The Pilgrim’s Progress: by Vaughan Williams

So it turns out that Ralph Vaughan Williams, the great British composer of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote a now forgotten opera based on Bunyan’s great work the Pilgrim’s Progress. I am going through a piano reduction copy I managed to acquire from the fine library collection of the University of Arkansas (universities really are remarkable things, whatever their drawbacks), and its quite an impressive work. It has a huge casting, which probably has made it unnecessarily impractical to stage, and its overtly spiritual content probably makes it a little too moral for contemporary artistic tastes. Vaughan Williams himself was of course a cheerful agnostic, and the main character’s name is switched to the more generic “Pilgrim” to fit this more metaphorical frame of mind. However, in this day and age of looking for lost or forgotten masterworks of the classical music repertory, I hope more listeners and performers may draw their attention to this piece of very heartfelt Vaughan Williams on a large scale. I haven’t dug into recordings of the work yet but they probably exist, and for us anglophones there is no language barrier.


Music and Transportation

I was reading an essay in a collection of contributions by great Russian piano teachers of the last century, and there was a striking recommendation. By way of background, it is very common in music circles to talk about mental practicing, which just means going through the music you are working on in your head away from the instrument. But something one doesn’t usually think of is when one is supposed to do this. As if it were as plain as day, it was recommended that of course the best time to do mental practicing, which is essential to artistic development, is while you are walking. You know, from one place to another, or on some quiet path somewhere. So I tried it, since it was still summer, and I walked to school to practice instead of biking with earbuds in. I began to very deeply resent the usage of fossil fuels for cars, trucks, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, etc. But there are some quieter neighborhoods on my way and I have to say it was some of the best mental practicing I have ever done, and I could hear Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata quite clearly in my mind.

Tchaikovsky in a letter wrote once that he longed for the lifestyle when he had time to walk, whereas he was too busy and had to rush around to make his engagements. Why is New York City of all places the mecca of music?

There is an anecdote that Beethoven included a little horn call fan fare in one of his sonatas because he was walking through the woods and heard hunters chasing through on horses in the distance.

When Bach was I think still a teenager, he walked all the way by himself from south Germany to the north, some couple hundred miles, simply to hear the great organist Buxtehude play. I wonder what he heard along the way, internally and externally.

In the business building on campus at Rice University, there is a beautiful reading room that someone clued me in to. Large spacious tables, long library shelves (full of books about self-actualization, I will grant) and no cell phones even allowed in. So quiet that the crinkle of my clothes as I leaned down echoed. A room full of people successfully thinking, because one can hardly even help it when it is that quiet. This was the business building. What was it Uncle Screwtape said about noise?

On correction

Why is it so hard to accept what someone else says, even if it is right? In issues of morality as well as thought I sometimes find this to be true. I think it is because when one listens to someone else, one becomes a servant. If someone points something out to you, and you change your behavior, they can tell you what to do. Even in less moral and more intellectual or aesthetic confrontations of the mildest kind, when someone says they like Rachmaninoff and you know in your heart that you adore Rachmaninoff but you recognize that it is bad taste to admit this too earnestly in public, as if it were confessing to who you had a crush on in middle school, and you have to distinguish yourself through some more knowing and worldly-wise reference. To agree is to be undistinguished, unless it is agreement which secures one’s place in the inner circle about which C.S. Lewis has spoken.

We think the truth belongs to us, and it has to come out of our own mouths. In classrooms, everyone waits until they can say something sufficiently clever to maintain the facade that they completely understand what is being discussed, and no one touches what they might not yet fully grasp, or dares to risk misunderstanding. But why not risk it, for the sake of your classmates? Why not be wrong, so that someone else can be right, and everyone will see more clearly for it? Does one learn to swim by only submerging one’s shins? Can one learn to dance by oneself?

The other half of the coin is also relevant: why don’t people ever seem to listen to us when we are right? Why doesn’t the pot smoker just stop, why doesn’t that family member just let go of that habit we’ve been reminding them about for years? Many things are going on here, but one of them is that it would be fatal to our characters to know that we can change people and tell them what to do. We are not God, we don’t have that power, and anytime we think otherwise the world is very quick on the draw to remind us that that is a lie.

Truth is out there, outside of our minds, and its public. As a matter of the plainest practical reality, if the students in a classroom or the family members in a dispute do not believe that the truth is only reached through conversations in which you are frequently wrong, truth will not be approached. The Lord is the creator of all, and he became man to become the servant of all. We are not lords, and our Lord distinguished himself through being like us in all ways except sin. We can afford to let other people be right.

Devotionals with Kant

“On the contrary, it is plain that the hope of a future life arises from the feeling, which exists in the breast of every man, that the temporal is inadequate to meet and satisfy the demands of his nature.”

From the introduction to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.

I have begun to try to wade through this book and came upon this edifying little spark. It’s like C.S. Lewis’ argument from desire, without the heat. According to what I have found biographically, Kant was actually a very engaging lecturer, and worked as an unsalaried but successful teacher for some time, if you can imagine that. He also taught at the same school in Königsberg for forty-odd years, turning down a much more prestigious poetry (!) position in Berlin in the middle of his career. I think he knew he was going to turn the world upside down and running around Europe chasing glamorous positions wasn’t going to help with that. For some reason, even though I’m not sure what to make of the effect of his labors, I found that quite inspiring.

Disclaimer: I make no promises to actually finish this book and reserve the right to toss it to the floor if the going gets rough.


New Coals

This poor blog sits forlornly, the flame gradually dying to a low heat beneath the ashes. I hope to throw some new coals in and fan the flame to a warm glow.

I hope you are all doing well. I have been frighteningly busy, which I am now beginning to see as a theological problem. People who are unclear about what God has given them each day to do as their duty don’t usually just sit idly, which is actually a great way to in a short time be brought to consider our life far too closely for comfort; they fill their time with distractions, which our world specializes in producing. May you in the next week see the glory of Christ so clearly that the unnecessary chaff of your worries and distractions burn in the heat.

The great swirling conversation surrounding the Benedict Option is worth peeking in on again. Whatever Rod Dreher wanted, he got his wish that it would be primarily a big conversation starter for the church. Its a New York Times bestseller, many major organs of our nation’s news have published reviews of it. Tell your friends about it, its the closest thing we have to a publicly recognized symbol of what we are talking about when we say the church in America is in fatal captivity to American culture. Its a conversation that just being aware of is a step in the right direction as far as I can tell.

Here’s a thought I was having about the subject in general, but about some other figures only loosely involved.

Dallas Willard and James K.A Smith: both philosophers by training, both heavily involved professionally in phenomenology as a field (Edmund Husserl and his followers), both involved in the topic of Christian formation and virtue ethics. Both of them through their careful philosophical study of human nature came to be very invested in writing works about how people can change, ultimately to become more like Christ. It is remarkable that both of them come at the problem of discipleship through their training in topics like consciousness, intentionality, being in the world, and returning to the things themselves. Smith cites Willard as an influence, and says he was attempting to write an ecclesiological supplement to The Spirit of the Disciplines.

But there is a difference in tone, and it led me to wondering about this broader split one can see in emphasis between the individual and the collective. The church, and the member. Put crudely, Willard’s is the individualist book. Smith’s work is more about what is done in groups. Dreher, like Smith, emphasizes the corporate church as well. We of course frequently lament the individualism of our era, which has the effect of attenuating our connections with larger groups. Obviously both Willard and Smith try to do justice to the other half of the coin: no one is saying the church doesn’t matter, or what you do on your own is irrelevant. But I think that Ephraim Radner’s reflections on individualism are worth noting, especially for how unexpected they are. Individualism is in many ways identical with the development of modernity itself, and thus accounts of one inevitably constitute an account of the other. Radner’s disturbing thesis that modernity arises as a kind of tragic corrective from the failure of the church the love its own members and the world has implications for how we interpret the individual/group dichotomy.

As one case study in his work A Brutal Unity, Radner observes that most churches in Rwanda, Catholic and Protestant alike, failed to resist the genocide in 1994, and instead actively participated. He wanted to know what set those churches apart that did resist, and to identify aspects of their practices or teaching which enabled them to do so. Drawing on a study by Timothy Longman, he finds that the congregations whose members did resist had an ethos of teaching which strongly emphasized individual responsibility. An excerpt from a sermon given in a parish which remained faithful:

“Those who do evil, each will be saved by his actions. In Romans 14:12 it is written, “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” What do you want to show God? Hate? Jealousy? What do you display before God? You hide nothing before God. As Peter said, “Leave me, I’m a sinner.” We must imitate Peter, tell God we are sinners and ask forgiveness.”

Radner concludes that individualism, best understood, is a hard won and necessary burden we must bear precisely out of our obligations to one another, to the church, and to God. Going even further, he concludes that while being faithful to the gospel in a liberal democracy like our own is extremely difficult, it is what must be done precisely because of the gospel. Of course, Radner is writing a book about the unity of the church, which is about as collective an emphasis as one can think of, so the emphasis upon the individual’s responsibility to take the initiative is in service of this goal.

Coming back to Willard and Smith, it is a salutary reminder that many of the most essential spiritual disciplines for us to practice are for us to perform alone before the Lord. Looking at the problem of evil from a more personal perspective, it is easy to see how atheism can slide neatly in with a view of evil that removes all responsibility from all actors. Its not God’s fault, its not our fault, its certainly not my fault, and it mostly can be blamed on sociopaths and people of the other political party. But once we see that we do want things to change for the better and that we are the first to need this change, we can then see our most critical duties do not belong to anyone else to exercise and our preparation to serve the needs around us will consist largely of taking our leave to be alone and pray.

Nota bene: Only three days ago, Pope Francis went to meet with the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame to apologize for “the sins and failings of the church and its members.” It is the most forcefully worded apology to date, for including “the church” in the culpability.



The Last Trombone

One of my regrets from my undergraduate years, which I did not realize until recently that I should have felt, was that I did not get to know Douglas Yeo, the trombone professor whose position at Arizona State exactly coincided with my years there as a music student, only four years. Prior to that he served as Bass Trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly thirty years. He is now retired, and works on his publications and blog. Now, Douglas Yeo is an evangelical Christian of very forthright conviction in his field, and is also a consummate world-class expert on all matters relating to the trombone. He has written and spoken about both extensively. His willingness to voice his religious opinions in public is extremely uncommon in music, and his thoughtfulness on the relationship between the two more uncommon still. He has a blog, called the Last Trombone, which I commend to your perusal. It has genuinely hilarious gems like this post. Its essentially a quick run down of the appearance of the trombone in great literature, and the historical misrepresentations and anachronisms that frequently attend it. Short answer is, before the fifteenth century, the trombone didn’t exist, pace Shakespeare, Longfellow and The King James translators.

I wish that I had gotten to know him because I would have liked to speak with him about his sense of calling, about how he sees his professional life integrated with his faith. He seems to have a extremely sturdy sense of place in the world, he knows that God made him a trombone player so he is going to do that with all of his gusto to God’s glory and share the gospel with his fellow musicians in the meantime. His website is full of resources for aspiring trombone players, including even his own audition tape for the BSO. I think he wants to put himself out there and help as much as he can. He observes that if he had followed another path, perhaps in ministry, no doubt God would have used him but he probably would not have had the chance to share the gospel with Seiji Ozawa. Or Leonard Bernstein. He wishes that all musicians would take Ecclesiastes more seriously and stop idolizing the first chair position, or better hours, or more exciting conductors, or more time off, or better pay, or whatever, and just be grateful.

Just as a fascinating aside, he was also involved in a case two decades ago that almost went to the Supreme Court but was denied a hearing, so he lost. He tried to pay for an ad in a school newspaper encouraging sexual abstinence but the editors refused to run it, so he sued. The man’s not a spectator in culture I guess, and I respect his boldness.

We will keep our eyes open on Douglas Yeo’s website, for what other wisdom may be gleaned from a man who has by all measures had a successful music career and is still reflecting on how God can use each of us for his glory. Many Christians I know and have heard of drop out of pursuing music professionally, and I totally understand this decision and frankly consider it from time to time. It is however interesting to me to see someone who has come to terms with the career and all of its tensions in a Christ-centered way, and is willing to pass on his own experience for other musicians to consider.


The Benedict Option

What does anyone here think about the Benedict Option? For those who don’t know, the phrase was coined by Rod Dreher to designate, well, a lot of what we are talking about. His blog is on the American Conservative, and has been focusing a lot on the BenOp (for short) recently, since his book on the subject is due to come out very soon.

I think that Mark’s call for a rejection of modern utopias and Justin’s exhortation to measure our parenting by an entirely different set of scales than those offered by the world both fit pretty well into the conversation Dreher is trying to publicize. I do wonder whether it is a strategic failure to tell the whole world what we are trying to do, if it is in fact a war we are waging. Even so, its all out there for us to investigate.