Sunday, October 7, 2007

Western Pantheism

It has been several years since I lived in Omaha, which had a hopping music scene. As a trombone player, I was a medium fish in a small but lively pond, and spent many of my evenings driving around Omaha and Lincoln playing for this church, that wedding, or the other concert. Since moving to Virginia Beach, however, the pond got slightly bigger, but my talents got a lot smaller. There are four times as many good players, but maybe no more than twice the opportunities.

I'm simply not competitive at the highest levels of the trombone profession; I figure at least six hundred trombone players worldwide would have to misplace their lips for me even to have a shot at playing in the New York Philharmonic. But it's something I like to do, and every once in a while, I get a good opportunity. I had one such an opportunity this week with a local chamber orchestra, playing in a good trombone section including one fellow from Australia who studied with Chicago Symphony players, and another who studied in New York with New York Philharmonic players. On the one hand, I hate being the weak link in a section; on the other hand, it's always a great way to learn more about the craft.

Tonight's concert was an assortment of "Americana", never a recipe for a great program -- music by John Williams and Louis Gottschalk and assorted others, and thank goodness no Charles Ives or Aaron Copland. I'd rather pluck a hangnail with a pair of pliers than play Ives. And while most of my musician friends don't share my dislike of Copland, to me it's like he goes out of his way to make simple sounding music so hard to play.

Anyhow, tonight we were treated to a modern piece that featured narrations by Native American poets and primitive flute. The piece was not out-and-out lousy; musically, it had its moments. But I couldn't help noticing the solemn, almost sanctimonious, lecturing tone -- like a bad sermon. Actually, that seems to be pretty much what the piece was: an overly earnest eco-conscious stemwinder. Before I quit listening, I heard phrases such as, "My mother taught me to worship every thing of nature, to worship the grass, the pine needles..." and etc. Well, why stop at pine needles? Why don't we worship lawn clippings? Corn cobs? It's one thing to recognize God's handiwork; it's another to mistake it for God himself. Someone who is deeply moved by literature might have a deep and abiding love, say, for A Farewell To Arms, but who would idolize a book without acknowledging its author? There once lived a man named Hemingway, and he wrote that book. If you love the book, might it make sense at some point to try to understand who he was? Pantheists find wonder in nature, but they stop short at wondering who created it, or what He might be thinking.

In Omaha, I once played at the dedication of an AIDS hospice which was blessed in prayer by various squishy denominations. If good theology is needed anywhere, it is where someone goes who is about to die. Yet, the speeches were decorated with the softest of liberal Catholic and Protestant platitudes, joining hands athwart tradition in an ecumenical rejection of a more substantive theology. The icing on the rice cake was the participation of a solemn old Buddhist who sang nursery rhymes, while his young acolyte swung pots of burning incense around the interior of the building -- guaranteeing I had taken my last good breath of air for playing trombone. It isn't nice, but I'll say it: the acolyte looked like an abused organ grinder monkey. That whole experience was much less dignified than listening to the marvelous speaking voice of the Indian chief, but I nevertheless felt like I had been here before.

Western culture, until very recently, was never particularly hospitable to pantheism. I wonder who else saw the irony of a chamber orchestra -- one of the hallmarks of Western culture -- being employed in the promotion of non-Western religious blather. Meanwhile, I celebrated the end of this evening's diversity training by drinking a beer -- not exactly worshipping every molecule of hops and barley that went down, but certainly thinking very highly of them.

The part about nature that pantheists miss is its purpose: it was made for you and me.

1 comment:

Lala said...

People should read this.