“I’m going to start off with a song, but don’t worry, I’m not going to sing it: you are,” Jeff Sharlet, author of “Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between” and contributing editor to Rolling Stone, said.
Sharlet, who spoke at the second annual David L. Dungan Memorial Lecture on Tuesday night, had three different sets of lyrics passed out among the audience. On one, the Buddhist invocation “OM BEN ZAR SA TO MA YA” was typed. Another included the chorus to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” and the third sheet read “There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood of the Lamb,” lyrics from a popular Christian worship song.
After convincing a few volunteers to sing each song solo, Sharlet invited everyone to sing at the same time.
“People want to know what unites us when we talk about religion,” Sharlet said. “What brings us together, what is the harmony, what is the common denominator? I’ve never heard that song — I’ve heard something better. I’ve heard the chorus of cacophony.”
Indeed, the confused babble that the crowd produced was certainly not harmonious, eliciting laughter.
“I want to contrast this idea of the Cacophony Choir with the world of American religion and politics,” Sharlet said.
Over the next 45 minutes, the Dartmouth professor did just that. Sharing stories from his books, Sharlet focused on the current landscape of the nation, one that tries to “hide the weirdness” and “find common ground” instead of allowing individual opinions to be heard.
One such story centered on David Bahati, a member of the Ugandan parliament who introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in 2009. His bill essentially places a death penalty on homosexuality, and punishes those who fail to turn in a homosexual to the authorities. Bahati is supported by an American fundamentalist Christian group known as “The Family,” one with significant political power in Washington.
Sharlet met with Bahati, traveling to Uganda and actually eating brunch with Bahati at his home.
“When someone has genocide in mind and invites you over for lunch, go,” Sharlet said.
“At the lunch, Bahati invoked harmony, asking, ‘Jeff, can’t we agree to disagree?’ I’ve never been so ashamed, as a journalist, to be in that circle of civility,” Sharlet said. “People talk about common ground — common ground? Plantations were common ground, with slave and master standing next to each other. I prefer the cacophony, the voices together.”
This message fit in well with the life of David L. Dungan, in whose memory the Department of Religious Studies sponsored the event.
“Dungan was very provocative,” Rosalind Hackett, head of the department, said. “He liked to challenge people to think, and was always boldly embracing certain topics that affected the students.
“He was also active in sharing his scholarship with the Knoxville community. Even though he was internationally recognized, he always got involved in the local area, making time to visit Sunday school classes and such.”
Dungan taught at UT for 35 years, retiring in 2002 at the age of 66. He is probably most well known for his “A History of the Synoptic Problem: the Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels,” published in 1999.
After Sharlet had finished elaborating on some of the findings from his own books, he closed with a quote.
“‘I like the noise of democracy,’ James Buchanan once said. That to me is the sound of belief in America, of religion in America, of politics in America,” Sharlet said.
This quote raised the curiosity of David Howell, a world religions teacher at Pellissippi. Thankfully, he had an opportunity to inquire during the post-lecture question-and-answer session.
“In 1856, that cacophony (which Buchanan liked) resulted in a bloody Civil War,” Howell said. “What is your point in defending such cacophony now?”
Sharlet paused, glanced at the book in his hand, and moved away from the podium for a moment.
“On one side, you have that Civil War,” Sharlet said. “On the other side of the world, claiming to look for common ground. We are the country in between.”