Science fiction that takes religion seriously

Yes, I’m talking about Dune, but don’t worry. No spoilers here for the brilliant film adaptation now out in theaters (see it in IMAX) and streaming on HBO Max. The movie treats religion as little more than background or set-dressing, one of my few quibbles with it.

No, what I’m talking about is the way author Frank Herbert weaved religion into the fabric of the universe he created in his masterpiece of science fiction, first published between 1963 and 1965 in serial form. In fact, the central protagonist of the novel is very obviously a savior, a prophesied messiah figure, though, in the words of one writer, one imbued with a “blighted messiahship.”

To be clear, Herbert is in no way proselytizing. This is not a “religious” novel. Rather, he accomplishes two considerably different feats.

First, He presents an utterly fascinating glimpse of the end results of millennia’s worth of the social evolution of religious thought and theology. In a fascinating discussion of religion in Dune, Chris Bateman wrote at his blog:

Dune doesn’t merely include religion as part of its background, it is central to it. Herbert doesn’t imagine a future world bereft of religion, but one that shows religious traditions as having been transformed over millennia. …

Herbert himself was raised as a Catholic, but became a Zen Buddhist in adulthood, and in envisioning the transitions of religion in a post-Earth society, Herbert imagines the doctrinal effect of a synthesis between Buddhist and Abrahamic faiths. A fastidious note taker, details of the setting for Dune had been worked out in much greater detail than ever appears in the narrative, and it is possible – just from examining clues in the text – to unravel some of the religious changes Herbert imagines. Although he does not suggest a single unifying faith, religion in the 102nd century has one major holy book, known as the Orange Catholic Bible, which contains books from the Talmud, the Old and New Testaments, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, and the Vedas, as well as Zen koans and Taoist analects. …

Herbert imagines a future history that has been influenced by many different schools, including Mahayana Christianity (a fusion of the numinous, worship-focussed religions Christianity and Mahayana Buddhism) and Zensunni Catholicism (a fusion of Zen Buddism, Sunni Islam and the Catholic church). Other Buddislamic sects are mentioned, including Zensufism – a merging of Zen Buddhism and Sufism, the Islamic mystical religion (these two religions are not hard to interrelate, as each deals with quite similar themes but from wildly different perspectives). 

To my mind, this by itself makes Herbert’s works noteworthy. It is rare to find a work of science fiction that bothers to contemplate such matters, let alone turn them into the backbone of the story’s grand narrative. If anyone knows of another example, please let me know.

The second accomplishment, however, is just as interesting and probably more important. Herbert makes religion central to his story in order to deliver a damning commentary on the merging of religion and politics and the leveraging and manipulation of faith to acquire and maintain political power. There are true believers in the Dune universe, but there are also those who both spread and then take advantage of those beliefs to advance their own agendas.

Beth Elderkin, writing at Gizmodo, explains:

Of course, the biggest question of all might be: What is religion in Dune? That depends on who you ask. For some, like the Fremen, it’s a way of life. But for the people in power, it’s a political tool. Many of the folks in the upper echelon of Dune’s world—like the Spacing Guild, which controls all interstellar travel–are agnostic. Even the Bene Gesserit doesn’t consider itself to be a religious group, but its members fuel belief in others to serve their own ends. That’s because Frank Herbert’s series was designed to examine the intersection of religion and politics, partially inspired by growing up in Catholicism. 

In the novel, Herbert relays a Bene Gesserit proverb which captures what can only be the author’s own perspective on the risks of bringing religion and politics too closely together:

When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.

It is the dangers inherent in this interface between religion and politics, Bateman writes, that Herbert wants to warn us of. And it is a lesson well worth paying attention to.

Music for a Friday: Lined-out hymnody

I’m going to warn you now, this post is even more esoteric than usual. But it is a diversion from the usual seriousness on display here, so bear with me.

I want to introduce you to a very old and now rare American tradition with roots in Scotland, still practiced by church communities in places like Alabama, Kentucky, and Oklahoma who are bound together by shared faith and musical inheritance.

It’s called lined-out hymn singing, a call-and-response form of sacred song whose roots in this country can be traced to the Scots tradition of a cappella Gaelic psalm singing which can still be heard in the remote and isolated communities of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, especially the Isle of Lewis.

It is a precursor to the obscure form of group a cappella singing that I do, shape-note singing from a hymnal called The Sacred Harp. I’ve written about this before in this space.

It is frankly hard to describe the sound of lined-out singing. It is haunting and raw, almost primitive in its intensity. This is literal hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck music.

I have never heard it in person, though some of the folk that I sing with when I travel to Alabama for Sacred Harp singings (back in nearly forgotten pre-pandemic times when such things were still possible) also sing lined-out hymns or psalms. Apparently if you’ve seen the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, you can find lining-out depicted at her father’s funeral.

Apparently the music, once common in 17th and 18th century Britain and America, fell victim to disputes about what music was appropriately edifying for singing in church. You can dig deeper into the “controversy” as it played out in Puritan New England here.

I’ve only experienced this tradition through recordings and videos found on YouTube. But it turns out that there is a fantastic short documentary from Yale University that digs deep into the music and the communities that still sing it – Hebridean islanders, a Black congregation from Alabama, a White congregation from Kentucky, and a Muskogee Creek congregation from Oklahoma who brought the music west with them on the Trail of Tears.

The documentary is called “A Conjoining of Ancient Song,” and you can watch it below. Here’s the introduction to the film, posted at Vimeo:

A special Yale documentary retraces the trajectory of a rapidly eroding form of congregational singing out of Scotland and into African American, Native American, and white American religious song traditions. The Yale Institute of Sacred Music, one of the film’s sponsors, organized a first screening at the University in April 2013, and offers it to the public here.

The renowned jazz musician and ethnomusicologist Willie Ruff began his journey began several years ago, when he followed up on his friend Dizzy Gillespie’s claim that some remote African American congregations in the Deep South sang hymns in Gaelic, according to Ruff’s website. Consulting The Massachusetts Bay Colony Psalm Book from 1640 in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, he found that the form, in which one church member calls out the first line of a Psalm and the rest of the congregation continues to chant the text in unison, had been a common worship practice in Colonial America. Pursuing the inquiry, Ruff made the startling discovery that this call-and-response service, chanted by descendants of African slaves in the American South and by white congregations in remote churches of Appalachia, was actually still intoned in Gaelic in its original form in Scotland’s remote and culturally isolated Outer Hebrides.

In 2005, he organized an international conference at Yale, bringing together a few of the almost extinct congregations still practicing the ancient line-singing tradition. The Free Church Psalm Singers of the Isle of Lewis, Scotland; the Indian Bottom Old Regular Baptists of southeastern Kentucky; and the Sipsey River Primitive Baptist Association of Eutaw, Alabama, came to perform a shared service that had adapted over generations to their diverse idioms. In the course of that conference, he learned that the tradition extended to the Muskogee Creeks in Oklahoma as well, and two years later, Ruff, who traces his own lineage back to the crossroads of races and cultures represented in the unusual custom, organized a second conference at Yale to gather Native American, African American and Appalachian line-singers together for the first time. 

The 30-minute documentary “A Conjoining of Ancient Song” is the story of Willie Ruff’s journey connecting Gaelic psalm singing and American Music. 

It is a wonderful film, with haunting music and profound emotion. The academics are, at times, well, too academic. But the real people who sing this music, and the connections they have with each other, bonds of faith, fellowship, and tradition, are deeply touching.

We once had a president

(Kronos Quartet featuring Meklit. Credit: Vimeo)

I have forgotten how long it’s been since we had a president who sought to heal the wounds of this country rather than pour salt into them. And then I listened to the beautiful, wrenching song The President Sang Amazing Grace.

It is the second track on the Kronos’s Quartet’s most recent album Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger released on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The album features arrangements of 13 songs written or made famous by the legendary American folksinger Pete Seeger or his band the Weavers, along with newer compositions.

The vocalist on The President Sang Amazing Grace, Meklit, delivers a poignant, heartbreaking performance that frankly brought me to tears. The song is a reminder that at their best our political leaders can bring us together rather than divide us. They can inspire us to be better than we are rather than pander to the worst within us.

In short, this song reminds me that we can have a president again. Eight days and counting.