A Lament for a Divided Church

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_-_Jeremia_treurend_over_de_verwoesting_van_Jeruzalem_-_Google_Art_Project

Rembrant, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

How long, O Lord?

How long will you endure a divided American church?

We were divided over slavery.

We were divided over suffrage.

We were divided over Civil Rights

We were divided over the Vietnam war.

We are divided today.

We travel the world on missions trips;

and fear the immigrants and refugees from those countries.

Pro-life Christians against Black Lives Matter Christians.

We complain about polarized politics and the death of civility;

And mirror those divides every Sunday while worshiping one God.

We pray “thy kingdom come” and pledge allegiance to various powers and parties.

We remember the broken body of Jesus, saying it was once for all;

And blithely continue to rend his body on earth.

We stand over the broken body giving thanks

For our freedom to worship.

How long, O Lord?

Who Are We Protecting?

In recent years, it has become common place to point the finger at the Catholic church with regard to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, this week Protestants discovered the “log in their own eye” with the Houston Chronicle report on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).The article featured a mosaic of mug shots representing a portion of the 220 who worked or volunteered with the SBC who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sex crimes. The investigation reported over 700 victims, many of which were minors, which, if it follows the pattern of other investigations, may be the tip of the iceberg.

Similar to other sexual abuse scandals the article traces a pattern of ignoring victim reports, protecting perpetrators, and refusing to make reforms that would protect children from these sexual offenders. Tragically, in the case of some pastors, even after convictions, they were able to secure pastoral roles in other churches, even nearby churches.

Sadly, I don’t think we are going to be eliminate patterns of sexual brokenness that lead to sex crimes. A highly sexualized culture and patterns of dysfunction in families suggest to me that churches and other ministries will continue to need to take measures to protect against predators, and others who violate boundaries of trust. Churches are “target rich” environments for predation, bringing adults and children together, often in relations of trust and privacy.

It seems that in all these scandals, there has been a systemic blindness to the clear teaching of Jesus:

“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:5-6

I grew up singing “Jesus loves the little children.” It’s that simple. The priority in our churches must be to love and protect our children. To fail to protect our children may well be to cause them to stumble–indeed many who have been abused have turned away from the faith. It seems there are some basic steps we can take.

  1. Break the silence. The worst assumption we can make in churches is “we all know each other and none of us would do something like this.” Candid education of every one, dealing with the signs of abuse, and how the whole church can be involved in preventing abuse, may deter potential abusers. Making clear a commitment to child safety and the practical steps the church takes in its children and youth programs sends a message that “we are committed to the safety of children.” It may even encourage parents of young families to come to your church!
  2. Screen all pastoral candidates, staff, and volunteers who work with children. One of the problems in the SBC was the refusal to track sexual predators. Applications, references and background checks may seem burdensome but they are a small price to pay and they say “we are committed to the safety of children.” I personally felt better about my son’s involvement with Boy Scouts when I learned I needed to undergo a criminal background check to volunteer with our troop.
  3. Train volunteers who work with children with periodic refreshers. Establishing clear protocols of appropriate and inappropriate contact, how to recognize signs of abuse, and how to keep children safe are important, including how children are released to parents or caregivers.
  4. It may seem burdensome, but the rule of an adult never being alone with a child makes sense. It was a rule for which I was grateful when I worked with Scouts, as much a protection for me as for the boys I worked with.
  5. Have a clear policy of how suspected abuse is dealt with, including implementation of your state’s mandatory reporting requirements. Physical or sexual abuse of minors is a crime. All of this makes it clear that abusers will not be shielded and that the priority is the safety of children. In all the sexual abuse scandals, the problem wasn’t merely that abuse happened, but that deliberate steps were taken to protect the abuser, and the reputation of the institution, instead of the abused child or youth.

Certainly there is more to be said about this. But is it so hard to say in our religious institutions that ensuring the safety of our children takes priority over protecting individual or institutional reputations? Jesus doesn’t need us to protect his reputation; he needs us to protect his children. Period.

Toxic Masculinity?

we believe the best men can be gillette short film youtube

Screen capture: Closing image of “The Best Men Can Be”, Film by Gillette via YouTube

The internet blew up this past week over a video Gillette released titled “The Best Men Can Be.” It may go down as a courageous effort and a bad business decision. As of this writing, the video has been disliked by nearly twice as many as liked it.

I find that reaction puzzling, understandable, and disturbing.

The video shows images of bullying, sexual harassment, condescending behavior toward women, and a row of men behind barbecue grills chanting mantra-like “boys will be boys.” as one child beats another up in front of them. It shifts to a multiple screen portrayal of media coverage of #MeToo, and then to a call for action, a challenge for men to be their best selves, to hold each other accountable to a higher standard in their treatment of women and to call each other out (“not cool”), to help each other resolve conflict peacefully, to intervene when witnessing bullying, to empower one’s children, and to be models to the next generation of men.

The reaction is puzzling. Do we really dislike the message that men should act with integrity, courage, respect, and as positive role models of the same to their sons and other boys? Can we really justify bullying, violence, disrespect of women under the catch-all justification “boys will be boys?”

The reaction is understandable. This has been the ideal of masculinity going around for a long time. I grew up with it. Men were supposed to be tough, and you showed it by picking on “weaklings,” or by pretending you were tough so that you wouldn’t get picked on. Women existed to gratify your pleasures. Real men don’t show feelings or weakness.

The reaction is disturbing. It tells me that this version of masculinity is alive and well. You lash out when criticism gets too close for comfort. And it appears there is a significant amount of that discomfort.

It troubles me when…

  • we confuse bullying with courage–the courage that goes into battle, that fights wrongs, that protects the vulnerable.
  • we teach that resorting to violence is better than the calm word, or knowing when to walk away.
  • we justify objectifying women with looks, catcalls, gropes, and more rather than respecting their dignity as unique and gifted persons capable of running companies, outrunning us in some cases, and perhaps saving our lives.

So we have a society where most of the perpetrators of gun violence are men, mostly young men. So we have a society where men’s stoical determination not to show weakness drives them to an early grave from hypertension, heart disease, and a host of other ills. So we have a society where far too many of those who father children are AWOL when it comes to helping raise them. All of this seems like “toxic” masculinity to me, not good for men or those around them.

Some of the reaction to the ad arises from a perceived “war against boys and men.” I get that, and if you only watched the first part of the Gillette ad, you might have the same reaction. If even half the claims of #MeToo are warranted (and I suspect the percentage is far higher) it is hard time to feel good about one’s gender if you identify as male.

What I appreciated about the ad is that it went beyond “these guys are bad” and”I’m not that guy” to affirm models of masculinity that show true strength rather than posturing. It models calling each other to higher standards of respect toward women, of father’s empowering their daughters, of acting with courage and decency in front of one’s son. What the critics of this commercial miss, in my view, is that none of the positive models are sissies but people who act with strength. It’s not a put down of men but a call for men to step up.

A number of those who read this blog are believing Christians, and some of you may disagree with me. The question I have is, do you think Jesus is a model of true masculinity?  I think of the incident where Jesus’s followers are “chest bumping” over who is the greatest among them–typical toxic masculinity. Jesus replies:

“…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43b-45)

Do we consider Jesus weak because he defines greatness in terms of servanthood, and his own mission as one of serving? Jesus says this as he is walking to the city where he will be betrayed, arrested and killed. Do we not consider perhaps the ultimate show of courage to be when someone gives their life for another? Is this not great strength? Is not every other act of service willingly given to one’s partner, one’s children, one’s colleagues, one’s community, likewise an act of strength?

I think it is something like this that Gillette means when it speaks of “The Best Men Can Be.” The cynics just consider it an advertising stunt. If so, it is probably a failed one. I’d rather call it an instance of corporate responsibility as a purveyor of men’s products. I’ve been shaving with Gillette razors since I started sprouting facial hair. I have Gillette razors in my medicine cabinet. I have no plans to stop using them.

A Look Back; A Look Ahead

Janus-Vatican

Janus, Fubar Obfusco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Happy New Year to all of you who follow Bob on Books! I not only love writing about books, reading, life, and Youngstown, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the interactions I have had with many of you, and how much I learn from your comments. You are the “social” in social media. This has been a year where various social media outlets have come under criticism for everything from enabling “echo chambers” to more nefarious invasions of privacy. What I have appreciated in at least this small space of the internet is that we have been able to talk about things of substance–things we love and care about, and learn from and respect each other.

Looking back over the year, here are a few highlights that come to mind:

  • Somehow, I managed to review 177 books, a number of which I thought quite extraordinary.
  • I enjoyed the fun we had together at times. One post that particularly comes to mind is “The Literary Confessional,” where a number of people, particularly on Facebook, posted their literary confessions, the things as bibliophiles they were ashamed to admit, like the books everyone likes that they couldn’t stand.
  • I was moved both as I read the story of Pete Frates, The Ice Bucket Challenge, and then received appreciative notes from Pete’s family for my review and the help that it was in getting his story out.
  • I had the privilege of telling the stories of people. When I wrote about my childhood pediatrician, I discovered scores of others who had been treated by him, and even heard from a couple of his grandchildren. The daughter of a local deejay contributed memories and pictures of her dad, and even sent me a t-shirt with his image and trademark saying on it. A profile on the professor who inspired a love of history led to a phone call from him and a delightful time of talking about the 40 years since I had been in his classes. Perhaps what meant the most was the chance to pay tribute to James Sire, a writer and editor whose work influenced me over forty years, who in later years became a friend and encourager. Jim went to be with the Lord at the beginning of this year.
  • I had the chance to interview a theologian after having reviewed three of his works. It was one of those “moments of wonder” as he spoke of his own thoughts on the glories of God and the majesty of Christ.
  • When Facebook no longer allowed automatic sharing of blog posts to profiles, I set up the Bob on Books Facebook page, which allows for more interactivity than the blog. I’ve learned about what others are reading, and this has suggested new ideas for posts, and for books to review.
  • Despite an unhappy experience with erroneous (and I think malicious) “blacklisting” that took several months to remedy, this was a record year on the blog with view totals up over 20 percent from the previous year.

So what’s ahead for Bob on Books in 2019?

  • In the next few days, someone will make the 500,000th view of a post at Bob on Books.
  • I expect to review a number of both current and classic works. Look for me to post reviews of at least one or two of the books I want to read before I die.
  • I want to explore the possibility of launching a podcast. I know a number of friends who love to listen to podcasts. I’d love to hear what you think of this idea.
  • I’ve also wondered about creating an online book group. I’d love to figure out a way to bring together people from my “tribe,” those who identify as “Christian,” and those who hold other views to talk about books we all consider important.
  • I can’t read everything. I am interested in talking with readers who write reviews on Goodreads who might like to contribute guest reviews. This is not an invitation for those who want to promote a book, but for readers who want to try their hand at reviewing. Who knows, it could be the first step to launching your own blog! Also, I’d love to post more bookstore reviews but can’t travel to them all. Do you have a great bookstore that you want others to know about? Let’s talk.

We’ll see which of these I get to this year. One thing I can say, is that I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride, and especially our interactions. I hope for more of that as we talk together about books, reading, and life and about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Best wishes as you begin a new year!

Something to Sing About

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Annunciation to the Shepherds, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem [Public domain] via Wikimedia

This has been a month of singing! I sing in a choral group and a church ensemble. The choral group, Capriccio Columbus, held our Christmas concert last Sunday. Our church ensemble has sung each Sunday during Advent and on Christmas eve. Christmas favorites and gorgeous but unfamiliar works. A good deal of music. Many rehearsals and practice. And hours of singing! Then there are all the songs of the season that our congregation sings.

I love singing, but when we seek to do it with some standard of excellence, in all the rehearsals we can sometimes lose focus on why we sing, beyond our sheer love of it. Yet the season of Advent and Christmas is a time of song and I’ve been reflecting on why that is so.

Certainly part of it is this thing we call “the holiday spirit.” Our choir has been part of several community tree-lightings, and I think creating a mood, a sense of shared conviviality is one of the functions of the songs of the season. At its worst, it is the background to the shopping orgies our retailers hope we engage in. At best, they lift spirits and draw our communities together.

As we get older, I also think we sometimes love Christmas music because it connects us with all the child-like sense of wonder as we remember music, lights, nativity scenes, and Christmas plays past. Music has this power to transport us to our past and recall cherished memories. Past and present merge and we have a sense of the seamlessness and wholeness of our lives.

But I’m not quite sure this answers why we sing so many songs in this season, or for that matter why so many songs have been written. A familiar song that we sang this morning suggests some of the reasons why:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!

To me, this song invites us to join an angelic chorus. Now angels in the Bible are pretty formidable creatures, that human beings are tempted to tremble before in terror or bow to in worship. Yet these creatures in all their greatness are moved to song because something greater has occurred. Strangely enough, their songs of glory center around a baby born in a small town south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem. It was a city associated with Israel’s great king, David. They proclaim a greater king has been born. He is a king who brings peace between God and human beings. And not just for one nation, but for all nations, all humankind without distinction. All the discord, all the grief, all the conflict, all the evil humans devise meet their match in this baby.

This is something to sing about! All earth is invited to join “the triumph of the skies.” We still live in a world of discord, grief, conflict, and evil. Yet we sing not to pretend that these things don’t exist, but rather that this king who was born, taught and worked wonders, who died and rose, is making peace between humankind and God and will one day have the last word, in restoring all things. We sing to celebrate the ways God has already brought peace, and in hope that what we have found in part we will one day know in full.

As you listen to, or even join in the songs of the season, do you have something to sing about? If you listen to the songs of the church (and not the “holiday” music about reindeer and snowmen) I think you will find truth that is worth singing about. And in that discovery, you will truly be able to join me in saying and singing…

Glory to the newborn king!

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

2018 Best of the Rest

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James W. Sire

As I wrap up the year at Bob on Books, I’ve posted my “Bob on Books Best Books of 2018” and my “Readers Choice” list of the reviews you, my readers, viewed the most. Still to come for all my Youngstown friends is my best of “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown of 2018” (coming Saturday!). Today is my “best of the rest” post–the most viewed of the other posts on this blog from the past year. So, without further ado, here they are:

  1. James W. Sire (1933-2018). James Sire was the long-time senior editor at InterVarsity Press, editor of a number of the early works of Francis Schaeffer, a path-breaking work on worldview, and campus apologist for the Christian faith. It was also my privilege to know him personally in later years. This post was my tribute to him on his passing earlier this year. It seems somehow fitting that this one tops the list. He was tops!
  2. Owning Up to Our Sorry Record as Men was my personal reflections on the spate of #MeToo revelations, and our reflex to defend ourselves by saying “not all men.
  3. How Do You Read So Many Books? I share ten practices that make it possible to read quite a few books. The point is not to read as many books as I or others who read many books, but to suggest ways those of us who want to make more space in our lives for books may do that.
  4. “Showrooming” at Bookstores. It is a surprise to me that this post, which just went up a couple days ago, was so popular. I wrote on the practice of going to bookstores, and while in stores (and often on their wi-fi) price-shopping and ordering books you see in the store from online sellers to save a few dollars (or whatever currency you use).
  5. Why Isn’t This Book in the Lectionary? Apparently a number of people wanted to find which book from the Minor Prophets didn’t make the lectionary, and why!
  6. Why I Sing. For eleven years, I have had the joy of singing in an awesome choir, Capriccio. We just performed our Christmas Concert and will start work on the Verdi Requiem in January to perform in late March. In this post, I share all the reasons for why I keep singing.
  7. “Popularizer” is a Dirty Word. This is about how writing or speaking for popular audiences can be the kiss of death for academics.
  8. Ten Books I Want to Read Before I Die. There are numerous lists about books to read before you die. I thought it a better idea to just make my own. And since I wrote this, I’ve read one of those books.
  9. Bob on Books Tips For Reading Well in 2018. I wrote this post on New Year’s Day. “How Do I Read So Many Books?” is a good complement.
  10. Still Evangelical? This was my personal response to the publication of a book by the same title. I explain why, despite all the bad press, and what I consider misbegotten alliances, I still embrace this identity.

I look over this list and it strikes me that it reflects a number of the facets of my life. I’m glad to say that I think it reflects some of the best of my writing and I’m glad many of you thought so. Some of you have started following this blog, or joined the Bob on Books Facebook Page more recently. This list is a pretty good snapshot of the things I care and write about. I’ve never met many of you but I so appreciate you reading, commenting, and passing along some of the things I post. THANK YOU, and have a joyous holiday!

A Book Bloggers Thanksgiving

happy-thanksgiving-3767426_1280Around many American tables today, people will share things for which they are thankful. Sometimes it seems a bit cheesy, but often it serves as a reminder that, while there is a good deal of bad news and sadness, there is an underlying goodness to life that is worth celebrating around a table with family and friends.

In that spirit, I’ve been reflecting on all the things as a book blogger (and chronicler of Youngstown life), for which I am thankful. Like so many other endeavors in life, blogging is not a solitary activity, nor is success a solitary achievement. So, as you and I gather around the screen (but not at your Thanksgiving table–put that phone down!), I want to share some of the people in this book blogger’s life for which I’m grateful:

  • Authors. I’ve read works that took years to research and write in some cases and went through numerous drafts and revisions. Then you engage with your readers, including the critical ones. I’ve had the chance to interact with some of them, many who are gracious with their time. I’m also struck what a perilous enterprise this is, wondering if anyone will be interested in what you write, particularly if you are just starting out.
  • Publishers. You take the financial risks to publish, especially in an era of tighter margins. It is incredible how many books get published every year and you make that magic happen.
  • Publicists. You are the people I interact with as I seek copies of the books I want to review. In nearly all cases, you have been friendly, quick to respond, and eager to help, and I have to admit to still being amazed that you send me your books. I hope at least a few people buy them from reading my reviews.
  • Bookstores. I’m amazed how hard some of my friends who are booksellers work to make ends meet and get good books into hands of the people who want them. Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Books in Dallastown, Pennsylvania runs one of the most well-curated stores of thoughtful Christian and other fine literature in the country. I’ve never been to the store (on my bucket list) but they always have what I’m looking for, carefully packaged and quickly shipped. There are no indie bookstores near our home, but we’ve spent many happy hours at our local Barnes and Noble and Half Price Books.
  • Librarians. You curate these incredible spaces where I can get the books I cannot afford or find, along with all the research resources that I cannot find easily on my own.
  • Facebook group administrators. A good reason many people find their way to my blog is that you allow me to post on your pages. Hopefully I help start some good conversations on your pages as well and make them richer places to visit.
  • The Bob on Books Facebook page. This is a new venture this year with over 700 now following, about half personal friends, and about half people who I don’t know who love books. You remind me of all the interesting genres of literature and authors I don’t know very well, as well as what an interesting and quirky tribe all of us who love books can be.
  • All the others at Literary Hub, Publishers Weekly, The Atlantic, Shelf AwarenessBookriot, and other people who are writing about books. You clue me into so much of what is going on in the publishing and literary worlds, and provide great material to repost, ideas for books to review, and grist for blog posts, usually in reaction to something I’ve read.
  • WordPress.  You provide the software and the hosting that makes this page possible. I’ve found your online support great. I contact you, things get fixed, and the magic keeps happening!
  • You. Yes, you. I’m still amazed that people read my stuff, like and comment, share and re-blog. You help me reach a bigger audience than I could alone. Your comments make me think, and sometimes show me where I’m wrong. A special shoutout for all my Youngstown friends. I probably learn as much from you as I do in researching my posts.

There is a good deal of criticism of the online world these days. I’ve seen some of the reasons for that criticism from trolls to echo chambers. But overwhelmingly, the world I’ve engaged through Bob on Books is one inhabited by funny, creative, fascinating, and unique human beings who love and care, work and play, think and learn and share a common desire for a flourishing and civil world. Book people are like that. I count myself so blessed for the ways we’ve connected, both virtually, and face to face. Thank you. And Happy Thanksgiving, or whatever day it is for you if you are one who follows me in another country–I’m so grateful for all of you!

A Battle Between Good and Evil?

Wesley

A friend posted this meme, a quote attributed to John Wesley that seemed quite appropriate to our mid-term elections. I am writing this on Tuesday afternoon, while the polls are still open. So I don’t know anything about winners and losers and whether there has been a shift in political power between the time I am writing this and you are reading it. Actually, it really doesn’t matter to what I’ve been thinking about.

What I want to question is whether we will continue to frame our political discourse as a battle between good and evil–with those in opposition the “evil” party? These thoughts have been sparked not only by the Wesley quote but also by a book I’ve been reading, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. They talk about three bad ideas that have crept into education that actually undermine both personal and societal well-being. The third of these is life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

It seems to me that this has been the thesis of much of the political advertising and rhetoric in recent elections, and particularly this one. The knight in shining armor in one party’s ads is the incarnation of evil in the other’s. This is not particularly new.

What does seem new is that we have extended the penumbra of evil to cover the supporters of these candidates. It troubles me that there is an increasing perception that America consists of two opposing sides, each seeing the other as evil and detrimental to the nation’s future. The sides mirror the views of the candidates they support. One sees it in the ugly images of angry faces shouting at each other across barricades. More quietly, it sometimes means that someone decides that another can no longer be their friend.

The reality, of course is far more complex. People who vote for different candidates actually have many common concerns and aspirations–a desire to make a living, to see their children educated well, to have good heath care when we need it, to live meaningfully. Many of us struggle when voting, because there are some emphases in each party with which we agree, and we must choose between them. Most of us don’t see one party as all right, and the other all wrong, when we assess the policies they advocate against our own deeply held values.

What concerns me is that the narrative of a battle of good against evil may not end with words. In fact, some, whether in violent confrontations, or violent acts have taken the battle beyond words. For now they are outliers–kind of like John Brown was prior to the Civil War. The question that disturbs me is how long we can continue using this narrative in our national discourse without increasing instances of our social fabric descending into civil disorder–or resorting to authoritarian measures to maintain order.

We cannot stop politicians, advertisers and political advocacy groups from using this rhetoric. But we can stop enabling it. We can refuse to support appeals that divide us from our fellow citizens, or even our fellow human beings–that propose that some particular class of humans is evil and ought to be opposed. I wonder what would happen if we wised up enough to turn our backs and walked away from any politician who turns their opponents (and their constituencies) into evil enemies.

Any of us who have worked on teams realizes that good teams use all the different skills and perspectives within the team. Differences can be good, because none of us is as proficient, strong, or smart as all of us. I’ve sometimes been at loggerheads with another until we did the hard work of understanding why the other thought the way he or she did. Not simply or quickly, but often, in the end, we ended up with a better solution or program than either of us could have designed alone. I would contend that it is unpatriotic to rob our country of the gifts and contribution of all of us, just to favor a particular political base.

You may ask, “are you saying there is no evil out there?” Hardly. Rather, apart from sociopaths and the corrupt, I would contend that a truer portrait is the one that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offered when he said, “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” The most dangerous people, I believe, are those who fail to reckon with the line of good and evil running through their own lives. I become that person when I attribute that evil to a political opponent, and virtue to myself or my party. A far saner approach, it seems, is to see all of our parties as imperfect human structures, striving for proximate rather than ultimate goods, which belong to God alone.

For those of the Christian faith, I am also reminded of Paul’s word to the Ephesians when he said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12, NIV). Paul reminds us that we make a great error when we battle against other people, because that is not where the real battle is.

At bottom, these are my reasons for refusing to adopt the narrative that life is a battle between good people and evil people.” I neither want to be found blind to the evil in my own life, nor be found to have misspent my life fighting the wrong battles. Will you join me?

 

Why I Sing

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Capriccio Columbus

In less than an hour, I leave for one of my favorite activities of the week–rehearsals with Capriccio Columbus. This is now my eleventh season of singing with this choral group and it continues to be one of the joys of my life. Why do I sing?

Fundamentally, singing reminds me that there is goodness and beauty in an ugly and sometimes evil world. Every time we come together to make music, we declare out loud what we intuit deeply in ourselves–that evil and ugliness cannot and will not have the last word.

Therefore, singing for me is not an act of escapism, of forgetting the hard things around us, but rather resistance, a form of declaration, of demonstration, that the deeper story of life is one of goodness, of truth, and of beauty. It is striking to me that civil rights marchers, and even those who grieved in Pittsburgh recently gave voice to their longings, their grief, and their prayers, in song.

Singing in a choral group is a living metaphor of our longings for a unity in the midst of diversity. The very nature of harmony is that different voices, different parts, when we are doing it right, blend together to make something far more beautiful and interesting than if all of us were singing the same note. If only we could figure out that a monotone society is no more interesting than a monotone choral group!

Making music involves every fiber of my being. We learned in a vocal workshop that we sing from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads. Not only does singing involve the whole body, it engages the whole mind. To focus on rhythms, notes, and words, to tempo and dynamics, and to do all of that at once uses every one of my ever-diminishing brain cells (although some research suggests that singing enhances brain function and forestalls some forms of dementia).

Every fiber of my being includes my soul, that inner, spiritual part of who I am. To sing well means to reflect on what we are singing, and how the music accentuates phrases and moods. To sing well is not just to be technically proficient, but to incarnate the music–to sing out of oneself and what that music has come to mean to us. If I am paying attention, music often speaks of realities beyond the rehearsal, beyond the concert, to the deepest thoughts about meaning, and love, and the transcendent.

Making music is handling particular pieces of music, noting with pencil particular directions for singing it, holding it in folders, doing all this next to others, some who sing your part, some who sing others. It is trying, and failing, and learning, particularly when we first read through new music. It is holding music at a certain level, high enough that you can glance over it to follow the leading of your director, who is trying to keep 80 plus people singing four to eight parts singing together. It is real, it is physical. It is active. There is nothing passive or virtual about it.

Singing is people. One makes friends, and begins to really care not only about the rehearsal but about job losses, deaths, babies, engagements, and weddings. In a world of increasing isolation, choral groups bring people from all kinds of backgrounds into what are often called “mediating institutions.” They stand between the isolation of our individual lives and the big impersonal institutions of modern society.

Well, it is about time for me to leave. For all these reasons, this is why I sing tonight.

Our Tolerance for Lying

512px-Pinocchio

Pinocchio By Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Are you disturbed by the rampant culture of deceit around us? Does it bother you that truth takes a back seat to getting things done? Is it troubling when people around our president contend that “truth isn’t truth” and that there are “alternate facts?” Or that leaders will deny statements they are recorded as making and attribute it to “fake news?”

We are in the middle of another electoral season as I write, and I find myself deeply disturbed by the outright lies and misleading statements in much of our political language, often in scare language to arouse fears. Now I’ve been around long enough to know that this is not new. Lyndon Johnson characterized Barry Goldwater as a nuclear warrior and then led us into the quagmire of Vietnam. I remember the lies we were told about Watergate.

What concerns me is that I fear we are a nation increasingly inured to lies. We don’t expect politicians, advertisers, or even religious leaders to tell us the truth but to simply promise us an ever more prosperous life. As long as job and economic numbers are good, nothing else seems to matter. Tell me how to have my “best life now.” Don’t bring up the connection between zip codes and life expectancies of others. Don’t bring up the millions being displaced globally because of climate change. Don’t bring up ballooning national debts that our children and grandchildren will have to find some way to address. What happens when all our tax revenues go to repaying debt?

What disturbs me about an acceptance of what Marilyn McEntyre has called “a culture of lies” is how the erosion of integrity in our institutions leads either to corruption and graft, not unlike what we see in the failed states in many parts of the world–or totalitarian rule, where lies are told so long and so loud that they become accepted as the truth because the absolute power that can make a person disappear if they challenge the lies. Ask anyone in international business what it is like to try to do business where the rule of law and the observing of contracts has lapsed. Ask Jamal Kashoggi what happens when one tries to tell the truth about a totalitarian regime.

In other words, what disturbs me is less the lies of politicians than the fact that we let them get away with it and do not seem particularly bothered by being deceived. We don’t want our doctors to lie to us (at least most of the time) because the truth may be hard to swallow but it just might save our lives. Our politicians are among the stewards of our societal health and the life of our nation depends on them telling the truth and acting in accord with it.

It is a true statement that “reality bites” and the teeth of that bite is truth. We ultimately cannot make up the world the way we want it to be. If we don’t invest in our children, we will invest in prisons. If we don’t start paying for the government we receive, and do so equitably, we will pass along a Ponzi scheme that will collapse someday. We can deny the signs of a changing climate, but you can bet your insurance company will not.

That illustrious philosopher, Cecil B. DeMille observed:

“It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.”

I would suggest that truth, from which law derives, is like that. We may try to deny it, or lie about it, but ultimately, we either allow it to define reality for us or break ourselves against it–whether as individuals or as nations. Is it time to stop tolerating lies and demand truth of those who lead us? Time and past time, I would suggest.