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Posts Tagged 'my kids will learn latin and greek when they’re newborns'

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese releases standard version of Paschal apolytikion

About a year ago, Vicki Pappas, national chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, circulated an e-mail asking for people to send her the English translations of the apolytikion for Pascha (Χριστὸς ἀνέστη/”Christ is risen”) that were used in their parishes. This would be in aid of a standard English text for the entire Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Despite not being at a GOA parish, I sent her the translation we use at All Saints.

Somewhere around late fall or early winter, following a St. John of Damascus Society board meeting, she asked if I would be willing to round up a few of my choir members to record the version that they were trying to settle on as the final draft. The recording would serve as a model, principally for priests. After Christmas, I put together a quartet, we learned it and recorded it, Vicki liked it, and said that the Synod still had to decide if it was the final version or not.

Earlier this week, the standard English version of the hymn for GOA was released. You can find it here. Alas, that’s not us singing on the model recording — it would appear that it went through at least one more round of revision, because that’s a different text than what we had, but oh well.

I am appreciative that a Synod would take the time to try to get everybody on the same page with respect to a particular hymn text, and I suppose this is as good as any to start with. I am also appreciative that GOA would go to the trouble of making sure that it is available in both staff notation as well as neumatic notation. There has been some discussion in some circles about how closely it follows proper compositional conventions; I would never dare to argue proper application of formulae with some of the people talking about this, but my guess is that the main point raised was probably known, and that preference was given to where people would be likely to breathe. It’s an issue that I suggest stems from the translation more than anything, and from what Vicki has told me, every nuance of the translation was discussed thoroughly, so what I think I know at least is that it’s a version of the text that says exactly what the Synod wants it to say. I’ll acknowledge that I don’t find this text to be note-perfect compared to how I might translate the Greek; to begin with, in modern English, “is risen”, while it used to be how you do a perfect tense in English, doesn’t really convey the same sense of the action as preterite ἀνέστη or even qam for the Arabic speakers — “Christ rose” would be the literal sense, but that doesn’t really “sing” the same way. “Christ has/hath risen” is an acceptable compromise, since the distinction between simple past and perfect is muddier in English than it is in Greek. And “trampled down upon” seems to me to be a little bit overthought as a way of rendering πατήσας. Still, I’d much rather sing this version than the one that’s normative for my parish, where the Greek melody is left as is, requiring “Christ is risen from the dead” to be repeated, usually with a rhetorical, campfire-style “Oh!” thrown in beforehand — “Christ is risen from the dead, oh! Christ is risen from the dead!” etc. Ack.

In any event, between being willing to argue about a standard text and acknowledging the neumatic notational tradition, there is much I wish the Antiochian Archdiocese would emulate here, and I congratulate GOA on taking the time and energy to at least make the effort, even if there wind up being tweaks down the road. I’m a little disheartened by the response I’ve observed in certain fora that basically criticizes GOA for making their standard version a brand new variant that nobody outside of GOA will ever use, that that’s hardly a unifying move across jurisdictions, not when there are translations that are common to both the OCA and AOANA. Well, maybe, but kudos for GOA for at least trying to get their own house in order first, even if maybe it winds up being a beta test.

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“Learning to chant” vs. “learning to sing” – or, do you learn to play Mendelssohn or do you learn to play the violin?

I’m working through the recently-released Byzantine Music Theory and Practice Guide with members of my choir. Part of the motivation is to try to make them a little less intimidated by “the squiggles”; I’m also curious to see just how well the book actually works as a textbook for people of a range of musical backgrounds, everything from basically zero up to a degree in music education. It’s an interesting exercise; we’ve only had two meetings thus far, but I’ve been surprised by the level of willingness to participate. We’ll see where it all goes.

Last month, I was fortunate enough to get to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary. I’ve got more to say about that trip, but among other things, I sat in on a couple of the chant classes taught by their new permanent Byzantine chant instructor, Dr. Grammenos Karanos (also credited as providing the “academic oversight” for the Byzantine Music Theory and Practice Guide), and I also got to sing in the left choir for a few services. Dr. Karanos is doing some nice work, and as somebody who for the time being attends an Antiochian parish, I’m really happy that there are twelve Antiochian seminarians there right now who are benefiting from his efforts.

Something that I’ve wondered about in recent months is the relationship between learning Byzantine chant and learning, more generally, how to sing. To put it another way — I’ve encountered people who can read the notation, understand the modal theory, can do this, can do that, but what they can’t actually do is sing terribly well. This is by no means the rule — I also know cantors who can pretty much sing whatever you put in front of them, whatever the repertoire, whatever the notation, whatever the style — but there does seem to be some kind of phenomenon of “learning to chant” without any additional context of “learning to sing”.

There are some, I expect, who might argue that that’s not only okay, that’s preferable. I’ve heard a counterargument that goes something like this: Byzantine chant isn’t only music; there’s an ethos and a spirituality that goes along with it, and you have to learn the technical end of it within the context of that ethos and spirituality. Otherwise, if you come in with a musical education that you’re figuring out how to “apply” to Byzantine chant, then you’re always going to be approximating what it’s supposed to be rather than actually chanting the repertoire the way you would have if you had just received the tradition from the ground up without preconceived notions or grafted onto an existing set of musical concepts. Notation, vocal technique, performance practice, modal theory — it’s a whole package that you have to receive as a whole package, preferably by imitating the psaltis at the parish you grew up at from young age rather than by doing things like going to classes or learning from books. Conservative imitation starting as child. Any other way is really departing from the tradition.

Now, there are parts of this that I can see. The more I force myself to sing off of scores written in neumatic notation, the more it is apparent to me why transcription into staff notation can only ever be a halfway measure at best. If you’re trying to write in every last bit of ornamentation that you want somebody to sing using staff notation, your score is going to get really busy really fast. Intervals become problematic. And, to be honest, at least speaking for myself, there’s a “look and feel” issue, where the psaltic notation is a good visual cue that you shouldn’t sing this the same why you might sing Mozart.

Vocal technique becomes a trickier matter, however. There are people who are 100% “natural voices”. They’ve never needed a voice teacher, they’ve always instinctively known how to use the instrument that they have to great effect, and they can use it to do whatever they want. I am not, emphatically not, one of those people. Singing has been a 100% learned skill for me. I have had to solve a lot of vocal problems, and often the worst trouble I’ve ever been in vocally has been when my teacher has said, “Sing it like this,” and has me imitate him/her. I’d say that as I have gradually learned some of the things to do and things not to do with the Byzantine repertoire, what has changed the least has been the fundamentals of how I sing; I breathe the same way, in general I produce my tone the same way. Musicality and phrasing are still important. Projection, placement, and resonance is still important. (Incidentally, here I might say that I question the characterization of the proper Byzantine vocal quality as “nasal”. I’ve sung next to people who insist that it’s “nasal”, but to my ear, they’re not singing nasally. They’re singing brightly, with a good deal of pharyngeal resonance, but that’s not the same thing as “nasal”. Nasality is often a poor shortcut in solving resonance problems, so it seems to me necessary to make this distinction.) What’s different is a matter of doing less rather than doing more. For example, vibrato becomes an ornament, a choice to be employed judiciously, rather than where you’re living all the time. Nonetheless, it’s still important to drop your jaw and raise your soft palate on higher notes, it’s still important to keep your tongue forward, it’s still important to keep your vowels in line, and you still have a passaggio that has to be negotiated properly. I don’t think those issues magically go away just because it’s Byzantine chant, and I don’t think, unless you’re one of those 100% “natural voices”, you’re going to figure those things out instinctively by standing next to your psaltis starting at age 5.

To put it another way, if you want to learn to play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, you first have to learn to play the violin. You don’t just say, as somebody who’s never picked up the instrument before, “I want to learn the Mendelssohn violin concerto.”

Anyway, the point I’m making is that I think it’s probably necessary to learn to sing as a component of “learning to chant”. That said, I grant that there aren’t a lot of voice teachers out there who are equipped to teach vocal technique in a way that’s obviously applicable to a chant context. Somebody who wants to learn to chant probably is going to feel like their time is wasted on the 24 Italian Songs and Arias book, and Joe NATS Voice Teacher isn’t likely to have the slightest idea what to do with an Anastasimatarion.

Incidentally — as somebody with a voice degree, I had to do a term apiece of Italian, German, and French diction with no actual language comprehension; in addition, I also had to do a year apiece of normal language study of those languages. For me, then, it’s simply intuitive that learning Byzantine chant would involve some Greek and Arabic. Language study — diction and comprehension — is just part of the deal, and it has the extra added bonus of improving your ear and makes you more aware of how your apparatus is actually working while you use it. Yes, fine, there are those of us at English-language parishes who don’t understand why we as Americans need to learn anything in a different language, but there’s almost no musical study of any kind that doesn’t involve having to learn some kind of specialized vocabulary that isn’t in English. Even if you’re a Western musician, you need to know what diminuendo and pianissimo mean. If you sing Byzantine chant, you need to know what a kentemata and a petaste are.

I will say I like the “starting as young as possible” part of the “conservative imitation starting as young as possible” pedagogical model. If only there were some kind of model of a school that existed where that kind of thing was done…

Update, 6:28pmSomething I forgot to mention — amplification. Proper church acoustics + knowing how to sing = no need for microphones. My first semi-scholarly publication had to do with the impact amplification has had on both singers and listeners, and while I’d probably write the piece differently now 8 years later, my rather strong opinions haven’t changed. “Strong opinions” — as in, it shouldn’t exist in certain settings. This is where I have a certain sympathy for the guys who want to call electric lights in church a heresy; the trouble with certain kinds of technology is that it makes it too easy for people to do a bad job and have nobody notice. Church is one of them as far as I’m concerned. If the architect does his/her job properly, and the singer/speaker does his/her job properly, and the teacher of singing/speaking does his/her job properly, then there should be absolutely no need for “acoustic enhancement”.

Review: Cappella Romana, Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium

Cappella Romana is an ensemble that’s hard to pin down. Are they an early music ensemble? Yes, sort of, but they don’t generally do Bach or Monteverdi. Are they a sacred music ensemble? Yes, but they’re not affiliated with a specific church institution (i. e., a cathedral or parish). Are they a world music ensemble? Sort of, since much of the music they sing originates in the Mediterranean, but not exactly. Are they a contemporary music ensemble? Yes, sort of, but much of the contemporary music they do is decidedly in an older tradition. Are they a pastoral, confessional affair? Of sorts, I suppose, although their membership is by no means entirely composed of Orthodox Christians. Are they a scholarly project? Well, yes, they’re kind of that too, given that the booklets tend to be article-length affairs with footnotes and bibliography. I suppose you could say that they’re an early world contemporary sacred music vocal ensemble that’s run by a musicologist.

They’ve been extraordinarily productive in terms of recorded output in the last eight years; since 2004 they’ve put out some eight discs (ten if you include the compilation for the Royal Academy’s Byzantium exhibit and their contribution to the Choral Settings of Kassiani project) that have run the gamut — medieval Byzantine chant, Russian-American liturgical settings, a long-form concert work by an American master, Western polyphony, Greek-American polyphonic liturgical music, and Christmas carols (of a sort). Their recordings also continue to get better and better; I picked up their discography in 2004 starting with the Music of Byzantium compilation of various live and recorded excerpts, followed by Lay Aside All Earthly Cares, their collection of Fr. Sergei Glagolev’s music, and then 2006’s The Fall of Constantinople, a program I had heard them perform here in Bloomington. Comparing just those three discs to each other, there’s a noticeable jump in quality, and then comparing them to recent releases such as the Peter Michaelides Divine Liturgy, it’s clear that they’ve found a groove in the studio (as well as perhaps in the editing booth) and they’re riding it now. They’re recording music nobody else is really doing, and while that means it’s hard to know what an applicable comparandum for any particular recording might be, it’s clear listening to it that they’re doing it at a very high level regardless, and the good news about the lack of comparable recordings is that it reveals the sheer richness of the Orthodox musical heritage. Arvo Pärt and Rachmaninoff are great, but there’s much, much more that you can do.

Mt. Sinai: The Frontier of Byzantium fits into this scheme by presenting music from late medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine Monastery at Mt. Sinai, one of the key crossroads for Eastern Christianity. A Chalcedonian monastic outpost dating as far back as the days of Justinian in the middle of non-Chalcedonian Egypt, it is a treasure house of some of our earliest witnesses to the Christian iconographic tradition (since it was a place of refuge from the iconclasts), and its library of manuscripts in virtually every language of the Roman oikoumene is a witness to the catholicity of the Empire that produced them. The musical selections include portions of a Vespers for the monastery’s patronal feast, as well as the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, a quasi-liturgical drama that would have been served between Matins and Divine Liturgy on the Sunday before Christmas.

The Vespers material is interesting, particularly how Psalm 103 is treated. It is something of a mix of reconstructed Palestinian practice and present-day Greek tradition, where the first three verses are sung antiphonally, and then Koukouzelis et al.‘s setting of the Anoixantaria (the section of Ps. 103 that starts with, “Thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good…”) is interpolated with Triadika, short refrains glorifying the Trinity. It’s an approach to psalmody (in the literal sense of the word) that is generally eschewed in modern American parish practice; we tend to treat whole psalms as something to get through as quickly and as plainly as possible. Of course, just singing the Anoixantaria can take as long as 20 minutes depending on whose setting one is doing, so when parishes want to get Vespers done in half an hour or less, that’s the way it is. Elements like this emphasize how, ideally, our worship needs to be unhurried; we’re on God’s time, he’s not on our time.

The Service of the Furnace portion is lovely. It’s a real curiosity, liturgically speaking; the notes refer to it having been part of the practice of Constantinople and Thessaloniki (and subsequently Crete), and something that developed during the so-called “Byzantine ars nova“, where an artistic and spiritual flourishing was paradoxically occurring in the East at the same time as the political collapse. I’m left wanting to know more about how exactly how it developed, and why, and why it didn’t catch on elsewhere in the Orthodox world.

There are several musical textures in the Furnace section, solo to choral, syllabic to highly melismatic, and they’re all handled with beautiful musicianship and and some of the best male ensemble singing you’re ever likely to hear on a CD. One thing I’d point out is that this actually is something that has been commercially recorded before and is more or less available, even if you have to know where to look for it. Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir (EBX) recorded parts of it for a Polish release called “Byzantine Hymns”, and while I have yet to actually find this for purchase anywhere, you can find their rendering of the Service of the Furnace hymnody on YouTube.   Obviously there’s a bit of a difference in approach; EBX tends to have a different vocal quality all around that I would describe as a little more suntanned and weatherbeaten, and they’re singing the material the way they sing at church every Sunday. EBX also employs a children’s choir for the Three Youths themselves, which is apparently the historical practice and sounds fantastic, but I can see several reasons why that might be an undesirable layer of complexity for Cappella’s presentation.

One other thought — something that a recording like this might help to give a glimpse of is the vitality of the Christian tradition in the Middle East. St. Catherine’s Monastery is an Egyptian witness to a faithful, diverse, cosmopolitan Christianity in the Roman world, and that Christianity is still there, alive, and hanging on. Projects like this show that it is a witness that has much still to teach us.

An itinerary and a couple of labors of love

I’ve got three things to pass along, and I suppose I should relate them in order of interest from least to greatest. Otherwise, you’ll just read the first item and skip the rest.

First — I’m going to be mildly peripatetic in the coming months. 9-12 February I will be in New Jersey to participate in the Georges Florovsky Patristic Symposium, and then 12-15 February I will be in Boston to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. 2-4 March I will be in Emmaus, PA to give a presentation on church music as part of a Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church. Then, looking ahead a bit farther, 24-26 May I will be participating in the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) annual meeting in Chicago. I realize that maybe I’m up to three regular readers (counting my parakeet), but if you happen to be anywhere near any of those places when I’m there, by all means let me know. I had the odd experience at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute last summer of meeting a couple of people who said upon meeting me, “Oh! I read your blog,” and then I also met this gentleman at the Byzantine Studies conference this last October (although neither of us realized whom the other was until after we were both back home). Anyway, I won’t look at you funny or hiss at you if you introduce yourself, promise.

Second — my first peer-reviewed article, “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”, has been accepted by The Journal of Early Christian Studies. It’s been an interesting road with this project; five years ago, during my initial year of being a non-matriculated continuing student, I took my first graduate seminar, a course on the Middle East in late antiquity, taught by the professor who would later become my advisor. It was my first exposure to scholars like Peter Brown and Susan Ashbrook Harvey and so on, and was a significant broadening of my horizons. The student makeup of the class was very telling; it was a History course that had no History students in it but rather three Religious Studies kids and me.

Anyway, among other things, we read Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s translation of the section of the Second Letter of Simeon of Beth-Arsham that deals with the martyrdoms of the women during the Himyarites’ sack of Najran, and the in-class discussion sparked something for me. Other students were focused on the gory nature of the martyrdom details for their own sake — I specifically remember one person commenting, “I never understood the connection people draw between martyrdom and sadomasochism before now” — but it was clear to me that there was something else governing how those details were conveyed, namely shared liturgical experience. I raised this point, and I still remember the look that I got as clear as day. Needless to say, it didn’t get a lot of traction in class, but when paper topics had to be proposed, I mentioned it to the professor as a possibility. “I can almost guarantee you I won’t buy your argument,” he said. “You’ll have to go a long way for me to see it as at all legitimate.” Well, that’s a challenge, now isn’t it? I wrote the paper, making what I saw as explicit as I could and relating it to known liturgical practices as clearly as I was able. I presented an overview in class, and the professor was quiet for a moment. “You know,” he said, “not only am I convinced, but now I can’t see it any other way. Good for you.”

Later, as I was applying for IU’s Religious Studies graduate program, the paper was used as my writing sample. At the same time, I was alerted to one of the big religious studies journals doing a themed issue on religious violence; I figured, hey, what the heck, if it gets in it can only help the application, and I sent them the paper. I also submitted it to Dorushe, a graduate conference on Syriac studies that was being held at Notre Dame. Well, the outcome of the Religious Studies application was detailed, if somewhat obscurely, here; as far as the paper went, it got into Dorushe, but the response from the journal was a little more ambivalent. The answer was ultimately no, but they included the reviewers’ comments, and said that if I were to revise it they would be willing to look at it again (while making it clear that this was not a “revise and resubmit”). Since at that point I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to go to grad school, publication didn’t really matter anymore, and I shoved the paper and the comments sheet in a drawer. The Dorushe experience was a little weird in some ways (maybe due more to some heightened self-consciousness on my part than anything), but I met some interesting people, and Sidney Griffith, at least, liked the paper, saying, “The way you lay it out, it’s obvious.”

After actually getting in to grad school, I thought to myself a number of times, I should go back and look at those reviewers’ comments, and finally last June I spent a few days thoroughly reworking the paper. I transferred it from Word to Scrivener, I restructured it following the reviewers’ suggestions, and did what was nearly a page one-rewrite so that it reflected better what my scholarly voice (to the extent that I might pretentiously assert the existence of such a thing) actually sounds like these days. Part of this involved reducing block quotes of secondary literature (a bad habit of which I was cured by the wonderful Prof. Sarah Bassett over in Art History, who in the three years that she’s been here has really proven herself to be one of the great, if somewhat unsung, reasons to study Late Antiquity at Indiana University) down to footnotes and paraphrases, and it also involved an overall refinement of the writing style. Don’t worry, I’m still wordy as hell, but I’ve tried to make the wordiness a little more elegant. Also, there’s some additional literature on the Najran incident that’s come out in the intervening five years, and I had to make sure that all got referenced properly. Anyway, once it was done, I opted to not go back to the original publication, instead sending it off to The Journal of Early Christian Studies. In September, I got a note back from the editor telling me that the reviewers’ recommendation was “revise and resubmit”, saying that this was good news and if I took the feedback seriously, there was no reason I couldn’t have a publishable article. By November the revision was re-submitted, and I got word back this last Tuesday that it was in. Now, I have some style adjustments to make before it’s totally done, but at this stage of the game it looks like it will be appearing in the Spring 2013 issue.

So, that first seminar five years ago got me my advisor, my overall area of interest (the interaction of liturgy and history), and my first published article. (Although, while the Najran paper is related conceptually and methodologically to where I think my dissertation is going, it looks like a paper I wrote for a class I took the previous semester, fall of 2006, served as a first stab at the actual dissertation topic. I’ll have more to say after NAPS, I think.) It’s been the gift that’s kept on giving, to say the least.

Okay, on to the final, and most interesting, bit of news.

Third — on or around 26 June 2012, assuming all goes well and without incident, there will be another Barrett on the earth. Yes, be afraid, my genes are propagating, insanity, puns, tendencies towards a prolix approach of oversharing, and all. Thankfully, this child will also be carrying the genes of Flesh of My Flesh, and those characteristics involve practicality, common sense, order, and normality. (To say nothing of great beauty and brilliance.)

We had intended for the last couple of years that we would start trying once Megan got back from Germany, and we were told to prepare for it taking awhile. Well, apparently not. By the beginning of November we at least knew informally, and then our first OB appointment was Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, which confirmed matters and indicated we were nine weeks along. We spent most of the drive to our Thanksgiving destination on the phone with my mother and then Megan’s mother and stepmother; my mom got the first call, since she’s the one parent who doesn’t have any grandchildren already, and she burst into tears immediately.

We’ve been telling friends and family ever since, but a couple of things made it desirable that we wait a bit before making it “Facebook public”, as it were. Anyway, here we are, and I suppose it will be a source of reflection in the coming months/years/etc. If you’re on Facebook and want to be kept more or less up-to-date, you can join the group “Fans of Baby Barrett“; there’s not a lot to tell at this point except that we’re choosing to not find out whether it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve got some name ideas, yes, but it’s hardly practical to openly discuss those when you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so I’m not going to go there except to say that there are some “legacy names”, as it were, that might make sense, and you know that we’re going to be getting one of these. We’ll see.

By the way, if you happen to be having a baby in or around Bloomington, Indiana, I really can’t recommend Bloomington Area Birth Services (AKA “BABS”) enough. We’re doing their eight-week birthing class (cue Bill Cosby: “Natural childbirth… intellectuals go to class to study how to do this”), and while, I must admit, it’s a little more of the NPR-listening “educated class” culture than I really expected, it’s a lot of excellent information that’s provided very sensitively and accessibly. I kind of surprise myself with my own reactions to some things; it should really be no surprise that “birth culture” a) exists b) is hyper-feminized, but I find a certain kind of stereotypical “maleness” emerging in how I’m processing some of the information, and it is very much out of character for me. It’s probably mostly a reflexive reaction to the explicit hyper-feminization of what’s being presented, which probably has everything to do with me and nothing to do with them, because they really are terrific at what they do. I’m just really not used to what they do. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, I think.

So, there’s the news. Two different kinds of babies, I guess. There’s a third kind of baby on the way that I hope to be able to talk about more in depth soon, but it’s an outgrowth of some of the musical efforts I’ve had going here the last couple of years. For now, follow this, and I’ll be able to tell all in the next month or so, I think.

Prayers for all of these babies, please, and prayers most of all for Flesh of My Flesh. She’s got to carry our child in her womb and write a dissertation.

What does the term “educated class” actually mean?

In an exchange on Facebook yesterday where I outed myself as a godless commie pinko (I think that noise was Owen White blowing beer through his nose onto the library computer screen) because I think FOX is ridiculous in claiming that the Muppets are radical leftist propaganda, I mused that being part of the “educated class” (which, so we’re clear, I put in scare quotes and qualified by saying, “whatever that actually means”) seems to automatically place one to the left of most who publicly identify as “conservative”.

So what does the term “educated class” actually mean? About a year ago I was having a conversation with a friend about NPR as a source for news. I expressed appreciation for what seemed to be, on the whole, a lack of FOX News-style hyperbole; my friend said, “Well, it’s certainly the news outlet of choice for the educated class.” I’m sure that I had encountered the term “educated class” before, but not in a way struck me as being a discrete, identifiable category, and I’ve been chewing on it every so often over the past year.

Of course, in the past year, I’ve finished a Masters degree and completed doctoral coursework, so that makes me part of the so-called “educated class,” whatever that actually means, right…? I don’t know. Some initial poking into how the term actually gets used in public discourse turned up some not terribly conclusive references — it seems to be a term that neo-cons and moderates and “RINOs” use to pick cultural fights with each other more than anything. I’m half-tempted to see it as one of those terms like “moderate” where really it’s a label that allows for self-identification apart from distasteful extremes and is another way of saying “people like me”. It still seems, to me at least, that members of the “educated class” follow gut instinct as much as anybody else does, it’s just that we can back up our gut instinct with books you can’t find at Wal-Mart. Is that actually any better? I don’t know.

Since I’m not really sure whether or not to take it seriously, here is a half-serious/half-not look at what I think makes me part of the “educated class” (whatever that actually means):

  • I have multiple degrees and am still trying to get more.
  • I mostly hang out with people who have multiple degrees and/or are still working on more of them.
  • I am married to somebody with multiple degrees who is still working on more.
  • When I move (and remember I’m married to another academic), the single most expensive part of the move will be figuring out what to do with all of the books.
  • I belong to more academic societies than I will have degrees.
  • I assume that the people who write the books I read don’t make any money off of them.
  • I travel for conferences.
  • I actually attend conferences.
  • There are conferences for people in my field.
  • I have a “field”.
  • When I think of “conservatives” I think of people like David Gergen, Russell Kirk, and Rod Dreher. Names like Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney come to mind when I think of “angry and/or creepy white people”.
  • I get frustrated that what is presented as conservatism today seems to ignore its own intellectual history.
  • I think conservatism has an “intellectual history”.
  • I think there’s such a thing as “intellectual history”.
  • I think it’s weird that it’s spelled “conservatism” rather than “conservativism”.
  • I’d like to think that public discourse doesn’t have to be lowest common denominator in order to be effective.
  • I’ve read all of Ayn Rand’s major works (including some of her “non-fiction”) and I still think it’s not only intellectual garbage but bad literature.
  • I have to concede, with regret, that conservatives, at least in the last few decades, tend to produce lousy art.
  • I tend to agree with Paul Krugman that Newt Gingrich is a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like. I also think that tends to apply to Ayn Rand.
  • I think that “What do you read?” is a friendly, getting-to-know-you question. I’d love it if Katie Couric asked me that.
  • I’m weary of Republicans claiming that their willingness to eat their own is what separates them from the Democrats, when it is obvious to me that it isn’t true.
  • I’m aware that NPR isn’t free of bias but it’s nice to hear rational adults talking like rational adults, rather than watching either plastic people trying to buddy up to me over the anchor desk or angry white people yelling at me or each other about how a president who is to the right of Nixon on some points is a radical socialist.
  • I can tell you that Theodosius, not Constantine, made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
  • Even as an Orthodox Christian, I don’t think that science is a secular conspiracy theory, and as such I think science has implications and consequences for my behavior and choices — much as Christianity does.
  • I actually want my hypothetical future kids to learn languages other than English.
  • I actually believe there’s a connection between what academics do and what happens in the real world.
  • I don’t see being articulate (read: “being able to string a coherent sentence together”) and being authentic as diametrically opposed qualities. I’m a both/and kind of guy.
  • When I’m given the opportunity to donate a book to a children’s group, I instinctively grab a single-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings and hope that it inspires some kid somewhere to think, to believe, to wonder, and maybe to be interested in the stuff that made Tolkien want to write the story in the first place.
  • To think, to believe, and to wonder are the things I learned to do best as a little kid and they’re what I’ve tried to figure out how to make a living at doing ever since.

That’s all I can think of for now. Yeah, it’s kinda SWPL-ish, isn’t it? Maybe that’s inescapable. I’d be curious for anybody to come up with their own list.

Facebook and digital bumper stickers

I have no idea who Demetri Martin is, except that my godson Lucas often quotes the following from him: “A lot of people don’t like bumper stickers. I don’t mind bumper stickers. To me a bumper sticker is a shortcut. It’s like a little sign that says ‘Hey, let’s never hang out.'”

Things that people post on Facebook can be like bumper stickers, except they can be a lot longer, and they can be intended to be seen by a key group of people whom they know will get that warm and fuzzy feeling in their stomach that one gets when one hears a clever soundbite that they agree with. Or both.

Here are a couple of recent examples — “recent” meaning “having shown up a lot over the last several months/years, and it’s only in the last week that I’ve finally hit the last straw with them”:

Exhibit A: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” – Anne Lamott

I’m not the world’s biggest Anne Lamott fan, and I find this particular gem to be really annoying with its oh-so-cleverly-stated, but still intellectually dishonest, tone. On the other hand, I assume God loves Anne Lamott, so I guess at least on that point, I pass her cute little test. Still, the “Very Liberal And You Know It Because I Put the Word ‘Very’ In Front of It on Facebook” crowd can’t help but rah-rah this whenever it shows up, and the cycle seems to take about a week.

Yeah, yeah, fine, I’m uncharacteristically grumpy. I’m about to turn 35; I guess it happens. Rassafrassafrickfrackindamnkidsgetoffmylawn. Let me clarify a couple of things.

First — I find that, for my own sanity, Anne Lamott is best treated as what we might call devotional satire. Satire is great, love satire, but it seems to me that with most satire, if you’re not the target audience then you’re just the target, and I’m acutely aware when I encounter Lamott’s writings that I am not the target audience.

Second — I actually don’t disagree with what I see as the broader point here; I just don’t find that Lamott has put it in a terribly constructive way. It’s intellectually dishonest because it’s pointing the finger at people who point the finger to show them why pointing the finger is wrong (language I borrow from anti-death penalty slogans — “Why do we kill people who kill people in order to show that killing people is wrong?”). That said, it’s a kind of intellectually dishonesty that’s fairly common to satire, so perhaps what bothers me about it is a feature and not a bug, and again, I’m just not part of the target audience.

So, thought experiment time. Let’s take somebody like, say, Frederica Mathewes-Green, or to take it several hundreds of steps further, Ann Coulter, and let’s say that she comes up with a pithy, digestible quote that goes something like this: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God approves of everything you do.” This would be a problematic statement, right? It would be smug, cloying, and it would smack of trying to generate a spiritual fist-pump from everybody who already agrees with you as well as pointing the finger at everybody who doesn’t, not-so-subtly (explicitly, really) accusing them of bad faith.

And I think you’d be right to think that. I’d have the same problem with such a statement. To me, there’s a bigger picture here that can be stated constructively (and maybe even catechetically): God, when we follow Him, will challenge our comfort zones. That’s a great thing to be reminded of; I sure need reminders of that, constantly. As stated by Lamott and hypothetical-Mathewes-Coulter, however, it’s put in a manner that’s intended to provoke self-righteous indignation against Everybody Who’s Like That. And it seems to me, from what I have encountered of Lamott’s work, that she probably would howl at my hypothetical reversal. So, yes, while I need reminders of the broader point, I do not seek them from Anne Lamott as a rule. She’s no St. John Chrysostom, as far as I’m concerned.

At least, that’s how I see it, which, to get back to my first point, maybe just all underscores that — say it with me — I am not part of the target audience for Anne Lamott.

If that makes me a grump who’s just wrong about this, well, fine, but just so you know it’s not just squishy lefty nonsense that bugs me but also let’s-have-Glenn-Beck-rewrite-history right-wing crap, there’s also this:

Exhibit B: “‘Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.’ St. John Chrysostom on the poor from On Living Simply XLIII.”

First of all, I’d like to point out that I included the attribution as part of the quote. That’s key here.

There are several problems with this. One, there is no Chrysostom homily called “On Living Simply XLIII”. On Living Simply is a collection of what are supposedly Chrysostom quotes edited by somebody named Robert Van de Weyer, and this is passage #43 in that volume. Unfortunately, Van de Weyer has not actually sourced these passages in any way that would actually tell anybody where he got them.

Now, I am not accusing Van de Weyer of making anything up. I have no evidence that he made anything up. I’m going to assume that he got the quote in a manner similar to how everybody is getting it from him (and this XKCD cartoon is perhaps relevant to the discussion). However, I do know two things:

1) Catherine Roth didn’t include anything vaguely like this reference in her compilation of Chrysostom’s greatest hits on the topic, On Wealth and Poverty. Now, that in and of itself could just be evidence that she didn’t include it, not that it doesn’t exist. Proving a negative is always really difficult.

2) Still, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae is text-complete for Chrysostom, and searching the corpus on various key Greek words that the English version of the passage suggests should be there comes up with nothing that looks anything like this. Gotta be careful with TLG, because as I’ve found out, searching on Chrysostom can for some reason trip their “He could be illicitly downloading all of our ancient Greek texts!” sensor, but I spent a good hour or so poking around for something that could even be loosely translated like this, and there’s nothing.

On a conceptual level, though — this “Chrysostom” claims that the wealthy will “feel bitter and resentful” as part of the argument against taxes. Well, here’s something I’m reasonably certain from sourced quotations that St. John Chrysostom did say:

…God says, “The earth has brought forth her increase, and you have not brought forth your tithes; but the theft of the poor is in your houses.” Since you have not given the accustomed offerings, He says, you have stolen the goods of the poor. He says this to show the rich that they hold the goods of the poor even if they have inherited them from their fathers or no matter how they have gathered their wealth. And elsewhere the Scripture says: “Deprive not the poor of his living.” To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. (Chrysostom, Sermon II on Lazarus and the Rich Man, trans. Roth)

Yeah, I can’t really say that I buy that Chrysostom actually cares about whether or not the wealthy will “feel bitter and resentful”.

“Well, I don’t care who actually said it, it’s still right,” I’ve heard a couple of people say to this. It actually matters quite a bit whether or not Chrysostom said it, and I think we all know this and why. Chrysostom is being given as the authority for something that looks like a remarkably specific policy position that is quite relevant to the present day. If he in fact said this, it carries a lot of a particular kind of weight; if he can’t be accurately cited as the source, then it doesn’t carry the same weight. One may still agree with it, but it doesn’t have the same kind of authority behind it.

Now, what I’m not saying is, “So, of course, Marx is how we deal with this.” All I’m saying is that, until Van de Weyer (or somebody) actually cites a source that can be checked, it is irresponsible to attribute this passage to Chrysostom. It may well be an ideological position that some find attractive, and it may well be what some convicted Christians believe is the “Christian position” and thus would love to have support for from the words of the Golden Mouth, but as of this moment, the matter of whether or not he actually said it is pretty sketchy. Whether or not I myself agree with the content of the passage is not relevant; the point is responsible attribution of texts, and I have yet to see that Van de Weyer has done so.

So bottom line for the evening is that Anne Lamott is no St. John Chrysostom, and as presented by Van de Weyer, Chrysostom’s no Chrysostom either. So can we pick some other bumper sticker-style pithy and clever quotes for our Facebook walls, please? Damnkidsgetoffmylawn.

Another gift idea

As always, I know that the two of you of who look in on my blog on a regular basis are dying for gift ideas for me — I mean, did I really need 225 copies of Fr. John Behr’s book? Er, wait… Anyway, in case you think that’s too impersonal and/or obvious, there’s always this one: Diane H. Touliatos-Miles’ Descriptive Catalog of the Musical Manuscript Collection of the National Library of Greece. Nur sage, wenn du verstehst was ich meine.


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