Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Like numbers and poetry

I took a break from “The Three Musketeers” – this summer’s adventure yarn on my Kindle – to read something my Karen had just finished. Karen has an unsystematic, and surprisingly successful, way of choosing books from the public library. Sure, she’ll take recommendations and she will pursue authors she has enjoyed. But sometimes, when she’s in a hurry, and it’s summer and just too hot or busy to think about it, she just picks titles off the “Staff Recommendations” rack. She has found some of her favorite modern novels that way.

And occasionally, I have been alert enough to carve out time from my own very systematic reading program(s) to share her pleasure.

The Housekeeper andthe Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, is our most recent shared literary pleasure. It is in English translation from a Japanese author – whom now, I am sure, we will both look for! The narrator is the Housekeeper, the unwed mother of a ten-year-old boy. The Professor suffers from brain damage sustained in a car accident 17 years earlier. A brilliant mathematician, his memory only lasts 80 minutes. (How we has learned to deal with that is just one fascinating feature of the story.) Every day the Housekeeper arrives at his cottage and has to re-introduce herself. She has a son, and when the Professor learns this one day, and that he is a latch-key kid, he is agitated and concerned; he insists that the son come to his cottage every day after school. The only character name in the novel is the nickname the Professor gives the son: “Root” – because his flat-top haircut is like the square root sign. “I’m going to call you Root. The square root sign is a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers.” (27)

The Professor makes sense of his limitations, and his world, and his relationships, through number. The math in the book is way beyond me, but not in a way that interferes with the story-telling. Indeed, the math is the story-telling. (Now that I think of it, this is like the 18th-century details in the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels; they just throw the reader into the world of the novel.) In this novel, the poetry is in the explanation. Prime numbers, perfect numbers, number relationships . . . a world of order and beauty from the pages of “God’s handbook.” The writing, like the math, is sheer poetry.

From the earliest pages, I easily justified reading The Housekeeper as compatible with my MA thesis. Not that evening pleasure reading has to be justified! But here was a nice coincidence. I am currently working through a thesis chapter showing how Baroque composers understood music as a vehicle for conveying meaning. Bach was among the last European composers to retain (to some degree) the ancient notion that music was one way of expressing (and discovering) divine order. From Pythagoras and Plato on into the 17th century, the science of music was related to the order of the universe (musica mundana) and the proper ordering of human life (musica humana); only accidentally, so to speak, was the performance of actual music (musica instrumentalis) important. When the Professor describes ‘amicable numbers’- a completely new concept to me - he says, “They’re linked to each other by some divine scheme, and how incredible that your birthday [220, February 20] and this number on my watch [284] should be such a pair.” (19) That notion of divine order sneaks its way through the novel. Delightful.

Oh, and baseball! Of course, baseball is a game of numbers, statistics, distances, velocity, etc. , and has spawned its own share of engaging writing. The Professor and Root bond through a mutual love of baseball, and the novel takes place over the span of a single season of Japan professional ball. So there you have it, a philosophical, mathematical, poetical baseball novel. The most beautiful thing I’ve read in a long time, and I imagine I’ll pick it up again. How long till next summer?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Coming up for air

Today I made my first editorial pass on a very rough draft of the third chapter of my thesis. Coming up for air, I'd love to write up several book reviews and commentaries on my reading from the past two months. For now, I'll simply cite this tantalizing quotation from Laurence Dreyfuss, Bach and the Patterns of Invention. Styles, he says, "lend a special identity to a genre by imparting a specific meaning congruent with the kind's values." (page 193)

Now, this has something significant to do with my thesis. It also speaks to my personal, grander project (my soap-box, if you will), namely, that musical composition - including style and genre - is not theologically neutral.

In my reading and writing for this chapter I have been excited to stumble upon current literature that takes seriously the idea that music (that is, the stuff of composition, independent of text) has the potential to carry meaning. OK, yes, it is a little irresponsible to just set that out there without all the cautions and guidelines that keep us from going overboard with this. But the literature does exercise that caution, and my job in the thesis is to mind my step and keep the guidelines in front of me.

What interests me and excites me most is that the various authors come at this subject from differing disciplines and philosophical perspectives. And none are explicitly religious, which (it may be surprising to say) actually bolsters the argument I make in my theological thesis. However, at the same time I have heard excellent lectures by Ken Myers, who makes exactly these points, from a Christian perspective:
Epiphany Lectures "Ears to Hear: The Possibilities of Musical Meaning."

I'm pretty sure they are lectures during the Epiphany season, but they will be epiphanous for many listeners. The lectures are each an hour long, so - you know - you probably won't have time to listen to all four. If you care to, Lecture 3 - "Form, Meaning, and Listening" - is a good place to start. Lectures 3 and 4 are a good place to go if one is generally literate musically. Those interested in the big idea, but with little musical knowledge would do well to begin at the beginning. (That is, if you always and only listen to songs that last about 3 minutes, you will benefit from the whole series.) If I had my way, every ministry staff in every Christian church would listen to Lecture 3, together, and talk about it, with a music staff person and/or a music professor. Even if this were a single stand-alone lecture in a M.Div program, I have to believe it would begin to make a modest impact on the way pastors think about music in worship. But to be clear: these are NOT lectures about church music!

Look for more from the reading, now that I am in editing mode.

Laurence Dreyfuss, Bach and the Patterns of Invention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Humble Quest

When my college friend, Jon, sent me my introduction to A. J. Jacobs, I wasn’t quite sure how to take it. The note included in the gift said simply, “When I saw the title, I thought of you.” The title of the book: The Know It All. Hmm . . . Not usually a compliment, “know it all.” But author A. J. Jacobs is, after all, reasonably modest, and “One man’s humble quest to become the smartest person in the world” (the book’s subtitle) is an hilarious* romp through the Encyclopedia Brittanica, from cover to cover. And, whatever Jon may have meant by his note, yes, reading systematically through the encyclopedia is not far fetched for me. (I’ve actually been described that way, as in, “I don’t know Chuck well, but he strikes me as someone who would read through an encyclopedia.” Why, thank you! I take that as a compliment. I still prefer to look up words in a dictionary, and concepts in an encylopedia, because one always finds such interesting things along the way.)

A. J. Jacobs is a non-religious Jew (“I’m Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian”) who writes (now is an editor) for Esquire magazine. His memoirs demonstrate his humble brilliance, and he is laugh out loud funny. (His wife, Julie, is a fair match for him, as he generously demonstrates.) But this particular “Humble Quest” has a touching serious personal dimension to it. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’sHumble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was prompted by the author’s serious contemplation of his role as a father, by his concern to equip his son (and, by the end of the year, sons) for life in a whack culture in a dangerous world. Should he attend more to the religious aspects of being Jewish? What would that look like, and to what end?

Without belaboring each day, as the weeks go by we find Jacobs grappling with the implications of obeying, as literally as possible, all the commands of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. (Is it a function of his secular upbringing, or some assumption about who would read the book, that Jacobs does not refer to the two parts in the scholarly, and political, terms: “Hebrew” and “Christian” scriptures?) He makes quite a bit of the Judeo-Christian heritage, and at the same time clearly chooses to identify specifically, and ultimately concretely, with his Jewish roots. Along the way, Jacobs introduces us to his team of spiritual advisors – rabbis, ministers, pastors, scholars – who answer his questions, introduce him to people, concepts, and movements he should explore, and give him perspective. He dances with the Hasid, and attends a snake-handling church; he pillories the Creation Museum, and is surprised to find Thomas Road Baptist Church (Jerry Falwell) full of nice people. He is clearly most surprised to learn that much of our characterization of others is based on stereotype.

Each section of each chapter is headed by a biblical verse or aphorism; generally a command. This opens the way to reflect upon such arcane commands as not wearing clothes of mixed fibers, not taking the mother with the young “if you chance upon a bird’s nest,” or blowing the trumpet at each new moon. He struggles with the concrete, daily implications of commands: how will he know whether a woman is in her period, during which he should not touch her? (Here, his wife’s delightful humor is on display, as Jacobs comes home one evening to find that she has sat on all the chairs, out of pique for the oddity of this restriction.) Will he be able to find and stone an adulterer? (Another hilarious moment.)

But what struck me was how Jacobs grew in wisdom, as the scriptures describe it. He fights his own type, and our culture, to keep the Sabbath; and in the end embraces it with delight. He struggles with the daily little white sins about which the Bible has so much to say: lying, gossip, coarse jesting. His Esquire editor throws him a special challenge, to interview Cameron Diaz and not commit the sin of lust. His struggle with all these is honest and all too familiar to any who try to take the Bible seriously as a guide to human behavior. Jacobs finds that his mind is being changed by his attention to the Bible, and for the most part, he likes it. Perhaps of greatest value to him is the birth and nurture of genuine gratitude; he learns to give thanks for everything, and his outlook is changed.

It’s easy to read The Year of Living Biblically and simply observe that, well, after all, of course we can’t literally follow all the commands of the Bible and to do so is simply legalism. Granted. But in the end I admire the Humble Quest, and wonder at how little effort I make to follow any commands of the Bible; how much I need to grow in wisdom; in what danger I am in when I rely on justification by faith apart from works and neglect the works that flow from justification; how I could use a little more of the literal. Even if I only got as far as unceasing gratitude and genuine sabbath rest, I’d be farther along than I am today.

* I just can’t shake the quaint use of the article “an” preceding nouns that begin with the letter “h.”