Friday, 21 October 2016

Book review: "Who gave you permission?"

Manny Waks and Michael Visontay, Who gave you permission?:  the memoir of a child sexual-abuse survivor who fought back.  Melbourne:  Scribe Publications, 2016.

Reviewed by Bob Faser

This book is concerned with child sexual abuse within a faith community.  It’s a true story, written by a survivor of abuse.  As a rare account of abuse written by a survivor, this is a particularly valuable resource.

While Manny Waks’s story is set within the particular context of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Melbourne, it is relevant to anyone with a concern for justice for those who have experienced child sexual abuse. 

This book tells of how the author was sexually abused as a child, with the abuse taking place by people respected and trusted by his family and, at times, within sacred spaces. 

It tells of the negative impact this abuse had on the author during his adolescence and young adulthood. 

It tells of the author’s decision as an adult to go public with his complaints against his two abusers, of the implications of this decision as felt both by him and by his family, and of his on-going quest for justice, both for himself and for other survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.

Three themes stand out at the end of Manny’s book. 

The first theme is that, well into adulthood, the abuse experienced by Manny (both by his sexual abusers and by those who pressured him to remain silent about the abuse) is still deeply traumatic, both for Manny and for his family.

The second theme is the fact that this abuse – and the cover-up – took place in a religious context has led to a deep loss of faith for Manny.  This is a common theme for many survivors of child sexual abuse in faith communities.

The third theme is that … even in the midst of the trauma, … even in the midst of the loss of faith, … even in the midst of his on-going struggle for justice for himself and for others, Manny still exhibits a profound generosity of spirit toward all concerned:  a generosity of spirit which I find seriously impressive.

If you read only one Australian non-fiction book in the next few months, read this one.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Some thoughts on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

I'm not preaching this week, but here are some of my random thoughts on Sunday's gospel lesson.

First of all, let's not confuse the "Lazarus" in this parable with the "Lazarus" who appears as the brother of Mary and Martha in John's gospel.  The pool of possible names that people were given in that time was somewhat limited.  Just as the gospels give us multiple Marys, Johns, and Jameses, so also are there two Lazaruses in the gospels.

Secondly, the fact that the rich man was anonymous while Lazarus was named was significant, in my opinion.  (In some traditions, the rich man was called "Dives", but that was only because of the word for "rich man" used by Jerome in his Latin translation of the scriptures.)  For many people, the anonymity of the rich man and the naming of Lazarus would have been a reversal of what usually happened.  ("Wasn't that a great party as Dives's place last night?  Too bad he has to cope with that homeless bum hanging around at his gate!")  In God's viewpoint, the poor and the marginalised are always regarded with dignity, including the dignity of a name.

Thirdly, playing around with "Dives" as a name for a moment, and realising the Latin nature of the name, there were these two men somewhere in Galilee:  the rich man and friend of the Empire with his Latin name and the poor beggar with a definitely Hebrew name.  If we were telling this story elsewhere, could we do something similar?
  • An Anglo Dives and an Hispanic Lazarus in El Paso?
  • Jock MacDives and Paddy O'Lazarus in Belfast?
  • An Anglo Dives and an indigenous Lazarus in many Australian country towns?
Fourthly, this parable is the only time in Jesus's teaching where he speaks of an individual as being in "hell" (or "hades", to be precise).  Now, those who know me know that "hell" is not a major theme of my theology and that I have serious doubts about much of what conservative Christians (and, particularly, conservative "Protestants") say about "hell".  An interesting thing here is that the rich man's fate doesn't seem to be about any of the things that many conservative Christians seem to think are reasons to consign someone to "hell".
  • It doesn't seem that he got his theology wrong.
  • It doesn't seem that he approached his faith with an insufficient level of emotional fervour.
  • It doesn't even seem that he engaged in any outrageous sexual shenanigans.
It merely seemed to be the result of his lack of concern and his passive cruelty toward the poverty and suffering which presented themselves to him.  Perhaps, paradoxically, the source of the rich man's damnation was just not giving a damn.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A Faith that can sing the Blues: a sermon (Luke 15:1-10)

A number of years ago, a reporter from The New York Times went to Mississippi to write an article about how, in the words of his article’s title:  “The Blues is dying in the place where it was born.”  In the article, the reporter made the point that it was “the very authenticity of the Blues that endangers it.” 

For the article the reporter interviewed a number of Blues musicians, including an elderly, African-American guitarist named CeDell Davis. This old-time bluesman defended the integrity of the Blues in contrast to more recent forms of popular music, especially one musical form that he particularly despised:  hip-hop.
CeDell Davis said: 

"The Blues is about people, and as long as there's people, there will be Blues.  The Blues tells a story.  Hip-hop don't tell no story.  It don't tell no story about women, men, trains, buses, cars, birds, alleys, stores.  The Blues is about things."

·        “The Blues is about people.”

·        “The Blues tells a story.”

·        “The Blues is about things.”

The Blues, then, is a lot like our Christian faith. 

·        Our faith is about people. 

·        Our faith tells a story. 

·        And our faith is “about things”. 

I believe we have an opportunity offered to us by Christ to develop a faith that can sing the Blues.  This is an opportunity we should not miss, because the alternative is a faith that is mere “hip-hop.”  (And there really is a lot of “hip-hop” religion in our world today.)

1.       “The Blues is about people.”  Our faith is also about people.

In the gospels, Jesus acted with compassion in the face of human need: disease, poverty, fear, hunger, grief.  In his encounters with people, Jesus always sought to address the real needs of real people.

At its best, the Christian faith always seeks to address the real concerns of real people.  Christianity takes very seriously issues of

·        the relationship between couples,

·        the relationships between parents and children,

·        illness,

·        fear, violence, and our response to both,

·        dying,

·        bereavement. 

Our faith seeks to address these concerns with sensitivity and with the love of Christ.

·        A faith that can sing the Blues seeks to show support to people in the times of life’s crises. 

·        A faith that can sing the Blues rejects the temptation to promote guilt in other people or to manipulate people’s emotions.

“The Blues is about people.”  So is our faith.  A faith that is not about people is just so much “hip-hop”.
2.       “The Blues tells a story.”  Our faith also tells a story.

In the gospels, we see Jesus as a master storyteller.  Most of Jesus’ teaching took place as parables - as stories.  Jesus’ stories have become a major part of our culture.  Even for people who are not of Christian faith, phrases like “Good Samaritan” or “Prodigal Son” are still part of the culture and the language.

As well, we find this sense of story more broadly in our faith.  We are part of the story of the people of God:

·        from the Hebrew Scriptures,

·        through the New Testament,

·        through the history of the Christian Church,

·        to centuries upon centuries after us,

we are part of the ongoing story of the people of God.

There’s a theological word for this sense of being part of the broader story of faith: “tradition”.  Now, the word “tradition” is too often treated as a dirty word in many churches.  But in its most basic sense, the word “tradition” is about this idea that we are part of the broad story of the life of God’s people.

·        A faith that can sing the Blues gives us a story of which to be a part.

·        A faith that can sing the Blues does not leave us needing to reinvent the wheel every day in our life as God’s people. 

“The Blues tells a story.”  So does our faith.  A faith that does not tell a story is just so much “hip-hop”.
3.       “The Blues is about things.”  Our faith is also “about things”.

The scriptures frequently show how the ordinary things of life can make profound points about God and about our lives:

·        In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus spoke of the persistent nature of God’s love by using images of a woman looking for a lost coin and a shepherd seeking a lost sheep.

·        In last week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jeremiah watched a potter at work, correcting his mistakes as he went along, and used it as an image of how God calls all people of faith to renew their lives.

·        In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus spoke of a builder planning a project intelligently, and used this image to encourage us all to give good attention to our own priorities in life.

·        In next week’s gospel lesson, Jesus told a story about the wheeling and dealing of a dishonest manager and used this story to motivate people of faith – and other people of good will - to expend least as much energy in doing good as the villains of this world expend in doing bad.

Our faith is “about things”.

In our Christian faith, the most sacred moments involve ordinary substances: 

·        the water in which we wash;

·        the bread that keeps our bodies alive;

·        the wine that, for many of us, transforms our eating into dining.

In our faith, ordinary substances are regularly given a sacred meaning.  Our faith is “about things”

Our faith calls us to get involved in the ordinary stuff of life:

·        in the struggle for justice, peace, and human dignity;

·        in living lives of integrity and humanity within the wider community.

Our faith is “about things”.

·        A faith that can sing the Blues sees the presence of God in ordinary things. 

·        A  faith that can sing the Blues never makes us so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.

“The Blues is about things.”  So is our faith.  A faith that is not “about things” is just so much “hip-hop”.

"The Blues is about people, and as long as there's people, there will be Blues.  The Blues tells a story.  Hip-hop don't tell no story.  It don't tell no story about women, men, trains, buses, cars, birds, alleys, stores.  The Blues is about things."

·        “The Blues is about people.”  Christ reminds us that our faith is about people.  A faith that is not about people is just so much “hip-hop”.

·        “The Blues tells a story.”  Christ reminds us that our faith tells a story.  A faith that does not tell a story is just so much “hip-hop”.

·        “The Blues is about things.”  Christ reminds us that our faith is “about things”.  A faith that is not “about things” is just so much “hip-hop”.

Christ calls us and enables us, I believe, to develop a faith that can sing the Blues.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Book review: Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many

Geoff Thompson, Disturbing Much, Disturbing Many:  theology provoked by the Basis of Union, Northcote:  Uniting Academic Press, 2016.

Since 1977, there have been numerous studies of the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia (introductions, commentaries, histories, etc.).  Nevertheless, this recent volume by Dr. Geoff Thompson (Co-ordinator of Studies in Systematic Theology, Pilgrim Theological College) breaks new ground.

At the beginning of this book, Thompson indicates that the intentions of those who framed the Basis of Union was not to cobble together a church structure that could accommodate three denominational traditions, along with a variety of different emphases of belief and practice.  Rather, in the words of the first report of the Joint Commission on Church Union, The Faith of the Church, the task of the Basis of Union would be no less than “a fresh confession of the faith of the Church”, with the knowledge that such fresh confession would “disturb much and disturb many”.  (p. 1)

This book is an exploration of the ways in which such a “fresh confession of the faith of the Church” would impact on the issues confronting the UCA today, including relationships with indigenous Australians (both inside and outside the church) and the inclusion of LGBT Christians within the church.  I felt the chapter on theological relativism is particularly useful.  I personally cheered when I read Thompson’s call for the UCA to formally affirm the existing practice of most UCA congregations to celebrate Holy Communion with an “open table” (p. 113).

I’m sure that, like the Basis of Union itself, Thompson’s study will “disturb many”.

If you cannot deal with a church which affirms critical biblical scholarship and which welcomes the ministry of LGBT people, be prepared to be disturbed.

If you believe such historic Christian affirmations as the Incarnation and the Trinity are artifacts of the past rather than a source of liberating possibilities in the present and the future, be prepared to be disturbed.

If you believe that the UCA (like Ms. Mary Poppins) is already “practically perfect in every way” (particularly in your own congregation) rather than a work in progress, be prepared to be disturbed.

In any event, enjoy the disturbance.
(This review first appeared in the September 2016 issue of Crosslight.)

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Hospitality: according to Jesus or according to Hyacinth Buckét?: a sermon (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14)

In our gospel lesson, Jesus went to the home of a leading Pharisee to eat a meal on the Sabbath.  This in itself may be startling to anyone who was taught the old (and highly misleading) Christian stereotype that the Pharisees were ultra-conservative, “fundamentalist” wowsers who were implacable opponents of Jesus.  Obviously in this case, Jesus had a sufficiently good relationship with a leading Pharisee to be invited to dine with him on the most significant day of the week.

Anyway, on this occasion, Jesus saw his fellow-guests trying to finesse the seating plan, choosing for themselves those seats which were, as the British used to say, “above the salt”.  In response to this, Jesus said a few things about human behaviour whenever we are either the guest or the host at a dinner-party, comments which go far beyond mere table manners.

In regard to being someone’s guest, Jesus said:

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.
But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

As well, in regard to being someone’s host, Jesus said:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Much of this is echoed in our lesson from Hebrews, where we are challenged:  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

All this is the direct opposite of the philosophy of hospitality that we see represented in that well-known television hostess Hyacinth Buckét.  Hyacinth was known for her elegant entertaining, particularly her “candlelight suppers”. 

Hyacinth Buckét was never one, however, for inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”.  Instead she always invited the notable individuals in her community – the elite, the crème de la crème - to attend her “candlelight suppers”:  particularly anyone who was in any way titled.  And, if someone titled wasn’t available, the mayor or the local MP would do, or else a retired military or naval officer, or – if all else fails – the vicar.

And, whenever Hyacinth was invited to any function, she could be counted on to try to wangle a far more advantageous position in the seating arrangements than she was originally allocated.

Back to our lesson, however, nothing of what Jesus said here is about cultivating the artificial humility which is very easy to find among many religious people.  You know what I mean, the continuous breast-beating (“I’m sinful. … I’m bad. … I’m horrible.”) which is far-too-common among many religious people.  It’s one reason why unhealthily low, and often dangerously low, levels of self-esteem are often found among religious people.  Jesus wasn’t trying here to encourage his followers to compete with each other in the humility derby or the low self-esteem stakes.  (“Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, I’m humbler than you are!”)

Instead, Jesus was doing something far more positive.  He was encouraging his disciples, both then and now, to view ourselves as being linked with all humanity, with people of all sorts and conditions, and to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to our celebrations, not out of any sense of condescension, or of superiority, or even of “outreach”, but because they are all part of the same basic humanity of which we are part. 

This is an important thing for us to note on a day which many Christian churches observe as Refugees Sunday.  All people are part of the same basic humanity as each other, even when politicians try to tell us we’re not.

In a sense, there are two ways to give and to receive hospitality:
  • There’s the Hyacinth Buckét style of hospitality.  Hospitality is given and received in order to promote oneself and one’s own self-interest.
  • Then there’s the Jesus style of hospitality.  Hospitality is given and received in celebration that we’re all part of the same basic humanity as each other.

The feast we shall share today is all about this Jesus style of hosptiality. 
  • The single most Christian thing that we as Christians do when we worship God is to share food. 
  • When we celebrate this sacrament of Holy Communion, we affirm that Christ gives himself to us most profoundly when we eat and drink in community.
  • In the Uniting Church, we celebrate an open communion.  All are welcome and encouraged to participate.  There are no barriers.  In this way, we try – however imperfectly - to reflect the example of the great hospitality of Jesus.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Bank managers, bookies, auditors, motivational speakers, Mary Poppinses, and Bond villians: Political leaders then and now.

Political leaders (and potential leaders) come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  I've tended to see that (in the past few decades, in a variety of western countries), leaders either of nations or of political parties have fallen into six major types:
  • the "Bank Manager",
  • the "Bookie",
  • the "Auditor",
  • the "Motivational Speaker",
  • the "Mary Poppins", and
  • the "Bond Villain".
The "Bank Manager" type of leader tends to be found inhabiting the moderate wing of centre-right political parties.  They were particularly prolific in the post-war years of the mid-1940s through early 1960s.  Dwight D. Eisenhower in the United States and Sir Robert Menzies in Australia are the two classic examples of the "Bank Manager" style of political leader.

The "Bank Manager" provides calm, reassuring, stable, fairly non-ideological leadership, with plenty of gravitas and with a strong sense of the country being "in safe hands".  Although when a "Bank Manager" goofs up politically, he (and they're usually "he") goofs up spectacularly.  (Note: Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis.)

A "Bank Manager" leadership usually occurs after a significant period of centre-left government, when the electorate wants a bit of a "breather" after a period of rapid social change, so that public opinion can catch up with public policy.  An example of this is Malcolm Fraser's administration following the rapid social change of the Whitlam government in Australia.

"Bank Managers" sometimes also follow more aggressively right-wing leaders, providing leadership that, while still essentially conservative, seeks to be significantly "kinder and gentler" than that of their predecessor (George H.W. Bush in the US, John Major in the UK, Malcolm Turnbull in Australia).

While the "Bank Manager" style of leadership is usually considered a thing of the past, there have been some recent examples of "Bank Manager" leaders (or potential leaders):  David Cameron in the UK, Mitt Romney in the US, and (as I've mentioned before) Malcolm Turnbull in Australia.

Within centre-left political parties, the traditional leadership style of past decades (paralleling the "Bank Manager" in centre-right parties) is the "Bookie".

"Bookies" in political leadership frequently project themselves as "a man of the people" (and "Bookie" political leaders are overwhelmingly men, rather than women).  They promote themselves as:
  • conscious of their working-class origins,
  • fiercely proud of their racial, religious, ethnic, or regional origins,
  • highly street-wise,
  • everyone's "mate" or "buddy",
  • able and willing (in the right company) to drink like a journalist, smoke like a 1970s cabdriver, swear like a cop, and fart like a Labrador (but knowing when to refrain from doing so).
Even if the "Bookie" is a well-educated member of the upper-middle class, he'll cultivate an accent that says either "urban working-class" or "regional rural".  He'll drop the "g" from the end of a word, and (in the UK and Australia) drop the "h" from the beginning of a word.  In Australia, he'll also pronounce "aitch" as if it were "haitch".

Even if the "Bookie" has high personal standards of honesty and integrity (and, in my experience and observation, most do), the "Bookie" is usually well-connected with those whose ethics are far more casual.

"Bookies" are effective "retail politicians".  They are happiest making the rounds of the various ethnic social clubs, both those of their own heritage and of the wide range of other backgrounds.

Al Smith (Democratic candidate for the US presidency in 1924) was the archetypal "Bookie" politician.  Probably the most successful political "Bookies" in recent decades were Australia's Bob Hawke and the USA's Bill Clinton.  (Although both combined a predominantly "Bookie" style with a bit of the "Auditor".) 

The recent Bernie Sanders campaign in the US has shown that there is still some serious life left in the "Bookie" model of political leadership.

More recently, since the 1980s, the majority of centre-left political leaders are not "Bookies", but "Auditors".  "Auditors" arose after a time when centre-right parties made great inroads on power in the Reagan-Thatcher years, particularly by portraying centre-left parties and leaders as economic innocents and fiscal ignoramuses (as, admittedly, many were during the 1970s.)

The "Auditor" is a leader or senior figure in a centre-left political party who is a bit of a "policy-wonk" in terms of economic issues, who sometimes lets his/her sense of economic rectitude overcome his/her sense of social justice.   Essentially, the "Auditor" is the centre-left equivalent of the "Bank Manager" and has the gravitas of the "Bank Manager" in bucketloads.  Usually, the "Auditor" comes across as a bit ... well ... boring in their own personal style, as befits the financial professional after whom I've named them. 

Most centre-left political leaders in recent decades have been "Auditors".  Examples of noted political "Auditors" in recent years have been Gordon Brown in the UK, Paul Keating and Julia Gillard in Australia, François Hollande in France, and Hillary Clinton in the United States.

A popular style of political leadership in centre-right parties in recent decades, and the right-wing equivalent to the "Bookie", is the "Motivational Speaker".  The rise of the "Motivational Speaker" - paired with the rise of the "Auditor" - represents a major shift in the popular perceptions of political parties in many western nations.
  • The centre-left has replaced the centre-right as the political home of boring respectability and gravitas, with centre-left political leaders being the political equivalent of the local Methodist minister or high school principal.
  • The right has replaced the centre-left as the political home of the borderline con-artist, the sort of person known to Australians as a "larrikin" and to Brits as "Jack the Lad".
The political "Motivational Speaker", like the ex-athletes and similar types who make their livings addressing business conventions, is a person who can enunciate a viewpoint well, persuade an audience to believe their viewpoint, and make the members of an audience (and the citizens of a country) feel very good about themselves. 
  • The "Motivational Speaker" tends to be a bit of a con artist. 
  • They tend to be politicians within the right wing of centre-right parties. 
  • They're not all that heavy on policy details, compared to the "Auditor", but the best "Motivational Speaker" leaders rely on competent policy people to do their heavy lifting, policy-wise, for them. 
  • They're not all that strong on gravitas, but they can fake gravitas when necessary, almost as well as they can fake sincerity.
Many of the most successful centre-right political leaders in western countries in recent decades have been "Motivational Speakers" in their leadership styles, including Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan in the US, and John Howard in Australia.  Charles Haughey in Ireland, George W. Bush in the US, and Tony Abbott in Australia were national leaders with a "Motivational Speaker" style, but whose leaderships were far more accident-prone.

Then there's the "Mary Poppins", based on the fictional character who was described as "practically perfect in every way".  The "Mary Poppins" in generally a centre-left leader who, at least initially, seems to combine the better qualities of each of the previous styles of leadership:
  • the seriousness and gravitas of the "Bank Manager",
  • the "Auditor's" ability to grapple with serious policy,
  • the articulateness of the "Motivational Speaker", and
  • the accessibility of the "Bookie" to members of the public.

Some "Mary Poppins" leaders have been serious disappointments, because of serious flaws in their approach.  In Australia, Kevin Rudd's anger management problems, in particular, ruined a promising political leadership.  In the UK, Tony Blair's willingness to be talked into participating in George W. Bush's Iraq fiasco had a similarly ruinous impact on his leadership. 

Other "Mary Poppins" leaders have had noted flaws, but are still viewed positively on the whole because of the impressive quality of other aspects of their leadership.  Both Gough Whitlam in Australia and Jimmy Carter in the US tended to be economic novices, for example.  However, this major flaw was overshadowed by:
  • Whitlam's significance while Prime Minister as a promoter of social reform; and
  • Carter's record as a global peacemaker, humanitarian, and human rights advocate after his presidency.

And there have been some "Mary Poppins" leaders, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US and Pierre Trudeau in Canada, whose significant and inspiring long-term leadership seems to have reduced any of their flaws to merely amusing foibles.

With the two über-classy "Mary Poppins" leaders currently serving their nations in leadership roles (Barack Obama nearing the end of his presidency in the US, Justin Trudeau beginning his prime ministership in Canada), I'll reserve my judgement as to how history will regard them.  (I suspect, though, that history will be very kind to both Barry O and to Trudeau fils, regarding both in a class with Trudeau pere.)

And, then, there's the "Bond Villain"

In a sense, the "Bond Villain" is the anti-"Mary Poppins".  Like the various fantastic fictional villains found in the James Bond series of adventure films, the political "Bond Villain" exudes an almost mobster-like sense of menace.  Russia's Vladimir Putin and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi are two classic recent examples. 

Unlike any of the other groups of leaders, all of whom declare solemnly (as candidates and in office) that they are in service to all the voters, not only their own supporters but the supporters of their opponents, the "Bond Villain" makes no such claim.  This is what makes the "Bond Villain" a "Bond Villain".  Like Richard Nixon and (more recently) Donald Trump in the US and Mark Latham in Australia, they speak openly of groups and individuals within the community they consider "enemies" and whom they see it as their duty to "screw".  (Latham's term, I believe.)

Similar to the actual villains in the actual Bond movies, some of the "Bond Villain" political leaders maintain ostentatiously luxurious - and, occasionally, openly playboy - personal lifestyles (Berlusconi, Trump).

While the typical "Bond Villain" leader is a politician on the political right (Putin, Berlusconi, Trump, Nixon), very occasionally you'll find one on the left (Latham).

I hope this exploration of six styles of political leadership has been helpful. With the irredeemable exception of the "Bond Villain", we can find good political leaders in various nations among each of the five other types of leader.

Friday, 15 July 2016

The "Hillsongisation" of Bach?

Last weekend I attended a brilliant performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the Federation Concert Hall in Hobart. 

It was part of Hobart's Festival of Voices, a festival which is essentially a celebration of vocal music of all forms.  This is why the St. Matthew Passion was performed in July rather than on Good Friday, in Holy Week, or (at least) late in Lent, when we normally hear it.

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, a large massed choir, and a number of noted soloists performed under the baton of the brilliant Richard Gill as guest conductor.

However, I'm not writing a music review of the performance but, rather, a theological and liturgical reflection.

Encountering both the music and the English translation of the text, I was struck by the heavily Lutheran character of Bach's church music.  Please note that, as is the case in many performances of vocal music where the text is sung in a language other than that of the audience, the translated words were projected on a screen over the stage area.  (More about the projection later.)

Now, the Lutheran character of Bach's church music should not really be too amazing.  Bach was a Lutheran.  He spent most of his career as an organist and choirmaster in Lutheran churches.  And he wasn't even an ecumenically folksy, Garrison Keilloresque, contemporary Lutheran, but a conservative, 18th century Lutheran pietist.

But, given the ecumenical embrace of Bach as the Christian composer par excellence, the specifically Lutheran character of Bach's music may not be too apparent.  In the churches I know where Bach's music is frequently played, the congregation has essentially made Bach an honorary Episcopalian/Anglican, an honorary UCA member, an honorary United Methodist, an honorary Vatican 2 Catholic, etc., whether Herr Bach would have wanted this posthumous designation or not.   But, looking at Bach's use of his texts, he expressed his Christian faith through his music in a consciously Lutheran way. 

Bach's texts for the St. Matthew Passion came from three sources.  Most of the text was from the Gospel of Matthew itself, from Martin Luther's classic German translation.  Other texts came from German-language hymns which were already in wide use in Lutheran churches in Germany ("O sacred head now wounded," for example), and for which Bach's arrangements of the tunes soon became the standard version of these hymn tunes.

And then, there were some original texts, written by Bach's frequent collaborator Christian Friedrich Henrici, who used the pen name Picander.  These texts, which included the words for some of the most memorable music in the St. Matthew Passion, expressed a pietist, individualised approach to Christian faith which was typical of the conservative Lutheranism of the day.  In a sense, some of the best musical moments in the St. Matthew Passion are accompanied by some of the most problematic theology in the work, at least for a critically-minded ecumenical Christian today.

I have  far fewer issues with whether or not I completely agree with the theology of a work of consciously "Christian" music when the music is a work from an earlier era and written in a specifically classical genre, than I do when the music reflects a contemporary or popular idiom.  I assume that our theology has moved on since Bach's, Handel's, Vivaldi's, Mozart's, or Faure's day and can still appreciate the beauty of the music, as well as the spirituality and devotion behind the music, without having to hold up a critical yardstick to every word and phrase in the text.  This is also why I can sing hymns by Charles Wesley (and other 18th/19th century hymnwriters) with enthusiasm, even if I differ with the details of Wesley's theology of the atonement. 

I really can't do this with many contemporary Christian worship songs, such as the output of "Hillsong", because I believe that worship music in a contemporary musical style should also reflect a contemporarily inclusive theology.  I find a certain dishonesty in worship music in which a contemporary musical idiom is matched with words that proclaim an ultraconservative theology.

In the whole area of music written for Christian worship, I've often regarded (in recent years) the two extremes of the continuum of styles and content in terms of Bach at one end of the spectrum and Hillsong at the other, with my own preferences strongly at the Bach end of the spectrum.   I'm thinking now that perhaps this dichotomy is a bit too hard-and-fast. 

Perhaps performing the St. Matthew Passion in July, rather than during Holy Week, was part of the problem.  During Holy Week, a strong focus on the crucifixion is part of the context for all Christians.  For many Christians, a Holy Week-like focus on the crucifixion at other times of the year tends to imply an eccentrically conservative theology is present.

And the use of the screen may have contributed to this notion.  I associate words projected on a screen, particularly words with a Christian content projected on a screen, with the style of Christian church where a very conservative theology is found alongside an emphasis on contemporary worship music.  I associate the use of a screen and projector with a Hillsong style of church music, not with a Bach style of church music.

But then again, there were many present that night at the Federation Concert Hall for whom the important reason they were there was that the music was by Bach, not that the performance was of one of Bach's specifically Christian pieces. 

While I'm not advocating the Hillsongisation of Bach, I'm beginning to realise that Bach is not an inclusive, 21st century ecumenist in his approach to Christianity, but a conservative 18th century Lutheran pietist, warts and all.  But that should not mean that those of us who are inclusive, 21st century ecumenists necessarily find a barrier between ourselves and either his music or his spirituality.