Tuesday, January 31, 2012

That new profile picture

While I have a fairly substantial background in music, my experience with and knowledge of the visual arts is far less substantial, though not altogether void.  Though I certainly knew of Caravaggio before and had seen images of some of his works, I confess I had not seen or heard of The Calling of St. Matthew before it came up, of all places, in theology class this last fall.  It has stuck in my head since then, and maybe even told me a little about myself.

The painting is one of those in which Caravaggio plays light and darkness against one another to great effect (chiaroscuro, to use the fancy art word).  Again, I'm no expert, but that appeals to me as one who finds much revelation in great contrasts in almost any art form; this is probably why one of my favorite moments in all of music is that moment when the third movement of Saint-Saens's "Organ" Symphony fades to almost-nothingness before the organ crashes in to inaugurate the finale.  Here, the light streaming from the window, from behind the figure of Christ in the painting, seems to divide the scene in two, catching the figure often presumed to be Matthew flush in the face as he sits at the counting table. Other figures surround the table, not acknowledging the light or the figure of Christ as this one figure seems to do.

It is an interesting way to think about this business of "calling."  I confess I don't really like that word, mostly because it is too often and too casually paired with the word "higher" in regard to the vocation I am now pursuing.  As bizarre and maybe even heretical as it may sound to some readers (of the two or three out there), I did not leave academic musicology to pursue a "higher calling"; I left academic musicology to pursue the vocation of ordained pastoral ministry.  I guess I follow John Calvin in insisting that the latter is not necessarily elevated over the former.  Calling, yes; "higher calling" no.

What has most played on my mind, though, is the light/dark dichotomy.  Though the shaft of light cuts through the room, the rest of the room is not opaque to the eye; we can see all sorts of figures in the room.  Actually, the most obscured figure is Christ, quite hidden in shadow just below the light shaft.  But it strikes me that Matthew, as seen in the painting, was not sitting glumly at his table bemoaning the darkness before that light shaft broke through.  Most likely he was simply counting the money, as his job required.  Only after that light broke in, probably causing him to squint and cover his eyes at first, did Matthew have any inkling of how dark the room was.  Yeah, Matthew, I hear you; that light makes everything look so different.  You never get to see things the same way anymore, and you don't get to go back anymore.  It is life-changing light, with Christ beckoning there from the shadows.

That shaft of light brought something entirely different into his sight.  The surprise is evident in his face; and oh, that hand...is he pointing at himself -- "who, me?" -- or maybe pointing at the fellow next to him -- "surely you'd rather have him, right?"  Either way, I can relate.

There are many people to whom I could point who are far more attractive, far more outgoing, far more generally appealing than I.  I can write, but there are far better writers than I; I can speak, but there are far better speakers than I.  I don't make friends easily, I don't thrive in large crowds (except as a wallflower, watching what happens), I'd just as soon not be the center of attention, and I don't much care for being the "boss."  Surely You mean to call that handsome fellow, that warmly welcoming young woman, that dynamic speaker, profound writer, natural leader, any of them before me?  Who, me?  Why me?  

And yet here I am.  Staring at a rather daunting gauntlet of Theology/New Testament/History of Christianity again, with Spiritual Formation thrown in; starting to get a little numb from drilling for the Bible Content exam this Friday; desperately seeking some supplemental financial aid sources for seminary for next year; lots of stuff piling in, as is the case for pretty much any seminarian, but not what I was prepared or preparing for not so long ago at this time.  My student skills are definitely rusty, though they are slowly "loosening up," I guess.  Yeah, I can do it, but clearly there are so many people who could do it better.

But here I am.  That shaft of light caught me, and I can no longer see things the way I saw them before; the light has changed forever, and I guess my eyes have too.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Let's do it again...

Vacations are a very good thing.  We managed to slip one in this past week, rather serendipitously, thanks to a lot of gifts and coincidences and such that meant we really didn't have to pay for that much of it.  Some, mind you, but by no means the usual financial commitment required for a full vacation.  I am refreshed, perhaps even more so than usual; the crowds at Disney World didn't even turn annoying until the last night of our stay.

But vacations, as do all good things, come to an end, and indeed it's time to wind up and start again.  The spring term begins tomorrow, and I've given myself a real cracker of a schedule.  Three full classes on Mondays.  All the worst stereotypes about that day of the week will be the essence of my schedule from now to late April or early May.  For all that, though, no classes on Friday.  Scheduling is odd around here in some ways.  But I shall survive.

Even as the new term starts I'm still processing things learned and encountered in previous terms.  There was an earlier entry that touched on my experience in Celtic Christianity, as a January course; I'm still trying to sort out what significance that may have, even as some writers seem to suggest that the whole phenomenon may have run its course.  Theology, New Testament, and History of Christianity, parts two, await me tomorrow and for the next three months.  I just hope I haven't forgotten anything crucial from parts one of those courses.  I also have a small course called Spiritual Formation, which promises to be different from the rest of the schedule at least, as well as the seminary choir which provides some small link to my musical days.

Even with a language school, full term, and short term completed, I still feel a bit rookie-ish at this whole M.Div. business.  For all I know I may feel that way even up to and beyond graduation.  But I suppose I am starting to get a grip on what I need to look for going forward.  Internships are still some distance in the future, but I may be starting to begin to figure out, at least a little bit, what I might need to do in that process.  I'm only partly clueless, you might say, as opposed to my prior condition of being completely clueless.

We've been able to visit a few more churches, which has been a rather illuminating experience.  Slowly we are adding more contacts in the area, acquaintances who might turn out to be friends.  Slowly we are figuring out what's what in this area.

The future, as usual, looks partly cloudy to those with eyes to see.  No one ever passes up a chance to point out that the denomination has way more ministers and potential ministers than it does churches (perhaps even to a greater degree than my former discipline of musicology, the imbalance is severe between qualified candidates and employment opportunities), and of course churches will be hemorrhaging away to the latest splinter group of Presbyterians (discussed in the last quickie post) and reducing the field even more.  Ah, well, uncertainly is hardly new in my life.

There's really nothing new or earth-shaking to say at the moment, but starting up a new term prompts some taking stock in where things stand.  I am going forward, even if the way ahead remains hazy sometimes.  And still, perhaps with less euphoria but more depth, I know myself to be in the right place and doing the right thing.  And this is good.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A quickie: Order?

I am certain that smarter people than I have and will exegete the latest splinter group off of PC(USA) and its intentions.  Myself, I'm rather curious about their chosen name: the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians.  (ECOP?)


I'm trying to think of what it means when a group like this calls itself an "order" instead of, say, I dunno, "church" or "convention" or what have you.

So, to rack my brain briefly: what other uses of "order" in such context, as the name of a group (not necessarily religious, I suppose, but certainly can be) come to me off the top of my head?

The Order of the Phoenix -- my first Harry Potter reference in the blog, I think, but maybe not.  Yet, as far as I can see, it's ECOP which is more obsessed with purity in this case, which would be the reverse of how things were in the Potter movies--it was the foes of the Order of the Phoenix who wanted to purge out humans, "mudbloods" and other impure types.

The Order of Kappa Alpha -- no mere fraternity, mind you, not like your mere Sigma Chi Omega or Delta Kappa Epsilon or whatever.  These are also the guys who get all excited about Robert E. Lee and such.  Hmm.

The Order of the Knights Templar -- one of many such orders in medieval Christianity.  A military order, heavily invested in the Crusades.  Also found in modern freemasonry, and was this term also tied up and appropriated in those goofy Dan Brown books, or was that something else?  Hmmmmm.

The Order of Lenin -- that was a medal, which I only remember from a line in The Hunt for Red October.  But I suppose it would have referred to the company of those who had received that honor, yes?

Order of the Eastern Star -- a fraternal organization, vaguely Mason-related as far as I can tell, but I do remember they once gave me a grant for college.

OK, so maybe not that much help.  But I have this stubborn idea that words mean things, and I cannot but insist that this particular choice of word for this group denotes something about it, that perhaps its members themselves may not even realize.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Take Thou our minds, dear Lord

I rarely bother to make lists or even attempt to name any of my favorite hymns, simply because depending on the circumstance or occasion such a list would be changing weekly or maybe even more frequently.  During Lent, for example, I get caught up in such hymns as "My song is love unknown" or of course "O sacred head, now wounded," whereas after Easter something like "The strife is o'er" or the Brian Wren hymn "Christ is alive!" takes over. Other occasions or events, liturgical or more personal, will bring other hymns to mind.  For that period of time, that hymn will for all practical purposes be my "favorite."

A few, though, manage to maintain a general state of presence in my consciousness when I think of hymns.  (Yes, I think about hymns, even when I don't have to.  I am weird, and I'm pretty comfortable with that by now.)  One of those is a hymn that may not be all that familiar to some, but has stayed with me fairly strongly since first singing it at, I think, First Presbyterian in Tallahassee (bless you, Michael Corzine and Brant Copeland).  For those with Presbyterian hymnals it can be found at #392, "Take Thou our minds, dear Lord."

It follows a fairly common pattern in which the singer invites the Lord to be Lord over the multiple aspects of life -- mind, heart, will, self -- over the course of its stanzas.  It's a good corporate text -- full of 'we' and 'us' instead of 'me' and 'I' -- and builds up to an appropriate climax as the singers promise to "hear, and henceforth heed, Thy sovereign call."

It was written in 1918 and sounds like it, or perhaps sounds even older; 'thee,' 'thy,' and 'thou' are prevalent throughout.  The tune with which it is paired, simply called HALL, is a fairly stately one and flavored with the occasional bit of quasi-Romantic chromaticism.  Nothing terribly difficult waits to ambush a congregation that sings it.

While I do remember singing it back then, it seems to have become more scarce in later years, though I don't always trust my memory on such things.  It does seem to be overshadowed by the hymn that lies just ahead of it in the Presbyterian book, "Take my life and let it be," a text thirty-four years older which follows a similar pattern of yielding the various facets of self to Christ's will.  The tune (HENDON) perhaps moves a bit more, although the harmonic rhythm is actually slower at times.  For whatever reason, though, "Take my life" shows up a lot more than "Take Thou our minds."

Somehow I've come to prefer the later hymn.  It wasn't even a conscious choice as far as I know; I've never (before now) sat down and pondered why all things being equal I'd rather sing "Take Thou our minds" than "Take my life."  Maybe it's because "Take Thou our minds" is newer to me; I've known the text to "Take my life" since childhood, although more frequently to a different tune than HENDON.  Maybe it's the practical consideration of the older hymn's six stanzas versus four included in the PH for the newer text.

Or maybe it's something else.

As I consider it today, for some reason, it occurs to me that in the later hymn, the first thing yielded is our minds.  And it strikes me that for many, many Christians, the mind is the absolute last thing anyone wants to give over.

I dare say this isn't a unified phenomenon.  Why this should be such an unnerving concept for the Christian isn't hard to compute.  I'd guess there are several disparate motivations.

Perhaps there's the fear that such a prayer -- "take Thou our minds" -- will put us in the position of being somehow anti-intellectual, maybe even in ways that might be embarrassing.  We don't want to seem so retrograde.  We don't want to come off like Westboro Baptist "Church" in Topeka, or some other mindless bunch of haters.  Or short of that, but still very unsettling, we might somehow be lumped in wrongly with those evolution-denying types or some other equally dumb-sounding bunch.  Can't have that.  Better keep control of our minds so we can avoid that.

Perhaps there's the fear that such a prayer might lead us to give up things we don't want to give up.  It's all well and good to give of our time, our financial resources, our abilities, our emotions, our affections; we can still reserve our little pet indulgences off to the side.  Give up our minds, though, and we might just have to face that our pet indulgences, our pet rationalizations that allow us to do whatever we want in our "own time" with minds, monies, bodies, etc. won't stand up to even a millisecond's critical reflection.  Can't have that.  Better keep control of our minds so we can avoid that.

Perhaps there's the fear that "take Thou our minds" as a prayer will really, more than any of the other aspects of our lives we might offer up to God, will lead to the most unbearable, most unthinkable loss of all; the loss of control, the loss of being "our own man" or "our own woman"; an autonomous individual who judiciously approves of giving x amount of our time, this particular ability or talent, and y percent of our money to a particular church that won't embarrass us or demand too much of us.  If we go that far who knows what might happen?  We might have to change our minds about some things.  We might figure out, much to our own displeasure, that our job or our social circle or our boyfriend or girlfriend or political affiliations or passion for sports or who knows what is standing between us and the fulness of what God would have us be.  Worst of all, we might even be forced to walk away from a perfectly happy career and do something really foolish, like go to seminary.  (OK, so maybe there are other reasons this hymn has been on my mind for a while.  And yes, there are probably worse things.)  Can't have that.  Better keep control of our minds so we can avoid that.

The full first stanza of "Take Thou our minds, dear Lord":

Take Thou our minds, dear Lord, we humbly pray;
Give us the mind of Christ each passing day;
Teach us to know the truth that sets us free;
Grant us in all our thoughts to honor thee.

To have the mind of Christ, day in and day out.  To honor God in all our thoughts.  Amazing, powerful, joyous, terrifying prospects those are.  Over the centuries of Christianity men and women have gone to fearsome lengths to strive for that condition, to achieve such closeness of communion with the Divine.  The monastic life, hermitage, the asceticism of the desert, and even more things some of which are fairly awful to contemplate, all striving to set the thoughts of the world aside and take on the mind (and heart and soul and will) of Christ.

To live, not off in the desert or some other hermitage or isolation, but in the noisy and combative world, the get-rich-or-kill-trying world where the common mind is so clearly and painfully not of Christ, to live in that world with the mind of Christ seems so far beyond impossible as to be pathetic.  Yet there it is, an insane and life-risking prayer as plain as day in the very first stanza of a humble little hymn.

Take Thou our minds, dear Lord, we humbly pray;
Give us the mind of Christ each passing day;
Teach us to know the truth that sets us free;
Grant us in all our thoughts to honor thee.

(And after all this, I'm probably going to find out that the hymn will be getting cut from the upcoming new Presbyterian hymnal.  Wouldn't that just about be the way it goes?)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Small thoughts on nationalism (in religion, in music)

So this January I'm taking a class called "Celtic Christianity."  After a couple of classes' worth of historical (so to speak) background, most of the rest of the class (all six meetings remaining--January term classes are quite brief) will deal with the literature that arose out of those mostly ancient centuries in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the intervening small islands like Iona; poetry, devotional writings, liturgy, and the like.

Of course, one of the great questions hanging over the reading and discussion so far is a rather ominous one: "is there really any such thing as 'Celtic Christianity'?"  That is to ask, is there anything distinct and separate about the evolution of the Christian tradition in those regions as opposed to its various progressions and regressions on the continent proper, or even in Britain?  Is there a different theology, a different mode of organization, a different practice in any way?

On some level there are certainly differences.  For much of this period the island known now as Ireland was largely bereft of towns; without a town and its attendant church, where does one install a bishop?  Other distinctions are a bit foggier, and the foggier things like theology or devotional practice are, the easier they are for modern scholars or devotionalists or such to project their own particular interests or desires or biases upon it.  More on that later.

But back to that question.  Is there any such thing as 'Celtic Christianity'?  What kind of way is that to start a class?  What was going on about that that bugged me?

It took a couple of days to figure out that the question was hardly unique.  In fact, I can say not only that I've taken such a class before, I've taught such a class before.

Is there any such thing as 'Celtic Christianity'?

Is there any such thing as 'American music'?

Duh.  I was hearing a faint echo of a rather substantial theme of my previous professional life.  It worked a little bit differently, but that question was one that caused no small amount of vexation to me.

In my musicological career much of my academic interest and research was focused on a composer named George Chadwick.  Born in 1854, he engaged in what studies he could in Boston before going to Germany for studies in Leipzig and Munich, the latter with Joseph Rheinberger, a composer of some repute in the late nineteenth century.  Returning to Boston, Chadwick first taught privately before joining the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, of which he became director in 1897.  Aside from his thirty-three year career as director of that distinguished institution (which owes much to his oversight), he made a reputation for himself as a composer in the 1880s and 90s, and over into the twentieth century as well, before his reputation was largely washed away in the post-World War I years as a different, more self-consciously "modern" generation swept in and American classical music as a whole engaged in a remarkable reputational patricide against Chadwick and his contemporaries.  His orchestral works are strongest, including his second and third symphonies and the Symphonic Sketches, a symphony in everything but name (and a work which has its own idea about what "American music" might be), but his fourth and fifth string quartets are also quite strong (it is criminal to this day that string quartets in this country don't know and play the fourth regularly).

The problem with doing much research (including a dissertation) on someone like Chadwick is that in the realm of American music in academia, you start off not only with two strikes against you, but with one arm tied behind your back in the batter's box and your bat sawn in two.  No matter what the music itself might say (and Chadwick was as changeable as any composer stylistically), the man was rather consistently excluded even from being considered an identifiably "American" composer by a rather large chunk of The Powers That Be in musicological circles.  Things are not quite that bad anymore in musicology (and I hope I played some part in that, no matter how infinitesimal), but there's still a good bit of bias against the man as far as being "American" is concerned.

More to the point, very little dent has yet been made where it counts; in the realm of performance.  Were you to take a survey of conductors of American orchestras, asking for their lists of worthwhile (I'm not even asking for 'major' here, just worth playing on occasion) American composers, you'd go a very long time before Chadwick's name came up, most likely.  (I won't spend time trying to argue the merits or 'Americanness' of Chadwick; I simply invite you to go find Symphonic Sketches and give it a good listen--it's easily enough found on iTunes or a service like Pandora.)

What I found in that experience was that the idea of "American music," far from being a broad and inclusive category, was for an awful lot of people a means of drawing rigid boundaries and excluding music that doesn't match up with a particular person's or institution's idea of 'American music.'  For some the only 'American music' is jazz.  Hard to argue against jazz as being an American music, but is it really the only music which counts in the American experience?  (I hope no one who ever took the class with me thinks that!)  In the classical realm, the label becomes a means of leaving out composers who were insufficiently modern or experimental or "mavericky"; Aaron Copland is ultra-American, of course, and Charles Ives is about as "mavericky" as you can get and therefore very American, and George Gershwin with his jazzish and early Broadway influences is oh so American, and so forth and so on.  Later composers who toiled mightily in the field of music in America simply didn't write 'American music' if their style didn't line up with one or the other of those, or whoever was the particular talisman of that critic or conductor or institution.  Howard Hanson?  Forget it.  Samuel Barber (who I'm coming to believe was a rather spiritually sensitive composer, when he chose to be)? Pfft.  And someone like Chadwick?  Easily brushed aside as a hopelessly old-fashioned Romantic.  Thus 'American music' becomes a means of limiting and narrowing the field, rather than broadening and encouraging scholarship or performance or exploration of any sort.

So, having figured out my particular post-traumatic flashback, I'm now left to wonder how such labeling works in the theological sphere.  Is there some way in which 'Celtic Christianity' is a label for leaving someone or something out?  I've already alluded above to a recognized facility for the label to take on the projections of modern revivalists.  Modern Christians of an ecological bent find a great interest in and relationship with nature among the writings and lives of the saints of Celtic lore, for example.

Projection is one thing; exclusion or exclusivity is quite another.  It's one thing for Chadwick's musical reputation to get wiped out; it's quite another for Christians to find yet another way of dividing themselves.  Lord knows (quite literally) there's quite enough of that.

There are a couple of churches in the Richmond area that offer 'Celtic' worship services.  I will have to check them out, of course, for more reasons than I might have expected.  Still, I suppose I have two ways I can react to this bit of self-realization I've experienced this weekend; I can either proceed with what we shall call heightened awareness into this brief exploration of Celtic Christianity, cautious to see just what people really mean to do with this label; or I can acknowledge another way in which my previous career has uniquely prepared me for this new fool's errand.

Or I can be really cheeky and do both.
                                                George Whitefield Chadwick