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.

Advertisements

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

God-Fearin’? -or- The Post That Really Brought the True Believers Down On Him

Following the news stories about the Occupy Wall Street (and Other Places) movement will get a fella thinking a bit. I’ve endured the mainstream media commentators who profess to be confused about just what the message of the Occupy movement even is. Please. I am reasonably assured that the majority of those commentators are willing to be willfully ignorant of this (as opposed to unaware or uninformed, and there IS a difference), in the service of whomever signs their paycheck. Which is to say, it may be in their personal best interests to cast doubt upon a movement that professes to challenge the status quo, and not in their best interests to bite the hand what feeds ya.

That status quo, boiled down, appears to be this:

There is a system in place in this country which allows a relatively small group of people to do what two-year-olds do, before they’re taught to share: they put their arms around all the toys they can reach; they reach for more toys to put inside their arms; and they shoo away anyone who asks if they can play with some of their toys. It’s a gigantic, institutionalized game of Keepaway, played with instruments of political and economic power. And money. Lots and lots of money.

Or, to use an analogy that I once heard on an episode of “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” (curiously, from a panelist who was a conservative commentator): the upper 2% of the population is the Mob, and the rest of us are the restaurant they’re burning down for the insurance money.

Whatever happened to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

Oh, that’s right. The Golden Rule long ago turned into “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.”

 

You know, all this explains a lot of things. All through my life I’ve had this strange, unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world… and no one would tell me what it was.” 

      -Arthur Dent, in the BBC radio version of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

 

Let me get this straight. Scientists are warning us about extreme weather to come. Our infrastructure fails us at the drop of a hat. All it takes is a simple large early-season snowstorm to take down the power grid that serves a large chunk of the Northeastern US.  In the face of this reality, we could direct political will and economic resources toward reducing fossil fuel dependence and developing new energy sources, and re-building / shoring up the power grids, bridges, roads, etc., etc., which would employ more people, thereby reducing unemployment…

But, instead, no.

All Congress can see fit to do is spend their time doing things like confirming that the nation’s motto was and still is “In God We Trust”.

Who’s in Congress? Increasingly, members of the group that have been labeled “the 1 percent”; those who make the very most money and therefore have the very most power, influence and control over government policies that affect all 100 percent of us.

Perhaps many of them think that this is in fact the best, most desirable option: trust God to deal with our problems. Pray, kids; because at heart, we, your elected officials, have no interest in bucking the will of the oil companies and major corporations and many of the “1 percent” — because they keep us properly funded during re-election time, so that we can do their bidding, so they can stay prohibitively wealthy, so they can essentially rule the world.

Oh. Sorry. I get it now. Never mind. As you were.

It’s really a matter of selfishness.

 

For a time, I thought that it was strictly a case of Republicans in Congress and elsewhere doing whatever they had to, politically, in order to not have the incumbent Democratic president achieve any successes – to keep him from being able to point to any achievements, the better to defeat him in the next Presidential election. Senators and Representatives have gone on the record to say that their goal was to make the 44th President of the United States a “one… term… president” (insert rapturous applause of Koch-Industries-funded non-original Tea Party members here).

Whether or not this laughable legislative agenda has any deeper roots in personal enmity toward the actual human who is the Current Occupant of the Oval Office, it seems a remarkably politically-insular and short-sighted philosophy.

Now, thanks to the perspective-widening effect of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I’ve changed my thinking a bit. Although the “deny Obama success at all costs” strategy is childish and unhelpful – and let’s be honest, most of pure politicking is childish and unhelpful – I’m thinking more and more about that short-sightedness in the context of Saving the Planet, not to mention its people. For all its shortcomings, the United States’ economic power in the world has the capacity to do large things in the service of the rest of the world. For the sake of short-term political and personal gain (and maintenance of individual wealth and comfort), at the expense of everyone else around them, a small group of people are, indeed, wrapping their arms around all the toys.

Again, whatever happened to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

 

That gets me thinking further, in a different but related direction – especially considering one of my current occupations, church musician, and the fact that I’m a church musician at the Methodist church in which I grew up, still surrounded by many of the people who helped my parents shape my belief system.

I have trouble with people who, while supporting and promoting these “keepaway” economic and political systems and goals, are willing to invoke the name of God, Jesus Christ, and/or the Church as their rationale, or their source of support, or both. They obfuscate the discussion about theories of global climate change, even as more and more extreme weather patterns and events emerge – heralding a future state of climatic affairs from which we still have time to save ourselves (if someone would just step forward and do it!!). They work to exert religious influence upon the public education system and any other elements of American government, even as the US Constitution remains in place as a document that intends to separate religious influence from functions of state.

(Never mind the folks who think the End Times are near, and look forward to them, perhaps working under the presumption that at such a moment, they will experience ascent rather than descent.)

Anyway, I went digging around in a document that I suppose I should be more familiar with than I have heretofore been: the basic Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. At least in the neck of the woods where I attend services, we’re distinctly and heavily into social justice (although there are isolated pockets of Methodists out there who seem to behave in a less-than-tolerant way). “Social justice” is a term that has been turned by some commentators into a buzzword meant to inspire instant mouth-frothing (and therefore proper voting response) in their listeners, much like “ACORN”, “socialism”, etc.

Before we even get into the depths of the Social Principles, I could hope that those among us who revel in strict and literal Bible interpretation might be given cause for pause when they hit the book of Matthew, chapter 6, the first verse, and discover that it warns, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.” Also, Christ teaches us to feed the hungry and care for the sick, not to abandon them. Perhaps there are people who fancy themselves Christians but who haven’t read that part of the Bible where Christ admonishes us to care for “the least among us.” Oh crap. I liked the bit that sounded like God thought the gays were sinners; do we have to strictly-interpret these verses, that are definitely in the Bible, too?

Anyway, the Methodist Church says this about its Doctrinal Heritage:

Our forebears in the faith reaffirmed the ancient Christian message as found in the apostolic witness even as they applied it anew in their own circumstances. … Their preaching and teaching were grounded in Scripture, informed by Christian tradition, enlivened in experience, and tested by reason.

The underlying energy of the Wesleyan theological heritage stems from an emphasis upon practical divinity, the implementation of genuine Christianity in the lives of believers.

The Wesleyan emphasis [is] upon the Christian life — faith and love put into practice …

We see God’s grace and human activity working together in the relationship of faith and good works. God’s grace calls forth human response and discipline. Faith is the only response essential for salvation. However, the General Rules remind us that salvation evidences itself in good works. For Wesley, even repentance should be accompanied by ‘fruits meet for repentance,’ or works of piety and mercy.

Scriptural holiness entails more than personal piety; love of God is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice and renewal in the life of the world.

For Wesley there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness. The communal forms of faith in the Wesleyan tradition not only promote personal growth; they also equip and mobilize us for mission and service to the world.”

The Process for Carrying Out Our Mission: We make disciples as we: … send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel … As servants of Christ we are sent into the world to engage in the struggle for justice and reconciliation. We seek to reveal the love of God for men, women, and children of all ethnic, racial, cultural, and national backgrounds and to demonstrate the healing power of the gospel with those who suffer.”

 

So. How’re we all doin’ on that?

At the moment, it is in the practical best interest of too many people in charge of our government and economy to hold onto money, therefore hold onto communicative and influential power, therefore hold onto control of our government and economy. The system is in place, and the people whom it most benefits would logically be uninterested in changing the status quo, no matter who else in society is being adversely affected (um, HURT) by it.

As a colleague of mine put it recently: until we find some way to communicate substantively with the members of the “1 percent” who are in charge of the largely-unregulated banks and other forms of Wall Street tomfoolery, until we find some way to convince them that unbridled greed is (contrary to Gordon Gekko’s postulation) not good – in fact, is morally not good – we really can’t make headway. The Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court not long ago, surrounding money and its application to our means of communication and electoral persuasion, has only served to further cement the difficulty of making forward progress.

How are the 1 percent doing at that “service to the world” thing? And is it even possible to find a way to appeal to the moral conscience of a segment of our population who have been brought up in, and live fully in, an environment that encourages them not to have one?

December 16, 2011 Posted by | government, news, politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment