Thursday, February 18, 2010

Listened to a Tim keller sermon recently

He asks the wonderfully rhetorical question about why so many songs with bad poetry center on romantic love. Do we get bands like Air Supply singing rhapsodic power ballads about being a data entry clerk? Do we get bands like Aerosmith shilling hard rock numbers about the scintillating nature of belt sanders or iPods? No, it's about sex and romantic love. The first poetic utterance in the Bible is a poetic utterance that could, in the wrong hands, be taken as, "Oh, yeah, I would definitely hit that."

For most of my life I have disdained love songs as cheap, mawkish, insincere, and pathetic. Yeah, might make me seem like an evil cold-blooded jerk. Particularly insufferable examples are choruses like, "How do I breathe without you." I could compile the entire output of Boston as an example. One of the most egregious forms of rhetorical crow-barring would be this:

And I swear, I swear it's not a lie, girl.
Tomorrow may be too late.
You, you and I girl, we can share the night together.
It's now or never cuz tomorrow may be too late.
Yeah, if we don't have sex tonight, girl, I might get hit by a runaway bus and get killed. Or you might die. Or I might kill myself.

There is almost nothing in life that I view with more cynicism than romantic love. The happily married couples I know have not, unfortunately, disuaded me from the gnawing feeling that this thing is not what people have made it out to be (I suppose that pun could be intentional if I felt like making it intentional). I have found that Christians can both make that coupling the measure of adulthood (in its real form) while denying that it does so.

Christian teaching, at least among a certain strain of conservative evangelical teaching can be so fraught with double binds it defies my comprehension. If you don't want to marry you're extending your adolescence and not really being adult but if you want to be married badly that's a sign that you could have made marriage an idol and in both cases the problem is with you and not the conflicting expectations and measures of adulthood. To put it in archly Lutheran dialectical terms, there can be all Law and no Gospel about the subject of marriage and romantic attachment.

If in the age to come no one will be married anyway what is the value in marriage? It's not that there is no value, of course, but it often seems as though the same people who talk about an idolatry of marriage and family can be the people who do the most to promote it. I have been glad to hear teaching in which marriage is merely an incidental subject among many and not the focal point of all pastoral illustrations or admonitions about practical application of Christian teaching.

But Keller's point sticks with me because as much as I dislike bad poetry and as cynical as I have often been not just about romantic love but about all the pundits (including the cynical ones) who opine on the subject one of my favorite poets is John Donne and the man was an utter genius at composing love poetry. If one of my favorite poets, who was a capable pastor, was also a brilliant poet on the subject of romantic love I have to admit that my cynicism has limits. Keller's point that people wax rhapsodic and write bad poetry about sexual union and romantic love because it is a signpost to divine love. His pastoral proposal that a man cannot be a good bridgegroom to his wife unless he understands what it is like to be Christ's bride is precisely the sort of impossible point to have been even thought of in the church I used to attend. Paradoxically, though, it is probably one of the things I most need to hear and consider.

After years of hearing teaching in which that sort of insight would be considered gay it's a useful insight because it reminds me of how men and women need each other whether or not all of us are married. It is both the man and the woman that reflect the image of God. If men and women reflect Yahweh's image separately then together they reflect God's image in another way, yet a way that is passing away. So Paul admonishes the married to live as though they were not, neither seeking to end their marriage nor considering it something that is other than a thing that is passing away, for at death the marriage ends, and Christ teaches us that in the age to come there will be no marriage.

I suppose my cynicism comes from the belief that the risk involved is not worth it. This belief is predicated both on experience and observation but it is a belief I at length have to reconsider. If I'm not sure anyone is worth that sort of risk and trouble that means I don't think anyone is good enough for me and that I'm not good enough for anyone. But that may simply be proof that I am being both too hard on myself and too hard on others. The last thing I really want to do is actually change this frontier of my life in the midst of job-hunting but the older I get the more I realize that even if I never marry at some point actually going on a date or two wouldn't be a bad idea.

My misgivings are legion. This seems to be a society in which it seems to be commonplace that you've done your business by your teens. A comedy like the 40-year old Virgin seems to presuppose that if you haven't gotten any by that time there's something missing in your life. Being in a Christian setting where the Christians not only affirm that but make a failure to embark upon that a measure of failure, cowardice, and prolonged adolescence doesn't help. It's hard to express how much I resent that kind of Christianese double bind. The Christian who has the luxury of telling you that you're not really an adult because you haven't arrived at a relational status they have might as well be a prayer of "Dear God, I thank you that I am not like that single guy over there." As you can see my cynicism is deep-seated. It seems safer than letting my guard down and being told that I'm inadequate to whatever it is that is expected of me tacitly and expressly. I'm too sleepy to write more than this at this time.

links you don't need to follow just by looking at the title

"Ed Young raps" ... Pastor Ed Young should not be doing all sorts of things and without having even heard his voice I can anticipate that rap should be one of them. Rap and its cognates aren't exactly my kind of thing but I admit I liked several things my brother played for me by Cee-Lo Green. Some people have told me that's not technically rap but I admit to not being picky there. Twenty years ago I saw no use for or value in rap and with age I have mellowed on that issue. I'm more of a white boy and harmonic development and interesting harmonies matter to me.

Not that I have any inkling that Young even thinks that far into things about that genre.

David Mamet, J. K. Rowling, and explorations of failure

Failure is dreadful yet failure defines our existence. How we define failure or have failure defined for us haunts us throughout our lives. Parents can establish by precept but more powerfully by example what failure is or isn't for us. We can measure a generation and find them wanting because they do not join us in our definition of failure or because we believe they have failed us. Every generation may be tempted to look toward its progeny and consider them washed up, just as every generation is tempted to look back upon its ancestors with a sense of guilt, ambivalence, or resentment.

I came home from catching a local showing of David Mamet's famous play Glenngary Glenn Ross (sic) and came home to read via Mockingbird Rowling's presentation on the fringe benefits of failure and imagination. I am still a man looking for work, without success. I have been looking for a few months. In fact recently I looked into a job lead and first enquired whether or not the job listing was a legitimate listing. I have fallen for hiring fraud a few more times than I would like to describe. It is hard not to feel like a failure and the people whom I might normally turn to for support are often apt to give unsolicited and solicited advice that turns out to not be very helpful. They can't help it and I try to appreciate the intent behind the counsel. I have gotten the most helpful feedback from associates past and present who just looked at what I have done and what my skill sets are and offered simple counsel on what and where I can go with that.

Fear of pending failure or resentment of a continuing losing streak or not attaining the prize one wants animates nearly everything about each character in Mamet's play. I find it interesting that Shelly's greatest triumph is a witless defeat in the end of the play. Ironically his stealing a lead and closing a deal gained him nothing, even if he was merely lied to. Roma's success becomes a defeat after the husband's wife suspects there are legal problems with the property her husband was smooth-talked into purchasing and Roma spends the final act desperately attempting to change the subject while not changing the subject of keeping the deal sealed.

Yet another intriguing thread of thought in the play is that those who pine for the old days when men were men are the most dishonest men among the men in the play. Everyone is afraid of failure and afraid of losing their careers if they don't compete and yet the ways in which they pursue success doom them even further.

Yet at the end of each day I realize that I am beholden to the consideration of other people no matter how much I may do. I can cultivate relationships but whatever the merits of networking they are as yet lost to me or they are better described as having never materialized. People have told me that they always landed work by networking with people. I have never once landed work that way and it is easy to feel as though by virtue of that I have failed. Why does networking work for other people to land jobs while for me it has led to nothing?

THe thing that most bothers me about failure is that you can fail despite your best efforts and no amount of imagination can compensate for the reality that doors are opened or closed for you on the basis of others, who may or may not seriously give you a chance. It's sobering to think that I have done this as much as it has been done to me and it's hard not to succumb to despair considering it all. When Ecclesiastes says there is nothing better for a man to do than to find pleasure in the work in which he labors under the sun it would be nice for that work to involve being paid and involve a job. I don't want to be like Shelly Levine and have a losing streak that seems to end only to have it become a more catastrophic failure than before and spring from some compromise in ethics.

It's frustrating to follow as much advice as I can and still end up getting nowhere. The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor victory to the wise but time and chance happen to them all. There comes a point where failure is not simply a way to eliminate the inessential. There are points where failure is simply failure, and failure is simply death.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Elliot Carter ... meh

Sometimes you study a musician whose work leaves you feeling "meh". I don't mean that you abominate every note the composer ever produced that you ever heard (for me that would be a status reserved for Phillip Glass, Bruckner, and Cornelius Cardew ... I also dislike Boulez). I mean that you can give the music a listen and realize that you just don't hate or love the music.

So far Elliot Carter seems to be shaping up to be that sort of composer. There are moments in his quartets that are fascinating but they manage to be that, fascinating. I know Carter doesn't subscribe to an emotionally opulent vocabulary but Carter, so far, seems to me to demonstrate an axiom about the inversely proportional relationship between the complexity of the surface of musical vocabulary and the simplicity of underlying structure.

This is totally absurd and unfair, I know, but with Messiaen or Takemitsu or Penderecki or Kurtag or Ligeti the complexity of rhythm, timbre, melody, harmony, accent, and dynamics are all complex ... yet in each composer there is a capacity for formal balance and formal simplicity. I don't begrudge Carter writing so many string quartets and Pacifica is a fine quartet (I heard them play a kick-ass Op. 22 by Hindemith a few years ago). But Carter's quartets as yet are just not grabbing me even as much as George Rochberg's quartets. It just seems as though for the recordings done of Elliot Carter we could get more recordings of string quartets by Joan Tower. Seriously, more recordings of her quartets would be inspiring.

Sorry to ramble but when you blog at 6 in the morning having woken up at 3pm the prior afternoon you don't get an ordered blog entry.

On the other hand, I can sing the praises of a giant city library system with multiple branches. Back when I was a penniless former student done with his undergrad degree libraries were the way to go to learn about new music.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jane Austen and credentialing men as eligible bachelors

I don't feel inclined to explain all the myriad ways in which, even being jobless, you can find your time eaten away. Job-hunting is part of the whole thing and composing music is part of the whole thing and part of the whole thing is killing more time than I should be content about playing computer games. If I were more superstitious and Pentecostal about it I might say there is a "principality" of computer gaming at the house and maybe Driscoll would say that's proof of why all the guys in the house I live with are stalwartly single. Maybe.

I persist in job-hunting and am tackling some DVD collections on loans from friends and associates. One of them is the much-praised BBC production of Pride & Prejudice. Another is Samurai Seven. Still another is Thank You for Smoking, which I admit I have had for a long time and need to just sit down and watch here very soon.

One of my housemates surprised me by admitting that he thought about buying the Blueray of the BBC Pride & Prejudice collection. I joked, "Are you considering this so as to be a better chick magnet."


That directness surprised me. I am borrowing the series, it so happens. I replied, "Well, then, since I'm borrowing it now maybe you want to see it first." I happen to own Pride & Prejudice as well as Sense & Sensibility and love both novels. It's easier to acquire the status of chick magnet via Jane Austen credentialing if you actually own and have read her work.

It is fascinating to me what single guys are willing to feign interest in or take interest in so as to give themselves more credibility with the opposite sex. There was recently an amusing episode of House in which House admits to a woman that he detests musicals and only listened to Evita two times in a row because he so badly wants to touch her breasts he's willing to endure the musical tedium. House in this case represents an absurd fictional variation of something I have seen guys do to a lesser degree in real life, pretend they are something they aren't to get the woman they want.

I find it funny and yet I also, at some level, don't get it. I do get Wilson getting his revenge on House by proposing gay marriage in front of the woman when the 7th grade rebuttal of, "I saw her first!" didn't work. I don't understand how and why people pretend to be something they aren't just to impress someone of the opposite sex. It seems profoundly dishonest to me. Often that dishonesty is not (to me) merely an extension of dishonesty toward the subject of one's pursuit but also toward one's self.

There was a fellow who, a few years ago, was public in discussion forums about his disdain for dance as an art forum all around and total lack of interest in dancing. Yet he had a fondness for women who were into dance. I'm not just talking, say, a woman who likes swing-dancing, I'm talking about women who could converse with you about Martha Graham and Gene Kelly movies and praise particular works by Ballanchine (Apollo, really, is an amazingly beautiful work and just about any Ballanchine/Stravinsky collaboration is worth watching). At one point I felt obliged to tell this guy, "Dude, if you're going to keep having crushes on dancers at least watch some Gene Kelly movies and stop ripping on the art form." Yes, dancers are hot and in great shape but if you're totally not into any kind of dance yourself and don't even get why people would watch dance then you should probably set your sights on women (or men) who aren't into that. Eventually I told him that despite his claims that he's principled and unwavering in his committments if the personality is forceful enough or the woman is hot enough he'll compromise all sorts of things to get along.

In another setting a man who used to tell me he wouldn't descend to chitchat or smile at people just because they smiled at him noted with some disappointment that there was a woman he couldn't get to acknowledge him or talk with him no matter what he said or did. I suggested that perhaps this woman was like him, not interested in stooping to chichat for its own sake or to smile at anyone just because they smiled at her first. She's unusually beautiful so I don't begrudge her not just smiling at anyone. When she does smile she's luminous and the man whom she married married a truly beautiful woman not just in terms of her outward appearance but her character. Yet this fellow who couldn't get her to smile back at him seemed unaware that by his own measure he shouldn't have been disappointed that she took no particular interest in him.

Another fellow was interested in a woman who, it just so happens, is into Jane Austen. He once told me that the way dating works is a guy pretends to be interested in what the woman is interested in until he gets her to marry him and then he can stop pretending. If that was sarcasm it was poor sarcasm. The woman ended up breaking things off with him, which I could have told the guy was going to happen months before it happened. Really I could have told him that's the only place it would go the second he mentioned her name and some interest in her, assuming that she decided to even go on a date or two with him (which I honestly didn't expect even though she's nice enough a woman).

It is possible in some alternate universe that a woman who loves Jane Austen will marry a man who loves Family Guy and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Actually, I know a husband and wife where the wife loves Jane Austen and monster trucks and Italian zombie movies and they both enjoy Aqua Teen Hunger Force. It is a big, strange, and mysterious world we live in! If Austen's stories can be reduced to something simplistic I would say it is that what we expect and want and what we need are often not even remotely the same thing. We can clamor for the things we think we desire or even deserve and discover that they disappoint bitterly while the things we disdain, the things we look down upon, the things we ignore, are actually wellsprings of life.

I could write some other blog entry about how salvation via proper coupling and romantic love is its own problem but I don't feel like doing that. If anything some of the people I have heard be most adamant about the dangers of idolizing marriage are the people who, frankly, seem to idolize marriage whether their own or as a talismanic measure of true adulthood. As ever, it seems, I digress.

HT to matthew johnson over at BHT

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Though I sit at my desk and type
these words into my computer
My hands are suffused with the scent
of pencil shavings

aging and shifting perspectives

When I was a kid I found adult conversations alternately fascinating and mind-bendingly dull. Talking about the Bible or politics intrigued me, or the arts. Talking about the more literal nuts and bolts of life was boring to me, profoundly so. So it has been interesting that in conversations I have had with friends in the last few weeks I have talked about theology and politics and the arts but I have also been fascinated by discussions about crock pots and how to prepare certain types of meals or hearing about the way paperwork slows down a work day or how a dog reacts to strangers. But the crock pot cooking dialogue was the thing that stuck with me or discussing the fiber content in various forms of canned chili.

When I was young the world seemed big, immense, beyond grasp. That was what made it cool and daunting. Now the world seems smaller because the older I get the more I realize the mundane and truly boring things are a great part of the world. I don't mean stop and smell the roses I mean that much of life is really boring and yet as Russell says in the Pixar film Up, it's sharing all the boring things in life that mean the most to you in the end. While for years I wanted to have discussions that were heavy, deep, and real it has dawned on me over the years that those heavy, deep, and real conversations don't happen until a lot of shallow, light, and fun conversations happen.

There is a delusion that I subscribed to that honesty and authenticity are founded on the direct, unvarnished encounter between two people discussing serious things seriously. That's not how it works. My closest friends and I, I have discovered, spent hundreds or thousands of hours talking about remarkably small and petty things before the serious things got discussed. Depending on the sort of Christian you are, for instance, you don't even want to know how many seasons of South Park I have watched with some of my closest Christian friends before we started talking about questions of faith and family and politics and struggle. I'll give you a clue, though, it was somewhere around season six or seven. What's more I ended up talking about a LOT of Batman and Superman comics and anime with some of my friends before I broached subjects like health challenges or relational dynamics on my part or before they discussed challenges like infertility or church politics or tensions arising from being a friend and a landlord.

In the sorts of circles I ran the "heavy, deep, and real" became a kind of gateway drug to not building empathy and friendship based on anything other than a stilted sense of mission. Paradoxically I came to appreciate the frivolous times all the more for this because I began to realize I had the same kind of problem. We want depth and "authenticity" and all of that but when we go for that before descending to the point of just having a good time (if that works out) we shortcircuit our capacity to have empathy and to have a foundation from which the serious things can get discussed ... when they need to be.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I can discuss Richard Bauckham's work on Jude or the nexus of non-canonical literature and Christian interpretation of prophetic literature as referring to Satan when it had no original reference to Satan in Ezekiel or Isaiah. I can get into how and why that interpretive gloss has stuck. Yet I can also talk with a friend of mine who's an electrician and didn't go to college about how Justice League Unlimited is a great show ... but not for kids younger than 12, or about how the local building market has tanked and that makes finding work for an electrician with a family to support is tough. Some of my friends are younger than me and high school drop-outs or home-schooled but that certainly doesn't mean we can't discuss Kierkegaard or the limit of Rand's effectual critique of the mixed economy. I don't mean to say some people are educated beyond their intelligence (as some have had a small habit of saying). I just mean to say that having an intellectual bent is more useful when it can be dialed down here and there in favor of talking about ordinary things. This is something that has taken me half my life to learn.

So while I could have blogged about rhythmic augmentation and the superimposition of one traditional melody over another as a modally transposed descant over a song that is in an entirely different sort of mode I haven't been doing that. A great deal of this is because looking for work takes precedence over intellectual and other musings on a blog. I am also at a stage in my life where simply describing what goes on in a musical work seems to make less sense than putting the finishing touches on it or just slogging through the work itself when I can muster the enthusiasm for it.