SHORTLY AFTER JANUARY 18, the date of our last episode, the world changed. We found ourselves in the middle of a Stephen King novel, a frightful tale featuring a pernicious little creature of stealth and extremely bad manners. We can’t see it, but we can see and feel its effects, the print it leaves, the death, the isolation, the abrupt halt of everything, the
scramble for a way through or around it. We can study the creature. What attracts or repels it, how and upon what it feeds and with what wanton lack of discrimination it feeds. All this without knowing the creature’s true strength, how wide its reach, how bottomless or savage its appetite. Ill equipped as we are, we protect ourselves with what we know, which isn’t much.
I apologize for the long delay, but following that episode, and things being what they are, I felt that whatever I was to say next actually mattered, and in a way I can’t remember anything mattering in a very long time.
At the onset of quarantine, I receded into the background, and for a purpose. That is, to listen. To stop. To slow my wheels. And just listen. Still a novelty, I knew there was going to be a flood of social media banter, unplugged music, a lot of YouTubing, FB-live, blah blah blah, and commentary, lots and lots of commentary, opinion-making—much of it informed, much of it . . . not. Speculation abounds. And with it, error, misplaced optimism, fear, confusion . . . Still, while a story like this begs to be written in a minor key, it has, once again, revealed our heroic side, expressed in large glorious bouts of heroism, of selfless humanity, most exclusively among the healers. It’s their time.
And not just the health workers—doctors, nurses, clinicians, researchers, attendants, those nameless saints making their place in this odd history, and at tremendous risk—but neighbor to neighbor. Humanity at its highest and best. Large kindnesses. Small ones too. Rare courtesies, small invisible acts that say something magnificent about who we are, that inspire hope for that time when all this returns to normal, whatever shape that might take. And that some of this latent humanity might just stick as we resume what’s left of our former lives, and the task of starting new ones. Unity in crisis, solidarity, a kind of dependence on each other, a dependence of a kind, and on strangers? It’s something to watch, something to believe in.
Yesterday, at a red light I looked at the stranger in the car next to me and rolled my window down. He did the same. "It's just good to see people again," I said, smiling.
"Hope you're doing alright," he replied, his words smiling back. "Be safe," he added. There was a sincerity between us, something very human and warm. The light turned green. It kind of made my day.
Truth is, none of us know or can predict whether life is going to be the same or anything close to the same once this horror passes, once the creature is full. Or destroyed. I don’t pretend to have answers any more than you do. Nor do I care to speculate. I don’t mean to be clever, but uncertainty is the one thing we can be certain of. For many, the isolation itself, though it can save us, has effects of its own. The quiet. The alienation. The loneliness. The exile. The want of something to do. The riddle of a cure. The general mystery of it all. The idleness. But, there too, another breed of healers has been called forward—musicians, poets, authors, actors, public speakers, artists of all stripes doing their part to bring a moment’s distraction and comfort to the anxious, lonely, and cabin-fevered multitude.
We’re hearing more and more reports of family members not allowed to see a loved one who is dying because of the possibility of infection, dying alone as so many are, without the simplest goodbye. I closed the last episode of this podcast with these words. “If you love somebody, anybody, tell them, say it out loud, now.” That was January 18, before the cork flew off the bottle, before most of knew anything was wrong. Those same words have a potency now that none of us could have imagined at the time. So, again, say it. Say it now. Work through the awkwardness. Find the way to say it, the language that does the most justice to the healer in you.
If you listened to the BROTHER episode, I suggest listening to it again, in this current context. Its message is timely. That is, to say now what you may not have words for then. The episode was essentially a demonstration of affection for my brother and all brothers, but the language was as inclusive and universal as I was capable of making it. Also, and I didn’t mention it during the podcast, my brother had just found out he had stage-4 lung cancer. I refrained from saying anything about it at the time simply because he asked. But the presence of that specter, as we can call it, the presence of death, empowered my words, gave them height and reach, a warmth and charity I could only hope to replicate with any episode. So much so, I think I suffered a mild case of podcast block on account of it. I stared at the empty page for weeks after that.
But I suspect something else at work. We are a nation in mourning. No, it doesn’t have all the classic signs. Certainly, we grieve the loss of the countless lives, and for the families forced to bear up under it and at such an odd time. But we also grieve the loss of the life we had just weeks ago. Work life. School life. Starbucks in the afternoon. Separation, loss of income, grim necessity, the way it bullies us, taking stabs at our confidence, the rhythm interrupted.
As a nation, we seem to be working through the classic stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. The order is flexible, of course, but you get my point. So yeah, and so unlike me, I was mute and could not figure out why. Not to mention, that we are not alone in our grief. The world at large is in mourning at one level or another, and for the same reasons.
If there ever was a time for healers, well . . .
The voice you heard at the opening of this episode was that of the late Christopher Hitchens. A brilliant author, thinker, communicator, journalist, polemicist, columnist, historian, philologist . . . husband, father, brother . . . contrarian (I do love that word), Mr. Hitchens, or Hitch as some call him, died in 2011 of esophageal cancer. Those of you who are familiar with Christopher Hitchens may agree or disagree with him, and on a whole host of topics. You may not have liked his particular delivery or his unique breed of verbal pounce, but . . . few can deny the wit, breadth, and charm of the guy.
One of the sharpest minds of our generation, Mr. Hitchens referred to himself as an anti-theist, that is, a person who is not just an atheist, but a particularly hostile athiest, who is against the very notion or existence of deity altogether. Though the distinction can be confusing at times, anti-theism is a stronger, more absolute vintage of atheism. All antitheists are atheists but not all atheists are antitheists. To remove any doubt, in 2007, Hachette Publishing released a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. And yes, I have read the book.
So, David Teems, why did you decide to use the voice of someone opposed to the very notion of God to quote a passage from the King James Bible? That actually is a good question. The reputation of the great work aside, on the day of his father’s funeral, at graveside, son Christopher read this passage from Philippians. He chose it, he said, for its “non-religious yet high moral character.”
Philippians 4:8 is one of the few passages in the King James Bible that has none of the usual Christian markers, none of the standard verbal props associated with scripture or piety. It mentions no names or titles, holy or otherwise. It also has the weight of a proverb, of old proven wisdom, not to mention something deliciously inclusive, or universal in its appeal. Because this passage was spoken by someone not just outside faith but openly and aggressively hostile to it, and with the razor-sharp intelligence and bite of Mr. Hitchens, it makes a lovely statement about the passage itself, in spite of what you may or may not believe. But there is more.
When I wrote the song, "Think On These Things" in 2016, or, I should say when I put those words to music, my thought at the time was that American culture was in need of a good solid proverb to chew on, something that could stand outside religion and politics, and yet something reliable, beyond argument, validated by antiquity and by something warm, true, and deathless in its heart. Because of the simplicity and timelessness of its wisdom, because of its boundless inclusivity and the great charity behind and within it, because of its “high moral character,” because it just makes good sense, I thought it the perfect medication for a culture in trouble. I still feel that way, perhaps even more. And let me be clear, I am not making an argument for scripture. Far from it. I am making an argument for good sense, through a time-tested proverb. But my choice of Mr. Hitchens goes even farther than that.
In The Obedience of a Christian Man, a book written almost 500 years ago, the author introduces himself as "William Tyndale otherwise called Hychins’ unto to the reader." He introduced himself the same way in many of his books. Sir Thomas More was convinced that there was something shameful about the name, that it smacked of something criminal. The presence of an alias, he thought, carried with it “the reek of dark deeds.” Reek indeed. When Sir Thomas meant to be particularly nasty, he called Tyndale “Hutchins.”
In an article in Vanity Fair, April 2011, titled “When the King Saved God,” Christopher Hitchens, after mentioning the name Tyndale, in parentheses wrote “whose name in early life, I am proud to say, was William Hychyns.” I saw Christopher Hitchens in an interview where he mentioned the translator’s name again, claiming a possible lineage. And there is a strong family resemblance. Tyndale himself was a contrarian, a philologist (that is, he loved language). Rhetorically daring, and gifted as he was, he too was a polemicist, a brilliant author, thinker, communicator. He too had a well-informed bite. And in his way, he despised religion as much as his descendant.
For a little backstory, the King James Bible is not a translation as much as it is a compilation of the finest passages from those English Bibles published before 1611—revised, corrected, and refined by the King James translators. Tyndale is openly plagiarized throughout the King James Old and New Testaments. Most of the memorable phrases we all grew up on originate with Tyndale, not the King James Bible. Give us this day our daily bread, Behold the lamb of God, In him we live and move and have our being, For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Because of the richness of Tyndale’s language, its highness, its royal step, its lyrical grandeur, and its accuracy, the King James translators not only used caution when or if they made any alterations to Tyndale, but used Tyndale as a model of translation itself. On occasion, they improved it, as Philippians 4:8 confirms. The first four lines of this passage in the 1611 King James Bible are an identical copy and paste of Tyndale’s 1526 version.
whatsoever things are true
whatsoever things are honest whatsoever things are just whatsoever things are pure
Those lines are note for note the translation of William Tyndale. The King James translators left Tyndale alone here. And rightly so. The Elizabethan ear (and all the translators were Elizabethans, in spite of the new king), but the Elizabethan ear was tuned for highness, for the grace, carriage, and weight of majesty, for that grandeur I mentioned. It was a lyrical age, the age of Shakespeare and John Donne, of Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh, of Sir John Falstaff and Mistress Quickly, of the Mermaid Tavern and Puddle Dock, of Fleet Street and Pudding Lane, as the prologue of my book Majestie tells us. Because of that, because Tyndale’s translation possessed a grandeur of its own, upon which the Elizabethan aesthetic was founded, they rarely edited Tyndale’s language. 90% or more of the King James New Testament is the translation of William Tyndale, and most often word for word.
So, for the first few lines of this passage, the King James translators chose not to change anything. Everything is intact—the step, that is, the beat of Tyndale’s chorus, the alliteration, the parallel construction—whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure. The next few lines, however, are where the King James translators make a departure from Tyndale. The King James reads:
Whatsoever things are lovely
In Tyndale [spelling Tyndale]:
Whatsoever thynges pertayne to love.
There is a difference. For William Tyndale, love is how he interpreted his faith. Love is the warm center not only of his belief, but of the great book he suffered to translate. Here Tyndale’s English Paul encourages the reader to meditate on those things upon which love is preeminent, love being the measure itself, the standard against which all things should be weighed.
Whatsoever things are lovely, as the King James translators chose to revise Tyndale, though still relevant—the loveliness of a setting sun or the hush splendor of a sleeping child—while touched with a spark of divinity in itself, the line says something very different. The last few lines of this passage in Tyndale read as follows:
whatsoever thynges pertayne to love.
whatsoever thynges are of honest reporte:
yf ther be eny verteous thynge yf there be eny laudable thynge, (that is, praiseworthy thing) those same have ye in youre mynde.
I know. It sounds a little flat against the King James. And think on these things is certainly an improvement over those same have ye in your mind. Ouch. Therefore, applying the Elizabethan aesthetic, here, the King James translators, indeed, improved Tyndale. The music almost writes itself.
Whatsoever things are lovely
Whatsoever things are of good report
If there be any virtue
If there be any praise
Think on these things
Hear the difference? How the King James translators made the passage sing? How the language is no longer plodding or top-heavy? The message of these lines is and remains universal. And in spite of its primary source, it belongs to no particular group, but to all of us. Like this podcast, it has no religion or politics. In spite of its authorship or the book it is written in, it can be read and exercised independent of creed, cant, or campsong. That it was chosen by a celebrity antitheist like Mr. Hitchens for its “non-religious and high moral character,” affirms this universality, even as it reveals some primitive good in the soul of mankind.
In a day when the notion of a moral compass is used as political ordnance, the notion being as elusive as truth itself, it is good to discover and put to use old proven wisdom. Like a code (for lack of a better word), a checklist to help shape your thoughts, to organize your private inner world, a kind of torch to light our way as we navigate this odd new reality that has been thrust upon us, a model against which the behavior of the times and the many opposing voices might be weighed and measured, rubrics of a kind that have outlasted the many evolutionary states the world has known and has been altered by. In spite of its age, it has proven resilient, providing, as it has for centuries, the true north to read our stars by.
It starts with whatsoever things are true . . . It will take vigilance, and then some, but truth, as slippery as it appears to be, or as impossible, is there for the discovering. My grandchildren. What I feel for them is true. What I feel for them is honest. Just. And pure. For my wife, my sons, and their wives. That may not seem like much, but . . . it is a start, the very ground upon which my understanding of truth begins, my familiarity with it. In an age where truth itself is exile, quarantined, an age of image enhancement and bluster, of political sleight of hand, where the word “right” itself has been highjacked, reimagined, the age of the reality show that is anything but real, it is good to have a kind of Rosetta Stone to interpret the world.
That’s it. This is David Teems. I love you all. I bid you a quiet mind, a charitable heart, and, above all, peace in isolation. Be safe. Listen to the healers. And remember, when the world around you has changed, when normal, like truth itself is severely undermined, exchanged for the surreal and unfamiliar, when we are forced to rethink, to recalibrate our lives, well . . . think on these things. How could it not sing?