In his essay, “Lewis’s Philosophy of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty,” the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “Truth is good and beautiful; goodness is true and beautiful; beauty is true and good. But there is an ontological order: it flows from Being to truth, truth to goodness, and goodness to beauty. Truth is judged by Being, goodness by truth, and beauty by goodness.”
This is how man is ordered towards the divine. In our inherent being, we seek the transcendent, and, God willing, find it through the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is a rare feat, in our culture’s current fixation on consumption rather than the permanent things, to stumble upon this philosophical ordering in such a way that beholds its Trinitarian essence. Yet, like manna from heaven, we have been nourished with the self-titled album by the Dominican group The Hillbilly Thomists.
A soulful album both enchanting and nostalgic, The Hillbilly Thomists repurpose old gospel favorites while reacquainting the listener with a buffet of instruments that one rarely encounters when listening to the radio. For me, it ignites forgotten memories of holidays spent at my great-grandmother’s home, where every possible stringed instrument was on display for all to see.
Some days, where the stars aligned just right, various members of my extended family treated their fellows to a feast of the same hymns these Dominicans have retooled. In fact, I hadn’t encountered since my great-grandmother’s funeral such soulful renditions of classic gospel songs like “Angel Band,” “Amazing Grace,” or “What Wondrous Love Is This.”
Counter-Cultural Culture Making
Few should disagree on southern culture’s effects on the larger opus of music today. Gospel songs found their first expressions in black oral traditions as early as the seventeenth century. As radio became a fixture in households across America, gospel branched into various forms including folk, blues, and bluegrass. All rock and roll history can trace its origins to these beautiful, and sometimes haunting, songs.
This music became a fixture in American households. It planted itself in the hearts of America through parents to their children, churches to their congregations, and auditoriums to their surrounding communities. These songs invoke memories of a not too distant time, when the family was the highest order, and all others grew from there. It beckons us to leave our synthetic islands of social media and to return to the communities where we were created to take part.
In this way, the record is as counter-cultural as it is beautiful. The Hillbilly Thomists are a sign of contradiction in a time where auto tune is king and record producers are on the never-ending quest to find a slightly different way of singing the exact same song. The album offers the mind an enriching counterweight to the slew of homogeneous music designed for consumption.
The songs balance the status quo, which intends to avoid the questions that matter rather than inspire or challenge the listener on a deeper level, and it provides a brief view on how the culture wars can be won. The small army of a band offers a taste of the transcendent to a world exhausted from constant, and ever more meaningless, stimulation. They beckon you to stop what you are doing and listen. The arrangements jar the sedated soul to life, as if from a hundred-year slumber, and call the individual to partake in the banquet of our Lord.
Jarring Us from the Slumber of Relativism
The name Hillbilly Thomist is a reference to the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who once quipped, “Everybody who has read ‘Wise Blood’ thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas… I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” This name should not be lost on the minds of Christians everywhere, who have long been losing ground in the culture wars that are all too familiar with the feelings O’Connor’s writing was seeking to correct. Her horrifying stories were written specifically to jar the souls of her neighbors awake from the slumber of moral relativism.
To preach the gospel to a tired nation, this lovely band of Dominican friars has taken up their arms, which happen to be banjos and fiddles. They have injected a heaping dose of theology through song with vocals as intoxicating as grandmother’s famous cough syrup.
By offering their listeners a glimpse of truth, goodness, and beauty, The Hillbilly Thomists are addressing a world riven by a moral relativism so potent that no amount of brilliant apologetics can seem to crack. They remind man of his place in the order of creation by speaking in the language of angels, and ask him, “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!”
The culture wars will be won by reminding man of the trinitarian essence of truth, goodness, and beauty. It will be won by offering occasional glimpses of the eternal to the constant stream of anti-culture. The Hillbilly Thomists offer just that. By reminding us that music was once an experience of beauty, this lovely album orients us to seek the permanent things of family, community, and our lord Jesus Christ.