Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.
At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.
As we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading →
My latest in the Christian Courier, also found here.
Who would have predicted that the vinyl LP would make such a comeback? But here we are. In 2018 you can get the latest musical release in 12-inch vinyl format, whether Ed Sheeran’s Divide or Kari Jobe’s The Garden. In our digital world, where a thousand songs can be stored on your phone, the cumbersome and bulky LP (long play) record is available again.
There are, of course, important differences between these two musical mediums. When we listen to music on an iPhone or MP3 player, the music has been stored in digital format – parts of the original musical sound waves have been captured or sampled and then converted to a series of numbers for software to interpret. On the other hand, when we listen to a vinyl record, the music has been recorded and stored in analog format. This means that the recording is shaped by the full sound waves originally produced by voices and instruments.
I would be out of my depths if I tried to say much more about analog and digital recording. I’m not even sure I can tell the difference when it comes to the quality of sound – and as you can imagine there’s an animated debate on that question in the world of musical connoisseurs! And to this whole conversation we must add the complicating factor that many of today’s vinyl albums are based on digital recordings – that is, many newer LPs don’t offer a fully analog listening experience. Continue reading →
It is difficult to be indifferent when someone is “put in their place!”
On the one hand, we are likely to experience real satisfaction, or a sense of justice, when another person is brought down a peg or two. “He was getting too big for his britches but she put him in his place!” On the other hand, if we are the one who has been put in our place, the feeling will be quite different. There will likely be some degree of shame or humiliation when someone insists that we have spoken beyond what we know or have acted beyond our competence.
It seems to me that nothing would be lost if that phrase (and the experiences that accompany it) were banished from our lives and lexicons. There is little grace in the smug satisfaction of the one who has put another in his place. And the person who has been put in her place will generally have little sense that the other has acted with genuine compassion toward her, or with a view to her growth as a person.
Putting someone in their place always seems to be a blunt, ungracious action.
At the risk of reaching beyond the scope of that phrase, however, it seems to me that there is still something to be said about discerning, and remaining within, our place. There is a set of boundaries that defines “place” for each of us – a set of relationships, and a geographic circumference, that creates a decidedly local web of awareness and familiarity. If we think of place in this way, then it is certainly important to remember that we have been put in our place and that we have some duty to remember our place. Continue reading →
My latest column for the Christian Courier, can be found here, or below.
How is it possible for the ocean to be silent? Can the sea lose its voice? On the face of it this seems impossible. The waves come rolling in with rhythmic constancy – breaking and pounding against the shoreline. Even on those days when the wind is perfectly still the water slaps gently against the rocks and our ears will pick up the sound of the water’s gurgle and swirl. So how can the sea lose its voice, be silent?
Of course, the ocean cannot finally be silent. Yet it is the nature of human language, of our attempt to understand and communicate ourselves, that we often hold seemingly disparate realities together in speech or written word. To stay with the idea of silence, we sometimes describe it as palpable or heavy, as if we can feel its pressure against our bodies, as if silence were subject to gravity, as we are. But in the strictest sense, silence is simply the absence of soundwaves striking our ears – silence is absence, rather than presence. It is not some thing, but the absence of something.
The capacity of human language to hold contradictory realities together, however, is a kind of gift, since it enables us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life. Shusaku Endo deploys such a lexical disjunction in his novel Silence when he describes the ocean precisely as silent. The central character of the novel is a 17th century Portuguese, Jesuit missionary named Sebastien Rodrigues who wrestles with the desperate poverty and violent persecution of Japanese Christians, many of whom are tortured and killed in the sea itself. In the face of their suffering and persecution, Rodrigues encounters what he refers to as the depressing silence of the sea. When he prayed for his sisters and brothers, “the sea remained cold, and the darkness maintained its stubborn silence.” Continue reading →
It had been too long since I had spent any concentrated time with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard – but this summer saw something of a revival in my love and attention toward his works. This revival was partly inspired by a family vacation to Denmark and Copenhagen, which included a visit (for me, at least) to the Kierkegaard family burial plot in Assistens Cemetery as well as some time at a Kierkegaard conference at the University of Copenhagen.
This revival of attention to Kierkegaard’s writings led me to offer some reflections on two prayers of Kierkegaard at the annual retreat of The Presbyterian College, held this past weekend in the Laurentian Mountains, north of Montreal
The first prayer I reflected on is one that sits as a kind of prelude at the beginning of Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love. It is a beautifully Trinitarian prayer, and one that reprises some of the great themes of Christian faith and identity. But as with almost everything that Kierkegaard’s mind and pen touch upon, there is also something fresh and challenging in the prayerful words he offers. (The full prayer is shared at the bottom of this post.)
First a few comments about the classic themes that Kierkegaard touches on. He points out that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the God who is love; that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the Son who gave his life for our redemption in love; and that we cannot speak properly of love if we fail to remember the Spirit, who always points away from himself, toward Jesus, revealing love.
So in this opening part of the prayer, there is both a remembering of love (of God) and a modelling of love, since Jesus becomes the one who shows us how to love – self-sacrificially. And the Spirit teaches us to love by pointing away from ourselves toward the God who is love, and toward the Son who embodies love for the world.
Kierkegaard also mentions, in passing, what he defines as a need in love. Continue reading →
Daisy Tsai describes her work, presently on display at Luz Gallery, Montreal, with these words:
Painting is habit-defying labour… As our world dazzles, rushes, and burns, i peek-a-boo through forms and colours to contend for an alternative coherence, stillness verging on celebration and distress.
The notion of habit is a powerful one, speaking as it does to those areas of our lives where we have perhaps stopped paying attention or ceased living intentionally – where we have allowed lethargy to withhold us from the possibility of the new. Of course habit is not always a negative dimension of human life, since the formation of positive and constructive habits is a necessary resource for living well. But our habits of sight, and habits of thought, and habits of behaviour can also be, and invariably are, a way that we close ourselves off to precisely that possibility – the possibility of living well, or faithfully. The possibility of encountering something new and enlivening (from Christ? who makes all things new?).
The artistic vocation is multi-faceted, but a significant feature of this vocation has always been to undermine our habits of thought and life – to invite the receiver to see the world within a different frame of reference – to refuse to let neighbour or stranger be seen in the same way she or he has always been seen. Vocation: contending for an alternative coherence. Continue reading →
I was at a recent meeting of the Borough Council for my neighbourhood of Côte-des-neiges/Notre-dame-de-Grâce, at which the council approved a new mural for a building up in the northern wastelands of Snowdon (at least I think that’s where it is). The counsellor for that district, Marvin Rotrand, made a point of saying that he would approve the mural since the building owner had approved it, but that he didn’t think much of it as a piece of art.
Rotrand went on to say something to this effect: “It’s kind of like that mural on Sherbrooke Street west – I don’t think it’s too impressive. I’m not sure why people call it art.” Here’s the mural that Rotrand was referring to – just three blocks over from Kensington church:
As with the graffiti art (word art) on the side wall of the Akhavan market, the group that completed this mural has very real artistic skill. It is a carefully executed urban-art variation on the works of Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist from the first part of the last century who inspired the art nouveau movement. Mucha’s own style is almost immediately recognizable, and is recognizable in this mural. Much of his work has a definite ‘decorative arts’ feel – as if it belongs on a large panel in a living room or in lobby of a theatre in the early to mid 1900’s. The team that created the mural (the A’Shop) did their research and went successfully beyond what was a natural fit for them in terms of style and content. Continue reading →
I was reading in the health section of London’s Daily Telegraph, and noticed something interesting. Among the top 5 “most viewed for today,” was an article from February 2012. The other 4 articles were all from March of 2013. This happens from time to time when some article draws the particular interest or ire of readers over time – it keeps popping up in the top five.
The title of the article might give you a sense as to why it has reappeared in the top 5: “Killing babies no different from abortion, experts say”. The news article referred to a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics which explored the difference between, obviously, abortion and infanticide. The authors argued that babies do not have a moral right to life. From the news article:
They argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”
Rather than being “actual persons”, newborns were “potential persons”. They explained: “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. Continue reading →
I suspect that many or most of us here this morning have never heard of PostSecret.
PostSecret had its beginning in 2005 and was created by a man by the name of Frank Warren. Back in January of 2005, Frank Warren created this project by sending 3,000 self-addressed stamped postcards to people – and he asked those people to write a secret on the postcard, anonymously, and mail it back to him. Also, the idea was that the person would decorate the blank postcard in a self-expressive way or in a way that related to the theme of their secret. So Frank Warren sent out these hundreds of postcards, and then he starts getting them back – hundreds of anonymous secrets shared on personally crafted postcards.
Not too long after he started receiving the postcards from people, Warren also established a website on which he would put up the postcard images and their secrets. From there the whole thing snowballed. Every Sunday, for almost 6 years now, Frank Warren has put up 10 or 20 new postcards with their secrets. The rules he lays out are simple: You can share any secret as long as it is true, and as long as you have never shared it with anyone before. You’re supposed to keep it simple – only one confession per postcard. Continue reading →