In a similar vein as the “I’m not a Christian but–” Gilead posts, the old holiday songs are just amazing.
I have always loved them. Especially the loud choral pieces that almost seem to threaten you with glory. Like O Holy Night, for example, at the “fall on your knees” part. It’s not a suggestion — it’s a command. Fall on your goddamned knees. I have always loved that. They’re trying to tell you something good, but it should bowl you over. I respect that, and can see it in so many places beyond just a religious context. When the old man in Home Alone cries seeing his daughter sing it on the fuzzy TV, I was sold forever on this song.
(…If I were someone else, in some other time, I could have been such a fierce believer, both because I set so much stock in the power of story (and less so in the facts of history, malleable as they are), and because I am unfailingly loyal, unfashionably so, past all sense says to abandon a person or cause. But…the same mechanisms that cause me to revile academia operate in organized religion, and have always done so. And in a world where you can receive knowledge and the constant questioning of it in other venues, without those superfluous and damaging trappings of hierarchy and status, I cannot do it. I cannot pretend to ignore all the crap they dump on top, between you and what matters.)
And spirals! Where one section is going up and another is going down and they pass each other along the way. Like Angels We Have Heard On High. I sang that once in a choir, because my friend was devout and in a choir and when she left my school I didn’t want to lose her, and man. That song. Singing it as part of a huge group. Our music director was a skeevy guy; his children were alternately skeevy like him and nakedly desperate for his affection; he was everything that was wrong with that church wrapped up in one thick-necked package. But being part of that tide of voices rolling out over an audience, like Gandalf’s river horses in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s magnificent. It feels magnificent, to be a part of.
I know, I know, it’s designed to be that way. What did Sam Sykes tweet the other day? That most of art history is fanart; it’s just that for a long time Jesus was the only fandom? If you were brilliant with your voice or your brush, for most of history you were probably using those tools to praise one god or another. I get that.
(But I also recognize that I’m that annoying person who goes around listening to movie soundtracks half the time. Because they’re epic! But also because, maybe, it makes you a little epic, listening to them? For however long they last, anyway. The fastest mile I’ve run in the past decade was while listening to First Class from the X-Men soundtrack. I don’t even like the X-Men. I mean, at all. But that song. Or, right after it, on the same playlist, Audiomachine. They came into existence to score trailers, and that’s exactly what it sounds like, and I don’t care. I’ve never run faster. Maybe it’s a narcissistic millennial thing. That instead of letting someone else’s words form the backdrop to my efforts, I choose wordless orchestral pieces, as though it were a training montage, something people shot and edited with purpose. But I only mention this to point out that I’m intimately aware of the allure of art, not even earnest art but mass-produced marketing art, telling you you’re important, and how easy it is to overlook or ignore all that’s attached to that movie or song in exchange for the momentary sense that that theme is for you. Even when it’s not and never will be.)
I mean, listen to Julie Andrews sing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. When she tells you to join the triumph of the skies, it is a party you definitely want in on. And O Come All Ye Faithful? Who doesn’t want to be joyful and triumphant? Pre-nazi Germany sure as hell did…oh. Right.
And maybe that’s another reason for my distrust of that kind of group-based joy. It’s too easily harnessed and manipulated. The best I can manage is a kind of mental cosplay of grandeur and fellowship, listening to these songs, before I remember that after that swell of voices dies down, everyone in the choir will go home and vote and say terrible things to their kids, and cause those kids to grow up and go out into the world and carry that poison with them.
That’s, I guess, what I keep expecting to hit in Gilead. But so far his humility has managed to keep him from seeming manipulative. Not just his humility but his bending what remains of himself toward small moments of beauty — hoping his son sees such moments to be beautiful — rather than toward harsh lines drawn in the sand past which one must not cross. Even if some people need strict rules to live by, like those bars that keep people from falling out of beds in hospitals, still, for your primary source of identity to come from the enforcement of those rules, rather than from helping people see what matters in the world that crafted them…you’re kind of a charlatan, at that point. You may go on about angels singing yes but you’re here to say no, over and over. And that’s shallow. People deserve better.
If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t be shepherding them across a street, let alone through the dark chasms of their lives.