Strange Music

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I am certainly not guilt-free when it comes to musical chauvinism, but I am generally broadminded about music. This started early on; as a kid I was just as happy listening to Broadway musical cast recordings as I was listening to kiddie records, country-western, or Disney soundtracks. Well, there was a period in high school when I was something of a jazz snob. Mostly, though, I have always had very eclectic musical taste. I never understood why one was expected to like The Beatles OR The Rolling Stones, disco OR rock, sacred OR secular. These sorts of musical duels seem pretty pointless.

Not long ago I gave a talk on “What Is Music?” As examples, I played snippets from John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Laurie Anderson, The Residents, John Coltrane, and Arthur Russell: all artists who have withstood both critical appraisal and the test of time well enough to be taken seriously by music scholars, yet all just odd enough to leave some people scratching their heads and/or covering their ears. The folks in the audience were largely in-the-box when it came to music, and my purpose was to lead them gently outside of the box a little. (I’m sure some of them left and later said to their friends and family, “You wouldn’t believe the crap I had to listen to today!”)

Whenever I find myself falling into a musical rut—which is very easy to do, especially for an old fart like me!—I force myself to try something new. I subscribe to Spotify and Sirius, and both of these services make finding new music a breeze. And there is a lot of great new music! (Yes, there is life beyond mean-spirited and insipid realty TV shows.)

For anyone wanted to reach out a bit, might I suggest turning to a guy who has had his hands in, on, around, and all through many creative and innovative musical projects: Brian Eno. He’s well-represented on Spotify both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with Roxy Music, David Bowie, U2, Ultravox, Robert Fripp, John Cale, and David Byrne just to name a very small sample.  On the contemporary classical side, one of his most interesting projects was Obscure Records, which existed from 1975-1978 and presented 10 records featuring groups and composers such as Penguin Café Orchestra, Gavin Bryars, Harold Budd, and others. These recordings are not necessarily easy to find, but they are worth the search. Most of the composers represented in the series have discographies that stretch beyond the Obscure label.

Happy listening!

Learning How Much I Have To Learn

I find it quite easy to become disgusted with the religious community. When I heard voices saying evolution is “just a theory” or that climate change is “fake news,” I want to shake my head in disbelief. How can people be so dumb? Often, the loudest voices saying those things come from the evangelical Christian community. Since I was raised in a Christian household and still consider myself a Christian, albeit a frequently skeptical one, this is upsetting to me.

What a relief it was just last year when I discovered Christian Century magazine. (A side perk was discovering that this magazine traces its roots to my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa!) Christian Century has been around for many decades, but it had always managed to elude my orbit until I stumbled across an Atlantic article by Bianca Bosker about an app called WeCroak. Intrigued, I turned to the internet to read more and was led to a similar article, this one by Matt Fitzgerald and appearing in Christian Century.

Bingo! It’s like this is the magazine I’ve always wanted to read. Christian Century’s tagline is “Thinking Critically, Living Faithfully.” I not only subscribed, but I’ve been voraciously pouring through back issues online. Perhaps the thing I like most about it is how stupid it makes me feel. I mean that in a good way. It’s nice to know that I don’t need to check my brain at the door to be a Christian. Reading Christian Century, checking out books recommended within its pages, and following up on the authors I’ve discovered has introduced me to a whole community of intelligent people who all share an interest in religion as a faith, an academic subject, and a way of life.

Here is a short list of people whose work I have been devouring and admiring:

  • M. Craig Barnes
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • Walter Brueggemann
  • Rachel Held Evans
  • Barbara Brown Taylor
  • Robert Alter
  • Will Willimon
  • Miroslav Volf
  • Richard Rohr
  • N. T. Wright
  • Shane Claiborne

I could make this list a lot longer, but you get the idea. Also, here are three podcasts I’ve been enjoying:

There are many other great resources out there for people who want to explore their faith in more depth. I have found my own beliefs enriched by immersing myself in the fellowship of the many people who have so much to teach me. I feel like this is my first day of school. It’s nice to realize how much there is to learn.

 

 

 

History

Old Statehouse

I lived in and around Boston for several years, and one tradition I rarely missed was the annual Independence Day concert on the Esplanade by the Boston Pops. The highlight was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannons, church bells, and fireworks. A spectacular 4th of July celebration is appropriate for one of the few American cities that relishes its history.

In general, the United States doesn’t seem to care a lot for its history. Don’t think for a moment those MAGA people really know or care about history; what they have in mind is a short-range look through a narrow lens at a mythical golden age that never existed. They could stand to do a bit of reading.

The Oxford History of the United States is a series that covers US history is great detail. The research is impressive and the writing is erudite yet accessible. The series as it stands so far:

  • Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789
  • Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815
  • Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848
  • James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
  • Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896
  • David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945
  • James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974
  • James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore
  • George C. Herring, Years of Peril and Ambition: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1776-1921
  • George C. Herring, The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1893-2014

There are still a few gaps to fill in, most obviously the long period of time between 1492 and 1763. Oxford has been taking its time with this series, so we may have to wait a while yet.

These are all hefty books. Reading The Oxford History of the United States requires a serious time commitment. If you want something a bit less ambitious, but still of high quality, I recommend These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. Any single-volume history of the United States, even one with nearly 1,000 pages, must be selective about what is included and what is left out. Therefore, a focus is necessary. The focus Lepore has chosen for These Truths is the question of whether or not the US has lived up to the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Her answer is a qualified “sort of.” Although there is much to love and admire about the US, it has never truly believed that “all men are created equal” or that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Fair warning: Lepore does not hold back her opinions, dosing out extra helpings of opprobrium for southern pro-slavery Democrats, speech restricting liberals of the 21st century, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Even if you don’t agree with her on everything (I don’t), there is much to learn from this excellent book.

Happy reading, and Happy Independence Day!

Criticism and Patriotism

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Franciscan friar Richard Rohr recently wrote, “Prophets can deeply love their tradition and profoundly criticize it at the same time, which is a very rare art form. In fact, it is their love of its depths that forces them to criticize their own religion.” Their criticism was not always welcome. As Rohr explains, “Institutions prefer loyalists and ‘company men’ to prophets. We’re uncomfortable with people who point out our shadow or imperfections.”

We’re seeing this a lot today. There are local, national, and global problems which are being kicked down the road because no one likes to hear about them. Here in the United States we have problems with infrastructure, racism, immigration, homelessness, poverty, and both illegal and legal substance abuse, just to name a few. Compared to other developed nations, the US rates poorly when it comes to incarceration rates, income inequality, infant mortality, and gun violence. The Left and the Right disagree on how to deal with these problems, but almost everyone agrees on the reality of them.

Unfortunately, anyone bringing these problems up is likely to be met with cries of “Unpatriotic!” This is an unproductive response. Patriotism is not shrugging off things that need fixing, patriotism Is confronting them and trying to fix them. Patriotism is recognizing that your country could be better, and wanting to help make it so. (Note: This is NOT the same thing as wishing to return to a mythical past golden age.)

The prophets are still with us. They cry out, wanting to be heard. But when the government quickly labels any criticism “fake news,” and does all in its power to silence the press and discredit experts, it does a disservice to the nation and its citizens.

Tomorrow is Independence Day. The true patriots will not be the people and organizations trying to hide the nation’s ills under flags, and certainly not under Confederate flags. True patriots love their country enough to criticize it. Will we listen?

Walking Barefoot

bare feet in the grass

Here’s something I do: I walk barefoot. Not just around the house, not just on the beach, but everywhere, pretty much all the time, and in most kinds of weather. Of course I recognize a few limits. There are places where it is just not safe or socially acceptable to go barefoot. And here in Iowa, there are definitely winter days when it is just too cold and snowy for bare feet. Also, I’m not such a hardcore barefooter that I refuse to wear shoes. On the contrary; I have some shoes that I like, which are very comfortable, and are a pleasure to wear. Given a choice, however, I prefer to leave my feet bare.

Now some people are going to think this is weird, and some are going to find it gross. Whenever a celebrity is snapped walking around town barefoot, comments tend to be along the lines of, “That’s so dirty and disgusting!” I’m not here to argue about the health pros and cons for going barefoot, nor to debate hygiene. There are plenty of Facebook groups and websites that carry on at length about such matters. I’m also not here to promote some sort of foot fetish. It’s not hard to find websites devoted to that either.

For me, going barefoot simply feels good. I enjoy the feel of the ground beneath my feet, and there is something therapeutic about going on long barefoot walks, over diverse terrain, letting my soles feel the many textures thus encountered. It feeds my soul. (See what I did there?) I’m not sure I buy all the stuff currently going around online about “grounding” or “earthing,” but I do know that I feel good when I walk and I feel better when I walk barefoot.

I like to say, only half-jokingly, that I’m on good Biblical footing! After all, Moses is told, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5). Joshua receives almost verbatim instructions (Joshua 5:15). Stephen repeats the Moses story in Acts 7:33. If the earth is holy—and Genesis assures us that it is: “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31)—we should not be afraid to touch it with our bare feet.

Stumbling Blocks

I recently read the book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. As I did not know much about the author, I did a little online research on her. Among other things, I learned that Held Evans died tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 37 from complications involving allergic reaction to medication. I also learned that I think I would have liked her, and am now curious to read more of her writing.

As is not surprising when looking up anything remotely involving religion online, I found widely polarized opinions about her. For example, an article from a conservative religious website claimed Held Evans was leading people to hell for daring to harbor and express doubt. (To put things into context: This same website condemned contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle for NOT condemning homosexuals.)

On Goodreads, reviews for Inspired tend to be raves or rants. In the latter category, one reviewer went on at length about what he or she considered Held Evans’s flawed theology, even putting the book on a “false teaching” shelf. (The possibility that this person’s own theology might be flawed is apparently out of the question.) Near the end of the scathing review, comes this line: “I advise readers to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care and in light of the scripture.” In other words, scripture itself is not to be questioned nor is this person’s interpretation of it. I would like to advise the reviewer “to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care,” INCLUDING scripture! (I opted not to engage in argument in the Goodreads comments.)

This highlights a very real problem for Christianity. How does a tolerant person deal with intolerance? How does someone willing to harbor doubts and ask questions confront someone who would never entertain the possibility of their own fallibility?

If you want to find ways to weaponize the Bible, it’s not hard. Want to keep women subjugated to men? Plenty of justification for it in scripture! Want to condemn homosexuality? Got it covered! Support for slavery? Too easy! Xenophobia, genocide, polygamy, incest? Check, check, check, check. Any pet prejudice can probably find support someone in the Bible, given the proper spin (sometimes requiring very little spin at all!)

For those of us who want to follow the Jesus we hear preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), this poses a stumbling block. It is hard to support the Christian church when so many of its loudest voices are those preaching intolerance, bigotry, and hate. It’s hard to admit to being a Christian when so often the church has come down on the wrong side of history. How does one stay inspired?

What I Did For Love

My first exposure to A Chorus Line was in junior high. I was the accompanist for the school chorus, and one of the pieces I vividly remember was a medley of songs from the musical. The first time I actually saw the show was in its movie incarnation. I loved the music, and enjoyed the performers, especially Gregg Burge (gone too soon at age 40 in 1998). I couldn’t understand why my theatre friends hated the movie so much.

Like pretty much everyone who only know the show from its songs, I figured “What I Did for Love” was just another pretty love song. That how it felt in our junior high medley. That’s how the movie played it. It wasn’t until I finally saw the stage show that I really understood the song.

The show takes place on a bare stage, and the entire plot is a group of dancers auditioning for a chorus role in a Broadway musical. Sounds simple enough, but it takes us on an amazingly intricate journey through life as seen through the eyes of the dancers and the director/choreographer, Zach. One of the show’s most moving moments is when Paul recounts his painful experiences growing up, and his relationship with his father. (I won’t spoil it for you here; see the show!) It is heartbreaking when not long after his revelatory monologue, Paul is injured and has to withdraw from the audition. The other dancers are shaken up about this, suddenly forced to confront their own fragility and the unforgiving nature of their chosen career. Zach asks them, “If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?”

That’s the moment fellow dancer Diana Morales begins to sing “What I Did for Love.” It’s not a he/she love song as I’d always assumed, as it was in the movie.

“Kiss today goodbye
And point me toward tomorrow
We did what we had to do
Won’t forget, can’t regret
What I did for love.”

This goes beyond romantic love, as wonderful as that is. In the context of the show, “What I Did for Love” goes to the very heart of your soul. What in your life do you truly do out of love? What do you love so much that you can never regret it, even if you lose it?

I played in the pit orchestra for this show a couple summers ago, and the experience moved me deeply for a few reasons. First, it brought back all those memories of junior high chorus. Second, as someone who has spent a lot of time working in music and theatre, I can understand the emotions of the dancers giving their all for a shot at Broadway. Lastly, I think of my own life, and of the things and people I have loved and lost.

“Look, my eyes are dry
The gift was ours to borrow
It’s as if we always knew
And I won’t forget what I did for love.”

(A Chorus Line, Music – Marvin Hamlisch, Lyrics – Edward Kleban, Book – James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante)