This is an except from something I wrote a few years ago. Below it is a Spotify link to the song “Chicago.”
It’s possible to encounter O’Connnor’s stories (you never really just read them) without explicitly discerning her deep, abiding belief in literary art as Christian vocation or her mission to show, as she said, “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” Clear about these motives in her essays and letters, she’s almost never so obvious in her fiction. Perhaps because she uses the evangelical cosmologies of her neighbors as Tolkienesque proxies for her own traditional Catholic systems it’s easy to infer a sort of distance between O’Connor’s art and faith where she in fact saw none. In the same way, it’s possible to listen to Stevens’ biggest hit, “Chicago,” without immediately sensing the plaintive Christian hymn at its core, but “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “Oh God Where Are You Now?,” “The Lord God Bird,” “To Be Alone With You,””God’ll Ne’er Let You Down”… well, these and others comprise a body of work that, like O’Connor’s, raises and answers questions about what makes art “Christian.” Like O’Connor, Stevens operates outside of expectation: his confessional work is among his best, but you’d never call him a Christian artist the way, say, Amy Grant is a Christian artist.
Yesterday was Casimir Pulaski Day, which I know about because of the Sufjan Stevens song. Pulaski was a Polish noble and general who helped the American colonies win their independence from Great Britain by training and leading American soldiers throughout the Revolution. Pulaski died from wounds sustained during the Siege of Savannah, and is remembered today as a proto-typical Polish-American hero in many Polish-American communities. Though his holiday is mostly celebrated in Illinois, two years ago I discovered a connection between the Duke and the Lehigh Valley’s very own Bethlehem, PA.
I was walking around the grounds of the old Moravian settlements in Bethlehem and come upon this grave in the historic Moravian Cemetery:
Reconciling the image of pacifist Moravians sewing banners meant for war is one thing. But Cornelia’s grave made me hot with rage and then it made me weep.
When I got home, I wrote the piece below. You need to know that Bethlehem, PA, was founded by pacifist Moravians (who were fleeing religious persecution) in 1741 and christened for its namesake on Christmas Eve.
1755 RECEIVED INTO THE CHURCH
What scandal, these Moravians, these Peace Church nuns and friars rending martial banners? Duke Pulaski, their protector, marches to Savannah, is recalled in Illinois among the Polish and in the frontier psalter for his sword. How ancient, their Count’s mission, in its context on the Lehigh, infant, pre-incarnate by their Christmas City’s namesake — Bethlehem, Palestine?
Cornelia, theirs in life, (the Horsfields’), not her own or God’s, sewn in Pennsylvania with the city’s founding mythos. December 24, 17whatever. Theirs in death, the Horsfields, these Peace Church nuns and friars.
Yesterday, I wished you all a Happy St. David’s Day. For more context, check out my St. David’s Day greeting from last year, here.
Oh, and also: Free Wales!
On Monday, we’ll observe Casimir Pulaski day with a short piece I read at an International Arts Movement event last year, an original photo of a Moravian grave here in the Lehigh Valley, and music by Sufjan Stevens.
1: that is awesome.
2. he kind of does, from the middle of the face and up. A little or a little more depending on the angle, light, etc. Suf light, Jack light.
3. Thank you for uniting two of my favorite things.
Also, see this essay at BeatCrave, which ponders which indie rockers equal which LOST characters.
When I was 16, I heard Gibby Haynes say the music scene needed a new punk moment and he hoped it was Beck. For one or two summers, it was (FEZtival ’97, I’m thinking of you). But then people my age graduated and started file-swapping and before you knew it, the Philadelphia region was the largest market in the nation without an alternative rock radio format. Mourning the death of high school preset king Y100 (“why? Because it’s good, that’s why!” said Noel Gallagher in my favorite station ID) I thought Gibby never got his wish: I didn’t seen any rejection of pop excess at the last decade’s end and a commercial reset. I didn’t see what I imagined the Clash did as the 70s waned or what coalesced as Nirvana circa 1990. As the 9’s tipped to the aughts like gasoline meters, boy bands roared back from their late 80’s exile, pop ceased being a meaningful qualifier when placed before the word music, metal ceased meaning anything when preceded by nu and grunge rather cynically faked a revival. This isn’t a full recounting, “American Pie”-style, of that era’s musical history, but eventually I came to realize that the punk moment had indeed come, that it was about distribution and choice. And hip-hop. And Wilco. But I can’t get into all of that now. I have an MFA thesis to write. And Sufjan Stevens.
I’ve been thinking lately that if the current global economic crisis is as game-changing as was the Depression, and if rock ‘n’ roll was birthed by a nascent youth culture cutting the tension of economic crisis, a few wars, and a war-fueled recovery, perhaps we’re about to see a whole new set of transforming creative moments like the 50s and 60s in Lubbock and Memphis and Detroit and Liverpool, like London and the Bronx circa 1976. Like wherever Kayne West was ten years ago. The art coming up out of those places drew from common pools, there’s a shared musical history, sure, between blues and rock and gospel and hip hip and punk, but there’s more to it than rightly cherished source code. These explosive movements came each in their own ways from conflict, from the merging of cultures, and, at their best, from a widening sense of neighbor and diminishing definitions of Other. I’m not saying music sets everything right, but there’s a reason the Clash covering Bobby Fuller is sublime, not ironic. There’s a reason Johnny Cash doing “Hurt” is better than Trent Reznor, there’s a reason everyone bought Thriller, that the Gaslight Anthem sing about Miles Davis, that the Fugees cover Don McLean and Don McLean covers Buddy Holly. That everyone covers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, that Teddy Riley samples Bill Withers, that everyone loves the Beatles and the Temptations. There’s a reason I’m getting carried away.
This post started with the intention of getting into a discussion about books, but I’m going to table that for a few hours. Yesterday was the 52nd anniversary of the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. It happened 21 years before I was born, but it still makes me sad. Here’s to the last train for the coast.
Special thanks to Jay Trucker for his Guest Post from yesterday. Looking forward to Part II on Monday.
I am fascinated by the idea, put forward in the lit seminar I’m taking, that in the middle of the 20th century it was fashionable for artists and writers to convert to Catholicism. I’d never heard that before.
I was reading about Robert Lowell’s transformation from Boston-bred Puritan/Congregationalist heir to Catholic, and found a consensus (among half a dozen online sources, anyway) that his conversion was an explicit rejection of the WASPy, industrial mores of his upbringing and native Northeastern context. Max Weber might concur. There’s also at least some religious longing here, though, says A.O. Scott:
The poems are populated by figures from New England’s past, including some of Lowell’s own ancestors. But Lowell, descended on both sides from prominent Yankee families, had undertaken a twofold rebellion against his inheritance, rejecting Harvard for Kenyon College and the bleached-out Puritanism of the Congregational Church for a notably sanguinary, “fire-breathing” Catholicism.
Because I’m a soft little soul, I know a few things about indie music. We’ve talked about Sufjan/Flannery before, but the more I think about the number of good, working indie bands out there that also happen to be plaintively Christian, the more I wonder if their influx since the mid-late 90s has something to do with secular suburban kids rebelling against the norms and expectations of their settings. I won’t bore you with tales of my own Tenth-Grade Nothingness or an uninformed discourse on how the straightedge movement corroborates this idea. More on “Christian” art that’s still…good…in this article on emusic.com.