Anachronism of the week

December 18th, 2007
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While searching out a link for my last entry, I took the opportunity to look up one of my favourite hymns on this site. I particularly like the historical cadence of Isaac Watts’ text, but there’s a noteworthy story given too.

Besides the words, the site also relates “one of the more interesting occasions” that the hymn was sung. It was part of a worship service on Whitsunday (Pentecost), 1862, in the “South Sea Islands”. You can read about it here.

I titled this entry anachronistic because I suspect that is how the clear convictions expressed in the text would generally be interpreted today. It’s perhaps more likely that today’s European would be less concerned about the spiritual formation of the islanders than their prospective inundation due to rising sea level.

I find it interesting that the text touches on another subject much bandied about today – the relative passivity or aggression of one religion versus another. In what would surely now be deemed naïve, colonialist terms, the writer describes the local king surrounded by “old chiefs and warriors who had shared with him the dangers and fortunes of many a battle – men whose eyes were dim, and whose powerful frames were bowed down with the weight of years.”

Their previous war-like ways are contrasted with the (interpreted) radiance in which they accept a new life of faith. The writer assumes, again perhaps naïvely, that the converts will leave their old ways behind. But there can be little doubt that the intent – something arguably more valued today than then – was that conversion should lead to a more peaceful life.

It is difficult to examine such an event today, without the mutiple layers of cultural deconstructionism and politicization that would normally be attached to it. Call me naïve, but on one very important level I accept it at face value. It’s up to you to judge it for yourselves.

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