A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Category Archives: Religion

Patrick of Ireland

I won the Listserve lottery, and sent this story out to about 13k people today. It was a revision of something I’d written a while back.

Patrick of Ireland

Once upon a time — and listen, for although this sounds like a fable, I will try to make every word true — once upon a time there was a young boy named Patrick, a young Christian boy whose father was a deacon, and whose grandfather was a priest. Patrick, though he was raised in a Christian household did not himself know God. I imagine he was like most people, just living his life out without much concern for spiritual things.

But then something really terrible happened. Raiders attacked his parents’ villa, and Patrick was taken off to be a slave in Ireland. I suspect that his parents had plans for him to go off to the city to become an educated gentleman. Instead, he was taken off at age sixteen to become a slave. Instead of going to school, he was forced to become a shepherd.

In his loneliness and emptiness, he began to remember what he knew about God. And he started to pray the prayers he had been taught; I don’t know what prayers, but I imagine he prayed the “Our Father.” He started praying more and more — in the fields at night and during the day, even waking up before daylight to pray, praying up to, he says, 100 prayers in a day. God started to burn in him.

He was a slave until he was about twenty, and then something very spooky but real happened. He was sleeping, but he heard a voice saying he was going home soon. Soon after he heard the voice again saying that his boat was ready. He immediately fled from his slave-owner, for he recognized that this was a message directly from God. He had to travel 200 miles to get to the harbor where the ship was, in a land he did not know, among people whom he did not know.

He found the ship, and they almost didn’t take him. After the visions and after walking 200 miles, I imagine he was disappointed. He headed back to the hut where he was staying praying along the way. As he was walking and praying, one of the men shouted at him to come back; he could get a ride with them.

They traveled for three days before they landed, and then the whole group started walking — after twenty-eight days, their food ran out, and it was uninhabited. His companions were kind to have taken him in, but now they were hungry and cranky, and began to taunt him about God, asking that perennial question: If God is so great and powerful, why isn’t God helping us?

Patrick had good reason to trust that God had something other than starving in mind for them, though, and he told them boldly that they should become Christians. He also said that God was going to provide so much food that very day that they couldn’t eat any more. And so it happened: a herd of pigs came by, and I imagine they had a pretty good pork barbecue. Their attitude towards God and Patrick changed that day; in fact, they had fire and food enough for the rest of their journey.

Patrick eventually was able to return to his kinsfolk, and he was glad to return, and they were glad to have him. But Patrick had another dream: a man named Victorius bringing letters from Ireland, and in his dream he read one of the letters. The letter said it was “The Voice of the Irish,” and he could hear the voices of people he knew in Ireland begging him to return to return to the land of his slavery.

So Patrick returned to Ireland to preach. He didn’t cast out the snakes; we don’t know if he used a shamrock to teach the Trinity; the hymns attributed to him are most likely not by him. But we know he continued to face hardship. In fact, he was kidnapped at least one more time for two months. Patrick’s life was full of ups and downs, He was ashamed of his poor education (poor man, he only knew three or so languages and wrote his confession in Latin that was perhaps not up to par). He called himself a stutterer, though he preached to thousands. He felt that “poverty and failure suited him better than wealth and delight.” He certainly never got wealthy ministering to the Irish. He remained homesick, I think, to the end of his days. But he recognized the work of God through him, but he felt bound by the Spirit to remain in Ireland.

Amish forgiveness and Amish shunning

Last night, I watched the American Experience documentary on the Amish, which I thought very well done. They treated the Amish with respect, neither nostalgically nor scornfully, with beautiful camera work, well-crafted stories, and good expert commentary. Personally, I especially enjoyed hearing some Amish singing, especially O Gott Vater, which I have never heard sung.

They told the story of the 2006 Nickel Mines tragedy, in which a man shot ten Amish girls in a schoolhouse, killing five of them, and of the amazing forgiveness the Amish showed the killer (who died in the attack) and the killer’s family. They also told stories of former Amish who were placed under the ban and shunned by their Amish communities. The documentarians did not draw any connections between these two, but the stories seem to prompt the following question: how can such peace-loving, forgiving people place others under a strict ban of total non-contact?

The Amish do not need me to defend them, but I have some thoughts. The first is a historical one. When the early Anabaptists began to practice the ban, it is important to remember what the typical punishment was for those who disagreed with a community was in their day. Basically, in most communities, deep theological and civil disagreements would lead to a death sentence for the rebellious one. The Anabaptists themselves were hunted down, and thousands were cruelly murdered for their disagreement. Over against this, the Anabaptists (and the Amish is particular) came up with a non-capital punishment for disagreement: the ban. Compared to death, being shunned is a light sentence.

It is important to remember that the ban is applied only to Amish who have been baptized in the community. Adults who were never baptized as Amish Christians are not subject to the ban; only those who, having committed their lives to God and to the Amish community   through baptism are subject to shunning. Adults who grew up Amish, but decided against baptism, are not shunned — they are treated as any other member of the world.

The documentary makes a point of saying that, in the Amish view, the community is more important than the individual. God is obey as a community, not as a bunch of people who happen to believe the same thing and act in concert. One outworking of this is that the Amish act to preserve and protect and nourish the community more than their individual members. Shnning is but the most drastic example of this: it is more important to protect the community than it is to maintain family and friendship ties, no matter how tender.

Finally, the Amish also believe that shunning is the best thing for the person being shunned; a radical kind of tough love to bring the rebel back (and then, the famous Amish forgiveness should kick in). By servering all of a person’s contact with the community (where one has learned to speak, to love, where ones friends and family are),  the community hopes to instill the deep cost of  rebellion. There are few half-way steps.

As a Mennonite, I admire the consistency and faithfulness of my Anabaptist cousins, and I think about this topic a lot, in fact: how to uphold standards as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. I don’t really have the power to place people under a ban, but it’s good to be reminded that people need to accept responsibility for their actions, that the community is important, and a commitment to following Jesus is a very serious one.

God grant us wisdom to know the differences between how to treat people who fail you, who fail the church though their inidividual actions.

Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than the religious people. So what?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on how much Americans know about some religious facts; they have a online quiz version of their survey that’s making the rounds.

NPR reported on this in their story “Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious,” and the LA Times did as well in their story “Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says.” For some reason, the actual report from the Pew Forum is unavailable as I write, but much of the details can be found at the online quiz.

As their headlines indicate, both NPR and the LA Times find it remarkable that non-religious people know more answers to these questions about religious figures and demographics than religious people do. However, I find this completely unremarkable. Even a cursory reading of the details indicate that doing well on this test strongly correlates with educational level: the more education you have, the better you’ll do on this quiz. But this is also true of non-belief: the more education you have, the less likely you are to hold religious beliefs. “White Evangelical Protestants” actually do better than average (what most educated people think of when they think about religious Americans, I think). The religious groups with the least education–Black Protestant (read: Black) and Latino Catholic (read: Latino) do the worst. The religious group with the most education, Jews, do the best (I don’t know if Pew broke out non-theistic Jews from “Jews”).

One of the questions asked (in the online version) is who the religious figure is most associated with the Great Awakening. This was an incredibly important series of events and movements in US history and affected the shape of Protestant and other Christian practice and belief until the current day. But very few Protestants that I know consider this figure anything more than a historical figure; he’s a matter of history, not religious belief or practice. If you’ve gone to a lot of school, you’re more likely to have run across his name (of the 15 online questions, this is the least well known). Do you know the answer? It’s not unlikely you learned it in a (college level) history or American religion class.

Another one of the questions asks on what day the Jewish Sabbath begins.  Most people get this wrong (except Jews, who live–or have the memory of living–in the duality of the Jewish and Western calendars). But this feels like a bit of a trick question, requiring a secular or Western Christian understanding of the week. I think “Saturday” is a perfectly reasonable correct answer to this question. I got it “correct,” but this seems to indicate more about my test-taking skills (watch out for trick questions!) than my nuanced understanding of my co-religionists.

In the online quiz, the only especially interesting question is the appalling misunderstanding about whether a teacher can read from the Bible “as literature.” On average, only 25% know this is just fine (and, in general, who gets this right correlates positively with education, but no group gets this right more than 50% of the time).

Education correlates negatively with religious beliefs: this is not a new finding. In fact, it’s found right in the Bible (sort of), when Paul writes to an early church in Corinth:

Consider your own call … not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26).

It’s disappointing that NPR and the LA Times wrote such smug articles.

Christians for freedom of religion?

Can I a tiny shout-out from other US Christians who are grateful to live in a country that has religious freedom built into the very core of its democracy and constitution? And that, therefore, efforts to curtail the religious rights of Muslims near the 9/11 site should be resisted?

It seems ridiculous that there would be any issue here at all.

See also: Hallowed Ground.

The Shewings of Julian of Norwich

I’ve been meaning to make a weblog of The Shewings of Julian of Norwich available for sometime, and I’ve finally done it:


Consider it a Christmas present.

Julian (or Juliana) lived in the English village of Norwich in the fourteenth century. She received sixteen “Shewings” (or “Revelations”) which she later wrote down; these were separated into 86 chapters. This weblog will post two chapters, one on Saturday, one on Wednesday. This translation from Julian’s Middle English was done by Grace Warrack and published in 1901. The text was reformatted from the text provided by the Christian Classics Ethereal Library; the text version is used by permission; the content is in the public domain. More recent translations are available, although they are in copyright. Julian’s clear and elegant prose is reasonably easy to read even in Middle English; and Georgia Ronan Crampton’s edition of The Shewings (originally published in print by Medieval Institute Publications of Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1994) is also available on-line, with notes.

Were children again: Report from Camp Fasola, 2009, Session 1 (Adults Emphasis)

At nearly the last minute, Tom Malone suggested that we drive down to Camp Fasola on the Sunday before Camp began in the evening, and return on Thursday, the last day of Camp. I had to work on Friday (“Work—the curse of the singing class,” quipped Richard Schmeidler at dinner one day), and Tom is in the midst of a move back east. So, it was convenient to do this—as if driving 13 hours one way is anyone’s idea of ‘convenient.’ Still we jabbered away and then were blessed to run into Joyce Walton at the memorial marker to Seaborn and and Thomas Denson at the Winston Country Courthouse in Double Springs, Alabama (near camp), and things just keep getting better.

Camp McDowell is surprisingly posh. The “cabins” contained a large (air conditioned) common area with a fridge, sink, tables, and (most importantly) a coffee maker with coffee provided. The rooms had two beds, their own washroom with shower, and an in-window air conditioner (not really needed during our stay, we still appreciated its promise). Unfortunately, much of this requires electricity, and major storms had moved into the area earlier in the day; so, all the lights and air conditioning and water were off. The undefeatable Camp staff still managed to pull together food for us. We had an evening singing in the beautiful chapel, which was cut a bit short so we could walk back to the cabins before dark descended. Just before “lights out,” the lights came on, so all was well.

During the three days of class, many of us started the day singing out of the words only Lloyd’s Hymnal with Eugene Forbes, most of us sitting in comfortable rocking chairs. It was a delight to see Eugene at Camp; I’d met him two years previously, but neither he nor I were able to attend Camp last year. Then a hearty breakfast (note to northern singers: when eating grits, think “polenta,” not “cream of wheat,” and you will be delighted). And then, on to classes. Oh, there were so many good ones! You can see for yourself by looking at the schedule. My only regret this year was several programs I was unable to attend.

I’d say a major theme of the Camp was paying attention to the Rudiments, the teaching (found in the beginning of our tunebooks) of the basics of time, tune and accent. There were some very new singers there (one man, I believe, had never sung this music at all), and others had been singing for years. But under the leadership of the Camp teachers, we “were children again” and learned to sing better. I don’t have time to describe all of what we learned, but here are two vignettes. Several teachers described the importance of accent: that is, the “stress of voice or emphasis on one part of a sentence, strain or measure, more than another.” Familiar tunes became new again as we began to sing them with the accenting principles described in the rudiments. A second class highlight for me was Aldo Ceresa’s session, “And then I’ll be at rest,” where we paid close attention to the rests in the music: resting where we’re instructed to rest; starting and stopping those rests together; and singing when we’re instructed to sing. Several tunes came alive to me in new ways. Others will have different favorite learning moments, but these are a couple of mine.

There were three thematic sessions. On Monday, Harry Eskew commemorating the 200th birthday of William “Singing Billy” Walker (who was born the same year as Lincoln and Darwin). On Tuesday, Tom Malone did a eulogistic lesson on the songs of Hugh McGraw, who gave us the gift of his presence at Camp. There was also a slideshow of Hugh McGraw’s life at lunch immediately before the lesson, including high school pictures of the young man anointed “cutest boy” by his class. It was a good thing to be able to pay our respect to Hugh, and many heartfelt words were said during the lesson by Richard DeLong, Joyce Walton and others. On Wednesday, Tom Malone and Sandra Wikinson also did a eulogistic lesson on the Kitchens family, especially the life and music of Elder J.E. Kitchens (1912-1979), a Sacred Harp singer and composer, and former president of the Sacred Harp Publishing Company. Several members of the Kitchens family, including his four daughters, were present. There are three tunes by Kitchens in the Denson book (279, 512, 568), and we sang from these as well as other tunes, including the very delightful God-given tune “Oh, Come With Me,” a baptismal meditation on Song of Solomon 4:8 and other scriptural images.

And the evening singing sessions. David Ivey promised us that our singing would get better over the three days, and his promise was kept. Everyone will have his or her own favorite moments, but watching Miss Josie Hyde lead 507 (Sermon on the Mount) on Wednesday night was surely a lesson. (There is a YouTube video of Miss Josie leading 507 at the Aldridge Memorial Singing right before Camp).

Other highlights including singing on the porch with Cheryl and Rick Foreman (in the dark because of another power outage); the interesting tunes and amazing sight-singing ability of the others at Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg’s “Composium” (new compositions singing); and “The First Annual No Book Rocking Chair Convention,” about which perhaps little should be said, except that I’ll never think of David Ivey in quite the same way again. And you might think that Jeff Sheppard could not jig, but you might be surprised.

I will fail if I try to do my thank yous properly, but I am grateful for David Ivey’s leadership in putting Camp together, and Karen Ivey’s yeowomanly efforts to make Camp a welcoming and comfortable place. I’m thankful for the Camp McDowell staff who literally guided us through storms. I’m thankful for the excellent teachers and the willing students. And I’m thankful for the composers and authors and compilers and teachers of this music.

Renewing Mennonite communal worship

A response to R Dean Hudgens’s Tongues and Tribes: Musical Change in a Mennonite Congregation.

I am very, very grateful for the time I spent at Reba Place Church (1990-1996, 1998 or so), and loved the music there. I was very grateful for the intentional way that the call to anti-racism worked itself out in music and worship. This included being part of the gospel choir, which developed my spirit and my musical abilities and helped me on an anti-racist path.

Still, I think it is fair to say that Reba Place Church, and the Mennonite Church as a whole, has missed important opportunities to provide space for people to worship in community.

Worship has turned more into a performance with some audience participation than the people of God worshipping together. In my experience, this is true in many Mennonite (and non-Mennonite congregations), even when the worship team is not very talented. You have, at the center, a choir, or worship team, or a talented soloist, which is the focus of the whole audience/congregation. (This is somewhat exacerbated at Reba, which attracts many talented people, including talented musicians.) I think that even the humblest of God’s servants cannot withstand the pressure to perform well for the audience rather than their stated goal of *leading* worship.

But other models are available. One is reclamation: reclaiming the a cappella heritage of European Mennonites and African-American heritages of camp meeting music, “Dr. Watt’s music” and spirituals. Another is engaging with contemporary shape note practitioners who also have a long history in community singing and practical pedagogy. Another is engaging with African and African-Mennonite communal singing and worship practices.

Unless music worship leaders of a church see as the major responsibility of their leadership to help the community to worship and to develop the community’s ability to worship through music, churches will naturally accept the performer/audience model. It is the model of popular culture, and it is the model accepted by almost all music education (including Mennonite musical education). It is a Power.

But Mennonites used to teach one another to sing. Mennonites used to have singing schools. Mennonites used to think it important to sing together. I think it is time for Mennonites to reclaim this as an active, living spiritual practice. I could hope that Reba would be a leader in doing this in a ‘catholic’ and anti-racist way.

Interesting weblog: Aristotle's Feminist Subject

Aristotle’s Feminist Subject: interesting weblog:

This blog has been a way to interact with some of you around “subjects” that Aristotle has taught too many of us in the west, even today, to disparage: females, rhetoric, and translation. Until we’ve recovered, I guess I’ll blog a bit more .

Also: The WOMBman’s Bible

Tweet creed

Because of the call for a Tweet Creed (Christian belief in 140 characters or less):

We follow Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again to save us. He tells us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The Book of Psalms