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.

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

Hold Off, Part 3A -or- Note To Self

A couple of days ago, I published a piece in this space which, I admit, could be seen as rather “look-down-your-nose” … as something of an “I’m so much of a better person than this other person” screed … as a classic piece of self-inflating claptrap.

I don’t think it was quite that “lookit meeeeeee!”; but I grant you, it could be taken that way.

I was commenting on the recent takedown of the Obama daughters by a Congressional staffer which, as so many viral items do, was first noted on an Internet news analysis website – but, unlike most of those clickbait-titled items (“Fifteen Photos That Will Blow Your Mind”), it was picked up by the New York Daily News and commented upon by the Washington Post, and after that, well, it was off to the races.

My point was: be careful what you post. Because even if you thought it was funny or meaningful or pointed in and of itself, in a vacuum … well, it might be worthwhile to let it sit and marinate for awhile, such that you can look at it in the cold morning light and still think it’s appropriate to post or publish or say.

The aforementioned Congressional staffer’s aforementioned takedown was at least nominally driven by how she thought the Obama daughters weren’t dressed in a classy enough way for the White House event they were attending, and how she thought they ought to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar.” In short, yes, they’re in their “awful teen years”, but they should still project an image of class, dignity, and appropriateness. So sayeth the Congressional staffer.

The Congressional staffer is now famous for that takedown and nothing else.

Well … almost nothing else.

The Republican congressional aide who castigated the Obama daughters for their lack of ‘class’ and dressing as if they were angling for a ‘spot at a bar’ was once arrested for larceny during her own ‘awful teen years,’ court records show.”

My first thought, after reading this: “Glass houses, folks.”

My next thought, thereafter: the slogan from one of those wonderful De-motivation posters. “It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.”

My original point stands.

December 3, 2014 Posted by | current events, Facebook, Famous Persons, Internet, media, news, social media | , , , | Leave a comment

Science Fiction

This week, a tiny corner of the Internet flipped its lid. And that lid-flipping reminded me of some writing that I did awhile ago about first impressions.

Recently, a documentary has been produced on the subject of geocentrism. I confess: I had to go look that one up. Not many words in the English language give me pause – which I don’t say with hubris; it’s just that in my life, I’ve read a lot, so I’ve banged into arguably the majority of useful English words. Geo-, having to do with earth. -Centric, having to do with perhaps an overemphasis upon.

Geocentrism, as a concept, is at odds with heliocentrism. Heliocentrism has to do with the idea that stuff revolves around the sun. Therefore …

Wait wait wait wait. Geocentrism: a belief that all cosmic stuff revolves around the Earth??

Is this not still 2014? Have not Copernicus, Kepler and what remains of NASA not weighed in on this issue?

For context, we note that this is the year 2014, and yet science has been taking it on the chin lately. There are a bunch of people in positions of policymaking authority who are challenging the scientific method and its recent results (e.g. stuff we’ve had figured out since the seventeenth century) … and whether they’re doing it for political reasons, or at the behest of organized religion, or because they genuinely didn’t pay attention in class all those years ago … well, I bet a lot of my science teachers have been grinding their teeth a lot.

Enter this particular documentarian, or polemicist, or whatever we shall wish to call him. Robert Sungenis is his name, and he funded the making of this film called “The Principle”, whose tagline is “Everything we think we know about our universe … is wrong.”

That tagline smacks of Buzzfeed hyperbole, of course, and that stands to reason, because otherwise who would pay two eyeblinks of attention to a science documentary? I mean really.

But Sungenis had previously published a book called “Galileo Was Wrong, The Church Was Right”, which claimed to “give Scripture its due place and show that science is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Just so we’re clear on who and what we’re dealing with here.

The makers of “The Principle”, backed by Sungenis’ money (which, even before Citizens United, has aphoristically talked), have been accused of a number of procedural no-no’s, not the least of which is “quote mining”. That’s an editing technique: cherry-picking bits of information and assembling them so they appear to support one view, even if in their context those bits of information would support no such view. I wonder where I’ve heard of that happening before …

Statements were allegedly taken from an interview with noted theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss that made him appear to be supporting the idea that everything astronomical revolves around the planet Earth. Krauss issued a statement that put a super lot of distance between himself and “The Principle”. Its tone of recoil was reminiscent of many muskets I have seen at Fourth-of-July parades: sharp and unmistakable.

Krauss’ statement insists that he was featured in the film without permission, and that he concurs with the scientific community’s contention that geocentrism has been debunked. He hoped that people would ignore it; “maybe then it will quickly disappear into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.” A number of other scientists who were in the film also have insisted that they were misled about “The Principle”’s agenda, and that they would never have taken part had they known about it.

One of the producers of “The Principle”, in a publicity statement interview this week, said this about Krauss’ participation: “Lawrence says he has no idea how he ended up in our film. I can tell him how he ended up in our film. He signed a release form, and cashed a check.”

What has gotten me to the keyboard, though, is the similar apparent participation (and subsequent reversal of gear) of the nice lady who contributed a very small amount of narration to the film’s promotional trailer.

Her name is Kate Mulgrew, and she portrayed the captain of the nearly-ill-fated Federation starship Voyager, a decade and a half ago.

She is an actor. Significantly, she is an actor who has participated in “Star Trek”.

When you do that, you become part of a piece of entertainment which, for all its inherent fluffiness (it IS part of American television entertainment), has gotten credit for causing many, many Americans in the last half century to think about science. Several US astronauts have cited their childhood viewing of “Star Trek” as one of the major influences in their lives that caused them to consider science as a profession.

Star Trek” is a lot of things, and as science fiction, one of those things is fanciful. Light-speed travel is something that, according to august scientific minds, only light can do; so the initial premise of the show (warping around the galaxy, rather than just crawling around the solar system) is presently a scientific non-starter. And most of the techno-babble that Spock and Data, and Scotty and Geordi LaForge, and just about every other Trek character ever, spout when faced with a cosmically daunting plot-resolution challenge is – to be charitable – somewhere between intensely theoretical and a writer’s desperate invention. “In this one particular episode,” say the producers, “we have to be able to transport Captain Picard from one ship at warp speed to another ship also at warp speed without lowering the deflector shields (which goes against a rule that’s been in place since we were on NBC in 1967), because otherwise the severance package for Patrick Stewart after we kill off his character will bankrupt the studio outright.”

But “Trek” has invited many people to go look up some actual scientific things. So by no fault of any “Trek” actor’s own, they are part of that show’s legacy, which includes advocacy for and advancement of the study of science. Thanks to the importance that American society puts on entertainers, those “Trek” actors often become more prominent symbols of scientific study than do a lot of actual scientists.

They’re not scientists, though.

One of the things that actors do is portray characters. Someone who plays the part of Jack the Ripper presumably does not espouse the views of Jack the Ripper in real life. (Or if they do, they tend not to get a lot of acting work after that.)  Someone who portrays Gen. George Patton may actually in fact be a screaming pacifist.

Another thing that actors have to do is eat. For that to happen, they need money. And most actors (I hear) have a great deal of experience with poverty, or at least with knowing that they’ll never retire and draw a pension. Every job is finite. Even while you’re working on one project, you’re looking for the next one. Only the most absurdly lucky actors finish a job knowing that they’re set for life. Guaranteed, very few people probably knew who (for example) Nichelle Nichols was, before she spent three TV seasons opening hailing frequencies for Captain Kirk. Now? She’s part of that Trek legacy, and her name gets her in the door – the same door that would slam in the faces of the vast majority of working actors.

So even the terrific actors like Kate Mulgrew, who will forevermore draw residuals from being Captain Janeway, are conditioned to take work whenever they can find it.

And sometimes, I imagine this can get them into tight spots like this.

A website that breathlessly reported Mulgrew’s “Principle” trailer narration said, “To be fair to Kate Mulgrew, she’s not a scientist, and as an actor she’s not required to make sure that her paychecks are coming from factually accurate sources. But you’d hope that she’d be a little more discerning as a former member of the Starfleet Federation. After all, Star Trek did and continues to do so much for the advancement of science and space exploration, and getting involved with a movie that outright denies one of the most fundamental facts about our solar system is upsetting, to say the least.”

On her Facebook page, Mulgrew released a statement disavowing the film. “I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused.”

I’m split on this one.

I’m somewhere between “say it ain’t so, Joe” and “do your homework”. I’m working to find out whether her contribution to this film is anything more than the opening voiceover sentence in the trailer. The Internet Movie Database lists her as “Narrator”, but doesn’t get any more explicit.

The comments that followed Ms. Mulgrew’s Facebook apology post contained an awful lot of (forgivable) blanket-condemnation of the documentary producers and blanket-approval of Ms. Mulgrew. A lot of “Star Trek” fans rose to her defense.

Oh thank God. I felt so betrayed there for a little bit.”

Kate Mulgrew’s part, so far, is that one sentence about everything we know about the universe being wrong, at the very beginning of the trailer. And, again, that sentence could be about anything. All they have to do is fill the narration with vague statements like that, then put any images they want over it. And include commentary by geocentrists making it look like she’s supporting their statements. … Because the only part of the script that she’s going to get is the narration. And since the documentary isn’t out, and all you have to go on is the trailer, those of you who insist on giving her crap about it really have no idea what you’re talking about. You just like kicking people when they’re down. You gotta be mad about something, and this is it.”

The trailer I saw was a blatant hack job. You shouldn’t need to apologise, you’re a victim of a fraudster and should have support from your fans. Thank you for clearing it up, I hope you aren’t too badly affected by this.”

[E]veryone makes mistakes and gets reeled in by the worst of people, accidents happen. [T]he fact that you admitted your [sic] wrong and told us you don’t believe in what was said is enough. [L]ive long and prosper[.]”

No need to apologize. You’re an actor. It’s what actors do. If Patrick Stewart narrated Doctor Seuss, that wouldn’t mean he’s promoting a fear of green eggs and ham. Your fans understand. Don’t sweat it.”

Additionally, the follow-up post by the website which had initially posted about Mulgrew’s involvement with the project was entitled “OH THANK GOD: Kate Mulgrew Is Mad About the Geocentric Documentary, Too”.

Some Facebook commenters weren’t quite as starry-eyed though.

I think sometimes people forget that actors, by definition, say things they don’t believe for a living.”

Didn’t you read the words on the page? I get you did this for the money, but still do not claim to be ‘misinformed’ when the words were on the page you were READING!”

Finally, this comment was combination reality check and fanboy defense:

This reminds me of the Congressional committee that had Meryl Streep testify on agricultural matters. She was an expert because she played a farm wife in a movie. Come on, people. You regard Kate Mulgrew as a Voice of Science because she played a starship captain once? And it’s her *duty to you* to do in-depth research on *every* script she’s offered so she doesn’t accidentally *deceive* you?”

Maybe not, but it may represent an added layer of responsibility when you’ve been part of “Star Trek” and you’re considered, rightly or not, a science role model.

Perhaps what this boils down to is our desperate discomfort about finding that one of our first impressions might be mistaken, and/or finding that something or someone we admire isn’t as admirable as we thought (if all that indeed turns out to be so). And, justifiable or not, the feeling of betrayal that we as fans feel about the objects of our fandom.

It’s unnerving when it seems possible — even for a moment — that, to paraphrase the tagline of “The Principle” … everything we know about our favorite actor … is wrong.

April 10, 2014 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, film, Internet, media, religion, science, science fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment