Sunday, September 4, 2016

Horatio Spafford's "It Is Well With My Soul" to an #AtheistEar

For long time readers of this blog, or fans of the book, you might recognize this song from my post, Going to Pet the Rabbits. (A much better, edited version appears in my book, which you can find on Amazon.)

To quote myself:

Being a memorial service...Amazing Grace and It Is Well With My Soul were featured. The first verse of the latter one is particularly appropriate, and I was struck today by how Zen it is: 
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
- by Horatio Spafford

That part, at least, is a universal comfort; attaining peace in the tempest is a skill that everyone should learn - and the elemental imagery of the water here is striking. As I listened, I thought about how important that Idea was to me growing up, and how I've held onto it. That, at least, was something good and honest that could help my friend grieve, I thought.
But there is a lot more going on in this song than the first verse. Here's a modern version of the full song you might enjoy (with some historical background included):

(Full lyrics are available here.)

As a kid, I thought this song was beautiful, and because I was a music nerd who spent most of his time by himself, the chorus is one that I would hum to myself on a continuous loop, putting a swell into the harmony parts, or improvising alternate melodies to complement the one composed by Philip Bliss. The music captured my mind, and the words of the chorus made it a song that I could still treasure after I stopped being a Christian, because they were and are comforting:

It is well, (it is well)
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul

Psychologically, the first verse and chorus use a combination of stirring imagery and call-and-response repetition to create a calming effect. And if, like me, you don't believe in the mystical idea of a soul, you can certainly appreciate the poetic sense of self here. The sentiment is a common one in human tradition; the ladies in my church would often say, "Let go, and let God," and as I noted in my introduction, there is resonance here with the Zen tradition of letting go of concerns about the physical world.

Of course, the other verses of this song are very clearly rooted in Christian theology - and those roots are more disturbing to me now that I am an adult. They say, "Though Satan should buffet..." you'll be okay because "Christ has regarded my helpless estate/And hath shed His own blood for my soul" - a common theme based in the ancient concept of ritual sacrifice. In the same vein (pun intended), "My sin, not in part but the whole/Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more" - again, building on the idea that because Jesus was tortured to death to "pay for" your sins, you won't have to suffer a worse fate later.

There is a lot to unpack in there.

Being a kid raised in a Christian tradition, most of these concepts were taught to me from the earliest moments of my life. Songs, including this one, are tied into my first memories, so that even though as a toddler I certainly had no grasp of what "sin" was supposed to mean, I remember the hearing the songs and the music drags what I know now about the words into the memories and impressions I have of my earliest days. This has the effect of making things I was taught feel like they were always part of my make-up.

This is not magic; neurologists are continually adding to what we know about how the brain works, and studying the way our memories are constantly recreated and overwritten. (This RadioLab episode on Memory and Forgetting talks a lot about the science behind that.) Using that mechanism of re-writing memories, music acts as a vehicle for carrying ideas "back in time" so to speak, so that even ideas that I learned about later (probably as I approached double digits, and became self-aware and self-conscious) my brain naturally recalled the music and retroactively tied the words to that memory.

Knowing this about how the mind works means that things placed into my earliest memories are things that I find disturbing now. Take sin just as a general concept. The Christian ideas about sin are not uniform. No matter how I define the term here in this tiny blog post, I won't be using "the" definition of it that all Christians use. In fact, one of the main reasons that there are so many different kinds of Christian is that they each have a unique set of ideas about what sin is, and what one must do about their sins.

The simplified version of the concept that I was raised to believe was that sin is what occurs when you "miss the mark" - you, as an individual, must make moral decisions all the time, and when you make the wrong decision, that is a sin. Building off of that idea, you, as an individual, will make a lot of poor choices in your life. Every poor choice you make adds to your suffering and the suffering of others. (Don't call that karma, though, because we don't go for that mystical Eastern stuff!) So, once you reach an age where you become aware of all of the countless mistakes you've made, how do you fix them?

That's where the idea of Christ's sacrifice enters the picture. Building on those ancient traditions of ritual sacrifice, and playing to the very common human desire to restore "balance" to things, the story about Jesus being crucified is meant to give everyone a way to restore that balance. Again, every different kind of Christian will have a different explanation for how that is supposed to work. But thanks to the magic of poetry, every one of them can project their explanation onto a song.

If you watched the video, you have already read the story behind the writing of "It Is Well With My Soul," but if you skipped the video, here is the gist: Horatio Spafford was a prominent Chicago lawyer with a large family. He and his wife were close friends of the evangelist Dwight L. Moody. The Spaffords lost most of their wealth in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, lost their son to scarlet fever, and then in 1873, lost their four daughters at sea when the ship they were on collided with another ship.

Spafford wrote this song as his own ship passed the spot in the ocean where his daughters died, on his way to England to retrieve his wife.

His story reminds me of another story. The Story of Job, in which Satan wagers that a man named Job will stay loyal to God even if God allows Satan to kill his family, destroy his wealth, and ruin his health. (Spoiler Alert: Job fails, because he yells at God. This is his only sin, at least in the version of the story I was taught.)

Spafford would have been well familiar with the story of Job. There's a pretty good chance that he was thinking about that story when he decided to pen this song. I don't know what Spafford's sins might have been - he was a lawyer, so that's one, amirite? - but the beauty of a concept as loosely defined as sin is that it applies to any mistake you make. So he was certainly contemplating all of the reasons why God might have decided to take away everything he had while he was on that ship and in that place. If I had been in his place, the song I might have been composing might have been a bit angrier, especially if I thought that the only reason I was suffering was because a sadistic God had placed a wager on me, to see how I would hold up.

But Spafford penned a song of praise, instead.

If you're a believer, and you want to be inspired by that, then by all means, please stop reading and go about your day. But if you are like me, you may recognize something else in Spafford's decision, and you won't find this inspiring at all.

Because Spafford's reaction strikes me as being identical to the reaction of an abuse victim. When an abuser victimizes a spouse or a child, they do a number of things. They convince the victim that they deserve the punishment they are receiving. They convince the victim that the only way to prevent further abuse is to appease the abuser. They convince the victim that only the abuser can make them better. And even if an outside observer can get to the victim and try to convince them to leave, they rarely do, because they've bought into that narrative built by the abuser.

I went forward in my church at age 11, and followed the Southern Baptist pathway to salvation. I was convinced that all of my sins were piling up already, and I had been told from birth that they were all my fault. I deserved to suffer for them; and the only way to escape my punishment would be to be Saved.

My Christian friends and family not only believe this, but they find it beautiful. They don't see the abusive nature of the relationship they imagine they have with their god, and they are convinced that without him, they are worthless (at best), and capable of the most hideous sins imaginable.

For the five or six years after I was saved, I lived that life. But at some point, something broke the cycle of abuse, and I started on my path to where I am now. Along the way, I had to learn to let go of a lot of baggage, and at some points along my journey, this song soothed me, with its apparent message that it's okay to let go. If there were a God, and I was given a brain and a conscience, I would have those things even if I walked away from the abuser and the threats. And as it turned out, I was okay.

Now, to my Atheist Ear, this song sounds very different than it did when I was younger. It's a dark reminder that life is hard enough without punishing ourselves for the sake of an imaginary abuser. Sometimes, we have to ride out rough times. Sometimes, we suffer consequences for things we weren't responsible for. We certainly miss the mark when it comes to making choices - and we should own our mistakes - but we make good decisions, too, and most of us don't deserve to be punished.

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