Snake handling in theory and practice

31 05 2010

America never was America to me.

-Langston Hughes

There are those who would portray America as an offshoot of the former theologies of the Protestant mainline churches. Everybody came from nuclear families where Puritan decency and hard-work were the dominating forces in life. Church consisted of semons and hymns; God was a benovolent if distant figure who showed his disposition towards belivers through the “blessings” he shed upon or withheld from them. In other words, God is the painter and viewer of a Norman Rockwell painting. If we have deviated from that, it is because we have broken from a pristine past where everyone knew his place and appreciated Christianity as the foundation of all civilization.

If that is one’s vision of America, it is not the vision shown by Dennis Covington in his book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. That which conservative white intellectuals portray as the norm of “white Protestantism” was never really normative. The idea of a tightly-wound, buttoned-up congregation of decent Puritans who devoted themselves chastely to commerce has nothing to do with the reality of American religiosity. Covington writes of hard-drinking “bush Baptists” who would preach and sing well into the night and then brawl and drink until morning. The snake handling churches spead throughout Appalachia are the extreme version of this religion. Like popular Protestantism today, blessings here were thought to be immediate and tanglible, often to the point of putting oneself in life-endangering situations.
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Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together

28 05 2010

The conclusion

The fight against the feminine

27 05 2010

This post linked to by the Ochlophobist for brought back a lot of memories for me. When I went off to join the Lefebvrists when I was twenty, their women were not allowed to wear pants, and of course they were supposed to shun most modern fashions. Even when I go to “official” Latin Masses now, you can always tell the “die hard” trad women from the ones “just passing through”. They tend to wear shapeless long skirts, similarly shapeless blouses, and a look of sheer lack of feminine enthusiasm due either to out-of-control piety or the responsibility of having all the children God intends for them to have. (I have long ago stopped considering this heroic.) Of course, many of the families, especially the more “well-off” ones, are much more “worldly” than they let on. But since I don’t hang out with them, I never see it.
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Oh no! A Chesterton post!

26 05 2010

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Well, I haven’t read a lot of Chesterton. But sometimes I like to get my feet wet with his prose just to see what people are talking about. In this blog post, I found the following snippet:

He begins to realise that it is the secular world that spoils the sense of words; and he catches an exciting glimpse of the real case for the iron immortality of the Latin Mass. It is not a question between a dead language and a living language, in the sense of an everlasting language. It is a question between a dead language and a dying language; an inevitably degenerating language.

This is from a “conservative Catholic” blog, but I relish the irony of a site that defends the current liturgical practices of the Roman Catholic Church rather innocently putting up an eloquent apologia for the Latin Mass all the while seeing nothing wrong with the Mass in the vulgar tongues. Chesterton is their prophet, sure, but he wasn’t right about everything.

That is sort of the attitude that many “conservative Catholics” have towards the generation of Anglophone Catholics who converted before the Second Vatican Council. There is a selective amnesia concerning what these figures actually stood for in the concrete, and their writings and personae are emptied of all things that contradict the policies of the powers-that-be. Apparently, Chesterton warmed up to the idea of worship in a “dead tongue”. The abandonment of this worship was one of the reasons Waugh nearly died in despair. One wonders what Hilaire Belloc would think of lay Eucharistic ministers… But no matter. Like all “modern Catholics”, we only use the past insofar as it conveniently reasserts the things that we deem important. All the things that contradict our current tastes we will chalk up to the multi-purpose deus ex machina: development.

On Chesterton’s thought itself, I am not one to sound the alarm on anything, but I find it at the very least thought-provoking. With Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, and other means of modern communication, it does seem that language is in a real sense changing. Perhaps it was never really alive in the first place, so the idea that it is dying can by no means be proven. Nevertheless, I still find a void in modern communication, a void that at least for me has been somewhat filled by my study of Latin as a youth. A dead language is a great anchor of perennial thought. And a changing language can never be a sacred one.

For Proclus, language is inherently theurgical, both because all forms of discourse are an extension of the divine names and because language reiterates the hierarchical nature of reality.

-Sara Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism p.192

Cultural Catholic serendiptity

25 05 2010

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“I’m looking for a 100 committed Catholics. Are you one?”

Uh, no. I am lucky to get out of bed for Mass on Sunday morning. (He must be selling something.)

I click anyway.

When one considers how vastly different our modern society is when compared with the society in which our parents and grandparents lived, as recently as the 1950s, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that this “interesting” time in which we live is an epoch that is between goodness and evil and, it would seem steadily drifting away from the former and toward the latter.

Okay. Now I know he wants money.

You and I cannot stand by in silence as challenges mount. We must take our places in this struggle and peacefully do our part in the cause of truth.

How much is it going to cost me?

This is why I need to find 100 comitted Catholics [what’s with this guy and typos?] who will stand with me in “fighting the good fight” by becoming a member of the Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College…

By becoming a member of the Envoy Institute — you can do it today for as little as $10 per month (about the cost of lunch for two) — you will directly participate in the Envoy Institute’s robust outreach to our culture, you’ll directly help preserve the Catholic identity and faith of countless Catholic young people…

Where do I sign up? Wait a minute! No thanks.

I close the browser.


Of late I have been dissecting all aspects of cultural Catholicism: the imagery, the laziness, the Voodoo of making deals with God and then breaking them. For most of my sentient life, I have counter-posed Catholicism to the world, even though that was not how I was raised. I was raised a church-going, cultural Catholic. Catholicism primarily informed the rhythm of life in a very low key way. While I went from crazy fundamentalist to strange spiritual seeker, reversion to normal life has driven me to choose once again the Faith of my childhood. While some people con-vert, and others re-vert, I think at this point I am in the process of di-verting. As I have put it before, how can I keep the Faith without the Church being all up in my business?
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On writing

25 05 2010

The wise men of Egypt, I think, also understood this, either by scientific or innate knowledge, and when they wished to signify something wisely, did not use the forms of letters which follow the order of words and propositions and imitate sounds and the enunciations of philosophical statements, but by drawing images and inscribing in their temples one particular image of one particular thing they manifested the non-discursiveness of the intelligible world, that is, that every image is a kind of knowledge and wisdom and is a subject of statements, all together one, and not discourse or deliberation.

-Plotinus, Enneads V.8.6

Mandatory Pentecost post

24 05 2010

I consider the Holy Ghost to be the most abused member of the Holy Trinity in the last fifty years. God the Father is vague enough and distant enough for people to mostly leave Him alone. There are no churches devoted to God the Father, no manipulation of His image. Sure, many feminist thinkers have a problem with us calling God, “Father”, but they don’t seem too important. God the Father sits up there, watching, the agenda of no one.

Once you get to the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, then you get all sorts of crazies coming out of the woodwork who claim that Jesus said this, Jesus did that, Jesus wouldn’t like the Church the way it is now, “Jesus, save me from your followers”, etc. So saying that the Holy Ghost is more abused may seem inaccurate. I would contend, however, that the Second Person of the Trinity is used to it. They have been doing that to Him for the last two thousand years, so it isn’t exactly news. People have been wondering what would Jesus do since He ascended into Heaven, so we can just blow all of that stuff off at this point.

But the Holy Ghost, the New Pentecost, the movement of the Spirit, and speaking in tongues… that stuff has become a theological cottage industry in the last fifty years. People feel moved by the spirit. Theologians feel that He is too anonymous, too misunderstood: “we haven’t yet understood pneumatology”. I have read such posturing in thinkers as diverse as Cantalamessa, Zizoulas, Congar, and so forth. In my hometown, the Mexican charismatics get together on Pentecost to share the “Spirit”, bathe in the “Spirit”, be moved by the “Spirit”. I have never been comfortable with this stuff. But the Holy Ghost is too ghostly to defend Himself from all of this. And usually, when people talk like this, they usually mean to say under their breath: “yeah, because we’ve been doing stuff wrong so far, our faith has been that of the ‘frozen chosen’, and by golly, things have to change!”

So I am immensely unsympathetic to this sort of thing. For me, it seems that people use the Holy Ghost for all sorts of stupid agendas. Let’s change the Mass, because the Holy Ghost told us so. Let’s tack on more mysteries to the rosary, because it seems good to the Holy Ghost and to us (but mostly to us). Let’s slam the religion that came before us because we are more “spirit-filled” than our predecessors. Yeah, I get really tired of the Holy Ghost getting mentioned so much, and I think He is too. (It seems good to the Holy Ghost… nah, just playin’). People think they have the Holy Ghost because they’ve got “good feelings” inside them, they feel good about God, they feel “on fire” with God, and they feel more fervent than everyone else.

Well, maybe I am just a lukewarm cultural Catholic who reads too much, but I still think we should have a fifty year moratorium on mentioning the Holy Ghost in religious literature except for the mandatory prayers. Maybe we have to learn that the Holy Ghost is a “still small voice” who speaks sometimes in fire, but most of the time in a gentle breeze, unnoticed by time, unpretentious like the household chores. People want to get their jollies off of religion, but maybe they need to get their jollies off of more normal things and their fervor from more mundane sources. God knows we can’t even get basic things right now. What makes us want to be mystics so badly?

A very characteristic music post

23 05 2010

Another uncharacteristic music post

21 05 2010

AG and I went to go see this piece a couple of months back. That’s all.

A new intellectualism?

20 05 2010

I have a liberal arts degree, and I consider it about as useful as a dowsing stick in a bayou. I spent most of my classes at U.C. Berkeley trying to master the art of forgetting all that I had learned the moment finals were over. In my life, what I learned in the classroom had little to do with my actual education. My real education took place in the public library as an adolescent, in my reading breaks at work, and in conversations with lots of interesting people (including my dear wife) through the years. If this blog is even a little interesting, it is more because of that experience, and not due to any formal training.
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