Saturday, May 14, 2011

I'm At The End Of The Final Section! Here's Another Bit

A week of staring at a computer screen will make you a little (or a lot) crazy. Susanna has been a trooper. I've had some more time with Casper than regularly. He is a good excuse for a break.

I'm happy to say I must be 10-15 pages from hitting the end. Then I've got a week or so of editing/revising. The hardest thing for me is to not have an immediate audience, a class of students to share these thoughts with, or a good friend to listen. I haven't bothered Susanna this week with any of this. In fact the other night I spent an hour reading through one of her short stories. I had a great phone chat with Will Lightfoot though on Thursday. He is always curious and it was good to hear myself try to verbally rephrase what I've been writing. That was a good exercise--a way to see if I'm making any sense.

But I can't help myself. I need to think/to know NOW that some of these things will matter to other people. I'm sure other grad students do this. Someone tell me I'm not too much of a weirdo. These two excerpts pretty well summarize of what I'm doing:

From IV.ii Revisiting/Re-framing: Dynamic Obstacles

Let me clarify that proper use of technology is not matter of either indwelling or not indwelling the tool or whether it is or is not meditative. It is impossible to use a tool without indwelling it. Tools will always mediate something. We might say that the technologies form us in their image; technologies are not benign; they are not value neutral; technologies not only encourage certain conversations, they can shove us into a narrowed, specific conversation. The question is how we are indwelling the tool and to what end—how richly we engage existence and how our affections are being formed. In Augustinian terms: “Those things which are to be used help, and as it were, sustain us as we move toward blessedness in order that we may gain and cling to those things which make us blessed.” It is as impossible for us to escape technology as it is to escape culture, and to escape culture would be to escape being human. The question isn’t if we are cultural or technological, but how and to what extent. In order to make sure we use our tools instead of being used by our tools, we have to subvert the capacities of technology and reform its power to order our lives and affections for the sake of “blessedness.” Some of us will decide that certain technologies are a waste of time and are not worth the dangers they pose. Others will find great surprise in renegotiating certain technologies and discover capacities and purposes for those tools that may have never been considered previously. Our posture towards technology depends upon the optimism we have theologically about God’s participation in culture, but it also depends on our faithfulness to actively participate in the work of redemption.

From IV.iii The Uniqueness of Music

I have spent many words arguing against the prominence of science. Is it fair to put music on a pedestal or is this just another type of reduction? Homo musicus instead of homo sapien? Is it unfair not only to single music out among all the sciences and humanities, but also unfair to the other arts? I don’t think so. How can I make so bold a claim? The primary uniqueness of music is its universal appeal, its historical and geographical ubiquity. “There have been cultures without counting, cultures without painting, cultures bereft of the wheel or the written word, but never a culture without music.” [1] Remember that music dates back as early as 45,000 B.C. Of course there are some people who don’t enjoy music, but they are rare. Neurologist, Oliver Sacks, writes about musicophilia, our shared love of music:

We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one. This takes many different forms. All of us (with very few exceptions) can perceive music, perceive tones, timbre, pitch intervals, melodic contours, harmony, and (perhaps most elementally) rhythm. We integrate all of these and “construct” music in our minds using many different parts of the brain. And to this largely unconscious structural appreciation of music is added an often intense and profound emotional reaction to music. [2]

Sacks explains that neuroscience has discovered how music is continually running in the muscle motor of the brain; we continually have access to songs in our head. While Walker Percy in a thought experiment imagined that visiting Martians would find speech the most peculiar identifying characteristic of humanity, Sacks points to the fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. In Clarke’s novel Childhood Ends the Overlords, curious alien beings, visit earth and identify music as the most distinctive human behavior. Of course I reconcile the two—linguistic and musical impulses—by assuming that the are both of the same outward impulse of homo colloquens/musicus. Homo adorans extends herself into musical conversation; she reaches out to the other for love’s sake. Yet, I do want to specify an elevated place for musical languages—poetry over propositional prose and poesis over sciencia because these preserve the fuller dignity and extravagance of the cosmos and a robust humanism.

[1] John D. Barrow quoted from Begbie, 15.
[2] Oliver Sacks. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) xi.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


SUPPORT Karl Digerness's Forthcoming Album of Hymn Arrangements 

I met Karl last Summer at a Calvin College event. John Witvliet, the director of Calvin's Institute of Christian Worship, invited fifty or so worship leaders and musicians from all around the country to discuss setting Psalms to worship. Karl was at a lunch table with a few of us who ended up sitting there for a couple hours longer than we should have. It was a refreshing  conversation with some other fairly like minded worship leaders. I say "fairly" because I don't want to assume too much, but any chance to get to know worship leaders under the age of 40 who play guitars yet who are also leery of being caught up in and also lost in the worship gin mills--that is encouraging.

Karl is based at City Church in San Fransisco. He's near some incredible musical resources. Namely he's been able to regularly hire a composer to work with, Minna Choi of the Magik*Magik Orchestra. And Karl is recording at Tiny Telephone, John Vaderslice's highly coveted recording studio.

I asked Karl if I could steal some of his sheet music and he hooked me up with a sizable stash of material. Alas, I'm still on the learning/recruiting curve of regularly incorporating strings. So I haven't been able to draw upon these arrangements yet. I'm very excited to hear what he comes up with and to see what we can learn from this project!

Many people these days are hip to the type opportunities to financially give globally. Susanna and I love Kiva and the concept of microlending. Of course I am also thrilled with the food revolution, community supported agriculture, urban farming--local environmental activism in all its forms (PLUG: I'm on the advisory committee of our CSA, Eighth Day Farm). However, I dream of a time when we could be even half as enthusiastic about selfless support of the arts, financial support not from the elite corporate charities and grants but from the rest of us. What would it mean if the middle class was involved in arts activism? What would have to shift in our values and priorities? What would shift in our culture? And for the Church, how would arts activism open possibilities for our Christian witness?

Check out Karl's Indie Go Go promotional page here. He's got some nice goodies for those who contribute.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Walker Percy on Violence and Alienation

I'm back at this comprehensive paper. Almost finished with section three. Then on to the final fourth section and lots of revisions and editing. Publishing an excerpt here will perhaps help me believe that this this is really almost finished (and it serves as a distraction). Can't say that I wasn't jealous of all those seniors who graduated on Sunday. It feels good to finish things.
I've selected this bit to share in light of the assassination of bin Laden. I've been struggling to decide what I think about it. Yes I feel a sense of relief, but should I? I was sick in bed at the end of last week with bronchitis and watched Die Hard on Netflix. I felt emotionally worn out afterwards and the next day. I'm not a pacifist, but I wonder if I'm getting close.

My overall argument in the essay is that music at its best draws people together. The argument that follows this section below is that in popular culture we largely use the technology of music according our fallen nature, to separate and alienate rather than to draw near and commune. Admittedly popular music is capable of drawing particular crowds, but how easy is it to gather a crowd? Instead, how difficult is it to form a communion of beings, a fellowship of saints? 

Comprehensive Paper To Be Submitted to Regent College
For the Completion of the Masters In Christians Studies
Interdisciplinary Studies
By Joshua Banner

From Section Three: Obstacles of Communion
Walker Percy is as insightful into the human condition as any. He articulates alarmingly the questions surrounding what has been known as the “Age of Anxiety.” He wrestles with the conundrums of modern existence, “why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?” And he follows it with several pages of similar revealing questions.

Why does man feel so sad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world to his own use?
Why has man entered on an orgy of war, murder, torture, and self-destruction unparalleled in history and in the very century which he had hoped to see the dawn of universal peace and brotherhood?
Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?
Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments?
Why does a man often feel better in a bad environment?
Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say, suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon?
Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?
Why have more people been killed in the twentieth century than in all other centuries put together?
Why is war man’s greatest pleasure?
Why is man the only creature that wages war against its own species?[1]

This list of questions continues on for some eight pages as Percy subversively rants about the poverty of our existence. It would not be possible for us to alienate and exploit each other if there was not within us a common thread of violent unrest.  Lasch seems to acknowledge this violence in his sporadic reference to Thomas Hobbes’ reflections on a “war of all against all,” a state of nature where persons have retreated from the culture’s institutional supports. Lasch anticipates this as an understandable reaction to our “overorganized society” with its bureaucracy, its medical sophistication, and psychiatry that can foster a deeper animosity than the raw wilderness of a world Hobbes intended government to preserve us from.[2]

At the end of Percy’s list he restates his primary question: “why is it that scientists have a theory of everything under the sun but do not have a theory of man?” With all of our ‘overorganization’ and sophistication, violence—how we cut ourselves off from each other—turns out to be the most distinct example of our alienation. According to Erazim Kohak’s description of the modern condition, “Grief and remorse are reflected from [the artifacts of modern civilization], ever reinforced, until the human, crazed by pain, strikes out and kills those around him or himself, or both.”[3] The violence of the twentieth century has left us with little optimism and no ability to identify a coherent, unifying theory about ourselves. We can only agree on what is rhetorically present in Percy’s questions, that we are alienated, that what we share most is our isolation, our tendency to separate and even kill.

[1] Walker Percy. Message In A Bottle. 3,4.
[2] Christopher Lasch. Culture of Narcissism. 49.
[3] Erazim Kohak. From the Embers to the Sky. 45.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Final Gathering Set List & Further Thoughts on Rock vis a vis P&W

It is Tuesday after the final Gathering Service, our final worship service of 2010-2011. To the right here is the order of service. I had two students  email and ask for it and thought others might want to remember with us.

A comparative retrospective for my journey in these things:

I remember experiencing worship services back in Oklahoma that took us to a place in God's presence, a kind of hope-filled unity and gladness of being that moved beyond what I could have conceived in my own imagination. We were somewhat a Charismatic congregation. Songs were not very thoroughly arranged. We'd rehearse six or eight and in the service might only do four of them, or we might jump into a song we hadn't planned initially at all. The lights were low in a converted warehouse. We sought an interior space to be aware to God's nearness. There wasn't a tight schedule. If I remember correctly, music was usually around 30 minutes or so. There was no rush.

This was the finish of my fifth year here at Hope College. In contrast to what I was doing in Oklahoma: here, a Dutch Reformed tradition but a campus ministry that is decidedly ecumenical; an aged, well lit, gorgeous cathedral-like worship space; a contemporary service that is attempting to include the more deliberate liturgical movements of the Reformed tradition while still being highly accessible to college students (I wrote more thoroughly about this HERE); chapels are 22 minutes; Sunday evening services are 70-75 minutes.

All I want to say (for now) about this comparison is that this final Gathering Service, for my journey/learning curve, brought together so much of both modes of leading. I experienced a continuity between my present and past, some 15+ years of trying to understand worship music in the contemporary context. Today, two days after the event, I'm still absorbing the experience. I'm sure I'll be learning from it all summer and for years to come.

This final picture is not from this recent service. I don't have any pics from that evening yet. This is Jacob and me a month or so ago introducing the service like we did this Sunday night except this Sunday Lauren and Angelee joined us. If I'm going to go huge with the big, anthemic rock songs and the more 'bubble gum' pop music sounds, then I'm looking for more ways to work against that American addiction to sensationalization--more silence, more opportunities to hear the congregation sing 'un-plugged.' Incidentally that is also why I've put so much more energy into the Gospel Choir and the few of the Blue Grass sounds. 

Further Thoughts on Rock vis a vis P&W

Here's some more thoughts in regard to my last post...specifically some thoughts Tamara was responding to in the comments section.

Sorry for the pretension of quoting myself, but I enjoy continuing conversations. So to continue that conversation I had said:
"What if we had worship song writers who were deeply rooted in rock music who were as equally formed by Christian spiritual disciplines and were even Biblically and theologically literate? What would those songs sound like?"   
These thoughts aren't directed squarely to Tamara. I'm using the opportunity to expand on larger concerns. 

The issue both artistically and spiritually is a question of being rooted in tradition. Most of us don't like tradition or we are at least indifferent. We prefer to be raw and authentic and present to who we perceive ourselves to truly be. The trouble is that we are thus myopic and (perhaps unwittingly) arrogant. Why should we suppose that our present, authentic self is the best we can attain? There is a rich tradition of people who have worked hard to identify the best of human existence and the best of worship and art practices. We should want to draw from these predecessors and learn from them. Further, an ahistorical posture is just wrong. We are influenced by those who've gone before us whether we acknowledge it or not. There's no such thing as a self-made man.

How can I get the best tone out of my electric guitar without having heard what the the great innovators have done? How can I understand what good literature is if I have not read Dostoevsky? How can I understand the sacrament if I haven't considered what Luther had to say about it?

There is no way for me to understand electric guitars, the novel, or the Bible on my own merit. Someone had to teach me.

This is the reason why I was able to make the jump from an independent, somewhat Charismatic church to the Dutch Reformed context I serve in now. My education had already led me to believe in the importance of living out of a tradition. However, I had not had the opportunity to appropriate and participate in a Christian tradition. I am now substantially more rooted in my faith through the creeds and practices of the Reformed church. There is much that can be said about that. I've written about the value of a historical Christian witness in the blog and other places.

One way to understand the importance of tradition is to consider again what I'm arguing about why contemporary church musicians needs to well versed, deeply rooted in the "tradition" rock music. The trouble is that the "tradition" of rock music is relatively short, disparate and multiform. So take a step further back and think about a piano student who ends up pursuing classical studies in piano performance. She will no doubt need to learn Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and so on. It would be unthinkable for her to truly be a piano student without this training. I'm suggesting that if a contemporary church musicians will likewise be impoverished if his/her only sonic references are from within the vacuum of last 10-15 years of the musical genre that we have come to market as "Praise & Worship." There is a much larger musical conversation that has been going on and continues within a kind of "tradition" of pop rock music. If the church is going to borrow from that tradition, then it should know something about it.

Here a key point: this is not just a question of how we know the pop rock tradition to imitate it or to make music that attains a certain level of integrity, a kind of cultural currency. My point is that if we know more about the tradition, we will also be more equipped to discern what of it is appropriate for our worshiping congregations and what is not. We will be less likely to naively imbibe popular culture and promote sounds that can compromise our fundamental mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We will be more capable of critiquing and redeeming.