Monday, December 28, 2009

1980s toys and cartoons and the 00s--passion to do what has been done before

The first decade of the 21st century met with a host of films and TV programs connected to 1980s cartoons and toys. Include comic books and this last decade included an unprecedented number of comic book movies that got mainstream attention whether we're talking about Ghost World, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, 30 Days of Night, Daredevil, Spiderman, Blade, Persepolis, Ghost Rider, Whiteout, 300, Sin City, Watchmen, or any other comic book film you care to mention. As for toy franchises this year we got a G. I. Joe film (bad), and another Transformers film (also very bad). There have been rumors for years that John Woo might get behind a Master's of the Universe film. The next Smurfs movie will not make it until next year or the year after but it began to get greenlit in this decade, I think. The Chipmunks and Scooby Doo also got revamps for the current age ... though to be fair that raggedy dog never really went out of style no matter how many times I may wish he DID go out of style. We also got those insufferable Star Wars prequels. As bad as people say Episode 1 was the other two episodes were equally appalling but that is something I will leave aside for now.

It would seem people in their thirties and forties are insisting on foisting upon mass culture our childhood obsessions and naturally this means stuff from the 1980s. This, I submit, is perfectly normal. If something gets popular enough it turns into film. I don't personally see much need for Harry Potter films to get turned into films at all. Star Trek is a case in point for a franchise where each successive generation has enough adherents that it dragged on for four decades with intermitten success. I lost interest at the end of The Next Generation and didn't really come back until Abrams was brought on board for the reboot. No matter how bad Star Trek got in the movies with the 11th one we have a revived franchise and that is more than can be said for George Lucas' work. People actually born in the 1980s don't realize how big Star Wars was for us. Well, they do in as much as whatever zeal they have for Harry Potter or whatever they get into is the same sort of zeal but for a different cultural artifact.

But people who were teenagers through the better part of this last decade and who were kids will probably be mostly happy that the books became popular enough to become films even if they don't actually like the films. With all these mammoth book sets getting turned into films who knows but that Angelina Jolie may end up playing Dangey Taggert in an Atlas Shrugged film. Ten years ago I would have imagined it would be impossible for the Lord of the Rings books to get adapted into film.

For people whose nostalgia goes no further back than whatever they deem worth remembering all of this will seem like proof that Hollywood has run out of ideas. They never had their own ideas and a film is too large a project to be built upon "new" ideas. I'm not dismissing the art form at all but canards are canards. Would we be better off having new ideas and new stories for film when all the stories have been told? Novels, short stories, epic poems, and ballads have covered all the kinds of stories there have been to tell since before the advent of photography. It is only our collective and individual failures of memory that gets us thinking that, somehow, there are actually new ideas. We should get a more careful, nuanced working definition of what constitutes "new".

In the last decade I have seen that animated films in the West are, if anything, one of the more fruitful fields of film. I admit to being highly biased in favor of cartoons. I wanted to be an animator when I was a kid. Eventually I discovered how much drawing was involved in such an enterprise and in my early twenties I shifted my attention to journalism, theology, and music after I had an eye injury that completely changed my priorities about what sorts of arts I would work in. I keep my eyes open for stuff that intrigues me and stuff that is not so much new as compelling.

Just because something has not been committed to film before doesn't make it worth the effort. The tedious animated film Nine demonstrated "new" is not really new. We don't want "new" ideas for film if those new ideas include Norbit or basically anything Eddie Murphy has done in the last ten years. You don't want a "new" film based on "new" material if it is insufferable.

I think it's okay for earlier generations to want younger generations to get into the stuff they were into. People who are in their twenties now can only have been introduced to Rush, the Cure, Bob Dylan, Hendrix or anything else by older people. The passion you discover in discovering the old does not mean it is old for you. I have at times believed that the avant garde is nothing more than going back further in time or to more obscure places than what people usually go to when they emulate something more "mainstream". "Revolution #9" isn't a particularly daring piece if you compare it to anything by Stockhausen, Messiaen, Berg, Webern, or Stravinsky in terms of sheer innovation. It is, however, to the immense credit of the Beatles and their production team that they created "Revolution #9" in the context of pop music. It becomes even more an accomplishment when you consider that for all intents and purposes the Beatles started out like just about any other boy band from the time.

You would have thought the 80s revival would have hit us already since in the 1980s people were revisiting the 1960s. Everyone hitting their 30s and 40s seems to look back fondly on whatever they were into in their teens and twenties.

It might be fun to complain about things being revived or redone and say that Hollywood is out of ideas but that's too easy. Anyone without a grounding in how much we humans repeat ourselves could say that. I had a friend in college who said that he didn't like American film because of all the cliches. I pointed out that European cinema is just as cliche as American cinema and he responded, "Well, I like European cliches better." Oh, and that makes it all better, huh? Shooting for cliche and shooting for trite from the outset may be the easy way out but shooting for anything not cliche lands you in the realm of some other set of cliches. The human experience is not quite so wide and varied as we persuade ourselves it is, particularly in the modern West (or the old West).

Take Avatar, someone could say that it is just Fern Gully or Dances with Wolves in space and that wouldn't necessarily be wrong (I won't know until I see it). Conversely, why point this out without pointing out that this sort of romanticism is about as old as H9llywood itself. We have all sorts of people fooling themselves into thinking that if they shut off their Blackberry, their iPod, their email, their computer, their cel phone, their whatever-you-name-among-modern contrivances-we-thin-we-depend-on-too-much that life will get simpler and we'll be more attuned to nature and better to ourselves and each other. Yeah, and people were saying that twenty years ago and forty years ago and sixty years ago, too. Before the hippies were the beatniks and before them the Transcendentalists and each generation has had its batch of anti-Transcendentalists. Want to guess where I land on that spectrum? That earlier post about Kafka and Dostoevsky is a big clue. :)

I don't think it's bad that we see people in each generation attempting to get the same ideas to work. Augustine dealt with the human conviction that we have evolved and will evolve centuries before Darwin developed his variation of the theory. Darwin stumbled upon a variation of an old idea. Ideas that intrigue people and help them get through life tend to self-replicate. Cartoons that were popular with people in the 1980s become movies, whether the cartoons were literally cartoons or, as we'll see, the cartoon is a bit more figurative like the upcoming A-Team movie. I love it when a plan comes together, even if that plan is, strictly speaking, not very new. On that note, happy New Year. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I suggest a moratorium on new Christmas hymns, until we all learn the Magnificat and the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis so much by heart that they seep out our fingers at the keyboard, until we instinctively sing of Jesus’ birth like Mary, like Zecharias, like Simeon.

An amusing quote for me because I have not attempted to compose any Christmas songs and have focused more on Advent material when I have turned my attention to this period in the liturgical year. I was inspired to compose a Latin Magnificat and a vernacular Magnificat and a setting of the Nunc Dimittis. I really want to get to the Benedictus and my brother long ago proposed a fascinating idea of a split choir (of men and women, of course) in which the Magnificat and Benedictus are interwoven into a single work. Now THAT sounds like an amazing project to tackle.

A few years ago I put together a rudimentary libretto using passages from Revelation as an Advent text. I meant to compose the song cycle myself but haven't gotten around to it and am not sure I remember the details of it anymore. Hmm ... perhaps I should get back to composing Advent music again.


Haven't seen it and don't know precisely when I will (or even if I will). I studiously avoided Titanic years ago on the grounds that if James Cameron was using the rehated star-crossed lovers across conflicting classes trope I had better things to do with my time and money. I went and caught Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen the day I was invited to go see Titanic. My sister asked me if the girl who invited me to see Titanic was cute and I said that it wasn't a matter of cute there were principles involved and I had already bought my ticket for Lawrence of Arabia anyway.

Avatar promises to be another liberal screed on behalf of James Cameron, probably using technology to decry itself. At least Peter Gabriel's music that opines on technology as a means to dehumanization is AMBIVALENT. When Gabriel records a pop song there are the concerns about losing touch with nature and yet there is an equally strong impulse to revel in sound for the sake of sound. Peter Gabriel can attempt to have it both ways because he has made a career of attempting to have it both ways. Art rock/prog rock/fusion pop has always been that way.

Meanwhile Hayao Miyazaki can create cinematic jeremiads about the dangers of encroaching technology and destruction and not come off as facile because as anyone who knows about animation knows he's old-school. He still likes to handle his films through traditional hand-drawn techniques and even his manga magnum opus Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind consisted entirely of his own writing, pencils and artwork. When you care enough to do cartoons the old way it helps reinforce a methodological purity that matches the ideological vision driving your art.

Of course I'll never agree with Miyazaki's pantheism but he's more intellectually consistent and respectable, even going so far as (in the manga version of Nausicaa) compelling his protagonist to confront the reality that her attempts to save the ecosphere of her own world may damn it to destruction because it was engineered to expend itself as a way to revive the ecosphere that had been destroyed by wars that happened generations ago.

Cameron's work has been more about the epic and emotional gesture than about idea. I suppose I should concede here that even his most successful film franchise, Terminator 1 and 2 (at least) is hamstrung by a complete failure to unpack the inevitability of the time loop his initial narrative creates. The paradox at the heart of the Terminator franchise is that Skynet's very attempt to prevent the birth of John Connor is the direct cause of John Connor's birth. Only in a world where Skynet did not attempt to stop Connor's birth would Connor's birth actually have been prevented. No one sent up this paradox more beautifully or brutally than South Park did in their "Trapper Keepr 2000" episode.

If Cameron were consistent with the idea that preventing Skynet was possible then if John Connor actually PREVENTS the existence of Skynet he precludes the possibility of his own existence. This is why Terminator 3 was ultimately not the failure several critics said it was because it took the narrative conceit more seriously than Cameron's philosophical conceit that "there is no fate but what we make". The problem with that conceit is simply that we are not the only ones making our fates and that Skynet was determined to make its own fate, too.

Cameron has a history of failing to address the implications of his philosophical and social assertions. Even a film like Pixar's WALL-E is internally consistent by refusing to settle on an artificial distinction such as "machines are bad and people are good, technology is bad and simple living is good". WALL-E represents, as machine, the better qualities and limitations of humanity. The auto-pilot represents the lesser qualities but without having to be considered the "villain" of the story in some arch form. What some have said reflects a weakness Pixar has for failing to come up with memorable or intimidating villains is one of the things I admire about their work. It is an ability to see some shades of gray in ostensibly black and white narratives and their consistent exploration of how their protagonists need to repent of something to better love their neighbors that keeps me coming back to Pixar films.

I suppose I could wax pop psychological and guess that Cameron is still rebelling against a father who said he wouldn't amount to anything and still attempting to prove to everyone, not least himself, that he's better than anyone at what he does. I can appreciate that impulse to tackle things that are tough just because they are tough. I also realize that doing that doesn't make you an artist in itself. I appreciate Cameron's films when they emphasize spectacle over thought and explosions over exposition. My indifference about seeing Avatar is because if I want a film to preach at me or subvert ideas I can go watch films by Miyazaki or the Coen brothers. I still have more interest in seeing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker than seeing Avatar. Perhaps it's fitting since Avatar's release that I find myself more interested in seeing the film of one of his ex-wives. Since Cameron isn't claiming to make a film about a historical event I suppose I can muster up the will to go see Avatar.

Of all the descriptions I have seen for the film so far the most amusing is one that describes Avatar as what you would get if the Thundercats bred with the Smurfs and the resulting offspring fought Robotech. Since I'm obviously a fan of cartoons this description is not only not insulting to me presented at face value but sounds like a far more accurate description of what Cameron has done than other reviews. Now if someone were to describe Avatar as what you would get if Rubik the Amazing Cube mated with Turboteen and those offspring fought the characters from the Pole Position cartoon and Donkey Kong I would never go near a theater. I trust you understand what I mean. Cameron might find it insulting to have his magnum opus compared to 1980s cartoons but I wouldn't. To get into why will require another post for another time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Link--Reclaiming the Mind "If the Bible is not inerrant than Christianity is false and other stupid statements"

Back when I was at a certain church I had come to the conclusion that if one states that the Bible infallibly accomplishes the purpose for which it was written that is sufficient and that contemporary definitions of inerrancy rely too much on a polarity imposed upon it by folks who were embracing a post-enlightenment rationalism that would require its adherents to reject the credibility of the biblical documents on the basis of differences in genealogies or different numbers assigned to different battles in, say, Kings and Chronicles. To hold that scripture is infallible but not necessarily inerrant or that inerrancy is not as critical as christology, however, lands you in exceptionally hot water depending on where you are, who your friends are, and who your relatives are. So I simply avoided saying that though I am willing to affirm that scripture is reliable and trustworthy it's not necessary to go beyond the historical records to impose an apologetic criteria on to the scriptures that the scriptures themselves do not require in order for the message to be believed.

I didn't say a whole lot about this because one of the pastors at that time was saying things like that God could basically make the world not end due to any possible consequences of global warming so that people would be around and that the unpardonable sin is unbelief. I strongly disagreed with these particular explanations but decided it was not worth it to press those points if all the elders at the church, according to this pastor, all agreed on certain things.

Actually, I feel a bit weird writing this but having the view of infallibility over inerrancy is easier to articulate now that some of my family members are Eastern Orthodox instead of essentially Reformed Baptist American style. There was a time when I thought they might decide I wasn't really a Christian if I actually said that inerrancy is not as important as a proper understanding of the trinity and an appreciation of the trustworthiness of the events attested by scripture. For isntance, whatever people would claim to be errant documentation of the late Brittany Murphy's death no one should reasonably contest that 1) she's dead and 2) she was in 8 Mile and King of the Hill, etc, etc.

Now I am willing to say I believe the scriptures are historically trustworthy overall but I have seen too many Christians take that kind of teaching and marry it to other things that are not even close to essential to the Christian faith like voting for this particular political party or having that particular view on economic theory or defending this interpretation of history based on allegiances to sides so long after the fact it's silly to think your view matters in the end. If you really think the Confederacy was better than the Union because the Union was being run by a bunch of functional Unitarians the news I have for you is for those of us with American Indian family histories we kind of don't care--the northern racists beat the southern racists and American Indians still got treated like crap and it wasn't until about a century later when blacks organized to object to the racism on both sides that things started to change.

As Mark Noll pointed out the central problem in the Civil War for evangelical Protestants (yes, he makes a good case for the North being effectively as evangelical as the South despite claims to the contrary) is that BOTH sides consisted chiefly of evangelical Protestants who affirmed scripture as the ultimate and final authority and yet the theological debates got nowhere and the issues were resolved by force. This may be indicative of the problems in American evangelicalism ever since. At some point we can't really solve the social problems we want solved and must resort at length to invoking or rallying political force. We must at length convert our social capital into moral capital and then invest in political power to make sure things go our way.

Admittedly much of what I have written this winter is downbeat. Job hunting and reflecting on the last ten years of my life tends to get me downbeat. I am in my thirties rather than my twenties so I am seeing people make obscenely stupid decisions with their lives and pleading victim status after having taken abusive attitudes toward people. It is not uncommon for bullies to feel like victims and for bullies to bully each other and each one pleads to his or her constituency that they are not, in fact, bullies but persecuted for being the lone bastion of truth and reason. Except that what they are fighting for is not really truth or reason but shortcuts to pin what they want done on the thing most likely to get them what they want.

My objection to inerrancy is not to inerrancy itself at all or the concept behind it but how people exploit their defense of the scriptures as a way to essentially obtain what they want. When you have people of conservative and liberal allegiances essentially rewriting the biblical texts to suit their social and political agendas you're getting people whose gods are their political ideologies and not Christ. If you only say that God is in control when your preferred political party is in power then you may have to examine your heart to discern whether or not your actual god is the party you vote for.

I have seen people look down on other people for fiscal irresponsibility who made spectacularly foolish decisions in their own finances. I have seen people demonize other people for questioning the prevailing social fad regarding interaction of the sexes. I have seen people demonize other people for not being Calvinists or for being Calvinists. It is this capacity to demonize people that bugs me. I am anything but immune to the temptation and it is precisely that aspect in myself that I find profoundly aggravating! I also find it profoundly aggravating in other people. Few things bug me more than when I get the sense that a person thinks he or she is better than someone else whether it is the "I am a superior individual" variety or the "I'm not perfect but I'm not as bad as you are" variety. Inerrancy is one of the ways in which a variety of Christians can pull this maneuver.

As Scotteriology put it, there's a huge swath of American evangelicals who hold that as long as you hold the right doctrines your failure to live out the applied ethics of those doctrines doesn't matter. If you don't make your rent then its your landlord's fault for being a jerk who does illegal things, not you being a jerk for presuming on the generosity of a landlord who you called a friend yet still needs you to pay rent on time to make expenses. If you are in a dating relationship and someone dumps you because you lack the emotional or mental stability to be who they need you to be in the relationship, well, it's too bad that happened but it would be worse to raise children in that kind of toxic dynamic. If you look down on other people's health failures as signs of moral failures and you've given yourself heart failure or diabetes that's also too bad, because self-discipline wouldn't be something the scriptures exhort us to if it came to us naturally. Jesus wouldn't have said the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak if we all had the self-control and single-mindedness of Batman (well ... maybe Christopher Nolan's Batman isn't quite in that mold).

I try to appreciate that when you face that you are causing your own death you repent and you share that sense of urgency with everyone you know but it doesn't entitle you to look down on people whose problems may not be the same as yours. And amidst all this I hope what you don't do is invoke your view as being the right one because you know the real meaning of the scriptures and simply have to be right because of who you are. There comes a point when I find myself thinking of a comment made by Dr. Wilson to Dr. House regarding House's complete disdain for the field of mental health professionals, "Never before has a man so villified a profession he so badly needed help from." Yes, I know people like this in the real world. I didn't bust a gut laughing because that line rang hollow or didn't mean anything to me.

For a lot of my life the deal was as long as you affirmed inerrancy and the hobby horses chained in train to it you were copacetic. I have grown weary of litmus tests attached to litmus tests over the years and seeing how people get treated when they don't measure up. If I were someone else I'd say that the Christian faith isn't worth it but my struggles as a Christian are nothing compared to my skepticism about what Americans embrace as the alternatives.

I have been hunting for work for a few months now and that means I have time to think and I often doubt whether or not all that time to think is necessarily a good thing. I don't regret being able to compose more music at all but I realize that I am at a strange phase in my middle thirties where I feel like, for me, I completely lack the intellectual curiosity I had in my twenties, pretty much all the way through my twenties. It is as though I can feel my body and brain changing or slowing down.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Advent as a time of misery

We tend to talk about Christmas as a joyful holiday and the "bah humbug" types are told they need to have a different attitude, that or the humbug sorts consider outrage at the time because they object to religion or object to capitalism or whatever they object to the only "reasonable" or "rational" explanation of how to behave.

Advent is not just a time of waiting, it is also a time of misery. As Denise Spencer puts it in her entry, the first Advent was not a happy time. Zechariah was struck mute by an angel for unbelief. Mary was given the announcement that she would be the mother of Jesus and was showing her pregnancy quickly enough that Joseph was sure he needed to end the betrothal quietly so as not to disgrace her. Nevertheless decades later people would say of Jesus "Is this not Mary's son?" which meant they assumed he was not Joseph's son and that Jesus was a bastard. Mary had a painful childbirth to look forward to without being sure she could rely on anyone for help. She and Joseph ended up bringing forth their child in pretty miserable circumstances.

It seems we do not know that "Hosanna" means "save us", and we do not know that to sing "hosanna" now is to ask that we be saved. Hosanna is the prayer to which Christ is our answer and the answer to those prayers come at first in the form of pain and even judgment. Zechariah's prayer was heard but when he expressed disbelief that it had been answered he was silenced. Mary accepted the announcement that the promises of God were being fulfilled and accepted it with joy but then came the months of things like morning sickness and half whispered recriminations about her character and the doubts of her own betrothed.

Christ came to us through the birth pangs of his mother who then lived to see him crucified as if her were guilty of fomenting terrorism against the Roman state. She came to visit him at one point and Jesus said that his true family are those who hear the word of God and obey it. There were times when she had doubts about his sanity. She loved him as a mother would love any son, to be sure, but if Christ was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief then Mary would not be expected to be a woman of only serene joy and endless gladness. She not only saw her son killed but killed in one of the most shameful ways possible. She saw him charged with fomenting revolution against not only Israel and charged with blasphemy but executed by Roman officials as an enemy of the Roman state. I'm sure a few American evangelical Christians can savor the irony that Jesus was a Palestinian peasant executed on the charge of being a terrorist promoting acts of terror against the greatest power in the Western world.

If they can't, well, God has made sure the joke is on them. That is also part of what Advent is for, to reveal the strange and frankly miserable ways in which God, through Christ, ensures that the joke is on us when we think we are perched at the top of the pile thanks to the backs of the little people we climbed over to get to the top. Mary rejoiced that God has taken these proud people and toppled them from their thrones. She sang the Magnificat and then dealt with months of expecting a child who was born with livestock because no one could (or would) take them in. Then she and her husband had to make for Egypt to escape the certainty of a dynasty planning to kill everyone under the age of 2 that lived in the village. God's announcement meant that the proud and mighty would be toppled from their thrones but Mary had to live with the misery of knowing that they had not been toppled yet and that some of them were attempting to kill her son before he even learned to speak more than a few words.

So for this week, if you happen to be reading this, consider that if Advent this year feels like a time of misery for you for whatever reason, you're not alone.

Monday, December 21, 2009

An advent meditation--what exactly is a Hosanna chorus?

Dostoevsky famously wrote that his Hosanna passed through a crucible of doubt but this very phrase suggests that the word "Hosanna" has a meaning that has so greatly changed over time it is difficult to discern precisely what it is supposed to evoke. In Dostoevsky's usage the word implies some kind of praise and an absence of doubt and yet in terms of its literal meaning "Hosanna" is perhaps more poignantly pertinent in the psalms of lament and psalms requesting aid in time of war.

Hosanna means "save us" or "please save us". It has been used so often as a chorus of praise and in a particularly upbeat way that the supplicatory nature of the word can be completely lost even in in settings by a composer as masterful as Bach. The osanna is often presented as a moment of triumph already realized which can happen even in a work like Durufle's Requiem (which I adore, just so you know).

So far I'm rusty on masses these days but if you compare the setting of Osanna by Frank Martin or Bach to, say, Arvo Part's Berliner Mass you'll see that each of these three wonderful masses have spectacularly different approaches to the very concept of the word. Bach's setting reflects a confidence in the work of Christ as though it were complete (as I hear the setting). Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir has an element of expectation to it but is fairly cheery. Part's setting is dark, lonely, and even sorrowful. Not even in Byrd's masses do you find this sort of sadness and Byrd, who had to circulate his masses under the noses of Protestant leadership, would seem to have had more reason to make a forlorn setting.

To sing Hosanna is to ask Christ to save us and for me at this time of year and with no job and uncertainty about the future and acutely aware of my capacity to sin and even my indifference to turning from discouragement, impatience, and other failings ... I find Arvo Part's setting of the text in the Berliner Mass most resonant, most poignant. Part captures the sadness and even the anger we can feel awaiting the salvation of the Lord and wishing that we were not simply stuck where we are. We are like David, acutely aware of his own sin and realizing that he fumbles over and over but anxious despite this sin to turn to what is right. I want to be like that even though I realize how often I am not like that. I know that my spirituality is essentially a sham ... and yet all our spiritualities are shams apart from Christ and within Christ they take a lifetime to become perfected by seeking the author and finisher of our faith, something I am of late not the least bit good at.

Augustine, somewhat amusingly, wrote in his Confessions that his prayer was for some time, "Lord make me chaste ... but not yet." This is funny because it can be idiomatically re-presented to us as "Lord save me but don't save me yet." And how does Christ save us? Through the Cross. This is the cross He asks us to take up and carry as we follow Him, and it is the cross He takes up on our behalf. Even Christ had to have someone else carry His Cross and he was nailed to it. If Christ in His darkest hour could not carry His own physical burden of the literal cross even while He knew that that burden was to be borne for us, then He knows what it feels like to be forsaken.

Christ's life itself was a bearing of our infirmities and this for our salvation. How easily and quickly we can forget even when we tell ourselves this is the truth we live by, the story that guides our story. David forgot often, Solomon forgot often and eventually for an unusually long time. Even the best among God's people have ended in miserable failure forgetting what the Lord had urged them to remember. Samson ended in a way that was both triumphant and pathetic yet was considered a hero of the faith. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter after making a rash vow and yet he was regarded as a hero in the faith, too, because he was a judge who executed justice on behalf of Israel.

The judges were the ones God raised up when His people cried out "save us!" These judges were all ultimately failures and the great judge had yet to come. Even when I realize that I do not want to be saved yet, like Augustine used to pray, I know that I cannot finally forget that asking the Lord to save me remains for me to bring to the Lord, a petition to not forget.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

saying goodbye to the dreams of youth

This is for me an eloquent reflection on saying goodbye to the dreams of youth. I have for several years considered how the dreams I had in my teens and twenties were not realistic dreams. The idealism of youth was not even something I particularly valued at the time but no matter how practical and realistic you THINK you are there is nothing like actual life to disabuses of ideals and idealism you don't even think you have. There are times when I think that "realists" are people who have decided that your dreams are more worth giving up than theirs are yet who do not realize the impracticality of their own dreams.

At length I settled on the idea that a dream can help you work through life provided it is not the goal of your life. Whatever dream you have will ultimately fail to satisfy and at the end there is always death. As Koholeth puts it in Ecclesiastes, even if you attain fame, honor, and riches and achievements you still die and then who knows whether the person who inherits what you labored for will be wise or a fool? If we talk here about Solomon something suggests to me that he began to sense his sons were not going to lead the kingdom in a good direction. The kingdom of Israel was already in danger of dividing as early as the reign of Saul. Unity was easy during financial prosperity and with leaders willing to accomodate for the sake of unity (and in Solomon's case very quickly killing off anyone who was a threat both to his rule and to the unity of the kingdom).

A mid life crisis can happen at any time and any age, what is most frequently called "mid-life crisis" at any rate. All that is required is for your dream to run into reality.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent and hope revisited

Hope seems like a luxury to me, the luxury of people who do not really have to worry about what is going to happen to them. I have to admit to myself that I often think that hope is a trifling convenience for people who have time and resources to spare. I have never been a very joyful or optimistic person. I can find it difficult to hope, difficult to see the positive side of things. If other people go through life spouting the axiom "nothing ventured, nothing gained" I learned that it is more often true that nothing ventured means nothing lost. Most of life is not what I would call a pearl of great price worth selling everything you have to obtain. Tell me that something is worth the trouble and I'd LIKE to believe you and I may believe it is great for you but that doesn't mean I'll see the positive side of things.

When hope gets thwarted year after year and in conflict after conflict you begin not merely to lose hope but to resent even the idea of hope, of entertaining hope. You begin to resent even wanting things to be better because that signifies dissatisfaction and it is better to be content with what you have, isn't it? Godliness with contentment is great gain so wanting more than what you already have might as well be coveting, right? Well .. .maybe not. I have in some ways grown too cynical and pessimistic. I have often felt as though I'm the sort of person who thinks Goth kids are too naive and optimistic about the human condition.

Yet Advent is a time when we start hearing songs with lyrics like, "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices". I'm not sure how to grasp the significance of that a lot of the time. Hope not only seems like a luxury but the worm on the hook that lets people scam you. If my favorite authors are Dostoevsky and Kafka you may note that mine is not a disposition to believing the triumph of the human spirit amounts to much (unless we're talking about the Resurrection since I consider that a game changer). I have little patience for people who think they are some kind of John Galt hoping in their own hope whether hope in their innate greatness or the baptised version of thinking their mission from God entitles them to have obstacles removed. That can be a kind of atheistic faith in faith that Francis Schaeffer wrote about being inadequate. If Christians are naive in hoping for redemption atheists are just as incapable of living without false hope, which is why they vote. As you can see every fiber of my being is disposed to say things will not got better.

That is why Advent is a challenging season for me. It reminds me that God has made promises and that they are trustworthy and that God is not like the people who fail to keep promises through will or through weakness.

Mockingbird--the inner totalitarian

The idea that each of us has the capacity to be a totalitarian should appeal to everyone because it is in recognizing our capacity for this totalitarianism and constant suspicion that we acting in totalitarian ways that may be the only way we can avoiding acting in bullying and brutal ways. We have to consider that our quest for justice may be a quest for self-satisfaction, our moral outrage may be.

The greatest hypocrites I know about objecting to tyranny are those most willing to tyrannize if it suits their purposes. I know people who have no problem pulling rank and throwing their weight around when it is their interests at stake who object when things don't go their way and consider it an unpardonable breach of justice. If you don't pay your rent on time and get evicted it's not the landlord who is a tyrant and doing something illegal. If you get yourself to the point of being diabetic because of your eating habits you don't really have any moral high ground to want smoking banned because of health threats because your own eating and exercise habits have done more damage to you than second hand smoke possibly could. If you fire people who disagree with you without batting an eyelash you can't really claim persecution if there are legitimate legal obstacles to you getting the things you want. Reaping what you sow isn't karma, it's more like the social norm of reciprocity. Act like a jerk to people long enough and either they return the favor or find better things to do with their time than spend time with you.

Social groups allow us to make our personal tyrannies normative. During the height of the courtship fad at a church I was at I saw this on a small scale. God forbid you "dated" anyone but courting was okay, though that meant it was advisable that you jump through appropriate hoopes. Supposedly this was not about legalism but about honoring women when, in the end, I think what it was most about was avoiding sin. There was no real teaching about seeking to imitate Christ in that fad, just the avoidance of sin and it will go down as one of the largely unreported by great failures of that church both in terms of ethical teaching and faithfulness to doctrine.

It was a time in which people who went on to cheat on their spouses could still stand as moral police about how modest a woman's attire ought to be. The avoidance of sin is not the same as seeking Christ. It was a time in which men who did not really stand any serious chance of dating attacked the character of other men who suggested that dating was not as inherently sinful as it was being made out to be. It made for the perfect pretext to be standing up for sound teaching when it was little more than a way to vent personal dislike. At length the person who took advantage of this opportunity to rip on someone else became a target himself because of his own combative and self-congratulatory ways. How he was treated was far from ideal but his capacity for vindictiveness may have simply found a foil in a group of people who grew tired of him. Now he is looking after himself and is pretty much where he was ten years ago, except perhaps for being more entrenched in the foolish notion that protecting himself will actually protect him.

The inner totalitarian is what we unleash on others and ourselves when we become uncomfortable with who we are or resent others. It is also, of course, what we unleash when we become TOO comfortable with who we are. Someone who has wide respect, popularity, and confidence in a social setting feels more comfortable throwing his or her weight around and getting behind things that are unjust precisely because there is no doubt his own ethics enough. If you move too far to the left or the right in political thought you end up in some form of totalitarianism. Neither Rand nor Marx had a clue how to prescribe an actual solution to the social and economic problems of their time. I consider Rand and Marx to be two sides of the same coin. You don't entrust the future of your society to grand-standing sociopathic idealists.

The inner totalitarian becomes the outer totalitarian when a person decides to convert their social capital into a moral investment and enlists other people in their community for their cause, a cause of dubious morality, dubious biblical support, and dubious history. There is no need to rely on actual force most of the time because people voluntarily enforce the social outworking of a legalistic or punitive action as a way to preserve their own social investment in a community and their own status within the social network. People act like jerks toward targets because the lead jerks, they believe, will approve of them for it. Let this not happen and the jerks at the lower rungs of the social ladder may feel betrayed and what may have happened is simply that their own jerkiness caught up with them rather than their being victims of circumstance or unjust retribution. The unjust landlord may be exercising perfectly legal rights, the pariah may be a pariah for being a divisive know-it-all jerk who set his or her guns on undeserving targets to prove a point that wasn't worth proving because it was made with dubious reasoning.

People who are not aware of their inner totalitarian or defend it will defend the unspeakable in the end, the indefensible. No matter how willing the spirit the flesh is weak and many times we must concede that our spirit is not particularly willing.

it's only lonely at the top if you don't want anyone with you

I have sometimes heard and read it said that it is lonely at the top. My impression is that it is lonely everywhere and you will always be lonely at some point in your life even if you are surrounded by people, even people very close to you. I have known people who have told me that married life can actually be the loneliest kind of life from time to time. Being with someone can make loneliness worse. Popular entertainers and politicians may well feel more lonely than ordinary people but this is not necessarily because it invariably must be that way. Jesus chose to be a man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering and grief. You don't have to be lonely but it is tempting to want to be alone. Very tempting. How much loneliness is due to circumstances beyond my control and how much of it is chosen loneliness?

Omega bank debenture scam part two, the NESARA variation

Scams are more effective when they are linked to things that exist that don't really amount to much. That scrap of truthfulness and the appeal to avarice or genuine need. What began as Omega has over time transformed into a new variation on an old trick in the NESARA scam.
If high yield investment plan scams where the craze of the 199os it looks like hiring scams are the newest craze. It's not fun applying for a job on-line only to discover you're getting called by telemarketers about things that don't interest you.

Scams like NESARA or Omega or hiring scams exploit ignorance, greed, and need. You can think that you're too smart to get suckered but that may well be when you get suckered most. Especially in the 1990s when evangelical Christians were dreading what Clinton would do to compromise civil liberties and abuse federal power things that promised insider information that would financially liberate them looked good. As Koholeth put it wine makes the heart glad and money is the answer to everything! Why, of course it is! If you have the secret wisdom that most Americans don't have because they don't know how things REALLY work in this country then you'll become successful, right?

Thanks to some not very prudent financial decisions people I have known have made over the years I developed an approach that is probably overdone. Where many people would like to say "nothing ventured, nothing gained" I tend to think, "nothing ventured, less is lost". I know risks have to be taken but when you have seen people take risks that are disasters and turned out to be foolish risks it's hard to feel inspired to follow those examples with confidence. If a man eats his way into diabetes I can't take him seriously when he looks down on other people for their lack of self control. If a man was busily fornicating with the woman who eventually became his wife I can't take seriously his moral outrage that other people do now what he so giddily did. If a man wipes out his business ventures for lack of a sound business plan it's hard to feel inspired getting advice from that guy to be more entrepreneurial even though I actually kinda want to be a bit more entrepreneurial about music. Plus I know that most businesses don't make it very far but that isn't a reason to not try.

To get random and tie this back to my observations on prosperity teaching, things can fall apart that are beyond your control. Scams hook people by promising some form of fast and total control to change their circumstances. Jesus rebuked Pharisees by saying that if they were merely blind they would not be guilty but because they claim to see their guilt remained. The only thing more dangerous than being blind is believing that you see and telling others you can lead the way.

Mockingbird on Kafka, great stuff

For much of my life my favorite authors have been Kafka and Dostoevsky. The two would surely have gotten along terribly since Kafka was a Czech Jew and Dostoevsky was, well, Dostoevsky. No one could make a particularly compelling defense that Dostoevsky was not profoundly suspicious of the ethics and character of Jews and Poles alike (I have friends of Polish descent and no matter how much I love Dostoevsky's novels I note his way of handling Poles is exceptionally not cool as is also the case with his characterization of Jews).

When I was in my teens I connected to Kafka's ability to convey a sense of dread and a sense that society as a whole had no use for you and no real interest in you beyond your usefulness. Someone would probably tell me that the reason I don't have a very cheery disposition is that my idea of fun one summer was reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and Franz Kafka over a summer. That would be an unfair supposition because I was listening to scads of Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin during that period.

Yet I admit to being a gloomy sort. I don't believe in the power of positive thinking of the greatness and triumph of the human spirit. I am unimpressed by people who prattle on about how free we are because most of those people do not realize that they will spend their lives paying the prices for freedoms they think they have that are generally the drives they do not discipline in themselves. Careerists look down on anyone who does not worship the same idol they do. Intellectuals look down on those who find meaning in things besides intellectual pursuits. The things we define ourselves by inevitably devour us as we devour them. Cheery, I know ... you wouldn't be surprised to learn that I have been a fan of Kafka, eh?

It is possible for great authors and artists ... even mediocre or poor artists or authors ... to accurately diagnose the problems in a culture. If the artist accurately assesses a problem in society and the self and happens to be a genius (as I believe Kafka was) then they are able to tap into a problem or quality of life and articulate it at a level that goes beneath rational articulation. Kafka showed how a person can live in an ostensibly free society and have no freedoms and yet abuse those few freedoms he thinks he has while not making use of the freedoms he actually does have. Where other authors might see the radically individual experience and action as liberating and wonderful Kafka sees it as the foundation of terror because he sees how powerless the individual is in the face of the social and internal impulses within.

I suppose I can connect to Kafka because Kafka (no doubt in part by having had an often miserable childhood and being a Jew where he was) manages to articulate a life characterized by dread even in the calmest moments. Kafka articulates for us what it is like to live a life full of fear. He didn't need to live in an age where people said terrified emails about what the evil creeps in Congress are plotting to take away your life and liberty. He already lived in a setting where he was not even allowed by the society he lived in to use his birth name. We in the modern United States tell ourselves we know what dread is like and we don't. Some of us do, I guess, and the Cold War left us with no small amount of unease about nuclear war but we have not lived in a time that for Americans warrants the sort of fear that a Cezch Jew living in a German-speaking culture full of anti-semitism would understandably have. Kafka understood, it seems, what it feels like when other people use their freedoms that they are proud to have to fence you in.

Without being able to articulate precisely why I have always related to that since the first time I read Kafka's The Trial and moved on to his other works. He presents to us a world that is as bewildering as it is and his writing serves as a rebuke to all the authors who speak as though they have unlocked the secrets, they have discerned how to make sense of things, they know the password and have the greatness that allows one to pass through the cordoned area into the place for very important people who get things done and do things that matter. Kafka delves into the price of that to the self and to the others who end up on the receiving end of that exchange.

Advent and hope, Advent and promises, Advent and the prosperity gospel

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

I began drafting this blog entry at the start of the week before I learned of the death of Oral Roberts or had read any of the material written reflecting on the prosperity gospel that has attended his death. However it cannot go without reflection that Roberts has died during Advent, during a time when we as Christians reflect precisely on how the promises remain fulfilled in part and not in full.

We anticipate the coming of Christ to set things right and live in the humility of knowing that all is not well. The central question the Christian faith grapples with is the existence and pervasiveness of evil, its depth, its deception, its allure and our capacity to be seduced by it. Christ is revealed as the answer. Prosperity teaching is dangerous because it is a partial truth. A pastor I have been listening to lately has said that what was happening in Galatia can be described as a situation where the Galatians were being urged that grace was good and God's mercy was great but that there were things yet left to be done. There was, if you will, a ten percent missing from what God had accomplished and it was in the ten percent that was added that Paul found a deadly usurpation of the message of Christ. 90 percent grace and 10 percent of anything else still proves a deadly mixture and yet that 10 percent is frequently what characterizes a lot of what passes for acceptable, even orthodox Christianity in America (notice the lack of the capital there, for folks who are curious about that, I trust you understand).

Christian teaching is often puzzling because there are many ways to mess up the teaching of Christ, just as there are many ways to mess up the teaching of the apostles. There are many Christians who effectively teach that the promises are for an improved life now, not the promise of a life to come.

John Donne pointedly asked that those who cannot weep and cannot find it in their hearts to empathize with the suffering of their fellow, what happens to those people when Christ comes to wipe away every tear to those who have never shed them? Christ declared a blessing on those who mourn now, saying that they shall be comforted. He also pronounced a woe upon those who laugh now, for in time they shall mourn and weep. It is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of mirth, Ecclesiastes tells us. It is good for us to recognize that the promises of God are good promises and that it is in these that we can our hope, a hope that will not disappoint.

We pay lip services to these promises while living lives full of hope that THIS life will be where we find our reward, THIS life will be where we cultivate our legacy. This life is also merely a shadow of the things to come and yet as Christians we often live and speak as though this life is all there really is or what you do or don't make of your life now indicates whether or not you will merit a better life to come. I don't just mean the "Your Best Life Now" and other Osteen-isms. I believe that the pastor who sells people on a fad like reverse-engineering your life has basically sold a form of prosperity gospel while pretending to himself that he hasn't.

Let me rephrase my concerns this way--the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it is a partial truth, a fragment of the message we get from the wisdom literature. The prosperity gospel is giving you the book of Proverbs as a rule book and not a book that has riddles in it. The prosperity gospel sells you the book of Proverbs without taking seriously Ecclesiastes or Job. There's no book of Job to correct for the simplified theodicy of Proverbs and there is no Ecclesiastes to demonstrate that axioms and proverbs have limits in the real world. There are none of the narratives that upend the rigorous flow of propositional statements and riddles. Nope, the prosperity gospel just gives us principles for living and practical counsel for how not be a failure in this life.

A certain pastor almost ten years ago predicted a renaissance in Christian teaching, even a new reformation, that would be derived from Christians returning to the wisdom literature. Well, guess what? It hasn't happened. Oh, wait, well it sort of has happened but it has looked suspiciously like prosperity teaching. Maybe that pastor was totally wrong in making that call. Or maybe the pastor's prediction came true after all but the prediction came true in an unexpected way.

In the time of Advent we need to remember that the book of Proverbs is not characterized by promises from God of the sort we see in the prophets or the Torah. Proverbs says that we can devise our plans in our hearts but that the Lord directs our steps. The scriptures are not particularly interested in reconciling causality and determinism. The scriptures seem intent on having things both ways. The prosperity gospel is anything that gives us Proverbs without Job and Ecclesiastes. The prosperity gospel is giving us Proverbs as rules without riddles. The prosperity gospel forgets that there is a not yet to the already of the promises that are being fulfilled through Christ.

Worst of all, when you fail the prosperity gospel, whatever its form, will tell you that if you'd just repent of your sin and failure to be what you ought to be by the measures of a prosperity gospel that everything will come together. The prosperity gospel is the sort of view that can say there aren't any righteous poor in America or, at any rate, very few of them. James 2:5 isn't really in the Bible, after all. These are people who just don't realize that in Christ they might have to answer their own prayers because sometimes that's what you have to do. Wait ... is that prosperity teaching?

The answer to that question may depend on who you ask. If you urge other people to sacrifice so that you can take the credit while ostensibly saying the Lord did it for you then you may be embracing prosperity teaching in your heart while claiming to do otherwise. If you are willing to let others take the blame for your failures while you take credit for their successes you may be embracing a prosperity teaching. You see Christians of all sorts can look down on prosperity teaching without realizing it is in the very heart of what they say and do and teach because they have not examined their own hearts.

Theo-blogging and watch-blogging comes in various forms but I don't know that in the wake of Oral Roberts' death and during Advent, no less, that we may get enough self-examination. How many people are going to blog about their own embrace of forms of prosperity teaching instead of either defending that teaching or denouncing it others. I propose that some of the people who have been most vehement in denouncing prosperity teaching have been guilty of their own forms. Let us repent of our own embrace of the errors of prosperity teaching instead of looking down on prosperity teachers or, worse yet, simply embracing our form of prosperity teaching without examining it.

Let us remember those who died utter failures in this life whom the scriptures count as being so great in the faith that the world was not worthy of them. We cannot remember them because we do not know their names. Many of them died and were lost to history because none of them mattered in this age. In the age to come they will matter. It was not for nothing James wrote his rhetorical question, has not God appointed the poor to be rich in faith? It was not for nothing that Paul wrote that God delights in using the things that are nothing to subvert the things that are. The Lord uses the foolish and simple and humble things to overturn the wisdom of the wise, the power of the powerful, the greatness of the great, and the strength of the strong.

These promises are not yet complete and they come to us in the most baffling fulfillment of them all, the coming of Christ as we did not expect him, as we did not desire him and at length we considered his claim to fulfill the promises of Yahweh to be a great betrayal of the promises we expected Yahweh to fulfill for us. At length for our sins Christ died so that He could reveal that He has come not to fulfill the promises of Yahweh to us as we expected and demanded but in a different, troubling, yet ultimately better way.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Link: Inhabitatio Dei-- "You're not post-anything ... "

Ah, this made me laugh. Yes, indeed. It amused me greatly, greatly amused me it did. Now before I continue to sound like a cross between Mojo Jojo and the wildly self-congratulatory Beast Wars Megatron I am going to leave it at that.

Friday, December 11, 2009

time for a hundred visions and revisions, part 2

In addition to the usual job-hunting enterprise I have been revising the prelude and fugue in C minor for solo guitar. Well, revising the prelude but adding additional and critical left hand instructions for the fugue. After playing guitar for nearly twenty years and in the heat of the compositional process I can sit down with my guitar, work out a passage fairly quickly and commit it to the page (Finale is useful here) without necessarily putting down all the instructions for HOW I played that passage that didn't seem too bad. This becomes a big problem when you run it by even an experienced, capable guitarist who doesn't know what you did (and, just as importantly) didn't do in the process of playing through something.

Some people like to claim the guitar is a miniature orchestra. That's bunk if you don't appreciate it for being the analogy (with all the attendent limitations analogies have) that it is. I would say that the guitar is in very practical ways more like a choir. You can hold notes for so long before you run out of breath and that is what has happened with inadequate instructions on how to handle barre chords in the prelude. Unless you have a left hand like a C-clamp you can only play bar chords for so long!

Now that I'm done, more or less, with C minor, I am 9 of 24 down in the set. Igor Rekhin's set is the benchmark for solo guitar fugue-writing and I hope to add to that. Russian music is not necessarily Western music the way we usually understand that term "Western music". If Rekhin is the first composer in the East to compose 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar then if I happen to be the first composer in the West to tackle such a project that's great, and if not that's still great. As Stephen Colbert put it to Tom Wright on his show, "It's not a race." Of course the bishop jokingly replied, "Oh, really? I thought it was."

Jonathan Edwards as a failed pastor

By way of Jared Wilson to Grateful To the Dead this is a piece by Chris Armstrong on Jonathan Edwards getting kicked out of his church for advocating a strict position on closed communion. This is not the sort of thing that we could ever imagine happening in a megachurch today. Of course this sort of thing would never happen in churches where there was not any change in the administration of communion. Certainly Catholics and Orthodox would not run into this situation. Catholics have become famous for covering up sexually abusive priests and Orthodox have their own skeletons and all three streams have a virulent history of anti-Semitism that some dispensationalists think their views prevent ... but clearly I digress.

Edwards ran afoul of members in his flock who didn't like the stricter, older standard for participating in communion Puritan churches employed. Eventually the battle led to his being ousted from his church for wanting closed eucharist and he went to do missions work among American Indians. I just find this fascinating and since I have the George Marsden biography on Edwards on my floor (as I don't have enough bookshelves just yet for the books I own) I may have to consult it soon.

Recent history for evangelical Protestants does not suggest that the leader of a prominent church would get the boot from his congregation over something ostensibly as simple and clear-cut as closed communion. A pastor who departs from his leadership position in a Protestant church NOW probably does so because he was discovered to have been taking illegal drugs and hiring a male prostitute (Ted Haggard); or for having an affair with one of his administrative aids (Todd Bentley); or perhaps for being accused of misappropriating the tax identification number of another church (R. C. Sproul Jr). In fact without getting particularly detailed Edwards' ouster was not as simple as the mere issue of closed communion.

People who espouse ideas or oppose ideas attach immense personal emotional weight to those ideas. People who are complementarians really think, more or less (in many cases) that the whole of the Gospel stands or falls on their one pet doctrine. People who think that the whole Gospel of Christ is lost if we lose double imputation are making one aspect of teaching so central that if it is not emphasized enough (never mind disputed) then anyone who doesn't champion the cause as that person does is the enemy.

As I have complained many times elsewhere, there have been more than a few Christians I have known who have championed the absurd foolishness of "courtship" as though it were a doctrine on part with hypostatic union and were actually far more concerned with the former than the latter even when they were not living lives that indicated they were even dating or courting or wished to do any of the above. The teaching, however, became useful in informally declaring anathema on people they already disliked on other grounds. I have grown weary of people who fool themselves into thinking arguing about these sorts of things is a matter of principle and standing up for Christianity when it is being Corinthian in an unusually petty way.

But at the end of things Edwards managed to move into doing something else. Being ousted from his church was not finally a failure. This perhaps more than anything else is what I am talking to myself about, that there come points when you will fail. Edwards failed. He could be considered to have failed at the right time for the right reasons but it does not seem as though we live in a cultural setting where a pastor would be encouraged to look to the life of Jonathan Edwards and say that you, too, should be willing to be a failure in the same way that Edwards was. If you speak up for just behavior and just speech and are hammered for it and you have failed is that a failure? It might not be--that failure (whatever it costs you) may be the greatest victory you have in your life. It is better to lose the right battle for the health of your soul and the cause of Christ than to win the wrong battle for the sake of your success. Reconciling yourself to failure can be the most important step forward possible.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Our witness is a double edged sword

It seems as though we as Christians are often told more about how our lives our to be a witness for Christ rather than being told to examine our hearts to consider how we are a witness AGAINST Christ. Not everyone who aspires to have a quality witness among "the Gentiles" necessarily has one in the end. It is not without cause that people have come to think of notorious Christians as notorious sinners and hypocrites. We generally are, aren't we? We can dress up our moral superiority in different sorts of theological garb but it is still possible for our witness to be a double edged sword. People can bless the Lord through us or curse the Lord through us Paul warned that on account of Israelites the name of the Lord was blasphemed among the Gentiles.

We may believe our testimony and witness for Jesus should redound to Jesus' glory and for Jesus' fame but we may simply become bywords for our self-righteous self regard. We may thank God we are not like those people who actually read The Stranger, maybe, or believe in The Global Warming or vote Republican or vote Democratic or whatever it is through which we measure others and find them wanting, but when our marriages fail or we abuse each other citing divine right we do not further the cause of the Gospel. We give unbelievers every occasion to blaspheme.

I feel like my "witness" is a frankly terrible one. I used to believe my witness was terrible because I wasn't witnessing to people and attempting to evangelize them. I frequently doubted the credentials of my own profession of faith. I didn't avoid explaining why I was a Christian to those around me but I was not constantly pressing people for "a decision for Christ". In fact I can't say that I remember ever doing that. On the other hand, I sometimes found myself explaining in very passionate terms how it bothered me when the teaching of Christ was abused by those who used it to rationalize their own fears about whomever they didn't want to be their neighbor. I eventually discovered that the person with whom I was sharing this frustration was precisely the sort of person who some conservative American evangelicals would very much not want to consider a neighbor. Well, that person is my neighbor and Christ's teaching tells me so.

Within the fold of faith we are probably not very well situated to see whether or not people who are not Christians are praising or impugning the name of the Lord on our account. Of course what I mean in having said that is that wwe may PERSUADE ourselves we are a credit to the name of the Lord even though we are not. We may consider people speaking against Christ on account of us to be a sign of persecution. Michael Spenser has blogged so much about that topic I see no need to add more commentary on that.

On the other hand, I have seen church conflicts spiral out to the point where a number of people became so bitter about things they left the faith altogether. Now I know that any number of people could say "Well, then, they weren't really Christians." Sure, if those people die tomorrow or today in their agnostic or atheistic state we can say they didn't perservere and therefore didn't count as Christians for having run the race to the end.

What I am pondering now is whether or not Christians would accept that their own sin becomes part of the testimony against Christ that allows people to be persuaded to turn away? Jesus said that temptations will come but woe to the one through whom they come. The great tempter is Satan but the great tempter is also our flesh. Yet Christ warns against those who would place stumbling blocks before the little ones. How many of us have placed stumbling blocks before people who truly (since we cannot presume to know the sincerity of their faith) sought the Lord but were set to stumbling by our own vanity?

I don't mean to suggest we should just go around feeling guilty that our sins caused other people to turn from the faith. Christ has atoned for those failures, too. I do, however, want to suggest that among sins we should confess to the Lord and perhaps to each other is the consideration that my bad witness may have been a witness that led someone to forsake Christ. Pastors may need to consider this most seriously above all. What if the sins you commit through pride or grasping for power or loving comfort or casting aspersions on the poor becomes not only a witness against your character but a witness against the cause of Christ Himself?

I have at least one friend who, years ago, grew so disenchanted with the bitterness and backbiting of Christians he left the Christian faith altogether. God mercifully drew him back and now he is a pastor and a valuable friend but his story sticks with me because while he certainly sinned in various ways when he turned from Christ what about the witness of those Christians whose animosity inspired him to give up? We would LIKE to say that we are not culpable for leading people away from Christ through our bad example but this is not something my conscious allows me to do right now. I have had some friends who turned away from Christ because they were sick of dealing with what they considered the hypocrisy of Christians.

I don't need to belabor that these men had their own spectacular hypocrisies, they were not necessarily wrong to feel as though the selfishness of professing Christians presented problems. They also had some emotional balance issues that I do not think Christians adequately took seriously but Michael Spenser's blogging about mental illness and Steve Hays' critique of the limits of nouthetic counseling are not things I wish to recapitulate by way of anything more than allusion.

I admit that I am not confident that my "witness" for Jesus is very good. I have to trust that the kindness of Christ can spur me to be kind to others. I am not a spiritual titan or a very accomplished man and this does not, in some ironic way, make me a spiritual giant because I am so humble about it. I can't consider myself a humble man. This does not somehow paradoxically make me humble.

I may have done some part in leading people away from the faith or being a bad example. I may have friends who turned from the Lord not simply because they did not perservere but because other Christians failed, utterly, to demonstrate that we are His by our love for one another. The "truth before friendship" espoused by what you might call Machen's Warrior Children (though, really, they exist far beyond Presbyterian circles and are in every other Christian confession) has led to "truth" being spoken over so-called friendships that are now nothing more than the abandonment of people who are considered dead weight or no longer useful.

In my angrier moments I find myself praying that those who use people will find themselves used and so come to a clearer understanding of what they have done to other people. A man who is willing to get emotional satisfaction from a single mom and blames her when the relationship goes south has been hurt, certainly, by being rejected but a single mom has to realistically consider that no matter how much she may want a husband not all men are competent to be husbands to single moms. A man who was happy to enforce social codes he didn't live up to so he could put down another Christian may be bitter when he gets the receiving end of that sort of treatment. The double-edged sword cuts in every direction. I have been accused of painting things in excessively black and white terms but the reality is that I feel overwhelmed by all the shades of gray. I would "like" things to be simpler than they are but I cannot acknowledge them to be simple.

People who a few years ago seemed fiery in their Christian advocacy are now agnostic or refuse todarken the door of a church because they didn't get things going their way. Part of me thinks these people failed to grasp the way of the Cross and the level to which you must endure wrongs. But I don't wish to diminish the wrongs they experienced even as I observe that they actually brought a lot of grief on themselves. I don't want to say their problem is somehow that they didn't repent of their habitual sin because, frankly, the people most likely to tell them that usually have their own habitual sins they never even think to repent of in daily living. The idea that a person who is fallible can't speak about another person's fallibility due to being fallible doesn't make sense to me. In fact that is one of the perennial struggles I have. The whole, "I'm not perfect but I'm better than you and that's why I get to judge you" is probably one of the reasons people leave the faith and for that I wish I could say I could get around that. I can't get around that, it's just something I have to give to the Lord, over and over, because I know that to someone I am that sort of obstacle to faith. I must be.

Jesus died for you so you can indulge in moral outrage

I have been borrowing House, M.D. on DVD from my sister over the last few months and one of the funniest moments in the show happens somewhere along season 3 where House, realizing he needs a team to bounce ideas off of on a plane turns to a kid with an Australian accent and says, "You, agree with everything I say." He turns to another man and says, "You, disagree with everything I say." The man replies that he doesn't really speak English well. Then finally he turns to a woman and says, "You, be morally outraged with everything I say." She replies, "Is this a joke?" House replies something on the order of, "Perfect."

The joke is awesome because it plays on known tropes in the show. Shows that learn how to make fun of themselves tend to be more enjoyable than the ones that don't. House on a plane as an extended joke wasn't an extended joke as awesome as "Bad Blood" on the X-Files but it was still funny. The essence of the final joke, of course, was that Cameron wouldn't be Cameron if she weren't morally outraged by some serious or jocular statement House made at any point in any episode of the show. However moral outrage can only be sustained for so long before it rings hollow and implausible as Jack Bauer's limitless cell phone minutes and reception so good even Batman would envy his gadgets. Someone may have already written a skit in which Jack Bauer tortures a Muslim terrorist into giving up information using a G. I. Joe trading card in one hand while playing Tetris on his cell phone with the other.

Appropos of an end to moral outrage, Cameron has been written off the show and even though she was one of my favorite characters early on in the series, someone House dismissed as the most naive atheist on the planet, that aspect of moral outrage has made her a tiresome character. Writers may have decided that she decided House plays God too much but couldn't they have just made a nod back to Tritter being right about some things? That would have made more sense (and have been a more stinging rebuke to House if that's what they were insisting on).

Well, like Cameron's moral outrage flagging after about five seasons so goes the moral outrage of a few Christians I have known over the years. In fact I'm afraid that the emotion I am most jaded against is moral outrage in Christians. It is the cheapest of emotions among Christians because we can invoke or evoke the crucifixion for it at any number of levels. Christians can consider their sacrifices as though their small inconveniences here in America, their significant but self-generated travails, and also their personal devestation that really is devastating are all equivalent to the suffering of Christ.

Now at one level that is certainly true. Long-time readers will notice that I did write an essay about how when Christians belittle the suffering of other Christians by saying, "What you're going through is nothing compared to what Jesus went through." they belittle the suffering of Christ in others and essentially employ the cross and Christ's suffering on it as a pretext to say "Quit your bitching and get in line". I still stand by that rebuke.

What I am talking about here is actually the impulse to say, when hearing someone else's tale of woe, to invoke that kind of sentiment. When you use your suffering to belittle the suffering of others, still more if you invoke the suffering of Christ, you are trafficking in the currency of moral outrage. When you say "What I went through is so much worse than what you went through" it isn't from empathy that you speak but judgment and the apostle James warns against judging brothers. When I hear tales of suffering that I honestly don't get I try not to think in terms of "What did that person do in terms of sin to get what is now their proper comeuppance?" I have known Christians who think pretty strongly in these terms and it never seems to dawn on them that they, too, have their own Christianized form of karma. Ignorant Christians would say this is the result of Calvinism or Wesleyanism or whatever theological bugbear in the clothing of an intellectual tradition gets their goat. It all amounts to the application of sympathetic magic or a kind of prosperity teaching in the guise of something more orthodox.

As Romans 2 puts it when you pass judgment on others in this way you condemn yourself because you do the same things. A person with an established career may look down on someone who doesn't have a "real" job as being a failure and having their god as their stomach. Yet that person may be a workaholic who works himself into adrenal problems or digestive problems. He may also still have his stomach as a god in his life. He may spin all this as suffering for the cause of Christ and it may be partly that but our sacrifices are, at best, incomplete. That job isn't necessarily ONLY sharing in the suffering of Christ but may also be revealing his own idol. It is not false to say that there is none of the suffering of Christ in that but we are earthen vessels used for God's glory.

As a recent, good sermon put it, the problem we often have is not that we go around saying that there is grace and works as though works were the whole thing. The problems come about when we start talking about things being done MOSTLY by grace. It is that "mostly" part that brings death and destruction. Our moral outrage can be the last hold-out of a "mostly grace" approach to dealing with people or ourselves.

We are in the midst of the already but not yet. There are disturbing shades of gray that Christ working in us permits when we wish we were all black or white. I mean, sure, Christ shared in human suffering and so can understand what it means to voluntarily take on physical suffering to redeem humanity but our capacity for self-pity as an overflow of moral outrage can be dangerous.

There is a place for moral outrage but I am not here writing to discuss all of those scenarios and settings. I am here considering that Christ on the cross was placed there because of our moral outrage and not simply to vindicate that moral outrage. Religious leaders outraged at Jesus' failure to perform by their rules and uphold their standards killed him by trumping up charges against him. What they did was done in the service of community and as Christ warned the apostles there would come a time where anyone who killed them would be certain he was doing God a favor. Christ died for that moral outrage, too, not just the obvious sins of the "sinners".

Because of the particularlities of my spiritual journey I struggle with moral outrage. I want neither to dismiss it as only motivated by self-righteousness and pride because then I might overlook real indignities and real injustice, nor do I want to give it free rein as though it were only possible for my moral outrage to be justified. As Tim Keller explained emotions in a useful sermon, the scriptures do not enjoin us to either dismiss emotions or to be governed by them but to present them to the Lord in prayer and work through them. This is difficult.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

From Bill MacKinnon at the BHT: Let, let, let, let

So much Christian teaching is reduced to:

Let God do ___________

You can fill in the blank.

I hear the “let God” advice all the time from every direction. But no one seems to be able to tell me how to “let God” do whatever it is I’m supposed to let Him do.

Of course this presupposes that God wants to “do” something to me, in me, or for me, and is waiting for my permission.

So this is my serious question: How do I do it? How do I “let God” do whatever it is He wants to do with me, in me, for me?

That's a good question and I wish had an answer. Well, I don't have an answer that would explain the answer to the question as Bill literally asked it.

I do have a rather too cynical answer about the reason "let" statements get made. It is common for a Christian to be told by another Christian that you should "let God do ______" when what is really being said is something akin to the Christianese parlance of advising something to someone (often in an unsolicited way) and then saying at the first expression of doubt or disagreement, "Well, pray about it." This often comes across as saying nothing more than, "Well, EVENTUALLY I hope you agree with me."

The "let God do" statement I'm sure is often made with complete and unwavering sincerity but it has the risk of being said in times and ways that basically tell the recipient, "Come around to my way of thinking because the way I think is biblical/traditional/holy/righteous/correct/better-than-yours."

So for those who may be inclined to say "let God do _____" how do you SAY that to someone and manage to not actually be a self-righteous tool who tells people they need to let God do something that you in practical reality expect them to do for themselves or maybe even you?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Plan for changes in plans

In comic book parlance Batman is known as a "prep god". He preps for every eventuality and every possible way things could go wrong. Well, just as Batman prepares for the reality that plan A has to be set aside for plan B I just learned that a piece I wrote has hit a roadblock.

Not too long ago I finished a quartet for clarinet, French horn, guitar, and cello earlier this year for the Delcamper named Sean. He asked me to write a piece for that particular combination of instruments and I set about writing it. Once I had finished the piece (it took several months because a couple of other projects were more pressing) I sent the score to Sean and he updated me and let me know that while the clarinet and cello parts could be spoken for (and the guitar part, of course) there was now no longer a French horn player available to play the required part for the quartet.

Perhaps somewhere along the paths of life you heard that great artists don't compromise their vision. Well, that's a load of crap. Artists who are serious about their art make every compromise possible that furthers the goal of realizing their vision in the real world in a way that also suits the resources at hand. As Stravinsky put it, the greater the number of restrictions on him the greater his freedom.

Legends of uncompromising artists who will not have their art watered down are more mythical than actual. Mozart and Haydn had no problem adjusting what they wrote to who and what they had to work with. In fact when certain musical resources proved too unreliable and ineffective at the time Haydn never availed himself of some resources that were actually available. The clarinets of Haydn's prime were not very good so he just never got around to ever using them. Mozart, by contrast, saw that clarinets were getting better and more reliable and started writing music for them. Bach tested out a few fortepianos and considered them inferior to the harpsichord and the organ. We know, of course, that piano repertoire exploded with vitality within the next fifty years and we now have the piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Even Beethoven compromised and wrote a new ending for his glorious B flat major string quartet. He also wrote a lot of crap or stuff that was good but not his best. Mozart had a lot of editorial help from dear old dad and pointers from Haydn. It has been turning out that many of Mozart the boy-wonder's works had some adjustments made to help them be more impressive.
All this is to say that just as writing is rewriting there is also a great deal of truth that bad artists are inflexible and that good artists compromise, explore, reconsider, and work with what they actually have rather than holding out for what is finally impossible, impractical, and ultimately artistically insigificant.

A few years ago I set my mind to playing a duet for French horn and guitar. I networked amongst my associates and finally met with a woman who played French horn and things seemed promising. She had to drop out of school because of financial difficulties (I think) and didn't have time to rehearse a piece I discovered thanks to Volkmar Zimmerman and I was stuck. I really liked this little horn and guitar duo but how was I going to get a chance to play it?

That was the second year Mars Hill had an official choir and I met a trombonist there who looked at the duo and told me that a lot of the French horn's range overlaps with the tenor trombone. Ergo the part extraction in the tenor clef for the cello that was included as an alternate for the horn part could ALSO be played as a trombone part. Awesome! So the trombonist and I went through a neat little duo in A minor and I got some valuable experience getting some hands on experience playing classical guitar with a very good trombonist, an experience I found so positive I began to work out sketches for a sonata for tenor trombone and guitar I hopeto finish ... maybe in a few years.

So I have of late used my knowledge of various instruments to establish some substitutions for the quartet so that, if possible, Sean can perform the piece with other musicians. If I didn't know how the ranges of three different instruments overlap with one another I wouldn't be in a position to negotiate a new instrumental layout for the quartet I have written. If it turns out the quartet can be played in its original format that's even better because it means I will still have adapted my work into another format that will make it easier to play. Bach had no shame in recycling material. Vivaldi had no shame in recycling material to such a degree that for a while I heard a music professor tell the following joke:

Q: If Vivaldi were alive today what would his favorite compositional device be?
A: The photocopy machine

Villa-Lobos had no problem republishing the same work in up to three different forms. Stravinsky would republish works with minute changes in instrumentation in a score for one of his more famous works. Did he think this was necessary for some grand artistic reason? Not really, it just meant that it became grounds to update and renew his copyright in the works and sue the crap out of anyone who wasn't using the newer version, it seems. Stravinsky really did see music making as his business. That he had this attitude without failing to be a great artist should tell us something, that the dichotomy between "integrity" and "selling out" is often a luxury that can be held by people who have fewer chances of selling out and may not even have what they consider to be their artistic integrity in tact.

It's easy to go for the superhero thing when you think you've got a plan. The low level and mid-tier superheroes can all come up with plans. The big-gun superheroes are the ones who can have their plans blow up in their face and go back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan and the really formidable superheroes (and villains) in comics are the ones who have back up plans for their back up plans. That's why Ra's al Ghul makes a good foil for Batman, his plan B's have plan B's. By analogy, the test of one's maturity as an artist may be measured not by how uncompromising one is about one's artistic principles and one's creations but, perhaps, by how pragmatic one can be about creating something that will be practically valuable to someone in the real world. If so then I am slowly learning how to be a better composer and if that's happening it is something I can be thankful for.

time for a hundred visions and revisions

I have been composing music for about fifteen years, I guess, and playing for guitar for nearly twenty. It is strange to think that I have been playing guitar about as long as some people I know have been alive and certainly for more than twice as long as my older niece has been alive. In that time I have learned the truth o fthe axiom that writing is rewriting. Anyone can write a first draft for a novel or a song or anything that, go with it, and say they followed inspiration.

The more I compose, the more I spend time with the guitar and keyboard the more I am persuaded that inspiration is more of a work ethic than some illumination in which one gets the magic moment and writes the killer song. Moments of feeling inspired to write music are beautiful but those are not the moments that lead a person to FINISH a song.

Even finishing a song is not proof the song is going to ever get performed. I recently finished a prelude and fugue in C minor for solo guitar and I have been busy attending to the more-important-than-having-written act of rewriting. If all you care about is impressing yourself with your artistic prowess or thoughtfulness then by all means write songs, blog, write novels that no one is ever going to read but you during the process that you undertook in writing, paint whatever you want, post photographs on your webpage, record music in your home studio, burn away the hours at your computer writing whatever you feel "inspiration" struck you to create. That's cool, actually. But if you want it to matter to someone else then at some point you submit your work to someone else who has the power to say, "Meh, it's not that good, to be honest." They might even say "You suck, what you made sucks, and you should stop wasting my time."

Artists are not those who choose to ignore those sorts of rebukes so much as they work past them. There will never come a moment when everyone will like what you do but everyone isn't the one for whom you work. I could say something like, "You should work only to satisfy yourself" but there are a lot of frankly imcompetent, stupid, self-impressed people whose work being good enough for them never constitutes their work being good enough for you to spend money on it. We live in a land that is full of Monday morning quarterbacks in the arts. This doesn't mean any of them get to say that the quarterbacks who aren't so good suck because the quarterbacks who suck are, at least, quarterbacks. As Anton Ego puts it on behalf of Brad Bird, more time and care went into an artistic piece of junk than the review designating the art as junk.

Notice, of course, that Ego doesn't say that that work of art ISN'T junk! The bad or mediocre artist is more likely to rise to the level of fairly good or high average by dint of work than by defending whatever mediocrity he or she has already created. As Shostakovich used to put it, you can solve the problems in your first piece by writing your second piece.

Well, I like to revise stuff. An idea that is worth writing is an idea that is worth rewriting. If you can say something in forty words you can say something in four. I don't mean like Hemmingway, Hemmingway was a boring creep. If you're going to say something in forty words there should be a reason for the forty words. I admit that's why I can't really spend more time on Tolkien. If I'm going to read a story that is more than five hundred pages long it basically has to have been written by a Russian (an actual Russian, not necessarily a Russian transplant to the Americas if you get my meaning because not all ideologue novelists are equal amongst Russians, but I digress).

So I'm revising the prelude and fugue in C minor to make them easier to play. They won't be EASY to play but they will be EASIER to play. People may say that music is subjective, emotional, abstract, and things like that. I find music is those things but I find that music is concrete, objective, intellectually challenging. If you have one of these sets of things and not the other then your music probably lacks something or you probably lack the impulse to seriously create music. It may be a 90% to 10% split between one set of things and the other but if it is only one or the other you aren't making stuff, just imagining that you'd make stuff.

Read about Bob Dylan working on his songs and especially listen to out-takes as he works in the studio on things and you'll see how much work he puts into songs, even if that work might seem to you like not a whole lot of work. One of my favorite remarks about the work Gene Kelly did is that when he danced he made it look so effortless you started to think that maybe you could do it, too, at least until you tried to actually do it. In any work of any kind we see we see the ten percent that represents the completed work. We don't see the 90 percent of what led to it. The world is full of people who think that upon seeing the ten percent of someone else "I could do that" and proceed to do the ten percent work.

If things go well I will be able to get my pieces performed, maybe even published, but that's not going to happen unless I learn how to write so as to please others. That's the thing about the arts, you can't "just" please yourself or there's nothing worth doing that is worth sharing with others. You must please yourself, of course, but if people cna't play whatever it is you wrote that pleases yourself, it won't matter. You can play your own music, of course, and maybe get famous for it, and then you could get famous for the same reason Franz Liszt got famous, for (allegedly) writing music that only he could play. No offense meant to Liszt fans out there but I'm mostly glad most people don't get to hear his music. Sorry. I heard one amazing Brazilean pianist who got me to like Liszt but she is easily the exception that proved the rule!

Well, I've got more revisions to make to ensure that what I wrote is accessible enough to play that someone plays it.