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The Legitimacy Of Violence

While in the abstract, Arendt concedes that the use of force by state actors against its own citizens, such as in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates the collapse of legitimacy, she never addresses the interlocking systems of violence, coercion, and dehumanization that produce a constant state of fear and anger among target populations.  If, for example, the actions of the Ferguson, MO police force in the wake of organized, peaceful protests are illegitimate, what about a police force that is nearly all white in a minority-majority community?  What kind of legitimacy does any police force have among minority communities in the United States, who have a long history of official repression and continue to experience daily humiliations and harassment by the most visible representatives of state power?  In such a situation, is not the question not the wisdom or rationality of a violent response by persons in communities who are exhausted by police harassment, but rather the on-going low-level violence these communities face? – Me, “Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Violence'”, No One Special, August 19, 2014

A torch-wielding mob chanting racist slogans descended on a Charlottesville, Virginia, park Saturday evening, to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

Chanting “All White Lives Matter,” and “No More Brother Wars,” the crowd, which said they were protecting their “white heritage” from the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue in the Virginia town’s park.

They also chanted “You will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend.” Dozens of protesters also brought bamboo tiki torches to a second rally once it became dark out. . . .

No arrests were made and there were no reports of injuries. – Phil McCausland, “White Nationalist Leads Torch-Bearing Protesters Against Removal of Confederate Statue,”, May 15, 2017

White Supremacist Richard Spencer being punched in the face while giving an on-air interview, January 20, 2017. Spencer was the leader of the “protest” in Charlottesville.

I was surprised the other day to see someone recently read and liked my nearly three-year-old post on Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence”. Since my usual habit is not to go back and read old posts, and since I’d completely forgotten writing such a thing in the first place, I decided to give it a read. My general opinion is that it was a pretty average contemporary critique of Arendt’s essay. What surprised me, however, was a quite remarkable, not-fleshed-out set of ideas regarding the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence, particularly in regards to the racist structures of violence and repression that are the American norm. In light of the rise of Trumpism and the emboldened racist fringe, it seems more than ever we need to ask questions regarding the legitimacy of violence as a political tactic, whether on the part of the state or of groups protesting violence against them by the state and those supported by the state.

First, I neither know nor care whether Donald Trump is a bigot. While he talks like a pretty typical clueless, privileged white guy; while he took out a full page ad in The New York Times demanding the death penalty for the young men originally arrested in the Central Park jogger assault, a sentence to be carried out absent any trial; while he pretended not to know or care about the support he received – and continues to enjoy – among members of vocally racist groups; none of this interests me in the least.

What is far more fascinating is that, while such groups certainly became far more visible during the years Barack Obama was President, with Trump they obviously feel free to make their presence far more visible. Trump emboldened racists groups from the Klan to the Nazi’s and so-called “alt-Right” (nothing more than Nazi’s who hide their swastikas), for whom they worked during the Presidential campaign. While certainly never hugely numerous and obviously outside the “mainstream” of our public discourse, the rise in the visibility of these groups has posed problems for those who have tried to think clearly regarding protest and resistance to the Trump Administration.

Nothing exemplifies these troubles more than the reaction to the Inauguration Day assault on neo-Nazi Richard Spence while he gave a television interview on the streets of Washington, DC. Many, including me, saw this act of violence as a fitting response to the very presence of Richard Spencer. Indeed, the phrase “Nazi-punching” has entered our current lexicon thanks to this single act of violent defiance. Many liberals, influenced by the constant talk of “non-violent resistance” and the appeal of moral superiority in the face of intransigent resistance, continue to insist that any violence by those opposed to Trump, his supporters, or his policies is illegitimate. I have read more than one commentator insist that violence in the face of “differing political opinions” in unAmerican.

That last is so grotesque it almost defies comprehension. To make the claim that Nazism, gussied up with some other name but the same filth nevertheless, is a political ideology worthy of respect by anyone is both ignorant and disgusting. People like Richard Spencer embrace the idea of the mass murder of minorties – Jews, African-Americans, sexual minorities, Latinos – and they deserve neither our time nor effort at understanding. While verbal rebuke and rejection are always called-for, physical attacks should be considered a rational response, particularly when such attacks come from members of the very minority communities these racists would prefer disappeared. When white liberals insist that such acts of preemptive violence are inherently illegitimate, they are speaking from a place of privilege, removing a rational and viable response from affected groups to very real threats of violence and death.

There are other matters regarding the matter of violence, particularly the question of the state’s monopoly on violence, raised by last night’s protests in Charlottesville. While the linked article does call the group a “mob”, and note that later in the evening as counter-protests arose there were “scuffles” and the police arrived, that not a single person involved was arrested demonstrates the unequal treatment of racial groups by authorities. In my original essay on Arendt, linked above, I noted that the police response in Ferguson, MO to what were largely peaceful protests against a police department with a history of racism; a police department in a predominantly African-American city  made up of white people; and a police department that was defending the shooting of a community member in a questionable act of self-defense; was beyond any rationally considered response. The famous image of a man facing police in military camouflage armed with automatic weapons exemplifies the police overreaction to peaceful, non-violence protests.

Both the shooting that prompted the protests and the reaction to the protests themselves, not to mention a long history of police harassment of the African-American population of Ferguson, exemplify “systemic racism” in America. It is the archetype of what people mean when discussing the matter of systemic racism in America. While the police in Ferguson outfitted themselves for urban combat, the police in Charlottesville did not. Numerous people were arrested in Ferguson. None were arrested in Charlottesville, despite the protests in Charlottesville being violent and those in Ferguson remaining peaceful.

For people, particularly those not living, say, in Ferguson, MO to speak about the illegitimacy of violence without qualifying that to be the illegitimacy of state violence is to ignore the very real situation our minority communities face on a daily basis. To insist on greater police presence in the face of racist protests and violence in Charlottesville is to demand the state stop deploying its police power only against groups from minority communities while leaving racist whites unbothered by the presence of armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and automatic weapons pointed in their faces. The systemic racism endemic to America, part and parcel of who we are as a country, is riven with violence, both state imposed and state sanctioned. When private groups whose very ideology is violence are not met with the same kind of armed response as peaceful groups of ordinary citizens demanding real justice for their communities, we are confronted with the reality both of systemic racism as well as the reality of state-perpetrated violence to enforce the racist status quo.

While non-violent confrontation with state actors certainly remains a live option for any group, to artificially limit such confrontation in such a way without taking into consideration the uses to which the state puts its monopoly on violence is to ignore the realities many communities face each and every day. As with everything, a consideration of the whole context is necessary, including the already-existing place of violence as a method of social control, before making any judgments regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of violence as a tactic in social protet.

Edmund Burke Was Wrong

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. – Edmund Burke

10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey was lured from a fairground. Brady took nine pornographic photographs of her, showing her naked, bound and gagged. Hindley recorded the scene of the child’s rape and torture on an audio tape. – “Ian Brady and Myra Hindley: Pedophile and Child Killer Couple,” The one thing the article does not mention is that Brady and Hindley would listen to this tape over and over again as foreplay before sex.

If the well-educated are thought to provide the leadership a society needs, that premise is usually connected to the belief that members of professional elites, individually and collectively, exercise  independent, self-critical judgment. Their “objectivity,” in short, saves everyone from the error of self-indulgence and ideological blindness. The case under scrutiny here, unfortunately, does not validate that hope. Speaking denerally, German doctors and lawyers, for instance, were hardly bastions of independence. Rather they were quite prepared to advance Hitler’s authority. The same hold for German educators from the kindergarten to the university. As for scientists and bureaucrats, their dispositions may not have been so ideologically committed as those of many German teachers or as financially motivated as those of the captains of  – German industry, but these professionals also joined their peers in medicine and law to salute the Fuhrer. They did no not always by flocking eagerly to the swastika. Indeed they sometimes resented and even resisted attempts to Nazify their professions. Yet by sticking to the practical, problem-solving rationality that their professional training emphasized, they remained both sufficiently apolitical and nationalistic to suit Hitler’s purposes. – Richard Rubenstein and John Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy, p.231

Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan's long-sought goal to end both Social Security and Medicare in the name of ideological purity will result in the suffering of millions of Americans. Yet no one asks whether or not Ryan or his actions are evil.

Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan’s long-sought goal to end both Social Security and Medicare in the name of ideological purity will result in the suffering of millions of Americans. Yet no one asks whether or not Ryan or his actions are evil.

I’ve seen just a few too many memes and quotes – sometimes approximating Burke’s words – that offer courage to those who sincerely (and rightly) understand the incoming Presidential Administration as inherently socially and morally threatening. It would seem to offer courage in the face of insurmountable odds. It is almost as if it were possible to convince ourselves that, now that the damage has already begun, it might yet be possible to redirect the course of upcoming events.

Nothing could be more wrong.

In the last of his landmark four-volume history of the concept of “the devil” and evil in the Abrahamic faiths, historian Jeffrey Burton Russell wrote:

On the individual level radical evil expresses itself in actions of unfathomable cruelty. The closest we get to the reality of evil is our own direct experience of evil in ourselves and in others. (p. 17)

I take issue with the qualifier “radical” to describe a particular kind of evil. Our focus on the sensationalistic aspects of the worst crimes and most horrific events – the murderous sadism of serial killers; genocide in Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria – blinds us to the far more dangerous and insidious aspect of evil: It is, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her narrative and analysis of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, far more banal than anything else.

Indeed, Eichmann’s example is instructive on so many levels, we should consider it for a moment. I hardly imagine in the course of his day-to-day life during his time as a Nazi Administrator Eichmann thought of himself as an evil person. I’m sure neither his friends nor family would have agreed with such a description. He was, after all, just doing his job.

After the war, however, Eichmann had to become aware of the meaning of his participation in the destruction of eastern European Jewry. Why else would he have fled to South America, changed his name, and needed to be kidnapped by Israeli agents rather than legally pursued through extradition. As Arendt notes throughout her narrative, however, Eichmann never seems to show any particular sense of guilt, remorse, of responsibility for his participation in mass murder. He is conscious that the events happened; he refuses to attach a moral label to his actions precisely because, like the rest of modern humanity – lulled to a kind of moral numbness by the sheer size and weight of our modern and post-modern society – his moral sense has shrunk to the point that only radical evil, particularly of a given individual, is the only real expression of evil that seems to make any sense.

When German soldiers in occupied Belgium during the First World War would round up random citizens and execute them in groups of fifty or one hundred in attempts to stem the tide of resistance, they did not believe they were being evil; on the contrary, they were doing nothing more than carrying out the orders of soldiers during war. When British and American bombers caused firestorms in cities like Dresden or American bombers did so in Tokyo, or dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; when American soldiers in Vietnam cut the ears of dead peasants and hung them as trophies on their uniforms; when ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzogivina rounded up Muslims and put them in concentration camps; as we sit and watch as humanity’s oldest city dies in real time before the whole world; neither they nor we could ever imagine any moral judgment to befall us. We insulate ourselves from the moral consequences of our actions and inactions by appending that qualifier “radical” to evil, stripping it of any real meaning or moral force.

Now, however, as we in the United States ready ourselves for what will surely be four or perhaps eight years of rapacious, plutocratic, nepotistic government actions that strip the poorest of protections against poverty and disease; that eliminate the balance between our needs for natural resources and the desire to maintain public lands in the public interest; as we foolishly and ignorantly and simultaneously taunt and befriend the wrong foreign nations; all this and some seem to be calling what is happening by its name. In so doing, at least some seem to believe they are making either an insightful or courageous moral insight. Just as the nonsensical right-wingers a decade and a half ago claiming that “liberals” didn’t understand evil because we weren’t joining their chorus of condemning Islam as evil, however, these self-appointed arbiters of our public moral discourse now demand we all join together and denounce Pres,-elect Trump, the most radical of his followers, his cabinet appointments and resist each and all attempts by the incoming Administration and the Republican-led Congress to act on their convictions. As if, somehow, any of what we are seeing is either new or even worse in some moral sense than what we’ve seen from Republican politicians in power for a half-century.

Burke was wrong because, like so many, Burke missed the fact that evil isn’t just sadistic, sociopathic pedophiles torturing children for their own sexual gratification. It isn’t just the mass murder of an entire group of human beings simply because they exist. Evil is far smarter, far more intelligent, and thus far more capable than good as insinuating itself into our public (and private) lives. Many people believe it is good politics, for example, to oppose the elimination of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid. Actually, it isn’t good politics, and right now the most vocal (and let’s face it, it isn’t numbers that count in mass society, but the loudest voices) among us are indeed demanding their elimination. The fact is the eliminating these three public policies and social practices will not only condemn the ill, the poor, and the elderly to further impoverishment. It will kill thousands of our fellow Americans. To support such policies, it seems to me, is by any definition evil. Yet I have yet to read anyone call it that with any seriousness.

Consider, as another example, Trump’s ignorant and destructive actions in regards our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. He accepts a phone call from the President of Taiwan, a country that exists on paper yet in no real legal sense. When the Chinese protest, he insults them further, heightening the tensions between China and the United States, with the Chinese now threatening to “teach” Trump how to treat the PRC with the proper respect. This is dangerous on many levels precisely because Trump has yet to demonstrate either a willingness or ability to grasp even the basic necessities and complexities of international affairs. In so doing he threatens not just a general sense that, while always somewhat tense, our relations with other countries can continue in their courses; he threatens real destabilization and war on multiple fronts. This isn’t just Trump being bad at diplomacy. This isn’t just his ignorance and the ignorance of his most vocal cheerleaders creating a situation which becomes more dangerous with each passing day. This is evil unfolding before us, evil that threatens not just our relations with other countries, including other major military powers, but a peace that is always fragile and tentative.

The majority of America did not want Donald Trump as their President. Even more Americans are unhappy with how he is assembling his Cabinet and the policies proposed both by them and the incoming Republican majorities in Congress. This majority, I would venture, are correct on the politics. They are not, however, correct on the depth of moral depravity we face. Were this simply a matter of political disagreement – a general consensus on ends; differences in means – their might yet be the ability to stem the tide not just of political disaster that awaits us but social and moral disaster as well. We have past the tipping point where the voices of moral order can be effective.

The insidiousness and pervasiveness of evil in our society has reached the point where, it seems to me, too few are able to recognize it in its most public, visible, and mundane form. We understand the crash is coming, and that it will be terrible. What we have forgotten is this has been decades in the making. Even if we as a society were successful in somehow “doing something”, the evil in us and among us is far too widespread for any sense that it can our even could be defeated enough to prevent pain, suffering, and even the deaths of thousands if not millions. The best the best among us can do is prepare ourselves to comfort the afflicted until the crash is over, the dust settles, and we all try to pick up the pieces.

In Defense Of Scottie Nell Hughes

[The sum total of the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial is that] no one except four people—one duly executed by lethal injection, another in jail for the rest of his life, a third sentenced to 12 years and a fourth granted immunity—had anything to do with creating the political context of antigovernment rage that made the bombing possible.

This denial is how a childlike nation gets past trauma. It demonstrates how unprepared our nation is for the trauma about to be visited upon it. – Rick Perlstein, “The Rush To Normalize Trump”, In These Times, Dec. 2, 2016

“I’m sure you’ve heard James Fallows talk about lies that Donald Trump has put out there in tweets, in things he’s said. What do you think about that?” [NPR radio host Dianne] Rehm asked.

Hughes responded that the existence of truth itself was dubious, and that the veracity of Trump’s tweets depended upon whether the person assessing them liked Trump. – Matt Shuham, “Trump Surogate’s Jaw-Dropping Claim: ‘No Such Thing’ As Facts Anymore,” Talking Points Memo, Dec. 2, 2016

It was Jacques Ellul, French sociologist and radical/anrachist Christian, who first drew attention to the idolatry of facts in the post-WWII era. No one, it seems, paid much attention to him.

It was Jacques Ellul, French sociologist and radical/anarchist Christian, who first drew attention to the idolatry of facts in the post-WWII era. No one, it seems, paid much attention to him.

It was a story that passed among liberals, with the usual clueless commentary. For example, on the original TPM post, daveyjones64 wrote in part, “And we all better believe that this is indeed going to be their playbook for the entirety of his time in the White House.” How sad would this commenter be if I pointed out that every Presidential Administration uses this same “playbook”. Usually, we call it by other names like “spin” or “just politics”. What it really is, however, is placing more faith in how people perceive and understand the world than anything “real” like “facts”.

Then, of course, there’s the inevitable recollection of Karl Rove’s “Empire’s create their own reality” statement, dutifully recalled by commenter 26degrees rising. It’s almost as if Rove’s clear-eyed statement of Imperial Truth that’s as old as humanity were some horrible incantation of the devil.

I’ve avoided most news and commentary since the election for a variety of reasons both private and otherwise. There is so much noise out there and I had zero interest in adding to it. Seeing this story linked in a FB friend’s timeline (the above-quoted historian, Rick Perlstein, to be exact) that piqued my interest. It was the headline, with it’s “I’m heading for the fainting couch” business calling Hughes statement “jaw-dropping”. It is neither jaw-dropping nor even new. Of course facts are malleable things, visible only from where one chooses to see and hear. This entire election season was an object lesson in how two incompatible views of the world, when meeting, talk past one another, treating the one another both with contempt and disdain.

As a for instance, let us consider some of the “big” facts governing our national life on social, cultural, and political planes. White supremacy – is it true or false? There is no doubt it has been part of our founding and expanding creed; it’s even enshrined in the original language of the Constitution.  Is it or is it not a fact? That a particular species of capitalism is not only a preferable socio-economic organizing principle, but superior in principle to any and all others. Gotta tell ya, folks, I’ve never bought this one, and I know lots of other people who don’t either. Yet at least since the decade or so after the Civil War up until today, this was unquestioned and unquestionable. Even the socialist and communist revolutions did nothing to sway America from its insistence on its own inherent superiority; to be a true-believing socialist or communist was to be incoherent. It still is, particularly since the Establishment has decreed the anti-Soviet counter-revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 marked the end of communism as a viable socio-economic alternative.

Those are just two examples of “facts” that have been part of our national ethos for decades, even centuries. Is it at all possible to be shocked when someone says that “facts” really don’t exist? Much of this election season, people spent entirely too much time showing one another “facts” that fit their own ideological preferences, with no one quite realizing just how futile a practice it really was. Whether it was the “fact” that Hillary Clinton was personally responsible for the deaths of four diplomats and support staff in the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on our consulate, or the “fact” that Donald Trump was a misogynist demonstrated by his many demeaning comments about women, we posted them on social media, demanding others respond to what the poster’s clearly believed was an unanswerable charge. Thus it is that we Americans became a people divided by a common language; while ostensibly sounding the same, it was clear there were many words that meant very different things depending upon where one chose to sit.

Way back in 1948, French sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote what is really quite an unbelievable little book. Entitled The Presence Of The Kingdom, it was a kind of radical Christian manifesto, marking off up and coming ideological and material threats to true freedom. Listing propaganda a the rise of “technics” (Ellul would go on to write two well-received books on both these topics), the rise and spread of Islam, and the creation of institutions titularly  for social betterment but rather to be used for social control. Among the things he wrote was a marvelous musing on “the fact”:

Now, however, we have the right to ask: “What is the general motive which – at the present time – leads man to this blindness about the world in which he lives?” There is no doubt the most powerful motive – which weighs upon us like an interdict, the motive which prevents us from questioning the elements of this civilization, and from starting on the road leading to this necessary revolution – is our respect for facts. It is well known that in other civilizations men did not respect facts to the same extent, nor did they conceive facts in the same way. At the present time the fact – whatever it is – the established fact, is the final reason, the criterion of truth. All that is a fact is justified, because it is a fact. People think that they have no right to judge a fact – all they have to do is to accept it.

Thus from the moment that technics, the State, or production, are facts, we must worship the as facts, and we must try to adapt ourselves to them. This is the very heart of modern religion, the religion of the established fact, the religion on which depend the lesser religions of the dollar, race, or the proletariat which are only expressions of the great modern divinity, the Moloch of fact. (p.27, emphases in original)

As long as people knew they had the facts on their side – Hillary Clinton is a lying crook; Donald Trump is a lying pig – there was little else others should do except acquiesce in the face of the facts. That this didn’t happen isn’t because one group or another is stupid, uneducated, delusional, or otherwise impaired from judging the “correctness” of the facts presented, although far too often that’s how we tend to speak of these things. On the contrary, facts were and continue to be irrelevant for the same reasons facts have never been all that interesting: One person’s fact is another person’s statement of something so “jaw-dropping” it’s impossible to believe anyone could believe and act upon such a ludicrous statement. Except, of course, name for me a single social group in human history that didn’t act upon what we now consider the most “dubious” of “facts”.

One example that always comes to my mind is one described by T. S. Kuhn. After inventing the telescope and seeing, among other things, far more stars than were visible to the naked eye, the four large moons of Jupiter and their revolutions about it, and much else, he was challenged by ecclesiastical authority as to the truthfulness of his claims. First, Galileo’s theory of optics, upon which the workings of his telescope were based, were both relatively new and hardly accepted by most people for whom such things were known. For every claim of what Galileo said he saw through his telescope, there was a perfectly reasonable, coherent, and – this is most important – accepted set of facts that explained them without overthrowing the church-preferred earth-centered cosmos. We may insist that Galileo was right because he had facts on his side; the truth is, however, the Church had far more facts on its side, facts accepted within a time-worn and well-tested set of physical assumptions about the Universe God had created. Thus Galileo was not only “wrong”; he had no “real facts” to support his claims.

We are far too entranced by our own sense of ourselves as sensible people for whom facts determine what is and is not real to realize just how fragile is that “reality”, just how contingent and malleable are those facts upon which we confidently rest our minds, and that when distinct views of the world clash – clashes far more dangerous than between any religion or political ideology – we wind up with incommensurable realities living side by side.

Which one survives? That’s a question of power, now isn’t it. It certainly doesn’t depend upon any facts.

The “T” Word: A Response To John Meunier

In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth? – John Meunier, “Do We Have More Than ‘My Truth’?”, United Methodist Insight, July 17, 2015


Personally, I agree with Richard Rorty that questions of truth are not so much wrong-headed as uninteresting. Because “reality” is opaque to language – because many of our arguments over the truth-value of science are, in essence, arguments over wor’ds about reality, not reality itself – and because there is no meta-lingusitic judge to which all can appeal for the correctness of one’s view, we end up arguing over definitions. More interesting are the ways we figure out, through language, story, and our readings of various texts, how to live in the world. There is nothing special about “truth”, nothing talismanic, nothing final, nothing ultimate to the view that, if we grasp the truth, we have a hold of something that definitively addresses all sorts of matters. – Me, “On Truth”, March 17, 2007


Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ – John 14:6


In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

I had made a resolution to myself that I wasn’t going to “go after” other writer’s expressed views. My goal was and is to be positive, to present a particular set of options that promote discussion, or at the very least thought. Reading John Meunier’s article at United Methodist Insight, however, seemed to offer me an opportunity to say – what turns out to be again – something that is central to how I live. My eight-year-old post, linked above, says much and it would probably be easiest to copy and paste it here. To be fair to Rev. Meunier, however, I need to deal with the specifics of what he wrote in order to make the points I wish to make. Furthermore, I’m not “going after” John at all. I am, rather, offering a different perspective, one I believe offers something fruitful for the Church in its struggles. And I will apologize here and now because some of what follows will be a bunch of philosophical and theological mumbo-jumbo. I do hope I can present what I want to say clearly and intelligibly. If I don’t, it isn’t because the concepts are difficult; it’s because I’m a lousy writer.

Meunier’s musings on the difference between truth and opinion cover familiar ground: Plato gets a shout-out, of course, as well as the United Methodist Articles of Religion. In the midst of his discussion, however, are assumptions that are both rarely spoken aloud as well as, lets be honest, pretty parochial. We in the West have multiple traditions regarding matters regarding “truth”, and while Plato certainly offered one answer, he was hardly the first and definitely not the last. In the mid-20th century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger taught a course in which he offered the view that, in fact, much of the western tradition of metaphysics is rooted in the distinct opinions of two men who taught centuries before Plato: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus is remembered among philosophers for his dictum, “No one steps in the same river twice.” The only constants are change, which brings conflict. Nothing is ever settled, even human identity. Parmenides, however, insisted precisely the opposite is the case: all that is exists as a single, dimensionless whole. There is no distinction between things; there is only this singularity, both infinite and infinitesimal. This, for Parmenides, is “truth”. Our human inability either to perceive or understand this is the result of “opinion”. Thus, for Heidegger, was born our western obsession with “truth”.

Much of our tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not, follows Parmenides. The kind of unity of which he spoke was rooted in the assumption that, to all questions there is now and can only ever be a single correct answer. Pushing this assumption to its logical conclusion, then, Parmenides insisted that not just truth but existence itself is undifferentiated, a single Being that is indistinguishable within itself, yet also imperceptible, leading to differences of opinion and the (false) perception of movement and change.

Recently, however, the idea that some “thing” called “truth”, a property that inheres in particular words, sentences, and texts, has not so much been attacked as it has been set aside. This isn’t a matter of “relativism” as it is too often portrayed. Rather, it is a matter of people finding far more interesting questions to ask about how it is we human beings work out living in a world we now understand to be governed by the theories of quantum physics and general relativity as well as the theory of evolution. Philosophy no longer has dominion over questions that science addresses both more clearly and more definitively. That leaves philosophers wondering less about things like being and truth and more about how best to be human and negotiate our differences in ways that are fruitful for all of us.

Richard Rorty, the most prolific and clear proponent of this view, offered the following justification for his life-long philosophical project: In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant asked whether there was really something called “being” that humans could discern and understand. Did “being” add anything to our understanding of really existing things? Rorty asks the same question about “truth”: Does the idea that a sentence is “true” add anything to that sentence that wasn’t there before? Do human beings react differently to sentences that are “true” than to those that are not “true”? Like Kant, Rorty’s “No” didn’t so much end discussion as become fruitful for a completely different set of questions, questions about how human beings structure what Rorty called their webs of belief, adding and subtracting particular words and sentences to their stories over time. For Rorty, this offered fruitful thought and discussion about negotiating differences among stories, understanding different sentences as important to some while meaningless to others. Bridging that gap is the philosopher’s – and the poet’s, and the novelist’s – task.

For Meunier to set to one side centuries of skeptical discussion over the concept of “truth” – really from William Ockham through Hume up to the analytical philosophers and pragmatists – is misleading, to say the least. It is uncomfortable to assent to the idea that a word as important as “truth” should probably be set aside. All the same, particularly at a time in our United Methodist Church’s history when all sides in our conflicts brandish truth about like cudgels and swords, I think it would be far better for all of us if we accepted the emptiness of “truth” as a philosophical category worthy of any attention.

As for the theology of the matter, the famous quote from St. John’s gospel above is the starting point for any Christian attempt to define “Truth”. Truth is not a quality of facts or sentences. It isn’t something that inheres in things or words. It certainly isn’t something we human beings can “have”, or at least some of us can have and others can lack. Truth, for Christians, is the Person of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Truth isn’t a thing. It isn’t something that exists within particular words or phrases. It most definitely is not something we sinful mortals can ever claim to have. On the contrary, truth is a Person, a distinct, specific, individual Person whose ministry, passion, and resurrection are not “truths” to which we assent. Rather this Person in and through these events grasps us in our lives and define us. The Christian churches are not truth-tellers. The Christian churches are those communities who believe themselves in the hold of Truth, a Truth to be shared with the world in word and deed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.

To understand Christian truth in this way offers us a way forward through the morass of arguments and difference our Social Principles call us to recognize without allowing such differences to create barriers to community. To understand Christian truth as Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, is to understand ourselves as sinners even while we declare ourselves redeemed. As such, the Truth bridges the gap within our lives, offering us the opportunity to share the Good News without worrying overmuch about whether or not our words are true.

Theological truth as an inherent quality of the words of our proclamation disappears in a puff of air when we understand our Truth is Jesus Christ who saves us. That is the basis of our Social Principles, as well as the acknowledgement of our many differences. It is the heart of who we are as Church, as the people called Methodist. It is how we will continue to live and move and have our being once our current worries and conflicts have passed.

Thinking We Understand Without Thinking

I was trying to see if I understand what the commenter meant by “love relationship.” As you know, the English word “love” has three or four Greek equivalents. – FB comment, Sunday, June 28, 2015


This morning I commented on this Roland Martin post –

“It trips me out how mainstream media is stunned to see what a Black homegoing service is like. I’m listening to @JoeNBC talk about Friday.”

I simply said –

“And it’s this failure to understand Black culture at a level deeper than hearsay, stereotypes, bad movie representations, and sound bites, which is a significant part of the problem.”

Of course, it’s nice if a few people “like” your comment, but I must have struck a chord, because I’ve had 46 likes so far today. I also had one disagreeing reply –

“I disagree! ‘Mainstream’ media is well aware of our culture and who we are; that is the problem!! Don’t assume they don’t understand us!”

I didn’t respond. Didn’t think it would be productive and also didn’t think it’d be appropriate in Roland’s thread.

However, I think the main stream media doesn’t get us of the darker persuasion. They imagine us against the prevailing dominant narrative and try to reconcile us to that narrative, but they don’t get us. – FB, Darren Joseph Elzie (used with permission)


Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall. Some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market. McNamara created the TFX and the Edel. Churches possess the real world. But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists. . . .

The massive volume of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians in a network od theories has contribute substantially to the invisibility of Indian people today. After all, who can conceive of a food-gathering, berry-picking, semi-nomadic, fire-worshiping, high-plains-and-mountain-dwelling, horse-riding, canoe-toting, bead-using, pottery-making, ribbon-coveting, wickiup-sheltered people who began flourishing when Alfred Frump mentioned them in 1803 in his great wor n Indians entitled Our Feathered Friends as real?

Not even Indians can relate themselves to this type of creature who, to anthropologists, is the “real” Indian. Indian people began to eel that they are merely shadows of a mythical super-Indian. Many anthros spare no expence to reinforce this sense of inadequacy in order to further suppor their influence over Indian people. – Vine Deloria, Custer Died For Your Sins, pp.78, 81-82


A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed "Linear A". It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed “Linear A”. It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

One of the great conceits of Western Civilization (such as it is) is that we understand. Since the ancient Greeks first started arguing whether the world was made up of fire or earth or water; since Heraclitus and Parmenides offered contrasts between the reality of constant change and the illusion of constant change; since Plato insisted ours is a world reflective of perfect, geometric forms while his pupil insisted that forms were real things that gave reality to indistinct matter; all of this, when rediscovered in the 10th and 11th centuries, offered the West a vision of itself as those who seek to understand.

The success of our varied attempts to understand the world, using a particular method that means knowledge has led to the sprouting of all sorts of ways to understand. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science all claim to observe “the scientific method” as their practitioners go about the grunt work of gathering data, testing hypotheses, creating theories, all with the goal of understanding how we live, how other societies live, how societies now dead and gone lived, and how the human “mind” – whatever that may or may not be – operates.

Biblical studies have been no less prone to the attractiveness of understanding. With the growth of philology, historical and linguistic tools were used to take fresh looks at the Biblical texts. As theologians and philosophers, following Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Dilthey and others, discovered the necessity first of acknowledging the gap between these ancient texts and current reality, which necessitated a second move they called “hermeneutics” – interpretation in which text and current reality meet and inform one another – as a tool for “correct understanding” of what scholars increasingly understood to be opaque, often poorly edited, ancient texts. The spread of varieties of Biblical criticism has created rival schools of thought as how best to read, understand, and (most important) apply this understanding to our lives. It is more than a little bewildering.


Science is a great tool for getting at how the world works. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that success led people to misunderstand what was going on. Folks like Immanuel Kant (for example) thought that science was so successful because it arrived at truth. For a philosopher, that didn’t leave much space for what he was up to, which is why he wrote three extremely opaque, dense, partially unreadable volumes on what was left to philosophy to do. Truth was the province of the sciences; things like how we know, what are the good and beautiful, these more or less rest upon ways the mind interprets and understands (see that word again?) the world. Precisely because reason leaves the mind with what Kant called “antinomies” – contradictions due to the unfalsifiability of their premises – the best thing for philosophy to do was figure out how science gets at what’s really true.

All those words, all that valuable brain-time, and Kant never got that science works so well only because it is limited both in the questions it can ask and how successfully it can answer those questions. There’s nothing magical, certainly nothing metaphysically special about science. It’s just a tool, an extension of what human beings have been doing for tens of thousands of years to survive. Our survival depends upon our understanding the world. Once upon a time that meant figuring out an animal’s habitual movements, when bet to hunt, etc. Now, it’s about whether we can know both what an elementary particle’s position and spin are simultaneously (the answer continues to be no, by the way). Understanding is great. It also has its limits. The temptation to truth continues unabated.


When I was in Seminary, a good friend of mine and I were talking about the on-going AIDS epidemic. This was at a time when the death toll and infection rate continued to be staggering. He mentioned that there were troubles within the deaf gay community, partly ones of understanding, partly of trust, due to an inability to communicate properly as well as deaf person’s wariness regarding the hearing population. I sat and pondered not so much the ways these people continued to face obstacles in getting information that would protect them; rather I pondered that there was such a thing as a community of deaf gay folks who faced their own unique struggles distinct both from other deaf folk and other gay folk. My ignorance didn’t render such a community unreal; it just made me ignorant.

Seminary was a time I came to understand just how limited my understanding of the world really was. Reading James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation was, the first time, a trial. I found him and his work to be unnecessarily hostile; I found his tone confrontational rather than inviting. After all, I thought, he was writing in the wake of the reality of Martin Luther King, Jr.! It was only when I realized, with something like revelation, that I was being offered the opportunity to see the world through a set of eyes that weren’t blue, from a skin that wasn’t white, within a history filled with dehumanization and death at the hands of a system bent on violence that I understood Cone. From that moment, I realized I had to set to one side what I thought I knew about the world. I know more knew stuff about the world than I could waltz. All I had was my own fairly limited, extremely limited perspective. The work of Cone, of Gustavo Gutierrez, of Mary Daly, of historians like Henry Louis Gates, of sociologists like my own sociology of religion professor James Shopshire while providing new understandings, were even more a precious gift: the gift to see the world from different angles, places the light refracted in strange ways and lives were lived that were fully human yet so different I could only consider with awe the simple ability to exist within a larger framework bent on diminishing these people (and others like them) and their accomplishments.


One of the conceits of Biblical theology is that understanding the original languages of Scripture offer a unique understanding of the authors and their worlds. Contemporary understandings of language as historical artifacts rooted in real, historical communities hold as one of their theses that understanding another language – living or dead – offers an understanding of the society and culture that speaks or spoke it. A corollary, of course, is that “translation” is never a one-for-one match up between words in one language and words in another. Something as simple as “chair” in English does not have a correspondent across other human languages. Our word “chair” is embedded within a history of designations of particular pieces of furniture and their development; of skilled wood craft work; of distinct types of chairs and the uses to which they’re put. Knowing “chair” is “silla” in Spanish, “stuhl” in German, and “karekla” in Greek doesn’t offer readers the history of the word, how it relates to other words and other historical and cultural and social developments within those language-users. Believing that it does is one of the great misconceptions of our time, leading to all sorts of problems.

One of the best known, and over-used, bits of knowledge regarding the koine Greek of the New Testament is that the Greeks had three different words that correspond to the English word “love”. These are usually understood as “philia”, the kind of love that friends share; “agape”, or the selfless, self-giving love often demonstrated between persons with far deeper bonds; and, finally, “eros” usually considered as physical or sexual love. All this is true as far as it goes. I am quite sure philologists and specialists in Biblical language understand that these simple – and simplistic – equations hide all sorts of nuance and variety, that the words reflect no only distinct understandings rooted both in Greek thought as well as social practice but subtleties that are, by and large, opaque. Translation, we are often reminded, is interpretation, leaving the depth, the shadows shooting this way and that, of the original largely unseen and ungrasped.

We in early 21st century America face the daunting reality that our majority society and culture just doesn’t understand the variety of sub-cultures; we don’t understand how they see us, how they see the larger society, or even that they exist at all. We in the majority take for granted that whiteness, maleness, and religious Protestantism (both secularized and sacred) are the norm to which others “naturally” conform. When we discover this is not the case, the usual reaction is confusion. Why don’t women or black folk, our Native populations or the fast growing Latino population see the world the way do, or at least begin to conform to that way of understanding and living? Mutual mistrust and misunderstanding, fear and anger, and social and cultural acceptance of violence as a reaction to difference continue as barriers to working through our social pathologies.

With this being the case for people who work together, live side by side, worship together, do business with one another, I continue to wonder at how it is possible we believe it possible to understand a society buried under 2000 and more years of dirt and dust. How, for example, can we insist we understand the practices and relationships bound by words like “philia”, “agape”, and “eros”? How does that claim make these words meaningful for us – by far the more important question when appropriating Biblical texts?

At what point do we acknowledge that our understanding of other human societies, both contemporaneous and long in the past, is limited; that as much as we can learn about them, there will always be an opaqueness about them? When will we acknowledge, when it comes to reading and understanding and appropriating Biblical texts as sources for our current living, we should honor our ignorance as much as our understanding, remember the very real human lives hidden behind words whose fullness we will never understand? I mean, we living here in Rockford, IL refuse to understand the lives of folks who live a few miles away from us across the river; why do we think we understand the world of the authors of the Bible?

Sketching Out Thoughts

Before I begin, let me just say that I feel about my writing much the way young Pink must feel when his teacher finds his poetic scribblings.  “The laddie reckons himself a poet!”  Well, I don’t reckon myself a poet.  What I do consider – “Absolute rubbish, laddie!” – is not only that what I’m doing is well-covered territory, and that others have done so far better than I ever could.  That is often why I reach some point where I think, “Today I’m going to sit down and start,” and then I realize, (a) there really aren’t any new ideas; (b) repeating, badly, what others have done well will leave me like young Pink.  Absolute rubbish.

All the same, I trundle on.

After backing up yesterday, I thought today I’d back up even further.  In much the way most theses and dissertations begin with what is called “a literature review”, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the student has actually done some work, I thought I’d do a quick review not so much of what I’ve read, but of what I’ve learned – or at least tried to learn – from what I’ve read, and what direction that might mean for where I go from here, if anywhere.


It has been my position, in all the various iterations of my blogging life, that the things about which I write aren’t all that big a deal.  I don’t believe there is or should be any special benefit attached to being able to read something then regurgitate it; that’s a “skill” we all learned in school.  I have encountered some along the way who agree, and therefore take the position there is no need to continue to read and learn throughout life.  On the other hand, I’ve encountered those along the way who disagree strongly, insisting there is something special about being able to read and regurgitate.  I guess that whole Methodist via media thing is such a part of my makeup that I sit right in the middle of these positions.

Encountering particular specialized academic vocabularies can be a pain in the butt.  I’m not speaking for the moment of the mathematics of the sciences, although they certainly count.  The humanities, in an effort to create an aura of importance and specialization, while also emulating some of the big names from the past who were horrible writers, have decided that the best way to make something sound important is (a) write poorly; (b) create a specialized vocabulary so that only the initiated can really get what everyone’s talking about.  While philosophy and theology aren’t the worst offenders (I’d leave that to literary criticism and semiotics), they are certainly guilty of making what was once clear opaque in an effort to do nothing more than look intelligent.

Musicology, too, is not immune to this.  Furthermore, the analytical attention to musical detail, while certainly important, cannot be separated from the human beings who created the sounds in the first place.  Music is not a “thing”, like a rock for geologists to examine, or some new species of frog or bird to be dissected.  Music is a wholly human, artificial creation.  The person who created it had will, intentionality, intellect, a past, lived within a particular historical period that made the sounds that person either within a particular creative stream, in opposition to it, or outside the then-reigning categories of understanding (although never wholly outside them; that would only produce unintelligible noise).  Attention to the sounds themselves, as musicologist Allan F. Moore has said, is necessary to understanding how music functions.  At the same time, it is necessary to understand that all music – even that previously understood as “absolute” – is functional.  It serves a musical purpose; it serves an aesthetic purpose; it serves a social purpose.  All of these need to be understood, both individually and together, if any sense is to be made of how particular pieces of music function both for the composer and the intended audience.

Yet academic musicology has been chained to the idea that art is, at its core, meaningless as to function.  To inquire as to the function of The Birth of Venus is like asking about the social implications of cat bathing, so this point of view would insist.  To which I can only respond, if that is the case, then why waste any intellectual effort understanding it if it has no purpose other than to exist?  The usual response, of course, is that aesthetic pleasure is a uniquely human characteristic; understanding particular instances of what humans consider beautiful – painting, sculpture, architecture, music – is a way of understanding what it is to be human.  Which is why it is called “the humanities”.

Academic theology, no less than musicology, is wed to an idea of theological discourse that, for all the protestations to the contrary, combines abstruse terminology with the reality that the history of the faith is contained in multiple languages from multiple periods in history.  Is it a sign of honesty or intellectual integrity that some theologians often transcribe quotes in their original language (since all translations are, in a sense, interpretations)?  Or is it a sign of showing off?  How does it further the church’s mission of understanding when so much of what passes for theology, either deliberately or by some attempt to mimic other academic disciplines, becomes indecipherable and unintelligible?

If learning, whatever it may be, serves no function other than to have academics chat among themselves, then we aren’t actually learning.  The best academics connect even the strangest, most esoteric things to our everyday lives.  Consider physicists who, when questioned about the “relevance” of quantum experimentation, point to everything from our current computers to the future with possible quantum computing, quantum communications – all that “spooky action at a distance” might actually revolutionize human life and civilization.  The humanities, however, seem to prefer esotericism to a connection with human life.

For over a year now, I’ve been thinking about what it would be like, what it might mean, to expand the repertoire of church and liturgical music to include so-called “secular” music.  I’ve had to read through a whole lot of texts on music, music theory, music and theology, liturgy, the philosophy of music, and consider what music is, qua music.  I’ve also had to consider what our corporate worship is, not only as a human social reality but a theological concept lived out in all the varieties it continues to have around the world.  I have listened to complaints about everything from blasphemy to pastors with too much to do already, and now I’m asking them to try and educate their congregations about music?  I’ve had to wonder about the relative importance of what it is I’m doing.  After all, in the scheme of things, particularly the Christian life, what songs we sing in worship isn’t quite up there with our primary mission (at least in The United Methodist Church) to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions that moving forward is important.  I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions about why it is important.  I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions about the challenges and opportunities such a change would create.  I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions as to the narrow view of the secular/sacred divide, the principle of acceptability, and how our theology and our worship life is impoverished by this narrow view, particularly when we are to live out a call to be open to all.

I’ve also concluded that all of it is neither new, interesting, nor would excite most people.  Yet, as I wrote the other day, in the words of Rev. Diana Facemeyer, what we do is the most important thing in the world.  If we aren’t convinced of this, then what the hell are we doing in church?  There are better things we could do on Sunday mornings, not least of them sleeping in.  As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, we have been given a Spirit of courage.  So even if what I have to think and say is repetitious, boring, and irrelevant to most people, I don’t think it is.  In fact, nothing is more important than this: creating worship times and events that are expansive, inclusive, and erase all the barriers, including the secular/sacred barrier, that we human beings have erected that are stumbling blocks for far too many people.  It may be rubbish.  But, it’s my rubbish, goddammit, and I’m not ashamed of it.

Hymnody As Social Practice

“Heavy metal” now denotes a variety of musical discourses,  social practices, and cultural meaning, all of which revolve around concepts, images, and experiences of power.  The loudness and intensity of heavy metal music visibly empower fans, whose shouting and headbanging testify to the circulation of energy at concerts.  Metal energizes the body, transforming space and social relations.  The visual language of the metal album covers and the spectacular stage shows offer larger-than-life images tied to fantasies of social power, just as in the more prestigious musical spectacles of opera.  The clothing and hairstyle of metal fans, as much as the music itself, mark social spaces from concert halls to bedroom to streets, claiming them in the name of a heavy metal community.  And all of these aspects of power provoke strong reactions from those outside heavy metal, including fear and censorship. – Robert Walser, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, p.2


The social interpretation of light and, in the final analysis, of all music is faced  by the one central question: what method is it to employ to avoid, still further presumption in methodology of the ambiguity of the static state of nature – in the components of drives – and of dynamic historical quality – in its social function.  If music, as it has done up to the present, is to escape the schematism of individual psychology, if the most elementary of its effects presupposes a concrete social condition of which it offers a tendentious indication, and if nature itself does not appear in music other than in historic images, then the material character of music might offer an indication that dialectical materialism might not answer the “question” about the relation of nature and history, but that it might rather contribute to the elimination of this question both in theory and praxis. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Social Situation of Music,” in Richard Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p. 433

I suppose I’m backtracking a bit.  After a day spent wondering where to take my reflections from my experience on Sunday at Christ The Carpenter UMC, I’ve also been struggling with what probably shouldn’t be a struggle: What should I read?  While I suppose I should continue with Taylor’s A Secular Age, the truth is the “story” he is telling is one with which I’m overtly familiar; he tells it in much the way I would tell it, first breaking the constituent parts then reassembling them to give the reader a picture of the historical movement.  For me, this is well-worn territory, and in all honesty, I’m bored with yet another presentation of something that is as familiar to me as as the clothes I wear.  So, I wonder: What next?

I picked up Robert Walser’s ground-breaking study of Heavy Metal music and was skimming the early pages when the paragraph quoted above leaped out at me.  In a moment, while I hadn’t resolved what I wanted to read next – for all its importance as the first serious musicological study of Heavy Metal; for the way Walser incorporates both social and cultural theory in his analysis both of the music and what another musicologist, writing about British Progressive Rock, Edward Macan, calls the music’s “taste public” (a term I find far more satisfying than “fan”), it is now over 20 years old, dated in its references, and doesn’t include the way the “unity” of the style shattered in the 1990’s even as it morphed in its public presentation – I knew that I had to go back and talk a bit about what music is.  All the important texts I have read over the past several years have wrestled with this most basic question.  Some have been totally absorbed by it, such as This Is Your Brain On Music, which looks at the neurophysiology of music production and reception (as well as the distinctions between those parts of music that exist “out there” in the real world and those parts of music that are wholly produced by how our brain interprets particular types of physical stimuli).  It became clear to me, reading that paragraph from Walser that I  had to discuss the function of music in Church, precisely because our diverse preferences for styles of church music, hymnody, and gospel music are less reflective of reductionist descriptions of the sounds themselves (although these are important and can never be ignored).  Indeed, the distinctions and preferences of individuals and congregations are far more easily, and interestingly, explained by the social function particular musical style play for those who prefer them.  Any attempt to introduce theologically interesting music from outside what is acceptable as “church music” is as much a matter of confronting changing social functions (sometimes radically) as it is personal or congregational preferences for one style over another.

Thus it is that I drag Adorno along to remind us both of the social reality and function of music, as well as the limitations not only of his own particular vantage point, but the limitations of a solely social understanding of music.  For music is many things: it is, at its simplest definition, “organized sound”; it is a particular type of organized sound, emerging from an individual or group of individuals at different points in time; it is both the reflection of and answer to the social contradictions with which all societies live, often seeking to resolve them through a social dynamism in which social distinctions are submerged for the good of the whole.  In the West, particularly the White West, we have lived far too long under the spell of an aesthetic that insists the “highest” art is functionless, existing solely for itself.  Not only those who wrote about music, but those who composed it, on occasion accepted this inhuman, unhistorical, and impossible view of music.  Far too many of those who are current patrons of what is far too narrowly (and ignorantly) called “classical” music – including opera, the ballet, and chamber music – accept not only this understanding; their social practice of listening as a group demonstrates an insufficient understanding of the social function such music played in the past, and how audiences were lively, sometimes rowdy, and that it was for such audiences the music was originally produced.

Yet Adorno nevertheless is important precisely because he forces us to consider not only the historical and socioeconomic embeddedness of all music; he understood that precisely because music is historical to its core, it is thus functional to its core.  It is only when music ceases to be a part of a particular historical moment it becomes what Adorno calls “museum pieces”, his derisive term for much of the music-going public in the mid-20th century, who preferred music from previous centuries than the ongoing, living orchestral tradition that, Adorno continued to argue throughout his life, was ignored precisely because its major function: reflecting the absurdity and contradictions of emerging monopoly capitalism, the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and those who followed in their wake offered a vision of the current age that was far too threatening to be acceptable by the patrons of the arts, who also tend to be among the upper reaches of the bourgeoisie.

If there is any music that exists precisely because it is functional, it is church music.  Removed from the context of worship services, church music becomes less meaningful, even if its presentation is aesthetically pleasing, such as Beyonce’s performance of “Precious Lord”.  When music meant for a particular group of people at a particular time and place to perform particular social functions becomes yet another performance piece, its meaning necessarily changes.  For example, Joan Baez singing “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at Woodstock means something completely different than if she were to sing them along with a congregation worshiping on a Sunday morning.

Hymnody, then – as a way of encapsulating all the varieties of church musics, past and present – is a social practice that includes not only the sounds themselves; it includes where they are performed, by whom, under what conditions (solo performance, choral performance, congregational performance), the histories both of the song as well as its reception by the particular congregation performing it.  The well-known backstory to the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”, for example, can make such a song not only a hymn, but a performance piece for solo or groups, without any reference to any religious context.  Indeed, it can be a song of personal strength in the face of a life tragedy that, while specifically dated (we in the West don’t lose too many to passenger ships sinking) is nevertheless an experience to which all can relate.  On the other hand, a hymn such as “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, cannot be removed from its particular religious setting without becoming meaningless, a performance piece to showcase either vocal virtuosity, or perhaps rearranged to demonstrate technical musical skill.  The particularity of the song, however, is lost.

It is for these reasons – set out only in sketch-like form here – that there is always resistance to changes in music in worship.  We become both familiar and comfortable with particular hymns that have brought solace, comfort, or some other meaning to our lives at particular times; they have become part and parcel of the life-history of a congregation; particular musical styles, including instrumentation and therefore timbres and tone colors, are part and parcel of this identity-forming social function.  Attempts to mix and match musical styles – to bring in “traditional” hymnody, “contemporary” praise music, and perhaps musics from other worshiping traditions, cultures, languages, or even confessional traditions – run up against the social practices of the particular congregation in question, resulting in conflicts rather than a more harmonious (pun intended) acceptance of a wider variety of musical possibilities open to more people.  I believe this is why, for example, in the mid-1980’s when the United Methodist Church last revised their hymnal, the acquiesced to pressure to include the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” despite its questionable theology, and the fact that fewer and fewer congregations actually sing it.  Just the thought of not offering the possibility to congregations who had sung it in the past was perceived as an attack upon their social identity, and the practices including musical practices that make up their identity.

While it might be profitable to become more inclusive in our musical choices both as congregations and as the Church as a whole, we must recognize the very real social barriers that exist in making even incremental changes in our musical practices.  This should give me pause as I try to work out the possibility of including secular musical styles in to our worship.  It might be beneficial to have classes, courses, discussion groups and whatnot in local congregations on hymnody, its history and function, the way musical styles have changed not only with technology (the invention of musical notation; the setting out of the well-tempered chord; the distinctions among musical modes and how they function; the rise of the organ, the piano, and resistance to their use, etc.) but as part of larger social processes rooted in particular histories.  Such an approach, making congregations more self-aware, might offer opportunities for growth, for self-reflection, and for a willingness for at least incremental experimentation with a larger diversity, first of musical style intended for church use.  Only then, perhaps, can we bring our congregations to hear the Word and feel the Spirit in all sorts of musical styles.