21 November 2014

When Music doesn't 'Resolve'

I don’t know much about musical theory and have never had much musical talent. So, a while back, when I read a description of a band (called Thrice) which was described as having “mathy time signatures,” I had no idea what that meant. So I asked my husband, who is a bit more musically educated than me, and he explained the time signatures as having to do with how many beats there are in a measure, and also has to do with how many beats it takes for the main melody to resolve, and a “mathy” one would be particularly complex. He waited until a song played that had such a time signature, and I was at least able to recognize that the difference he was talking about. (That song, by the way, was by Amit Erez, and is called “Cinnamon Scattered Along Your Shoulders.”)

It was still a little confusing for me at the time, but I liked the idea of how music has to resolve, which was something I never really understood before. Indeed, it’s part of the reason why Jazz is so hit or miss for many people—it’s not hugely into resolution, it’s into exploration. That can be really enjoyable, or really frustrating.

Most of the time, however, in order for the melody to be powerful and effective—however complexly it goes about it—it eventually has to resolve.

The idea has, shall we say, some striking metaphysical resonance. People who are especially musically talented can hear where a tune “ought to have gone” or where a melody “missed an opportunity” or where an important nuance was missing, or something was overdone. I do not have this skill, but my brother does and it fascinates me, because the implication is that music is not just a chaotic free-for-all, where anything goes, even though it may seem like it: it’s going somewhere. It’s saying something. The notes have purpose.

So what’s the point of all this mild-mannered musical theory from someone who knows far too little about the subject?

Well, a while back a friend recommended a song to me. I listened to it and liked it and sought out more of the artist’s work, because I detected some spiritual themes that intrigued me. Very quickly into my research, my shoulders fell because—as it turned out—themes were all there was to be found. Or, more accurately, spiritual imagery and cultural references with too little blood pumping through the veins to keep it alive.

I almost felt tricked. Don’t get me wrong, the music was still very good and the lyrics had real substance. But what I had thought was something truer and deeper was only an aesthetic—like incense, stained glass, or a gilded menorah when I had come through the door hoping for prayer, worship, and light.

And I realized what bothered me. It wasn’t that the music didn’t line up with my spiritual values—though that was a factor—because I listen to all kinds of music that doesn’t do that. It was that the song didn’t resolve. Oh, musically, it did. But thematically? Not at all.

I found myself feeling frustrated and weary. I don’t expect every artist who uses religious imagery to actually put forth something of spiritual depth and merit. Religion will be used by culture just like every other product. But when I get that hint of real truth-seeking and find that it was just a artistic flirtation with fact and faith? It’s getting old. Real old.

The imagery of faith is beautiful. I get it. It even resonates in an era and a culture that has little respect or understanding for the foundation beneath that imagery. But weirdly, it almost resonates like a fairytale—something dangerous and adventurous that pulls at their soul, but which they won’t really dare to believe. Something you like to muse about with quick-beating heart that is hiding just beyond the corner of your eye, but which ultimately has no effect on your daily choices and beliefs.

Artists use this spiritual imagery because it is evocative. They use it in a similar way that we have used the imagery of ancient myth: of Greek gods and fairies and elves and imps and sprites. Symbolically. Half-believed, but never lived.

But this is different. If I were to say something poignant about Athena because I was going into war, this wouldn’t come off as grand. At best it might be considered poetic, at worst extremely silly. It has little cultural resonance because we do not believe in Athena, nor does anyone we know, most likely. Athena is not a name tossed about at the center of most philosophy, religion, and even current political debates.

So this habit (particularly among musicians that I tend to love) is more than just evoking religious grandeur. This is tip-toeing on the edge of belief, recognizing with an artist’s eye that this is the greatest, most poetic battle on earth: it is life or death. Forget the trope of “Unresolved Sexual Tension” in every YA novel, cop procedural, and sit-com. The real stuff is to be had in the “Unresolved Spiritual Tension.” That’s where the true thrill is. The battle over souls, not sex.

So just as we desperately want to see the main couple in the cop show get together, but then we’re often bored once they do, it’s as though we—as a culture—are conditioned to demand that everyone wrestle with God, with Truth, with Faith, with Purpose, with Meaning, but then we cannot stand it when someone has reached a conclusion. It’s everything but the marriage, the smell of food without eating it, all of the preparation but none of the action, all the intellectual posturing but no final choice.

So here’s what I think regarding both types of unresolved tension: We fail to see that the reason we’re ‘bored’ when the couple in the TV show gets together is not because satisfied and growing love is boring, but because it’s beyond us and can no longer include us in the way that the lead-in can. We can join in the build-up, like we can attend a wedding. But then the married couple has to live it. And that is greater, and more complex. It’s not mere story arch anymore. It’s a road. The tension may be reduced, but the richness is increased and it is too subtle for easy caricature. Deep wholeness is harder to depict than mysterious fragment.

So too with faith. It isn’t always Jacob wrestling by the river (though I’m wont to feel that it is in my life). Sometimes it’s Abraham waiting years upon years for a promised to be fulfilled. Steadily—sometimes failing and falling—but doing so for years on end often without the flash and snap of doubt and tension.

The theme of Unresolved Spiritual Tension is powerful because we all must wrestle. Even when we believe, we still must wrestle—working out our faith with fear and trembling.

But it’s also heartbreaking because everyone seems to think that mere wrestling is enough. Even I am wont to think that more often than not, and I’m sitting here saying I know better. It would be like in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu match, if I were to wrestle and wrestle but never attempt a triangle choke or an armbar because I thought the heart of it was just in the act of rolling around on the floor and exerting well-trained effort.

And that’s just not true. At some point you have to make a decision, find your opening, and go for the choke. Then you find out if you were right or wrong. If you don’t act, you will get choked in the end. To refrain from making a choice regarding belief is to make a choice against it. Eventually, even if it’s just because the time runs out, there will be a resolution.

We, both in and out of the church, are often trying to have all the trappings of spiritual depth without having to actually engage in the occupation…the leaves and fruit without the trunk and the roots. We like the resonance, but not always what that sound calls us to. So many wish to employ the beauty and power of things they are not quite willing to believe in.

Oh and they are beautiful and powerful. But if everything becomes divorced—the image from the meaning, the question from the answer, the wrestling from the conclusion—then the power either dies horribly, or becomes perverted in a way that something less meaningful never could have.

Why do artists do this? Why do we do this? Why do I want to be satisfied with the mere fight, never mind the victory (God’s, not mine)?

Because people think that imagery and a feeling of comfy antiquity is all Christianity has to offer? Or because we want to be able to yell at God without answering to him?

I think it’s both, but today I am discussing the latter. Our spiritual selves are drawn to throw our anger, our pain, our struggle, or hate, our longing towards him. Our baser selves cannot stand the thought of having to face a real, live response that requires something of us. Or, rather, everything. We’re afraid of resolution the way some people are afraid of marriage. It’s so permanent. What if I get bored? What if I change my mind? What if I’m wrong?

We want to rant, not to debate. We want to be heard, not to listen. We want to angst, not to resolve. I say this because this is my strong tendency.

Or, suppose, some of us do want a resolution, but we just can’t swallow the idea of one that requires us to give up all we have and are—our hate, our anger, our revenge, our bitterness, our preferences, our desires, our meandering…ourselves. Resolution means shearing off certain paths. Utterly and forever.

This is not to belittle the search and the struggle.  I enjoy these artists because their work resonates deeply with me—with my own spiritual struggles—and because there are powerful questions being asked. But no answers being struck.

And that last bit infuriates me.

I’ll tell you what, though: In the Bible the same person who said “My God, my God, has thou forsaken me” said “I will yet praise you.”

The same person who said “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? and “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil” and “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face” at the final hour said “my ear had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

But for some reason, not all are willing to both ask the question, and then with a cry of “I believe, Help my unbelief” point to the answer because of its imposing permanence. We’re really not supposed to worry the same bone forever. We’re not supposed to wrestle over that one piece of ground endlessly.

What good is it to “have a form of godliness” but deny its power, or to be “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Timothy 3: 5 and 7)?

Strange as it may seem, answers are simultaneously wild and complex as they are concrete and simple. In any case, they are real.

“We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and started looking for answers”
-GK Chesterton

So, further up and further in. There is power in the music when it has the courage to resolve.

23 June 2014

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

I have a wolf. A wolf mix, rather. He is a handsome fellow.

Despite him being very wolfish of mien, people tend to assume that he is as sweet as pudding pie.

And he is.

He may chew on your hands to get your attention, fling a play-rope at your sister’s head, chew lightly on your sister’s cat, and rest his chin ever-so-gently on your computer so that it turns off while you’re typing a sentence…but he is a sweet chap.

This wolf o’ mine is the reason I get to talk to my neighbors despite our current individualistic shut-door culture. I get to talk to all sorts of random people who see me taking him on a walk. Children gather round—cautiously at first—and ask his name. People sitting on their porches call out asking “Is that a Husky?” “What is he?’ “He’s beautiful!”

People pull over in their cars and roll down the window to ask me about him. It’s crazy.

Oh and I love it. And it isn’t just because I feel a little bit awesome walking about with a wolf at my side who is so very pretty. It’s because I don’t think I would do more than casually wave or nod at people as I go by, because I get the feeling I might make them uncomfortable and also, maybe, I’m being lazy and anti-social my own self. Everyone is locked in their own spheres, most of the time, and there’s a whole lot of fear and uncertainty one betwixt the other wherever you go. I mean we do live in a dangerous world, but does that mean we should all just keep to ourselves then? I think not.

So because of this wool-soft wolf, I get to strike up conversations with people. I get an in to interact in a culture that is wary of interaction. I had thought to bake a mountain of cookies and take them to my neighbors and try to get to know people that way, but I think this works much better. I once talked to a very kind Vietnam Veteran for nearly half an hour about his life, his struggles, his and my contrasting experiences in the military, PTSD—and what it was like before care for PTSD was prevalent and encouraged—just because he had called out to ask what kind of dog I had.

You see, a dog is a safe topic to broach. It’s safe to compliment a stranger’s dog. So people feel comfortable doing it. I am so grateful for that.

Because, you know what? I have been so immersed in open-communication, semi-communal environments that I crave that openness and easy interaction wherever I go. I have five siblings and eleventy-million cousins, and most of us grew up pretty close. Lots of shared space. That generation of sisters—our moms—being pregnant at the same time and sharing duties.

Also, my parents lived on a Kibbutz (Israeli communal farm) for a number of years before I was born, so I think some of the small-scale social communalism sank in in the form of the extreme open-door and open-fridge policy of our house.

Then I worked on a Moshav (like a Kibbutz) for six months myself. Then I joined the military and lived in barracks [or cans] for five years. Then, when I went to school, I shared a home with several other women where we had a more-or-less community fridge and cooked large meals for all of us to share. Tight space, sharing books, sharing food and coffee and morning insights over said coffee. Dealing with all the little difficulties and interruptions that happen when you put a bunch of disparate personalities into a small area and say “Go!”

And I loved it.

When I lived in D.C. I met several times with a young Saudi Doctor and mother so that I could practice my Arabic and she her English. One time the conversation was waning and I had to keep it going in order to practice. So I decided to ask her what she liked most about living in the United States and what she liked least. Her answers on both counts were fascinating and stuck with me, but I would like to bring only one to mention just now.

One of her least favorite things was how people ignored each other in the metro (subway). Earphones in, sunglasses on, face turned to the corner, expression uninviting. Community transport, but no community is happening. People trying with all their might to keep their bubble firm and tune out all the life around them because it’s tiring (which is true…it can be very, very tiring). Where is the sense of community? Where is the ability to take a moment out and say good morning to the person you’re sitting next to? This dullness of manner between the metro passengers made this young Saudi woman very sad because she felt that people should be engaging one another, not their i-phones, on the metro.

I so heartily agree with her.

I tried to make it a principle of mine. In the two and a half years I lived in DC and took the metro almost daily, I think I wore headphones two or three times total. I tried to focus whole-heartedly on anyone who tried to strike up a conversation with me about any old thing, rather than being stiff with them, which I often wanted to be. I did not always succeed, but I tried to keep my eyes open.

(Confession: I did sometimes read on the metro which can shut you off just as badly as headphones and sunglasses if you’re not careful. I did not uninterruptedly stare out at the whole fascinating contents of the metro car. And, though this does not wholly absolve me, sometimes even a book can be a conversation starter: “What language is that?” “Oh, I read that and loved it!” “Is that any good?”….It happened at least once that I can recall off the top of my head, perhaps more.)

Point being? This dull, generic face of ‘outside interaction’ is not doing us any good. The bubbles make life easier, but they’re not making it better. They’re not forcing us to hand over a few seconds of our time to look someone in the eye. So if you think a girl’s earrings are pretty: say so to her. (I have been practicing this). Because if all she does is nod awkwardly and say thank you, who knows but that’s the one kindness she got in the middle of an awful day?

I want to live like this. So I want to be grateful for the things that help me do it when I am too cowardly and selfish.

So. A compliment. Cookies. A good, solid look-you-in-the-eye hello. A wolf. Whatever it takes.

29 January 2014

No Mere Mortal

Back when I was in the Marine Corps, I spent 18 months in a military language program. In order to be accepted into this job specialty, you had to have scored high on the general military aptitude test, and a specific language-related one. The type of people that ended up in my field tended to be pretty intelligent, by and large.

There was one young man who was in the same program as I was. He was from Alabama and he had a country accent thick as mud. I had never heard an accent that thick in all my life. I’ve always enjoyed any and all accents and I never once thought that this would affect my opinion of anyone in any way.

Well it did. Despite being from a state that many people consider to be a bit of a back-water place, I don’t have much of an accent. Even my Texas grandparents only have a gentle West Texas twang. So when I found out that this goodly Alabama-native with his distinct accent was one of the top students in the graduating class—not to mention that his accent in Arabic was known to be excellent—I was surprised.

And I didn’t see why I should be surprised. I mean, I knew he was a smart guy. In my head, I knew that. What on earth had made me think that he would be anything other than one of the top students?

I knew, but didn’t want to admit, that the reason was because of this country/hick-ish accent (at least that’s what I, in my ignorance of Alabama regions, perceived it to be). This horrified me. I LOVE LANGUAGES, DIALECTS, AND ACCENTS OF ALL KINDS.  I paid better attention in class at University if my prof. had any kind of accent, because I'm a sensory creature and it kept my ears awake. And I abhor the fact that someone will work day and night to excise their native accent from their tongue so as to not be thought unintelligent or uneducated, when an accent has no bearing whatsoever on these things!

It’s a cultural association. In movies and television, a country accent of any kind (and, hey, most accents) becomes short-hand for rural simpleton or some such. Non-American accents become caricaturized, even when this isn’t always the intention. [British accents are the comical exception. The generic British accent carries the connotation of intelligence, regardless of what is being said].

Being what I was at the time—a translator—I mulled this over a great deal. I have a tendency to inadvertently don the accents of whoever I’m around, sometimes to my complete embarrassment as when one fellow Marine asked me “hey, are you from Jersey?” during a two-minute chat with him…because the curve of my words was slowly creeping towards his without my realizing it. [Uh…well, no actually, I’m from Oklahoma so…anyhow…]

I hardly ever do this on purpose and I have no doubt that it carries within it the great potential to be irritating or offensive. But it can be good too. When I lived in Israel I had a British roommate. When she called home, her mom [mum!] said she sounded a bit American, courtesy of me, and I had very unintentional smatterings of her accent in my English by the end of it. We had a good laugh about it. I was flattered to be mistaken for an Iraqi once by an Egyptian [Iraqi Arabic is my favorite dialect], and was thrilled to my bones when one of my parents’ Israeli friends looked at me all of a sudden and said I sounded like a ‘native Israeli who’s maybe just been living in the states for a time.’ Hey. I’ll take it!

So how could I, who believe so fervently in the beauty and nuance of regional dialect and accent, allow myself to tolerate some association of accent with intelligence or linguistic capability? The truth is, I still struggle with it. And the scarier truth is, it isn’t just accents.

I find myself making half-unconscious snap judgments about people—I have watched my mind form these opinions almost as an appalled outsider—from the most obscure physical or auditory markers, and also from some of the more stereotypical things too. What music they listen to. What they look like. How they dress (weirdly, I get leery if people are too well put together). What books they read. Even the tone of voice they are wont to use, and if they use internet acronyms in their speech (this is very hard for me).

Of course this disconcerting fact can come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the entrenched trajectories of racism, prejudice, anti-Semitism, stereotyping, bullying, etc. I acknowledge that this is not shocking or profound information. It just came through the most unexpected venue—a country accent heard by an Oklahoma native.

Yet that’s how we so often interpret the world into our own tongue. Or how we skim through people by short-hand, getting the gist, rather than reading them in full. Running our eyes over the back-cover synopsis, rather than giving the narrative and prose the chance to speak.

I come back to this idea again and again when I interact with people at random. I get Jeremiah’s fire in my bones when I think of how each and every person I meet is beloved of God, and how dare I write someone off as shallow, or uninteresting, or dull, or simple, or unfixable. He made them. They may be broken and fallen, but so am I and so have I been.

C.S. Lewis’s (really, are you surprised?) essay “The Weight of Glory” kicked me in the teeth and humbled me into trying to see everyone I meet with God’s eyes., (yes, even those ones that I don't like because they are like me enough that it grates. You know what I'm talking about). This task is so grand and so weighty, that it should put every one of us face to the ground.

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors”


“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.”

So this is about 'average' people that I may only ever speak with once in a grocery store, or read about in a blog, or sit next to on the bus. It’s about the guy who looks like a thug, and who I think just got out of prison recently, who shares his love horses and riding, and surprises me. About the seemingly selfish and shallow girl who has a depth of passion and sensitivity that breaks my heart. About the person who is so different from me in culture or nature or mindset that it’s like stepping into a whole new world. About someone who loves some subject that I’m not even interested in and I’m reminded how simple and confined I am, in a very good way, because I can’t even understand.

I am not trying to idealize here. There will be people who are hard to get along with. Even people who act despicably, and their actions and choices cannot be excused. There are criminals, and liars, and schmoozers, and all sorts and there is no folly in recognizing that and being shrewd about those things. Yes, yes, “be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about seeing people. I’m talking about the most average interactions, and people that would otherwise—were life a novel—get one throwaway line, or be cast to the side in favor of the main narrative (my narrative? Yours?). I’m talking about bearing the weight of Glory. It goes against everything in us that wants life to be simple and people to be easy and suit our tastes.

Goodness gracious, that’s what my pastor talked about on Sunday, and I just realized it. People are uncomfortable. Get used to it. That’s the body of Christ.

You have never, never, spoken with a mere mortal in your life. Ever.