The admirable John Wells has made my Sunday morning by informing us on Facebook that the Sunday Times (of London) cryptic crossword contains the anagram


Secretly, linguists have known all along that each of us bears the stain of sin and guilt. Now that hard truth has been made bare via the lit(t)eral magic of anagramming.

We cry out to be shriven, to present ourselves for confession, penance, and absolution. Give us peace.

In the words of a hymn text by Charles Cole (1791), set to the tune Gospel Trumpet in the 1991 revision of the Denson Sacred Harp:

Thy blood, dear Jesus, once was spilt
To save our souls from sin and guilt,
And sinners now may come to God
And find salvation through Thy blood

But to be utterly serious for a moment. I’m going to continue with a lot of material that (like the hymn excerpted above) takes the notion of sin for granted, in roughly the sense given by NOAD (with some expansions of mine):

noun sin: an immoral [according to some moral code] act considered [by some moral authority] to be a transgression against divine law [as known by revelation or by transmission through a religious authority]

I find this notion incomprehensible, because I reject the idea that there is a divine law, and I put no shred of trust in those who claim to know what this “divine law” requires. Most people I come into contact with who make such a claim ascribe to a moral code that is mostly at odds with the (quite demanding) moral code I live by, in particular by condemning as sin essentially all of my sexual life and much else besides.

So I have no sins to confess, no absolution to beg. Much of what others label as my sins are among the great pleasures of my life, and I celebrate them.

Now, guilt (and shame), that I have plenty of — for having done things that (by my lights) I should not have, and for not having done things I should have. I have been hurtfully ungenerous, and painfully undependable, and acted badly in ways that I am, frankly, too ashamed of to admit here. Some of it I have asked for forgiveness for (from the people I wronged), some of it isn’t forgivable, and much is lost in the past, so that what I’m left with is regret, and a resolve to do better.

A guilt and sin quote. But enough of my world. Here’s a guilt and sin message from the larger culture, in which religious teachings and everyday behavior co-exist uneasily:

That is: sin is guilty pleasure

[Digression on the puzzle of the evanescent aphorist. The quotation is attributed to (Stuart) Alexander Chase, who is described in a number of places as an American journalist and editor (born, perhaps, in 1926), about whom I can find no actual details; quotations (including this one) appear in various sources attributed to a 1966 Chase book Perspectives, which seems to exist only via quotes by others.]

The world of the Sacred Harp. “To save our souls from sin and guilt”. From a tradition whose native home has been, for about 150 years, Primitive Baptist and Methodist churches in the rural South (especially Georgia and Alabama); there’s a Page on this blog inventorying my postings on Sacred Harp music. Participating in this tradition, in both Columbus, Ohio, and the Bay Area of California has been immensely satisfying to me, musically and (because of the community of singers I joined) personally.

Yes, it’s a strange fit. I am a worldly, obtrusively queer nonbelieving college professor in Silicon Valley. The music is “white spirituals”: raw, passionate expression of uncompromising, unvarnished fundamental Christian belief; its most common theme is the glorious reward that will come to the believer as a relief from the pain and woes of this earthly life — in death.

An altered state of consciousness. I believe none of this, but I sing the music because it’s powerful and, in its way, quite beautiful; because it brings me into the community of singers; and because it’s capable, on occasion, of carrying me out of myself into an altered state of being, a kind of ecstasy, a condition that true believers think of as a state of grace, conferred by God. I can’t call this up, I’m just singing the music all-out (the way you sing Sacred Harp), but sometimes it happens. (I’ve written elsewhere about sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy and related altered states of being — for example, in highly focused activities, in the passion of crowds, and of course under the influence of certain drugs.)

Only certain songs can trigger this state for me, and Gospel Trumpet, SH99, is one of them. (Some discussion of the song, with the music, in my 9/18/16 posting “Another curiosity shelf”.) The text in full:

Hark! How the gospel trumpet sounds!
Through all the world the echo bounds;
And Jesus by redeeming blood
Is bringing sinners home to God
And guides them safely by His word
To endless day.

Thy blood, dear Jesus, once was spilt
To save our souls from sin and guilt,
And sinners now may come to God
And find salvation through Thy blood,
And sail by faith upon that flood
To endless day.

The setting of these words to the Gospel Trumpet tune is crucial to the power of the song.

In any case, beside the life-after-death theme, there’s the theme of God’s pardon for our sins. A theme familiar to me from a very different, but equally religious and equally passionate, context: the granting of God’s pardon in the Kol Nidre, sung on Yom Kippur. From my 9/18/10 posting “Kol Nidre”:

now I have a Kol Nidre sung by a legendary cantor, Manfred Lewandowsky, plus a version sung by cantor Theodore Katchko with his cantor daughter Deborah Katchko-Gray; a whole Kol Nidre service sung by cantor Richard Tucker (I think this is the version, powerful and intense, I remember from my childhood, heard on the radio); the moving Johnny Mathis version (with orchestral accompaniment); a klezmer version (I could have predicted that — but not the version on Johnny Mathis’s Good Night, Dear Lord album); a respectful and passionate, but (to my mind) deeply misguided surf-guitar version on the Chosen Surfers’ album Meshugga Beach Party (I swear on this holy day that I am not making this up); and of course the Electric Prunes’ celebrated English-language rock version (also intended to be respectful, but tending to the theatrically unhinged) on their Release of An Oath album.

I believe that the Richard Tucker version (heard on the radio* when I was about 8) was my first experience of ecstatic singing, and it bowled me over. It still moves me deeply.

(*on a regular show about Judaism, aimed, if I recall correctly, at a Gentile audience. I believe the intro included the biblical quote, “a light to lighten the Gentiles”, and it might have been produced by the National Conference of Christians and Jews; my memory is fuzzy — that was, after all, about 75 years ago)

Yes, it began with silly comments on an anagram and somehow ended up with the Kol Nidre. You never know where things are going to go.

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