Friday, January 31, 2014

The (fill in the blank) is dying!

If you slide down the front page of this blog to the mini-biography it displays, you'll discover (or be reminded) that I'm a musicologist by training, who walked away from a perfectly happy career in academia to set off on this fool's errand.  I have no regrets about doing so, even as I also assert the seemingly contradictory assertion that I loved that particular vocation.  To be clear, there's plenty about academia that any academic could happily do without, much as there is plenty about the church vocations that any pastor or any other staff member would just as soon skip.  Still, I freely acknowledge that but for this swerve I'd have been quite content to live out my days in Lawrence, Kansas, getting fat and happy teaching and writing and hopefully lasting long enough to be able to afford tickets to Kansas Jayhawks basketball games.

One of the oddly amusing aspects of this swerve (except when it's no longer amusing) is the degree to which I seem to have traded one dying field for another.

*Note: though plenty of musicologists work in other musics besides classical, for this post I'm placing  myself within the framework of the classical music tradition.  It was where my research resided, it was most of what I taught, and put most simply, it was my first love.  

See, Mozart still lives!

It is something of a sport among cultural critics to proclaim the death, either present or imminent, of classical music.  Whether in the New York Times or The New Yorker or The New Republic, somebody desperately seeking a way to fill column inches decides to whip out the latest round of ugly-looking statistics and proclaim in tut-tutting tones The Death Of Classical Music.  The latest round, possibly set off by declining attendance numbers at the Metropolitan Opera (or perhaps predating those stats? I'm not entirely sure), appeared in the online magazine Slate, authored by someone named Mark Vanhoenacker, frankly added nothing new to the argument.  Stats were cited with due reverence, anecdotal evidence was elevated to the level of holy writ, blah blah blah.  This of course touched off the predictable volley of rebuttals to the presumed thesis; one of the more interesting appeared in The New Yorker, posted by one William Robin, which if nothing else appropriated the clever quote from Charles Rosen ("The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition") and a fun visual aid, depicting various examples of classical music's presumed death throes through the ages, all the way back to 1324, before classical music, technically, existed.  It was dying before it was born!

The volley of articles of course is in turn filled out by panicked Facebook statuses and tweets, which provoke rebuttal Facebook comments and tweets, which in turn provoke oh-so-self-righteous defenses of the classical-is-dying claim, and so on and so on.  Eventually you're better off just popping in a CD or calling up iTunes and listening to some actual music.

I kid because I care.  This is perhaps not quite perennial, but pretty routine in the classical music field, and it is necessarily (and properly) part of the warning anyone who wants to study classical music, whether with ambitions to be a performer or teacher or researcher, needs to hear before making that commitment.  Indeed, one could argue that my departure from the field was in its own way a favor to some young rising musicologist who could make the move to a tenurable post at one of the better music schools in the country.  (You're welcome.)

I also kid because, as it turns out, I didn't really escape the narrative by pursuing this fool's errand; the terms merely changed.

In case you haven't heard, the church is dying.  You can hear it from the likes of neo-Calvinist (why don't we just call these people fundamentalists and be done with it?) Mark Driscoll; a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who foresees Christianity eradicated in Britain within a generation; by others who claim to welcome its demise (of course, if you follow that link you'll see that the author is really about something else with his claim); and if you flip the Google search to "Christianity is dying" you'll quickly get to the likes of Richard (A Little Pedophilia Never Hurt Anybody) Dawkins, who would be truly pleased to see it go.  The point being, you don't have to look very hard at all to find a lot of talk on the subject of the church's demise.

Having lived with it for many years in the classical realm and now settling in for a lifetime of dying in the church, it has become obvious to me that there are some definite similarities in the x-is-dying narratives:

1. Both the church and classical music are perceived as having been "dominant" institutions in the United States for a time.  In both cases, the extent of that dominance is probably overstated.  The church might have been able to build itself big buildings with tall pointy steeples and pass a lot of Sunday blue laws at its peak, but looking at the shape and trajectory of American history it's fairly questionable to what extent the church actually had any influence; far more, it seems, that the church in these here United States was shaped, prodded, and to some degree absorbed by the culture it thought it was redeeming.  Classical music, similarly, was never quite so dominant as its would-be undertakers like to claim.  To the degree that one thinks of the widespread availability of, say, live orchestral music, it's hard to argue that there's been a better time than now, when one can find orchestras -- and good ones at that -- in places like Richmond, Tallahassee, and other small to mid-sized cities where such a thought would have been laughable a hundred years ago.  They may not be full-time orchestras, but they are there.  Also, one can suggest that whatever cultural clout classical music may have had at it peak was squandered much as the church's was.  When classical music actually had "mainstream" radio access with the likes of Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra or other such broadcast outlets, did the establishment seek out brilliant young composers writing daring new stuff, exploiting modern orchestral capacity in vivid and thrilling ways?  Ehh, no. Toscanini and his ilk (and yes, even Leonard Bernstein in his TV shows and other broadcasts) whacked the country over the head repeatedly with the (European) (male) canon, and even when some (male) Americans did break through they turned out to be susceptible to the same cultural clotting as Beethoven and Brahms and the lot.  Opportunity squandered?  Check and check.

My man George Chadwick wasn't canonical enough for those snobs.

2. In both cases the substance of the thing is too easily confused with the institutions that have maintained it over the years.  Is classical music dying?  No.  Are certain classical music institutions -- orchestras, opera houses, recording companies -- dying?  Yep.  While this is tragic for those whose livelihood and security depends on those institutions, propping up the large, unwieldy apparatus of the Grandiose Philharmonic isn't necessarily the answer for sustaining classical music in the twenty-first century any more than bringing back steel mills and blowing up more mountains for coal mining is the best way to sustain the American economy in the twenty-first century.  Likewise, the model of the First (Insert Denomination Here) Church with a program for every party and every party its own program, might just not be the best way to be about the business of doing Christ's work in God's world these days.

2a. Furthermore, maybe a bit of forced adjustment might just unleash a bit of creativity on the part of both institutions.  Maybe an orchestra using Google Glass might just be one way to provoke interest in yet another round of Beethoven's Fifth (if that's such a desirable aim; it is, after all, a pretty strong piece of music despite its massive overplay), if an orchestra is game for it.  Maybe sermons as starting points for extended dialogue via Facebook or Twitter or whatever comes next (even face-to-face!  gasp!) can be a lifeline for the people, if a preacher can get over the presumption that cell phone = distraction.  Maybe the increasing prominence of empty chairs in the concert hall or empty pews in the church prompts both institutions to think outside the walls, going where people are?  Maybe instead of singing "Silent Night" in a darkened sanctuary with candles on Christmas Eve, we throw open the doors and hit the sidewalks to sing "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"?  Or maybe we find ways to invite the world into our burdensome buildings so that all people are being served by them, not just us select few?

3. Both get accused of being old and gray, predominated by the elderly pining for the Good Old Days. This is often true.  So what?  You got something against old people?  You age-bigot, you.

At any rate, the confusion factor above is worth repeating.  Classical music is ... well, music.  It isn't the Metropolitan Opera or the New York Philharmonic or the Emerson String Quartet.  Neither is the church the big building with the tall pointy steeple on the corner of First and Main.  It is people, even if the people themselves forget that sometimes.

Hey, I've got nothing against the Emerson String Quartet.  They're really good.

All that having been said, I am no futurist.  Here I cop C.S. Lewis's line about the future being something we all get to at the rate of twenty-four hours a day, not a place reserved for favored heroes.  Futurists in both classical music and church will no doubt go about making grand pronouncements about What Must Be Done To Save The Church/Classical Music.  They'll generally be wrong.  No one will hold them to account.  And the cycle will repeat itself.  Some churches will go towards a different kind of service, and after an initial boost they'll start sinking even faster than the fussy old "traditional" churches.  Some orchestras will go heavily into "pops" performances, and after an initial boost they'll lose their novelty and keep right on sagging.

Tomorrow I will be attending something called NEXT Church.  A regional gathering, to be precise, mostly because it happens to have landed more or less in my front yard.  I am going mostly to be skeptical, for reasons hinted in the paragraph above.  I will be watching intently for any signs of ageism, urgency to pronounce last rites on the church, panacea prescriptions to Save The Church, or anything that smacks of the above.  Don't go there with me.  I've worked in a dying institution before, and lived to tell about it.

UPDATE, Feb. 4: So I went.  I can wish it well, but I don't see the fit for me there.  Just to clear that up.  As I think I snarked in some past post, my particular talents and interests probably render me more of a PAST Church type.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Don't go out there by the river, where bright angel feet won't tread...

I couldn't quite figure it out.  Why did this morning's service have me so out of sorts?

Today's lectionary featured Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus.  Not an unfamiliar text.  Perhaps the most interesting part of it was John's disavowal of Jesus's request -- "you should be baptizing me" and all that.  There was also Psalm 29 and a longish bit from Isaiah.  None of those are terribly bothersome scriptures.

The hymns weren't necessarily the problem either.  OK, so "Shall we gather at the river" is a bit old-hat for a recovering Baptist, even if it was highly fascinating to both Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. The others were new to the Presbyterian hymnbook, so at least interesting to hear the first time.  The anthem was that thing from O Brother, Where Art Thou? in which I have difficulty finding coherent and complete sentences, but that's also old-hat by now.  So the music wasn't it, either.

The baptism itself was a wonderful event, even if from my admittedly distant perch I was beginning to wonder if the child was going to kick his way out of the grasp of both parents and pastor.  Baptisms are wonderful events, to be celebrated, right?

It took a while to dawn on me that my trouble wasn't anything in the liturgy so much as the headline that formed its backdrop this week.

Maybe you missed it in the midst of the "polar vortex" or the shocking revelation that the governor of New Jersey is a bully.  But near Charleston, West Virginia, a chemical plant managed to bust a leak and disgorge a whole lot of chemical spillage into the Elk River.  More pointedly, the spill happened just a short distance upstream from one of the primary intake points for the state's principal water utility.

The particular fun of this spill is that the chemical in question (Crude MGHM, used for washing impurities out of coal), seems to be a bit of a mystery chemical to way too many people.  No way to text for its toxicity in water; not a lot of clarity on just how toxic it is to drink or breathe or shower in or any such thing.  It's clearly enough to smell bad and to make some folks near the spill sick, and apparently enough is known to tell folks that even boiling the water, that old purification standby, doesn't work in this case).  But one has to wonder just how much thought went into letting a plant that works with such a chemical regularly get upstream of a water-utility facility in the first place.

All the more lovely is the absolute silence of the corporation that owns the plant, Freedom Industries (what a bitterly ironic name; is this what "freedom" means anymore, one's freedom to dump all over another and get away with it?).  Their website, in case you're wondering, has diddly-spit to say about the spill.  At any rate, residents in and around Charleston can't drink the water.  Or bathe in it, or prepare baby formula in it, or anything other than flush with it.  (At least they can do that.  Yikes.)  Such is the desperation of the situation that police got called in to guard a shipment of bottled water to Wal-Mart.

Amidst this, I wonder how many churches in the Charleston area were observing the Baptism of the Lord today?  Did any baptisms have to get cancelled?  Or were fonts getting topped up with Aquafina or Dasani?  Would today's baptism have been possible if that kind of spill had happened here in or around Richmond?

Maybe this kind of thing is why those creation-informed liturgies took over Advent on this blog.  Or maybe it's just the cavalier way we ignore the precious stuff of creation or let it be devolved into mere fodder for our conveniences or for somebody else's profit, which leads us to where we are, with the substance that is essential to not only, you know, living, but also to one of the two generally accepted sacraments in the Christian tradition becoming little more than a waste dump for liquid toxins.

What does it take to get us to care, church?  What does it take to get us to treat God's creation as, well, God's creation?  What does it take to get us to shout down and call out the damnedness of those who oh-so-piously preach against "getting political" when it comes to something so basic as what we drink to keep ourselves alive, and get on with the business of righting what we have so long wronged?  How many water sources have to get despoiled by chemical spills or fracking or tar sands extraction or who knows what other foolish and greedy process before we Christians will get angry enough to scream so loud about it that we drown out the idiot duck guy in Louisiana or the neo-Calvinist fear mongers or those others we get so heated up about?  Seriously, what the Hell is it going to take?

Yeah, dammit, I'm angry.  If you're not, perhaps you might want to pay more attention.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The guest cat goes home

Some weeks back I put up a quickie about a "guest cat," one which apparently lived in the neighborhood but turned up at our place, for which we put out food.

She would eat hungrily, sometimes more than the two monster cats who actually live here.  Usually, though, she'd stick around, and usually she'd want attention.

Sometimes she'd stay around the front porch for hours, particularly on warm days.  Some days she'd get into our back yard (she could get under the gate) and curl up on the back porch, in the sun.

Eventually she'd wander off, if the food or attention waned, if I went off to class or work or my wife was inside at work.  Typically she'd return in the evening, to eat again, and for more attention.

She didn't quite seem to be fully homeless; for all the outside time she was a relatively clean cat.  We thought we know where she lived, but much of the time she seemed outright afraid to go there.  There are two quite large dogs at that house, and we assumed that was a problem for such a small cat.

We had to assume she was playing us, and we had to figure we weren't the only ones.

It was interesting.  Because of the guest cat, I would end up sitting outside, on the front porch steps, with her propped up on one of my legs, or walking back and forth across both, or curled up beside me.  This of course was a tremendous flattery, as neither of our cats typically will do so with me -- they are very much my wife's cats in that regard.  I might have my cell phone out and checking messages or reading the latest tweets, or occasionally have a book and try to catch up on class reading, though that behavior would not be tolerated, as cats are wont to demand one's full attention, when they want it at all.

Or I might simply look around.  See the neighborhood.  Notice the trees.  Notice the kids passing by from the bus stop after school.  Hear the arguments across the street, or note the serious remodeling job going on across the way.  Sometimes she'd go out to the street to seek attention from the passerby, particularly one girl I'd guess was middle-school age.  She'd receive her petting and cuddling, then, when the girl was on her way, return to our porch.

We indeed were not the only ones.  A woman who lives around a couple of corners away, who had apparently set up a heated shelter for the cat, talked to a cousin of hers who was looking to add a cat to the household.  She then stopped at our house, figured us as other patsies for the cat (with a food bowl, a water dish, and two pillows on the porch, it probably wasn't hard to guess), talked to my wife about her plans (apparently the residents at the home we thought she lived in did not want to claim her).  Later, when I arrived home, I went out and shook a kibble container; that got the cat running (with her usual hitch in her giddyup) across the street for dinner.  We stayed with her on the porch until the neighborhood woman could be contacted via text to come gather up the cat and take her to her new home.

So it's a success story.  The cat is not only alive and not at a shelter, she's going to have a nice warm place to stay, which is important tonight as it will be colder than it has been and might snow a little bit.  We don't have to worry about trying to bring her in, particularly with our somewhat hostile older cat, or to worry about whatever illnesses she may have or about those insane claws she has.  Our cats will be less disturbed with that interloper gone.  Hard to conceive of a better ending.

Yet already I've unwittingly checked the front porch a couple of times, before remembering.  I may or may not have blubbered most unmanfully when she was gone.  And I'll miss my front porch time, with a cat perched on my knee.