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:


Dave said...

That's a nice, concise historical account of Platonism and the pressure it has exerted on Christianity over the centuries.

My only quibble is that it still maintains a somewhat reserved and negative tone, "the sensory medium is not inferior"; it's not "irrelevant how we present the truth"; etc.

Can we arrive at a more positive assertion regarding the contiuum between the passions of the body and and the life of the spirit? In many ways, it seems to me a more fully Augustinian perspective, than the Greek one that allows both passion and the body to remain second-class citizens, as it were, in Plato's Republic, the point of which after all was to allow us to describe justice in the individual human soul, not merely or even primarily the city. Augustine resisted both Manichean dualism by asserting the intrinsic good of every created thing, and denying the possibility of ontological evil. This, it seems to me, must include the passions of the body. They must be good in themselves, (in context and with a healthy orientation, of course), and not ravenous beasts that must be constantly held in check by Sovereign Reason.

If this is the case, then we cannot accept Carson Holloway's normative account of a musical education, which pretty much just follows Plato in demanding that the passions always be calmed by reason, that music and its role in education must always be administered with an eye to elevating reason over the other parts of the soul. On the closest examination of Both Plato and Aristotle, particularly in The Republic and Ethics, respectively, we find a basically antagonistic relationship between reason and passion. This is the driving impetus behind Holloway's account of music and the soul, and it's my beliefe that a fully-realized incarnational Christianity must challenge it. Otherwise, we seem to be on track towards an anthropology that sees desiring itself as intrinsically, ontologically evil. The Hellenic view is in need of much more remediation than Holloway gives it.

Michael Dodaro said...

It seems we're mostly in agreement theologically, Dave. In fact, I tried to indicate my own quibbles with Holloway’s thesis without negating my sense that he is on target about the problems of contemporary music. The current understanding of art seems to assume that it is either self expression or propaganda. What is called serious contemporary music is in many cases propaganda for the ideology that there is no objective reality. This is the end of a long history of philosophical nominalism that argues that metaphysical form is irrelevant or simply absent. William of Occam is the most notable proponent of this theory, and he was no doubt partly in justifiable reaction to medieval scholasticism. Pop music has taken over the realm of the emotions and various dimensions of humanity because serious art is in revolt against normative form. The result is a new kind of dualism between an arbitrary definition of form and sentimental or shocking pop music. The idea that there are distinctions to be made in various kinds of pop music and even in music by the same musicians seems valid to me. Even Mick Jagger is not beyond making good music some of the time, even if it is not the music I want to listen to in church. Another problem is that pop music, good or bad, is simply obliterating music that has stood the test of time and proved its worth.

Dave said...

I'm not sure how much pop music "obliterated" classical music. I understand how the ubiquity of pop and the dearth of good symphonic and classical music might make it seem that way. But I think the classical world was well on its way to self-imploding long before Elvis. The self-consciously audience-shunning modern theory of Adorno, Shoenberg and co. did more damage in that regard than Tupelo's favorite son could have ever dreamed of.

But we are in agreement here on just about everything. Occam bad. Nominalism bad. Return to formalism and realism needful. Check.

But let me excercise this thesis on you. This rupture you describe, between form and content in pop music is actually the result of an ongoing Christian polemic, much like the one we're having. Let me explain.

Rock, in its earliest form, was gospel with a (slightly) heavier beat, an R&B spin. This is simple history: Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis all derived the energy of earliest rock from gospel music, not the blues, which don't make a substantive appearance until the British re-export our own back to us, reguritated (how appropos, that) through the stylings of the Stones, Clapton, Yardbirds, et. al.

But the original impetus of rock grew out of African-American Christianity, which expressed itself close to the earth, with the passion and rhythm of work and sweat, developed without the European repose that made things like counterpoint and sophisticated harmonic development possible. Add to that the fact that African culture had no Platonic baggage, no nascent dualism to deal with (in fact the pagan religions of Africa, unlike the Baccanalia of ancient Greece, was more incarnational: cf. Eileen Southern) and you've got a crisis in the making: African Christianity declares that spritual liberation and physical liberation, spiritual ecstasy and physical ecstasy are closer than the European mind would ever have allowed. This seeps its way into the soil of Southern culture, into the imaginations of Presely, Lewis, et. al., and vivifies the inherent incarnational instincts that the Christian imaginations wants to affirm to begin with. This sets them on a collision course with institutional Christianity, which of course resists such apparent profligacy with all its might.

Case in point: Waxahaxie, Texas, the Southern Assemblies of God College, a revivalist asks a young gifted pianist named Jerry Lee to assist him in a rendition of "My God is Real." The lean young man proceeds to fuse the pentecostal rave-up with barrelhouse enthusiasm and finds himself promptly expelled. Lacking a sophisticated theological apparatus to counter this puritanism, he accepts his fate as a scoundrel, misfit and base seducer: The Killer is born. I can tell similar stories of Elvis and Richard Penniman. Confronted with this denial, and probably taking no small amount of glee in the power they've discovered to tweak the establishment and make girls scream in one swivel of the hips,, Elvis and co. take the ridiculous nature of rock and roll and exagerate it, never fully accepting the dualism that's been forced on them, but neither are they capable of reconciling the apparent contradictions themselves. So Elvis makes a gospel record for every three rock records almost until the day he dies, and follows up a bordello scene in his 68 comeback special with a Holy Ghost gospel revival scene, the former so explicit it was banned from the original broadcast, the latter done with equal earnestness and spiritual fervor. This is the essential dualistic tension that rock has lived with from the beginning. Andy Warhol only thought he was making fun of Elvis, but in reality Elvis was making fun of himself, and (as he saw it) the absurdity of the institutional resistance to his music.

This is the question: how do you reconcile, on the one hand, the sometimes overstated but hard to deny accusations that rock is base hedonism...and on the other, the religious origins of the music and all the other critics like Steve Turner, who argue the opposite, that it's an aspiration for the divine, that it's religious at its core.

I think the answer is something like this: Rock and Roll begins in the intuition that life in this world, and all its passions ARE in the same contiuum with the passion of the Christian divinity, and then runs smack up against the puritan and neo-Platonic denial of that in Christian institutions. Rock and Roll is a Christian polemic.

Michael Dodaro said...

Very interesting, Dave. I don't want to argue with it. I do think the question of the European tradition in music is still important. Harry Burleigh was Dvorak's copyist and must have learned something from the him. And there is the question of how pop music began to verge on pornography. Something has gone badly awry.
There are many kinds of pop music that have not turned ugly. Have you read “If it ain’t got that Swing, The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture,” by Mark Judge? I’m no expert on this stuff and clearly you are. You might want to query Spence Publishing about a book along this line.

Dave said...

Yes, I agree with all of that -- there's no doubt something is deeply wrong with pop music. I'm not gonna defend Marilyn Manson or celebrate the glories of vulgarity.

I haven't read the Judge book, but I'm familiar with the basic thesis, which says something to the effect that the resurgence of swing was a return to older, more sophisticated forms of courtship, a kind of non-Victorian formalism. I like the idea, but I think it kinda lives and dies with the swing trend, which lasted just about long enough for Judges book to go to press. Maybe I should read it before I pass judgement though.

I have thought about a book for some time. This is probably the first time I've collected the basic thesis in one spot. I'll probably start researching and writing in earnest later this spring. Your feedback has been very encouraging and helpful -- you're exactly the (kind of) guy I'd want to engage with this argument.

Michael Dodaro said...

So it isn't an argument, at least for my part. I used to have Holloway's email address. You should ping him about this. If you can't find him online I think I can find his address. Now that I think of it, Spence is not accepting queries, but send me mail and we can explore this offline.

Dave said...

An interesting post along these lines here:

It's interesting that he invokes Eliot's idea of the "metaphysical poet" in attempting to explain Will Oldham. I totally agree with this, and I've often thought Oldham was a perfect an example of rock's demand that the gods (God) endorse the passions of the body. Oldham is yet another figure that Nietzsche and Bloom can't explicate, but Christianity (in this case, by way of Eliot) can.

Michael Dodaro said...

All I can remember at the moment about the metaphysical poets is their use of miraculous or impossible images that were meant to convey meaning that is in, but not of, the visible world. In the sense that this technique is used by both John Donne and Oldham I get the point. Both are alluding to a dimension of the world that is spiritual without being immaterial. So, am I correct that when you say rock musicians are “witnessing” to a Christian reality, you mean this spiritual dimension of the physical world that materialists deny? Is it rock against Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett?

Dave said...

It's getting pretty funny how you're completely anticipating my argument. Yeah, absolutely, rock's affirmation of the intersection of the physical and spiritual is in direct opposition to the reductionism and religious atomism of Lucretius through Dennett and his ilk. Of course, you don't need rock to do that, you just need St. Thomas.

Dave said...

That said, I don't want to make it seem I'm arguing that rock is some kind of apologetic, or good in itself. Rock is also fragmented and broken, exaggerated and grotesque. I mean, Little Richard's hair, for instance. Alice Cooper.

Michael Dodaro said...

I just edited a book review of Dennett's latest effort by a friend, so I suppose I was a student who was ready for the teacher to appear. I can't fully appreciate the parallelism because I'm so unlearned in the idioms of popular music. As I told Ray, I wouldn't know a U-2 tune from a U-2X4. All this must have quite an impact on people who feel the alienation from themselves that Dawkins and Dennett "inspire". Even when it comes laced with some of the other poisonous elements of pop music.

Dave said...

Yeah, I think rock can be seen as a revolt against the dehumanization of modernity, whether it be the puritanism of some forms of institutialized Christianity and superficial ideals of 50's family life (a revolt also depicted in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer) or the facile promises of science and progress still clung to by the Kurzweils and Dawkins of the world.

I think it's interesting to watch what's really working for TV audiences right now: the re-mythologizing of Our Noble Scientists in CSI (what, 3 different versions now?) House, and a half-dozen similar shows, complete with atomic-level zoom-ins that would make Lucretius squeal with delight, and on the other hand a fixation on spiritistic pagan myths in shows like Supernatural and Lost. On the one hand, we need the order that Bacon's vision provides, but on the other a completely reduced atomistic world is terrifying for its loss of spirit. So we seem to be claim yo-yoing between two completely contradictory cosmologies: spiritism and reductionism. But I guess that's another essay altogether.

Michael Dodaro said...

Holloway has not completely missed this revolt against the Lucrecian/Epicurean materialism in the modern era. He takes it up in his discussion of Romanticism. The transcendentalists in this country covered some of this ground. But Holloway runs into Wagner and Nietzsche and follows that trend of hyper-Romanticism where it leads.

scribe said...

My opinion--but, I'm not sure if rock was really much of a revolt against the spirit of our age. Except in its style of the corporate man in the gray flannel suit--his swing music, crew-cuts and button-down shirts. As I remember those times were too buttoned-down. Something had to give, but when it did, it revolted only in style, not in essence.

After all the 1960s-1990s sturm and drang, rock has become the current Muzak. It used to be Lawrence Welk.

Weren't Strauss waltzes considered radical music back in the 1840s? I can't remember why.

Dave said...

It's interesting that you bring up _Man in the Grey Flannel Suit_, the Gregory Peck film. It chronicles the spiritual detachment of a WWII veteran, and is one of the few post-WWII films to treat the moral effects of war on a nation directly and honestly, in a way that we wouldn't be accustomed to until after Vietnam. Most other cultural indicators in the late 40s and early 50s were of prosperity , Ozzie and Harriet, bobby socks, etc. But underneath the sterility of that vision was a spiritually-cauterized nation and a generation of fathers that would find it difficult to connect with their children. _Grey Flannel Suit_ captures the ambiguity of victory perfectly.

It's my view that this spiritual detachment set the stage for the hyper-romantic view of the sixties. But there were moderate voices in the Christian community that sensed something was wrong as well, in particular Percy's _The Moviegoer_, and lets not forget that Tolkien's most visible early fanbase in the US were hippies.

So much of the 60's counter-culture was driven by a sense of the need for spiritual and moral authenticity that couldn't be found in Leave-it-to-Beaver world. I'm not endorsing the standard rejection of the nuclear family, but it has to be acknowledged that all was not well for the boomer generation, and that much of their demands were driven by a strong, if out-of-control, moral instinct: abhorrence of war and civil injustice for starters, which are essentially Christian in origin. Whatever we may think about the eventual bankruptcy of the moral legacy of the 60's it's simplistic to argue, as E. Michael Jones and others have, that it was simply the result of communist secular ideas propogated by the Frankfurt School and Jewish emmigre intelletuals. There was fertile ground for the revolt, and the post-war context and the spiritual condition of the nation has to be taken into account.

Ray said...

Scribe, waltz music of the mid nineteenth century was considered radical because the waltz as a dance was considered extremely risque. I think it was President Tyler who during a ball introduced the waltz to for the first time in the White House and he scandalized polite Washington society.

scribe said...


I agree with you about the sterility of the 1940s-1950s, which led to the open revolt ten years later. As I remember it, it seemed to be a period where making money was the only thing that was important. Spirituality was reduced to appearances and no one questioned anything very much. There was a great deal of sin, like adultery and alcoholism, but it was kept under cover also for appearance sake. Appearances meant everything and were defended fiercely, but underneath was a vacuum.

But when revolt came that tore off the mask of appearances to reveal the sins and emptiness beneath--did the revolt itself truly change things or did it allow what was rotten underneath to continue to moulder albeit openly? If that is the case, then what did the 60s revolt accomplish in the end?

In the beginning, the revolt did address issues like civil injustice before it was swerved away from finishing that work by Vietnam protests. But along with that was, since the late 1940s, a parallel revolt against the Judeo-Christian ethos led by Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg and others of the Beat Generation. This revolt converged with, even provided the spiritual energy behind, all the other ferment. Soon the whole scene became a swamp of extremely atomized spiritualities and issues that provides only a different style of cover on the same old emptiness.

What would make a true revolt? What would it take to fill the emptiness? I believe it is to be found in Christian belief, but now it must be explained and experienced far deeper than it has ever been before if the culture is to come back to it again. So far that has not been done. After their initial revolt, many boomers have come home to "Leave it to Beaver" instead.

Michael Dodaro said...

I can see that rock musicians are trying to jolt their listeners into awareness of exultant physicality. Interesting too that the conflict between pagans and the ancient Hebrews was not about flesh and spirit; the Hebrew Bible is not spiritualistic by any stretch of the imagination. But, Christianity under the influence of Platonism and Neoplatonism veered off in ascetic and Gnostic heresies toward hatred for the flesh. We have to make careful distinctions here, because there are Christian canonical texts that call for subjugation of the flesh, and the eschatological sayings of Jesus must be distinguished from those of later mystics who tried to meditate or torture themselves into a pure spiritual consciousness. The Incarnation and the resurrection clearly contradict the spiritualists, whether they are ascetics or Presbyterians. Calvin banished all music but plainsong chant from his churches. He argued that harmony was carnal and self-indulgent. But this was, it seems, in reaction to the renaissance revival of "pagan" art. Getting this right is not easy, but it's not impossible either.

Michael Dodaro said...

I should admit my bias in favor of rock music as an affirmation of the body in opposition to Calvinistic or mystical spirituality. Over the years I've often been told that opera is too physical. The passion and pathos of opera are formalized and refined musically, but raw physicality is also evident. I find an affirmation of life in the body in opera similar to what Dave finds in rock music. Apparently there is also an awareness of the sublime in some rock music. In the review that started this discussion I wrote that rock music is the equivalent of nuclear war against moral and rational thinking. Now I would have to add that it is also an outrageous satire at the expense of Pharisaism and Calvinistic rationality.
Another piece in First Things that you might find interesting, Dave, is my review of David McCracken's book, The Scandal of the Gospels. Note particularly Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of "carnivalized scandal".
An encounter with Jesus, in this view, is so jolting, scandalous, that one is either offended or liberated by faith.

scribe said...

I think asceticism is vastly misunderstood. There is probably no one more conscious of the body than the ascetic who is trying to bring it under control. For example, just think of all the fasting he must do in the normal course of a liturgical year (in Orthodoxy it's half the year). For Westerners, think of what you give up for Lent, and how much you miss what you've given up. The resulting obsession to what one has fasted shows the ascetic how much power the body can have. It takes training then to overcome the obsession.

Mystical Christianity is not trying to deny the body, it is trying to make the spirit regain its proper domination over the body so that the two can worship in harmony together. The body is always to be the Temple where God's spirit dwells, where God incarnates himself. But where the spirit doesn't reign over the body, the body will certainly make sure each and every one of its passions and cravings will be satisfied. In this kind of undisciplined life, where the body's passions rule, the spirit is either atrophied or gone altogether.

I do not think the rock music affirms the body. What does it affirm about it? When it excites its passions, does it make it into a temple? Or even maintain its humanity? Or does it drive it into the animal realm, there to mire itself into instinct instead of raising it to reason?

The ancient Greeks, Buddhists and Hindus etc treat the body as something to be cast aside--that because the body sins, suffers and dies only the spirit must matter. This is not the true Christian teaching. It is true,though, that Greek pagan philosophy did influence Christian thinkers, especially in the West, and the various Christian heretical sects. But these pagan beliefs should not be ascribe to mystical Christianity.

Michael Dodaro said...

I'm not the man to defend rock music, but I will say that the mystics I've read sound a lot like Athanael in the opera Thais. The end of that story is tragic.
Maybe Dave will come back to deal with the excessive passion and often immoral evocaions of rock music. I'll try to deal with the excessive passion and often immoral evocations of opera and opera singers. But right now I'm going to have to pay attention to business or I may end up living as a hermit in the eastern Washington desert.

Dave said...

scribe, here's where we part ways: "Mystical Christianity is not trying to deny the body, it is trying to make the spirit regain its proper domination over the body so that the two can worship in harmony together. The body is always to be the Temple where God's spirit dwells, where God incarnates himself. But where the spirit doesn't reign over the body, the body will certainly make sure each and every one of its passions and cravings will be satisfied."

The language you use here, of spirit dominating the body, and of the body's insatiable appetite that would run to infinity were it not for the spirit and/or reason, is not a Hebrew sentiment, nor, I would argue, is it what St. Paul means when he seems to set up a spirit/body dichotomy. It is the Greek that sees the body as mute matter, the locus of appetite and nothing else. The Christian view, articulated best by St. Thomas and implicit in later thinkers like Kierkegaard (who, I might add, are merely cashing out the implications of the Imago Dei, and the Incarnation), would see a simulaneity between the body and spirit. There is no opposition between the two, because they occupy the same space, they are synthesized in the same substance: a total human soul. The life of the body and the life of the spirit are one and the same. Disciplining the body is not to be done with an eye to supression of appetite to make way for spiritual desires, but in order to re-orient the body's appetites, to align them with their original intent, at which point those desires can be pursued hedonistically. Dante's Divine Comedy is the greatest expression of this idea: when Beatrice leads Dante through the final phases of the Paradiso, and his loves have been oriented finally towards perfect goodness, Dante remarks that his desire was enlarged.

The Christian should commit himself to disciplining his desires, absolutely. Discipline and strict formalism are essential to the Christian life. But this discipline should be practised with the goal of the proper increase of desire, and the full enjoyment of life in the body. This is what I think Dante and Song of Solomon, among other Christian writings, are trying to teach us. There can be no opposition between spirit and body because they are not ontologically distinct; the one does not enjoy existence apart from the other. Appetites are ontologically good. It is sin that diminishes desire by diluting it through indulgence, and misdirecting it towards the self rather than its proper object. Moderation is not ultimately supression but indulgence: the connesuer knows when to stop eating because he knows when he is satisfied. The husband and wife know the greatest physical pleasure because they are free from guilt, and free to give themselves both emotionally and phyically to each other. The goal in a healthy marriage, is to have as much ecstatic, free and expressive physical consummation as possible, as this is God's original intent for it. Song of Solomon gives us a great picture of God's intent for the desires of the body, and it has nothing to do with moderation. It has to do with context and rightly-directed desire.

Michael Dodaro said...

All well and good, Dave, but where do you find any of this in "The Rolling Stone" or any other artifact of rock culture? I can point to numerous operatic arias that express these conceptions of life in the body, many of them that are, in fact, prayers. Where is the sublime vision of rightly ordered desire in rock and roll music?

scribe said...


You said: "It is sin that diminishes desire by diluting it through indulgence, and misdirecting it towards the self rather than its proper object. Moderation is not ultimately supression but indulgence: the connesuer knows when to stop eating because he knows when he is satisfied."

And "Song of Solomon gives us a great picture of God's intent for the desires of the body, and it has nothing to do with moderation. It has to do with context and rightly-directed desire."

Yes, this is true, but since we live in this fallen world where the appetites are so often twisted and "the desires are diluted by indulgence", as you say, the full satisfaction, the healthy and full consummation you speak of does not often happen in a sin-enslaved world.

The ascetic practice is to detach oneself, wholistically, from the sin from corrupted desire, not from desire itself. The desire is what takes us to God. To re-order one's desires takes discipline, just as an impulsive, poorly behaved child must be disciplined, until such time that one's desires are rightly directly and in the proper context.

This discipline does involve "moderation" because, for example, if one doesn't eat, one dies, but if one indulges too much, one dies from obesity. Moderation allows a spiritual athlete to guide his bodies along a saner path, but moderation is not the end in itself, but the fullness in God.

Dave said...

Well, musically, I think it's most properly expressed in the Black Gospel tradition, which is where rock and roll gets its original impulse. From that I think it can be argued that simply to celebrate life in the body, in time, with all the freedom and passion and possibility that comes with it, as you hear in Elvis' voice in the early Sun sessions like "That's All Right Mama," is a declaration of intrinsic, transcendental Good. It's not as big a leap as it sounds -- note that the pagan view, best articulated by Nietzsche and later scholars like Robert Pattison have to say that such a celebration is vulgar and absurd, and rightly so because life is meaningless and solipsistic. Read the last chapter of Pattison's _The Triumph of Vulgarity_, and you'll find an outright declaration of the fact of solipsism. Well, as far as I can tell solipsism and the vulgar romantic pantheism Pattison advocates is as far from the spirit of Elvis' Sun sessions as you can get.

Later, though, note the self-concsiousness that takes over, the smirk in Elvis' delivery, the wink and the total exaggeration, in "Heartbreak Hotel," and most everything Presley recorded after Sam Phillips sold him to RCA. I think you were right on the money when you remarked: " is also an outrageous satire at the expense of Pharisaism and Calvinistic rationality." I think there is a tremendous amount of satire in rock, a deep awareness of its own ridiculous spectacle. When you get to The Band, however, you have a recovery of innocence, of sorts, a return to the gospel and traditional roots of the music that unleashes the implicit Incarnational element. But before that most rock artists themselves saw the music as mostly farce, particularly when you get to the late sixties with The Who, late Beatles (or early Beatles for that matter). British rock always tends towards self-consciousness and satire, while American acts have been more likely to take the music seriously as a legitimate expressions of the human condition.

But this is a dicey proposition: I'm not trying to endorse the whole rock project, or even any rock music at all. Off the bat, I just want to get it right, because the interpretations of the music so far are all inadequate and totally contradict one another. That said, there are glimmers of hope, like I said, in The Band, the best of Dylan, Neil Young and others.

scribe said...

Correcting my last statement:

It should read--Moderation allows a spiritual athlete to guide his bodies along a saner path, but moderation is not the end in itself, but the fullness in God is the goal.

Dave said...

"This discipline does involve "moderation" because, for example, if one doesn't eat, one dies, but if one indulges too much, one dies from obesity. Moderation allows a spiritual athlete to guide his bodies along a saner path, but moderation is not the end in itself, but the fullness in God."

I can totally agree with that -- and I should not have said "it has nothing to do with moderation," but rather "it has nothing to do with supression."

Yes, we're not far apart here, I would just emphasise that Hellenic dualism casts a huge shadow over this conversation. It's very difficult to negotiate the dangers of, on the one hand, the Eastern tendency towards outright denial of the body, and on the other, outright licentiousness. One of the few things I agree with Foucault on is his aphorism, "Everything is dangerous."

scribe said...

I've heard a good bit of black gospel, and I wouldn't say that it makes good Christian music. It is extremely indulgent to the emotions, to chaos in worship and to lack of physical control. The black churches today are in poor spiritual condition in part because of black gospel.

Black Gospel was borrowed its forms from dance hall and brothel tunes that were "christianized" by Tommy Dorsey verses. At the time it was introduced, many black churches had opposed it because of where the tunes came from. It quickly made inroads in the more free-wheeling pentecostal black churches and later made its way into the main-line denominations of black churches. By the early 70s, black gospel began to use rock n roll forms beginning with Edwin Hawkins--"O Happy Day" in 1970.

Some years ago, I visited a black church that was in all respects like many other black churches I visited over the years, except for one thing. During their Sunday School hour, there were several old men who taught various groups gathered in different places in the pews. When Sunday School ended, these old men began singing something very old that sounded almost liturgical--it was so very unlike the style that the choir sang later. What these men sang was soaringly beautiful, expressive and soulful, what the choir sang was full of bombast, noise and silly, indulgent choral arrangements which was not inspiring, liberating or even pleasing to hear.

Michael Dodaro said...

Artistic categories that may help:
1. Art is self expression: joy, pain, disillusionment, despair, jadedness, or whatever, are expressed in music that communicates these things to the listener. The listener can feel the emotions and may learn from the experiences of the artist.
2. Art is beautiful for its own sake: form is important and is arguably metaphysical.
3. Art is didactic: the morality plays from which opera developed were part of the teaching ministries of the church
4. Art is propaganda: A great deal of serious contemporary art is in this category. John Cage may have been a nice man, but his art is nihilistic propaganda.
5. Art does not exist: on this view everything is art and nothing is art. Whatever exists is right.

Dave said...

Dorsey's innovations were also an application of European harmonic structure to existing Black Spirituals, as well as jazz and blues elements. I'm not sure what "dance hall" and "brothel tunes" you're talking about, unless it's the blues element that Dorsey brought in from his days as a pianist with Ma Rainey, or the incredible sophistication of dance bands like Duke Ellington or Count Basie that influenced him.

You're going to have a very hard time declaring the music of Basie, Ellington, Son House, Charlie Patton, Bessie Smith and Blind Willie Johnson as intrinsically evil. Now, you wouldn't be the first to try that by a long shot, but the cultural and theological problems with that interpretation are legion.

Musically speaking, it's impossible to separate the development of Black Spirituals and the blues. Most Black communities were more concerned with the lifestyle associated with a given music than the intrinsic evil nature of the music itself. Unless you're willing to commit the anti-Augustian sin of declaring a particular musical form ontologically evil, a move that cedes the Christian metaphysic entirely to the realm of spiritism, you need to come up with some other rationale or musical theology for rejecting Dorsey's musical innovations as directly linked to the morality of the brothel.

Beyond that, Dorsey himself is not the last word on Black Gospel music. The Sprituals he drew on go back over a century before his time, and include some of the most sublime, spirit-lifting music ever heard. The excesses of contemporary gospel, or the emotional excess of certain black churches, particularly of a Charasmatic strain, cannot dim the beauty of a Sallie Martin or Mahalia Jackson performance. If you take the best examples, the perfection of the Gospel music form, rather than the decadent or extreme examples, it's very difficult to deny the incarnational truth they express -- in perfect continuum doctrinally with European Christian Orthodoxy.

I think it's interesting that the harder one tries to deny the orthodoxy and legitimacy of Black Gospel at its best, the less Hebrew and more Hellenistic one's rationale becomes.

Michael Dodaro said...

This is the most sympathetic piece I've ever written about the monastic life. It's a short review of a book, written in sonnet form, which imagines the struggles of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was also a priest.

scribe said...

Dave said: "I think it's interesting that the harder one tries to deny the orthodoxy and legitimacy of Black Gospel at its best, the less Hebrew and more Hellenistic one's rationale becomes."

What's orthodox about black gospel? According to whom? As for its legitimacy--what makes it legitimate? Wouldn't the question of orthodoxy and legitimacy depend what church party accepts it--it is not legitimate across the board. Would an Ethiopian Church in America accept it? They're black, they're even more African, and they've certainly have had their share of the blues over the centuries.

Music's function in a church setting is to provide the dialogue between a congregation and God. In ancient times, chant and hymn singing were the way to do this. Singing is seen by liturgical writers as an alteration of the normal cadence of speech to signify one's entering into another realm, just as when one entered a church from the outside one behaved in a more sacred manner in the sacred space.

But singing has come to be used to express our secularity--our sentimentality, romance, depair, bawdiness, hate, martial spirit, sheer fun or sell products etc. Nothing evil about this--and I didn't say that the songs of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington etc were evil. They are secular in intent, and the tunes and words reflect this worldliness.

Since singing can be both sacred and secular, how do we know what kind of spirit is being sung in our churches? Is singing sacred songs to be regarded as a denial of the secular? Or shouldn't our flesh get its affirmation in the sacred as it participates in sacred singing? Or should the spirit be made to affirm the passions of the flesh by singing its tunes in its way, however it feels that day?

Tommy Dorsey himself said where he got the tunes--it wasn't the spirituals. He said also who opposed his using these tunes. See the film--"Say Amen, Somebody."

Black gospel music is like the rest of the CCM scene--entertainment for Christians, not very condusive for worship. There have been some good songs in it over the years, but overall it is entertainment.

Black spirituals are not the same musical form as black gospel. There is something much more pure and simple about them--they contain a genuine feeling of a directed reverence and worship in them. In addition, many of those songs were in the form of a litany--the call and response that's so basic to the dialogue of a liturgy. So when Mahalia Jackson or Marian Anderson sang spirituals--of course, they sounded sublime and beautiful--the sounds of worship, not of entertainment.

Dave said...

I couldn't disagree more with your equivocation between CCM and the great Gospel tradition that CCM is all but completely ignorant of, and has all but repudiated. If only CCM had the kind of pious community roots, drive and focus of the best Gospel. Are you completely unaware of the scandals that gospel artists like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles caused when they tried to cross the line from worship to entertainment?

Was/is gospel emotionally indulgent? There's no question it had that tendency, particularly when it became thoroughly entwined in the Pentecostal tradition. The question is, I suppose, what does gospel represent in its purest expression? I find it very difficult to dismiss the perfomances of a Sallie Martin or the Dixie Hummingbirds as "mere" enthusiasm, or reducible to Thomas Dorsey's intentions, noble or otherwise. Gospel developed a spirit and a sound that touched something universal, that resonates across national boundaries and cultures, and has had a cultural staying power and deep resonance that runs much deeper than mere entertainment. The common experience I hear from people from all walks of life is that speaks to their spirit, the sublime touching the material and the mundane. Obviously it doesn't have that resonance with you, but I can't deny my experience with it, or that of others. I have no theological reason to suspect my experience -- in fact my commitment to the doctrine of the incarnation endorses it -- and every criticism of the music I've run across invariably makes recourse to a basic antagonism between spirit and body.

Black Gospel communities are/were as pious as any fundamentalist, puritan, strict Catholic or Calvinist communities you can name. There was enthusiasm in worship, yes, but in was infused with an awareness of sin and gratitude for forgiveness, it was NOT simply enthusiasm in the abstract. It was a response to fact of the Gospel in a person's life. Black Gospel communities have historically been very, very jealous of the boundaries between worship and entertainment, between the world and the church. They've had compromises, yes, just as every church community has had compromises. But at its height, the Gospel circuit was a Church circuit built around church communities that enforced strict moral boundaries on itself, and fiercely defended its integrity. Read Anthony Heilbut's _The Gospel Sound_ for a thourough account of the pious character of Black Gospel communities.

scribe said: "Music's function in a church setting is to provide the dialogue between a congregation and God. In ancient times, chant and hymn singing were the way to do this. Singing is seen by liturgical writers as an alteration of the normal cadence of speech to signify one's entering into another realm, just as when one entered a church from the outside one behaved in a more sacred manner in the sacred space."

I agree with all this, and quite honestly, I'm not sure that Gospel IS the best music for worship as such. I'm not necessarily defending the liturgical use of Gospel as much as I am Gospel by its own lights, as music to be engaged on its own terms. For my part I prefer liturgy and reverence and reserve, and the more the liturgy is sung, the better. But there is a time and place for everything, and Gospel music retains a place in my life, and expresses incarnational truth, the truth that we live life in bodies created by God, in a temporal world that was originally called "Good," and that Goodness is a reflection of the greater Goodness to come after our eventual ressurection. I find all of that in Gospel, and the same part of my soul that kneels at the altar to recieve the Eucharist every week, also leaps to the enthusiasm and hope in Gospel music, that starts in the sweaty world of bodily life and reaches for the heavens.

Chares of Fort Worth said...

Dave/Mike: I have enjoyed reading this dialog and I have a couple of comments that may perhaps give us some additional theological angles from which to approach these questions. 1.) Not to be too Byzantine (by initially leaving out Augustine) but the central problem of the Christian religion is both cosmological and anthropological: corruption and death. This problem is answered by, though not exclusively, Ez. 47 and Apoc. 21-22. God is going to ostensibly solve the problem of the corruptibility of matter and its inability to endure in a quickened state. 2.) As Augustine says in his earlier work against the Manicheans: the source of evil is the will and not the body or even physicality in general. Then can the notion of “flesh” also be a doctrine of the “body”? I would say no they are not the same but what intuition is being communicated here by linking moral evil with physicality? If we take Paul in Rom 6:23 and take sin and death as “organically linked”, by which I mean not merely held together by God’s immediate and heteronomous activity, we end up with an apparent antinomy. Without tackling the antinomy right away I would like to try at articulating the positive implication of this connection, namely that: the eschatological fecundity of nature is the epiphany (NOT an analogy) of a psychic renewal, a quickening which involves moral perfection and whose gravity cannot tolerate ontological privation in any form (Matt 17:2, The Transfiguration). In this there may be a way of explaining the resurrection of judgment (John 5:29) where presumably the reprobate are free from death and a certain type of corruption but are doomed to die a “second death” in the lake of fire (Apoc 20:14). We may say that those reprobate and in the resurrected state suffer from a radical and painful intrapersonal disjunction, namely that the ontological equilibrium of the resurrected body (being so much more that an atomic reconstruction) militates against rival noumenal patterns of opposing purposes solidified by personal choice. In this disjunction we could then locate the enduring pain of “hell”. I have purposefully left out any mention of spirit here in order to add to what both of you have said about the dangers of dualism. In 1 Cor 15:44 Paul apparently opposes the physical body and the spiritual body. In fact a better translation of the Greek is “psychical” not physical. We should understand the opposition to be between the corruptible body and the spiritual body. This frees us to understand spirit differently and more in light of Gen 1:2, where the Spirit (big “S”) is in “real” and full contact with the heavens and the earth. Spirit is perfective of the entire man, both body and soul, though I generally think that Christians struggle with the thought that salvation and beatitude must necessarily mean that their bodies are going to be sublimed away. Having said all this, do both of you think this line of thought can be propaedeutic to advancing a non-dualistic anthropology (and aesthetic of music)?

scribe said...

As a matter of fact, back in my younger years, I liked Walter Hawkins very much and attended a concert featuring him and 100's of other black gospel artists back in 1979. I listened to black gospel stations a great deal during the 1970s when black gospel started to take on rock forms and there was a rush to Christianize current secular tunes. I liked the O'Neill twins, too and the Thundering Clouds of Joy put on a memorable performance when one of the singers lept 10 ten in the air and landed in the audience and began to boogaloo. The audience went wild.

I was aware of the cross-over scandals--later on, black rock artists would be interviewed and asked about their church background. "Were you baptist or methodist? I thought I heard the baptist in your music."

But black gospel isn't the best form for worship. Perhaps that's where we are having the misunderstanding...if you enjoy listening to the Dixie Hummingbirds or whoever, I see nothing wrong with that. But I regard it as a "tune" not a hymn.

scribe said...

Welcome Charles!

Thanks for your comment and many thanks also to Dave for his good postings. This has been great.

I have to sign off for the night, and Mike will join us again as soon as he can. But we'll go at it again tomorrow and address Charles and Dave.

Thanks guys--continue to post!

Michael Dodaro said...

Hello, Charles. Thank you very much for adding your thoughts to our conversation. There is so much exciting detail in your post. This sentence alone is stunning to contemplate:

"In 1 Cor 15:44 Paul apparently opposes the physical body and the spiritual body. In fact a better translation of the Greek is "psychical" not physical. We should understand the opposition to be between the corruptible body and the spiritual body."

I have neglected the Greek I studied in school, but this "psychical not physical" translation corresponds with, and helps to explicate, about forty years experience in the battle to understand Paul along these lines. Eschatology is not for amateurs. Unfortunately, we amateurs live with the consequences of the meager understandings we can bring to bear in our various existential dilemmas.

Artists have a most difficult struggle with Paul on exactly this point, just as we have been discussing. The opera Thais and others by Massenet are very eloquent in their rendering of the drama of the mistaken dualism of spirit and sense.

Classically trained singers bear torments that might be compared, only partly in jest, to an "intrapersonal disjunction in the resurrected state" as you have so expertly dissected it. Another of Paul's memorable phrases is more correctly applied in this analogy, that of creation groaning while it waits for the consummation, but I couldn't resist your idea. If I can borrow Scribe's metaphor, I would argue that singing the kind of music I sing is a struggle comparable to the life of a spiritual athlete. After some years in the effort, one has a pretty good conception of form as it inheres in the art. You work for the rest of your life trying to attain an existential rendering of it. The limitations of the "flesh" are apparent every day, but it is, indisputably, the flesh that makes singing what it is.

A woman with whom I sang for a while many years ago pointed out to me that in the Bible only human beings sing. Look again at the passages you might recall that seem otherwise; I think you'll find that angels come praising God and "saying... ", not singing... . Being told by well-meaning Christians that opera is "of the flesh" is painful and incredible, just as it is painful and repellent to witness the death of Thais and the despair of the man who converts her to an erroneous theology by which he himself is undone. I think this is where Dave and I find common ground. Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, or their latest incarnations, have gotten part of it right in rebelling against the doctrinaire and simplistic theology of the apparent antinomy.

But on this matter of noble and inherent form, inseparable from the body as God has created it, classical art has discovered a dimension of reality that needs to be cherished and preserved against the five-minutes-of-fame phenomena who have captivated and corrupted several generations of enthusiasts and who are now ascendant in the Evangelical church. There are black singers whose spirituals and gospel music have, by whatever means, attained the nobility of form inherent in the human body and, inspired by God's grace, they are able to demonstrate it for anyone with ears to hear, but even this music comes out of a tradition that winnows out the chaff over many generations.

Yes, the corruptible body and the spiritual body are in conflict. Another perplexing passage actually has the reverse meaning from that which is usually imposed on it. Let a man take care how he builds, for the day will test everything with fire... wood, hay, stubble will be burned, but the more enduring metals and precious stones will survive. That which survives is more durable material than the stuff that burns away, not some disembodied spirit. The metaphor can be construed without too much imagination to mean the enduring form that we can discover and embody in art, especially when it is art that is embodied in our own flesh, will survive. That's why great singing verges on transcendence in the world we know. That's what we mean when we say we are transported by great art. I've experienced this in the opera house and in church, in Mozart's music as well as that of a black soprano named Willow Dorsey singing her own rendition of Oh How I Love Jesus. I tell you the truth; she opened heaven for a while when her voice cut my heart like lightning. I shouted like one of the fat women waving their handkerchiefs.

Dave said...

Mike wrote: "I've experienced this in the opera house and in church, in Mozart's music as well as that of a black soprano named Willow Dorsey singing her own rendition of Oh How I Love Jesus. I tell you the truth; she opened heaven for a while when her voice cut my heart like lightning. I shouted like one of the fat women waving their handkerchiefs."

I love this description, Mike. I probably wouldn't have ever had the notion to recover an incarnational view of rock had the music of Bill Mallonee and Mark Heard not cut me to the quick. Here was a contradiction that I could not reconcile: that the most despised, profligate form of music in the world convicted me and confronted me with the person of Christ with a force I hadn't known before. "Parting Shot" is as good an example as any. You have to hear it for the full effect but the lyrics stand up pretty well:

And this by Mark Heard...simply devastating:

Luth said...

Hey Ray,
This is frickin' awesome. It never occurred to me before to click on your link. I didn't know you had this blog. As soon as I get a chance, I'm going to lose myself in this thing for a while. I'm sorry I haven't before!

Ray said...

OK Luth, but most of us are quite conservative, you'll be the troll over here. :-)

scribe said...

Here's a site with plenty of downloads of Orthodox liturgical music.

A quote regarding the monastic call from St. Gregory the Theologian:
"Will you prefer action or contemplation?
Contemplation is the occupation of the perfect,
Action belongs to the many.
Both are good and dear;
Choose the one that befits you."

An explanation of the Orthodox monastic ideal by Fr. Georges Florovsky which also discusses the Reformation views:

scribe said...


Please enlarge a bit more on this statement you made:
In 1 Cor 15:44 Paul apparently opposes the physical body and the spiritual body. In fact a better translation of the Greek is “psychical” not physical. We should understand the opposition to be between the corruptible body and the spiritual body. This frees us to understand spirit differently and more in light of Gen 1:2, where the Spirit (big “S”) is in “real” and full contact with the heavens and the earth. Spirit is perfective of the entire man, both body and soul, though I generally think that Christians struggle with the thought that salvation and beatitude must necessarily mean that their bodies are going to be sublimed away. Having said all this, do both of you think this line of thought can be propaedeutic to advancing a non-dualistic anthropology (and aesthetic of music)? "

If I read you correctly, you believe that the dualist point of view really doesn't exist in Scripture--that is has been a misinterpretation--and we should get beyond that question and focus on "the Spirit being perfective of the entire man, body and soul". I think most of us here are trying to eschew the dualist teachings we have received and proceed toward this. Towards this end, can you offer a picture of what the aesthetic of "the Spirit being perfective of the entire man" should look like or sound like in our arts?

Michael Dodaro said...

I read the lyrics, Dave. Whatever the music sounds like, the impact is the scandal of the Gospel, the Son of God, who is also the son of man, engaging the world in every cultural ghetto, high or low. I think we've come to agree that spirit/body dualism is inadequate. I've posted a quote from an Orthodox theologian to begin a new thread that should keep us busy for quite a while.

Chares of Fort Worth said...

I think what I am saying is that theologically we can be confirmed in our defense of the type of music where the passions are hypnotized. By this I mean the type of music (not the poetry being performed with it) that y’all have been discussing.

I was reading John Crowe Ransom recently (“The Equilibrists” and other poems about erotic love) and after reflecting and rereading several of the poems (and talking to an old lit professor I am close to) I understood a little more about sex. This was that sex is good and it is also very dangerous. Without unpacking that anymore and without explaining myself any further (right now), I would like to say that music is good but some kinds of music are certainly dangerous (and good at the same time).

scribe said...


Are you saying that we can, with a theological sleight of hand defend our tastes in music--even those musical forms that has seduced our passions?

Ray and I were emailing each other privately about the morality of music just now--so I will copy here my observation about it to him which adds some proof to what you have said. I have a question for you at the end of this posting:

"I do think music, being a dynamic human creation as opposed to an inert physical object, does have an intrinsic moral dimension to it. Anything that has to do with language (including music which forms the background for language, the force with which God created the universe) has a tremendous moral dimension.

"But what kind of moral comes from our music does come down to a matter of choice. For instance, Frank Sinatra's version of "I Did It My Way" sounds mildly melodramatic, but overall very benign, almost boring, in delivery. The words, though, had a rather selfish edge to it, but you couldn't heard its innate selfishness in Sinatra's rendition. However, when Sid Viscious of the Sex Pistols did it, he took "I Did It My Way" to its ultimate narcisstic max and it was the most harrowingly demonic performance I'd ever heard."

Ray replied: "The composer is using the elements of music to convey a message. You may be able to throw some obscene words at me in Russian (my mother knew some in German) and they would have no meaning to me since I have no understanding of that language. The 26 letters of our alphabet are amoral, but arrange certain letters into 4 letter combinations and you have very specific meaning that I would understand. The text of "I Did It My Way" has a man-centered egocentric meaning to it. Sinatra's performance version took off the edges and made it acceptable in polite society. You could say, that the tone of his music did not match the tone of the text. Vicious's version was more honest in that the emotional tone of the music supported the text more clearly. With rock music, there's nothing wrong with the melody, harmony or even rhythm for that matter. Rock pieces have been transformed into something that sounds like it came from the pen of Bach, or maybe Mendelssohn. How it is performed or the context is what can make it have a good or evil intent. Your observations that rock has a base appeal is correct, and that is where the morality comes in."

Chares--what music do you think does not merely hypnotize our passions, and what kind leads us to perfection?

Ray said...

I knew I'd be dragged into this conversation sooner or later.

Michael Dodaro said...

Let's hear it for John Phillip Sousa! As a trombonist you must have an aesthetic of marches, don't you, Ray? I've always loved this stuff.

scribe said...

Sorry Ray, I hope I didn't overstep, but what you had to say was good.

Ray said...

Scribe, I don't mind at all, but watch your back - I may get even.

Mike, first my primary instrument is bass trombone, not just trombone. There is a difference. Like, saying you're an opera crooner. Sousa is OK, but I prefer playing symphonic music with nice big fat bass trombone parts where the director keeps telling us she needs more brass.

Michael Dodaro said...

Is it ok if I like Sousa? I think he's an American Verdi.

Ray said...

Actually, Sousa started off writing symphonic music. You are allowed to like him as long as you can accept he was the "contemporary musician" of his day.

Michael Dodaro said...

Interesting that contemporary then meant flag-waving parades and how the parades turned to protest marches under the influence of our contemporary music.

Dave said...

Charley (hi Charley!...I'm keeping an eye on the weather, and I hope to make it out tonight)

You said: "This was that sex is good and it is also very dangerous. Without unpacking that anymore and without explaining myself any further (right now), I would like to say that music is good but some kinds of music are certainly dangerous (and good at the same time)."

I agree with this. The simple assertion of the Incarnation, and the consequent denial of dualism, doesn't mean we can't make judgements about bad music. But I remain very wary of moving beyond judgements of particular works into the realm of abstraction, and attempting to make of that critique a general principle. I think most works -- like most people -- are irreducibly themselves, and are bad, aesthetically and morally, on their own terms, not in terms of abstracted principles. That's not to say that Plato's view of beauty in the Phaedo isn't compelling, or that Bach's principles of part writing aren't brilliant. But the possibility remains that truth and beauty can be found in the grubbiest and the most mundane features of the world. The gothic idea of the grotesque illustrates this. Dostoevsky, and again with Dante, both communicated truth with elegance and poetry, even while the subject matter was disturbing and broken.

I don't personally feel I'm vulnerable to the deliterious effects of Nine Inch Nails, and I even recognize an artistry and honesty in what Trent Reznor does, as did Johnny Cash when he covered "Hurt." But if I were the parent of a 15-year old who resonated too much, and in the wrong way, with that music, I wouldn't hesitate to remove it from my house. But I'd also be looking for more fundamental reasons for my kid's affinity with the music, rather than simplistically blaming the music itself.

But I could say the same thing for certain works of art and literature, Kafka or Sartre, for instance.

Dave said...

I don't want to make it sound like I don't believe in transcendental truth with that last statement -- I certainly do. But in the realm of human morality, as Christians we rely primarily on revelation to guide us, and secondarily our intuition of virtue, but certainly not an abstracted, dehumanizing system of ethics like Kant's or Rousseau.

I'm saying the same danger is present in art, that we might construct an abstracted filter for "Good" and "Bad" art that has nothing to do with the intuition of beauty and truth.

I'm still working through Von Balthazar (oy) on this question. And I'll pretty much sign on with Maritain's Art and Scholasticism and Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. All that to say, I affirm trascendence and the existence of real Beauty, but from our perspective, art must remain mostly free. (cf. Art and Scholasticism chapter 8) Art and artists are always breaking through boundaries we attempt to erect for them, and finding new ways to express old truth.

Michael Dodaro said...

I see that I'm probably responsible for this. It is Chares, not Charles. Sorry Charley.

Dave, I think you're saying that "dissing" a whole genre is probably wrong. It's like Scribe's example of Frank Sinatra's rendition of "My Way" and "My Way" by Sid Viscious.

And, now that you've brought up the effect of pop music on kids, we've got another problem. Parents can't spend a lot of time listening to kid's music while they are earning enough money to pay for their offspring's education. Do they really want to leave acculturation of the youth to the promoters who sell this stuff on the basis of raw appeal?

Dave said...

I can only speak from my own experience. My 6 year old loves classical music. He loves the Henry Purcell we just bought, and the Mozart great mass. We'll be driving down the road listening to WRR (classical station here in Dallas) and some classical guitar piece will provoke him to say "this is great music."

But he also loves it when I play The Pogues or Stevie Wonder. And he loves the bluegrass records, old Flatt and Scruggs. And both he and my three year old go nuts when I put on Merle Travis.

But I'm a music nut, and I'm not sure everyone has the time or inclination to research or develop a music library like mine. That said, I think you'd be surprised just how many music nuts are out there. I have many friends with better collections than mine, and I'm supposed to be the music writer.

At the end of the day I'd say the answer is buried somewhere in Chapter 8 of Art and Scholasticism, "Christian Art." The gist of that chapter is that you cannot separate the artist from the Christian, that you cannot set out to "make" Christian art, you can only pursue the disciplines of being a Christian, and the disciplines of the artist, and the two will naturally inform each other, since they inhabit the same soul. But if you try to force the two, you risk damaging or destroying elements of both.

For the non-artist this principle holds as well. If you want to have Christian taste in art, then be a good Christian, while honing your taste by listening and exposing yourself to good art. There really is no other system but that. It's work, yes, but most worthwhile things are. And I think the parent that is doing this is probably already becoming a good parent, and obviating the trauma or anxiety that pushes kids to resonate with NIN, Marilyn Manson, or Aerosmith for that matter, to begin with.

Here's the Maritain

Michael Dodaro said...

I don't have children, so I'll take your word that parental guidance is feasible. I'm going by my own experience of youthful acculturation in pop music, which turned my head various ways. The sex in rock music was one thing, but what did the most damage was the folksy stuff that made me idolize the winsome rover who worked in the fields and factories only long enough to draw his pay and then move on to the next town. That work ethic, or its absence, probably set me back ten years and is part of the reason I wasn't stable enough soon enough to have my own children.
When I discovered classical music I had other problems, but, at least, I had something to motivate me.

Dave said...

That's really interesting. You wouldn't perchance be referring to Ramblin Jack Eliot? Of course Woodie Guthrie invented that myth about himself. If you get a chance, rent _The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack_. A fascinating portrait of exactly the dynamic you're talking about. I mean, I can see the appeal of that life. But having seen how Ramblin Jack ended up, I'm pretty sure it's not going to be an issue for me.

Dave said...

A belated post on Sousa: my six-year old adores him. He can hear Sousa or Sousa-influenced marches a mile a way. (Well, I suppose that's the whole point of Sousa, to hear it a mile away). That's the earliest music he really latched onto. At 3 he would hear "Stars and Stripes" or something and jump up and yell "Sousa!!"

Michael Dodaro said...

I'd say your boy is going to be susceptible to musical mythology. I can't remember all the artists now who turned my head; many of them working the same theme. I think Jimmy Rogers sang the song I had in mind. My mother bought the album, and I just overheard it. He sang other songs about faith and family life in the country, but the one I learned to play on the harmonica was that song about working the factories and plowing the fields. "The moonlight is my mother/ The sun is my old man/ My brothers and my sisters are the shifting wispering sand." I was good at a lot of things, but while this myth went round in my head I wasn't going accomplish anything.