Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Running Out of Oil, or Not

The yellow “smiley face” cover of The Atlantic magazine (May 2013) caught my eye at the bookstore. The face was dripping oil, and the lead article by Charles C. Mann is “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?” (pp. 48-63). He makes many interesting points---worth reading in detail----including the fact that fracking (controversial as it is), as well as an energy source called flammable ice (methane hydrate) “may soon usher in an age of widespread energy independence” (p. 48) and could help reduce carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change. He discusses a range of energy options for the world and discusses the different viewpoints of whether energy sources (in the form of oil and natural gas) are running out or are virtually limitless. The energy sources like sun, wind, and other renewables are virtually limitless---but we need to begin converting now, because climate change is already happening.

A sidebar piece by Daniel Sarewtiz and Roger Pielke, Jr. (p. 59) discusses the possibilities of carbon capture. While currently expensive, carbon capture “does not demand a radical alteration of national economies, global trade, or personal lifestyles” and could help economies in both powerful and developing nations (p. 59).

Monday, April 29, 2013

Rape Culture

The term “rape culture” refers to society's tolerance and in some cases encouragement of male sexual aggression and violence against women, as well as the focus upon what the rape victim supposedly did rather than upon the crime itself. Although the term has been used for quite a while in feminist discourse and in programs to increase awareness of sexual assault, the Steubenville rape case has brought that term again into public discussion. (This past year the issues and crises of rape were in the news because of a politician's comments about “legitimate rape”). In the Steubenville case, a sixteen year old girl was raped by two high school football players. This article gives details and indicates that the case is ongoing: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/18/us/teenagers-found-guilty-in-rape-in-steubenville-ohio.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Winnie Wang writes in the Yale Daily News about the case: “When the guilty verdict was announced, some mainstream media outlets became active participants in furthering our victim-blaming rape culture. Probably the most sickening news coverage came from CNN, where anchor Candy Crowley lamented that the ‘young men … had such promising futures, [were] star football players, very good students.’ Registering as sex offenders would ‘haunt them for the rest of their lives.’”

Wang continues, “We need to examine how we think about sexual assault. Instead of questioning whether the victim was intoxicated or dressed provocatively, we should question how we can hold perpetrators accountable. These defendants are responsible for their own actions.” She adds that we also need to examine our social environment in which these crimes happen and in some cases are covered up.  (See her article at: http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2013/04/05/wang-examining-rape-culture-after-steubenville/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=wang-examining-rape-culture-after-steubenville)

Part of the difficulty of raising public awareness is the fact that some of us can indeed badly miss the point while trying to be caring and aware. For instance, the people who felt sadness about the young men had a kind of compassion: the men did ruin their lives before they even reached adulthood, and that is tragic. HOWEVER, they ruined the life of the young woman because of their actions, and thus people's compassion should be directed first and very strongly to the victim. This NYT article covers the kinds of community responses: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/sports/high-school-football-rape-case-unfolds-online-and-divides-steubenville-ohio.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&

There have been several related posts and news items about this issue. This letter by Magda Pecsenye, “A Letter to My Sons about Stopping Rape,” has been widely discussed, as seen in the variety of comments afterward.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/magda-pecsenye/steubenville-rape-mother-letter_b_2902943.html Ms. Pecsenye tries to wrestle with the messages that boys and young men get concerning women and sex.

In another news item, a young man at the University of Arizona student who styled himself a Christian preacher interrupted a campus sexual assault awareness meeting with a sign, “You deserve rape,” and with messages like, “if you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped.” The dean of students responded that his message was “vulgar and vile” but “is protected speech.” The young man’s message is tragically another example of a social culture that would characterize someone as “deserving” rape. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/04/25/arizona-campus-preacher-to-anti-rape-protesters-you-deserve-rape/

I remember a preacher on the University of Virginia campus in the 1980s, who (on a hot day when students were dressed in summer clothes) proclaimed to students walking by, “You’re all walking billboards for an easy lay!” That is an occasion where I wish I could go back in time and chide the man (other than ignore him, as most other students, both male and female, also did). But at the time, his comment seem more comically prudish and moralistic than a symptom of rape culture; once again, sometimes we need to be shocked into insight and clarity.  

Sexual Assault awareness meetings and information are excellent responses---and are good ways to cure us of blindness and sensitize us to the issues. Obviously it is good whenever this information can permeate many aspects of culture, including religious organizations. That process is at work. For instance, I found an article that described a meeting by Maya Dusenbery, editor of the Feministing blog, who pointed out that (in the Michigan Daily article's words) “the current conception of rape conveys a ‘no-means-no’ culture, allowing the accused to claim lack of a denial as valid sexual consent.” Dusenbery called for a change in that kind of thinking. 
(http://www.michigandaily.com/news/feministing-editor-speaks-sapac-event) We owe a great debt to persons like Dusenbery who are experts on this subject and work to education the public.

In another news story this month, the student magazine staff at Palo Alto High School took on this issue. According to that story, “High-profile rape cases from Ohio to India prompted senior Lisie Sabbag to look into local cases. The resulting stories and opinion pieces, published last week, just days before a story emerged about an alleged incident of sexual battery involving Saratoga High students, have grabbed national attention. It's not only the topic. The package [of stories] is being hailed as thoughtful, sensitive -- and disturbing. Students don't clearly understand what constitutes rape, Sabbag's story makes clear. Yet rape is not so rare, and sometimes the response of the victim’s friends and families turns into a second assault.” (http://www.mercurynews.com/rss/ci_23031742?source=rss)

And the difficulties don’t stop there. As I was still looking around the internet, I saw this piece that discusses the fact that “a stunning majority of states – 31 of them – offer some form of visitation and custody rights for men who impregnate their rape victims”: http://www.salon.com/2013/04/29/rapists_should_not_get_custody/

Later, I saw this video that illustrates how women are portrayed in advertisements---and what the ads would look like if men were similarly portrayed: http://samuel-warde.com/2013/05/what-ads-with-half-naked-women-look-like-when-theyre-turned-into-men/

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Pharisee and the Publican

from thebricktestament.com
The other day I picked up (from a shelf of free, used books) an old copy of Exploring the Parables (United Church Press, 1963), by Eugene S. Wehrli. He was a professor at and former president of Eden Theological Seminary, where I teach some semesters. Then I got down from my own shelves a book I’ve had since college, The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

In the chapter “Relations of the Kingdom,” Wehrli writes this about the pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). “The Pharisee does not see his life in relation to God and in dependence upon him, but rather compares himself with other men. This precludes a true relationship with God” (p. 87).

Of course, this is Jesus’ story about one of his own people, but we distance ourselves from the point by thinking this is a problem with this particular religious group, rather than a serious temptation for any religious person!  “See, I don’t sin like he or she does.  I’m a wonderful churchgoer in all this ways.” Jesus identifies a way of thinking that’s common among many of us. 

I was thinking, though: what about those of us who compare ourselves to others----unfavorably. What about the times we become blue because our achievements, our “breaks” in life, seem less impressive than someone we know? I play those kind of “tapes” in my head an awful lot, and then I feel down on myself. But why? It strikes me that this kind of comparison is another way we don’t see our lives “in relation to God and in dependence upon him,” as Wehrli puts it.

Wehrli also writes that the Pharisee’s “very goodness becomes his downfall” (p. 88). That would be worth a periodic reminder: his goodness was his downfall. We’re accustomed to thinking of failures that are moral lapses and critical errors. But in the Kingdom preached by Jesus, the recognition that one is, indeed, far from God is actually an indication of closeness to God! But the goodness, uprightness, and clean record of the very religious person becomes, paradoxically, a chasm of separation----because if you’re good and know it, you have no need of God.

Jeremias finds a prayer in the Talmud that sounds much like the Pharisee’s prayer, thus letting us conclude that Jesus’ story is drawn from real life (pp. 142-143). But there, the prayer is a thanksgiving to God for helping the pray-er be guided to a righteous life, unlike the unrighteous ways of others. Still, even in that thanksgiving is the temptation to compare oneself favorably to people who think are undeserving. Jeremias also notes that the Publican’s despair may be partly due to the difficulty he faced in truly repenting: he must not only give up his way of life but also restore fraudulent gains. But how will he now support his family, and how will he ever know exactly whom he defrauded? (p. 143). (Publicans were Rome-employed public contractors who also collected taxes.) So the man not only felt estranged from God but also at an impasse in his life, two terrible places to be. But he is the one God favors!  

One clue to the favor of God in this story is the fact that the Publican evokes Psalm 51: God does not despise the broken heart of a sinner. In fact, “He is the God of the despairing, and for the broken heart his mercy is boundless. This is what God is like, and this is he is now acting through [Jesus].” (p. 144).

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Place, God's World, and the Common Good

A while back I purchased a book, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today by Craig G. Bartholomew (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011). “Place” is a theme of great personal interest to me and the subject of one of my study books (published by Upper Room Books). I set Bartholomew’s book aside on the figurative “to read” pile and am just now getting back to it.

My eye lit upon another area of interest, both within and outside the theme of “place,” which is the nature of believing citizenship---the subject of another of my study books. Bartholomew develops this theme well within the context of “place” in Paul’s letters. He notes that the private home as meeting place was “the central place of the early Pauline churches” (p. 133). On the other hand, the household did not define the church and, in important ways, the church challenged the family hierarchical structures of the Roman era (p. 133).

Nevertheless, the church did draw certain boundaries between itself and the culture. Drawing upon the work of Wayne Meeks, Bartholomew notes that the early church worked hard to establish norms, principals, and actions that formed a new social identity----one in which persons belonged to one another as part of God’s family. Because the church was so negligible as a social force and entity among other cultural institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul did not undertake “a major social critique” of Roman institutions (p. 134). Furthermore, Paul’s theology of the Torah and his ideas of God’s covenant people focuses his concern to build up Christ’s body within the household churches of the Empire, rather than leading to a prophetic critique of the culture (pp 135-137).

On the other hand, Paul’s theology of the Land gives us a lead-in to a possible theology of Christian citizenship. In the Old Testament, faith was a national religion located within a promised Land, but Paul understood Christ as ushering a new age, the former theology of the Land was not possible any longer (p. 138). Rather, Paul “redraws the boundaries of the redefined people of God in relation to the state” because he does not draw a dualism between scrual and sacred. For instance, writes Bartholomew, Paul calls governing authorities as instruments of God (Romans 13:1-7), and his instructions for Christian behavior in Romans 12:9-21 do not compartmentalize the lives of Roman Christians from the social communities in which they live (p. 138).

Bartholomew notes that the extent of Christian involvement in citizenship matters in Paul's time is debated by scholars (p. 139). But he quotes J.D.G. Dunn, “[Paul] takes it for granted that Christians will live out their daily lives and wider relationships motivated by the same love as in their relationships with fellow believers” (p. 138). Furthermore, Paul’s theology of the Land suggests a theology of place in which the whole world which God loves (including, of course, all the world’s creatures and citizens) are the broadened place of Christ’s redeeming activity.

Bartholomew’s discussion reminded me of an article I enjoyed by Victor Paul Furnish, “Uncommon Love and the Common Good: Christians as Citizens in the letters of Paul” (in Dennis McCann’s and Patrick Miller’s In Search of the Common Good, New York: T. & T. Clark, 2005, pp. 58-87.). Furnish addresses several New Testament texts about community and the common good. He notes that Paul does not use an alternate word like paroikoi (“resident aliens”) or parepidêmoi (“transients”) to refer to Christians, and in fact does not use those terms elsewhere in his letters, although we do find them in 1 Peter 2:11 and Heb. 11:13 (67-68). Thus, the image of "resident aliens" is not the only available Pauline term to discuss Christians’ role in the world.

Instead, Furnish provides several Pauline texts that support a concern for the common good. Passages like 2 Cor. 5:19, 1 Cor. 15:22, and Rom. 5:18 point to an inclusiveness of God’s saving purpose. Furthermore, he argues, Paul does not call Christians to disengage from society but rather to life their faith within society, as in for instance 1 Cor. 5:10 and 7:24). In Philippians 1:27-28, Paul uses the word politeuesthai, meaning “to be, or to live as a citizen.”(67)  Since Paul does not elsewhere use this word, Furnish maintains that Paul is advising his people to be “upstanding citizens” as they live as Christians in a Roman society.

Through his article, Furnish discusses other scriptures, including Philippians 4:5a (“Let your gentleness be known to all people”), Philippians 4:8-9 (a list of virtues that imply public conduct), Galatians 6:9-10 (an admonition to do good for all at every possible opportunity), Romans 12:14-21 (ways to live peacefully with all people), and Romans 13:1-78 (being good citizens).

Furnish clarifies that his study does not imply that Paul called his congregations to participate in conversations about the common good. As Bartholomew notes, this really wasn’t possible in Paul’s culture anyway. But the dilemma remains (as it does for Hauerwas and Willimon in their book about resident aliens): what are the church's practical solutions and activities that can arise from these New Testament teachings? Furnish suggests that Paul’s teachings about God’s deep love, shown to use in Jesus Christ, does encourage a concern for the social common good and Christians‘ participation in public and private discourage about the common good. To add Furnish's ideas to Bartholomews, God's love of the whole world makes the world the place where Christians seek to express that love amid the issues and concerns of society.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ananias, and Loving the Unloveable

Some of our pastor’s sermon today, for this Fourth Sunday of Easter, was in part based on Acts 9:10-19:
"Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength" (NRSV, from bible.oremus.org)

Our pastor had several good points in her message, and these are a few points that I wrote down. She noted that, although we tend to think of Acts 9 as the story of Paul’s call and conversion, it is also the story of Ananias’ conversation! True, Ananias is already a faithful person; notice how he responds to the Lord’s voice with “Here I am,” the same way Abraham and other Old Testament figures responded to God, indicating that they were already spiritually prepared to hear God.

But---as our pastor pointed out---conversion is a lifelong process. Ananias knew God’s instructions, but he chafed at them: isn’t Saul an extremely dangerous person to any Christian? Saul has authority to arrest people who invoke the name of Christ. But the Lord is already “cross-referencing” persons (as the Lord does elsewhere in Acts), getting Ananias ready just as the Lord is also getting Saul ready.

In this case, Ananias had to open his heart to a despised person---someone who may have hurt friends-of-friends of Ananias---at what might have been great personal risk. Our pastor wonderfully connected this passage to the events in Boston this week: how can we hear the guidance and concern of God when we feel bitter about some awful event? How can we grow in forgiveness and mercy, even if we’re called upon to love someone very unloveable? Our love might not be risky now, but it might be at some point. Therefore, what kind of continuing conversion are we experiencing so that our love can grow?

I thought of a term used by ethicist Eric Mount, whose work I’ve cited elsewhere in these posts. Ananias showed “audacious openness to the Other,” a very good descriptor of biblical, grace-empowered faith.

Remembering the Lord

I went to my office and got out a favorite book, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings by Thomas H. Green, S.J. (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1979). In other blog posts I’ve thought along with Fr. Green on the idea of “floating in God’s tide.” Today, I opened the book and I noticed the page where he recalls his father. The family had sent out a memorial card that read, “Remember with joy George C. Green,” and his life dates. Fr. Green says that memories of his father brings joy to his heart.

This was helpful to me as I continue to process my mother’s death last fall. My mom was a worrier, who lived in constant physical pain, and sometimes (to her family) saw the glass as half-empty, which in turn added to the pain of our concern for her well-being. Once she commented she wished I’d made better grades in school, when in fact I’d graduated cum laude; meanwhile, my dad was more unconditionally proud of me. It’s important to acknowledge such things and to put them in a larger context; she wasn’t always like that and was, throughout my life, a nurturing and supportive mother. Remembering the whole of my parents’ lives helps me avoid a "half empty" outlook and embrace a variety of feelings, as I work through grief toward contentment and joy in my memories.

Fr. Green (writing in the context of his discussion of St. Teresa and the relationship of will, understanding, and imagination) comments that his remembering of his father brings joy, and so can the memory of Jesus. “When Jesus was about to die, he was anxious that we remember his love for us, that we remember him... As one of our most beautiful contemporary songs puts it: ‘All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you.’ When our prayer becomes more ‘quiet’... our understanding and our imagination become the organs of remembering the Lord and his love for us. This remembering moves the will to love him, just as my memories of my father touch my heart; this is to ‘remember with joy’” (p. 49).

Fr. Green’s thoughts reminded me of those of a Lutheran writer, the New Testament scholar Nils Dahl, who describes Philippians 2:5-11 as not so much a confession of faith but a “commemoration [remembering] of Christ,” and other early Christian liturgies and practices, including the celebration of the Lord’s Day (Sunday) can be called commemorations of Christ—ways by which we remember Christ.(1) Remembering Christ in turn involves both an understanding of the gospel and the way God wants us to live, a “rule of conduct.”(2) These passages are very much in keeping with Old Testament calls to remember the Lord and his commandments, promises, and mighty acts, for instance the book of Deuteronomy, thoroughly a call to remember as a means to ongoing faithfulness.

Remembering God’s blessings and mercies through Christ is inextricably linked with those described in the Bible, bridging the centuries so that those mercies and blessings are within our own comparatively meager stories. Reading and hearing the scriptures are ways we remember Jesus, and certain passages—Ephesians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:5, 2 Timothy 2:8, 2 Peter 3:1-2, and others—are specific calls to remember. Likewise, the liturgical words of the sacraments. The words of the Eucharist include the reminder to remember Christ, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return; otherwise we don’t have a sense of why we’re sharing the elements. The sacrament of Baptism evokes the name of Jesus and thus the memory of who he is and what he did on our behalf.(3)

Much of our faith is a remembering of Christ, whether we think of it that way or not. For me, some of my faith struggles have in turn arisen when I’ve forgotten to remember, as it were. That is, I’ve gotten so caught up in my everyday affairs, and in my own tendency to be anxious, that the blessings of my life and God’s unfathomably deep love become submerged in mind amid a storm of temporary concerns.

But I think, too, that remembering Christ helps us to process the disappointments and griefs in our lives. There are always things in our lives that hurt, things large and small, things we wish hadn't happened---and we wish God hadn't allowed them to happen. We feel discouraged with God. Remembering is a way to reassure that God is good and loves us, when we're distressed, as the psalmist of Ps. 143 prayed when he faced a serious crisis:

I remember the days of old,
     I think about all your deeds,
     I meditate on the works of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
     my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.

1. Nils Alstrup Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), the essay “Amamnesis: Memory and Commemoration in Early Christianity,” 20-21.

2. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory, 25.

3. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory, 20.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Signs from God

A sign for sale
on ebay
“Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs,” goes a lyric from that 1970 song---a favorite from my teenage years----by the Five Man Electrical Band. The song is a protest about society’s many demands for conformity: do this or don’t do that, and you’ll fit in. Church is often that way; in fact, the singer complains that he can’t do what the church requires, but still he wants to praise God the best way he knows how.

We speak of “signs from God,” and those kinds of signs are more inclusive. God choses strange people to whom to provide signs, like the cheat Jacob. In Genesis 28:20-22, Jacob has an amazing dream of the ladder going to heaven, and after he awakens and reorients himself, he prays a kind of quid pro quo prayer: he would serve God if he perceived God’s care in his life.

I love the stories of Gideon, too. When called of God to deliver the Israelites from their enemies, Gideon asks for a sign: that dew would form on a fleece of wood but not the surrounding floor. Then he asked for another sign, that the dew would form on the floor but not the fleece. Both times, God provided the requested signs (Judges 6:36-40).

Now you may argue that these are expressions of immature faith, and I would agree. But the point is, God does not disdain immature faith.

Moses comes to mind, too. When encountering the burning bush, the Lord gives him indicators of the divine power so that he won’t be fearful to accept God’s mission. Of course, Moses is reluctant anyway!

God doesn’t respond to just only when we’re far along the spiritual path. None of these people were. Also, think of the two fellows on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24). They had given in to their disappointment and sorrow. Those are exactly the folks to whom Jesus appeared.

We should not put ourselves on the same level as the biblical characters, who fit within God’s great purposes of scripture. On the other hand, these stories give us confidence about the kind of God we’re dealing with.

A divine sign? LOL
from http://www.thegodarticle.com/4/previous/5.html
I’ve told this story in other writings of mine, because I like it. A man struggled with faith and felt downcast. Finally he sought divine assurance. The man had never been able to find a four-leaf clover, so that’s the sign he asked from God. This time, the man found several. I don’t believe God “zapped” four-leaf clovers into existence just to help the man. I don’t think he meant that, either. But his request and his location that day converged in the mysterious workings of God, so that the man became strengthened in his faith.

God has given us many such indications of faithfulness and assurance. Some were like Gideon’s, if not so miraculous, and others were more quiet---and unrequested! I recall getting a piece of distressing mail, some business matters I needed to attend to for my ailing mother. At that moment, one of my best friends called to say hello. I also remember times when we were younger, and money was sometimes tight. But then unexpected cash came in, for instance a dividend check from the insurance company.

One good motive for pursuing a prayer life---even a rudimentary or haphazard prayer life open to growth---is to develop the sensitivity and awareness of the small indicators of God’s faithfulness that I describe here. They may be “do this, don’t do that” kinds of signs, as that song goes, but because they’re from God, they’re not exclusive and excluding; they’re beautiful and indicate that God loves you and wants to help and guide you.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

National Poetry Month

April has been National Poetry Month since 1996. Poets.org has information about the month:
Yeats exhibit at
Dublin's National Library

For a long time I’ve loved reading poetry, especially contemporary poems, and also I hoped I would become a published poet myself. Though some of my poems have appeared in small presses, the latter dream has been mostly unfulfilled over the years. Recently I decided to get serious about pursuing that goal and have been very productive. But then I think: why do I have to take myself so damn seriously, as if my worth and productivity were the same thing? Why can’t I just enjoy reading poetry for its own sake? Fortunately I HAVE done that. In fact, given the choice between reading poetry and reading fiction, I’d almost always choose poetry.

My parents had an old book called Chief American Poets (Houghton Mifflin, 1905), with selected poems by Bryant, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Whitman, and Lanier. I still have the book. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I'd read it as I lay in the backyard to work on my tan (a futile and tedious process, so I wanted to have a good book). I remember that Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” which he wrote when he was a teenager, Lanier’s “The Symphony” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” and most of Whitman’s poems were favorites. I also dearly loved Masters' Spoon River Anthology (which I also still have), the often tragic voices of the people of his graveyard.

In the 1980s, in the Southwest, I stopped by a feminist and New Age bookstore and found an anthology called The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. I almost left the book there because of the store’s indifferent service, but I purchased it anyway and, among the over 100 authors featured, I discovered several poets I liked (born in the 1940s and 1950s, thus the title of that 1985 book) like David Bottoms, W. S. Di Piero, Stephen Dobyns, Rita Dove, Lynn Emanuel, Louise Glück, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Hass, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, and others. I name these particular authors because, over the past thirty years, I also purchased or checked out books of their poems, and also books by Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke (in Robert Bly's translation), Pablo Neruda, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Penn Warren, Michael Van Walleghen, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Wright, David Clewell, Dan Guillory, Jane Hirschfield, Nancy Schoenberger, Langston Hughes, John Ashbery, Jane Kenyon, Robert Pack, Amy Clampitt, Dave Smith, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Wendell Berry, John Knoepfle, W. S. Merwin, William Stafford, Hayden Carruth, Jeffrey Skinner, George Bradley, Annie Dillard, Richard Kenney, Andrew Hudgins, and Anne Sexton. I remember an intense seminary friend who picked up my recently-purchased Anne Sexton collection, hated it, and urged me to read Edna St. Vincent Millay instead.

That Morrow Anthology amused me slightly because of the photographs of some of the poets: the forced sense of seriousness on their expressions, and a few looked downright hostile. One poet (whom I probably shouldn’t identify) had pursed lips like she was about to spit at you. Perhaps unfairly, I thought those photos made the poets look very egotistical.

Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, is very serious (and often elegiac) in his poets but nevertheless smiles for the camera! I frequently turn to his poems because I love their sound and also the depth of his connection to the natural world. I find that inspiring and I’d like to approach that conviction in my own poems.

Berry’s poems remind me of another personal preference: some ambiguity in poems is necessary and beautiful, but if there is too much, I become frustrated as a reader. While I recognize the mastery of Wallace Stevens' poems I begin to think that, without a guidebook, I'm missing important things. I read Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices during our years in Virginia; the ambiguity combined with the urgency and yearning of his poems left me unsettled, like stories for which I missed essential plot elements. I'm sure that's Smith's purpose: to suggest rather than spell out. On the other hand, I love John Ashbery’s poems, about which critics debate whether they mean anything or are artistically surrealist.

Ashbery is often funny (for instance, his "Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler WIlcox"), as is Billy Collins. As I read some of Collins' poems I felt so pleased to be chuckling; oh my gosh, this is wonderful, I thought, glad to find that although his poems could be serious (and they were beautiful) some of them pulled your leg as it were. For instance, Collins' "Fishing in the Susquehanna" is a lovely poem in which the poet admits he's never fished that or any river.

I learned about Billy Collins from one of my best friends, Tom Dukes, who is a wonderful poet and teacher whose collection Baptist Confidential is one I turn to frequently. We both taught at University of Akron, and, when I wanted to take a class of his, I had to enroll as a freshman, something about which he still kids me. He sends me University of Akron Press collections that he recommends and also Garrison Keillor's Good Poems anthologies.

Plaque at Christ Church Cathedral
in St. Louis 
I've never attended a poetry reading except for one time, and it was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who visited our campus in the mid 1980s. He is a very dramatic reader of his poetry---a performer, really. A colleague read his poems in English first, and then Yevtushenko recited the same poem in his native Russian.

I read a lot of T.S. Eliot in divinity school. For some of us,  seminary/divinity school degree can be a time of existential crisis or heartrending introspection, often spurred by a notable author. I’ve a friend who was knocked sideways by Kierkegaard. During my last year of divinity school, I spent so much time studying Eliot! I don’t remember what turned me to Eliot, but his poetry struck me with tremendous force. His now-familiar images--light, shadow, rock, dryness, fire, the dancer, the rose--and the way his poems communicated through their rhythms and sounds as much as by their words--not a new idea, but new to me at that time--awakened me and fascinated me. I "needed" his images at that time of my life.

I purchased a book called A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem by Poem Analysis by George Williamson (Noonday Press, 1964) at a favorite store, Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany, CT. (http://www.whitlocksbookbarn.com/shop/default.asp) The old, used paperback, which I still have, opened meanings and explained many allusions and quotations. Williamson also described the poet’s influences which made him a leading voice in modernism---Dante, the Metaphysical poets, and the French Symbolists. Ezra Pound had been so startled, how Eliot had stumbled onto this combination and become modernist on his own.

Williamson quoted Eliot concerning the intersection of poetic technique and experience; both grow, but at certain intersections of the two, superior poetry results. This, too, was a new idea to me and seemed to me an excellent philosophy of life. (The end of “The Waste Land,” and of the poems of the “Four Quartets," express that challenge.) Grad school was for me, as for many people, a circumstance where both my life-experience and my professional training were very much in process. Though not a “waste land,” the time was transitional. So during that time and after, I liked the idea of artistic wholeness (whatever artistry one may be devoted to) and spiritual growth as being two sides of a process--a process of living.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Frank Zappa

Lately---during a somewhat difficult time---I’ve been keeping up my morale by, among other things, revisiting some music that I enjoyed once, or with which I had a passing acquaintance. I’ve a Michael Tippett opera that I’m listening to at home, which I'll write about soon, but in my car, I’ve been enjoying some Frank Zappa.

Zappa passed away in December 1993, just short of his 53rd birthday. I always knew of his innovative and iconoclastic music as well as his sharp satire and social criticism. In the early 1970s I owned one album, The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out. I thought it was strange, which it is, with its mixtures (and deconstructions) of pop, blues, concrete music, rock, barbershop quartet, and do-wop. In 1966 there were few if any concept albums, and few double-albums (this one is a debut album at that), and with the second disc (as one Amazon reviewer puts it), “all bets are off.” “Trouble Every Day” takes on the Watts Riots, “Help, I’m a Rock” satires Simon and Garfunkel, and the raucous final track, “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet,” we come to the album’s eponymous “freak out.” I was too young in 1972 to appreciate its innovations, although its political protests are quite apparent. "I'm not black, but there's a whole lots a times I wish I could say I'm not white," spoke the singer on disc two. No missing the force of that sentiment during those times!

Over years, I’d occasionally find myself with a chorus stuck in my head, “No way to delay, that trouble comin’ every day.” Stopping by Euclid Records the other day, just down the street from me in St. Louis, I checked out their selection and decided to revisit Zappa and the Mothers. I picked Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy from 1969. A doctoral student friend had declared this a favorite album and he'd been looking for an affordable LP in used record shops. Joining surf music, concrete music, and spoken dialogue, the album is enjoyable the same way Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and “Pharaoh’s Dance” are enjoyable---not real toe-tapping numbers, but innovative in the way tape editing is itself an indispensable aspect of the composition and performance. Zappa said that this album plus We’re Only in It For the Money, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, and Uncle Meat are essentially all one album that he could theoretically reedit in different ways. For some reason that resonates with me creatively: having several works being part of a larger whole. (A while ago I posted some thoughts about David Bowie, whose 1971-74 albums Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs formed a kind of "grand epic" in one critic's words.)

I went back to the shop and randomly purchased Hot Rats (1969), which now I’m playing all the time. So different from these other albums, this one anticipates the jazz-fusion music of the 1970s (Jean-Luc Ponty is a featured artist), with Zappa’s guitar-playing prominent. I’d seen this album so many times in stores---with the groupie Miss Christine staring scarily at the viewer---and am only just now enjoying it.

The modest moral to this story is: there is so much wonderful music to discover, if you take the time to do some exploring. Think about music with whom you had a passing, positive acquaintance, and then find out about other works of that artist. As they say, you'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Verdi's Bicentennial

A post from 2009, with an update at the end..... I’m a mood-driven listener to music. Sometimes I get into moods when only rock music cranked up to "max" will do. When my mom died last fall I blasted a favorite Jeff Beck CD in my car because I had so many strong emotions to deal with. Sometimes I want to listen to types of classical music, or to a cross-section of a composer‘s works. Other times, I want to hear a lot of the same composer. I liked Haydn’s music so I bought a 33-CD set of his symphonies. Messiaen intrigued me so I purchased his complete organ works. I loved Mozart’s 15th piano concerto so I bought an 11-CD set of all of them! That's why I haven't tackled Mahler; his symphonies are long, and I'm still listening to music already purchased.

I used to collect opera LPs, especially Wagner, but also some Mozart, Verdi, Britten, and others. My first opera purchase was Böhm recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with Sherrill Milnes in the title role. I recall buying it at the now defunct Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, Connecticut. My fondest set was Le Nozze di Figaro, also conducted by Böhm, with a wonderful cast including Prey, Mathis, Janowitz, Fischer-Dieskau, and Troyanos. At one point I loved Wagner and owned at least one set of his famous operas, even the early Rienzi. Similarly, I collected Benjamin Britten's operas.  

I also found several classic Verdi recordings: Toscanini’s Falstaff and Aida, Otello with Jon Vickers in the title role, and also Rigoletto (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Guilini’s 1958 Don Carlos (the five act version but in Italian), and the Messa da Requiem. I purchased La traviata, donated it to a library book fair during a spring cleaning, then wished I had it back. (Fortunately there’s always Ebay.) I think I owned used sets of Macbeth and Luisa Miller but I don’t remember what happened to them. They probably were sacrificed with household downsizing connected with interstate moves.

I couldn’t quite get into Verdi at first. His melodies are so beautiful and memorable: "Vedi! Le fosche notturne" from Il trovatore, "La donna è mobile"from Rigoletto, the Triumphal March from Aida, and lots of others. But I was into Wagner, and Verdi's operas seemed to lack the chromatic interest and visceral force of Wagner’s. My wife and I did enjoy a production of Simon Boccanegra at Santa Fe in 2004. Britten once said, “I am an arrogant and impatient listener; but in the case of a few composers, a very few, when I hear a work I do not like I am convinced it is my own fault. Verdi is one of these composers.” [1] I’m not an arrogant listener but--especially since I know almost no musicology--I respond to music on a purely emotional level and know that, sometimes, I’m still growing in musical appreciation. I was heartened by an article by Walter Clemons who also wasn’t touched by Verdi’s music at first.[2]

Sorting through my old LPs after our recent move, I brought my Verdi operas into my office and gave them a new listen. This time I was smart, however.
Anna Netrebko is a notable Violetta
and, according to her website, she
performs Lady Macbeth in 2014. 
I'd been looking for an emotional entry into Verdi's music and had never quite find it listening to whole operas. So in addition to the LPs, I found a good collection of Verdi arias to help me, “Essential Verdi, 40 of His Masterpieces” on the Decca label.

What a wonderful set! As I listened to the two CDs (in my car), I kept grabbing the liner notes when I came to stop lights to see which opera aria I’d just heard. I finally appreciated Verdi’s gift for writing melodies. You hear it among old favorites like “La donna è mobile” and the Aida grand march but you also hear it in the lesser known dramas like I masnadieri. Clemons writes that he was convinced of Verdi’s greatness during a live performance of Othello’s aria “Ora e per sempre additio;” Othello despairs, yet “Verdi gives him back, in memory, the martial music of his days of glory” (p. 88). I found a similar moment in the “Ave Maria” from that same opera, sung on this set by Renee Fleming.

Famously, Verdi returned after Otello with one more, remarkable opera, Falstaff, only his second comic opera among nearly thirty (the first was Un giorno di regno, his failed second opera). Verdi’s views of life were pessimistic but humanistic. As Osborne puts it, “In the Requiem … gentle resignation and joyful anticipation of an after-life were no part of his thoughts…. The intensity and compassion of his tragic view of the human condition are Shakespearian in stature: the prodigality of his technique deserves … to be called Mozartian” (p. 403). In this last opera, Verdi seems to have definitively joined his tragic view with a Mozartian comic spirit.

Falstaff ends:

Tutto nel mondo é burla.
L'uom é nato burlone,
La fede in cor gli ciurla,
Gli ciurla la ragione.
Tutti gabbati! Irride
L'un l'altro ogni mortal.
Ma ride ben chi ride
La risata final.

As translated by Vincent Sheean in the Toscanini recording: “The whole world is a jest; man was born a great jester, pushed this way and that by faith in his heart or by reason. All are cheated! Every mortal being laughs at every other one, but the best laugh of all is the one that comes last.”

I agree with some of that. We are all “pushed this way and that” and we’re all “cheated” of something. We're silly to think we can escape life's unfairness. Verdi suffered terrible losses early in life, the death of his two children and first wife. Over time, he transformed his suffering and pessimism into wonderful theater and melody. Clemons writes that “Verdi’s long, fertile career can now be seen as remarkable in its steady progress and deepening insight as that of Dickens.” (p. 123) Yeats comes to mind as another artist who grew steadily and ended with depth and insight.

Here's one more quote from Clemons. “There is something clear and sunlit-square about Verdi’s music that makes it at first difficult to appreciate, if romantic mystery is what one looks for. The value of his honesty and clarity grows with acquaintance” (p. 123).


Thomas Hampson as
Simon Boccanegra
from thomashampson.com2012/10/10/
Giuseppe Verdi was born October 10, 1813, 200 years ago. Commemorations and articles have already been happening for his bicentennial. For instance, there are new productions of his dramas. A 75-CD set of his complete works, including multiple versions operas, was released this year. This set has I Lombardi and its adaptation Jérusalem, both versions of Simon Boccanegra, Stiffelio and its revision Aroldo, both the French Don Carlos and the Italian Don Carlo, and the seldom produced operas like Giovanna d'Arco, Alzira, La battaglia di Legnano, and others. Naturally, all the famous operas are there, and pieces like his String Quartet. As I said in the first paragraph, I tend to like to listen to a lot of a composer's music, but it takes me a long time to get through the 33 CDs of Haydn's symphonies. So I'm tempted by this set's affordable cost but haven't taken the plunge. Instead, I downloaded two nice anthologies of arias and pieces from several famous and less frequently performed operas.

The February 2013 issue of "Gramophone" magazine was a very nice Verdi anniversary issue. Choosing Macbeth, La traviata, Aida, and Falstaff as representative of Verdi's genius, the articles include interviews of artists like Renee Fleming and Bryn Terfel on his roles. The articles communicate that quality of Verdi that I find appealing, his humility and sense of triumphing over odds (one of which must be his melancholy). Perhaps he had a need to portray his talents as modest---describing a period of his work as the "galley years"---but his demeanor is so distant from Wagner's well known arrogance and sense of entitlement.  Plus, as Clemons writes, Verdi's talents grew over time so that he became one of our greatest composers and musical dramatists. Charles Osborne's book, cited below, gives detailed explanations of Verdi's works.  

1. Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York: Knopf, 1979), p. 11.

2. Walter Clemons, “Viva Verdi! The Story of a Love Affair,” Vanity Fair, 46 (June 1983), 87-89, 122-123.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"The Love of Bible Study" Site

I opened a new website this week called "The Love of Bible Study," linked here. The essays on this site describe the seasons when I perused my old Bible—-purchased for a college course in 1977—in conjunction with a new NRSV Bible that I purchased to replace (but more usually to supplement) my old copy. Reviewing my old marginal notes, reliving "a ha" moments, and rediscovering favorite passages became a lovely time of midlife spiritual renewal.

Those days of reading and renewal became a (still ongoing) blog called “Changing Bibles.” Then it developed into a book project. But as I shopped the manuscript around, I realized (what I knew but still wanted to take the chance) that the project didn't fit comfortably into a genre—academic study, curriculum, or memoir. It was also unsuitable for an evangelical publisher (since I affirm biblical inspiration but not inerrancy), so I didn't approach those. I decided to “cut to the chase” by making my studies available to readers in this online form.

Like other pastors and Christian writers, I love to read and interpret the Bible. My own work these past few years has been writing church curriculum aimed at helping people understand the Bible, apply it to personal life, and interpret the text concerning modern social issues.  Of course, for an even longer time, I’ve read the Bible in order to grow in my faith, to clarify God’s will and purposes. For me, reading the Bible is a great joy!

As we study the Bible, we seek not only to understand things about the Lord but also to seek the Lord himself.  It can be easy for us to forget that the living Christ is right now helping us as we read and study. Thus my blog title has a double sense: we grow in enjoyment of Bible study so that we look forward to it, but we also grow in love of God and one another. We connect Bible passages to Christ, and as we do so we see how the living Christ and the Holy Spirit is present to us today, helping us learn and grow and draw closer to the triune Lord who has already accomplished more than we could think or ask (Eph. 3:20-21).

My prayer is that readers of my site will remember or rediscover favorite scriptural passages of their own, and will gain a fresh appreciation of how enjoyable Bible study is.