Saturday, August 29, 2015

Interfaith Days: Beheading of John the Baptist, Raksha Bandhan

It's been a couple weeks since the last set of interfaith holidays. Today is the Christian commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist. The Gospels tell the story of John's execution on orders of Herod Antipas, after his step-daughter requested John's head. The day is a very old liturgical commemoration in Christian history and is celebrated by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, churches of the Anglican Communion, and others. Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches also celebrate the feast day, although in their case it is the August 29 of the Julian calendar.  

Today is also Raksha Bandhan, a Hindu festival that is also celebrated by Jains and many Sikhs. It is a festival celebrating the duties and love between brothers and sisters. As this site indicates, "The ritual is observed on the full moon day of the Hindu month of Shravan, on which sisters tie the sacred Rakhi string on their brothers' right wrists, and pray for their long life…. This ritual not only strengthens the bond of love between brothers and sisters, but also transcends the confines of the family. When a Rakhi is tied on the wrists of close friends and neighbors, it underscores the need for a harmonious social life, where every individual co-exist peacefully as brothers and sisters. All members of the community commit to protect each other and the society in such congregational Rakhi Utsavs, popularized by the Nobel laureate Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore."

Saturday, August 15, 2015

9/11 Recalled in an Oboe Concerto

I became familiar with composer James MacMillan (b. 1959) from one of violinist Nicola Benedetti's CDs, then I explored his cantata The Seven Last Words from the Cross. On a new CD on the Harmonia Mundi label, MacMillan conducts his own 2010 Oboe Concerto, with Nicholas Daniel performing the solo instrument. Daniel writes in the notes that the second, slow movement, "I am cast as a lead character in a highly dramatic one-act opera. This movement is a massive rewriting of an earlier piece for solo oboe  which MacMillan wrote after the 9/11 atrocities called 'In Angustiis': In Distress." So the concerto has that background in the horror of fourteen years ago; but all three movements are to me quite moving, with the first movement interesting rhythmically and the last moment ending "in a wild Highland dance."

The first piece on the CD is Ralph Vaughan Williams' oboe concerto, a late work of RVW's that begins in a very pastoral way and, while growing more sombre by the end, is to me so beautiful and meditative throughout. The oboist plays almost continually for twenty minutes. It's one of my favorite pieces by RVW or anyone. The CD notes quote Jacqueline Du Pre who called the piece "the oboist's Elgar Cello Concerto."

The other pieces on the CD are MacMillian's short "One for chamber orchestra," where a melody is shared individually among the orchestra's instruments, and also Benjamin Britten's well-known "Suite on English Folks Tunes: A Time There Was." Here is a review of the CD.

Interfaith Days: Assumption of Mary, Dormition of the Theotokos

In Orthodox Christianity, today is the Feast of the Dormition (falling asleep) of the Theotokos (Mother of God). The feast commemorates Mary's death, resurrection, and glorification. As this site indicates, "Mary died as all people die because she had a mortal human nature affected by the corruption of this world. The Church proclaims that Mary needed to be saved by Christ just as all of us are saved from trials, sufferings, and death of this world. Having truly died, she was raised by her Son as the 'Mother of Life' and already participates in the eternal life of paradise which is prepared and promised to all who 'hear the word of God and keep it.' (Luke 11:27-28) Finally, we celebrate the fact that what happens to Mary happens to all who imitate her holy life of humility, obedience and love." The feast is preceded by a two-week fast. See also this site and this site.

In Catholic Christianity, today is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is the most important of the Marian feasts and a Holy Day of Obligation. As dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950, Mary completed her earthly life and "was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory" (from Munificentissimus Deus, where it is also written, "Now God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary … by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception, and as a result she was not subject to the law of remaining in the corruption of the grave, and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body"). Mary's physical death, however, is not dogmatically defined in the Roman Catholic teaching. See also this site concerning the solemnity.

Friday, August 14, 2015

"Ferguson & Faith" book

As soon as my copy of Leah Gunning Francis’ book Ferguson & Faith arrived, I wanted to share information about it here. The subtitle, “Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community,” calls attention to Dr. Gunning Francis’ purpose, to show and discuss the way Michael Brown’s death last year inspired the emergence of leadership “on the ground” in Ferguson, within the context of our contemporary racial justice issues.

The author, who is a professor and associate dean at Eden Theological Seminary, writes how she--as a seminary professor, pastor’s wife, and mother of two sons---felt compelled to action when she saw the local news of Brown’s death. Among her several efforts in teaching and ministry, she interviewed clergy and young local leaders who, in different ways, worked for justice in Ferguson during this past year. The twenty-four faith leaders include those from among several Christian denominations (and two nondenominational clergy) and also a rabbi. Each chapter includes not only the author’s reflections but the transcribed words of her interviewees, making this important book a wonderfully collaborative effort. The author reflects upon their work, and she also writes about how clergy and laity mingled and “created space” to listen to one another during their efforts.

The book has ten chapters. Some focus specifically upon Ferguson: activity around Canfield Green Apartments, a clergy march on October 13, 2014, the arrest of several leaders on October 2, and other aspects, including the role of women in the protests. Dr. Gunning Francis also discusses the larger #BlackLivesMatter movement, theme of “seeing and not just looking away,” the fact that “there is a Ferguson near you,” and she also reflects on ways the church can “ #staywoke " to the deaths of persons of color and to racial justice issues.

Ferguson & Faith is published by Chalice Press. Here is an RNS press release concerning the book. I'm an adjunct teacher at Eden Seminary and know the author.

Here are four other books that have been published concerning faith, race, and reconciliation:

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"The Surge Fallacy"

Fascinating and cautionary article in The Atlantic concerning the Iraq War, "post-surge" fallacies, and the failures among current Republicans to learn the lessons of the war.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Miles Davis and St. Louis

Last year, browsing the store at the Missouri History Museum, I purchased the book Miles Davis and American Culture, edited by Gerald Early (St Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2001). At the time, I was interested in the essay “From Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew,” because I had discovered both albums while in college---I liked the first and couldn’t figure out the second. Now, in the wake of Ferguson, I’ve been reading the concluding essay, “Remembering Miles in St. Louis: A Conclusion” by Benjamin Cawthra (pp. 189-196).

It’s Ferguson that interests me, and also St. Louis landmarks and culture in general. Growing up near St. Louis, I visited the city with my parents fairly frequently. I remember coming to the city on U.S. 40, passing through the Metro East area, and crossing into downtown on what is now called the MLK Bridge. I don’t remember that we ever crossed on the MacArthur Bridge in East St Louis, which was the routes of old Route 66 and old U.S. 460. But Interstate 70 was under construction, and when it (and the Poplar Street Bridge) opened in the mid 1960s, we had no more need to pass through East St. Louis, which was in decline after being such a significant cultural and social place---though not without its racial tensions and tragedies---for many years.

Mikes Davis was born in nearby Alton, IL and grew up in East St. Louis. Cawthra writes that “Miles Davis never has been a major cultural icon [in the St. Louis area] beyond East St. Louis itself” (p. 189). As an example, he points out that Davis’ 1991 death was front-page news in the New York Times but only an AP notice in section D of St. Louis’ daily, the Post-Dispatch, and that no memorial services for Davis happened in St. Louis.

Davis’ own personality and history, which included domestic violence and drugs, may be among reasons our local area has been slow to embrace Davis (pp. 194-195). But more broadly, “The treatment of his death seemed to reinforce the city’s fundamental realities: economic stratification and racial segregation” (p. 190). Ferguson is up the road a bit off I-70, but a NYT article just yesterday provides a look at the problem of racial and economic segregation that affects it and other St. Louis communities. “For the St. Louis region to embrace Miles Davis as one of its own, it must confront the racism so deeply ingrained in its history and acknowledge a legacy full of division and compromised hopes...” (p. 189).

Cawthra discusses the influence of St. Louis upon Davis: his teachers, the musical scene and blues legacy of the city, the “countryness” of the area’s blacks (many of whom came to the area in the Great Migration), as well as the racism of the area and the not-forgotten 1917 East St. Louis riot. Davis himself wrote about aspects of local scene (and Cawthra quotes):

“After St. Louis closed down at night, everyone over there came to Brooklyn [Illinois] to listen to the music and party all night long. People in East St. Louis and St. Louis worked their asses off in them packing and slaughterhouses. So you know they was mad when they took off work. They didn’t want to hear no dumb shit off nobody, and would kill a motherfucker quick who brought them some stupid shit. That’s why they were serious about their partying and listening to music” (p. 194).

Cawthra also suggests subliminal influences: he writes that the bass line of “Shhh/Peaceful” on In a Silent Way harkens to the pace of the trains on the MacArthur Bridge (p. 191). Perhaps, too, Davis’ ability to innovate and thus shock and distress “middle-class sensibilities” (though from a middle-class family himself) was a carry-over from his local roots (pp. 193-194).

Just as East St. Louis has seen slow improvements (pp. 192-193), so Davis’ local “presence” has begun to be recovered: for instance, in the Missouri history Museum’s 2001 exhibition on Davis (which this book accompanied). With words that are still true in 2015, Cawthra concludes:

“For the St. Louis region to remember Miles Davis, it must do more than simply acknowledge one of the twentieth century’s great musicians. It must also re-examine its rich heritage of Arican American musical culture in this region and contront the legacy of racism that races back to slavery. In addition, it must also acknowledge one of the country’s most distressed urban areas where that musician lives so many years ago” (p. 196).

Joanne Pearce Martin, "Barefoot"

Joanne Pearce Martin is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's keyboardist, first appointed by Esa-Pekka Salonen. From Allentown, PA, she has performed in numerous settings, with the orchestra, as a soloist, as a guest artist, and in collaboration with other artists like Joshua Bell, Jean-Pierre Rampal, and others. This website indicates that she's a Steinway artist. The CD notes are reprinted here, where she writes (paraphrasing) how music ties aspects of her life together, whether she's in concert or recording, or shoeless at home or on the beach. She's also a pilot and skydiver!  

The CD, on the Yarlung label, is a wonderfully contrasted collection of pieces, beginning with Chopin’s G Minor Ballade, moving then to Mozart and then, with a surprisingly satisfying contrast, to John Adams' China Gates and Mark Carlson's subtly anti-war piece For Those Silenced. Among the next pieces, Martin performs the Berceuse by Josef Hofmann, two of Mendelssohn's solo piano works, Robert Muczynski's Prelude (like Chopin's preludes a brief piece), Meyer Kupferman’s Distances, and Gernot Wolfgang's poignant but jazzy Night Shift. Ending the disc are two of Chopin's Nocturnes.

I found a good summary of the CD at this site.  I ordered the CD from

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Interfaith Days: Transfiguration of the Lord
In Orthodox Christianity, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. As recorded in the New Testament (Matt. 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-9, Luke 9:28-36, and 2 Peter 1:16-19), Jesus, Peter, James and John were on a mountain, traditionally identified as Mount Tabor, and Jesus transformed into a shining figure, with Elijah and Moses appearing with him, signifying Jesus' continuity with the law and the prophets. This site provides more information about the Orthodox festival and the theological aspects.

According to the writer of that post: "This event shows forth the divinity of Christ, so that the disciples would understand after his Ascension that He was truly the radiant splendor of the Father, and that his Passion was voluntary (Mark 9:2-9). It also shows the possibility of our own theosis. This event was the subject of some debates between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria. Barlaam believed that the light shining from Jesus was created light, while Gregory maintained the disciples were given grace to perceive the uncreated light of God. This supported Gregory's larger argument that although we cannot know God in His essence, we can know Him in his energies, as He reveals Himself."

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Deaths in Police Custody

A collection of news reports. Here is an article in The Christian Science Monitor, reporting that four black women have died in police custody since Sandra Bland's July 13th death, in different circumstances, plus a story about the officer who arrested Bland.

Another piece discusses some of the context of these deaths.

Also last week, there was a story of a young Lakota woman who died in police custody.

And also, in mid-July, there was a story of a Choctaw man who died in custody. This piece also reports that "indigenous people in the United States have been killed by police at nearly identical rates as black Americans since 1999."

Interfaith Days: Lammas

Today is Lammas Day, also called called Lughnasadh. It is the first harvest festival of the year, namely of wheat, and in some churches it was a custom to bring a loaf of bread, made from the new wheat crop, to church to be blessed. It was also customary in Anglo-Saxon society for tenants to bring wheat to their landlords on or before this day. In Orthodox Christianity, the holiday is close to the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ, and the day once honored St. Peter's deliverance from prison (Acts 12). Now it is the Feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori. In Neo-Paganism, the holiday is one of the eight sabots in the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the year and is the first of three autumn harvest festivals.

This site provides information and several links concerning the holiday. This site also provides information about the day.