Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hymnody and the media tetrad

Everything old eventually becomes new again. Marshall McLuhan, who argued that any new medium retrieves features of the distant past, would undoubtedly be pleased by the following video:

This video has been circulating among organists, where it has been the cause of considerable consternation. One would think, after enduring decades of mass-produced church music of abysmal quality, that organists would by now be desensitized to this sort of thing; is this composition really that much worse than such established favourites as "Alleluia Ch-Ch"? Think about this for a while, though, and the secret horror of the organist's life will become apparent: forced by our profession to listen to such music regularly, but prevented by our musical training from ever learning to tolerate it.

I'm not particularly interested in this song as an occasion for maudlin self-pity or polemics on the state of contemporary church music, however. Most reasonable people will grant that "I Think I'm Gonna Throw Up" is unsuitable for any liturgical service; it's essentially a novelty song, one which will make an occasional appearance at summer camps until the camp counsellors discover that having children run around pretending to throw up creates too many discipline problems. No, I'm more interested in this song's unexpected recreation of an earlier Victorian genre of hymnody, of which there are two famous examples:

"Stir up this stew,
Stir up this stew,
Stir up this stupid heart of mine."

and this, known as "the spinster's hymn":

"O for a man,
O for a man,
O for a mansion in the sky!"

The difference, of course, is that "I Think I'm Gonna Throw Up" has no other purpose than to produce this double entendre, while the humorous effect of the Victorian hymns was presumably unintentional, at least to begin with. Still, it is a delight to see history repeating itself in such a charming manner; perhaps the next hot seller in contemporary Christian music will be Hymns Ancient and Modern.

A hymn with even more fascinating sociological implications is this one:

This is truly fascinating; a collection of quotations from a motley crew of stage magicians, philosophers, research scientists and professional skeptics have been autotuned into a song expressing an uplifting scientific/empiricist viewpoint. Just as Theosophists, Unitarians and Spiritualists created their own repertoire of songs by emulating the hymnody of nineteenth-century mainline Protestantism, advocates of today's scientistic rationalism have created their own repertoire which is altogether indistinguishable from praise-and-worship music. This song is, to all intents and purposes, a hymn; it cannot be understood as part of any other genre.

Now, I think this is incredibly clever and catchy, easily the best video in this "Symphony of Science" series (there are several others, should you have the time and inclination). But the message of the series deserves closer examination. The triumphalist tone is obvious enough ("A new wave of reason has arrived; let us march boldly into the brave new 1950s!"), but there are other interesting things at work here as well. Consider the following three propositions:

1) "Science is more than a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking; a way of sceptically interrogating the universe." (Carl Sagan)
2) "The same spiritual fulfillment that people find in religion can be found in science - by coming to know, if you will, the mind of God." (Carolyn Porco)
3) "There's real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality." (Richard Dawkins, from another episode in the series)

This is clearly self-contradictory and incoherent. "Sceptically interrogating the universe" is as good a definition as any for what scientists do; the natural world has been sworn to tell the truth and is waiting in the witness stand, and the scientist's task is to frame a suitable question (i.e., the experiment) that will get as much information out of the witness as possible. The problem, though, is how this process of interrogation transforms itself into "poetry" or a means of "spiritual fulfillment". Sociologists sceptically interrogate the structures of human communities, but you will look in vain for a sociologist who claims that "the same spiritual fulfillment that people find in religion can be found in sociology." Journalists are supposed to sceptically interrogate political leaders to uncover the truth about important policy decisions, but no-one claims that "journalism is the poetry of reality."

These examples are purposely ridiculous. Or are they? Sociology, after all, claims to apply scientific methodology to the study of humans, and modern journalism follows an essentially modern, scientific ethos in its attempt to penetrate to the "real story" beyond the surface appearance and spin. Indeed, almost any discipline now reflects the Baconian scientific method described by Sagan; to take an example close to home, scientific methodology has given us a far better understanding of historic organs and the technique required to properly play them. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, we are all Baconians now; everyone grants the usefulness of scientific empiricism in solving a wide array of technical problems, and we all default to this methodology when faced with new and interesting challenges. But why does scientific methodology become something "poetic" and "spiritual" when applied to things like astrophysics and cellular biology, and not when applied to things like sewage treatment, building codes, and census-taking?

The answer seems to be that the poetry and spiritual significance of scientific enquiry comes not from the methodology of science itself, but from the content of the thing studied; in exploring other planets or discovering more about the interior of the cell, we learn more about the essential building-blocks of existence and approach nearer to the heart of existence. Yet this sense of poetic and spiritual significance is grounded in the subjective experience of wonder and awe - precisely the sort of qualitative reality about which science has nothing to say. And so the incoherence of the hymn in the above video reflects the incompleteness of science itself: the content that gives meaning to scientific inquiry lies outside of science, and the impulse that drives humans to become scientists is itself incomprehensible to science. To put this another way: the people in the video claim, for the most part, to be hard-nosed skeptics and atheists, but the ideology that motivates their activities is really a form of deism or pantheism, viewing science as a pathway to the Absolute. It is high time they had hymns of their own to sing, and now they do.


Quentin said...

This is gorgeous!

Richard said...

A sense of awe and wonder is not something that is exclusive to the supernatural (religion, myths, etc.). It is a natural part of the human psyche. These are staunch atheists and scientists that are expressing the idea that beauty and fulfillment can be found in examining the world around us. It isn't worship. It's taking everything apart to see how it works. Asserting that they aren't atheists because atheism cannot allow for awe or a sense of beauty is a dismissive and arrogant assumption.

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