29 December 2011

On having a hinterland

This may be a rather confused post: it is prompted by the season and its religious expression, without being particularly religious in content. It is also full of sweeping generalisations: I've left them like that because to qualify them would make the argument, such as it is, even less coherent than it is already.

On Christmas Eve I went as usual to Midnight Communion at a local (fairly high) Anglican church. I gave up on our actual parish church some time ago, because of its minimalist evangelical one-dimensional logocentrism--there is a point to this, I'm not merely being rude!

The church I attended had sung responses, and anthems from the choir as well as hymns, and rich vestments, and candles and even incense. It offered a multi-layered experience, at whatever level one wanted to take it--artistic, cultural, social or even "spiritual". (I'm not going to refer to "worship"--it is too pre-emptive a term in this context).

Two initial points: First, the evangelical church, with a faith centred on propositional assent to a creed, would not like such a multi-layered experience, to which different participants brought different backgrounds and commitments and from which they also took different things. Such a church prefers to sing in unison, or parallel. Ambiguity is not highly valued.*

It is highly unlikely that the congregation at the church I attended shared an articulated belief system in the same way as their more evangelical brethren*. The multiple layers of meaning are more flexible and tolerant than those which rely so heavily on an intellectual assent to the propositions of a creed.

That, however, poses the question what layers which participants at the service I attended had access to.  And of course what significance they would have attributed to what they were witnessing; some might readily see the sumptuous vestments as offensive to the ideal of poverty propagated by Jesus, while for others those vestments may represent an offering of the very best materials and craft skills--anything less would be unworthy of their high purpose. For some, familiar with the ecclesiastical calendar, the colours of those vestments and of the altar-cloths, will be redolent with meaning--but probably completely arbitrary to most of us.

There were quite a few younger people present, and I wondered what they were making of the music, the chant, the solemnity, the symbolism, the arcane and archaic language (e.g. "...a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction,") --and even I had to admit that I didn't really understand a word of the sermon. But they come from a completely different world, or rather worlds.

So much of our ability to understand and feel at home in a culture rests on taken-for-granted understandings and allusions and "common sense" which needs no explanation. But it does need commonality, and I'm beginning to wonder whether that common foundation of shared experience and understanding is being eroded by the speed of change and the personalisation of technology.

(Incidentally, see the latest up-date of  "The Visions of Students Today" 2011 remix and the latest versions of Beloit College's "Mindset List")

In all the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible (although everyone now refers to it as the "King James version"), there have been many comments about how much we owe to it for common phrases, and characters. See, for example, here.
...the King James Bible version swept round the globe in school assemblies, far flung churches, remotely stationed battalions ...it was the Book of the community of English speaking peoples. [...]
New words - we use them still: "scapegoat", "let there be light", "the powers that be", "my brother's keeper", "filthy lucre", "fight the good fight", "sick unto death", "flowing with milk and honey", "the apple of his eye", "a man after his own heart", "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak", "signs of the times", "ye of little faith", "eat drink and be merry", "broken hearted", "clear eyed". And hundreds more: "fishermen", "landlady", "sea-shore", "stumbling block", "taskmaster", "two-edged", "viper", "zealous" and even "Jehovah" and "Passover" come into English through Tyndale. "Beautiful", a word which has meant only human beauty, was greatly widened by Tyndale, as were many others. [From here]
How many people now have access to that range of reference and connotation, as the emphasis turns to functionality and clarity and simplicity, even in biblical language?

More broadly, of course, the emphasis in education is firmly on utility and measurable outcomes and "impact"; in relation to higher education there is a defensive debate in which the arts and humanities are increasingly being called upon (or their advocates feel that they are increasingly being called upon) to justify their existence, see for example Matthew Reisz here, Roger Lister here, and--with particular reference to the religious tradition--Eduardo de la Fuente here.

Things have moved on since I started teaching. In the late 'sixties I was appointed to teach "Liberal Studies" in a technical college. The very existence of the subject and its requirement as a part of technical and vocational courses testified to the assumption that cultural, social and even political issues could not be neglected in a modern educational system. As Bailey and Unwin (2008) document, the tide of humanism ebbed in the '70s, and the idea that it was possible for all young people to be liberally educated was eventually abandoned. Certainly I personally gave up on it and moved into more vocational areas--the heirs of Liberal Studies in technical education now are termed "functional skills", which in itself shows how things have changed. But perhaps the mistake was to believe that the desired appreciation of culture and history and society had to come through individuals. As Mary Beard put it just a few days ago at rather a higher level (my emphasis):
The important cultural point is that some people should have read Virgil and Dante. To put it another way, the overall strength of the classics is not to be measured by exactly how many young people know Latin and Greek from high school or university. It is better measured by asking how many believe that there should be people in the world who do know Latin and Greek, how many people think that there is an expertise in that worth taking seriously—and ultimately paying for.  [Mary Beard, here]
The cumulative heritage of sensibility (wow! How's that for pomposity?) resides in the community rather than individuals...

But back to the beginning. These are in part my own banal reflections, but in the religious context they are both stimulated and extended by this exemplary piece, beside which I hesitate to place my fatuous musings:
The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible,  by Marilynne Robinson. Of which Bryan Appleyard says:
"Hot damn, I thought, I must blog on this. But then I read it again and, well, what more is there to be said? So just read it and weep with gratitude for Marilynne, the New York Times, for the Bible, for all the wonders of the religious imagination and with pity for those poor militant atheists."

I covered some of the same points from a different starting point in this earlier post.

* As I write this, I am reminded of precisely this issue emerging from my research for my dissertation in the sociology of religion (Dependence and the Practice of Religion unpublished M.Litt thesis, University of Lancaster 1974) and some of the research which contributed to it (Walker A G and Atherton J S (1971) "An Easter Pentecostal Convention; the successful management of a 'time of blessing'" Sociological Review vol 19 No 3 pp. 367-387)

And here is a different take from a similar starting point, which illuminatesa similar theme... On Going to Church on Christmas Morning December 27, 2011, by Michael Ruse

Bailey B and Unwin L (2008) "Fostering ‘habits of reflection, independent study and free inquiry’: an analysis of the short-lived phenomenon of General/Liberal Studies in English vocational education and training" Journal of Vocational Education and Training Vol. 60, No. 1, pp. 61–74

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