Latin Hymns of Sublime Beauty

At the end of my yawp against emotionally manipulative, phony, crass, pseudo-Christian pop culture, I linked to a clip from Beth Nielsen Chapman’s home-made album of traditional pre-Vatican II Latin hymns. A lot of people who should know about this album may not, so I wanted to give it it’s own post.

Chapman is an extremely gifted song-writer and performer who penned a number of hits for artists like Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Amy Grant, and others. Her solo career peaked with her album Sand and Water, a profound, deeply moving meditation on the loss of her husband, grief, and moving on. It’s sad and beautiful and life-affirming and everything good music should be. It yielded a minor hit called “Sand and Water” which became famous when Elton John adapted it in honor of Princess Diana. Her work is pretty consistently strong, but she’s never really found a large audience.

A cradle Catholic, Chapman has a deep affection for the Latin hymns that characterized the pre-Vatican II church, and which we trashed in search of a mess of pottage from the likes of OCP. We could be singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” at mass. Instead we get crap like “Gather Us In.” Chapman’s versions of these songs for the album Hymns are simple, beautiful, and incredibly moving. She refers to them as the “greatest hits” of her childhood, and she sings them with a deep and abiding love. I honestly cannot think of a better contemporary album of Catholic music.

Here are few more samples (ignore the video: it’s the music that counts):

You should really buy it. (Use this link and I get a very small commission.) It would make a perfect Christmas present!

“The Christmas Shoes” is The Worst Song Ever

I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music. I don’t want to hear it until the day after Thanksgiving, and it must be gone by the time the tree is taken down, 12 days after Christmas. In between those two periods I have a few things I like well enough, such as:

… as well as some Bach, Dean Martin, Alan Jackson, Harry Connick, and other bits and bobs. Most Christmas songs, however, go through me like alien blood through the deck of the Nostromo.

And then Katrina–proprietor of The Crescat–went ahead and posted about something called “The Christmas Shoes.” My wife insists she introduced me to this … thing … at some time in the past, but my brain (God bless it’s faulty wiring) erased all memory of it. This is good and bad.

The good is that I was able, for a time, to live a life that did not include “The Christmas Shoes.”

The bad is that I get to experience the horror of first discovery all over again, like some terrible version of Groundhog Day, but with music composed by people who despise all things good and pure.

Honestly, I don’t want to get all hyperbolic here, but “The Christmas Shoes” is something squeezed from the very hindquarters of Satan himself. This is the sound hell’s chorus makes after feasting on a diet of nothing but marshmallows and syrup and hate. This is the soundtrack for a thousand Hallmark Channel Original Movies, compressed by some unholy alchemy–perhaps involving non-Euclidean geometry and dark chants howled to Yog Sothoth during a gibbous moon in the eldritch shadows of Innsmouth or Arkham–into the span of five minutes. I cannot be certain, but I suspect cosmic evil was somehow involved in its aborning, because nothing this impure can be created without the taint of ancient horrors from beyond space, beyond time. And, being me, I cannot let this thing pass from my mind without inflicting sharing it with you.

Here it is, for those who may not know, or may have blotted it from their brainpans, or haven’t yet experienced it this year. There’s an official video starring Rob Lowe, but I think this amateurish film-school-project version really amps up the mawkishness to 11.

Is this the worst song ever?

Yes it is.

I hear you starting: “But what about-”

No.

“And you’re forgetting-”

No, I’m not.

I’d listen “Macarthur Park” or “Wonderful Christmas Time” and Culture Club every day for the rest of my life if it meant never hearing it again. It is all that is manipulative and tacky not just about hyper-sentimental Christmas fare, but about Evangelical pop culture in general. To say the boys in the band “New Song” have tin ears isn’t enough. They have tin hearts. This is Evangelical “Jesus is my boyfriend” pop culture, which can imagine–even through the eyes of a child–a dying woman who needs to get dolled up in red pumps to look spiffy for Jesus. Even in death, blind consumption is substituted for faith. Good Lord, kid: leave the damn shoes, and get the lady a priest for a final confession and anointing of the sick.

Because I’m not a cruel blogger, I will leave you with a palate cleanser. If the music of New Song is the sound of Lucifer cackling, then this is the sound the angels made on the first Christmas:

And Beth Nielsen Chapman, from her album of Latin hymns:

And here’s Elvis, because it’s Elvis, and that’s enough:

UPDATE: Oh sweet mercy, they made a movie of it! Starring Rob Lowe! And Brad Paisley’s wife!

CHECK OUT some more good stuff to clear your ears.

The Origin of Man, Original Sin, and Why It’s All Your Fault

On Twitter, Kyle Cupp asked the following question:

I replied with a quip I use with my students: “The sin of Adam was inevitable, even if ‘Adam’ wasn’t the one who committed it. If Adam hadn’t eaten the apple, I would have.”

He was, however, looking for something more specific:

I have to say at the outset that I reject the premise, so I doubt I’ll be able to provide a satisfactory reply to his completely reasonable question. Science–particularly genome sequencing–is a moving target, and the theologian who chases it winds up like a kitty following a laser pointer as it flits around the floor. It’s foolish to change ancient and settled points of theology derived from scripture and tradition in the light of trending information. Science can never achieve the level of certainty about human origins to force definitive changes to our theological understanding of original sin.

I spent enough time studying anthropology to realize that what we know about human origins is a very very tiny sliver of the whole picture, and that picture is always changing. For example, when, in 1987, an 18-year-old me asked my anthropology professor if Neanderthals and homo sapiens had interbred, he laughed at the idea. Now, it seems likely that such interbreeding of anatomically modern humans and “lower” orders of hominid took place.

Homo habilis

So, no: I’m not going to bite at that apple, except to make one or two points. Mitochondrial Eve  could have lived anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago. (Or more. Or less. This is far from settled.) Some even suggest that humanity may have a most recent common ancestor as recently as 5,000 years ago.  The idea that hominids developed along different tracks is uncontroversial. Certainly one need only look at the diversity of the human population to understand that our genetic makeup isn’t a nice neat line from Eden to us. It’s more like a stew.

The problem is viewing human lines of descent as a series of replacements, rather than a lot of strange dead ends and offshoots, possibly with interbreeding among various members of Genus Homo (and perhaps even between Genera Homo and Australopithecus), and significant periods of overlap, perhaps including trade, warfare, and cultural influence. The idea of a nice neat “ascent of man” from lower to higher orders is a post-Enlightenment prejudice. The fossil hominid record is quite small, and often it’s asked to carry the weight of far more speculation about human origins than it can possibly bear. Genome sequencing may help clear up some of the mystery, but without a more robust fossil record, it’s little more than educated guesses.

So where does this leave us with Adam and Eve and original sin? If they didn’t exist, can the doctrine of original sin still hold? If we are not all descended from a single person, what happens to the notion of inherited sin?

I know moderns are uneasy with the idea of Adam and Eve, and certainly elements of Genesis are meant to be read as a figurative theological account of how a universe, created by a perfect God, came to be so completely screwed up. Does this mean Adam and Eve “weren’t real”? Can the notion of a single set of first parents survive in the light of developing knowledge about human origins?

Of course it can, because there is nothing at all that science can do to disprove this statement: humankind as we know it was uniquely and specially created with a rational soul by a loving God, and placed in a ideal world with the power of free will.

In scripture, there is a tantalizing answer the question of genetic diversity in humans. It’s right there, in Genesis 4, and it’s a subject of some controversy:

13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.

Questions: If there are only three people on earth (Adam, Eve, Cain), how can Cain be a “fugitive”? Who exactly will “find” and “slay” him? Who are these people who might come upon and kill him? Most mysteriously, who is this “wife” who gives him a child, Enoch? And how does he populate an entire city, also called Enoch?

The answer we often get is: incest with his mother. That’s not even good nonsense, since Eve is clearly depicted as remaining with Adam and giving birth to Seth and others.

So the question remains: who are all these people who threaten Cain, fill cities, and provide wives for him and his decedents?

Perhaps the answer is right there in the fossil record.

God created man after his image. We understand this to mean that God created a man and a woman with rational souls. We can call them anatomically modern humans, or Homo sapiens sapiens. Who is to say there weren’t other hominids at large in the world at the time, with the first parents inserted into the timeline, bringing with them something new: a rational, immortal soul? And when we were cast from Eden, perhaps Cain and the descendants of Adam and Eve took spouses from among these people. There’s nothing at all in the scripture to suggest this is not possible, and some evidence (such as the sudden appearance of wives and foes and cities full of people) to suggest it is.

The offspring of these people are still traceable to our first parents. It doesn’t need to be a closed loop of Adam + Eve = Cain, Cain + Eve = Enoch in order to for original sin to be passed along. Adam was given the gift of the spirit. He was given a soul and a desire for God. This soul was wounded in act of free will. This gift (and this wound) was passed along, introducing something new into the human family.

We have no reason to fear any new understanding of human diversity and development. As people of faith, we have only to remember this: someone had to be first. God created a world, and God created a person to carry his gift into that world. Whether you prefer the old model of a single pair populating a planet, or an image of a first pair of ensouled humans uplifting a diverse population of hominids, both models follow the same arc: creation, fall, redemption.

If the name “Adam” bothers you and smacks of too many Sunday school lessons for comfort, make up your own name. You could come up with a word in an ancient language that describes the ruddy appearance of this first human. Handily, we have a word in Hebrew that does the job: âdâm ( אָדָם), which means (literally) “ruddy”, and also “mankind.” Oddly enough adâmâh (אֲדָמָה), means “earth,” as in soil. So you have a ruddy man made from the earth.

Language is how we communicate ideas. We can communicate those ideas this way:

That’s a language. The language of DNA.

Or we communicate them this way:

The genome tells us a great deal about the composition of human life, but nothing about its meaning or purpose. For as much as DNA helps us to live our lives and understand our world, they might as well be sequencing moss.

On the other hand, three little letters–aleph, daleth, and mem–pack a vast amount of meaning into an incredibly small package. It takes massive computing power for even a specialist to make sense of the DNA of a single human, and you won’t know a bloody thing about why that particular âdâm loves, makes bad choices, sacrifices himself, or creates great works of art. A little time spent with Genesis, and you understand man’s greatness and foolishness, his pride and his curiosity, his reason and freedom, and his willingness to abuse them all in an act of defiance. His sin is this simple: it’s a turning away from God to the desires of the self. Here, in the primordial history, our first parents experience in action what will be expressed as words in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.”

And we choose death. Because we always do. I know what’s right, what’s healthy, what’s good, what I’m supposed to do. Yet time again, I make the wrong choice. That’s the tendency of original sin tugging at me, but even before that original sin, there was the great gift and the great danger of free-will. That’s what I mean when I say that if Adam hadn’t taken the apple, I would have. It was inevitable.

People like to blame Eve. As if you would have done anything differently. Pandora opens the box because she’s told not to. Eve takes the apple because she’s told not to. And you (and I) would have done the exact same thing. God well knew that we would fall, and he also knew that, in the fullness of time, he’d turn the wood of the forbidden tree into the wood of the cross.

The human genome is not a map of life. We make a grave error when we mistake it for one. It may provide answers to certain questions about our bodies and provide some hints about origins, but it’s not the vaunted Encyclopedia of Man some may think it is. At some point, we pass beyond the purview of the scientist and into the realm of the metaphysician, the artist, the philosopher, the theologian. We were uniquely created by the hand of a loving God, and given a gift–freedom–which we have abused ever since. Science can’t unravel that one.

UPDATE: Mike Flynn explains this better. He knows science and stuff.