Neither Jam nor ‘Jerusalem’

This evening will be one of the one or two times a year that, as vice-president of my local WI, I will run the monthly meeting. It is not an onerous responsibility as the women are known to me after nearly three years and some are my closest friends.

The challenge for me is not running the meeting, but that I don’t sing ‘Jerusalem’. I quite confidently la la my way through standing facing the 60 or so members, but I can’t sing the words. And the reason is that words have power in my personal metaphysical/spiritual/religious understanding. I do not believe you should just sing words to any hymn or say the words to any prayer just to be polite. It used to cause me great discomfort when in church I’d be standing next to someone, even now and then a clergyperson, saying one of the creeds and knowing that they did not believe several of the statements – statements that men killed each other in early church councils to have included or excluded. If I know the music to a hymn and I am in a situation where hymning is happening then I will hum along, and once recently I carefully altered one or two words so I could join in, no one around me noticed, but it was able to join in a bit.

The problem with ‘Jerusalem’ as a hymn/song is that if you really pay attention to the words, and a quick survey of the other members I know well indicates that they do not think about them or pay attention, is that this hymn is asking for something quite specific to occur in and to our ‘green and pleasant land.’ First of all it seems to me generally to be a call to desecrate green space in favour of cities. This is something that as a Druid I can’t sanction. And secondly, is the stated desire to build a particular city, Jerusalem, which would bequeath nothing but conflict and strife in our country. Jerusalem is one of the most contested cities on the planet and has been the sight of more bloodshed, destruction and death over centuries than any other metropolis in the world.

In the way I understand the power of word and intention in language to seek such a thing for this country is unwise, misguided and dangerous. Simply because Blake wrote it and it has been such an important song over the years doesn’t make it all right to carelessly sing it.

I’m sure there are those who would say; 1) she’s over reacting, that it’s just a song; 2) get over it and sing with the ladies for crying out loud; 3) she just doesn’t understand.

But sorry, this is one of my most deeply held principles: Language has the power to shape energy, change or control minds, alter the course of history. Further, since what we say aloud can’t be unsaid, we are responsible for our words, though we can’t control what others choose to do with them, look what happens to politicians when they misspeak, which is the reason it is wise to be prudent, essential to be cautious.

One of the new ways the WI is attempting to reach out to bring in younger members is by saying: The WI isn’t just jam and ‘Jerusalem’ any more. For me it is neither and never has been, as I’m not really a jam person either – it’s way too sweet for me – bring on the pickles!

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4 thoughts on “Neither Jam nor ‘Jerusalem’

  1. You’ve definitely touched on something important there… I’ve struggled, in a lot of recent church weddings, to find the right balance between participation and integrity, and I share your unease at mumbling along with something that is not really believed.

    Blake is an interesting case, though. He believed strongly in social reform, but expressed his socialism through Biblical allegory (rightly or wrongly) – although the current state of the worldly Jerusalem calls into question its suitability as a metaphor for a better society! But as I understand it, it really is about preserving the “green and pleasant land” against the “dark satanic mills” of the industrial revolution (or the church, depending on how you read it). Regardless of the poet’s intention, though, I completely agree that half the meaning is created by the reader, and should not be sung if not agreed.

  2. I appreciate your insight and comments. It is useful to gain a glimpse into what Blake may have intended by his words, but they are of a time and that time is past. Nevertheless, I doubt many people know much about his thinking on such things.

    It does raise the issue, almost as an aside, of how society has changed. When he wrote this and it became so popular there was an understanding of the images used and allegory was understood in its context. Not unlike when I was at uni and doing Romanesque art history course and the professor told all the students, who were roughly half my age, to go and read Luke or they’d never pass the course, since the art was nearly all based on biblical stories and the people knew them — it is how they knew them.

    My reading and understanding of the development of the iconography and understanding of the ideal shifted from the Garden of Eden to the Heavenly City, between Genesis and Revelation. I admit that John of Patmos is also dangerously misunderstood as many scholars believe he is not writing predictively, but reporting events that have happened. Still there is a faction of fundamentalist Christians that believe literally in what he is saying and that it portends the future. Another lesson for another time.

    The trajectory of the movement that became Christianity changed radically when it left the hills and valleys of Judea and went into Jerusalem where it became dangerous to the Roman occupiers. And, it was to citizens of cities that Paul addressed his letters — Rome, Corinth, Thessalonike.

    it is interesting that there is a hymn that I heard sung by the Baptists of Orkney that spoke of there desire not only to shake Jesus’ hand but to have a cabin in Glory Land upon their death.

    Nothing in dealing with image, metaphor or allegory is straightforward — hence is strength, but also its weakness. Thank you giving me a bit more background. Things are much more complex these days since as a culture and society we no longer share frames of reference as a shorthand to understanding.

  3. I’ve wrestled with the whole ‘going along with religion to be polite’ thing and I’ve decided it would be hypocritical of me to do so. If I’m in a religious setting (which is very rarely) I just sit (never kneel) silently for the prayers and hum along to hymns.

    ‘Jerusalem’ itself is an interesting one, as angharadlois mentions above, Blake was a very unorthodox mystic and social revolutionary, and he was using symbolism to make the case to preserve Britain as a sacred, green and pleasant land. He also referred to himself as a druid at various points in his life! But I can see why the general theme of Christian dominionism inherent in the song makes you uncomfortable.

  4. I appreciate your comments. It is difficult when circumstances alter so much and the understanding of meaning shifts as do sensibilities. It is what makes literature, and music for that matter, and their places and links to society and culture so fascinating, to say nothing of deeply troubling. One does wonder what people in a hundred or two years from now will think of what is being held up as the ‘standard’ of achievement and worthy of publication — if indeed any of it stands the test of time and if it too will be perceived differently, regardless of the original intentions of its creators or the readers knowledge of the authors’/composers’ biographical information.

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