A Lush Language
I spend an hour or two, every day, writing. I write best in early morning, suspended between the hiss of the coffee pot and the chorale of mockingbirds under the eaves. Between the hush of sunrise and steaming Appalachian noon, birdsong translates the optical – what the birds see, the morning tasks they busily perform – into the auditory.
I cannot see the birds from where I sit at my desk, but I recognize the tittering correspondence of these winged voices that are in love with the wonder of waking. I understand their need to sing as a kind of daily liturgy, one that affirms what poet Mark Doty calls “the ordered enactment of desire” – the daily tasks, joys, and heartbreak that give shape to a mortal life. Birdsong seems a particular language, one that sutures the infinite wonder of being to the visible world.
“Seeing,” American author Seth Godin reminds us, “despite its name, is not merely visual.” The sense of sight derives its power from its connection to the ways we taste, smell, and hear. Communication is both visual and verbal, real and metaphysical. Words, actions, articulation, visual expression: it is all language. And language in all its iterations – its attempts at human connection, its longing – is our legacy.
In our post-postmodern age of alternative facts and parallel realities, the ways we communicate with each other are necessarily malleable, virtual, plastic. An unfiltered, immediate, social-media, Googled access to information and experience echoes an individual ethos that enlivened the early Protestants – emboldened them to insist on divine access without intermediaries, inspired them to distrust systems of domination and submission, the kyriarchies, the one percent that stood in the way of their intellectual, cultural, and spiritual advancement. I understand contemporary Protestantism in the spirit of that theological motivation – toward a progressive and innovative language, toward choice, toward clarity of one’s own identity politics.
Like birdsong, Protestantism in our time is a particular language, a language of dissent and authenticity framed by the dual human urge toward liberty and toward relationship, despite the deep divisions of our world. Protestant language places us in a dynamic relationship with each other, the physical world, and with the divine. Drawing on a faith tradition of social reform, mission, protest, and self-reflection, contemporary Protestants stand in position to speak with power to our moment.
Rallies of Defiance
In early July, The Washington Post published a poll about the political activism of its subscribers. The survey found that one in three residents of the DC-Metro area participated in a political protest since January. I stand proudly amongst those polled. Whether weeping with millions at the Women’s March on Washington, or chanting and being sprayed with tear gas alongside thousands in Charlottesville to decry a rally of the Ku Klux Klan, or speaking from the podium at a demonstration against proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Humanities, or holding signs and praying with a group of 20 at a public rally against proposed budget cuts to Medicaid, I was present. I am consciously adding my voice to the throng of citizens invoking the intimate connection between one’s own values, interfaith respect, and justice. I believe that the personal revelation of the spirit, in concert with cultural dissent and commitment to causes and communities, forms the bedrock of practical Protestant theology. My faith and my ethics are indistinguishable.
Situating a Worldview
Some fear that the discernment of one’s identity politics leads to broad cultural fragmentation, an end to consensus. This is not my experience. The more I understand the experiential frames of my own “seeing,” the clearer and more consistent is the language I use to situate my worldview for others. We all have our own ways of engaging the political, theological, and cultural conversations of our age. Our increasing respect for identity politics – and for the various ways we comprehend our existence and communicate our values – will make us more empathetic, more aware of the ways we are privileged, more discerning of the ways we can encounter and assist our neighbors.
I am a museum curator and an art historian by training. I analyze the religious, social, and cultural conditions of multiple cultures and languagesystems in the service of beautiful objects and the people who made and loved them. And I perform this work with heightened awareness of the many atrocities of racism, misogyny, ethnocentrism, and socioeconomic prejudice committed by Protestant congregations, synods, and councils throughout the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern eras. Yet I have also seen how the spiritual politics of Protestantism has transformed the course of western art
in remarkable ways. Luther’s codification of the German language in his translation of the Latin Bible led the way to a more colloquial and democratic mode in poetry, drama, fashion, furniture design, philosophical reasoning, and painting.
Protestantism was iconoclastic – yet contrary to the very claims and aims of iconoclasm, the power of visual languages was not eradicated by the Reformation. Humans are hard-wired for narrative and sensation. The primacy of the Word in Protestantism found new forms of sublimity after the Reformation. Even as ecclesiastical visual excess and supposed hedonism were removed by the Reformation’s champions, a verbal lushness grew in their place in Protestant Europe and beyond – in the fiery rhetoric of republicanism during the Scottish Secession and the American Revolution, in the sweeping narratives of Milton and the sermons of the First and Second Great Awakenings, in the very documents that formed the United States written by those two lifelong Anglican Deists from my home state of Virginia – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
In three days’ time, I will leave Virginia to begin a new position at a college museum in western Massachusetts. I will miss the trilling of the mockingbirds and remain grateful for the meditative space their hymns provide. Their songs have given respite and pleasure, and pleasure, to quote Kahlil Gibran, “is a freedom-song.”
At the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I reflect with wonder on the ways this tradition of aesthetic language has freed me to speak, work, and create with courage, conviction, and passion. In these times, Protestants must take our legacy – languages of dissent and creativity – to the streets. It is meet and right to do so. It is what birds do every day.
Horace D. Ballard ’10 M.A.R. received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Brown University in May. His research interests include the visual cultures of religion, Civil War-era photography, and the influence of 18th- and 19th-century European aesthetics on American art. After working as a resident scholar at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA., he recently joined the staff at the Williams College Museum of Art.