Sunday, January 30, 2011


"Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." - From the lectionary for this morning

It's not uncommon for people to "proof text" this specific passage, from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount known as the Beatitudes, when they are feeling put upon by those they perceive as enemies. Frequently they will also cite the place in John's Gospel where Jesus tells his listeners that the world will hate them. If you're feeling hated by the world, there's much comfort in reading or hearing such lines. Chances are, though, if you're a middle class American who is reading this on the internet, you're used to having "the world" bless you. That's why any momentary adversity can sting and fester. Some people even seek out persecution in the hope of being sanctified by it.

At church this morning, our intern, Angel (yes, that's her name!), pointed out that the people who first heard those lines did not have to seek out persecution. It was the normal condition of their lives. The world—the Greek word "kosmos" literally means "the ornament"—had left them and their unadorned lives behind. Thus, the idea that they were blessed was subversive, since it ran counter to everything that common sense told them about life. They were the poor and marginalized in a remote part of the vast Roman Empire. Many of them worked land that had been legally stolen from them, struggling to pay off debts that only rose with each passing season. By calling them blessed ("makarioi" in Greek), Jesus was literally speaking a blessing into existence. In line with Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah, he was pointing out the obvious fact that the world cared nothing for those who had been passed over in the search for economic gain, and he called the world to account for it.

Ironically, it seems that our politics have now produced two different ways in which "the world" can hate the poor and marginalized. As many have pointed out, the president's State of the Union address last week included no mention of such people. Instead, it was "morning in America" all over again, as a very smart politician put his opponents on the defensive. And defensive they were, suggesting that reality is going to call for much different policies: ones that will hurt. Who, exactly, will be hurt by such policies is never stated, but it's pretty clear that it won't be those whom the world has already blessed.

So here's some food for thought: If you, like me, are on the upside of America's current financial crisis, then you are being blessed by the world, and the world is liking you just fine. If you want to find the blessing that comes from God, you could learn a lot from the people whom none of the politicians so much as mentioned last week: the ones who have yet to see any benefit from the "recovery." Many of them no longer appear in the unemployment statistics, because they've given up looking. They may have concluded, as those on the wrong side of Roman prosperity must have concluded in Jesus's time, that everything was stacked against them. These are the ones whom the world truly hates. Theirs is the kingdom.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tommasini’s Top Ten Turns Tastes Topsy Turvy

The past week has reminded me of something I should try not to forget: academics and the broader culture don’t mix very well. Ideally, this should be a good thing, since people with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge can impart depth to any topic and encourage people to stop thinking within their familiar boxes. Problems arise when being an academic becomes its own kind of box.

This became evident when, a week ago today, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times published a list of what he considered the top ten classical composers of all time.

I have often had pleasant conversations with people who, knowing I am a musicologist, ask me to name my favorite composer(s), piece(s) and/or performer(s). They may sometimes ask me to name the greatest, but it’s pretty well understood that they’re asking me for my personal favorites, not an oracular pronouncement. Often, interesting and enlightening discussion will follow. There seem to be few better ways to draw out somebody who is considered an expert than by playing this game of favorites.

Sure enough, a number of people forwarded Tommasini’s list to me and asked me what I thought. I told them, and one even proposed his own, more extensive list. This was all pleasant chit-chat and I don’t imagine anybody took it too seriously.

And then there was the parallel discussion on the American Musicological Society’s email list-serve. It wasn’t pretty. The very idea that somebody who writes for a major newspaper (and thus, of course, enjoys a much broader readership than most scholars) would waste anybody’s time with such an exercise aroused great indignation. One poster after another struggled to distance him or herself from the very thought of making such a list. Nevertheless, one couldn’t resist pointing out that his list, if he were ever to stoop so low as to make one, would include Xenakis and other late 20th-century composers that I’m sure you’ve never heard of (Xenakis being the big name among them), unless your tastes are also way on the esoteric side. In which case, I’m sure you’ve stopped reading this by now.

Every once in a while a saner voice would chime in to point out that those among the public who consider us to be a bunch of over-educated prigs might just be onto something. “Now go ahead and flame me,” one concluded. He got his wish.

So what is my point? I suppose it’s that musical non-academics amuse themselves by comparing lists, while musical academics amuse themselves by comparing reasons for not making one. As I said, the two cultures don’t mix. I spend so much time in the classroom educating people that it’s easy to forget that I belong to a small sub-culture of hyper-sophisticated, ironically self-aware, marginalized people who might actually consider putting the 12th-century Parisian enigma known as Perotin on our top-ten list—if, that is, we were ever to make one. Which of course we wouldn’t.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A match not made in heaven

Libertarianism: A political philosophy that emphasizes the autonomy of the individual in making economic and moral choices, and hence seeks to minimize government and de-emphasizes community obligations and responsibilities.

Christianity: A religion that professes to believe that God actively and willingly became involved in human history on human terms, challenging us to believe radically in the Old Testament admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself,” to give up any claims to possessions and status and, ultimately, to lay down our lives in service to others.

What do these two belief sets have in common? At present, the only answer I can give with confidence is “a large number of adherents.” Not all Christians are libertarians, of course, and not all libertarians are Christians. A surprising number of people, though, seem to be both.

This surprises me for two reasons. I am a Christian – although, as I stated in my post “Let me introduce myself,” I hardly fit the current cultural profile. I am not conservative. I do not believe the world was created in seven days. I have little interest in converting people of other religions, since I believe I have a great deal to learn from them as they are. I am also emphatically not a libertarian, and I find it hard to understand how anyone who is a Christian can be one.

Libertarianism, after all, is profoundly individualistic, and Jesus told people to deny themselves and follow him. Libertarians don’t like being forced into adopting other people’s agendas, and Jesus told his followers to “take my yoke upon you.” Libertarians believe, with Benjamin Franklin, that heaven helps those who help themselves, and Jesus said that he came into the world to save the lost.

Much of modern American libertarianism, furthermore, derives from the fiction of Ayn Rand, a radical atheist, and the economic writings of Friedrich Hayek, who approved of those religions that conferred an evolutionary advantage by confirming the right to own property. Neither had much use for a religion that urges self-denying love as the highest virtue and sees personal property as, at best, a distraction.

Jesus did, of course, reject and condemn the kingdoms of this world, and some see this as a reason to oppose government-based solutions to almost anything. There is no evidence, though, that Jesus saw radical individualism and autonomy as a valid alternative. His earliest followers seem to have had very little concern for worldly possessions, and to have adhered to a communitarian ethic. They gave gladly with no thought of themselves, embraced strangers and pariahs, and extended free healing as a fringe benefit to many. St. Paul summed up his experience since his conversion by saying that it was no longer he who lived, but Christ who lived in him. Freedom meant not autonomy, but liberation from the forces of greed and selfishness that constrict and bind most human lives.

I may not be a typical Christian, but I have read the entire Bible – both Testaments – pretty thoroughly. I have even taught myself enough Greek to read the New Testament in the original language. I don’t see any reason to believe that any of the authors of those influential words, from the Deuteronomist to Jude the Obscure, would have had much use for modern American economic libertarianism, or for most of the other kinds either.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The gloom and doom speech

Texas, where I live, has suddenly “discovered” an enormous budget deficit, just months after our governor was re-elected by telling everybody that he had kept Texas on a sound financial footing, unlike, say, California, which is facing major cuts in services. Suddenly Texas is ready to close down several community colleges and reduce funding for public schools drastically. Anything to avoid those job-killing tax hikes.

One fact that keeps surfacing in this context is this one: People with more education are much more likely to get and hold onto good jobs. Thus, cutting funding to education to save jobs is a classic case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Or so it seems.

As an academic, I have to think about questions like this and their ethical implications frequently. My field is musicology: a word that most people now associate primarily with Prince, if they associate it with anything at all. For as long as I can remember, many more advanced degrees have been granted in musicology than the job market can justify, and the result has not been more jobs but more unemployed musicologists. I myself was “under-employed” for ten years before finally finding one of those elusive tenure-track jobs. In the meantime, I discovered that having a PhD over-qualifies you for almost everything except flipping hamburgers, where the turnover is so high already that they don’t care if you’re really looking for a better job.

The ethical implications of this situation resurfaced this week at an academic colloquium held in my department for our academic music majors. My colleagues spent nearly an hour talking to them about the fields of musicology, music theory and ethnomusicology, with an eye to helping them select a graduate program that suits their interests. It fell to me to conclude the performance with what I have come to think of as “the gloom and doom speech.” In a few harrowing words, I told them that there are few fields in the world in which they can invest more time, money and emotional energy in getting a degree that qualifies them for fewer jobs that pay less. I ask them if they are so determined to be musical academics that if a job doesn’t appear right away, they would be willing to sell apples on a street corner until it does. I tell them that my version of selling apples on a street corner was teaching English (yes, English!) at a second-rate private high school for two years, and I sometimes regale them with horror stories from that experience. (I once received a one-page paper on the Odyssey in which Odysseus was spelled seven different ways, none of them correct.) Then I watch as they file out dejectedly – or, even more problematically, as they absorb this information and continue to talk about their futures as though they had not heard me. This bothers me because I did the same thing when I was their age and I got “the speech” from one of my professors. I sometimes wonder if I should have listened – but deep down I’m sure it wouldn’t have made a difference, and I just hope my students’ determination is as strong as mine was. They will certainly need it.

Yesterday I sweetened the pill a bit with the following video. Watch it, and tell me if you think it’s funny. Then tell me what you would do if you were in my shoes. Or if you already are.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Let me introduce myself

My name is Robin Wallace. I am a 55-year-old college professor, and I have spent far too much time on Facebook over the last few years avoiding other tasks. As of this writing, I have 504 "friends" there, which is 3 fewer than I had a week ago. They include people I know from every previous stage of my life, as far back as kindergarten. They also include a large number of former students, and a few present ones who have specifically invited me, since I make it a policy not to send a friend invitation to anyone who is or might become a student. They also include people I have never met, but have encountered on blogs dealing with topics of mutual interest In fact, I conduct private Facebook message discussions daily with a growing number of people whom I have come to consider my spiritual friends: the people I "know with." They have become invaluable to me.

What we have in common is that we are oddballs in today's political and cultural environment; we are liberal Christians. That is so much of an oddity, in fact, that I currently describe my religion on my Facebook status page as "not that kind of Christian." Most people probably understand what I mean. I take my religious faith very seriously, since it probably saved my life (more on that another time). However, not having been brought up in a religious culture (I am half lapsed Catholic, half Ethical Culture Jew), I don't experience religion as a cultural thing. Since the dominant religious culture in America right now is conservative, I find myself on the opposite side of most political issues from the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family. That's why it's good to have a group of like-minded people to remind me that I'm not alone.

What's happened over the past year is that these "stealth" discussions have occasionally erupted visibly onto my Facebook wall. I have written passionate comments there on health care, on the bullying epidemic (a particular concern of mine), on climate change and, most recently, on my extreme ideological differences with the current Republican majority in Congress. Most of these notes have been greeted with favorable comments by my friends who agree with me and ignored by those who don't.

Unfortunately, though, there have been a few times when one of my "friends" has decided to take violent exception to something I've said. This happened three times in the past week: hence the attrition in my friends list that I described above. This has made me realize that social media may not be the best place to share unpopular opinions publicly. So I have set up this blog instead, where I can post all my ideas that aren't ready for Facebook. I plan to link my posts, so those who want to read them will know they're here and available. However, I will ask everybody to please comment here (yes, I know I just split an infinitive) instead of there. That doesn't mean that I'm granting permission to violate my Facebook "rules," which still require that all posters be civil and respectful. You may express any opinion you want here, but don't diss me or my friends or you're toast. Is that clear?

OK, watch this space for occasional future updates. My schedule, my rules.