Monday, May 31, 2010

a world less spiritual?

When lethal and dangerous things happen because of religious people - suicide bombings, wars, book burnings, hate marches - there is always a group of people, or many groups of people, who call for religions to be banned.

As if that would solve all the major problems of the human race.

In the first place, not all wars and hate marches and other serious issues are caused by religious people. Atheists are pretty good at instigating wars in promoting their own doctrines and agendas, for instance, and so are agnostics. Consider Communist and atheist North Korea. Banning religion might please them. But it would not stop their lethal and aggressive inclinations.

In the second place, suppose you could ban all religions? People would remain with their hunger to know and understand the mystery of human life and the creation of our planet and the universe. Who would satisfy that craving? Well, others would with their own ideas and philosophical systems. They might claim to be atheists. But they would still be taking on the role of priests. It would be religion all over again just in different robes. In their own way they would be seeking to help people find the meaning of life and the universe and their purpose. Some of these new priests might even become god-like in their inclinations and authority.

But in the third place, you can no more ban religion than ban the inhalation of oxygen. Or ban sex. Or ban alcohol. People will find a way. Ask those who lived through the 70 years of the USSR whether Moscow was successful in banning religion. Ask them if the Kremlin succeeded in eliminating the need for faith and the spiritual quest. Ask them if Christianity ceased to exist.

Ask China.

Ask North Korea, come to think of it. Not that we'll get the truth on the matter out of Pyongyang. But I guarantee you they have not eliminated all religious faith though I'm sure they have tried hard.

People have sought religious and spiritual explanations from the beginning of the human race's ability to wonder and imagine. Archaeologists tell us they have found evidence of the quest. So do anthropologists. Religion and the spiritual cannot be banned because hearts and minds and thought cannot be banned. Soul and spirit cannot be banned. The quest to know cannot be banned. It does not matter what you believe or refuse to believe. It does not matter if you do not care about religion. There are many others who believe differently than you, people who are religious, and they cannot all be silenced or eliminated.

Those who cry for the banning of religion because of the damage they see religion can do conveniently forget about the good religion can do. They forget about the Martin Luther Kings, the Mother Teresas, the Francis of Assisis.

Yet most importantly they forget it appears to be endemic to the human race.

It will not go away. There will always be bad religion and good religion just as there will always be bad atheists and good atheists. Atheism is part of the religious equation too.

It is not a world, despite the crime and immorality and intolerance, that is less spiritual that we see in the 21st century.

People are still looking for God.

They look for a Messiah.

They look for a special Word, a Logos.

They are on a quest. Many of them. All of them, really, all of us. Some of us do not call it a quest and some of us do not call it religious.

But we are looking for the meaning of life and life after death and the meaning of creation.

And by whatever name we call it, it is still spiritual.

The world is as spiritual a place as it has ever been. And the people who live here are just as desperate for answers, for hope, for purpose, for light.

Nothing has changed in that regard for thousands of years.

It will never change.

How can it, if it really becomes clear to all one day that spirituality, from beginning to end, is the essence of our existence as human beings?

late night music with felix mendelssohn

One of the great things about growing up in Winnipeg is the arts.

I well remember the first time I went to the symphony. The gleam of the brass section, the rich wood of the stringed instruments, the black dress of the musicians, this and all the other instruments such as drums, a harp, oboes and a piano, it all combined to give me an overwhelming sense of beauty and anticipation.

The first album my brother gave me as a gift (he is an artist and teaches at the University of Manitoba) was not The Rolling Stones, though we both liked the band, but Bella Bartok. It was an LP. On the flip side was Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. Though I knew the regular tunes we're all supposed to know when it comes to classical music (The Moonlight Sonata, Fur Elise, The Beautiful Blue Danube, The Nutcracker, The 1812 Overture, etc.) I did not know Bartok or Stravinsky. The album opened up new worlds of the senses and the imagination.

I have hundreds of classical CDs now. I was just listening, for instance, to Rachmaninov's Vespers, a piece I have used to help get me in the mood for writing a novel set in mid-20th century Russia and Ukraine. If I walk over to one of my stashes of classical CDs, which is arranged in alphabetical order in a tower, I come pretty quickly to Bach, one of my favourite composers (someone many of us might never have known but for Felix Mendelssohn introducing his works to the world).

I used to think, well, one rendering of a piece is sufficient. If I haul out my CDs of Bach's unaccompanied cello suites you see an interpretation by Janos Starker done in his golden years, magnificent, my current favourite. But I liked Yo Yo's early interpretation too (I gave the double set to a friend who could not afford a copy but not before I downloaded it into my iTunes). I have Peter Wispelwey's take on it. Also Haimovitz with his three disc set (because he plays at a slower tempo). I want to get Gastinel and Queyras (his treatment of Britten's unaccompanied is marvelous). So you see? This makes me, I fear, something of an audiophile.

Pianists? The list would be too long. But in Bach you see Angela Hewitt and Glenn Gould whose version of The Goldberg Variations (the slow one made just before his death) is still the one I prefer. If we glance over all of the CDs we see Lang Lang and Argerich and Aimard and Volodos. And violinists. And trumpet players. And different conductors doing different interpretations of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich.

Okay, enough already. My point? People have different takes on the Bible and we need to listen to them before we agree or disagree. People prefer different translations of the Bible - I enjoy The Message but I have a friend in BC who teaches English Lit who detests it. So? Make room for Gould and Hewitt and Aimard. On my shelf I also have JB Phillip's translation of the New Testament, made for his young people while London was being blown to bits in World war Two, still a fine rendering in my opinion. There is the NEB and the REB and the ESV and NRSV and the NIV and . . . yes, some in Greek and Hebrew as well. They all have their place but I prefer some over others just as I do in my classical music.

But I'm not blogging this just as an appeal to variety in Biblical translations or to ask others to respect a friend's opinions or a stranger's views when it comes to Biblical interpretation or the arts.

I'm saying YES to classical music. It's deep, complex, melodic, all-enveloping, overwhelming and extremely satisfying. I've already blogged about how I enjoy other forms of music, such as the blues. If I can be caught up in jazz or the blues and then come along and get caught up in Prokofiev's wonderfully intense piano pieces, why can't a few more of us? Hey, I open a drawer at my computer desk here, right now (events occur in real time, Kiefer) and there is Ryan Bingham nestled up to Steve Earle who is cozy with GKB (Glenn Kaiser Band) and shoulder to shoulder with them all is Rachmaninov and Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Why not? It's all good.

But classical takes you to some incredible places and I fear, in this day and age, a lot of it is being lost and forgotten just as Bach was for 150 years until Mendelssohn brought the stuff out of hiding and touched a million souls.

Classical remains soul music today. Try some at your local Soft Classic Cafe and see how it goes down. Want something with even more fire and darkness and breaking light? The Hard Classic Cafe is just down the street.

It can take you to another galaxy and back. But not back as the same listener.

highway 61 south

In a few weeks I'll be flying into Jackson, Mississippi. Once there I'll be whisked off further south to places like Laurel and Soso and Hattiesburg. A friend is being ordained as a minister down there and he's asked me to do the ordination message. After that, I'm doing a series of evening messages based on chapters from my book STREAMS - this is kind of like a "deeper life" series of gatherings. And yes, I have thought about what I'm going to say, especially on the first evening which is the ordination: Jesus as healer, lover, warrior, God. Something like that.

I am a student of history so I'm not ignorant of Mississippi or the South's history. I know about the slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow and segregation, I know that Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson, I know about the murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County in 1964.

I also know that the pain of Jim Crow and sharecropping and emancipation delayed brought the world the musical form known as the blues just as slavery brought the world black spirituals. I know that rock and pop music and probably a lot more came out of the blues. I know that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi and that he was heavily influenced by gospel music and the blues.

The Mississippi Delta, that is, the culture and reality and blues music that is the Mississippi Delta, begins on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi. I may not get to Memphis on this trip but I will get to Vicksburg. And I will not only be looking at the Civil War battlefield but hunting out whatever's left, if anything, of Catfish Row.

I know that Highway 61 South will take me through the heart of the Delta and I intend to drive on that road, suh.

But the biggest thing, really, is the friends I've made in Mississippi and Louisiana over the past five years. Church groups have come up three times to help us with youth work at our church of Heartland in Alberta (someone else got a hold of the name Graceland first). The cool thing is, all three times it was my pleasure to work with Bucky, the genial and energetic young man whose ordination I am going to preach in a few weeks.

First time he was newly married and they were living and serving people and God in Franklin, Louisiana. Second time too. Third time he was coming up from Britney Spear's hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana where he served in a church. He's in Mississippi now but on the way to the Delta he helped us make a lot of great friends with Southern accents. So yes, blues and Mississippi's dramatic history aside, I am a fortunate man because I am not taking Highway 61 South as a tourist but as someone who is visiting with friends. And not only visiting, but getting to do God and soul stuff with those friends as well.

I don't know if anyone from Mississippi reads my blogs, but if you do, hey, maybe we'll get a chance to meet. Drop me a line.

I'm looking forward to this. A lot. I remain grateful, oh yes, grateful is the word.