Monday, July 10, 2006

Chant and Sacred Music

It isn't only revolutions in technology that begin in the garage these days. Here's a blueprint for restoration of Gregorian Chant in Catholic Parishes around the country.
How to Start Your Own Garage Schola

Monday, June 12, 2006

CCM Survivor

I began a correspondence last week with Lori Lewis who was involved the CCM business for years and lived to tell about it. This link tells the tale:

No Place Like Home

Friday, May 12, 2006

Rational Theology versus Enthusiasm

A new book by Rodney Stark delineates the progress in Western Civilization that originated in the rational theology of the church:

The Victory of Reason : How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

There is a long history of dispute between those inclined to enthusiasm and proponents of a more reasoned faith. Current trends in church music are in some ways similar to the era of American revivalism. Pietism has a respectable history, but combined with postmodern cultural premises, it is poses a threat to rational theology.

The following review provides an introduction to Stark's book:
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/12/25/RVGDDG9CUE1.DTL

Monday, May 01, 2006

Musica Sacra Journal

The new edition of Sacred Music Journal is available for download. This issue is entitled A New Beginning for Sacred Music.
The complete issue is available here: http://www.musicasacra.com/

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Chanting the Psalms

Here is a fascinating quote from Fr. Joseph Fessio: http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0540.html

Now, just a little footnote on the Gregorian Chant. In reflecting on these things about Church music, I began to think about the Psalms a few years back. And a very obvious idea suddenly struck me. Why it didn’t come earlier I don’t know, but the fact is that the Psalms are songs. Every one of the 150 Psalms is meant to be sung; and was sung by the Jews. When this thought came to me, I immediately called a friend, a rabbi in San Francisco who runs the Hebrew School, and I asked“Do you sing the Psalms at your synagogue?” “Well, no, we recite them,” he said. “Do you know what they sounded like when they were sung in the Old Testament times and the time of Jesus and the Apostles?” I asked. He said, “No, but why don’t you call this company in Upstate New York. They publish Hebrew music, and they may know.”
So, I called the company and they said, “We don’t know; call 1-800-JUDAISM.” So I did. And I got an information center for Jewish traditions, and they didn’t know either. But they said, “You call this music teacher in Manhattan. He will know.” So, I called this wonderful rabbi in Manhattan and we had a long conversation. At the end, I said, “I want to bring some focus to this, can you give me any idea what it sounded like when Jesus and his Apostles sang the Psalms?” He said, “Of course, Father. It sounded like Gregorian Chant. You got it from us.”
I was amazed. I called Professor William Mahrt, a Professor of Music at Stanford University and a friend. I said, “Bill, is this true?” He said, “Yes. The Psalm tones have their roots in ancient Jewish hymnody and psalmody.” So, you know something? If you sing the Psalms at Mass with the Gregorian tones, you are as close as you can get to praying with Jesus and Mary. They sang the Psalms in tones that have come down to us today in Gregorian Chant.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Aboriginal Christianity

No matter how you analyze worship, the requirements include spiritual involvement and truth, in which understanding is implicit. Involvement in the historic tradition aids both transcendence of the present era and an understanding of doctrines that are based on events in time. To worship is to act out our faith in continuity with a tradition that connects us to the apostles and what they witnessed in the presence of Jesus. Old liturgical forms and music embody the continuity of the church triumphant in the presence of the church militant. And the historic liturgical music of the church is still the most universally understood.

Another interesting thing is how the church occupied and transformed the pagan temples and basilicas of the Roman Empire. One way to understand this is to see it as Christianity infusing more complete meaning into forms that were ancient and beautiful. All beauty is God’s beauty.

Now, apparently, the most moving experiences for many people are rock concerts. There are probably ways that the excitement of these experiences can be salvaged. A lot of good people seem to think so. But it is important to claim the noblest art forms in our culture. These things have been created over many generations.

There is a great old book called "Christianity Rediscovered" by Vincent Donovan that describes seventeen years of mission work in Tanzania. Translation of parables and stories from the Bible into the cultural imagery of indigenous people involved many features of the indigenous culture adapted to communicate Christian doctrine and character ideals to new converts. The difficulty was conveying the original meaning in the forms available in the language and imagery of the people.

Now, advocates of postmodern literary theory argue that there is no authoritative meaning in works of literature and all literature is merely rhetoric in a class struggle. In the church we hear different forms of this argument depending on whether one is involved in a liberal or a conservative church. In liberal churches, it seems the Bible is like any other book and its truths are thought to be culturally relative. In Evangelical churches it is claimed that the gospel must be contextualized to contemporary modes of expression and that artistic form is neutral. Rock music has been in vogue for thirty years, so rock music seems to be the way to communicate the gospel.

The problems of the liberal approach are evident; without moral absolutes, atonement for sin and salvation are nonsense. But there is also a problem communicating the historic tradition of the apostles in art that has no more history than McDonald’s fast-food. The meaning of the gospel is inextricable from the historic church, which is the spiritual body of believers in its teachings and, even more importantly, its witness to the Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. If the apostles had not succeeded in establishing the church, there would be no Bible, and Christianity would be like the religions of ancient Egypt, unknowable except through the artifacts of archeology.

There have been numerous denominations and movements that have tried to get back to original Christianity without the liturgies and organizational frameworks that are connected to the apostolic tradition. Protestant traditions have emphasized the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine called sola scriptura. But as these movements try to extract the pure gospel out of its cultural and historic embodiment, it is more difficult to recognize Christian worship as distinctly Christian. The time interval from fresh upstart movement to oddball sect is usually only a couple of generations. Already we have grey whiskered rock musicians acting like they were nineteen in nostalgia fests among devotees.

The revival era adapted modes of expression in its hymnody that sounded like Victorian era parlor music. CCM churches are rebelling against these old forms to create their equivalent in currently popular music. This seems reasonable enough until you contrast Victorian culture with the libertinism of post 1960s pop culture. In this framework, it’s hard to accept the arguments we hear all the time about cultural forms being neutral—you know, “Arguing over music is like arguing about the color of the carpet.” It’s even more incredible when youths with green hair and nose rings are singing about Jesus. No missioner in Tanzania would dress and dance like an aboriginal Tanzanian to attract a crowd, but postmod Americans are now doing roughly the same thing under the spotlights of mega-church auditoriums.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Beyond Church as Lecture Hall or Rock Concert

I found an interesting discussion this morning on a blog run by Christianity Today Leadership Journal: Beyond Sermons and Songs
This is the second of the set that begins here: Beyond Sermons and Songs part 1

And another blog that I have yet to explore: http://thegreatgiveaway.blogspot.com/

Looks like some good reading and there are lots of comments.

And this: Anglican Mission in America

Sunday, March 19, 2006

On a Lighter Note

One of the sopranos in my choir gave this to me today and since the three of us are involved in church choirs I thought everyone would appreciate it. It is sung to the same hymn tune as Immortal, Impossible, God only Wise and this version is attributed to Dr. Austin Lovelace.
"Immoral, impossible, God only knows
How tenors and basses, sopranos, altos,
At service on Sunday are rarely the same,
As those who on Thursday to choir practice came.
Unready, unable to sight read the notes,
Nor counting, nor blending, they tighten their throats.
The descant so piercing is soaring above.
The melody only a mother could love.
They have a director, but no one know why,
No one in the choir deigns to turn him an eye.
It’s clear by his waving he wants them to look,
But each of them stands with his nose in the book.
Despite the offences, the music rings out.
The folks in the pews are enraptured, no doubt,
Their faces are blissful; their thoughts are so deep.
But it is no wonder, for they are asleep."

Friday, March 10, 2006

Karl Barth's Letter of Thanks to Mozart

My dear Conductor and Court Composer:
Someone got the curious idea of inviting me and a few others to write a "letter of thanks to Mozart" for his newspaper. At first I shook my head and even looked at the wastebasket. But if there is anything which has to do with you, I can say "No" only in the rarest cases. And did you not also write more than one somewhat funny letter during your lifetime? So, why not? They certainly know more there where you dwell now, unimpeded by time and space, about each other and about us than do we ourselves down here. Thus I actually do not doubt that you have known for a long time how grateful I have been to you almost all my life and always will remain. Nevertheless why shouldn't you read this in black and white?

Two excuses have to be made first. Number one: I am one of those Protestants of whom you are supposed to have said once that we were unable to understand properly the meaning of Agnus Dei, qui talus peccata mundi. Pardon me, probably you are now better informed on that. However, I do not want to bother you with theology. Believe it or not, I actually dreamed of you last week. Here is the dream: I had to examine you (why, I don't even understand, myself). I knew that under no circumstances would you be allowed to fail the examination. I asked you about the meaning of "dogmatics" and "dogma," by pointing in the most friendly way to your Masses, which I like especially. But to my great regret I got not the least answer from you!! Don't you think we'd better give this point a blessed rest?

The second excuse is far more complicated. I have learned that you could enjoy only the praise of connoisseurs, even in your childhood. As you know, there are not only musicians but also musicologists on this earth. You yourself were both. I am neither the one nor the other. I play no instrument nor do I have the faintest idea about the theory of harmony, let alone the mysteries of "counterpoint." Those very musicologists disturbed me deeply whose books I tried to decipher when I drew up an address for the recent celebration of your two hundredth birthday. By the way, I cannot help thinking that if I were young and had to start this kind of studying I would clash with a few of your most outstanding theoretical interpreters in the same way that I did with my theological masters forty years ago. But be that as it may, how can I, under these circumstances, thank you as a connoisseur? In other words, how can I make you happy?

To my relief, I have also read that you sometimes made music for hours and hours for very lowly people. This you did only because you somehow had the feeling that they were pleased to listen to you. In this way, with a repeatedly delighted ear and heart I have heard and still hear you play. I myself am so utterly naive that I cannot tell in which of the thirty-four periods of your life, according to the classification of Wyzewa and Saint-Foix, you are nearest to my heart. Surely, surely, you began to become really great, let's say, about 1785. But I hope I won't hurt your feelings (or will I?) in confessing the following: It has been and always will be impossible for me to listen without deep emotion not only to Don Giovanni and to your last symphonies, to the Magic Flute and the Requiem but no less to the "Hafiner" Serenade and the Eleventh Divertimento, etc. Actually, I am deeply moved even by Bastien and Bastienne! Consequently, you are interesting and dear to me much earlier than the moment when you can be praised as the "pioneer" of Beethoven!

What I owe you, frankly, is this: whenever I listen to your music I feel led to the threshold of a world which is good and well ordered, in sunshine and thunderstorm, by day and by night. Thus you have repeatedly given me, a human being of the twentieth century, courage (not haughtiness!), tempo (not exaggerated tempo!), purity (not boring purity!) and peace (not complacent peace !). If he really digests your musical dialectics he can be young and become old, he can work and relax, he can be happy and depressed; in short, he can live. You know now, far better than I, that much more is necessary for that purpose than the very best music. But there is music which helps men to this end (ex post and only incidentally!) and other music which cannot help toward it. Your music helps. This I have experienced all my life (I am going to be seventy years old and if you were living you would dwell in our midst as a patriarch of two hundred years!). Moreover, I am convinced that our century, which is becoming more and more obscure, especially needs your help. For both these reasons I am grateful to you that you have lived, that you wanted to make and did make pure music in the few decades of your life, and that you still live in your music. Please believe me that many, many ears and hearts, scholarly and unscholarly, just as my own, still like to hear you for ever and ever - not only in the year of your jubilee.

I have only a hazy feeling about the music played there where you now dwell. I once formulated my surmise about that as follows: whether the angels play only Bach in praising God I am not quite sure; I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart and that then also God the Lord is especially delighted to listen to them. Well, this alternative may be wrong. Besides, you know that better than I do, anyhow. I mention this only in order to hint metaphorically at my meaning.
And so, with all my heart,
yours,
KARL BARTH

From Barth's Mozart Festival Address, "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart."
In other words, Mozart's Figaro has nothing to do with the ideas of the French Revolution and Don Giovanni has nothing to do with the myth of the eternal libertine (as Kierkegaard asserted!). Certainly there does not exist a special Mozartian "philosophy of Cosi fan tutte" either, and one should not read too much "humanity-religion" and/or political mysteries into Mozart's Magic Flute. The fact is that, whether we like it or not (and it can be seen in his letters), neither the nature surrounding him nor the history, literature, philosophy or politics of his time touched him directly or in a concrete sense. Nor was he moved to represent or proclaim any decisions or dogmas. It is to be feared that he never read much, and he certainly never speculated or taught. There is no Mozartian metaphysics either. He sought and found only his musical possibilities, themes and tasks in the world of nature and spirit. With God, the world, men, himself, heaven and earth, life - and, above all, death - before his eyes, in his ears and in his heart he was an unproblematic person. For that reason he was a free man, in a way which was apparently allowed, ordered and therefore exemplary for him.

This involves the fact that his music was uniquely free from every exaggeration, basic friction and contradiction. The sun shines but does not dazzle the eyes, nor demolish nor scorch. Heaven arches above the earth but does not press upon or crush and swallow it. And so earth remains earth, but without being forced to hold its own against heaven in titanic revolt. In the same way darkness, chaos, death and hell render themselves conspicuous but are not allowed to prevail even for a moment. Mozart makes music, knowing everything from a mysterious center, and thus he knows and keeps the boundaries on the right and on the left, upward and downward. He observes moderation. Again he wrote, in 1781, that "the emotions, strong or not, never should be expressed ad nauseam and that music, even in the most horrible situation, never must offend the ears but must please them nevertheless. In other words, music must always remain music." He was (and I quote Grillparzer's beautiful words) the musician "who never did too little, and never did too much, and who always arrived at but never went beyond his goal."

There is no light which does not know the darkness too, no happiness which does not include sorrow; but also inversely, no alarm, no ire, no wailing to the aid of which peace would not come, from near or far. There is no laughter, therefore, without weeping, but no weeping without laughter either. There never was a Mozart of such utter gracefulness that the nineteenth century, after praising him, could grow justly tired of him. But neither did there exist this "demoniac Mozart" whom our century wanted to substitute. The very absence of all demons, the very stopping before the extreme, and precisely the wise confrontation and mixture of the elements (let us say it again) amounts to the freedom in which the true vox humana speaks in Mozart's music. In it the entire scale is unmuffled, but at the same time undistorted and uncramped. Whoever correctly hears him, may, as the human being he really is, feel himself understood and called to freedom: as the clever Basilio, the affectionate Cherubino, as Don Giovanni, the hero, or as the coward Leporello, as the gentle Pamina or the raging Queen of the Night, as the all-forgiving Countess, the terribly jealous Electra, the wise Sarastro and the foolish Papageno all of whom lie hidden in us. Or we may think, as all of us do, of ourselves as persons destined for death, who yet live on and on.

Something at the last, however, must be perceived and mentioned. Mozart's center is not like that of the great theologian Schleiermacher, identical with balance, neutralization and finally indifference. What happened in this center is rather a splendid annulment of balance, a turn in the strength of which the light rises and the shadow winks but does not disappear; happiness outdistances sorrow without extinguishing it and the "Yes" rings stronger than the still-existing "No." Notice the reversal of the great dark and the little bright experiences in Mozart's life! "The rays of the sun disperse the night" - that's what you hear at the end of the Magic Flute. The play may or must still proceed or start from the very beginning. But it is a play which in some Height or Depth is winning or has already won. This directs and characterizes it. One will never perceive equilibrium, and for that reason uncertainty or doubt, in Mozart's music. This is true of his operas as well as of his instrumental music, and especially of his church music. Is not each Kyrie or Miserere, even if it begins at the lowest depth, carried by the trust that the prayer for grace has in fact been answered? Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini! In Mozart's version he has apparently already arrived. Dona nobis pacem! This prayer, too, has already been answered in Mozart's music, in spite of everything. For this very reason his church music has to be called truly spiritual music, in spite of all well-known objections. Mozart never lamented, never quarreled. He would have been entitled to do so. Instead, he always executed that comforting turn which is priceless for everyone who hears it. That seems to me, as far as it can be explained at all, to be the secret of his freedom and thereby the nucleus of his singular quality, for which we asked at the beginning.

I leave one question unanswered: How is it possible that I, an evangelical Christian and theologian, can so proclaim Mozart? How could I do this even though he was such a Catholic and even a Freemason and besides through and through nothing else than just a musician? He who has ears to hear has certainly heard. May I ask all the others, who perhaps shake their heads in astonishment and alarm, to be momentarily contented with the general reference to the fact that the New Testament speaks not only about the kingdom of heaven, but also of the parables of the kingdom of heaven?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

There Is Hope

Today I participated in a church group sponsored talent contest as a judge for students displaying their music talents. It was a good day. The contest includes catagories in preaching, piano, voice, drama, and instrumental music. I judged instrumental solos and ensembles. There were a few participants who tried to perform arrangements of contemporary songs. I say tried, because looking at the sheet music one Jr. High clarinet duet submitted I realized they were going to be interesting. And as I suspected, they completely butchered the syncopation playing more free form with absolutely no sense of rhythm. But, there is hope. Several participants played some nicely arranged hymns of high quality, including "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee", taken from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. So, our kids are being exposed to excellent music and learning it. Maybe in several decades when they are my age they will be judging in a talent contest making some of the same observations I made today.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

An Incarnational Theology of Aesthetics

Racehorses and Rattlesnakes

Any good musical performance can make us listen more intently. When Placido Domingo sings—or Bob Dylan—the mind stops wasting time. We listen. Something about what they do concentrates awareness. This is a difficult state to attain in the multitasking environment in which we daily grind out our lives. Domingo and Dylan are almost always interesting. Domingo’s voice is a racehorse, and Dylan’s is a mule, but both carry us to places we might never visit except on their backs. A racehorse is thrilling on the track; a mule is perhaps the only way if we're descending a trail from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the river in the abyss. Both the exhilaration of musical virtuosity and plodding exploration of rattlesnake-infested canyons have their place in art. The world’s body is an instrument of the sublime as well as a treacherous viper. I’ve stolen a metaphor from John Crowe Ransom, who, in his critical masterpiece entitled The World’s Body, explained some of the techniques used in poetry to prod sensory indolence toward spiritual alertness. Ransom, to my recollection, tried to explain how philosophers and literary critics are different from artists, though he understood that some artists are also critics and was himself a poet as well as a teacher. In terms of this metaphor, art is embodiment. It tends to focus the mind on the particular and unique in human experience rather than abstract principles used to control things as in science or business. If there is meaning in a poem, it can never be adequately paraphrased in philosophical terminology.

T. S. Eliot, perhaps the greatest poet and critic of the twentieth century, had a more abstract expression for the imagery of a poem; he described art as an objective correlative, an objective correlative that corresponds to and evokes an emotional state. This is a remarkable expression coming from one of the most intellectual of English poets. If the meaning of a poem cannot be paraphrased, should we expect to find in philosophy, or theology, aesthetic principles that adequately describe what art in its various mediums communicates or some ideal toward which it aspires? Plato and Aristotle had much say about art based on the formal order they understood to be irreducible and more real than the existing world. In their terms, art, in the purest sense, is about beauty or the beautiful soul. For Aristotle, there is a correspondence between the universal and the concrete. If we begin with an examination of works that elicit something that seems describable in no other way than as art, abstract beauty isn’t the primary ingredient in art; too much art is repellent. Genet and others have argued that concentration on the vilest things will lead us to the same place as contemplation of virtue.

In order to get beyond art that I have experienced as only mediocre, it may be interesting to start with art that devours itself. I’ve written enough about my antipathy for rock music that I don’t have to restate reasons for thinking it is dangerous beyond the progressive deafness it inflicts on many of its practitioners and devotees. But, sometimes art can mean precisely the opposite of what its creators intend. The shock troupes of popular culture sometimes make us aware of virtue by its absence. The shock troupes of serious culture effect a similar privation in their exceedingly more pretentious barrage of disjointed painful illusions. Roger Kimball has aptly titled his book on the excrescences of modern and post-modern art, Experiments against Reality. All the sensory and intellectual machinery of this contrived chaos is marshaled against integration in the mind and spirit. Music in this anti-tradition is cacophonous and bizarre, organized arbitrarily on the premise that none of the principles of western standard practice are normative simply because they have been discovered through innumerable stages of development, or that they work. Ugliness, when taken seriously in the manner of this art, devours the nihilism of its nonsensical ideology, because music so repellent exposes a new criterion. At some point it becomes impossible to imagine anything more ludicrous. To parody Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God: art so puerile that nothing more ridiculous can be imagined establishes the existence of a standard of absurdity.

But let us leave serious contemporary art and get back to art with some semblance of meaning, say Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger. At full tilt they at least seem to be having a good time. Judging by the millions of recordings sold, those by Elvis for half a century, a lot of people seem to be having a good time along with them. That’s indisputably not the case with most of the operas written during the later part of the twentieth century. The standard interpretation of the rock phenomenon has itself become part of the cultural landscape. Rock music is, in this reading, throwing off the inhibitions of American Puritanism. It has thus liberated several generations from the Calvinistic self-abnegation of their predecessors. Recalling that Calvin banished all music but plainsong chant from his churches makes it hard to deny that the current theory on the rock music phenomenon explains some dysfunction in the Calvinistic doctrine of human artistry, and even so venerable a theologian as Dietrich Bonheoffer has only disparaging things to say about singers whose voices are audible above the congregation during hymn singing. Calvin may have been in reaction to what he perceived as indulgence in pagan sensuality in renaissance art to a degree that even harmony was a kind of sensualism.

Calvin’s rationalism blows like a desiccating wind through Christendom, but he wasn’t wrong about everything. The balance of powers in American government can be seen as Puritan realism about human depravity. Freedom in the United States is partly a function of institutionalized doctrines that block predictable abuses of power. It’s also debatable whether the productivity of the American economy has been the result of freedom or a work ethic involving self-denial and anxiety about election that creates capital reserves. The generations of relatively free, wealthy Americans who have finally realized Calvin’s ideas are incomplete in certain applications, are about to find out whether freedom or self-restraint count for more in economic terms. In certain applications, say the Salem witch trials, Calvinism may be as irrational as a rock concert, but, by a pendulum theory of art, we can imagine Calvin liberating Geneva from the idolatries of Michelangelo. Thankfully, the Catholic Church hasn’t seen fit to demolish, or otherwise dispose of, the treasures of the Vatican Palace. But, then again, the phrase “treasures of the Vatican Palace” does raise an incongruous clang in a sanctuary dedicated to Jesus as we find him in the Gospels.

To those with some education in the arts, it seems evident that Calvin and the iconoclasts went overboard while they were trying to stabilize the boat. The promoters staging multimedia productions in church would no doubt concur. That he may have missed the boat entirely, long before it ever got into dangerous water, does not change the fact that there is some dangerous art out there. Drugs and even rape are more common at and around rock concerts than is generally acknowledged. The facts tend to be submerged in the oceans of money flowing through city arenas where these circuses are mounted. Still, dangerous and intolerable may not always be the same thing when it comes to artistic freedom. Artistic freedom, of course, is not the question when government funding at art galleries sustains “works of art” like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. But we’re trying to work with the idea that scandalous art is not inadmissible in a discussion of theology of aesthetics.

God created a world with hazardous places and creatures. We’ve already compared Bob Dylan’s singing to an excursion through the Grand Canyon on a mule. Only a hundred years ago the Hopi Indians in that locale were increasing the numinous excitement of their festivals by dancing with rattlesnakes in their mouths. Precisely where along the spine of a rattlesnake does one bite, without being bitten, in order to constrain a rattlesnake so that one can dance without having the excitement dampened suddenly by the impact of a head and fangs that will induce a sudden swelling about the neck? This question, though certainly germane, is apparently not the first question that anthropologists try to answer. The Hopi make beautiful pottery. The Audubon Society has noted that some factions ritualistically kill eagles. Now, under instruction in the current church-growth literature, mission engagement with the Hopi puts evangelists in something of a predicament. Will inscription of the four spiritual laws on pottery urns be sufficient acculturation in order to communicate in the cultural idioms of the Hopi? Or are we going to have to import snake handlers from Tennessee?

The disputed passage from the Gospel of Mark aside, Hopi dancers and Christian snake-handlers seem to hold, excuse the expression, similar, if elusive, versions of Durkheim's idea of numinous art. Britny Spears is known to have exploited this notion, having once danced naked, or nearly so, on national television while fondling a large, presumably non-venomous, snake. God created great whales, walruses, and small, but poisonous, rattlesnakes. He must think they are marvelous, for their own sake, or is it that the human race deserves to have them crawling around in the garden during dry years in sagebrush country? It is perhaps insensitive to propose that he created them in retribution for the art, which he knew through his divine foreknowledge, those created in his image would invent during the twentieth century.

There is yet quite a lot to be said about racehorses, but we can carefully lay aside the rattlesnakes, only noting that they are too beautiful, in a formal sense, to be the work of a blind watchmaker. God must be the artist who creates them, if only to prove the threatening hiss and buzz of his music is more exhilarating than the operas of Phillip Glass. A rattlesnake, even unperturbed on a rock, is more artful than the work called Satyagraha, a travesty by Glass on Gandhi. The only interesting parts of this music are stolen from an organ concerto by Felix Mendelssohn. The irony of Satyagraha is that the title translates as an insistence on truth that arms the votary with matchless power. God armed the rattlesnake with more truth and power than any number of contemporary composers.

If poetry is, as Ransom teaches, the world’s body, what are we to call art that embodies nobility, love, and treachery, in drama using the language of the greatest literary works in the Western canon set to music by composers skilled in a tradition that is the culmination of a thousand years of liturgical and theatrical practice and performed by singers whose voices have the stamina to soar for hours over a large orchestra? Throw in the occasional ballet, and you have the beginning of a description of opera. Olympic athletes train for, maybe, ten or fifteen years to reach the peak of their careers. Opera singers commonly sing for thirty or forty years, continually refining their technique in an art that is in many ways as strenuous as sport. Opera engages the senses and the spirit on so many dimensions that even those schooled in its conventions cannot simultaneously absorb all the impacts.

Enjoying opera takes preparation for most people. The language is exalted and often foreign in the locale of the performance. The metaphysical presuppositions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are uncongenial for audiences who don’t understand them and a constant challenge to the dispositions of the directors now staging historic operas who do understand and often try to undermine them. Yet beyond the pendulum theory of art, where the errors of metaphysics and ontology in the reasoning of earlier thinkers are corrected by new art, the standard repertoire of operatic masterpieces maintains an organic repository of magnificence. A positive theology of aesthetics can be delineated by following any of the contrapuntal voices in the operatic tradition.

Maybe we now agree that exhilaration and exploration are both part of the artistic experience. Like simpler art forms, opera illuminates being in vivid definition. Often enough, all the climbers in this expedition are able to ascend into the atmosphere of the sublime. The highest peaks then cut a jagged horizon out of the sky. Dealing with something that can be compared to a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas, or launching the space shuttle, reduces the imagery of the racehorse to mere exercise. The equivalent of both the climbing expedition and engineering science, the physical skill and technical mastery, are necessary to stage an opera. Composers, conductors, singers, orchestra players, designers, directors, and spear carriers all must do their work within a living organic tradition, or fight against it.

Experiential appreciation of being is inescapable in opera. Love it or hate it, when the fat lady sings, you feel it. Sometimes the masterpiece being sung is beautiful beyond description in any another way, and the sublime emerges. This is artistry on the highest plain. In other terminology, the resonances in the human spirit along so many dimensions can be called revelation, or an incarnation, or the word made flesh. This description, of course, grievously offends the sensibilities of post-modern literary theorists. Fortunately for them, many attempts are made to fabricate art on this level. When art is contrived to create the illusion of truth, there is harmony along some dimensions of our humanity and in some of the fibers in the fabric of the medium. If art of this kind convinces some people, for a while, that it is a metaphor of reality, or is at least persuasive, but it eventually does not ring true, the work that at first seemed a genuine work of art is revealed to be the contemptible artifice we call propaganda, or in its milder forms, mere rhetoric.

Genuine art is so illuminating, or arresting, or exultant, or graceful, or lovely, or compelling, or inspiring, and its nobility resonates simultaneously along so many dimensions, that it makes us fully alive to our own existence. Sometimes just being is enough, but in full awareness of our own existence, we can sometimes utter the two words anathema to existentialists. God exists. Art in this sense is Incarnational. A deeper appreciation of being alive, whether through artistic or natural beauty, makes us more aware that it is a miracle that we are here. The miracle asks for an explanation, and the explanation that comes to mind for many people, indoctrinated or not, is God. When the revelation provided by the Incarnation of Christ and the testimony of the church and scriptures are accessible, God consciousness is distinct and rationally articulate.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Beauty of the Infinite

"The infinite is beautiful because God is Trinity; and because all being belongs to God's infinity, a Christian ontology appears and properly belongs within a theological aesthetics."
--David Bentley Hart

Monday, February 13, 2006

Plato, Neoplatonism, Music, and the Incarnation

There are two interpretations of art in Plato:
1. Art is a copy of nature which is an imperfect copy of eternal form, ergo, art is dubious; it is likely to lead us away from the ideal. Art is, on this view, even more of an illusion than the existing world from which it is taken. The essential world is immaterial, but real. From this Platonic dichotomy comes the existentialists’ problem of existence versus essence.
2. Rather than being an imperfect copy of nature, which, by Plato’s definition, is inferior to the essential realm of pure form, art is said to be divinely inspired and thus a purer vision of reality than empirical knowledge.

Greek metaphysics was pervasive in the ancient near east. In the Bible there is evidence of conflict between Hellenic and Hebrew thought. Jesus often seems to be caught between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, who were the liberals and the conservatives of his time. The Sadducees were accommodating to cultural trends, which among the intelligentsia tended to be Hellenic. The Pharisees maintained resistance to Greek influence. But there was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. Philo’s works are an attempt at synthesis of Greek metaphysics and Hebrew thought.

By Augustine’s era, especially around Alexandria in Egypt, a philosophy called NeoPlationism was among the prevailing ideologies. The core of this philosophy is a repudiation of the material world. Two opposed corollaries were deduced from the NeoPlatonic idea that the material world is inferior to the spiritual realm:
1. Acetic renunciation of the world and the flesh.
2. Libertine indulgence of the flesh.

Plotinus, the most notable exponent of NeoPlatonism, and one of Augustine's teachers, was an acetic of the former type, unkempt and unwashed. There have been and are many Gnostic sects, and they tend to be NeoPlatonic. As opposed to moden agnostics who claim not to be able to know anything about God, the ancient gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge of the eternal transcendent reality. Some of them despised the world and the flesh. Others indulged in sexual libertinism in the belief that it didn’t matter if one abused the flesh, since it is only transitory.

All of this muddled conceptual theology was and is a challenge to a clear understanding of the Christian idea of the Incarnation of God in human flesh. The Gospels add to the dilemma when they quote Jesus in eschatological sayings about taking up the cross and following him even to the detriment of one’s safety and familial obligations. For example, he says, If any man would come after me, he must hate his mother and father and even his own life.

The Incarnation of God in human flesh resolves some problems associated with the Platonic and NeoPlatonic dualism between the existing world and an eternal transcendent realm. During the Christological controversies of the third and fourth centuries many attempts were made to conceptualize the Incarnation and the Trinity. After the passage of many centuries, Kierkegaard argued that it is impossible to conceive an eternal transcendent God becoming existential, material, and time bound. Existence preceeds essence for existing individuals, so we can only make a leap of faith. There is much more in Kierkegaard about the scandal of God as man that leads to offense or the liberation of faith.

How does this help us deal with the musical controversies in our churches?
1. It should elevate the value of art in worship. If God can be incarnate in human flesh, the sensory medium of art is not inferior to the rational exposition of doctrine.
2. It should negate the idea that it is irrelevant how we worship. In many respects, the medium of our worship is the message.
3. It should increase our regard for art that has proved its worth by enduring through many centuries. Culture is cumulative. Excellence is built on many stages of discovery and adaptation.
4. It should increase the value of emotion, because the abstract presentation of doctrine is not by virtue of its rational format superior to human experience.
5. It should encourage freedom and not rigid conformity to idealized form.
6. It should increase our regard for the human body and affirm beauty.
7. It should promote diversity of understanding of beauty without making all things relative to current fashion.
8. It should encourage love of life, the created world, and other people.
9. It should affirm our individual aspirations and uncontaminated desire.
10. It should make enlightened self expression acceptable to God. Self denial in this interpretation is denial of the destructive and sinful desires to which we are prone. Being all we can be is the best way to serve God and inspire others. See also: http://church-alienation.blogspot.com/2005/04/all-shook-up-music-passion-and.html

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Latin Mass

"If our liturgical practice is anthropocentric and devoid of transcendent mystery, how will congregants at such a liturgy develop a faith that is Christocentric and alive to God’s mystery? If our liturgical vehicle is intrinsically subjective and particular, how can it present our common faith in a unified way in the midst of cultural diversity? If the Mass is local in dialect and communitarian in emphasis, how will it convey the shared transcendent faith of the universal Church? It is worth noting that one of the guiding purposes of the publication of the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church was to present the fullness of the Faith in a common and unified way throughout the world. But our liturgical practice is, catechetically speaking, pulling us in a direction quite opposed to the Catechism’s aims and spirit."
--Jude A. Huntz in The New Oxford Review
The Liturgy as Catechism

Friday, January 20, 2006

Union Gospel Mission Men's Chorus

Some of the best hymn singing in the greater Seattle area goes on at the Union Gospel Mission every night before dinner. Homeless men come in for a chapel service about 5:00 PM and the hymn books come out. I first volunteered to lead singing many years ago when I was working as delivery truck driver for a piano retailer in downtown Seattle. A salesman, who was also organist at Ballard Baptist, asked if I'd like to help him out at the Mission. Even then, when most churches still sang from hymn books, I was astonished by the singing at Union Gospel. I was even more surprised when they started calling out hymn numbers. We sang and sang, and the singing hasn't diminished in power and enthusiasm since then because the hymn books are still in the battered pews.

When the men from 1st Avenue and the waterfront sing, they SING!. With a little work I could make a sailors chorus for Wagner's Flying Dutchman. "Steuermann, Hey! Steuermann Ho!"

I wish you could still walk into any church on Sunday and sing like the guys at Union Gospel.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Meditation on Thaïs

What do you think is going on in the opera Thaïs during this famous violin solo?
Listen. Imagine!
In five minutes everything will be different.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Day of Wrath

Day of wrath, O Day of mourning!
Earth to ashes now returning!
Gather, by the millions, burning!
Cleansed at last by His returning

Butchered rhyme and battered rhythm
Neopagan narcissism!
On the day, Lord, when thou comest,
And our dreadful hymnals thumbest,
Smite the ugliest and dumbest.
Smite them, Lord, yet of thy pity
Take their songsters to thy city:

Even Haugen, Haas, and Schutte.
Spare them on the stern condition
That they feel a true contrition
for the Worship III edition.
Doom them not to loss and ruin
While the darker storm is brewing!
They didn't know what they were doing.

On that day when Palestrina
Dares not touch a celestina,
Will that Sister Ballerina
With her eyes that pierce like lances
Still her heathen silly dances?
And her flirting with Saint Francis?

Purge us of the prim and prissy,
Ditties fit for Meg or Missy,
Not for Francis, but a sissy.
Cantors who thought nothing grander
Than a sheaf of propaganda
Writ like office memoranda,
Raise them to thy room to bide in
Where their hearts and ears may widen
To the strains of Bach and Haydn.

Let their hearts within them falter,
Hearing, as they near thine altar,
Seraphs sing the Scottish Psalter.
Seize those devils set to pen
a Hymnal neutered of its men-ah,
Fling 'em all to black Gehenna!
Fling them one and all to mangle
Their pronominals, and wrangle
Lest a participle dangle!

Who held manhood in derision,
Preaching double circumcision,
Suffer now their own revision.
Though their songs of Hell are naughty,
None by Handel or Scarlatti,
At the least they'll have castrati.

Pitch, O Lord, the bald and raucous
Slogans of a leftist caucus
Down to Sheol, or Secaucus!
Save their singers,
though, restore them
To a silent sweet decorum,
Saecula per saeculorem.

Various are the throngs of heaven:
Some were lump, and some were leaven,
Some as lame as six or seven.
When the demons hear thy curses,
And this world's dense fog disperses,
Heal the hobbled; ban their verses.

Hush me too, Lord, when I grumble:
In thy mercy make me nimble,
Lest On Turkey's Wings I stumble.
While Haugen sings Hosanna! evermore,
Save me, Lord, but keep me near the door.
Amen.

~Author Unknown and Unrepentant

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Church Triumphant

Trinity Parish Church
Seattle, Washington; Christmas Day 2005



Photo by Paul Hannah