Saturday, March 25, 2017

Beethoven’s Immortally Beloved Music

As has been widely reported, rock and roll singer Chuck Berry died last week at the age of 90. One of his best-known hits was “Roll Over, Beethoven” (1956). This article, though, is about Beethoven.
Born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, Beethoven died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. Knowing that the 190th anniversary of Beethoven’s death was coming up, the other day June and I watched (for at least the third time) the intriguing 1994 film “Immortal Beloved.” 

Statue of Beethoven
in Bonn, Germany
The movie is based on historical facts. In 1812 Beethoven wrote a passionate letter to a woman he called his “Immortal Beloved.” The letter was found after Beethoven’s death.
Numerous women amongst his students and friends have been proposed as the recipient of that missive. As the website says, however, “Unless a new document is discovered it is likely that the truth about this mysterious woman will remain unknown.”
There seems to be no historian who thinks that Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” could possibly the one identified as such in the movie—and yet it is a great movie, largely because of Beethoven’s wonderful music heard throughout it.
It is a sad movie, however, and Beethoven, who never married, is presented as an unhappy, lonely man—mainly, perhaps, because he suffered from unrequited love.
The life of the great composer was also extremely sad because he began to lose his hearing in the late 1790s, and from 1817 or so was completely deaf.
What could be worse than for a musician and composer to lose his hearing?
Because of the way that hearing loss, and the effects of that loss, are so poignantly portrayed, I continue to be impressed with the movie “Immortal Beloved.”
In one scene, Beethoven is conducting an orchestra playing one of his compositions. We hear the wonderful music—and then the scene shifts to what he hears: only unpleasant static.
What a tragic state of affairs!
Beethoven’s first symphony was performed in 1800, after he had begun to lose his hearing. His ninth symphony, one of the greatest musical compositions of all time, was completed in 1824, long after he had lost his hearing completely.
Not far from the end of “Immortal Beloved” comes one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. In a flashback, young Ludwig is running away from his abusive father, and that scene is accompanied by the delightful music of his ninth symphony.
The music continues to a climax with him floating on his back in a lake, looking up at the spectacular starry sky. (See the YouTube video of that scene here.) He had escaped, at least temporarily, from his unhappy environment and was there in complete peace, at one with the universe.
The implication is that at least some of Beethoven’s ninth symphony was the marvelous music he had heard in his head for more than forty years.
The fourth movement of that “Choral” symphony was an appropriate setting for the singing of Shiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which later morphed into one of my very favorite hymns, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee," a hymn text written by Henry van Dyke in 1907.
As biographer John Suchet wrote in the last paragraph of his book Beethoven: The Man Revealed (2012), “Beethoven’s music will, quite simply, endure for ever and all time.”
Beethoven was not a religious man such as Bach and Handel were, but by God’s grace he wrote “divine” music. And while we may not know who his “beloved immortal” was, we know he wrote immortal, beloved music.

Beethoven doesn’t have to roll over for anyone!

Monday, March 20, 2017

"Was Blind, But Now I See"

Tomorrow, March 21, was a tremendously important day for John Newton, a man who experienced both disgrace and amazing grace.
John Newton was born in London in July 1725. He had good start in life with a godly mother, but she died when he was six. At the age of 11 he made his first of five sea voyages with his father, a respected sea captain. When John was still 18, he was “press-ganged” into the Royal Navy—and things went from bad to worse.
Later exchanged from his warship to a slave ship, Newton wrote that during that time he was “exceedingly vile.” According to a biographer, he became such “an aggressive atheist and blasphemer that even his shipmates were shocked by his oaths.”
Clearly, by the age of 22 John Newton was a disgrace.
On March 21, 1747 (or 1748; because of a change in the calendar in 1752, both dates are found), the ship Newton was sailing on was damaged by such a strong storm he thought he was going to perish. In his anguish he cried out to God for help—and he was saved from drowning in the stormy sea.
That experience was the beginning of Newton’s religious conversion, which continued to develop over the next many years. In spite of what we would like to think about people who are converted, Newton continued on as a slaver for the next six years.
In fact, it was many years later that he began to oppose slavery.
After meeting and being very positively influenced by George Whitefield and John Wesley, perhaps the two most outstanding Christian preachers in 18th century England, Newton (at the age of 33) felt a call to the ministry in 1758.
After several rejections, in 1764 Newton was finally ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He served the Church of St. Paul and St. Peter in Olney from then until 1780 and then was rector of a church in London until his death.
In preparation for his New Year’s sermon for 1773, Newton wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” with the autobiographical words, “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind, but now I see.” 
It was still more than a decade, though, before he clearly saw the sinfulness of slavery and began to oppose it.
About that time, in 1885, he met with William Wilberforce, who was 34 years his junior, and encouraged him to remain in the British Parliament and to oppose slavery there—which he did.
Partly because of Newton’s being a mentor to Wilberforce, the 2006 movie about the latter’s indefatigable efforts to abolish slavery in Great Britain is titled “Amazing Grace.”
Finally in 1788 Newton published his highly influential pamphlet Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.
After Newton’s death in 1807, the following epitaph was engraved on his tombstone:

At the very end of his fine biographical book John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (2007), Jonathan Aitken concludes that Newton’s self-description “clearly demonstrated the depth of John Newton’s gratitude to God for rescuing him from disgrace and redeeming him with amazing grace” (p. 350).

It took many years for Newton to overcome his blindness to the evils of slavery and to see the humanity of every human being. So maybe there is hope for all of us who still have blind spots. Maybe there are issues about which we, too, will someday be able to say with John Newton, I once “was blind, but now I see." 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

“Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired”

Retired clergy of the greater Kansas City metropolitan area have monthly meetings, and I often attend those enjoyable lunch gatherings.
Bridget and Fran were the guest speakers at the March 14 (yesterday’s) retired clergy meeting. They have been workers in the fast-food industry for several years and both are active in the organizations known as Fight for $15 and Stand Up KC.
Neither woman has any worker benefits or health insurance. In addition, Fran has serious health issues, and she and her children are homeless.
Both women are members of the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee (FLHWC).
According to Stand Up KC’s website, FLHWC was formed in Oct. 2014 in order “to create a place where women can organize around the special issues” that they face as people in low-wage jobs, issues such as “discrimination, harassment, and lack of paid maternity leave.”
Many of you may have long been familiar with the name of Fannie Lou Hamer, but for some reason I don’t remember her name from the 1960s and ’70s when she was one of the most important advocates for civil rights in the U.S.
Fannie Lou was born in October 1917, the youngest of twenty children of Jim and Ella Townsend, who were sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. She began working in the cotton fields when she was six and was only able to go to school through the sixth grade.
In 1942 Fannie Lou married Perry (“Pap”) Hamer, and although they adopted two daughters, Fannie never became a birth-mother.
Fannie Lou bravely sought to register to vote in 1962. Upon returning to the plantation the owner would not allow her to remain there, so she had to leave her husband and family. That is when she was courted by and, consequently, began to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The following year when returning from a voter’s registration training meeting to her hometown of Ruleville, Miss., she was badly beaten in Winona, where the bus had stopped. She suffered from those wounds for the rest of her life.
For the next fourteen years, though, she became “the spirit of the civil rights movement.” (Her compelling story is told in detail in Kay Mills’s book This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1993)
Fannie Lou died 40 years ago yesterday, on March 14, 1977, at the age of 59. Her tombstone is engraved with one of her famous quotes: 

While Fannie Lou’s main fight was against racism in Mississippi and in the nation, she was also a fighter against poverty—as was Martin Luther King, who launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
It was also in 1968 that Hamer started what she called a Pig Bank, and the following year she established the Freedom Farm Cooperative.
It is partly for that reason that the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee say on their website,
She knew that things only change in this country because people stand up to fight for what’s right. . . . We see her as an inspiration to continue our fight for collective rights.
We fight for economic dignity because, like Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, we are “Sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
When I chatted briefly with Fran after the meeting yesterday, she told how she and others who are struggling for better wages in Kansas City continue to be inspired by Fannie Lou.
I hope we can all be inspired by Fannie Lou Hamer to do more in support of women like Fran and Bridget.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Ten Most Admired Contemporary Christians

Who are the ten living, and still active, Christian speakers/writers that you admire/respect the most? Recently I began to think about that question, and now I am sharing my (tentative) list with you.

Please note that these are “professional” Christians who are currently active (or not completely retired). They are people who primarily speak to or write for a “popular” audience rather than to academia. Thus, none are full-time religion/theology professors.

(My list of the contemporary theologians/professors that I admire most would be quite different.)

One more brief caveat: my list is skewed a bit (but not much) by my desire to include some diversity. I didn’t want the list to be completely of white, male, Protestants like me.

So here is my list, presented in alphabetical order (by last name): 
Rev. Barber is perhaps the person on this list I have known about for the shortest time. I probably heard about him for the first time when working on my 9/30/13 blog article about the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. I have since seen him on several YouTube videos and then was impressed anew when I heard him deliver a powerful sermon in Kansas City last year. Here is the link to the blog article I wrote about him last September.

AMY BUTLER (b. c. 1970)
Rev. Butler has been pastor of the highly influential Riverside Church in New York City since 2014. I first met her when I visited a Sunday morning worship service at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., in 2012 when she was pastor there, and I regularly see/read her perceptive op-ed articles.
Widely known as “the nun on the bus,” Sister Simone is the executive director of NETWORK, a nonprofit Catholic social justice lobby. She was the subject of my 9/20/14 blog article (see here).

TONY CAMPOLO (b. 1935)
Stimulating writer and extraordinarily good speaker, in my 2/18/15 blog article I called Campolo “one of my favorite people.” He is one I would have long had on a list such as this.
The youngest person on this list, Claiborne is the author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (2006, 2016). He is a young man worth reading and listening to.

POPE FRANCIS (b. 1936)
Perhaps this selection speaks for itself.

JAMES FORBES (b. 1935)
A marvelous preacher and gentleman, I have long admired Rev. Forbes, who was pastor of Riverside Church in New York from 1989 to 2007.

BRIAN McLAREN (b. 1956)
I have been an admirer of McLaren since I read his novel A New Kind of Christian (2001). Then in 2008 I marked that the best theology book I had read that year was his Everything Must Change (2007). As a primary leader of the emergent church movement, he is a very significant contemporary Christian leader.

JIM WALLIS (b. 1948)
Founder, president, and CEO of Sojourners and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, I have been an admirer of Wallis since the early 1970s—and have written about him and his early activities in this article on another blogsite.

I have personally met or seen/heard all of the above persons—except for Pope Francis, for obvious reasons. But I have never met Yancey; however, I have read, and been impressed by, several of his books. I especially recommend What’s So Amazing about Grace? (1997) and Soul Survivor (2001).

Since these are contemporary Christians that I most admire, I have also learned from them--and my faith has grown, I believe, because of them. 

Who's on your list?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What about “The Shack”?

“An African-American, a Jew, and an Asian walk into a bar” might be the beginning of somebody’s joke. But Wm. Paul Young is dead serious when he centers his 2007 novel The Shack on three such persons—and this weekend the movie by the same name opened in theaters across the country.

Young (b. 1955) is a Canadian novelist who self-published The Shack after his manuscript was turned down by 26 publishers. Remarkably, by June 2008 it had sold a million copies—and now sales are said to be over 25 million!
While definitely fiction, the book is also a theodicy, an argument for God’s goodness in the face of evil. Much of the book is response to Missy’s question about “how come [God’s] so mean?” (p. 33).
The book/movie is also a reflection on the nature of the Trinity. While clearly a temporary manifestation to Mack, the central human being in the book, God appears as Elousia, an African-American woman usually called “Papa”; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter; and Sarayu, a willowy Asian woman. 
When first meeting these three “persons,” Mack asks which one of them is God. “’I am,’ said all three in unison” (p. 89).
What a marvelous time, and what a healing time, Mack spends with this amazing Trinity!

There have been some very negative reviews of the book—mostly by conservative Christians. In 2010 Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called it (here) “deeply troubling” and declared that it “includes undiluted heresy.”
Earlier, in May 2008, Charles Colson advised his readers (here), “Stay Out of The Shack.”
These are just two of many written criticisms of the theological content of The Shack. In addition, though, just about a year ago a 79-minute documentary film was produced with the title “The Shack: Its Dangerous Theology and Error.”
There are perhaps some legitimate concerns about the theology of the book—but the more conservative or traditional one is, the greater those concerns will likely be.
In addition to the conservative Christians who criticize the theology of The Shack, there are now many secular movie critics who trash the film.
Returning home after watching the movie, with delight, late Friday afternoon, I looked up some movie reviews of the film—and was disappointed in what I found. They were mostly negative—especially the one by Peter Sobczynski on 
Perhaps “The Shack” is most appreciated/enjoyed by people with a moderate/liberal Christian worldview.
“When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize, the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” 
These words, by Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) are perhaps the most effusive in praising The Shack, but there have been numerous clerics and moderate to liberal Christian writers who have had positive words about it.
Many of you know and appreciate Richard Rohr. (I wrote about him, here, in Nov. 2015.) Last year Fr. Rohr published The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. I found it interesting that in this major book about the Trinity, Rohr had Young write the Foreword, mentions Young in the Introduction, and calls him a “dear brother” in the Acknowledgments. 
Except to my most (theologically) conservative and most secular friends, I highly recommend this delightful book/movie. It offers much to think about regarding the Triune God, dealing with grief, relationships (with God and other humans), as well as freedom of choice and the problem of evil.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Growing in the Faith

Is your religious faith, or lack thereof, the same now as it was, say, when you were twenty years old, or (for you mature adults) when you were forty years old? If not, how would you explain the difference? Is the difference due to growth or stagnation?
One of my church friends, who fairly recently became a Thinking Friend, is a young woman who had strong ties to Southern Baptists while growing up. Her family still has close ties with the Southern Baptist Convention: her sister, for example, is currently a student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Kansas City.
My friend, who is an activist and quite “liberal” in her social views, knows that I was a Southern Baptist for most of my life but that I now largely agree with her and share most of her “liberal” social views.
A few weeks ago my friend asked, “What caused you to change?”
My answer: “I would like to think it has been the result of growing in the faith.”
Indeed, I do think that—but I realize that there are others who knew me “back then” who would have a different assessment. They would likely explain my change as being due to abandoning the faith—at least the faith as was known and practiced by most Southern Baptists in the 1950s and by many SBs still.
Two of the main areas in which I believe I have experienced change/growth in faith are (1) change from an exclusivistic view of God and God’s relationship to the people of the world to much more inclusivistic view, and (2) change from a predominantly other-worldly view of life to an equally dominant, if even not more prominent, this-worldly emphasis .
Perhaps reading J.B. Phillips’s Your God Is Too Small (1953), during my first year of college started me growing toward a view of God that was broader, more inclusive than what I had grown up thinking/believing.
Back in 2015, I ended my Oct. 15 blog article with these words:
Without question, Christianity has often held to an exclusivism that has been divisive and restrictive. But a deeper understanding moves one from exclusion to inclusion and from restriction to expansion. – Maturing in faith impels a person to move from the us/them mentality of childhood to including “others” as a part of an inclusive circle of “we.”
Then, consistent with the evangelicalism/revivalism that I was nurtured in and embraced well into my 30s, the overwhelmingly important mission of the Christian faith, I thought, was “saving souls” for life after death, for Heaven. That is an “other-worldly” emphasis that many of you readily recognize.
But gradually I came to understand that human life and well-being in this world is of great importance--and, in fact, the Kingdom of God is as much about, or even more about, God’s desired reign now rather than after the “end of the world.” 

Some of the contemporary Christians I admire the most, and by whom I have been influenced, have a story similar to mine. They also moved from a narrow, fundamentalistic type of Christianity toward a broader, socially “liberal” position on many issues.
Three good examples are Jim Wallis, Philip Yancey, and Brian McLaren—three “mature adults” in their 60s. I must write more about these three: to this point in my blog articles, I have “labeled” Wallis twice, Yancey once (here on 10/5/16), and McLaren not even once.
First, though, I plan to write about the ten Christian speakers/writers whom I admire most—and who have helped nurture my growth in the faith.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Frederick Douglass: Getting Recognized More and More

This Black History Month article is about Frederick Douglass, the African-American man who now seems to be getting recognized more and more—partly because of DJT’s somewhat puzzling comment to that effect on Feb. 1.
Last Thursday I flew to Washington, D.C., where son Keith picked me up. At my request we went straight from the airport to the Frederick Douglass Historic Site in southeast D.C. It was a wonderful visit of the Cedar Hill residence that Douglass purchased in 1877 and lived in until his death in 1895.
Douglass was able to purchase the splendid house in Anacostia because of his appointment as Federal Marshal of Washington, D.C. Soon after President Hayes’s inauguration in March 1877, he named Douglass to that position, partly in appreciation for his support during the heated presidential campaign of 1876.
Here is a picture I took of his spacious Cedar Hill home: 

Statue of Douglass in Visitors Center
It is not certain that Douglass was born in February, but his birthday was celebrated at the Historic Site this week on Monday. Most sources now say he was born in 1818, although Charles Chesnutt’s 1899 biography of Douglass gives his birth year as 1817. There were not good historical records kept on slaves—and Douglass’s mother was a slave in Maryland at the time of his birth.
When he was about twenty years old, in 1838 Douglass escaped from slavery, fleeing to New York. That same year he married Anna Murray, who became the mother of his five children and was his wife until her death in 1882.
In 1841 Douglass became widely known as a public speaker, delivering speeches for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Seven years later, he attended the first women’s rights convention and also became an advocate of suffrage for women.
Then in 1858 John Brown stayed in the Douglass home (in Rochester, N.Y.) for a month, but Douglass never condoned Brown’s plan for the Harpers Ferry attack. He did, however, later recruit Black soldiers to fight for the Union. He also served as an adviser to President Lincoln during the Civil War.
(This link to Douglass’s timeline gives much more historical information.)
Douglass died in his Cedar Ridge home on Feb. 20, 1895. Since he had been a lifelong Methodist, his elaborate funeral was held at a large AME Church in D.C.
In the appendix of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), the first of his three autobiographies, Douglass explained what he had written about religion in his book:
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.
Frederick Douglass was unquestionably a great man. I am glad his life and work, including this historic criticism of “slaveholding religion,” is now “getting recognized more and more.”