Friday, January 24, 2014

Song of the Week

Joseph Schwantner/"In Evening's Stillness"/North Texas Wind Symphony

"Song of the week" is a bit of a misnomer for this one.  "Composition" of the week perhaps?  Anyway, you get the idea.  I first heard this piece when Drury University's Wind Symphony performed it last fall, and was listening to it again today during composers' forum at the same university, in which we were studying the piece.  "In Evening's Stillness" is a brilliant work, a masterpiece of symphonic wind composition and a complex yet gripping and accessible composition.  The myriad of percussion instruments and their inventive parts and idiosyncratic techniques is the main attraction of the piece, supported by brass harmonies that perfectly fill the role of a sustained string section with their staggered parts.  The imitative interplay of the instruments is delightful, and the odd rhythms keep the listener on his toes.

Sacrificial Agony

Wise words from Charles Spurgeon:

You must expect to feel weakest when you are enjoying your greatest triumph.

A few months ago, God granted me the privilege of a personal sacrifice.  I am not trying to brag; it was a minor work, and nothing compared to the profound sacrifices of the truly great men and women of the world, not the least of whom have offered their freedom, their property, even their lives in the service of Jesus Christ.  But a sacrifice it was nonetheless, one with great personal significance to myself and for which I can give only God the credit and glory.

But I didn't feel good about it.  Even this small part of myself which I had to deny, the small service I performed for another at my own expense, crushed me and brought me to one of the lowest points of my recent life.  In the act, I felt not like a good Samaritan, but like a wounded warrior trampled in the heat of battle and struggling for his life.  It left me week, exhausted, spent, and miserable.  At the time, I couldn't tell if what I had done had been a good work or a terrible sin.  I was conflicted and weak, not triumphant.

They tell you that when you put others before yourself, you will feel good about yourself.  They tell you that virtue and sacrifice are not only beneficial for others but also soothing to your own soul.  They are wrong.  In some cases, yes, their pragmatic exhortations might be true, but when it comes down to it, sacrifice is painful.  It weakens and does not strengthen the human spirit.  As the frequently on-the-mark Neil Peart would say, "There is never love without pain."

But we as Christians are called to love.  We are called to sacrifice.  We are called to die to the self, and it is truly a death, and a painful one at that.  To sacrifice is not to reign triumphant in some self-made kingdom of self-denial, but to die and to be buried.  Jesus was not joking when he told his followers to "take up your cross."  If not meant literally (and in some cases it was meant literally) it was pretty darn close.

And thus it is not always in the depth of our sins that we realize our need for a Savior, but in our proudest moments.  Many outside of Christ's body lead upstanding lives, doing good, avoiding evil, and benefiting others, but despite their goodness, they can never be good enough.  For it is in our finest moments, in the midst of our most profound sacrifices, that we truly realize our weakness, that our best is never sufficient, that our petty sacrifices are ultimately worthless, that we make mountains out of molehills and stumble over pebbles as if they were boulders.  We go about our lives seemingly blamelessly, performing our daily tasks and our duties to others, and think ourselves complete, independent, and whole, until we are stopped dead in our tracks by the unforseen demand, the sudden test of will; we pass our test and then stumble past the checkpoint in tears, falling to the ground in exhaustion and begging for mercy.  We do our good work for the day and then find that we don't want to do any more good works.

And thus the futility of our petty existence pervades our lives, surrounding our bubbles of self-importance and fencing us into our own limitations despite our feeble efforts to pretend that our backyard is a great forest.  We are like children, playing at our silly games and thinking them important, playing the part of heroes and thinking ourselves worthy of praise, except that our feeble imitations never grow into reality, and our self-centered souls never grown into maturity.  The trivial exploits of children are insufficient and insignificant in the world of adults, and it is not until we come to grips with our own insufficience and insignificance that we can be saved.

And yet saved we will be.  For the child has a father and so do we, and His eternal Son has become our brother.  In weakness he came into the midst of our futility.  In humility he lived among our futile efforts.  He became insignificant that we might become significant, and died that we might live.  He came to sacrifice Himself, and trembled in the face of the sacrifice.  He sweat blood in the garden, cried to His Father for mercy and received no answer, poured Himself out before the world and endured the excruciating separation between Himself and the only One who could have saved Him.  His greatest triumph was his greatest weakness, His greatest victory His greatest suffering, as He hung suspended in agony, a wounded warrior facing sin, death, Satan, and hell.  In His death we also die, and in His resurrection we also rise again.  The Rich One became poor that we might become rich.  The Pure One became sin that we might become pure.  The Strong One became weak that we might become strong.  Our very strength is our weakness, but His weakness is our strength.  Amen.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Face of God

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.”  And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”  And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock,  and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
                                                 - Exodus 33:18-23

Last week's Old Testament reading recorded the events immediately following Israel's idolatry of the golden calf and the fallout of the same.  Exodus 33 begins with God's promise to send an angel before Israel into the promise land, but also His declaration that "I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people."  This provokes Moses to once again plead with God for the people of Israel as He did when God threatened to destroy His people after the episode of the golden calf.  Moses intercedes for Israel, his requests becoming bolder as the conversation progresses, and God hears his cry, relents, and promises the blessing of His presence upon Israel.

Then comes the above passage, one of the most perplexing stories in the Old Testament.  Emboldened, Moses rashly requests that God reveal Himself in an even more profound way: that He show to Moses the fullness of His glory.  God, unwilling to fully grant Moses' request, promises the revelation of His goodness and holy name, but will not show His face to Moses, because the prophet, a sinful man, could not survive in the presence of God's glory and holiness.  However, he does grant Moses a glimpse of Him; but on one condition, that only His back should be seen, and not His face.

This passage appears to present many problems for the theologian, not the least of which is the apparent admission of a kind of physicality on God's part; how, after all, can a spirit have a back, and show it to people as opposed to a face?  However, despite its oddness, this passage actually has a deep symbolic significance when taken in the context of the whole of God's revelation to His people.  For God's passing backwards by Moses is indicative of how He chooses to reveal Himself not merely to an individual but to the entire nation of Israel.  Throughout the Old Testament, God reveals Himself in a variety of ways: through mighty works, direct revelation, the law, and the words of the prophets.  Through the word of Scripture, the people of Israel could perceive God's wrath and justice, His love and mercy, and His splendor and holiness.  But yet it was only His back and not His face that was seen, for sinful humans cannot stand in the presence of God.

God's backwards revelation, furthermore, sheds light on how we as Christians perceive the Old Testament, in which God seems quite different from the way He reveals Himself in the New.  This has been the root of the Marcionite heresy and other false teachings, which claim that the Old Testament God is evil, and not the same as the God of the New Testament,  who is good and loving.  This dichotomy, so prevalent in the gnostic heresies of the early church, still persists today when we are tempted to think of the God of the Old Testament as the bad guy, wrathful, vengeful, not like the loving God of the New Testament.  We might not consciously think or say that they are different gods, but it is still easy to think of it that way, to, in a sense, divorce the Old and New Testament in our minds, thinking of God almost as a separate entity in each Testament.

However, in light of this passage, the differences between these two revelations meet an explanation.  In both Old Testament and New, God is the same: His will and attributes do not change; He is the same holy, loving, just, and merciful God in both Testaments, Three in One through all eternity.  However, he reveals Himself in different ways, for in the Old Testament, He conceals His face, revealing only His back, and thus seems different to us in each Testament.  After all, we know by experience that it is not easy to recognize someone from their back, and that the backside of a person does not fully reveal him to us: instead, he must turn around, that we may see his face.  Such it is with God; we see Him under the old covenant as wrathful, vengeful, and angry, laying down the law with an iron fist, utterly destroying the disobedient.  His grace and mercy, to be sure, are not absent, but to us they sometimes seem overwhelmed by the magnitude of the wrath of God.  The law of the Old Testament stands in stark contrast to the Gospel of the New.

This is not to say, of course, that Gospel does not appear in the Old Testament.  It does in many places, not the least of which appears in the quoted passage, when God says, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, 'I AM.'  And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy."  This is Gospel; it is God's promise to reveal His goodness, grace, and mercy.  In this promise, God reflects His glory; but He still cannot show its fullness to Moses, but only His back.  And when I speak of God showing His back in the Old Testament, and of the Law, I do not mean to say that there is no Gospel in the Old Testament (or law in the New), but that in general, God reveals Himself in the Old Testament through the law.  For the people of Israel, while not deprived of the promise of God, lived under the law, a guardian given to God's people until the fullness of His promise should be revealed.

But now God has turned and revealed to us His glory, showing us His face in Jesus Christ, "in whom the fullness God was pleased to dwell," and whose face is the face of God.  And what a face, what a glory has God shown to us!  For it is not "a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them," but a man and light and love and the stilling of the storm and the still, small voice of the word of Christ.  It is the helpless face of an infant babe born in poverty and weakness.  It is the loving look of the healer, the gentle glance of the comforter.  It is the sorrowful stare of the sufferer, the torn, blood-streaked head of the crucified, lifted up in the sight of all, stretched out and poured out for us, the epitome of love.  It is the glowing, glorified visage of the resurrected one, revealed fully as the Son of God, the God-man, the King who comes quietly on a Sunday morning to Mary and in peace to the terrified disciples and in servitude to the fishermen.  It is the face of Christ, the glory of God: the face of Love.

And so it is that His glory is different from everything we thought it would be.  For it is not the consuming blaze of God's fire, the vengeance of His wrath, but the glory and majesty of His love.  It is not in the immense show of power of the trembling mountain of Sinai that God reveals His glory, but in humility, in meanness, in poverty, in suffering, in the cross.  Who can stand before the glory of God and live?  What sinful man, caught up in his self-serving ways, an idolater of himself, can bear the presence of eternal love, the suffering servant, the mighty, exalted, holy, God descended from His throne of glory to the throne of the cross?  What man of sin can bear pure love, pure grace, pure mercy?  It sickens the sinful heart, it revolts the self-seeking mind, it goes against every human inclination; for what man convinced of his own might can bear the thought that he must be saved, that he has been saved, not only that he has a debt, but that it has been paid, that he need not do anything, that he cannot do anything?  But in Christ, we are redeemed out of our wretchedness, and made holy in the sight of God.  We are washed of our sins in His blood and torn away from our wretched writhing into the sanctuary of grace and faith.  If you are in Christ, God is not angry with you; you may "have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus."  In Him there is salvation; in Him there is love; in Him there is glory; in Him God reveals His face, the Sacred Head wounded for us, in whom we have salvation.  Now may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always and reign forever and ever, AMEN.

Oh, that birth forever blessed,
When the virgin, full of grace,

By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race,
And the babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face
Evermore and evermore.

Thanks to Pastor Randy Asburry and the members of Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church's (St. Louis) Bible class for the inspiration for this post.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Song of the Week

Show Some Teeth/"Metaphor"/SST

 For some reason the youtube upload isn't working for this song, so just click on the link above.  Show Some Teeth is a great new rock band from St. Louis with a hard-to-define sound built on a combination of metal, classic rock, and alternative rock.  Made up of extremely talented musicians (one of whom also plays bass in my band, Jeopardize), the band puts on a high-energy live show and has released an EP (SST) that is available through the band.  "Metaphor" is one of Show Some Teeth's simplest songs but also one of their most appealing.  Built upon a progression of diatonic seventh arpeggios, the song builds up to a powerhouse chorus and a climatic bridge augmented by Nick Vogl's deep, emotional vocals.  This live version also features a guitar solo from Ben Webb; a good thing, since we could always use more guitar solos.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Language of the Angels

When someone perceives a piece of art, two separate and equal entities interact.  These entities are 1. the mind of the audience member and 2. the piece of art, which reflects the mind of the artist.  The artist, having, in a sense, put part of himself in his work, is present in his art, speaking to his audience through his work just as truly as he might speak to a friend in person or through a letter.  This is true whether the art is music, painting, literature, film, et cetera.  Likewise, the audience member's mind actively participates in the work of the artist, simultaneously perceiving, comprehending, interpreting, and evaluating the art, taking his part in a conversation begun by the artist.

The artist and the audience are essentially equal partners in conversation, not interacting face to face but rather conversing by proxy as through a letter.  The artist, of course, is like to the sender, and the audience to the reciever.  The artist sets the terms of the interaction, as it were, by making the first move, laying the groundwork, conveying concepts and ideas to which the receiver must respond.  As in written communication, furthermore, the audience member is able to - nay, expected to and must - respond.  His response may, on the surface, only take form of thoughts which the art inspires in his mind.  But what goes in also comes out: thoughts produce words and actions, which, no matter how small, form another type of response to the artist's work.  Finally, the art may provoke a strong enough reaction that the audience member feels compelled to respond explicitly to it, whether through a comment to a friend or a piece of writing interpreting and critiquing the artist's work.

One piece of art may affect two audience members in different ways, just as a verbal or written statement may have differing effects upon different audiences.  Perhaps the meaning is clear to both audience members and the difference comes in their emotional or intellectual reaction to the message, or perhaps the meaning is ambiguous and the difference comes in the interpretation.  Perhaps the artist had one of these perceived meanings or reactions in mind as the desired effect of his art; perhaps both, perhaps neither.  But one thing is clear: these effects were caused not merely by the piece of art and not merely by the mind of the audience, but by both.  The artist's work is the constant, the audience's mind the variable.

Thus, it is unfair to say, "the meaning and significance of art is determined by the artist," or "it is determined by the audience."  It is determined by both.  The artist and the audience are equal partners in interpretation and the creation of significance.  It is also unfair to say, "value in art is objective" or "it is subjective."  It is both objective and subjective, the former element flowing out from the artist into his work and the latter a function of the audience that interprets it and experiences its various effects. 

Art, on it's basic level, is an essential part of the human experience.  It is communication in its vaguest but most poignant form.  It is profound interaction between strangers.  It is objective and subjective, like life, and like life is both concrete and abstract.  Art is conversation, it is dialogue, discussion, debate in the language of the angels.  Art is the way we humans find meaning, the key by which we access and understand our world.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

They're Really More Like Guidelines

One of the foundational tenants of modern libertarianism is the non-aggression principle, defined by the brilliant political philosopher Murray Rothbard in his book For a New Liberty as "[the] central axiom...that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else, "aggression" being understood to mean "the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence" against someone or their property.  This is the central principle of libertarianism (at least principled libertarianism in the vein of Rothbard) and the axiom on which most libertarian philosophy rests, for principled political philosophies are necessarily founded upon ethics.

So it might be a bit of a surprise that I, a Rothbardian, anti-state, anti-taxation, anarchist libertarian, cannot fully affirm the non-aggression principle.

Yes, this ethical axiom, one at first glance so flawless and irrefutable, seemingly so essential to my political philosophy, is one to which I cannot subscribe.  This puts me at odds with many of my fellow libertarians, not only with regard to an important tenant of the philosophy but to its foundation principle.  This does not mean that I do not value it, for on the whole the principle tends to promote good ethical decision making, but I cannot accept it as a universal axiom.  In short, to paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean, the non-aggression principle is more of a guideline.

Despite its simplicity and elegance, its practicality, and its general applicability, the non-aggression axiom simply fails to take into account the complex nature of ethics in both principle and practice, unable to explain the pull of conscience and moral law as well as the way in which humans actually make ethical decisions.  To illustrate this, an example may be helpful:

Imagine that you and a buddy are hiking a remote mountain trail.  You are close to the end of your hike, which is good because you are running out of supplies.  Your food and water has run out completely, but your partner still has half of a water bottle left.  Fortunately you had a snack and a good drink shortly beforehand, so you both should be fine for the rest of the hike.  Suddenly you spot a man lying face-down beside the trail.  You run up to him, and it is obvious that he has been lost and has collapsed due to exhaustion and dehydration.  He is conscious and breathing, but barely.  This man needs help immediately, and the most urgent matter is to get him a drink of water.  Your partner, however, is a misanthropic nihilist jerk and refuses to give the man a drink. 

Is it ethical to forcibly take the water from your companion?  To do so is to aggress against his property, and also to aggress against his person if he chooses to physically resist.  But if the man in trouble cannot get water immediately, he will die.  In this situation, to apply the non-aggression principle is to let a man die needlessly, all for the sake of someone's claim over half a bottle of water.

It seems obvious that the strict application of the non-aggression axiom is not ethical in this situation.  I could give more examples.  Is it ethical to steal a car to get my dying friend to the hospital if I have no personal means of transportation or contact with anyone?  Is it ethical to violently punch and push my way through a crowd to reach a relative whose life is in danger? The problem with the non-aggression principle is that sometimes you have to harm someone in order to benefit someone else.  To put it briefly: sometimes the ends justify the means.

One might object to my examples to this effect, however, saying that they are far-fetched, unlikely to ever occur in practice, and thus, as hypotheticals, have no bearing upon ethical principles.  However, this objection proves my point exactly.  Of course ethical principles are based upon hypotheticals.  To be a true axiom, a principle must be applicable in all situations, no matter how unlikely.  Universal laws of ethics do not result from practice in various situations; rather, ethical practice derives from ethical principles.  The ideal forms a model for the real.

This also helps to explain why, although I deny the universality of the non-aggression principle, I can still affirm it as a general guideline for ethical decisions in day-to-day life and in politics.  The far-fetched nature of my examples demonstrates that situations necessitating the violation of the non-aggression principle are rare, suggesting that although the principle is not a universal axiom, it is a helpful rule that hold true in most cases, for although it is a stretch to claim that aggression is always wrong, it is common sense to say that it is usually wrong.  So the non-aggression principle, ultimately, is similar to Newton's laws of physics.  Today, we know that Newton's laws are not universally applicable and that they cannot fully explain how the world works.  However, the world as we perceive it operates, for the most part, according to Newton's laws.  Therefore, his principles, although insufficient as universal scientific laws, are still helpful as general rules about how the world works most of the time.  The non-aggression principle is the same way.  Although not universally applicable, and not foundational to ethics, it applies to most ethical decisions, making it a useful guideline. 

Thus ends my general view on the non-aggression principle.  In future posts, I will explain the ethical principles which I believe to be foundational, and how they inform my libertarianism.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Song of the Week

Yes, it's technically Saturday morning.  But for all intents and purposes, it's Friday night.  So without further ado, here is the song of the week:

Tame Impala is a band I'm just starting to get into, a contemporary indie/alternative/retro/psych rock band heavily influenced by the Beatles but with a distinctive sound of their own.  I was introduced to Tame Impala by my band's other guitar player, who suggested "Elephant" as a song we could attempt to cover.  I was blown away on the first listen.  The song is not complicated by any means, but it is skillfully crafted, rhythmically driven on the verses and melodically atmospheric in the interlude, combining bluesy riffing and almost drone-style singing with theme-based melodic guitar and synthesizer playing in a way that almost doesn't seem to fit, but somehow does anyway.  The lyrics are...well, the lyrics kind of speak for themselves in a way that is lucid but simultaneously enigmatic.  You have to listen to really know what I mean.  And, should I mention, "Elephant" is a prime example of a song that makes 4/4 meter sound really weird.  Enjoy.