Body and Spirit, Music and Words

March 27, 2015

Music is constantly changing, and it mutates not only from culture to culture but generation to generation. The only place this bothers people is in church. There, fashion-driven variability encounters the unchangeable. Somehow we expect that worship music will be as immutable as the nature of God. It isn’t, to the lasting distress of those who want young people to love 19th century hymns and organ music.

Music changes, and it has always changed. The biblical psalms were clearly meant to be sung, but we have no idea what kind of music was dear to their authors. Would we like it? Perhaps not: I doubt I would adopt 3,000-year-old Hebrew music any more than I would adopt 3,000-year-old Hebrew clothes. Thankfully I do not have to: the psalms are taken up in musical styles that suit the times and the culture. The Scots put all their psalms to music—Scottish music. The Dutch Reformed did too but in a Dutch way. The English taught us to chant them, and still do. None of these is universal or eternal. The psalm singing that was bedrock for my Scottish grandfather is gone with the wind. It is not coming back!

Yet for all music’s impermanence, there is no worship without it. And perhaps the variability, the flexibility, the variety of music is a part of its glory. My friend Joyce Scott, a South African, has spent much of her life encouraging African people to use their traditional music styles in worship songs. She is healing a historical wound: When Africans encountered Christianity they often adopted European hymns and abandoned their parents’ music. In many cases a very musical people became much less tuneful whenever they entered church. Joyce loves music passionately, and she began to experiment with Scripture songs as a missionary in Kenya; eventually, her specialty became training and encouraging indigenous music in the church. To every people and every generation, a different music—their own music.

Yet here is the interesting thing: we re-write the music every generation, but we do not re-write the psalms. The psalms as literature cross the gulf of years as though it were nothing. At least half of the psalms reach me without the slightest strain. Culturally we are far away from the men who wrote those poems so long ago—but our experiences of life and God seem not to have changed very much, nor do the words that capture them.

So the timeless and the time-bound are knit together. You can’t get a knife in between a song and its words; we respond to them as to one unit. Yet one goes on and on, and the other fades away with its time, and must be renewed. One translates across all cultures, and the other bears all the local color and spirit of its time-bound surroundings. The eternal spirit is in the words, but it comes clothed in music. Spirit must be incarnated in the mortal, changeable flesh of the tune.

We speak of mysteries. How do permanence and variability go together, making a single unit? We cannot say, but we can sing. All this dense reality—body and spirit, two natures fully expressed in one being–is on the tips of our tongues when we open our mouth to make music.

How Much Drive is Enough? How Much Drive Is Too Much?

March 19, 2015

Last week I saw two excellent movies on back to back evenings: Whiplash, and McFarland, USA. They could not be more different. McFarland is a terrifically warm, feel-good movie, and you’re never in doubt that you’re headed for a happy ending. Whiplash makes you nervous from beginning to end, and you’re not sure of its direction even when it’s over. It’s the most intellectually stimulating movie I’ve seen in a long time, something nobody would say about McFarland.

Yet both movies probe the same question: how much motivation do you need to succeed in life, and is there a point where it’s self-destructive?

McFarland is about a small central valley picker town, and a group of Mexican kids dragged out of themselves by the semi-desperate leadership of a failed football coach who is reduced to cross-country. The kids aren’t sure there’s any future for them, apart from the same farm labor their parents do. Cross-country helps them find their competitive spirit. They are used to hard work, and when they are motivated toward a goal, great things are accomplished. They win the state title.

The message is: those kids need something to motivate them. A loser coach and a loser sport do the trick. Yeah, it’s a sports movie. I loved it. (It doesn’t hurt that all my kids ran cross-country.)

Incidentally, in my county some anonymous donors have been buying tickets for local kids, a nice gesture meant, I assume, to motivate them. (Maybe it’s a cross-country coach.)

Whiplash is about a middle-class kid with lots going for him. He has a loving father and a caring girlfriend, and he’s been admitted to the best music school in America. But he’s fiercely competitive—he practices drums until his hands bleed—and he’s eaten alive by an abusive teacher who’s trying to produce the next Charley Parker. The kid knows that Charley Parker died in drug-induced squalor, but he buys the program—he’ll happily die in his own snot if he reaches jazz nirvana and plays on that level. His teacher eggs him on, torments him, verbally and physically abuses him. Through much of the movie you feel sorry for the kid, and you hope the teacher gets what’s coming to him, but in the end you realize that the kid is drawn to the teacher like a moth to a flame. He wants success so much that he invites abuse—anything for motivation.

(Incidentally, when I asked my son the Olympic rower about the movie, he said that the teacher didn’t seem that bad to him. Which says something about Olympic training, I think.)

I think everybody would agree that we need motivation. Inspiring teachers and coaches and parents supply it. And abusive ones, too. How much is enough? How much is too much? This is a constant question in parenting—especially since, in the modern era, teachers and coaches have little opportunity for abuse. But parents? Lots of wiggle room. Will we be Tiger parents? Or will we be affirming parents? Will we raise ultra-successful neurotics? Or will we raise happy slackers?

I never had an abusive boss or teacher, my parents were of the hands-off, encouraging type who thought I did just fine, and I think I turned out okay. I’m not exactly a slacker. However, I’m not very driven, either, at least compared to some whom I know well. Sometimes I wonder whether I would have accomplished more with a more driven approach. It wasn’t naturally in me, but maybe it could have been pounded into me. Whiplash suggests that without somebody to pound it into you, you’ll never be the next Charley Parker. Maybe so. Do you want to be?

Looking backward, looking forward

March 13, 2015

Yesterday I celebrated my 65th birthday—the usual surprise, how could this have happened to me?—and this morning Popie and I listened to Pray As You Go for morning devotions. The Scripture was Jeremiah 7: 23-24, which (in the NRSV translation) says of Israel, “They did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in their own counsels, and looked backward rather than forward.”

It was the “looking backward” that caught my ear. These days I am aware of the temptation to believe (as the Israelites tended to do) that the best is behind me; that the future is full of stresses and strains that may build my character but won’t amount to anything substantial. At 65 there is a tendency to look backward with nostalgia and forward with your guard up.

But that is not a view that God endorses. The stance of the Christian is always forward, learning from the past only in order to lean toward the future. And according to Jeremiah, there is a moral component to this.

To put a point on it, the 4-mile run from my front door, which I’ve been doing for at least 20 years, gets a little slower every year, no matter how hard I train.

But there is more to life than my body–and even that, I’m told, will be renewed.

The Way Prescribed

March 5, 2015

They were in charge of the bread set out on the table, the special flour for the grain offerings, the thin loaves made without yeast, the baking and the mixing, and all measurements of quantity and size. They were also to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord…. They were to serve before the Lord regularly in the proper number and in the way prescribed for them. –1 Chronicles 23:29-31

I am right now finishing up a writing project that didn’t at first enthuse me. An organization asked me to update and revise two books of their corporate history. I like the organization. And history interests me, always. But the project wasn’t terribly appealing. First, because I would be relying on somebody else’s research. Second, because the book was intended for donors and board members—a small audience. Third, because the book they had in mind wouldn’t change the world in any great way, and wouldn’t let me show off my gifts as a writer.

I must report six months later that I have loved it. I rediscovered how much I enjoy the act of writing—the careful construction (and re-construction) of sentences. Even when the assignment doesn’t seem weighty or creative, I take pleasure in writing.

Many writers struggle with this. They want to produce wonderful, life-changing stuff. (Count me in.) Yet what the world wants is short bits for the church newsletter. It wants press releases. It wants scripts for the Christmas pageant. It wants short, not very penetrating bios of the new leadership.

Tedious? Such may have been the reflections of the Levites assigned to make the bread for the tabernacle. They were not asked to be creative, in the sense of making bread that would stand apart from anybody else’s bread. They were to do what needed doing, and do it right. And they were to “stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord.”

If those Levites were to experience the joy of creativity, it would be through the tactile experience of measuring flour and water, kneading dough, and smelling bread in the oven. So with writers. If I am working with words for a good purpose, then I am content.

Is Isis Islamic?

February 26, 2015

I thought Tom Friedman’s column in today’s NYTimes nicely caught the nuances. Yes, ISIS is certainly Islamic. It’s a version of Islam with its own claim to historical legitimacy. (See the cover story in this month’s Atlantic.) Its appeal, however, is deeply rooted in the dysfunction of Middle Eastern governance.

So for a couple of reasons, we are not at war with Islam. First, because ISIS represents one school of Islam. There are others with a very different point of view. (We know a little about this, don’t we?–Protestants and Catholics, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists and Episcopalians?)

Second, because most of its supporters are there for non-religious reasons, mainly that they see no good alternatives. There are misanthropic individuals who have latched on to extremist rhetoric as a way of validating their existence; there are Sunni clan leaders who hate the corrupt and intolerant Shia governments they live under. When they get tired of ISIS–and they will, because religious extremism is not a very pleasant thing to live with–the movement will wither.

If you want to expand ISIS’ sway, accept its claim to stand for true Islam. Then you will push all Muslims to defend it.

Providential History

February 22, 2015

I am in the midst of writing a book-length journalistic history of Biblica, a 206-year-old organization. I won’t go into detail here—you’ll have to read the book—but suffice it to say that Biblica has gone through its highs and lows, its ins and outs, its days of triumph and unmitigated disaster. That’s probably true of any 200-year-old organization (there aren’t all that many) or for that matter any life.

My explicit purpose in writing this book is to tell the story truthfully but in such a way that a thread of purpose is revealed. That is to say, I am trying to marshal the facts in such a way that somebody who lived through them will recognize as accurate, while at least suggesting a note of redemption even in the catastrophes.

Some would look askance at the effort, as shamelessly manipulative. I grant you, it is not the same thing as an academic history, which ideally tells a story without fear or favor, as it were, and does not present God’s purpose except as an idea residing in someone’s brain. (Though even academic historians may look for themes to emerge from their telling of the story, and suggest what can be seen beyond the facts.)

But even granted that my purpose is a good one, it is not all that easy. Life is messy. Sometimes it appears to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The only thing I can prove is that Biblica survived its crises. Whether they had meaning, whether God was overseeing and protecting, and more importantly, how God was overseeing and protecting, I can only theorize cautiously and hopefully. It’s never absolutely clear. Sometimes you have to use considerable ingenuity to see some purpose in what happened.

I tell you this because it makes me think of an old and important question: whether there is such a thing as “providential history,” and whether Christian historians are obligated to write it. We have some very noteworthy historians who are Christians—George Marsden, to mention just one. But he, and many of his Christian colleagues, are sometimes assaulted by their fellow Christians for their failure to write “providentially” about subjects like Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. That is to say, they don’t attribute what happened to God. They focus on the mechanics of events, the human activities, rather than the divine purpose that lies behind them.

I’ve always sided with the historians on this one, mainly because I like to make up my own mind about what God was doing. Just the facts, ma’am. But now I find myself writing a sort-of providential history, and it feels very reasonable to me. I’ve concluded, tentatively, that there are two layers to history, and that it’s possible to write one or the other with perfect grace and integrity.

I get this from something important I learned while writing Miracles: everything is natural and supernatural at the same time. People desperately attempt to separate them, demanding to know, for example, “Did God heal that boy? Or did the doctors do it?” I learned that is not an either/or question. God is involved in everything that happens, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. When it’s obvious, and surprising, we call it a miracle. But God is no less involved at other times. (Yes, this does lead us to the problem of evil. What doesn’t?)

At the same time, even what we call miracle happens at a natural level. It happens to stuff, which is composed of particles, and the behavior of those particles is a natural phenomenon subject to scientific description and analysis.

So with history: it is at the same time both natural and supernatural.

Just as it is appropriate for scientists to describe the behavior of some organism without ascribing purpose to the organism, so it is appropriate for historians to write “just the facts,” without bringing God into it. On the other hand, there is a place for writing history through the eyes of faith. This kind of history will always be tentative, for the only fully trustworthy providential history is in the Bible. (That is, it is for those like me who believe the Bible is inspired by God.) But those who bring faith to the facts may venture hypotheses about what makes sense of the facts. (That is how Hebrews 11:1 describes faith: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”) The ultimate point of history is surely to make some sense of what happened. We can as well try that using the idea of God’s care as any other.

This applies to making sense not just of history but of our own lives. The unexamined life is not worth living, someone said, and whether or not that is true, there is beauty and nobility (and inevitability?) in trying to see some sense in your personal history. Is there a pattern? Is there meaning? Those questions will always lead to the question of God, in the end: is there one? Does he care? Is he involved? And can we have any idea at all of what he would care about, and how he might be involved?

The Case Against Assisted Suicide

February 4, 2015

We are once again experiencing a wave of heartfelt appeals for assisted suicide. Two reasons for it are usually cited. One is that a prolonged death is painful and horrifying; the other that a person’s individual autonomy includes the right to choose when to die.

Against the first reason stands hospice, which enlists both medical science and personal compassion to ensure that death is not painful or horrifying. Many people have awful ideas about the process of dying, but hospice is extraordinarily effective in alleviating suffering and indeed encouraging a sense of meaningful care. Nobody has to have a dreadful death. On the contrary, as many, many families who have relied on hospice can testify, my own included.

Take that fear away, and the argument is really about suicide. Is it an acceptable option? Should each individual choose whether to go on living at any moment?

One strong argument against assisted suicide is the “assisted” part. It is impossible to be sure that relatives, doctors or friends are not giving a sad and frightened person a little push; not just assisting but enabling. There exist many reasons why those closest to the concerned person may want to get on with it—financial reasons, emotional reasons. None of those should be reasons to end a life, but under what regime of safeguards can we be sure they are not in fact the true underlying motives? Older people are often obsessed with “not being a burden.” It might not take more than a slight suggestion, a mere tone of voice, to convince them that they would be less of a burden if they put an end to themselves.

But suppose you hedged in the act of assisted suicide with laws that made it unlikely for such suggestions to overwhelm a person’s choice. Then you have the question of suicide, period. Is there a right to suicide?

If you have had any involvement with someone who ended their life, you know the horrible ripping it does to the fabric of family and society. It is a terrible act of violence that does not affect just the one who ends their life; it changes everybody, forever. Of course it is most violent when done by the young, but who is to say it is benign when done by someone old or sick? This is not to blame the suicide—but it is to suggest that we ought never to encourage self-inflicted death, and always to put as many barriers in the way as we can, at any age and in any condition. In this we are voting not just for the life of the potential suicide, but for the life of the community he or she will leave behind in the wake of choice.

Ultimately, we face a fundamental clash of values in assisted suicide. Do we love life, all of life? Or do we love autonomy more? Life is what comes to us: we open our eyes on it each day, not knowing what great or awful things it will hold. We do not choose life, only how to respond to it. Autonomy, when held as the highest value, asserts that life is material for us to mold, or not to mold. We can turn off the game any time we like. In the final analysis, the choice of values is about God. Who rules? Someone or Something who gives life, and to whom we owe a response? Or Me, the Maker and Destroyer of Worlds?

People will commit suicide, with or without the assistance of others. We cannot help that, and they are our fellow human beings, to be treated with compassion.  I would never, however, pave the path for their self-inflicted death.


February 3, 2015

I like David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times, in which he gently prods secularists for the gaps in their belief system. I only take issue with a short section in which he disavows any sense that truth is involved:

“The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation.”

I’d say there are reasons to believe in God, or not. It’s not fated. People choose, for reasons (articulate and inarticulate) that make sense to them. And while it’s true that religious people are not necessarily better than secular people, certain kinds of religious faith (and secular faith?) do lead to certain kinds of results. Are Quakers no different from Islamists? Is Donald Trump no different from Bill Gates?


January 30, 2015

I started thinking about police and their relationship to the community long before last year’s events in Missouri and New York. No credit to me: it was hard to avoid thinking about it when, nearly eight years ago, a 16-year-old in our community was shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy who had been summoned by the boy’s parents to help restrain him. The boy had a history of mental illness, and had threatened his younger brother with a small knife. The first officer to reach the scene climbed into the back seat of a van where the boy (now unarmed) was tussling with his father, and shot him to death.

In my county any such incident is investigated by a neighboring police department. Not surprisingly they found—as they always do—that the police officer was not at fault. The also-predictable lawsuit was settled for $1.75 million dollars. The county sheriff asserted that, contrary to any appearances the settlement might leave, the sheriff’s deputy’s actions were “legal and reasonable.”

After that I paid much closer attention to police reports. There were other alarming deaths in my community involving police who shot to kill when they “felt threatened,” but nothing quite as horrifying as the death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old boy who was shot by a sheriff’s deputy in October, 2013. Lopez was carrying a plastic pellet gun made to look like an AK-47 when the officer spotted him by a vacant field, stopped his patrol car and ordered Lopez to drop his weapon. Lopez’s first and only reaction was to begin turning toward the officer—he had his back to him when the order came–whereupon he was struck by six bullets and killed.

The investigation by a neighboring police force absolved the deputy of blame and he was subsequently returned to his regular duties. But the incident has divided our community. Protests have been non-violent if not always entirely civil.

On one side are those outraged by what they perceive to be a shoot-first approach of the police, and the impunity they receive. On the other side are those who sympathize with the split-second responses required of the police under such circumstances, who believe that respect for law and order entails giving the police the benefit of the doubt. Some police defenders are hardest on Lopez’s parents, who did not prevent their son from carrying an apparently real gun in public, nor did they train him to always, absolutely obey a police officer’s instructions. (Though it is not clear that Lopez had time and opportunity to know that the instructions came from an officer.)

Is there any middle ground here? I think there is, though given prevalent attitudes it will be hard to find.

We will find no satisfactory middle ground so long as police maintain their absolute circle-the-wagons response to all questionable incidents. No doubt it is a natural response, but it is also toxic to the reputation of the police. When life and death mistakes are made, sorrowful apologies are a proper response, whether or not there is legal culpability. We want such apologies from doctors and lawyers who make mistakes; so too with police. In the two cases I have described, there has not been a hint of apology or regret from anyone associated with the police. Perhaps I or anyone would have made the same tragic mistakes under the circumstances. Nevertheless they remain tragic mistakes, and their horror is heightened by the unwillingness of anyone in authority to state the obvious: it ought not to have happened, and we ought to do everything in our power to see that it never happens again. That seems like a bare minimum for civilized response to the unnecessary death of children.

On the other side, we must show respect to those in authority, and teach our children to do the same. Exactly how common it is to disrespect the police I don’t know—but it ought never to happen, even under provocation. The police take risks on our behalf, they do dirty work for us, and we desperately need their help in times of need. In some places and times they are all that stands between us and chaotic lawlessness. As my father used to tell me he learned in the army: you salute the uniform, not the man. When we show respect to the police, we demonstrate that we are a nation ruled by laws. The laws mean nothing apart from their enforcement. And there is no enforcement without people to enforce, however prone to failure they may be.

Recently I was moved by an essay from novelist Ann Patchett in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Writing years before Ferguson, Missouri, she wrote a tribute to her father, an LAPD cop. For Patchett, a transparently decent person, to salute her father’s decency, reminded me that the vast majority of police officers do their job with ingenuity and courage, and for their pains often feel alienated from the community they serve. There is a deep-seated natural tendency to despise those who wield punitive authority in society; that is why executioners are hooded. All the more reason for us to humanize our relationships with police officers at every opportunity, making a point to reach out for kindly contact.

All the more reason, too, for us to insist that the police accept that “to err is human.” They will never be treated like human beings if they insist on impunity for tragic errors.


January 27, 2015

Just a note to encourage you to see Selma. I’ve spent some time in Selma, visiting relatives and also doing research for my civil rights novel Birmingham, and it was good to see that big ugly bridge on film.

Yes, the movie does distort history rather badly regarding Lyndon Johnson and his response to the Civil Rights movement.

On the other hand, it’s strikingly accurate regarding the events in Selma. For one thing it portrays M.L. King as something less than an absolute hero of the movement. Selma was not King’s finest hour and the movie shows it as such. It also accurately portrays King as the indispensable leader of the movement, a man whose voice and reputation could draw reporters and move the masses. There’s an open-ended quality to Selma’s storytelling that leaves you in some doubt as to what actually happened–why did King turn back?–and who were the people most to admire.

Also, the movie doesn’t underplay nor overplay the role of faith in the movement. It clearly shows it as a church movement, with ministers leading the way. It doesn’t make them any better or any worse than they were, nor does it overly dramatize their faith struggles. It’s just factual: this is where it happened (in church); this is who led (the ministers); this is what they said (God cares about our treatment). This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, any big deal, but think about all the ways that Hollywood could play this. They were willing to distort Johnson’s role in order to make a better story; they could have done the same with matters of faith.

All that aside, it’s a pretty good movie and tells an important chapter of our history. The acting is good, the cinematography is good. The faces of the many extras they recruited in Selma are wonderful to observe.


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