Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Respect in Politics

from ocawonder.com
This article concerns Secretary of State Clinton's defense of her deputy chief of staff Human Abedin against the chair of five GOP lawmakers that Abedin is connected to an Islamic extremist group.  Senator McCain and House Speaker Boehner defended Abedin, with McClain strongly criticizing the charges. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/30/hillary-clinton-huma-abedin_n_1721416.html?ir=Religion&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

What also interested me about this article was the added feature of mean and inappropriate political tactics, and all but one of the examples were Republicans.  This bugs me.  I've taught the history of the Republican party (a course on Ohio Presidents, which is essentially a course on the development of the GOP from Whig antecedents until the eve of the Depression), and I appreciate the party's history and legacy. I regret the way the party has been pushed to the far right in recent years.  When I go to Barnes and Noble to the political section, I see shelves full of books that are rants against Obama and liberalism, and few such angry books toward conservatives. (My conservative friends would counter that the media is left-leaning.)

It's a bit of a personal thing with me, but I do become discouraged when Christians who identify themselves with the Republican party don't seem concerned about the uncivil discourse and rage that is (based on these Huffington Post examples, anyway) perpetuated by party leaders. Obviously, Democrats are nasty too; I cringed at the rhetoric at the 1988 Democratic convention toward George H.W. Bush, and the mockery aimed at George W. Bush. But in my admittedly limited experience, sometimes I've listened to churchgoing friends sounding like mean-spirited media pundits, without thinking about how that reflections upon the Apostle Paul's teachings about fruit of the spirit: kindness, gentleness, prayer and consideration for one's opponents, and so on.

These fruit of the spirit are not optional, but how can one be interested in politics while also being kind, gentle, prayerful, and so on?  Could Christian Republicans stand up for civil discourse with as much energy as some invest in hating (not too strong a word) incumbent Democratic presidents like Obama and (back in the 90s) Bill Clinton?  Could Christians of both parties object to political nastiness and false accusations against opponents, with as much passion as they embrace political issues?  Could we use our Christian faith to witness to the appropriateness of treating one another with respect---even in politics?

This is difficult, and I've no good answers. We do tend to cheer aggressive politics that we agree with, yet decry aggressive politics against people and issues we like.  The Abedin issue is additionally difficult because of the anti-Muslim feelings in this country that pop up in subtle and unsubtle ways.

After I posted this, a good friend in Ohio alerted me to a local group hoping to raise this issue of civil political problem-solving: http://www.ohio.com/news/local/voter-group-strives-to-turn-down-heat-in-16th-district-race-1.323200

(And... a day later, on the occasion of Gore Vidal's death, a friend posted this video (with objectionable language) of Vidal and William Buckley sparing on television in 1968.  Obviously, politics has been nasty before: in the late 1960s, the antebellum era, the Jacksonian era, and so on.  RIP Gore Vidal, a fine novelist and interesting agent provocateur.  http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/08/video-of-the-day-gore-vidal-vs-william-f-buckley-in-1968/260581/#.UBmCFARWvpQ.facebook)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Nino Rota, "Moments of Happiness"

A while ago I ordered a CD of Nino Rota’s first two symphonies, on the Chandos label. I must’ve read an interesting review in Gramophone magazine and wanted to try it.  What gorgeous music!  During long drives on I-70 between our home and my daughter’s college, this CD was one of my favorites.  The music is very uplifting and, to me, seems to depict pastoral landscapes in the various melodic motifs and rhythms. In the slow passages, there is just enough poignancy and longing to make me feel happy and nostalgic rather than blue.

So I wasn’t surprised when the CD booklet indicated that Rota (1911-1979) had been attracted to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, my favorite composer.  I was surprised, however, to learn that Rota had written the familiar music for The Godfather I and II, and also for Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. I hadn't thought about who had composed that familiar music. During a prolific career he wrote music for films by Zeffirelli, Visconti, Fellini, King Vidor, Coppola, and other directors, including La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8-1/2, Death on the Nile, and many others.

I like that the liner notes say: “He wrote more than one hundred film scores and as many ‘serious’; i.e. non-cinematic works, but never embraced a dictatorial intellectualism that would have forced an abrupt change of style every time he found himself writing for the concert hall and the operatic stage. Instead he always maintained intact that poetic neoclassicism, imaginative and slightly retro, which in the end, perhaps because of his evidence genuineness, earned him the love both of the general public and the most demanding critics.”

I also love this Rota quote from his biography on Wikipedia: "When I’m creating at the piano, I tend to feel happy; but - the eternal dilemma - how can we be happy amid the unhappiness of others? I'd do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That's what's at the heart of my music."

Here are these two symphonies on YouTube.  Number one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aA0vjP44ZS0  Number two: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xnZDNDnQuM&feature=relmfu

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Food Stamps and the Poor

from justmeans.com
The other day, a posting on Facebook included a brief, snarky article (from a group called “American Commitment”) comparing the food stamp program to feeding wild animals in parks with scraps, so that they become dependent upon the handouts. Thus, says the article’s author, is what our current government is up to: encouraging dependency.

"Nice" that the author compared poor people to animals. The thing is: many people do rely on food stamps, are helped by them, and do not seek them because they are lazy and dulled into a state of dependency (the stereotype). As I wrote in my 7/27/12 post, the practical solutions are not easy as we try to balance private charitable efforts for the poor and some kind of government assistance.  But I never think that stereotyping and despising the poor, in the name of criticizing a president (or Congress) whom you don’t like, is an answer.  (Not to keep referencing myself, LOL, but I’ve written about the biblical concern for the poor----God’s will that we take the side of the poor, however that alliance might be practically expressed: http://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2009/12/21/the-poor-and-needy/

I post articles on Facebook sometimes but I dislike conducting political arguments there; the discussion isn't face to face and nuanced, and thus lacks crucial elements of mutual caring and dialogue.  So to help myself feel better and less frustrated by that snarky article, I looked around online so I could think about this whole issue.  I found this essay from (admittedly a liberal magazine) The New Republic: http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/104921/republican-conservative-cut-snap-food-stamps-obama-bush Jonathan Cohn’s July 12, 2012 article, “The Factually Challenged, Morally Questionable Assault on Food Stamps,” comments that conservatives are not just criticizing President Obama about food stamps, but also President Bush!  Cohn notes that “It's just one more sign of how extreme mainstream conservatives and their Republican allies have become.”

Food stamps---actually called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)---have been facing cuts in funding. Cohn writes that the program has indeed grown considerably recently, much of it during Obama’s administration. “But there was a good reason .... People couldn’t find work! As the Congressional Budget Office has concluded, the primary reason for recent enrollment increases is the recession and its aftermath. Many more people have been out of work or losing incomes. As a result, many more have needed financial assistance in order to put food on the table.”

He continues that “conservatives haven’t given up attacking Obama. Instead, they’ve decided to Bush, too.” He quotes the National Review: “Newt Gingrich famously calls Barack Obama ‘the food-stamp president.’ But the first president worthy of the moniker was George W. Bush... Bush began a recruitment campaign. In the same vein, the Obama administration is running radio ads hailing food stamps as a way to lose weight...." But Cohn points out that "SNAP enrollment rose during the Bush years in part because, even when unemployment was low, poverty was high. And with more people in poverty, there were more people who needed assistance paying for food.”  Thank goodness Presidents Bush and Obama have supported this program. Cohn argues that SNAP recipients are actually people who work (not the stereotype of idle people sucking up handouts from the government) and may even encourage poor people to work because the program contains a work incentive. Please read the article for more detailed discussion than I should summarize and quote here.

I want to continue thinking about this and talking to people, because although I've worked some with the poor I've no personal experience with the SNAP program.

Cohn also quotes Washington Monthly writer Ed Kilgore that explains some of the controversy, and I do understand Kilgore’s point. “[W]e have to remember that this is an ideological and even a moral issue to conservatives, who view dependence on any form of public assistance as eroding the ‘moral fiber’ of the poor (as Paul Ryan likes to put it), and as corrupting the country through empowerment of big government as a redistributor of wealth from virtuous taxpayers to parasites who will perpetually vote themselves more of other people’s money.” I just don't think keeping someone from going hungry is ruining their moral fibre, if we can just think through how to help people in the best ways.  If I were to oversimplify the whole matter, I think liberals focus on "fairness" and short-term solutions to the detriment of the long term, while conservatives tend to despise short-term solutions (that would keep people for going hungry, for instance) for the sake of the long term.  

To be sincerely bipartisan, I wanted to mention a book that I read and mull: Patrick Garry’s Conservatism Redefined: A Creed for the Poor and Disadvantaged (Encounter Books, 2010). With concern for the poor and reasonable arguments, he points out ways that conservative ideology can be rethought and retooled in order to address the needs of the poor, not by marginalizing them but by incorporating them into the mainstream, and by stressing ethics and values in all areas of American society (for instance, the realtors and bankers who hurt poor people with the 2008-2009 meltdown).  He worries that, for instance, state budgets must spend more on "entitlement" programs than they do on elementary and secondary education.  In our current climate of extreme partisanship, I appreciate nuanced and thoughtful ideas that aim at the whole of society.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Whether or Not You Read My Last Post....

...please pray for a fellow who, with his wife, was sitting next to me at the Barnes & Noble Cafe as I wrote (fussed?) about social and theological topics for that post.  He was on the phone with his daughter and explained that the doctors weren't sure if the cancer for which he has been treated has spread to his bones and causes his recent back pain, but they had an appointment to one of the doctors this week.  I've no idea who the folks are but I told them I'd overheard and wished them well.  We see people everyday in casual encounters and don't know what kinds of sorrow and difficulties they're dealing with.

"You Didn't Build That"

I’ve been following some of the brouhaha about the president’s apparently unscripted “you didn’t build that” comments at a Virginia campaign stop.  In another context, a writer for The Economist commented that the president doesn’t appreciate and understand the private sector as much as the public sector, and Republicans have latched onto that remark as proof that the president doesn’t grasp our economic problems. (If our political system allowed for honest political soul-searching instead of winner-take-all oneupsmanship, we might get to the bottom of the ways those economic problems have arisen and what might be suitable solutions---but that’s just not the reality at the moment.)

In an effort to uphold the goodness of personal and private enterprise (which are, of course, wonderful and and laudable and motivating things), conservative political rhetoric has sometimes discounted (or omitted) the benefits of government in order to push smaller and less intrusive government.  I happened to listen to this story on NPR this week, which mentions two companies, spotlighted by the Romney campaign as examples of private and family enterprise, which (and they’re good companies) actually did benefit from tax exempt revenue bonds as well contracts with the military and business with the federal government: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/25/157382546/romney-targets-obama-on-you-didnt-build-that The NPR story goes on to point out how American business benefits from aspects of a healthy society---in Obama's words, like investment “in education and training, roads and bridges, research and technology.”

I become distressed at this kind of thing, not just because I hate the quality of political rhetoric these days. (See the hilarious rant by comic Lewis Black, where he yells that we hold Nutella to a higher standard of truth than our political leaders: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-july-24-2012/back-in-black---campaign-fibs)  As a willing taxpayer who contributes to United Way and other charitable agencies, and who counts among my acquaintances both politicians and community-involved businesspersons, I struggle to find a philosophy that embraces the contributions of government, public sector, and private enterprise, within a strong sense of the deep interdependence of persons in society. I want us all to think more deeply about ways God has created us to be together and reciprocal, and to make that vision very formative for our opinions about social challenges.

Obama expressed it poorly and off the cuff, but he’s correct: any individual and any business depends upon aspects of society like education, transportation systems, funded research, and other things that are supported in part by government.  If we one-sidedly uphold of the sacredness of individual freedom and initiative, we lost a sense of covenant and interdependence within our society---a sense that we’re all in this together.

The balance between individual freedom and the needs of a community are always up for debate, if we could stop the rage and spin. Gun rights have been a big issue lately, in the wake of the Aurora, CO shootings: I can’t shoot a person at will, but can I have a gun to protect my home?  I’m “forced” to have automobile insurance, but should I be required to have health insurance, too?  I’m concerned about the plight of the poor, but should my business suffer because of high taxes that fund anti-poverty programs?   Should I expect people to give up their pensions in order to balance a state budget (thus sounding heartless and unconcerned about the crucial needs of real people)?  But then again, how can a state govern properly while billions of dollars in debt?

As many people know, what has been called “welfare liberalism” was a response to the Great Depression, allowing government to intervene in the economy in order to promote economic growth and greater opportunity. The problem, of course, is that government intervention can go too far and hurt private and corporate enterprise for the sake of providing opportunities for the sake of fairness. These philosophies, too, need to be debated in factual ways that aim at improving the common good, and there are no easy answers to discovering that balance. Welfare liberalism has its difficulties and individualistic aspects the same as neocapitalism.(1)

(The Chick-Fil-a controversy is a different kind of issue, but one where many of us Christians one-sidedly embrace our individual freedoms and forget---to quote a former student on Facebook this morning--- that our choices do matter and the things we do impact others.  If I say, “No one’s going to deny me my right to eat that chicken sandwich,” we reduce LGBT persons to an “issue”---certain “values” that we disagree with---and assert that our own individualistic desires take precedence over anyone else’s.  We don’t take the time to understand how a company’s actions hurt LGBT persons who are not “an issue” but persons deserving of respect, rights, and freedoms. To me---to turn from the Chick-Fil-a controversy specifically to our attitudes generally---reading 1 Corinthians carefully can give us a different way of looking at life. We are obliged to love and uphold one another, take care of one another; we are interdependent; we hold one another accountable mutually; we act on the principle that love is more important than being right and taking sides. None of those things are easy, but we always rely upon God's undeserved grace.)(2)

Here is a long quote from Eric Mount’s wonderful book Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Pilgrim Press, 1999).  I think it gets to the heart of what (I think) the president tried to say in that remark:

“We have observed that at least one approach to the welfare system lacked grace [the idea that the poor are poor because it’s their fault and that they threaten the social order of the greater community], and we have also claimed that grace, or a sense of indebtedness for unearned gifts, is pivotal in the covenantal tradition. How exportable is grace? ... We noted earlier [William F.] May’s description of the debt owed by physicians because of what they have received from scientists, teachers, patients, and government Grants. They are not just possessors of skills; they are recipients of tradition and of considerable help from others.

“A more general reminder of indebtedness was provided by a certain father who went to his daughter’s college campus for family weekend. He was a magazine editor, and he had been working on an article on welfare cheaters. He drove to his daughter’s campus in time to enjoy a concert on Friday night, a football game and reception on Saturday, and with other weekend activities. He concluded the visit by attending church with her before heading back home. When the church service ended, he tarried in his pew, still lost in medication. Growing rather embarrassed, his daughter asked what was wrong. His answer was as follows: ‘I have been sitting here thinking about my visit. I drove here through snowy weather over cleared roads and arrived safely and on time. I came to this college where I would be paying only two-thirds of the cost of your education if I were paying the whole tab for room, board, and tuition, and where you are receiving the fruits of the perennial quest for knowledge. I listened with you to some of the greatest music that human artistry has created and performed. And here I have worshiped beside you because our forebears made untold sacrifices so that we could have the freedom to follow the dictates of our consciences and worship according to our convictions. I think I am going to have to rewrite the piece that I am doing on the welfare system because we are all on welfare.’

“Somehow our education for citizenship should and can convey a sense of our community as graced people for whom the welfare of all us is bound up with the welfare of each of us. That would make us partners in a covenant of welfare" [which, you can understand from his context, means a sense of independency and well-being, however that might be achieved] (pp. 102-103).  


 (1)  Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 262-266.  Bellah's and Mount's books were formative for the vision of the Center for the Congregation of Public Life, who hired me to be the principal writer of their curriculum   "Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society," http://congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.htm

(2) Taking a stand on an issue like this makes me think about all the ways we don't appreciate our interdependence.  Although I'm not eating at Chick-Fil-a because of this issue, I meanwhile use products made by companies which have exploited foreign workers; I'm not as conscious as I should be where my food is produced and what are the conditions and policies of those companies; I pretty much ignored calls for boycott of a certain web hosting company (the one I use for my website) which had supported the SOPA online piracy bill; I drink a ton of coffee as I write about different topics for my blog, but I don't ask if it's fair-trade coffee, etc. Some injustices are more obvious than others, and if we take a stand on one issue we might meanwhile be contributing to numerous other injustices as consumers.  But how do you keep up with them all?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Aurora, and Seeking Solutions

When something happens like the shootings in Aurora, CO, many of us think, “How can we fix the problem of gun violence?” Banning certain kinds of guns, running background checks, providing better facilities for mental health, and others are among the solutions offered.

But it's not just sudden tragedies, but also tragedies like poverty, inadequate health care, and others that invite speculation about adequate solutions. Right now, taxes, federal/state indebtedness, and related issues have been in the public debate. Some of my Christian friends have said (paraphrasing), “Ideally, the church should be helping the sick, not the government." But when I think about that, I wonder how we can realistically address the tremendous medical and mental health needs of millions of persons solely through private charitable efforts. It’s a well-intentioned idea, but to me not very practical. We need some kind of combination of government assistance, government oversight, and private charitable work.  And yet, the questions remain: what kind of combination? What are the limits of government assistance and oversight?

I thought of the problems of hunger and homelessness this past week, as my family and I enjoyed a week in San Diego.  We passed numerous folk, some with shopping carts with their belongings, and all these persons held simple signs describing their situation and requesting financial help.  I’ve always been told to resist giving money to such persons directly; it's better to support agencies that know their needs and can provide assistance. I’ve also heard that a still-better way to help impoverished persons is to address social conditions that contribute to poverty.

Still, I think although that's true, here is an actual person who looks very despairing.  Like the issues of adequate health care for the needy, it's difficult to know how best to address such a tremendous social challenge.

How do any of us, as individuals, address such social conditions?  I think the same thing about people like James Holmes who open fire on people.  How do you create a better society where troubled people are identified and helped before they wound and murder?  I admit I don’t think gun control is the answer; the failure of social measures like Prohibition speak to the difficulties of addressing societal challenges via wrongheaded kinds of legal restrictions.  On the other hand, I agree with this blogger that the example and teachings of Jesus challenges us Christians in our response to violence:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ellenpainterdollar/2012/07/christians-and-gun-control-aurora/

“We must change people’s hearts,” you might say. But bringing people to Christ (an excellent way to change people's hearts!) unfortunately doesn't automatically make people better. Millions of people who profess Christ are just as flawed and difficult, if not more so, than they were before; having more loving, Christlike hearts is a lifelong process. In fact, I worry that in our hyper-partisan times, we Christians are becoming more bitter and divisive along with the culture, so that there is nothing particularly unique about our witness.

So I think: maybe we Christians should get our own hearts fixed better, before we worry about the hearts of others.... But that, too, isn't a good solution when there are troubled people in immediate need.

My wife Beth says that she read a tweeted article, suggesting that movie theaters should ban costumes at movies.  That seems ludicrous, as does another idea I heard, installing metal detectors in theatres.  Even worse are horrible articles that I’ve read this past weekend, accusing liberals, Democrats, and others for creating a society with no moral underpinnings. Talk about bitter, partisan blame!  There are probably also articles that fault conservatives who use gun-related rhetoric of creating a growing amorality in the county.  But here again, partisan blame may temporarily feel good, and analysis of cultural trends may be helpful, but for real solutions, I think we need a better sense in our nation that "We're all in this together."

I admit I’ve no solutions. Sometimes tragedies do reveal clear remedies; the sinking of the Titanic, for instance, taught important lessons about adequate lifeboats and safer trans-Atlantic routes.  But social problems so often resist simple resolution.  Perhaps the grasping for solutions and possibilities is a way  that we express grief at tragedies that move us particularly deeply.

I think, too, that the simple solutions of changing our own hearts, and of responding with love and concern to those around us, can have an amazing reach.  We won't solve the world's big problems.  But how do you know whether your kindness and concern might not have touched someone's heart, so that the person didn't ultimately descend into the kind of despair that lashes out in some awful way?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I Met President Truman 50 Years Ago Today

....when he made a surprise visit to his presidential library and greeted guests.  I remember being eye-level to his belt buckle (because I was only 5) as we shook hands.  

Monday, July 16, 2012

Thoughts about God's Guidance

from travelblog.org
As we chatted at a family wedding recently, a cousin mentioned that, a while back, she liked my blog post on “floating.” That’s an interesting subject, about a way of living!

I’ve a book called When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings by Thomas H. Green, S.J. (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1998).  He notes that learning to float on water is surprisingly difficult. “[M]any people never learn how to float” because they “never learn to relax, to let their head be pillowed by the water” (p. 142).  He lives in the Philippines and observes that even natives of those islands have trouble floating. “Learning to float is counterintuitive; we have to do the very opposite of what our self-preserving instincts urge us to do” (pp. 142-143). Also, floating is “essentially to learn to trust,” which is also difficult (p. 143).

Floating is an excellent spiritual metaphor.  We must decide to swim or float, and we would prefer to do both, writes Green, because we want to make our own way through life but to call upon God for help when we feel out of control.  But God, rather, “wants us to have as our goal our total surrender to the [God’s] tide” (p. 144-145). Floating is when we “are totally secure” in God’s love and can thus “float free” and allow God to guide us (p. 145).

I wonder if we should think of floating, not as a way to go through life in a passive way or a victimized way, but as a way of thinking about Romans 8:28 as we pursue our various responsibilities and follow our dreams.  We actively make a way through life while all the time calling upon God for help.

For instance, floating reminds me of the numerous turns and paths of my vocations (to focus on just that aspect of my life). I’m very proactive in my career, seeing and creating opportunities, and staying open to professional avenues---while I’m also praying to the Spirit for guidance. Several times over the years, opportunities that I thought were wonderful were not or did not develop, while other, unexpected ones appeared and were amazing.  I’m sure it’s been that way for many others, too. I’ve even praised God for answered prayer for circumstances, only to find those circumstances fall apart and lead eventually to something better.

If you can be a “floater” who is anxious and fussy and uncertain while floating, that’s me!  Green assures us that it's not easy to trust God.  But as we grow in our trust in God, we can see many ways that we and our loved ones have been guided.

Green also evokes the example of Ignatius Loyola, who spent a good part of his career in one role (administration) when he would have preferred other kinds of work (teaching, visiting the sick, etc.). If we're in a situation in life where we'd rather be doing other things, the idea of "floating" can help us stay on track as we look to God to see how we can thrive in this situation and also to keep our dreams alive.

When I talk to people about prayer (often, these days, via Facebook conversations), I prefer to emphasize this aspect of faith and spirituality: prayer and faith puts one within God’s “tide,” and we can trust God to guide us, but we may not immediately perceive that guidance. I don’t want people to feel disappointed if their prayers don’t get answered right away, or if “the peace of Christ” they felt in their hearts doesn’t last, or if (like me) the prima facie answer to prayer doesn’t necessarily work out. To me, it’s more honest and helpful (and more biblically, really) to assure people that God guides us over the long haul, and the wonders of God’s “current” may become obvious only after a period of years.

“Floating” also gives us confidence when we’re amid people who are single-minded (and possibly simple-minded) about ways to approach life. There will always be people (Christians included) who think everything has to be forced and pushed; that nothing good happens except through hard work and use of personal power. And a lot of things do happen through hard work and effort!  But you wish such people acknowledged prayer and surrender more obviously: you can be a Christian and still be very atheistic in your everyday attitudes. The idea of “floating” reminds us that there is a far greater power at work than our small efforts.

“Floating” reminds me of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

We’ve no problem embracing the part of that prayer that reads, “put me to doing.” But what if the Holy Spirit wished us to trust that the unproductive times, the times of disappointment and uncertainty, and even the dark nights of the soul, are ways by which God leads us? We might discover that our “doing” is a subtle way we try to control God's guidance. (I think churches try all the time to control God’s guidance.)


Another reason I like to think about this subject, is the fact that I (and I’m sure many of us) become anxious when I’m in situations where I’ve limited or no control.  A minor example is airplane travel: how long is that delay going to be? Will I miss my connection?  Illness is a more serious example. All of us have different things that push our anxiety buttons more than other things. What makes you afraid and out of control?

In my ongoing efforts to be less anxious in stressful circumstances, I’ve been borrowing a little bit of Buddhist teaching (accepting situations as they are and feeling peaceful in them) with my faith in God’s providential help. As Green writes, God wants us to trust him and "relax", he can lead us effectively.

I thought of another book I like, by Simon Tugwell, O.P., Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1985). His chapter on Francis of Assisi is interesting. Tugwell notes, “The monastic tradition had assumed that the development of a proper spiritual life depended on the monks being protected against disturbances and temptations; but the Franciscans made it their boast that their enclosure was no other than the whole world. If this is God’s world, ruled by his providence, we ought not to have to protect ourselves against it. Whatever happens is God’s gift to us" (pp. 129-130).

The author concludes that the source of Francis’ love of nature--for which we think so fondly of the saint--is this belief in God’s providence. But though we think sentimentally of Francis’ love, he was no armchair lover of the outdoors. He actually wanted to be completely unprotected as he faced nature. He even tried to prevent a friend from extinguishing the fire that had caught his habit: “Dearest brother, do not harm brother fire,” he said (p. 130). “The whole point of Franciscan life is a radical conversion away from a life of self-will to a life of submission…The heart of conversion must accordingly be the disappropriation of your own will” (p. 131).

The point is not to be obedient on principle, but to follow Christ and to be like Christ. Christ himself went through life obedient and unprotected. Francis did not sentimentalize this approach to life: Christ was obedient and because of it was cruelly killed, after all. But if we follow Christ in this way, we discover “a new way of relating to other people”; vulnerability and disappropriation of one’s will (as well as voluntary poverty, another Franciscan ideal) leads to love of others (p. 133).

It also leads to personal happiness. Francis told the story of a traveler who, on a rainy and cold night, would not be accepted into a place of lodging for the night. “I tell you,” says Francis, “if I have patience and am not upset, this is where true happiness lies, and true virtue and the salvation of my soul” (p. 132).

To put it in terms of my own anxieties: if I have patience and happiness when I’m stranded in an airport, or when many things are stressful in my life, then I’ve reached a very good stage of inner peace rooted in trust in God. (You can also see how Francis’ parable traveler could be praised for his Buddhist-like sense of non-attachment.)

I’m SO not there yet!  But to turn back to Fr. Green’s image, I think his notion of “floating” corresponds well with the inner freedom Tugwell finds in St. Francis: a willingness to relax as one goes about the day’s work and travels, a willingness to believe that God “current” will carry us, and an ability to relax in that “current” even when circumstances are difficult.


As I reflected on all this, I also thought of Hebrews 2:1. In that letter, the author warns people about abandoning their newly-found Christian faith, but he is also concerned with people drifting away from faith, like an unsecured boat. “Drifting” in this sense is different from the “floating” which Fr. Green intends. You drift when you’re careless about your faith and don’t maintain your side of your relationship with God. “Floating” is a serious process of surrendering to God’s help and guidance, especially in times of distress and uncertainty.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Loving the Psalms

At my previous campus, the Gideons visited on a day in September. One day I chatted with one fellow as he and his buddy distributed little green Bibles containing the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. I had a cup of coffee in hand and we joked that they could witness better if I’d buy them some coffee, too.

I don’t like the thought of abbreviated Bibles, but on the other hand, if you’d distribute any other 2000-page book to a passerby and say, “You should read this, it will help you,” he or she would probably say, “Um, yeah, right.”  Or, the 2000-page book would be cheerfully accepted and placed unread upon the shelves. The “little green Bibles,” as I call them, concede to the reading habits of many of us: we love the New Testament and the Psalms. (For my reading habits, I need larger print, but that’s another issue …)

Many of us do, indeed, turn frequently to the psalms. Think of times of your life when you needed the psalms: 77 or 143 for confidence, 23 and 121 for peace, 150 for joy. Read Psalm 3 or 46 when you’re afraid, 38 when you feel tempted, 109 when you need vindication, 34 when you have sorrow, and 142 when you’re overwhelmed. Psalm 25 (one of my “yellow” scriptures) is a good all-around prayer. Psalm 19 and 104 are wonderful praises for the natural world. Psalm 88 is for someone close to death, 130 for someone deeply burdened, 90 for someone in “existential” anxiety, 40 for a person thankful for deliverance, and … many more! Recently a friend quoted Psalm 55:6 for her father’s obituary notice. Psalm 51 is a classic of bitter regret for sin:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you. (vss. 10-13)

I wouldn’t want to say that you haven’t really experienced the amazing peace of forgiveness if you haven’t first felt in your heart the awful ache of sin—the sin that has hurt people, made a mess of things, and even made you afraid for your eternal destiny. I won’t want to make such an equation. Nor would I, for obvious reasons, recommend sin as a prelude for a relationship to God (Romans 6:1-2). (Mistakes, though, can be extremely educative and are actually essential for insight and progress!)

But if you have stumbled, Psalm 51 is a wonderful assurance. (Sometimes we stumble publicly, as did David, sometimes our failures are comparatively private but our consciences dog us.) What the psalm may lacks, though, is a very strong assurance of God’s forgiveness, which, after all, hard to see if you’re troubled.  You have to connect Psalm 51 with other scriptures where the promise of God's eternal love is more clear.

Psalm 73, a poem about doubts and struggles rather than a moral sin, is one scripture that provides needed assurance.

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast towards you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand…
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (vss. 21-23, 26).

That “nevertheless” might be one of the best single words in the Bible. It's the Gospel. The word affirms God’s continual presence regardless of our human feelings (in this case, bitterness about the apparent unfairness of life). After all, our feelings are not always a suitable barometer for our relationship with God, and in fact, the psalmist perceived himself in a spiritually difficult place (vss. 2-3). 1 John similarly affirms in a lovely way, "And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (3:19-20). We have confidence because God’s initiative and care are greater than we can dream.

The psalms also remind us of personal associations: the people and places of our lives. Number 100: I think of a church where I served as a student pastor in Connecticut. I remember the interior—so typical of turn of the century Romanesque churches—and the wide fellowship hall where folks gathered.

Psalm 23 … I walked home way too late one night. I was fourteen or fifteen. The road’s darkness exacerbated my anxieties of being in trouble. A streetlight caused the old Illinois Central railroad sign to cast a long, creepy X-shaped shadow along my path. Not the “shadow of death,” but I did pray the twenty-third psalm, memorized in Sunday school a few years before.

The same psalm … A don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss it country lane near Brownstown, Illinois, leads along the wooded banks of small Sand Run creek. When my family owned that property, I loved walking back there, sometimes barefoot. I loved the “still waters” of the winding creek and did, indeed, feel that God restored my sense of well-being.

Psalm 45: song for a royal wedding. I took two college classes with an excellent writing teacher, Elva McAllaster, who significantly inspired my career. I found her grave recently in Greenville, Illinois, and saw “Ps. 45:1” carved by her life dates. Later, I found the verse, which seemed perfect:

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
My tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

Psalm 8: that song reminds of several beautiful places where the stars on clear nights were gorgeous. Over time, I came to prefer Psalm 104 for its greater specificity, the beauty of nature which God preserves and guides. But Psalm 8 captures the awe in fewer verses. Psalm 50?

I will accept no bull from your house (verse 9: RSV).

I’m being lighthearted now, but the verse reminds me of a time, at my divinity school, when a graduate assistant wrote that verse on a student’s wordy paper.

All the psalms but 90 contain words of praise, and even 90 does not fall into total despair, since the psalm remains a prayer to God.  Similarly 44, a distressing and distressed prayer to God amid feelings of utter abandonment.  How the psalms reflect our own experiences: trouble and panic, relief, sickness and health, despair, faith, clarity, childlike thankfulness, revenge, noble emotions, giddiness. What might happen if our church prayers, or even our private prayers, were as forthright as these? Martin Luther once wrote, “Where does one find finer words of joy… where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness … everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake."(1) John Calvin wrote, “the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”(2)

1. Luther’s Works: Word and Sacrament (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1960); Volume 35, pages 255-256.

2. Commentary on the Book of Psalms, by John Calvin (Eerdmans, 1949), I, page xxxvii. I first used both these quotations in my article “The Psalms: An Overview,” Adult Bible Studies, June-July-August 1996 (Nashville: Cokesbury), pages 5-8 (quotes are from on page 5)

Two Violin Concertos You Might Enjoy

Sometimes, while driving, I hear music on the radio I’d like to hear again. Driving U.S. 89 between Ash Fork and Prescott, AZ years ago, I loved a certain piece on the classical station, which the announcer identified.  All I could remember, though, was "Dandee" and “mountain air”----appropriate, since Bill Williams Mountain stood prominently in the distance.  Somehow I figured out later that the piece was “Symphony on a French Mountain Air” by Vincent D’Indy.

This past May, as my family and I were returning to St. Louis on I-70 from our daughter’s college in Pennsylvania, I turned on the satellite radio station.  I loved an unusual violin piece and, passing across the West Virginia border into Ohio, I glanced at the radio dial and tried to remember the piece’s title until we could stop. The dial read “Edwards Maninyas.”  The composition was so stylistically interesting and---I correctly surmised----evocative of the natural world.

The piece is Ross Edwards' “Maninyas: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.” (http://www.amazon.com/Edwards-Maninyas-Sibelius-Violin-Concerto/dp/B005FUT93O/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341933271&sr=8-1&keywords=edwards+maninyas) As explained at the composer’s site (http://www.rossedwards.com/?page_id=19), Edwards developed a musical style by listening to the natural environment around his home north of Sydney.  One aspect of his style is “isolated sound events ... conceived for their spatial and timbral intensity. Rather than hearing a logically ordered sequence of events, the listener becomes aware of the uniqueness of each acoustic experience....The other style is characterised by an abstraction of insect and bird sounds, lively tempi and rhythms, angular pentatonic melodies and simple drone-lke harmonies and is now referred to as the maninya style.” On this recording, violinist Adele Anthony also performs the Sibelius concerto, interesting in a different way!

As long as I’m recommending violin concertos, I should recommend Howard Blake’s “Violin Concerto ‘The Leeds.’” A few years ago I ordered from my CD club a 5-disc set of English concertos called “My England.” A standout on the set was this 1993 concerto by Blake, whose name I didn’t recognize, but who wrote the music for a VHS tape that my young daughter played and played and played as a kid: “The Snowman.”

If the world was just, this piece would be in the repertoire---and the CD of the concerto (with Blake’s piece “A Month in the Country”) should still be in print, but fortunately it’s available as a download. (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=violin+concerto+leeds) The concerto’s first movement, Allegro assai, lasts almost twenty minutes, with the violinist playing an uplifting, birdsong-like melody and its variations almost continually.  The second, Adagio movement is shorter but is so intense and beautiful.  The last movement, Allegro con brio, is as uplifting as the others but more playful and joyful.  I apologize if I’ve “gushed” a little bit but I do hope that, if you love violin music, you might try these two pieces.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Philosophy Department Post-It Note

Thomas Merton and the Sisters of Loretto

My wife Beth is president of Webster University, which was founded by the Sisters of Loretto in 1915. Loretto College, as it was called, was one of the first Catholic women’s colleges west of the Mississippi.  The school became Webster College in 1924, admitted male students beginning in 1962, and under the presidency of Jacqueline Grennan, the school changed from a church-related school to a private lay board in the 1967. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/25/nyregion/jacqueline-g-wexler-ex-nun-who-took-on-church-dies-at-85.html)

The order dates from the early 1800s, when the founders---Mary Rhodes, Ann Havern and Christina Stuart----were teachers in Kentucky and decided to begin a religious community.  With the help of Father Charles Nerinckx, the Belgian missionary priest who served in Kentucky---the order began in 1812 as Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross. The name was later changed to Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross.  Those early sisters were dedicated to God as religious women and as educators of poor children of that area.  The website http://www.lorettocommunity.org/ provides a good overview of the order's contemporary work, including global justice and environmental concerns.

Interestingly, the land on which Gethsemane Abbey sits---Thomas Merton’s monastery---was originally owned by the Sisters of Loretto and was purchased in the late 1840s from the sisters by the abbey’s founders.

We've not visited Gethsemane, although I've visited the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University and, at one time, knew the center’s director. Merton (1915-1968) is always an intriguing and inspirational figure. His journey is fascinating as he moved from being a cultured, troubled orphan with many problems and sins, to his entry to the monastery where he lived during the second half of his life.  There, he grew, served, taught, worked, and wrote voluminously on issues of spirituality, monasticism, contemplation, social issues, religious dialogue, and art and music, plus several volumes of poetry, and he was a good photographer, too.

The 1980 biography of Merton by Monica Furlong (1930-2003) was superseded by other books once Merton’s archives were opened.  But the book has a special place in my heart because I purchased it during a time of spiritual struggle. I recall finding it in the now defunct Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, CT, and I was greatly comforted in my struggles by reading of Merton’s feeling of being distressed and overwhelmed and his search for personal and religious authenticity.  I liked Michael Mott’s biography while finding it quirky in places (e.g., his early comparison of Merton with Lawrence of Arabia, which he suggests but never takes up again) as he seeks to correct some of Merton’s own autobiography and to avoid hagiography.  But having written two academic books a third this size---and thus knowing how difficult it can be to juggle many facts and keep the narrative flowing---I applaud Mott’s task and successes.

Recently, Beth visited the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky. She brought home an interesting book, Hidden in the Same Mystery: Thomas Merton and Loretto, by Bonnie Thurston (general editor) and Sr. Mary Swain, SL (Loretto editor), published by Fons Vitae in 2011.  As stated in the forwards and introduction, Merton traveled the short distance to Loretto several times during the 1960s to give classes and retreats.  The title comes from Merton’s own essay about the 150th anniversity of the founding of the Loretto Community: “We are not only neighbors in a valley that is still lonely, but we are equally the children of exile and of revolution. Perhaps this is a good reason why we are both hidden in the same mystery of Our Lady’s Sorrow and Solitude in the Lord’s Passion” (p. 3).

Anyone, like me, comparatively unfamiliar with Loretto’s story might jump over the forwards (but read those later) and begin with the introduction, where we get the story of Sr. Mary Luke Tobin (1908-2006).  She was superior general of the Sisters of Loretto from 1958 till 1970, an official American woman auditor at Vatican II, and was an “inside source” for Merton about the council as it was taking place.  Among her many activities she was also a social activist, a promoter of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and a long-time teacher and lecturer. Going back to the book’s forwards, we get a good sense of the friendship and correspondence between Merton and Tobin.  One footnote (p 6) speculates how Tobin’s friendship might have helped Merton when he was struggling with feelings for a young Louisville nurse (by now a well known story, discussed in Mott’s bio), but Tobin was not at the Motherhouse the day Merton sought her out. Mott’s biography (p. 410) confirms that “the atmosphere at the convent delighted him, and he had come to find in Mother Luke a kindred spirit.”

Hidden in the Same Mystery collects Merton’s writings and talks at Loretto, and some of Sr. Tobin’s remarks and writings.  The writings give a good view of Merton’s ideas about prayer, contemplation, and service, plus Tobin’s own view of Merton’s spiritual development and struggles.  Merton’s 1963 talk to novices and postulants detail some of his principles on prayer and cautions how one can be mislead by “impractical ideals” of prayer.  His essay for the 1962 sesquicentennial gives an interesting overview of the order’s history.  Tobin’s two essays about Merton’s ideas of prayer helpfully discusses the way Merton continued to grow and develop in his theology.  The several editorial updates set the talks and essays in context, and the book includes photographs of Loretto and the sisters. I enjoyed a photo of Tobin, demonstrating at a Denver church for equality of women, and holding a sign that reads "I am a woman survivor of the Catholic Church."

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The World's Best Song for Driving

Well, in my opinion at least.  While unpacking from our recent move, I found my CD “Autobahn” by the German electronic band Kraftwerk. I purchased the LP in 1975 or 1976; it’s around here somewhere.

I’m sure I first heard the title track on KSHE-FM, a St. Louis rock station, which in the 1970s played some unusual prog rock music without regard for length of songs---and this song lasts 22 minutes. Its electronic synth and percussion pad instrumentation, and the octave riff on the Moog bass, give a wonderful soundscape of driving.  (According to things I read online, the group’s electronic innovations were ahead of their time and influenced later dance music and synthpop.) The song’s refrain is “Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn,” that is, “We drive drive drive on the Autobahn." But it sounds like “fun fun fun,” which in turn recalls that Beach Boy’s song about the girl and her soon to be withdrawn T-bird.

Actually, here is the whole song, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-G28iyPtz0  Kraftwerk, which was influenced by the music of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, began in 1970 and still performs.

Several weeks after I posted this piece, a friend showed me this article about the band: http://m.guardiannews.com/music/2013/jan/27/kraftwerk-most-influential-electronic-band-tate

Memorable 4th

Today is July 4th!  Apart from its historical meaning and significance, the 4th also seems like a quintessential American summer day, an affirmation of life in the middle of summer’s informal beginning (Memorial Day) and end (Labor Day).

Childhood 4ths during the 1960s shine in my memory as loud and hot. Our hometown had an annual fireworks display at the high school football field, but my childhood home sits close to the high school--a five or so minute brisk walk--and we could watch the local fireworks from our front yard. Being hot outdoors or indoors was little difference, since we didn’t have AC, just a fan in the back door and every window open. One year we set up lawn chairs on the front yard and watched the display.

My friends, cousins, and I liked to set off fire crackers. I’m surprised we still have all our digits, although we did try to be careful. One summer we blew a half-dollar-sized hole in my parents’ picnic table with an M-80 fire cracker. M-80s, cherry bombs, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and sparklers were among our favorites. Store-bought fireworks reminds me of a neighborhood picnic in the 1990s. We enjoyed the gathering until a neighbor set off bottle rockets. I was barefoot and our daughter, who was the youngest child there, became scared---the rockets were flying very wildly, after all--so we went home early.

Like Christmas, July 4th has a “true meaning” that we might neglect. Even when I was little, however, I wanted to fly the flag outside our home. Two of the most meaningful 4ths for my family and I occurred when we visited naturalization ceremonies. In 1985 or 1986, Beth and I attended the ceremony at Monticello. I think we both cried; what a wonderful setting for this amazing occasion in the lives of these new Americans. I forget which year in the early 00s, Beth, Emily, and I visited Put-in-Bay, Ohio on the 4th and witnessed the naturalization ceremony at the War of 1812 memorial there. 

The bicentennial 4th was of a different class of all the other 4ths because it was a unique observance. I was 19; that day, I cheerfully watched the televised coverage of national events, innocently recorded the coverage on my old reel-to-reel (and never listened to them again), and participated in local festivities. July 4th is kind of like World Communion Sunday, in that you know, cognitively, that people are celebrating the Eucharist that day, but you don’t always feel in your heart the convergence of shared sacrament, just as you don’t always gain a sense of shared pride in our country if you’re only attending your own fireworks displays (or blowing up your parents’ picnic table). In 1976, you couldn't miss the commonality of being American citizens!

Finally, the semicentennial 4th in 1826 was significant for a different reason. I've a book from 1827, the journal of Illinois' fifth general assembly which met at my hometown.  In his opening speech to the legislature, the governor noted: "On the 4th day of July last, Thomas Jefferson, the renowned Author of the Declaration of Independence, and John Adams, its ablest advocate, ceased to live!  Thus sanctifying by their deaths a day rendered glorious by the most important event of their lives, and in the history of their country. That these two Fathers and Ex-Presidents of the Republic, one of whom draughted [sic] the Declaration of Independence, the other seconded the motion which led to its adoption, both members of the select committee which reported it, and constituting at the time of their deaths two out of the only threes reviving signers of that rememberable insurgent, should have died on the same day, and that day the fiftieth anniversary since its adoption, is such an extraordinary coincidence, that it would seem as if Heaven were desirous of increasing our reverence for our liberty and independence, and for the memory of those who were so instrumental in achieving it."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Loving American Art

My daughter has been in college at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and she's now graduated.  I'll miss the fun of our numerous visits, and one particular thing I’ll miss about the small community is the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, just north of the downtown (itself traversed by the famous Lincoln Highway). During a recent visit I picked up two books in the gift shop.

I dearly love Hudson River School paintings and gravitated to Judith Hansen O’Toole’s Different Views in Hudson River School Painting (Columbia University press, 2005). O’Toole is the museum’s director. As explained in the book, Hudson River School artists included Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Asher B. Durand, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, Worthington Whittredge, John William Casilear, and others.  One practice among artists in the school was to display paintings in thematically related pairs, groupings, and series. A private collector, who remains anonymous, has collected Hudson River School paintings for decades. The collection has been displayed, but O’Toole--who had worked in the initial exhibition at Penn State's art museum (now named the Palmer Museum)---suggested a book about the collection, and this is it!

She surveyed the many paintings and, in the spirit of the Hudson River artists, selected pairs of paintings to discuss common interests, themes, and beliefs of the artists. The pairs in the book aren’t necessarily identical locations, but chapter 8 does feature contrasting interpretations of a particular scene. The book doesn’t include much biographical data about the artists, as the author states, because other books include such information, and her goal to make these aesthetic and interpretative comparisons. Her introduction, “American Scenery: Themes, Symbols and Pairings in Hudson River School Painting” is helpful in discussing the beliefs, goals, and practices of the artists, as well as their similarities to certain European painters like Caspar David Friedrich and other Romantic painters who had similar sensibilities.

But, of course, it was the American landscape that so moved the Hudson River School in their paintings and philosophies. If you love these works, you’ll find this book fascinating as O’Toole pairs paintings according to times of day, weather and mood, seasons, “nature without man,” people’s activities in nature, human impact on nature, and interpretations of the same location.

I've begun to donate to the Westmoreland Museum, which features a variety of artists like Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, John Singleton Copley, James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Childe Hassam, John Sloan, some of the Hudson River School artists listed above, and numerous others. Furniture, folk art, samplers, clocks, sculptures, and paintings are displayed around the museum.  If you can’t get to Greensburg yourself----which, I know from repeat personal experience, is an hour to an hour and a half drive from the Pittsburgh airport---you can order the other book I purchased at the bookstore, Barbara L. Jones’ Picturing America: Signature Works from the Westmoreland Museum of American Art (Westmoreland Museum of American Art, 2010). 

Leafing through the book, I recall the several visits we made to the facility. I myself liked the landscapes, including those depicting natural scenes in western Pennsylvania and urban scenes in Pittsburgh, including gritty depiction of the steel mills. But I became a fan of the pastoral landscapes of George Hetzel (1826-1899), a Pittsburgh-area artist who formed his own informal artists association called the Scalp Level school. His style pays homage to Durand and Cole.

The museum's website is http://www.wmuseumaa.org/