Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A quickie: "Not linking" followup...

About that post from last weekend...the ante has been upped.  Now some pastor in Kansas has apparently gone and preached that the government should round up and kill all homosexuals.  Of course Leviticus 20 is cited as justification for this.  Not linking this one either.  I suspect if you really want to see the story you wouldn't have a hard time finding it.  Or just wait for somebody on your Facebook feed to link to it.  The North Carolina pastor's electrified fence starts to sound tame by comparison.

Here's my quickie question; does this jackal preach this quite so readily, recorded and everything, if the jackal in North Carolina doesn't get all the free publicity he got?  Is it just possible that this is exactly what such people want?  Another thing I don't know: were we better off in prehistoric times (technologically speaking) with these obscure small people doing their petty bitter small thing in obscurity and the broader body of people never hearing about it, or are we better off now being reminded every other week or so that these people are out there?

Monday, May 28, 2012


My family has been generally fortunate through the generations that those of our number who have gone to war have returned when war (or that particular war) ended.  I mention this to note that there is no particularly personal sense of grievance or distress behind what follows.

Memorial Day, once known as Decoration Day, dates to the era following the Civil War.  In the wake of so much death Americans, not surprisingly, needed a way to process such loss and shock in a formalized manner; the custom of decorating graves with flowers wedded itself to a formalized observance in memory of all those who had been killed in the war, and Decoration Day was born.  Though the term Memorial Day began to appear as early as the 1880s, apparently, it was not until the twentieth century that the term "Memorial Day" overtook "Decoration Day" as the formal name of the event.  (Read the Wikipedia article for more, insofar as you trust Wikipedia.)  The musically minded may recall Charles Ives's movement from his Symphony, New England Holidays, titled "Decoration Day," marking the event as he recalled it from his childhood in his singular musical language.

Large-scale observances do mark the occasion today.  Parades, observances at cemeteries, and other formal events at various locales call forth solemn contemplation of the sacrifices of those who have died in armed combat on behalf of the United States.  One of the more worthy ceremonies in my experience is held annually at the National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial, in Kansas City.  Others take place in different locales; you may have a particular favorite of your own.

That said, there are many for whom the holiday passes with little such reflection.  Even as every year new names are added to the swelling list of those who died in war, there are still many for whom Memorial Day basically translates into "four-day weekend."  The pool finally opens, the grill finally comes out, and it's unofficially summer no matter what the calendar actually says about that season being three or more weeks off.  There is no shortage of lamentation over this neglect of one of the country's more solemn occasions, and it is not my mission to add to it here, however worthy such lament may be.

My concern is something different, something that may seem perhaps innocuous, and might even be seen as an act of patriotism by some.  Increasingly over the years, I see Memorial Day (in an unofficial sense) losing its "memorial" connotations.

It is a good and worthy thing to honor those who have served in combat and who (like most of my ancestors who fought) lived to tell about it, or not to talk about it in the case of many.  My father was a prime example.  You could not extract one word from him about his service in World War II.  He once let slip about something that happened at Guadalcanal in my presence, but then clammed up and would say no more.  At any rate, such men and women (also being added to daily) should be honored, and indeed there is a day for such observance.  It's called Veterans' Day, and it happens in November.

It seems, though, in the mind of many, that Memorial Day is, to the degree it is recalled at all, a more or less generic patriotic occasion which calls forth a sometimes-genuine, sometimes-perfunctory show of supporting the troops, particularly those still among us, without necessarily giving special regard to those who have, in Lincoln's words, given that "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf while wearing one of the uniforms of the American military.  As long as we put out a flag, or perhaps zip out some pronouncement about "those who have served..." or sing "God Bless America" or something else patriotic, we're covered.

Increasingly, my heart screams NO!  Dammit, no.

Somehow, some way, we must make Memorial Day truly Memorial Day.  It is desperately necessary that we rededicate the holiday to marking indelibly upon our memories those men and women who have knowingly put themselves in harm's way for the sake of the United States of America, and paid a price from which they do not return.  They deserve that much.  We are too often and too willingly far less of a country than their sacrifice deserves.  Can we not do this much?

Or do we not want to face what a truly Memorial Day would mean?  Do we not want to face the unalterable consequences of our "warring madness," in the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick's hymn?  For this is always the price, even of the "good wars" or "just wars" our country may fight.  Even the Spanish-American War, blip on the historical radar that it was, cost somebody their son or their husband or their father.  How many did not come home from World War II, possibly the most unavoidable war our country has fought (other than perhaps the Civil War)?  It will always be thus, as long as humans stride pridefully about this planet nursing grudges or feeling compelled to prove they're "tough."  Wars will kill, and will not discriminate among the "good guys" and the "bad guys."  And someone's husband, someone's sister, someone's child will not come home.

Can we do this?  Can we, even if only one day a year, at least try to be worth the profound and unanswerable sacrifice they have made?  Can we look at their lives, their service, their deaths squarely and face that this is what it means and will always mean when we go to war?  Can we honor that fact directly, and honor their service and the howling loss their families learned to know, without averting our eyes or looking for some other thing to rouse up our patriotic spirit?  Can we simply let "Taps" play, let the tears fall, and resolve finally to be worth it?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Not linking to the hate people

I am fully aware that this blog is not a high-traffic site.  Frankly, I'm o.k. with that.  I'm certainly not doing it for the money, and I'm not really in it for the reputation boost either.  Way back in this blog, somewhere in the year-and-a-month I've been spilling here, I admitted that as much as anything the exercise in writing less like an academic and more like, well, a non-academic was important enough to me to pursue the project no matter how much or how little attention it got.  That still holds true.

I suppose if I were looking for more traffic one thing I'd need to do is to jump on the "big stories" a little more assiduously when they arise.  For the most part I've not done this, as the five of you who read regularly might notice.  There are quite a few reasons for this, and recent events have prompted me to chew these reasons over in my mind and reflect.

Just one state south of here, the recent vote on Amendment One in North Carolina, voting to outlaw gay marriage (which was already against the law in that state) by means of constitutional amendment as opposed to mere legal statute, touched off plenty of commentary from both directions.  (The way I just described the event probably tells you enough to guess how I felt about it.)  As virtually everyone who would ever read so obscure a blog as this probably already knows, the amendment passed by a wide margin despite being so widely reviled that even one of its original proponents ultimately decided to vote against it.  Much more commentary issued forth after the vote, many North Carolinians of my acquaintance found reason to be regretful of their citizenship, and so forth.  When President Obama weighed in the day or so after with his support of legalized marriage for homosexuals, the issue of course caught fresh wind, with more news commentaries and denunciations piling on one after another.

For some, apparently, denunciation of gays or of the President wasn't enough.  One of the "viral" videos of the past week or so, one in which the old connotation of "viral" with sickness and corruption seems particularly apt, is of a pastor of a North Carolina church who expresses, in a sermon I gather, his particular revulsion to homosexuals in rather vicious terms.  He also offered his personal solution to the "problem" of gays and lesbians in America; round them up in barbed-wire electric fences until they die off due to lack of reproduction.  (The sheer muddle-mindedness of this thinking is a subject for another time, since plenty of gay people are born to straight people...oy, just trying to describe the wrongness of this train of thought is mind-bending.)

You don't have to be a history major to pick up some extremely disturbing historical reference points.  This is Final Solution territory.  To be fair, this alleged pastor didn't go so far as to propose gas chambers, and he even allowed that the lesbians in their pen and the queers in their pen should be fed, so I suppose there must be some smoldering ember of mercy in that alleged heart somewhere.  I suppose this alleged pastor would prefer that I refer to, say, the "resettlement" camps in which Japanese-Americans were detained during WWII in the United States.  But I don't think that applies so well; his stated intention for his electric-fence facility is that the lesbians and queers 'die off,' right?  So no, I have no intention of softening my language; this human being (at least human in form, I cannot vouch for the state of his human soul at this point) wants to put other people in concentration camps because he hates them for their sexual orientation.

I have not blogged about this, for a couple of reasons.  One is simply that others have done so much more effectively than I could possibly hope to do.  One such example is linked here, just in case you want more detail than I'm providing.  Another reason is that, frankly, I'm uncomfortable enough with the whole blogging business even after a year-plus at it that I frankly don't want to give this alleged pastor any more attention than he is already getting (and no doubt lapping up like a starving cat in front of a bowl of milk).  You have no doubt noticed that I've not even called this alleged pastor by his name, and certainly haven't included any link to the offending video.  I frankly can't stand to be part of the publicity express for this horror.  I'm giving him too much press as it is, and that's with only five people expected to read this entry.

The final reason I don't blog something like this is more personal.

When this business first started bubbling up and the content of this so-called sermon became clear, I couldn't get my mind off of I John 4:20:  Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  (NRSV)  4:8 is also good: Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  There's also verse eighteen, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  The latter is the most charitable, I suppose, speaking of fear rather than hatred, and allowing that love is not perfected in the one who fears, rather than using strong words like "hate" and "liar" that get people all nervous and agitated, no matter how much more accurate they may be.  I want to ask this alleged pastor, "How do you answer?  How do you claim to love God and yet spew so much hatred for those who are just as much created as God as you are (which makes them your brothers and sisters, unless you're going to commit the heresy of claiming that some other being besides God has the power to create life)?  How do you dare preach fear instead of love?"  I John may not be a big book, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored.  And this alleged pastor, and I have to say "alleged" because his actions here simply do not merit the title "pastor," seems to have cut it out of his New Testament.

With all these thoughts burbling about in my head, here's where the personal risk comes:  I want to hate this guy.  I want to see this thing drowned in his own bile, condemned straight to Hell without benefit of dying (and as a member of a mainline denomination I'm not even supposed to believe in Hell, right?), consigned to the fieriest Lake of Fire imaginable, far beyond the power of Hollywood's best special-effects teams, beyond the fevered imaginations of medieval monks or Puritan evangelists.

And you see?  That leaves me just as much under the condemnation of I John as this alleged pastor.

I don't necessarily buy everything that John Calvin sells, but on one point we are in firm agreement; a human being just isn't going to be inherently "good" in this world.  "Being good" simply isn't going to happen without some ministration of God.  I probably allow for a broader definition of that idea of God's help than Calvin would; direct divine intervention, the example of Christ, the moving of the Holy Spirit, the teaching of scripture, the influence of another person ministered to in such manner ... God may aid us in "being good" in ways we might never recognize but we just ain't getting there without that help. Perhaps my more optimistic friends in the world will tut-tut at me for being so hopelessly out of date.  I simply say, "Look around.  Read your newspaper.  Turn on your television, if you dare.  Explain to me how this is the work of the inherently good.  Get that weak sauce outta my face."  And you better believe even those who claim the title "Christian" are subject to this inherent non-goodness the moment they put anything between themselves and the inherent love-ness of God.

And frankly, I'm a fragile enough disciple that I can't afford to let this alleged pastor get between me and the inherent love-ness of God.  The author of the above-linked opinion column manages to describe himself as "disgusted with and praying for" the person in question; I can match the disgust easily enough, but I'm going to need a lot of God's help to get to the "praying for" part, after no more than spilling out this meandering post.  I don't have the detachment to go there at this point.  What he said and evidently feels is wrong, wrong, wrong; I'm still struggling with being able to say this in love.

So, you aren't likely to see a lot of "trendy" topics here; maybe a few, but not many, and not extensively.  And this blog will continue to get minimal traffic, until this hosting site decides I'm an embarrassment and boots me.  And I will not lose sleep over this fact.

The pulpit is going to be a challenge, to be sure.  One has to be able to name those things in the world, be they people or systems or actions, that oppress and demean and separate from God.  One can't collapse into hate in doing so.  Help me, Lord.

Lord, help me.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

The signpost

The death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau earlier this week sent me looking for recordings and YouTube clips of the great singer of Lieder (for the uninitiated: a German word for "song," typically used in reference to art songs by composers such as Franz Schubert), like probably millions of other lovers of song.  Where I finally landed for sharing purposes was with this clip of Fischer-Dieskau singing "Der Wegweiser," the twentieth selection in the cycle Winterreise ("Winter's journey").

Winterreise, like Schubert's other great cycle Die schöne Mullerin ("the miller's beautiful daughter"), is developed from poems by Wilhelm Müller, a distinctly minor poet except for the fact that Schubert set so much of his poetry and gave it an immortality beyond its merits.  (One translation of the whole cycle is here, for what it's worth; you have to go down the page a ways to find "Der Wegweiser," which he translates as "the guide-post.")

Though much of the first half of the cycle is taken up with love found, lost, and renounced as the poet sets out on his winter's journey, by the time "Der Wegweiser" arrives the lost love is mostly forgotten; the journey has taken on its own relentless, implacable logic.  At this point in the cycle Schubert (who arranged the texts in an order not necessarily Müller's) confronts this drive.  In the translation by Gerald Mackworth-Young that is found in the trusty International Music Company edition of the cycle, the questioning nature of the poet's consideration is maintained through the first two stanzas (the translator of the version linked above abandons the interrogative found in Müller's second stanza).  "Why do I avoid the ways that other travellers tread...? ... .  What foolish longing drives me into deserted wastes?"  The final two stanzas answer without answering, at least not fully, as the poet acknowledges the signposts pointing to nice comfy towns along the way, but follows only the one signpost, "one road I must travel, a road along which none have returned."

How Schubert handles these verses, which could easily sound rather fatuous in a William-Shatner-"singing"-"MacArthur Park" manner, is where music becomes more than a cold bunch of notes.  I could play the program annotator for you, but not until you hear it for yourself: go click that link above, and the blog will be waiting for you when you get done.

Done?  Good.

Though the verses are of the same poetic structure, you'll note that Schubert gives each stanza a distinct and individual sonic physiognomy; from the minor-key first stanza to what at first seems a stereotypical brightening to major for the second, only to be diverted most harshly into a minor even more pensive and questioning than the first.  The third reverses that procedure, from minor to major via another expressive outburst.  The fourth stanza is a masterpiece of much out of little; the melody turns static, before a simple series of ascending gestures at unexpected melodic intervals generates one last moment, not of pensiveness or despair, but of something like resolve or even determination.  A truncated repeat of the final stanza closes the song.  In between these verses Schubert creates at least as much tension as in the stanzas, frequently by means of nothing more complicated than a repeated note, an insistent pattern of simple yet demanding straight eighth notes.

All in all, Schubert has invested the poem with the weight, the substance, the very sense of resignation and anguish and resolution that Müller could only suggest.  Others may have more regard for the poet's contribution, and I'll certainly agree that this is one of his better poems, but of its own substance it simply doesn't have that same power.  Schubert elevates the poem with his music, to a degree hard to explain or imagine.

Skilled musicians can do that.  Schubert did that for a lot of poets, some of whom (like Müller) needed more elevating than others (Goethe, for example, also set frequently by Schubert).  Add the vocal and interpretive prowess of a singer like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the result approaches transcendence.  Music can do that.

Sadly, music can also do the opposite.  Words that have power and substance and meaning can be rendered trite and inconsequential when shackled to trivial and hackneyed and petty music, or interpreted by a musician with, say, more concern for flash than substance.  I must confess that the church has had a bad historical habit of the latter, a habit which shows no signs of going away anytime soon.  Whether it is the overwrought rendering of the words of the Mass into a decidedly secular spectacle to please a princely patron or the factory-style churning out of popular songs designed more to push the listener's emotional tickle buttons than to challenge or provoke that listener to repent of something, or shut up and listen for God, or (God forbid!) to get up off his or her keister and go live like Christ, sacred words have a significant history of being dumbed down by the wrong music, or by the wrong musicians, or both.  A listener gets used to that, and pretty soon they don't -- nay, can't -- recognize its opposite when they hear it.

Clearly I never mastered "Der Wegweiser."  I got through it on my senior recital (I truly hope there are no copies of that floating around anywhere!), but that's as much as I'd allow.  Yet it sticks in my head to this day as a favorite example of what music can do to words.  I suppose one of my greatest fears about this fool's errand I'm on is how much I'll miss this particular power of music, and how much I'll be subjected to its opposite.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Another semester down, rest of a lifetime to go...

With one last exam written Thursday and emailed Friday, another round of my seminarian fool's errand is in the books.  I'm not making any promises that anything written on any exam this week is so wonderful or transformative that the church will be reformed by it (although there is one sentence on my New Testament final of which I am inordinately proud), but the task is done, and I can't come up with anything on any of the exams that will cause Union Presbyterian Seminary to revoke my scholarship and ask me to leave the school.  So, for the moment we'll call it good.

This is only a brief respite.  Union offers three days devoted to the Sprunt Lectures but launches its May term the day after.  I'm signed up for a class on the theology and ethics of food.  My curiosity factor is quite high, which is always a good way to start a class.

While not wanting to dismiss the life-changing possibilities of the May class, I inevitably am drawn to wonder what of this year's study is going to stay with me the longest or change me the most.  Of course for someone in my spot that question is almost impossible to answer.  Everything is changing me the most.  Still, a few things do stand out at the moment.  I will never look at the parable of the prodigal son(s) the same way again; the NT exercise of looking at it with certain Middle Eastern cultural perspectives foregrounded makes that story a dramatically different one.  Similarly, pretty much the entire Pauline corpus of letters (at least those that can be attributed to Paul with the most confidence) looks different now.  I have some clue about Calvin now, and I actually know who Schleiermacher is (while I may appreciate his musicality, I don't necessarily swallow his theology), and I'm reasonably sure I'm not a process theologian.  All three of those theological points of reference were quite beyond me a year ago at this time.  And I now know enough church history to state that no matter what it may look like to you, this is hardly a low point in the history of the Christian church, not for anyone but the numbers-obsessed.  And yes, I can sort of hack my way through biblical Greek, enough to get in trouble anyway.  (As far as January's course in Celtic Christianity, I can say I really, really, really want to go to Ireland and explore, and maybe a little of Scotland too, but that was already the case; the reasons are just a little different now.)

Of course, a number of classmates and friends are soon to graduate (thankfully, several more are sticking around for another year or two), and they serve to remind me that I may have jumped from one career with a tight job market to a new calling with an impossible job market.  (Yes, musicologists, my prospects are probably bleaker in this field than they ever were in musicology.)  Well, I didn't pursue this fool's errand for the job security.  And I don't call this a fool's errand for nothing.

Perhaps the one thing that has changed most, or at least has surprised me most, is the degree to which a particular creative streak might just have opened up in me.  A couple of products of that have appeared in this blog; a hymn text on the Lord's Prayer and a ... what? monologue? on Ananias.  Actually there are a couple of other bits there, enough that I created a "hopefully creative things" label for some of these entries.  They represent, however, only a small part of it, perhaps a little more than "the tip of the iceberg" suggests, but the cliche still gives you the basic idea.

There are people out there who might read this blog, you know, if they have nothing better to do, who would call b.s. on me if I said I was not a creative person.  Those people, however, mostly knew me twenty-five or thirty years ago.  It's been an extremely long time since I did anything like that for any audience at all, or indeed for any other purpose than my own private amusement.  And maybe that's all it is now, though perhaps I might call it a private "devotional exercise" rather than "amusement."  After all, wouldn't it be pretty arrogant of me to think that such stuff is going to be of any interest to anyone besides myself?

Then again, writing this blog is pretty darn arrogant by those standards.  Not to mention the whole exercise of thinking I have anything to offer the church in the role of teaching elder.

So here I am, having got a handle on many things after most of a year's work at Union, and yet feeling perhaps less certain of what I'm about here, or just what exactly my "calling" really is even as I am more convinced than ever that it is.  For the moment, I am going to go with the idea that maybe that's a good thing.  Why not?  The crazy and unpredictable has been working out so far, might as well go with it.