Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Supporting the Message of the Day -or- Levels of Appropriateness

As a musical ensemble director, for many years I’ve had to keep an eye on the question of: what repertoire is appropriate? Appropriate for the ensemble’s abilities? Appropriate to properly represent the school or organization with which it’s affiliated? … Appropriate for human consumption?

I mean, other than the songs I wouldn’t program for my marching band or concert band or choir or jazz band on a bet, because I feel like they aren’t of sufficient compositional or lyrical quality to make the ensemble sound good. There are those.

 

Early in my time as a public-school band and chorus director, I confronted the question of what selections to have those groups perform at our December concert.

Being aware of the whole separation-of-church-and-state thing that was in play in this taxpayer-funded school setting (ya know … the Constitution and all), I called that event a Winter Concert, rather than a Christmas Concert. There weren’t many Jewish or Muslim students in town (now there’s a vast understatement), but one did not wish to make them feel left out.

So I did lots of research into obscure Medieval carols and not-religious wintry songs. Considering the fact that during my very first year in town, the teachers’ holiday-season gathering was called the Faculty Christmas Party, perhaps I need not have fretted so much. But, better safe than sued, I thought.

That was not my challenge while I directed the athletic bands at the College of the Holy Cross, as you might glean just from the name of the joint. But, as an employee of a Jesuit institution, I did get a sense that perhaps we might be holding ourselves to a slightly higher standard than your run-of-the-mill small college.

It was perhaps an overly inflated sense. It only took me until the first basketball game to get it: HC students in fact held up very nearly the same standards of pious resistance to profanity and such as any other early-21st-century college students. (“God’s on our side <*clap, clap, clap clap clap*>” was about the most G-rated the student section got.) What did I know? I was hanging out with marching band kids, a statistical majority of whom talked quite knowledgeably about going to Mass on Sunday mornings.

Jesuit institution or not, I felt that it was better to leave out of our halftime shows or timeout repertoire items like “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” … and I felt it might even have been pushing it to plan a Pink Floyd show that included “We Don’t Need No Education”, considering how seriously my band folks took their studies. Again, better safe than called into a meeting with Father Mike, I reasoned.

 

And then, of course, there’s my current work as a church musician. This would seem to be an easy call for a choir director. Keep it Sunday-morning appropriate, y’all; and support the message of the day – don’t overshadow it.

The challenge in our congregation, for many years now, has been observing (or not observing) Memorial Day and Independence Day. Some pastors have steadfastly refused even to acknowledge Memorial Day – expressing an aversion to the glorification of war and such, about which I think Our Lord had a little something to say. Others (of less recent heritage) have observed those holidays during services – bearing in mind the many US military veterans who have been members of our congregation, and also bearing in mind the fact that our congregation was located not far from a Raytheon research facility. The military-industrial complex had contributed to the town’s culture, in at least an economic (and, at times, a patriotic) sense.

The concept of national patriotism can be a controversial one in churches, although not as often as I used to think. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” wrote the author of the Gospel according to Matthew (22:21); the tussle between adherence to earthly authority and the practice of Christianity (particularly as it relates to issues of tax avoidance and defense spending) has not abated in intensity since.

When I was a kid, I noted that our church hymnal included “America the Beautiful” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”. While I didn’t run right up to the pastor with a burning question about that, I did wonder (in a little-kid way) about the inclusion of American patriotic songs in a Methodist hymnal. Isn’t this a book of songs devoted to singing the praises of God and the living of the kind of life that Jesus went on about so much? (i.e. Advising against putting first priority on earthly city-states and their tendency to want to toot their own horns as the Best Thing on Earth.)

Although, I must say, what sanded down my worries a bit were the verses after the first verse of each of those songs. They seemed to veer away from outright “my land is the best land” and toward “what d’you say we ask God to help us not to screw up our wonderful land and anyone else’s?”

And as for the separation of church and state that Constitutional enthusiasts tend to smile about … Jesus said (John 18:36) to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from the world”. Not that he couldn’t turn over a table or two to make a point; and not that I haven’t heard a few great sermons that focus on Issues of the Day; but I think his point may have been that his religious teachings were separate from earthly political activity.

Which brings me to an evening three weekends ago.

 

It was the Sunday before Independence Day, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC was the site of an event called the “Celebrate Freedom Concert”. Good so far. The musical presentations were primarily to be provided by a few hundred choir- and orchestra-members, with the President in attendance. Fairly straightforward for a Fourth-of-July weekend event.

The choir and orchestra were from First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. No matter how large my church’s musical community seems to me, well, doesn’t Texas always do it up bigger? First Baptist is often described as a megachurch, so of course their choir has hundreds of people in it. I’m not jealous. At all.

Here, things begin to veer off.

The “Celebrate Freedom Concert” was hosted by First Baptist’s pastor, Robert Jeffress, who noted afterward that the second half of the program had been a “Gospel-oriented presentation.” Which made me twitch a bit, flashing back to the whole church-state separation thing, and also to the whole “my taxpayer dollars are paying for the Kennedy Center lights and sound system” thing. Well, yes, the Divine is invoked at plenty of government-oriented events – like, say, the Inauguration, with its invocations and prayers and whatnot. But the main thrust of an Inauguration is not the worship of one particular religion’s God, no matter how any President’s supporters may privately feel.

As I watched the concert (broadcast live on C-SPAN) that night, what put a distinctly queasy feeling in me was a selection performed by the choir and orchestra, written by First Baptist’s former music director, Gary Moore.

That had nothing to do with whether it was or wasn’t a great musical composition, strictly on compositional grounds, at least as judged by another choir director who has on occasion penned original songs for presentation at his church’s events (and, afterward, has occasionally been sharply critical of his own stuff).

It had nothing to do with whether the song had or didn’t have great lyrics, at least as judged by another choir director who freely admits that he will only set pre-existing texts or poems to music, since his capacity for creating liturgically-valid lyrics is minuscule.

It had nothing to do with the actual presentation by the choir and orchestra. There are presentations of sacred songs in the style of the Gaither Homecoming ensembles which this choir director really digs, as well as those he thinks are at least a tiny bit saccharine. There are particular versions of songs like “God Bless the USA” – a song I don’t much care for, taking into account the aforementioned musical and lyrical reasons – which I nonetheless appreciate greatly. One person’s carcinogenic artificial sweetener is another person’s manna from Heaven.

 

It had everything to do with the song’s title and its context.

The title was “Make America Great Again”, and the context was a concert-slash-”Gospel-oriented presentation” hosted by a pastor who was one of the very first evangelical leaders to support the President at his campaign events in 2016.

The song’s lyrics included:

Make America great again
Make America great again
Lift the torch of freedom all across the land
Step into the future joining hand in hand
And make America great again
Yes, make America great (again)

The pastor’s protestations aside, I think it’s possible to imagine that a song whose lyrics are mostly comprised of the President’s main campaign slogan might appear more specifically partisan than might be appropriate, during an observance of the national holiday which theoretically every American, every voter, ever member of every religion, every member of no religion, gets to take part in together.

A few days later, in an interview with the online website Christian Post, Pastor Jeffress said, “There is no difference in singing ‘Make America Great Again’ than there is in singing any other patriotic song, like the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ This song was sung at a patriotic rally at a concert hall on Saturday night, not sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning.”

Technically true, if one sets aside Jeffress’ own characterization of the event’s back-nine as a “Gospel-oriented presentation”. Many times, though, context is important.

As is the contextual detail about the possible interpretation of Gary Moore’s “Make America Great Again” composition. An op-ed in The Resurgent, a conservative blog, accused the song of “crossing the line into idolatry. … The Church has no business putting its faith in and singing songs in honor of worldly leaders,” it said.

As is the contextual detail about the presenters of the song: an organization that, while not performing in its official Sunday-morning-go-to-meeting role as a church choir and orchestra, was identified (in fact widely publicized) as the First Baptist Dallas Choir and Orchestra. Not “members of the First Baptist…”. Not “a choir and orchestra featuring many musicians from First Baptist…”.

No: the church’s own publicity release stated, “Stirring patriotic music will come from the renowned choir and orchestra of First Baptist Dallas, under the direction of Dr. Doran Bugg.” And those musicians were First Baptist Dallas’s standing choral and instrumental ensembles … in toto … in their official uniforms … participating in an event that was pitched as an Independence Day observance held at the Kennedy Center but which turned into something that looked very much like a particular religion’s observance.

 

As an ensemble director, and particularly as a church musician who paid attention during AP US History class in high school, in that situation I believe I would have to think long and hard about the context into which I was leading the ensembles under my baton, and especially when it came to that particular song.

Contractually, I might be obligated to musically support the organizer of the event – which is what I do when I program choral anthems for a Sunday-morning worship service. The pastor of my church gives me advance information about what his “message for the day” will be, and I find music that will amplify that. Most church musicians do. Similarly, I have to presume that the leader of the US Marine Corps Band, for example, does the same thing when he (someday she) receives the outline of any event in which “The President’s Own” is assisting.

Perhaps the Dallas music director didn’t require much, or any, persuasion from his boss. Nothing I can do about that. They were in that situation, and not I. I can only control what I can control.

Which is to say: in my current church-gig situation, I feel comfortable that I could whisper to my pastor, “are we sure we want to dip our toes in this pond? Are we sure we want to risk appearing partisan in the middle of a Fourth-of-July-themed event? In fact, are we sure we even want to be overtly involved in this at all?”

The leadership of First Baptist Dallas were sure.

I don’t think I would be.

 

 

P.S. From the Maybe I Shouldn’t Have Been So Worried About Tap-Dancing Around This Subject Dept.:

The New York Times has since reported that former First Baptist Dallas music director Gary Moore has said that his “Make America Great Again” song was as much a tribute to Trump as it was to freedom of speech and religion in America.

So, perhaps not so murky and open to interpretation as all that, after all.

July 18, 2017 Posted by | current events, music, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Distractions

Trump is a distraction.

Admittedly, a professional circus-grade distraction.  A weapons-grade distraction.  A two-mile-diameter key ring full of the shiniest keys humanity has likely ever produced.

But a distraction nonetheless.

No.  I’m not suggesting that he’s harmless, or that we should not worry our pretty little heads about him.

But yesterday, while we were doing the whirling-dervish thing about allegations of prostitutes allegedly doing, well, drippy things on hotel room beds with the Short-Fingered Vulgarian allegedly in the room … and about a press conference that featured both blatant abuse of journalists and faint hints of future fascistic, authoritarian behavior …

Everything else was happening.

By which we mean: por ejamplo, multiple confirmation hearings of Cabinet-level-position nominees occurring simultaneously (the better to keep the press and the public from being able to keep track of all of them, all at once).

One of those got my attention.  Seriously.  Hard.

In what seemed to be the only moment gobsmacking enough to bring the Senate chamber to almost complete silence, in the late afternoon [Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff] Sessions had this terse exchange with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Whitehouse suggested that lists were already circulating suggesting there might be purges or demotions of certain career appointees in the Justice Department. Whitehouse wondered whether Sessions would have a problem with career lawyers “with secular beliefs,” having in the past criticized department attorneys for being secular. Sessions replied that he has used that language about secular attorneys to differentiate between people who recognize objective “truth” and those who take positions “in which truth is not sufficiently respected.”

Whitehouse replied, with a leading, and perhaps slightly conclusory question: “And a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?” At which point Sessions responded, “Well, I’m not sure.” For a few seconds the Senate chamber seemed to go completely silent.

Sessions was quick to reiterate that he doesn’t believe in religious tests, … But it was one of the very few moments in which Sessions’ deft denials of prior positions and statements veered completely off script. It spoke to the levels of obfuscation that are now customary in such confirmation hearings, especially about matters of faith, and the degree to which hearings become theater in which little [that is] true about the nominees and their most deeply felt positions are revealed. It also demonstrated that the views that Sessions is hiding are absolutely inimical to the democratic values of many members of the Senate and a large portion of the country.

These are the people who, for the last forty years, have been setting the table for this.  They have been laying the groundwork.

Partly for a fascist leader-type to emerge and assume the Presidency, so as to be able to appoint extremist-conservative Supreme Court justices and thereby affect long-term legislative and judicial control over American laws and lives.

But partly for such a leader to emerge who would properly distract from the work that they really wanted to accomplish, once they had control of both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives.  With no opposition-party executive branch to offer veto power to stop their legislative efforts, the sky could be the limit.

And the Vulgar Talking Yam is the perfect distraction/leader, since he’s so over-the-top, and so attention-diverting, and already even before running for President was considered the kind of celebrity whose *anticipated presence* at a podium was reason enough for cable news outlets to broadcast images of that empty podium – because that was news.

Sort of an orange herring.

His words and deeds are so spectacularly over-the-top – and they are, by themselves, entirely deserving of attention and backlash and pushback and righteous indignation and all the other reactions that are entirely appropriate – that it’s almost sensible that all of us who are reacting badly to Orange Muppet Hitler behaving badly that we would miss the other, potentially more horrible things that may be happening.

So now we have a nominee for US Attorney General – a job description which, boiled down, says “the chief law enforcement officer for the United States” – who doesn’t trust people who are not overtly religious to have “just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious”.

And that would doubtless influence how he enforced the existing laws of the United States.

 

For forty years, the groundwork has been laid … for not necessarily a generically authoritarian regime, although that would be considered a bonus by many of the groundwork-layers (see Robert Altemeyer’s magnificent research regarding authoritarian followers), but for a theocratic government.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …” is the very first thing that the very first amendment to the US Constitution says.  Clearly, the founders of our country considered – based on bitter experience – that it was a terrible idea for a government to be allowed to determine a state-sanctioned religion.  That way lies Crusades and the like.

Let’s be honest: this country already has a state religion: the worship of money.  But if Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and the legions of extremist conservatives who have been massing their forces, waiting for the perfect moment to launch an offensive on American government, have their way … well, that First Amendment nonsense won’t get in the way of the establishment of right-wing Christians as the preferred religious and governmental authorities of the United States.

And here, again (readers of this blog will note that I’ve opined on this topic in this space before), Christianity is getting a bad name.

The people who have spent the last four decades infiltrating the government and the media and public life … are the people who would impose their will, autocratically and discriminatorily, on people who don’t look like they do, who don’t think like they do, who don’t have money like they do, who don’t worship like they do, who don’t love like they do.

There are many people in this country – and sadly, they are either in positions of authority or are about to be – who profess to be Christians but don’t know the first thing about it.  Who drape themselves with the mantle of Christianity but who violate the teachings of Christ with their every word and action.  Who give Christianity as it was first conceived a bad name.

In case anyone needs a refresher:

 

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(Matthew 5:3-10)

 

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

(Matthew 25:34-40)

 

Apparently, those tenets are for suckers.

Hell, if someone doesn’t look like me, think like me, get paid like me, worship like me, love like me … they don’t deserve the same rights that I do … is what these people are saying.  Some couch it in flowery distracting language; others really don’t, anymore.

 

To be clear – full disclosure – I am a straight white Christian male.

To be clearer, though, I am a straight (who respects the right of not-straight people to live their lives in the way that they do), white (who tries like hell to understand what kind of everyday life non-white people have to live, thanks to generations of white people who oppressed them and still do), Christian (who actually pays attention to the actual teachings of Christ) male (who has nothing but respect for women because they’re human beings, and human beings deserve respect regardless of who they are).

So, I’m totally comfortable saying: I loathe these people, and what they intend to do to this country, via what they intend to do to many groups of American citizens.

Cheeto Mussolini is a cartoon character.  A dangerous one, to be sure – either via his conscious actions or the consequences that will surely occur in the wake of any of his impulsive lashings-out.

But the Congressional majority that has been elected to office (and the voting-rights rollbacks and gerrymandering that have assisted in this represent a topic for another time), as well as the current cartoonishly corrupt nominees for Cabinet-level positions, represent a far greater danger to this country and all of its citizens.

More specifically, the people within those groups who claim to be followers of Christ but wouldn’t know a parable if it hit ’em in the head … and who wish the government could do their religious recruiting for them … and who wish to take away rights from the people who don’t look, think, earn, worship, or love like they do … in fact, who wish to inflict actual cruelty, to PUNISH fellow Americans who are different from them …

These are the true villains in this.

Yes, engage Pumpkin Spice Pol Pot.

But don’t be distracted.

A far more awful game’s afoot.

 

RESIST.  REJECT.

January 12, 2017 Posted by | civil rights, current events, government, news, politics, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peace on Earth, … Oh, Never Mind

I’ll keep this relatively brief – partly because some time ago I blogged about this subject and there are some topics I’ll repeat myself about, happily … and others about which I wish I didn’t feel the need to write at all, never mind again and again.

By now, if you’re anywhere online, you’ll have noted that last week, when the Starbucks coffee empire decided to make its coffee cups red (instead of the usual green) in recognition of the upcoming holidays, a small subset of our great nation lost their minds.

In short, the “controversy” appeared to surround the fact that there wasn’t a specific message or image to indicate that those particular “holidays” were in fact the ones that Christians celebrate. (There’s a tiny debate in MY mind about how certain of those Christians celebrate certain of those holidays, which I’ll get to.)

Of course, as is their custom, the pretend cable channels that broadcast pretend news have stepped in to help amplify the Losing of the Minds.

Those non-journalists have once again invoked the now age-old chestnut to describe any tiny little perceived lack of respect toward this most traditional of holidays in this most traditional of religious traditional faiths. Yes indeed, we have again seen the annual arrival of The War On Christmas.

It turns out that the impetus for this most reason strain of the War On Christmas Virus was a rant ‘n’ rave session by a fellow from Arizona.

Joshua Feuerstein, who identifies himself as an “American evangelist, Internet and social media personality” on his website, posted a video on Facebook about the Starbucks cup that has been shared nearly 500,000 times. In the video, the Arizona-based Feuerstein says he told baristas in a Starbucks that his name was Merry Christmas so they would write Merry Christmas on the red cup. “I think in the age of political correctness we’ve become so open minded our brains have literally fallen out of our head,” Feuerstein says in the video. “I decided instead of simply boycotting, well why don’t we just start a movement.” … “I’m challenging all great Americans and Christians around this great nation, go into Starbucks and take your own coffee selfie. … Let’s start a movement and let’s call it, I don’t know, hashtag Merry Christmas Starbucks,” said Feuerstein, who also said in the video that he wore a Jesus Christ shirt and took a gun into Starbucks with him, “since you [Starbucks] hate the 2nd amendment.”

Oh. I get it now. This is only tangentially about the Yuletide, and much more about a fellow who likely suffered from a dearth of parental attention as a kid, or who perhaps feels the need to compensate for some other lack in his life.

And about a fellow whose interpretation of that Second Amendment to the US Constitution roughly boils down to “my right to have guns trumps any other consideration anywhere anytime”. Considerations like other people’s safety, security, well-being, and sometimes their very lives.

As the astute Charlie Pierce puts it, “Because nothing says ‘Peace on Earth, good will to men’ like a pest in a Jesus shirt coming into a coffee shop strapped.”

Meanwhile, it can’t be a coincidence that the media people who this year and every year drive or amplify the War On Christmas idea into American skulls, do so using the terms “war on…” and “assault on…” It just can’t. The terminology of terror has been proven persuasive. (Friends, it’s exactly that; and you cannot convince me, after all these years of post-9/11 alert-level colors, that it ain’t.) The language of violence gets people’s attention like no other language.

Also, and more sweepingly, the media amplification systems do their thing in a way that makes them (as well as the yahoos whose yahoo-ism they prop up) seem blind to the basic Scriptural underpinnings of that most traditional of holidays … and toward making a buck off of other people.

Which is kinda the point of some people’s take on Christianity in the first place.

 

P.S. Me, I think if there were really a War on the Christmas that a lot of these people celebrate, it would take the form of a massive boycott of all holiday shopping activities.

November 11, 2015 Posted by | current events, news, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment