Singing with the Fundamentalists

Annie Dillard
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram

It is early spring. I have a temporary office at a state university on the West Coast. The office is on the third floor. It looks down on the Square, the enormous open courtyard at the center of campus. From my desk I see hundreds of people moving between classes. There is a large circular fountain in the Square’s center.

Early one morning, on the first day of spring quarter, I hear singing. A pack of students has gathered at the fountain. They are singing something which, at this distance, and through the heavy window, sounds good.

I know who these singing students are: they are the Fundamentalists. This campus has a lot of them. Mornings they sing on the Square; it is their only perceptible activity. What are they singing? Whatever it is, I want to join them, for I like to sing; whatever it is, I want to take my stand with them, for I am drawn to their very absurdity, their innocent indifference to what people think. My colleagues and students here, and my friends everywhere, dislike and fear Christian fundamentalists. You may never have met such people, but you’ve heard what they do: they pile up money, vote in blocs, and elect right-wing crazies; they censor books; they carry handguns; they fight fluoride in the drinking water and evolution in the schools; probably they would lynch people if they could get away with it. I’m not sure my friends are correct. I close my pen and join the singers on the Square.

There is a clapping song in progress. I have to concentrate to follow it:

Come on, rejoice,
And let your heart sing,
Come on, rejoice,
Give praise to the king.
Singing alleluia—
He is the king of kings;
Singing alleluia—
He is the king of kings.

Two song leaders are standing on the broad rim of the fountain; the water is splashing just behind them. The boy is short, hard-faced, with a moustache. He bangs his guitar with the backs of his fingers. The blonde girl, who leads the clapping, is bouncy; she wears a bit of make-up. Both are wearing blue jeans.

The students beside me are wearing blue jeans, too—and athletic jerseys, parkas, football jackets, turtlenecks, and hiking shoes or jogging shoes. They all have canvas or nylon book bags. They look like any random batch of seventy or eight students at this university. They are grubby or scrubbed, mostly scrubbed; they are tall, fair, or red-headed in large populations. Their parents are white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, farmers, loggers, orchardists, merchants, fishermen; their names are, I’ll bet, Olsen, Jensen, Seversen, Hansen, Klokker, Sigurdsen.

The lyrics are simple and repetitive; there are few to which a devout Jew or Mohammedan could not give wholehearted assent.

Despite the vigor of the clapping song, no one seems to be giving it much effort. And no one looks at anyone else; there are no sentimental glances and smiles, no glances even of recognition. These kids don’t seem to know each other. We stand at the fountain's side, out on the broad, bricked Square in front of the science building, and sing the clapping song through three times.

It is quarter to nine in the morning. Hundreds of people are crossing the Square. These passersby—faculty, staff, students—pay very little attention to us; this morning singing has gone on for years. Most of them look at us directly, then ignore us, for there is nothing to see: no animal sacrifices, no lynchings, no collection plate for Jesse Helms, no seizures, snake handling, healing, or glossolalia. There is barely anything to hear. I suspect the people glance at us to learn if we are really singing: how could so many people make so little sound? My fellow singers, who ignore each other, certainly ignore passersby as well. Within a week, most of them will have their eyes closed anyway.

We move directly to another song, a slower one.

He is my peace
Who has broken down every wall;
He is my peace,
He is my peace.

Cast all your cares on him,
For he careth for you—oo—oo
He is my peace,
He is my peace.

I am paying strict attention to the song leaders, for I am singing at the top of my lungs and I’ve never heard any of these songs before. They are not the old American low-church Protestant hymns; they are not the old European high-church Protestant hymns. These hymns seem to have been written just yesterday, apparently by the same people who put out lyrical Christian greeting cards and bookmarks.

“Where do these songs come from?” I ask a girl standing next to me. She seems appalled to be addressed at all, and startled by the question. “They’re from the praise albums!” she explains, and moves away.

The songs’ melodies run dominant, subdominant, dominant, tonic, dominant. The pace is slow, about the pace of “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and with that song’s quavering, long notes. The lyrics are simple and repetitive; there are very few of them to which a devout Jew or Mohammedan could not give wholehearted assent. These songs are similar to the things Catholics sing in church these days. I don't know if any studies have been done to correlate the introduction of contemporary songs into Catholic churches with those churches’ decline in membership, or with the phenomenon of Catholic converts’ applying to enter cloistered monasteries directly, without passing through parish churches.

I'm set free to worship,
I'm set free to praise him,
I'm set free to dance before the Lord…

At nine o’clock sharp we quit and scatter. I hear a few quiet “see you’s.” Mostly the students leave quickly, as if they didn't want to be seen. The Square empties.

again, at twenty to nine. The same two leaders stand on the fountain’s rim; the fountain is pouring down behind them.

After the first song, the boy with the moustache hollers, “Move on up! Some of you guys aren’t paying attention back there! You're talking to each other. I want you to concentrate!” The students laugh, embarrassed for him. He sounds like a teacher. No one moves. The girl breaks into the next song, which we join at once:

In my life, Lord,
Be glorified, be glorified, be glorified;
In my life, Lord,
Be glorified, be glorified, today.

At the end of this singularly monotonous verse, which is straining my tolerance for singing virtually anything, the boy with the moustache startles me by shouting, “Classes!”

The main thing about them is this: there isn't any “them.” Their views vary. They don't know each other.

At once, without skipping a beat, we sing, “In my classes, Lord, be glorified, be glorified…” I give fleet thought to the class I'm teaching this afternoon. We’re reading a little “Talk of the Town” piece called “Eggbag,” about a cat in a magic store on Eighth Avenue. “Relationships!” the boy calls. The students seem to sing "In my relationships, Lord,” More easily than they sang “classes.” They seemed embarrassed by “classes.” In fact, to my fascination, they seem embarrassed by almost everything. Why are they here? I will sing with the Fundamentalists every weekday morning all spring; I will decide, tentatively, that they come pretty much for the same reasons I do: each has a private relationship with “the Lord” and will put up with a lot of junk for it.

I HAVE TAUGHT SOME Fundamentalist students here, and know a bit of what they think. They are college students above all, worried about their love lives, their grades, and finding jobs. Some support moderate Democrats; some support moderate Republicans. Like their classmates, most support nuclear freeze, ERA, and an end to the draft. I believe they are divided on abortion and busing. They are not particularly political. They read Christianity Today and Campus Life and Eternity—moderate, sensible magazines, I think; they read a lot of C. S. Lewis. (One such student, who seemed perfectly tolerant of me and my shoddy Christianity, introduced me to C.S. Lewis’s critical book on Charles Williams.) They read the Bible. I think they all “believe in” organic evolution. The main thing about them is this: there isn't any “them.” Their views vary. They don't know each other.

Their common Christianity puts them, if anywhere, to the left of their classmates. I believe they also tend to be more able than their classmates to think well in the abstract, and also to recognize the complexity of moral issues. But I may be wrong.

IN 1980, THE MEDIA WERE certainly wrong about television evangelists. Printed estimates of Jerry Falwell's television audience ranged from 18 million to 30 million people. In fact, according to Arbitron's actual counts, fewer than 1.5 million people were watching Falwell. And, according to an Emory University study, those who did watch television evangelists didn't necessarily vote with them. Emory University sociologist G. Melton Mobley reports, “When that message turns political, they cut it off.” Analysis of the 1982 off-year elections turned up no Fundamentalist bloc voting. The media were wrong, but no one printed retractions.

The media were wrong, too, in a tendency to identify all fundamentalist Christians with Falwell and his ilk, and to attribute to them, across the board, conservative views.

Someone has sent me two recent issues of Eternity: The Evangelical Monthly. One lead article criticizes a television preacher for saying that the United States had never used military might to take land from another nation. The same article censures Newspeak, saying that government rhetoric would have us believe in a “clean bomb,” would have us believe that we “defend” America by invading foreign soil, and would have us believe that the dictatorships we support are “democracies.” “When the President of the United States says that one reason to support defense spending is because it creates jobs,” this lead article says, “a little bit of 1984 begins to surface.” Another article criticizes a “heavy-handed” opinion of Jerry Falwell Ministries—in this case a broadside attack on artificial insemination, surrogate motherhood, and lesbian motherhood. Browsing through Eternity, I find a double crosstic. I find an intelligent, analytical, and enthusiastic review of the new London Philharmonic recording of Mahler’s second symphony—a review which stresses the “glorious truth” of the Jewish composer’s magnificent work, and cites its recent performance in Jerusalem to celebrate the recapture of the Western Wall following the Six Day War. Surely, the evangelical Christians who read this magazine are not book-burners. If by chance they vote with the magazine’s editors, then it looks to me as if they vote with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Democratic Action.

I think that we are here because we know this business of nothingness, brokenness, and ruination.

Every few years some bold and sincere Christian student at this university disagrees with a professor in class—usually about the professor’s out-of-hand dismissal of Christianity. Members of the faculty, outraged, repeat the stories of these rare and uneven encounters for years on end, as if to prove that the crazies are everywhere, and gaining ground. The notion is, apparently, that these kinds can’t think for themselves. Or they wouldn’t disagree.

NOW AGAIN THE MOUSTACHED LEADER asks us to move up. There is no harangue, so we move up. (This will be a theme all spring. The leaders want us closer together. Our instinct is to stand alone.) From behind the tall fountain comes a wind; on several gusts we get sprayed. No one seems to notice.

We have time for one more song. The leader, perhaps sensing that no one likes him, blunders on. “I want you to pray this one through,” he says. “We have a lot of people here from a lot of different fellowships, but we're all one body. Amen?” They don't like it. He gets a few polite Amens. We sing:

Bind us together, Lord,
With a bond that can't be broken;
Bind us together, Lord,
With love.

Everyone seems to be in a remarkably foul mood today. We don't like this song. There is no one here under seventeen, and, I think, no one here who believes that love is a bond that can’t be broken. We sing the song through three times; then it is time to go.

The leader calls after our retreating backs, “Hey, have a good day! Praise Him all day!” The kids around me roll up their eyes privately. Some groan; all flee.

THE NEXT MORNING IS VERY COLD. I am here early. Two girls are talking on the fountain’s rim; one is part Indian. She says,” I’ve got all the Old Testament, but Ic an’t get the New. I screw up the New.” She takes a breath and rattles off a long list, ending with “Jonah, Micha, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.” The other girl produces a slow, sarcastic applause. I ask one of the girls to help me with the words to a song. She is agreeable, but says,” I’m sorry, I can’t. I just became a Christian this year, so I don’t know all the words yet.”

Th others are coming; we stand and separate. The boy with the moustache is gone, replaced by a big, serious fellow in a green down jacket. The bouncy girl is back with her guitar; she’s wearing a skirt and wool knee socks. We begin, without any preamble, by singing a song that has so few words that we actually stretch one syllable over eleven separate notes. Then we sing a song in which the men sing one phrase and the women echo it. Everyone seems to know just what to do. In the context of our vapid songs, the lyrics of this one are extraordinary:

I was nothing before you found me.
Heartache! Broken people! Ruined lives
ls why you died on Calvary.

The last line rises in a regular series of half-notes. Now at last some people are actually singing; they throw some breath into the business. There is a seriousness and urgency to it: “Heartache! Broken people! Ruined lives… I was nothing.”

We don't look like nothing. We look like a bunch of students of every stripe, ill-shaven or well-shaven, dressed up or down, but dressed warmly against the cold: jeans and parkas, jeans and heavy sweaters, jeans and scarves and blow-dried hair. We look ordinary. But I think, quite on my own, that we are here because we know this business of nothingness, brokenness, and ruination. We sing this song over and over.

I'm glad they weren't like this when I first joined them, or I never would have stayed.

Something catches my eye. Behind us, up in the science building, professors are standing alone at opened windows.

The long brick science building has three upper floors of faculty offices, thirty-two windows. At one window stands a bearded man, about forty; his opening his window is what caught my eye. He stands full in the open window, his hands on his hips, his head cocked down toward the fountain. He is drawn to look, as I was drawn to come. Up on the building’s top floor, at the far right window, there is another: an Asian-American professor, wearing a white shirt, is sitting with one hip on his desk, looking out and down. In the middle of the row of windows, another one, an old professor in a checked shirt, stands sideways to the opened window, stands stock-still, his long, old ear to the air. Now another window cranks open, another professor—or maybe a graduate student—leans out, his hands on the sill.

We are all singing, and I am watching these five still men, my colleagues, whose office doors are surely shut—for that is the custom here: five of them alone in their offices in the science building who have opened their windows on this very cold morning, who motionless hear the Fundamentalists sing, utterly unknown to each other.

We sing another four songs, including the clapping son, and one which repeats, “This is the day the Lord hath made; rejoice and be glad in it.” All the professors but one stay still by their opened windows figures in a frieze. When after ten minutes we break off and scatter, each cranks his window shut. Maybe they have nine o’clock classes too.

I MISS A FEW SESSIONS. One morning of the following week, I rejoin the Fundamentalists on the Square. The wind is blowing from the north; it is sunny and cold. There are several new developments.

Someone has blown up rubber gloves and floated them in the fountain. I saw them yesterday afternoon from my high office window, and couldn't quite make them out: I seemed to see hands in the fountain waving from side to side, like those hands wagging on springs which people stick in the back windows of their cars. I saw these many years ago in Quito and Guayaquil, where they were a great fad long before they showed up here. The cardboard hands said, on their palms, HOLA GENTE, hello people. Some of them just said HOLA, hello, with a little wave to the universe at large, in case anybody happened to be looking. It is like our sending radio signals to planets in other galaxies: HOLA, if anyone is listening. Jolly folk, these Ecuadorians, I thought.

Now, waiting by the fountain for the singing, I see that these particular hands are long surgical gloves, yellow and white, ten of them, tied off at the cuff. They float upright and they wave, hola, hola, hola; they mill around like a crowd, bobbing under the fountain’s spray and back again to the pool’s rim, hola. It is a good prank. It is far too cold for the university's maintenance crew to retrieve them without turning off the fountain and putting on rubber boots.

From all around the Square, people are gathering for the singing. There is no way I can guess which kids, from among the masses crossing the Square, will veer off to the fountain. When they get here, I never recognize anybody except the leaders.

The singing begins without ado as usual, but there is something different about it. The students are growing prayerful, and they show it this morning with a peculiar gesture. I'm glad they weren't like this when I first joined them, or I never would have stayed.

Last night there was an educational television special, part of “Middletown.” It was a segment called “Community of Praise,” and I watched it because it was about Fundamentalists. It showed a Jesus-loving family in the Midwest; the treatment was good and complex. This family attended the prayer meetings, healing sessions, and church services of an unnamed sect—a very low-church sect, whose doctrine and culture were much more low-church than those of the kids I sing with. When the members of this sect prayed, they held their arms over their heads and raised their palms, as if to feel or receive a blessing or energy from above.

What is going on? Why are these students today raising their palms, when nobody did it last week?

Now today on the Square there is a new serious mood. The leaders are singing with their eyes shut. I am impressed that they can bang their guitars, keep their balance, and not fall into the pool. It is the same bouncy girl and earnest boy. Their eyeballs are rolled back a bit. I look around and see that almost everyone in this crowd of eighty or so has his eyes shut and is apparently praying the words of this song or praying some other prayer.

Now as the chorus rises, as it gets louder and higher and simpler in melody—

I exalt thee,
I exalt thee,
I exalt thee,
Thou art the Lord—

then, at this moment, hands start rising. All around me, hands are going up—that tall girl, that blond boy with his head back, the redheaded boy up front, the girl with the McDonald's jacket. Their arms rise as if pulled on strings. Some few of them have raised their arms very high over their heads and are tilting back their palms. Many, many more of them, as inconspicuously as possible, have raised their hands to the level of their chins.

What is going on? Why are these students today raising their palms in this gesture, when nobody did it last week? ls it because the leaders have set a prayerful tone this morning? ls it because this gesture always accompanies this song, just as clapping accompanies other songs? Or is it, as l suspect that these kids watched the widely publicized documentary last night just as I did, and are adopting, or trying out, the gesture?

It is a sunny morning, and the sun is rising behind the leaders and the fountain, so those students have their heads tilted, eyes closed, and palms upraised toward the sun. I glance up at the science building and think my own prayer: thank God no one is watching this.

The leaders cannot move around much on the fountain’s rim. The girl has her eyes shut; the boy opens his eyes from time to time, glances at the neck of his guitar, and closes his eyes again.

When the song is over, the hands go down, and there is some desultory chatting in the crowd, as usual: can I borrow your library card? And, as usual, nobody looks at anybody.

All our songs today are serious. There is a feudal theme to them, or a feudal analogue:

I will eat from abundance of your household.
I will dream beside your streams of righteousness.
You are my king.
Enter his gates
with thanksgiving in your heart;
come before his court with praise.
He is the king of kings.
Thou art the Lord.

All around me, eyes are closed and hands are raised. There is no social pressure to do this, or anything else. I’ve never known any group to be less cohesive imposing fewer controls. Since no one looks at anyone, and since passersby no longer look, everyone out here is inconspicuous and free. Perhaps the palm-raising has begun because the kids realize by now that they are not on display; they’re praying in their closets, right out here on the Square. Over the course of the next weeks, I will learn that the palm-raising is here to stay.

The sun is rising higher. We are singing our last song. We are praying. We are alone together.

He is my peace
Who has broken down every wall…

When the song is over, the hands go down. The heads lower, the eyes open and blink. We stay still a second before we break up. We have been standing in a broad current; now we have stepped aside. We have dismantled the radar cups; we have closed the telescope’s vault. Students gather their book bags and go. The two leaders step down from the fountain’s rim and pack away their guitars. Everyone scatters. I am in no hurry, so I stay after everyone is gone. It is after nine o'clock, and the Square is deserted. The fountain is playing to an empty house. In the pool the cheerful hands are waving over the water, bobbing under the fountain’s veil and out again in the current, hola.

Annie Dillard is an American writer who has published essays, poems, and a novel. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Originally published:
January 1, 1985


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