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.

Poems for All Nations: Part I

I am excited to present Caroline Bennett’s latest piece on music as she will be focusing on one of my favorite composers and compositions.  Because it is rather long, the research paper will appear in several installments.  Without further ado, here is part one.

Smetana

“I am not ashamed to reply to you in my mother tongue, however imperfectly, and am glad to be able to show that my fatherland means more to me than anything else.”—Smetana’s second letter written in Czech language, 11 March, 1860 (“Bedrich Smetana Biography”)

In the heart of Europe lies an expanse of land enclosed by low mountains. This expanse is a river basin, with several rivers passing through it and then draining into three different seas. Throughout the rolling hills are forests of towering trees, interspersed with ruined castles that recall days long ago. This region was once known as Bohemia, though it has since become a region of the Czech Republic. The ethereal geography of this land has long inspired poets and musicians, but none more so than Bedřich Smetana, a prominent Czech composer from the 19th century. 1200px-PragueCityscapeLike many other Czechs, Smetana was devoted to his homeland. His love for Czech life and culture is beautifully expressed in his symphonic poem cycle Ma Vlást, which is comprised of a number of tone poems depicting various landmarks and stories. The overarching theme for Ma Vlást is one of freedom, which was a pertinent topic at the time that Smetana wrote, for the Czechs were in the middle of a struggle to break away from the Austrian empire. It has been more than a century since Ma Vlást premiered, but Smetana’s most well-known composition continues to speak to audiences all over the world. He may have originally been writing to praise the loyalty and independence of the Czechs, but people of all times, all nations, and all backgrounds can grasp and appreciate love for one’s homeland and the struggle for freedom. In order to better understand Ma Vlást and its importance in the world, it is essential to know the fundamentals of Czech history, the life of Bedřich Smetana, the composition of Ma Vlást, and the most beloved of Smetana’s works: the symphonic poem Vlatva.

Music was a part of Czech culture long before Smetana was born. Rosa Newmarch, an English historian, writes that music was an important part of Czech life extending back to the Roman Empire. As Christianity spread across Europe, a lot of folk music was suppressed because of its origins in pagan ritual. Eventually, however, the church embraced music and ultimately became the primary source of music in the Czech lands for many centuries. Indeed, many of the most beloved Czech songs were written by men of the church, and even sung in services.[1]

Prague_07-2016_Smetana_MuseumSuch hymns became an important part of Czech history. “Ktož jsú boží bojovníci” (translated “Ye Who Are Warriors of God”) was initially used as a war song and later reminded Czechs of their long struggle for freedom.[2] Indeed, another of the reasons religious music was such an important part of Czech culture was the fact that for hundreds of years, the Czechs were struggling to maintain their independence from other empires and countries. As a result, “love-songs, drinking and dancing songs, did not accord with the grim struggles of conscience which then absorbed the Bohemian people.”[3] Unfortunately, the Czechs’ fight for freedom usually failed, and at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the Czech lands became a part of the Hapsburg-Austrian empire. Governed by foreigners for the next two centuries, the Czechs’ faith, language, and music were suppressed.[4] By 1848, however, the Czechs had had enough, and many rebelled against the Austrian government. The Czechs were brutally repressed,[5] but the independent spirit of the Czech people would not be stifled, and as the Austrian government weakened, the beautiful and unique culture of the Czechs returned in full force.

[1] Rosa Newmarch, The Music of Czechoslovakia (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1942), 4.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., Music of Czechoslovakia, 7.

[4] Maria Dowling, Czechoslovakia (London: Arnold, 2002), xiii.

[5] Ibid., xiv-xv.

Pick up a Pen and Write in Cursive Again

Several years ago, I was at a local high school preparing to take the PSAT.  We were filling out the personal information before the actual test when we reached a section that required us to copy out an honor code promising not to release information about the test.  The proctor explained that we would have to copy the honor code in cursive.  She sounded almost apologetic as she instructed us, and she told us “just try to do your best.”  While I was actually excited to write the honor code out as prettily and tidily as possible, many of the students around me groaned when they heard the instruction.  My experience was not unique.  In a 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal, high school junior Emily Freeman wrote, “The honor code was the hardest part of the whole [PSAT]…because it had to be written in cursive” (Freeman).  Cursive is disappearing because it is no longer being taught in most American schools.  Because the Common Core curriculum does not mandate cursive, many states and schools have dropped cursive education.  Little do people realize the importance of keeping cursive, for cursive has many benefits.

writing in cursiveOne of the clearest benefits of using cursive is that it improves learning.  One way cursive helps learning is by developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.  In a New York Times article, columnist Katie Zezima writes that pediatric occupational therapist Sandy Schefkind “said that learning cursive helped students hone their fine motor skills” (Zezima).  According to a Time article by Katy Steinmetz, another way in which cursive aids learning is that it activates different parts of the brain than print and typing do and often helps students remember information and generate ideas.  In addition, studies have shown that students who have learned cursive perform better on reading and spelling tests than students who have only learned manuscript writing (Steinmetz).  One reason for this may be because cursive connects letters together, helping the brain think of words as whole units instead of individual letters (Steinmetz).  Psychologist Dr. William R. Klemm says that cursive “is an important tool for cognitive development” and causes the brain to integrate “sensation, movement control, and thinking.”

spellingIn addition to improving learning, cursive can assist people with handicaps.  According to New York Times journalist Maria Konnikova, some people with dysgraphia, a condition in which writing is impaired, cannot write print yet can still write cursive with little impairment.  Another condition, called alexia, involves reading impairments, and once again, some people who cannot read print can read cursive, or vice versa (Konnikova).  Finally, cursive can help students with dyslexia.  According to Washington Post journalist T. Rees Shapiro, cursive is an important part of the work that academic therapist Deborah Spear does with dyslexic students.  Shapiro writes that “Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.”  Because “b” and “d” in cursive are formed very differently, people with dyslexia are less like to confuse them.  Also, the left-to-right flow of cursive keeps dyslexic students from accidentally reversing letters.  According to a PBS news article by Elizabeth Jones and April Brown, learning cursive has helped students improve in school and overcome some of the impediments of dyslexia.  Alec Falconer, a dyslexic student who went undiagnosed for almost ten years, began learning cursive and claims that doing so helped him in school, and he said, “My handwriting, my spelling, the way I put sentences together has definitely improved a lot” (Jones).

hybrid handwriting
The words in black ink are an example of hybrid handwriting.

A final way in which learning cursive is beneficial is that it expands people’s reading and writing possibilities.  Those who know cursive can read more historical and personal documents, such as the U.S. Constitution and handwritten letters from family.  Knowing cursive enables one to write personal and professional-looking letters.  In addition, according to graphologist Heidi H. Harralson, less complex handwriting is easier to forge than cursive (Zezima).  Thus, while cursive may often be harder to read than print, this also means that it is harder to forge.  A final benefit of cursive is that it enables people to create a personal penmanship.  According to Kate Gladstone, the director of the World Handwriting Contest, a 2012 survey of handwriting teachers at a conference showed that more than half the teachers wrote in a hybrid style of handwriting that combined cursive and print.  Once people have learned cursive and print, they can choose to create their own version by mixing the two styles and creating their own unique style that enables them to write with the most comfort and speed.  Thus, learning cursive can open up other handwriting possibilities and combinations, allowing for more creativity and personality in penmanship.

When I was little, my sister began learning cursive, and I began imitating her.  I filled notebooks with connected and repeating loops.  Then I proudly displayed my work to my family, telling them, “See, I’m writing in cursive!”  Learning cursive for real turned out to be a long, taxing process, but I am extremely glad I did.  I can see how writing in cursive has helped me be more artistic, improve my hand-eye coordination, and hone my fine motor skills.  If we really do allow cursive handwriting to disappear, it will be a loss both to education and to culture.  I hope that other children can enjoy the fascination I had with cursive and the benefits that it produces.  Let’s pick up our pens and write in cursive again so we can keep the skill that provides an important foundation for basic learning, development, and creativity.

Works Cited

Gladstone, Kate.  “Handwriting Matters; Cursive Doesn’t.”  The New York Times, 30 Apr. 2013, nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/04/30/should-schools-require-children-to-learn-cursive/handwriting-matters-cursive-doesnt.

Jones, Elizabeth and April Brown.  “How Cursive Can Help Students with Dyslexia Connect the Dots.”  PBS.org, 6 May 2014, pbs.org/newshour/updates/connecting-dots-role-cursive-dyslexia-therapy/.

Klemm, William R.  “Biological and Psychology Benefits of Learning Cursive.”  Psychology Today, 5 Aug. 2013, psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201308/biological-and-psychology-benefits-learning-cursive.

Konnikova, Maria. “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.”  The New York Times, 2 Jun. 2014, nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html?_r=0.

Shapiro, T. Rees.  “Cursive Handwriting Is Disappearing from Public Schools.”  The Washington Post, 4 Apr. 2013, washingtonpost.com/local/education/cursive-handwriting-disappearing-from-public-schools/2013/04/04/215862e0-7d23-11e2-a044-676856536b40_story.html?utm_term=.074ad2c44441.

Steinmetz, Katy.  “Five Reasons Kids Should Still Learn Cursive Writing.”  Time, 4 Jun. 2014, time.com/2820780/five-reasons-kids-should-still-learn-cursive-writing/.

Zezima, Katie.  “The Case for Cursive.”  The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2011, nytimes.com/2011/04/28/us/28cursive.html.

Photographs, in order of use:

http://www.statesymbolsusa.org/symbol-official-item/national-us/state-cultural-heritage/united-states-constitution

https://www.brainbalancecenters.com/blog/2014/09/brain-benefits-write-in-cursive/

http://thefederalist.com/2015/02/25/ten-reasons-people-still-need-cursive/

http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/topic/70986-trialling-the-namiki-falcon/

Some Theological Resources

As has been made quite apparent probably from previous posts, podcasts have become a staple of my weekly routine, and I am constantly on the lookout for new content from different people. Thanks to a friend, I have recently come across several from various denominational backgrounds but wanted to mention two of them here:

The Reformed Forum:

Hosted by (you guessed it) a group of Reformed pastors from all over the U.S., mostly from the OPC and PCA, this site seeks to offer solid analysis and discussion of theology from a Reformed perspective. The topics and discussion might be described as ‘academic’ to some degree, but this does not mean that they are not accessible or eminently practical. In fact, Reformed Forum is clear in their desire that theology should be practical and have feet—lived out and impactful in daily life.

The Thinking Fellows:

Hearkening from a Lutheran background, this podcast is currently doing a series on various Christians throughout church history. Beginning with Saint Augustine, Johan Arndt, and Gresham Machen, this series is looking to explore, at a high level, many different men throughout history who have played important roles in the growth and doctrines of the church. The show is very approachable, and in their archives they have many podcasts that discuss a variety of contemporary and theological topics from a Lutheran perspective.

As the Founding Fathers Intended

“I’m sorry to be so slow today, James, but could you please re-read Article 5 one last time?  I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around all that futuristic lingo.”  Mr. Lewis turned to his other companion.  “You don’t mind, Mr. Stevenson?  I’m sure your mind is quite made up, but I’m still coming to grips with how much technology will have changed in two hundred years!”

“Not at all.”  Mr. Stevenson nodded graciously.

“One moment, then, Mr. Lewis.”  James looked down at the paper in front of him, entitled the Technological Borders Freedom and Protection Act, located the section in question, and read it aloud.  He then looked expectantly at the two old gentlemen sitting across from him.

There was a pause, then the one who had first spoken, Mr. Lewis, sighed.  “I hope you’ll agree with me, Mr. Stevenson, but I, for one, never would have written a law like that.”

Mr. Stevenson nodded.  “Nor I.  I find it far too restricting, and I say have the good sense to leave well enough alone.”

“So, you did not intend a law like that?” James prompted.

“No, we did not intend that,” assented Mr. Stevenson.

With unconscious flourish, James clicked off the recording device next to him, turned to the computer, opened a document, and clicked print.  Two pieces of paper emerged from the printer slot, and he placed them in front of Mr. Lewis and Mr. Stevenson.  “Thank you, gentlemen, and you know the drill from here.  Please mark the box at the bottom labeled ‘Unintended’ and affix your signature on the line below that.”

“Where do these document go next?” Mr. Lewis inquired as he checked the appropriate item. “I know you’ve explained this process to me before, but I do grow so forgetful these days.”

“Well, gentlemen, I’ll send these documents and the transcript of your conversation off to our legal team, who will produce a nice, streamlined summation and amendment.  This will be sent onward to Congress for passage, though this, of course, is a mere formality, and then it will be officially added as an amendment to the Constitutional Volume, for our posterity to gratefully read and thereby direct their course of action by it.”  

Mr. Stevenson snorted as he passed his form back to James.  “Don’t be naive, James.  You know as well as I do that only half those reading it will be pleased, since they’ll now officially be on the right side of history and have the blessing of us, their forefathers.  The other half will be decidedly miffed and grumble about us old relics – quietly, of course.  It doesn’t do to speak too ill of the founders of your country, I imagine.”

Mr. Lewis also returned his paper.  “What year will this here Technology Act we’ve just read be passed?”

“In the year 3051,” replied James, “Exactly two hundred and five years in the future.  And now, gentlemen, it is time for lunch.”

“What are our afternoon engagements?” inquired Mr. Lewis.

“Another delegate, this time from the year 3052, and about the same topic, actually.  Apparently the representative who sponsored the act you just rejected tries to make another go of it the next year, with some modifications based on your feedback, of course.”

Mr. Stevenson sniffed. “Really?  This is his fourth attempt to craft such a law, and we’ve already shot down the other three.”

“I understand he is known for his persistence, sir.”

“Persistent does not equal mind-reader,” observed Mr. Stevenson, “for he has yet to correctly divine our intentions when we founded this country and wrote its laws.  I’m surprised his contemporaries don’t step in and cut him off at the chase, instead of wasting valuable resources sending delegates back in time to talk to us.”

“Quite so,” agreed Mr. Lewis.  “They’re just taking the easy way out.  But we founders aren’t getting any younger, you know, and our present time is not limitless.  One day they’re going to have to figure these things out for themselves, without sending travelers from the future to consult us.”

“I hope the day will not come too soon,” replied Mr. Stevenson.  “I must admit I do enjoy laughing at our posterity…they’d make such a mess without us.”

Beauties, Beasts, & Boycotts

The past two weeks have seen a spike in controversy surrounding the upcoming live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, both from Christians at home and Russians abroad. The controversy relates to the director stating in an interview that the film will have a gay character and a “nice, exclusively gay moment” towards the end of the film.

Since this statement, Franklin Graham and many others in the evangelical community have called for a boycott of Disney for pushing an LGBT agenda, and at least one theater has announced it will not be showing the film.

Over in Russia, the film has been given a 16+ rating. The Russian Culture Ministry gave the film this rating after Russian MP Vitaly Milonov petitioned them, writing in a letter to the ministry, “In this case, society cannot be silent about what film distributors are offering under the guise of a children’s tale…The obvious, blatant, shameless propaganda of sin, of perverted sexual relations.”

One left-leaning pastor named John Pavlovitz called the reaction in the Christian community “unprovoked jerkery,” and many news outlets are quick to point out the perceived hypocrisy of people who enjoy the central plot of romance between a girl and a beast but object to a homosexual subplot.

I don’t think it is entirely fair to term, as Pastor John Pavlovitz did, the call for a boycott as “unprovoked jerkery,” After all, the boycotters weren’t the ones who took the film and made it political–the filmmakers did that. So we can debate whether it’s “jerkery” to boycott the film, but it was hardly unprovoked.

But with all this controversy swirling in the air, I thought I would take a stab at some of the arguments from Christians on both sides of the issue and seek to find a viewpoint that communicates love to our homosexual neighbors, integrity and consistency in our living, and commitment to the truth of the gospel.

Why Christians Should Boycott

“If I can’t sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me then we have no business showing it,” – statement from the drive-in theater in Alabama when announcing they would not be showing Beauty and the Beast.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things – Philippians 4:8

  1. Watching the film would be an implicit show of support to an opposing worldview. In some ways, censoring culture might be compared to “baking the cake.” Some Christian bakers may not have a problem baking a cake for a homosexual wedding, but others may feel that baking the cake is an implicit show of support for beliefs that run counter to their own, as much as they may love and care about their homosexual friends. In the same way, going to watch a film after the creators deliberately state it is advancing an LGBT agenda may seem to be a violation of conscience to some.
  2. Consider portrayal. Some might say, “Well, we watch other movies with depictions of characters transgressing God’s law all the time, so isn’t it hypocritical to treat this film differently?” While I do agree that sometimes Christians put homosexuality on its own pedestal as if it’s some sort of super-sin compared to others, I do think it’s important to consider portrayal–are these issues portrayed in a positive or negative light? One other difference here is that we know in advance what the movie’s perspective is.
  3. Consider the weaker brother. Paul says with reference to food offered to idols:

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. – 1 Corinthians 8:9-11

There’s definitely a discernment aspect to the culture we take in, and we need to ask the question: even if I can be edified by what I am doing (or at least not harmed, although that begs another question: if the best we can hope for is to not be harmed, should we really be doing that thing?), what about the people who are looking at my life? If I listen to a song that in its lyrics objectifies women but mostly just enjoy the beat and the sound (as I sometimes do), I’m enjoying the music and not being consciously influenced by the negative message, but what about a brother or sister who comes along and hears me listening to the song and is harmed by the song’s worldview?

Here’s another passage to chew on:

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?” – 1 Cor. 10:27-30

Why Christians Shouldn’t Boycott

  1. It will probably be a fun, entertaining movie. This point is a bit of a non-sequitor but something I can’t help but bring up as a lover of the cinema.
  2. Wasn’t LeFou always gay? Since the announcement and ensuing controversy, the director noted that his statement has been exaggerated and that subplot is really just that–a minor, subtle subplot in the larger story. Why let a political kerfuffle stop me from going to see a movie I’ve been waiting for for a while?
  3. It’s inevitable in culture to get some bad with the good. As Christians, we need to have discernment. This might be a good opportunity to have a discussion (with children, friends, family, etc.) about worldview and God’s design for sexuality.
  4. What message does a boycott send? For the discerning Christian, this film won’t be harmful, and it’s important to cultivate an attitude of love towards the gay community, even if we believe their lifestyle runs counter to Scripture. What message are they hearing if we deliberately boycott this film for the explicit reason that it contains a depiction of a gay character?
  5. Wouldn’t this be (for many) a double standard? Following on the previous point, many Christians watch movies that have positive portayals of sin in them all the time–adultery, theft (*cough* Logan *cough*), rebellion against parents, and more. What makes this movie so special that it deserves to be boycotted? There’s a double standard here, and I believe that we’d consume a lot less media if we limited ourselves to only that which exclusively conveyed a Christian worldview.

So which side do I come down on? I’m still deciding, but I lean towards the latter viewpoint. Thinking through the different arguments has made me conscious of the fact that I don’t think as often as I should about the effect watching certain movies or shows may be having on me, and that they might indeed be harmful.

The Answer

 

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these. – Mark 12:28-31

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. – John 14:15

Jesus commanded his followers to love him above all else, and if they do love them, they are to keep his commandments. We are also commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even our gay neighbors. There might be a tension for some between these two statements–showing our love for God through obedience him (even if that means using our voices in the public square to decry positive displays of what we consider wrong), and showing love to our neighbors.

In the Phil Vischer Podcast last year, the hosts talked about the idea of “proxy wars.” In the Cold War, the US and the USSR didn’t fight one another directly (MAD and all that); instead, they fought a series of “proxy wars,” conflicts in Asia and the Middle East where each superpower would arm opposing sides in smaller conflicts. They were miniaturized conflicts that represented an underlying larger conflict between America and the Soviet Union. In a similar way, some of these current controversies–transgender bathrooms, cake-baking, and now Beauty and the Beast, are proxy wars between competing worldviews. The deception, of course, is thinking that winning an individual conflict (or even several) will solve culture’s problems. Truthfully, only when a people is convicted of sin by the power of the Holy Spirit and brought into relationship with God can there be an end to this conflict.

In the meantime, faithful Christians must use discernment as they seek to love and obey God above all else, love their neighbors as themselves, and speak the timeless truths of Scripture to society.

Haydn’s Expected Unexpected

This month, Caroline Bennett analyzes the first movement of one of Haydn’s piano sonatas.  You can listen to the piece through this link.

haydn

After hearing only the opening measures of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 49, listeners recognize that the first movement, “Allegro non troppo,” is a playful piece of music. Throughout his life, Haydn was infamous for being a mischievous and lively man, and these traits shine through in this sonata’s first movement. Not only is the mood of the piece light-hearted, but Haydn frequently alters the typical conventions of sonata form, as well as standard musical form, in order to fool his listeners and create a sense of surprise and delight. He effectively demonstrates his penchant for doing the unexpected throughout the exposition, development, and recapitulation of the first movement.

The primary theme of the exposition begins clearly in E-flat major with trill-like sixteenth notes in the right hand and bouncy eighth notes in the left. The primary theme, which spans mm. 1-12, appears to be very straightforward, going from tonic to dominant and then back to tonic again, creating a sentence. sonata-titleThis is the first example of Haydn’s departure from standard musical conventions, however. Haydn writes a pair of four measure basic ideas with only a four measure continuation, rather than the typical eight measure continuation. This means that, despite ending with a perfect authentic cadence, the primary theme surreptitiously segues into the transition before listeners realize what is happening. In the transition of the exposition, Haydn begins moving the piece forward into the dominant key, Bb-major. This is the usual key for the piece to modulate into, but Haydn still manages to surprise listeners by phrasing the transition so that it stops and starts, creating suspense. After the medial caesura, the main theme from the opening of the piece then comes back, this time in B-flat major and as the secondary theme of the exposition. The secondary theme appears rather straightforward; Haydn really begins playing with conventions again in mm. 50-59, where the mood of the secondary theme suddenly changes and becomes softer and more hesitant, introduced by staccato A-flat major chords. Listeners might be tricked into thinking that this is the beginning of the conclusion of the exposition, but the secondary theme does not reach a perfect authentic cadence until m. 60, marking the start of the conclusion. The exposition concludes on a resolute tonic chord in B-flat major.

the-eszterhazy-castle
This is the ancestral home of Haydn’s patron Prince Esterhazy.  Haydn wrote Sonata in E-Flat Major at the end of his time working for the Esterhazy family.

The pre-core of the development is a marked contrast to the first section of the movement because it is harmonically unstable and very lyrical. By the time the piece reaches the core of the development, the music has modulated to the relative minor of E-flat major: C minor. As is common in core sections, Haydn incorporates two themes that were previously found in the exposition. He constantly moves between major and minor keys, though, until he ultimately lands on a tonic chord in C-major.  This seems like it may be the cue for the retransition to begin, especially since the mood of the piece completely changes in the following measures, but Haydn makes it very hard to decide where the transition actually begins because he does not reach a tonic chord in B-flat major until m. 126, which would ordinarily introduce the retransition.

Much of the recapitulation’s departures from standard sonata form are the same as those found in the exposition. The biggest changes Haydn makes begin at the end of the closing section. Based on the exposition, listeners expect the first movement of the sonata to conclude on the fifth measure of the closing section, and Haydn does write a perfect authentic cadence in E-flat major on the downbeat of m. 216. However, this I chord is promptly followed by more notes that push the piece on towards yet another cadence, this time a half cadence. This chord precedes a coda, further prolonging the piece. The coda also has feigned endings, particularly m. 227. When Haydn does finally choose to end the coda, he surprises his listeners by suddenly crescendoing out of the otherwise subdued coda into, not the expected perfect authentic cadence, but into a determined imperfect authentic cadence in E-flat major.

Haydn certainly knew the rules for writing in sonata form, as he adeptly demonstrates throughout Sonata in E-flat Major, movement I. He includes all of the usual sections in the movement, modulates to the anticipated keys, and more. Nevertheless, Haydn refused to abide by what his listeners would expect, instead choosing to defy the standard conventions of sentence length, the beginnings of new sections, the conclusion of the recapitulation, and even the conclusion of the coda. Perhaps all of the surprising cadences and transitions between sections should not take listeners aback, however. After all, Haydn is well known for being the master of the unexpected.

Heart of a Samurai

In January 1841, a storm rages off the coast of Shikoku, Japan.  Five fishermen are out in a small boat when the storm strikes, snapping the mast, ripping off the rudder, and washing away the oars.  heart-of-a-samurai-coverThe fishermen drift out of control for eight days until they become stranded when their boat splinters on an island of rock.  Several months later, a ship approaches the island.  To the fishermen’s horror, their rescuers are the blue-eyed barbarians whom Japan has barred from her shores.  Being in the barbarians’ company—leaving Japan at all—means the fishermen may never be able to return home, for Japanese law declares that “any person who leaves the country and later returns will be put to death” (14).  So begins Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, a children’s book based on the true story of the Japanese boy Manjiro Nakahama who became known to the English-speaking world as John Mung.

Unlike his friends Denzo, Jusuke, Toraemon, and Goemon who refuse to be “poisoned” by their American rescuers, Manjiro bridges the cultural divide between himself and the whaling crew of the John Howland and learns their customs and language.  The Americans’ inventions fascinate him, particularly the useful things called “pockets,” which Manjiro has never seen before.

john-mung-drawing
Here is one of Manjiro’s drawings of “Bird Island” where he and his friends were stranded.  The picture can be found at this website.

Despite being homesick and worrying about his family—for whom he has become the breadwinner after his father’s death—Manjiro is bursting with excitement about the new world he has entered.  Curious, diligent, and smart, Manjiro finds friends and a foster family and forges a path for himself in the world of America.  All the while, though, he dreams of returning to his family and homeland, becoming a samurai, and “leaving footprints in the sands of time” by changing the world (76).  But how can a poor fisherman’s son, now an outcast, ever hope to accomplish these dreams?  Despite the many obstacles that confront him, Manjiro never stops fighting to realize his goals, and as the story progresses, Manjiro matures from an irresponsible boy to an industrious young man.  Overcoming the hindrances and bridging the divides that confront him requires of Manjiro courage and humility.  Gradually he learns that cultural prejudice and pride often mislead, and that both Japanese and Americans have much they can teach each other, if the other side is merely willing to learn.

Drawing on Manjiro’s own writings and filled with pictures he drew, Heart of a Samurai vividly captures Manjiro’s life.  Margi Preus skillfully combines fact and fiction to create a compelling retelling of Manjiro Nakahama’s life that will be an adventure for children to read.

Who are you?

‘Who are you?’ While quite formulaic in today’s culture and typically resulting in a formulaic response, this question, taken to its logical conclusion, points to a much deeper and foundational idea: that of identity.

The Problem

Identity is certainly not a new topic of discussion; however, it has lost none of its relevance or importance to contemporary conversation. As Americans, this battle for identity has been playing out in very real, tangible, and heartbreaking ways -ways that have become more and more visible as time has gone on. Slavery, while in many ways a result of cultural perversion and economics, was at its core an identity problem: defining men and women based on biology (skin color, physical ability, mental acuity, race, etc…), rather than on any reference to the dignity that God has given all mankind by the fact they are made in his image. Abortion, at its root, is a question of identity: whether an unborn baby is merely a clump of cells with no inherent selfhood of its own, or the converse position, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16), where at conception we have identity given by God himself. Transgenderism is inherently an identity problem: defining ourselves in ways that completely divorce us from any scientific and spiritual standard of reality (Macarther). However, while these are all examples of high profile and visible identity crises, it often takes more subtle forms. When asked to describe myself, my past and who I am, descriptors such as introvert, single, family guy, etc.etc tend to be some of the first used. Many people do the same: identifying themselves by their work, friends, hobbies, relationships, parents, organizations, entertainment preferences, and preferred foods. Not everything people identify with is ‘positive’, sometimes people identify themselves (whether they admit publically or not) by the ways others treat or treated them, or even by the things in their lives that they are most ashamed of: sins or failures in their pasts. While reality dictates that all of these things do indeed affect us, if this is where our ‘identity’ ends, then we are just as divorced from reality as the most insane person.

The Solution

Identifying the self with causes, relationships, and any number of other things is inherently insufficient in itself, and leads to the same core problem found in slavery, abortion, and transgenderism: man, left to his own devices, provides no absolute for defining identity, but subjects it to mere practicality, politics, and selfishness. So, where does one look for identity? For all men, believer and unbeliever alike, it is found in God alone. Calvin addresses this whenever discussing self-knowledge:

“True self-knowledge only comes after first contemplating the face of God and then, afterwards, looking into ourselves. We as sinful men think of ourselves as righteous, holy, and just, and when comparing with the world around us, can find ways to rationalize this belief. If our behavior is at least some better than another’s we have ‘justification’ for our self satisfaction[…]so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure ” ~Institutes, Bk 1, Ch1, Sctn 2

Only by “contemplating the face of God” can man gain any real understanding of who he is, how broken he is, and where his true identity is found. Because all men fell in Adam, they are ultimately defined by that fall apart from the grace of God: men living in active and willing rebellion. That is the identity of every man, woman, and child on this globe proceeding from natural generation -none is innocent. However, there is  another identity offered, one made possible through the sacrificial death of God himself in Jesus Christ. For those who believe, although still living in the realities of the fall, identity is found in Christ and his victorious and finished work. We are no longer vessels of destruction, but rather vessels of mercy (Rom 9:23-24). In the end, at the root of all, one of these two realities defines us, not our family, age, work, social circles, organizations, causes, etc. Either Adam or Christ.

Conclusion

The question of identity is incredibly important, and yet it is very easy as Christians to fall into shallowly defining ‘self’ in just the same way the world does: by starting with ourselves. Jesus is the answer to man’s broken identity, the anchor which alone can provide the mooring where men and women can thrive and by His grace become ever more as they were originally designed. Apart from Him we are all but rebels and traitors, destined for wrath and torment, and justly so. Who are you?