Thursday, April 20, 2006

More Coffin

Another excerpt from Letters to a Young Doubter, William Sloan Coffin:

…a sentimentalized Christmas is so much worse than a commercialized one.
The obvious answer is that the latter never pretends to be anything else. Sentimentality, however, does not arise from the truth; it’s what’s poured on top, blurring and distorting the truth…
Now consider the Christmas crèche. The baby lies in the manger because no one in the inn would make room for a pregnant woman. The ox and the ass are not picturesque guests who just had to come and see; this is their home. The Christmas truth is that he who was to be the bread of life for human beings is laid in the feed box of animals.

At the beginning as at the end of Christ’s life, God comes off wonderfully. We do not. The inhumanity, as we used to say, “of man to man” is exceeded only by man’s inhumanity to God. That’s why I think God is not too hard to believe in, just too good to believe in, we being strangers to such goodness.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Steve Howe

Steve Howe @ Northern Lights, Clifton Park, NY

Andrew, Alex and I traveled to Northern Lights after the Maunday Thursday service. We got there in the middle of his first set. Northern Lights is a large bar with a corner stage, a few tables scattered around the front. We stood at the back of the crowd for the first set, the clatter of pool tables behind us, the bar to our right. After intermission, we wandered to the fringe of the tables and had a clear view of the stage for the second set.

Howe is 59, rather scrawny and gaunt with brownish blonde hair that is seriously thinning and pushed back over his balding pate. His glasses and thin face make him look rather professorial. When he sits, he leans over his instrument as if trying to see its bottom half, and his right foot taps alternately between his heel and toes to keep a pulse. He chatted frequently between songs, although the sound system unfortunately blurred his words. He succumbed to techno backup only once, using a recorded acoustic strumming to back his singing and steel guitar on “Soon.” It didn’t seem intrusive.

He is still a nimble player. Most of his purely acoustic numbers could be combined into one long song and most people wouldn’t know the difference. The tone, cadence, and use of alternating strumming and glissandos sound much the same on songs like “Clap,” “Mood for a Day”, and “Masquerade”. This is not to take away from his technique; both Andrew and Alex said that Howe was a great technician and player, and I’ll take their word for it, since Andrew has played a little and Alex is a trained musician. Howe has always been considered one of the best guitarists in progressive music circles…

The highlights of the show were many. Some of them were in smaller moments, like his explanation of the nuances of a new electric guitar; it made sounds Howe had never heard before, just because he turned a dial the wrong way. He did an abridged rendering of “To Be Over” on a 12-string acoustic guitar that was both subtle and powerful. His steel guitar filled the venue with incredible piercing sounds, which segued into a wonderful version of “Soon.”

The crowd brought him back for an encore, and he invited us to sing along to a song he was sure we knew. Usually, I cringe when Yes uses “Your Move” as an encore, because they can do it in their sleep and it can lack energy after so many years. But Steve broke the song into its simplest components – a strumming guitar and melodic words, even throwing in the counterpart “All we are saying is give peace a chance” to go along with the audience’s chorus.

And of course, he ended with “Clap.” Nearly all the audience did just that.

Monday, April 17, 2006

William Sloane Coffin

William Sloane Coffin died last week. The former Yale chaplain and pastor at Riverside Church in New York City was a leader in two major social movements during the 1960s, the fight for civil rights by African-Americans, and the anti-Vietnam War actions later in the same decade.

Certainly, he was more than just a man who translated belief into social action. He was also a theologian who encouraged his followers to discuss their beliefs, to study and ask questions about faith, to treat it as a journey, not a set of inflexible dogma.

Here’s an excerpt from Letters to a Young Doubter, one of his last books, published in 2005:

I think self-righteousness is the bane of human relations, of all of them – interpersonal, international, and interfaith. I’m sure it was self-righteousness that prompted Pascal to say, “Human beings never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Self-righteousness blocks out our capacity for self-criticism, destroys humility, and undermines the sense of oneness that should bind us all.
Self-righteousness inspired the Christian Crusades against Muslims and, centuries later, the Easter pogroms of Eastern Europe, the sermon-induced slaughter of Jews after the morning celebration of the resurrected rabbi. Today this same self-righteousness encourages some American Christians to cheer President Bush’s messianic militarism, a divinely ordained form of cleansing violence, and all in the name of a Jesus Christ who is the mirror opposite of the Jesus of the four Gospels.
Self-righteousness makes believers of all faiths doctrinaire, dogmatic, and mindlessly militant.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Abe Lincoln on Good Friday

Good Friday. Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday. Lincoln had told his wife that he considered that day the end of the War Between the States, although Robert E. Lee had surrendered a few days before. Lincoln’s nightmare had ended, but for some reason, his role on this earth ended with it.

Do we need to know why such events are connected? We barely know how these events occur. Historians argue over the causes of the Civil War. Generals debate the reasons for success and failure in five years of military battles. Sociologists theorize on the clash between social and economic classes before, during, and after the war that shaped the future of this country. There are even variations to the story of the actual assassination that night: how Booth escaped, what he said to the audience when he jumped to the stage, where he went, how he was caught.

When we try to identify the why, we are probably crossing the line from history into spirituality, religion, and faith. A much longer discussion.

April 14, 1865 was just another day on the Julian calendar. Centuries ago, someone picked it to commemorate the death of a Savior for a large community of Christians. John Wilkes Booth picked it to end the life of the country’s leader.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Gospel of Judas

A copy of the Gospel of Judas has been translated and released. The Gnostic text claims that in the week prior to his crucifixion, Jesus told Judas that he was the only disciple who understood the true nature of Christ, and asked him to betray him to the authorities. Thus, in this week before Easter, Christians face a new interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the potential rehabilitation of a loathed figure in history.

The document dates from about 180-250AD. No one knows for sure if that is when the actual ‘gospel’ was first written, or who wrote it. One observer noted that, if those dates are original, it is as if someone wrote an eye-witness account of George Washington’s inaugural in 1940 and passed it off as history.

But no matter. This gospel, when combined with other texts discovered in the last 50 years, add to the historical record of the time period, skimpy as it is. These documents bring real people to life. They describe conversations and daily life that separates them from the tainted versions we have created in movies or television. That is the most fascinating part of this discovery: history, the recorded actions and words of real people, explained in the written word. From this history, we have derived a religious faith in something that cannot always be explained through the written word: God, Yahwe, the word that cannot be spoken because it cannot be fully comprehended in human terms.