Thursday, May 31, 2007

Quotes from Bed and Board: Plain Talk about Marriage

Robert Farrar Capon wrote this book in 1965, and some of his observations about family, home life, and roles were prophetic. He is perhaps best known for The Supper of the Lamb—a wonderful Chestertonian look at cooking and theology.

“We have drowned [children] in commercial bilge, stuffed them with TV dinners and surrounded them with the racket of four appliances running at once; we have bequeathed them insoluble problems, and precious little discipline with which to handle them. But if, on some distant day, the smell of fresh bread can still break their hearts, I do not think that all will have been too hopelessly lost. (29)”

“The Christian mind has lo, these many years been pretty well switched off as far as ordinary life is concerned. It has taken what was available without asking any questions. Of course, in religion and morals it tried to do its own cooking; but across the rest of life—schooling, housing, marrying; working, playing, spending—it has been content to buy whatever packaged mixes were available on the shelves of the secular idea market. The result is that Christians, who would like to think they were different, have only succeeded in making themselves indistinguishable. They who would like to hope they had the answers, have only the same questions as the rest of the world. And so they sit on the sidelines, capable of an occasional pious comment…(33)”

“We live in an age that, for all its multiplication of red-hot aids to living, is characterized increasingly by a singular lack of concern about how to live. Excellence has a hard time meeting competition in any age, but in ours we have made a real specialty of shoddiness and shallowness. We float with the tide. Our idea of the right direction is keeping our backs to the wind. Worse yet, our ability to mass-produce our specialties has surrounded us with more to hear, more to read, more to watch, and more to taste than even kings ever dreamed. We have arranged matters so that a man can go from kindergarten to the old-age home so surrounded by things to do that he need never decide what he is. The one question he must not ask is: Who am I? If he should happen to wonder, somebody quickly gets him a lollipop, or a new car, or another wife or a stronger tranquilizer. And the worst part of it is that the somebody, more often than not, is himself. (41)”

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Annual Cheese Rolling

Yesterday was the annual Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling in Gloucester, England. In the five races (one for ladies only), competitors hurl themselves down the hill after a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese. The hill that is so steep that the cheese can reach speeds of 70 mph (the wheel of cheese knocked over and injured a spectator in 1997). The first person to fall over the finish line wins the cheese and the 2nd and 3rd place finishers receive a small cash prize.

The tradition is at least 200 years old and may date back to the Roman time. Because of the steepness of the hill and its uneven surface, injuries are not uncommon but generally not too serious. In 2005, the race was delayed while waiting for the available ambulances to return from the hospital after transporting casualties from previous races.

At the end of the races, sweets are scattered on the hill for children.

Current Reading

Friday, May 25, 2007

Gustav Holst

On this day in 1934, English composer and educator Gustav Holst died at the age of 59. Born in 1874, Holst was born into a musical family—the grandson of a harpist, his father was an organist, pianist, and choirmaster, and his mother was a singer. Holst began composing around the age of twelve having already learned to play the piano and violin.

He studied music at the Royal College of Music in London where he met his fellow student, and lifelong friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. In 1905 he became the Director of Music St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, London—a post he held over the next two decades.

Along with Vaughan Williams, Holst became interested in the simplicity and distinctiveness of English folk songs. These melodies greatly influenced his own compositions.

Holst liked to ramble and walked extensively throughout England as well as France, Italy, and Spain. He traveled also to Algeria, Arab areas of the world, and completed a bicycle tour of the Algerian Sahara. He believed that the best way to elarn about a city was to get lost in it.

Holst wrote more than 200 works (including ballets, opera, songs, and brass ensemble works), but by far his most famous is the orchestral suite The Planets (1916). This piece is divided into seven movements and each relates a different personality. For instance, Mars is the bringer of war and the music reflects the bellicose nature of the planet (so much so that Han Zimmer quoted elements of this movement for the soundtrack to Gladiator). The Planets made Holst celebrity and kept him busy composing, conducting, and lecturing.

In 2007, BBC Radio 4 presented a radio drama called “The Bringer of Peace” which was a biographical play about Holst and the creation of The Planets.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Choral Evensong On-Line

The BBC Radio 3 is kind enough to broadcast weekly evensong services and to make the services available on-line. They also have a host of other interesing art music programs.

Traditions of Pentecost

The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek meaning “fiftieth” and refers to the days following Easter. The term Whitsun, or Whitsuntide, is applied to the week following Pentecost and derives from the older spelling of “wit” referring to the gift of wisdom from the coming of the Holy Spirit. The color red is most often associated with Pentecost to represent the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Monday after Pentecost used to be a traditional holiday throughout the world. Some of the other traditions of Pentecost are as follows:

France: Musicians played trumpets in the Church service to remind the congregants of the sound of the mighty wind that accompanied the descent of the Holy Spirit.

England: Whitsun Ales, or festivals, were held which included horse races and presentation of Whitsun plays. This weekend remains a favorite time for brass band competitions.

Italy: To commemorate the tongues of fire, rose petals were scattered from the ceiling of churches.

Poland: People decorate their houses with green branches for the “Green Holiday” to represent to gift of new life in the Spirit. The blessing of crops was also associated with the festivities.

Ukraine: The Church celebrates “Green Sunday” by decorating the church and the door of people’s homes with tree branches. Clergy and congregants wear green as a reminder of the gift of life in the Spirit and the literal birthday of the Church as 3000 people were baptized into the Church on the first Pentecost.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

In Defense of Written Prayers

The Puritans were adamantly opposed to the prayers in the English Prayer book—not that the prayers were heretical, but because they feared the rote manner of the prayers. They feared that prayer would become mechanical, without thought, repetitious, and without meaning if congregations recited the same prayers again and again.

Ironically, this appropriate fear of the Puritans is manifest in the opposite direction in the modern evangelical church. It is the extemporaneous prayers of our time that are mechanical, without thought, repetitious, and consequently, without meaning. How many time have you heard, “Dear Lord, we just come before, Lord, to thank you, Lord, for your bounteous favor. And Lord, we beseech you…” (“Bounteous” and “beseech” are good “prayer words”—words that show up in prayers but rarely in common speech)

How often do you ask the blessing for food using 90% of the same words?

We fall into patterns whether they be written or spoken, but promiscuous change for the sake of change is not the answer. The “holy ruts” of Proverbs 3 are not of themselves bad things. It is the unthinking repetition that makes prayers mechanical.

In our age, the written, thoughtful prayers of past centuries provide a tonic to shake us from our complacency and to challenge our own thinking about prayer, sin, forgiveness, the work of the cross, and the nature and character of Almighty God. This is not the ultimate solution, but could be part of the process of increasing our understanding of the nature of prayer.

Tradition without thought is dead orthodoxy, but the infusion of life that comes from knowledge, understanding, and wisdom through the work of the Spirit, makes ancient and modern traditions an opportunity for spiritual maturity.

The other lesson is that we need to be careful before we import the doctrines of a tradition without understanding the theological context of those ideas. Otherwise, we may find ourselves opposing the very things we say we uphold.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Living Faith in Community

Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons, has a blog post about the difficulty that parents have raising children in an increasingly urban and suburban society. The difficulties of maintaining, or often creating, a culture that nurtures Christian faith and community are daunting. You can find his thoughts here.

Toddlers and Television

Several news agencies are reporting new statistics concerning the use of television in the home. Perhaps the most startling finding is that 40% of three month olds regularly watch TV as well as 90% of 2 year olds. You can find fleshed out versions of the story and why parents think this is a good idea at MSNBC and on CBS affiliate KPIX.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Music for Zimmerman's

J.S. Bach understood the unique character and content of corporate worship. Although Bach wrote of all his music to the glory of God and in a manner of biblical beauty, he also understood the difference between what was liturgically appropriate and what was better left for Zimmerman’s—the local coffee house and pub. There should be a separation between what is acceptable in a Christian concert versus what we sing in corporate worship. The intent is different; therefore, the lyric content, manner of playing and singing, musical arrangements, and delivery should be different as well. Because we have forfeited suitable venues to express art in the culture from a biblical perspective, we have pulled into worship forms and content that ought not be part of corporate worship. There is an appropriate and needed place for songs about personal spiritual journeys, the joys and sorrows of the Christian life, and the communal fellowship of the saints in covenantal life; however, the truth of these artistic expressions does not necessarily commend them to corporate worship where the emphasis is Almighty God and His nature and character.

The beauty of Zimmerman’s Coffee House in Leipzig was that it created a venue for people from the town to gather in community and to enjoy the culture of their city. Bach worked diligently to create works of beauty for the coffee house, and that venue enabled him to explore musical, lyrical, and thematic elements that expressed the glories of the Christian life but in a manner that would not have been acceptable in church. Bach wrote musical satire, songs about coffee (a suspect beverage at the time) and domestic life, and instrumental music of great virtuosity—including works for four harpsichords and orchestra. While we seek the integrity of corporate worship, we should also encourage the opportunity for expression of artistic gifts in the covenantal community outside of worship.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Why I Like Catholic Authors

The following is one of a series of re-posts of lost blogs. However, this very topic has once again raised its head in discussion around our house. If we're doing our jobs well in instructing the next generation, I hope to see serious reformed artists developing soon.

I’ve discovered that I am enamored with twentieth century Catholic authors. The common thread I see in their works is a palpable sense of sin, guilt, grace, and redemption. One does not often find such themes in “Protestant” authors because of several factors.

Who are the serious Protestant authors? Surely not the pulp fiction of contemporary evangelical mass media—enter stock characters, state conflict, convert main character after almost succumbing to tragedy, life is good. This falls more into the category of propaganda instead of literature. Are there serious writers who reflect their Protestant beliefs through their literary art? Frederick Buechner comes to mind, but then he always seems more Catholic in his sensibilities than Presbyterian.

Catholic authors tend to weave symbols and ideas through the narrative. Blue skies in Flannery O’Connor usually mean that the grace of heaven is about to be revealed and someone is going to die. Outward deformities reflect stunted or distorted souls in her works, and when she says the sun sinks like a giant host, one cannot look at a red sunset or the Eucharist the same way again. Like the little girl who has the crucifix imprinted on her cheek by an enthusiastic hug from a nun, one cannot leave these works without being marked, challenged, and changed.

I think one difference between Catholic and Protestant authors is that these Catholics don’t wear their faith on their sleeve. It’s not a polite tale to be told, but rather a grid through which to understand all of the world. A sacramental view of the world is highly apparent in the works of G.K. Chesterton in which characters are captivated by the elements of God’s creation that surround them. They look for the sacredness of things and discover remarkable designs, motifs, and patterns.

Where are the reformed novelists in our age—wordsmiths who can craft a compelling tale that doesn’t preach but that assumes the elements of the faith as part of the warp and woof of the narrative? If we are concerned about all of life and the application of worldview in the arts, why are we so stunted in the area of quality literature? The ironic thing is that these elements that make Catholic writing unique are the very areas where a vibrant reformed faith should excel. A total world and life view should include the understanding of symbols, signs, and ideas, of artistic and literary concepts, the works of the past (even the pagan ones) that can color and shade, and the application of the faith in all the areas of artistic production. Perhaps J.K. Rowling is closer to the mark than is usually given credit.

Maybe we’re just too disconnected from the Catholic literary tradition of the past or maybe we fail to see the biblical and theological connection, as well as value, in works such as Chaucer and Austen, Scott and Buchan, Donne and Shakespeare.

Obviously I do have theologically differences with Catholic authors, but I’m fascinated by their themes of sin and redemption and in the hope of recovering and appropriating this literary richness. Art and beauty is never a replacement for the Word, but I do believe that all beauty is God's beauty and reveals the character of God.