Friday, June 10, 2011

HT Mockingbid: New Republic link on self-control as a depletable resource

It wouldn't get more high concept than Flannery O'Connor's observation that though we all may have free will the problem is that we will more than one thing. Whether or not the poor in America are poor because they don't successfull exercise willpower is not something I'm particularly interested in fielding since it inevitably boils down to liberals saying the poor are poor because they're too poor to make better choices while conservatives may tend to think that the poor are poor either because they are lazy or stupid, unless they themselves are poor, in which case they paradoxically agree with liberals that unjust government policies are what have robbed them of opportunity. Don't say I haven't placed my skepticism about the moral certainties of both caricatures up front. Well, okay, it's literally at the end of this blog post but so it goes.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

some links about pop music criticism

A friend of mine once told me, way back in college, that he struggled with the idea of cultural analysis and criticism of pop culture. He was ambivalent because on the one hand the idea of writing in a scholarly way about the Beatles or Bob Dylan was intriguing and seemed promising, yet how could any of us know for sure that anything in pop culture really mattered? It's a fair question.

It can be too easy for folks into classical music to just turn to Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective as proof that the new is always opposed and nobody gets it. There's a certain romantic drama to that but it's not necessarily the case. Haydn was a superstar within his own life time. Beethoven infuriated critics but as Slonimsky pointed out, these critics were never really hidebound traditionalist eager to embrace the old on principle. In fact they were frequently among the most enlightened and influential and progressive sorts of people of their time. But times change and, well, as some people have pointed out, the closer critics get to death the more likely they are to retrospectively look back and sniff wistfully about the days when art mattered and we did things that changed the world. In other words, there will always be value in consulting Ecclesiastes 7:10 for any cultural enterprise, just as it will always be valuable to consider Ecclesiastes 1:9.

The take away from the above for me is that a critic of any sort, professional or otherwise, cannot presume to know everything even about a single genre of music. Blues specialists can't know everything there is to know even about blues. This is, obviously, one of the joys of music. There are as many types of music and songs as there are people and even if you were to agree with me in saying that most people are simply not as great or special as they might imagine themselves to be this hardly means that there isn't something unique about each person that another may value. That person may not be me, of course, but I believe Brad Bird's Anton Ego has given us one of the great words about criticism, that the average piece of junk is the result of more effort, care, and craft than the review that designated it as junk.

I don't personally see any need to constantly keep up with the new or keep up with all the things going in pop music or any other style. I can't afford to in many respects seeing as I've been job-hunting for 20 months but even if I land a full-time or part-time job tomorrow life is more than absorbing culture. As Ecclesiastes puts it, of the writing of books there is no end. One cannot even hope, as one of my brother's friends declared, to watch every single movie ever made. I was friends with this guy, too. Matt, you probably haven't seen every movie ever made and I wouldn't want you to. Your life is literally too short for that!

The intimation or insinuation that a pop critic covers the waterfront may be a problem with contemporary critics. One of the strengths of our time is that there is no style or epoch or place of which we can say it is not possible to hear their music in as much as there have been any reliable ways to preserve music from said culture. Now this doesn't mean that we have a clear idea what ancient Israelite music sounded like. I'm willing to go on a limb and say that old-school Israelite music would sound like pagan music to our post medieval Western ears. I won't stop having fun saying that for a number of Christians their idea of "robustly trinitarian" music has nothing to do with the majority of what the earliest Christians would have sung. But I digress.

Learning as much as possible about every style is valuable but it can make music criticism and musical analysis necessarily shallow and broad rather than narrow and deep. Now for composers and performing musicians I would say there are some advantages to the broad and shallow approach. Given the various concerns about the decline of the music industry as we've known it shallow and broad may be better? Why? Because if you're not anchored to a single style of music then you could theoretically do whatever needed doing. Specialization is advantageous in that it helps you corner a market but one can potentially corner a market by versatility.

But meaningful criticism at some point has to narrow the field so that comparisons have a sense of conceptual and historical scope. The jazz critic Eric Nisenson was right to point out that most music critics into pop music never studied music as a discipline but were English majors or philosophy majors steeped in cultural associations they could make about music rather than being able to competently discuss the music itself. Most of the time we'll read people talking about a band's politics or cultural background or image or literary references. There might be discussions of timbre and cultural associations with that. There may be discussions of instrumentation.

But what there usually won't be is a discussion of actual melodies, of chord changes, of harmonic rhythm, of approaches to modulation, of the ways in which musical form reinforces or subverts the printed meaning of a text. If more critics discussed the actual musical content of pop music they would understand why classical music historians, critics, and many composers (too many, I'm afraid) think that pop music doesn't matter.

The trouble across both divides is that we mistake our ignorance in too many cases for the discovery of something new. It is new for us when we hear it and that is valuable, indeed, precious. It is not, necessarily, truly new. There's not just this creepy, humbling, but comforting revelation that critics frequently don't have much new to champion or observe but that we musicians, when we're not completely deceiving ourselves, are still travelling with strings and chords and tunes that have already been made. If you want to see a fun example of how there are times when a comedian is better able to explore this than a music critic then here you go (by the way, language warning applies for the link below but that doesn't mean it's not very funny for a musician tired of hearing and playing the same stuff over and over again)

HT Brian Auten at BHT: 7 theses on celebrity pastors is where DeYoung proves Carl Trueman's points with a little help from some T4G advertisting copy

Kevin DeYoung weighs in this am on the “celebrity pastors” issue, but I’m still not sure he’s addressed Carl Trueman’s criticisms re: the supply side of the equation. His point 6.3 does to a certain extent. But then you flip through the 4 different advertising splash-screens on the website of next year’s T4G conference and you see Trueman’s points in action.

Yeah, the sports jersey motiff doesn't really detract from Trueman's points at all, does it?

The 7 theses DeYoung so earnestly presents to us can be summed up as follows, "It's not special pleading when I do it." But I can take them one by one anyway.

1. Celebrity is not a terribly helpful word.

Well, true, but "consumerism" is not a terribly helpful word either since the vast majority of people who are consumers get things that are not necessarily bad. A pastor who talks to his flock about the problems of consumerism yet has three Tivos and two home theaters may be the pot calling the kettle black on consumerism. "Celebrity" is not a terribly helpful word any more than "missional" or "Jesus-centered" or "Reformed" may be helpful or unhelpful words. If we're only going to talk about how pointless words are and we have a Reformed background of any time then let's just stop reading Puritans right now, shall we?

2. Popularity is, to use Jonathan Edwards phrase, a non-sign.

Edwards was totally comfortable with Arminianism becoming more popular in the colonies, too, wasn't he? He still took that as a sign of the Lord's continued favor and blessing on the colonies, right?

3. Factionalism is a danger, but factionalism is not the same as having a following.

So long as DeYoung calls it a following and not a faction we're okay then. That's good to know. Anyone who takes human capacity for sin seriously won't attempt to artificially separate our capacity for following as bringing with it a propensity to factionalism. I've met Calvinists in my life so I know this. I've also met Randroids and Pentecostals.

4. The human heart is desperately sick; who can understand it? Popular preachers and teachers are not immune to vanity, pride, and self-absorption. Those who follow them are not immune from idolatry, gawking, and completely missing the point. And the critics of all this are not immune from jealousy, cynicism, and undermining the work of God just because it seemed to be working.

I.e. focus on that last sentence rather than the first two. And let's just skip over how thesis 4 proves thesis 1-3 to be irrelevant.

5. Men follow men. (And by this I mean, less elegantly, humans follow other humans.) So long as we remember the Hero, it’s good to have human heroes (cf. Hebrews 13:7). Show me any great Christian in the history of the church and I guarantee he (or she) learned at the feet of some other great Christian. For some it’s Whitefield or Hodge or Warfield. For others its Augustine, Aquinas, or Athanasius. For others is Susanna Wesley, Sarah Edwards, or Elisabeth Elliot. For others it may be Lloyd-Jones, Lewis, or Machen. Why should we be surprised that some current names will be added to the list of God’s special instruments?

So it's Hebrews 13:7 talking about leaders that is the important prooftext here. See, I agree with the initial point but don't see why the prooftext should be the one DeYoung picked. Why Hebrews 13:7 and not Psalm 16:3? Psalm 16:3 is vastly more relevant to explaining a scriptural precedent for admiring living saints rather than dead ones. It looks like DeYoung found a prooftext for one point but went on to make another. Hebrews 11 and the cloud of witnesses makes more sense in light of his name-dropping but that wouldn't touch upon honoring leaders so perhaps that's why it didn't come up, even though all the name-dropping would fall under Hebrews 11. Psalm 16 would make more sense in showing that living saints are good for us to admire and emulate, or Paul's "imitate me as I imitate Christ". Perhaps in the heat of the moment DeYoung just lost his bearings. In any event I mention Psalm 16:3 because I think it is the better text for establishing his point, which is a good one--we should have saints we can look to as examples and encouragements.

I don't think this changes Trueman's points that a conference speaker or big-name pastor is not likely to be playing that role in the life of the ordinary Christian. The saints that are most likely to have the greatest role in living out Christian teaching are, obviously family. Father and mother are better candidates for fulfilling Ps 16:3 in the lives of many Christians. This is as it should be, and it also means that conference speakers don't have as many advantages in this realm as might be imagined. We live in an age in which celebrity pastors (I'm using it in a neutral sense, eh) go on to have scandals. We live in an era in which the gap between persona and person gets more and more pronounced not because people are more or less deceitful than ever but because we live in a time in which more direct control of the facade is possible. We are also more aware as a culture of how much image-grooming can go on in even the life and work of a celebrity pastor that, if possible, we could all agree is exactly as advertised.

6. Give glory to God for his gifts wherever you find them. This entails three things:

1) We must always remember—and not just give lip service to the fact—that God is the one who apportions gifts to teachers, pastors, and authors. The churches get edified. God gets the glory.

In other words I'm a famous pastor because God has given me special gifts and you're nobody because that's God's divinely appointed gifting for you, dear reader? God sends rain on the just and unjust alike and raises Sauls and Pharoahs as well as Samuels and Davids. If DeYoung is content to go this route then we must be content to show that there is a possibility of special pleading, however sincere and well-intended DeYoung is certain he is about these things. I don't doubt that, I just doubt the effectiveness of special pleading.

2) Some Christians are more gifted than others. That’s not just reality; that’s the way God designed things. It will be better to learn about John Calvin from some teachers than from others (one of the reasons speakers are advertised at conferences). Often those with the more pronounced gifts are those with more pronounced influence. And those with more influence are usually better known than those with little influence. So as long as God apportions gifts as he sees fit, we will not escape the fact that some men have more notoriety and are used more powerfully than others. If you had to teach a class on the Reformation you’d certainly spend the bulk of your time on the likes of Luther, Calvin, Know, and Zwingli. The human mind can only comprehend so much, so we tend to focus on the men who (to our imperfect eyes) seemed to be used uniquely by God in his plan.

See, it's okay, since we can't help it. He's in the more gifted category and that's why he's speaking at conferences. So, like, hey man, back off! Anyone who complains about how things are ordered is just taking issue with the graciousness of God's giftings to the conference set and should consider repenting. I know the drill. I've seen people do this a bit. Some of them are still Christians and some of them were bitterly disillusioned after years of making these kinds of selective defenses DeYoung has been making only to discover that there's a big difference between abstractly saying that Christians and their leaders are sinners saved by grace and then finding out what the sinful habits of flesh and blood Christians really are.

3) We ought to find ways to give great honor to the parts of the body that lack it (1 Cor. 12:24). This may mean thanking your faithful pastor more often even though his sermons will never be in a preaching anthology. It may mean writing a note to the servants at our churches with behind the scenes gifts. It certainly means that those with pronounced up-front teaching gifts should look for ways to direct attention away from themselves in order that they might honor “those other parts of the body.” Senior Pastors in particular should find ways to publicly praise the rest of their staff. They should develop the habit of thanking others in private too. And they should pray for wives who aren’t easily impressed (and recognize God’s grace when they’re not!).

Meanwhile, keep going to conferences because it's the job of conference speakers to tell other people how to honor the less honorable parts of the body rather than use their own place of greater honor to honor those they consider less honorable? I am willing to believe DeYoung makes a practice of this himself since he talks about it at such length and it's a good idea. What, exactly, this has to do with said pastor not being a celebrity pastor is less clear. Nonetheless, this is the only one of his three points that bears any weight.

7. Shame people only for what you are certain is truly shameful. Following your favorite speakers like teenage girls followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo is silly. But let’s be careful not to make every Christian who’s ever gotten an autograph or a picture taken feel like a dope. There are stupid reasons to wait in line to talk to a popular person. But there are God-honoring reasons too. Many people simply want to say thank you, or ask for prayer, or get a quick piece of advice. Judgments easily turn into judgmentalism when we don’t know all the facts (1 Sam. 16:7). If in our desire to warn against the cult of personality we forget that God uses persons, we won’t be doing the church any favors. Or God for that matter.

Here's the thing, Reformed Baptist bloggers and other Calvinists have a lengthy history of being certain what is truly shameful and publishing that news for the whole world. They may even get upset if other people who are more popular and less doctrinally pure get more influence. Maybe postmillenialism inspires envy? Maybe some people wish it was their super-Reformed pastor up there and not Rick Warren having the spotlight? I speak as a Calvinist and, hey, we are so guilty as charged it will simultaneously never stop being funny just as how we treat others in light of this propensity never manages to be funny. Here, again, we went through this effort to reveal that this is basically special pleading. Even if out of a sense of Christian patience, mercy and love we forbear with others we should not be too lenient with ourselves. In fact it is our capacity as people to be lenient toward ourselves when we are stern toward others that makes these seven theses so difficult for me to take seriously. I respect, and even admire, their basic intent, but their method is emblematic of the kinds of problems Trueman is right (i.e. still right) to warn us about.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

the memoir as auto-hagiography

See, this article from earlier this year was too fun not to bring back. The thread between Carl Trueman's observations on the dangers of hagiography and Neil Genzlinger's complaint about the proliferation of memoirs revolves around the narrative as a prism that breaks up a beam of light into clearly delineated colors and then invites us to look at merely one part of that spectrum. The memoir, Genzlinger seems to say, has essentially become auto-hagiography.
The memoir has become (and arguably always was) a form of self-beatification. It was actually this aspect of Nehemiah that made some rabbis strike his name from Ezra/Nehemiah as part of the title of the book. Nehemiah, of course, lived such a life as warranted a memoir by Genzlinger's measure of the necessity for a memoir.

But he points out, rightly, that most of us do not live such lives. Most of us won't. Most of us shouldn't. Yet with the advent of blogging we are able to fashion for ourselves such a life, if only in our minds. To use an otherwise useless expression from communications-major-speak, this is what we would call a constructed mediated reality. We are cynical and cautious about these when we encounter them in other people but our cynicism does not necessarily make us more able to tell when we are being decieved. Our cynicism as a stance, or as a reality, hides from us our capacity to modify our own story so that we are saints and martyrs in our own narrative.

Christians can create contemporary auto-hagiographies by way of blogs. Now while I don't wish to say there is no value to a blog or a podcast or a vodcast or books these are often the ways in which many Christians crave the adulation of men while thinking what they are doing is providing a service to God's people. I don't blog with some unalloyed goal of being a servant to God's people. I hope that I can do that along the way but, honestly, a lot of my blogging is simply for fun and because I'm looking for work and I like to discuss, read about, and write about things.

I also, obviously, love to write about cartoons and watch cartoons. So, sometimes, I write about cartoons. But what I don't wish to do is to present here any impression that I am a particularly good or thoughtful or righteous Christian. I like to write about music but I would hesitate to say I am any kind of expert on music. I know a few things and God has given me opportunities to play music in settings I have enjoyed, but there are plenty of other places where you could learn about music. I wouldn't have shared my difficult in appreciating and understanding the psalms f my goal were to create an auto-hagiography on this blog.

Other Christians, however, may create blogs that are functionally auto-hagiographies. There may be discussions of suffering or indignity but not of sin. There may be moments where they talk about teachable moments that they implicitly say you can and should learn from but not discuss their mistakes. Or they may discuss mistakes from long ago but not ones that matter. Now if the goal of the blog is to promote one's place in a profession, fine, that's what these things are for. I like reading blogs by people who deal with culture, music, religion, politics, and all that stuff. These tend to, basically, be types of journalists.

In fact some of them, like Alex Ross, basically are music journalists. Michael Spenser eventually got published in the Christian Science Monitor. Other bloggers get known within their circle of like-minded friends and are fun to read but don't get the same traction. Traction, of course, isn't a high priority for this blog. There has been plenty I have written here where if people don't know about it that suits me fine.

But at another level I admit that some of what I have done here has been an at times ill-conceived and at times poorly written attempt to create an antidote to certain things that often look and feel and sound like contemporary hagiography for Christian races that are so far from being run I don't wish them to be whitewashed. I say this particular in cases where, honestly, I am just informed enough to feel it necessary to deflate the balloon once in a while. I don't want the balloon to pop but too much hot air in the balloon will make it pop. It's not something I need to do these days because I have far more important things to do, like keep hunting for work and writing things for Mockingbird, and composing music, and helping with church music as I can.

But I won't say that attempting to provide an antidote to aspects of auto-hagiogaphy in certain Christian circles has not been a vital concern of mine. Some of that antidote comes in the form of admitting there are things that I struggle with or find difficult. This is the internet, so I won't do it in a way that deals with gory details and relentless tedium but I trust you get the idea. Some of that antidote, however, has admittedly come in the form of raising issues that certain fanboys and adversaries of certain folks I don't really need to name, don't know or care about, or would like skimmed.

I have at times been accused of casting things in very black and white terms. These sorts of statements are either made by people who don't know me at all, or have a very black and white approach to things themselves that they wish I possessed ... but in such a way as to agree with them. When you see the world in black and white and I point out that there are some grays in there then depending on whether or not you agree with me you may say that I'm casting it in black and white simply for not having the same view you have. I don't get this often, just every once in a while and fortunately it's something that's fairly easy to leave be.

So while Genzlinger proposed that you save your memoir for a blog or hit the delete key if you didn't learn something about yourself through your memoir, I've got a playful variation on it. If you are thinking of writing a memoir or something like that to justify yourself then reconsider the value of that memoir, whatever form it takes. If you wish to invite other people to view you as a martyr for your sufferings or back you as a soldier in what you consider a holy cause, maybe the time you spend writing a memoir should be best saved for after you've accomplished that thing, not as a shill to enlist people into helping you get that done, let alone doing that for you. This is why people are selectively skeptical about political memoirs for the other team and so happy to absorb political memoirs for "our" side. We can have this peculiar double standard because, well, the heart is deceitful above all things and who can understand it?

The apostle Paul described himself as chief of sinners and as a man who violently persecuted the church. He described himself as having been perfect in keeping the Law and yet not being saved thereby. Paul shared that the Galatians would have gladly exchanged their eyes for his, suggesting to many scholars he may have had some ocular disease or disability. As someone who had to have the macula of his right eye reattached I am totally on board with this scholarly proposal. Paul boasted in his weakness and boasted, in one of the strangest of all paradoxes, in consistently rebuffed prayer. Christians are told to rejoice in suffering and to remember that the testing of our faith produces perserverance. How many of us are reminded that Paul pled three times that that thorn in the flesh would be removed and was told that strength is made perfect in weakness?

Then there is Paul writing that the church in Corinth was his letter of recommendation. If this is not an antidote to hagiography as many Christians have practiced it I don't know what is. Why, of all the churches Paul worked to plant, did he consider Corinth, so riddled with factions and sin, his letter of recommendation? I don't wish to belabor the point this late at night in any detail but offer it instead as a kind of boasting in weakness that Paul would later develop at a more personal level when he would boast of his sufferings in apostolic work.

While some pastors today will talk about how much God has blessed them these might, to Paul's ears, still sound curiously like boasting in accomplishments. I don't know but I'm throwing it out there for consideration. A pastor, or really any Christian, can make a laundry list of things to be proud of and not having a thorn in the flesh removed would not be one of them. A Christian might not discuss how his or her failures reveal the faithfulness of the Lord. A pastor is not likely to talk about how this or that thing was a trainwreck, an ill-conceived idea, a ministry idea that died because of poor planning or wrong-headed goals.

America is not so different from other societies, we don't really want to hear about the failures unless it's about how to overcome them. As Michael Spenser wrote years ago, there is a kind of prosperity gospel to this that can go unobserved. I suggest that even though we often pay lip service to Paul because he was an apostle, we studiously ignore applying his example and teaching in our lives when we set up for ourselves an auto-hagiography just as we do if we attempt suppress unpleasant realities about saints whose salvation has not depended upon our making sure that the saint is photographed from the right angle and with an appropriate amount of airbrushing and strategic lighting.

Samson was a beligerent stupid horndog. Gideon was fearful. Jephthah made an incredibly stupid vow the keeping of which compelled him to sacrifice his daughter. He is mentioned as one of the saints in Hebrews 11. His love for the Lord was beyond dispute but he was only mentioned in Judges as, well, a moron who made a remarkably rash vow before the Lord. Cue Ecclesiastes 5 and the observation that it is better to not make a vow than to make one and not keep it. If you make a vow and keeping that vow means you break laws in the Torah, well, that's pretty terrible. All of these men were commended for their faith and yet all of them did terrible, sinful things, things the scriptures do not fail to discuss even as the scriptures do not fail to discuss the genuineness of their faith.

It is one thing for hagiographers to praise the dead and skip over their failures and so belittle the significance of their sins, it is another thing for us as living Christians to engage in auto-hagiography and risk the substantial and terrible sin of bearing false witness. There are lies that are deliberate falsehoods but there are also lies of omission. I don't mean here to say that everything goes out on the table for everyone. If anything one of the errors of our time is to so conflate public persona and private experiences that Neil Genzlinger has complained, if you will, that if you aren't a virgin we don't really have any need to hear about that. We don't need to hear that sometimes you fought with your brother or sister and then made jokes. Everyone does that. That isn't special. It also, for the sake of my rumination, does not make you a martyr or a saint.

We have secular authors flooding us with memoirs and the Christianese counterpart to these may simply be auto-hagiography. If anything we need less rather than more of these kinds of stories. We particularly need less of them if their goal, despite all the pious platitudes of things like "solo deo gloria" we end up talking about our accomplishments, our feelings, our ideas, our principles for success, and our pet peeves.

I noticed a few years ago as I began reading sermons by John Donne and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones that these were pastors who had surprisingly little personal narrative as the "applicatory part" of their sermons. You don't read in the sermons of these men discussions about their children, funny anecdotes, passing comments of appreciation about the hot wife. You sometimes see reference to events, of course, that would be widely known, but there are no pop cultural discourses on why The Simpsons are a sign of what's wrong with America or why Twilight is demonic because it creates bad messages to teenage girls about what men are like or, conversely, that Twighlight promotes a Christian virtue of sexual restraint. I don't know, I don't care, I honestly am not a huge vampire fan. My observation is that vampire stories and so on were probably available in some form or another to men like John Donne and David Martyn Llooyd-Jones and these didn't factor into their preaching for reasons I trust are not that hard to understand.

Now if I were to take a silly statement by James MacDonald seriously we shouldn't bother listening to McGee sermons or reading sermons by Donne or Martyn Lloyd-Jones because the Spirit used those men for certain times and is using them no longer. This is precisely why such a claim is silly and it, in some sense, is symptomatic of the idea that preaching and teaching must somehow be enfleshed in order to "really" be used by the Spirit, despite universal Christian assent to the inspiration of scriptures and all that. A move like this seems, to me, to indicate a form of auto-hagiography of a different sort. Rather than the obvious neo-Montanist absurdity of "God is doing a new thing" or "God is sending fresh fire" from Kansas City prophet types this makes the same kind of category mistake but through putatively more respectable means, especially among mega church multi-site advocates. The irony of how this necessitates the dismissal of all the dead white guy theologians these pastors like to quote is not something I should have to explain.

The measure of a Christian ministry is, given all the caveats you should expect, whether it goes on without you. The work, indeed, could and would go on without you just as it can and will. This is why "special gifts" is a silly and dangerous notion regarding ministry. This is why it is valuable to discuss the work and calling of the ordinary pastor but perhaps not by pastors who are so widely consider extraordinary. This is not just because of the risk of the cult of personality but also chiefly because, given the responsibilities of the shepherd within the Church, many of these so-called extraordinarily gifted pastors are neither extraordinarily gifted nor, when you get down to it, really all that much involved in the actual shepherding process.
They are, to borrow a useful description given by a preacher, so engaged in the air war they haven't seen the trenches except from 20,000 feet traveling at high subsonic levels, if not Mach 1.8 without the use of afterburner.

The super pastor is most in danger of being the subject of hagiography or auto-hagiography.
He (or she, this is America after all) is in danger of buying into the hype, whether the hype comes from others or from the self. But it is a risk we all face as individual Christians, particularly in the United States. We may come from a Pentecostal or charismatic background where we were told God has a special calling on our lives before birth. We might be told we've been called to be a prophet or a healer.

In less charismatic circles there might be a long family lineage going back to Jonathan Edwards or Charles Finney or whomever. There may be a family sense of vocation that appears pious and sincere enough but can in its own way be a form of manipulation, a kind of family hagiography that becomes a pressure to pursue a particular path. This has happened with families where military service was considered necessary to honor the family, or where science or engineering are considered honorable family activities and thus must be pursued. Well, famously, preacher kids often dislike the profession. They do not have even the advantage of a shrewd Pentecostal when confronted with this kind of pressure to say "But the Spirit isn't putting that burden on my heart so why should I do what the Spirit isn't convicting me to do?" See, those of us from Pentecostal backgrounds in some ways have had it easier.

But I digress and ramble.

New series for Mockingbird has begun: Cartoon Nostalgia, Cartoon Revolutions

Part one has just gone up. This series provides an admittedly sweeping overview of 1980s cartoon nostalgia. I'll discuss how Transformers is emblematic and symptomatic of Reagan-era children's entertainment and how it simultaneously reflected Cold War cultural and narrative concerns on the one hand and can be seen (seriously) as a Reagan-era counterpart to 1960s Beatle-mania as a corporately conceived and managed way to get American youth into buying foreign creative content. See, no attempts to be polemical, there, right?

HT Carl Trueman: A General Note on Hagiography

Carl Trueman writes about writings on Athanasius with the observation that while hagiography is useful in terms of being a way to inspire Christians by telling them of the lives of earlier saints there are problems with the genre. Trueman relates a point made by A. Donald MacLeod, that the modern missionary movement has been inspired by hagiography. Hagiography is a lengthy literary tradition in Christianity and the lives of the saints are presented to young and old alike as examples to follow.

If hagiography is good for inspiration, it can be bad on other fronts. First, there is the question of historical accuracy. Of course, this matter is more complicated than the simple criticism that the hagiographer typically leaves out the bad bits and presents a deliberately selective portrait of the subject. All historical writing is of necessity selective. For a writer to point out that Missionary X preached the gospel in a far off land and hundreds were converted is not made less true by the fact that the same writer fails to point out that Missionary X was also a wife-beating alcoholic. Nevertheless, a warts-and-all portrait is perhaps a better apologetic in the long run: to ignore or hide the problems is arguably to produce a deceptive account, especially when those problems play directly to the kind of overall balanced assessment of life, character and ministry for which a good biographer should be striving. A writer does not have to record every act of jay walking or breaking the speed limit, but should not shy away from evidence that is relevant. Opponents will certainly not do so; and to be shown to have ignored or suppressed evidence is lethal to a biographer's credibility

Ergo the anger with which Reformed and other Christian bloggers greeted Frank Schaeffer's book Crazy for God. Now it is not my intent here to discuss the various points at which I can fault Frank Schaeffer on any number of issues. I have already discussed long ago on this blog about how the central trouble of Addicted to Mediocrity is that Frank Schaeffer in some sense merely exemplified the problem he was talking about. I also don't believe he could be taken as representative of Eastern Orthodox Christians in America and even if I didn't have my own reasons for coming to that conclusion my Orthodox friends and relatives have assured me they have all sorts of reasons of their own they could provide to further support my conclusion.
BUT I do not see any reason to consider Francis Schaeffer as a fallible man who struggled with his own sins. For a bunch of people who talk about how much we must realize our sinfulness and need for the Lord's mercies Reformed fans can be just as eager to not have their plaster saints toppled as any Catholic or Orthodox believer supposedly is.
No, where I wish to go with Trueman's post is related to what Trueman himself discusses. The "I could never live up to that syndrome" is not merely true with respect to a contemporary Christian looking back on the life of a departed saint through the powerful refracting lens of hagiography; it is also true with respect to people today considering their prospects in ministry in comparison not only to hagiographies past but hagiographies present.
You see, if we are told that Martin Luther wrote some nasty anti-Semitic tracts late in life as his health declined we might be tempted to say the whole thing was junk. Anti-Calvinists love to bring up the execution of Servetus without mentioning the bits about how the Catholics wanted Servetus dead, too. This doesn't mean that how Calvin handled things was the right way to handle it but if we forget how many other people wanted Servetus dead we unfairly present the historical case. Fans of Luther are not likely to much repeat the sentiments attributed to a cardinal who said that Luther was simply drunk and that he'd come to his senses when he sobered up.
Neither hagiography nor hatchet jobs serve us well in any enterprise but we are always tempted to them. We can even cite scriptures as ways to justify them. I suggest that if we look at how 1 & 2 Samuel depicts the man who was after God's own heart we'll see that he was in many respects far worse than Saul, who had no real regard for the Lord. Solomon was blessed by God in incomparable ways and yet did many terrible things and acted in a wisdom that was arguably his own rather than wisdom from the Lord.
In our own time we don't see much different with respect to hagiographies except perhaps in this--in the past a person could promote himself or herself but the hagiographies that cemented their legend would have to come later. We live in an era where a pastor or missionary or someone who puts in the effort can arrange for one's one hagiography within his or her's lifetime. Those of us who would claim to stand against the cult of personality now, do we really do this? If we object to the cult of personality we see around a Rick Warren or a John Piper or a Mark Driscoll or a Tim Keller or a John MacArthur or a Benny Hinn do we object to this comparable cult of personality around Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Edwards, Augustine, Athanasius, John Wesley, or even, say, Paul? No, not really.
It is easy to beatify the dead. I know a fellow who gushes about Ayn Rand now with comparable ardor to that which he had for a certain megachurch pastor. He claims he's not worshipping but admiring but he said the same basic thing about the megachurch pastor whom he now disdains.
One of the advantages of having heroes of old is that we cannot be disillusioned with them and hagiography assists to that end.
But in our own time we are not immune to hagiographies. If a prominent Christian has obvious and substantial character flaws we will overlook them if he or she is accomplishing what we believe a Christian ought to be accomplishing. One conservative will be lionized for speaking up against sexual immorality though he is prone to verbal abuse and emotional manipulation just as another liberal may be praised for opposition to violence while being sexuall profligate in some way. One Christian may be praised for warring against the tide of secularism despite his racism while another Christian may be praised for defying the powers that be while living in a mercenary way off of the sacrifices of other Christians in progressive causes.
Hagiography is still alive and well in the press releases and media interviews that prominent Christians give and receive. We praise each other and imagine that in this we are being humble. We can become respecter of persons while convincing ourselves that we are innocent of this. It is a dynimac in which you worship while I admire, you are a lemming but I am a dedicated free-thinker, you blindly follow while I am loyal because though this or that person has flaws that person is my ticket to ride. We can condone hagiographies of those Christians living or dead who are flawed men and women who said and did terrible as well as beautiful thigns because, to be pointy about it, they are in some sense our meal ticket spiritually and socially. They are examples in the faith, yes, but they can be appropriated, too.
If there is any potentially unique aspect of our time and place it might be that hagiography of the living is manifested by way of blogs and press releases, by way of interviews in magazines and ghost-written books or co-written books, by way of vodcasts and podcasts. We don't necessarily believe that this is part of the hagiographical process but it is a way in which some folks, in a sense, beatify themselves in commendation. Paul wrote:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Think about that one for a while. Consider how many problems there were in Corinth with those who were sexually immoral, those who abused communion, those who were pursuing litigation against each other, those who were forming cliques, those who questioned the authority and authenticity of Paul's apostolic role. Yet they were Paul's letter of recommendation, written within his heart to be known and read by all, and showing themselves that they are a letter from Christ delivered by Paul and his aids, written on the tablets of human hearts.
Perhaps this is why we so eagerly embrace hagiography on the one hand, or on the other hand shame-faced outrage and avoidance of the sort that denies we have any association with other Christians.
I have more to consider on these things but those thoughts are best served in a separate post.

Monday, June 06, 2011

"Christian art" and Objectivist tracts as the dopplegangers of socialist realism

Long ago, in high school, I cared a great deal about art having purpose, content, and meaning. I wanted my art to mean something. I noticed lots of my contemporaries just doing whatever looked cool or whatever was fun. Some might obsessively revisit different iterations of a particular image or concept; others might revel in the self-perception of doing something edgy like drawing a picture of a guy in a prison cell sitting on a toilet. Others would draw exacting replicas of this stock photo by Bob Marley or that advertising copy of a model in Vogue.
I was attempting to come up with philosophical drawings that addressed idea. I was inspired by a mixture of Rembrandt and Dali and my vision, bad as it has always been, leant a strong and inadvertant impressionist mood to whatever it was I draw or painted. I aspired to the chops of super-realism but never got there. Some physical limitations just have to be dealt with. Over the course of twenty years I abandoned visual media in favor of literature and music.
As the years have passed I have changed my thinking about the arts. In my ardent teen years I wanted my work to mean something (what teen doesn't want his or her work and life to mean something?). I have since that time begun to conclude that one of the great enemies of the creative process and of the arts is ideological committment. By this I do not mean personal conviction, let alone religious devotion. I love all sorts of music by Messiaen and Bach, who were both in their own ways quite religious men. I mean to say that there are ideological committments which, in so many ways, pre-commit a man or a woman in the arts to this or that creative path.
Most recently I have interacted a bit with a friend who has become an admirer of Ayn Rand. He was trying to convince me, against all evidence, that Rush and Terry Goodkind's work has ultimately failed to properly adopt and adapt Ayn Rand's ideas into art because they use fantasy and allegory as ways to explore her ideas when her philosophy and writing does not lend itself to fantasy or allegory but rather plainspoken words. Why did Rand herself create Atlas Shrugged as anovel through which to explore her ideas? Oh, well, there's no particular reason for that, I guess. Fiction in the service of ideology is basically propaganda in which the characters are subservient to the author's point. Ironically this may be as true for Rand as it is said to be true about scriptures. Rand, in her own way, may be the anti-communist doppleganger of what aesthetically amounts to the mirror of socialist realism.
But "Christian" art of various kinds, not least the work of someone like Thomas Kinkade, represents another mirror to socialist realism. Many Christians who are most eager to repudiate communism and socialist realism as a political entity embrace a kind of art that is, at its heart as much beholden to a right-leaning variation of socialist realism as the art and ideology they oppose. There are the very good and the very bad and the not so bad who will inevitably become good once they conform to proper Christian teaching.
There are, it seems, among Objectivists I have met, the very reasonable, the totally unreasonable, and the semi-reasonable who will benefit from hanging out with the very reasonable a bit more. For philosophies that ostensibly place as their primary concern individual salvation there can be, at the ground level, a curiously social element to the conservative evangelical and the Objectivist alike. The Objectivist, the conservative evangelical, and the Soviet socialist realist all seem to have a fundamental interest in the idealized human over against the demonized animal. There may be differences in who gets demonized and why but the process, at a social and aesthetic and philosophical level, is not particularly different.
Now I wouldn't say a person shouldn't have ideology or convictions motivating his or her creative process. Those are absolutely vital. Yet if at any point your ideology or convictions cause you to reject an entire domain of art, literature, music, or other human activity as not suitable for any discussion or creative enterprise then you have closed yourself off to part of the human experience for ideological reasons. Now here I don't mean to propose that certain things may be avoided as morally objectionable. I will understand if black poets do not go rifling through Confederate newspaper articles for enjoyment any more than I expect Russian-born Jews to have any fun reading statements about Judaism from Russian Orthodox folks who might justify a pogrom. I will also understand that Christians will be unhappy with stories or films that celebrate sexual immorality. These are not objections to art in a particular form or idom but objections to moral and social activities that are justified or endorsed with creative media.
This can be seen as a post that follows up on my earlier rumination about whether Zizek was on to something in proposing that genocide and poetry go together in cultures. If this is true then there is not polarity or spectrum in which great artists defy society and defy social norms to stand for the good and the right and the true because a substantial poet like Ezra Pound could side with the Fascists. A Beethoven could ambivalently back, at times, Napoleon. A great poet like David could massacre women and children in Phillistine villages.
But the flip side is not a great artist who is a great person. Great artists are often terrible people. The flip side may well be the mediocre ideologue who is just competent enough to sell his or her creative wares while the primary goal is promoting the ideology rather than refining one's craft in the arts or innovating in the arts. In that respect the ideal is the enemy of the real, the "best" is the enemy of the good. Paradoxically most people who are most aware of this are not the great artists but the mediocrities, also-rans, and never-made-it people. This is the thing I wish to emphasize, that the arts are not a means of redemption. No one's life was ever redeemed or made better as the lived life because one was a great artist or a great philosopher. Those were things obtained, to make a purely polemical point, incidentally.
In the work of a Thomas Kinkade or the books of a Frank Peretti (sic) a compromise is made between doctrines and character development. The painter of light is not necessarily methodologically different from a Soviet era painter committed to socialist realism. That NASCAR painting Kinkade did? Pretty much comparable to a number of paintings from the Soviet 1930s. Rand famously rejected communism, yet arguably this carry-over from the moral simplification inherent in socialist realism seems like precisely the trade off that Rand reached for in establishing a literary canon of Objectivist literature, just as Piercing the Darkness provides an arguably simplified and tendentious account of Christian understanding and experience. Both authors totally made bank off of these moves and I grant the shrewdness of that approach to literary effort as a way to make a living.
I wonder if there is a sobering lesson to be learned in observing these artistic moves. What if John Galt is basically a heavily decorated narrative of what, in a more traditional Jewish milleu, could be considered a Proverbs 31 woman? We as humans are capable of deluding ourselves in so many myriad ways the mere thought of it tends to be depressing and we some most brilliant at this charade when we have convinced ourselves we aren't doing it!
When I saw a friend of mine make the case that Rush and Terry Goodkind are failures in terms of promoting Rand's Objectivism because of their use of fantasy and allegory I wonder what exactly isn't a fantasy about a man inventing a generator that runs on ambient static electricity. What exactly isn't allegorical about John Galt as the embodiment of the tenants of Objectivism? If A is A then ideological tract-writing is ideological tract-writing whether we're discussing Nehemiah's account of the restoration of the Temple or Rand using John Galt as a narrative patina through which to talk about policies in the United States during the mid-20th century. In this light it is actually not surprising that many people who identify themselves as Christians in America admire Rand and her ideas. My friend does not seem to realize that in making some of his pronouncements about the "failure" of Rush and Goodkind that he's disputing entertainers who have made massive amounts of money promoting Rand's ideas, which is probably not a complaint Rand herself would have made, maybe. And arguably when John Piper can make points about good things Christians can take away from the writings of Rand and praises her for her willingness to present villains as truly villainous I wonder if the gap between evangelical art, Objectivist tracts, and Soviet era socialist realism isn't entirely a gap of perception rather than substance or style.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

How much research does Graeme McMillan do before posting an article?

Does McMillan not know that Aronofsky's take on Batman was famously shot down by Warner Brothers, which was part of how they settled on Nolan?

I've seen a few people complain about the weakness of McMillan's arguments, assertions, and research in the past but this is something an editor could have caught before it hit the web page. This naturally raises the question of how much thought McMillan puts into an article before publishing it when an oversight as big as not mentioning Aronofsky's also-ran status in Batman invites speculation as to why a writer seems to know zero about that subject. Since McMillan articles tend to get question marks at the end of them, why not ape the pattern here?

In other news, my brother tells me that new Magneto movie was a solid popcorn movie. I know that officially it's called X-Men: First Class but from the look of things it's going to be a Magneto story. No problem with that here, seeing as Magneto is one of the only actually interesting characters in the whole X-continuity.

some observations about musical performances and rehearsals

I am not exactly a performer, though as I keep working at playing church music I am performing music a lot more than I have in years. I have sometimes had a, no, I often have a bad habit of biting off more than I can chew in terms of chops. Well, I do this because I'll practice some pieces for months and feel good about them and then forget a few axioms. One is the axiom that you don't make mistakes until the "record" button is on. Another I learned today, which is that if everything is awesome during the rehearsal then you should start to worry! Something could go very wrong.

I played through my fugue in C minor during the rehearsal at church during some down time. I had been planning to play this piece during offering. The first run-through during down time in the rehearsal with the orchestra went great! I played it smoothly and easily and with good articulation. Then as I kept practicing it later before the actual offering time I began to feel a little more tired in the left hand, some of the changes began to feel a bit more awkward. By the time of the offering itself I fumbled the third entrance in the exposition and had to do a lot of recovery. It felt like a trainwreck.

Weirdly, I regained my bearings in what is arguably the worst place in the fugue, in the episode in B flat minor through the middle entry into E flat major. From there I managed to regain fluency. But by the time I built up to the climax of the fugue I noticed that offering was done so instead of finishing the whole fugue I just ended with the big C minor chord. No one was any the wisser that I had about half a minute more music to play. What I'm learning is you can feel like how you played is a disaster but that doesn't mean people didn't enjoy what you played. At other times you can play a piece and feel that you did a pretty good job and feel as though there's no receptivity whatsoever on the part of whatever audience you have. You just can't account for these things. I suppose for the professionals that's probably what makes performing challenging and fun, that you don't know how people will react on a given night even though you can be fairly sure people who show up are there to hear you play.

In light of my discovery about perfect rehearsals leading to trainwreck performances I hope my rehearsals this week of Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Fantasia for piano and guitar, movement 1 comprise thousands of errors if it means our actual performance is note-perfect.

and "part 1" of my DCAU project is done

My five-part series on Superman: the animated series is actually part 3 of a big project I'm working on for Mockingbird. I just finished part 1, which should start going up as a series this week. I don't want to get too spoilery about what I have to say in the series. but it is surely a mighty convenience for me that Michael Bay's third Transformers movie is coming out soon and my primary polemic in the new series is precisely about how, among other things, childhood nostalgia in 30-something males leads them to believe that the Michael Bay movies are worse than the 1986 swan song of Orsen Welles.

I have relied on a few ideas proposed by some authors in Wired and some ideas that came up in discussions I've had with my friend James Harleman, who is a pastor over at Mars Hill here in Seattle. Really, I couldn't have begun tackling this kind of project for Mockingbird, having spent a few years helping out with the film & theology ministry, not interacting with a lot of ideas James has proposed about pop culture. Even when I have disagreed with him, as I very much have about how much Superman can be interpreted as a Christ-type, obviously, I have benefited from discussion and debate. So when the first part goes up I'll post a link to it here.