Religion and the Onslaught of the ’60’s

In the movie MASH Hawkeye observes Major Frank Burns praying, and remarks, “Have you ever seen this syndrome before?”  Duke replies, “Not in someone over the age of eight.”  That interchange captures the spirit of the late ’60’s/late ’70’s.  Irreverent, anti-authority, self-confident, free love,–and in the movie, elitist.

I grew up in the ’60’s/’70’s and feel that there is much to be treasured from that era, now gone.  Peace and love, philosophy, self-reliance, music, freedom, individuality.  But along with these ideals, this idealistic time, came the kind of spirit that MASH captures so well.  Religion is ridiculed and the religious Frank Burns is an intolerable character.

Where so we go from there?  The spirit of the ’60’s/’70’s declared religion to be childish and ridiculous, and irreverent camaraderie to be the virtue of the day.  I think society bought it, and that those values persist today.  People turn to pop-culture to find behavioral norms and proprieties.  And for some, probably a lot, there is no place for prayer, no use for prayer.

Churches are failing, even synagogues and mosques are seeing diminution in attendance.  A while back I thought we are in a “post-Christian” age.  Now I see it as a “post-religious” age.  Even the “spiritual-but-not-religious” demographic is less than half of North American culture, and only a fraction of the population in Europe.

Certainly there were bad ideas in religions.  Certainly there were abuses of power.  Certainly there was hypocrisy.  But religion also contributed some of society’s most glorious cultural artworks, literature, philosophy, and, of course, theology.  The religious and spiritual impulse is a beautiful aspect in the human situation.  It makes the psyche sing.  It gives us honesty, sincerity, generosity, care for others, the quest for truth, repentance and human perfection, and ecstasy.  Without spirituality, what are we left with?

“But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” the poet W. H. Auden writes.  I don’t know.  I fear indifference.  I can’t but feel that the indifference to religion and even spirituality is numbing society.  We’re getting bland to everything, getting bland.  And we are retreating into tribes.  Instead of spiritual community that reaches out to the stranger and foreigner, we are retreating into tribes that close off the other.  We ignore religion to the peril of the loving community that the world can be.  While religion is often castigated for causing wars, I think that the lack of genuine religion is causing us to be more xenophobic and antagonistic to the other.  Will the indifference of our age ever produce another work like Beethoven’s 9th?  Will we ever know again the peace that passes understanding?  Will we ever again sing, “Love divine!  All loves excelling!”

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Art and Societal Constraints

I was moderately upset today when the classical music station where I live played only two movements of a Beethoven String Quartet.  The String Quartet is meant to be heard as a whole, not in pieces.  All four movements relate to one another and make a musical whole.  We live in an impatient world, with short attention spans, craving for instant gratification, short cuts in the movies we watch, sound bites, Twitter snippets–everything packaged in tiny packets that take up less and less time.  And our short attention span reflects these tiny packets of data.

How many people have an hour and a half to listen to the whole B-Minor Mass of Bach?  45 minutes to listen to a Beethoven symphony?  Does my classical radio station need to chop up whole pieces to package music in small bites because of today’s short attention span?

Maybe.  Our world is different than the world of Bach and Beethoven.  Imagine a world with no TV.  No radio.  No internet.  No cell-phones.  No electricity.  Can you imagine such a world?  That’s the world of Bach and Beethoven.  Imagine what time, and pass-times would be like then!  I imagine that people in such a world would have a lot of time to kill.  How long could the nobility just chat, who had no job they had to go to to fill up their day?  I imagine they would welcome a 50-minute string quartet they could listen to in someone’s chamber.  On Sundays, everyone had to go to church.  Then what?  No football games to watch.  Why not hang around the church and hear a musical mass for another hour.  Why not a cantata?  Why not a 20-minute prelude and fugue before the preacher?  They had the time.

The fact is, people in the 18th and 19th-century did have an hour and a half to listen to Bach’s B-Minor Mass.  They wanted a 50 minute symphony.  But we need to carve out time specially if we want to listen to a whole string quartet.  I’ve only heard the whole B-Minor Mass once, and it was a live performance.  As it happened, it was on a Sunday afternoon, too.  It was really rewarding.

The social forces today are different than those of Beethoven.  We can wile away time mindlessly glued to the TV, as I often do.  But I do, on occasion, set aside an hour or two in order to live with sublime art.  Art that was generated by a society that time to kill.  Art from a society much different than ours.  This blog could be considered deconstruction, if you like.

Shelley and that Contentment Surpassing Wealth

Shelley makes reference to “that content surpassing wealth/The sage in meditation found,/And walked with inward glory crowned” (Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples).  The poet laments that he doesn’t have that content, but notices that, “Others I see whom these surround–/Smiling they live, and call life pleasure.”  It’s likely not my place to say whether I walk with inward glory, but I do number myself among those who have that content surpassing wealth.  That is, usually I have that content surpassing wealth.  Lately, I’ve been telling my acquaintances that I’m wealthy.  When they raise their eyebrows, I clarify by saying that I feel wealthy.  I have everything I want.  An outside observer, looking at my possessions, likely would wonder how I could feel that way.  My condo is small, I drive a 10-year-old Honda, my material possessions are few, my clothes are not expensive.  But the possessions I do have satisfy my wants superbly.  The contentment surpasses wealth probably because it depends on a certain attitude toward wealth.

 

When an individual isn’t concerned with wealth, then lacking it doesn’t sting.  Then there are the other things a person can concern oneself with that don’t cost much, but reward much.  A good paperback book doesn’t cost much.  And the satisfaction one receives from a good book contributes greatly to the contentment sages in meditation find.  A good book and reflection on it, is a sagely undertaking.  A Beethoven symphony can be downloaded for $9.99.  Time spent with a Beethoven symphony is a sagely undertaking.  Each piece of great art works on the soul, making the individual different after each encounter.  Art and knowledge form a person’s psyche.  A psyche who seeks an encounter with something spiritual, like a Turgenev novel, will find contentment.  My edition of Turgenev cost me $21.00, and will last me weeks, and then the lasting satisfaction my soul will enjoy after my encounter with it.  But a psyche who chases wealth, power, status, and fame will likely not find contentment.  They are all unquenchable cravings, and no matter how much of each one possesses, it will never be enough.

 

Lately, my spiritual seeking has been leading me into discontent.  I am planning to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which is being held in Toronto this year.  Finding lodging I can afford, securing a flight, and negotiating the public transportation of a foreign city are all anxiety provoking, and a strain on my modest finances.  But having attended the previous one in Salt Lake City, I anticipate an ultimately rewarding and fulfilling experience in Toronto.  The temporary anxiety that goes into the achievement of this spiritual goal will be rewarded with a lasting spiritual formation in my soul, during and after the event.  With my aspirations set on humanistic and spiritual acquisition, I expect to continue through my life, as I do now, according to Shelley’s words, “Smiling they live, and call life pleasure.”

Art Has No Limitations

I remember how disappointed I was when I heard the last symphony of Beethoven’s 9 total.  I was 18 years old then.  One by one, I had discovered each symphony that I’d never heard before.  I would so look forward to hearing another symphony of his that I hadn’t heard yet.  I don’t remember what order I heard them in, but I still remember how sad I was that there were no more Beethoven symphonies to discover.

Then, a few years later I listened to the third symphony again.  For some reason, now I heard things in it I’d never heard before.  Then I heard the sixth symphony played live when I was in Ohio.  Again, I noticed sounds I hadn’t heard before.  When I told this to the conductor at the reception after the performance, he raised his eyebrows as if I were suggesting the orchestra played some wrong notes, which I wasn’t.

Then there is the ninth symphony.  For the longest time, I never understood the first movement.  I have struggled, trying to find a melody.  Melodies are so plain in the other works.  So even though I’d heard the first movement many times, I didn’t get it.  Then I heard a Cleveland Symphony Orchestra performance conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi.  His interpretation finally made sense to me.  Now, I had a glimpse of what Beethoven was doing in it.  I was hearing it for the first time, in a way.

I read a critic from Beethoven’s own time period, Carl Maria von Weber, who complained about the sustained “e” in the first movement, “Always that miserable e,” Weber writes and suggested that Beethoven must have grown deaf to the “e” and was now ripe for the madhouse.  That gave me a new way into the 7th symphony.  I listened intently and heard that sustained “e” I’d never noticed before.  It was like hearing the 7th for the first time.  And as I wrestled, trying to think up with horn lines for my own compositions, I listened intently to Beethoven’s orchestrations–yet another way to hear his symphonies afresh.

Beethoven wrote that the true artist could have no pride.  While he might be admired by a world-wide audience, he realizes that art has no limitations and awaits the time when the greater genius will shine forth like a blazing star.  Art has no limitations.  Great art holds so much that one can return to works of great art again and again and hear, see, read and experience it as if for the first time.  While my ear has listened to all 9 of Beethoven’s symphonies, my soul hasn’t heard all that is in them.  I can keep coming back, and discover Beethoven’s 9 symphonies for the first time.

Other Things that Take Effort

When you work hard, you’re tired.  Sometimes all you can do is vege in front of the tube, maybe pass out, and go to bed.  But you’re not always that worn out.  Often, we stay up for a while and wile away the time.  How we wile away time matters.

One day-off I was sitting in an easy chair, feeling lazy.  I hadn’t worked that day and had, basically, the whole day ahead of me.  I felt too lazy to listen to Beethoven on my iPod, or jazz, and settled for classic rock.  I don’t mean to disparage classic rock at all.  It’s good.  But it doesn’t require much effort to listen to.  It doesn’t sound right, but Beethoven or Bach seem to require listener effort.  At least concentration, which takes effort.  Even Beethoven’s 6th required more effort than I had in me that day.

But I criticize myself for my laziness.  Vegeing in front of  TV, or letting classic rock pass time is a cheat of the soul.  Now we can’t and shouldn’t only listen to Beethoven or read Shakespeare or David Hume.  But I need to rise to Beethoven’s intonation in some moments.  My life is blessed when I do listen to him.  Or when I am able to read Shakespeare.  Hume isn’t hard, he just requires a lot of time.  And the point is, I need to make time for them all.

Erik Erikson writes about a late stage of development called “Generativity versus Stagnation.”  It’s a stage in life when we are concerned with passing on wisdom to the next generation.  It seems to be hitting me.  Symphony halls can’t make a go of classics, so they are playing “pops” and other light music to keep their doors open.  In my hometown, it’s hard to find concerts that I want to go to, meaning Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Copeland, et. al.  I talked with a biology student who was forced to read Shakespeare.  She complained to me why they wouldn’t let her read something more contemporary.  Jazz venues are closing.  Two undergraduate girls at a prestigious university couldn’t tell me who came first, Moses or Jesus.  While my personal problem is getting my lazy butt up to giving Beethoven the listening he deserves, my fear for society is that all these things are being sloughed off by indifference, apathy, ignorance.

I’m not just complaining about passing on my generation’s likes to the next.  I believe that the individuals I mention, and others of a like kind, have a precious gift to humanity.  Losing them is like losing a part of the human soul.  But then again, contemporary philosophy teaches that there isn’t a soul, never was one.  I’m not at the point of despair yet.  Maybe closer to alarm.  And that includes alarm at myself, too.  I hate to think I’m sinking into a laziness that doesn’t have the energy to put on a Beethoven symphony.  Even the death march in his his 3rd.

Strange Conversation in a Music Store

“Man, did I get wasted last night!”

“I was listening to a sensitive performance of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony on the radio.  It really moved me.”

“I was doing V.O. shots.  And reds.  Man, did I get wasted.”

“I’ve been practicing Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue when there aren’t any customers.  I can play the Toccata though, but I’m only beginning the Fugue.”

“I was beyond high.  I was WAS-TED!”

“The keyboard is the most graphic representation of music of any instrument.  All the tonal relationships are there in the keys, visibly.”

His interlocutor shook his head, “Say what?!  So do you want to go into the stock room and get high?”

“Doesn’t it make you paranoid to deal with the public when you’re high?”

“No.  Because you know you’re high and they know you’re high and you sell them organs.”

“OK.”

Language Games and Interfaith

I had a striking experience with acupuncture yesterday.  Not only did the tranquility of my treatment relax my stiff muscles, it helped me with concentration, alertness, and mood–it put a spring in my step.  It accomplished all this as I lay on a table with a few needles in me, listening to meditative music with ocean waves.  My body healed itself.  Or as the Chinese doctor said, acupuncture restored the flow of ch’i in me.  The philosophy behind this treatment was to still my mind first, then my muscles would relax.

This got me to thinking.  Lying on the cot, stilling my mind and muscles, listening to quiet music made me think about life outside the doctor’s office.  The stillness, the absence of stimulation, all quieting my mind, relaxing my muscles.  Then there is the hectic pace, the over stimulation of our society, the noise.  If it is therapeutic to be in a still, quiet environment, is it still possible to live an ordinary life in society?  I saw that I would need to adjust my lifestyle, of course, and not let stress and stressors into my mind.  I thought about the tranquil Chinese music they played when I practiced T’ai Ch’i at another Chinese studio.  It would be as hard for me to listen to Chinese music, if I weren’t doing T’ai Ch’i due to its simplicity and meditative quality.  T’ai Ch’i, the acupuncture office, Chinese music are all products of a culture that values quietness, I think.

I thought about interfaith relations.  I am deeply committed to interfaith ideals and multicultural societies.  But what if being deeply immersed in a culture that values stillness and quiet is incompatible with other cultures that are more boisterous, aggressive, and confrontational?  I ask, can one be open to intercultural ideals while being committed, oneself, to a deep tradition and culture?  This is what Lyotard calls, “the heterogeneity of language games.”  What if music is more than aesthetic?  What if music embodies a cultural philosophy and ethics, like the Chinese music I heard at the T’ai Ch’i studio?  I like classical music, jazz, blues, and rock.  But these are aesthetic judgments.  These forms do not embody a western ethics or culture.  Beethoven composed in Vienna, but his music has world appeal.  But the Chinese music I heard reflects the ethics of stillness, meditative quiet, and tranquility of Chinese culture, I think.  It is akin to Palestrina’s choral music, which one could say does embody a Christian ethics.

Is it possible to live within the norms of a deeply held culture, and also hold multicultural ideals?  That would be quite a feat.  I once heard a Christian minister speak art an interfaith gathering.  She was so sensitive to interfaith values, and so anxious not to offend anyone, that she didn’t even pronounce the name, “Jesus.”  That is interfaith at its worst.  That is multiculturalism eroding one’s own norms and values.  Interfaith means different faiths living in mutual respect.  But can I live with the tranquil Chinese music and all that it represents, and also enjoy Z.Z. Top?  Or does one preclude the other?  One thing I do know, life is richer for me living in the multicultural city in which I live.  Without multiculturalism, a white man like myself wouldn’t have been able to experience Chinese healing.

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