March 21, 2004

Culture War

Mike Murdock wrote an excellent post last week in an exchange with Tim Bednar discussing the "culture-war".

Amen, Mike, and let me add that you expressed what was going on in my mind three years ago when I decided to become a Christian. Now that our family is three, I know it even more so.

Posted by Joel Fuhrmann at 06:10 PM | Comments (0)

March 16, 2004

The Power of Jesus Bleeding into the Devil’s Music

“As a kid, I would get chills when we used to sing the old 1899 Lewis E. Jones hymn, ‘There is Power in the Blood.’ The women, trying to out-falsetto each other, would sing ‘There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood, of the Lamb.’ The men would double-time, walking a steady bass-line underneath, with ‘There is power, power, power, power, wonder-working power.’ And there is, in fact, power, listening to Jesus bleed into the Devil's music.”

So says Matt Labash in an article at weeklystandard.comGoodbye, Babylon: A new collection of old-timey gospel music shows everything that's right about praising God and everything that's wrong with the contemporary Christian music scene.”

My sentiments upon reading this: Amen!

I can stand only so much of contemporary Christian “praise music.” It’s too bland, too…anemic. Better a classical hymn – darkly grand -- that encourages brooding and contemplation; or a gospel romper that sings about sin and judgment and hell. There’s too much sugary contentment goin’ on.

This isn’t the direct subject of Labash’s piece, but there’s something in all this about spirituality and religion itself – and not just the music. That is: if religion is not about being at the end of your rope, if it isn’t about tears, suffering, and blood – what is it?

Labash is of the opinion that the old-timers didn’t mess around: “they portrayed a fierce God -- one of redemption, but also of vengeance -- not the simplistic elbow-patched grandpa, or open-armed hippie-Jesus of the modern superchurch soundtrack. In a 1930 song called ‘Memphis Flu,’ Elder David R. Curry, pastor of the Oakley Street Church of God in Christ, and his congregation sing over barrelhouse piano runs, handclaps, and interjections of ‘Praise Jesus!’: Yes, He killed the rich and poor / And He's going to kill more / If you don't turn away from your shame.”

Labash’s article is a review of a new 6-CD boxed-set collection of 135 songs and 35 sermons -- the largest collection of sacred music ever assembled: old recordings of Christian gospel and Pentecostal tunes from America’s neglected heritage of religious song. Much of the material is newly discovered – retrieved from old records getting dusty in attics and basements. The collection is entitled Goodbye Babylon and was produced by Lance Ledbetter, a 27-year-old Atlanta software installer and former DJ.

Labash’s enthusiasm about it is invigorating....

Labash says:

“What these salvagers have preserved is a gospel hodgepodge, everything from Sacred Harp singing to hillbilly romps to field holler/prison chants to front-porch blues to jubilee quartets to old timey country to Sanctified congregational singing to Pentecostal rave-up's. They all come down in a rain of clamoring tambourines and bottleneck slide guitars, clawhammer banjo-picking, booming jug band-blowing and barrelhouse piano rolls. The songs come from many traditions, though the overwhelming influence comes from both the black and white strains of Holiness music -- which resulted from the merger of the Fire Baptized Holiness Church and Pentecostal Holiness Church in 1911. This came five years after the 1906 Azusa Street revival, in which the black holiness evangelist William Joseph Seymour sparked a movement which church historians say resulted in thousands receiving the ‘Pentecostal baptism with the Holy Ghost with the apostolic sign of speaking with other tongues.’….

“In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Eddie Dean, one of the great chroniclers of lost America -- which isn't a crowded field -- interviewed Dick Spottswood, who, at Ledbetter's behest, served as both music and liner notes wrangler on much of the Goodbye, Babylon set. Spottswood, himself a Washington, D.C., institution as host of the local public radio station's invaluable Obsolete Music Hour, is no holy-rolling Bible thumper. But he perfectly nailed the difference between the old and new sacred music: ‘It's not like contemporary Christian songs, which are all praising Jesus, with nothing about sin or guilt. They've turned Jesus into a very cheap, off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all Jesus. There's nothing of substance left, and the music reflects this sort of mindless cheerfulness. With the old-time gospel songs, like (the Monroe Brothers') “Sinner You Better Get Ready,” there are dark clouds and tragedy and death and all the unpleasantries you have to go through before you can stand in line at the redemption counter.’"

One more quote: referring to the composer and choir leader Thomas A. Dorsey – known as the “The Father of Gospel Music” – Labash offers a line from Dorsey’s masterpiece, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”: “Precious Lord, take my hand / Lead me on, let me stand / I am tired, I am weak, I am old.”

He adds: “There is something ennobling about watching fallible man -- tired and weak and old… stumbling around to find God in the dark.”

Posted by Rick Penner at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

March 11, 2004

Superb blog: New Partisan

The following by Tim Marchman -- from a column entitled “The Hollow Man” -- appeared in the blog/magazine New Partisan on 3/11/04:

“For generations the young have been taught to emulate the romantic, clandestine life of the artist, to seek out that fabulous place where everyone knew each other and anyone who didn't was dead inside and nothing mattered because the modern had obviated convention.

“I do not share that belief; I do not think that modernism's legacy is the cluster of like-minded young persons imagining they are changing a world irredeemably set against them, even if (as occasionally happens) they are. I believe that modernism is T.S. Eliot being baptized into the Church of England, forcing himself into the steady discipline of reconciliation to a world that had changed beyond understanding. The problem is not that the world does not comprehend us, but that we do not comprehend the world; the way to reconciliation, as Eliot understood, is through conventions.”

I just discovered New Partisan; it calls itself “an urban-based journal of politics, culture, and the arts.” The Editor-in-Chief is Harry Siegel; the Senior Editor is Tim Marchman; the “Gal Friday” is A.R. Brook Lynn; other columnists are Jonathon Leaf and Richard O’Keeffe.

From this conservative site emanates an understated, classical sophistication; a subdued, sterling polish. Its intelligence and literary quality reminds me of The New Criterion blog: Armavirumque (from where I got the link).

I love the style.

Posted by Rick Penner at 09:28 PM | Comments (0)

March 05, 2004

Arrogance of the City

Barnard Weinraub has an article in the 3/4/04 issue of The New York Times -- "UPN Show Is Called Insensitive to Amish" -- that reports that Viacom is producing a reality show for UPN (a sister network to CBS) that will make fun of the Amish on national television. (This link may require registration.)

The show, called "Amish in the City," will feature Amish teenagers brought into the big city; the "fun" would be in watching their reactions to the "sinful" and shocking aspects of modern urban life.

You may remember that CBS already tried to do a reality show called "Hillbillies" in which rural young people were going to be given the same treatment in Beverly Hills. That show was put on the back burner because of public outrage.

The article in The New York Times said:

"Herman Bontrager, secretary-treasurer of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom, a group of lawyers, ministers and academics who support the Amish, said there are about 200,000 Amish in the nation, mostly in eastern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern Indiana. 'The Amish are probably more knowledgeable about the world than the CBS and UPN people give them credit for,' said Mr. Bontrager, an insurance executive from New Holland, Pa., who grew up Amish and is now a Mennonite.

"Mr. Bontrager said emphatically over the phone, 'I just find it reprehensible that corporations, especially media corporations in this country, would find it acceptable to make a mockery of a religious group. They just plain don't get it. For Amish people, their religious faith and everyday living are totally intertwined.'"

I grew up as a Mennonite (Amish are related to Mennonites); so I can comment: the problem, here, is actually not just caused by "corporations"; the problem is caused by companies run by the media elites of Hollywood. We could say that the media people comprise the production staff for the pop culture machine of contemporary America. In general, these people are extreme-leftists, cynical, disrespectful of tradition and traditional people, and have NO sense of the sacred.

I know this because I came from a rural Mennonite community in the 1960's as a young man. I went to the big city (Los Angeles and Hollywood) to explore and taste the pleasures of the modern megalopolis. Today I live in Burbank.

I finally grew up. But I don't consider the experience merely amusing.

There is a flash and energy to the big city that is exhilarating. Arts flourish there like nowhere else. But that's not how it advertises itself....

The temptation of the avant-gaard lures rural youth into Beat, hippie, or urban punk culture -- or just into the general big-city freedom -- with ferocity. It promises much. The emptiness and disappointment that follows upon the years, chews up idealism. It's discovered eventually that there is a lack of real community among city "progressives," that urban sophisticates have a shallow maturity, and that narcissism itself is passed off by the urban milieu as "wisdom."

I'm quite outraged that Hollywood would pick a peaceful and religiously devout people of integrity -- the Amish -- for public amusement. This is another example of liberal arrogance. This is part of the reason we have a culture war.

Posted by Rick Penner at 01:23 AM | Comments (0)

March 02, 2004

Gay Marriage -- the Plastic Exploding Inevitable

I’ve borrowed Warhol’s term because before our eyes the exploding definition of marriage is ushering in the inevitable yet plastic idea of gay marriage.

Conservatives are shocked, but shouldn’t be: they could have seen this coming from a long way off. Marriage has ALREADY been redefined by heterosexual culture during the last few decades -- an idea conservatives have written about.

Marriage is no longer a complex system of obligations, restrictions, and rewards that fuse a couple with the psychic diversity of each other (male and female), with the children, with the in-laws, with religious institutions, and with the wider community; rather, the new marriage is an exchangeable, temporary, utilitarian, legal and emotional commitment for each others’ convenience and self-fulfillment…the relatives, the community, the religion, and the kids be damned.

Gays are not redefining marriage; rather, marriage has been redefined by society to the point that it has become tailor-made for gays and their communities.

In extending this watered-down version of marriage to gays, the judicial system is just reflecting this new reality. At this point: why not? What’s the dif?

But those most surprised will be the gays that are supporting this turn of events -- for in the long run they’re helping to push out of existence exactly what it is that they want: acceptance.

Gay couples want to be accepted by society like society accepts the ‘ole traditional married couples -- but gays are trying to take a short cut; to get there via the new definition.

The new definition of marriage does not include social acceptance -- in fact, THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF IT!

Keith Burgess-Jackson -- in his blog AnalPhilosopher -- recently linked to an article “For Better or for Worse?” by the Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon (in The Wall Street Journal of 2/25/04). Glendon said:

“Same-sex marriage will constitute a public, official endorsement of the following extraordinary claims made by the Massachusetts judges in the Goodridge case: that marriage is mainly an arrangement for the benefit of adults; that children do not need both a mother and a father; and that alternative family forms are just as good as a husband and wife raising kids together.”

Check it out.

Posted by Rick Penner at 05:00 PM | Comments (0)

February 20, 2004

An Opera of the Heart

From our seats in the fourth row from the stage -- my Mom and I Wednesday night saw the Los Angeles Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly by Puccini. We were ecstatic.

Of all the concerts I’ve witnessed in my life -- popular or classical -- this was the most moving.

(My wife, Wanda, and I bought a pair of mini-series tickets to this year’s season. Wanda and Mom already saw Nicholas and Alexandra starring Placido Domingo in September.)

Here are a few notes….

First, on a philosophical theme -- the story of Madama Butterfly is sad and tragic in a searing kind of way. (If you're unaware of the story, you can find a synopsis here.) Why does it fascinate? Because it doesn’t flinch.

Every one of us has a history of secrets no one knows. We’ve had desperate dreams, hopeless loves, gnawing yearnings -- all strangled. We intuit that our deepest suspicion is probably true. Our hidden craving -- our soul’s strongest desire -- has almost been murdered. Time has passed. We’ve eaten bitter earth. I can trust you when I say you’ll never speak of this. Good music arouses memories of all that. THAT’S where great art gets its power.

The opera starred the soprano Veronica Villarroel as Butterfly and tenor John Matz as the male lead, Pinkerton. In charge of this opera’s production was the theatre director, designer, and lighting designer -- Robert Wilson. The conductor and music director was Kent Nagano. (Placido Domingo is the permanent Artistic Director of the LA Opera.)

Robert Wilson’s production was hyper-modern, stylized, and almost bizarrely spare. Though visually abstract and mannered -- this did not detract. If anything, the effect on the music was to render it intensified.

Instead of using “realistic” lavish costumes and sets, the stage was nearly bare. Behind -- the entire back wall comprised a giant screen, displaying changing hues resembling the sky (without actual clouds or recognizable features).

The costumes were one-color gowns or coats; all dropping in straight featureless lines towards the ground so feet were surrounded in “tents” that reached maximum diameter at the ground. Feet were not visible. People moved without signs of taking steps -- so the effect was as if the singers were floating. Each figure loomed up out of a groundless space.

The audience gazed towards an outdoors eternal dream-horizon in the background. The drama could have taken place anywhere. Obviously, the director meant it to be within our minds.

(To see some LA Opera photos of the set, go here.)

The “love scene” at the end of Act 1 had the lead singers facing the audience with Pinkerton behind Butterfly (with her back to her lover); they both stood in set positions like statues -- glowing white in the spotlight, boiling with passionate song. Amazingly, the more control and detachment the artists portrayed, the hotter the effect. The audience was transfixed.

The music director avoided pauses between songs so that a “wall of sound” created a cinematic effect; like an old movie with the constant hissing/rushing of the sound track and the slightly vibrating frame -- contrasting with the exotic glow of the image.

The director ended the opera the exact moment Butterfly died; Pinkerton turns sharply at front-stage-left to stare beyond the audience with a quick gasp -- the spotlight flashing on him one second blindingly -- and the lights go out.

Domingo has played this part many times (in other productions), and has said that he imagines the character living and suffering the rest of his life with this moment burned in his mind. When we see it, the bright image of the shocked face stays in our brain long after the auditorium turns black.

Often when I attend live concerts or plays (of any kind of music or theater) I’m aware that I'm in an audience watching a performance; and usually I become impressed with the technical ability and talent of the artist and “take in” the public event as a spectacle.

My mind then wanders over the subject of “excellence”: how I’m looking at and listening to a real live genius, here; and wonder how some people reach this level -- and how most of the rest of us don’t. I question whether this is a result of fate or of our own inability or unwillingness to achieve. Even though I enjoy the show, I become cowed. I leave the place chastised. I shudder, muddle on home, and forget myself in sleep. (Does anyone else ever do this?)

But at this opera -- I was not focused on the brilliance of the singing. Instead, I was taken away with the music itself, with Puccini’s composition. Much of the time I forgot where I was.

(How often I find popular music to be engaged in a BATTLE with myself to see who will win: will my irritation with the demands of its noise and sentimentality and cheap lyrics beat me to the ground so I finally concede defeat? -- say “Yes, I admit it: you’re catchy, you’re unforgettable ((for an hour, for a minute)); you’re clever!”)

Two more notes:

I was made aware of how Puccini reminds me of Mahler: the flowing and surging, like a natural force. It’s partly romantic, but on the cusp of the modern. This opera was only first performed a hundred years ago (1904). The modern staging of this production seems to fit. Despite its extreme emotions, Butterfly is too bracing to be just another love story.

Finally, most people find opera to be made of uncontrollable “shrieking” and “wailing.” On most household sound-systems, with the low dynamic range they usually have, that’s what you get. But live, in a large concert hall, the operatic voice -- without amplification -- fills the space; if anything, it’s not loud enough! The music would have us desire even more.

It becomes obvious that opera singers are filled with the physicality of the music. The difference between the popular voice and the operatic one -- is the difference between walking around the room and climbing a mountain.

Opera singers are ENGORGED with the vitality of the music. The music is moving through them. They can barely contain it.

My Mom once observed the inordinate passion emoted from a few successful opera singers -- comparing this outpouring to the many affairs, riches, travels, and achievements they’ve actually had in their real lives. They've had it all -- and yet they still sing as if first love really matters, as if a dream of even greater accomplishment was possible, as if a new shining day of youth were inspiring them. Ridiculous! What are they really singing for?

They don’t know. It just comes out of them. The music drives from their center…wherein is the real hunger.

Listen for a while to some good opera. Now, turn to popular musical voices, any, even the best ---

With the popular songs, you notice that the notions, the images, the concepts -- are cheap. The fantasies are…self-conscious. The believability is…nil. After hearing opera, the amplified popular voice appears affected, remote, trite…


Posted by Rick Penner at 01:36 AM | Comments (1)

January 31, 2004

Robert Lowell


I’m reading *Selected Poems* by Robert Lowell. One of his poems -- entitled “No Hearing” -- starts like this:

“Belief in God is an inclination to listen,
but as we grow older and our freedom hardens,
we hardly even want to hear ourselves…
the silent universe our auditor--
I am to myself, and my trouble sings.”

Now, from what I understand, Lowell was not a believer. Yet I find the lines intriguing. I’m not sure what they mean.

What do they mean?

Posted by Rick Penner at 10:55 AM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2004

John Stossel fisks popular misconceptions

John Stossel confronts popular misconceptions. Based on the date at the top, I think I missed his show. My loss. John Stossel is a very smart man.

(Link found via Mark Shea)

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 12:54 PM | Comments (0)

November 02, 2003

Wintertime reviewed

Saw a play at Princeton's McCarter Theater last night, and did it ever upset me. An all but pornographic portrayal of entertwined relationships, with absolutely no moral content. Love presented as something you want, then get, and then lose, with lots of fist-pounding, door-slamming, and china-throwing angst thrown in, to the point that Amy actually thought they were making fun of the principle. Amy's probably right in her opinion, but by that point, it was too late. It was too late for me after the scene where I thought there might finally be some morally redeeming content when the husband says to his wife that life is more than just pursuing sex, that faithfulness is a requirement for a full life, and then his male lover comes in to complain about his lack of fidelity in their homosexual relationship (followed by apologies, hugging, and a man-to-man kiss).

I left at the intermission, it was so awful. Amy's mom, who works as an usher there, tells me the second act wasn't any better, with the actors mooning the audience (literally), and the play culminating in everyone settling in with their illicit lovers, everyone that is, except the husband mentioned above, who apparently must be punished by the modern playwright for his sin of moral thinking, even though he had no moral character to back it up.

More and more, I get the impression that the art elites in Princeton are shoving garbage out, calling it art, and expecting people to like it because it's advertised as being art. Am I close-minded? By their standards, yes; but they have no respect for the value of my life either. They just expect unintelligent people to bow down before the altar of art. I refuse to do that. My mind and body belong to some One greater than this.

Posted by joelfuhrmann at 08:41 PM | Comments (0)