Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Hearts Behind the Voices

It is one of the casualties of the digital download age for music: liner notes. Inside those cardboard album covers in days long gone, LP’s were routinely slipped into paper sleeves on which were often printed details of the album tracks – lyrics, sometimes, performing musicians, studios used, producers, and perhaps most interesting of all, the actual songwriters from whose heart and mind and pencil those songs had actually sprung. Sometimes the name of the writer was also the name of the performer printed on the cover of the album, but only sometimes.

When CD’s replaced LP’s, the print got smaller but the information often expanded. Those little booklets frequently jammed into the jewel case cover added pictures, stories, expressions of thanks from the artists and all kinds of things. And through the years, through the morphing media, I have gratefully read it all.

But digital downloads only rarely bring with them this supportive background information. What you get is the song, the performer’s name, the name of the album, and some genre classification that is usually worthless. Who the musicians are who actually make the music; whose technical hands have crafted the finished product, and whose musical passion and genius actually spawned the song are invisible.

I thought of that again last night as my brief trip to Nashville afforded one more chance to get to the Bluebird CafĂ© – that somewhat legendary “listening club” that showcases songwriters singing their creations. On two of the three evenings I’ve spent there in the past year and a half I have heard songs I recognized, though I recognized none of names of those performing. Top forty songs; country and pop.
One of last night’s performers has written movie songs, TV theme songs, and a laundry list of miscellaneous pop. Both of the others have clearly had their share of radio exposure as well, though through songs less familiar to me.

Listening to them – appreciating their music if not always their rather pedestrian voices – I was reminded how 2-dimensional I tend to see the features of life around me. I forget that these people even exist – the ones who actually create this stuff I come to love. The recording artists get all the attention – and I do not begrudge them their fame. They, after all, color the notes and shape the sounds in all the ways I come to like – and purchase. But without the likes of those I heard and appreciated all over again last night the “stars” would look and sound pretty silly. There is a reason, after all, why they buy someone else’s songs. And, of course, there is a reason why these writers are selling their songs to others. Theirs are not typically the voices we routinely want to hear.
There is, in other words, this wonderful synergy. Three-dimensions – the width and breadth of the sound, but also the depth of all those factors and talents underneath. Singers – songwriters – sometimes the two combined – producers – technicians – etc.

And it was a joy last night to honor and treasure those foundational ones – ordinary looking and sounding people quite different from the flash and fizz on screen and video and major contract – more routinely behind the scenes. Thanks for the songs given birth in your hearts, and for the many ways they come to grow in ours.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Theological Shock and Awe

Originally established in the early 1920’s to train young women missionaries, according to the brief history found in the room, the Scarritt-Bennett Center is now a non-profit conference, retreat and educational center in Nashville, Tennessee. The Gothic-style buildings, reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Wizardry, give the campus a monastic feel – gray stone columns reaching skyward, while arches and courtyards beckon pedestrians inward – hinting that something larger than this life is holding our movements.

One archway, connecting the Refectory and the Administration building (as if linking nourishment and organization?) and leading into and out of the labyrinth courtyard, is inscribed with the admonition to “Expect Great Things From God” on one side and “Attempt Great Things For God” on the other. Passing through that portal several times today, those inscriptions have given me pause.

In my experience, the church – and, confessionally, my own ministry – does too little of either. I remember several years ago reading an article by William Willimon critiquing the church as being “functionally atheist” – offering up our “perfunctory invocations” at the beginning of our meetings, but then proceeding through our agendas and actions as though God didn’t exist. We hope that every now and then God might show up at some point and twitter us with warm feelings, but “expect great things”? I’m not sure when we gave up on the expectation that God might actually do, in our midst, something great, but my sense is that it has been a long while. “Mighty acts of God” sound so “Old Testament.”

And as for attempting great things for God, such aspirations would require more comprehension of divine desires than most of us bring to the table. We know fairly well what would make us happy, but I’m not sure when we last checked God’s Wish List. We attempt great things on occasion, but they seem to bear conspicuous resemblance to what we would like, whether or not God has shown any interest.

If, just for the sake of conjecture, we were to honor that voice of the archway, what great things might we be led to expect from God? And what great things might God wish us to attempt on God’s behalf? The former might very likely terrify and surprise us; the latter would almost certainly humble and sober us. Combined, the two might just represent the only kind of “shock and awe” we children of God have any business seeking.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Conversational Team of Rivals

After acknowledging the many and formidable obstacles – indeed, hazards – confronting a modern President considering the appointment of a “team of rivals” as did Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin closes her New York Times Opinion Page essay with a warning. “Inviting such in-house dissent may indeed pose greater challenges today than in earlier times, but it’s hard to see that we have any other choice.” Americans, she writes, “have seen the damage caused by the creation of like-minded ‘echo chambers’ in Washington.” Moreover, “history…reveals how dangerous it can be for a president to surround himself with like-minded people. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, deliberately chose men for his cabinet who thought as he did and, with the agreement of those around him, did nothing to prevent the secession of the Confederate states. He is now considered among the worst of our presidents (“Defeat Your Opponents. Then Hire Them”. New York Times, Sunday, August 3, 2008, p. wk 11).

Lincoln, Goodwin observes, was strengthened and polished by the debates within his cabinet. I am reminded of the polishing effect that agitation has on rocks. I am reminded of the strengthening effect that resistance exercises have on muscles. I am reminded of the broadening, deepening, integrating effect that tests – well-constructed tests – can have on learning.

I know these things, and I hope – indeed pray – that both presidential candidates will think outside their own “echo chambers” when selecting their respective running mates.

That said, I confess that it is counsel I comfortably, even vigorously give but rarely receive. In the books I read, the television I watch, the podcasts I hear, and the friends with whom I hang around I have constructed something of an echo chamber of my own. The sound of Rush Limbaugh’s voice makes me nauseous. The prattle of Fox News turns me green – or yellow, or whatever their combination that looks like mucous. While some part of this revulsion is reaction to their intellectual thuggery, I have to admit that I enjoy turning off their contrary point of view. Thence is occasioned my own spongy mind, my own flaccid logic, and my own silent voice. Unsharpened, unpolished, unexercised by the marketplace of differing ideas, I have grown intellectually flabby and persuasively impotent.

And I am now the norm – not in the sense that everyone thinks like me, but that the majority of people behave like me; taking cover within the comfortable environs of their own entrenched positions; retreating into the confirming company of those who already believe the same.

While I don’t think there is enough Pepcid and Tagamet in the world to get me through a broadcast of Rush, there are certainly more palatable conversation partners around who could stretch me and, with time, polish. It isn’t so much about changing my thinking as it is improving it.

What’s the familiar lament? “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”