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Review: The Makers of the Sacred Harp

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Ever since I had the opportunity to read Kiri Miller‘s book on the topic, Traveling Home: Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism, I have been interested in a traditional Southern form of singing known as the Sacred Harp. In this volume, David Warren Steel (University of Mississippi) and Richard H. Hulan brings to us a needed work not of deep analysis but one of reference in which we find discussion on the region and culture which produced this form of music as well as sketches on authors, composes and even the history of the tunes as well as a listing of the songs in the Sacred Harp. Don’t let the label of ‘reference’ scare you, because unlike what you would expect as a reference book, Steel and Hulan brings life to these notes, or perhaps, gives history a tune which should be heard.

It is always important when writing about a particular regional tradition to maintain the respect for it that others have, and the more so, it seems, when that particular regional tradition is somehow related either to the American South or Appalachia and involves ‘old-fashioned’ religious zeal. Steel, in his introduction, survives this examination well and is able to bring some of the beauty of the tradition to those either unfamiliar with the style or perhaps inherently disdaining of it. This introductions serves as a very brief introduction to both the book and the tradition and is not to be missed in anticipation of getting to the rest of the book and indeed, informs us as to the reality that this music “stands on the persistent collaboration of generations of composers, songbook compilers, editors, and revisers, singing teachers, song leaders, and singers of all ages” (xi). The book is divided into four parts. Parts One and Two are essays on various topics while parts Three and Four serve to provide the expected reference material. In Part One, the origins, cultural infusions, and traditions of Sacred Harp are explored while in Part Two, the words of the songs are given their due. Part Three contains perhaps one of the most fantastic parts of the books, the biographical sketches of the Composers. To top this section off are plates of things important to Sacred Harp’s sacred history. The book ends with a listing of the songs of Sacred Harp as well as the bibliographical sources for the songs.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims are called ‘religions of the book’ and if that is the case, then it is entirely possible that the tradition of style surrounding shaped-note singing is a style of the book, with the singers being another ‘people of the book’, with that particular book being the Sacred Harp. It is an old book, sometimes updated, but well used. Steel takes the time in this volume to give you the particulars of who brought this musical sacred text about, their stories and indeed, how it has come to shape the Tradition in a way often times seen as odd or undescribable by outsiders. This ‘origin story’, as it were, takes up the first chapter of the book, but in this, we are welcomed into the hollow square ready then to hear about the people who wrote the songs and the tunes as well as the sources and other pieces of the history of this book. As it is difficult to ascertain the origin of the style itself, this book, the Sacred Harp, has taken a unifying presence among the various strains of Sacred Harp music. The singular quote from Steel to this effect, and indeed, one which easily sums up recent views into this tradition is found in the introduction,

“Sacred Harp singing is a community musical and social event emphasizing participation, not performance, where people sing from a tunebook called The Sacred Harp, printed in music notation using four shaped notes. (xi).

From here, Steel is able to build a bridge into this community. He begins by addressing the history of the first editors and the contents, as well as the myths which surrounded it. He notes that these books weren’t nearly as backwards as we might picture them of the time, but represented a sophisticated class of people of the era. Starting in the Appalachian east, the music tracks steadily westward, or rather, westward for what time, which was western Georgia and areas on the other side of the mountains. During this time, the backdrop of a developing country takes shape as well as the religious revival era in which many of these songs were produced. The Sacred Harp, like other sacred writings, wasn’t created in a vacuum, and Steel reminds us of that, often times speculating on a tangible preexistence of musical histories of the groups which contributed to the Sacred Harp. In this examination of the history, he hits on various intersections of history, including the War Between the States and the role which the Sacred Harp played in the life of the soldiers of that late conflict. What comes to the reader’s mind is the role in which this book played in the life of many Southern and Appalachian Americans historically, and if taken with Kiri Miller’s recent work, continues to play in the life of a variety of Americans today. Hulan would then caution us as taking this material is simply music, but to seek to understand the entire system which is intertwined with each and every song printed in the Sacred Harp as well as all of the other aspects to this Tradition.

As I noted earlier, after the essays which are essential, the book provides a valuable find without the usual distance to look for it. Composers, songs and other items are given biographical sketches, bring the names printed on the Sacred Harp to life. These things make this book a must have for those interested in the Sacred Harp tradition, or indeed, American music history, Appalachian and Southern folk history, or those who appreciate the value in which music has played in our collective life and history.

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Below is the author of work speaking on it:

In the Mail: The Sound of (Methodist) Music….

Thanks to Michael at the University of Illinois press,

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From the product description:

Providing new insight into the Wesley family, the fundamental importance of music in the development of Methodism, and the history of art music in Britain, Music and the Wesleys examines more than 150 years of a rich music-making tradition in England. John Wesley and his brother Charles, founders of the Methodist movement, considered music to be a vital part of religion, while Charles’s sons Charles and Samuel and grandson Samuel Sebastian were among the most important English composers of their time. Exploring British concert life, sacred music forms, and hymnology, the contributors analyze the political, cultural, and social history of the Wesleys’ enormous influence on English culture and religious practices. Contributors are Stephen Banfield, Jonathan Barry, Martin V. Clarke, Sally Drage, Peter S. Forsaith, Peter Holman, Peter Horton, Robin A. Leaver, Alyson McLamore, Geoffrey C. Moore, John Nightingale, Philip Olleson, Nicholas Temperley, J. R. Watson, Anne Bagnall Yardley, and Carlton R. Young. Nicholas Temperley is professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of The Music of the English Parish Church and other works. Stephen Banfield is Stanley Hugh Badock Professor of Music at the University of Bristol. His books include Sensibility and English Song: Critical Studies of the Early Twentieth Century.

Review: Traveling Home, Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism

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Surely, some of you remember singing out of those shaped-note hymnals at Church some time ago. I grew up on the shape notes found in the Jimmie Davis hymnal, signing with fire and points, but that was the way we did it. It was a rural church, and indeed, in West Virginia, we had them too. Shape Notes. Told us what to point. What to highlight. How to sing. Sacred Harp singing, however, is more about just an easy way to sing, but involves a rich texturizing of America that is rarely seen, and written about, in such a positive light. It is the story of American culture, rooted in the South and carried forth through a disjointed diaspora of Yankees, agnostics, believers, and those on the political Left and Right. The author sheds new light and brings an appreciation to the Tradition of Sacred Harp singing which only an insider could.

Written by Kiri Miller, the Manning Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University, it tells the story of the author’s own interaction with the Sacred Harp singing community. You cannot help but note her own inner connection to the community as well as her utmost respect while questioning many of the different aspects of it.

She writes,

What are a Southern conservative Christian and a Liberal queer agnostic intellectual doing singing hymns together, one weekend in a university hall in Chicago and the next in a one-room church in rural Alabama? (38)

Previously, she noted her emotional reaction to the songs at one particular convention, although she was ‘not a Christian.’ (24) She goes on to describe in warm detail some of the diverse communities springing up in this tradition, all the while calling attention to what exactly establishing tradition entails. It is not written from a far off, scholarly, doctoral dissertation view, but one who is every much a part of the community, citing her ‘conversion’ (my word) when she was in college.

She treats Southerners, Christians, and Conservatives with respect, care and precision so as to not inflict a political conversation into the mix, but to note that a history rich with Southern roots, originating with Christian hymns, is not the racial hegemonic one would expect nor bound to political rhetoric to the extent that these things so out shine the glorious light of the singing conventions. She notes fully the stereotypes of the South and shows-up ‘Northerners’ in their attempt to classify this as anything but a rich tradition nurtured in the South. The South comes off as a culturally wealthy segment of the country and Miller is not hesitant about showcasing the treasures found there.

Her second chapter (the first being an introduction to the tradition and in some ways, to the author), is the author’s imagining of a cultural diaspora of Sacred Harp singing, hence the title of the book. She beautifully, and for this ‘exiled Southerner’, calls to mind the Southern accents, the floorboards of old country church houses, and the family connections exhibited by Southerners. While it may be just my romanticism erupting, Miller’s writing is almost lyrical and with some of her points, my mind hearkens back to the South and her deep traditions and rich culture.

In the third and fourth chapters she begins to highlight the rich tradition found inside the communities, and in this, we can see the passing along of faith, text, tradition, and styles, mirroring that of other traditions, more especially religion. It would be interesting, in the social sciences, to note with great enthusiasm, how these traditions become so, are defended, revised, and upheld across the diaspora which Miller notes included a stream of new converts who generally refuse to classify themselves as traditional.  Following these chapters, the fifth explores the effect that the outside world has had on Sacred Harp singing.

She goes on to note that the raw material would have included local culture, which during the turn of the last century, would have included not just music (such as Sacred Harp) but language, customs, and the like which more than not, Northerners used for their own ends while savaging it. Think Dukes of Hazzard and other shows set in Appalachia, or shows with characters from Appalachia. It is no doubt that for a period of time, the entire South was treated with a colonizing disdain, but even today, Appalachia still remains a colony, a hallmark of capitalism.

It is in the sixth chapter, however, that the community is taken to the human level, in which we see it dealing with political correctness and controversies over particular songs, the influx of new members and new geographically influenced cultures, as well as how to proceed if Sacred Harp loses its Southern roots. Yet, this transience as it is labeled, where in the midst of exile Tradition is preserved over and over again, Sacred Harp singing is taking root across the culture spectrum of America keeping itself embedded in our culture, where I hope it remains for a long time.

Reading Miller’s book has provided me with a better appreciation for Sacred Harp singing, having come to see it as a living tale of ‘Americanness’, culture diaspora, and a real overture to the past which we so often reject in our modernity. It tells the story of little stone churches, white picket fences, graveyards in Sacred Harp strongholds, and the power which I know that music has. The music, the lyrics, the words, and the traditions of Sacred Harp, which includes prayers that are even enjoined and said by non-believers softens the heart of the singers and gives them, many of who aren’t Christians themselves, a fuller appreciation of the Christian life as sung through the tears of the Sacred Harp.

Miller’s hollow square provides a panoramic view of Sacred Harp, and one which is not told by an outsider, but by one who is part of the family. Her experiences in this family gives this book the added weight of grace which is gained by experiencing the deaths memorialized during a lesson, the coaching by traditional singers, and one who politely reminds us that while these ancient pious hymns are sung, they are sung by such a cross-section of Americana (p164), that it would be more harmful than not to simply classify them as anything by Sacred Harp singers.

Traveling Home without the Local Color

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In the fifth chapter, Kiri Miller starts to scrape away some of the patina which surrounds Sacred Harp music but writing on something near and dear to my heart – the patina of Appalachia.

In a quote (p144) from another book, Miller notes that in the post-Civil War (her words) South, especially in the mountain areas, the peoples were colonized,

Transportation, law, and standardized education systems were developed – even as local industries were destroyed, land distribution was rearranged, and raw material was transferred to the colonizing country.

She goes on to note that the raw material would have included local culture, which during the turn of the last century, would have included not just music (such as Sacred Harp) but language, customs, and the like which more than not, Northerners used for their own ends while savaging it. Think Dukes of Hazzard and other shows set in Appalachia, or shows with characters from Appalachia. It is no doubt that for a period of time, the entire South was treated with a colonizing disdain, but even today, Appalachia still remains a colony, a hallmark of capitalism.

After reading Miller’s book, I have come to a better appreciation for Sacred Harp singing, seeing it as living tale of ‘Americanness’, culture diaspora, and a real overture to the past which we so often reject in our modernity. It tales the story of little stone churches, white picket fences, graveyards in Sacred Harp strongholds, and the power which I know that music has. The music, the lyrics, the words, and the traditions of Sacred Harp, which includes prayers that are even enjoined and said by non-believers softens the heart of the singers and gives them, many of who aren’t Christians themselves, a fuller appreciation of the Christian life as sung through the tears of the Sacred Harp.

Miller’s hollow square provides a panoramic view of Sacred Harp, and one which is not told by an outsider, but by one who is part of the family. Her experiences in this family gives this book the added weight of grace which is gained by experiencing the deaths memorialized during a lesson, the coaching by traditional singers, and one who politely reminds us that while these ancient pious hymns are sung, they are sung by such a cross-section of Americana (p164), that it would be more harmful than not to simply classify them as anything by Sacred Harp singers.

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Southroners, Christians and Agnostics in Traveling Home, Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism

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It is not a typo. If you know what a Southron is, then you know… you know? These are the notes from which I’ll draw my final review. But, for those of you interested in the singing culture of the South or Sacred Harp/shaped-note singing, you might do yourself a service and go ahead and get the book.

I love this book. Yes, it is not overtly theological, although defining Tradition, listening to how people interpret themselves and their culture, and watching as something within people connect individuals into a community across the spectrum is surely as theological as several of the books in Scripture.

Written by Kiri Miller, the Manning Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University, it tells the story of the author’s own interaction with the Sacred Harp singing community. You cannot help but note her own inner connection to the community as well as her utmost respect while questioning many of the different aspects of it.

She writes,

What are a Southern conservative Christian and a Liberal queer agnostic intellectual doing singing hymns together, one weekend in a university hall in Chicago and the next in a one-room church in rural Alabama? (38)

Previously, she noted her emotional reaction to the songs at one particular convention, although she was ‘not a Christian.’ (24) She goes on to describe in warm detail some of the diverse communities springing up in this tradition, all the while calling attention to what exactly establishing tradition entails. It is not written from a far off, scholarly, doctoral dissertation view, but one who is every much a part of the community, citing her ‘conversion’ (my word) when she was in college.

She treats Southerners, Christians, and Conservatives with respect, care and precision so as to not inflict a political conversation into the mix, but to note that a history rich with Southern roots, originating with Christian hymns, is not the racial hegemonic one would expect nor bound to political rhetoric to the extent that these things so out shine the glorious light of the singing conventions. She notes fully the stereotypes of the South and shows-up ‘Northerners’ in their attempt to classify this as anything but a rich tradition nurtured in the South. The South comes off as a culturally wealthy segment of the country and Miller is not hesitant about showcasing the treasures found there.

Her second chapter (the first being an introduction to the tradition and in some ways, to the author), is the author’s imagining of a cultural diaspora of Sacred Harp singing, hence the title of the book. She beautifully, and for this ‘exiled Southerner’, calls to mind the Southern accents, the floorboards of old country church houses, and the family connections exhibited by Southerners. While it may be just my romanticism erupting, Miller’s writing is almost lyrical and with some of her points, my mind hearkens back to the South and her deep traditions and rich culture.

I am looking forward to finishing this book.

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Traveling Home, Sacred Harp Singing and American Pluralism: Introduction

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Product Description:

Traveling Home is a compelling account of how the vibrant musical tradition of Sacred Harp singing brings together Americans of widely divergent religious and political beliefs. Named after the most popular of the nineteenth-century shape-note tune-books which employed an innovative notation system to teach singers to read music Sacred Harp singing has been part of rural southern life for more than 150 years and has recently attracted new singers from all over America. Blending historical scholarship with wide-ranging fieldwork, Kiri Miller presents an engagingly written study of this important music movement. Kiri Miller is an assistant professor of music at Brown University and the editor of The Chattahoochee Musical Convention, 1852-2002: A Sacred Harp Historical Source book.

Surely, some of you remember singing out of those shaped-note hymnals at Church some time ago. I grew up on the shape notes found in the Jimmie Davis hymnal, signing with fire and points, but that was the way we did it. It was a rural church, and indeed, in West Virginia, we had them too. Shape Notes. Told us what to point. What to highlight. How to sing.

Even for those of us who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Anyway, I am reading this book for review, and since it is one of my favorite types of music, I thought I might start to talk about it.

For those of you who may be interested, you can download songs in this genre (for a fee of course) from Amazon.

Review: God, Science, Sex, Gender – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics

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While I have a long review, you have read most of it, so I am including the new material first, with the older review sections following:

In the conclusion, written by Aana Marie Vigen, questions still remain unanswered; however, what Vigen does is to neatly summarize what the symposium was about as well as leave the door open for the reader (or, originally, audience) to navigate the waters to reach his or her own conclusion. Admittedly, these questions on gender and sexuality are tough to grapple with, especially by those who have a personal experience with them; however, there is enough information to help those who feel that this is the next big question in Christianity.

My main contention throughout this book is the failure to rely upon Scripture as the starting point, although several essays focus squarely  on several verses. There is not a scriptural theologian among the original speakers turned writers, and while this doesn’t seem to be an issue with the Symposium or the information provided, for those who are used to reaching for Holy Writ to tackle tough questions, it may be a little off-putting.

Vigen does make a good point when she writes that Christianity is not about a static existence, but continues to ask the question of ‘Who ought I to be‘? (p241). Many of the essays in this book point to that question without providing clear answers. This is the preferred method of discussion, or should be, when entering into this type of discourse. It is not easy grappling with modern science or ethics concerning issues which people still blush when speaking about. Unfortunately, Vigen defines ethics and lists the sources of Christian ethics only after the topics are discussed at length. Some of these sections in Vigen’s conclusions should be placed at the front of the book.

Over all, Christians are struggling to come to terms with situations in which we simply have no clear answer from Holy Writ. For an example – while we might agree that homosexuality is a sin, the bible doesn’t cover the issue of intersexuality, in which the outsides do not match either the insides or the genetic level, producing for all intents and purposes an outward appearance of, for example, female, where genetically, and internally, the person is male. Simply put, looks are deceiving, and yet, we can only cast our Scriptural net based on looks. Several of these essays go into discussing these issues at length.

This book is not about condoning any type of behavior, as at least one essay deals expressly with the modern notion that if it is the animal kingdom, than some how, it is a trait easily conceived of in humanity. Instead, most authors uplift humanity above that of the animal kingdom and call special attention to our ability to love and create super-structures in society, something beyond that of evolutionary science. And in regarding evolutionary science, Darwin is hardly accepted as sacred, but at times, is placed at odds with theology and other sciences. The sciences covered in this book are not simply evolutionary, but so too literay, natural and other interdisciplinary approaches, including biblical translation experts.

It will be difficult for the conservative Christian to wade through some of these essays; however, the issues presented here will not naturally, nor spiritually, cease to exist tomorrow. It would be preferable to read and to listen to the voices which oppose most conservative Christianity, whether it is literalism or papal infallibility issues among Catholics, than to shut our hears and forget that there are issues not fully explored in Scared Text. I believe that this book, and the authors therein, provide more questions than we are used to answering, but in the end, they will draw us closer to the truth, whether or not that truth is one in which they or we lose our own.

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In what is bound to elicit heated arguments from all sides of the debate, the editors have compiled a series of essays, all connected to each other, delivered in symposium style concerning the ongoing debate in (mainly) the Catholic Church about the roll in which science should play in determining human sexuality ethics. I said Catholic because while this book has at the purpose ‘Christian’ ethics, it is generally written to that of the Catholic ethicist by prominent Catholic ethicists. This is not to say that others should not read and draw from the discussions, but the role of authority may be expressed and defined differently based on the denomination.

The book contains three parts, with the first part comprised of five essays essentially laying the ground work for discussion to come. Beginning with Jon Nilson‘s historical critique on authority in the Catholic Church in which Nilson doesn’t rely upon Tradition, but attempts to correct perceived notions of Papal infallibility and hierarchy. While the history of Papal infallibility may not be known to many, what is even more unknown is the deciding factor in which many of the Cardinals had already vacated the See to return home, leaving the vote easily cast in favor of the sitting Pope’s view. Further, Nilson goes into the loosening of the hierarchical rolls leading upon to Vatican II and what should have emerged from that Council. Detected in his language, is the acceptance of the present system but only as far as history would allow. For him, this insistence into monarchical authority in Rome must be challenged by courageous theologians because,

(F)irst, to remind us all that the whole Church is not yet of one mind on issues of sexuality and, no less important, to give heart to those who have been marginalized in the Church for their sexuality and/or gender who have suffered greatly on account of it.

Nilson’s view on authority is not based in Rome, but in changing trends, a view in which he meets with resistance by Anne E. Figert‘s essay on the disputes between scientific and religious authority.

She brings to bear her sociological background in helping to show several weaknesses in surrendering to the weight of Science that which may in fact be contained in the realm of Religion, especially when both hemispheres tend to be absolute only in public. She deals with Weber and Dawkins, discussing the roll in which Religion figures as an Authority and compares it to the Authority of Science, and rightly notes that challenges to both are ‘more driven by human politics, economics, and power struggles than their claims to the pure pursuit of the truth might suggest.’ Figert describes the current boundary disputes, and just what roll Science plays in the hearts and minds of followers. This is important, especially since she notes a report by Gilbert and Mulkay in 1984 in which it was found that scientists have a different discourse in private. They are much less absolute and often times presented as competent. Figert’s essay serves to remind us of the boundary disputes and that in both areas, human politics are a driving force.

Following this is Fred Kniss who admits that framing the debate on human sexuality in the way it has been has already ‘almost necessarily pitted itself against science.’ Admitting that conflicts, such as the one discussed, are social issues but still sees the need to rely upon Science. In a brief, but powerfully open-ended essay, Kniss never comes fully to determining ‘natural’ and which sphere of authority should decide it, but does present a solid overview of the impacts of the controversy into the arenas of our lives. In what should be a common chapter in most political science text book, Kniss shows the almost hypocritical political and religious spheres in which the individual as moral project is weighed against the locus of authority.

In the final two essays of the first part, Francis J. Catania and Patricia Beattie Jung bring into the discussion Thomas Aquinas (and by virtue, Aristotle). Both present a saintly picture of Aquinas as the example for allowing Science to share, in part, in the realm of Religious Authority, at least when it comes to dictating ethics based on observable fact. Dealing with the subject of ‘human flourishing’ and the changing notion of sexual morality inside the Roman Catholic Church, each author separately builds the case the science has and could benefit theological and ethical discussions. There is, without a doubt, a large change which has taken place in the teachings on sexuality by Rome within the past century, even before Vatican II. Both authors trace this, somewhat, to Thomas Aquinas, and indeed, the ancient writer has seen a resurgence in Catholicism lately, and indeed, Christian scholasticism. How far they could bring him, however, is yet to be determined.

Why? Because while the interdisciplinary approach works well, no one has laid the foundation for ‘natural,’ ‘nature,’ and who decided what is ‘natural’ is still morally, theologically, and ethically ‘good.’ While discussing gender roles, the role in which sexual intimacy plays in marriage, and the current role and future of celibacy, we find historical changes, opposition, and flat out refusal to abide by Roman attitudes to such for the past two millennia (even in Rome herself) but these discussions present a stark difference to the current one on homosexuality. While the others have been, at sometimes, heated, homosexuality and the question of ‘if it is natural, is it divinely sanctioned’ is volatile.

The essays are well written, well supported, and provide a great companion to the discussion on-going in many theological realms.

The second series of essays, classified under the heading of Reflecting on Human Sexual Diversity, provide a series of entries from evolutionary biologists who disagree with Darwin on sexual selection and one who does not disagree. This series also includes theologians grappling with recent Vatican documents giving theological treatments to them as well as important Scriptural texts used to justify the differentiation of genders. The strength of this series, so far, has been the diversity in approaches, mixing not only disciplines but also trying to have a parallel discussion with science and religion without making one bow to the other.

The first two essays, the first by Joan Roughgarden and the second by Terry Grande and Joel Brown (with Robin Colburn), are complimentary to one another with both challenging traditional Darwinist understandings of sexuality in nature. Far from the usual role applied to procreation by Darwinist science, such as sexual selection for the security of the species, Roughgarden postulates that more often in nature than not, sexual selection is made more for social infrastructure, providing for intimate bonds which prevent the dissolution of society. For Roughgarden, homosexuality then ‘is not against nature, it is an adaptive part of nature.’ (103). Here theories are hardly met with applause by the majority of evolutionary scientists who still follow Darwin’s thoughts on sexual selection in nature. Grande and Brown take Roughgarden’s hypothesis and further it by suggesting that humanity, especially sexuality, may be evolving because we are ‘now operating in environments and social circumstances for which they neither evolved nor were adapted in a Darwinian sense.’ (p106). It is, they rightly postulate, an environment (culture, society, etc…) that we have manufactured for ourselves, which has disconnected us from what has gone before. Of course, neither focus on the history of homosexuality and sexual uses in previous societies but they are approaching it from a scientific angle and in the end both determine that science must stand as a counter to ‘Christian traditions’ in their claim of ‘timeless and ordained model(se) of human sexual behavior.’ (p121).

The essays written by Pamela L. Caughie (“Passing” and Identity: A Literary Perspective on Gender and Sexual Diversity) and James Calcagno ( Monogamy and Sexual diversity in Primate: Can Evolutionary Biology Contribute to Christian Sexual Ethics?) are two of the most rewarding of the series, especially from a non-theological standpoint. Caughie delves deep into the making of the person, whether male or female, with social contributions. Using Michael Foucault‘s work with Herculine Barbin as well as the example of Virgina Wolfe, Caughie draws the implications of the ideal of a male and female only gender network, noting that there are medical examples to the contrary and they aren’t new. Further, while her stances hardly contribute to the theological understandings of such things, she encourages her audience to read past the rhetoric of gender ‘to the meaningful content beneath’ (p152) of the person. But using examples of literature which reflect ‘real life’ I believe that more should take note of her point.

Calcagno, in the tenth essay, writes, much to the chagrin of Roughgarden, I am sure, in support of Darwin’s natural selection theories. All the while noting the diverse sexual practices in primates and their social connections. He throws some heavy questions at both sides in the debate in noting that monogamy is not natural, but rather the perverse norm in most mammals, numbering about 3%. Of course, in the 900 human cultures survived by Murdock, only 16% of them were considered monogamous (p163). He also notes that the more financial independent the genders are, the less likely monogamy is in the culture. He cautions, at the end of his essay, about the use of the animal kingdom to set human ethics (pg164), noting that of all the mammals, humans have the capacity to love, to be faithful, and to be unselfish (p163, citing Fuentes). By far and large, it is clearly the most theological of the scientific essays, in that it sets human above the animal kingdom and focuses the discussion on not what can be excused, but what should be striven for – the ideal.

The remaining two essays in this section deal expressly with theological interaction which developed Roman Catholic discussions. John McCarthy writes on Interpreting the Theology of Creation: Binary Gender in Catholic Thought while Robert Di Vito writes on “In God’s Image” and “Male and Female”: How a Little Punctuation Might Have Helped. While McCarthy writes from the spectrum of the theologian, Di Vito employs biblical studies as well as the linguistic study of Hebrew to stand against the usual Catholic, and in many times, over-arching Christian theological treatment of Genesis 1.27. McCarthy urges that the theology of creation be used in such a way as to make the ‘love your neighbor’ infused with Creation. For him, ‘becoming a neighbor is, theological, participation in the love of God that makes a person.’ (p137). For McCarthy, the ‘other’ becomes a person to be loved inside of the theology of Creation. Di Vito almost takes issued with the theological only position such as McCarthy’s and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris dignitatem.

In his essay, Di Vito takes aim at the usual interpretation and thus theological understanding of Genesis 1, insisting instead that it be read in such a way that it produces unity of humanity at first. By doing so, he would hearken back to ancient philosophers, but allow as will the Wisdom Christology by later authors, and help to further the conversation on Galatians 3.26-28. His essay is one which is heightened by his ‘discovery’, providing not only insight into the New Creation, but He in whom we have this New Creation. I cannot say more about his essay without giving away the centrality of the argument, but it is one which must be developed later and used in the egalitarian and complimentarian debates which so many are having today.

Regarding gender issues, Di Vito stands as the most enlightening essay while in the arena of sexual diversity, Calcagno comes the closest to providing for Christian ethics in the discussion, all the while supposing that he is only a scientist.

The final section, Sexual Diversity and Christian Moral Theology, attempts to draw together theological reflection from the preceding essays, concluding with a commentary on the Ethiopian Eunuch as well as a conclusion which neatly summarizes the discussion thus far. With the breakthroughs in the second section, the third section especially Fennell’s contribution, seemed to be the back end of the peak, but that is, perhaps, purposed.

Stephen J. Pope‘s essay takes Roughgarden, Grande and other contributors plays them off one another while engaging the sexual ethics espoused by Pope John Paul II while attempting to force the interaction between the late pontiff and Feminist Catholic theologian, Margaret Farley, who he considers as standing ‘within the Catholic Christian tradition’ but ‘represents a signification modification of it.’ They are posed in opposition to one another, but their arguments are developed in such a way as to give merit and flesh to each one of their points. Reading the essay seems to be a give and take between Farley and the late pontiff in such a way, as if the reader was in the room with the two. Pope focuses on love as the Christian ethic missing from these debates and once again returns to the what McCarthy pointed out, that sexuality and gender, the consummate ‘other’, as a means to render hospitality.

The only essay to not fit into the book is Frank Fennell‘s work on Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” While fellow professor of literature, Pamela L. Caughie’s essay contributed to the overall understanding of how ‘the clothes make the man’ mentality, Fennell’s take is simply to focus on a poem, which concerns diversity, but adds nothing that I can see to the ultimate conservation. This is not the case for Susan Ross’ essay about the diversity of views when one ‘tweaks’ the image of Christ on the Cross. This is an essay which must be read to be enjoyed, and may be a subject of later reflection by myself, but in it, Ross tackles the “Bridgegroom-Bride” theological metaphor in recent Roman Catholic theology, seemingly ignoring the history of such a metaphor, even pre-Christian history. Her’s is not merely about depictions of that metaphor in art, or even the Crucifixion in art, but the idea that if certain things were reversed in the audience’s mind, they bring about a startling shift in attitudes about women. She gives the example of the art piece of ‘Christa’ a feminine portrayal of Christ which brought about immediate emotional responses from her students. It is an essay not for the weak, but for those wishing to encounter the idea of gender and theology, especially in dealing with ordained clergy or the all-male priesthood.

Roughgarden returns to the work along with an editor of the series, Patricia Beattie Jung, to pen a commentary of sorts on Acts 8, trying to force the story of the Eunuch into a gender-bending tale of early Christian gender-fluidity. In attempting to ‘retrieve’ for their discussion Acts 8, they fall into the trap so many have before, of making the Scriptures match up to their viewpoints as well as demanding that Scripture answers to science. Very little attention is paid to actual biblical studies, instead jumping off cliffs where other authors only looked over. The highlight of the essay is the solidly packed reinterpretation of patristics in which they bring in both old and new arguments that gender roles inside the early Church were not as strict as many have them now, although I think they go just far enough in some areas to raise a  few eyebrows.

In the conclusion, Aana Marie Vigen, begins by defining Christians ethics as something profound –

Christian social ethics, is never content merely with asking “Who am I?” It always addresses the question of: “Who ought I be?”

Going on, she ask, in relation to the community “Who are we and who ought we to become?” These questions shape Vigen’s conclusion as well as provide an overarching synopsis of the essay’s.

Interaction, Work and Sing – Labor Songs

Since today is Labor Day, and as part of the interaction with Richard D. Cohen’s book, Work and Sing, I thought that I might post a few of the songs and singers which are featured in his work. Working as a Community Organizer in the Coal Fields, and participating in certain events which needed songs, I have seen the power of these songs in action.

Pete Seeger was an influential singer, songwriter and collector of Labor Songs, and features heavily in Cohen’s book,

Which Side Are You On?

We Shall Overcome

Solidarity Forever

We Shall not be moved

Woody Guthrie

This Land is My Land, This Land is Your Land,

Tennessee Ernie Ford

John Henry,

Sixteen Tons,

Lead Belly

Take This Hammer,

Bourgeoisie Blues

Hazel Dickens

Black Lung

The Mannington Mine Disaster

Coal Miner’s Grave (I’ve Actually Been to this Grave Site)

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Interaction: God, Science, Sex, Gender – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics (3)

Click to Order

This will be a continuing dialogue as I read through this book. (Part 1 and Part 2)

The final section, Sexual Diversity and Christian Moral Theology, attempts to draw together theological reflection from the preceding essays, concluding with a commentary on the Ethiopian Eunuch as well as a conclusion which neatly summarizes the discussion thus far. With the breakthroughs in the second section, the third section especially Fennell’s contribution, seemed to be the back end of the peak, but that is, perhaps, purposed.

Stephen J. Pope‘s essay takes Roughgarden, Grande and other contributors plays them off one another while engaging the sexual ethics espoused by Pope John Paul II while attempting to force the interaction between the late pontiff and Feminist Catholic theologian, Margaret Farley, who he considers as standing ‘within the Catholic Christian tradition’ but ‘represents a signification modification of it.’ They are posed in opposition to one another, but their arguments are developed in such a way as to give merit and flesh to each one of their points. Reading the essay seems to be a give and take between Farley and the late pontiff in such a way, as if the reader was in the room with the two. Pope focuses on love as the Christian ethic missing from these debates and once again returns to the what McCarthy pointed out, that sexuality and gender, the consummate ‘other’, as a means to render hospitality.

The only essay to not fit into the book is Frank Fennell‘s work on Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” While fellow professor of literature, Pamela L. Caughie’s essay contributed to the overall understanding of how ‘the clothes make the man’ mentality, Fennell’s take is simply to focus on a poem, which concerns diversity, but adds nothing that I can see to the ultimate conservation. This is not the case for Susan Ross’ essay about the diversity of views when one ‘tweaks’ the image of Christ on the Cross. This is an essay which must be read to be enjoyed, and may be a subject of later reflection by myself, but in it, Ross tackles the “Bridgegroom-Bride” theological metaphor in recent Roman Catholic theology, seemingly ignoring the history of such a metaphor, even pre-Christian history. Her’s is not merely about depictions of that metaphor in art, or even the Crucifixion in art, but the idea that if certain things were reversed in the audience’s mind, they bring about a startling shift in attitudes about women. She gives the example of the art piece of ‘Christa’ a feminine portrayal of Christ which brought about immediate emotional responses from her students. It is an essay not for the weak, but for those wishing to encounter the idea of gender and theology, especially in dealing with ordained clergy or the all-male priesthood.

Roughgarden returns to the work along with an editor of the series, Patricia Beattie Jung, to pen a commentary of sorts on Acts 8, trying to force the story of the Eunuch into a gender-bending tale of early Christian gender-fluidity. In attempting to ‘retrieve’ for their discussion Acts 8, they fall into the trap so many have before, of making the Scriptures match up to their viewpoints as well as demanding that Scripture answers to science. Very little attention is paid to actual biblical studies, instead jumping off cliffs where other authors only looked over. The highlight of the essay is the solidly packed reinterpretation of patristics in which they bring in both old and new arguments that gender roles inside the early Church were not as strict as many have them now, although I think they go just far enough in some areas to raise a  few eyebrows.

In the conclusion, Aana Marie Vigen, begins by defining Christians ethics as something profound –

Christian social ethics, is never content merely with asking “Who am I?” It always addresses the question of: “Who ought I be?”

Going on, she ask, in relation to the community “Who are we and who ought we to become?” These questions shape Vigen’s conclusion as well as provide an overarching synopsis of the essay’s.

In my full review, I will try to give more time to Vigen’s conclusion. In the end, I think her questions are answered by McCarthy and Pope as well as Calcagno.

Interaction: God, Science, Sex, Gender – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics (2)

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This will be a continuing dialogue as I read through this book. (Part 1)

The second series of essays, classified under the heading of Reflecting on Human Sexual Diversity, provide a series of entries from evolutionary biologists who disagree with Darwin on sexual selection and one who does not disagree. This series also includes theologians grappling with recent Vatican documents giving theological treatments to them as well as important Scriptural texts used to justify the differentiation of genders. The strength of this series, so far, has been the diversity in approaches, mixing not only disciplines but also trying to have a parallel discussion with science and religion without making one bow to the other.

The first two essays, the first by Joan Roughgarden and the second by Terry Grande and Joel Brown (with Robin Colburn), are complimentary to one another with both challenging traditional Darwinist understandings of sexuality in nature. Far from the usual role applied to procreation by Darwinist science, such as sexual selection for the security of the species, Roughgarden postulates that more often in nature than not, sexual selection is made more for social infrastructure, providing for intimate bonds which prevent the dissolution of society. For Roughgarden, homosexuality then ‘is not against nature, it is an adaptive part of nature.’ (103). Here theories are hardly met with applause by the majority of evolutionary scientists who still follow Darwin’s thoughts on sexual selection in nature. Grande and Brown take Roughgarden’s hypothesis and further it by suggesting that humanity, especially sexuality, may be evolving because we are ‘now operating in environments and social circumstances for which they neither evolved nor were adapted in a Darwinian sense.’ (p106). It is, they rightly postulate, an environment (culture, society, etc…) that we have manufactured for ourselves, which has disconnected us from what has gone before. Of course, neither focus on the history of homosexuality and sexual uses in previous societies but they are approaching it from a scientific angle and in the end both determine that science must stand as a counter to ‘Christian traditions’ in their claim of ‘timeless and ordained model(se) of human sexual behavior.’ (p121).

The essays written by Pamela L. Caughie (“Passing” and Identity: A Literary Perspective on Gender and Sexual Diversity) and James Calcagno ( Monogamy and Sexual diversity in Primate: Can Evolutionary Biology Contribute to Christian Sexual Ethics?) are two of the most rewarding of the series, especially from a non-theological standpoint. Caughie delves deep into the making of the person, whether male or female, with social contributions. Using Michael Foucault‘s work with Herculine Barbin as well as the example of Virgina Wolfe, Caughie draws the implications of the ideal of a male and female only gender network, noting that there are medical examples to the contrary and they aren’t new. Further, while her stances hardly contribute to the theological understandings of such things, she encourages her audience to read past the rhetoric of gender ‘to the meaningful content beneath’ (p152) of the person. But using examples of literature which reflect ‘real life’ I believe that more should take note of her point.

Calcagno, in the tenth essay, writes, much to the chagrin of Roughgarden, I am sure, in support of Darwin’s natural selection theories. All the while noting the diverse sexual practices in primates and their social connections. He throws some heavy questions at both sides in the debate in noting that monogamy is not natural, but rather the perverse norm in most mammals, numbering about 3%. Of course, in the 900 human cultures survived by Murdock, only 16% of them were considered monogamous (p163). He also notes that the more financial independent the genders are, the less likely monogamy is in the culture. He cautions, at the end of his essay, about the use of the animal kingdom to set human ethics (pg164), noting that of all the mammals, humans have the capacity to love, to be faithful, and to be unselfish (p163, citing Fuentes). By far and large, it is clearly the most theological of the scientific essays, in that it sets human above the animal kingdom and focuses the discussion on not what can be excused, but what should be striven for – the ideal.

The remaining two essays in this section deal expressly with theological interaction which developed Roman Catholic discussions. John McCarthy writes on Interpreting the Theology of Creation: Binary Gender in Catholic Thought while Robert Di Vito writes on “In God’s Image” and “Male and Female”: How a Little Punctuation Might Have Helped. While McCarthy writes from the spectrum of the theologian, Di Vito employs biblical studies as well as the linguistic study of Hebrew to stand against the usual Catholic, and in many times, over-arching Christian theological treatment of Genesis 1.27. McCarthy urges that the theology of creation be used in such a way as to make the ‘love your neighbor’ infused with Creation. For him, ‘becoming a neighbor is, theological, participation in the love of God that makes a person.’ (p137). For McCarthy, the ‘other’ becomes a person to be loved inside of the theology of Creation. Di Vito almost takes issued with the theological only position such as McCarthy’s and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris dignitatem.

In his essay, Di Vito takes aim at the usual interpretation and thus theological understanding of Genesis 1, insisting instead that it be read in such a way that it produces unity of humanity at first. By doing so, he would hearken back to ancient philosophers, but allow as will the Wisdom Christology by later authors, and help to further the conversation on Galatians 3.26-28. His essay is one which is heightened by his ‘discovery’, providing not only insight into the New Creation, but He in whom we have this New Creation. I cannot say more about his essay without giving away the centrality of the argument, but it is one which must be developed later and used in the egalitarian and complimentarian debates which so many are having today.

Regarding gender issues, Di Vito stands as the most enlightening essay while in the arena of sexual diversity, Calcagno comes the closest to providing for Christian ethics in the discussion, all the while supposing that he is only a scientist.

Interaction: God, Science, Sex, Gender – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics (1)

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This will be a continuing dialogue as I read through this book.

In what is bound to elicit heated arguments from all sides of the debate, the editors have compiled a series of essays, all connected to each other, delivered in symposium style concerning the ongoing debate in (mainly) the Catholic Church about the roll in which science should play in determining human sexuality ethics. I said Catholic because while this book has at the purpose ‘Christian’ ethics, it is generally written to that of the Catholic ethicist by prominent Catholic ethicists. This is not to say that others should not read and draw from the discussions, but the role of authority may be expressed and defined differently based on the denomination.

The book contains three parts, with the first part comprised of five essays essentially laying the ground work for discussion to come. Beginning with Jon Nilson‘s historical critique on authority in the Catholic Church in which Nilson doesn’t rely upon Tradition, but attempts to correct perceived notions of Papal infallibility and hierarchy. While the history of Papal infallibility may not be known to many, what is even more unknown is the deciding factor in which many of the Cardinals had already vacated the See to return home, leaving the vote easily cast in favor of the sitting Pope’s view. Further, Nilson goes into the loosening of the hierarchical rolls leading upon to Vatican II and what should have emerged from that Council. Detected in his language, is the acceptance of the present system but only as far as history would allow. For him, this insistence into monarchical authority in Rome must be challenged by courageous theologians because,

(F)irst, to remind us all that the whole Church is not yet of one mind on issues of sexuality and, no less important, to give heart to those who have been marginalized in the Church for their sexuality and/or gender who have suffered greatly on account of it.

Nilson’s view on authority is not based in Rome, but in changing trends, a view in which he meets with resistance by Anne E. Figert‘s essay on the disputes between scientific and religious authority.

She brings to bear her sociological background in helping to show several weaknesses in surrendering to the weight of Science that which may in fact be contained in the realm of Religion, especially when both hemispheres tend to be absolute only in public. She deals with Weber and Dawkins, discussing the roll in which Religion figures as an Authority and compares it to the Authority of Science, and rightly notes that challenges to both are ‘more driven by human politics, economics, and power struggles than their claims to the pure pursuit of the truth might suggest.’ Figert describes the current boundary disputes, and just what roll Science plays in the hearts and minds of followers. This is important, especially since she notes a report by Gilbert and Mulkay in 1984 in which it was found that scientists have a different discourse in private. They are much less absolute and often times presented as competent. Figert’s essay serves to remind us of the boundary disputes and that in both areas, human politics are a driving force.

Following this is Fred Kniss who admits that framing the debate on human sexuality in the way it has been has already ‘almost necessarily pitted itself against science.’ Admitting that conflicts, such as the one discussed, are social issues but still sees the need to rely upon Science. In a brief, but powerfully open-ended essay, Kniss never comes fully to determining ‘natural’ and which sphere of authority should decide it, but does present a solid overview of the impacts of the controversy into the arenas of our lives. In what should be a common chapter in most political science text book, Kniss shows the almost hypocritical political and religious spheres in which the individual as moral project is weighed against the locus of authority.

In the final two essays of the first part, Francis J. Catania and Patricia Beattie Jung bring into the discussion Thomas Aquinas (and by virtue, Aristotle). Both present a saintly picture of Aquinas as the example for allowing Science to share, in part, in the realm of Religious Authority, at least when it comes to dictating ethics based on observable fact. Dealing with the subject of ‘human flourishing’ and the changing notion of sexual morality inside the Roman Catholic Church, each author separately builds the case the science has and could benefit theological and ethical discussions. There is, without a doubt, a large change which has taken place in the teachings on sexuality by Rome within the past century, even before Vatican II. Both authors trace this, somewhat, to Thomas Aquinas, and indeed, the ancient writer has seen a resurgence in Catholicism lately, and indeed, Christian scholasticism. How far they could bring him, however, is yet to be determined.

Why? Because while the interdisciplinary approach works well, no one has laid the foundation for ‘natural,’ ‘nature,’ and who decided what is ‘natural’ is still morally, theologically, and ethically ‘good.’ While discussing gender roles, the role in which sexual intimacy plays in marriage, and the current role and future of celibacy, we find historical changes, opposition, and flat out refusal to abide by Roman attitudes to such for the past two millennia (even in Rome herself) but these discussions present a stark difference to the current one on homosexuality. While the others have been, at sometimes, heated, homosexuality and the question of ‘if it is natural, is it divinely sanctioned’ is volatile.

The essays are well written, well supported, and provide a great companion to the discussion on-going in many theological realms.