Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — St. Patrick’s Day

1024px-Green-beer

By Rabbid007 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, I was in Oxford, Ohio just in time to stumble across a Miami University student tradition — Green Beer Day. Friday was the last day of classes before spring break, and so it was the traditional day for them to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at the uptown bars. I discovered that the green is just food coloring and the best way to do it is to add blue which balances the yellowish brown hue of beer. Remember yellow + blue = green? Personally, that just seems a good way to spoil a good glass of beer. Just give me a pint of Guinness. But it also set me to thinking about other things we did on St. Patrick’s Day.

So, you know it is St. Patrick’s Day when…

  1. Mom lays out green clothes for you to wear even if you don’t like green, even if you didn’t think you owned green. But in the end, you thanked her because everyone else at school was wearing it as well.
  2. You heard the story of shamrocks, which is really just a fancy name for clover. It is thought that St. Patrick used the shamrock as an image of the Trinity. There is a connection between shamrocks and green beer in that the Irish would add shamrocks to their beer (and stronger drinks) in what they called “drowning the shamrock.” Seems it was in this connection that I also heard of four leaf clovers and the luck of the Irish. Looked for a four leaf clover but never found one. I guess I just wasn’t patient or lucky enough–they occur roughly in 1 out of 5,000 clover leaves.
  3. Read aloud time was Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Worse was when someone tried to make green eggs and ham.
  4. People talked about leprechauns. I’m not sure we talked very much about them in Youngstown. Seriously, can you imagine one of these little creatures any where near a steel mill?
  5. Mom made corned beef and cabbage for dinner. It’s thought that Irish Americans in New York City may have started this as a cheaper substitute to Irish bacon.
  6. Chicago dyes its river green. Youngstown never had to–the Mahoning was always kind of green. Not any more.
  7. St. Patrick’s Day Parades. This is a custom in many cities with Irish populations. In Youngstown, the parade actually started after we moved away, and is celebrating its 41st anniversary this year. For more info, here is the official website.

Seven is a lucky number and so this seems a good place to stop. I will be celebrating the day. My great-grandmother’s maiden name was Corrigan, which makes me 1/8th Irish. Again, it’s probably about the only time of the year I think about it. But on St. Patrick’s Day, it is a good day to be Irish, no matter your genealogy. Erin go Bragh!

Review: The World in Six Songs

the world in six songs

The World in Six SongsDaniel J. Levitin. New York: Dutton, 2008.

Summary: Proposes that all the world’s songs can be grouped into six categories, and explores the evolutionary, cultural, and musical reasons for each category.

According to Daniel J. Levitin, I could reorganize the music in my collection into six categories–at least the music meant to be sung.

They are songs of:

  1. Friendship: These are the songs that emphasize the bonds within a group, from the classic “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” to protest songs like “For What It’s Worth” that promoted solidarity around a cause.
  2. Joy: Songs that express delight, the thrill of a wonderful experience, or of just being alive. These include everything from ad jingles like “Sometimes I feel like a nut” to “You are My Sunshine” and often have a TRIP structure (Tension, Reaction, Imagination and Prediction). Singing these songs often releases endorphins  and oxytocin, hormones often release during peak physical experiences including sex.
  3. Comfort: These are the cathartic songs that lift our spirits in times of crisis, from “God Bless America” (during the aftermath of 9/11) to many country and blues songs, that comfort through the release of prolactin, a hormone associated with crying replacing sorrow with a kind of peacefulness and hopefulness for the future.
  4. Knowledge: Many of these are songs that convey information that help us learn everything from the alphabet (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) to counting songs like “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to “Thirty Days Hath September.” He explores why sung words are so readily remembered (as I found out the Karaoke night when I got called out to sing “American Pie” and discovered I knew most of it from memory!).
  5. Religion: He includes here all the songs we use for the important rituals of our lives such as “Pomp and Circumstance” and “The Wedding March” and why they are not appropriate outside certain settings. He proposes evolutionary origins behind why music may be so powerfully connected to the rituals that express ultimate human concerns.
  6. Love: He explores the paradoxical quality of the romantic songs we sing and how they often express some ideal version of real human relationships. Yet there are others that express more realistically the choices in love, such as Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” the line being one between marital faithfulness and philandering.

The author is a researcher in Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, but has also worked as a professional musician and music producer. What is surprising is that this is not a research-based book. There is no research by Levitin or others cited to justify his six categories. It seems, rather that this is simply his own conceptual schema, which he fills out in this book. Chapters are made up of a mix of musical examples, musical anecdotes including interviews with musicians ranging from Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon to David Byrne and Sting. He also incorporates speculative theory on evolutionary origins of particular aspects and effects of music, and draws on cognitive research on the neurophysiology of music, a field where he has made his own contributions, as may be found on his website.

I found this an interesting but rather “rambling” book. The particular song type of each chapter seems just a starting point for a wide-ranging mix of research, song lyrics and anecdote, that doesn’t always seem well connected, but certainly reflects his wide experiences playing with bands like Blue Oyster Cult, visiting the hotel suite where John Lennon, Yoko Ono, staged their “bed-in” and recorded “Give Peace a Chance,” as well as his explorations of evolutionary biology and cognitive research.

I came across a small factual error where he refers to the four “student protesters” (p. 69) who were killed at Kent State. In actual fact, only two of the four were protesters, the other two were students in the vicinity walking between classes who were not part of the protests. This factual inaccuracy (easily checked online) led me to wonder about the author’s method and how much he relied on recollection as opposed to carefully documented and cross-checked research. I would probably place the highest confidence in those areas most directly related to his own field of cognition.

One of the most moving sections was in his chapter on “Religion.” He writes of attending his Jewish grandmother’s funeral and the powerful effect of singing a version of Psalm 131. He writes:

“It was not the memorial speeches that brought us to tears, not the lowering of her casket into the ground, but the haunting strains of that hymn that broke through our stoic veneer and tapped those trapped feelings, pushed down deep beneath the surface of our daily lives; by the end of the song, there wasn’t a dry cheek among our group. It was this event that helped all of us accept the death of my grandmother, to mourn appropriately, and ultimately, to replace rumination with resolution. Without music as a catalyst, as the Trojan horse that allowed access to our most private thoughts–and perhaps fears of our own mortality–the morning would have been incomplete, the feelings would have stayed locked inside us, where they might have fermented and built up tension, finally exploding out of us at some distant time in the future and for no apparent reason. Grandma was gone; we had shared the realization and etched it in our minds, sealed with a song” (p. 228).

While Levitin’s ideas sometimes get lost in his rambling narratives, his categories and discussion do help us understand the different ways that music powerfully works in our lives, and what might be going on in our brains as it does so.

 

Review: The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom

book of isaiah and God's kingdom

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew T. Abernethy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A thematic approach to understanding Isaiah organized around the idea of ‘kingdom’ exploring the nature of the king, the agents of the king, and the realm and people of the king as elaborated throughout the book.

If you have ever attempted to study, teach, or preach the book of Isaiah, you understand what a challenge it is to wrap your mind around the 66 chapters of this book. Andrew T. Abernethy thinks that a thematic approach to the book can help with our overall understanding. The theme he develops throughout Isaiah is that of God’s kingdom.

For those looking for a discussion of the authorship of Isaiah (single or multiple), this is not your book. What Abernethy does is take a synchronic approach which looks at the finished product of the book as a whole, while still noting the distinctive character of chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. Likewise, while organizing his biblical theology of Isaiah around kingdom, he avoids flattening out the contours of the book. He takes a canonical approach to Isaiah without reading the book through an exclusively Christological lens.

He begins with Isaiah 1-39, observing God as both present and future king, reigning in holiness, seen in all his future beauty as judging and ruling on Zion, and in the present delivering from Sennacherib. Isaiah 40-55, speaking to exiles proclaims the good news of God as the only saving king. Isaiah 56-66 then presents God as the warrior king, showing compassion on faithful outsiders, and ruling over the nations as cosmic king.

Chapter 4 particular reflects Abernethy’s willingness to understand Isaiah on its own terms as he considers the “agents” of the kingdom. Rather than simply reduce them to a single kingly or messianic figure (Jesus!), he takes the text on its own terms and discusses three distinct agents, the Davidic ruler, the servant of the Lord, and the Spirit empowered anointed messenger. While a canonical approach sees the fulfillment of all of these in Christ, by allowing for the distinctive character of these three agents not to be merged into one in Isaiah, one sees all the more the splendor and greatness of Christ, who encompasses all three agents in his person.

Chapter 5 then considers the kingdom realm, noting both the focal point of Zion, to which all the nations come and yet the international, indeed cosmic extent of this realm. He then concludes the book by raising the idea that the theme of the kingdom and its many faceted elaboration is meant to encourage the readers of Isaiah, then and now to a richer and fuller imagination of what this kingdom rule is like. For Christians we see its fulfillment, now and yet to come, in Christ, the church as God’s living temple, looking forward to the Zion of the New Jerusalem. Following this conclusion, Abernethy provides two different teaching outlines for how one might teach Isaiah along the lines this book has developed.

Abernethy’s book makes a good complement to John Goldingay’s The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (reviewed here). Both authors take a synchronic approach to Isaiah, but Goldingay only considers the book from the horizon of Isaiah’s first readers, and not through a canonical lens. They reach different conclusions about the servant in Isaiah, but also recognize many of the same themes in the book–particularly the holy King of Israel amid the nations, and the ways this king will come as warrior, and judge, and savior. What Abernethy’s book most helpfully models is the process of both reading Isaiah in its own setting, and as part of the biblical canon, without slighting either of these. This makes the book a wonderful resource for the pastor-theologian, or anyone else who would make the attempt to scale the challenging and wonderful mountain that is the book of Isaiah. Abernethy helps us see that it is indeed Zion that we are ascending, to encounter the great King.

 

Review: The Next Worship

The Next Worship

The Next WorshipSandra Maria Van Opstal (foreword by Mark Labberton). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Using the language of an international table, this book gives both theological basis and practical help in leading Christian communities into multi-cultural and multi-lingual worship led by empowered multi-ethnic worship teams.

It does not seem so long ago when we were hearing of “worship wars” that consisted of conflicts between those who favored traditional (i.e. hymns) worship with choirs, piano and organ and those who favored contemporary music with guitars, keyboards, and percussion. While some churches are still wrestling with these different styles, the culture has moved on as the world has come to our neighborhoods. South Asians, Chinese and Koreans, African Americans, Latinos, and people from Middle Eastern countries all live in my neighborhood, have restaurants in our community, and at least sometimes turn up in our church.

Sandra Van Opstal uses the analogy of food to help us understand that our forms of worship are just as “ethnic” as those of other groups. We may consider PB & J to just be “food” but for many it is “American” food. For those who are from Mexico, what we consider Mexican food is just “food.” Similarly “normal” worship looks very different in very different cultural contexts. If our hope is that our churches begin to look like our communities, it means that we begin to worship in ways that are more “normal” for others, that say, “this is your table, too.”

She tells the stories of churches who have made these transitions. For those from Columbus, she features my good friend Katelin Hansen, and the multi-cultural worship she leads at The Church for All Peoples on the south side of Columbus. Many know Katelin for her blog, By Their Strange Fruitwhich focuses on racial reconciliation and issues of justice. Sandra features the work Katelin and many other worship leaders are doing in bringing together leaders from different cultural backgrounds and intentionally leading their churches into solidarity in worship with the different cultures in their neighborhood, and around the world.

Transitioning to this style of worship isn’t easy. Van Opstal charts the process from the first steps of reconciliation to hospitality (“we welcome you”), to solidarity (“we stand with you”), to mutuality (“we need you”). She traces the different options in worship that may be pursued. She discusses different types of worship teams, from monocultural teams with a strong leader who does all the planning  to multi-cultural teams with shared planning and leadership. She outlines four models of multi-ethnic worship from Acknowledgement (a dominant style with hints of others) to Blended (the equal representation of two or more styles) to Fusion (mixing styles or creating original music) and Collaborative Rotation (where leaders and teams are rotated and host worship in their own cultural style).

Van Opstal, who herself has led worship in a variety of settings from Urbana Missions Conferences and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students World Assembly (where I’ve seen her in action) to mainline churches talks about the different elements that go into a worship service and how she works with teams in planning. More than this, she talks about the challenging work of culture change and discerning how to work sensitively with different groups. She writes helpfully about avoiding “whiplash” where so many styles and languages are introduced at once that people are bewildered.

What I appreciated throughout was the model Van Opstal gives of honesty, vulnerability, and self-understanding. She writes at one point in chapter two:

Let’s face it, my Mandarin stinks! I’d rather sing in Spanish. I’d prefer to pray in English. I really like to move during worship, which would likely be a distraction in many of the churches or college chapels I visit. Crosscultural worship is just what it sounds like: we are crossing over (a bridge) to another way of doing things, which creatures of habit rarely like to do. As Spencer Perkins, the late reconciliation leader and coauthor of More Than Equals, used to say, “Bridge building hurts!” Not only are we crossing a bridge, we are also acting as a bridge for other people to cross, which means we are always getting stepped on. It takes commitment and intentionality; it’s a decision to act. . . .”

I would commend this book for any Christian community from student fellowships to established congregations (particularly in neighborhoods of changing demographics). It offers very practical help for those who lead worship (and be prepared for challenges to the Cult of the Worship Leader!) but should also be read by pastoral teams and church leadership preparing to wade in these waters. For such groups, each chapter includes discussion questions. There are also nine appendices at the end covering everything from worship movements and artists to various order of service examples to practical help in teaching a language song.

This book is real. It is inspiring. And it is tremendously practical, reflecting the author’s wide ranging experience in leading and coaching others to lead multi-ethnic worship. Some of the experiences I’ve had when I’ve observed her leadership have been “foretastes of heaven” as one begins to see what it will be like to worship with the nations of the earth. I can’t help but think that such foretastes are one of most compelling testimonies of the greatness and grace of our global God. My hope is that through this book, the nations will rejoice!

Review: Musicophilia

MusicophiliaMusicophiliaOliver Sacks. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

Summary: Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles the neuroscience of music–the various ways music affects the brain, and the unusual effects of various neurological conditions on our perception, performance, and experience of music.

Oliver Sacks died on August 30 of this year. A few months earlier, my son gave me this book, and it seemed especially appropriate to pull it off the “to be read” pile and acquaint myself with the work of this neuroscientist and physician. Before opening the book, I had one of those heart-stopping moments as I found myself staring at the cover picture of Sacks and thought I was looking at a doppelganger! I guess balding men with graying beards, glasses and a certain shape of head can look a bit like each other.

What Sacks does is chronicle the fascinating ways music and the brain interact and some of the unusual conditions that involve unusual responses to music. In the course of this book he explores a range of phenomena beginning with a sudden onset of musical interest following a lightening strike, the ways music might evoke seizures or suppress the tics of Tourettes or the shaking of Parkinson’s. He wonders whether the advent of iPods will result in more brainworms–those tunes we can’t get out of our heads.He describes musical hallucinations, where one hears music in one’s head even when none is playing.

He explores musicality from tone deafness to perfect pitch (which occurs more in musical families and where musical training begins early) and synesthesia, where music is associated with color. He explores the connections between music, memory and movement. He describes Clive, who because of brain infection that affected his temporal lobes lives in a perpetual present with no memory of past moments. Yet somehow he remembers music he knew in the past.

Perhaps a highlight of the book was his description of a camp for people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the development of the brain resulting in low IQs and yet incredible verbal and musical skills. He describes the delight these people had in talking and making music with one another.

In one of the concluding chapters he describes the work done with Alzheimer’s patients and how, for them as well, music is a connection to memories of the past, and an anchor to their no-longer remembered lives that is profound. He talks about “the loss of self” and how music helps Alzheimer’s patients connect to some sense of “self” when the other memories are gone.

The book left me in wonder at the intricacies of the human brain and how the neural circuitry related to our perception, memory of, and making of music interact with speech, thought, emotion, and other memories. And it reminded me of the power of music–a power to evoke emotions, memories, and even to address troubling neurological conditions. It reminds me of how when I am learning, singing and performing a piece of music, I find myself tapping into a different aspect of who I am from when I am simply speaking or writing or reading. And I found myself thankful for the life of Oliver Sacks, who cared for people with troubling conditions and brought together his love for his patients, his skills in research, and his own musicality and life history into this fascinating narrative of music and the human brain.

A War on Public Education?

Yesterday, I came across an article in our local paper that I found alarming. It seems that our State (of Ohio) Board of Education is seeking to relax a rule that requires all of our state schools to provide 5 of 8 of the following services in our schools: elementary art, music or physical education teachers, school counselors, library media specialists, school nurses, social workers and “visiting teachers.”

What was deeply concerning to me is that this represents both a narrowing of our idea of “education” to what is tested on proficiency tests, and seems to eliminate some of the activities that make an education experience rich for our children. It also strikes me that some of the services like counselors and librarians play an important part in helping kids, especially from low income backgrounds stay in school and get into college.

State board of education members by district

State board of education members by district

What was also unsettling to me was how unrepresentative our State Board of Education is of the population they are serving. From what I can tell, only one of the nineteen members is a person of color. At most, only three come from the large urban school districts in our state, yet I suspect these rule changes could have the greatest effect on these districts and the economically disadvantaged students in these districts. Richer districts that can support these programs with property taxes would seem more likely to continue them.

A couple of my posts this week have dealt with the continuing challenge of overcoming the class and racial divides in our society. I am deeply concerned that these rule changes reflect at best a lack of grasp of how these changes will deepen the divides of race and class in our state.

I am also saddened that art, music, and physical education are considered “dispensable”.  In an era where obesity and diabetes are childhood diseases, physical education seems more important than ever. Fit minds without fit bodies just doesn’t make sense. Also, it seems that artistic intelligence is key to many technological innovations as well as enriching our lives. One of the things Steve Jobs taught us is that the aesthetics of our technology matter as much as their function.

At large members

At-large members of State Board of Education

Do I think public education is the best it can be? Hardly! Do I think people should have the right to home school or send children to private schools? Yes. But both I and my son were publicly educated and the services that could be cut played important parts in our lives and success. I’m concerned that changes in rules like this will gut the the existing quality of our public schools. I don’t want to see public schools gutted and education farmed out to for-profit schools. This has been highly ineffective at the university level and of questionable effectiveness at primary and secondary levels. All of us try to get our kids into the best schools possible. That won’t stop. The question is whether we will continue to support quality public education for those who can’t afford private options or don’t have the time to home school because of needing to work.

I sincerely hope the representatives of our State Board of Education will remember that they serve ALL the citizens of Ohio. I sincerely hope they will pursue policies that bridge the real divides between classes and races that still exist in our state rather than accentuate them. This, too, I think, would have been part of Dr. King’s dream.

Singing Bernstein and Beethoven

I’ve had the privilege to spend the weekend singing Bernstein and Beethoven with Capriccio! Columbus and the Central Ohio Symphony. We sang Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, which are portions of several Psalms sung in Hebrew! Then comes the choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy”, sung in German (who says I’m not multi-lingual, at least with a score in front of me!).

256px-Leonard_Bernstein_1971

The Bernstein piece was relatively new to me and there is a very challenging part for the men in the second movement. The women sing Psalm 23 and it is beautiful, peaceful music that includes a child or counter-tenor solo. Then we come in singing Psalm 2 where David writes, “Why do the nations rage” and indeed, we are speaking with rage and derision. But the women (and the Shepherd Lord of Psalm 23) have the last word.

Beethoven

Then there is Beethoven. I’ve listened to this piece since I was young and dreamed of singing it. It is an incredible experience to be in the midst of a large choir behind a live orchestra. As exhilarating as the fourth movement is, the opening violin part had me at the first bars and to sit and watch the orchestra converse back and forth, to wax and wane in intensity and build up to the final movement–wow! And then comes the moment when you stand along with the soloists and after a baritone solo, sing those title words, “freude, freude” (joy, joy) at the top of your lungs–and off you go!

For someone who never did more than sing in a few church choirs until six years ago, this is joy indeed!

Reading as Art?

I’ve sung from the time I was a kid. Most of us do, even if only in the shower or in the car when our favorite song comes on. In Buckeye town, we sing “Carmen Ohio” and “Hang on Sloopy” at games. Likewise, I’ve read since I was young. As I thought further about my post on “Reading Musically” it caused me to wonder if reading can be on one level something most of us do, even if it is only ads and road signs, and on another level, something we do artfully?

What are some marks of artful reading? Here are a few starting thoughts:

1. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, it is attentive reading–reading where we give our full attention to the page. When I am engaged in choral singing, I have no bandwidth for anything else than the work–and maybe not even enough sometimes!

2. Artful reading grows in our capacity to observe the writer’s art in all its varieties of use of language, argument and rhetoric, plot development, etc.

3. Good reading grows in awareness of the conversations and conventions that make up a work. Just as there are particular rhythms and thematic elements in various forms of music, the more we read, the more we recognize how writers interact with each other.

4. Reading as an art creates something out of what is read. If nothing else, it creates richer mental furniture in our lives. Perhaps it inspires or even changes our thinking and behavior. For me, the experience of singing Brahm’s Requiem was transformative, particularly Brahms’ passages about the resurrection. Likewise, books like Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country have been part of a journey for me in learning to love my own land and to pursue healing in our own troubled racial history.

5. Artful reading, like other forms of art shares its fruit, in book discussions, in reviews, in passing along a good book to a friend. When I have rehearsed a piece that I love, I want people to come hear us.

Just a few thoughts on this.  I wonder what you think. Are these just the crazy reflections of a bibliophile? Or is there something to this, perhaps even something in danger of becoming a lost art?