Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cathedrals Are Not Built By The Sea

I’ve mentioned a few times previously on this blog my customary habit of scouring the bins for used records at my local Goodwill Store. The store is located a mere four blocks from my home, which I suppose encourages my weekly routine, and while I seldom find anything significant, an occasional gem sometimes can be uncovered. I found nothing during my visit today, but I did notice this time that there were an unusually high number of Christian music LPs. These sort of records, many of them pressed by small and obscure labels, can always be found in the bins there, but this time they comprised the majority of the records, and I don’t mean a simple majority, but perhaps comprising two out of three of all the records there (perhaps 70-80 total).

I’ve noticed this fact for as long as I’ve shopped there. Perhaps the percentage hasn’t been has high as it was today, but these types of records are nonetheless a noticeable and persistent presence in the bins. These Christian records—spoken-word recordings of books of the New Testament, collections of hymns by obscure gospel groups, traditional hymns sung by unfamiliar husband and wife duos (and families), and so on—have always been abundant in the used record bins. Sometimes I’ve found up to eight sealed copies of the same record, as if someone had dumped off the whole pile simply in order to get rid of them. There are more of these records in number than soundtracks to dreary old movies (e.g., Exodus, Dr. Zhivago) and albums by Montovani, Ferrante & Teicher, and The 101 Strings. Far fewer of these latter kinds of records show up than Christian LPs. People don’t seem to want to hold on to their old, once cherished religious records—why?

Elvis, for instance, recorded some great gospel records, but I’ve seldom come across these albums in the used bins. Of course most any record by Elvis is collectible and it is quite likely that some other collector may have grabbed them before I did, but I think the only used gospel record by Elvis I’ve ever come across at the Goodwill store is He Touched Me (1972), but I visually graded it poor, and since I already had an early pressing of the record, I didn’t pick it up. But a gospel record by Elvis is one thing, and a record by an anonymous gospel group consisting of four white nerds garbed in garish polyester is another. If I may speculate, I think these Christian records are dumped by the score at the local Goodwill Store because they just don’t have anything to offer. There’s nothing remotely “inspirational” or aesthetically interesting about them; they are empty signifiers drained of any transcendent meaning. They are dull and uninspiring, eerie and morose, the aural equivalent of a flickering neon cross attached to a rusting metal building alongside the highway.

Or rather, a roadside neon cross on a beautiful, star-filled summer night. The tawdriness of the manufactured symbol is rendered insignificant by the sheer magnificence of the universe itself. The neon symbol says: I’m a cheaply produced, short-lived, and profane object. The night sky says: Behold something greater and more magnificent than yourself. The title for this entry is inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens:

Cathedrals are not built along the sea;
The tender bells would jangle on the hoar
And iron winds; the graceful turrets roar
With bitter storms the long night angrily;
And through the precious organ pipes would be
A low and constant murmur of the shore
That down those golden shafts would rudely pour
A mighty and a lasting melody.

And those who knelt within the gilded stalls
Would have vast outlook for their weary eyes;
There, they would see high shadows on the walls
From passing vessels in their fall and rise.
Through gaudy widows there would come too soon
The low and splendid rising of the moon.

Stevens suggests that churches aren’t built by the sea because the sound of the sea would overpower any sermon that could possible be recited—the attention of the weary churchgoers would be drawn outside, to the overpowering sound and sight of the sea, not to the paltry words that make up the (familiar) sermon. The wind, the occasional storm, the moonlight, the primordial sound of the waves lapping the shore—all phenomena of the natural world—spiritually satisfy the tired parishioners much better than does the church itself. No wonder the records I saw today are dumped off by the dozen.

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