Monday, October 31, 2005

More on Early Music

Steve at Hemmeke blog asked me for some recommendations about early music. I replied in the comments section, but it got a bit long, so I copied it here. I am not a musicologist, only a devoted listener. Steve mentioned he had some music by Thomas Tallis and Giovanni Palestrina, who represent in my opinion the Himalayas of Renaissance music. There are no shortage of choirs & recordings of both, but I consider the voices and direction of the Tallis Scholars (Gimell) to be the finest. Important works of Tallis would include "Spem Et Alium," "Mass in 4 Voices," "Lamentations of Jeremiah," and English Anthems (sublimely: "If Ye Love Me," and "Loquebantur"). For Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli, Missa Assumpta Est, Missa Brevis. The Gimell label cds are expensive ($20), but exceed all others in quality. Most of the above are available on Naxos, sung by other lesser, but quite capable choral groups (e.g., Oxford Camerata). has full listings under each composer, which helps greatly.

Staying in the Renaissance, I would like to note the often overlooked, but beautiful works of Josquin des Pres (Missa Pange Lingua), Orlando Lassus (Lamentations), William Byrd (the Great Mass), and the Spaniard Tomás de Victoria (Masses). All are on Naxos and other labels. I would not miss des Pres (sometimes spelled DezPres) and Lassus in particular. Honorable mentions go to Gesualdo and Gregorio Allegri (especially the "Miserere").

Medieval composers were mostly anonymous, but in the 14th century two stood out: Guillaume de Mauchaut (Missa Nostre Dame), and Guillaume DuFay (Missa l'homme arme; Chansons). Dufay is the more important. Hildegard of Bingen, a female theologian and mystic of the 12th century, is also an important composer.

Medieval music is divided into specific periods:
1. Plainchant (e.g., Ambrosian & Gregorian): 6th century onwards.
2. From the 9th to 12th century, there arose the beginnings of polyphony: the adding of another voice to the chant (usually a perfect fourth or fifth), which is called Organum.
3. 13th century formal polyphony (e.g., Léonin, Pérotin) - called Ars Antiqua.
4. Troubadour music ("trouveres").
5. 14th century sophisticated polyphony (e.g., de Vitry, Machaut) - called Ars Nova.
6. Ars Subtilior - a French mannered polyphony, very difficult to sing, which marked the end of the Medieval period. Afterward, music written by DuFay and John Dunstable transitioned to the Rennaissance.

CDs for Medieval music which I would recommend are anything by the Tallis Scholars, Anonymous 4, Trio Mediaeval, and the Hilliard Ensemble. All have "samplers" which contain music of several composers from specific eras. I checked at and found a nice list of some good "sampler" cds.

I hope this is helpful.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Naxos, Naxos, We Adore Thee

I have an addiction, so I need to confess. I can't help myself when Naxos puts out early music on cd for $5.99 or $6.99. I don't necessarily restrict myself to Medieval and Renaissance music, but it is certainly my favorite, and Naxos has so much to offer for so little money. In the last week I have purchased truly revelatory music from John Dunstable ("Masses and Motets", 1390-1453) and "Sacred Music From Notre Dame" (music by Léonin and Pérotin, ca. 1200 A.D.). Both of these discs are from the choral group, previously unknown to me, by the name of Tonus Peregrinus. The sound quality is superb, and the music is both interesting for being new to me, and also superbly sung. Run out and buy these cds at, iTunes, or wherever you satisfy your own musical addiction. I solemnly vouch for the soul restoring beauty of the music. Did I mention that Arkivmusic is having a sale...?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Music of the Spheres - Robert W. Jenson and the Silmarillion

I've been slowly reading Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, vol.2, The Works of God (there really isn't a fast way to read it). I enjoy the way his mind works, and especially appreciate his interaction with other disciplines such as science (especially physics) and music. He gives the little grey cells a good work-out.

Anyway, in the chapter "Time, Created Being, and Space," he describes God as "a fugue, a conversation" (p.35), adopting a musical term to describe being, rather than the more traditional Greek understanding of being as that which is seen (i.e., what is manifest to the eye or the mind). This is a decidedly Hebrew ontology: God speaks creation, and creation responds with speech. God speaks to Moses, naming himself "I AM" (Exodus 3:14), which is merely the Hebrew verb "to be" (yavah, יהןה). However, because God is Triune, divine speech has a musical quality - the harmony of voices within the Godhead, which Jenson calls "the triune fugue" (p.38). This leads him to say further:

"To be a creature in specific relation to the Father is to be a motif in the orchestration that occurs when God's musicality opens ad extra [i.e., to that which is external, or outside of God]. We might say: the Father hums a music "of the spheres," the tune of the creating triune conversation...Nor is it merely that there are creatures who are then harmonious with each other; to be a creature is to belong to the counterpoint and harmony of the triune music" (p.39).

{It should be noted that Jenson here is not writing metaphorically, but rather offers an alternative to the more traditional language of reality, which prefers to speak of "substance." He rightly notes there is no reason why one cannot replace the concept of "substance," with that of "tune." Both are merely words describing aspects of reality.}

The point to all of this, and I do have one, is that this is remarkably similar to the opening passages of J.R.R. Tolkien's, The Silmarillion. This book chronicles the history of Middle Earth prior to the events found in The Lord of the Rings. It is an earlier work of Tolkien's (although it was published after the Ring opus), and in it he sought to create a mythology for England. It contains a creation narrative which is oriented around music. God ("The One") sings, and creation emerges, singing back in harmony. The book begins thus:

"There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but a few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony."

This celestial music goes out into the void, filling it with all creation, and it seemed for a great while "good." But there was a fall from perfection, and there was discord, and evil entered into the universe through pride.

"But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself."

Tolkien even offers a beautiful image of providence and God's sovereignty:

"Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said..."And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined."

I must confess to being enraptured by Tolkien's genius, and that I believe this image of God as a Triune musical conversation to be both evocative and healing. For it takes us from the lumbering language of substance and decree, and lifts us up in an aesthetic theology of harmony, counterpoint, dissonance, and recapitulation.
Music is healing, it "soothes the savage breast," and more importantly, it involves the creature in a dialogue with the Creator. Does this not make God more beautiful to our aching hearts? Does this not make our life in God more authentic and interactive? The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had similar intimations, and I commend his work to you. Also, Jaroslav Pelikan's, Bach Among the Theologians is another source of reflection along these lines. "It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High" (Psalm 92:1, NIV).

{Saturn and its moon Dione, from Cassini. "There is geometry in the humming of the strings...there is music in the spacing of the spheres." - Pythagoras}

Monday, October 24, 2005

Christ in the Apse: the Laminated Jesus

If we take off our "spectacles of faith," and set aside for a moment our presuppositions about who Jesus was, we may be able to encounter in the Synoptic gospels an individual we scarcely recognize. We might find someone who sees himself as ushering in a non-political, eschatological kingdom of God. His teaching ministry is preëminent in his mind, and is often hindered by his fame as a wonder-worker. "Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth" (Mk 1:38). This is a rabbinic ministry to Jews, in direct opposition to the legalism of Pharisaic Judaism and the traditionalism of the Sadducees. Like any good Jew, Jesus considers the Gentiles unclean and unworthy of his message. "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel...It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (Mt 15:24, 26; cf. also Mt 10:5ff.). He comes to radically reform Judaism, and expects God's blessing and power to accompany him to Jerusalem, where he would inaugurate a new messianic era of righteousness and peace. When he is rejected by the crowds in favor of Barabbas, a revolutionary zealot, he is crucified and in desolation cries out that God has forsaken him.

Before angry rebuttals rise up in your throats, consider that this admittedly truncated reading of the gospel story may possess a kernel of truth we dare not admit. Recent scholarly efforts at "re-Judaizing" Jesus have placed him firmly within a first-century Palestinian context, and have done much to strip away the many layers of theological laminae, which have obscured the Jesus of history and replaced him with the Christ of faith. That this makes us angry and uncomfortable, only highlights the depth and importance of the nerve we have touched.

The Christ of faith is a composite figure, a conflation of New Testament teaching about Jesus of Nazareth with 2,000 years of liturgy and theological reflection. This "laminated" Jesus may be in fact closer to the truth than the one offered at the beginning of this article; I think it is impossible to know, frankly. That is, for the moment, beside the point. What matters to me is that in gilding Jesus into a Johannine "Logos," or a Byzantine Pantokrator, or a conservative Calvinistic Burghermeister, something important and precious is lost. As Jesus spent more and more time among the people, Jew and Gentile, it seems that he began to advocate for a radical existence which was framed around a conflict with powers, sacred and secular. Jesus followed the prophetic model of calling for war against injustice, against hypocrisy, against the abuse of people - especially the poor, against spiritual bondage and religious hypocrisy. "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Mt 10:34).

We have replaced Jesus of Nazareth with Christ, and then to make sure we never really hear or meditate on his original, radical message, we overlay him with so much finery and adoration that he becomes an icon to be kissed, a crucifix to be carried, an idol to be unthinkingly and fearfully worshiped. The cost of keeping only the Christ in the Apse, is the perpetuation of the same injustices and hypocrisy Jesus railed against in his own time. The cost is a system of religious enslavement where some are "in" while most others are "out." The cost is a society where the ethics of Jesus are derided and ignored, and where the church is complicit with the demonic power structures of the world. Money, Sex, and Power are baptized under the Christ in the apse, while the least among us go hungry and die, and the stranger at our gate remains barred from the precincts of holiness.

I am not saying here that the Christ of faith, the Christ of the creeds, is not the true Christ. I am saying that in our theologies and our worship we have silenced Jesus, and his radical message of the cross - not his cross, but our cross! "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me...Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 9:23; 14:27). Our cross is our participation in Jesus' war against the powers of darkness, and the willingness to be casualties for the sake of justice, peace, and the kingdom of righteousness. Is this the message resounding in the churches today? Is this the message our pious politicians unctiously utter? The silence is deafening.

{"Head of Christ," Rembrandt van Rijn, 1655}

Friday, October 21, 2005

Jesus in the Apse

I once preached a sermon in which I said that certain parts of the Bible were so worn by use, they no longer had any sharp edges to grab us and make us see the truth they are relaying. In other words, familiarity breeds not so much contempt, as it does blindness. And then there is the whole phenomenon of people who say they know and love Jesus, but never actually spend much time listening to him, or trying to gain even the slightest inkling about the world in which he lived. And so Jesus is lifted high up into the apse of our spiritual consciousness, where he is proclaimed King, Savior, and Substitute, and where he is as silent as a gilded mosaic.

N.T. Wright, whose commentaries I have used and appreciated over the years, and who has contributed to the New Perspectives on Paul debate, offers this comment: "My own understanding of Jesus, and hence of Christianity, has been deeply and profoundly affected by my historical study. Whatever else is the case about my beliefs and my scholarship, it is certainly not true that I have 'found' a 'Jesus' who has merely reinforced the belief-system I had before the process began. The closer I get to Jesus within his historical context, the more I find my previous ideas, and indeed my previous self, radically subverted" (emphasis mine), Who Was Jesus (SPCK, 2005).

What does it mean to be "radically subverted"? For some this might mean deliverance from bondage to a particular besetting sin, while for others it might mean an opening up to new forms of discipleship which go beyond Sunday pew-sitting. Of course such language can be co-opted politically and socially as well. But here's the rub: I don't think most people in the church even know Jesus. For to know him would require they intimately know the New Testament, and that they manifestly do not. Biblical literacy is atrocious in the church, never mind secular society (see this survey). Absurd answers abound to even the simplest questions: Moses is often named as an apostle; 12% of adults polled believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife; 82% believe that the phrase,"God helps those who help themselves," is in the Bible; a significant portion of high school students believe Sodom and Gommorah were husband and wife.

Do we know the Jesus of the New Testament, or do we prefer Jesus in the apse? The gospel depictions are replete with uncomfortable moments (e.g., the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mt 15), the fig tree (Mt 21), and statements like, "For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes" (Mt 10:23)). But beyond such glaringly problematic verses, is the encounter with this Palestinian Rabbi who teaches an ethic of living in God's kingdom which seems impossible to live by. So I ask again, do we know Jesus?

I think we prefer not to know Jesus, and instead prefer to focus on Christ, who is more Savior than rabbi, more occidental than oriental, and who is for the most part, mute. I don't think Jesus is even in the apse; I think Christ is in the apse. What I mean by that statement will have to wait until my next post.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Moral Document

In my email yesterday was a copy of an address given by Rev. John Thomas, the General Minister of the United Church of Christ, at the fall meeting of their Executive Council. There was quite a lot of prophetic plain-speaking to the principalities and powers, but I was struck by this quote:

"Yesterday I participated in a telephone press conference with Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Senator Harry Reid, Democratic leader in the Senate, in an effort to build support for opposing the current recommendations of the administration and the Republican congressional leadership that would cut as much as $50 billion from the 2006 Federal Budget, cuts affecting medicaid, student loans, food stamps, and countless other programs supplying the most minimal safety net for the poor, while either continuing or adding up to $70 billion in tax cuts for the wealthiest of our citizens. The press conference was part of an on-going effort by the leadership of five mainline denominations - Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ - to lift up the federal budget as a moral document that in its present form fails miserably to meet the Biblical standards of fidelity" (emphasis mine).

In my own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, we speak often about a "Covenant of Care." It signifies a pledge of obedience to care for the least among us (Matthew 25), and has its roots in God's own concern for the poor and the helpless, expressed in the Torah. "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land'" (Dt 15:11; cf. also Lev 25). When we care for one another, especially the most vulnerable, we live out the grace God has shown to us in our own deliverance.

Speaking to power would seem to require addressing how our taxes are spent, in light of our biblical heritage. The idea that the dry and complicated behemoth which is our multi-trillion dollar budget is a moral document, places the whole discussion in a new and compelling light. It is not merely about policy, but about individual lives which will be affected in profound ways. I have never been asked to pray for a federal budget, but I think it to be a very fine idea. May those who are in power over us, heed God's commandments in the midst of their dreams of hegemony and lucre.

For those interested in slogging through the actual budget for 2006, you can access it here.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Lover of Manuscripts

I decided to change my screen name today from Neopuritan, which no longer reflects my theological interests or orientation, to Philaskolia, which is a composite word meaning "lover of manuscripts." And not just any manuscripts, but manuscripts which began as early medieval commentaries (9th century), and made their way via scribes onto the margins of later manuscripts. An example of what I mean is to the left. The text is on the right side of the manuscript, and the scholia, which is all the smaller writing, takes up the rest of the page. Scholia can also be referred to as marginalia.

So why did I choose this name. Well, "Bibliophile" seemed a bit prosaic. I am also a collector of manuscripts, and love marginalia, so this fits me to a tee. One of my favorite printed "scholias" is a page from a 16th century edition of Calvin's Commentary on the Psalms. It has the Hebrew text in the right hand corner, and Calvin's Latin gloss underneath and around it. "Philaskolia" means then, one who loves books, manuscripts, arcana, marginalia, and the interplay between one scholar and another. I think it beats Neopuritan hands down.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Children in New Jersey

Evangelical liberals abhor abortion, but wish to protect the welfare of the mother by providing medically supervised options. Remember Bill Clinton's oft-used line, "I want abortion to be safe, legal, and rare"? When I first heard that, I said Amen. Christians of all stripes point to the alternative of adoption, which seems like a win-win situation for unwanted children and childless couples. Well, if Christians want to reduce the number of abortions they had better get busy in New Jersey, because the system for adoption is so byzantine, so soul-defeating, that it results in many families simply giving up.

I just finished Russell Shorto's excellent, The Island at the Center of the World, and found out that when the English took over Manhattan from the Dutch, they wanted to name the area to the west Albania! Truly. Wiser heads prevailed, and it was named after one of the Channel Islands, Jersey. I mention this because it is easier to adopt a child from the European Albania or Romania or China than it is from New Jersey. Meanwhile, horror story after horror story keeps appearing in the local media about poor children starving in foster homes, abused and even killed by neglect due to a dysfunctional child welfare system.

In today's New York Times, an article appears which documents the problems, and some hopeful new solutions to the adoption mess in New Albania, I mean New Jersey. In a nation which is so quick to send billions to help those overseas (and thank God for that), surely we can take a moment to address the serious issues of child welfare in our own backyard. What disturbs me most in all of this, is the absence of any mention of the Church in advocating for easier adoption processes and better oversight of foster care. Does it even appear on our congregational radar? Probably not. But why not? Could it be that Bill Bennett's recent "thought experiment" is reflective of a deeper apathy toward children of color? I can't say for sure, but I have my suspicions.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Culture of Fear

With the advent of two major hurricanes, the polar icecaps melting, the ozone hole growing, terrorism, and now an earthquake so huge it killed more than 40,000 people, it is understandable that people feel a bit skittish at the moment. And whenever the world appears especially wobbley, there are always people who jump in to take advantage of our fears, offering security, religious insight, or just a plain old scam or two. Speaking of scams, Pat Robertson added to the fun when he said that these natural disasters were likely signs of the end-times. So you non-evangelical non-Christians better wake up before you smell the sulfur.

We live in a culture of fear. It infects our churches, our homes, our language, our relationships, and our government. So fearful of Al Qaeda are we, that we tolerate Guantanamo Bay and the exporting of "enemy combatants" to torture-friendly allies. So addicted to the 24 hour news cycle are we, that we live from crisis to crisis, worshipping at the altar of the beast which is CNNFOXMSNBC, and so we are suckled by a mother with poisonous milk. So full of fear are we, that we become suspicious of our neighbor. On almost every major highway in New Jersey are huge digital billboards flashing in bright amber the words, "REPORT ALL SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY," followed by a phone number.

When people are afraid they do foolish and regrettable things. Civil liberties are willingly surrendered. Patriotism becomes not so much a virtue, but a badge of legitimacy - "I'm okay, I'm a true American! Don't hurt me." The Indian Sikhs who sell me my gas have so many American flags adorning their gas station that it looks like its perpetually the Fourth of July. I don't blame them. Only a few years ago one was slain near here for being a "terrorist" (despite not being Arab or Moslem or a terrorist).

Is the church helping? I don't know. The church can be awfully opportunistic when it wants to be. "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" the Heidelberg Catechism asks. Does comfort fill pews? I think it empties them. And yet, I don't see people flocking to church in this age of anxiety. Instead, they watch more tv, or sedate themselves with internet porn. I heard yesterday that the church in China is asking Christians around the world not to pray for an end to persecution, because the church is growing so fast in the midst of repression. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," is the ancient maxim. The church likes its lambs nervous and watchful - sometimes for good reasons, and other times for selfish reasons. I think the church needs to preach courage, justice, and peace in this time of war, incivility and violence, lest we allow the culture of fear to overshadow the gospel, for then we begin to do the devil's work.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Hey, Check Out My Dad's "Blog"

I made this blog for my father, who is a professional portrait artist. It's more of a webpage than a blog, but I'm happy with it, and proud of his talent. You can see some samples if you click on the link to the right, or click here.

The Bible and Racism

Our church's Adult Sunday school class has been studying Ruth, and I have been using David Atkinson's excellent commentary in the Bible Speaks Today series, as a guide to my preparation. Although filled with all sorts of useful information, Atkinson's book is rife with little theological excurses, from a Reformed perspective, which are thought-provoking and so well written they make this study a must-have for the pastor's shelf.

I mention this because the topic of race comes into play whenever one studies Ruth, for she was a Moabitess, a foreigner, a pagan, and lived her early life outside of the covenant of Israel with Jehovah. Since I have chosen to post on racial matters lately, I thought it would be of interest to discuss race from an ancient Israelite perspective. Atkinson quotes John Austin Baker's comment from an article entitled, "Racism and the Bible": "When we turn to the Bible for guidance and wisdom in our problems about race, the first and most important thing we have to say is that the Bible has nothing whatever to say to us" (italics mine).

Atkinson then adds, "What he means by this rather bald statement is that "race" in our terms is not a concept of which the writers of the Bible have any idea (emphasis mine). The distinctions, indeed antagonisms, of the ancient world were not about race in our sense of ethnic or colour distinctions; they were about culture and tradition and religion. The only kind of discrimination of which we find in the Old Testament is cultural and religious, not ethnic. In fact the Deuteronomic prohibition about intermarriage...was not a concern about race but about religion" (p.67).

There can be, then, no biblical basis for racial discrimination. There is in the Bible, one people of God, who are so designated because they have been graced by faith in the Lord. This "catholic" image of humanity is beautifully depicted in Acts 2:5-11. "Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem...Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappodocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphyllia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs..." A similar vision is found in Revelation 7:9, "After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands."

There are two points I would like to draw from this. First, when we speak of race, we are using a modern designation that has no biblical foundation, and one that is physiologically, the least distinctive thing which separates human beings. Race is merely a phenotypical bagatelle - something ephemeral and of no real consequence in the estimation of a person's worth.

Second, if the Bible knows nothing about race as we currently define it, then there are surely other areas of life and knowledge which are similarly absent; ideas which are modern discoveries or presuppositions, and therefore inappropriate hermenuetical principles to impose upon the sacred text. I would cite biology, astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, and geology as areas in which the Bible has nothing to say to us, as these subjects do not fall within its purview or authority. There are other sociological areas for which one could make the same statement, but I would prefer readers work those out for themselves.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Current Reading List

I am not technically proficient to put these in the sidebar, so I'll just make a nice easy Sunday post about books I am reading.

In the daytime I am reading Robert W. Jenson's Systematic Theology, vol.2, The Works of God. Jenson is a rare example of someone writing within the orthodox, magisterial Reformation tradition, who also engages postmodernism and other challenges facing the church today. I am enjoying this volume more so than the first, which had a tendancy towards neologisms and other devices to impress the reader.

When I tire of systematics, I pick up the American Library edition of Civil War Poets, which sits atop a pile of other poetry volumes recently purchased, such as Henry Vaughn, John Berryman, and now Allen Tate. I also started Leonard Sweet's, Into the Mystery, but that is on hold for now.

In the evening I am finishing Russell Shorto's wonderful history of Dutch Manhattan, The Island at the Center of the World. I can't recommend this book enough. It is engagingly written and fascinating in its description of life in my native city circa 1640. The early Reformed Church ministers, who are mentioned so reverently in RCA histories, are revealed to be a mostly contentious, even drunken lot!

Friday, October 07, 2005

Poetry Day: R. S. Thomas, Allen Tate

As too many people were visiting my blog lately, I thought it would be appropriate to drive off the masses with a little poesy. My first edition of Poems, by Allen Tate, arrived today. It is dated 1948, and in beautiful condition. Thanks to Scott Nichols for finding it for me on Ebay (price: $8.99 hardcover, which is ridiculous). Tate is now rarely read, which is incomprehensible to me. If pressed, a fairly intelligent person might remember he wrote "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Nothing of his work is currently in print, but I found if you spell his name properly, used copies are available.

I really want to mention R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), who along with George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, Geoffrey Hill and T. S. Eliot, must be listed as one of history's great Christian poets, and one of the 20th century's finest poets, period. A Welshman, he served Christ as an Anglican priest. A man of prodigious talent and enormous output; his Collected Poems runs to 560 pages. Christian themes abound in his work, but he was also a poet of nature, and simultaneously celebrated and berated the Welsh people for their culture and its disintegration. For an inexpensive taste of his poetry, Everyman Press has an edition of selected poems for $3.50, and Phoenix Press has a small hardcover for $6.95. Both are available new at For a more detailed biography, this link to The Literary Encyclopedia will suffice.

His poems possess the grace of brevity. Here is one of my particular favorites:

In Church

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

A picture of his gravesite:

I must add two more poems. I must.

The Chapel

A little aside from the main road,
becalmed in a last-century greyness,
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by,
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds, too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass.

But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light, so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.

The Coming

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The Son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Why Evolution Makes the Baby Jesus Cry

"If only the geologists would leave me alone. After each Bible verse I hear the blows of their hammers."
- John Ruskin

Philip Yancey has written that astronomy is no friend to his spirituality. He looks up in the sky, ponders the unimaginable distances, considers the uncountable number of stars, and then questions whether his faith is a bit too parochial to serve as ultimate truth. I know how Yancey feels, but my angst has nothing to do with astronomy (paradoxically, I find astronomy awe-inspiring and good for my spirit). My bête noir is evolution, and always has been and probably always will be.

Why is this so, you ask? It has to do more with impressions - let us say "inklings" - than anything else. I am a committed evolutionist, and accept the extraordinary amount of scientific data accumulated over the past 150 years, which points to the fact that life on this planet has been evolving and changing for over 3 billion years. For me, to take any other position would be akin to committing intellectual suicide. I consider the arguments against evolution to be religious presuppositions masking as pseudo-science, and having all the credibility we now give to the Flat Earth Society (which by the way, still exists, and which shows just how resistant humans are to reality). Creationists like to point out the many missing pieces of information concerning the mechanics of evolution (e.g., the lack of transitional forms in the geological record), and they do have a point. Scientists themselves fiercely debate natural selection via mutation over time, versus punctuated equilibrium and other theories on how species arise and change. For example, there is a lively debate going on now whether birds are really dinosaurs. Nonetheless, 95% of all species which have ever existed are extinct, and while the specifics of evolution are being debated and investigated, the theory of evolution is now a fundamental scientific principle, debated only by people who live in Kansas, biblical literalists, and those whose family trees do not "sprout."

The problem which evolution presents for theology, is in my opinion, not sufficiently appreciated by theologians. For our understanding of salvation is based upon a Fall, an historical Fall, which left humanity in a state of sin requiring a savior. Further, scientific discoveries have resulted in a paradigm shift in anthropology. Humanity is now part of a taxonomic "tree," part of the great ape family, with extinct relatives who had culture and religion (e.g., Neanderthals). So out goes Adam, Eve, the Fall, the Garden, etc. Out goes human uniqueness. Gorillas make and use tools. Chimpanzees learn sign language. When exactly did the Fall occur? Without an historical Fall, how can we say we are "born in sin?"

That's just the tip of the iceberg for my angst. Evolution threatens the very morality of God. Cambrian life forms, which are some of the oldest fossils ever found (400 million B.C.), reveal animals eating other animals with great relish. In other words, the world never had a "peaceable kingdom," and the suffering of animals is not a result of human sin, but rather is the result of an adaptive advantage: i.e., the first creature who took a bite out of his neighbor got a big protein surge. This bothers me because it implies that this process of kill and/or be killed is either God-ordained, or that God doesn't get too involved with things (which is the philosophy of deism).

Another thorn in my side is whether or not Neanderthals and australopithecines have souls. I could go on, but I think you get the point. I actually agree with creationists on one point: if you accept evolution, it fundamentally undermines the biblical revelation. I see these two views of life as imcompatible, even at war with one another. Of course, I could just accept the changes evolution has made upon my worldview, and alter my theology accordingly. Many sincere believers do. But I remain nervous in the service of my Lord, and I don't like these accommodations - they reek of eventual defeat.

I look up into the sky and glorify God for a truly awesome universe. I look at the Burgess Shale and wonder what to do with the baby Jesus. Perhaps I'll just put this on my bumper: