Archive for October, 2012

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

October 26, 2012

The common grace of God is His acts of love to all men, whether those men be good or evil (Mat 5:43-45). This common grace includes giving mankind men who see more clearly than most what is true, good, and beautiful, even if they are not His children. Indeed, sometimes the children of this generation are more shrewd than the children of light (Lk 16:8).

One such man, who lived 24 years beyond our allotted fourscore, was Jacques Barzun, who died yesterday. Barzun’s magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, was written when he was 92. For an encyclopaedic account of the collapse of Western culture, this may want to be your first choice. His account of the dissolution of Western society (especially when read alongside Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea), will give any Christian leader a strong sense of the history and consequences of ideas.

It was several years ago that I picked up The Culture We Deserve, and found myself underlining paragraphs, and asterisking whole sections. Barzun is like an updated Matthew Arnold: seeing the importance and virtue of high culture for preserving a consensus of the good and the beautiful. Barzun was not afraid to call it as he saw it: the West has been disintegrating, not progressing, in its cultural life. The Use and Abuse of Art, I’ve been told, is another gem.

His book on writing, Simple and Direct, made me feel as if I had done nothing but write in clichés my whole life. I still think this book is superior to Zinsser’s On Writing Well and, in some respects, Weaver’s Rhetoric and Composition.

Barzun, though he made no profession of faith in Christ, taught me more about thinking clearly, writing well, and loving the good, than many of those I found within the household of God. And I, for one, am thankful to God for His common grace in giving our generation such men.

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From Palestrina to Pino

October 19, 2012

I think you should watch these. Set aside a few hours, and enjoy.

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If you hunt, you might find most or parts of the eight episodes online. Or you might simply splurge and give the BBC some more filthy lucre, for the two series on DVD. You won’t be disappointed.

If for no other reason, watch them to hear The Sixteen sing some of the most beautiful vocal music written for the human voice, and to hear Harry Christopher’s explanations of what the composers were doing in those works.

On the other hand, if you’re in the mood to be jarred or upset, ask this question: from Gregorian, to Palestrina, to Byrd, to Bach, to Brahms, to Pärt and Rutter, how did we get to this?

From each of the composers profiled in the Sacred Music programs to one another, you can draw a nearly straight line. As you progress in time, they build on each other, and develop from one another. Our last example, however, is not just the latest in a natural progression, it is a break altogether. It does not represent an ‘updated style’; it represents an altogether foreign view of what is good, what is beautiful, what God deserves, and how His people respond to Him. Allegri, Tallis, Luther, Bruckner, and Gorecki are different to one another but equivalent in their sentiment. Our sock-waving friends have no correlation to historic Christian sentiment.

So how did we come to this? It is not as if the rolling on of the years brought this naturally, like your child’s height chart. Nor does one go from Allegri’s Miserere to “You Spin Me Right ‘Round Jesus” passively, like sun-bleached paint on the outside of the church. Humans made deliberate choices, and the results of the choices we made are right in front of us on YouTube.

If we are to change matters, we would do well to ask: What was rejected, and why? What was preferred and loved and promoted? What is still being rejected and preferred? Forget about the sock-waving worship-leader; ask, why is there a supposedly Christian audience for this stuff? What did the parents and pastors of those children do (or not do) so that the people in that clip had a strong liking for that music, and considered it worship?

Here’s the trick. Instead of beginning your answers with “They…” or “Some people…”, begin the answers with “We…”

The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works.

The Exception, Not the Rule

October 16, 2012

I know a young lady who helps illustrate something about modern Christianity. I won’t divulge her identity except to say she exercised exquisite taste in choosing a spouse.

Ahem.

When she was around fourteen, she began babysitting other people’s, er, little darlings, to earn extra money. She also took the ability she had on the piano and began teaching lessons. She wanted to play the violin, and she worked to save enough to buy a violin and take lessons. When she finished high school, she did not go to the obligatory Bible college, but instead taught piano for several hours a day. She did this to earn enough money, not to buy Francine Rivers books, or to stock up on Chris Tomlin or Casting Crowns CDs, but to afford violin lessons with the concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, who was herself a pupil of Itzhak Perlman.

Taking lessons with a serious musician is no jolly jaunt. To little praise from her unyielding teacher, this young lady spent around four or five hours a day with her neck crooked over her violin. Chiropractors here in Johannesburg are still blessing her violin teacher, and wondering how to break further into the potentially lucrative market of dedicated violinists.

A few weeks ago, I sat next to this young lady as Joshua Bell performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D not fifteen metres away from us. A thing of beauty exquisitely expressed like that left me speechless; I wondered what it was for one who knows something of the skill required to make a violin sing as he did.

She will never be a Joshua Bell – she has taken up higher callings – but she will always be a competent musician. She is so not because she was hit by a lightning bolt of musical skill, or because she possessed the ‘musical gene’. She is proficient on more than one instrument because she poured herself into gaining competence, with her parents’ help and encouragement. All of which leads me to these questions about modern Christianity:

Considering that

– Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-19 make musical worship a requirement for every believer,
– for us to worship meaningfully, we must be competent enough to judge between beautiful and ugly,
– we are responsible to teach our children to worship,

why is this young lady’s story the exception, and not the rule? Tell me about modern Christianity’s loves and desires, if most of our children will pour themselves into sports, computer games, and reading Rivers and Peretti, and will remain musically illiterate? What does the modern church love, if we do not love the commanded means for worship?

Contextualising in Blaséburg

October 12, 2012

Picture being called to live out your Christian life in Blaséburg. Blaséburg is a materialist’s paradise. Food is abundant and cheap, clothing and housing affordable, and labour-saving devices and gadgets fill up the empty spaces in most houses, large as they are. Blaséburg is cushioned from the brevity and harshness of life of many other places in the world by several social, economic and military realities, most of which the average citizen of Blaséburg will never know about. After all, his thoughts are occupied with matters such as who will drive the children to the next recreational event, which DVD to rent or buy for Friday night, and how to pay the various service providers that will maintain his creature comforts.

The most conspicuous difference between Blaséburg and other places is that, for several historical reasons, the citizens use only two adjectives, one positive and one negative. “Nice” is used to express all manner of admiration, pleasure, excellence, as well as every possible positive emotion or experience. Whether the idea be one of awe, or one of fun, nice is the catch-all word. “Nasty” is the only word used to describe all that is negative, and comprehends such different ideas as terrifying and irritating, tasteless and threatening, horrifying and inferior.

Given the average experience of the people of Blaséburg, and given their vocabulary, here are some questions to consider:

  1. How will you explain the Gospel to them, using their vocabulary, and their experience?
  2. How will you explain Christian discipleship to them, using their vocabulary, and their experience?
  3. How will you teach them to worship, using their vocabulary, and their experience?

Or to use the fashionable jargon, how will you contextualise Christianity for these people?

Why “Subjective” Doesn’t Get You Out of Jail Free

October 5, 2012

I was one of those who used the word ‘subjective’ to defend my own prejudices. My approach was to enter into debate with someone on the merits or failings of some music, book, poem or film. If at some point I felt that something I loved was in danger of being judged inferior, ugly, banal or otherwise in poor taste, I resorted to the “Well, it’s all very subjective” defence. And it worked. Subjective is the control+alt+delete word for conversations about beauty that are locked; it is the ref’s whistle for arguments about fitting worship; it’s the bugle call for all parties to retreat to the culturally acceptable position of tolerating all tastes. Remind people that the judgement of the arts is a subjective judgement, and you are sending them the cultural cue that only snobs and elitist bullies would argue that a man’s personal preference could be an example of bad taste. After all, that’s intolerant.

I didn’t see how using the word subjective to ward off attacks on my tastes was an incoherent use of the term. It was rather like saying, “Well, that’s what you think.”

Yes. And? Anything intelligent to say about what I think?

On closer inspection, we see that no one should get away with using the word subjective this way.

First, all knowing is subjective in some sense. All the knowledge you have is held by a knowing subject: you. Your education was a repeated process of one mind communicating knowledge to another mind – yours. This doesn’t make the knowledge fanciful or illusory, it simply means all we know is subjective to us. No one can step outside himself as a perceiving subject, render a perfectly objective judgement, and then return with that purely objective judgement into himself as a subject. This is the foolish and conceited thinking of some Enlightenment thinkers.

Second, some things are known only subjectively. The knowledge of persons is such knowledge. To treat a person as an object to be studied violates his personhood. We must know people subjectively to know them truly – in a relationship of trust and commitment. Knowledge of ethics, and knowledge of beauty is much more like this kind of knowledge than the knowledge of arithmetic or physics. This doesn’t mean that truth in these areas is unobtainable. It means that truth in these areas is not gained through the scientific method, but through the process of subjective judgement.

Third, humans still seek consensus on matters obtained through subjective judgement. Witness people debating over the merits of certain music. Observe people disagreeing on history’s verdict on a person’s life. See how people argue over ethical issues. Debate (when carried out by rational gentlefolk) is an attempt to reach consensus. And the elephant in the room is the question, why work so hard to reach consensus, if subjective judgements cannot be held to a standard outside of themselves? Why seek consensus, if a subjective judgement reflects nothing more than a subject’s state of mind? We should by now be content to let every man be right in his own eyes. That the debates continue show that as much as we like to use subjective to defend our prejudices, we do not fully accept the argument ourselves. We long for others to agree that our tastes are good, even if it be by their silent acquiescence. Culture is itself a form of moral and aesthetic consensus, without which man is blind and naked in the dark.

Fourth, the whole use of subjective avoids the point:  what if a subjective judgement is true? Are we excused from believing or submitting to what is true simply because someone holds it as a  subjective preference?

Certainly, some facts can be more easily seen than others. An object that exists or an event that happens is easier to regard as objective than a judgement about morality or beauty. However, even these facts go through a subjective grid. That we notice some facts, and filter others out, demonstrates that a form of subjective judgement is taking place all the time. Yes, some things are easier to agree upon. Nevertheless, the fact that some knowledge requires a more difficult, critical, careful judgement does not render that knowledge unreliable or unstable. To think this way is to parrot the naive scientism of our day, with its blind belief in its own supposedly objective empirical observations (which are actually judgements).

Indeed, if the knowledge of persons, of good and evil and of beauty is knowledge obtained through subjective judgement, then it turns out that this is the most important kind of knowledge, and these judgements are the most important – and difficult – kind we can make.

To the remark, “Well, that’s a very subjective judgement,” I now might reply, “Yes. It is. And I, as a subject, am attempting to judge reality correctly, using the truth God supplies in His Word or His world. I desire to get better at this judgement (Heb 5:14), so that I (the subject) can approve the things that are, in objective reality, excellent (Phil 1:10).”