Monday, September 21, 2015

Conservatrix Lestrange

The "broken heart and contrite spirit" that the Psalmist famously spoke of seems to be a mainstay of Renaissance-era devotional texts. It seems that popular religion was (for a brief period, perhaps) less about self-aggrandizement and praying on street-corners than about quiet, self-effacing repentance.

Herbert's "The Altar" carries tones that forespeak the voice of modern hymns (by which I mean "hymns that are still popularly sung," not "hymns written by anyone who lived in the past century"). Phrases like the following resonate clearly with Renaissance sentiment:

"Foul, I to the fountain fly; / wash me, Savior, or I die" (Toplady).

"Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, / prone to leave the God I love" (Robinson).

"O soul, are you weary and troubled? No light in the darkness you see?" (Lemmel)

"I am weak but thou art strong" ("Just a Closer Walk").

"Chasten my soul till I shall be / In perfect harmony with thee. / Make me more worthy of thy love" (Whitney).

Herbert says, "A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears, / Made of a heart, and cemented with tears," and we recognize his language and the passion of his emotional discourse because all of Christianity is cemented with tears like his.

The point at which the printing press was popularized coincided with the point at which Christianity achieved the character it would maintain for centuries to come. So is it a coincidence? Did Christianity reach a sort of metaphysical "critical mass," after which it no longer felt moved to evolve in any sort of fundamental way? Or did the printing press immortalize a snapshot of Christianity as it was during the Renaissance, giving it an anchor from which it could not far stray?

Clearly this is a matter that could be argued either way. And the premise itself, that Christianity at its core has been the same since the Renaissance, could also be argued. But the intertwined paths of Christianity and the printing press are easily seen--most of our hymns were written within a century of the end of the Renaissance, most of our Bibles come from the Renaissance, and much of the dialectic that formed the common aspects of Protestantism happened during, and because of, the Renaissance.

So there's plenty of room for argument, but I hold that Christianity is a cultural time capsule from the Renaissance, maintaining that era in our minds through its beloved traditions and antiquated syntax. Try as we might to place the Bible in the first century AD, it holds just as strongly to the days of Milton and Shakespeare.

Works Cited

Anonymous. "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." Harry Plantinga, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Lemmel, Helen Howarth. "Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus." Harry Plantinga, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Robinson, Robert. "Come Thou Fount." Harry Plantinga, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Toplady, Augustus M. "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me." Harry Plantinga, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Whitney, Orson F. "Savior, Redeemer of My Soul." LDS Hymns. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of a Christian "critical mass", which I think describes a lot of the Reformation. From the freedom of the press, many started to express their ideas through devotional poetry. However, the question remains; was the devotional poetry just an outspringing of the feelings that they had previously, or was the public conscience influenced by the poetry of a few select poets, like Herbert?