Magnanimity and Pop-Culture

Aristotle writes about magnanimity, or “high-minded” in Book IV.3 of the Nicomachean Ethics.  The Greek word is megalopsuchia–literally, “Great, or large soul.”  It is an elusive and difficult virtue to understand.  It is largely a quality of mind, or an attitude.  I take it to mean a mind that values high things and acts in a high manner.  Aristotle himself says that magnanimous persons can appear arrogant.  And a person who prizes great things can seem to be elitist, or a snob.  Yet I think that magnanimity is indeed a virtue to cultivate.  I have.

I have followed a course in my life that has been and continues to be dedicated to great things.  I spent large sums of money (student loans) educating myself–money I am still paying back even 25 years after graduation.  I have been exposed to great works of literature, philosophy, art, religion, and music.  I continue to pursue my quest to acquaint myself with great things.

I have been called a snob.  And it is beginning to appear as if the causes to which I have dedicated my life are fading in our culture.  Musically, I appreciate classical music, jazz, classic rock, and now I am trying to learn about East Indian music of the Sikhs and traditional sitar music.  I continue my reading in poetry and novels.  I am adding to my formal graduate education in religions by inquiring into the spirituality of First Nations.  I am progressing in my competence on piano, continuing to write poetry, and continue my reading in philosophy and great works of fiction.  As I acquire new competencies I continue to meditate and make my new learning my own.  It is a thankless task.  But the magnanimous soul is not concerned with monetary rewards or praise from the masses.  Virtue is its own reward.

I’m not sure that Aristotle’s great soul is compatible with Christian ethics.  Jesus’ way is one of humility, and indifference to the things of this world.  Still, the virtues of love, forgiveness, and solidarity with others are also included in Aristotle’s magnanimity.  And I believe that Aristotle’s great soul would revere the gods.

I think that the tension between Jesus and Aristotle is in the definition of great things.  Kierkegaard was suspicious of the aesthetic life.  I believe that it would truly take a great soul to aspire to great things, and also keep her or his feet grounded in humility.  Yet what I get from Bach or Beethoven is among the best things I treasure.  This does not conflict with what I get from the texts of Christianity.

Our most prestigious institutions of learning are now teaching pop-culture.  Pop-culture is fine for those who like it.  But I do not think that it deserves a place in university curricula.  We are in an age that seeks to destroy elitism and the works that have in the past been considered elite, like Bach or Beethoven.  I refuse to equate Bon Jovi in any way with Beethoven.  Beethoven wrote pop music for country bands to play.  But it was all in good fun; he never considered them on a par with his symphonies.

I can imagine how distressed my parents had been when the melodious sounds of Frank Sinatra clashed with the wailing guitar of Jimi Hendrix.  It must have looked as if the world was decaying.  Yet I appreciate Hendrix and Sinatra.  If the world is sinking in the bland currents of pop-culture, it looks like the world is decaying to me, too.  I wonder if contemporary culture will consider those well-versed in pop-culture great souls.  Or is the whole notion of great souls too elitist to persist in our world anymore?

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Jesus Christ Superstar Revisited

I remember hitch-hiking to the lake my uncle lived on, one summer in 1970.  I got picked up by a car with four girls in it.  As a male adolescent, I couldn’t believe my good luck, riding in a car with four girls in it.  They had the car radio tuned to the FM rock station (back then there was AM radio, which played “bubble-gum” pop music, and there was FM which played acid rock like Hendrix, Clapton, Ten Years After, and Jethro Tull).  “Jesus Christ Superstar” came on the radio.  I asked the girls, “Is this Jesus Christ Superstar that everybody’s talking about?”  They didn’t know.

The fact is, everybody was talking about Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970.  It was one of the most popular rock-operas next to Tommy, by The Who.  And it launched Andrew LLoyd Webber’s illustrious career, who wrote the music for Jesus Christ Superstar.  Everybody had to have an opinion about Jesus Christ Superstar–stoners, clergy, church-goers, theater buffs, everybody across the board.  It was that much of a sensation.  Life Magazine devoted a whole issue to it.

Jesus Christ Superstar challenged religion, which happened a lot in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s.  The very title, calling Jesus a superstar, was a challenge.  And Jesus Christ Superstar was good rock music.  We listened to it over and over again because we liked the music.  But this rock-opera also took the Jesus story seriously, and engaged with the story seriously.  I remember one evening while there was a social event at our church’s divinity school.  One minister offered to listen to the whole rock-opera with any church goers who wanted to do so.  Then, after we heard the piece, he opened up the floor for questions and comments.  We took it that seriously, and the minister took it that seriously.  Some thought it was sacrilegious; some thought that it brought the Jesus story into the modern world; some thought it was a holy opera; some thought it was too strange a mixture of religion and rock.  But everyone had something to say about it.  Godspell came out later, but it wasn’t the musical masterpiece nor as sensational as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

What occasions these reminiscences is my TV.  On the retro channel, due to the Christmas season, they just played Jesus Christ Superstar.  Watching it so many years later, I had many feelings.  But I was mostly struck with the thought that they could never make this album and movie today.  Back in 1970, religion had a strong enough influence in society that you could make an album about religion, and it would mean something.  There is so much religious apathy today that Jesus Christ Superstar would largely be ignored.  And Andrrew Lloyd Webber’s career wouldn’t be launched by it today.  Consider two films, The Passion of the Christ in 2004; and The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  I thought I should see The Last Temptation of Christ.  It was a  shocking movie in its day because it depicted Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a sexual relationship.  I didn’t see The Passion of the Christ, and didn’t think I needed to.  These films came and went but weren’t the sensation that Jesus Christ Superstar was.  And they were only movies, they weren’t music and film and theater all, as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

It would largely be ignored today because religion is largely ignored today.  An opera that engages seriously with the Jesus story wouldn’t catch on because of the so few people who also engage seriously with the Jesus story.  Or with religion itself.  W. H. Auden writes, “But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast.”  I think today’s indifference to religion, though, is indeed something we do have to dread.  If we still can dread anything–other than something that threatens self-interest.  Apathy and indifference is more of a threat than we may credit it to be.  I’m glad that the abuses and ridiculous and hurtful ideas from religion are being denounced and done away with.  And if apathy is the remedy for this, well and good.  But by the same token, the bland world I am finding myself in today, is still frightening.  To me, it is a deafening silence.

Freedom, Peace, and Love

“Stone free to do what I please,” sings Hendrix

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” sings Joplin

“You’re about as free as they come,” the maintenance man told me

You get into trouble if you’re too free

 

Young and free, I hated the word, “conformity.”

Now I call it cooperation

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” the Japanese say

Cooperation, coordination make harmony, peace

 

We used to talk a lot about peace

While prizing individuality, freedom

But it turns out you’re rarely alone–completely individual

The other is always with us, in conflict, competition, or peace

 

With the other comes the possibility of love

We used to talk a lot about love

I live love now; no longer a philosophy only

And I am thankful that there is the other