Friday, February 26, 2010

Driscoll and Avatar

I can't help but agree with the lowly Baptist blogger who pointed out that if you talk about the evils of consumerism and then minutes later talk about your three Tivos and your two home theaters that .... maybe there's a problem there in the critique of other people being prone to consumerism. Who needs two home theaters and three Tivos anyway? I could see one home theater and a Tivo, maybe, but three and two? Are we sure that pastor has a basis for talking about the consumerism of other people here? I would feel sheepish telling parishoners they aren't tithing enough if I admitted in public that my family has two home theater systems and three tivos from the pulpit.

Now Avatar is certainly the same sort of namby pamby pantheism Western filmmakers like Camern like to embrace. I have already written about how Cameron is trying to have it both ways and Debra Dean Murphy pointed out that Cameron wants to have his cake and eat it, too, by having the Na'vi be the peaceful spiritual sorts who at the end still resolve their conflicts the same way the military does. Driscoll's negative assessment is a bit late in the game.

What is more, it's fair to ask what is meant by "satanic". As has been rightly said, Satan is a liar. Of course the lies can often come in the form of accurate citation (per my lengthy earlier blog entry about the temptation of Jesus in the gospel of Luke). lies can also come in the form of accusations that run counter to God's plan despite the accuracy of their accusation in (Zechariah). But to say that something is satanic is to say that there are two things at work. One is the deceptive nature of what is said either in terms of its falsehood or in terms of what the truth is used for. In this respect there are some films that Driscoll has spoken positively about that could be considered satanic films.

For instance, ten years ago he was discussing how the Matrix was a spiritual allegory even though the spirituality plugged by The Matrix could be considered Buddhist and a case could be made that the allegory is not about spirituality at all but about secularism, about how the world presented by the Matrix is a falsehood and once you discover the manipulation and unreality behind it all then it becomes simple enough to defeat the agents of the Matrix because you exist in the real world and you know it, while the agents are merely existing in a fantasy world.

Let's take Braveheart, which Mel Gibson recently said was a gross misrepresentation of a historical figure that relied on made up archetypal characterization to sell tickets it seems Driscoll should be more circumspect in lamenting a popular film being based on a lie since the director of one of his favorite movies recently admitted that the whole of Braveheart's narrative arc was basically just made up to sell a film. I doubt Driscoll is going to repudiate Braveheart as historically inaccurate and satanic for promoting lies about a historical figure because those lies are in the service of values he holds dear about whatever it is he holds dear.

Is Braveheart a great movie or a satanic one because Mel Gibson just invented a story around a historic figure to promote ideals he believes in, like freedom of the individual and masculine accomplishment? Does Driscoll consider that film less satanic because the lies Gibson told about William Wallace for the sake of fictional narrative promote values he finds more appealing than those James Cameron promotes in a film that is clearly a made up fantasy adventure with a few sci-fi trappings? Is Braveheart satanic because Gibson repudiated the accuracy of his own film and said he made things up or does that film get a pass because it promotes ideas Driscoll can get behind?

If Gibson is right now to say that William Wallace was a monster and a terrible man (which is also, in its own way a giant historical misrepresentation) should Driscoll repudiate Braveheart as a satanic film or say that because it was made by a Catholic guy who left his wife and remarried that it's satanic because it wasn't made by a real Christian? What, then, of showings of The Passion at Mars Hill a few years ago?

My criticism of Avatar was that it was a cheap watered-down version of pantheism with the sort of moral simplification that serious pantheists like Miyazaki avoid. Avatar also represents a chintzy simplified view of "native" spirituality of the sort American Indian writers have tried to debunk for years.

To say that something is satanic can refer either to the content itself or the means. Even when Satan tells the truth by quoting scripture accurately he lies. A false prophet was not just someone who made a prophesy that didn't come true. If a prophet made a prediction that came true but said "Let us also go after these other gods" that person was still a false prophet. Idolatry is not just about saying "no" to Yahweh but also about saying "AND let's add this other divine, too". As to the false messiahs and the like Driscoll talks about, comparative religion scholars have been noting that the more the so-called "ancient" texts of Wicca get examined the more it looks like refurbished Catholicism without the guilt of association Catholicism had for a lot of Europeans. A lot of Western neo-paganism is still people trying to have their Catholic cake and eat their neopaganism, too.

I only saw Avatar because someone else bought my ticket. It is, as with Cameron's last film, overhyped. Terminator 2 and Aliens are still Cameron's most effective films. Yet if Driscoll feels that Avatar is the most demonic film he's ever seen did he see Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, which was shown at film & theology at Mars Hill around 2002? To say that a film is demonic doesn't say that the film deals with the subject of demons. After all, the Exorcist was shown at Mars Hill's film & theology around 2006 and that met with the approval of Mars Hill pastors (save that crucifix scene, which was skipped, which is a way to establish that I was there for that event).

I find Driscoll's commentary on Avatar hard to take seriously not because I don't see the cheap Western bargain bin pantheism of Cameron's film. Instead I find his comments hard to take seriously because a rant against consumerism when you have two home theaters and three tivos seems overcooked. I also find it hard to take seriously because the outrage is selective and isn't applied to falsehoods promoted in some of his earlier favorite films. He knows that something can be satanic in means and not merely in content. After all, even Satan can quote the Bible in context and accurately to promote something that is false.

If something being satanic is not just about the lie but the lie the truth may be forced to serve then it's possible for someone to even use the Bible to promote themselves rather than Christ. Driscoll is no less in danger of this temptation than people like Todd Bentley or Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen. If appropriating the Bible to promote your own agenda is a false gospel and satanic does that mean Driscoll should repudiate his entire sermon series on Nehemiah, which was basically treating a scriptural book as an allegory about himself as Nehemiah and Mars Hill as Israel? I think I share Driscoll's lack of enthusiasm for Avatar but I don't share his vitriol. To me Avatar is no less promoting a fraudulent idea of true humanity than Braveheart. I'm not saying Braveheart or Avatar are satanic movies as such, just that both films are overhyped mediocrities whose popularity has allowed people to pontificate on pet topics. That's part of what films are for, I guess. If Driscoll wants to be the evangelical Protestant pope he's welcome to keep trying. I just thought that that wasn't the point of Protestantism.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

proverbs as invertible lenses

Proverbs are, as we know, aphorisms, but they are often full of contrasts. Sometimes the contrast is obvious such as discussing how pride comes before a fall but humility leads one to be exalted. In other cases there are ambiguities inherent in a proverb that aren't easily caught except in multiple readings. Take for instance the famous proverb "faithful are the blows of a friend, deceptive the kisses of an enemy". Well, as I wrote elsewhere this is a common Christian translation of the text but a Jewish reading includes a different reading with profoundly different implications, "the wounds of a friend are long-lasting but the kisses of an enemy are profuse" Here the contrast is not between the faithful blows of a friend that prove friendship but between the long and bitter wound of someone who is close to you verses the profuse and meaningless social niceties of someone who you know is really your enemy.

In many an argument a person may say that even a fool appears to be wise if he keeps his mouth shut. Yes ... but this proverb speaks of something else, that some people do not reveal that they ARE fools because they aren't SO foolish as to open their mouths. Ergo another proverb, better to be a fool and silent than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. But this does not mean a person isn't a fool. One of the easiest ways for fools to appear wise or hide their folly is simply to keep quiet, say all the right, nice things, and then proceed to privately do whatever foolishness their heart desires.

Some proverbs lend themselves to paradoxical inversions that open doors for us to examine our own character and the character of people we know. If you only examine others in light of a proverb but not yourself you have defeated the usefulness of the proverb. If you only assess yourself in light of a proverb and never assess another then it will be of no benefit to you, either. I used to think that quiet people were wise and that they proved their wisdom by being quiet. Feh, I was young and naive! Now I know that many total idiots give the illusion of being smart simply by not saying much. It is true that many a fool broadcasts his or her foolishness and revels in that but there are fools who conceal their foolishness until they are with enough other fools that they let their guard down. Truthfully you can't be certain that you aren't one yourself about at least some things. After all, do you see someone who is wise in his or her own eyes? There's more hope for a fool than for that one.

another duo sonata under way

I have not composed a lot because job hunting is a frequently depressing enterprise. However it has been my observation that the more depressed I get the more I need to work on something to keep my mind occupied. Theological reading doesn't help, though, because it frankly isn't the right kind of work for me. Sure, I've got books by Bauckham, Thielicke, Bonhoeffer, Augustine, F. F. Bruce, and others to read ... but it's not the same as the voice of that kid at the end of the Ten Thirteen Productions where he says "I made this!" Yes ... X-Files up through season 5 was a magnificant show.

Appropos of all that I have started composing a sonata for violin and guitar. While it can often be said that the comments of composers about their work can frequently not be helpful or can even obfuscate what would be clearer from a close study of the scores I like to think that when I bother to write about music I'm fairly straightforward and ... maybe not clear but at least clear to musicians. If you aren't interested in either music or biblical literature or cartoons I guess there'd be no reason to read this blog. :)

So, as I compose this sonata for violin and guitar I have two tasks before me. You can think of them as the task itself and the meta-task. The task itself is writing a satisfactory sonata for violin and guitar. I have Atanas Ourkouzounov's wonderful Sonatina Bulgarica as a score for reference (his recording on the KLE label is, alas, out of print but you can download mp3s of the work performed by Duo Cordes et Ames over at the Big River company as Delcampers for some reason insist on calling

You can go here if you want to learn more about this duo, whose promotional photos are so twee and cute as to be almost absurd. No, really, there's something weirdly cute about these two. If I can't plug for Atanas' now out-of-print CD Contes des Balkans I must by all means plug for a duo that is willing to record the work.

In addition I have been listening to all the music for violin and guitar Paginini wrote that I was, er, able to get my hands on before I got laid off. Fortunately that managed to be at least four discs so I have an immense amount of lively violin and guitar repertoire to listen to and examine before finishing my own sonata.

Oh, and since I'm a fan of J. S. Bach I of course have the complete works for solo violin. I was lucky enough, several years ago, to stumble upon a reissued recording of Zoltan Szekely playing the sonatas and partitas (you Bartok fans will know why this name is important and I'm going to pointlessly brag that I managed to procure a CD reissue of Szekely's live performance of the 2nd violin concerto recorded long ago).

Well, I could try to write about what I'm working on but if you can't hear music it's hard to write about it. I'm experimenting with using several melodies that are traditional tunes and finding ways to integate them based on shared gestures. The gestures may be intervallic or rhythmic and a linked set of gestures allow for two or three traditional melodies to be blended together in a new harmonic context. Medley, in other words, is what I'm aiming at.

But not medley in the usual pop song sense of that phrase. Charles Ives used parody but he distorted the melodies he quotes beyond recognition before actually quoting them. Medley in this case of the sonata I'm composing means more that I incorporate a variety of immediately recognizable tunes into the musical fabric of the work. It doesn't mean that I quote them all in an entirely instantly recognizable way. You can take a traditional melody in a major key and transpose the intervals so that what is the third of a major chord is the fifth of a minor chord or the seventh of either sort of chord.

Another fun compositional devise is to take a melodic line and play it backwards, perhaps making tonal adjustments so that what would be in dorian might become mixolydian or lydian. Retrograde is one of the most difficult compositional devices to employ because it is rare that a melody will sound as effective played backwards as it sounded being played forward. You may find that a melody that lends itself very well to retrograde presentation is not very satisfying in its inverted form. Or you may discover any number of thematic fragments are great using any of the above devices or techniques but that the melody as a whole doesn't "want" to be subjected to any of those devices. It's hard to explain what I mean in a blog entry without referring to an actual piece of music and I don't feel like using a lot of musical samples in this blog. Too much of a hassle to prepare examples. I'll merely refer you to Art of Fugue and Ludus Tonalis by Bach and Hindemith respectively. The prelude and postlude of the latter is a fine example of a prelude being in prime and the postlude being in retrograde inversion.

Now all of this sounds ineffably nerdy, doesn't it? Well, Baroque and Renaissance composers loved this sort of thing because for them it was often a kind of musical symbolism. We live in an era in which music is no longer seen as part of the quadrivium--no one sees music as a branch of the applied sciences anymore, least of all by most scientists! We know too much about the dubious nature of the "science" used to defend particular forms of pitch organization that are really regional. Reformed theo-bloggers like Douglas Wilson can pretend to themselves that major and minor key music is "robustly Trinitarian" even though Ambrosian and Greek chant predate "robustly Trinitarian" in the manner of Schutz by centuries. Nor would those sorts of Reformed bloggers and thinkers see Messiaen or Penderecki as "robustly Trinitarian" because, well, they're Catholics, for one, and because they employed every avant garde trick in the book to explore theological meditations. I love the Matthew Passion as much as the next person who loves it but that doesn't stop me from loving Pendereckis Luke passion just as much, or Arvo Part's John passion ... but I am digressing in a major way.

But this gets me, paradoxically, back to the meta-task. My chamber sonatas I have been working on over the last ten years are not just sonatas as individual works but as part of a larger cyclical project. I don't want to give away everything yet because I'm not done with the project and because there's no certainty that my sonatas are actually good enough to get premiered and keep anyone's attention. I can hope but it is best not to merely presume. Confidence is not the same as unvarnished egotism. Egotism that says "I can do better than that" never proves itself much in the end. Confidence that "I could try that" that leads to actually doing something is preferable. So I'm trying to stick with the premise that there are things I can try and I hope people try them out.

But what I can explain, however abstract it may be, is that each of the sonatas has continuity within itself yet also with the companion pieces, the other sonatas. I wrote a sonata for flute and guitar for some friends of mine to play--a husband played oboe and guitar, and his wife played flute and piano. I thought a flute/guitar sonata would give them something fun to play together. Turns out he doesn't play CLASSICAL guitar. Oops. So the flutist and I performed the sonata together and I almost immediately set to composing a sonata for oboe and guitar to make sure the husband wasn't left out. Why compose one for the one and not compose something for the other? It turned out pretty decently and by then I had two sonatas that were literally companion pieces at every level. By then I realized that I might as well write something for the younger brother of the husband and that got me eventually composing something for cello and guitar.

So at a semi-conscious level I wanted to compose a set of duo sonatas for guitar and various instruments in which there was a conceptual and even a literal family relationship network binding the sonatas together. I have the family to thank simply for being and being solid musicians and by virtue of that inspiring me to start the cycle, such as it is.