Tag Archive | What’s Left In The Church

In The Beginning Was The Score

Music is a way to order chaos. – Me, “Sermon Thoughts I”, What’s Left In The Church, May 16, 2010


In the beginning was the score.

Taking sounds and making something out of them.

If you read any book on music – and I’ve read dozens over the past few years – the first thing you’ll encounter is a definition of music as “organized sound”. Unpacking those two words lead to things like rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and so on. The thing is, for me, sound can be chaotic. I know there are musicians who hear harmonies and rhythms and even melodies when standing and listening to the world around them. From the sounds of vehicles on roads through birds singing and dogs barking to the rustle of branches and leaves in the breeze, there are people who take this mass of sound and find something more there. For the most part, however, such sounds are just noise.

Before there were things like musical notation or theories of harmony there was music. Music is as ubiquitous as human societies, older than the first settled human communities, and as varied as the places and people who create them. As necessary to human existence as food and shelter, music organizes the chaos of life, whether recalling a community’s founding in song or in singing divine blessings upon a couple getting married, music recognizes the chaos that is the most basic threat to our existence and demands it submit to our order. It frames and shapes and directs human action, calling forth divine participation when necessary, and subsumes both our joys and fears under its insistent demand for order. More than speech, more than any other human action, music encompasses all over activities and creates a whole that is larger than any particular parts.

We in the west, at least since the beginnings of the capitalist era, have relegated all art to the periphery of life. Focusing the proletariat’s attention on the need for survival (and Lord someone could do a whole book on the survival ethic in modernity), thinkers beginning with Immanuel Kant have insisted that art is a nonessential part of the human common life. These ass-kissers of the rising bourgeoisie insisted that it is possible to life an entire human life without concerning oneself with beauty. For over two hundred years, art and beauty – and particularly music – has been taught as if it were not an integral part of human life. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, we are all raised to believe we can take it or leave it when it comes to art. Artists are viewed as odd, strange, outsiders; their products are either risible or dangerous but in either case they have nothing to do with everyday life. There are many out there who have been taught this so well, they actually live without painting or sculpture, music or architecture as part of their concerns in life.

A quick survey of the world outside the West, however, a world still resisting the hegemony of our ideology dehumanizing not only humanity, but that which humanity produces, can only lead one to the exact opposite conclusion. Life is more than survival; a lived life includes not only the consideration of but the active participation in what we in the West call “the arts”; whether in the weaving of cloth and the sewing of garments, the construction of buildings both for use and appreciation, or the representation of the world in the plastic arts – all accompanied by music – that which we relegate to “the arts” and the periphery of existence is at the heart of day-to-day life. Even a glance back at our own history, or at our own social practices teaches us the human need for music to mark our most important activities. Whether it’s worshiping God, heavy-beat dance music in clubs for people to seduce one another, or a funeral Mass, all of it happens precisely because music is present. The lies of our educators, at least on this point, is offered up in our everyday life.

Christian theology roots itself in our particular profession of faith, that Creation began with God speaking the words, “Let There Be Light!” Yet the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with song declaring God’s glory! Psalm 8 is nothing more than a sung Creation story. The prophets offer words from the LORD to be set to music. The angels declare the birth of the Christ child in song. No, it seems to me that, when God decided to put the primordial chaos at bay through the act of Creation, those words weren’t spoken. I believe there was a whole musical score that accompanied it all.


Ours Should Not Be A Life In Small

N.B.: This was originally posted at What’s Left In The Church? on April 21, 2012

Living in fear has reduced us to being wary even of our neighbors.

Living in fear has reduced us to being wary even of our neighbors.

It was bittersweet to see the photos of the Space Shuttle, piggybacking on a 747, making its final landing at Dulles International Airport this week. As conflicted as I feel about the whole shuttle program, there is little doubt that this final resting place for this piece of Americana may well be more than a museum for what has passed. It could very well become the graveyard of the America we once knew.

For all its many faults, ours has not been a country that dreamed small. Even individuals and small communities saw themselves as part of a far larger, more grand movement. This continent could be made American; the land could be tilled; roads and canals and railroads would knit together its most disparate, isolated places and spaces, bringing the country together. Victorious in a war against the greatest threat western civilization ever faced, we had both the technical know-how and desire to look up and see, in the vast emptiness of the night sky, possibility. Even promise.

Having reached the Moon, our eyes and ears roaming even further, going in to orbit became routine, part of the workaday practice of being America. An extension of our best sense of ourselves, the exploration of space was testimony to our willingness as a people to risk much in order to gain much. From the first, faltering colonies on the banks of the James River, this willingness to place our collective selves in the hands of Divine Providence in search of greater gain – sometimes commercial, to be sure, but also seeking a place to live out a sacred calling that differed from those around them, or just to break ground in hopes of building something one’s children and grandchildren could continue to build upon – was best expressed by those earliest astronauts going out in to orbit and beyond in craft that, to our eyes, look flimsy indeed. Like the sailing ships that brought our ancestors to these shores, willingly or not, these early spacecraft are a marvel of will over ability, much as the land they founded would become.

That will has withered, however. Rather that risk, we insist that even the maintenance of the most basic parts of the links that bind us, our roads and bridges and rail lines and airports, are just too expensive to manage. Not only do we no longer look up and imagine a future, we barely look out from our homes anymore. Rather than see what we can achieve together, we elect leaders who reflect a fundamental fear that, our greatest achievements behind us, we cannot even hope to hold on to those things that bind us together.

Our politics, like so much else, has become a life in small. We seem a people no longer capable even of knowing our past, let alone learning from both the best and worst of who we have been. Arguments flare up over even the most basic realities of who we have been. These fights, proxy struggles for our identity, show us that we no longer even know who we are anymore. Struggles over race and religion, labor and ideology, demonstrate a fundamental fear among so many of us that our identity is disappearing. Even as our country grows more culturally diverse, taking in to itself more and more of the larger world, ever redefining “America” in wondrous ways, there are far too many of us who rage against any thought that who we are becoming should differ from who we once were. In the process, so much else is lost, the once proud idea that “America” is always a work in progress offering opportunity and, perhaps, real hope, dreaming big and achieving even bigger no longer even a recognizable husk.

We view one another not as fellow Americans who may well see different means toward a common end as a source for positive struggle together. Instead, those things that separate us have become unbridgeable gaps between those who are and are not true to whatever vision of America we see resulting from common work and life. No longer a helpmeet along the way to greater triumph, far too many Americans insist our public life is little more than an obstacle to achieving what we would be far better attempting on our own. This despite the many lessons from the past of the role the state can play, both for good and ill, in helping us along the way to meeting the challenges that face us.

So, even as our common life dries up and our physical infrastructure becomes increasingly abandoned to those who insist we can no longer afford to be a great nation, perhaps the greatest loss we face is the desiccation of the imagination. For all that it is true much of our current greatness was achieved over the trampled bodies of the poor and our African-American and Native American and Asian American fellows, I have long wondered why it became some kind of axiom that bringing these (and so many others) in to our common life, acknowledging the evil we have done as we invite them along as fellow Americans, is some kind of hindrance to a future where we can still dream big, and work toward a common vision of America that brings all of us along.

Why do we even have voices that insist that it is no longer possible to have or do things together as one people? Why do we not join in laughing at people who claim we can no longer afford those things that were built as a common inheritance? Why do we no longer even think it possible to look out from our cities and towns, our prairies and mountains, and see work we need to do together?

More than anything, these are the thoughts that trouble me at the moment. Led for far too long by interests that see private profit over public welfare as the only real end of our common life, we have forgotten that securing the public welfare first is the only way to ensure private profit. Along with this dream-drought, we have harbored far too many who would lie about our history, tell us we were not who we thought we were in order to insure we do not interfere with their gain at our collective expense. Our politics has become shadow play, meaningless ritual without any sense that it serves a larger purpose even as the voices within it have become more strident.

Am I, perhaps, bewailing something that never was? Is it possible that I romanticize too much over a past that never existed, ignoring the millions of victims for whom the dream of America was little more than a device insuring their destruction? Without ever once denying the point, I would insist that the sight of the space shuttle Discovery, not even landing under its own power, heading on to a future as a museum piece in a nation that insists that museums are a luxury we can no longer afford (never mind roads or schools or networks for the free flow of information) is the only evidence I need to demonstrate that, unless we demand an end to it, the voices that continue to call for an end to our common life will drive away the last of any attempt even to dream of something better for all of us tomorrow.

In A Minor Key

N.B.: This post originally appeared at What Left In The Church?, June 13, 2012

We come on a ship we call the Mayflower,
We come on a ship that sailed the moon
We come at the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing the American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest,
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.

                                Paul Simon, “American Tune”

Our most American of poets, Walt Whitman.

Our most American of poets, Walt Whitman.

If there is a single platitude that transcends the political differences of our short age of ideological discord, it is this: America’s Best Days Our Ahead!

Whether it’s Pres. Obama:

The bravery, resolve, expertise and commitment of U.S. servicemembers proves that America’s best days lie ahead, President Barack Obama said at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 3, [2010].


“Through your service, you demonstrate the content of the American character,” he said. “Some people ask whether America’s best days lie ahead or whether our greatness stretches back behind us in the stories of those who’ve gone before.

“When I look out at all of you, I know the answer to that,” he continued. “You give me hope. You give me inspiration. Your resolve shows that Americans will never succumb to fear. Your selfless service shows who we are, who we always will be, united as one people and united as one nation, for you embody and stand up for the values that make us what we are as a people.”

Or Mitt Romney:

 There was a time — not so long ago — when each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter because we had a gift that no one else in the world shared. We were Americans. That meant something different to each of us but it meant something special to all of us. We knew it without question. And so did the world.

Those days are coming back. That’s our destiny.

We believe in America. We believe in ourselves. Our greatest days are still ahead. We are, after all, Americans!

It might be the co-founder of Home Depot:

Despite rampant government spending and heavy-handed regulations, the country’s best days do lie ahead, as the U.S. has shown a history of doing away with policies — and politicians — that don’t foster an entrepreneurial spirit, says investor and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone.

“Talking about America, let me tell you something right now — I am 100 percent invested,” Langone tells CNBC’s Squawk Box.

“Our best days as a nation are ahead of us. I’m talking about great days. We are a great nation. Every once in a while we get a little foolish and we do things and we get through it. We’ll get through this.”

Or our only Muslim member of Congress, MN Rep. Keith Ellison:

America remains the greatest country in the world and we inspire millions struggling for freedom around the world. When the people of Libya stood up against brutal repression this summer, they waved American flags in celebration and gratitude. As the people of Egypt shape their new government, they are rightly turning to the American Constitution as a model.
So before anyone mourns the decline of America, they should look at our history. We’re Americans–in times of crisis, we step up.

This particular theme was sounded most eloquently by that most American of writers,Walt Whitman:

America, filling the present with greatest deeds and problems, cheerfully accepting the past, including feudalism, (as, indeed, the present is but the legitimate birth of the past, including feudalism,) counts, as I reckon, for her justification and success, (for who, as yet, dare claim success?) almost entirely on the future. Nor is that hope unwarranted. To-day, ahead, though dimly yet, we see, in vistas, a copious, sane, gigantic offspring. For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come. Sole among nationalities, these States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivaling the operations of the physical kosmos, the moral political speculations of ages, long, long deferr’d, the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards, and self-reliance. Who else, indeed, except the United States, in history, so far, have accepted in unwitting faith, and, as we now see, stand, act upon, and go security for, these things?

At a moment in time when we all feel unsure, it may well be comforting to hear that this moment not only will not, but perhaps cannot last precisely because we Americans have demonstrated our ability to overcome whatever obstacles barred, for the moment, our climb toward greatness.  Few things are more reassuring than the promise that the future will be brighter than the present.

Yet, I wonder.  For all that these platitudes and promises play upon a deep strain within the American cultural self-consciousness, what, precisely, practically, effectively, is anyone doing to bring about these better days?  What is the substance of these things hoped for, the evidence of these things not seen?  A couple days ago, I wrote the following:

We have become more than cowardly.  We, as a people, have become blind.  We have lost the ability even to celebrate that which is best about all of us as a people.  We stagger through our days, hoping only that the collapse will come tomorrow, grateful at the end of each day that we have reached it safely.

I am planning, over the next few days, to explore this contraction of our sense of our abilities, this nagging fear to which we dare not even give voice that in fact our best days do not lie ahead.  This is not a state of affairs I celebrate.  On the contrary, I am terrified that this fear may yet make itself out to be a prophecy fulfilled.  I do think it is possible to rescue ourselves from this state of affairs; the outcome, however, is never certain.  Something Whitman, in words immediately following the paragraph quoted above, states quite baldly:

But preluding no longer, let me strike the key-note of the following strain. First premising that, though the passages of it have been written at widely different times, (it is, in fact, a collection of memoranda, perhaps for future designers, comprehenders,) and though it may be open to the charge of one part contradicting another — for there are opposite sides to the great question of democracy, as to every great question — I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper’d by the others. Bear in mind, too, that they are not the result of studying up in political economy, but of the ordinary sense, observing, wandering among men, these States, these stirring years of war and peace. I will not gloss over the appaling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States. In fact, it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing. To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay. I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms. Not an ordinary one is the issue. The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.

The challenges we face today are neither unique in our history, nor without solutions that are readily implemented.  As we look around us, however, we see the promised horizon retreat and we wonder: Are more than our institutions broken beyond repair?  Are we, perhaps, as a people incapable of doing what is necessary to right ourselves and continue moving forward?  I shall be employing Whitman as a guide through the tangle in the hopes that his vision may yet offer a way past our moment of doubt.

As a simple, yet terrible, example of the many failures with which we live yet find impossible even to deal: The many ways we have failed those who have sacrificed so much in our wars the past decade.  Just last week came news that our active duty service personnel are killing themselves at a higher rate than the enemy.

According to new Pentagon figures, 154 military service members committed suicide during the first 155 days of this year. During the same period, ending June 3, 136 U.S. troops died in combat in Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks combat casualties.

In a decade that has seen so many reports of our failures to support our troops and veterans, whether it was proper body armor or vehicles that could withstand enemy IEDs to the scandals at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and other VA hospitals, the current failure even to have a general discussion on what it might mean demonstrates, I think, the kind of nagging fear that plagues us.  How can we drag ourselves out of a years-long economic slump if we cannot even provide help for those who are serving to protect and defend us?  How can we face our problems if we cannot even acknowledge together the problem exists?

For all the rhetoric and even demagoguery that surrounds the support of American military personnel, the reality keeps coming back to haunt us: We have failed them, repeatedly.  Before we can begin to work through possible solutions, we need to admit this.

And there lies the beating heart of the dark beast whose presence we fear.  We have become so fearful we dare not even mention a failure so basic and profound because to do so might well expose the beast in all its ferocity.  That beast is our own cowardice, our fear that we might well not be up to the challenge to make good on Whitman’s vision, a vision cheapened by repetition by politicians and business executives.

This American tune has been played in a minor key for far too long.  I am not interested in partisan games.  I do not hold any individual or group at fault for our current malaise.  We all bear a measure of responsibility for the current state of affairs.  As such, we all also carry the burden of admitting our fears, and living together out of our hopes.  That is my wish, at least, in the next several posts: To give voice to those things we refuse to say, in order to move through them and perhaps, just perhaps, see a way we all together can make good on the American promise.

Hip Gnostics: Visions of Jazz:The First Century by Gary Giddins

N.B.: This was originally published on What’s Left In The Church?, November 26, 2013. It has been edited for content because, well, I’ve changed my mind about some things.


Duke Ellington and his great Cotton Club Orchestra from the 1930's.

Duke Ellington and his great Cotton Club Orchestra from the 1930’s.

No one knows the rules of jazz like Gary Giddins.  No critic has written so voluminously about jazz.  No critic since Nat Hentoff in the post-bop 1950’s has been as big a booster of our national art form, working diligently to put before the public this style he loves, believing despite evidence to the contrary that we as a people will fall in love with it with the same fervor if we would only give ourselves to it the way he has.  The long-time jazz critic for The Village Voice, Visions of Jazz:The First Hundred Years, publish by Oxford University Press in 1998, is Giddins magnum opus, the attempt not so much to tellthe story of jazz but to give, as the title suggests, his “vision” of jazz, defending his positions with the accumulated knowledge of decades combined with a musical acumen one finds in abundance among jazz critics.

The story of jazz, like all music, is complicated, rooted in social, political, economic, and our peculiarly American racial matters.  Born in clubs in the most dangerous part of America’s most multicultural city, New Orleans, most chroniclers, Giddins included, date the music to a single performer, the trumpeter Buddy Bolden.  In many ways, Bolden’s story – one of legendary prowess on an instrument; of uniqueness of style; of the excesses of a life spent too long in quarters harboring vice – is the story we know not just from the long history of jazz, but popular music in general.  It has been repeated ad nauseum, become a cliche so scripted we have our current crop of public figures – Lindsay Lohan being the best example – ready to play their designated roles if only they would allow themselves.

Giddins is both wise and thoughtful, along with knowledgeable of this particular music’s provenance.  He doesn’t start with Bolden.  In fact, he starts with the longest-lived form of popular entertainment, one wiped from our collective consciousness precisely because of its association with our racist national id.  I am speaking, of course, of minstrelsy.  The very first essay – and this book is little more than the collection of 79 essays – pairs two seemingly unlikely gentlemen: Bert Williams and Al Jolson.  Bert Williams was one of the first popular African-American recording artists, putting songs on record while the First World War was breaking out in Europe.  He was also one of the last great and popular minstrel performers.  What makes this latter so troubling for so many, however, was the fact that Williams was black.  He just wasn’t black enough, forced in all his public appearances to darken his skin with burned cork, a humiliation he accepted with increasing rage over the years.

Jolson became famous both as “The Jazz Singer”, which he never was, and as part of the last gasp of minstresly, which he never was.  The first performer to sing in what had been a silent medium, Jolson did so in black face, becoming at once the focus of much attention and the icon of a half-century of American popular performance.  The thing is, Jolson’s appropriation both of the skin color and the music of his more talented and original partner in this essay adds yet another layer to the story of jazz – the uneasy, sometimes hostile, always freighted with America’s sad history, dance between black and white performers.  Like the best musicians in jazz, Giddins doesn’t so much come out and pound the theme in to our heads as he does show us, giving to the listener the work of figuring out what’s going on based upon the evidence.

Giddins’s book won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, the Bell Atlantic Jazz Award for Book of the Year, and it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1998).  One can be forgiven, then, if as a reader you come to it expecting greatness.  Like a jazz fan listening to a new piece of music from a favorite performer, a reader who scans the following among the blurbs on the back jacket, would be excused for believing Giddins has written something masterful: “A remarkably nonideological critic, Giddins has long demonstrated a passion for jazz in all its guises. . . . His writing, like the music he loves, is joyously polyphonic, with history, legend, musicology, biography, and performance all rising out of the mix.”  This was from an uncredited review in The New Yorker.  My problem with this description, however, is it gets pretty much everything wrong.

Giddins is profoundly ideological, if by ideological one means taking sides in the many debates and discussions that surround jazz.  On the other hand, if by “ideological”, one means “racial” – taking sides in the debate that has been around since the music was first recorded and disseminated to the broad public that jazz is primarily an African-American art form, one few whites can penetrate well – then being “nonideological” is not necessarily a good thing.  This is not an inconsequential matter, and discussions, debates, arguments, even the occasional knife-fight that break out over it are rooted precisely in that very first essay described above: white folk stealing and making their own this beautiful, sad, joyous, raucous art form is yet another indignity African-Americans have had to bear.  It is one thing to “play around” the melody of race, as Giddins does several times although not as beautifully as in the first essay; it is another thing, however, not to state that melody clearly.

Another thing that made this book a far more difficult read than it might otherwise have been is Giddins style. If one spends one’s life as a critic, being limited by editorial insistence to 800-1,000 words, it might demonstrate one’s acquiescence to this habit that creating a longer work benefits from writing a series of critical-style essays.  Yet, at times Giddins attempt to write either cogently or clearly about his subject matter fails so utterly, one wonders if he will find it again.  The best example comes from what seems to me to be a too-long attempt to give Coleman Hawkins’s 1940 recording of “Body and Soul” its due.  Giddins sets the scene like any master story-teller would, noting that, like so many great moments, it was born of the humdrum of a musician’s life, i.e., yet another recording date, and one song among several scheduled for that day’s studio time.  The following is from p. 127, one of four or five paragraphs in which Giddins attempts to talk about what can only be heard listening to the song, after having acknowledged both the originality of Hawkins’s accomplishment and the fact that, despite its popularity (the record sold quite well), it changed little to nothing in jazz.

If Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” isn’t the single most acclaimed improvisation in jazz’s first hundred years, it is unquestionably a leading contender.  Nothing was changed by it.  Hawkins’s station had long since been established, and Lester Young’s time was at hand no matter what.  At least one critic professed not to understand the hoopla – Hawkins played like that all the time, he made fifty records as good, didn’t he?  Not quite.  What elevated “Body and Soul” was its purity, its perfection; here, in one spellbinding improvisation, was the apogee of everything Hawkins achieved thus far, an uncompromising example of his gift, a work of art.  In his own way, he demonstrated what Lester Young was also in the process of demonstrating: a scheme to penetrate the presumed boundaries of conventional harmony.  And he did it with his patented arpeggios, compensating for the absence of identifiable melody with his drive, warmth, and coherence.  The public approbation was significant, if puzzling.  The record was a sophisticated abstraction of a popular song, yet Hawkins’s variations were embrace to the degree that he had to memorize them to satisfy clubgoers, who insisted he play the famous solo, not a fresh improvisation.

Here we have everything that makes this work so difficult to work through, distilled to one paragraph.  How can arpeggios be “patented”?  In what way is “Body and Soul” “pure” or “perfect”, beyond a description of the recording – an abstract meditation on a popular song?  If nothing was changed by it, is it well known just because of its beauty, its simplicity, its “perfection”?  If nothing was changed by it, why does it stand out so much?  None of the questions raised by this particular paragraph receive any answers in Giddins’s text.  And this is just one of a couple dozen examples where Giddins’s prose fails not so much himself as the reader.

Which leads me to the title of this post:  One of the things about jazz, at least in its past half-century or so, is the cliqueishness that seems to surround the music.  Its most ardent publicists and fans insist at one and the same time its accessibility and its complexity; its familiarity (if one is “American” enough) and its strangeness.  Giddins is no less given to betraying this particular vice (if it is one), in particular demonstrating a willingness to toss out terms from musicology that, it appears, he assumes his readers will understand.  This tendency becomes blatant in two esssays, the one on Charlie Parker and the one on Dizzy Gillespie.  Giddins includes transcriptions of music from each man, and attempts to use them to demonstrate . . . what, precisely?  Musical scores should illuminate, giving the reader a sense of what the performer is playing, even if the casual reader can’t read a note of music.  One problem, however, is that notating a jazz solo illuminates nothing.  One in particular is more confusing the more one looks at it, or listens to the solo so notated while trying to follow along: Parker’s solo from “Koko”, one of the gauntlets bebop threw down before more traditional jazz in the year or two after the Second World War.  The notation lacks both the underlying chords Parker was soloing over as well as an explanation of the rhythmic subtlety that made Parker singular in his approach to the music.  Giddins does little to dispel the sense that, to “get” jazz, one needs access both to a vocabulary and a personal style that elevates one above the normal run of music listeners.  The picture of a bunch of white hipsters, berets at jaunty angles, sitting in a smoky club snapping their fingers carries throughout the book.

Yet, these frustrations hide many virtues, not the least of which is Giddins’s utter lack of sentimentality.  Scanning the late decades of his story, Giddins finds much to recommend to the reader.  While dismissing fusion as an attempt at broad popularity this particular style failed to achieve, he nevertheless grants to some musicians who included electric instruments in their ensembles pride of place as he places before the unknowing reader performers as diverse as Henry Threadgill, Gary Bartz, Dave Murray, and the great Cecil Taylor, whose virtues require attentiveness to appreciate.  While far too many writers and fans yearn for the “Great Men” who have passed and whose like we won’t see again, Giddins is insistent that jazz still lives, thriving in a variety of musicians who continue the music’s individualistic ethic while navigating the waters between a stale traditionalism and the outer reaches of the avant garde that left too many listeners wondering if such things as harmony or rhythm would remain.

Despite its faults, I would recommend Giddins’s book, with some provisos.  Listen to jazz first.  Familiarize yourself with the standards, the men and women who shaped the music in the past, their idiosyncrasies and personal touches that make it easy to tell the difference among so many performers using the same instruments.  To get used to Giddins’s style, get a hold of Weatherbird, a collection of Giddins’s review essays from the late 1980’s, 1990’s, and early 2000’s (also published by Oxford University Press).  Finally, open yourself to the possibilities that exist within and through the music – the possibility not just of freedom and joy, pain and tears; but the possibility that you, dear reader, might become one among the initiates, a hip gnostic who understands that, in the words of British drummer Bill Bruford, “America is jazz and jazz is America.”

I’m Not Supposed To Say This

Tired of the routine objectification of their bodies and the ways that women are told to accept violence as a ‘natural’ part of sexuality, the SlutWalk movement emerged at a time when the absurdity or ‘dislocation’ of this culture was becoming increasingly evident to large sections of society (see Shaw, F. 2011). Although they might not have been familiar with the term ‘rape culture,’ there is no doubt that women (and many men), had become increasingly frustrated by the ways they were being policed and held accountable for other people’s actions. – Kaitlyn Mendes, “How the SlutWalk Has Transformed the Rape Culture Conversation”, Alternet, Aug 12, 2015


1. Testosterone. Also Freud. Take your pick. Or both, like me. I’m dismayed that both the chemist and the philosopher missed this easy one.

2. One may claim that provocative dress does not warrant violent behavior. But it is willfully ignorant of bio-chemical and psychological realities of human sexuality to deny that provocative dress should only affect any possible object of interest or none at all. Aggression, and sexual aggression is a very real dynamic of human life. Protestantism long has tried to convince us to think that it need not be so. Many weak liberal and libertarian arguments take up that request.

3. Ask more experienced women for their views about the motivations and role of excessively provocative dress. Or, ask female sociologists as to why, on average, youth and lower economic status correlate with more frequent and greater degree of provocative dress. Take your pick. Or do both, like me. – comment, “Sluts And Baptism – Reappropriation”, What’s Left In The Church, June 6, 2011


We just happen to disagree on some fundamental points here. Do I approve or disapprove of certain trends in women’s attire? Who cares? They are adults, and I respect their privilege to make choices, even choices I would not make.

In essence, you are suggesting that men are brutes, the mere glimpse of cleavage or the mons drives men in to a sexual frenzy from which nothing but the violent (sexual) possession of the one so dressed can deter him, and the best thing for women to do is to understand this, rather than be appealing for a possible assignation with someone.

Second, sticking to my own consistency, I do not as a general rule, disparage anyone with a word – “slutty” – to describe their sartorial choices. It makes the very category mistake the sponsors of the Slutwalks are attempting to end – that a woman can be judged by her appearance, and therefore receive some kind of partial responsibility for the victimization she may receive from men who, glimpsing her cleavage or bare midriff, become insane with lust.

This isn’t about being, or dressing, slutty. It is about the freedom to be adults and make choices, including choices with which others may not agree. Maybe even choices I would prefer my own daughters not make.

As you well know, I do not like moral scolds. Our society would be far better without them, whether they are the kind who insist that I am bad and evil because I don’t think sex is the worst sin ever, or the kind who insist that adults should not be free to make choices others don’t like because of the possible effects on other people. – Me, comment, “Sluts And Baptism – Reappropriation”, What’s Left In The Church, June 6, 2011


The first New York City SlutWalk in 2011.

The first New York City SlutWalk in 2011.

Once upon a time, I had another blog. On that blog, I ventured far and wide on all sorts of topics and issues. While always rooted in my faith, I tossed discipline out the window. By and large, however, I had fun talking about everything because everything interests me. When I voiced agreement with the methods and goals of the SlutWalk movement emerging in 2011, it seemed someone was upset with me doing something that . . . well, I’m not quite sure what bothered him. Was I supporting “sluts”? Well, since I’m no longer an ignorant and stupid adolescent, I have to say I’ve never actually met a “slut”. Used as a derogatory descriptor for women who behave sexually as men have historically acted, I find it fascinating that an adult human being in the US would keep it as part of our vocabulary. Particularly as used to attack rape victims as deserving of violence because of their alleged appearance, such a word serves a vile purpose. Finally, to carry on that it is somehow “naive” to insist that adult human beings be allowed to live without the threat of violence . . . that’s just odd. Actually my favorite of the claims was that men are slaves to biochemistry, testosterone making us drooling, sex-crazed buffoons at the barest glimpse of female flesh. Or perhaps the one in which I was told that I should more attention to the slutty ways youth like my daughters dressed than scolding men for just acting the way nature programmed them; that was special, too.

One “criticism” in particular struck me both as morally obtuse and cowardly.

At the same time, I find more troubling the stated preference for “solidarity” with women in Saudi Arabia and other countries with gross violations of basic standards of women’s rights, or in the Sahel in Africa where female circumcision is still common practice. While these are, indeed, issues about which to express outrage and for which more work needs to be done, I find it troubling, to say the least, that one would “prefer” such solidarity, which while morally admirable entails no risk of personal involvement through the messiness of actually getting to know those subjected to such treatment, or risking one’s own personal freedom by stating such solidarity from a distance. It sets up a false choice – either we support a bunch of rich white women or we support a bunch of poor, suffering women of different races, ethnicities, and religious beliefs. On its face, it should be obvious why such is false. [I]nvolvement in the morally messy lives of persons whom we may well encounter each and every day places a far greater level of moral commitment and potential cost upon us.

As the book review at Alternet shows, the rising awareness of slut-shaming and rape-culture has had amazing effects. What one would have been local news stories about gang rapes have become world-wide calls to action against protecting the perpetrators of violence. Not just an elite phenomenon, awareness of slut-shaming and rape culture knows no race, class, or nationality, calling out actions around the world. We owe much to those two young women from Toronto who were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it any more.


Glasgow SlutWalk, 2011

Glasgow SlutWalk, 2011

Indeed – the radical notion that no one deserves to be raped. . . . Not a young woman walking home alone from a club. Not an eleven-year-old girl wearing make-up. Not strippers or prostitutes. Not a woman who dresses provocatively, however that might be defined. Not a woman who dresses modestly. The SlutWalk was an attack on the still all-too-prevalent idea that women are object of male lust, regardless of their race, their dress, their nationality, or their consent. Awareness of the prevalence of rape culture is helping; that there is a thriving MRA/PUA culture, especially online, that continues to demean women, attack and threaten women (and some men) who denounce it, and spreads the virus of male sexual dominance and violence as somehow both natural and right means we still have a whole lot to do. We all owe a debt, however, to all those women all over the world who refused to be shamed and victimized by a power structure that perpetuates male violence against women.

Copying And Pasting So I Don’t Repeat Myself

You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.


N.B.: I originally posted this three years ago. I had previously posted pretty much the same thing two years prior. The later one is far better, far more clear, so that’s the one I’m copying and pasting. Yes, I’m lazy this morning.

There are some words I avoid using because I find them vague and unhelpful. Among those most annoying is “nature”. The English word has many meanings, from a general reference to anything not artificial through a technical, philosophical understanding of what a thing is. A thing’s nature not only defines it, in so doing it sets down its end or goal as well as the means by which it will reach that end. Much of this technical understanding of “nature” is with us in our general discussions of the way the world works. Clarified by contrast, we understand some actions as “not natural”. Some people insist there is such a thing as “the supernatural”, a word I detest even more than “natural”, precisely because it assumes we know what the word “nature” means and to which it refers.

“Supernatural” is often used as an adjective describing God and Divine action. “Miracles” (yet another of those words I would toss out of the English language without looking back) are often defined as Divine interruption of natural processes – water in to wine, walking on water, that kind of thing – that display God’s freedom in the face of the laws of nature. The height of Divine supernatural activity is, obviously, the resurrection. When was the last time a person who had been dead for several days not only got up and walked around, but talked with people, and then disappeared? Stuff like that just doesn’t happen in nature. Right?

Which was why the 18th century rationalists, in particular David Hume, weren’t too keen on the whole concept. Miracles of whatever stripe were more than just oddities; they were offenses against what was thought to be the good and well-ordered running of the Universe. If God could decide, willy-nilly, to intervene whenever God wanted, multiplying loaves and fishes and making blind folks see, how was it possible to come to any understanding of the way the Universe works, which relies on an assumption of regularity, the repetition of certain processes that become so ingrained (Hume’s favorite was cause-and-effect; something that didn’t actually exist, but was assumed thanks to regularity) they seem to be like laws.

Folks like me who say, “Jesus was raised from the dead!” are more than just weird. We are threatening any attempt to understand the way the world works. Except, of course, this claim rests on the related ideas that (a) science as it has evolved over the centuries is the only sure means for figuring out how the world works; and (b) “how the world works” isn’t, itself, subject to the theological condemnation of sin, rendering our understanding limited and flawed not only in the contingent sense, but in an ontological sense as well.

The counter-claim – it isn’t original with me; I remember it most vividly in on of N. T. Wright’s books – is simple enough. The resurrection, as the inauguration of the fulfillment of Creation as God originally intended it, displays for us the way God created the world to be, before that creation was marred by sin and death. In other words, rather than some violation of the laws of nature, an event so extraordinary it can only be termed “supernatural”, it may well be the case that changing water in to wine, ending physical pain and social ostracism through touch, and rising from the dead are how the world is supposed to be. People living together, caring for one another, taking care of one another.

No longer living in fear of death and the threat of non-existence that rides in its wake.

None of this is to suggest that science isn’t a marvelous tool for discovering all sorts of things about the Universe. On the contrary, it continues to provide us with all sorts of interesting and useful information about ourselves and the world. It is, however, just a tool. It has its uses, to be sure, but it also has its limits. One of those limits is the assumption that its subject – the physical Universe, including human beings – can be and should be defined only in the terms set by scientific investigation. Those tools work well for science; they don’t work quite as well for much else, yet we continue to pretend they do when we talk about miracles and the supernatural and the strangeness of the resurrection.

Nothing could be more natural, it seems to me.

The “T” Word: A Response To John Meunier

In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth? – John Meunier, “Do We Have More Than ‘My Truth’?”, United Methodist Insight, July 17, 2015


Personally, I agree with Richard Rorty that questions of truth are not so much wrong-headed as uninteresting. Because “reality” is opaque to language – because many of our arguments over the truth-value of science are, in essence, arguments over wor’ds about reality, not reality itself – and because there is no meta-lingusitic judge to which all can appeal for the correctness of one’s view, we end up arguing over definitions. More interesting are the ways we figure out, through language, story, and our readings of various texts, how to live in the world. There is nothing special about “truth”, nothing talismanic, nothing final, nothing ultimate to the view that, if we grasp the truth, we have a hold of something that definitively addresses all sorts of matters. – Me, “On Truth”, March 17, 2007


Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ – John 14:6


In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

In a world filled with questions, few are more annoying than those who insist they have the answers.

I had made a resolution to myself that I wasn’t going to “go after” other writer’s expressed views. My goal was and is to be positive, to present a particular set of options that promote discussion, or at the very least thought. Reading John Meunier’s article at United Methodist Insight, however, seemed to offer me an opportunity to say – what turns out to be again – something that is central to how I live. My eight-year-old post, linked above, says much and it would probably be easiest to copy and paste it here. To be fair to Rev. Meunier, however, I need to deal with the specifics of what he wrote in order to make the points I wish to make. Furthermore, I’m not “going after” John at all. I am, rather, offering a different perspective, one I believe offers something fruitful for the Church in its struggles. And I will apologize here and now because some of what follows will be a bunch of philosophical and theological mumbo-jumbo. I do hope I can present what I want to say clearly and intelligibly. If I don’t, it isn’t because the concepts are difficult; it’s because I’m a lousy writer.

Meunier’s musings on the difference between truth and opinion cover familiar ground: Plato gets a shout-out, of course, as well as the United Methodist Articles of Religion. In the midst of his discussion, however, are assumptions that are both rarely spoken aloud as well as, lets be honest, pretty parochial. We in the West have multiple traditions regarding matters regarding “truth”, and while Plato certainly offered one answer, he was hardly the first and definitely not the last. In the mid-20th century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger taught a course in which he offered the view that, in fact, much of the western tradition of metaphysics is rooted in the distinct opinions of two men who taught centuries before Plato: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus is remembered among philosophers for his dictum, “No one steps in the same river twice.” The only constants are change, which brings conflict. Nothing is ever settled, even human identity. Parmenides, however, insisted precisely the opposite is the case: all that is exists as a single, dimensionless whole. There is no distinction between things; there is only this singularity, both infinite and infinitesimal. This, for Parmenides, is “truth”. Our human inability either to perceive or understand this is the result of “opinion”. Thus, for Heidegger, was born our western obsession with “truth”.

Much of our tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not, follows Parmenides. The kind of unity of which he spoke was rooted in the assumption that, to all questions there is now and can only ever be a single correct answer. Pushing this assumption to its logical conclusion, then, Parmenides insisted that not just truth but existence itself is undifferentiated, a single Being that is indistinguishable within itself, yet also imperceptible, leading to differences of opinion and the (false) perception of movement and change.

Recently, however, the idea that some “thing” called “truth”, a property that inheres in particular words, sentences, and texts, has not so much been attacked as it has been set aside. This isn’t a matter of “relativism” as it is too often portrayed. Rather, it is a matter of people finding far more interesting questions to ask about how it is we human beings work out living in a world we now understand to be governed by the theories of quantum physics and general relativity as well as the theory of evolution. Philosophy no longer has dominion over questions that science addresses both more clearly and more definitively. That leaves philosophers wondering less about things like being and truth and more about how best to be human and negotiate our differences in ways that are fruitful for all of us.

Richard Rorty, the most prolific and clear proponent of this view, offered the following justification for his life-long philosophical project: In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant asked whether there was really something called “being” that humans could discern and understand. Did “being” add anything to our understanding of really existing things? Rorty asks the same question about “truth”: Does the idea that a sentence is “true” add anything to that sentence that wasn’t there before? Do human beings react differently to sentences that are “true” than to those that are not “true”? Like Kant, Rorty’s “No” didn’t so much end discussion as become fruitful for a completely different set of questions, questions about how human beings structure what Rorty called their webs of belief, adding and subtracting particular words and sentences to their stories over time. For Rorty, this offered fruitful thought and discussion about negotiating differences among stories, understanding different sentences as important to some while meaningless to others. Bridging that gap is the philosopher’s – and the poet’s, and the novelist’s – task.

For Meunier to set to one side centuries of skeptical discussion over the concept of “truth” – really from William Ockham through Hume up to the analytical philosophers and pragmatists – is misleading, to say the least. It is uncomfortable to assent to the idea that a word as important as “truth” should probably be set aside. All the same, particularly at a time in our United Methodist Church’s history when all sides in our conflicts brandish truth about like cudgels and swords, I think it would be far better for all of us if we accepted the emptiness of “truth” as a philosophical category worthy of any attention.

As for the theology of the matter, the famous quote from St. John’s gospel above is the starting point for any Christian attempt to define “Truth”. Truth is not a quality of facts or sentences. It isn’t something that inheres in things or words. It certainly isn’t something we human beings can “have”, or at least some of us can have and others can lack. Truth, for Christians, is the Person of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Truth isn’t a thing. It isn’t something that exists within particular words or phrases. It most definitely is not something we sinful mortals can ever claim to have. On the contrary, truth is a Person, a distinct, specific, individual Person whose ministry, passion, and resurrection are not “truths” to which we assent. Rather this Person in and through these events grasps us in our lives and define us. The Christian churches are not truth-tellers. The Christian churches are those communities who believe themselves in the hold of Truth, a Truth to be shared with the world in word and deed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.

To understand Christian truth in this way offers us a way forward through the morass of arguments and difference our Social Principles call us to recognize without allowing such differences to create barriers to community. To understand Christian truth as Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, is to understand ourselves as sinners even while we declare ourselves redeemed. As such, the Truth bridges the gap within our lives, offering us the opportunity to share the Good News without worrying overmuch about whether or not our words are true.

Theological truth as an inherent quality of the words of our proclamation disappears in a puff of air when we understand our Truth is Jesus Christ who saves us. That is the basis of our Social Principles, as well as the acknowledgement of our many differences. It is the heart of who we are as Church, as the people called Methodist. It is how we will continue to live and move and have our being once our current worries and conflicts have passed.