Saturday, November 05, 2011

seagulls and alkaseltzer

i want to go to the beach
and feed the seagulls alkaseltzer
i want to feel sand between my toes
to run along the tide pools
and think of brian eno
i see the seagulls flying
and i hear my spirit laugh
i imagine oysters singing
underneath the sand and sea
close my eyes and imagine
their sweet alkaseltzer drams

Loving your enemies

It doesn't just so happen that this subject came up for two reasons. One is someone I know suggested this topic but the other not coincidental reason is that the most reason part of David Martyn Lloyd-Jones Studies in Sermon on the Mount sermon I read happened to be the one on this very subject.  So this subject obviously didn't just "happen" to come up at all for me this week.

Lloyd-Jones opens practically out the gate with the observation that Jesus' teaching that we should love our enemies and do good to them, to bless those that curse us, and seek to be of help to those who persecute us seems at odds with Jesus Himself denouncing Pharisees as sons of the Devil.  It seems Jesus pours a lot of hatred on His enemies, right?  But we also have all those imprecatory psalms in which the psalmist prays for the death, mayhem, and destruction of those he describes as enemies. 

David, particularly, could lay things on thick in praying against his enemies.  In Psalm 3 he implores God to rise up and save him and says, "For You have struck all my enemies on the cheek. You have broken the teeth of the wicked."  In the prologue to Psalm 3 we see that this was a psalm David wrote when he was fleeing from Absalom his son.  Yeah, the same Absalom whom David urged Joab and the rest of his armies to not harm.  The same Absalom whose death struck David with such great sorrow he lamented Absalom's death.  Absalom's death hit David so hard that Joab said that if David kept carrying on in public weeping and crying over the death of a son, who killed his brother and sexually carried on in public with ten of David's concubines while forming an insurrection, that the armies that saved David would turn on him.  THAT Absalom.  How do we make sense of David asking that God would destroy the wicked and thank God for breaking the teeth of the wicked when the teeth that were broken were, poetically speaking, people who included David's own beloved son? 

Lloyd-Jones provides a useful distinction at this point, by pointing out that the Psalms are not ultimately expressions of individual faith but are written for corporate worship and for reflection by God's people.  He also points out that the imprecations in the Psalms are those that have to do with a reaction to God's name and honor being rejected or attacked.  The imprecations have to do with those who destroy and batter God's people.  Blessed be the man who takes your babies and smashes their heads upon a stone ... by the waters of Babylon.  The Psalms, as Lloyd-Jones points out, cannot merely be read as the wish for a purely personal form of vengeance but as prayers that God's name and might would be vindicated in the midst of those who scoff at the name of the Lord and trample on God's people.

Jesus Himself said that God sends rain on the just and unjust alike.  "Common grace" means that the wicked as well as the good benefit from the created order.  As individuals we are called to love our enemy.  Lloyd-Jones points out something that should be obvious but which, of course, may not be obvious--loving our enemy does not mean we like our enemy.  Yet loving our enemy means we bless them and ask for the Lord's mercy to be extended to them rather than praying for their downfall.  We cannot help but consider the example of Christ Himself who extended mercy and forgiveness to those who killed Him.  Those Christians who pretend that forgiveness must be conditioned by true repentance do not realize that were this condition ever consistently applied Christ would never have died for us!

One of the stranger ironies in my life is that I have noticed the people most eager to condition forgiveness on a display of repentance have been Calvinists!  Who, of all people, would be most persuaded by the testimony of Scriptures that a repentant heart is a gift from the Spirit more than a Calvinist?  And yet who would seem most to demand a demonstration of in another what he knows is impossible apart from a sovereign move of the Lord in such a case? Did Christ wait for you, dear Calvinist, to make a convincing demonstration of repentance before infusing you with life through the Gospel when you heard it?  I didn't think He did.  Why then, in your daily life would you attempt to justify the notion that someone must prove themselves worthy of forgiveness by demonstrating conformity to your idea of "repentance"? 

Well now, some may say at this point, it is one thing to forgive and another thing to be reconciled.  Yeah, I get that.  I get that more than you might be able to guess merely reading my blog.  And yet loving enemies still brings us back to Christ.  Christ chose to reconcile us to Himself while we were His enemies.  Consider that Stephen as he was being stoned to death asked that the sins of those who killed him would not be held against him even after he had denounced them for being stiff-necked people who resisted the Holy Spirit.  Among those who approved of us death was none other than the Paul who would one day become an apostle. 

Okay, I know some Christians may be considering now, that's okay at an individual level.  A certain pastor was fond of saying that pacificism and turning the other cheek is a-okay for the individual but that if you go after his family there's gonna be a fight.  He'll put up with whatever indignities he feels he's going to suffer but if you go after the people he cares about he'll come after you.  I've met Christians who take this line of thought and on the basis of that the question may come up, "How do I treat those people who are not just some personal enemy but who have harmed people I care about."

Well ... perhaps a useful point of instruction on this subject may come from Jesus.  Jesus was asked by a certain legal expert what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus asked what the man read in the Law.  The man replied that one must love God and one's neighbor.  Jesus replied, "This is good.  Do this and you shall live."   But the man, wanting to justify himself, asked, "And who is my neighbor?"  Thus the parable about the good Samaritan. 

This man wanted to justify hating a group of people who represented apostates, sell-outs, and traitors to Judea and to true religion.  In the law expert's mind it was perfectly okay to hate a Samaritan for these reasons.  Christ told a parable that revealed that the Samaritan is still the neighbor.  "Which of these was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?" Jesus asked.  Unwilling to even name the man, the legal expert replied, "The one who showed him kindness."  Jesus replied, "Go and be like that man."  Jesus cuts through our pretensions to define our neighbor in a way that precludes our seeking his welfare.  He reveals that if we even ask the question "And who is my neighbor?" we are seeking a self-justifying path in which our hatred can be justified.   We, like that law expert, want to come to God in a way that permits hatred and seeks justification in the hope that whomever the enemy is God will destroy him. 

One of the common temptations I have seen among at least some Christians is to then attempt to do some kind of end run and still find some kind of loophole.  You see one of the things they don't necessarily teach in Sunday school or discuss from the pulpit is that if you live mainly among Christians the person who is most likely to end up feeling like your enemy is a fellow Christian.  Certainly in Corinth there were enough betrayals and mistakes and sins happening that lawsuits were taking place.  To this Paul wrote a rebuke and he emphasized it still further by writing, "This I say to shame you."  That there are lawsuits at all is a sign of defeat.  Why not rather be wronged?  As it is you go to unbelieving courts and fight each other which is a discredit to the Gospel and to you. 

Let me cite by way of a specific example that a cease and desist letter from Mars Hill met with the disapproval of numerous Christians.  Any church that went through 1 Corinthians in sermons TWICE could have kept in mind the precept the apostle Paul taught, "Why not rather be wronged?"  I've seen the logo in question and even though I need eye surgery I can tell you the logos don't look that similar.  If there is any comfort for Mars Hill it is that unbelievers have not (yet) gotten wind of the cease and desist letter and made much hay about it.  Give it time, I suppose, but here's hoping it doesn't become too huge a deal. 

This is a useful case study because I am seeing plenty of Christians assume that one party is completely evil and the other party is good.  There is a temptation to assume that the big bad church is the big bad enemy.  I've met some Christians who have a penchant for deciding who is and isn't a Christian on the basis of personal affronts.  I met a fellow who took the side of a pastor who got fired and declared that all the pastors involved in that man's firing were completely unfit for ministry.  Then, a few years later, when the pastor failed to keep a promise made to help this man's family during a difficult time (as the man understood it, anyway) the man began to declare among friends that this ex-pastor wasn't even really a Christian.  Huh?  What just happened here?  The ex-pastor, about whom this man said that other pastors firing the ex-pastor weren't fit for ministry, suddenly becomes "not really a Christian" for failing to keep a promise to this man?  What did James warn us about the ways in which we judge people?  What did Jesus Himself warn us about with respect to judgment? 

You see there is no escape hatch in this teaching to love and bless our enemies.  If we pretend that fellow professing Christians are not really Christians this does not absolve us of a calling to love them even if we consider them enemies.  This does not absolve us of seeking their welfare even if they have harmed by offense or neglect people we care about.  John wrote that if we hate our brother then we walk in darkness and do not know where we are going.  So if we hate fellow Christians, for whatever reason, we are walking in darkness and need to seek the Light, which is Christ.  If we hate people who say they are Christians and decide they are not we are not excused from loving our neighbor.  In the parable about the good Samaritan Jesus did not say the Samaritan had true beliefs or true doctrines or otherwise "good" or "Christian" ethics.  Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "You worship what you do not know." Even among those who are truly enemies and not even on the same team in our estimation, Christ's teaching is not somehow nullified to justify our wrath.

Now if Christians wrong other Christians that's still no good.  But what we do not benefit from is keeping a record of wrongs.  There's some obscure apostle named Paul who made some mention of that.  But many Christians, this one included, are often tempted to keep a record of wrongs as a form of defense.  Surely I don't have to explain how keeping a list of wrongs is a form of defense?  It becomes the basis from which some Christians say "I will not forgive X because X has not shown the necessary signs of repentance."  It becomes the basis on which some Christians say, "I have forgiven X but I can't hang out with X because X is in rebellion."  It becomes the basis for some Christians to say that this or that Christian shouldn't hang out with another Christian because of some wrong.  Shunning leads to counter-shunning, which at heart is pretty much the same thing.

In my own life I have often encountered situations in which people do not apologize for things they have done but more often I find that people do not apologize to me for things they have said.  This has happened often enough that I actually can't remember how many times some people have said things that have hurt my feelings.  Rather than say anything about it I have found out over time that even expressing my discomfort at some of the things said to and about me gets me more trouble.  I find myself wishing I had not brought anything up and that there is a sense where Paul's advice sticks with me--why not rather be wronged?  In many cases the people who have said the most offensive and hurtful things to me don't even remember they said any of these things.  Or they may actually tell me (as some have) that I just completely misremembered what really happened and shouldn't have taken things personally.  The things were meant personally and while my memory has limits some things have stuck with me.

But Proverbs says that it is a gracious thing for a man to overlook faults.  Yes, it is, and so I have been slowly learning that in many cases simply putting up with things that are said about me is actually the better and more Christian path.  Years ago I was spoken about in very unfavorable terms by some people I had to work with.  They said my work was poorly done and my attitude to their correction was terrible.  To the best of my ability and knowledge I was doing things exactly the way I was told I needed to do them.  Yet I was becoming the subject of such vociferous complaint my supervisors had a meeting with me and discussed the complaints about me.  I didn't attempt to make things personal or offensive to the best of my knowledge but people were getting very upset.  I was trying very hard to figure out what I was doing wrong and no one could explain what it was. 

Finally things came to the point where a conference call had to happen.  The biggest people in the situation all had a call and I was present for discussing things.  Well, to keep a long story short, it turned out that I was not only right in doing my work the way I had been doing it I was the only person in the whole region who was doing the work the right way.  Now here was a perfect opportunity for me to have said "Ha!  I told you I was right."  I didn't.  Let others praise you and not yourself, after all.  So I was vindicated after about a year of complaints about my character and my work.  I was vindicated by the quality of the work itself.  I found that when I attempted to defend myself this was held against me.  When I simply did the best work I could according to the instructions I had been given by the most important people in the organization it was those people, and not myself, who took the chance to speak up and both defend my work and clarify that the other people had been doing things the wrong way.  My chief concern was not about whether or not my "honor" was being defended but whether or not the work was being done the right way.

Loving our enemies, however our enemies may be defined, is something we are only able to do if we understand the mercy of Christ and not merely in some abstract doctrinal way.  To put it another way, loving enemies and serving them and doing good work despite problems is something which we are only able to do if our goal is not a purely personal sense of glory or right.  If we understand our own failures before the love and holiness of God and understand the depth of the forgiveness Christ obtained for us, more than that, the love with which Christ loves us and has sought us out, then we are better equipped to demonstrate that love toward others.  If Christ can forgive me then who can I not forgive? 

Yet there are plenty of people who care a great deal about "the doctrines of grace" who sadly know nothing of it in their daily lives.  They are like those people who profess a love for humanity in the abstract but hate everyone they know.  They are like people who profess a great love for the Church or a church but they love not the real flesh and blood people in that body of Christians--they love their ideal of what that church ought to be in their own imagination and seek to bring that forth into reality. 

There are people who think their concern is for sound doctrine who are concerned about their influence and popularity.  There are Christians who profess a concern about social justice who are concerned about their own reputation.  There are men who are eager to name-drop their important associates, pull rank within their communities to get things their way and cow any dissenters.  There are men who nominate themselves to roles of influence and then get upset when things don't go their way or when their influence is insufficient to the tasks or conflicts they set themselves to mastering.  And perhaps because these sorts of people are in the grip of the boastful pride of life it's the only way they know how to understand or explain sin.  At the other end of things those who are consumed by doubt and fear tend to only grasp things in terms of those doubts or fears. There are many Christians I can think of who would assume that fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are basically at heart non-believers because of old-fashioned politics.  If any of these Christians are actually right then they are ALL unbelievers at heart. 

None of this means that Christians don't wrong each other.  We wouldn't even have the epistles of Scripture if no early Christians wronged each other!  Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov advised that we must love the sinner and even love his sins.  Does this mean we actually love sin?  Dostoevsky had seen too much of evil to have meant this in some flatly literal way.  Even in the sins of fellow sinners we can see how these people are, despite their brokenness, still image-bearers of God.  It is very easy to hate those qualities in others that seem most opposite or own but an unbelieving teacher of mine once told me that he noticed that in many, many cases the things people hate most in others are often the traits they must admit are in themselves.  Is there a person who infuriates you because he or she pretends that nothing is wrong and won't talk about the elephant in the room? 

Here perhaps we can discuss Romans 2.  You who hate idols, do you rob temples?  This is a phrase that puzzled me for a while but a comment by Adolph Schlatter may be relevant.  He notes that there may have been Jews who, despite their formal protest against any pagan images, were selfish enough to gain money tha tthey would breach pagan taboos the pagans themselves would not break.  Now if, building somewhat speculatively on this observation, we consider it axiomatic that one must hate one's enemies and that it is not wrong to defraud them then a person could justify stealing what belongs to an infidel as being permitted by God. 

After all, all things belong to God and I believe in and follow the one true God therefore all things are permitted to me, particularly that I should somehow profit from taking things that others dare not use due to a silly taboo.  Other gods are not really gods at all so if one takes the gold from the temple of a god which is no god then no god has been defrauded.  Really?  Well, Paul says no, you're still a thief.  Paul warns here that if you claim to hate idols/graven images but steal gold out of temples then you don't really hate idols and graven images that much.  In fact you paradoxically profit off of the very thing you claim to despise in the name of the Lord.  Paul takes time to point out that there are sins that people commit where if they took idolatry seriously they wouldn't even be committing certain sins.

That Gentiles are part of the new covenant in Christ at all speaks to the reconciliation Christ accomplished for the world.  Jew and Gentile are no longer enemies in Christ and both groups are guilty of sin warranting judgment from God.  But God's gift is faith in Christ and Christ Himself.  There were Jews who did not accept this implication of the kingdom of Christ because they did not want the Good News to extend to the enemies of God's people.  There were Jews who may not have been or felt personally oppressed or harmed by Gentiles who nevertheless resented the Gentiles for the disgrace and oppression they had brought to God's people. 

The Maccabean revolt was not about nothing, after all, it was about rejecting the imposition of idolatry on God's people and attempting to forbid honoring Yahweh.  The scandal of the Cross is that the invitation of God has been extended to the enemies of God's people, the nations that desecrated the Temple, the nations whose leaders offered swine on the altar, the peoples who slew women and children, the traitors among God's people who helped these tyrants to rule.  To fail to grasp the scandalous political and social implications of Christ dining with tax collectors and being willing to help government officials by healing their children is difficult to overstate. As N. T. Wright put it well in Jesus & the Victory of God Jesus was announcing and celebrating the coming of the Kingdom of God but one of many scandals about how he did this was he was celebrating this coming of the kingdom with all the wrong people.

We need to be careful in considering whether the resentments we harbor are on behalf of the harm caused others or resentments that are our own.  The two are not the same.  That legal expert who sought ot justify himself by asking "And who is my neighbor?" may never have been harmed by an actual Samaritan but he still hated them because of what they represented to him, those who wronged God's people.  Jesus' implicit rebuke was no less stinging for that, "Go and be like that man."  If we have been angry that others have wronged us let's not forget how often we have wronged others and if we think we haven't we're in pretty good danger of being proven liars.  The apostle John warns that if we hate fellow Christians for whatever reason we are walking in darkness and the truth isn't in us.  Are our enemies truly NOT Christians?  The Jesus who said that if one will not listen to you to then treat them as you would a tax collector or a Gentile dined with tax collectors.  He also healed the dying children of Gentiles and said that he had sheep in another flock that needed to be brought in. 

If you and I cannot remind ourselves of these we should consider how seriously we appreciate the love and mercy of Christ who taught us to pray:

Our Father, who is in heaven
hallowed be your name.
May your kingdom come, and your will be done
here on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day or daily bread
and forgive us our debts
as we have forgiven our debtors.
Do not lead us into the hour of trial
but deliver us from the evil one.

I don't think I really need to unpack the significance of how our willingness to forgive indicates our appreciation of forgiveness.  As David Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, unless God is working within our hearts there are things we can't do and blessing and doing good to whomever we consider enemies would be one.  And if we hate people who are brothers or sisters in Christ then, well, we need to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question of how much we actually love Christ. 

Friday, November 04, 2011

Link: Internet Monk: When Christians Won the Culture War

I could write thousands of words about this but I'd rather just link to the post and subsequent discusion. 

musical kindness

Someone kindly sent me some recordings recently, Hilary Hahn's recent recording of the Charles Ives violin sonatas, as well as her seminal 1997 Bach recording.  I have been a happy camper in terms of listening to music. 

And since this post is pretty much just about Hilary Hahn anyway, Alex Ross' blog has an entry mentioning her.

"Do you have any advice for people who would like to become fish?" Hilary Hahn, having apparently sat through too many robotic interviews, has responded with a Cagean provocation.

It's deliberately drawn out and awkward and yet also dryly funny.  A friend took me to see Hahn's recital at Benaroya Hall in mid-October and I noted that she can be more than a tiny bit of a smart ass.  That smart ass side with more than a bit of cerebral, distant humor is on display in the above clip.

Her recent recital included a whole bunch of pieces from her recently commissioned encores.  It was a fun concert.  Hahn always puts on a great concert.  I admit that this recent visit was not as astonishing as her Ives/Bartok/Brahms/Ysaye recital from 2009 but, I tell you, it would be tough for any musician, even Hahn herself, to have topped that recital!   My siblings have been occasionally joking that I don't just enjoy her work because she's a great musician but also because she's cute.  Well, yes, guilty as charged.  I don't think she could have been any hotter than when she played all the Charles Ives violin sonatas at Seattle in 2009. 

Hahn is an attractive woman but I admire that, unlike certain other classical musicians, she has not banked on that the way some other lesser tier musicians in the field have.  I'm not going to name names but if you know classical musicians you can probably make a few guesses and can probably guess with more clarity if you've read anything by Norman Lebrecht (who Hahn stonewalled on the question of whether she dates, which is fair game seeing as Lebrecht bemoaned how boring her website was). 

Being absurdly beautiful does not mean you have to make that the foundation for your marketing.  You can make the foundation of marketing your career the fact that you play kick-ass music by Bach, Schoenberg, Ives, Shostakovich, Mozart, Pagannini, and Stravinsky.  Physical beauty will fade with time for even the most beautiful person but playing wonderful music can still be done after you don't look like you did in your twenties, thirties, forties and so on.  I admire Hahn's willingness to play the warhorses in a compelling way but to also throw in works that are just plain difficult.  Let's face it, it would be hard to throw in to back up a work less accessible than Schoenberg's violin concerto.  Here's hoping Hahn doubles down and records Alban Berg's violin concerto! 

And it doesn't hurt if you can make deliberately awkward, forced video satires of journalists throwing the same old questions at you.  I was a journalism student back in my college days and so there's another meta-level of humor in this for me.  Anyway, Hahn's music has been a much-appreciated part of my musical life since I learned about her work and I'm grateful to a wonderful friend who took me to her October recital.  I'm also grateful to the anonymous benefactor who sent me Hahn's recordings of the Bach partitas and the Charles Ives sonatas. 

And, since I know my siblings have joked about it already, yes, I think Hilary Hahn is ridiculously hot.

Slate--Kevin Smith's Army: how his loyal fans prop up a stunningly mediocre career

I managed to never see a single Kevin Smith film since he began his career and though I have met people who have praised exactly two of his films (Clerks and Chasing Amy) I have never seen the entirety of any of his films.  I only saw a small part of Clerks 2 at the behest of a friend who wanted to show me the only time, in his opinion, Kevin Smith ever made a single cinematic moment that had some kind of art to it.  It was the bit with Rosario Dawson dancing and the technique of color saturation adding more vibrant color to the scene as she danced.  Plus, this friend admitted to me, the art was mainly something Dawson took care of by just looking like Dawson ... so maybe the art wasn't even necessarily Smith's.

But my friend pointed out that when Smith could have had a moment take a natural, emotionally plausible course and explore that cinematically and visually, Smith demurred. My impression was that Kevin Smith was like Rumiko Takahashi, who has made a career out of deliberately avoiding emotional depth in favor of slapstick.  The trouble is that it simply isn't possible for Kevin Smith, so far as I could tell in the few scenes of Clerks 2 I saw, to pull off dumb funny the way Rumiko Takahashi does.  There is a certain kind of humorous stupidity it takes a very clever person to pull off and, as yet, I don't know whether or not Smith has ever been, could be, or will be such a person.  Whatever Clerks may have been it can't be as unhinged as even less memorable stories from Ranma 1/2

Of course I recognize that is an apples to oranges comparison ... or is it?  Consider Kevin Smith's comic book career.  At least he can say he is not as widely villified as Jeph Loeb seems to have become.  Sam Adams' article on Kevin Smith does not even pretend to give Smith any respect or serious consideration.  Suggesting that after 17 years the man has merely honed his cinematic skills up to the level of a Hollywood hack (a la Michael Bay or Brett Ratner, perhaps?) is not even damning with faint praise.

Adams' remark about wondering whether Kevin Smith has ever even watched a movie that was made before he was born is a particularly intriguing shot in the whole fusillade.  Then there's this:

Smith once said he wasn’t particularly interested in how his films looked, which is a little like a novelist saying he doesn’t much care for words

Now years ago I hung out with a friend who declared that Kevin Smith was the most successful and best purveyor of mainstream comedy in American cinema at that time.  Only a Kevin Smith fan could possibly say that.  If Smith was willing to go into debt with a mass of credit cards to make his first film that surely indicates a man committed to his work but it may well be indicative of a broader question and crisis artists of every sort can consider.  What exactly is the patronage system that sustains and encourages the development of any sort of art, at any level?  I don't know if there is some metanarrative implicit in the 17 year history of a director who was willing to max out possibly every credit card he could get ahold of to realize his vision.  On the one hand how can I begrudge a person the desire to make films when I have never sat through even one of his films?  On the other hand decades later, I'm not sure how or why Kevin Smith has ever mattered.  I'm curious as to what could inspire Adams to such a merciless and disdainful summary of a man whose career he describes as only reaching hack levels in directorial skill after 17 years ... but I'm also not at all curious to actually watch Kevin Smith films.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Batman: The Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire part 3 is up on Mockingbird

I'm happy to report that "Heart of Ice, Heart of Wrath" just went up on Mockingbird. 

stay tuned for more writing about Batman: the animated series

I've been sick as a dog until just a week ago and had a lot going on (still have a lot going on), and DZ had a big conference recently.  Yet despite the frenzy of life I can at least tell you that part 3 in my essays about Batman: the animated series should be going up pretty soon.  DZ and I were able to catch up and discuss part 3 in the BTAS series and he's a fantastically helpful editor. 

I know there have been huge gaps and delays in this set of essays about the DCAU but the struggle to write about this wonderful series has been worth it.   I am extremely excited about part 3.  DZ has taken something I thought was very good and made it even better.  It is always better to do something slowly and well than to do something quickly yet poorly.  Unity and clarity of thought is more valuable and lasting than grasping for a quick but ultimately facile insight, which is something that can be all too common in dealing with the comics medium and cartoons.  It is one the paradoxicaly tragedies of film criticism in the West that a medium so dependent on the continual development of narrative art in its most literal form is so often considered with so much disdain by fans of "real" film. 

I have written here about how in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female and how the significance of this plays out in approaching music.  Well, it can be said not just about "high" and "low" musical art, it can also be said about the distinction between live action "grown-up" film and animated film that is so often relegated to the category of "kid stuff".  Art, where we find it, is worth championing even if we find it in paradoxical or unexpected places. 

If we consider how Christ is reconciling all things to Himself and recognize this to be true, then we recognize this in all sorts of realms where people would not necessarily look.  I've already written earlier this week about a way in which the nature of Christ's reconciliation of all things to Himself can be explored in music; yet this reconciliation and unification of things under Christ's authority and rule can also be observed in the elimination of the gap between "grown-up" and "kid stuff" in film.  One of the most childish things grown-ups can do is imagine that they are too grown-up for the things of childhood.  As Chesterton put it, we may have grown too old at heart and have lost the childhood ability to enjoy things as God enjoys them.  There's a difference between not wanting to grow up and being ashamed to think that ideas and words shared with children couldn't be that important compared to "grown-up" concerns.  Consider that the disciples, the ones who wanted to know when Jesus would finally overthrow the Roman empire, tried turning away children who wanted to see Jesus. 

Anyway ... stay tuned to Mockingbird for "Heart of Ice, Heart of Wrath".  You should be able to spot it on Mockingbird some time this week.  I'll make sure to link to it here.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

more composing

As some of you readers probably know (but that others may not) I compose and arrange music while I look for a normal day job.  Last year I got a paid commission to arrange an hour's worth of Christmas music for oboe, cello, and guitar for a chamber ensemble in Italy.  That was a huge amount of fun.  I spent a week (58 hours of work at that) mapping out 23 songs for the three instruments and had a ball.  It was also nice that it helped me keep a roof over my head for a couple of months!

I have been writing quite a bit over the last few years about composing preludes and fugues for solo guitar but, you may surmise I have been composing other things as well.  It has come time to return to composing some of those other things.  Chief among them is a sonata for violin and guitar in A minor.  I have finished movements 2 and 4 but movements 1 and 3 remain to be finished. 

The third movement and first movement present the "usual" challenges that come from attempting to compose a sonata form and a fugue.  But they present some unusual challenges because by committing so firmly to a compositional and conceptual approach indebted not only to Charles Ives but also Benjamin Britten I have presented some wildly difficult challenges in how I approach these unfinished movements.  To explain how and why these problems have shown up would be to give the game away and I refuse to do that on a blog.  Particularly shrewd readers who know how Ives worked and know how Britten worked, particularly on a piece that a guitarist would be likely to know about, can probably guess a few things without my having to explain anything.  Those guesses would probably even be mostly correct.  But the secrets are in details. 

Still, I feel comfortable saying that I have spent a decade refining a kind of matrix derived approach to tonal composition that is informed by set theory and dodecaphonic techniques.  I have rarely employed true atonality but have liberally drawn from atonal and paratonal idioms.  Years ago I composed a Kyrie setting that was performed at Mars Hill in 2004 by the choir I helped put together.  I'm not sure anyone cared that I did something musically very nerdy--I made sure that the christe eleison section was based on the relative major harmonization of the retrograde of the cantus firmus that the kyrie eleison section is built on.  Besides the simple fact that this sounded fun it had a musical symbolism to it; I wanted to illustrate that whether from within the Mosaic covenant looking forward or in the new covenant in Christ looking backward appeals to the mercy of God are equally meaningful for those of us who live after Christ as for those who were looking forward to Christ.  At the risk of seeming piously mushy I wanted to compose a Kyrie setting that musically (even at a visual level in the score) demonstrated how the grace of God toward us in Christ looks the same whether we are looking backward or forward in time as we go. 

All that is to say that I like to play around with themes in esoteric ways that only musicologists and sight-reading musicians would pick up on.  But ten years ago when I was trying to write sacred choral music is a whole different stage of life than what I've been experimenting with over the last few years.  I've been exploring ways in which a kind of monothematicism can be used as the basis for obliterating stylistic and formal distinctions in Western music. 

If in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female; if Christ is reconciling all things to Himself then the way a Christian composer can explore this is by playing in a wide variety of styles but also in exploring ways in which apparently contrasting styles can be shown to have an otherwise ignored underlying unity.  There is no final conflict between Fernando Sor and Johnny Cash, for instance.  These distinctions do not lose their importance and these musical styles do not cease to be what they are but there is no irreconciable difference between them to a Christian unless someone decides to be a twerp and imagine that these distinctions "must" exist for retroactive theological rationales that have very little to do with truly Christian teaching and more to do with Christian teaching appropriated for the sake of an ethnic agenda that the kingdom of Christ does not necessarily justify. If that were ever ultimately true then no Gentiles would ever have received the Gospel.

This is why, in an admittedly broad and too-abstract way, I have found composers such as Messiaen, Penderecki, Stravinsky, and Charles Ives appealing, because in their disparate ways they provide an example of how a contemporary composer can approach eclecticism and fusion from a perspective not of assumed fragmentation but of assumed unity, however wildly personalized, esoteric, and even inscrutable that perceived unity may often seem to be.  As Bono put it with outsized sentiment in that anthem on the Joshua Tree, "that all the colors will bleed into one."  People obsessed with racial purity will never dig this and I don't expect them to.  Being the son of an American Indian and a white I don't particularly care about racial or ethnic purity.  So for me it's not surprising that attempting to break down different boundaries between jazz and classical or "serious" and "light" music is a fun thing to explore.  It is for me, a practical and blatantly theological enterprise. 

Completing my violin and guitar sonata in A minor is an important step forward in a massive series of chamber sonatas I have been working on since 2000.  I've been eager to finish this series because I've been wanting to create a duo sonata pairing the guitar up with every instrument I can think of.  I'm not just eager to finish 24 preludes and fugues, though I am eager to finish that.  I've also been eager to complete a cycle of chamber sonatas pairing the guitar up with woodwinds, strings, and brass as part of my larger, potentially lifelong project.  There's no reason I can't equally love J. S. Bach, Bartok, Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Blind Willie Johnson, and Dave Brubeck.  There's no reason I can't draw equal inspiration from Thelonious Monk as I do from Haydn.  I can dig John Lee Hooker like I dig Paul Hindemith.

Now I absolutely love writing about cartoons and about Batman cartoons and I am committed to doing yet more writing on the DCAU. But I must also admit that I need to have a social life and I am also a composer and arranger in addition to a sometime writer.  I'm also slated to get eye surgery this month so in a way I feel like I want to cram in some more composing as well as writing in this month before I get one and possibly both eyes worked on. It's nice that the Lions Club Foundation is around to help people who are more than just strapped for cash and have been told they need cataract removal surgery! 

And of course, the quest for work will continue.

HT City of God--Andy Unedited: HarperCollins Buys Thomas Nelson

About a decade ago I told a friend of mine, who was working as a temp for a Boeing subsidiary, that it bothered me that Boeing and McDonnell Douglas merged.  It bothered me because consolidation within the aerospace industry didn't seem to bode well for real competition in civil and military markets nationally.  A lack of real competition at a regional level was a problem during wartime production in Germany in World War 1.  I confess I'm not a huge scholar on World War 1 history but my brother is a WWI history buff and he told me that regional monopolies and pork barrel style deals harmed production quality in some regions during the war effort in Germany. 

Big deal, you might say here in America, we wanted the Germans to lose, right?  Well, how the so-called "peace" was brokered at the end of World War 1 had a lot to do with setting the stage for World War 2.  World War 1 was ostensibly to do, among other things, defend the British empire, which if anything arguably destroyed it.  That touches ever so slightly on an observation I made about Amaziah elsewhere on this blog about how a victory can ultimately be its own form of defeat.

Well, conslidating publishing is something people interested in a truly free press have been concerned about for decades.  Arguably there are more avenues and options now in a variety of ways than ever before but the number of "official" or "authorized" authorities within a cultulral milleu has probably not truly grown.  Stratification of "reliable" sources has often played out along ideological lines.  There are people who listen to Olbermann and other people who listen to Limbaugh.  There are people who listen to Maddow and there are people who listen to Beck.  I am not entirely sure why either side is somehow better than the other except through the wildly filtering prism of one's own ideological committments. 

Consolidation of ownership can still have its effect regardless of how many people are on the internet claiming to speak truth to power.   Then again I've seen how in a lot of cases the so-called alternative press only differs in what kind of spin they put on things being covered in the "mainstream media".   The cycle of spin and counterspin doesn't encourage me.  I suppose that's neither here nor there for the consolidation of Christian publishers in its way. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

a very short update on Lief Moi

He and his wife own and run a pizzeria in Redmond, WA called Filo's.  They make very tasty pizza.

This Protestant's Protestant sense of vocation is such that if you make good pizza that is as good an accomplishment for the kingdom of God as being a pastor. It's a better tasting experience than an hour long sermon at a very literal level.

So if you're in the Redmond, WA area tonight and would like some pizza give the place a visit.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Twelve studies in harmonics for guitar

While I keep my eyes open for job leads and work on stuff connected to pending eye surgery I can still compose music now and then, right?

I have recently finished six more studies in harmonics for guitar.  I wrote six studies in harmonics for guitar years ago and should have known I wouldn't limit myself to just six.  I completed studies 7 through 12 within the last few weeks and am refining them for eventual performance and recording.  There are not a lot of dedicated studies for the use of harmonics though there are plenty of guitarists who have made extensive use of harmonics.  My own interest in them stems from, well, having been a U2 fan in my early teens.  I've just been intrigued by the sound of harmonics on the guitar as a thing in itself.  Any musicians who have worked with me for even a short period of time will know that harmonics for stringed instruments intrigue me. 

Years ago when I was moving from temp job to temp job I came down with a terrible case of tendonitis.  It was so bad I had to get it treated as though it were carpal tunnel.  Simply holding silverware was sometimes a painful and awkward activity.  I spent months getting not particularly wonderful or personal occupational therapy treatment at a local medical facility and during that time I was exasperated that I could not play guitar the way I had before.  It was one of those times where I almost cried in frustration at not being able to play any music.  My hands had no strength to play the things I usually played. 

I was able to regain a majority of the strength in my hands over time and even went on to write what is a punishingly difficult F minor guitar sonata.  But during those months when I couldn't play in a normal way I cast about for a way to keep playing and writing guitar music despite crippling tendonitis.  Before I got tendonitis I had written what is now study #6 in harmonics for guitar from my set.  I realized that though I had lost all my grip strength and endurance I had not lost my left and right hand flexibility or agility.  So to cope with otherwise being unable to play guitar I began to compose studies in harmonics as a way to make sure I was still creating music despite my miserable handicap.  Thus studies 1 through 6 in harmonics were born over the course of years, even long after I had gotten over the damage my tendonitis caused my hands.

So now I have roughly eighteen minutes worth of material using harmonics alone.  Pieter van der Staak's studies in harmonics are fun but cover all types of uses of harmonics in guitar literature.  What I have aimed for is more specialized than that.  Because I have been playing classical guitar with a church orchestra at least once a month throughout this year studies six through twelve have been, uh, heavily informed by various hymns used in churches.  I settled on this theme for the second set of studies for two reasons, first simply to make use of traditional melodies that will make the studies easier to learn, and secondly the probably obvious motivation to compose some studies that could be used as unobtrusive music in small-scale liturgical settings. Or, you know, if you felt like playing them on an electric guitar through an amplifier that would be fine, too.  I'm not a purist about classical guitar.

I have not had the opportunity to record all twelve studies yet but I hope in time to do that.  I also hope to complete my twenty-four preludes and fugues for solo guitar, preferably before the end of this year if I can help it.