Well, to all my American friends and family, Happy 4th July. I wish you a great day of celebration and fun. That is always a little strange coming from a Brit. After all, you did rebel against us. But I think we’ve kinda gotten over it now (as you might put it). But it’s well-meant. America is a country I’ve grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I’ve visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he’s never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland’s a great country, but America is a great idea. And that’s what the 4th is all about at its best. A great idea. Read more
I’ve got a problem. But it’s not the sort of problem that you’re going to have much sympathy for. In fact, it’s not the sort of problem that you’re allowed to have much sympathy for. Because my problem is that i’m far too privileged – for my own good or for anyone else’s good. Which is why, in this day and age, anything I say or claim will be subject to greater suspicion than what practically anyone else on the planet will say or claim. If you don’t believe me, check this succinct quote out from Gene Veith: Read more
There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.
You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more
It’s been a bit of an experiment – but as part of our contribution to Passion 4 Life events at All Souls, 2 friends (pianists extraordinaire, Craig Hudson & Robin Stephenson) and I have put on a little evening’s package for people to hold in their homes. We’ve called it a Brahms Soirée, and the idea is that Craig & Robin play Brahms’ 4th Symphony arranged for 4 hands on 1 piano, and I give a short talk, introducing the piece and throwing out a few provocations to think about during the performance. We had our first last night, and we’re going to repeat it in one or two other places.
Never quite done a talk like this – so an experiment, as I say. But here it is, in case it is of interest. Also, in case you want to get a recording of it, here are the suggestions from Radio 3’s Building a Library (this symphony is at the bottom of the page).
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) was one of the greats – his name has gone down in music history as one of the 3 B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – giants whose presence is impossible to ignore. Another thing these 3 men all had in common was that they were not necessarily easy to get on with. That’s often the way with geniuses. Karl Goldmark was a composer friend who said this:
Brahms was built on big lines and was absolutely truthful. He could not tell even the ordinary conventional fib. … But he was never accustomed to… holding his tongue. If he disliked anything he would say so frankly. This bluntness, combined with his rough manner, frequently made him appear very harsh. One evening, Brahms, on taking leave of his hostess at a party, said, ‘Kindly excuse me if by chance I have forgotten to offend one of your guests.’
At least he had a degree of self-awareness. But faults often have their positive flip sides – and Brahms equally faced life’s realities very truthfully and honestly. So one of the themes we’ll explore is the emotional honesty of his music.
The Fourth Symphony was published in 1885, and bar a concerto and a number of chamber pieces, it was his final large scale work. He was 52, and would live another 12 years. But the question I’m interested in is what is he communicating? For you don’t write a 40 minute piece of music unless you have something to say – even if it is hard to express it well in words. Well, it is not a word we use very much – but I want to suggest it is the word ‘Rage’.
Now, I lived and worked for 4 years in Kampala in Uganda before moving back to London in 2005 – I can tell you that on the roads of Kampala I discovered depths of road rage that I never knew I had. But that is not the rage we’re dealing with here. No – I’m thinking about the rage that seems to lie at the heart of the Fourth Symphony – which is a surprise when we remember that this is Brahms’ last really grand statement. Its rage has been noted by one or two writers – and as I’ve listened to it many times in the last few months, it comes across clearly.
So what provoked this rage? Now it’s notoriously difficult to pin down the emotional impact of any music, let alone something as monumental as a symphony. But there are some things to say. And I just wonder if we can hear resonances with something written almost 70 years later by the great welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. Written just 2 years before he died, Thomas raged against our mortality. Death: such an invasion, such an interruption, such an offence.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
But isn’t this just the way it is? That’s life – life ends. Does that explain the symphony’s rage? Well, it may well be part of it – but I think there’s more. For it’s not constantly full of rage – it plumbs the depths of emotion, from the jubilant through the melancholic and the tragic to the downright furious. But what is significant, is that the 1st and 4th movements (the bookends, if you like) both conclude with a mood that is hard to hear as anything but fury. And that is significant – that is what he leaves us with, his last grand statement.
The moods in the middle are therefore like a struggle to overcome this sentiment, trying to find a resolution. But the rage wins out, and the last minutes of the 4th movement are overwhelming. One writer described the climax of the 4th movement as one of Brahms’ “most monumental fits of rage”. How do we get there?
The opening doesn’t waste time – from the first bar we’re immersed in a sense of melancholy, a gentle elegy – but we’re not yet sure why. It is an achingly beautiful introduction – and there is just the hint of the tragedy to come. But the movement is long – around 12 or 13 minutes – and complex. There are surprises aplenty, there are joys and triumphs. But it’s as if we can’t escape the inevitable – by its conclusion, all the musical threads have come together, in a tragic, minor key. Yet we know there’s more (it’s only the 1st movement of 4 after all) – there’s a sense of something unresolved. What’s coming next? This is what one critic said:
We naturally crave an emotional resolution to what we have just heard. The three remaining parts of the symphony can thus be seen as different reactions to the events unfolding in the first movement. (Hurwitz, Brahms’ Symphonies, Continuum, p133)
2: Andante Moderato
This is slow, intense, and in fact, almost as long as the first. It contains rhythmical fanfares in the horns but also wonderfully rich, lyrical melodies, which the strings get to really milk for all they’re worth. I’m sure imagining all this won’t be a problem in Craig and Robin’s hands!
There is something pastoral, something almost fairy-tale about it. The fanfares are like archetypal calls of huntsmen in Viennese forests and the main theme seems to have echoes of folk music – so could this be a flight from the agonies of the first movement to the idylls of the countryside? Could it be escapism? The melody undergoes a number of variations, as if Brahms is holding onto the experience, achingly not wanting to leave. But he can’t stop – there is a relentlessness too here, as we’re propelled onto the climax, as intense as the first movement’s climax is tragic. Is this one possible response to the tragedy? To escape for the idyllic and pastoral, in the hope it will go away?
3: Allegro giocoso – Poco meno presto – Tempo 1
This is fast – and is even marked ‘giocoso’ meaning cheerful or jolly. Which is quite a surprise after what we’ve just heard. Yet more is going on. The joy feels a bit contrived – almost manic. It is a bit like an emotionally volatile person who is on a real high, a bit hyper. For their friends, there’s a relief that they’re out of the dumps, perhaps; but also a bit of wariness about what’s really going on underneath.
The 3rd movement is a bit of a barnstormer, fun, brilliant and exciting. But what is Brahms doing here? Is it a sense of trying to make the best of a bad job? I remember as a child going on long car journeys. And if the traffic was bad or whatever, and we were all feeling grim, my mother would do the honourable parent thing and say ‘let’s play a game’. Let’s do something fun – just to make it all go away. But of course, you still feel car sick, the traffic is still heavy, and you’re still on the road to that aged aunt you didn’t want to stay with in the first place.
The jollity of the 3rd movement still seems contrived and is haunted by dark clouds gathering on the horizon.
4: Allegro energico e passionato – Piu allegro
So we come at last to the glorious 4th- it is an overwhelming statement. And it is driven forward by the fact that it is a passacaglia – an Italian word derived from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street). This means that a recurring bass line holds it all together. Sometimes you might not be aware of it but it keeps coming back, like the relentlessness of fate, the inescapability of our mortality. It’s as if in the 2nd movement we tried to avoid it through escapism; in the 3rd through enforced jollity. But we can’t.
The bass line recurs with variations over the top, displaying a range of emotions – fear, anxiety, bravado. For instance, listen out for the beautiful quiet section before the momentum builds and builds until it can’t be contained. The rage overwhelms and rushes to form the mighty climax of the whole symphony.
Of course, it’s pure speculation as to what caused Brahms’ rage. Some have tried. But let me put it like this: if some aspects of our world didn’t cause you rage then I’d question your humanity: like earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, the corruption and dictatorships of Zimbabwe or Burma, the horrors of child abuse or human trafficking and so on. They provoke deep rage. They must!
But what do we do with that? Or more to the point, where do we take it? Brahms’ great friend Antonin Dvorak was a man of religious faith, and he sometimes despaired at Brahms’ total agnosticism. Dvorak said of him: “Such a man, such a soul – and he doesn’t believe in anything, he doesn’t believe in anything!”
But Brahms’ rage against fate, against our mortality, against human suffering – whatever it is, persisted. If there is no God, what do we do? Well our friend Richard Dawkins puts it starkly:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt. We cannot find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good; nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music. (‘The Evolution of the Darwin Man’, publ. in 2000 in The Sydney Morning Herald.)
Well, I don’t know what Brahms would have made of that – but he certainly shows no resignation to the music of the cosmos – his stand is one of resistance, and enraged resistance at that. Still – there is an inescapable logic to Dawkins. And if true, it renders even our rage futile.
But let me finish with a final thought – because I would argue that it is only if there IS a God that suffering is allowed to be a problem, or rather a question we can ask. Without a God, there is no one to ask. And the wonder of the Christian message is that there is a God to ask. And he does not give glib answers or pat solutions. I lived for a number of years in Africa – and I struggled to understand a lot of the agonies, especially as a Christian. But I do know this: the Christian God is one who knows first hand what this is about. His response was to come and get his hands dirty, to become one of us and to suffer the worst of us – at the cross. He is a God who knows – and who promises one day to wipe away every tear and every sorrow.
That is why I what to finish by referring to Edward Shillito’s famous poem Jesus of the Scars – he was a Christian pastor who had done his time years in the trenches of the 1st world war. The only thing that helped him through it was the God who was weak, who stumbled to his throne, who suffered wounds – Jesus of the scars, the only God to have been wounded thus.
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars we claim Thy grace.
If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know today what wounds are; have no fear;
Show us Thy Scars; we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Rev Edward Shillito (1872-1948) (Quoted in John Stott, Cross of Christ, p337)
You see, we don’t have to end where Brahms 4th does – we don’t have to be left flailing in our doubt and confusion. Because of Christ, the answer to our rage is not the escapism of the 2nd movement or the enforced jollity of the 3rd. Instead it is by coming to the God who knows us and loves us, and above all gets angry at the same things too – how could he not? And more than that, he comes to do something about it – first at the cross, and finally at the end of it all. As someone once brilliantly put it, “the cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in a world such as ours” (P T Forsyth, quoted in Stott p336). But what I love about this symphony is that it sweeps us up in these sorts of emotions and therefore the underlying questions. I hope it does that for you too.
Final thought – we might never have had this symphony. The conductor Hans von Bülow reproached Brahms for sending the manuscript of the Fourth Symphony, of which no copy existed, as an ordinary postal packet, not even registered. “What would we have done had the packet gone astray?” The composer answered: “In that case, I would have had to write the symphony anew.” Thank goodness the postman did his stuff!
He’s a great poet – but hasn’t produced much recently. (Hint hint, Steve) This is a gem – nestled in one of his great children’s collections.
While we take burgers, cokes and fries
The TV tells of hate and lies
Shows death beneath bright foreign skies
Can someone pass the salt?
The ground is parched, the river dies
The Red Cross camp has no supplies
The cold night air is cut with cries
Which ice-cream have you bought?
With bones stuck out like blunted knives
And bellies swollen twice the size
The people cling to fading lives
Who’s washing up tonight?
We see their pain in bulging eyes
And faces gaunt and thick with flies
The camera zooms as someone dies
What’s on the other side?
From The Day I Fell Down The Toilet (Lion, 1996) p67
I know very little about Annie Leonard but she made this video about our rampant consumerism and it is a trenchant must-see. It first came out in 2007 – and is more relevant than ever. A very simple format: it’s essentially a 20 min animation/lecture about the nature of the global systems we thoughtlessly exploit and the realities of our dwindling global resources. I found the quotes from post-2 World War economists particularly chilling.
Here’s the first bit. Click on the banner (right) to get to the website and see the rest.
- Speak the gospel; use deeds if you have to – helpful provocations from Mark Galli in CT.
- What’s your response to this: The 7 Deadly Sin hotspots in the USA? Do you make a beeline for those States to muck in? Or to make a difference? Or to avoid them altogether? I guess how you answer might reflect how you see ministry.
- While we’re in that neck of the woods, this is quite scary: Bible verses used to gloss the war on terror. Hmmm.
- Dave Bish helpfully passes on 9 purposes of biblical genealogies.
- Genius: someone has done a cartoon version of ch1 of Neil Postman’s seminal Amusing ourselves to death! (HT Tim Chester)
- Want to know what a TRILLION DOLLARS looks like? Well, check this out.
- This is fab: the New York Times photojournalists have set up a blog with daily posts of their images. Fascinating to dip into every now and then.
- In case you’ve never encountered it before, check out the BBC’s 5 Minutes With… – all kinds of interesting people interviewed in 5 minutes flat.
- US News has a nice little series of 10 Things You Didn’t Know About… – mainly American figures inevitably, but not exclusively, from everyone to Ahmadinejad to Obama.
- This is incredible. The treasure map has done other paper art before, but nothing like this. Simon Schubert makes these simply by tiny and very accurate folds in paper. Awesome: (HT: Today & Tomorrow)
- NewsBiscuit is a national treasure – full of random false news. This is a classic – Prince Charles changes the plans for the Heavenly Jerusalem.
- What lay behind this I’ve no idea – but some bloke has gone and turned a Postman Pat kids ride into a workable car.
1 trillion is a big number. And it’s making big news in G20 circles. Of course, we’re all very pleased and happy as it’s going to save the world, thanks to Messrs Brown and Obama. Hurrah for them. Trillions really are the new billions, it seems.
But spare a thought for ordinary Zimbabweans. Where a trillion really isn’t what it once was. Nor for that matter, is 100 trillion Zim dollars…
The exchange rate currently (but probably meaninglessly) stands at £1 = Z$55 million. So this not is in itself worth £1.8 million. But they’ve presumably printed them because they expect it to be enough to buy a loaf of bread next month.
Check out these ingenious adverts for The Zimbabwean newspaper (strapline: a voice for the voiceless) – they’re printed on actual Zim dollars – to show how worthless they have become. It’s cheaper to do that than buy printing paper. See other examples at their Flickr page. It is a courageous, but necessary stand – the injustices of the situation reinforced by the fact that Mugabe recently celebrated with another lavish birthday party.
- For some reason, long-lasting celebrities get referred to as national treasures; well Dale Ralph Davis is a kingdom treasure – not because he is a celebrity in any grim sense of the word, but because he brilliantly communicates the Old Testament in his preaching. Here is the transcript of a fantastic recent lecture, which answers the question ‘Why is the Old Testament shut out of the church?‘ (HT Paul Carter).
- This lecture seems to be the first in an annual series held at RTS, called The John Reed Miller Lectures. Previous series are on iTunes U and can be subscribed to by clicking the link (previous speakers include Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson). So hopefully Ralph Davis’ will be there soon.
- Jonathan Dodson on ReSurgence validly observes that too many Christian songs are worse than soppy love songs not worthy of God’s love.
- 10 reasons why one pastor doesn’t like most Christians. The tone’s a bit harsh, but there’s something in much of it.
- Amazing new resource: ALL of Jonathan Edwards writings searchable online.
- Romeo Dallaire commanded the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda in 1994 – his is a truly chilling story. (HT to David Kim)
- I’ve really got into the design site Visual Culture – it consistently has fascinating stuff on it. Check out these provocative ads from a French NGO called Stop the Cycle of Pain. Compelling and powerful.
- Bankers are bonkers – official. Here is the evidence. A care worker wanted to increase her £200 overdraft by £50 to give her some spending money for Christmas, and ended up with an overdraft of £84,480,090, while being charged only £5 a month! No wonder there’s a credit crunch.
- Old news now, but in case you missed it, see the British Prime Minister claim to have saved the world.
- This is a work of genius – it shows that BOTH candidates for the US presidency were nothing if not consistent during the debates:
- Tag Gallery is a very cool way of searching for images and photos.
- The Godfather Photo Album – here are a few excerpts. The 1st looks gruseome until you see how they did it in the 2nd!
- It is human nature that we are never satisfied:
I was in Canary Wharf (the heart of London capitalism) on Tuesday meeting up with a couple of guys from Church and couldn’t help a wry smile at the fact that the tube station was plastered in adverts for Citibank. So I’m afraid I have since indulged in a little virtual graffiti. At least you can’t get prosecuted for the virtual kind…
At our fortnightly prayer gathering last night, the boss, Hugh Palmer, gave some really helpful headlines from 1 Timothy, to help us put these troubled times into some sort of perspective. So for those who weren’t there, here are those headlines…
He started with a summary from somewhere of the cultural characteristics of the last decade or so, where we have been obsessed with the following:
- Freedom of choice – we are presented with a huge array of choice, but we not only take that for granted, we assume it is our right.
- Tolerance of choice – if life is just a matter of choice then we have no excuse not to tolerate the choices that other people make.
- Hard work for choice – people sweat and strive to earn to enjoy the choices that their rights have enabled them to be free to make.
As the credit crisis kicks in to the street, with job losses, inflation and general recession, we will find that we have less freedom because there is less work. So how to put this into perspective:
17. Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1Timothy 6:17-19)
In the light of these verses we should aspire to and pray for 4 things (and they all begin with ‘Co’!):
- Confession (v17): we must recognise the idolatry of wealth and repent of our wealth-obsession. After all this crisis was proof, if ever it were needed, that ‘wealth is so uncertain’.
- Contentment (v17): Can we really trust God to be good and our provider God? Well because of Jesus, we can. We need to learn to trust that he really is enough…
- Compassion (v18): a credit crunch is no excuse to stop being generous (even if the financial value of gifts goes down). We still need to be generous in good deeds and time, as well as our resources.
- Confidence (v19): we should have a perspective that changes how we view everything. And that is found only through the one who came to bring us treasure that is not earthbound or primarily material.