Contemporary Classical Composer

Dr. Gregory Kyle Klug

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Karen Armstrong’s St Paul: An Epistolary Review

March 17, 2017

Last Thanksgiving a friend got me a book called St. Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate by historian Karen Armstrong. On December 30th I emailed a response, which is pasted below, typos and all (and pictures added), as an “epistolary” review of the book.

Brad,

Hope your Christmas was fun. On the plane-ride to Italy I finished Karen Armstrong’s St. Paul. It was an enjoyable read with many insightful perspectives. I found it a convincing and informative biography with relatively little to quibble with. I’ll give a brief synopsis of my reaction to it, so you can have some Cliff Notes if you don’t have time to read it yourself…better call them Klug Notes!

1. I enjoyed, in fact loved, her characterization of the “Jesus Movement,” as inseparable from the political context in which it was birthed. She cites John the Baptist and Jesus himself in the opening chapter, describing their vision as one in which people were called to shoulder the burden of the economically oppressed, to give and receive freely, as Luke describes the believers in Acts having “all things in common.” This in contradistinction to the Roman empire which taxed laborers at extreme rates, and locked them up if they could not shoulder the burden–up to 66% of yield, she says. She quotes one historian who says that the common person under Roman patronage had two daily concerns, “shall I eat today?” and “shall I fall ill and be unable to pay my taxes?” (Think of the significance of Christ’s healing in this context!) This in conjunction with the use of crucifixion to scare subjugated peoples into obedience meant that the political system, despite it’s pretense as ushering a Pax Romana, was systematically cruel and unjust. Meanwhile, the elite in Judea, she says, were in cahoots with Rome, making matters worse.

The Roman Empire circa 100 CE

Before reading this book I remember reflecting on how Christ said, “come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”–how it cannot have been originally understood otherwise than as addressing peoples’ economic plight. And the beatitudes…blessed are the poor for they shall inherit, etc….he foretells a world order in which political injustice is abolished. This is what the prophets in the bible have always cared about. It’s a refreshing thought, especially when many in the church have made the essence of biblical tradition into a “love letter from God,” and so on.

That Jesus’ message was given to people who were faced with the reality of political/economic oppression is implicit in the Gospels, and KA’s succinct articulation of it is beautiful and worthy of remembrance. Paul, she narrates, responded to this message with his conversion, and (along w the other Apostles) carried the torch passed by J the B and Jesus before him. It was a torch she describes as “utopian” and “egalitarian.”

The conversion of St. Paul, Michelangelo, 1542-45

2. She says the consensus among historians today is that Paul did not actually write a number of the letters attributed to him in the NT, including Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thess., 1 & 2 Tim, Titus. I’m skeptical about this…I was curious and double-checked the salutations in some of these. In 2 Thess. he signs “I Paul, sign this with my own hand as I sign all my letters…” but then KA says “these were not forgeries in our sense.” Here I’ll quibble. Anyone who writes in the name of an admired sage and then signs that way is committing a forgery. I would have liked a footnote with some explanation on this point…but it was convenient to her argument that 1 & 2 Tim should not be Paul’s. Those are letter that have some of the most offensive talk about women being subject to men, etc. The biography is something of a rehabilitation of Paul…people hate him bc, for example, he is blamed for the long tradition of misogyny in the church, for condoning slavery, unconditional obedience to the government. By eliminating the letters to Timothy, KA’s job of rehabilitation is easier. But then she has to deal w I Corinthians.

3. She argues that the rule against women speaking in the assembly in 1 Cor. was probably an add-on, not by Paul himself. She argues the same for one of his exhortations to obey the ruling authorities. For me, this is possible but seems like a stretch. It reminds me of those who deny Thomas Jefferson’s involvement w Sally Hemmings…it doesn’t fit their conception of who this great man is supposed to be. They don’t want to believe it, so they go to whatever lengths necessary to come up with a reason they don’t have to believe in it. It seems like KA may be doing something similar with Paul. Indeed, I’d much rather Paul be innocent of those things, but it looks to me like agnosticism is the best stance available. KA argues that the misogynist passage is at odds with Paul’s statement in Galatians, “no more Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male female, but all are one in Christ…” that it would contradict his egalitarian ideals. I answer: indeed…people contradict themselves. My assessment of Paul, before reading this, was that he was extraordinarily progressive in many important respects (Gentiles don’t have to become circumcised, mutual racism between Jews and Gentiles should be transcended, pride in “works” of religious law is useless), but that he couldn’t let go of *all* that he had been raised to believe. And how can we expect so much of him? It’s hard to turn your back on *that* much of what you’ve been taught.

Saint Paul, by Rembrandt, 1657

4. KA argues against the idea that Paul was authoritarian. One of my personal problems with Paul as a teenager was Romans 9, where his response to the injustice of double predestination essentially amounts to “because God says so.” That, and other passages in the NT epistles, troubled me deeply, and I was ready to give up the faith (only the Gospels stayed my hand). In any case, KA doesn’t mention this Romans 9 bit, but for me it is at variance with her portrait of Paul as a de-centralist egalitarian.

5. Among the many eye-widening points she makes in the book was her comment that the specific language used to describe the Caesars in the first century was the same as that which the early Christians used to describe Christ–“savior,” “son of God,” “visible image of God.” This puts into perspective how early Christians viewed Jesus, and (I believe) how Jesus viewed himself–he is the true ruler of the world. Rulers at this time were considered divine. She says that back then the gulf between human and divine was not a big deal–gods became men and men became gods, in myth and legend. I recall in Acts someone from a crowd calls out when Herod Antipas is speaking, “it is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” This is one of several examples that put into historical context the language of scripture. It also reinforces the idea that the early Jesus followers were indeed concerned political rulership, as was the entire history of Israel in the OT.

6. I loved her emphasis of Kenosis–self-emptying love embodied by Christ’s sacrifice–and how Paul followed this example by working as an artisan after his conversion even though he was born into privilege and didn’t have to do so to make a living. He worked long and hard, and did so for others’ benefit. It’s a powerful testament to the humble character of this man, and it justifies the title of “Saint.”

Medieval Portrait of St. Paul

7. Paul’s story ends with imprisonment and unknown cause of death, and the delay of the hoped-for Parousia (second coming). KA wonders whether he died in despair. For me, his silent and uneventful passing underscores the idea that, while we hope for political salvation–world peace basically–in this world, the ultimate destination is after this life. Even if Parousia, and the concomitant deposition of unjust power, doesn’t happen in this life, the example of a self-emptying leader such as Paul does much to encourage others after him to not despair, but to, like he said, “press forward toward the mark” and “run the race set for me” so as to win.

I’ll stop here. Thanks again for sending the book over!

Hoping you’re well and that the New Year brings great things!

Greg

 

 

Review: The Triumph of Vulgarity

September 7, 2016

Vulgarity is understood to mean indecency, obsceneness, and lewdness; but this is the vulgar definition of the word. The classical meaning of vulgar is of or pertaining to the common people, unrefined, undiscriminating, and accessible to all. The title—The Triumph of Vulgarity—captures the paradoxical nature of Robert Pattison’s examination of American culture through the lens of rock—it is a refined, discriminating, and narrowly accessible discourse on music that celebrates the opposite of those qualities.

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Pattison contends that rock is “the music of triumphant vulgarity” and “the liturgy of vulgar pantheism.” A reflection of nineteenth-century Romanticism, rock is “America’s most powerful weapon and most successful export.” Having received the embrace of both “high” and “low” classes in less than thirty years since its inception in the American south, vulgar rock has triumphed over the long tradition of humanity’s refined culture, embodied by the work of poets and artists from Homer to Wordsworth. Pattison’s claims hold implications for culture, society and politics, and are as worthy of consideration today as when Vulgarity was published thirty years ago.

Again, the book is paradoxical. The central revelation—“vulgarity has triumphed”—personifies vulgarity, like the Nike of Samothrace, and positions it over its enemies. This personification is a kind of metaphor commonly used in Classical and Romantic literature to uncover otherwise hidden or obscured truths; but the vulgarity that has triumphed scorns such revelatory talk. Pattison writes, “Vulgar is not a word in the vulgarian’s lexicon because he has no transcendent vantage from which to make the implied distinction between the ordinary and the cultured.” That vulgarity has triumphed is not a cry of exultation before the masses, but a frank revelation—perhaps a bitingly sarcastic one—given to those who speak the language of classical poetry—the cultured and the refined. The opening lines of the first chapter capture this irony with brilliant wit.

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The Nike of Samothrace

What follows is a beautifully articulated description of vulgarity and refinement, the history of pantheism, and its necessary connection with vulgarity and rock. The author’s stated methodology is “not to condemn [vulgarity], which has been done without success, but to describe it, which has yet to be undertaken.” Pattison’s description of pantheism overlaps with what some term “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism” today—“Pantheism is necessarily vulgar because it rejects the transcendence from which refinement springs, because it delights in the noisy confusion of life, and because it sacrifices discrimination to eclecticism.” The author enumerates the positive features of rock’s vulgar pantheism—infinite tolerance, personal contentment, and outrageous energy, fun, and humor.

The examination of the mythology and pantheist ideology of rock that unfolds in subsequent chapters is challenging, even-handed, and hilarious. The tone long remains objective, however momentous may be the implications of vulgarity’s triumph. In the last two chapters, the author opens his mouth for the voiceless, articulating for the rocker a defense against the Marxists, psychologists, and fundamentalists that have attacked rock. In the end Pattison rebukes his academic peers and President Reagan’s Secretary of Education who “lust after foreign models of culture,” and counsels the few American “champions of refinement” that remain to pay tribute to triumphant vulgarity, which merits no more or less respect accorded to the “prophet of vulgarity” who anticipated the spirit of rock, Walt Whitman.

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Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Make the Most of Vulgarity?

Pattison says “vulgarity is here to stay.” He asks whether we can escape the fate of Rome given “the probability that civilization cannot survive vulgarity.” He estimates that “if vulgarity is without redeeming features, then civilization is lost, because the triumph of vulgarity is assured.” In his satire of American vulgar culture, he imagines a bitter end: “Civilization would pulsate briefly in the throes of anarchy, lapse into the paralysis of overindulgence, and pass finally into the void beyond mind, taste, and decency.” Despite the apparently grim prognosis of culture, the author’s suggestion is to “make the most of it,” and appreciate what redeeming features vulgar pantheism has to offer. There is an implied fatalism in this perspective, despite the appeal of vulgar pantheism’s benefits. Paraphrasing Wordsworth, Pattison says, “We cannot stop at vulgarity unless we are prepared to die in our souls, any more than the child can prevent his growth to manhood unless he is prepared to die in his body.” To accept vulgarity without moving beyond it is to substitute death for eternal life, according to Wordsworth. But his transcendent Romanticism is dead, Pattison says. Meanwhile, the “bastard” version of Romanticism, “unwilling to grow up,” is alive and well in rock. In his commitment to ideological consistency, Pattison offers his cultured readers two unattractive choices—continue to hope in the dead vision of self-transcendent refinement, or make the most of vulgarity’s triumph. It may be that the choices are not quite so stark if traces of transcendent Romanticism can still be found even in triumphant rock.

Wordsworth Image

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Is Rock Necessarily Solipsistic?

Pattison states frankly that rock music is self-centered, solipsistic. This is largely undeniable, but surely some songs under rock’s wing are nothing of the sort—“You’ve Got a Friend,” by James Taylor/Carol King; “Don’t Give Up,” by Peter Gabriel; “Tangled Up Puppet,” and other Harry Chapin songs about fatherhood, “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton, etc. The list is long when rock is taken as a blanket term for post-mid-century popular music. In the nineties and beyond, hip hop songs such as “Unconditional Love” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” by Tupac, “Runaway Love,” by Ludacris make the grade of “vulgar” but self-transcending popular music. If the broad definition of rock is just, then without qualification it has become the musical idiom of American culture; but though rock was birthed as a willful reaction to the moralistic strictures of “respectable” society, it is not necessarily fated to remain the music of self-preoccupied youth. Perhaps in the rock idiom there is no way to denote the sort of joy, rapture, and ecstasy that, Pattison notes, is the subject of refined works like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—and still remain rock. These qualities, indeed, belong to a world of transcendent values, which vulgar pantheism denies. But if the rock idiom is limited by a vocabulary that does not include “joy,” “rapture,” and “ecstasy,” musicians may yet denote those or similar ideas in whatever capacity the language does allow. In fact, the limitations of the vulgar language may permit a form of expression that was denied to Beethoven because his language was limited in other ways. James Taylor can informally deliver lyrics embodying brotherly love before relaxed audiences in the concert hall or living room. He can sing comfortably without projecting vibrato or displaying refined poetic craft, as a solo baritone reciting Schiller. He can use his catchy rock syncopations, warm major seventh chords, vernacular American English, and hint nothing of solipsism.

JamesTaylor

Though rock was born as the music of self-preoccupied adolescence, it may, for better or worse, move beyond that stage. Steven Tyler and the Stones celebrate rock’s myth of eternal youth—examined by Pattison—to the present day; but Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) has expressed his monist worldview using the rock idiom, and Bob Dylan has opened the Great American Songbook of his generation’s sires. These examples, of course, come decades after Vulgarity was published, but they are living proof for today’s readers that rock is not necessarily solipsistic. Old and young artists, whether a minority or no, continue to prove otherwise.

It is highly likely, however, that certain subgenres of rock lend themselves more to self-transcendent expression. “You’ve Got a Friend,” for one, belongs in the soft or folk rock categories. It is less likely that psychedelic rock or heavy metal should fall short of self-glorification. This is no pejorative comment per se. Pattison has made the case compellingly that, as vulgar pantheist, the true rocker would either welcome the indictment of solipsism with alacrity or else shrug at it with indifference. Pattison’s contention that it is impossible to make the liturgy of vulgar pantheism “respectable” must be granted—but all rock music may not constitute that liturgy.

Does Rock Music Have No Effect On Its Listeners’ Behavior?

Pattison demonstrates that rock is “impervious to the diatribes” of its accusers. Answering charges that rock correlates with violence, immorality, and crime, Pattison argues that there is a gulf between what rockers feel and what they do. Like religious believers, they can “live a full emotional life inside the myths, not in the danger of external events.”

The traditional metaphysician may argue that under true vulgar pantheism, morality disappears. The “kindness, decency, and toleration” of which Whitman was a model become matters of personal preference, and cannot logically be superior to their opposites. Thus Charles Manson cannot truly be condemned for his violent intentions and murders, apparently inspired or exacerbated by the Beatles’ proto-metal song “Helter Skelter,” because to condemn him or anyone else is to stand in the transcendent place and look down like a judge on hateful deeds—but that place is supposed to be illusory under vulgar pantheism. So the one who approves not only the mythic celebration of violence in music, but the enactment of it in the real world as something neither better nor worse than Whitman’s kindness and toleration holds the most ideologically consistent view under vulgar pantheism.

But if the rocker who maintains the moral rectitude of his Romantic predecessors is accused of contradiction for claiming “nothing is forbidden, all things are permitted,”and meanwhile holding signs that say “fuck war,” the response available to him, Pattison says, is a spate of nonsense syllables. “Rock in its vulgarity,” he articulates, “wants no part of eloquence or logic.” Whether this constitutes a defeat of the rocker’s ideology can only depend on one’s  predetermined system of values. Insofar as logical consistency and articulateness are good, the rocker loses; insofar as unfettered commitment to the expansion of infinite self is good, the traditional metaphysician loses.

Sloan_If_It_Feels_Good_Do_It

In any case, while the suggestion that rock inspires violent intentions in those who have not already entertained them may indeed remain nebulous, it cannot be that rock (or any other kind of music) is without effect on its listeners. If so, it is meaningless to speak of it as a “powerful weapon.” Pattison writes, “Any connection between rock mythology and the behavior of large numbers of people is unproven and probably unprovable.” And yet earlier he states that the rocker’s apathy toward capitalism “translates into decreasing percentages of voter participation and detachment from public debate and gainful employment;”and later he cites the marked decrease in church attendance that has coincided with the advent of rock. Whether either of these trends are good or bad, again, depends on a predetermined value-system; but if rock helps create or sustain apathy toward religion and politics, then it is not, as intuition seems to confirm, without effect on the behavior of its listeners. Its status as a powerful force is evident in the real world.

Is Civilization Doomed?

Pattison claims that rock is the product of vulgar American democracy, which is premised on self-interest and liberation from authority. In his words, the American revolutionary myth prizes the same values stressed in rock’s liturgy under the names “democracy, pluralism, individualism, limited government, manifest destiny, and civil rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” American democracy, he states, provides “an ideal setting for the growth of romantic pantheism.” Those in American leadership who wish to “save America from its own vulgarity” live in contradiction, because it is impossible to disdain vulgarity while supporting “the democracy out of which it grows.” That the political system of the United States explains the vulgarity of its popular culture is a point well taken. De Tocqueville, Pattison notes, foretold it before the Civil War, and Arthur Sullivan, he observes, trembled prophetically at the prospect of Edison’s talking machine putting great power into the hands of the vulgar masses.

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 21: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Donald Trump (b. 1946)

Perhaps the American Experiment of democracy has proven that, especially after the Industrial Revolution, vulgarity trumps refinement; but to undercut those who would encourage American citizens, particularly children in the context of education, to move beyond vulgarity is surely fatalistic. Those whose commitment to self-transcendence is absolute may take heart that Jefferson, with Adams, envisioned an America led by the “aristocracy of virtue and talent,” that the political system is not immutable if people are willing to sacrifice for the possibility of achieving a more perfect union; they may respond to Longfellow’s exhortation in his “Psalm of Life” to summon one’s commitment to higher things, and reject the authoritarianism or moralism that serve to stoke the flames of the very vulgarity it seeks to quell. They may do all this and not be guilty of lusting after foreign models of culture. Artistically, Americans have many examples of culture-creators past and present whose work moves beyond vulgarity—Samuel Barber,  John Coltrane, Leonard Bernstein, Wynton Marsalis, Eric Whaticre, to name a few. A fatalistic response to the truths, realities, and powerful myths described in Pattison’s work is not the only response available.

TJ

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Conclusion

Pattison’s analysis of rock as idea offers unique perspective that thinkers and creators of today ought to consider. His command of world literature and assimilation of a broad spectrum of scholarship inform the challenging discourse presented in Vulgarity. The book succeeds brilliantly in relating the underlying philosophical divisions that are reflected in contemporary music, culture, and even politics. Pattison states that, “American democracy necessarily grows more not less vulgar.” Using popular culture and the RNC as the barometer, who can deny that this statement has already proven accurate in the thirty years since Vulgarity was published? While artists, educators, and critics that still value refined craftsmanship must look squarely at the stark reality around them which Pattison has described, they may yet—perhaps they must—contribute to culture in ways that move beyond or coopt vulgarity, whether or not its broader triumph is absolute.

 

The Holographic Universe: A Review

Here is the last in my series of posts on books I read in 2015. This one packed a punch:

Michael Talbot, The Holographic Universe: The Revolutionary Theory of Reality [1991] (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011).

Reading this book is like taking a journey into space: it disorients your equilibrium and challenges you to adapt to the new conditions. The Holographic Universe is difficult to process after only one reading, but here’s a brief attempt:

First, when I first read online somewhere that the universe may be a cosmic hologram in motion, the idea appealed to my feeling that material reality is not the ultimate reality, that it is in fact only a reflection of something more fundamental, namely consciousness. Talbot makes this very case in his well-researched investigation of the holographic principle. He begins by introducing neurophysiologist Karl Pribram, whose research suggests that the brain projects and decodes information in the same way that information is encoded in and projected through a holographic screen. The reader’s next acquaintance is physicist David Bohm, whose work in quantum physics (entailing topics including “action at a distance,” the EPR paradox, and plasmons) led him to conclude essentially that the universe as a whole is a holographic “movie” projection from a deeper, more highly organized level of reality. The significance of these ideas is that objective reality is a construct of the mind.

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The rest of the book is a compendium of the supernatural, the paranormal, and the freaky. Heed well Talbot’s invitation in the introduction to keep an open mind—without one you will not get very far. The unsettling part is that the stuff he cites has been documented. I frequently found myself googling names, peoples, and personages, unwilling to yield assent—sometimes even consideration—too quickly. “Why haven’t I heard about this?” I wondered. Sure enough, there are Wikipedia articles on topics like Mirin Dajo, who had himself impaled through his vital organs without suffering harm; the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard, who in fits of religious hysteria, witnesses confirm, pleaded to be tortured but reported relief rather than pain, and emerged without sign of injury; the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) in which effects of psychokinesis—the ability to move something basically using The Force; i.e., to imagine something intently and thereby influence the outcome of actual reality—was apparently experimentally measured; Emanuel Swedenborg, who reported detailed visions of the afterlife realm as well as having interacted with the spirit-beings that dwell there, including the deceased humans; and Therese Neumann—whose name I recalled from Schumacher—a Catholic mystic who according to many witnesses ate and drank nothing for thirty-five years except the daily Eucharist. Different readers will respond differently to such accounts—which, if true, are surely paradigm-shifting. Some may categorically reject them; some may seek to explain them in natural terms; others may not want to be bothered because it would take too much time and effort to rethink their worldview; and others may become obsessed with the supernatural and seek out such experiences like the Holy Grail. To me, the best response is frankly to accept the reality of the supernatural, and, even if skepticism remains toward this or that particular anecdote, allow the paradigm to be shifted away from materialism and philosophical realism toward an acknowledgment of the power of consciousness and of the higher Levels of Being. This can be done without becoming obsessed with the supernatural, naively accepting every fairy tale, or relinquishing your “I’m no fool” card.

Talbot himself nudges the reader toward a pursuit of the supernatural. A refrain throughout the book is that the same transcendent potential exemplified by the mystics and visionaries he cites is “latent within all of us.” To some readers, religious orthodoxy may call for the censure of things mentioned in a positive light in this book: psychic readings, chakras, auras, hypnotism, shamanism, and belief in reincarnation. Whatever your views on such things may be, Talbot’s journalism logically contributes to the ultimate thesis of his work, which I happen to agree with: reality is the product of mind, or “spirit.” In the author’s terminology, the universe is “omnijective”—neither objective nor subjective, but both; a product of consciousness, but also quite real.

The idea that all reality is the product of consciousness may seem esoteric and strange, but it is nourishment to the bones of one whose faith in higher things must (in principle) harmonize with a rational view of the universe. To illustrate: Christians believe in miracles and the existence of a spiritual realm supervening this physical one. If such beliefs are warranted, what is the mode of interaction between spirit and matter? How can mountains be moved, the dead raised? The answer is no longer shrouded in mystery if material reality by definition is subordinate to spiritual agency. Matter obeys whatever spirit—endowed with much greater power than we’re used to—tells it to do. For this curiosity to be explained strengthens the credibility of faith.

Therefore, reading this book confirmed my sentiment that it is the final destiny of man and woman to transcend the limitations imposed by matter at the present level of existence, to ascend to higher Levels of Being, and ultimately to see the face of God. The empirical work of Pribram, Bohm and others is enough to encourage those who “desire a better country” beyond this world, and are committed to living this life with the attainment of that end in mind.

Reflections on Sculpture

In 2015 I nourished my appetite for aesthetic mastery by perusing, slowly but steadily, the following volume:

Georges Duby and Jean-Luc Daval, eds. Sculpture: From the Renaissance to the Present Day (Köhn: Taschen, 2006).

Sculpture has always inspired me with awe–especially realist marble representation of the human form. The masterworks in this historical survey have reignited my desire to visit Europe, particularly Italy and France where many of them are found. High on my list of sculptures presented in this anthology are Michelangelo’s breathtaking Pietà, arresting Moses, and paragon David.

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In addition to these mega-hits of world sculpture are many others that demand recognition (see my list below). The Baroque masters are described as “virtuosos,” a characterization which readily invites comparison with the art of music, and the challenge of execution it presents. This comment, and the astonishing display of skill before my eyes, caused me to wonder which of the arts may be the most difficult to master: sculpture, painting, composition, music performance, poetry, dance? Although I can speak of the travail of composition, it seemed to me that the balance leaned toward the representational graphic forms: sculpture and painting. Perhaps this suggestion is like the marveling of a musical novice hearing me play Rondo a la Turca. It is difficult to tell. But with figurative sculpture there is no forgiveness for minor mistakes. One can’t mask them with rubato or some pedal. The subtle mastery required in capturing the human form with such stunning veracity and expressivity as in the work of Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini, Rodin, and dozens others simply defies belief.

There is grandeur in the art of sculpture. The works I am most drawn to belong to the pre-modernist age when art reflected belief in the Great Levels of Being. To the Renaissance artists, for example, “The human figure was the tangible manifestation of a higher Beauty, that of divine splendour. Thus the perfect harmonious representation of the human body was evidence of the image of God.” Profundity, awe, transcendence, brilliance—these are the qualities that command attention by the classical works featured in this volume. Below are some more of my personal favorites:

Francisque Duret: Chactas Meditating on Atala’s Tomb

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James Pradier: Odalisque

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And these:

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Fountain of the Four RiversThe Ecstasy of St. Theresa

Augustin Pajou: Psyche Abandoned

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Jason with the Golden Fleece

Pierre-Jules Cavalier: The River Durance between allegories of Wheat and the Grapevine

Antonio Canova: Theseus Slaying the Centaur

Reflections on Civil War Letters

Bob Blaisdell, ed. Civil War Letters: From Home, Camp & Battlefield  (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2012).

This collection of Civil War letters—written by small and great, northerners and southerners—offers a direct glance into the minds, hearts, and experiences of those involved in this fascinating and tragic moment of our nation’s history. The racial tensions of the present day in the US recall to me the time when blood was spilled, copiously, over political disagreements ultimately resulting from racial injustice. While the war was set in motion due to slavery, the subject apparently took a back seat in the minds of those in uniform. There is evident racism in the letters of some of the Confederates—such as J. Traviso Scott, who looked down upon negroes, and hated with the utmost seething hatred the band of Yankees that “invaded” the land of his countrymen. Other Southerners took to arms simply because their fatherland demanded their service. Some Northerners cite the cause of the Union, but seldom is slavery ever mentioned. Interestingly, Northern soldiers were generally apathetic about their service compared to Southerners, who were fueled by a sense of strong indignation. Perhaps this is because, indeed, the North was invading—fighting for a cause that did not directly affect their own freedom, although their efforts ultimately loosened the chains of the southern slaves. It is baffling to reflect that this bloody reckoning took place on American soil.

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Stonewall Jackson is a fascinating character. He is the kind of man that Christian churches the nation over would welcome into their fellowships with open arms: committed to scripture, God, country, and family; and yet he was ruthless in his defense of Virginia against “Northern aggression.” Most intriguing of all to me was General Lee, who was firmly convinced in the rectitude of the Confederacy’s intentions—self-defense against distant military power—and yet acknowledged slavery as a “moral and political evil,” and exhibited the character of a deeply loyal, humble, reflective, and spiritual human being. I am reminded that, under the right conditions, political disagreements could mean military enmity with quality people. Some might seem just fine with such a state of affairs; but how many indeed wouldn’t be pained to know that some of their family and friends were on the other side? Perhaps we should take this to heart before railing against the political tribes we hate.

Finally, what struck me was that at this time in history everyone believed in Providence (even the foul-mouthed soldiers that cursed him). All events were interpreted through the lens of God’s direct involvement. One Union Lieutenant, Richard C. Derby, nearly drowned in a river, but was cast ashore in time, the only one of his comrades that survived. He believed it was Providence that spared him, but went on to give his life less than a year later at Antietam. Did Providence indeed spare him only to lead him to death on another field? Or was his escape from death a matter of chance, which he interpreted as Providence because he was the only one who happened to survive? Perhaps it is impossible to tell with certainty. The naturalist would assert chance; the theist may defend Providential action. But then what about Stonewall Jackson’s thankfulness to God for sending favorable weather, for working all things together for his good on the battlefield? Was God doing this and at the same time working on behalf of the Union Captains who believed the same thing when they won the day? It would seem not. In any case, these are the case studies on divine providence. One can learn as much and maybe more about the subject here than consulting thick theological tomes. These letters also confirm the need for a more refined belief in Providence among those committed to the good fight of faith today.

Review: Pope Francis’ Letter to the World

Pope Francis, Praise Be To You (Laudato Si’): On Care of Our Common Home (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015).

Pope Francis took his appellation from Saint Francis of Assisi, a figure beloved not only by believers, but by rock stars and hippies. The medieval saint was a friend of animals and communed with God in creation. The reigning pontiff has devoted his first encyclical (the full text of which is available here) to the environmental crisis of the modern world, addressing the economic conquest of humanity which has left polluted air, contaminated water, deforestation, and extinction in its wake. Francis echoes and amplifies the warnings of all the previous popes since Saint John XXIII (1958-1963), and speaks out as the prophets of old warning ancient Israel to repent.

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The Pope today addresses his epistle not only to the Catholic church but to the world, and embodies in his pen the “genuine and profound humanism” that he urges all to embrace in pursuit of a noble and generous society. Several of his comments reminded me of Schumacher (whom I suspect he, as many others, has read), such as those urging self-limitation and condemning the “technocratic paradigm” which promotes mechanized efficiency at the expense of human and environmental dignity. One of my favorites is this: “If architecture reflects the spirit of an age, our magestructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony.” He continues: “Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything. Otherwise we would simply legitimate the present situation and need new forms of escapism to help us endure the emptiness.”

In a world of globalized technology which tends to compromise genuine community, create social alienation, and express itself in metropolitan expanses of asphalt, smog, and noise, the Pope commends those who positively overcome the isolation and ugliness, as through compassionate generosity and devotion to community. As an artist, I particularly appreciated the following line: “Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example…when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome the reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it.”

To address the urgent crisis, Francis calls for political action, and encourages individuals not to underestimate the impact of a conscientious lifestyle. He invokes scripture while envisioning a world that reflects the glory of its creator as humans care both for the environment as well as one another, especially the poor. Standing in the way of this vision is are “obstructionist attitudes,” which “even a part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” The Pope condemns the spirit of pride that refuses to acknowledge a principle higher than the self, as well as the relativism and materialism that leave people ethically bankrupt to attempt change. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, he says:  “When the human person is considered as simply…the product of chance or physical determinism, then, ‘our overall sense of responsibility wanes.'” Writing in an age when materialistic scientism is the dominant school of thought among intellectuals, he articulates a highly relevant truth: “even if we postulate a process of evolution…our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.”

While I personally agreed with the vast majority of the Pope’s points, I had trouble with his call for a world authority to enforce international compliance with environmental standards. The Paris Agreement of December 2015 seems to me a better model, in which world nations voluntarily committed to some of the necessary measures. No doubt the extraordinary response in Paris among virtually all nations was in part due to the Pope’s influence.

In any case, Francis’ letter to the world deserves our respect, and his call for change, the ongoing commitment of those who call this earth home.

Schumacher: Two Reviews

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered [1973] (London: Vintage Books, 1993).

This book is a response to the prevailing materialist paradigm of economics that has been the driving force of developed nations since the industrial revolution, especially since World War Two; it is also a vision of what human civilization could be, based on an economics that prizes not only profits, but human and environmental dignity. Schumacher exposes the folly of devout adherence to the notion that “bigger is better,” and urges a “self-limiting principle” to world economies, especially the advanced ones including his own, Britain. Such economic self-limitation is a stench in the nostrils of those preoccupied with amassing material wealth despite any social and environmental costs, and the ego which is the driving force of that pursuit. Schumacher brings balanced wisdom to the economic problems facing the modern world, acknowledging the necessity of economic profitability and individual freedom as well as the social and environmental consciousness which we silence to our own peril. In the end he navigates clear of the noisy extremes characterized by the defiant defenders of unbridled capitalism and the livid champions of the proletariat. Schumacher decries lifeless factory working conditions, the worship of the machine, and unsustainable consumption of energy (or “natural capital”); and urges emphasis on local economies, practical but non-technocratic assistance to developing nations, and proposes a form of common ownership of large businesses. IMG_2155

Despite the age of this publication, the principles it embodies remain as relevant today as ever. His chapter on education powerfully articulates the beauty of bestowing charity and magnanimity to our children instead of the impoverished metaphysics preached by the intellectuals of the nineteenth century–Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, etc. The truth-content in this volume is staggering. Many books one must read long and hard to find some silver or brass, and occasionally some gold; every page of this book pays dividends. Some chapters are pure gold. The most challenging part to me was the concluding section in which he proposes 50% government ownership of businesses that grow past a certain threshold in size. Setting aside any prejudice on the matter and considering the argument through the lens of pure reason in the service of love and freedom, I find his idea very difficult if not impossible to find fault with. In short, Small is Beautiful is a beautiful book written by an uncannily gifted but humble intellectual, respected economist, and friend of humankind.

 

E.F. Schumacher, A Guide For the Perplexed [1977] (London: Vintage Books, 2011).

My review of this book was first published in October 2015 on Amazon.

Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed is the author’s response to the philosophical juggernaut of materialism in the western world. In it, he exposes the intellectual and spiritual poverty of the view that man is nothing more than a naked ape with advanced computing power; that there is no essential difference between inanimate matter, plant-life, animal life, and human life; that all these levels of being merely represent different arrangements of matter; that all reality and knowledge can be reduced to the objective measurement and analysis of physics and chemistry. This has been the prevailing view of scientists and intellectuals in the modern age, beginning with Descartes, and remains so today. In this book, as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1977, Schumacher demonstrates the inadequacy of this philosophy, while pointing to the ancient tradition–confirmed by modern writers and mystics–that matter, life, consciousness, and self-awareness represent progressively higher Levels of Being, and that recognition of this hierarchy is essential to a true understanding of the world. He posits “four fields of knowledge”: knowledge of oneself, i.e. one’s own interior existence; knowledge of the interior existence of others beings, achieved indirectly by communication and interpretation; knowledge of how one is perceived by and exists in relation to others; and finally knowledge of the outside material world. “Materialistic scientism” focuses exclusively on the last of these fields. While the study of this material field has yielded breathtaking results in science and technology, the study of all four fields is essential for a true attainment of human progress, peace, and purpose. Those who ignore the first three fields of knowledge remain ignorant of what truly matters.

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This book is offered to those who, like Schumacher once did, find themselves perplexed that the desires and experiences that make us human—the desire to live a self-transcending life, the appreciation of beauty, our yearning for purpose and fulfillment—are reduced to illusory or accidental byproducts of evolution. The author respects and values the advances of science, but differentiates between these and the preposterous metaphysics with which they are clothed. He warns that the modern world cannot long survive in them.

The author’s distinction between the instructional and descriptive sciences is brilliant and essential reading for anyone working to contribute to human knowledge in any sphere. As a musician, I am particularly inspired by his appraisal of the value of art, how its highest value is evident in the communication of truth.

Schumacher’s power of synthesis and wisdom is evident in his appeal to an impressively wide range of sources—ancient, medieval and modern. In his appeal to the various religious traditions of mankind, he assembles a universal chorus that harmonizes in recognition of the deeper realities beyond the superficial layer of the physical. While Schumacher wrote as a Christian, his intended audience is broad, and he makes no demand that the reader even assent to belief in a deity. Meanwhile, the theist can savor the truths he articulates as if at the table of the Lord. In the chapter devoted to the first field of knowledge, Schumacher emphasizes the importance of meditation, characterizing it as an exercise of self-disciplined focus, and celebrating a variety of methodologies. Here religious disagreements may arise; and yet when viewed within the larger context of challenging materialism and of subordinating the intellect to the spirit, any such disagreements will seem peripheral. In any case, the book is indeed a precious and accessible guide for those perplexed by the inconsistency between their desire to live a meaningful, self-transcending life and the materialistic scientism preached by our modern intellectual authorities.

Two Books on Science and Religion

Here are two reviews on books that address how God interacts with creation given the discoveries of modern science:

John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction With the World [1989] (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005).

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I picked up this book in search of perspectives on how God acts in the world. The picture painted by science seems to minimize the need to invoke supernatural causation, and yet as Christians we hold a biblical tradition of Providence, and interpret our daily lives through the lens of God’s intimate concern, involvement, and interaction in our lives and indeed all of creation. Polkinghorne suggests that God operates from behind the veils of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Sub-atomic physics is viewed (though not by all!) as indeterminate; larger “chaotic” systems such as the weather are also indeterminate; as a result, there is an “openness” to the unfolding process of creation. No one can say with 100% certainty what is going to happen. God can therefore cause whatever he wants whenever he wants by, without violating the laws of conservation, nudging tiny elements here or there within these realms, desiring the chain of events that follows. To me, this view is interesting but ultimately speculative. Worse, Polkinghorne’s argument is maimed by his unwillingness to give up philosophical realism: for him, matter and the laws that govern it are absolute, and God must work around them. There are better perspectives available. What’s important, though, is that Polkinghorne recognizes the problem of divine action and doesn’t offer trite answers for it.

I found Polkinghorne’s writing style often taxing–he cites many bland theological quotations while forbearing to state his own views, and cloaks his prose in the tediously refined style of the academy. Yet there is some silver in his treatise: he exposes what he calls a “facile” and “glib” view of Providence, such that the believer interprets every life event from open parking spaces to rheumatism as direct from the hand of God, sent either as grace or punishment; but on the other hand he defends faith in Providence: “I do not think one can deny that there are remarkable threads of coincidence to be found in human life which it is proper for those who experience them to interpret as the personal God calling them by name.” In the end he endorses a balanced view that justifies thankfulness and prayer–what is at stake–while avoiding the simplistic view of Providence.

Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

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After Polkinghorne, I was curious to see whether a better perspective on the problem of divine action in the world had been articulated. Plantinga devotes attention to this issue in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, which evaluates real and alleged conflicts between religion and science. In it, he argues that there is no real conflict between theistic religion and science, but that the real conflict is between naturalism and science. Naturalism, the idea that there is no such thing as anything supernatural, is a metaphysical interpretation of or “add-on” to scientific theories like biological evolution. Plantinga takes up the foil against the belligerent atheists, Richard Dakwins and Daniel Dennet, and duels with skillful vigor and a flare of play. A lover of science, Plantinga embraces evolution, and turns it against the naturalist/atheist by arguing in the end that if Mind is the product of unguided natural selection, then our mental faculties are not reliable guides in our search for truth. This undercuts any dogma preached by the naturalist, such as the assertion that “the evidence of evolution reveals a world without design.” As for divine action, Plantinga echoes the notion that there is plenty of room for God to work from behind the shroud of quantum physics–whether to cause genetic mutations, guide evolution, or do the miracles recorded in scripture or prayed for in the present day. Unlike Polkinhorn, Plantinga is not struggling to avoid checkmate, but makes his moves confidently, showing that atheists and evolutionary psychologists have not gained their point against theistic religion in the name of science. I see the book as a whole as a serious challenge to and even firm chokehold on dogmatic naturalism.

Review: Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man

Second in my list of books from last year is:

Jane Goodall, In The Shadow of Man [1971] (Boston: Mariner Books, 2010).

I started reading this book on a plane to New York on April 3rd—and then discovered that the date marked Jane Goodall’s birthday. The introduction tells of the book’s wide influence since its first publication in 1971, including the anecdote of a traveler who took this volume along with the Bible as the two books she consulted in times of perplexity and discouragement. Indeed, the story of Goodall’s work as a young naturalist and primatologist seems to be sanctioned by Providence. She had a lifelong desire and passion to observe animals, and through various conflicts and obstacles was able to begin work watching chimpanzees in their natural habitat in the Gombe forest of Kenya. The work was extremely taxing and difficult, and fruitless for over a year; but through perseverance and refusal to despair, she was able to go on to observe the apes in closer detail than ever before. Her work proved seminal in the field of primatology, and transformed our perception of apes and of ourselves in relation to them. There is such depth of meaning in this story that for someone who believes in such a thing as Providence, it may be difficult not to see the hand of God in it.

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Goodall is not only a revered primatologist, but an excellent writer. Her story reads almost like a memoir, artfully crafted and richly descriptive, but at the same time full of technical observations on chimpanzee behavior. Since reading this book, and having contemplated the great apes, I view human beings differently. I see human virtue, selfishness, sexuality, love, social hierarchies, bipedality, and nakedness all in the context of how they are similar to or different from apes. When I visit the Phoenix Zoo, I look long and intently on the orangutans, so strikingly similar to us as are the chimpanzees. The creatures Goodall describes are fascinating and magnificent. Her account of them is not without tragedy, but her story awakens us to greater concern for them and indeed the entire natural order. Although a keen and tireless observer with deep love and respect for the chimpanzees, her interaction with the apes was of necessity limited. And yet through it all, she writes, “We began, though indeed ‘through a glass darkly,’ to understand what a chimpanzee really is.”

 

Books I Read in 2015: Plato, The Republic

January 11, 2016

This post marks the first in a series of reflections on books I read in 2015, offered mainly for my friends and family, as well as anyone else online looking for reviews of these works or otherwise interested in subjects ranging from philosophy, science, theology, and spirituality to economics, politics, and history. The first on the list is:

Plato, Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Edited by Elizabeth Watson Scharffenberger (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004).

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There is too much in this long and truth-packed document for me to attempt to summarize or comment on in a brief space; but within the greatness, I found many striking parallels with the Bible. After reading through, I closed the book convinced that Plato was a Christian. Of course he predated Christ, but the essence of his teaching harmonizes beautifully with that of Christ. No wonder medieval Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas deeply respected him. Among the striking parallels with the Bible are the following: Glaucon poses the question as to who is happier, the unjust man who is prosperous and celebrated as righteous, or the just man who is viewed as wicked, and then “scourged, racked, bound…and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, impaled.” Years ago I read C.S. Lewis cite this passage as one of the most outstanding ‘pagan’ anticipations of the truth. Reading it for myself confirmed to me the idea that what I as a Christian call the Spirit of Prophecy is not limited to people who have a conscious knowledge of the Gospel. Equally striking, furthermore, was Plato’s quotation of Romans 8:28 in Book 10 (four centuries before Paul!): “Even when [the just man] is in poverty or sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death…” Peppered throughout Plato’s Republic are many other images, ideas, and turns of phrase that recall various passages in scripture. If there is a single Spirit of Truth which, as Paul preached to the Athenians in the first century, is not far from all men but quite near, it is no surprise that such spontaneous concord should be discovered.

Overall, Socrates’ task is to answer Glaucon’s challenge to prove that the just person is truly happier than the unjust; this he does by sketching in detail the structure of human civilization, ultimately drawing parallels between the State and the individual, which is a microcosm of the former. Like the State, the individual has forces within that strive for mastery, but which must be ruled by wisdom and love for absolute truth. The dialogue becomes an occasion for Plato to propound his political vision, and to envisage the ideal State. Few works have been as influential throughout history.

Glaucon’s challenge is only resolved in the end when Socrates appeals to the immortality of the soul. The idea that there is reward and/or punishment beyond the grave offers rational justification for preferring the life of a just man, even when it means misery and sore travail, to the life of the unjust man, even when it means adulation, merriment and delight in this life.

Also paramount in this book, and of special interest to me as a composer, is Plato’s view on literature and music. Its purpose, he says, is to impart and reinforce the love of virtue within the citizens of the State, particularly the young in the context of education. Music and poetry—Plato often singles out Homer—can be judged based on whether it tunes the strings of the soul either to courage and temperance or to pusillanimity and lust. Reading this reminded me of Beethoven, whose personal library included the Republic and whose music often embodies the virtues Plato praises in this work. The essence of Plato’s teaching, I believe, remains relevant today: goodness in art reflects goodness in humans, and both should be encouraged and celebrated heartily.