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.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Practical Theology for Women and Impractical Theology for Men

When I read theological blogs (and I read a few) I often get the sense that in contrast to Wendy's "Practical Theology for Women" a lot of theology blogs could be very easily described as "Impractical Theology for Men". If theology as written about by women can be dismissed as Pink Fluffy Bunny theology for women then the other extreme is almost a sort of Strongbad reductionist beat down on theology because so-and-so denies federal headship and doesn't advocate double imputation and that means the whole clarity of the evangel has been compromised and we need to have a mixed martial arts battle NOW because without federal headship and double imputation the whole of the doctrines of grace have been compromised and semi-Pelagianism will vitiate the power of the evangel proclamation in American church culture and ... .

This is what I mean by talking about impractical theology for men. For those who saw my little satirical songs "Rejoice Ye Homeschooled Children" and "The Lord Hath Bought Me But Not Thee" elsewhere on this blog, that's the sort of impractical theology for men I have often thought of lately. These are the sorts of deal-breaking, with-me-or-against-me proclamations about what is or isn't acceptable. This is the kind of thing where the theology for men is considered practical because guys think it is practical.

Well, I think it is practical to consider the biblical and rational case for the generationist position on the origin of the soul (also known as traducianism). I was mulling this subject over ten years ago before certain of my friends and family had the slightest idea what the theological position even was. The reason I didn't get into it in much detail with them is I realized that to them it wouldn't MATTER. So, no, it doesn' t matter. If the soul originates as an organic derivation of the soul and spirit of the father and mother then given that we know in biology it is impossible to impart via heredity acquired characterists your spirituality has nothing to do with the spiritual state of your children. It's just not going to mean anything.

On the other hand, the proposal that you and your spouse will sire children who will die because you will die because ages ago Adam was punished with physical death as a consequence for his sins then that doesn't matter either because in evolutionary terms death and sin are not logically correlated in a cause-and-effect matter ... unless you're NOT an evolutionist in which case it still doesn't matter because if your child's soul is the product of both your soul and your spouse's soul then that means there is a hereditary element to the consequences of sin means that your children are going to die because you are a sinner, period. At this point unbelievers will say that is just stupid and crazy and wrong. The generationist explanation of the origin of the soul is actually a pretty compelling argument for the hereditary capacity to sin. If Adam's soul was damaged through disobedience before he and Eve ever sired offspring that means that the physical punishment for sin became not only the natural means but the representative means of judgment on humanity for having turned against the Lord. In other words, to use the technical jargon, natural headship tends to imply as a matter of sequential consequence a form of federal headship.

And by now I trust you are seeing by example what you may be asking, "Why does this matter?" Here I could say that if you deny the traducianist view of the origin of the soul you deny the necessity of the atoning work of Christ on the Cross because a creationist explanation of the origin of the soul makes God the creator of souls that are corrupted by the stain of death through the sin committed by the first man and ... you get where I can go with that, right?

I saw a lot of this and I exemplified a lot of this when I was connected to Mars Hill. They're not all like that, obviously, but I and some of my family were like that. I knew people who spent their spare time assessing whether or not, in their opinion, other people were even really Christians or not, Christians who were covenanted as members of the same church as they were. Now, sure, it's possible to sign a membership contract and have it not mean anything. It is possible for a Pelagian to sign a membership contract to be a member of Mars Hill and it's possible for the elders to totally not notice that until it is way too late.

Having said that, an ethic of constant suspicion that other people are not as good as you are as a Christian or don't have their theological ducks in a row is now better. Feel free to start praying, "Thank you, God, that I am not a semi-Pelagian credobaptist/paedobaptist apostate who lacks keen insight into the truth of the pending postmillenial reign/secret rapture foretold in Daniel after the 70 weeks" This is the part where impractical theology for men rears its ugly head. I gave up on being a dispensationalist about fifteen years ago because I realize it served no purpose and was not the only way to interpret the scriptures. I have an Assemblies of God youth pastor to thank for introducing me to a variation of the preterist position (i.e. partial preterism) and I have staked out what I hope has been an unobtrusive amillenial partial preterist position ever since.

To theological watchbloggers and doctrine police the idea that there is something besides dispensationalism or covenantl postmillenialism means there's "pessimillenialism". Dude, Gary North should get over himself and admit he was a dumbass. Post-millenialists bitch about the demise of Western civilization and Christendom more than premillenialist dispensationalist Baptists! I care to know about these sorts of theological discussions but there comes a point where I like Stan Marsh end up saying, "Don't care, don't care, don't care, don't care."

When the stuff I say doesn' t make sense `tis a mystery that must be affirmed to be a true advocate of the good news. When what you say doesn't make sense let us consider the words "Watchoo talkin' `bout Willis!?" I know people who think substitutionary atonement makes no sense and can't be in the Bible even though it is. I know people who don't think Jesus could have possibly paid a ransom even though Jesus said He paid a ransom. That I don't get precisely how that ransom worked or to whom it was paid doesn't mean I don't take seriously that Christ Himself said He laid down His life as a ransom for many.

I have heard people going on about how human reason can't be used to explain the ways of God and the nature of God who flat out deny the Trinity when they hear it actually explained in scriptural terms. I have found to my dismay that in many, many cases the people who think they are the most stringent and responsible theologians aren't thinking things through about what they actually advocate or claim they advocate on behalf of correct Church teaching. Perhaps worst of all, I struggle to see how these people are advocating things that have the practical applicatiosn they claim their claims have.

So when I hear Mark Driscoll interviewing R. C. Sproul and he asks what the big theological fight coming up is I can't help but think that old-school unmoderated Midrash hasn't gone anywhere. it may translate into soundbites with famous evangelical theologians. When Sproul says that if we lose double imputation we lose the Gospel, really, I feel frustrated and bored. Yes, of course we have to defend double imputation because if we don't we lose a doctrine that is solace to rape victims the world over is how Driscoll seems to present the case. Notice I'm not even saying I disagree about the pastoral counsel that can be provided on the basis of knowing that Christ took upon Himself the consequences of the sins you commited and the sins committed against you.

Look, you can tell a rape victim, maybe a relative or friend of yours, that the important thing he or she needs to know is that the double imputationary nature of Christ's death on the cross means your sins have been credited to Christ and His righteousness has been credited to you and that that means it is also true for the rape victim. Therefore there is now no condemnation because though getting raped is far better than what you REALLY deserve (because your sins, freely chosen, separate you from the love of God), nevertheless Jesus' atoning work on the Cross ensures that you are reconciled to God. Sure, say that.

Now denying any or all of that doesn't make the wrong any better. Denying that people are born with a sin nature doesn't make the rapist less a rapist and it doesn't make the rape victim less apt to sin by disposition, either. All we like sheep have gone astray is true across confessional differences within Christianity. Furthermore, Christians are stuck no matter what in accounting for the existence of a holy and loving God and evil, but at the same time, when Driscoll says double imputation is needed so that rape victims can be told about it ... I don't think they will be spoken to as powerfully by THAT as they will be people prompted by the compassion of Christ for them. I can tell you on a blog what the greate benefits of double imputation are theologically but the practical application of it will be lost on you.

It doesn't matter if you're a Calvinist or an Arminian nothing will ever change whether or not you got raped by someone close to you or by a stranger. To say that double imputation and propitiation are needed in order to have a doctrinal basis for giving solace to rape victims seems specious. Expiation, now I agree with that, but the absurdity of the rhetoric disappoints me. If God permits everyone to freely exercise their free will and someone freely rapes you then God still is culpable for that by virtue of creating all things and knowing all things. Only the open theists have the get-out-of-jail free card of syaing God really, literally did NOT know that was going to happen to you and for some reason couldn't have really stopped it.

If you're a Calvinist then, as the other canard has it, God predestined you to get raped but God is still culpable for creating a world in which He simply permits that to happen. You see? The practical distinction isn't there. Either way you still got raped and whether you were a Calvinist or an Arminian or whatever variation on "determinism" and "free will" you settle on that can't change what was done to you. If you're not a Calvinist and get raped by a Calvinist do you blame the rapist's ethics on Calvinism? No, you blame the rapist for being a rapist, just as you would if the rapist were Arminian.

Now Paul without fail corrects errant theology before he addresses errant behavior but Paul did this in a way that nevertheless spawned what are now broadly Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ways of interpreting Paul, all differing in various ways and claiming primacy and antiquity as their benefactors. To tie things back to Scotteriology's harsh words about Carrie Prejean, it can often seem as though in impractical theology for men (and women, too) that so long as you affirm the right dogmas how you actually treated people is something that can be glossed over. I knew Christians who believed, sincerely, that the highest demonstration of Christian love was to tell "you" to pull your head out of your ass and agree with them or else disagree at the expense of whatever it was they thought you deprived yourself of without having to explain it.

I care about theology a lot. I voluntarily read John Murray's The Imputatin of Adam's Sin. I own a dozen books by N. T. Wright. I respect the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I like John Stott's book on the spiritual gifts and Spirit baptism. I heartily endorse Klyne Snodgrass's Stories with Intent. I spent the last year reading throuh 1 & 2 Kings for fun. Yet a lot of American spirituality seems to boil down in some bad ways to "I am at the right church, therefore I'm on the right team, therefore I am okay. I may not be perfect but at least I'm not you, you heretic." Same thing goes for political stuff. I may be a porn-using, drug-snorting, racist, crony-capitalist but at least I'm not a Republican (or a Democrat). Useless theological fights that are applied as having life and death significance can be the impractical theology for men that separates the men from the boys. To the degree that women don't want a part of this there is, I'm afraid, a sense inw hich I can understand a propensity for Pink Fluffy Bunny theology.