Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hagar and Hafiz at Wheaton

I spent portions of the last three days at Wheaton College - sometimes called the "evangelical Harvard" - at the annual convention of the Forum on Music and Christian Scholarship. It's fair to say that this was one of the most meaningful academic meetings I have ever attended.

Our group is small, with fewer than a hundred members, which means we can have relatively intimate discussions and gatherings. Not all of us agree theologically, but we share the conviction that the mainstream academic world has marginalized talk either about God or about the myriad spiritual questions that for centuries have been essential to the definition of art in any of its forms. Over the past ten years, we have met at small, conservative colleges like Wheaton, but also at Ivy League schools and other large universities. Our membership is correspondingly diverse.

Since I had never visited Wheaton before, I wasn't sure what to expect. I am aware that the college holds some theological positions with which I, as a liberal Christian, am deeply uncomfortable. (Catholics are not welcome on the faculty, for example, and belief in Biblical "inerrancy" is widely held.) However, the professors and students that I spoke to were impressively open-minded. In particular, I will single out a speech by Harold Best, the retired dean of the Conservatory of Music, who succinctly articulated many of the things that I wish had been said to me when I was in graduate school: art begins from the commonality of being human at the simplest level; the most sophisticated statements of musicians belong to that commonality because they articulate it profoundly; discourse about art and education needs to retreat from superlatives (excellence, awesome) that have been rendered meaningless through overuse and recover an understanding of what it means to be "good," both as humans and as artists; interdisciplinary study is a dangerous misnomer, because the whole human heritage suffers when disciplinary lines become rigid enough to require it.

I also attended a performance of the Brahms Requiem at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on Friday evening that featured the Wheaton undergraduate orchestra along with all of the college's choral ensembles and the Apollo Chorus of Chicago. It was stunning. During intermission (there were some shorter pieces performed first), I realized that the man sitting next to me in Row H was in fact the president of Wheaton College. We talked for a while about the role of a college president in helping the faculty to educate students and the need for the faculty to place that goal above our individual careers or reputations. If he wasn't just talking a good talk, and if every college president in the country had similar priorities, we'd all be better off for it.

The most meaningful part of the entire meeting for me, though, was a worship service on Friday morning. In the main auditorium of the Billy Graham center, FMCS member Cheryl Pauls, who teaches at Canadian Mennonite University, gave a multi-media presentation about Hagar, the Egyptian slave/concubine of Abraham who is often considered the first ancestor of Islam. You would have had to be there to understand how moving this was. Cheryl managed to retell Hagar's story from the scraps that appear in Genesis in a way that invested her with dignity and her son Ishmael with divine favor, albeit of a kind that in the West is little understood. Apart from Genesis, the central text was a poem by the Persian writer Hafiz, whose text I linked yesterday on my Facebook wall. "I have come into this world to see this," Hafiz wrote: "the sword drop from men's hands even at the height of their arc of rage, because we have finally realized there is just one flesh we can wound." The audience watched in stunned silence at the suggestion of a peaceful reconciliation with the Muslim world, presented from the Muslim perspective within a Christian worship service. We sang along with enthusiasm when asked to do so, and then applauded with wild gratitude at the end. I nearly wept.

Now, it turns out there are some wrinkles. Wheaton had specifically told Cheryl that this presentation could not be given during one of the student chapel services, which means that only a few Wheaton students got to hear it (most of them were helping with the music). It also turns out that the translations of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky, around which the service was based, are controversial. Some have claimed that he didn't so much translate Hafiz as write new poems under his name. Interestingly, though, this would be nothing new. Goethe wrote his "West- oestlicher Divan," which inspired many Romantic song composers, out of a similar desire to bridge the East-West, Christian/Muslim divide by imitating Hafiz.

What truly intrigued me was the reviews I read on Amazon while waiting for my flight back to Texas. Most reviewers were overwhelmed by the beauty and spiritual depth of Hafiz/Ladinsky's verse. The greatest dissenter was an English speaker who claimed to know Farsi fluently and to have read all of Hafiz in the original; he said outright that he couldn't recognize any of Hafiz in Ladinsky's versions. Another review was by a native Iranian who grew up hearing Hafiz, and thought Ladinsky's versions were the very best translations he had ever read. Clearly, Hafiz is still bringing dramatic differences between Western and Eastern perspectives into the open.

So in conclusion: good meeting, positive impressions of Wheaton, but also regret that my friend Cheryl was not allowed to bring her moving plea for reconciliation to the college's students, who needed to hear it as much as anybody. We've got work to do.

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