Poems for All Nations: Part III

In part three of her research paper about Czech composer Smetana and his work Ma Vlást, Caroline Bennett has at last reached my favorite part of the composition: the second movement known as Die Moldau.  If you’re just joining us, here are Part I and Part II of the paper.

Kniha "VLTAVA - Libor Sváček" - vydání 1., rok 2011
The Vltava (known in German as Die Moldau) River flows into the Elbe

The second movement of Ma Vlást is perhaps the most well-known of all. This is not only due to its intricate orchestration, but also because its subject is that of the Czechs’ most beloved river. Though commonly called by the German name Die Moldau, the Czech name of the river is the Vltava.[1] Smetana was likely inspired to write about the Vltava when he visited the Šumava valley in 1867, and saw the two streams that join and eventually become the sweeping river. A friend later wrote that it was there that Smetana “heard the gentle, poetic song of the two streams…and within him sounded the first two chords of the two motives which intertwine and increase and later grow and swell into a mighty melodic stream.”[2]

Without a doubt, Smetana composed effective motives for imitating the flow of water, but there is some dispute over what inspired the main melody of the piece, a rising and falling figure, often played by the strings, that symbolizes the Vltava. The melody bears a strong resemblance to the Swedish folksong “Ack Varmeland, du skona,” as well as to a plethora of central European folksongs.[3] Most striking, however, is its similarity to an Italian piece called “La Mantovana,” which also inspired the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah.” It is impossible to know specifically which of these songs Smetana was thinking of as he wrote Vltava, but regardless, it reveals his familiarity with different musical cultures and his ability to adjust songs to create the perfect melody for his compositions.

Vyšehrad
Vyšehrad

Smetana’s genius for combining melody with story is demonstrated throughout Vltava. In the opening bars, Smetana uses the flutes to imitate the first source of the river by having them play fluttering upward passages. Soon after, the flutes are joined by the clarinets, representing the river’s second source with a downward moving figure.[4] After the main theme is introduced, indicating the joining of the two streams, Smetana depicts the river’s integration into daily Czech life by reflecting a series of images—forests, weddings in the countryside—through an ever changing key center. At first the entire orchestra can be heard, but slowly the volume dies away as instruments drop out. Just when it seems that the instruments will completely fade out, a lively dance is introduced by the strings, as a group of water-nymphs dance in the moonlight by the water.[5] Then, just as suddenly, the key changes to minor and the audience is immersed in only the moonlight and the flowing of the river as it passes by ruined castles from long ago. The echoes of horns are a reminder of the former glory of the castles. The horns crescendo as they reintroduce the main theme, and the instrumental parts divide, signaling that the river enters the St. Johns Rapids. Leaving the rapids behind, the flowing lines of the music return as the Vltava enters a broad stream. Smetana has the river pass by the towering castle Vyšehrad by introducing the “glory” theme previously heard in Vyšehrad.[6] Finally, the music dies away, much like it began, as the Vltava flows into the Elbe river.

[1] Brown, “Folk Consciousness,” 48.

[2] Clapham, Smetana, 108.

[3] Clapham, Smetana, 80.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Bartos, Letters, 264.

[6] John Clapham, “Bedřich Smetana,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980), xvii: 399.

Photograph of Vltava and Elbe rivers from http://www.visitstrednicechy.cz/en/central-bohemia-the-central-elbe-and-melnik-areas/30/

Fado

On our last night in Lisbon, Portugal, my brother, myself, and 10 other world travelers made our way to the upstairs dining table at a small local restaurant. After filling up glasses of wine and beer, accompanied by sides of bread, cheese, and fried cuttlefish, the lights were dimmed. Soon, in came two guitar players accompanied by a couple singers, and thus began a night of Fado music.

Fado is a Portuguese genre of music originating in Lisbon during the early part of the 19th century. Meaning ‘fate’ in Portuguese, this genre is often characterized by bitter sweetness -missing something that has passed on. However, this westernizing of the translation doesn’t really capture the full depth of the meaning, because not all Fado can be characterized as sad. An example our guide gave was: “It is like being sad to leave Lisbon to have to return home, but at the same time looking forward to getting back and being excited about the future”.  The Fado we heard was very much about setting a mood: the lights were dimmed, and the style of singing of both the male and female singers was very emotional.

After performing for two twenty minute sessions, the musicians retired, and the night was over. One by one various members of the group headed back to hotels and hostels through the moonlit streets of Lisbon with the haunting sounds of Portuguese music lingering in their ears.

The Forgotten Norse

In 1898, Olof Ohman was pulling stumps on his Minnesota farm when he encountered a particularly resistant tree.  Digging away at its roots, he found a large 202 pound stone lodged beneath the tree (Holand 97, 100).  The stone was covered in Norse runes.  Little did Ohman realize that his discovery would turn out to be the Kensington Stone, one of many examples of the far-reaching and important effect the ancient Norse had on the world.

When asked to list important world cultures, many people would think of the Greeks and Romans; few people realize the significant effect the Norse had as well.  From books like The Lord of the Rings to everyday words, the Norse influence is evident everywhere.  Understanding how the Norse affected the world is valuable because they impacted civilization by leading the way in exploration, shaping European politics, and influencing culture.

Rollo
Rollo

To begin with, the Norse changed the world through their feats of exploration.  According to maps of the Middle Ages, the area which the Norse settled now includes at least 17 modern day countries (Wiseman).  The Norse tribes had several prominent leaders who led the Norse expansion across Europe, and one of these was Rollo, who founded Normandy in 911 A.D. (Jones 229).  Rollo was the ancestor of William the Conqueror who took over England in 1066.  Two other important Norse explorers were Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson (Quinn 24-26).  Erik the Red led a group of Norse to settle in Iceland.  From there, Leif sailed even further west to the coast of North America and is credited as the first European to have discovered North America.  While these are the most famous Norse voyages, the existence of the Kensington Stone reveals that the Norse continued their explorations for centuries afterwards.

In addition to accomplishing feats of exploration, the Norse impacted European politics and government.  According to Winston Churchill in The Birth of Britain, two Norse leaders ruled England and established dynasties there (Churchill 140, 167).  The Norse played an important role in the history of other dynasties, as well.  For example, a Norse tribe called the Varangians settled in the eastern part of modern day Russia, and their leader Rurik established the Kievan Rus dynasty, which eventually ruled all of Russia (“Rurik”).  Another way in which the Norse shaped government was by introducing new forms of government.

Althing
Thingvellir, Iceland, where the first Althing met

The Norse in Iceland established the first parliament in the world, called the Althing (“Althing”; Derry 33), and the Norse also contributed to the development of the Russian city of Novgorod, which was Russia’s first and only republic and a major trading center in the Middle Ages (Marumu).

By beginning dynasties, conquering countries, and establishing new forms of government, the Norse clearly affected the world.  Not only did they lead the way in exploration and shape nations, though; the Norse also affected culture.  First_Single_Volume_Edition_of_The_Lord_of_the_RingsAccording to language professors Elaine Treharne and A. A. Sokolsky, the Norse influenced the languages of England and Russia (Treharne 1; Sokolsky 11).  In a news article, BBC reporter Jayne Lutwyche explained that the origins of the English names for six of the days of the week are Norse.  For example, Wednesday is derived from “Wotan’s day,” and Thursday comes from “Thor’s day.”  In addition to impacting language, the Norse affected many other aspects of culture.  Norse culture and myths have inspired epic poems like Beowulf, fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, movies like Thor, and television shows like The Vikings and Game of Thrones.

The Norse broke over Europe like a tsunami, spreading far and soon disappearing from the surface, yet in their wake, they left a significant mark on cultural traditions, politics, and exploration.  Their influence is not merely a part of the past, though.  The effect of the Norse continues on in the modern world, for the Norse have inspired feats of exploration that led men to the North Pole, shaped nations that are now major world leaders, and created culture, stories, art, and words that remain in people’s lives today.  Like the Kensington Stone, the Norse impact on the world is often buried beneath the surface and forgotten, but it continues to affect history and can be uncovered in some of the most surprising places.

Works Cited

“Althing.”  Encyclopædia Britannica, 20 Sep. 2016, britannica.com/topic/Althing.

Churchill, Winston.  The Birth of Britain.  Dodd, Mead & Company, 1956.

Derry, T. K.  A History of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.  University of Minnesota Press, 1979.

Holand, Hjalmar R.  Norse Discoveries and Explorations in America 982-1362: Leif Erikson to the Kensington Stone.  Dover Publications, 1968.

Jones, Gwyn.  A History of the Vikings.  Oxford University Press, 1968.

Lutwyche, Jayne.  “Why are there seven days in a week?”  BBC, 22 Jan. 2013, bbc.co.uk/religion/0/20394641.

Marumu.  “Brief History of Novgorod in Dates.”  Way to Russia.  4 May 2016, waytorussia.net/CentralRussia/Novgorod/History.html.

Quinn, David B.  North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlements:  The Norse Voyages to 1612.  Ed. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris.  Harper & Row Publishers, 1975.

“Rurik.”  Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition.  Literary Reference Center.

Sokolsky, A. A.  A History of the Russian Language.  Imp. Taravilla. Suc. de G. Sáez, 1965.

Treharne, Elaine.  “Legacy of the Vikings.”  BBC, 17 Nov. 2004, bbc.co.uk/history/trail/conquest/after_viking/legacy_vikings_01.shtml.

Wiseman, Howard.  “13 Centuries of the Nordic Peoples.”  ICT Griffith University, 19 Feb. 2010, ict.griffith.edu.au/wiseman/Nordic/Nordic-13centuries.html.

A Good (Sleepy) Story

Well, I may be something of an optimist, but I am also no fool.  I knew perfectly well that attempting to get a solid night’s sleep while camping at a music festival would present some challenges.  But I could handle it, I gamely assured my brother, my traveling companion.  Here’s some earplugs, just in case, he said anyway.  I tucked the earplugs away in my bag, and we set off for the main festival, intending, and having, a good time.

Midnight was rolling around, and neither of us really cared about the final performance of the night, so we ended up turning in earlier than the majority of the crowd.  In the sweet near-silence of an airy spring night, with only crickets and the nearby gurgling brook as punctuation, I curled up in my sleeping bag and determinedly closed my eyes.  Perhaps, if I fell asleep soon enough, I’d be too sound asleep to be woken up by the returning revelers.

Alas, it was not to be.  The crowd returned, and their incessant “YAK yak yak yak” SCREECH “YAK yak YAK yak” SCREECH “yak YAK YAK yak” SCREECH woke me up quite thoroughly.

So it begins, I thought, grimly.  Oh get a grip, I told myself.  You lived basically across the street from your college town’s bar district for two years.  If you could handle that discordant noise Thursday through Sunday on a regular basis, you can handle this.  Yes, so I can, I agreed, and began to fall back asleep.

Of course, I forgot to mention, this particular festival encourages folks to bring their acoustic instruments and to initiate jam sessions with all and sundry. So it was that I soon heard a double bass player began a line of notes that, in the words of the Charlie Daniels Band, sounded something like this:

BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM

Repeat to infinity, or the closest thing to it.

“Well, if the player knew eight notes, that’s actually not so bad…” a friend, a bass player himself, later protested.

“Eight notes, exclusively in that order,” I clarified.

“Oh,” said my friend.

Still, thought I, staring at a tent pole, at least the bass is an acoustic instrument.  I really can’t complain all that much.

BUMbumbumbumbumbumbumBUM, continued the bass player.  I closed my eyes…

…and opened them again when the violin began screeching along.  All right, perhaps that’s a bit harsh.  It actually sounded rather mellow, a soothing voice capable of swinging me to sleep, if I’d let it.  It worked, too, for a little bit.  I focused on the violin’s melody, and felt myself drifting away.

And that was when the trumpet started.

To describe its tone as “blaring” doesn’t quite cut it.  It sounded like a particularly peeved goose with a piercing array of pipes.  And I was going to wring its neck.

I sat up, disentangled myself from my tent, marched in the direction of the squawking trio, and in summary, Officer, that’s how I ended up wrenching a trumpet away from a complete stranger and tossing said trumpet in the nearby creek.  Now, can I go back to sleep, please?

Oh, all right.  In reality, Buttercup remembered the ear plugs her brother gave her, and managed to suck it up and doze fairly comfortably.  When she woke up a few hours later, the trio had ceased, and she actually slept fairly well.

She would have slept better, of course, if the solo bongo drum player hadn’t decided that what the world needed now wasn’t love, sweet love, it was his sweet solo bongo-ing. I think someone eventually told him to cut it out.  However, the fact that I didn’t toss said bongo drum in the creek first is, to be completely honest, a slight regret.  It would have made a good story, after all.

2017 Movie Trailers in Review

Instead of a movie review, today I’m going to review movie trailers! What makes a good movie trailer? Let’s figure that out.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

This trailer receives an A for music and sound. It’s an unconventional trailer in that it teases the plot of the film but also raises a lot of questions–why is it time for the Jedi to end, for instance? Those questions are what will drive audiences to the theater come December. This trailer strikes the perfect balance of being fun to watch, informative, and intriguing. 5/5

The Dark Tower

This trailer for the screen adaption of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series makes the movie look like it will be compelling. Primarily expository, this trailer spends a lot of time setting up the plot and characters of the film for viewers. This seems appropriate given that the series will be unfamiliar to many (unlike with Star Wars). The trailer also mentions Stephen King, which might give audiences a sense that the story will be interesting. However, I believe the trailer lacked a sense of mystery. After watching the trailer, I don’t really have any burning questions I want to go to the theater to have answered. That said, the concept and actors may be enough to sell the film. 3/5

Spiderman: Homecoming

This trailer has three main goals: introduce the new Spiderman, introduce the villain, and promise viewers a fun adventure. It accomplished those goals for the most part, leaving me with a strong sense that I know what the movie will be like. Is it as intriguing as The Last Jedi trailer? I don’t think so, but that’s forgivable.

That said, the music and sound were good, and the trailer includes a tag after the title reveal at the end of the trailer with a humorous sound byte, presumably designed to generate a laugh from the audience right before the screen goes black and the next trailer begins in a theater: it’s a clever technique used by a lot of trailers. 4.5/5

The Mummy

This trailer hits a lot of good notes–it’s informative, intriguing, and even has a well-chosen song by the Rolling Stones playing ominously in the background. The Mummy franchise is a bit old, but studios are hoping that Tom Cruise will be able to reinvigorate it. A question I have after watching the trailer: why is the Mummy so interested in Tom Cruise’s character? This trailer strikes a great balance of showing what the movie is about yet also not revealing too much. 5/5

Wonder Woman

This trailer is fairly expository, which is fitting given that the creators are trying to sell the concept to an audience that needs to be won over: what about this film should make us want to see it? Well, World War I, for one thing. The trailer seems to set the film up as a prequel narrated by Diana about her involvement in World War I. This trailer promises everything–explosions, drama, romance, suspense, and humor. Notice that this trailer, like the one for Spiderman: Homecoming, puts a 15 second clip after the title reveal at the end of the trailer to generate a laugh from the audience. It’s a recurring technique.

I also really enjoy the music and sound of the trailer; the only thing that could have been stronger is a sense of mystery, perhaps around the villain. 4.5/5

Blade Runner 2049

I evaluated this trailer from the perspective of someone familiar with the general plot of the original Bladerunner, but who hasn’t seen it. This trailer weighted itself very heavily on the side of mystery. Very little (anything?) is revealed about the plot of the film. In fact, what is shown in the trailer could very well be simply the first few minutes of the film. After that, anything could happen!

Instead of taking a summary approach, this trailer focuses instead on identifying the people behind the film (executive producer Ridley Scott and director Denis Villeneuve) and the two main actors–Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. Perhaps the PR team behind this trailer is banking on Bladerunner fans and the prestige of the creators and actors to draw audiences to the theater. It may work, but speaking as someone who is unfamiliar with the Bladerunner story, I think the trailer should have revealed more about the film. 4/5

Conclusion

In addition to introducing the story and characters and providing a tease, some trailers artfully mislead audiences, making the films more of a surprise, as in this trailer for La La Land (Without spoiling, there’s a scene in the trailer that is different than in the film). This would be a fun technique to evaluate, but can’t be done until the above films hit theaters.

Until then, happy trailer-watching!

Poems for All Nations: Part II

This is the second installment in Caroline Bennett’s “Poems for All Nations” research paper on Bedřich Smetana.  To read part one, click here.

1200px-PragueCityscape
Prague, Czech Republic

Bedřich Smetana was born during this tumultuous period in Czech history, on the morning of March 2, 1824. Though he lived in Bohemia, Smetana was essentially raised as a German, and did not speak or write any Czech for much of his life.[1] Smetana’s father, Frantiŝek Smetana, recognized Bedřich’s musical talent from an early age and ensured that his son received an excellent musical education, beginning with the violin at the age of three.[2] By the time Bedřich Smetana was eight he was also playing the piano and singing in a church choir, as well as writing some basic compositions.[3] In order to further his education, Smetana first attended a school in Prague and then moved to the town of Plzeň. It was here that he won renown as an excellent pianist.

Josef Proksch
Josef Proksch

Though he flourished musically, Smetana’s academics suffered due to his busy performance schedule.[4] Smetana eventually chose to drop out of school and pursue a career in music, despite his father’s misgivings. Smetana recorded in his diary on January 23, 1843: “By the grace of God and with his help I shall one day be a Liszt in technique and a Mozart in composition.”[5] Smetana moved back to Prague but quickly realized that he would need more proper musical training if he was to succeed in such a thriving city. Thus, he enrolled in theory lessons with Josef Proksch, one of the finest musicians in Bohemia.[6] While studying with Proksch, Smetana learned how to analyze and imitate the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, in addition to emulating more contemporary composers like Berlioz and Liszt.[7] Smetana dedicated himself to his studies with such tenacity that within three years he was ready to strike out on his own for good.[8] Smetana decided to give a brief concert tour in Europe before establishing his own music school in Prague.[9] He continued to devote himself to his compositions, and even wrote to Franz Liszt requesting his aid in publishing what he termed “a sketch.”[10]

Also during this time period, Smetana began displaying his patriotism: when rebellion broke out in Prague on June 11, 1848, Smetana quickly joined a corps and helped man the barricades.[11]

Gothenburgcity
Göteborg

The revolution was stifled like so many before, and Smetana decided to leave Prague for a while and go on a concert tour in Sweden. Though he intended for his visit to Sweden to be brief, he soon found that he was more sought after in Sweden than at home. He remained in Göteborg for many years, performing concerts, teaching piano and voice lessons,[12] and interacting with the social and musical life of the Swedes. It was during his sojourns away from Bohemia that Smetana heard the most recent works of Richard Wagner and fell in love with the way his music told stories and spoke to the emotions of audiences.[13]

Back home, the politics in the Czech lands were changing rapidly. The Austrian government was allowing more of Czech culture to surface, and there was suddenly a revived interest in the Czech language and arts.[14] Smetana quickly recognized an opportunity to establish himself further by developing a national music for Bohemia and the other Czech countries.  He returned to Prague for good in 1861. Smetana immediately set about writing operas in the Czech language to be performed in the newly-established Provisional Theatre.[15] Because of his recent exposure to a thriving musical society in Sweden, Smetana advocated the forming of music groups in and around Prague. He conducted an orchestra,[16] wrote many articles promoting Czech music, and composed for a variety of genres, including the first Czech national opera,[17] pieces for men’s chorus, overtures for puppet plays, and the like.[18] Early in his career Smetana had been indifferent to the fate of Czech culture; now its development and preservation was what he lived for each day.

Sadly, tragedy struck at this most prolific period of Smetana’s life. In 1874, as he was writing the first tone poem in the Ma Vlást collection, Smetana realized that he was losing his hearing.[19] By the end of the year he was completely deaf in both ears. He resigned his position as a conductor, and struggled to continue composing. Smetana’s frustration with his health often strained his relationships with his family and colleagues.[20] Nevertheless, his desire to write music and show his love for his homeland propelled him forward. He wrote to a friend in 1880, “I have tasted the bitterness of life in most abundant measure, as perhaps few others; but I have also experienced beautiful enchanting moments, yes, even sacred moments!”[21] Music was a constant source of joy to Smetana, and he continued his work as a musician until his death in 1884.

Vysehrad_as_seen_over_the_Vltava_from_Cisarska_louka
Vyšehrad

Smetana shares many of his joyful moments with audiences through Ma Vlást. It is both a touching and a thrilling piece, and like many of his compositions it is focused on the Czech lands. Immediately before beginning work on Ma Vlást, Smetana premiered another patriotic composition, the opera Libuše, which greatly influenced the writing of his symphonic poem cycle.[22] The setting for the opera is Vyšehrad, a rock that overlooks Prague, and the first tone poem Smetana wrote for Ma Vlást musically depicted Vyšehrad and the castle that looms over it. It took Smetana about seven years to write all of Ma Vlást, from approximately 1872 to 1879. Most of the movements were premiered separately: Vyšehrad (March 1875), Vltava (April 1875), Ŝárka (1876 or 1877), From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields (October 1875), and both Tábor and Blaník in 1880. When he finally completed and performed all of the tone poems together as a single unit in 1882, his audience recognized that he had written a masterpiece. Ma Vlást is powerful on many levels, and Brian Large notes that it “penetrates the very roots of Czech national feeling by celebrating everything that is dear to the people, their legends, landscapes, history and the prophetic vision of their future.”[23] Smetana recounts ancient Czech legends through the movements Ŝárka, Tábor, and Blaník, its landscapes in Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields, and history in Vyšehrad. Each of the movements reminds listeners of where the Czechs came from, and how throughout history they had fought for their homeland and freedom.

[1] Brian Large, Smetana (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 114.

[2] Ibid., 3-4.

[3] Ibid., 4-5.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Frantisek Bartos, Bedřich Smetana: Letters and Reminiscences, trans. Daphne Rusbridge  (Prague: Artia, 1955), 18.

[6] Large, Smetana, 24.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Vladimir Helfert, “Bedřich Smetana,” The Slavonic Review 3, no. 7 (June 1924), 4, accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4201826.

[9] John Clapham, Master Musician: Smetana (London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD, 1972), 20.

[10] Bartos, Letters, 25-26.

[11] Clapham, Smetana, 21.

[12] Ibid., 24, 26.

[13] Ibid., 28.

[14] Newmarch, Music of Czechoslovakia, 61.

[15] Clapham, Smetana, 31.

[16] Bartos, Letters, 105.

[17] Jim Brown, “The Role of Folk Consciousness in the Modern State: Its Efficacy, Use and  Abuse,” Storytelling, Self, Society 6, no. 1 Special Issue: Bhutan National Storytelling Conference (January-April 2010): 28, accessed September 20, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41949039.

[18] Clapham, Smetana, 33-34.

[19] Bartos, Letters, 150-151.

[20] G. A., “Review of Smetana by John Clapham,” Music & Letters 54, no. 1 (January 1973): 3-4, accessed September 20, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/734179.

[21] Bartos, Letters, 210.

[22] Large, Smetana, 262.

[23] Large, Smetana, 259.

Modern Crises and Charity

College brings together the strangest thoughts, ideas, and stories.  Just the other day, I was working on a presentation about the American Dream.  Wanting a nice picture to illustrate my title slide, I decided to look up photos of the Statue of Liberty.  One thing led to another, and I was suddenly thinking about Emma Lazarus’ famous poem.  I could only remember snatches, so I decided to read it again, and when I did so, news stories and recent conversations with Christian friends sprang to mind.

We Americans pride ourselves on being a land of opportunity, welcoming strangers to come and make a better life—or we once did.  That’s what the Statue of Liberty symbolized as it greeted immigrants entering America at Ellis Island.  But now we live in a time where many of us want to refuse safe harbor to others because we see them as a threat.  We want to turn back those masses which we once claimed to welcome.  Lazarus’ poem is very poignant as I read it now.

“The New Colossus”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Lazarus)

Statue_of_Liberty_7I’m not such an idealist or romantic that I deny the dangers of letting masses of people into our country.  Shutting ourselves off from the world isn’t the answer, though.  Erecting physical and bureaucratic walls and cutting ourselves off won’t keep us safe, for danger and terrorism can arise from inside a country as easily as they can penetrate it from without.

For Christians, I think the answer is somewhere in between the two extremes of keeping refugees out and indiscriminately letting them in.  The Bible calls us to charity and hospitality, to welcoming strangers and loving neighbors.  People seem to forget that the story of the Good Samaritan is about a man who helped a stranger of a different race and religion and in doing so put himself in danger of being attacked by the same robbers who had left the stranger for dead.

God’s Word also calls us to prudence and compassion, to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).  This is far easier said than done, but the Bible never claims being a Christian and obeying God is easy.  The Christian life requires discernment, faith, and sacrifice of safety.  Even when people take advantage of charity or return evil for good, these are no excuses for not ministering to those in need.  In Luke 6:29, Jesus commands his disciples, “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.”  Peter tells the Church, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:13-17).

While “The New Colossus” stems from 19th century American idealism, I think it can be a true wakeup call to modern Americans, especially Christians.  The time has come for us to renew the spirit of generosity that led to the penning of those lines, for if we lose sight of the principles and ideals that form the foundation of our nation, America will weaken and fall.  So, out of our abundance, let us share, let us offer homes to the homeless who seek our help, and let America once again be a land which offers opportunities for the diligent and welcomes refugees as a “Mother of Exiles” (Lazarus 6).

Works Cited

Lazarus, Emma.  “The New Colossus.”  National Park Service, nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001.  Print.

Some brief thoughts on death

And he [the thief] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” For the past several months my community group has been going through the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Through this study we have gotten to discuss and explore the Biblical basis for many different parts of our faith, and this past week one of the questions discussed was number 37, which deals with the benefits believers, at death, receive in Christ.

Up until last weekend, death was not a topic I had given much thought too. Maybe due to my age, or a general carelessness, the question of what exactly happens when we die had never crossed my mind with any seriousness. However, after reading through question 37 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the issue was placed front and center:

37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united in Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.

Here the topic of what happens to believers at death is addressed directly, and the answer is divided into two halves: the first focusing on the spirit, and the second on the physical body laid in the ground.

A good passage to read to understand the first half of the answer is Philippians 1:21-23, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Here we see that Paul believes that at death he will be with the Lord Jesus Christ in paradise. This is in contrast with many views such as those of Roman Catholicism, ‘spirit sleep’, and the idea that we just cannot ‘know’ what will happen after death.

Whenever looking at the second half of the answer, a good explanation to understand the importance of the physical body being united to Christ in hope of a future resurrection can be found in 1 Cor. 15:12-14, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” Here Paul demonstrates the importance of the physical resurrection. Unlike many religions, Christianity does not downplay or minimize the importance of the physical—after all God made man and woman with both souls and physical bodies in the beginning.

Death is something that men have feared for thousands of years, and yet the Bible shows us that God, in Christ, has made a way of life. By studying this catechism question, and more importantly the Biblical passages that it draws from, we are reminded even more of the love that God has shown us—a love that enshrouds his people now, in the grave, and ultimately to the end of times and the resurrection.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die, but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Romans 5:6-11

A Confession

Why did I do it, you ask?  Why is there now a corpse in the bedroom, befouling that soft, nice carpet?  What did you do to deserve it?  It’s quite simple, really.  Just a simple tale of revenge, with a bloody, deadly end.

You went away, again.  Leaving me, again, and again, like you always do.  You barely even said goodbye. Just a quick caress, then you shoved me aside and walked out the door, shutting it, locking it, making it clear I was not to follow.

You didn’t tell me where you were going.  Of course not.  You weren’t with me, so where else good could you be?

Sure, you were no kinder nor crueler the day before.  We ate breakfast.  We watched television.  I slept while you piddled with your instruments.  I’d tried to help make lunch, but you waved me away.  I tried again, but you wouldn’t let me near the sizzling meat.

You never like my help.  You like to do things yourself.  You want me near when you want companionship, but if I make too much racket you just chase me away.   You wander off, but if I do the same, you claim to “worry.”  Other times, you smother me, pulling at my hair and telling me what a mess I am.  You think I’m fickle?  It takes one to know one, wretch.

That’s why I did it.  That’s why I left that rat on the bedroom rug.  Let’s see you waltz in from a three day absence with a “Hey, kitty, kitty!” next time.  I will make you fear me yet.

Baking and the Bible

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. – Exodus 12:39

Reading through Exodus a couple weeks ago, I came to the passage that describes the Passover, and it struck me as interesting that God emphasized that the bread that the Jews ate during the Passover had to be unleavened.

Why was this? I decided to find out, and also to find other passages in the Bible that talk about baking.

A little leaven…

Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6

In 1st Corinthians, when Paul addresses the sexual immorality that is continuing in the Corinthian church, he commands the Corinthians to cast the unrepentant person from their midst, following this command with the explanation:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. – 1 Corinthians 5:6-8

From these passages, we see a theme developing: leaven (or yeast) is often representative of sin. It is analogous in the the way a little yeast can cause a whole lump of dough to rise: even seemingly minor sins can have a corrupting influence on a body of believers.

In thinking about this reality–that even small sins can have a large corrupting influence–I remembered a post I wrote a long time ago, about the little foxes. Drawn from the verse in Song of Solomon that states that “the little foxes spoil the vines,” this post was about how discipline in small areas of life can lead to greater discipline in more important areas of life.

The Bible confirms this idea with the analogy of leaven, and it’s a reminder for believers that in being transformed into the image of Christ, there is no aspect of life that we may leave untouched.

But can holiness have a “corrupting influence” as well?

In a related vein (at least in my mind), there is a Youtube series called The Bible Project that has published a series of videos explaining different biblical concepts, and their video on holiness makes a really interesting observation about holiness, drawn from the book of Isaiah:

In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord that fills him with dread because he recognizes his unworthiness to come before a holy God:

And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” – Isaiah 6:5-7

The video points out that this passage is surprising in that it shows something corrupt (Isaiah’s lips) becoming holy by coming in contact with something pure–a burning coal from the altar. This was a radical idea for Israel: contact with corruption could cause uncleanness, but contact with holy things didn’t accomplish the reverse.

Yet in Isaiah, we see the reverse of the corruption of the leaven. So even though we have seen that little sins can have a corrupting influence, we also see that holiness can be imparted to have a conversely transformative influence.

We, like the woman in Matthew 9, may touch the edge of Jesus’s garment, and be made well.