Church is for singing, and home too

Last night, my wife and I pounded on the piano and belted out praise songs and hymns ’till it was nearly midnight. What a blessing that the walls are thick and the children sleep through it all! It was wonderful.

In her memior Dakota, Kathleen Norris describes how important music was tied to church and God.

The church was music to me when I was little, an enthusiastic member of the cherub choir in the large Methodist hurch in Arlington, Virginia, where my dad was choir director. We woere pale blue robes with voluminous sleeves, stiff white collars, and flopp black bow ties, which I thought made me look like one of the angels in my picture hymnal.

I sang from that book every day at home. one of my strongest memories of early childhood is of sitting on my mother’s lap at our old, battered Steinway upright as she played the hymns and I sang. By the time I was three, long before I knew how to read, I’d turn the pages and on seeing the illustration would begin singing the right song in the right pitch.

I still value music and story over systematic theology – an understatement, given the fact that I was so dreamy as a child that I learned not from Sunday school but from a movie on television that Jesus dies. Either my Sunday school teachers had been too nice to tell me (this was the 1950s), or, as usual, I wasn’t paying attention. I am just now beginning to recognize the trut of my original vision: we got to church in order to sing, and theology is secondary.

-Kathleen Norris, Dakota, Ghosts – A History, p. 91


This week, inbetween coding, I’ve enjoyed listening to U2’s album from 1991 – Achtung Baby. I always knew the band existed, but never paid much attention. Their work keeps coming up though among many of the bloggers I read so I thought I’d give ’em a shot. The Joshua Tree (their only other album I was familiar with) is a good from the get go. This one took me a few listens before I started to like parts of it.

Bono’s delivery is everything. It’s so full of emotion. I took a break from it the other day and popped in some Sting. Whoa. He sounded like he was half asleep!

There’s not a ton to say, but it’s worth posting this section from the song Acrobat.

And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this
And act like that
And you can dream
So dream out loud
And you can find
Your own way out
You can build
And I can will
And you can call
I can’t wait until
You can stash
And you can seize
In dreams begin
And I can love
And I can love
And I know that the tide is turning ’round
So don’t let the bastards grind you down

On technical excellence versus? spirituality

How many times have you heard really sincere, heartfelt music in church that was emotionally and spiritually significant to the one performing it… and it sounded awful. Then you visit a different worship service and the music is glorious, you see the heavens open up! But these guys are paid professionals. Heck, they’re not even from the same denomination and I think the bass player isn’t even a Christian. Anyone confused?

Merton mentions this in passing:

It is important, in the life of prayer, to be able to respond to such flashes of aesthetic intuition. Art and prayer have never been conceived by the Church as enemies, and where the Church has been austere it has only been because she meant to insist on the essential difference between art and entertainment…One can be at the same time a technical expert in chant and a man of prayer, but the moments of prayer and of technical criticism do not usually coincide.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.3 Sec. 7

Photo credit


Well, I missed seeing Flogging Molly this weekend a few miles away. Oh well. The university newspaper had an interview with some of the band members. I found this part enjoyable:

Q: The Evergreen: What are some common misconceptions people have of the band?

A: Casey: That we get f—ing drunk out of our minds every night and that all we want to do is drink whiskey with everybody.

A: Schmidt: And that we’re all Irish.

Q: The Argonaut: Isn’t it just Dave (King) that’s from Ireland?

A: Casey: That’s right.

The whole thing is here.

Photo credit

Beating your music with a hose

For the first ten years life, my parents were largely successful and shielding me from the wiles of pop culture. I was only familiar with classical music up until then. I had heard a little bit of country (Garth Brooks I think it was) and was not at all interested. I was unbelievably naive about all but a very narrow world of art. Then, ironically enough, on the bus to a church youth event, the driver had the radio tuned to a local pop station. I was 11 years old and starting 5th grade.

I’ll never forget it. They played “The Sign” by the Swedish group Ace of Base several times on the way to and from the hockey game or whatever it was we were going to see. The tune seems a bit cheesy looking back on it, but it had me captivated. I began listening to the radio in my bedroom in the evenings just to hear it again. And would you believe it, amidst the noise, I found other music I enjoyed too. This is all years before internet and file sharing, so the next logical step for me was to go buy an album. I remember running off in Walmart, fingering that CD with the $13.99 price tag, wondering on earth I was going to convince my mother to let me purchase it. Somehow, I must have gotten a hold of it, because I remember what came next.

Oh the horror. My parents listening to the CD. Reading through the lyrics on the liner notes. Trying to figure out what the songs where about. Seeing if they were about drugs, or sex, or gang-bangin’. Remember, this is Ace of Base we’re talkin’ about here. The high drama of “my boyfriend left me” was about as seedy as it got. I remember having to explain how the line “All that she want’s is another baby” on another one of the tracks was about how the girl is anxious to find another lover, NOT declaring some kind of serial pregnancy obsession. Really. I don’t mean to put my parents in a bad light. That’s not what this post is about and they were doing the best they could. But I’m not making that part up. It was ruled that I must get rid of the album. Actually, I can’t criticize them too much anyway – a few months later, someone had to explain to ME that Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary Jane” really WAS about smoking marijuana.

Anyway, what bought this all to mind was another wonderful bit of verse by Billy Collins titled Introduction to Poetry:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Can’t go back now

OK, so it’s been many years since I’ve followed pop radio, but last year I discovered The Weepies after hearing an interview on NPR. They are pop/folk duo with remarkable songwriting skills and melodies. Most of their songs and arrangements are very simple and straight-forward but oh-so-good. I mean, when is the last time you heard an album where every song was good? One after another!

Their latest album Hideaway (recorded in the their house) just came out and I was a sucker to get it. I’ve only listened through it a couple times and can’t say it is as good as their previous effort Say I Am You, but it looks to still have a lot of gems on it.

Here is the lyrics and a 30-sec clip from the opening track “Can’t Go Back Now”.


Yesterday, when you were young,
Everything you needed done was done for you.
Now you do it on your own
But you find you’re all alone,
What can you do?

You and me walk on
Cause you can’t go back now.

You know there will be days when you’re so tired that you can’t take another step,
The night will have no stars and you’ll think you’ve gone as far as you will ever get

But you and me walk on
Cause you can’t go back now

And yeah, yeah, go where you want to go
Be what you want to be,
If you ever turn around, you’ll see me.

I can’t really say why everybody wishes they were somewhere else
But in the end, the only steps that matter are the ones you take all by yourself

And you and me walk on
Yeah you and me walk on
Cause you can’t go back now
Walk on, walk on, walk on
You can’t go back now

The same table, five years later

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to spend the evening reading at the big table in Bucer’s Coffeehouse Pub. It’s one of my favorites places and it’s difficult not to eavesdrop.

Many of the student’s at New Saint Andrews classical college study here in the evenings. This night was pretty typical I believe. To my left were two young men who spoke at length about how this Easter came very early this year because of the complicated formula used to determine what Sunday it should fall on. It was noted that the Orthodox church (and the Jews) still have Easter (or Passover) coming later this year due to the fact that their calendar isn’t accurate. Apparently it doesn’t have leap-years frequent enough to keep the equinox lined up correctly.

Across the table from me was a young man working on translating a cryptic Hebrew text for one of his classes. He occasionally joined in to the discussion about the church calendar with comments about how he had recently visited an Orthodox church on his trip to the Balkans where the daily scripture reading was recited in 10 different languages to cover all the people that might be attending.

To my right was a guy reading Peter Leithart’s new book Solomon Among the Postmoderns. Well, at least he started on it. He ended up spending most of the hour surfing Facebook.

About this time, I realized that exactly 5 years ago, it was me sitting in the same chair with my sheet music spread all over the huge table. I was analyzing a Miles Davis solo transcription as the final project for Theoretical Basis of Jazz at the university. My professor at the time, Dan Bukvich, recently marked his 30th year at the music school. My wife and I contributed a story to a memory book that was being compiled for him.  Wow, what a wonderful time. I miss school. Part of me envied all the guys around the table that evening.

Book Review: Simply Christian

About a year ago, I heard a brilliant 1 hour interview with N.T. Wright about his new book Simply Christian. It’s meant to be a introduction to Christianity and a basic apologetic in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I’m not sure why I put this one off so long, but I finally got a hold of a copy and read through it this week.

My verdict is that Mere Christianity still quite a bit better, though Simply Christian has some very excellent sections. Just like Lewis, Wright approaches spirituality in general and then gradually brings in central Christian beliefs and finally church mechanics. In the middle section on Jesus, Lewis stays calm and concise where Wright gets a little bit too excited and tries to deal with too many things at once. Nevertheless, his chapters discussing our desire for beauty are a really excellent and an angle completely missing from Lewis’s work. His concise overview of scripture (The Book God Breathed) is also quite useful. He doesn’t get hung up on any details.

Anyway, the book is definitely worth reading, regardless of where you are on your journey to or in Christianity. It turns out all of the very best parts were quoted in the interview I originally listed to. Smart guy. This extended excerpt begins one of my favorite parts:

One day, rummaging through a dusty old attic in a small Austrian town, a collector comes across a faded manuscript containing many pages of music. It is written for the piano. Curious, he takes it to a dealer. The dealer phones a friend, who appears half an hour later. When he sees the music he becomes excited, then puzzled. This looks like the handwriting of Mozart himself, but it isn’t a well-known piece. In fact, he’s never heard it. More phone calls. More excitement. More consultations,. It really does seem to be Mozart. And, though some parts seem distantly familiar, it doesn’t correspond to anything already known in his works.

Before long, someone is sitting at a piano. The collector stands close by, not wanting to see his precious find damaged as the pianist turns the pages. But then comes a fresh surprise. Te music is wonderful. It’s just the sort of thing Mozart would have written. It’s energetic and elgiac by turns; it’s got subtle harmonic shifts, some splendid tunes, and a ringing finale. But it seems…incomplete. There are places where nothing much seems to be happening, where the piano is simply marking time. There are other places where the writing is faded and it isn’t quite clear, but it looks as though the composer has indicated, not just one or two bars rest, but a much longer pause.

Gradually the truth dawns on the excited little group. What they are looking at is indeed by Mozart. It is indeed beautiful. But it’s the piano part of a piece that involves another instrument, or perhaps other instruments. By itself it is frustratingly incomplete. A further search of the attic reveals nothing else that would provide a clue. The piano music is al there is, a signpost to something that was there once and mght still turn up one day. There must have been a complete work of art which would now, without additional sheet music, be almost impossible to reconstruct; they don’t know if the piano was to accompany an oboe or a bassoon, a violin or a cell, or perhaps a full string quartet or some other combination of instruments. If those other parts could be found, they would make complete sense of the incomplete beauty contained in the faded scribble of genius now before them.

This is the position we are in when confronted by beauty. The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there FOR is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole. Beauty, in other words, is another echo of a voice – a voice which (from the evidence before us) might be saying one of several different things, but which, were we to hear it in all its fullness, would make sense of what we presently see ad hear and know and love and call “beautiful.”

…Beauty, like justice, slips through our fingers. We photograph the sunset, but all we get is the memory of the moment, not the moment itself. We buy the recording, but the symphony says something different when we listen to it at home. We climb the mountain, and though the view from the summit is indeed magnificent, it leaves us wanting more; even if we could build a house there and gaze all day at the scene, the itch wouldn’t go away. Indeed, the beauty sometimes seems to be in the itching itself, the sense of longing, the kind of pleasure which is exquisite and yet leaves us unsatisfied.

Wright goes on to explain how this unmet longing is actually the voice of our creator God calling to us. Goooooood stuff.

What large amplifiers are best for

In his autobiography, Thomas Merton recounts a scene from his early college years:

Two attempts where made to convert me to less shocking tastes. The music master lent me a set of records of Bach’s B Minor Mass, which I liked, and sometimes played on my portable gramophone, which I had with me in the big airy room looking out on the Headmaster’s garden. But most of the time I played the hottest and loudest records, turning the Vic towards the classroom building, eighty yards away across the flowerbeds, hoping that my companions, grinding out the syntax of Virgil’s Georgics, would be very envious of me.

-Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, P. 99

I clearly remember my first week in college, living in the “scholar’s residence” which was on old Greek row with all the frats and sororities. Most of the houses had procured large, Van Halen-roadshow-sized speaker systems from which they blasted ACDC and Snoop Dog at volumes that would ricochet off the sides of the football stadium a mile away. I remember walking by them and casting a look of scorn in their direction while secretly wishing I might blast a few of my own tunes back. Our professor of early music history suggested Verdi’s Dies Erie. Very good choice. Love that bass drum solo right before the first repeat.

Classical Music (or lack of) in Church Culture

I just finished reading Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron. Cron is an Episcopal pastor with a interesting postmodern/emergent/liturgical slant. In this pseudo-novel, the main character is a successful American mega-church pastor who goes through a crisis of faith. He spends much of the book trekking across Italy tracing the life and thoughts of St. Francis. I appreciate that he admits up front that the book isn’t much of a novel or much of a thought-out piece on ecclesiolgy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book even if a lot of it was pretty contrived.

One fakey part I have to point out though. During one chapter our evangelical mega-church pastor has a conversation with a young woman who happens to be a professional cello player. This is the vehicle the book uses to discuss aesthetics. Anyway, during the conversation, our hero mentions that he enjoys the music of Arvo Pärt. Wait a minute! Stop the tape! I’ve known a lot of American evangelical pastors. And with almost no exceptions, not a single one of these guys could tell you the difference between Mozart and Beethoven, let alone claim to be a fan of the minimalist Estonian composer. I remember writing a paper on Arvo in university. He’s written some fascinating music, making extensive use of harmonics in his orchestration. I couldn’t find a real nice example to post here. Sadly, I don’t own any recordings of his works. Here is a something though from YouTube. Pardon the cheesy photo montage.

Anyway, I’ve spent the last two years being drawn toward our local reformed congregation. They have a thriving church here. Some of the following I can only see in hindsight now. Anyway, I’m not directly involved with them now. The thing is, it wasn’t that I was enamored with Calvinism, it was simply the higher culture of many of the people in the congregation, especially some of the leadership. I was so sick of hearing every January sermon laced with Super-Bowl references. I was tired of loving classical music and having the only thing on my pastor’s musical radar be the latest Casting Crowns album. Now I know Christ is neither high-brow nor low-brow. He is neither Vouvray nor Bud Light (nor Pepsi for that matter). The pastor who knows Bach inside out is not higher spiritually than the one who loves NASCAR. Frankly though, I don’t really want to hang out with the racing fan all day. I think he feels the same way about me.

I believe groups of people form communities most of the time based upon their interests, things held in common, and how well they get along with various individuals. Doctrinal distinctives just aren’t often as driving of a force as we make them out to be. I am willing to bet that most churches are divided along lines of culture and demographics, not doctrine. Just some of the leaders think it is doctrine and the people follow, as is appropriate. Anyway, I’m still looking for someone that digs the same music I do. But the Lord will build me into his church based on a lot more than that I think!