Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bible Culture

I listen to a good bit of white spiritual music, via cd/YouTube/mp3, and especially on local KJV-only old-time-religion radio. My favorite station features a medley of preaching, Bible reading, quiet advertising, singing by assorted amateur adult and children's choirs from the broadcast area, and professionally-recorded music. Once a day all the obituaries in the local paper are graciously and unhurriedly read; I expect that gentle voice will someday read mine.

I'm Catholic. The station's worldview and mine are not in perfect accord, but that keeps me on my toes. It's what one might call a left-handed blessing: I don't know where I'd be as a Catholic without the challenge of living in the Bible Belt. Regardless, the thing I most appreciate about the programming is how the culture of church and Bible extends into the day-to-day social world of the listenership. In other words, the programming is pitched at people for whom the Bible isn't just part of Church- it's part of Culture. Most of the songs are not hymns- they're just songs with a Christian context. And not just a Christian context (Jesus loves me/ I love Jesus), but a Bible context (I'm a sinner who is washed in the blood of Jesus). That streaming of the Bible out of Sunday worship into the rest of the week is something American Catholics would do well to emulate. An example of what I like in this "Bible-believing" culture is a song about Lazarus. You know the story about Jesus raising Lazarus. It doesn't hurt to read it again:

John 11 (edited):

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  So the sisters sent to [Jesus], saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  ...Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; Jesus wept. Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.  Jesus said, "Take away the stone."  So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me."  When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out."  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth... ."

Here's the story again, retold as poetry:

There were a little family/ Who lived in Bethany.
Two sisters and the brother/ Composed the family.
While they were living so happy/ So good, pure and kind,
Their brother was afflicted/ And by disease confined.
When Jesus heard the tidings/ Far in a distant land,
So quickly did he hasten/ To see the holy land.

When Martha saw him coming/ She met him on the way,
And told him of her brother/ Who’d died and passed away.
When Mary saw him coming/ She ran and met him too.
Fell at his feet a-weeping/ Rehearsed their tale of woe.

When Jesus saw her weeping/ He fell a-weeping, too,
And wept until they showed him/ Where Lazarus lay entombed.
He rolled away the stone/ Looked into the grave,
And prayed to his heavenly father/ His loving friend to raise.
He rolled back the cover/ Looked into the gloomy mound,
And as the breath was given/ He walked upon the ground.

If we would only but love Jesus/ And do his blessed will,
Like these two loving sisters/ He’d always treat us well,
And at death he would redeem us/ And carry us to the sky,
And there we’d live forever/ Where pleasure never dies.

You can see how well the story is understood, and is retold in the composer's own voice; yet it remains remarkably close to its Bible source.

And the words set to music, recorded in 1960: The Little Family (1:42, very short)

The song springs from a culture which reads, likes, is conversant with, is familiar with, is at ease with the Bible. That's what I'd like Catholics to have: that same familiarity and comfort level.  To not just respect the Bible, but to like it.

(That's Ollie Gilbert at the top: she's the singer)