it was, and how much has changed. Of course it’s easy enough to understand the bald facts, and easy enough to appreciate how wrong the system of segregation was. What’s hard to understand is not so much the horror as the lack of horror: the degree to which a superficial peace prevailed, the apparent stability of things.

A typical Hollywood view of the period involves continual acts of intimidation and violence and an all-suffusing atmosphere of vicious meanness on the part of whites. But it wasn’t like that, at least not in my part of the South—I’ve heard that in other places the reality bore a greater resemblance to the mythology. What I saw was far more subtle. Acts of racial violence on the part of whites were rare: I never saw one or heard directly of one, or of a lynching occurring locally, or saw a Klansman in his regalia, but it doesn’t take many lynchings or beatings to make matters clear. And in personal interactions a certain courtesy, not intimidation, was the norm. For the most part it was only when the rules were broken—when the black man failed to keep to “his place”—that the underlying brutality showed itself.

In the Hollywood version of the South, Rosa Parks would have been instantly lynched when she defied white authority to its face. That she was not, and that her refusal to move to the back of the bus launched a mostly peaceful struggle, says much about the complexity of the situation. (This is not to imply that she did not act with great courage—Emmett Till was murdered later in that same year, 1955.) White people had a bad conscience, and an underlying sense of decency that made the moral force of the civil rights movement something they could only avoid by giving in to their worst passions, which most of them, most of the time, did not do.

It’s a cliché to call the 1950s “a more innocent time.” Far more innocent, in more ways, I think, were the early and middle ‘60s, when it seemed that removing legal segregation would be enough to allow the South and the whole nation to attain racial harmony. The choice was clear: Bull Connor, firehoses, and bombs vs. a simple and peaceful request for basic rights. “Free at last!” cried Martin Luther King, and a few years later the specific freedom—legal freedom—for which he marched was obtained.

But the blessings of that freedom fell far short of expectations. Now, forty years after the passage of the crucial civil rights legislation, we confront a racial situation in some ways not really much better and certainly far more complex. White racism is far from dead, but it has no legal sanction or official power. For the most part it doesn’t dare show its face (although I’ve seen recent signs that this is changing, as some white people try to assume to themselves the prized status of victimhood). Yet far too many black people live in a state of cultural pathology at least as bad as that of the 1950s at their worst, and for which the blame cannot easily be laid upon whites. Now there is no straightforward measure to be taken, no law to be passed, no barrier to be removed, that anyone seriously believes could make a large and immediate difference.

I don’t know what the solution is—I don’t even in fact believe that there is A Solution, but I believe there must be and can be improvement. As Sly and the Family Stone sang in the late ‘60s, we got to live together. We don’t have a choice. Africans and Europeans are, in effect, married in the United States of America; we are, whether we like it or not, one flesh, and we must find a way to get along. As in a marriage, the only way to bring this about is love. And I suspect that the only avenue for the attainment of that love, or at least of an understanding of its necessity, is a broad and deep revival of Christian faith. Secular materialism cannot, in the long run, nourish or encourage much beyond the desire to take care of oneself and one’s own. Its love is a doomed impulse, not a law.

Sunday Night Journal — October 23, 2005

Black Sabbath On A Friday Night

Because my youngest daughter plays in the band, my wife and I have been going to high school football games for the past few years. The season is almost over, and as our daughter is a senior this year, the remaining few games will probably be our last. Although I’m not interested enough to go to the trouble of attending without some reason other than the game itself, I’ll miss this routine. There are few scenes more thoroughly American than the Friday night football game: the lights are bright, the grass is green, the crowd is cheerful, and if you don’t think too much about the dark side of our sports cult you can feel as if you’re participating in something innocent and earnest and harmless, something relatively untouched by the cultural decay of the past few decades.

And so it was with a little surprise that I recognized, after searching my memory for a minute, the rock-‘n’-roll riff that the band was playing at one of the first games we attended: “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath. The incongruity made me laugh out loud: here in the midst of an all-American ceremony was a bit of the cultural movement that had set out to destroy such things. I remember very well seeing the sinister covers of the first couple of Black Sabbath albums in stores when they came out in the early ‘70s, and hearing a little of the music. Both gave me the creeps, and I wanted nothing to do with them. But some of their music floated out of the then-new heavy metal ghetto into the broader stream of pop music, and now here, under the lights of a football stadium, competing with the p.a. system and the roar of the crowd, slammed out by a marching band, was one of those riffs which, I would guess, a majority of Americans under the age of 55 or so would recognize, even if they could not name it.

“Iron Man,” I soon discovered, is only one of many ‘70s riff songs that have become part of the repertoire of high-school and college bands. I suppose this is evidence that a lot of today’s high-school band directors came of age in the ‘70s. Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” is a standard, and I’ve also heard another Black Sabbath song, “Paranoid” (which is, like “Louie Louie,” one of the great riffs of all time, at once dumb and unforgettable) played there. And is my imagination getting ahead of the facts, or did one band actually feature a Black Sabbath medley in its halftime show?

It seems almost quaint now, after so many far worse things have come down the pike of popular music, to think that Black Sabbath’s music and lyrics were regarded as evil. I really never heard that much of them, but I just looked up some of their lyrics online and for the most part they aren’t that bad: there are images of menace and fear, but very little of the Satanism implied by the name of the band, and a surprising number of the songs seem to be the typical complaints about a girlfriend that comprise a lot of rock music. The lyrics of both “Iron Man” and “Paranoid,” though grim and gloomy, are not satanic. I doubt anyone would find them seriously frightening or disturbing now.

Still, the band did, if I remember correctly, cultivate a dark and occult atmosphere, conveying at the very least a fascination with evil. Does it mean anything that their music is now part of the Friday night football experience? Is this a testimony to the absorptive power of American culture, or a measure of its subversion?

Both, I think. Almost everyone today would recognize the name of Black Sabbath’s original lead singer, Ozzie Osbourne, who after a long career of bizarre behavior is now almost an establishment figure, greeted familiarly and affectionately by the president of the United States at a public gathering a couple of years ago. Pundits argued about the TV show which followed the clearly rather damaged Ozzie and his family around for a year or two: did it prove how far gone we are? Or did it show that even a drug-addled shock-rocker could be a good-hearted family man?

This sort of side-show can almost always be counted on to generate a controversy, and a fairly useless one. Traditionalists deplore, liberationists applaud, ho hum. Meanwhile, I noticed on CNN’s web site the other day a story about some corporation’s attempt to revive Penthouse magazine, the former and now fallen rival to Playboy. The story analyzed the business plan—which included, of course, cheerful prospects for the role the Internet and other “new media” would play in getting the products into as many hands as possible—in the same terms in which one would discuss selling office supplies or building materials.

Why worry about whether Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath may have done a bit of subcontracting here and there for Satan, when we have allowed him to set up shop openly in the town square, and treat him as a respectable merchant?