Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Moving, part 4: Rage for Affluence

In his book, Wrestling with Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Upper Room, 2003), Robert Corin Morris relates a story (originally from Jane Goodall) about a group of chimps. A large shipment of bananas had arrived, eventually to be given one at a time to wild chimps. But the chimps, which are naturally cooperative in food gathering, became frenzied at the abundance, hurting one another, and fighting with an alpha male that had taken over the pile. But the alpha male was not happy: he was enraged and defensive (p. 140).

Morris finds this story a good parable for affluent, “much and quick” culture (p. 141). (As an aside, I think churches also succumb to “much and quick” thinking when, in an attempt to evangelize and minister, they expand facilities too quickly and cultivate an attitude of impatience and false unspiritual urgency in their programs.) Abundance isn't bad per se; the world itself is abundant and varied as God created it (p. 141). Certainly the Song of Songs gives us a biblical example of sensate pleasure (pp. 143-144). But the Bible also criticizes unjust gain (Ezek. 22:13, craving possessions (Matt. 6:24), and hoarding (Luke 12:15-21) while praising God as the ultimate source of positive gain (Deut. 8:18) (p. 142). Morris notes, though, that we start to think so positively of our abundance that we want more and more so we become taken over by craving and base our identities on desire and acquisition (pp. 144-145).

On the other hand, he tells about impoverished Christians he’s met who appreciated basic things like friendship, sunlight, food, and water. This is not to say these people didn’t suffer or that poverty is a good thing, nor that all poor people have their values in line; but affluent people (who, like the chimps, are possibly very unhappy) become surprised at the joie de vivre of people who have no special possessions to give them joy (pp. 147-149).

Morris notes that he has learned several lessons over the years which helped him put his own affluence in perspective (including times when money was tight but, nevertheless, available), and which also freed him to give things away that he once would’ve hoarded. Perhaps I’m being too individualistic, but I think that for many of us, simply being told to become less controlled by our possessions is only a first step. A sermon on giving may plant the seed; on the other hand, we may feel put-off by a comparatively works-righteous message on money. We may also have to catch the vision of living “non-possessively” through life experience. Perhaps we’ll pass through lean times; perhaps we'll discover that we can give more than we thought we could; perhaps God will lead us to new adventures so that we have to discard some “stuff.” Through our living, we discover how God helps us through varieties of situations. In turn, when God helps us, he commands us to put ourselves in the shoes of us so that we grow in concern and empathy. We “grow” a heart for the needy. We become less like those unhappy chimps, hating each other over bananas.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Joseph Haydn, part 2

I recently subscribed to a new magazine, Listen: Life with Classical Music. In the second issue (May/June 2009), David Hurwitz writes about “Music’s Greatest Innovator.” Haydn “enlarged the expressive scope of [instrumental] music to include not just happiness and sadness in varying degrees, but also humor, irony, desolation, ambivalence--the entire gamut of emotional expression” (p. 53). Haydn’s music differs from previous music because “it “involves a uniquely musical quality (that branch of harmony called ‘tonality,’ or more commonly ‘key’) that Haydn used as the organizing principal of a large instrumental work--what later became known as ‘sonata form.’ This later term… in Haydn’s hands really means turning a piece of music into a related series of dramatic events moving through time as you listen… His themes have specific personalities or characteristics that we can hear change, evolve and interact over the course of a movement or entire work” (p. 54). Hurwitz writes that “Baroque music tends to explore one basic emotion, or ‘affect,’ at a time” (p. 54), while in Haydn, “each movement shows a whole range of contrasting feelings and seldom restricts itself to just one” (p. 55). Haydn’s discovery of musical development “put abstract music on the same footing in terms of importance as vocal music because in his hands it achieves a similar expressive depth and specificity. And this, by any measure, was a true musical revolution, something that had never been done before” (p. 56). Interestingly, because Haydn’s music was not readily available and because he did not fit the later Romanic conception of the artist, his reputation faded and he was perceived as Beethoven’s precursor (p. 56).

Noticing People

From a work in progress...

The blogger Rabbi Avinoam Sharon notes that, with a moment or two, he can name all twelve of Jacob’s sons from memory. But only recently did he noticed twelve women at the beginning of Exodus, a chapter which primarily concerns Moses. The twelve women are: Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), Pharoah’s daughter (Ex. 2:3), Miriam (unnamed in Ex. 2:4, 7-8 and named in Ex. 15:20), Jochebed (unnamed in Ex. 2:1-2 and named in Ex. 6:20), Zippora (Ex. 2:21), and her father Reuel’s other six daughters (Ex. 2:15).

Rabbi Sharon comments that we tend not to notice one another in our everyday life, too. Moses, on the other hand, noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slave, and the injustice of the shepherds at the well (Ex. 1:1-12, 17) (note 1 below).

A couple years ago I noticed an obituary in the newspaper. Akron is sufficiently small that you sometimes encounter people you know, but unlike my small hometown in Illinois, you by no means "know everyone." The obituary was a man who worked at a grocery store where I shop; he collected shopping carts and did other such jobs. He wasn’t very old when he died. I never spoke to him besides a hello.

How many people do I pass each day who are just “hello” people? I’m certainly a nameless, “hello” person, too, for instance to the folks who work at my local grocery.

In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind, and much of the chapter concerns the man and the religious leaders who can't believe he was healed. But have you ever noticed the crowd’s reaction to the healed man? “‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he’; other said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” (John 9:8-9). People had seen the man every day as a beggar. But even granting that miracles elicit incredulity, some of the people had not, apparently, paid enough attention to him to know exactly who he was. (See a like story in Acts 3: the man born lame needs help, but apparently he is accustomed to no one making eye contact with him, for Peter and John told him, “Look at us.”)

I think that Bible study should lead us to notice one another and to care about each other's pain. If Bible study isn't helping us grow in compassion and empathy, we're missing an important purpose of that study. Instead of avoiding certain people or relating to them very casually, we can look at them, make human contact with them, and perhaps even learn their needs.

1. See Rabbi Sharon’s blog for January 2, 2005, at

Moving, part 3: Keeping Keepsakes, or Not

Further thoughts on the theme of my May 25 post... Years ago I loved to watch The Mike Douglas Show. One afternoon, two actors visiting the show, a man and a woman, performed an excerpt from a play, essentially a bickering couple. I didn’t catch the beginning, but what I heard was, to me, loud and obnoxious. Afterward, Mike Douglas said that the play was by Noel Coward. I thought, impressed, “Oh! Noel Coward!” Then in the next instant I thought: “Why did I not like the play until I learned that the author is famous and respected, then suddenly my opinion changed?” Nothing about the play had changed. I knew more about the play, though.

I thought of that as I’ve sorted our belongings in preparation for our move. I’ve ten bookshelves of books in our finished basement. Earlier this spring I pulled all the books that I thought I’d not read or use and donated them to the Akron-Summit Co. Library book fair. Now I’m down to the essential books, I thought. But just this past week, anxious about our move, I went through the bookshelves again and pulled six more medium-sized boxes of books and donated them, too. Why had I earlier thought those books were essential? Nothing had changed except my attitude about how much “stuff” I want to own.

Similarly with other belongings. I’ve sold or donated items that, not so long ago, were keepsakes. But with the move imminent, we just didn’t need that stuff anymore. Emily sorted through her large collection of stuffed toys, for instance, and gave away about three-fourths. A year ago, though, she didn’t want to part with any.

I’ve been thinking about what makes a keepsake. We have some kind of experience or association with that object, or else it wouldn’t be important in the first place. Time is a big factor too: how fresh can that association/experience remain over the long haul? Value may or may not be a factor: given the choice between Grandma’s wedding ring and a plastic commemorative cup from a Ice Capades, one has both emotional and monetary value while the other is purely a cheap souvenir. Yet, if not forced to make a choice, we might hold onto both and cherish them in different ways because of their particular associations.

What makes a difference, though, is quantity: what if you have too many keepsakes? That’s where some people fall into the trap of clutter: their homes are packed with things they hate to discard because, for whatever reason, they’re meaningful items. Moving, inconvenient and emotionally disruptive though it is, becomes an excellent time to judge what are your more precious keepsakes. Grandma's ring stays; your favorite books stay; favorite nicknacks are carefully packed; but other things can be moved on. The difficult process of relocating your household can give you a change of attitude and, in some ways, makes you freer to enjoy your precious memories in a "lighter" way.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Moving, part 2: Big Garage Sale, This Way!

This is a children’s picture-book manuscript. I submitted it to a few publishers, one of which sent a form letter stating that company publishes only five manuscripts out of about 18,000 submissions each year. Ouch. Then an editor at a workshop told me that the jokes would be appreciated more by parents than children, so I didn’t submit the manuscript further. (She was impressed, though, by my non-defensive attitude toward her comments; I told her I’d grown a thick skin while publishing other things.) But anyway … this modest effort still summarizes for me the “fun” of garage sales. We had such a sale yesterday in preparation for our move to St. Louis, and we did get several inquiries about fishing poles.

Big Garage Sale, This Way! by Paul Stroble

Dad said, “Now that the weather’s turning nice, let’s have a garage sale.”

I said, “Why do we have to sell the garage?”

Mom said, “Molly, a garage sale is when you put your old toys and clothes and things you don’t need anymore outside, and people come to buy them. You can share your old things with other people, and make a little extra money besides. If you have something to sell, I promise you can keep the money and buy a new toy or book.”

“How about a book about bugs?”

“Sounds good to me,” said Mom, “if your things sell at the garage sale.”

Mom and Dad found old clothes and stuff to sell. Mom told Dad to get rid of his lava and 8-track tapes. I asked if the lava was from a volcano. Mom had a crock-pot that only worked on “high.” Mom and Dad picked out some of my clothes that I’d outgrown.

I looked through my toy box and found three fuzzy pig dolls that I hadn’t played with for a long time, and a game and some puzzles. I set aside a doll with only one arm. My friend Becky’ St. Bernard dog ate it.

Dad wanted me to sell my favorite bear. “You haven’t played with it for quite a while,” he insisted. I got sad, though. I wanted to keep it a while longer. He said that was okay.

The night before the sale, we carried everything to the garage. Mom and Dad placed round stickers on each item and wrote prices on the stickers. I helped by making signs that read, “Big garage sale, this way!” and “Garage Sale, Saturday, 8 AM till Noon.”

When my alarm clock rang on Saturday morning I was already awake and quickly dressed. Dad and Mom opened the garage door at 7:30 and set up tables. There was already a lady outside.

Dad said, “Ma’am, we don’t start till 8.”

The lady said, “Will you take 50 cents for this pig?”

Mom whispered to me, “When you go to garage sales, you have to start early because the best things get sold quickly!”

Dad strung a long rope from a tree to the house and hung up the old clothes. Mom displayed items on the tables. “I wonder what we’ll sell,” Mom thought out loud.

“Well, for sure some of my old stuff like the lava lamp,” said Dad, “that should be worth a lot to someone. Maybe a few of Molly’s things will sell, too.”

A lady yelled from her car, “Got any tools?”

“No,” called Dad.

People parked in the driveway and on the street. A lady bought a 10-cent box of gym socks.

A man yelled from his car, “Got any fishing poles?”

“No!” called Dad.

“Down the street they’re selling this for a nickel,” said a man to Dad, waving a coffee mug that had “15 cents” taped to it.

“How about this?” I said, holding up a ship made of glued-together seashells. The man was pleased and gave me a quarter, and a nickel to Dad for the cup.

“Got any baseball cards?” asked another lady.

“No baseball cards, but how about some books?” I said.

The lady bought most of the books. She said she had a granddaughter who loves to read.

A man looked at Dad’s lava lamp and set it down. “I used to have one of these,” he said. He didn’t buy it. He did buy one of the pigs.

“Does this run?” a man asked Mom, pointing to the lawn mower.

“It’s not for sale,” Mom said.

The man asked, “Would you take five dollars for it?”

A young woman in old clothes, driving a very big car, came to the garage but only wanted the empty boxes. “I will take these!” she said happily.

“How about some little girl’s dresses?” I said, and the woman bought some. “They’re the right size for my daughter!” she said.

A kid from down the street was listening to a radio and asked, “Got any CDs, dude?”

“No!” said Dad.

Cindy came over with her St. Bernard and she and I pretended we were running a store. The dog looked all around for something to eat. Mom tried to sell the crock-pot to a neighbor but she bought my games and puzzles instead.

“Got any old license plates?” yelled a man from his car.

No!” called Dad.

Many people came by. Then not so many came. At 12 o’clock Mom said, “I think that’s going to be everyone.”

“What did you sell, Dad?” I asked.

“Well, a few things,” he said, putting the lava lamp back in the box.

“How about you, Mom?” I asked.

“Umm, the crock-pot finally went, and a cup,” Mom said. “How about you, kiddo?” she asked.

“Oh, nearly everything! Except for a doll with only one arm. But Cindy said her dog liked it and I told her she could have it.”

“Well, I think Molly did the best today!” said Mom as she and Dad took things down to the basement.

A few days later, I sat outside the house, reading a brand-new book about bugs.

Going Barefoot

On a recent flight out of town, I read an article, in the Southwest airline magazine Spirit, about going barefoot. The author is Kimberly Garza, an assistant editor of the magazine. (The 2009 article used to be linked here: ) On the same theme, I also like John Updike’s essay “Going Barefoot” in his collection Hugging the Shore (Knopf, 1983), in which he delights in remembered walks to the post office, the stores, and the parks in Martha's Vineyard.
Garza lightheartedly calls herself a “foot nudist.” She notes that many people consider bare feet “icky” and impolite. Yet our feet are more sensitive to touch and textures than our fingers, so we’ve all kinds of possibilities of tactile memories through our feet, such as the fur of our pets, the nap of a carpet, the cool and smooth floor, a concrete sidewalk, the rough curb on which you try to balance, and summer grass. Flip flops, the acceptable (and even formal) minimum of footwear, still can’t quite substitute for shoelessness if a person wants to enjoy a variety of nice-weather sensations.

Garza talked about folks who didn't "get it" when she kicked her shoes off---why a person gets such a feeling of peace and satisfaction---but others did. I think that going barefoot is a little like inserting "Holy Grail" or "Big Lebowski" references into your conversation. If they're likeminded, folks will enthusiastically respond, but instead of saying "Hey, nice marmot," or "Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses," they'll say, "Oh, I LOVE going barefoot!" or "I'm barefoot all the time!" or (as a high school friend says), "There's NOTHING like going barefoot!" So the following, very lighthearted thoughts about this odd topic are for those folks.

Bare feet used to be, not a fad exactly, but a kind of late-hippy-era accessory, not common but enough so to be acceptable in many places and a pleasant option on warm days. During the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, you’d sometimes see folks padding shoeless into, for instance, the local market. One time I chuckled to see a hometown acquaintance, in jeans and top and purse in hand, strolling barefooted into the local supermarket; she needed to run an errand and decided that bare feet were sufficient. In another town, I noticed a fellow who arrived barefoot to a shoe store with his family. You don’t see many folks in shoe stores starting from scratch, as it were.

Some of my friends say they have to get their toes in the beach sand, at least once a year, in order to have a regular sense of well-being. Because of the fad, I feel the same way, only with me it's being out and about without my shoes on, at least a few times every summer. Like Garza, I recall textures that I would’ve otherwise missed: the cool linoleum as I navigated my squeaky cart through grocery aisles on a hot day; the smooth floor of a shop where I bought LP records and 45s; the warm concrete outside the ice cream place as I tapped my toes and waited for the line to move; the smooth sidewalks enjoyed during a leisurely walk and a chat with neighbors; the breeze on my feet as I rode my bike.

I love talking walks generally but sometimes proceed down the way without shoes. The motions of stepping--the descent and pushing-off of the toes, their emphatic landing, the way the soles make a quick appearance behind you as you move forward---feel so airy and light. And how pleasantly mischievous that these light movements were made in a place like a store or someplace else away from your home. For a while I lived near a small market, and in the spring through autumn months I often stayed barefoot for walks to the store. I'd enjoy the various surfaces like sidewalks, grassy spaces, warm asphalt, and finally the cool smoothness of the floor as I browsed for my items.

The store owner was a joy to chat with, and it was such a cheerful feeling, standing at the check-out counter for a while, as barefooted as if I were working in the kitchen. She praised me for my unprotected feet and once scolded me for wearing sandals; I'd unintentionally given her no excuse to kick off her own shoes. “I’m glad you go barefoot! I would, too, but customers give me dirty looks. But my feet are never anywhere close to the food, so what’s the problem?”

You might think, "That's gross, dusty feet," and actually I agree completely. After I've taken a neighborhood stroll, or otherwise been out shoeless, I can't wait to get home and get clean. But from another perspective: it's pleasant to enjoy the day as you gain peaceful tactile memories through your soles and interact with other folks in this humble way. The humorous, necessary result, so reminiscent of childhood, is a temporary footprint upon your own feet----something you can laugh at yourself about and quickly wash away.

During my student days, I sometimes carried my sandals in my book bag when doing homework at the library. Once there, I felt motivated to get much done as I walked around the stacks, checked the card catalog, located books, tiptoed to the photocopier, and generally was extremely productive! A friend used to say, “I can’t think unless my feet are comfortable.” Perhaps shoelessness should be a habit of very effective people!

Forgoing shoes completely (in contrast to having your sandals handy in your car or your bag) can be adventurous. If plans change, you’ve committed yourself. I remember seeing two laughing friends in our savings and loan place. One had business to conduct but kept being sent to other offices. The friend, whose bare feet made hasty, gentle thuds upon the tile floors, was along for company but hadn’t expected the errand to be so complicated.

That kind of thing happened to me a few times. One day I stopped by a local farmers' market, an old service station with an indoor room and a canopy. As I looked over the selection, I kept shifting my feet because the sidewalk was quite warm, even though it was shady under the canopy. I was glad to go into the room with my purchases so my feet could cool before I tiptoed back to the car.

Visiting friends in their community, I left my sandals in their apartment as we drove off for "the fifty cent tour." But they decided to introduce me to folks they knew, especially at their church. So as I met the staff and walked with my friends around the classrooms and various ministries, I enjoyed the same cheerful quirkiness as I experienced at the neighborhood market: conversing and functioning in public barefooted.

During vacation months I liked to stay shoe-free some days (or had sandals off but nearby) when I escorted my young daughter around to her playmates’ homes and garage sales and to shuttle her to camps. I remember a few "happy accidents," as artist Bob Ross used to say, like the time I left my shoes behind and, with other parents in the shade, waited for her to finish zoo camp. But she wanted to visit the zoo gift shop, so I enjoyed the store's cool carpeting beneath my toes as we browsed the displays among all the other kids and parents. Somehow I missed the humor of being barefoot in a jungle-themed place... How nice when someone called out to us, as we walked during a weekday adventure, “The world would be a better place if more dads spent time with their daughters!”

One time, on a morning errand, I regretted dashing into a pharmacy without shoes, because the store was undergoing remodeling, shelves were moved, and I didn't want to step on anything sharp. "Can I help you?" asked the manager, and I said I was looking for a certain product but couldn't find it. He was helpful, and as it turned out, he didn't know where the product was either! I followed him up and down aisles, with the incongruous slap of my footsteps upon the linoleum, and we finally located the item.  

Sometimes, on road trips and vacations, I've enjoyed shoeless moments that enhance travel memories. Years ago I visited a coastal town for a summer craft fair. My fisherman sandals lay on the floorboard, and I regretted not wearing a lighter pair. So I left them behind. With my touristy camera over my shoulder, I sighed with relief as I strolled the warm sidewalks. I spent a pleasant hour or so padding among the booths and shops, as barefooted as if I were collecting shells on the beach. A lighthearted thing to do, if a little risky, but what a nice summertime memory. I did see a few other folks shopping barefoot, affirming that I wasn't the only eccentric.

On a rainy road trip day through southern Indiana, I ventured down U.S. 231 to see the Lincoln boyhood historic site. I had my sandals kicked off in the car, but once I arrived at visitors' lot for the cabin and farm, I wondered if anyone would mind if I stayed barefoot? One way to find out. The warm rain on the path felt wonderful, as did the rough texture of the cabin floor. The interpreter at the cabin, in period costume, greeted me warmly and explained the site, and since I've studied his life, we chatted about Lincoln for a time as she walked me to other aspects of the farm, seemingly amused but perhaps glad for an informed visitor. I think I fit into the frontier mode (although rain hoodies aren't authentic to 1818....).

On an R&R trip, another year, I looked forward to visiting a community's artsy shopping district. I thought of that coastal craft fair, then a recent memory. In a nice shirt and old straight-legged jeans, I stepped from my car with a sigh, fed the meter, and made my way with bare, committed feet to my first destination, a bookstore. Then I padded among places for an unhurried time. They were good boutiques, offering crafts, art, jewelry, books, environment related items, and other merchandise.  And I had excellent luck. Again, I felt happy and quirky; there's a pleasing and mischievous incongruity between browsing shops, standing in check-out lines, and carrying with your shopping bags from store to store, and having no shoes on. The textures of cool floors alternating with the sidewalk---warm like a back porch---felt delightful, and I did see one other person enjoying the day the same way.

No one seemed to mind. A clerk in a rock shop gave me a perplexed glance. But I'm always amiable and purchased a necklace. Another clerk, outside a clothes and accessories store, saw me and my shopping bags and bare feet pause at the window, and invited me inside! Joining other shoppers there, I found the day’s last treasure, a purse for my wife.

At the daring of some people, you do grimace. In a DC suburb, on a 100-plus day, a fellow strolled barefoot across the mall parking lot with his girl friend. That asphalt must’ve been hideously hot, but he seemed unfazed. In Virginia, a student daily came to my history discussion section without shoes, well into autumn. The section met in a chemistry classroom with big signs to wash your hands and keep your shoes on because of the chemicals. The poor woman probably glows in the dark now, or has super powers. 

Perhaps I seemed daring, though, to other hikers whom I greeted on a couple of favorite nature trails as, on two or three occasions, I walked in my bare feet along the grassy and dirt paths. I'd taken the trails before in walking shoes, so I knew the terrain and felt okay about bringing no shoes or sandals. One of the trails alternated between pretty timber and open meadows, and included a few small hills to climb, plus the trail offered the comforting, nostalgic sight of an old barn as the path curved around and back into timber. A small bridge forded a stream that was sadly polluted, a shade of bright orange. But there was also a green pond where frogs croaked and turtles peaked above the surface. I watched my strolling toes, kept an eye out for stones on the trail, and on slopes I was aware of my toes digging into the soft earth for traction. On a stretch of damp soil I noticed behind me that my heels made small dents in the earth, a modest footprint on the land.   

I take medicine for tendonitis in both ankles, and my barefoot adventures each year are modest. But I still like to skip wearing shoes for some errands; visiting the ATM, the mail boxes outside the post office, or the pharmacy drive-through. Sometimes I’ll drive barefoot through the countryside or take a carefree stroll out in the grass or down the neighborhood sidewalk. Walking barefooted in the summer rain is delightful--you can splash in the puddles--and raking the lawn on Indian summer days is also a joy. If you’ve friendly neighbors, your outdoors chats may be shoe-optional; a neighbor and I used to visit in our yard on 40-degree days, both of us barefooted in jeans and sweaters, which actually felt very pleasant.

As Garza writes, going barefoot provides vivid memories thanks to the tactile sensitivity of the feet. I've also loved (and tried to communicate here) the sweetly mischievous feeling of being out and about without shoes. Children go barefoot as a matter of course; adults don’t. So being shoeless, even for an errand where you don’t leave the car, provides a pleasant sense of lighthearted audaciousness amid the day’s obligations.  For just a while, you regain the blessed forgetfulness, and the lack of pretense, of childhood. Years later, you can cherish pleasant, silly memories of wading through air.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Moving, part 1: Fourteen and Counting

We’re moving to St. Louis in a week. I’ve been thinking about different places I’ve lived. The list isn’t too exotic.

1. A small house on the north side of Vandalia, north of Interstate 70 (which didn‘t yet exist when I was born). My folks always called it “the stone house” because of its gray stone exterior. I forget the exact address but it’s near the small Reeter Cemetery. My parents already lived there when I was born in 1957, and we stayed there till 1959.

2. In 1959 we lived in Bonnville, Illinois in Champaign Co. while my parents had their new house built in Vandalia. Other than this year, I lived in Vandalia my whole childhood.

3. In 1960 we moved into the new house, 1216 W. Fillmore St. in Vandalia (although we didn’t have a house number then). My parents never moved again; Dad died there, in the kitchen, in 1999, and Mom lived there till she went to a nursing home in 2006. The house finally found a buyer early in 2008. I never had a definite moment when I “left home,” although the summer of 1980, after my first masters-degree year, was the last full summer I came home.

4. And 5. Two dorm rooms in Joy Hall in Greenville College, 1975-1977. I did not enjoy dorm life at GC; it was noisy and sometimes distressing. I never quite figured out how to have a happy social life at my college. I commuted my last two years.

6. And 7. Two dorm rooms in Taylor House at Yale Divinity School, 1979-1982. These were wonderful years; I still have Taylor House friends.

8. The Glendale United Methodist Parsonage in Pope County, Illinois, a wonderful parish position following my masters degree. I lived there June 1982 till June 1984. I was painfully lonely at first but settled in and enjoyed those years, from which I've still friends.

9. My wife Beth’s house on Bow Drive in Vandalia. We married in June 1984 and only lived there together for a couple months. Beth had lived there with her first husband for several years.

10. Our apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia during doctoral work, 1984-1987. The address was Barracks Road--it was the apartment at the far left end of the row of apartments at the bottom of the complex’s small hill.

11. A house we rented in Flagstaff, Arizona, where we lived Summer 1987 till Summer 1988. It was on the east side of town, on Oakmont. I remember the electric bill was so high (the place had electric heat) that we basically lived in one family room and kept the rest of the house at 60 degrees. A nice house but that aspect was unpleasant.

12. The house we bought at the southwest side of Flagstaff, on Shullenbarger Drive. The area was called University Heights; the streets were named for former Northern Arizona University employees. Lucky us. We loved the house and, whenever we had to give our address, had to spell the name each time. 1988-1991. This was the house where we lived when our daughter Emily was born in 1990, and thus the place has special memories.

13. Our house in Louisville, Kentucky, on Bingham Drive, where we lived in 1991-2000. I loved this little ranch house, although our life in Louisville had ups and downs.

14. Our house in Akron, Ohio, on Stonecreek Drive, where we’ve lived from 2000 until a week from now. So far, my favorite of our various homes, and these were very happy years.

People come in and out of our lives; obviously these folks exist independently of us, but we tend to recall them in terms of their relationship to us. So it is with places. Whose lives have been defined by their time in, for instance, that Bonnville house, or that Charlottesville apartment? I know that several families had lived in our Louisville house before we came, and only one before us in our second Flagstaff house and our Akron house, but the folks who purchased our Flagstaff home raised their children there.

No one will ever write the biography of a place with respect to the people who’ve lived there, but each place has such a history. “If these walls could talk …”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Musical Taste, part 2

More thoughts from Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life (Oxford University Pres, 2000).

He writes (obviously) about musical taste in connection to religious faith and distinguishes “at least four concentric circles of [artistic] judgment, each broader in scope than the one before” (p. 193).

First, he notes that he dislikes Chopin’s Ballades because his brother practiced them during meal preparation, and now he associates those pieces with “cheap hamburger and other food odors” (p. 193). He knows that no one else would share his associations: it’s a purely personal judgment based on his own experiences, but which prevent him from making any judgment about the music’s suitability for a church (p. 193). (A lot of music can function in a deeply associative way!)

Second, music judgment can apply to a particular place and be most valuable there. For instance, a church choir may sing well enough to warrant their own CD, which in turn might sell well in that area. But that doesn’t mean other people beyond the community would find that music as lovely as those familiar with that choir (p. 193).

Third, certain music is aesthetically great but would not be appreciated by everyone or even by most people. Brown’s example is the religious music of Frank Martin (1890-1974).

Fourth, certain music are recognized as religious classics: works of Bach, or the singing of Marian Anderson, and many others. Brown even uses the example of Miles Davis’ trumpet on Kind of Blue (p. 194).

“Church musicians are aware that music of their music must make its mark within a particular community or tradition, or not at all. Yet within that tradition, a musician will want to distinguish between work that is good for very special purposes and for a limited time and other work that promises to be far more enduring and of more than local appeal. That judgment must be ratified, of course, by some significant portion of a church community. A church cannot reach any such judgments, however, without experiencing various possibilities for itself… Dialogue must be accompanied by musical encounters” (pp. 194-195).

Musical Taste, part 1

The theologian Karl Barth, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, was adamant that no knowledge of God was possible other than God’s triune self-revelation. Somewhere in his vast Church Dogmatics (I’ll have to remember where), Barth even criticizes the use of organ preludes in worship as potentially a false “point of contact” between God’s grace and the believer! Yet Barth listened to Mozart every day, found that music essential for his theologizing, and spoke glowingly of Mozart’s ability to understand and communicate divine mysteries. Barth’s own aesthetic sense contrasted with his epistemology.

The relationship of religion and art/music is a fascinating one. One would not want to judge a person’s spirituality based on their artistic and musical taste, but on the other hand a growth in taste and appreciation can accompany spiritual growth. I’ve been reading about this subject in an interesting book by Frank Burch Brown, Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Among several topics, I was interested in Brown's reflections on new Christian music, or “Next Music.” He comments that the music is “club-style soft rock” which leaves out a broad range of “morally daring” music such as the Indigo Girls, Paul Simon’s Graceland, U2’s The Joshua Tree, “just to mention a smattering of widely accessible, equally white, and mostly middle-class alternatives” (p. 233). He also mentions composers whose religious music is quite profound but would likely never be heard in either megachurches or smaller suburban churches: Arvo Paert, John Tavener, John Adams, not to mention Olivier Messaien, James MacMillan, and others (p. 234).

Brown also discusses ideas of the church consultant and author William Easum. I appreciate Easum’s passion for evangelism and mission but his pronouncements can be imperious and (I worry) thus potentially misused by church leaders who fail to prayerfully adapt his ideas to the needs of their own congregations. (As another author puts it: Saul’s armor fit Saul, but it didn’t fit David, therefore church leaders need to understand the Spirit’s will concerning that congregations’ special circumstances and ministry needs: but that’s a topic for another blog entry).

Easum believes music that attracts the most vital (to church growth) generations is soft rock. Traditional church music and classical music are not for Easum culturally relevant to church growth. “Quality” music is the well-provided, synthesized music used by praise teams. Easum implies that if music in churches is good if it brings people closer to God, but in his view, older and traditional styles of music belong to aging and perhaps dying congregations (Brown, pp. 235-236).

I’m glad that Brown writes, “many readers will find that [Easum’s] assertions regarding church music are not only uncompromising but also discordant and at points uninformed and misleading“ (pp. 238-239). In criticizing the perceived (and perhaps actual) elitism of professional church musicians, he himself is musically elitist: “The music that wins his contest is bound to be the music of those churches that grow the fastest” (Brown, p. 240). Among other arguments, Brown points out things that Easum misses: the growing (although still small in sales figures) audience for classical music, including opera, and also the significant influence of classical music in film music (Brown, pp. 242-243). “[T]he range of ’culturally relevant’ music in general is altogether more diverse than many promoters of church vitality recognize” (Brown, p. 244).

Not to personalize, but as one who listens to Paert, Tavener, and Messiaen plus Mozart, Haydn, Bach, and other older masters while I write church-school curriculum (to help church people grow spiritually), I hate to think I’m against church growth and evangelism just because I like a range of different styles of music. I’ve worshipped at churches wherein the music program is good but a balance of contemporary and traditional styles is missing, which is frustrating. I was once on staff at a church where, in fact, a balance of traditional, classical, and contemporary music made for an overall program that was a dynamic part of a growing congregation. If Brown’s book doesn’t make it into the hands of many church staffers, I do appreciate his thoughts.

In the next post: a second point of Brown’s about music and churches.