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.


Hand in Hand – Hurrah Karamazov!

Tears are one measure of a good book. The Brothers Karamazov affords many, most poignantly at the end. I look forward to knowing Fyodor Dostoevsky in the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells.

It’s such a vast book, with the brothers arrayed about the father in four: passion, reason, good, evil; nobility, modernity, piety, servitude. But they are not ideas, they are characters. And even more to the point, they are men. And they are men in which we see ourselves. God help me to be more like Alexi the man of God. Deliver me from the passions, deliver me from calculation, and most of all, deliver me from evil. God is not found in the passions, nor is He found in the systems of men’s logic or ideas. If one believes, one may see miracles. If one refuses, no proof can force belief. And if one ruminates, devoid of God, evil readily gains an audience.

The crushing courtroom scenes stand as a grand rebuke of reason, psychology, logic, and rhetoric – all are helpless in the face of a lie. Truth is spoken, but is not heard, because it does not seem to fit the facts, the arguments, the ideas in the minds of the hearers. And truth is spoken by only a few – the pious Alyosha, the fallen and redeemed Grushenka, and the tormented Ivan (who has been forced to it by the confession of the murderer, and speaks truth as from madness).

And what can be made of it? What can be made of the absurdity? Of the evil and the lies? Of the golden nobility mixed with base clay?

That man is fallen, but may be redeemed. Man is surrounded by evil, but may still love God and seek good. There is no resolution for the problem of evil, but there is a bigger point – the love of God. It is not comprehensible – nothing can wrap around it. But it comprehends everything – the cross is the power and weakness and the wisdom and the foolishness of God. Before the cross, the problem of evil is quite beside the point. It is still evil, and must be resisted by us in ourselves and around us. But there is no “problem” to speak of. Simply the unutterable, ineffable, eternal wisdom of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Will we weep with those who weep over the grave of Ilyushecka? Will we rejoice with those who rejoice, even in the unknown prospect of the life that lies ahead?

And will we love?

Then perhaps we will have made a close read of Dostoevsky.

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.

A lesson from Antarctica

The ratio of permanent residents to churches on Antarctica is 500:1 in the summer and about 120:1 during the winter. The US ratio is about 900:1.

Antarctica has proportionally more churches than America. And half are Roman Catholic, three are Orthodox, one is Protestant (this is like a 4th grade math problem, how many are there? but to be fair, the interdenominational Protestant one is the oldest).

As of 2015, Moscow had about 20000 persons per church. The “Build 200 Churches” program (that had some wags worried about overbuilding…) would leave the ratio at 15000 persons per church, still a long way from the US or Antarctica.

As an interesting tangent, upper estimates for Christianity in China report perhaps 1:10 to 1:20 persons as Christian. If a house church averages 20-40 people (a total guess), that would put the population:church ratio at about 200-800 : 1 – possibly better than the US.

Anyhow, if I had grabbed a population-per-church number out of the air, it would probably be close to 1000:1, which fits the US. I would not have guessed that Antarctica was way out front. (No data on attendance, though.)

But the annual-average winner (in my very limited survey of the internets):

Vatican City. 120:1. (All Catholic, of course…)

Go figure.



I felt pretty odd after reading Notes from the Underground in a sitting. But I think it’s supposed to be tackled whole, like it is written, in no more than two breaths, and those breathings are the panting of a madman.

But it made sense.

Dostoevsky dearly wanted man to be saved – or at least to be saveable, and I think that is why he so deeply explores the bitter depths of tormented characters. Notes seems to sit unfinished, like it is the parlor game in The Idiot where each tells the worst thing he or she has done. But the book certainly doesn’t end there. And Crime and Punishment does not even end at the prison – we are told so by its reliable narrator.

The narrator of Notes is not reliable, in the extreme. But his thesis – that man cannot be perfectable, because of his basic drive to muck it all up – is actually a demand that the door be left open to salvation and Christ. While he himself may perish (we are not told), his demand is that mankind be left unperfected, natural, raw, capable of good and evil. If the perfect (social/predictive/descriptive/governmental) system is ever found, man will be left knowing that he is incapable of good or evil, simply because it had to be that way according to the system. Dostoevsky demands, via his really awful narrator, that the system be left open. The door must be ajar. The window shall remain cracked, that the Holy Spirit may blow through when He wills.

And as you probably remember from my Iain McGilchrist kick, I think that’s spot on. However, postmodernism may have made one positive contribution that Dostoevsky hinted at (or maybe he got there first, not sure): any attempt to fully close the system, shut the door, slam the window, will make the house of cards fall flat.

I’m hoping Andrew will interact some with this as he ploughs the seas of Kant – does Kant think he exhaustively critiqued pure (or applied) reason? I’m curious, because to claim an exhaustive critique is also to claim a perfectly closed system.

Anyhow, there may be more on this theme from me, too, as I have a bit more of Idiot, and a re-read of Brothers K- ahead (the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations – my travel books).



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.