Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Duchamp, Dutch Calvinists, crime fiction

In his crime novel The Brutal Art, Jesse Kellerman (son of thriller-writing duo Jonathan and Faye) gives us this intriguing passage (among many).

Watching him [an expert draughts player] I felt a thrill similar to what I felt the first time I saw Victor's drawings. That might sound strange, so let me explain. Genius takes many forms, and in our century we have (slowly) come to appreciate that the transcendence given by Picasso is potentially found in other, less obvious places. It was that old reliable provocateur, Marcel Duchamp, who showed this when he abandoned object-making, moved to Buenos Aires, and took up chess full-time. The game, he remarked, 'has all the beauty of art, and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer.' At first glance Duchamp seems to be lamenting the corrupting power of money. Really, though, he's being much more subversive than that. He is in fact destroying the conventional boundaries of art, arguing that all forms of expression - all of them - are potentially equal. Painting is the same as chess, which is the same as rollerskating, which is the same as standing at your kitchen stove, making soup. In fact, any one of those plain old everyday activities is better than conventional art, better than painting, because it is done without the sanctimony of anointing oneself 'an artist'. There is no surer route to mediocrity; as Borges wrote, the desire to be a genius is 'the basest of art's temptations'. (pp.280-1)

So, Duchamp was only a couple of centuries behind the Calvinists, and only 1850 years behind the apostle Paul.

Still, can't expect even a decent crime novelist to know everything about intellectual history!

What he then says about genius is less true, in my opinion, because I don't accept the ethic of the pure act, but it gets one thinking...

According to this understanding, then , true genius has no self-awareness. A genius must by definition be someone who does not stop to consider what he is doing, how it will be received, or how it will affect him and his future; he simply acts. He pursues his activity with a single-mindedness that is inherently unhealthy and frequently self-destructive. (p.281)

That is probably, sadly, historically accurate for many people, but genius doesn't have to be like that...

Monday, 30 March 2009

NT "NT" Wright

If you've ever read any Wright, you'll love this. A spoof of the great man exegeting Humpty Dumpty.

Try reading it out loud in an arch voice. Guaranteed hilarity for the whole household.

Thanks to Stuart at NTI for pointing this out.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

condition and covenant

How we describe the biblical covenants is of great theological significance. What we mean by ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ and to which element of the covenants we apply those adjectives is very important. 

How we conceive of God’s action in history and in us is also bound up in the use of words like ‘unconditional’. There are pastoral contexts in which we speak more of God’s ‘unconditional’ grace (to a tender conscience or someone struggling with assurance) and contexts in which we speak more of scriptural warnings and exhortations and on the role played by obedience in our relationship with God (in cases of indifference or flagrant sin).

Precisely what ‘unconditional’ means and for precisely whom it means that lies at the heart of Christian Zionist and Dispensationalist interpretations of the Old Testament land promises.

What about the texts before we look too much at the details of the theologies above? Are there any conditions, implicit or explicit, in the texts themselves? I’ll post some detailed observations on this at some point, but for now, some gleanings from commentators on the Abrahamic covenant. Notice how the texts do rather seem to contain various kinds of conditions at various stages...

Genesis 17:9

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly." ...And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. ...And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. ... Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

“Whereas inaugurating the covenant was entirely the result of divine initiative, confirming it involves a human response, summed up in v 1 by ‘walk in my presence and be blameless’ and spelled out in the demand to circumcise every male.” 

[Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, WBC 2 (Dallas, 1994), p.20]

“Although in chapter 15 Abraham was a passive partner to whom God unconditionally committed himself, this supplement calls Abraham into active partnership. Just as Noah lived righteously and was rewarded with the Noahic covenant by the Lord, Abraham must “walk before” the Lord (living in fellowship with him and being taughtby him) and be blameless (living with integrity) in order to enjoy the covenant blessings. In fact, only after Abraham shows his total commitment to the Lord by his willingness to offer up Isaac as sacrifice does God take an oach to fulfill this covenant (22:15-18). From henceforth the covenant supplement is unconditional. Nevertheless, the formulation suggests that for Abraham’s descendants to increase and be a blessing they too must walk before God and be blameless. The suggestion becomes explicit in the blessings and curses in the Mosaic covenant (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).”
[Bruce Waltke, Genesis: a Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.263.]

Genesis 22:18

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, "By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice."

“A promise which was previously grounded solely in the will and purpose of Yahweh is transformed so that it is now grounded both in the will of Yahweh and in the obedience of Abraham”
[R.W.L. Moberly, ‘The Earliest Commentary on the Akedah’, VT 38 (1988), 320]

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Tuesday was painful enough, but why does it all ache more on Wednesday!?

No badminton next Monday or my concert on April Fool's day will not be a wise time ;-) 

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


At long last I have got round to joining the badminton club down the road. And boy does it hurt. After 2 hours of dancing around the court with players of all ages and most abilities above my own (yes, several pensioners who were clearly better than me) I am wondering whether or not itwas worth it.

Of course it was, even though on the way home the unnescessarily long laces on my trainers got caught in my pedals and I fell off my bike, causing the chain to fall off (my heart was free), leading to my hands getting covered in oil, so no gloves possible, so freezing extremities by the time I got home.

There's a saga-in-waiting there.

Meanwhile, badminton will entertain me for many a Monday to come, I hope. And it will be a great way to chat to more local people who I don't yet know.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Psalm 145

Number 2 brother came up with an excellent insight into the structure of Psalm 145 when we studied it in homegroup on Tuesday night.

(1-2) Preamble, announcing the praising

(3-6) high level, general discussion of YHWH's greatness

(7-9) high level, general discussion of YHWH's compassion

(10-13) detail of YHWH's greatness (kingdom)

(14-20) detail of YHWH's compassion (love, closeness, provision)

(21) Conclusion, announcing the Psalmist's praise again

Study in Psalm 110

Outline the 4-part structure

(1) YHWH makes ‘my Lord’ a triumphant ruler
(2-3) YHWH extends his rule, and he has a great army of volunteers
(4) YHWH makes ‘my Lord’ a priest after Melchizedek
(5-7) ‘my Lord’ will shatter kings, bring judgement, and be refreshed and vindicated.

Draw pictures of…
verse 1
verses 2-3
verses 5-7

Notice who is doing the speaking, who is addressed in each scene, where they are in relation to each other, what action is going on. This should bring up all sorts of questions and discussion about detail in the text. Notice particularly how the addressee changes in vv.5-7; the ‘you’ there is YHWH, as the Psalmist directly speaks to God about this ‘Lord’. Thus in the last picture the figures are sitting/standing in the same way as in the first]

What are the jobs of “my Lord” through the Psalm?

So who is this Lord?

for Melchizedek, read Genesis 14 and Hebrews 5:1-10 & Hebrews 7, noting that Melchizedek was king of {Jeru}Salem long before David…

Jesus confronts the authorities with Psalm 110 in Mark 12. Confrontation and legitimacy of rule are key points in the crescendo of clashes in the Temple courts – these are the very themes of the Psalm. By the time we get to Jesus’ use of Psalm 110 he has batted away the attacks and is going on the offensive himself

Re-tell the 4-part story outline of the Psalm to help you learn it.

Where are we in the Psalm?
Hopefully the volunteers of verse 3. This is a spiritual battle, Ephesians 6.

Study in Psalm 2

Outline the 4 scenes...


(1-3) Rulers of nations conspire against YHWH and his annointed in order to rebel.

(4-6) YHWH scoffs; he has put his king in Zion

(7-9) YHWH’s decree of promise to his king

(10-12) Rulers beware! Destruction threatened, or blessing if you take refuge in the Son.

How do the people of the earth perceive YHWH’s rule?

Who does that sound like?

(the snake of Genesis 3)

Zion – where is it and why is it significant?

Look at Genesis 14:17ff; Joshua 10:1-4; 2 Samuel 5:1-9 context.

What does YHWH promise to the Son/King?

Is there any hope for the enemies? That sounds quite harsh!

Re-tell the story of the Psalm (4 scenes are memorable) as a group

How “realistic” does this Psalm sound?

in David's day, at any point in the monarchy, or now?

How does that encourage us when we see the world in a mess?

How does this Psalm bring us to Christ? To put that another way, how do we understand it better through Christ?

The conspiracy against YHWH’s annointed did its worst [Acts 4:18-31] but Christ was raised and exalted! We have access to this king in heavenly Zion [Heb 12:18-29] because there is forgiveness, a refuge in him [of the many possible passages, we looked at 2 Cor 5:17-21].

Film recommendations

A friend from NTI decided to start watching films recently after decades of indifference. He emailed round asking for top 5 recommendations. Needless to say I could not reply with true brevity, not with only 5. Even these ten leave out some real classics, but, hey, you have to start somewhere...


top pick: a total masterpiece! Attention to detail, characters, dialogue, suspense, silliness... This should be top of everyone's list of quality and love!
My Cousin Vinny
fun courtroom drama with oscar-winning Marisa Tomei and a host of B-movie figures to spot.
La cite des enfants perdus
earlier, darker work from the director of Amelie, like a modern fairy-tale.
wonderful, tongue-in-cheek spin off from sci-fi series 'Firefly'; quite thought-provoking, and incredible quality to budget ratio!
Galaxy Quest
spoofy blockbuster sci-fi, child-friendly, which pushes all the right buttons.
Raising Arizona
young Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter in Cohen brothers farce, much nicer than their sinister later films (which are also excellent, of course).


Boys Don't Cry
utterly harrowing, painful, important, tough issues, incredible performances.
the new one about race in America and cleverly interlinked stories, not the twisted weird one based on Ballard's novel.
Russian-French family return to Stalin's USSR and find that life is not nice.
true story of locals vs poachers in Western Chinese icy desert.
Grand Canyon
like an 80s version of Crash - big names, big drama, big heart.

Psalm studies

Here are some ideas for small group (or personal) study on the Psalms.

God's rule

33 (over everything)

2 (through the Messiah)

Why does evil flourish?

49 (or 10; simply reading one out loud, well, and looking in depth at the other works well. Sometimes we just need to listen to the Word.)

73 (a particularly good response to this problem)



26 (note the 'problem' of the Psalmist saying he's totally righteous - how does that work?)

When God is far or near

42 & 43 (they're probably one psalm)


Persecution and enemies

56 (there's a nice ABCBA' pattern in this psalm; 1-2, 3-4, 5-9a, 9b-11, 12-13)



145 (carefully explore the reasons in the text, and remember similar in your own life)

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


We have been studying the Psalms in homegroup for the last 6 weeks or so, and it's been wonderfully refreshing, as well as intellectually stimulating. For all their greatness, I had never really taken a sustained look at the Psalms in a small group context before. So, while I was familiar with many Psalm sentiments and a few of the earlier Psalms through general reading and devotional times, I had not really got my teeth into them in the context of a group.

Group learning is soooo helpful - and I say that as someone who loves reading by myself and does so avidly. Other people's insights and the dynamic of conversation around God's word is good for all of us, and it certainly was as we looked at the Psalms together.

Nex on the menu... eschatology!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Firefly and Serenity

We started on Serenity, which number two brother has long recommended to me. For about a year I was slightly put off by the DVD cover art which made it look much more like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (by the same writer-director) than it really was.

Don’t get me wrong, Buffy may be very good, I’ve never seen more than snatches of episodes. However, marketing that relies on flexible female teenagers (who aren't really teenagers) doesn’t usually score highly in my book. And while I’m on the subject, the cover art for the DVD of Tremors [don't click the link if you haven't seeen Tremors - instead, stop reading this blog immediately and go and find a copy of the greatest film ever made!] is equally deplorable, surrendering most of the tension of the first 30 minutes of the film by revealing in silly picture form the nature of the mysterious threat that attacks the inhabitants of Perfection!

Back to the point…

Serenity is excellent. It has one of the highest budget-final quality ratios of any recent film and is seriously enjoyable. The script is witty and passionate, the characters are engaging, the plot compelling and the set pieces mesmerizing. It plays with action film conventions and gently mocks all kinds of sci-fi and Western cliches. There is a strong anti-totalitarian anti-interventionist flavour, which adds some spice and social critique.

The music is perfect – like American folk overlaid with medieval – or is it medieval ballads played by bluegrass types? I am suitably bemused and impressed. If you haven’t seen it, then do!

On the DVD version the extras are also good value. “The Making of…” and related features are fun(ny), and not too luvvie. Most of the cast did most of their own stunts, which prompts much amusement on set. All in all a great night in, and Mrs L liked it as much as I did.

Firefly is the short-lived TV series on which Serenity is founded. Although it is very good – as funny and engaging as the film, sharing the cast, setting and mood – I can see why some in a conservative culture might have found its open discussion of prostitution rather too much for heart-warming small screen entertainment. Still worth a look.

Counsel of despair?

Occasionally The Economist and I think alike. Just a few weeks after I began to mull over in conversations again the idea of legalising most drugs [including at the recent NTI residential – how good is that, a theological and ministry training conference where we can talk about hard drugs, watch The Devil Wears Prada, enthuse over the doctrine of the Trinity, marvel at Calvin’s biog and seriously debilitating ailments, slip around in the snow and shed tears of joy at our salvation!?] there was a big editorial making the case. 

First, the liberal principle. 

Second, the major economic and public order benefits to producer countries. 

Third, the reduced power of organised crime (along with reduction in risk of contamination or poor quality product) in richer, user countries. 

Fourth, the tax receipts coming from the trade rather than the billions spent on enforcement, which has not, despite the financial and human costs, altered the overall amount of Andean cocaine produced nor prevented drug taking in Britain from rising dramatically over the past few decades, nor…

Of course there are major questions about public good, morality and the role of the law (and the state) in restricting access to certain things. But although this might sound like a counsel of despair, it may be that whatever the moral evil in this case [which may not be sooooo great, if properly handled, in moderation, etc], the practicalities of enforcement are SO awkward that the law simply should not go there. Consider personal nastiness, a moral evil, responsible for plenty of suffering (small and large, short- and long-term) the world over; yet no government tries to ban it in law! [Of course, some of the ways in which interpersonal nastiness is expressed are banned in law… but not all!]

Of course, a major question regarding legalization is amnesty for past crimes of drug smugglers. But is it possible that breaking the power of the organised gangs by reducing their income and their dark monopoly on a economically and socially important substance would make it easier to catch up with the leaders?

Student concert yesterday afternoon

The fifth such occasion since May 2007. 13 out of 20 pianists (ranging from 7 to 40-something) were able to come and play. A fun 45 minutes ensued, marred only by several out-of-tune notes at the top of the nice Kawai baby grand in the Gillian Beer Building at Clare Hall.

I name names because if you hire a room with a piano for the purpose of holding a concert you expect the piano to be in tune! I will definitely be fighting for a refund.

Most of my students are getting to be very cool at the keyboard and all of them coped very well with technical errors to bring off fine performances. We had simple, effective pieces at around Grade 2 standard right the way up to Rachmaninov’s Romance, Op.10 and Sindig’s Rustle of Spring (which I have not yet braved publicly!) It took me till I was 18 to give up being a perfectionist…

Mark Experience report!

Last Thursday night I met the director for the first time, discovered who I was playing in the first 25% of the gospel, and rehearsed hard, knackering my ankle in the process.

Last Friday night those of us who were not Jesus, Peter, Andrew, James, John or Pharisee discovered who we were playing in the next 25% of the gospel. Another solid 3 hours of rehearsing…

Last Saturday morning we got our parts for the second half of the drama and worked for another 3 hours. Last Saturday afternoon we ran the whole thing, which encouraged us in the face of slight ropeiness earlier in the day. 

Last Saturday evening the massed ranks arrived for the first performance. 90 minutes later it was all over, bar the tea, coffee, biscuits and mingling. Second show on Sunday night after church. Perhaps 500 people in total came to see it.

Theatre in the round was fairly new to me, especially with such a small ‘stage’ in the middle – only big enough for 15 people to stand crammed next to each other in a huddle. Semi-improvisation is quite a scary way to go for te untrained, but that worked well. We got enough direction from Andrew Page and assistant Chris White where it was needed, and enough room to manouevre where appropriate. 

The drama itself, based on the greatest story ever told, was very powerful. There was a lot of enthusiasm from the cast, and the rawness of amateurs on minimum rehearsal was usually a virtue. Some of the scenes were uproariously funny, and some were pin-droppingly tense. God was very good to us and helped almost everyone remember almost all of their lines. [On Sunday there was the added drama of a faint elderly gentleman who needed to be carried out after an hour. He was heavy! Although the tension was somewhat broken, we resumed after 10 minutes without a hitch.]

Audience feedback from Christians and non-Christians was overwhelmingly positive. Praise the Lord, this drama seems to have opened eyes to aspects of the truth that conversation and reading have not yet revealed to various friends and family members of the cast.

Last but not least, the experience of intense team work in drama was wonderful (or should that be wonderful, darling…?) This was something I missed out on as an undergraduate, despite having quite a few thesp friends so am grateful to have tasted it in near middle age. The post-play mood droop was significant, but survivable. I really hope this becomes an annual event and even more churches get involved. This kind of creative inter-church collaboration is just what we need to adorn the gospel of Christ

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

youtube fun

Sadly, like the rest of the Web, youtube can be a bit of a snare. However, these fine videos show a range of musical expression that has to be seen and heard to be believed!

Fazil Say does Mozart's Turkish Rondo with jazz hands

Lasse Gjertsen does something with no talent whatsoever!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Mark Experience

Mark's gospel as a drama, with a cast of 15 from churches all over Cambridge. 90 minutes of excitement and compelling story, and truth of eternal significance.

This weekend at Emmanuel URC, site of many a fun concert.

I am in it! So I've learned the whole of the book - not word-for-word, but incidents, structure and gist of conversations. It's been really exciting, and easier than I feared. From a dramatic perspective things are less certain... it's the first time I've been in a play since Tom Stoppard's "Fifteen-Minute Hamlet" in which I was Queen Gertrude, and that was way back in 1992. For the Mark Experience I will be a host of minor roles, including (since I have man flu) the well-known man with a cough.

And immediately a man with a slight cough came to him, and immediately began to complain of other aches and pains... the disciples asked him, 'why couldn't we drive him out?'..."

[From Mrs L's apocryphal version of Mark's gospel!]

Is there meaning in this text?

It’s a great book, but Kevin Vanhoozer does take a few swipes at ‘fundamentalism’ in order to distance himself from it, and some of these swipes are not really fair…

A ‘recent Potifical Commission document’ claims that sola scriptura is a distinguishing characteristic of fundamentalist interpretation (424).

Vanhoozer, who wants to hold onto a version of sola scriptura, then criticises fundamentalists for…

• craving ‘objective certainty’ (424)
• encouraging ‘individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves’ (424)
• assuming that truth = correspondence to historical fact (424-5)
• uncritically privilege the interpretive community to which they belong, which is a natural result of being sure that they, and only they are right . Ironically they sound like Stanley Fish in this, he who radically claims that meaning is entirely in the hands of the present interpretive community (425)

Number 1, fair enough. Let’s be more provisional and humble about some of the things on the fringe of our noetic structure, and let’s dispense with modernistic categories, or at least with the pretence that those categories are categorical.

Number 3, Vanhoozer over-presses in his passing comments on inerrancy. Implying that belief in inerrancy means that one must take all biblical ‘narratives as accurate historical and scientific records’ (425) suggests that he hasn’t read the Chicago Statement in Biblical Inerrancy! It also suggests that he is playing fast and loose with some big words (accurate, historical, scientific) which may only be there for padding, if what he really means is “I don’t believe Methuselah was 969 when he died.”

Number 2, it all depends on what you mean (!) by ‘for themselves’. Since uniquely personal interpretation, unconditioned by others, is pretty much impossible, and since authority structures in history have monopolised the reading of texts for dubious political ends, encouraging individuals to have a go is probably no bad thing. Inevitably that’s going to happen in a community, against a background of expectation and possible thoughts, shaped by others’ input, childhood experiences, whatever. Such a process (the power of the interpretive community operating on the reader) is what he criticises them for swallowing in the final point, so it’s hardly fair to blame the poor fundamentalists for both!

Number 4, true enough, fundamentalist interpretation thinks that it is right and no one else is. And if fundamentalists miss the community hermeneutic angle then they have been blind. But isn’t thinking you’re right a hallmark of life itself!? The anti-fundamentalists are also trying to persuade us of the truth of their interpretations (even if only to assert that all are true – and if that’s so, why not the fundamentalists’ one as well!?). What’s the essential difference? Fundamentalism’s methodology represents one way of attempting to guarantee the text’s perlocutionary effects. Fundamentalists do what Vanhoozer later praises as good ‘Spiritual Constraints’ on interpretation (437-8), which include obedience, discipleship and a recognition of holiness as more important than hermeneutical method. Just look at any weeny Fundamentalist church website and you’ll see plenty of exhortation to those things! hey are very fond of insisting that the text must be obeyed and that membership of the fundamentalist community is necessary…

‘Interpretation both requires wisdom and contributes to it’. Isn’t Vanhoozer being rather fundamentalist in insisting that his method (wisdom and cultivation of interpretive virtues against a background of critical realism) is what is needed to get the right meaning? He just disagrees on what wisdom looks like, and on what the meaning is in certain places (which I suspect is the real issue). To be fair, the ‘fundamentalists’ he quotes don’t play up the role of wisdom, they do seem to expect the meaning to come straight off the page. But the bottom line is that his criticisms of fundamentalism only seem to apply to some of those who call themselves fundamentalists. Plus, general guilt-by-association attacks on dispensationalism and separatism hardly scratch textual fundamentalism as an attitude because they don’t get to heart of the matter.

For a brief, provocative case that Scripture is not inerrant in the Chicago sense (because the writer finds this an incoherent and silly position) see this article on the Kuyper Foundation website. These guys are not ‘fundamentalists’ but they do espouse some beliefs about theology and politics that go way beyond the loudest 'fundamentalist' (and I suspect that Vanhoozer would not approve!)

Ellul fun

In the dying days of my work for the county council I had begun to read several things by Jacques Ellul – his books and some crit by other keenos. Ellul was an academic, an expert in medieval law, and a rare breed – a prominent French Protestant in a country that thinks of religion as dodgy and anything not Catholic as a weird cult! He was also something like an anarchist, in the technical sense.

Many of his works are online…

And there is a ton of fodder here, too (the CD of back issues is very cheap)…

What is going on?

In the world, and in my head...

Another old bit of paper swept away at the moving of a bookcase amid general shedding of bumph was some thoughts I had during the Cambridge Papers discussion of Colin Chapman’s response to Islamism and Islamic terrorism. Mostly fairly ignorant questions, they deserve some thought, and probably some attempts at answering by good, old-fashioned research one day!

What do all these ‘moderate Muslims’ [to use the categories of others, for a moment] want? We can distinguish bombers, we can spot those who call for violence, we can distinguish those who push for rigorous application of sharia… but what do ‘moderates’ want? And why should we [whoever they are] build bridges with them? 

What is their political goal, and to what extent does it involve gaining coercive powers over non-believers? [This really seems like the $64,000 question. Having read some very interesting essays on Islamic theology of law recently by meaty scholars such as Noth, Becker, Morony and Edelby I feel slightly closer to understanding this, at least in theory!]

Are there any Christians who want to capture the state? And what do they want to do with it?

How do postmillennial reconstructionists fit with Islam? What about postmillennialims in general?

Should the question of Islamism spur us to try to understand what the church’s relation to organised idolatries and false (eschatological) communities is? See Peter Leithart’s wonderfully provocative essay, Mirror of Christendom, on this.

Suffering victors… Muslims tend to measure triumph by expressions of power (as Colin Chapman pointed out, anger at the Crusades was fuelled by the fact they they lost so many battles to the barbarian Franks) but Christians don’t have to do that. Islam misses victory-in-suffering, but we have because our Lord has it. We don’t need to vindicate ourselves now, but Muslims do. [Or is that not quite accurate?]

Muslims have a good understanding of how to rule: Christians don’t. We know how to be in a minority, and how to be oppressed quietly, but they don’t! 

A similar sentiment was expressed by the Syrian John bar Penkaye in the 8th century…

He promotes a particular view of the past which seems to say that Christians are better off if they are ruled by non-Christians, that Christians are ruined by peace and quiet and by the interference of Christian rulers in Church affairs. (p.16)

Michael G. Morony, ‘History and Identity in the Syrian Churches’, in J.J. van Ginkel, H.L. Murre-van den Berg & T.M. van Lint, eds, Redefining Christian Identity: Cultural Interaction in the Middle East Since the Rise of Islam (Leuven: Peeters, 2005) pp.1-33.

on the shelf / floor

A recent touch of spring cleaning at the homestead enabled me to chuck away all manner of bits of paper and curiosities I had lying around. On one of them was a list of folk superstitions from a country that inerests me. Things like “If you stare into space, or if a toddler peers through its legs, a guest will arrive”. I can’t remember what the source was, unfortunately (possibly chat with foreign friends or some book of popular anthropology), and I will only divulge the country of origin to the alert readers of this blog…

Thinking of something bad will lead to something bad, unless you pull your ear and tap the table to prevent it.

Umbilical cords buried in certain places will influence the lives of the children they were attached to.

Refusing to wash up and leaving the dirty crockery overnight encourages the Devil to wee on them.

Kutting toenails at night brings evil
(compare this to Japan, where the evil is specific – your parents will die early!)

‘Evil Eye’: the blue-white-black circular charm wards off a sort of covetous glance from others that would otherwise damage the house, possessions.
(NB. the problem is other people. Mrs L wondered if that was related to the practice of giving a thing to someone who admires it? A prophylaxis against extreme and unnecessary generosity?)

Your clothes must not be left outside overnight, or else evil will arrive.

Icelandic crime

I'm not talking about profligate banking. Over Christmas I caught up on the books I won in the competition last year. Icelandic crime novels...

The film Jar City was quite decent. The book it was based on (Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indridason) had, surprisingly, a less interesting plot, largely because the tension wasn’t built or maintained properly. Unfortunately books 2-4 in the series are not really any better. Indriadson seems to be following a formula for the architecture – take one old mystery, interweave it with the detectives chatting to people about it, dovetail the plots, bathetic finale. No detection seems to take place, people confess at random, and realism is really strained at times.

That said, learning a little about Iceland is interesting, and the 4th book, about Cold War shenanigans up north, is particularly poignant. The 5th book in the series is an improvement. Again, little by way of detection – perhaps that simply reflects reality – but a more satisfying story and a truly “Icelandic murder”, which according to Indriadason involve no planning or sophistication, plenty of impulse and stupidity, some brutality and some mess.

Christmas 08

Fabulous! Praise the Lord! Lots of time to worship with everyone at Hope Community Church (two carol services, Christmas morning and a late-night Christmas Eve event, which attracted quite a few people who’d never been before), and thankfully Al did most of the hard work.

A girl from China and a girl from Japan stayed with us for 3 days, and together with Hao we had a whale of a time. Plenty of games and duck. Two ducks, if I’m honest. We discovered a new footpath next to the airport and we watched Tremors (the world's greatest film) in the evening of the 25th. Could things have been better?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Last week I gave this rather indulgent programme of works in the style of various composers by various other composers. I performed in the style of a concert pianist, but owing to technical difficultues and man-flu there were a number of loose notes! Not that it seemed to matter either to me or the generous audience.

Grieg, Gade [Lyric Pieces, Op. 57, No. 2]

Satie, Sonatine Bureacratique (Clementi)

[A] The Dane, Niels Gade (1817-1890), was one of the first Scandinavian composers to win international recognition. Although extremely prolific in all forms of orchestral music he is largely found today in piano anthologies. Grieg’s homage is a graceful gem, faithful to Gade’s style, but not without a few surprises. Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) was a leading piano virtuoso and educator, who moved from Italy to England when in his twenties and continued to tour Europe, pouring out hundreds of compositions and dabbling in the business world. Satie’s gently ironic Sonatine mocks the world of business and the world of classical piano in equal measure. Written into the score like musical directions is a story in French about a self-important office worker who walks smartly and happily to work, dreams about promotion, then loses his job – all to the sound of someone practising Clementi in a neighbouring building.

Barber, Nocturne, Op.33 (Field)
Schumann, Chopin [Carnaval, Op. 9, No. 9]
Ravel, Valse (Borodin)

[A flat] Although Chopin popularised the form, the “Nocturne”, gentle night music, was actually invented by the Irish pianist John Field (1782-1837), who took lessons from Clementi en route to a career in Russia. Barber’s own modernist idiom is the most distinctive thing about his homage to Field, though there are moments of eerie beauty among the hard, metallic harmonies. Schumann tries gamely to enter into the spirit of Chopin’s piano writing, but although the melodic line is very Chopin-esque he can’t quite capture the grace of his contemporary. Not that that is a problem – this is my personal favourite from Carnaval, arguably Schumann’s masterpiece, a suite in which he set out his musical manifesto, painting a vibrant world of characters both real and imaginary who would stand with him against musical Philistines (good thing he never heard anything by Barber!) Ravel’s waltz in the manner of Borodin (1833-87) is perhaps the most perfect imitation on today’s programme, catching the mood and the distinctive harmonic progressions of its model.

Howells, Ralph’s Pavanne (Vaughan Williams)
Freedman, Prelude and Fugue in G minor (Bach)

[G] Herbert Howells wrote two collections of tributes to his friends – British composers, conductors and performers of the early 20th century – in the style of English keyboard music of the Elizabethan age. Originally for clavicord they work just as well on the piano. Howells brings the Renaissance forward several centuries and conjures up the mood of VW’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The unusual harmonies Howells plays with sound quite modern but many are in fact derived from the Renaissance idiom, fond of “false relations” and jarring passing notes that ultimately resolve into happier sounds. My friend Gordon Freedman wrote his Prelude and Fugue while he was at school. Inspired by Bach, the great master of the form, it evokes the late Baroque period in its harmonic progressions and economic figuration. Like Bach, the fugue makes no concessions to the pianist, and the clinactic appearances of its chromatic theme in the middle line are quite magical. Bet you can’t guess when it was written…

Debussy, Dr Gradus ad Parnassum (Clementi / Czerny)
Addinsell, Warsaw Concerto (Rachmaninov, Scharwenka, etc.)

[C] Clementi may have written the original Gradus ad parnassum (which can be roughly translated “To paradise, step by step”), a collection of exercises that still forms the basis of piano technique today, but Debussy also had an ear for the virtuoso Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who produced still more exercises than Clementi – perhaps more than any single person could play in a lifetime (certainly before nodding off). Film music composer Richard Addinsell produced this juicy masterpiece in 1941 for the patriotic film Dangerous Moonlight, about a Polish pilot in the RAF. It owes more to Rachmaninov than to any Polish composers (except possibly Xavier Scharwenka, one of the greatest pianists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries) but that did not stop it becoming a real hit. Although it may be overblown and cheesy in places, the late romantic grand piano style is secretly everybody’s favourite. kind of music You may deny that, but I know it’s true… ;-) This arrangement for solo piano (in the style of Addinsell, one might say) is by Henry Geehl.

Herbert, Fish and the economy

Stanley Fish, whom I remember from undergraduate days as being a very entertaining if somewhat exasperating literary critic has written a great piece on the New York Times website. He is a keen observer of things Christian, for all the post-ironic deconstructionalist aura he carries around!