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~Wellesley Professor Writes about the Wealth of Diversity
in Sacred Song in America~

For immediate release:
October 7, 2003

Arlie Corday,

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music and Public Culture (University of Illinois, 2003) is an exploration of the role of ritual music in American society. Author Stephen A. Marini, the Elisabeth Luce Moore Professor of Christian Studies at Wellesley College, looks at sacred songs throughout American history, from Native Americans and Chicanos of the Southwest to the modern developments of New Age and Neo-Pagan music. Sacred Song encompasses an amazing mix of musical diversity, from the Black Church and the Sacred Harp singing in the rural South to Jewish klezmer music, sacred art music and gospel music.

Marini doesn't just research American music; he also sings it. He's the founder of a 25-year-old group, Norumbega Harmony, which produces concerts and CDs featuring Early American sacred music. It's natural, he says, that singing and religion became so closely bound together in the human experience.

"Singing develops out of deeply held emotional responses--fear or exaltation--and you make great leaps of sound," he said. "Talking, communicating and remembering things also invite a musical rhythm and a sustained tone."

Marini says the first sacred texts also were the first hymns. The Vedas, Hindu sacred scriptures, were the earliest sacred text, written 3,000 years ago. "They were clearly sung and chanted," he said. "Something about chanted language, sung language, endows the language with additional potency, which from the beginning and all throughout human culture, has been associated with the divine, the sacred. The power defies description, defies analysis."

It turns out that the United States is among the most religious countries in the world. Marini reports polling data that virtually all Americans believe in a Supreme Being, more than half are members of a religious community, 40 percent attend religious services regularly and more than a third claim to have a personal experience of the sacred.

"These levels of religious commitment are exponentially higher than in any other developed nation," Marini said.

Americans also are very religiously diverse, with at least 500 denominational varieties of Protestantism, another 500 Native American tribal religions as well as "most forms of Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy, significant enclaves of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, one of the world's largest and most heterogeneous Catholic communities and an ever-growing number of New World faiths from Mormons to Scientology to Santeria to New Age goddesses," Marini writes.

Each religion has its own unique tradition of sacred song; each tradition is further subdivided by racial, ethnic, class and regional differences. Marini tackled a gargantuan task in writing about sacred song in America, and his next book promises to be a similar challenge. It is tentatively titled The Government of God: Religion in Revolutionary America, and will explore the complex ways in which religion helped to shape the founding of our country. This new project will develop themes introduced in an earlier book, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England.

Marini's Sacred Song in America has been well-received.

"This unusually fine and important book has no parallel," said Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard and author of The Secular City and Fire from Heaven. "I know of no other book on American religious music with as wide a sweep. As a historian of American religion, and as a student and practitioner of sacred music, Marini is simply and utterly unique."

Richard Crawford, author of America's Musical Life: A History, calls the book "enlightening, well-informed and sophisticated. I know of nothing like it."

Unique as it is, Marini's book was inspired by an age-old human need: the musical expression of praise and ritual.

"Sacred song is an extraordinary vehicle for conducting believers into the ritual dimension," he said, whether that means honoring God or helping us through life-changing events such as weddings and funerals. "Anybody who participates in a religious tradition has experienced this at some point or another. I hope they can see their experience in this book and perhaps learn something about this whole huge world out there of sacred song."

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal-arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.


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