September 26, 2013 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
D. A. Carson’s enriching book is more than a manifesto for revival. It is a searching meditation on the imperative, the power, and the generative attitudes of prayer. First published in 1992, the book may be an even more sobering read today, more than twenty years later. The decline of the American church has continued without interruption, and the contributing factors and cultural symptoms of our decline are now worse. Carson’s exegetical depth, however, gives me fresh hope.
Carson opens with an analysis of the American church’s prayerlessness (Introduction), the conclusion of which is that we do not know God well enough. He opens the nature and focus of prayer in a series of chapters drawing on the example of other Christians (Chapter 1), the model of 2 Thessalonians 1 (Chapters 2 and 3), the overall burden for people in Paul’s prayers (Chapters 4-5), and the model of Colossians 1 (Chapter 6). Carson pauses to examine various excuses for prayerlessness and to expound the motivations for overcoming them (Chapters 7-8). He then develops much-needed theological rationales for prayer, dealing with the nature of God (Chapters 9-10), the nature of spiritual power (Chapter 11), and vision for ministry (Chapter 12).
In order to find fault with any of Carson’s exegesis, one would have to marshal detailed technical objections. Even where that might be possible, his devotion to expounding the Scriptures accurately is displayed on every page. Carson’s examination of 2 Thessalonians 1 is rich with applications derived meticulously from context (Chapter 3). On page after page, Carson gives appropriate details about Paul’s inferential and referential particles to clarify why Paul prays and what he prays for. In fact, one of the most edifying features of Carson’s book is his frequent reproduction of lengthy passages that the reader can mull over without any commentary.
Many books are filled with solid exegetical details that nevertheless clutter big themes. Carson’s book is not one of them. He shows the Bible’s big picture of prayer.
In particular, the book corrects the overly individualistic concept of prayer many evangelicals have. Carson doesn’t belabor the inadequacy of a prayer life that is exclusively private, or attack individualism outright. Instead, he shows the communal prayer life of Paul in high definition. And that is rebuke enough. In chapter 4, Carson reproduces prayers from all of Paul’s letters to show how immersed he was in the lives of his fellow believers. Chapter 5 is devoted to an even more detailed treatment of this theme, unpacking 2 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Also, Carson demonstrates that this relational aspect of prayer, taught so exhaustively in the New Testament, was a feature of God’s people more recently. He tells many stories of how the people in his life influenced his praying in chapter 1, and he consistently draws on the history of revivals throughout the book.
This emphasis on human relationships in prayer continues to be neglected, and Carson’s faithfulness to the biblical model remains urgently needed.
There are issues about which I would like to learn more from Carson. For example, he addresses spiritual warfare briefly in chapter 12, which focuses on Romans 15. Prayer in this connection is almost exclusively the preserve of charismatic believers, as it was when Carson first wrote the book. The role of angels and demons in the life of Christ and the growth of the church is a prominent theme of the New Testament. I would like to have seen more about such issues in relation to prayer, especially in light of the mainstreaming of New Age spirituality that has occurred in the last twenty years.
Still, Carson’s book is a powerful antidote to the prayerlessness that has poisoned our spirits.
September 11, 2013 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
After the North State Symphony‘s show with Amy Grant in Redding last week, conductor Kyle Pickett button-holed me for a discussion. Grant had sung “El Shaddai” near the end of the show, getting predictably warm-hearted applause. And the predictability was at the core of Kyle’s question.
“Is that kind of response real faith in God? Or is it the result of a great performer crafting her show well?”
Kyle wasn’t questioning either Grant’s or our audience’s sincerity. He was questioning the mixture of entertainment and worship. Good performances and devout worship are both emotionally powerful. But the worshipper’s emotions are supposed to come from a connection with God, not with a performer. Kyle put his finger on a longstanding issue for Protestant evangelicals: when does a skillful performance eclipse God’s presence? And when does human passion drown reverence?
He said, “You need to write an article on this.” That’s my cue.
For Protestants, this issue goes back to the Reformation.
The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did away with the distinction between “sacred” and “secular.” They taught that all aspects of life give glory God in Christ–all vocations, all settings, all human endeavor, not just church activities. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” This principle turns even a Christian’s “secular” pursuits into worship. This is why Grant sings “El Shaddai” in the same concert with “Big Yellow Taxi.”
But the reformers also taught a high view of corporate worship, fashioning a restrained liturgy to emphasize solemnity in the presence of a holy God. No “Big Yellow Taxi” as an offertory.
J. S. Bach often ran afoul of Pietist Lutherans because these two principles were (and are) in tension. A consummate performer and devout worshipper, Bach had no problem giving virtuosity free rein in church. But the Pietists wanted music kept simple to give free rein, as they saw it, to God.
The evangelicals who make up most of Grant’s audience have a solution to this tension. Ditch solemnity. Let the popular passions loose with all their boisterous sentimentality. Amy Grant, church, entertainment, worship–they’re all whooping it up at the same gospel party.
As an evangelical, I’m not thrilled with that solution. Entertainment often becomes a flippant substitute for doing business with God. To celebrate new life in Christ without attention to the fact that it came at the cost of his life is presumptuous. Because our sins are destructive to ourselves, others, and God’s glory, Christ’s forgiveness calls us to express something deeper than “Woo hoo!” True worship comes from an attitude of submission, while entertainment stops at pleasure.
Still, I did not feel that Grant’s “El Shaddai” encouraged flippancy in the audience. She directed the audience’s pleasure to the right source.
First, she was clear about being on stage to entertain. Great performers are able to touch deeper themes without being pretentious or manipulative by being straightforward about their purpose. “I’m here to give you pleasure.”
Second, Grant’s three decades as a celebrity have seen plenty of controversy. She has received criticism for both her career and personal decisions. From her perspective of the ups and downs of fame, to sing about one of the Hebrew names of God, who “age to age is still the same,” is to make a very personal statement of devotion.
Third, she used the craft of performance to focus attention on the words of the song. A manipulative performer would’ve pulled out all the stops–the full orchestra, back-up singers, a couple of chromatic modulations–to get the audience on their feet with a longstanding hit. Instead, Grant sang alone, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, communicating with directness and intimacy. This is how performers say, “Remember this one. Walk out with this song on your mind.”
Of all the things she could have said at such a moment, she chose to say that God is always faithful to us. It was a great use of performance skill—giving pleasure with truth.
What the audience does with such a moment is another matter. Experiencing Grant’s testimony, even identifying with it, is too passive. The glory of Christ calls us to go much further, and entertainment cannot take us there. To worship with integrity, we have to marshal all our skills to spotlight Christ.
To put it more directly, Amy Grant has offered her worship. Where’s ours?
February 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
Dr. Paul Zingg opened and closed Chico’s Community Action Summit with an assertion. At the start of the day, he said that the summit was about “virtues.” At the end, he said that he was pleased to hear the issue of wellness receive so much attention. “But,” he added, “we must add goodness to wellness.”
The distinction goes to the core of the summit’s focus: our city’s problem with alcohol.
Wellness is good health, both physically and emotionally. As a culture, we are comfortable talking about this category. We spend vast sums of money on fitness, dieting, and medicine. We analyze many problems like alcohol abuse as public health issues. If people were educated about wellness, we think, they would make better decisions.
It’s a useful model.
But wellness is not the same as goodness. Goodness is the result of the moral disciplines that Dr. Zingg called virtues. The very term goodness calls us to discriminate between actions — that is, to discover which ones might be evil. We are less comfortable with this category.
During the summit, the need for clarity about goodness came up repeatedly.
A session on sexual assault was attended by many survivors of violent crimes, both men and women. Several young women identified themselves as survivors of rape, describing an atmosphere on campus in which men laugh about sexual assault, stalking is a constant reality, and the most dangerous spaces are not public but private. One male student described being beaten in front of cheering bystanders. A father told of an attack on his son. Alumni in the group said that the atmosphere has not changed since they were students years ago.
Survivors of actions like these do not need evil explained. They want change for the good.
Assault survivors talked about creating a culture of personal responsibility by focusing on daily actions and relationships. Associated Students president Jay Virdee also raised the issue of personal responsibility and ran a session exploring educational approaches. He is articulate and passionate about this priority, and has ideas to encourage good decision-making through student mentoring.
I attended a session in which bar owners described being swamped with fake driver’s licenses, either forged or stolen. They conferred with a police officer, cordially but inconclusively. Does the city have resources to arrest and prosecute the people who make and use fake cards? Clearly not. I was struck by the diligence bar owners and managers have shown in enforcing the laws. They are the people who confiscate fake i.d. from a parent trying to pass his kid off as 21. Personal responsibility came up in this discussion as well.
Clearly we need to change individuals’ decision-making. Is wellness a strong enough category to bring about that change?
The parent sneaking liquor into his daughter’s dorm room has a sense of wellness. If he thought it would hurt his daughter to drink, he wouldn’t get her the stuff. If anything, his sense of wellness is offended by what he sees as intrusive rules.
The 19-year-old who uses his older brother’s i.d. to get into bars has a sense of wellness, too. His partying is under control. He gets good grades and holds down a job. He’s not on crack. Who gets hurt?
The 26-year-old who gets a 19-year-old woman to “sext” him when she’s drunk, and later posts her pictures on the web – even he has a sense of wellness. How could his actions possibly have hurt her? She’s famous now. Guys love her.
On what basis will we argue that these three people are not well? They don’t see the harm in their choices. They don’t see any connection between their actions and nights of mayhem like last Saturday, when the police received 391 calls in a twelve hour period. These three will say it’s other people who are “out of control.”
To make the case, we will have to use the word wrong. We will have to talk about what is good. We’ll have to examine beliefs — critically evaluate the reasons we give for our actions. We’ll have to speak in terms of goodness because wellness is not a self-evident concept. It is derived from ethics.
There are several things we can do to make this case. We can recover some old words that express the differences between actions: honesty and lying, wisdom and folly, lust and love. We can also restore to educators the mandate to teach these words. Even further, we can link consequences to good and bad actions. These are the things that confident communities do.
As a pastor, my job goes one step further. The gospel I teach has to go beyond wellness. Jesus is indeed a healer. But he did not die and rise again because of our poor decisions. He died and rose again because we are not good. He came to deliver us from evil. Only that message is worth calling “good news.”
November 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Kyle Wiley Pickett, music director of the North State Symphony (NSS), has built large audiences while programming new music. The NSS has played pieces by regional composers such as CSU Chico’s Russell Burnham and Simpson University’s Dan Pinkston, as well as Lowell Lieberman, who is nationally known. On November 10-11, the symphony performed Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), a classic twelve-tone work, with NSS concertmaster Terrie Baune.
As a member of the first violin section, I was eager to experience the piece from the inside. I was also interested to gauge audience responses, and to consider what kind of spirituality Berg’s work expresses.
In February, 1935, the American violinist Louis Krasner appealed to Berg to produce a work that would show the beauty of twelve-tone music using a concerto form that audiences would readily appreciate. Berg took the commission two months later after the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, widow of the famous composer. Berg adored the girl, and composed the Concerto in less than four months around the theme of death and loss, inscribing the score, “To the Memory of an Angel.”
The piece rises to Krasner’s challenge in several ways.
It makes dramatic quotations of two tonal melodies, a Carinthian folk song and a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach. The quotations give reference points for the listener to understand, and to some extent organize, the music he or she hears. They also have strong symbolism, the Carinthian tune conjuring the image of Manon dancing, and the chorale (“It is Enough” from Cantata No. 60) expressing the desire to leave this painful life for the bliss of the next.
The melodies, however, are not mere bones thrown to the audience. Berg assimilates their tonal harmonizations with his twelve-tone row, so that they emerge from his atonal world in a manner that is both musically organic and emotionally devastating. Bach’s tune in particular, with its unusual opening of three whole tones, is an ingenious development of the last pitch classes of Berg’s row.
In this way, Berg brings an audience into his concerto with feats of structural integrity, and his success was affirmed by the warm responses of audiences in Chico and Redding. Terrie earned the ovations not just with technical agility, but with the romantic sensibility she brought to the work. Her sure and beautiful sound production and her astounding intonation gave the performances a confidence that was essential to winning the audiences. She deployed her skills in advocacy of this piece when she might have played a more beloved concerto and garnered even louder applause. Terrie and Kyle are showing our region what it means to have high artistic skill and character.
A serial work has to win over orchestra players before it can reach listeners. Berg’s orchestration is important in this regard.
Even in great tonal works, players often struggle against a composer’s assignment of parts and dynamics, laboring to overcome thick textures or compete with stronger sections of the orchestra. So when a composer orchestrates fluently, the musicians’ work is rewarded. Players simply have to place their notes accurately to realize the composer’s design. They can then spend their time polishing instead of struggling.
Berg is one of these fluent orchestrators, especially considering the technical challenges of twelve-tone music. A basic problem is the equality of each pitch class. Lacking the tonal center of the diatonic scale, which orders seven pitch classes into a strong hierarchy, the row does not allow the listener a sonic home. A serial work’s organization is not even open to players without careful analysis. The main and secondary ideas are actually marked in the scores of serial pieces, so that players will have some understanding of their parts.
From the first bars, Berg’s elegant orchestration clarifies the Concerto’s motifs, structure, and harmony for players and listeners alike. He aligns timbres and overtones in a quintessentially Viennese manner, and also contrasts sections of the orchestra dramatically without drowning the weaker instruments.
This concerto should be recognized as an artistically important marker for modernist spirituality.
Behind the memorial to Manon Gropius lie Berg’s more complicated personal stories. He was a believer in numerology, avidly following the schemes astrological determinism that fascinated many Viennese artists, and encoding secret messages into his compositions. The 10-bar phrase structure of the opening, for example, symbolizes Berg’s mistress Hannah Fuchs. In the concerto’s passages expressing death throes, the violin cries out Berg’s initials along with Hannah’s, filling the Bach chorale that follows with longing for eternal union, not with Christ, but with a lover. The Carinthian song has a double-meaning, recalling a daughter Berg fathered by a family servant as a young man but never knew. Berg lost two young girls.
Berg’s concerto is a mature work of post-Christian culture, a work already nearly 80 years old. In this modernism, the artifacts of Christian hope become malleable symbols, as all cultural artifacts must, expressing the most subjective longings, and consecrating erotic experience as holy ground. Part of what makes this work a classic is its perfect capture of modernist spirituality: the sexual self under the stars.
Kyle Pickett, “Evening at Egan Talk” (unpublished, n.d.).
 Douglas Jarman, “Alban Berg, Wilhelm Fliess and the Secret Programme of the Violin Concerto,” The Musical Times 124, no. 1682 (April 1, 1983): 218–223.
October 31, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The iGod and the Real God
Matthew Raley (10-28-12)
One of the key lessons we have been learning in this series is that, unlike listening to an iPod, worship is not an escape from life. We can't retreat deeper into our own heads, conjure the emotions we want, and expect to find God there. Worship is serving God by reengaging life, getting out of our own heads and dealing with God as he actually is.
October 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
One of the visual abstractions we noticed in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was his evocation of famous paintings. We saw that his shot of Madeleine floating in the Bay alludes to the painting of Ophelia by Millais, and that references like this give an unconscious emotional atmosphere to the film.
Bernard Herrmann uses a similar abstraction in Vertigo‘s score. He refers to musical forms in a way that intensifies the cultural and psychological atmosphere. Two such references are important to the score’s role as co-narrator with the camera.
First, Herrmann employs a habanera rhythm in relation to Carlotta. The habanera was a Cuban dance that made its way to Spain in the 19th century, and thence to Europe, becoming famous through Georges Bizet’s Carmen. As a cultural artifact, the dance is associated not just with Hispanic atmosphere but also with seduction.
Second, Herrmann uses ecclesiastical forms in his cues at Mission Dolores. He draws the church modes into his harmonies, employing sighing motifs, and using a pipe organ.
Both references, which David Cooper calls “extraopus intertextuality,” remain at some distance from their antecedents. They are not literal. No one dances a real habanera during a café floor show. Scottie doesn’t pass an organist on his way to the graveyard. By remaining abstract, these references allow one’s imagination to play at a less conscious level, and with profoundly ironic implications.
 David Cooper, Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook, Film Score Guides (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 65.
October 25, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The iGod and the Real God
Matthew Raley (10-21-12)
In the course of this series we have learned that to build the alternative fulfillment of the Christian life, you have to leave the iGod who lives in your head and engage with the real God in real life. Doing this involves thinking of worship differently: true worship is not an escape from life into ecstasy, but an assertion of spiritual power into life.