Interfaith, international

The Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference was an international conference. I met people who held passports from Canada, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Japan, Turkey, and the Philippines; and people born in Israel, China, Pakistan, Germany, and Indonesia but now living in the U.S. I was also aware of people who came from other countries, including Nigeria, India, and Malaysia. I’ve probably missed some other nationalities.

The Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference was also an interfaith conference. I met or talked with Christians (both Catholic and Protestant), Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and adherents of syncretic traditions; there were also Hindus, and probably other religious affiliations that I missed.

Since there were only about 70 people at the conference, this is quite a bit of diversity indeed — as these photos show:



Sacred Texts Human Contexts – Version 2

And even though I’m just another white guy from the U.S., I was pleased to be able to provide a tiny bit of religious diversity myself, as an adherent of a miniscule (and even inconsequential) post-Christian sect.

Being a part of such a diverse conference was an interesting experience. Although I try to be a good world citizen and have at least some understanding of major world religious traditions, this conference made me confront how little I know about Islam. My ignorance of Islam may have something to do with the peculiarities of U.S. culture, in which everyone knows (or thinks they know) about Christianity, most of us have some familiarity with Judaism, and college-educated people tend to have a fair amount of knowledge of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism (because these are the Cool Religions, i.e., Not Christian). But here in the U.S., we tend to know little about Islam, except that Malcolm X converted. It’s always good to come up against one’s ignorance; that’s one of the most direct routes towards wisdom; and now I know about my ignorance of Islam, I can take steps to remedy that.

What a privilege to be a part of this conference, to meet such diverse and interesting people! And it was also a privilege to be able to partake in such interesting intellectual conversations, on such an important topic: how world religions might work individually and together to address the global climate crisis.

I’ll conclude my reporting on the content of the conference in two more posts, which should go live tomorrow….

Critical Approaches to Faith and Environment

The 9 a.m. session on Tuesday, May 24, of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Critical Approaches to Faith and Environment I,” included presentations by John Fadden, adjunct professor at St. John Fisher College, and Shalahudin Kafrawi, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

In “The Apocalypse of John: Friend and/or Foe of the Environment?” Fadden gave an analysis of the book of Revelation. As a Biblical scholar, he said that we have to be careful about using a two thousand year old text to discuss contemporary issues. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, was writing for a first century C.E. audience in the Roman Empire; he was not writing for a twenty-first century audience, and did not specifically address global climate change or other ecological concerns.

“He’s also not really concerned with the end of the world in the way we have perhaps come to associate with the apocalypse,” said Fadden, “especially what we have come to call dispensationalism,” a contemporary interpretive framework that inspired the Left Behind series of books. “That’s not really his interest,” said Fadden, and “as Biblical scholars, we have to be sympathetic to the first century audience.”

However, the intended audience of the Bible is often forgotten. For example, in 2005, during George W. Bush’s presidency, some observers believed that Bush was influenced by an apocalyptic attitude, and those observers believed this attitude had an impact on Bush’s environmental policies. Some of these observers went to far as to wish that Revelation had not been included in the Bible. But Fadden says you can’t really blame a first century text for George W. Bush’s environmental policies. “The problem is not the text so much as how you might interpret it,” he said.

Thus Fadden is interested in seeing if there is an alternative, “eco-friendly way of reading the text.”

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Panel on Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings

The second Wednesday morning session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings” at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25 included presentations by Brianne Donaldson, professor at Monmouth College; Jamison Stallman, M.A. candidate at Union Theological Seminary; and Cecille M. Medina-Moldonado, M.A. candidate at Loyola University. I was most interested in hearing Donaldson’s presentation on Jainism, but ultimately found Medina-Moldonado’s presentation equally interesting.

Donaldson’s presentation, titled “I Ask Pardon of All Creatures: The Centrality More Than Human Life Jain Text and Rituals of Repentance,” began with some basic information about Jainsim, including an introduction to the principle of ahimsa, not causing harm. Pointing out that Mahavira, the key figure in early Jainism, was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, she said, “Both buddha and Mahavira prioritize ethical action over Vedic ritual practice.” [Note that I am not able to include diacritical marks for Sanskrit transliteration on this Web site.]

“Jainism posits a universe of which our universe is just one part,” said Donaldson, adding, “There is no deity.” instead, according to the Tattvartha Sutra, there are six substances, including jiva which may be interpreted as soul, or as sentient substance. All organisms house a jiva, she said, including microorganisms.

Jains believe in reincarnation after death. They also believe in karma, said Donaldson, which she described as a kind of “causal entanglement. “Just to live in the world has a cost.”

“One’s own jiva might yet be reborn in a the body of a plant or animal,” said Donaldson, so care for other organisms is important, as one might sometime be reborn in one of those bodies. This leads to ethical concern for other beings.

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Environmental ethics panel

Presenters at the Environmental Ethics session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, were Lyndsey Graves, recent graduate of Boston University School of Theology; Michael Malley, student at Methodist Theological School in Ohio; and Etin Anwar, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

I was particularly interested to hear Graves’s presentation, “Liberal vs. Literal?: Opportunities for Environmentally Ethical Pentecostal Interpretations of Genesis 1:26-28.” Pentecostalism is arguably the fastest growing religious group in the world, and as such could be a valuable interfaith ally in addressing the current global environmental crises.

Graves chose to address Gen. 1:26-28 because it has been such an influential text, with its injunction to “subdue” and have “dominion” over the earth. While this text has often been interpreted as giving humankind license to exploit other organisms and non-living things, eco-theologians have re-interpreted the text as calling on humans to be responsible stewards of the earth. Graves said that today, some Pentecostals are now “creatively coming up with ways to reinterpret Genesis 1:26-28.”

“I am focusing on the words ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’,” Graves said. She pointed out that liberal Christians can say that this passage is not particularly important to them, or they can re-interpret the text to call for stewardship, “which I do not think is really justified in the Hebrew.”

But Pentecostals do not really have these options. Pentecostals assert the “inerrancy of the word of God, and because of this they do not aim to evaluate the Bible, but “to understand it and submit” to the will of God.

Graves reviewed the work of several relevant theologians who have provided readings of the text that might prove useful to Pentecostals.

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Catherine Keller on “Ecologies of Diversity”

Catherine Keller, author of From a Broken Web, was the keynote speaker at the opening session of the 2016 Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference at Nazareth College, Rochester, New York. This year’s conference theme is “Nature and Environment in World Religions.”

Keller’s address was titled “Ecologies of Diversity: Beyond Religious and Human Exceptionalism.”

To help address the global environmental crisis, Keller believes religions must move beyond human exceptionalism — that is, religions have to get over the notion that humans are somehow more privileged than other organisms. Furthermore, she believes that we must also move beyond religious exceptionalism.

She said she assumed that those of us attending the conference are participants in a faith that is “planetary.” “By talking together, we hope to get and give some hope,” she said, “Hope for the planetary future.” She added: “Those hopes come encoded in our sacred texts.”

Keller went on to make three main points:

First, the unprecedented planetary emergency should not be treated as exceptional, she said. The current ecological crisis is driven both by politics that use emergency powers to prolong the crisis, and by various types of exceptionalism. Instead, she said the planetary emergency can be understood as “an emergence.”

Second, Keller believes “an alternative politics” is needed. “The key to this alternative is, I believe, what might be called ‘entangled difference’.” Her 2015 book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement goes into more detail on “entanglement,” which she relates to the concept of quantum entanglement.

“Difference is not a separation, but a relation,” she pointed out. Thus, difference and entanglement can go hand in hand. “And so while difference may exclude or ignore” that from which it is different, there is still a relationship between the things that are different.

Third, Keller said, “If we can turn catastrophe into catalyst, the answer is hope.” In fact, she said that “catastrophe must become a catalyst” in order for positive action to happen.

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New models of youth ministry

The old model of youth ministry — inward-focused intensive overnight experiences like cons or rallies, plus weekly youth groups focused on community-building — still serves a significant minority of youth in our congregations. We shouldn’t abandon it, but my observations seem to indicate this model is slowly declining. My guess is in our increasingly multicultural, market-fragmented world, we are no longer going to have one single model of youth ministry that will serve the majority of youth in our congregations.

Given that the era of one-size-fits-all youth ministry is probably over, what are some other possible models?

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“Down to the Valley To Pray”

The first known publication of “Down to the Valley To Pray” was in 1867, under the title “The Good Old Way,” in the book Slave Songs of the United States, ed. William F. Allen, Lucy M. White, and Charles P. Ware. In 1872, the Fisk Jubilee Singers included a different version of the melody in their songbook, under the title “The Good Old Way. In the mid-twentieth century, Leadbelly sang it for a Library of Congress recording

The song has also been taken up by white country and bluegrass singers. Flatt and Scruggs played it now and then, and Doc Watson did a lovely recording. In 2000, Alison Kraus popularized the song under the title “Down in the River To Pray,” which was part of the soundtrack to the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

For this version, I went back to the words and melody recorded in 1867. The melody begins and ends on the dominant, not the tonic, and both white and black musicians have sometimes emphasized that musically ambiguous ending; the final chord for this arrangement is D5 (dominant), not G (tonic).

Down in the Valley To Pray thumbnail

Down In the Valley To Pray (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

Performance notes: Because this song is so widely sung, you can safely sing it any way you want: blues, country, gospel, bluegrass, R & B, rock ‘n’ roll. Punk rock version, anyone? Or how about a hip hop version, with samples of Leadbelly’s classic rendition?

“Sioux Love Song”

One of the problems you run into when looking for copyright-free sacred songs is that most of the public domain songs out there are Anglo-American or African American, and Christian. That being the case, I’m willing to stretch the definition of “sacred song” quite a bit to include songs on even vaguely spiritual topics. Thus this lovely Sioux chant counts as a sacred song because of the English translation: “Brother-in-law, walk straight forward, I will try to follow you”: I’m willing to consider that a song about moral integrity, and staying in community.

Sioux Love Song (PDF), sized for order of service insert (5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in.)

Historical background: Gen. Samuel Armstrong Chapman founded Hampton Institute to educate newly freed African Americans; perhaps the best know Hampton graduate was Booker T. Washington. Armstrong also aimed to “civilize” Native Americans, that is, have them adopt Anglo-American culture. Thus when by Thomas P. Fenner, Bessie Cleaveland, and Frederic G. Rathbun put together Cabin and Plantation Songs, as Sung the the Hampton Students in 1901, the bulk of the music was African American spirituals, but there were also a handful of Native American songs.

Performance notes: About the three Sioux songs in the book, one the editors of Cabin and Plantation Songs wrote: “I have indicated as far as possible the actual tones of the above songs. It is impossible to put into notation the literal manner in which they are sung, as it depends entirely on the singer to change as his fancy dictates.” Thus the songs should be really sung in unison (i.e., with no accompaniment) to allow for this kind of improvisation — but the average congregation will probably find it easier to sing with some kind of accompaniment.

In a more formal worship service, it’s probably enough to sing the song through three times, maybe the second time through trying to sing the transliterated Sioux words. In less formal circle worship, you could sing it till you fall into a trance.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is a classic spiritual song from the African American tradition. It may have been composed by Minerva and Wallace Willis. Here are two arrangements of this song.

The first arrangement is by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They published their arrangement in The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs (New York: Biglow & Main, 1872). Notice that their arrangement has the first note (“Swing…”) sung on the downbeat; this is different from a common contemporary interpretation of the song where the first note is a pickup measure. The original arrangement of the Fisk Jubilee singers had a fermata over the second note of the opening phrase (“…low…”), and again later where the word “low” is sung; I have omitted the fermata, both because it may confuse congregational singing, and to make this arrangement more consistent with the next arrangement.


Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Fisk Jubilee Singers (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

The next arrangement is derived from Harry T. Burleigh’s 1918 arrangement of this song for piano and low voice. Burleigh was arguably the first great African American composer of art music; he studied with Dvorak, and helped introduce Dvorak to American folk music. One of the verses and one of the choruses of Burleigh’s piano accompaniment can be easily and logically transcribed for SATB choir, as in the following arrangement.


Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Harry T. Burleigh (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

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“Go Down, Moses”

“Go Down, Moses” is a classic spiritual song from the African American tradition. The earliest known publication was in 1862, in an arrangement derived from a song sung by escaped slaves.

This arrangement comes from the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, perhaps the first African American musical ensemble to tour internationally. They published their arrangement in The Story of the Jubilee Singers: With Their Songs (New York: Biglow & Main, 1872). Their version has 24 verses, telling how Moses led the Israelites to freedom (Exodus 12:29 through Exodus 14 in the Hebrew Bible); other verses mention other matters outside of this basic story. See Historical Background below for how this sacred song has been used as a song of freedom.

"Go Down, Moses" thumbnail

Go Down, Moses (PDF, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in. for order of service inserts)

Historical background: Harriet Tubman used this as a code song when she was helping enslaved persons escape to the north. Sarah Bradford, in her biography of Tubman, (Auburn, N. Y.: W. J. Moses, 1869), pp. 26-27, wrote: “I give these words exactly as Harriet sang them to me to a sweet and simple Methodist air. ‘De first time I go by singing dis hymn, dey don’t come out to me,’ she said, ’till I listen if de coast is clar; den when I go back and sing it again, dey come out. But if I sing:
‘Moses go down in Egypt,
‘Till ole Pharo’ let me go;
‘Hadn’t been for Adam’s fall,
‘Shouldn’t hab to died at all,’
den dey don’t come out, for dere’s danger in de way.'”

Performance notes: The Fisk Jubilee Singers were first recorded more than three decades after their founding, after many changes of personnel and music directors. In spite of the lapse of time, those early recordings are the best indication we have for the vocal style of the nineteenth century Jubilee Singers. These early recordings reveal a disciplined ensemble with light vibrato, careful enunciation, and precise intonation; a few early recordings are available online at the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, U.C. Santa Barbara. The spare arrangement of “Go Down, Moses” seems to demand discipline, care, and precision in performance. However, the fluid melody is tolerant of the vagaries of congregational singing, and the simplicity of the arrangement means that the average congregation can learn how to sing this song in 4 part harmony.

For an introduction to this sacred song project, including information on copyright, click here.