During a recent weekend excursion, my wife and I carried our two oldest grandsons on a holiday to see the sights and sites of the upland South. First on the agenda was a visit to Maces Springs to pay respects to the Carter Family, and to enjoy an evening of traditional and bluegrass music on the slope of A.P. Carter’s beloved Clinch Mountain. The boys, Carter, 12 and Robert, 13, are approaching that eye-rolling-I-can’t-believe-they-want-me-to-do-this stage, so we didn’t expect much. I billed it as a “cultural experience.” To my surprise, they loved the music (or the pretty girl singer). One of them even bought a couple of CD’s with his own money!
The next morning, we swung down to Asheville, and caught the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Temperature in the low 70’s made for a pleasant windows-down drive through the most scenic part of the South. Wildflowers fairly glowed in brilliant hues as the biggest and most colorful butterflies I’ve ever seen fed. We hoped to see bears, but we saw only rears (some of them nearly bare) of folks picking blueberries along the roadside. After a leisurely ascent to Clingman’s Dome, and over the divide at Newfound Gap, we worked our way down slope. Emerging from the shade of the drive along the sparkling Little River, we found the same stagnant air mass we had left behind a day earlier with its temps in the upper 90’s waiting for us.
After a refreshing night in Mr. Patel’s inn, we made our way west to the little town of Sewanee on the Cumberland Plateau. I wanted the boys to see the University of the South, and to indulge my tendency to lecture. They were so impressed by the sparkling cleanliness, manicured grounds, and lovely stone buildings that they readily agreed to lose the i-Pods, and walk about the campus. I saw my chance, and I struck.
“This is one of the most respected and selective liberal arts colleges in the South,” I began. “But paradoxically, it is unknown to the man in the Southern street.”
“Why’s that, Pa?”
“You know about the SEC, don’t you? This was one of the charter members, but they either failed to anticipate professionalism in college sports, or refused to go along. In any event, after eight years of getting their student athletes beaten up by the semi-pros, they gave it up, committed to bona fide student athletes, and became the answer to a trivia question.”
We wandered around the marvelous chapel, and I began to point out its architectural features, and to note how they departed from true Gothic.
“What’s ‘Gothic,’ Pa?”
I learn a lot from their questions. Learning is like a hog killing – you bring your own tools. Extensive reading, some knowledge of history, and a good working vocabulary pave the path.
As I undertook to give a capsule history of the fall of Rome and the rise of the barbarian tribes, and the culture of the Medieval Period and its architecture, Carter had been taking in the monuments, signs, etc., and he interrupted again.
“Why are there Greek letters all over the place?”
“Do you remember St. Paul speaking of ‘to the Jew…and to the Greek’?” A nod. “In some versions, the phrase is ‘the Jew and the barbarian.’ To those of the agrarian, authoritarian, and ethically obsessed eastern religions, the Greeks (and their antecedents – the Phoenicians, ‘Philistines’ to Samson) represented barbaric hedonism, moral laxity, and philosophical sophistry. But their spirit of inquiry and love of learning are now regarded as the seminal force in Western Rationalism. We commemorate that by use of Greek words and symbols in academic context.”
The boys returned to the i-Pods, but I’ve been thinking this over ever since. The Celtic cross so prominent at Sewanee, along with the Greek acronyms that Carter noticed, reflect the fact that Western Christianity itself is a synthesis of Hebrew theology and ethics with Greek rhetoric, philosophy, and inquiry. Isn’t it ironic that the founder of Christianity, St. Paul himself, preached his new doctrine in the Greek tongue?
Some are offended by the Episcopalians (yes, Sewanee is theirs), but you have to admit, they have reached a synthesis moral and rational. They may have their faults, but have you known an Episcopalian to cut the head off a screaming man of a different faith?
Columnist Sonny Scott lives in the Sparta community in Chickasaw County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.