Arvo Part and John’s Gospel

Today I listened through Arvo Part’s musical setting of the passion of Christ according to John.  It’s a good way to walk slowly and meditatively through the text, and random thoughts occurred to me:

  • In John’s Gospel, Christ is strongly portrayed as Wisdom itself.  So when he said, “I have always preached openly,” it reminded me of the description of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, who preaches at every street corner and cries out as people go by.
  • In the same scene, it suddenly occurred to me that it’s not just a clever rhetorical defense for Jesus to say, “Ask those who heard me.”  In fact, that is the approach he has favored in the end:  he wants us to learn what he said by asking those who heard him.
  • When the soldiers take Jesus’ garments and cast lots for them, I suddenly wondered:  what are the garments of wisdom?  In my imagination, wisdom is the object of theology, while the garments of wisdom are all the other disciplines:  mathematics, philosophy, and so on.  These have indeed been divided among the conquerors as theology was removed from the schools.  For some reason, in my imagination literature is the seamless garment.
  • Why is it that everyone says tenors have the most pleasing voices, the famous soloists are all tenors, the tenors make block-buster recordings, and so on and so forth—and yet every musical setting of the passion casts Jesus as a baritone?  I think the world may have a guilty conscience about us baritones.

While all this passed through my mind, I couldn’t help comparing Arvo Part’s passion rendering with Bach’s famous passion settings.  Part’s approach has ups and downs.  The pros:

  • You can actually listen to it in one sitting before the baby wakes up.  Bach’s versions are all massive.
  • It stays close to the text—there is no text but John’s text.
  • It has a restrained, minimalist feel that evokes the mood of the passion story perhaps better than a moody soprano chirping about how her heart bleeds.
  • It establishes a consistent characterization for each voice:  Jesus, the crowds, the enemies, and so on.
  • It’s cooler:  if you’re a Bach fan—well, who’s not?  But if you’re all into Arvo Part, you’re hip, you know?

The cons:

  • No melody or rhythm, nothing that will stick in your mind.  You will not read a line from John’s Gospel later and have a bit of Part’s passion suddenly replay in your head.
  • No musical value apart from the text.  That is, you can listen to Bach not knowing what the German says and it’s still really beautiful, but Part is just boring if you don’t know what the Latin text is saying at that point.  (I understand the Latin text when I hear it, so I have not had and could not actually have the experience of following along with an English rendering—not sure what that would be like.)
  • The music does not interpret particular sentences or phrases; melody and mood are disconnected from the details of the text.
  • Pontius Pilate comes across as languishing and effeminate.  It’s as though he can’t attend to Jesus because he’s still letting his nail polish dry.


My thanks to Peter Kwasniewski for putting me onto Part’s piece, which I have enjoyed for a couple of years now.  I hope he will put his mind to writing a passion setting some year, because I think he can do Part’s project better than Part did.


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Seeing new tracks in Daniel

The first time I went snow tracking, it was amazing.  My class drove into the mountains to find a clean snow field, and there, far from urban disturbance, we saw the stories of local wildlife written into the powdery surface:  the tiny prints of a mouse, the widely spaced prints of a rabbit, the linear prints of a deer.  But the amazing part was when we came back to Lander:  the city itself was suddenly full of animal tracks!  Had those tracks been there all the time?  Had I really been so blind?  Our instructor told us we had acquired the appropriate “filter” so as to notice what before had been hidden before our eyes.

I feel like that happened recently with the book of Daniel.  Chapter four tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, who becomes boastful and ascribes all of his great works to himself instead of giving glory to God, and as a consequence God takes away his rationality for a season.  The great king goes on all fours, eating grass and living outside, until God deigns to give his reason back.  Then the king publishes an edict praising God and ascribing all of the king’s great works to the Almighty.

And it struck me:  Is this not clearly saying that a king or kingdom that fails to acknowledge God will become less than human?  That only the king or kingdom who acknowledges God will regain his humanity?

Chapter seven recounts one of Daniel’s most famous visions.  He sees three beasts, each more ferocious than the last, and the beasts are strange, monstrous creatures made of parts from different animals.  Then he sees “one like a son of man” who comes and supplants all the beasts.  The dream is interpreted thus:  the three beasts are three kingdoms of the Gentiles, and the “one like a son of man” is the kingdom of God’s people—or the Messiah himself, for later Jewish readers.

And it struck me:  Is this not saying that all kingdoms that do not worship God become somehow subhuman and even monstrous?  That the kingdom of those who worship God is, in fact, the only fully human kingdom?

I had a new “filter” on as I listened to Daniel this time, because I had just spent the morning on Gaudium et Spes 22:  “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

And Gaudium et Spes 36: “But if the expression ‘the independence of temporal affairs’ is taken to mean that created things do not depend on God, and that man can use them without any reference to their Creator, anyone who acknowledges God will see how false such a meaning is. For without the Creator the creature would disappear.”

In retrospect, it seems logical that Daniel would have a strong message about the relation of religion and state.  The narrative setting is the exile of Israel, when Israel lost its state but—miraculously—kept its religion, thus introducing a sharp distinction between state and religion for the first time.  And if you believe the modern view that Daniel was written around the time of the Macabean revolt—which I do—then we also have the first time of the state setting itself very directly against the people’s religion.

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Oh, come on….

Migraine Meme 4

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April showers….

AprilShowersNot sure what kind of May flowers this is bringing.

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The Particularity of Death

Yesterday I went to the hospital for an MRA. I filled out the usual forms–no, I’m not claustrophobic; no I’m not pregnant or breastfeeding; no, I don’t have any metal body parts–and met the usual uber-cheerful nurse. Sure, I’ll lay down on this tray and get sucked into a giant Star Trek device. I had an MRI just a couple of weeks ago, and this is all routine. I know what I’m doing.

So when the nurse casually mentioned that we would need to do an IV, I just about bounced off the tray. “SERIOUSLY?” She was amazed that I had never had an IV before: “How old are you? 37? And you’ve NEVER had an IV?” It felt like high school again, where you find out that everyone is doing it and you are obviously the nerd. I tried to explain that I react really badly to needles, but she couldn’t believe me. “You look scared to death all ready!” she laughed. Me: “That’s because I AM!”

But when they actually put the IV in and watched me reel into unresponsiveness, understanding dawned. “You weren’t kidding, were you?” she smiled. Um, no. I wasn’t. As I lay inside the giant Star Trek device, semi-coherent, with a metal thing sticking into my veins, I meditated on how Jesus was nailed to the cross, and how the metal things just stayed there. Oh God, oh Jesus, help me Mary.

Somehow I survived, and after taking a while to lay in the car I managed to drive away.  For some reason, after I got home, I felt in the mood to pick up a book by Richard John Neuhaus called As I Lay Dying. He makes a great point:

Death in the thousands and millions is different.  The generality is a buffer against both guilt and sorrow.  It is death in the singular that shatters all we thought we knew about death.

That is exactly right:  News of multitudinous deaths in a far-away war does little, or news of semi-fictional people who live real lives across town but don’t seem real to me.  But when the little Lewis girls died, daughters of my friend, it was like an atom bomb going off in the living room.  Death in general, as an idea, can be tolerated; death in the particular, in you, in me, is an abomination the mind refuses to grasp.

But it occurred to me suddenly, reading Neuhaus, that the only answer to death is Jesus.  And if we know Jesus as a generality, as an idea, then we will only be able to deal with death as a generality.  Only if I know Jesus as a particular, as a this person, will I be prepared for the particularity of my death.

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Here we go again….

Migraine Meme 1

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