October 2009


A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

“Song,” Seamus Heaney

I gaze far and long,
Not at cherry blossoms,
Not at autumn leaves,
But at only a thatched hut,
By an inlet,
In the autumn dusk.

Fujiwara No Teika (1162-1241)

Fall is nearing the peak of color here in the Southern Appalachians this weekend, or at least we suspect it is. Despite spending the day in the Smokies, my comrades and I caught very few glimpses of the mountains themselves, other than the bits (wet and muddy!) beneath our feet, as the hills were living up to their name and sat wrapped in mist and cloud all day. Still beautiful, as I hope you’ll judge from the photos below.

This fall is cooler and wetter than last year; it was nearing freezing in the highcountry when we left this evening, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the year’s first snowfall occurs this weekend. Even here in the Tennessee Valley we are supposed to reach near freezing for the next several nights. Winter is looming up close by; last winter had some bitterly cold (spectacular in the mountains) stretches, and we imagine this winter will be even deeper and colder.

If you do feel compelled to visit these mountains in the fall (the loveliest on the continent, by my lights, but I’m biased), do be warned that the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge entrance to the Smokies is absolutely hellacious this time of year. The other entrances, and the rest of the Southern Appalachians really, are comparatively decent and less congested.

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On the way up the Trillium Gap Trail, on the slopes of Mt. LeConte.

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The trail along Brushy Mountain, a spur of Mt. LeConte covered in dense heath bald; some days with lovely views, but today socked in with cloud.

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Grotto Falls, on the way up the Trillium Gap Trail.

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Spider web up on Brushy Mountain.

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Grotto Falls from the other side of the creek; the trail passes behind the falls and stays fairly dry in the process.

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats has been turning out beautifully crafted, insightful songs for quite some time now. On nearly all of his projects there are continual echoes and allusions to Biblical themes and verses; Scriptural language permeates his songs in a way rarely matched by other contemporary musicians (including the explicitly confessional ones!). Darnielle is himself a self-described lapsed Catholic, who has- whatever the current state of his religious practice and devotion- assimilated Scripture to a remarkable degree, enough that it simply is there in his music- not a forced presence, but integral to the stories he tells in his music.

While most of his albums have been full of Scripture, this year he has put out an album that is entirely composed of songs developed out of his interaction with specific Scripture verses. Lest there be any ambiguity in the project, titled The Life of the World to Come, each song is titled with the verse reference. So far I’ve only listened to the free track- Genesis 3:23 (get it here, left side bar)- but will hopefully get a hold of the full album before too much longer, and perhaps offer a more detailed evaluation. This song, at any rate, is quite good: Darnielle meditates on the loss of Paradise, his Adam breaking into the place he used to live but knowing he cannot really return. The Garden is not really there, it is no longer home and cannot be. Darnielle’s Adam here is not an epic character- few of Darnielle’s lyrical characters are, but rather ordinary people caught in the immensity of a fallen world with occasional glimmers of grace. The emphasis for Darnielle though is usually on the desperation, the longing, the search for signs of redemption in a world that very obviously is in need of it.

If Darnielle has only this year gone to direct Scriptural exegesis of a sort, John Ringhofer’s project Half-Handed Cloud (several free tracks on the right hand column there) has produced a whole commentary on the Bible, built out of quirky (sometimes really, really horns and toy piano and found sounds swirling all around quirky), short (almost never over two minutes in length) songs that usually draw directly upon a Scriptural verse or story and expound upon them. Ringhofer moves just as well in the familiar stories and great Christian themes as he does in the more obscure and difficult Old Testament stories. In all of them, his exegesis is deeply Christological, tying Eden and Abraham and Levitical regulations into the mystery of Christ. The quirky, psychedelic even (and certainly not for everybody), disjunctive nature of his music serves as one of his best exegetical devices, if you will, startling the listener into a new appreciation of the text, as the often times familiar passages and verses are transformed into new-yet-old texts, meanings bursting to sudden life- and then moving on into another joyous meditation, exploration of another Scripture passage.

One of the important functions of good exegesis must surely be to draw the reader/listener back into the text, to refresh the Scripture in her mind and heart, so that her reading/recitation/listening does not, as al-Ghazali puts it, simply exist on the lips, but enters into the heart. Or rather- the heart becomes present to the words, they become a single unit, Scripture and the heart united and alive. I could list similar understandings across the spectrum of late antique and medieval writers, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim: true understanding must pass from the surface to the heart, must break through the ease of familiarity and rote reading. I suspect that our ancient exegetes would have understand what John Ringhofer’s Biblical songs are doing: joyously connecting with the heart of Scripture, and through this exploration of the Bible, reaching out to God and rejoicing in His grace and incarnated presence. For Ringhofer is always directing the listener, through his psychadelic two-minute singing Scripture exegesis, to the grace and love of Jesus:

Not that I know,
But that I’m known,
You told me I’m Yours and now You’re making me Your own,
And it’s a gift
Because You lifted me out of the past

I tried to honor
What You commanded with my labor,
But now I haven’t just been told
I have been loved.

Throw Your arms wide,
Taking Your bride,
Making us like Yourself and cleansing us inside,

We wore out our sponge,
The dirt didn’t budge
‘Cause the fudge was all cake-on and corroded,
And we just wouldn’t let You hold it,
That’s when we found You pure but messy with our blood.

Oh in the past we tried to honor,
What You commanded with our labor,
But now we haven’t just been told
We have been loved.

Now that I’m known

Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground
The mildest February for twenty years
Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound
Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors.
Our road is steaming, the turned-up acres breathe.
Now the good life could be to cross a field
And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe
Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.
Old ploughsocks gorge the subsoil of each sense
And I am quickened with a redolence
Of the fundamental dark unblown rose.
Wait then… Breasting the mist, in sowers’ aprons,
My ghosts come striding into their spring stations.
The dream grain whirls like freakish Eastern snows.

‘Glandmore Sonnets I,’ Seamus Heaney

Pardon the paucity of posting- it goes without saying that I’m keeping busy here at the mid-point of the semester, though that’s not really a good excuse for not writing, since I manage to find time to waste on less productive things on-line…

One of my projects that’s keeping me busy involves looking at various Qur’anic tafsir– commentaries- on verses 67-69 from Surah al-Nahl, the Surah of the Bee. The verses in question deal with, among other things, the eponymous bee, which brings up a surprising range of questions for the various commentators I’ve looked at so far. The most exhaustively covered aspect regarding the bees seems to be a phrase that describes honey as a medicine for people (or at least the commentators all suppose that honey is what’s being referred to- like much of the Qur’an, there is a great deal left unsaid. Qur’anic commentators were exploiting the silences in the text long before it was cool to do things like that…). Before the bit about the bee, however, there is a description of milk and where it comes from: ‘Truly, you have in grazing beasts a sign- we give you to drink from their bellies what is between blood and stomach-contents (farth, a rather difficult word to convey into English): milk pure, palatable for drinkers.’

This gives rise to all sorts of questions for commentators, who tackle their material in a surprisingly wide-ranging manner. This is one of the things that has struck me in learning to read tafsir: that while there is indeed a remarkable continuity and stability in these writings, there is also great diversity, especially in how the material is arranged, and what sorts of ‘standard’ questions the author picks, and even more importantly, what he chooses to say about those questions. The following is a nice example of some of the issues one finds in tafsir, and how they might matter in working out what all these authors are doing with the text of the Qur’an, its interpretative tradition, and its devotional use:

‘The second question/disputed matter: God pointed out the greatness of His power in the pure issuing out of milk from between the stomach-contents and the blood, from between the red of the blood and the filthiness of the stomach-contents (al-farth). And though the two had been joined together in one receptacle, when you look to its colour you find it white, plainly pure from the filth of its neighbor. And when you drink it, you find it palatable (sā’igan), against the disgustingness of the stomach-contents- meaning, then, [milk’s] deliciousness. And some say sā’igan to mean no one chokes on it, and truly it has this attribute. However, the notation [above] still holds regarding the deliciousness and pleasantness of the taste, [as opposed to] the odiousness of the neighbor from which it is separated while in the stomach, that is, the disgusting stomach-contents.

‘This is a power that is impossible except to the Regulator of all things for [their] benefit.’

Ibn ‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an, 1145.

This brief excerpt comes from an eleventh to twelfth century commentator, Ibn ‘Arabi of Seville (not that Ibn ‘Arabi from al-Andalus, but a different, far less well-known, and much easier to read and decipher Ibn ‘Arabi), in his Ahkam al-Qur’an, which is a selective tafsir: he only deals with ayah that, ostensibly, have a legal importance.

But as you might have noticed, there’s not really any legal matters at play here. This excerpt follows a long grammatical excursion, and is followed by a legal/hermeneutical question. While I’ve just started this particular tafsir, I would suggest that we see in this small example that even a seemingly narrowly focused work is not in fact so narrow. Nor, I might suggest, should we understand legal matters in general as being carefully divided off from things we might rather label ‘devotional.’ Rather, things seemingly as mundane as legal matters and grammar and vocabulary explanation can provide opportunities for expanding the text’s devotional and contemplative possibilities. Here, Ibn ‘Arabi is dealing with a question of word meaning: the proper connotation of sā’igan. Ibn ‘Arabi resolves it by offering two possibilities, and indicating which he thinks is preferable. Like any grammatical explanation, the commentator is here guiding the reader into a new understanding of the text, creating a new text. But why? Obviously one of the primary reasons one employs a tafsir is to simply understand the often eliptical and opaque words of the Qur’an- otherwise, one ends up confused in many places. The text calls out for an interpreter, if only on the grammatical and syntactic level. How a given commentator reshapes the text depends on all sorts of factors- what elements he chooses to emphasize, which authorities he draws upon, even how he organizes his material. Each commentator arrives at a somewhat different text, a text that can, from then on, be experienced through the lens he has created for us.

Among the concerns of commentators, and the one I want to focus on here, is that of guiding the reader into the ‘devotional’ meaning of the text, a meaning that will guide him as he reads the Qur’an for himself, whether in a contemplative setting or in a public-liturgical one or as part of further study. As al-Ghazali argues in Volume 1, Book 8 of the Ihya, proper recitation of the Qur’an- recitation that becomes ‘present’ (hudur) to the heart- depends upon a good understanding of the text itself. This involves, obviously, understanding grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, but I would suggest that it also involves being guided into the ‘worshipful’ junctures of the Qur’an, some of which may not be immediately obvious. In the case of the passage above, the text itself indicates that the giving of milk is a ‘sign,’ an ‘indication,’ (‘ibratan); in this case, Ibn ‘Arabi points out again what has already been ‘pointed out’ (nabah) in the text. If the reader missed the significance, the commentator reiterates and expands it, and directs him to the proper response: wonder and praise over the power of God.

The vocabulary question, then, becomes a textual fissure from which Ibn ‘Arabi can direct the reader, not simply to a better understanding of a given word, but to a better understanding of the power of God in the natural world. By unpacking the text, he deepens the reader’s awe and reverence associated with this single ayah, which the reader can then retain when he comes back to this ayah in any other context. It also has the function, I think, of not only explicating the potentially hairy syntax of the Qur’an, but also of more closely linking the textual ‘sign’ to the physically perceived world of cows and milk. By emphasizing the process of milk-production, the commentator can perhaps guide his reader to recollection of the ‘sign’ even when the reader is outside of the text itself- say, drinking milk or seeing a cow. Either within or outside the text, the intent, I think, is to evoke in the reader worship, devotion towards the Creator. While textual explication on a very straightforward level is important, obviously, it is not necessarily the only or even primary concern.

This is also true, I think, for both Eastern and Western Christian commentators: even the long lines of often times dry grammatical explanation ultimately direct back to a devotional- for lack of a better word- use of the scriptures. This is in fact a rather important point that cannot be stressed too often: for medieval users of scripture- Christian, Jewish, Muslim- the text is not simply an artefact to be examined. It is always the words of God speaking and offering a means to approach the Divine. Text does not exist for text’s sake; even the driest of commentators (and trust me, they can be terribly dull, across confessional lines…) is working towards a deeper and more knowledgable experience and understanding of God through his exegesis. Even in, say, the ‘Antiochian’ tradition of exegesis, there is a very marked difference between the ‘historio-critical’ and what a late antique or medieval exegete is doing, though the external forms may on first glance appear similar.