Friday, January 21, 2011

fugue-writing, Shostakovich, and contrapuntal mistakes

As I have immersed myself in contrapuntal music over my life I have made many enjoyable discoveries. I have also made discoveries that were not so enjoyable. I have enjoyed the contrapuntal works of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Hindemith, and I have been fond of works by Igor Rekhin and Durufle. I have even enjoyed contrapuntal music written by Messiaen and Bartok, all great composers.

I have been disappointed, I admit, to discovery that virtually no practitioners of counterpoint since Bach seem to have any use for countersubjects. It would seem that the whole art of counterpoint can be summed up in one's capacity to not merely create subjects but countersubjects that allow for the melodic lines to be exchanged and sometimes even inverted. If you invert your subject and then invert the countersubject then if you've really mastered contrapuntal writing having the subject and countersubject in the SA format (soprano subject, alto countersubject) can yield a pleasing music idea when you invert the subject and put it in the alto voice while inverting the countersubject and putting that in the soprano voice.

But some of my disappointments are more specific than that. My specific recent disappointment has been the result of checking out the 24 preludes and fugues of Dmitri Shostakovich. NOw I love his string quartets, every last one of them, and I enjoy many of the symphonies. His contrapuntal music, however, is frequently very disappointing! I will attempt to explain why as far as is possible on a mere blog where you can't hear any of what I'm talking about.

As I have been composing my own preludes and fugues for solo guitar I have been forming some general rules, rules of thumb, about how to approach the art. One guideline I have discovered is Hindemith's simple observation that the human mind cannot keep track of more than three separate musical lines at once and that by and large any fugue that has four or five voices will invariably have two voices that are basically yoked together, sometimes three. So the application of this observation for guitarist is simple, even in many three-voiced fugues complete linear independence rarely happens. This means that it is wise to imply rather than insist on spelling out all melodic and harmonic developments.

Now straightaway I can say that another application of this observation by Hindemith is to have it piggyback on observations by George Oldroyd. Oldroyd said that many students of counterpoint mistake hustle and bustle for true contrapuntal art. If you create a subject and your countersubject or your counterpoint in response to the answer keeps the same level of melodic or rhythmic activity then you have taken an easy path. It is wise to have your counterpoint embellishing your answer or, better yet, your countersubject written in a way that both complements and contrasts with your initial ideas in the subject. Shostakovich often does not do this.

Shostakovich also too often displays another weakness in people attempting counterpoint, he often goes for the largest number of voices in an exposition he thinks he can pull off with his pianistic skill. Too many people see counterpoint as the art of doing as many things as possible. That is not what counterpoint really is. Counterpoint is the artof doing several musical things simultaneously AS CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE.

Shostakovich has several fugues where he would have done well to limit himself to three voices but he went for four. He frequently does this. That's not clarity for its own sake but technical achievement for its own sake. Now I'll be quick to admit that there's a lot of pride one can take in pulling off even bad counterpoint but the art involves not merely a flurry of melodic and rhythmic activity it also involves penetrating harmonic thought. Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Bartok, Hindemith, all these composers found ways to more tightly balance the harmonic and linear aspects of their counterpoint. As George Oldroyd might have put it, they had a harmonic PLAN that guided the way melodic activity was developed in the exposition.

Now it is true that in music you learn the rules so that eventually later you know when and how to break them. That said I believe that the loss of the countersubject as a cultivated art in fugue-writing may on its own account for a proliferation of voices beyond what is pleasing. I say this because as I have composed fugues for solo guitar even for my own instrument's limits as I write for it I have settled into a broad observation: the point at which adding a new voice to my contrapuntal texture makes it impossible for me to preserve invertible counterpoint is probably the point at which I have added too many voices.

How do I get the idea I have added too many voices to a contrapuntal texture? Well, let's assume for the sake of discussion that I have a suitable subject for a fugue. It has a couple of unique and memorable ideas that allow for great musical development. Let us assume that I also have a countersubject that does not break any rules of counterpoint with its subject in either the answer or the subject in its original form (keep in mind that countersubjects can be transposed so as to avoid breaking rules about linear movement).

Let us assume that I have a countersubject that works perfectly well in counterpoint with both the subject and the first countersubject when I look at the melodic lines as pairs. That is to say that the subject (S) and (countersubject 1 (CS1) work well. Let us also assume that countersubject 2 (CS2) and the subject work beautifully together. Well, suppose that I go through every combination of S, CS1 and CS2. All the counterpoint is looking wonderful right up to the point where I test out the counterpoint of the formulation CS1, S, and CS2 in descending order. Then I discover, perhaps, that there are perfect parallel fifths between CS1 and CS2 on strong beats.

Now if the parallel motion happens on a weak beat or the weak part of even a stronger beat all is not lost. Depending on the prevailing pulse of the subject and its rhythmic activity this parallelism may be resolved so quickly there is no problem. But if parallelism exists on strong rhythmic accents or parallels not only the linear part of a melody but even its rhythmic profile then if I have parallel perfect fifths between S and CS 1 then my counterpoint is not fully invertible. I have a few options at this point. The blunt advice I often give to myself is that if I'm writing at the keyboard this would actually be the point where I need to keep revising CS2 until I avoid this problem.

If after multiple revisions I can't avoid parallelism in octaves of fifths then I have very probably attempted to add a voice to a contrapuntal texture that goes beyond the boundaries of good sense. In other words, the perfect fifths that result from adding even one more voice than the contrapuntal texture can sustain in all contrapuntal derivations is literally the math that shows I can't afford to add another voice.

Now speaking as a guitarist I am acutely aware that in many cases the guitar is so limited in what may be played as counterpoint that this is a thoroughly academic issue. CS1, S, and CS2 together may be completely beyond the pale of being played on a single guitar. Even so that would be a reason to drop CS2 if the problem of parallel fifths can't be avoided. CS2 would have to add some exceptional musical value to be worth keeping.

Now there is a fugue for guitar where I have a CS2 that ends up creating parallel fifths against the S. The reason I'm keeping it is because the parallelism happens on the weak part of a weak beat in the prevailing meter. I'm also deliberately playing with polymetric elements in a subject that could best be described as in 11/4. So I'm not ignoring that certain things are less than ideal counterpoint but are so fun to play they are worth the trouble. I'm just proposing that the oft-ignored art of testing out countersubjects against all possible assignments of melodies to the voices planned for a fugue allows you to winnow out ideas that don't really help you.

Writing a fugue exposition with more voices in the texture than you need is a really big deal. It disappoints me that I feel obliged to say that Shostakovich seems to habitually ignore even the possibility of adding one too many voices to a texture. Let's face it, most of us won't even get to Haydn's level of writing fugues, let aone J. S. Bach. Even fewer of us will begin to approach the contrapuntal mastery of Tallis or Palestrina or Josquin. Then again, their entire conception of harmony is radically different than those who have composed since the advent of major and minor keys but that's a separate subject for people who actually specialize in music from that period. I would defer to any Tallis scholar on that issue, whether the singers or actual scholars of Thomas Tallis' wonderful music.

I admit that, right now, it seems positively absurd for me to be going on at such length about counterpoint. I'm a guitarist. Most guitarists don't even tackle transcriptions of Bach's violin fugues. I have often wondered how many guitarists actually understand counterpoint well enough to recognize the difference between musical busy-work and actual contrapuntal control of a musical texture. Brouwer can obviously handle contrapuntal writing. Sor was brilliant at it when he did do it. I wish he had been a little more ambitious in tackling counterpoint myself but I'm grateful we have what we have. Mark Delpriora took care of transcribing the closing fugue from Haydn's creation inspired by some prodding from Ophee and the comment Sor made about how it was possible to play Haydn's double fugue on the guitar even in B flat major.

As I wrote on this blog a while back too many guitarists mistakenly equate homophonic music (a melodic line with some kind of independent accompaniment) with contrapuntal music. Guitarists who wish to study counterpoint had probably best devote a great deal of time not to guitar literature but to keyboard lierature and choral literature.

Bach's fugues for violin, often referred to by guitarists, are not particularly accurate depictions of how Bach USUALLY handled fugue writing. They are emblematic and utterly worthy of performance but it is easy for guitarists to have wildly inaccurate misconceptions about how Bach really handled counterpoint. Bach's violin sonatas usually at most suggest or imply rather than state. In the ears of many guitarists these fugues may be the touchstone for what guitar fugues should sound like. No offense to violinists but the guitar is capable of more truly independent linear development than the violin will ever be. We guitarists are more limited than pianists but we are not as limited as violinists are in terms of what we can do to have three independent lines on one instrument.

Chris Kachian correctly pointed out that sustained three-voice counterpoint where all three lines are independent is not possible on the guitar. Having studied quite a few fugues in my life I can cheerfully report that even Bach rarely assigned complete independence to all voices even in his three-voiced fugues. Just look at how much CS 1 and CS2 lean on each other in his famous C minor fugue.

With this observation in mind a three-voiced contrapuntal texture is practical on the guitar even for sustained periods once we realize that even in an ostensibly contrapuntal texture there will be room for homphonic elements (i.e. a harmonic plan and some liberties in using two voices so form rhythmic aaccompaniment or punctuation to the voice of primary melodic interest). If in a three-voiced episode we have an antiphonal relationship betwen the soprano and alto then the tenor can provide something as simple as rhythmic or harmonic punctuation marks to the alto voice.

As George Oldroyd so elegantly if stuffily put it, we must remember that there is no need for all the voices in a fugue to be active at the same time. In fact there's no need for even a three-voiced fugue to have constant activity. Even a simpler texture needs room to breathe. This is why I believe most pianists can utterly fail to grasp counterpoint as well as they could because they do not see that counterpoint is an art that rose out of choral rather than instrumental literature.

Now that I am at 19 of 24 preludes and fugues I can say that I have only written one fugue that even has four voices in its exposition. I shall probably write a couple of fugues that have only two voices (my F sharp major fugue has just two voices, for instance).

I don't particularly enjoy writing at such length and in such a general way about why I believe the fugues of Shostakovich have so far been rightly neglected amongst concert-goers and performers alike. The demands Shostakovich makes on my attention through his works are out of proportion to the rewards of considering how he approaches musical textures. I have listened to Ludus Tonalis dozens of times at least and have pored over the scores with great contentment. I have often found myself, despite repeated efforts to give Shostakovich careful attention mentally checking out through much of what he wrote in his fugues. He gets my interest with about half of his subjects, often losing my interest as soon as his exposition is under way because the material he selects for his answers seems to be busy-work.

What little I can recall of biographies of Shostakovich suggest that he disliked fugue writing in general and was not even particularly thrilled about Bach's works. He generally seemed to view contrapuntal writing as drudgery in older styles. Even if he changed his mind and my memory of this field of study is rusty I'm afraid I have to say that listening to Shostakovich's actual fugues has re-convinced me that this works are decidedly lesser entries in his work as a whole. They sound unusually dashed off and what works in sonata allegro form or other Classic era forms can be dangerously staid and lazy in a compositional type with roots in the Renaissance that reached its apotheosis in the Baroque era.

If the fugue were to be thought of as not merely a contrapuntal form or even a contrapntal style as such but a way of musical thinking that guides musical feeling then I'm sad to say that one of my favorite composers just does not think much in the way a fugue requires a person to think. Now a composer like Joan Tower, what I've heard of her, I think could think through a fugue and write a nice one. The aforementioned Bach, Haydn, Hindemith, Bartok, Messiaen, and Durufle all wrote great fugues. Stravinsky was capable of writing some fine fugal passages even though full-blown fugues were not really his thing.

Now this is probably one of my hang-ups or strengths depending on who's talking with me but I do not see music as merely emotional communication. Music is capable of communicating not merely emotional content but ideas. If you only listen to a fugue with an ear for how it makes you feel then the very nature of the musical art will be likely to befuddle and frustrate you. Bach's works fell into temporary disrepute because his works were considered stuffy and academic. The problem was not so much with Bach's work itself as that as the styles and times changed people stopped being able to think with Bach in his musical thinking. Both serious study of biblical literature and serious study of counterpoint require what I would sloppily call exegesis. Much as I love other works by Shostakovich he has not convinced me that he got very far in understanding counterpoint.

Oh well, the fact that his cycle is hardly a staple of the concert circuit means I don't have to be that wound up in my disappointment. His string quartets are still, arguably, the most important cycle of quartets to have been composed in the last sixty years. Sure, I love Bartok's quartets and half of Hindemith's quartets are great. Music critics may say that Ferneyhough's quartets and Carter's quartets are important but, well, they're important to music critics. There IS a place to say "show me the money". People are willing to part with their own money to hear Bartok and Shostakovich more than Carter or Ferneyhough or even the quartets of Britten or Tippett (which, mind you, aren't bad). But now I've digressed into quartet literature.

A passing thought on Amy Chua, evangelicals and the "sin" of stay-at-home dads

There has been more discussion on the Chinese "tiger mother" approach to mothering than I, as a single man, have any keen interest in discussing in detail. I do, however, find it interesting that some women have noticed that what is substantially absent in all of this is a discussion of what fathers do. This can be taken, at some level, as a feminist question of "Where's dad?" The question more accurately posed, in their words, is why this debate has been about mothering techniques and goals and not about childrearing in general.

It is here that as a unmarried man who has observed parents and fellow Christians for years, that we could spot an interesting conundrum. Evangelicals are upset that "dad" has been absent and not doing enough to "man up" and be there for his children. But let that dad become so involved in the lives of his children that he decides to be a stay-at-home dad then he's denied the faith and become worse than an unbeliever. If he lets his wife work because she has more earning power than him during a "mancession" then he has rejected the faith depending on which evangelicals we consult about the subject.

So it would appear, paradoxically, that there are some evangelicals who want dad to be more involved than they already are but not too involved in the actual upbringing of his children. You need to be there enough to financially support your child but not so much so that you avoid spending the majority of your days ten hours away from your kids in the day job earning money so that you can spend a few hours with them a day! So evangelicals will be happy if dad is involved by earning money but not happy if dad stays at home to be more directly involved in actually raising his kids? In the hands of some (not all!) evangelicals this looks like yet another double bind.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

HT Psyblog: The dangers (of certain kinds) of positive thinking

"Vision casting" is not the same as goal-setting. Goal-setting and working toward concrete goals is totally cool. Imagining success without working toward anything is not cool.

In a way all of this reminds me of my earlier ruminations ono the liberation of being average.

From BHT: "This is why we can't have nice things, or an evangelical history"

Let me see if I under stand the reading rules correctly:

Find someone who is dead that has written a book
Find somethings of value that the book has to say
Transform said dead person into a shinning example of evangelical awesomeness
Become shocked when said dead person is exposed as not entirely “orthodox”
Throw away all books and contacts with said “unorthodox” dead person
This is why we cant have nice things… or an evangelical church history.

Yeah, those are pretty much the unwritten rules of how many evangelicals handle things.

A fine little post from Orthocuban about how churches get Corinthian and overdo church discipline

By now I trust people know that I'm not actually Eastern Orthodox. However, thanks to the late Internet Monk I was introduced to the blog Orthocuban, which I very much enjoy. Here Father Ernesto looks at a few contemporary events and connects them to a passage in 2 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians Paul nad urged the church to discipline a man who was found to have his father's wife, something even the pagans considered a terrible thing. Paul rebuked the church. The church, apparently, responded to Paul's rebuke but went so far in establishing church discipline that Paul had to write them AGAIN to urge them to not overdo the church discipline. As Father Ernesto put it, just as the sin of the man opened him up to attacks from Satan while he didn't turn from it so a refusal to welcome the man back once discipline had had its effect would open the man up to unbearable sorrow and ALSO open him up to attacks from Satan.

If their unwillingness to discipline gave ocassion to Satan, so their unwillingness to forgive once the discipline had worked its purpose also gave ocassion to Satan.

Now if this is true even in cases where church discipline is warranted how much more true is it the case when the church discipline was in any way an abuse of authority. It is possible for someone to be subjected to a formal disciplinary action that is undeserved either because the person has done nothing wrong (such as girls who are subjected to the rituals of church discipline because they were impregnated by a church member who raped them; or a woman who was brought up for failing as a wife because her husband left her) or because is merely perceived as somehow been guilty of a sin because leaders have issues of their own (see the aforementioned, and also include cases where people are cut loose from churches not because of any sexual or moral failure as such but because they ran afoul of bureaucratic changes in a system; or because of genuine disagreements between two God-loving parties who have irreconcilable differences).

In such cases people can be treated as though they were bad guys when there is not much of a warrant for it. Even in cases where the basis for church disciplinary action is entirely warranted we, as Father Ernesto puts it, have a lengthy history of overdoing what church discipline would actually involve. We talk about the forgiveness of God while not living out in any way what forgiveness would actually look like.

I would put it like this--we talk about the forgiveness of Christ in the abstract so that we do not have live out the cross we would have to take up of living it. We can profess the importance of Christian community while cherry-picking our idea of Christian community so that we scrupulously avoid having to consider anyone we don't want to consider on the team as being in Christ. And then we "treat them as you would a tax collector". The fact that one of the apostles was a tax collector when Jesus called him doesn't allow for much of an non-ironic shift in which we can say Jesus is saying to shun tax collectors, does it?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Evangelicals and retroactive assimilation

Brian Auten over at the Boar's Head Tavern wrote this regarding a review of a biography about Bonhoeffer that raises the issue of whether or not evangelicals have tried to rehabilitate the German Lutheran theologian as an evangelical. This does not surprise me. I mean, let's consider how evangelicals have easily assimilated C. S. Lewis into their fold even though he had a few views that would not have been considered "evangelical" during his lifetime by those who considered themselves evangelical.

Bonhoeffer is merely the new subject of assimilation for evangelicals. C. S. Lewis got assimilated into evangelicalism decades ago even though he wasn't evangelical by any significant stretch of the imagination. Lewis had no real problem with theistic evolution and was way too liberal for the evangelicals of his time. But he wrote very well and was a gifted storyteller as well as a scholar. Ergo he got retroactively assimilated into evangelical thought. Bonhoeffer was a liberal German Lutheran theologian but he wrote some fine meditations on the Christian life and, more importantly, he opposed National Socialism. So retroactively he, too, must be assimilated into the evangelical fold. The idea that the Christian thinkers who prominently opposed racial hatred, tyranny, and the abuse of government power were all pretty liberal thinkers in key ways ranging from Martin Luther King to Bonhoeffer to Lewis is something evangelicals want to work around.

Who can evangelicals point to in the last few centuries who had true evangelical bona fides and spoke out passionately on society? Niebuhr? Naw, he's neo-Orthodox and too influenced by Barth (oh, but wait, what about Bonhoeffer ... ). R. L. Dabney was a conservative evangelical thinker in the old-school sense of things and he even anticipated the total secularization of American society through the public school system. Oh, but he said that public education would make Negro children better criminals than they already were and sided with the Confederacy during the American Civil War/War of Northern Aggression. He also made a weak argument against the use of instruments in corporate worship. Well, uh, okay, so a lot of conservative evangelicals balk at citing Dabney.

As Mark Noll put it so many years ago, the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there isn't much of a mind. Sure, we've got preachers and theologians but in other academic disciplines there's not much to speak of. This is precisely why men like Bonhoeffer and Lewis, who during their own lifetimes were denounced as having defective theology and a defective understanding of salvation by those who really WERE evangelicals,, are now being assiduously assimilated into evangelicalism. Why?

Well, I would say the simplest reason is that evangelicals are so hard up for anyone who influenced the real world, as opposed to the evangelical subculture, that a Bonhoeffer opposing the Nazis or C. S. Lewis writing Christian allegories that people read is vital. It is vital because in decades of culture war making we can't just have pundits and preachers, we need people who can be shown to be "evangelical" who allow evangelicalism to be more than endless soap-boxing about being different from the world and, maybe, contributing something positive to it. Few people would dispute that Bonhoeffer's opposition to National Socialism was bad. Few would dispute that C. S. Lewis wrote charming books and was a gifted communicator. Anyone who actually reads their work would disavow their being evangelical in any generall American acceptable sense of the terms. Retroactively assimilating Lewis and then Bonhoeffer into evangelicalism is useful in making sure that evnagelicals have people non-evangelicals have ever even heard of in tackling the culture war. That Lewis and Bonhoeffer have been posthumously conscripted into an evangelical culture war would not have met with the approval of either man.

But evangelicals are often content to read about things rather than engage the things themselves. Now obviously I don't speak of all evangelicals because there are plenty of evangelicals who engage things. I do think Noll's observation that much evangelical thought tends to restrict itself to doctrine and to a slightly lesser extent politics. One of the lesser aspects of the legacy of Francis Schaeffer is that many evangelicals use his books as an excuse to avoid reading the books he read, watching the movies he watched, listening to the music he listened to. They take his highly idiosyncratic and personalized assessment of how "the Christian worldview" or "secular humanism" played out in this or that cultural artifact and thus avoid interacting with things they have no interest in.

Schaeffer's overview of Western culture is valuable in many ways but his overview fails to help us in assessing any number of things. For instance Schaeffer's writings have no accounting for the Catholic approach of the French composer Olivier Messiaen. Do you say that his music reflects humanism or secularism when most of his major works are Catholic reflections on Catholic doctrines? Well, uh, that would be tough to pull off. Schaeffer might have listened to the post-tintinabulae music of Arvo Part and have considered it a sign of monistic ontology without recognizing that Arvo Part is Eastern Orthodox.

Now if evangelicals are attempting to assimiliate Bonhoeffer as they have Lewis this should give us a moment of pause. Do Lewis or Bonhoeffer need to be evangelical for us to benefit from them? Was Augustine, arguably the greatest shaper of the map of Western Christian thought, anything close to an evangelical by contemporary measurements? If Mark Driscoll can give Augustine a failing grade for his attitudes toward marriage while affirming his importance or Lutherans can concede that Martin had some issues with anti-Semitic sentiments ... or that Calvinists could concede (the Reformed Baptists anyway) that they think Calvin botched the issue of infant baptism then perhaps this should be a signal to those of us who identify is evangelical that maybe, just maybe, modern American evangelicals don't realize that every evangelical will fail in light of the grading standards of contemporary evangelical thought.

The thing about the culture wars is that if evangelicals were actually somehow "making culture" instead of pontificating about culture they wouldn't feel any need to retroactively assimilate non-evangelicals like C. S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Whatever "culture making" or "going upstream" entails it probably involves interacting with a bunch of ideas and thinkers who are not, strictly speaking, evangelical. We're not going to have any sway or influence in any culture if we are only committed to "thinking Christianly" as theology bloggers would have us do.

Evangelicals seem constantly tempted to focus on doctrine and politics to the exclusion of other spheres. If we're so busy fighting whatever we think the culture war cosntitutes we won't be making anything for the culture other than a reputation for fighting about the direction we think the culture should be going. A pastor I admit I like, Mike Gunn, once said that evangelicals are so eager to jump on what is wrong in any film or novel or creative thing that they rarely step back to affirm what is right about it. A recent example from the last five years I can think of would be the film WALL-E.

If you only see it as "too green" or "too critical of American consumerism" you forget that there are plenty of other positive things about the cartoon. It's a fun cartoon. In the long run which film will be more likely to influence a generation of people, WALL-E or Fireproof? When evangelicals produce things like Left Behind and other evangelicals debate whether or not its dispensationalist eschatology is even properly evangelical then we're stuck in a feedback loop where people make second or third-rate whatever it is and evangelicals debate about the doctrinal points rather than assessing the quality of the writing or art itself.

What is more the biggest names in evangelicalism are still basically nobodies in the grand scheme of things. History will remember Billy Graham. But John Macarthur? John Piper? R. C. Sproul? Ben Witherington? Most people don't even know about Spurgeon or Sunday or even Finney. We evangelicals have inflated our historical significance with respect to both the past and present. We are a team full of people who, to go by blogs and press releases are happy to say they are part of the fastest growing church in this or that region or who have published this or that book.

Read any blurb about any mover and shaker in evangelicalism and what are we likely to see? Let me guess--follower of Christ, husband of X, father of three to seventeen children, pastor at Z church and lover of a particular sports team. In other words, fairly generic stuff. It's fine to be married and have a few kids but there is a particular strain of evangelical that seems to think it's a big deal to sell yourself as being a "one woman man". It's like there's a tacit protocol that you have to mention your spouse first before you mention being a pastor so that people don't get the idea that you're so careerist that you'd sacrifice time with your family even though mentioning the wife is itself a careerist move within Reformed evangelical circles for reasons to simple to explain. :)

But it seems that those kinds of claims and counterclaims are what occupy evangelicalism. If anything the terrible paradox of contemporary American evangelicalism is that we want so desperately to matter ot the culture around us we don't realize that that is why we don't matter. The apostles did not set out to change the world but to proclaim the true king of the world. The cultural transformation that postmillenialists, reconstructionists and revivalists hope we can create if we just unlock the magic words and procedures to "redeem culture" for Jesus' fame seem to easily forget that all of that world-changing stuff was an accidental by-product of coming to terms with the implications of the kingdom of God and that the king in the kingdom is Jesus.

The fact that evangelicals seem so eager to retroactively assimilate the likes of Bonhoeffer and Lewis, whose concerns were neither evnagelical as such nor necessarily to "redeem culture" should be instructive. We are so hard up for people in our own traditions who have transformed society in any way we cast about for a Lewis or a Bonhoeffer. They at least "could" have been evangelical in some nominal sense. We can't very well retroactively assimilate Flannery O' Connor (Catholic) or T. S. Eliot (who converted to Anglicanism from Unitarianism and so couldn't possibly be construed as "one of us" in any evangelical sense). I'm not aware of any evangelicals who really rush to include Martin Luther King Jr. as part of the team.

Noll was right to talk about the scandal of the evangelical mind. We really have covered the bases on theology already and have competing theories about how to handle politics. But if evangelicals were ever supposed to "move upstream" and "redeem culture" the admittedly anecdotal evidence at hand suggests that evnagelicals will never really get into the making culture part in any easily observable way. Jesus did end up telling people "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation."

We as Christians so often want to see the city or society or whatever transformed by Christ and what I realize I and other evangelicals have overlooked is that often what this really means is "I want to see society transformed by MY faith in Christ." I hadn't stopped to think about this particular temptation until years after I was no longer part of a church that has talked a lot about doing all sorts of things "for Jesus' fame". I don't doubt we have worked toward that end ... but the thing about temptation is that it comes to us most often as an add-on to what Christ has called us to rather than an outright substitute. Fundamentalists have been saying for decades that apostates like Bonhoeffer and Lewis are popular with evangelicals because evangelicals are just worldly losers. The extent to which evangelicals keep trying to retroactively assimilate people who are by contemporary evangelical standards fairly liberal suggests that the fundamentalists are at least half-way right.

a very late Christmas present gives me an idea

My brother gave me the book Battles of the Bible. This is a very cool Christmas gift. My brother and I have both been interested in military history for a while, he much more so than me. Well, we've been talking over the years about the military history of the Bible and in one of those not-quite-surprising paradoxes secular military historians have a habit of taking the Bible as history more seriously than most biblical scholars? Why?

Not because soldiers are necessarily believers but because when the oldest coherent battles are described as having been in that strategic stretch of semi-arable land connecting three continents it's sort of the pit-stop of every would-be global empire. Anyone who lives there will have to get used to constantly fighting military campaigns and being the playground for other empires fighting each other in military campaigns.

See in the abstract we can read biblical narratives about how such and such a king didn't trust in the Lord and made an alliance with so and so but we have to keep in mind the geographic and military realities of the time and place. Spiritualizing the content about how individual Christians should trust God to be faithful is pretty useless not because we shouldn't trust God but because if we fail to appreciate the terrain of the Promised Land we fail to appreciate the very real reasons Israelite leaders were tempted to the alliances they were tempted to.

When Christians say God doesn't give you anything you can't handle they need to put their crack pipes down and consider the military situation Israel inevitably found itself in over and over again. God CONSTANTLY asked the impossible of them but that impossible came in the form of "Trust me to do what you can't possibly do for yourself." If we don't appreciate the military realities of what God asked of Israel and, equally important, how and why Israel habitually failed then we risk misunderstanding how our temptations are, as the scriptures say, nothing except that which is common to all men.

But I still have that big project on the DCAU to work on amid a constantly rescheduled "Christmas" event. Just because my brother managed to get me a present doesn't mean the family Christmas even has actually happened yet.

Monday, January 17, 2011

useless note about the pending Spiderman relaunch

Casting Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy will be for naught if you script a Gwen Stacy as dithering and pathetic as the way Stan Lee wrote her most of the time. Let's face it, Stan Lee only REALLY wrote two tropes of women, the slutty party girl and the clingy, dependent weeper. There are variations between these two poles but they were the ones with superpowers and the powers could be typologies for other issues. The Invisible Girl, eh? Anyway, despite the fact that Stone was a charmer in Zombieland and is a promising young actress Gwen Stacy won't be too interesting if she's written as poorly as she generally was. On the other hand, Mary Jane was profoundly self-absorbed and annoying as written by Stan the Man. Here's hoping that whatever we get with the Stacys transcends the source material (though Captain Stacy was a fun character, Stan Lee wrote one-note women but his ability to write multi-faceted MALE characters is solid). End of useless rant.