Saturday, June 30, 2012

Meditation XVIII -- Witness

"If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?"

After Jesus was arrested and before he was taken to Pilate, he was brought before the high priest for interrogation. The high priest knew who Jesus was, and knew about His teaching, and Our Lord reminds him of this: "I have said nothing in secret." But Jesus takes a further step and suggests, "Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said."

This statement is significant. Jesus is going to be "tried" for his "corruption" of the people. The Jewish leaders want Him dead because His teachings challenge their authority, and they will appeal to the secular authorities on the basis that Jesus challenges the authority of Caesar. Jesus not only trusts His disciples with His words, He tells the high priest to look directly at what He has said and the real effect it has had on those who heard him.

For this, Christ was struck by an officer who asks, "Is this how you answer the high priest?" Jesus had not been disrespectful of the man or his position. He gave a true answer, one that also could have provided those seeking his life more "evidence" against Him. Under the guise of putting Our Lord in His place, the officer revealed that Christ's truth was too much for the ruling powers to bear.

Lord, give us strength to bear witness to Your truth, no matter who asks us or what earthly punishments we might receive. Let our words shine Your glorious Light onto a dark and unbelieving world. Amen.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Music Notes -- 2CELLOS

I'm guessing that most who do not listen to classical music do not realize how rich and versatile the cello is. Okay, some of you may have felt a little more cultured watching Yo-Yo Ma play behind James Taylor, but that's not quite what I mean.

Some months ago, I heard Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" played by a two cellists named Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, and I was blown away. Not only did they retain the fire of the original, they maintained a verve and intensity that might make those who had not heard Jackson's version think the song was composed just to be played in this sort of ensemble. So it is with some joy I bring you the self-titled album by this group who call themselves, simply enough, 2CELLOS.

The first couple of times through, I was really impressed, as I had been with "Smooth Criminal," with the way these guys play a variety of pop and rock songs. I mean, you have a big range: from U2 to Nirvana to Sting, and each track is enjoyable and interesting. After a couple of listens though, I worried that this project would eventually wear off for me and seem like an interesting gimmick. An album of rock "standards" could get old pretty quick.

Suilic and Hauser of course save themselves with virtuoso playing, but also in their arrangements. Thankfully, tunes like "Welcome to the Jungle," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and "Misurlou (Theme From Pulp Fiction)" are short (under three minutes). Unless going for some kind of improvisation (a la Brad Mehldau's treatments of Radiohead or The Bad Plus' doing Rush and Blondie), it seems best to stick to solid melodies and hooks from the originals and let the instruments make the magic.

Some of the more interesting tracks here are the more mid-tempo numbers. Jackson's "Human Nature" is really a delight. Repeated listening provides more and more nuances that remind me of how good a tune this is, even without the words (it was also covered by the great Miles Davis). And if you can get the bonus track, "Fields of Gold" is worth the extra bucks."Viva La Vida" is fine, but may barely escape a Muzak label

But my favorites after several times through the project are probably the slower, more emotive numbers. That might seem where the cello sounds most natural as an instrument. But hearing Sting's "Fragile" reminds me of how many beautiful sounds the cello can make in a short space. And the Trent Reznor (and Johnny Cash) favorite "Hurt" is transplendent.

2CELLOS may not be for everyone. But it should be.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bookmarks -- The Jungle

The JungleThe Jungle by Upton Sinclair
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite its flaws (particularly preaching at the end that is out of keeping with the narrative), The Jungle is a book that should be read by every American. Most who talk about the book focus on the horrible conditions and practices of the meatpacking industry, and particularly since this takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, they pretty much stop there. One might get the impression that having been instrumental in the creation of what eventually became the Food and Drug Administration, The Jungle has done its job and should be relegated to the dusty shelves of history. But that would be wrong. Sinclair's novel is every bit as timely today as it was a century ago.

We might assume that because of the FDA, food is safer and the industries that bring that food to our tables are less corrupt than in 1906. However, books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation demonstrate otherwise. Yet there is more to the novel than an expose of the industry.

The story of Jurgis Rudkis is one in which we see the evils of unchecked capitalism and greed and how they work to rob an honest, working man of physical and emotional life, his dignity, his morality, and eventually: hope. We do not get a lesson in how bad luck can bring a man and his family to soul crushing poverty. We see the machinations that bring that poverty and perpetuate it, destroying everything human in its path, with nothing to stop it.

This book needs to be read now because there is something of Jurgis Rudkis (or one of his ill-fated family) is every working American. Only the players and some of the schemes have changed. Many like to believe we live in a country were we can do and be anything if we work hard enough, but the poor know better. The plight of the "wage slave" has only been obscured by an a obese and television soaked nation.

Upton Sinclair famously stated about The Jungle, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach." If we do not want history to repeat itself, I suggest we read this book with our hearts and our minds.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Reading Response -- Of Voting and Damnation

After considerable thought, and the help of family, friends, and well meaning ministers, I have decided against voting in the upcoming  election. In fact, I will not vote in any election of any kind. It isn't just that my vote really does not matter, or that voting perpetuates the illusion that I have a hand in democracy, but that I value my salvation.

You see, Mr. Dennis Marcellino stated recently, "The Bible does say that if a person votes for a democrat (the promoters and supporters of sin) and were to die without repenting of that, he or she is going to hell.". He quotes Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians: "Then everyone who did not believe the truth, but was delighted with what God disapproves of, will be condemned" (verse 12). This is from, by the way, the GOD'S WORD Translation. I prefer the English Standard, and hope the "reverend" Marcellino will permit me: "in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness." Gee, I hope the "minister" won't condemn me for reading a different translation. I do hope we can agree that the two versions say essentially the same thing, that one who approves of the sin of someone else, even in his or her thoughts, will go to eternal perdition for doing so.

For now, I do not want to quibble over the loving minister's theology or his stance (after all, he states that he does not want to be "inflammatory" or "emotional"). I am going to take him at his simple word. He has a simple argument.

  • Certain actions are sin. These actions include abortion and homosexuality. 
  • Approval of what God disapproves of (such as sin) brings about condemnation from God. 
  • Voting for a person who approves of what God disapproves of is the same thing as approving those sins and thus will bring about condemnation.
Let us assume all three points are, as Mr. Marcellino says, fact. If so, voting for any Democrat will cause me to go to hell. I cannot even vote for a Democrat who is pro-life and against gay marriage because by being in the group with other Democrats, he essentially approves of what he does not approve of and thus voting for him will also send me to lasting flames.

Now, the kind "minister" does not explicitly say that if I vote for a Republican, I will avoid this fate. I think he kind of implies it. But he does say, "one way that a person expresses that delight is: how they vote … especially if it’s for a candidate who supports gay marriage or any other sin" (emphasis mine). 

Uh oh.

While Republicans do not, in general, support gay marriage or abortion, they do seem to support other things that displease God, at least if the Bible is to be believed. For example, Jesus famously said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). Lots of Conservatives say they are for moral values, but their actions demonstrate that money is much more important to them. In fact, in Proverbs we find "Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy" (31:9). Now one can easily be a good businessman (businesswomen are not allowed by many conservatives unless they are the governor of Alaska), and still defend the causes of the poor. But most of what I hear from Republicans seems to make all the poor and needy out to be vile criminals.

So supporting someone who reviles and ignores the poor would be "delighting" in that person and "approving" of their sin. So I can't vote for that person either.
(Don't get me started on "Third Party" candidates. I've been convinced by my family and friends that voting for any of them is a waste of time even if I am voting for the person I think it best suited for the job. So we don't even get to make that a spiritual matter.)

Come to think of it, I cannot vote for anyone without risking the wrath of God because as the writer of Romans (quoting Psalm 53:3 ) states, "All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (3:12). Since everyone has sinned or supports some sin or has otherwise displeased God, I cannot delight in voting because that would mean to approve of someone, even if I don't approve of what it is that that person does or says or thinks that displeases God.

Gee, I hope my friends and family, don't find out about this. Because it seems to me anyone who talks to me or does something nice for me or says something supportive of me, a person who has certainly displeased God on occasion, will be in danger. And I don't want anyone go to Hell for loving me.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bookmarks -- Turtle Island

Turtle IslandTurtle Island by Gary Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I tried to read this book at least three times before I made it through. The poems are not tough to get through except that some are written in such a way that the reader has to know certain things to get them, and I still don't know what those things are. But thankfully this is the case for only a few of the poems.

While I did find many of Mr. Snyder's poems beautiful and engaging, a few of the poems were mere polemic. I even agree with most of the arguments he puts forth (despite winning the Pulitzer in 1975, much of what Snyder writes about is still relevant). And I know I've loved a few didactic poems in my life, I get uncomfortable when they are coupled work about simple life and love.

But these I might have stood had it not been for the unnecessary and judgmental prose section at the end titled "Plain Talk." It is anything but plain. These pieces only serve to pollute the waters, obscuring what otherwise could be great (and more powerful) art.

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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Music Notes -- Ode

The good news about the latest, long awaited offering from the Brad Mehldau Trio is that it contains the sort of beautiful and well-played tunes one might expect. The bad news (perhaps) is it contains the same sort of beautiful and well-played tunes one might expect.

This trio, which has not released a studio album since 2005 or a live album since 2008, does have a distintive sound, one I have loved for years. Mehldau is a champion of the right notes in the right places, particularly in the wild solos on this project. There is Jeff Ballard's masterful drumming, one moment frenetic, the next tastfully understated. Larry Grenadier does more than keep time and hold down the bottom end; his bass is like a sonic, elastic connection, keeping everything from getting out of hand, but stretching enough to keep it all interesting.

All of the songs on Ode are Mehldau originals. It opens with "M.B.," a nice, but not startling piece. It is followed by the title track. These two, "Twiggy," and "Aquaman" sound, for the most part, like material I've heard before. I like them, but they aren't all that fresh. "26" is a bit like these, but is saved by some interesting chord and time changes as well as a fiery solo. On tunes like "Dream Sketch," the group makes subtle magic. "Bee Blues" and "Stan the Man" are swinging bebop numbers that might surprise listeners.  "Kurt Vibe" is a toe-tapping, mid-tempo piece that gives each player plenty of room to solo.I'm not sure what "Wyatt's Eulogy for George Harrison" is about, but the title is appropriate. It sounds like a funky dirge played over a western. "Days of Dilbert Delaney" closes the disc with emotive, Beatlesque flair.

Ode is perhaps not a groundbreaking album. But the project does find Mehldau's trio in fine form, and still stronger than most combos.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Bookmarks--140 And Counting

140 And Counting140 And Counting by Joanne Merriam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In an effort to write less and say more, I have taken to using the Twitter format (@bluemonk63). Along the way, I have found several others doing the same thing, precious few of them well.

In 140 And Counting, Joanne Merriam has collected 141 pieces of microlit: tiny poems and very short stories previous published in her webzine 7X20. I had expected to find some clever little lines, the sort of thing one thinks is funny or poignant the first time it is read and tedious after the third posting. However, nearly all of them are worth reading over and over.

What should appeal to the average reader is that most of the poems will not read like the haiku so many dislike because it seems to say nothing quickly. These poems, for the most part, are well crafted and thoughtful. The best of these caused me to stop and replay them in my mind.

The stories here also work like good poems, jabbing at the senses, the heart, and the mind like a dagger making quick work of our preconceived notions about fiction. Don't be surprised if you find yourself chuckling one minute and gasping the next.

A handful of the selections didn't work for me, but there were very few of these. And when I read over them a second time, I couldn't help thinking they would work for someone, that what didn't immediately resonate with me might well spark something in another reader.

Chances are you have not heard of any of the authors in 140 and Counting. But I hope you will have before too long. Joanne Merriam has collected some terrific pieces which well represent a genre that needs to be taken seriously.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Bookmarks--Between The Bridge And The River

Between the Bridge and the RiverBetween the Bridge and the River by Craig Ferguson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One might think, a few pages into Mr. Ferguson's novel, that the author is trying to piss off as many people as possible. I know I took a little offense at some of the jabs, not so much at organized religion (which has, by and large, earned the disdain), but at the pictures of Christ and St. Francis and other religious figures.

I also have trouble with any stories where there are no characters with redeeming qualities. And one almost has that in Between The Bridge And The River. Almost every main character in this rollicking novel is about as contemptible as can be drawn. Of course, like many people, as the reader gets to know some of these people, it is difficult to keep from liking or at least sympathizing with them.

On the other hand, these characters redeem themselves for me as a reader because they are interesting. They are not caricatures of bad people, but very human beings who have taken paths of what they would never call unrighteousness. Because we see their falls (or rises, if you prefer) from the beginning and from their perspective, they are much more compelling. If you read this novel and think any character is evil, then you cannot help but connect that evil to what we have come to accept.

Sure the book is philosophical, but that may only be my take on it. This is a very funny book, though not in the way viewers of Craig Ferguson's late night show have come to expect. Highly entertaining, sharply written, and thought provoking. What more could you ask for?

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Bookmarks--In God We Trust

In God We Trust: All Others Pay CashIn God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Christmas Story is probably my favorite holiday movie, so it is with some trepidation that I finally got myself to start Jean Shepherd's book, on which much of the film is based. I try to keep away from comparisons of books and movies. They are different art forms, and so should be judged separately. And since only about three and a half chapters from this book are actually in the movie, that distinction seems even more important.

But I cannot help but make a couple of notes. For me, the movie is a funnier experience. Part of the movie's charm is Shepherd's narration, deadpan and filled with hysterical description and hyperbole. For those sections of In God We Trust that are dramatized, however, Shepherd sometimes tells more than shows. Oddly, the book as a whole is not like this. Many of the stories here are told with rich and delightful details, much like what we see and hear in the film.

In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash is a collection of remembrances held together by the narrator (Ralph) as a grown man visiting his old hometown and spending the day sitting in the bar talking to the proprietor, his old friend, Flick. Ralph has escaped the industrial crumbling town to live and work in New York. As the day keeps going (and many beers have been drunk), Ralph goes over a variety of incidents, including his quest for the Red Ryder BB Gun, his father's "special award," his first fishing trip with the Old Man, a funny marching band story. Along the way we see Ralph's triumphs and embarrassments as well as a mostly warm picture of life during the Depression. (The images of angry women throwing gravy boats and Ralph trying to explain The Decameron of Boccaccio still make me laugh out loud.)

Shepherd's semi-autobiographical book is a satisfying read. Don't expect the movie. However, like the film, the book reminds us of our own stories and friendships. Expect to be entertained and to remember a few things.

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