Friday, 15 July 2016

The "Hillsongisation" of Bach?

Last weekend I attended a brilliant performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Federation Concert Hall in Hobart. 

It was part of Hobart's Festival of Voices, a festival which is essentially a celebration of vocal music of all forms.  This is why the St. Matthew Passion was performed in July rather than on Good Friday, in Holy Week, or (at least) late in Lent, when we normally hear it.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, a large massed choir, and a number of noted soloists performed under the baton of the brilliant Richard Gill as guest conductor.

However, I'm not writing a music review of the performance but, rather, a theological and liturgical reflection.

Encountering both the music and the English translation of the text, I was struck by the heavily Lutheran character of Bach's church music.  Please note that, as is the case in many performances of vocal music where the text is sung in a language other than that of the audience, the translated words were projected on a screen over the stage area.  (More about the projection later.)

Now, the Lutheran character of Bach's church music should not really be too amazing.  Bach was a Lutheran.  He spent most of his career as an organist and choirmaster in Lutheran churches.  And he wasn't even an ecumenically folksy, Garrison Keilloresque, contemporary Lutheran, but a conservative, 18th century Lutheran pietist.

But, given the ecumenical embrace of Bach as the Christian composer par excellence, the specifically Lutheran character of Bach's music may not be too apparent.  In the churches I know where Bach's music is frequently played, the congregation has essentially made Bach an honorary Episcopalian/Anglican, an honorary UCA member, an honorary United Methodist, an honorary Vatican 2 Catholic, etc., whether Herr Bach would have wanted this posthumous designation or not.   But, looking at Bach's use of his texts, he expressed his Christian faith through his music in a consciously Lutheran way. 

Bach's texts for the St. Matthew Passion came from three sources.  Most of the text was from the Gospel of Matthew itself, from Martin Luther's classic German translation.  Other texts came from German-language hymns which were already in wide use in Lutheran churches in Germany ("O sacred head now wounded," for example), and for which Bach's arrangements of the tunes soon became the standard version of these hymn tunes.

And then, there were some original texts, written by Bach's frequent collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici, who used the pen name Picander.  These texts, which included the words for some of the most memorable music in the St. Matthew Passion, expressed a pietist, individualised approach to Christian faith which was typical of the conservative Lutheranism of the day.  In a sense, some of the best musical moments in the St. Matthew Passion are accompanied by some of the most problematic theology in the work, at least for a critically-minded ecumenical Christian today.

I have  far fewer issues with whether or not I completely agree with the theology of a work of consciously "Christian" music when the music is a work from an earlier era and written in a specifically classical genre, than I do when the music reflects a contemporary or popular idiom.  I assume that our theology has moved on since Bach's, Handel's, Vivaldi's, Mozart's, or Faure's day and can still appreciate the beauty of the music, as well as the spirituality and devotion behind the music, without having to hold up a critical yardstick to every word and phrase in the text.  This is also why I can sing hymns by Charles Wesley (and other 18th/19th century hymnwriters) with enthusiasm, even if I differ with the details of Wesley's theology of the atonement. 

I really can't do this with many contemporary Christian worship songs, such as the output of "Hillsong", because I believe that worship music in a contemporary musical style should also reflect a contemporarily inclusive theology.  I find a certain dishonesty in worship music in which a contemporary musical idiom is matched with words that proclaim an ultraconservative theology.

In the whole area of music written for Christian worship, I've often regarded (in recent years) the two extremes of the continuum of styles and content in terms of Bach at one end of the spectrum and Hillsong at the other, with my own preferences strongly at the Bach end of the spectrum.   I'm thinking now that perhaps this dichotomy is a bit too hard-and-fast. 

Perhaps performing the St. Matthew Passion in July, rather than during Holy Week, was part of the problem.  During Holy Week, a strong focus on the crucifixion is part of the context for all Christians.  For many Christians, a Holy Week-like focus on the crucifixion at other times of the year tends to imply an eccentrically conservative theology is present.

And the use of the screen may have contributed to this notion.  I associate words projected on a screen, particularly words with a Christian content projected on a screen, with the style of Christian church where a very conservative theology is found alongside an emphasis on contemporary worship music.  I associate the use of a screen and projector with a Hillsong style of church music, not with a Bach style of church music.

But then again, there were many present that night at the Federation Concert Hall for whom the important reason they were there was that the music was by Bach, not that the performance was of one of Bach's specifically Christian pieces. 

While I'm not advocating the Hillsongisation of Bach, I'm beginning to realise that Bach is not an inclusive, 21st century ecumenist in his approach to Christianity, but a conservative 18th century Lutheran pietist, warts and all.  But that should not mean that those of us who are inclusive, 21st century ecumenists necessarily find a barrier between ourselves and either his music or his spirituality.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Attila the Hun, Robin Hood, and Jimmy Buffett: How to Understand Political and Social Populism

In his 1977 song "Margaritaville", the American singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett ended the first verse with

"Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
But I know that it's nobody's fault."

Later verses end with

"But I think, hell, it could be my fault"


"And I know it's my own damn fault!"

For many people who reflect on their misfortunes, it's very hard to go on Jimmy's journey.  It's just far too difficult for many people to reach "It's my own damn fault!" when reflecting on their own misfortunes, whether personal or otherwise. 

For some, it's even much too hard to get to Jimmy's starting point of "But I know that it's nobody's fault."  Many people really want someone else to blame for their misfortunes, particularly for their economic misfortunes.

And, for those who want someone else to blame for their circumstances, they really want someone to blame who is different from themselves:  ... someone black, ... someone foreign, ... someone who speaks English with an accent, ... someone Muslim, ... someone Jewish, ... someone feminist, ... someone gay, ... someone who's an immigrant or a refugee, ... someone in a suit, ... someone who worked harder at school than I did, ... anyone who is somehow different from me. 

And when this sort of blame game happens on a regular basis, you've got a case of populism.  Populism is what happens when large numbers of people seek a scapegoat for their political or economic problems, and when the scapegoat is some easily identifiable (and usually highly vulnerable) group within the wider community.  Examples of political populism in elections this year include the Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Sanders) campaigns in the United States' presidential election, the Hanson and Lambie campaigns in the Australian parliamentary election, and many advocates of the "Leave" case in the UK "Brexit" referendum.

While you can place populist politicians on both the political right (Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Pauline Hanson) and the political left (Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Mark Latham), it's difficult to put populism easily into any conventional place on a right-left political spectrum.  (1) 
  • On issues of racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity, most populists in the general public are usually somewhere to the far right, near Attila the Hun.
  • On economic issues, many populists in the general public are frequently somewhere to the left of Robin Hood.

Populists in most countries are frequently alienated from major political parties of both the centre-right and centre-left.
  • They dislike the centre-left parties because of these parties' enthusiasm for racial, religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity.
  • They dislike the centre-right parties because of their economic conservatism.  Most populists will have family members and friends who are among the best customers of the modern "welfare state", and they don't want to disrupt any of this.
  • As well, most populists distrust the flamboyant piety expressed by many conservative politicians in many countries.  Populists are among the most secularised members of any community.  Religious names are among their favourite swearwords.  For many, three or four generations have passed since there's been a regular worshipper of any sort in their family.  Since their childhood, most populists were taught that "religious people" are a bunch of killjoys, wowsers, and hypocrites intent on spoiling their fun.

One other thing about populists, they tend not to be "joiners".  You probably won't see them at church obviously, because of the whole "killjoys, wowsers, and hypocrites" thing I just mentioned.  You probably won't see them at Rotary, Lions, CWA, or any other community group either.  Work, home, and (in most cases) pub are the environments in which a populist will be comfortable.  Populists don't get out a lot.  That's one of the things that makes a populist a populist.

I'm not too worried, though, about populists becoming politically active, even if I find their politics rather scary.  If a populist feels able to influence the political system, he/she is far less likely to vandalise a place of worship, beat up someone on the street, ... or worse ... than if he/she feels unable to influence the system. 

(1)  An example of this is found in the Australian politician Mark Latham who, since this article was first posted, transitioned from being a member (and former leader) of Australia's major centre-left party to a member of a far-right minor party.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

“The Good Samaritan as a management issue”: a sermon (Luke 10: 25 - 37)

(The pulpit area of the church is set up as if it were a business office, the office of the Human Resources manager of Samaritan Software, with a desk, a coffee cup and a pile of papers. During this sermon, I will take on the role of the HR manager of Samaritan Software. As the sermon begins, I am sitting at my desk, drinking coffee and shuffling papers.)

(Standing up) Ah, Ben, thanks for coming in before you went home. Your supervisor wanted me to have a word with you to see if everything’s all right. You know that here at Samaritan Software, we’re a caring company.

We care about our customers. We care about our staff. As a member of our sales team, your job is to care about our customers. As Human Resources manager, my job is to care for you, particularly as you’re an old friend from high school. So, how are things going? …

No, it’s just that, well, yesterday, you came into work three hours late … with no medical certificate … and with blood on your clothing. Is, um, well, is everything OK at home?…

Really, let me get this straight, so that my notes are right: you saw a man on the side of the highway … injured … unconscious … in his underwear … bleeding … probably robbed and beaten up. … Hmm … You did some CPR and stopped the bleeding … bandaged him up … Well, that First aid course we sent you to last year proved to come in handy, didn’t it? ….

And after he came to, he was in obvious pain, but the ambulance was taking ages to get there – as usual - and you decided to risk taking him to the hospital yourself. … You helped him into the back seat of your car, which explains the blood on your clothing, Waiting in the emergency room was a nightmare, but once a doctor was able to see him, you left your credit card details at the desk and came straight back to work. Is that right? …

Look, Ben, I don’t see any problem! You’ve got a few sick days up your sleeve, so if the boss won’t just treat this as a one-off compassionate situation, we’ll just make it a half-day sickie, so, no problems! Besides, Ben, in times like this, Samaritans need to help each other out! …

What do you mean the man by the road wasn’t a Samaritan! …

Well, then, what was he? ….

(agitated) He was a what? … He was a what? … You must be kidding! You’re not. …. And you tell me you gave CPR to a … to a … Ewwww! How could you? Have you no self-respect, Ben? You remember the songs they sang about Samaritans back in high school. … Yes, and I also remember the songs we sang about them. (chuckles) Weren’t they funny? (chuckles) … You know, Ben, you had no sense of humour back in high school and you have less of one now? … Does your family know that this man you helped was a, … was a … (angry) Yes, Ben, I know the word. The man was a Jew, and Samaritans have no business helping Jews. … The next thing you’ll tell me is that after helping your Jewish mate, you volunteered to help some Roman soldiers change a wheel on their chariot.…

(coldly) Look, Ben, we pay you to sell software, not to be the Mother Theresa of the highways. And we pay you pretty well because you’re a good salesman. You’re going to have to decide whether your job is selling software or playing Albert Schweitzer. … If it helps you decide, selling software pays much better.

(a bit more calmly) I’ll have to give you this, Ben. You’ve got guts. No brains, just guts. Here’s what I’m going to do, this time and this time only. When I write my report, I’m not going to mention that this man on the side of the road was Jewish. As far as my records are concerned, people can think the man you helped was another Samaritan, and far as the boss is concerned he was another Samaritan. Deal? …

Good idea, Ben. You’ve just saved your job. The boss isn’t anywhere near as tolerant as I am.

Anyway, Ben, it’s time to go home. Give my best to your wife and kids. See you later. …

(takes drink from coffee cup) I won’t tell this to Ben, but I wish I had his courage.

Friday, 1 July 2016

"Don't let's be beastly to the English .....": a post-Brexit lament from an incurable enthusiast for most things British

"Don't let's be beastly to the English ...."   As you may know, the title to this article is an homage to the title of Sir Noël Coward's humorous wartime song "Don't let's be beastly to the Germans".

In many ways, it's appropriate because, after the Brexit fiasco, many of us have been rather "beastly" to the English.  As a nation they've had an experience, in the past week, akin to waking up with a raging national hangover and an unwanted tattoo.  They're not really sure about the source of the empty pizza boxes in the kitchen, or the Masonic regalia hanging in the closet, or the stack of Watchtowers by the front door, but they suspect it's not going to be good when they find out.  The tattoo is the biggest concern, though.  Having the names of all your old girlfriends inked on your arm doesn't really make for a good look ... particularly if you're a priest.

This bizarre nightmare has been the national experience of most English people I know in the past few days, frantically looking up hangover cures on the 'Net while searching for emergency tattoo removal services in the Yellow Pages.

And then there are the jokes ....  Usually, the English enjoy feeling superior to everyone else, particularly the Irish, the Scots, the Americans, and particularly the Australians.  They tell jokes about these proud nations.  (And we all laugh, because Americans, Australians, and particularly Scots and Irish people have a sense of humour.) 

But now, everybody's telling English jokes!!!  Even the Canadians and the New Zealanders have someone other than their immediate neighbours to make fun of.  This is how serious it is.

Growing up in the States, I admired the English.  I tried to fake a British accent as a little kid.  (The problem was, it was Dick Van Dyke's atrociously bad fake Cockney accent but, as I said, I was a kid.)  I always spelled words like colour, odour, and centre in the British style unless I got marked down for it at school. 

For the most part, I preferred the British bands as a kid in the early '60s.  I liked the Beatles better than the Stones, but my real favourite was Herman's Hermits, which may give you an idea of just how uncool I was as a kid.

Even as a kid, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (initially in the Mr. Magoo version, later the book itself) helped shape my understanding of the potential impact of the Christmas celebration on our lives.   (And I even went and did a doctorate on stuff related to some of this.)  Since my childhood, I've always prided myself on celebrating a very English style of Christmas.

As my musical tastes matured, the first sign that I really liked classical music was courtesy of G.F. Handel and Messiah.  (OK, I know he was born in Germany, but he wrote his best stuff - including Messiah - in England, with English tastes in mind.)

As I discovered comedy in a big way, and developed a particular taste for witty, literate satire, of course I discovered Gilbert and Sullivan.

And then I discovered English television.  Now, with TV in the US, occasionally something great will happen.  Every few years or so, an American sitcom will come along that's another M*A*S*H, or a drama that's another The West Wing, or a cop show that's another Hill Street Blues, or a documentary series that's like ... well anything by Ken Burns, I guess. 

But with British TV (or, as they say, "telly"), every year brings something brilliant.  And people recognise this.  Here in Australia, where I've lived since I was 26, the class system reflects this.  The ultimate indicator of where you are on the social ladder is not your money, or your educational level, or your job title, or how fancy a high school you went to.  It's the percentage - out of your total TV viewing - of how much British TV you watch, compared to American programmes (other than reruns of those high quality American programmes ... such as M*A*S*H, The West Wing, Hill Street Blues, or anything by Ken Burns ... that qualify as being "almost British").  To be really upper middle class in Australia, you seriously have to be into your British telly.

And then, as a clergy-type myself, there is England's particular gift to the world of religion.  It's called, with typically English originality, the Church of England.  It has branches outside of England, called Episcopalian in the US and in Scotland, and Anglican almost everywhere else. 

Now the Church of England (sometimes called C of E), along with its overseas affiliates, is really cool in most places.  At its best, it combines stylishly traditional worship with good, classical-influenced music (similar to the Roman Catholics at their best) with intelligent and inclusive beliefs (similar to middle-of-the-road-to-liberal "Protestants" at their best).  In some places, the C of E / Episcopalians / Anglicans aren't at their best, but in those places where they are at their best , they are simply brilliant.

And one thing the C of E / Episcopalians / Anglicans do really well is called Choral Evensong.  It usually happens late on a Sunday afternoon (or, sometimes, in the early evening) in a church with a good choir.  If you can imagine a combination of a well-planned religious service with a quickly-paced classical music concert, with the creamy texture of a chocolate thickshake, and the "kick" of a strong gin-and-tonic, that's Choral Evensong.

Now, with all these factors, I know that the jokes will cease.  Any electorate will sometimes fall for a well-organised scare campaign by far-right extremists during a referendum.  Abe Lincoln was right.  "You can fool all of the people some of the time.  You can fool some of the people all of the time.  But you can't fool all of the people all of the time."  The English have just proven this.

However, I believe England is more than just Mississippi with rotten weather, warm beer, strange food, and some nice, medieval cathedrals.  The people who gave the world Handel's Messiah, A Christmas Carol, Choral Evensong, and Are You Being Served? will rise up from this.  Let's give them a chance.  "Don't let's be beastly to the English."

There was a sign, just the day after the Brexit fiasco, that England was returning to its traditional equilibrium.  In an international soccer match against (irony alert!) that traditional soccer powerhouse, Iceland, England lost.  Now, one of England's proudest national traditions is found in the ability of its national sporting teams to lose important international matches in an embarrassing way.  Directly on the heels of the referendum, England's international footballers showed their countrymen how to be really English once again.  "Don't let's be beastly to the English."