25th Dec 2005

Blog :: Don't look at me, I'm just strumming my guitar here

I don't think I've mentioned on my blog that one of my interests is music. I play the guitar and recently was privileged to accompany my brother in a vocal/flute recital he gave as a benefit for the Modesto Junior College Friends of Music scholarship fund. The piece I played (Jacques Ibert's Entr'acte) is a fast guitar/flute duet with a few flamencoesque flourishes and I enjoyed the challenge of polishing a piece to a performance level. This is something I haven't done enough of for some time now.

If I get a chance I might even post an audio clip here. My occasion for writing, however, is less my part in the performance than some interesting cultural subtexts embedded in the recital. I'm curious (and maybe Jeshua will tell me) whether the subtext was considered and whether there was any thought to the messages embedded in the concert. From a larger sense, however, this was a great example of how cultural issues are addressed by our art (whether we are aware or not) and how different observers may react to different messages. In particular I wish to consider the nature of heroism and myth. Additionally I should add that this is less a commentary on a concert than it is a chance for me to ramble on about several topics I have been thinking about lately...

Where to start? I guess the first thing to comment on was the composition of the audience. Despite the nice write-up in the Bee the audience was mostly composed of people who know Jeshua personally in some way. There were a few obligatory Music Appreciation students, eking out their mandatory concert attendance but for the most part the audience consisted of one of three overlapping camps.

A fair number of people from Dunkard Brethren came. This is the Church we grew up in (and my parents still attend) and is one historic offshoot of the Church of the Brethren. The Dunkard Brethren split off of the Brethren tree was a late and small conservative split and the denomination today reflects its heritage. I don't want to get caught up in a history lesson here; suffice it to say that Dunkard Brethren hold to a traditional (Anabaptist) conception of nonresistance, separation from the world (especially by way of distinctive dress) and a wary view of worldly culture in general.

There was also a strong contingent of Church of the Brethren people. Both my parents grew up in the more liberal Church of the Brethren and still maintain ties to Brethren people. My Mother was the cook for the local COB camp during my growing up years. Ah, Camp Peaceful Pines! That's where I learned to cook (Need pancakes, sausage, hash browns, scrambled eggs and oatmeal for 100 people for breakfast in the morning? Yeah I can do that.) Many of my summers as a little kid (Jeshua's too) were spent up in the Sierra mountains and along with all the skills we learned we also made many friends. These people tend to be a little more diverse, but in general they are more generically protestant and less Brethren (in the historic sense) than the DB people. They tend to experience the Brethren ideal of separation from the world in a less physical and cultural way and tend to be political/Christian pacifists rather than nonresistant. (Briefly; nonresistance is the idea that Christians are forbidden the use of force and violence by the teachings of Christ. This is usually paired with the idea that Christians ought not participate in the institutions of society that exercise force (law enforcement, the military, and government generally) but tends not to reject the legitimacy/necessity of such institutions as within the will of God for the preservation of society. Pacifism, on the other hand, tends to be the adoption of nonviolence as a general moral imperative and a rejection of violence as an absolute evil. Pacifists tend to see nonviolence as a viable tactic to solve problems (Give Peace a Chance!) and tend to delegitimate the use of force by anyone, including the institutions of society.)

There's a lot of overlap between the COB people and the third group present. The Modesto Peace Life Center is a left-wing progressive group. Definitely politically pacifist and also, interestingly, oppositional to the culture at large in some different ways. The MPLC also has considerable overlap with MJC faculty (Cf one of my favorite Professors at MJC, Daniel Onorato) and tend to have the world view of a Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn (more on him in a moment) trapped in the conservative Central Valley. My family has some odd connections to the MPLC (Camp Peaceful Pines again), but suffice it to say that we have enough relationships with MPLC people that a lot of them (especially if they were Brethren and/or MJC people as well) were in the audience.

The moment that started me thinking about myth and deconstruction was the selection Jeshua sung from the recent Broadway Musical Wicked. Wicked is a retelling of the story of the Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West. Jeshua's brief explanation of the musical reminded me of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim's attempt to tell the "after" of the fairy tales Jack in the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. (Parenthetical aside: I attended the MJC production of Into the Woods a few years ago, not having any knowledge of the story. My immediate reaction to the story was that it is a humanist parable with a death-of-God moment (the actors actually kill the narrator after blaming him for making bad things happen to them!) and a theme of the maturation of humanity and the need for community in a world without a Narrator and without external moral norms (The refrain from the number No One is Alone: "Witches can be right/Giants can be good/You decide what's right/you decide what's good"). Subtlety is not Sondheim's strong point here. Anyways, after the play was over, I stood up and the music appreciation students behind me complained about how boring it was and how there was nothing to write a paper about! I nearly died laughing...)

Now Sondheim definitely had an ideological message to convey. The Death of God, the relativity of moral values/traditional interpretations and the reversal of tradition... Perhaps the flashback to Into the Woods primed me to recognize the same elements in Wicked. At any rate, the piece Jeshua sung is called Wonderful and is a conversation between Elpheba (the "wicked witch of the west") and the wizard.

ELPHABA(spoken) So you lied to them.

(spoken) Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren't true. We call it - "history."

(sung) A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don't exist

They call me "Wonderful"
So I am wonderful
In fact - it's so much who I am
It's part of my name

I wasn't the only one picking up the subtext implicit in the lyrics of Wonderful. An appreciative laugh greeted the line about history and its explanation. Many of the MPLC people would immediately resonate to the hints of deconstruction. Deconstruction is not really the right word, but it comes as close as I can manage. Properly speaking, deconstruction refers to a philosophical movement that is most closely tied to literary criticism. According to dictionary.com deconstructionism "questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth". It goes much deeper than that, of course, down to very postmodern questions about the utility of words to communicate reality and the impossibility of communicating "reality" or "truth" through written/verbal communication. As I use it, however, I mean very much to refer to the attitude and how it relates to history and current events.

The line about history is especially crucial here. That it is followed by a "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" sort of explanation makes clear that what is not intended is a critique of the accuracy of history, but rather an attack upon the idea of history itself. History, from the deconstructionist point of view, is yet another institution of power and dominance. When asserting that something happened in a certain way, what is going on is not really an argument about facts but an argument about power and control (this is the postmodern assertion (to paint with a very broad brush) about all communication). It is natural than, that the deconstructionists provide their own narrative with an ideological view in mind.

One of our MPLC friends once gave one of my brothers Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This is an excellent example of deconstructionist history. Zinn's book is an explicitly ideological retelling of the narrative of the history of the US from the point of view of the marginalized, dispossessed, etc. Zinn highlights "people's movements", by which he means trade unionists, communitarians and communists, collectives, and so on. Implicitly, however, Zinn is as interested in destroying myths as he is in studying "people's movements". (I'm using myth, here, not in the sense of legend (i.e., story that isn't true) but in the sense of a story that has significance over and above its factual content.) Consider Zinn's treatment of Jefferson and Washington: as Michael Kazin notes in an insightful article for Dissent magazine (not exactly a rightwing mag!), for Zinn the founding fathers are not astute political figures with greatness and flaws mixed in complex ways. Rather they are straightforward oppressors, "leaders of a new aristocracy", with democracy merely a tool to oppress and exploit the common sheep who make up the populace. Zinn follows Chomsky's well worn thesis, claiming that "The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history". For Zinn it is not only important that you know about some people you may not have read about in history books, it is important that you reject the enabling metanarratives of the US system of control; liberty, freedom, independence, honor and faith: all are merely tools of an oppressive system. The American Revolution, then, was not about liberty; WWII cannot possibly have been a rational response to fascism but must have been a profit/racism motivated conflict that was entirely avoidable. Lincoln is not a complex fascinating man of greatness, but is merely a politician trying to avoid dealing with slavery and the Civil War is primarily a conflict between Northern and Southern elites for dominance and control.

The Civil War! This brings us back to our recital. The next piece Jeshua sung was Tell My Father; a piece from a musical by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy about the Civil War. Sung slowly to a simple piano accompaniment, the sentimental and straightforward lyrics also carry messages that were less congenial to the assembled audience.

Tell my father that his son
Didn't run, or surrender
That I bore his name with pride
As I tried to remember
You are judged by what you do
While passing through
As I rest 'neath fields of green
Let him lean on your shoulder
Tell him how I spent my youth
So the truth could grow older
Tell my father when you can
I was a man
Tell him we will meet again
Where the angels learn to fly
Tell him we will meet as men
For with honor did I die
Tell him how I wore the Blue
Proud and true through the fire
Tell my father so he'll know
I love him so
Tell him how we wore the blue
Proud and true like he taught us
Tell my father not to cry
Then say goodbye

I am a moderate Civil War buff (as I've written before) and so perhaps Tell My Father was more moving to me than to others; I think it brought a tear to my eye. On paper, I must confess, the lyrics look sentimental, even cloying. To anyone who has watched Ken Burn's masterful documentary "The Civil War", however, the voice and tone is familiar. Once again the subtext practically leaps out at you: the unknown soldier writes from a worldview that assumes "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" - It is sweet and proper to die for one's country (Horace's Odes). Honor is found in doing one's duty and death in the service of your country is not to be mourned. Now Civil War soldiers were as cynical as soldiers anywhere; they were aware of the frequently ugly and pointless nature of death in warfare. But even so, many still subscribed to the very concepts, the myths, that Zinn is eager to demythologize, to strip of significance: honor, duty, valor, sacrifice. (Read Sullivan Balou's letter to his wife, for instance).

These messages, these subtexts were not missed by the audience. The man in front of me who moments ago had appreciated the wicked lines of Wonderful was not impressed by Tell my Father and refused to applaud. My interest, at least, was pricked and it crossed my mind to wonder if Jeshua was being sneaky. My suspicions were further aroused when he closed out the recital with a carol and a recounting of a Christmas truce in WWI. It sounded like a lead up to John McCutcheon's Christmas in the Trenches; a carol whose hero is peace on earth and whose villain is the elites who run the war far from the trenches. Instead, Jeshua straightforwardly pointed to the only One who can bring real peace and the reason for the Christmas season. Once again the messages involved in the presentation of art were recognized by the audience; I felt a sensation of disappointment and discomfort on the part of some of the audience... But I was proud of my little brother.

So I remain curious. Are you thinking consciously about the cultural messages you communicate Jeshua? More generally, what is, what should be, the relationship between the art we produce as Christians and the myths we may choose to attack or support? While I certainly don't subscribe to the simplistic deconstructionist perspectives, neither as Christians are we free to merely support the myths that prop up and support the systems of this world. Any practicing artists who care to think aloud about how they deal with this issue (or anyone who borrowed The Abolition of Man who cares to think about the Lewisian argument from the Tao?) Blog among yourselves...

Update:I trackbacked to the post at ClassicalValues.com that explores the same issues. Reading as a weapon in the culture war is about the elevation of "readings" over texts... Good stuff.

Posted on Dec 25th 2005, 08:21 PM