Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Blues and the Beautiful

*Toward the end of February, I bonded with a group of individuals I had never met before. Together, we escaped this troubled world and reached a state that can only be described as spiritual ecstasy. Our leader in this heavenly ascent was blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. For three hours, we were immersed in the transcendent beauty of the blues. From the heart-wrenching groove of "Sloe Gin" to the crunch of "The Ballad of John Henry," Joe led us down a road of self-discovery. Not only was he an exemplar of raw, human emotion, but also a reminder of our roles as spiritual beings. His SRV bends and Eric Johnson-inspired runs cried out for something beyond the temporal abode we inhabit. His intimacy and virtuosity were the essence of a true artist.




The late aesthetics philosopher Denis Dutton wrote, "The admiration of skill is not just intellectual; skill … can cause jaws to drop, hair to stand up on the back of the neck, and eyes to flood with tears. The demonstration of skill is one of the most deeply moving and pleasurable aspects of art."[1] He further argued that art and beauty are not in the eye of the culturally conditioned beholder, but are in fact cross-culturally universal.

One of Dutton’s major examples is what he calls the Hudson River Biedermeier landscape: trees, water, animal life and a road leading off into the distance. This type of landscape is generally preferred by various cultures, including those from countries that do not have this particular setting. The prehistoric Acheulian hand axes display little evidence of wear or usage, demonstrating perhaps mere aesthetic appeal. Their teardrop shape can be found in most jewelry stores today. The cave paintings and sanctuaries of Lascaux reflect an early, ritualized appreciation for the natural and supernatural worlds.

These examples led Dutton to see artistic beauty as an evolutionary trait developed to display attractive qualities like intelligence or skill. In other words, beauty is built into human nature. This includes, as Dutton also suggested, the beauty of music.



Though theologically inconsistent, the biblical texts nonetheless speak of music as a part of early temple worship and a method for communicating with the divine. It could ultimately be traced back to the creation "when the morning stars sang together" (Job 38:7). Thus, to the ancients, music was an act of renewal and embedded in the nature of the cosmos. Modern temple worship reveals that the diversity found within the creation was divinely sanctioned for the purpose of beautifying and giving variety to the earth. Following the fifth creation period, Michael declares the earth to be "glorious and beautiful." Philosopher Roger Scruton recognizes, "The current habit of desecrating beauty suggests that people are as aware as they ever were of the presence of sacred things. Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things, our lives are judged, and to escape that judgment, we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us...[Christians] understand the sacred as a revelation in the here and now of the eternal sense of our being. But the experience of the sacred is not confined to Christians. It is, according to many philosophers and anthropologists, a human universal."[2] Sacred beauty is the experience of redemption. Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) argued for two kinds of aesthetic experience: the harmonious order and serenity of the beautiful (which brings comfort) and the majestic power and overwhelming vastness of the sublime (which brings fear). It is within the sacred act of redemption that both can be found:

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:9-11)

Regarding the music of the blues, journalist Mark Judge explains, "In hearing the existential alienation in … the sadness of the blues, humans are reminded of their fallen nature and the brokenness of the world. Yet the same music, in the beauty of the sound created in those same songs, points to the beauty of the eternal … [I]t creates a sensation of experiencing a kind of holy sorrow — sadness at the state of things yet a consciousness that there is truth and goodness and beauty beyond the world." Beauty can be found in a variety of styles, expressions, and systems. "One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism," taught Joseph Smith, "is to receive truth, let it come from where it may." And that truth may come from music of the baroque era or that of the Deep South.



Whether Bonamassa has been blessed by the hand of the Almighty or sold his soul to the devil at the crossroad, he touched the universal nature within us all that night.

And it was absolutely beautiful.


*This is a slightly expanded version of a North Texas Daily article I published. Both Bonamassa links are from the actual concert I attended at Fair Park in Dallas on Feb. 26, 2011.


NOTES

1. Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pg. 53. Also see his “Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?The New York Times (Oct. 15, 2009). On conceptual art, see A. Barton Hinkle, “But Is It Art?Reason.com (April 5, 2011).

2. For a more thorough treatment of the subject by Scruton, see his Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and/or his BBC special "Why Beauty Matters." Also see Christopher Haley's thoughtful piece at First Things: On the Square.

"What Shall I Do That I May Inherit Eternal Life?"

I was asked to substitute Gospel Doctrine class this past Sunday. The following are some formal notes and afterthoughts for Lesson #17 -- "What Shall I Do That I May Inherit Eternal Life?":

On the heels of "as a little child," Jesus is approached by a young man:

And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? There is non good but one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments... (Mark 10:17-19)*

Then someone came to him and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments. (Matthew 19:16-17, NRSV)

The term "Good Master" is a rare expression and a possible case of flattery. This may be rooted in an Oriental custom of reciprocity in which the young man expected a flattering remark in return. Also, note the subtle differences in the readings of Mark and Matthew. In Mark, Jesus is called "Good Master," which provokes Jesus' question, "Why callest thou me good?" Matthew's account has Jesus referred to merely as "Teacher," while the deed is described as good. Thus, Christ's response is, "Why do you ask me about what is good?" (Witherington, 2000; Keener, 2008)

Jesus' inquiry is open to a couple interpretations (I'm partial to the first):

(1) It could yet be another instance in which Jesus deflects attention away from Himself and gives all glory to His Father. The Jewish view of God as "good" implied that God's commandments and covenant were likewise "good." Israel's good God is who grants eternal life, with fidelity to His covenant via obedience being the "good deeds" one should perform.

(2) Christ could be drawing attention to the implication of the young man's question. Why would this rich man refer to Christ as "good" and/or seek His counsel on things pertaining to goodness? By stating that only God is good, Jesus could be implying His own divinity. He thus proceeds to list the very commandments that He Himself would have delivered on Sinai as Israel's lawgiver.

And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:20-22)

The young man was not evil, but an upstanding citizen (if we trust his own description). His response brought about Jesus' warm affection ("...Jesus beholding him loved him..."). However, the test was the young man's commitment to Jesus as Lord. It was a call to sacrifice all he had and all he was to Christ; to fully consecrate himself for the Lord's purposes. The young man appeared to fall into the group Elder Neal A. Maxwell described as "'honorable' but not 'valiant'." These "honorable" individuals are unaware of "the gap nor of the importance of closing it." They "are certainly not miserable nor wicked, nor are they unrighteous and unhappy. It is not what they have done but what they have left undone that is amiss." As Joseph Smith taught,

Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation...It was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. (Smith, 1985: pg. 69.)

Catherine M. Murphy of Santa Clara University notes that the commitment of one's possessions became associated with the larger context of the covenant, specifically Deuteronomy 6:5. "The term wealth," writes Murphy, "...is nowhere mentioned in biblical citations of Deuteronomy 6:5. Related terms for wealth are, however, later associated with the command to love God in general and in particular with that part of the command to commit one's strength...[A]ll of the early Palestinian sources translate the term ["strength"] of Deuteronomy 6:5 with "wealth," "money," "possessions," or their lexical equivalents." (Murphy, 2002: pgs. 122-123) Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, for example, replaces the term "strength" in Deut. 6:5 with "money." Also, commenting on Deut. 6:5, Mishnah Berakot 9:5 reads, "...and with all thy might--with all thy wealth." Targum Neofiti translates "strength" in Deut. 6:5 as "money." Targum Onqelos replaces "strength" with "property, possessions, substance" (the term here is similar to the common Aramaic for "sacrifice"). Sipre Deuteronomy 32 is attributed to Rabbi Eliezar, who links "all thy might" with one's wealth. Various fragments in the Dead Sea Scrolls explain that the "fundamental act of the voluntary donor...is to bring his knowledge, strength, and wealth into the community of God in order to conform these gifts more closely to God's statutes, ways, and counsels--that is, to God's covenant...Not surprisingly, this recollection to the covenant is couched in terms derived from the written covenant, particularly from Deuteronomy." (Murphy, 2002: pg. 120)

Sacrifice (Latin "to make holy") had three main concepts behind the act: (1) gift(s) that express homage and thanksgiving to (and possibly gaining favor with) God, (2) communion with God via a communal meal (this is more evident in the sacrament or Eucharist), and (3) the high priest's identification with the offering and its consecration for the Lord's purposes. (Averbeck, 2003; Houston, 2003) With the third, we understand the interdependence of sacrifice and consecration. Explaining the LDS temple covenants (which includes both sacrifice as the second and consecration as the fifth), Hugh Nibley wrote,

The first is obedience, the restraint on the individual's power. The second is restraint on possession of things; the eternal spirit cannot be attached to them—one must be willing to sacrifice. The third puts restraints on personal behavior, it mandates deportment, self-control to make oneself agreeable to all. The fourth is restraint on uncontrolled appetites, desires, and passions, for what could be more crippling on the path of eternal progression than those carnal obsessions which completely take over the mind and body? Finally, the fifth covenant is a limitation on the innate selfishness of the other four—everything you have must be set apart to the everlasting benefit of all.

I recall a sacrament meeting talk in which an individual distinguished between sacrifice and consecration: Sacrifice is the giving up of all those things which technically aren't yours to begin with (e.g. material possessions, talents, etc.). Consecration is the giving up of the one thing that is truly yours: your will. I find this to be a fairly accurate distinction if we understand the giving up of one's will to mean making our purposes the Lord's purposes. Elder Maxwell agrees: "In conclusion, the submission of one’s will is really the only uniquely personal thing we have to place on God’s altar." Consecration, Elder Maxwell continued, is "both a principle and a process and it is not tied to a single moment. Instead, it is freely given, drop by drop, until the cup of consecration brims and finally runs over."

It could also be understood as the difference between do and be. Elder Lynn G. Robbins' recent Conference talk describes the difference quite well:

To be and to do are inseparable. As interdependent doctrines they reinforce and promote each other. Faith inspires one to pray, for example, and prayer in turn strengthens one’s faith. The Savior often denounced those who did without being—calling them hypocrites: “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6). To do without to be is hypocrisy, or feigning to be what one is not—a pretender. Conversely, to be without to do is void, as in “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17; emphasis added). Be without do really isn’t being—it is self-deception, believing oneself to be good merely because one’s intentions are good. Do without be—hypocrisy—portrays a false image to others, while be without do portrays a false image to oneself.

As Elder Robbins further notes, Christ invited us "to take upon us His name and his nature." We are meant to define ourselves by the Christ-like life we lead.



"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," than for one whose heart is set elsewhere.

This principle is further illustrated in Christ's parable of the rich man in Luke 12. It must be recognized that ancient agrarian societies were mainly two-tier systems: a small, wealthy, ruling class in contrast to the majority of farming peasants (over 90%). "For all practical purposes there was no middle class." (Elwell, Comfort, 2001: pg. 751) The closest to a middle class were trades like merchants or fishermen (e.g. Peter).

This is important in order to avoid being anachronistic in our economic thinking. We must distinguish the rich man's private hoarding of resources (vs. 18 -- "I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods") from modern investing or banking. Smaller, poorer, kin-based communities eventually developed into much larger and more diversified trade economies. Banks connected larger groups of people and used reserves to issue credit (i.e. using accumulated wealth to create more wealth). Banking became more representational and symbolic (e.g. paper money).

The parable's rich man not only unnecessarily hoarded resources for himself (rather than using them to benefit others), but was under the illusion that his soul actually belonged to him (see vs. 19). To this attitude, God says, "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee" (vs. 20). The word "fool" is the Greek aphron. This is a reference to Ps. 14:1 LXX: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." The phrase "said in his heart..." is not merely an intellectual position, but one of moral behavior and commitment. The rich man had an illusion of ownership, acting as his own sufficient god. (Wright, 2000)

It isn't riches that are the problem, but the commitment to them. The prophet Jacob made this clear:

Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. And now, my brethren, I have spoken unto you concerning pride; and those of you which have afflicted your neighbor, and persecuted him because ye were proud in your hearts, of the things which God hath given you, what say ye of it? (Jacob 2:17-20)

This moral commitment fits very well with the LDS concept of agency. Despite the modern view that understands it solely as the power to choose, the Methodist context from which it emerged implied obedience and ethical responsibility (see D&C 64:18). This coincides with the difference between modern and medieval concepts of freedom. As Eastern orthodox philosopher David B. Hart wrote,

True freedom, at least according to one venerable definition, is the realization of a complex nature in its proper good (that is, in both its natural and supernatural ends); it is the freedom of a thing to flourish, to become ever more fully what it is...To be fully free is to be joined to that end for which our natures were originally framed, and for which — in the deepest reaches of our souls — we ceaselessly yearn. And whatever separates us from that end — even if it be our own power of choice within us — is a form of bondage. We are free not because we can choose, but only when we have chosen well.

Due to time restraints, the parable of the unjust steward had to be jettisoned. It is likely that a future post will address it.

*All Bible references are KJV unless specified otherwise.

Sources:

Catherine M. Murphy, Wealth in the Dead Sea Scrolls & in the Qumran Community (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002).

Richard E. Averbeck, "Sacrifices and Offerings," in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, Vol. 1, eds. T. Desmond Alexander, David Weston Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

Walter J. Houston, "Leviticus," in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, eds. James D.G. Dunn, John Rogerson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

Lectures on Faith, prepared by Joseph Smith, Jr. (Provo, UT: Deseret Book, 1985 [originally delivered to the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, Ohio: 1834-1835]).

Stephen I. Wright, "Parables on Poverty and Riches (Luke 12:13-21; 16:1-13; 16:19-31)," in The Challenge of Jesus' Parables, ed. Roger N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).

"Judaism," in Tyndale Bible Dictionary, eds. Walter Elwell, Philip Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001).

Friday, May 13, 2011

Introduction: What is a "Slow Hunch?"

After taking a hiatus from blogging this past semester (thanks to the 18 hours of school that accompanied it), I've decided to start anew with my blogging career. I initially began blogging as a way to put down my thoughts and expand my research. At first, I approached blogging in a more journalistic fashion (an amateur's journalism, no doubt), hence the title Didn't Major in Journalism...So I Took Up Blogging. I imagine this was in part due to my immersion in political journalism at the time. (This was on the heels of President Obama's inauguration.) There is much that I am proud of on my former blog, some of which will probably be revisited on this one. However, there is also a lot of noise on my previous blog. I hope to avoid that kind of clutter here at my new location.

The Slow Hunch is my attempt at a more polished, more research-oriented project, largely exploring the history of ideas (e.g. theological, philosophical, political, economic, etc.) and their cultural impact. The name comes from science writer Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010). In order to fully explain this concept, I will borrow from a recent article of mine published in UNT's paper, North Texas Daily (pg. 6):

Despite traditional views, creatio ex nihilo ("creation out of nothing") is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Bible. This was instead a development of the second century CE. The God of Genesis brought forth a habitable world out of a formless, watery deep following an incubation period. The Psalms contain scattered references to Yahweh's triumph over the dragon of chaos, thus bringing order to the cosmos. Furthermore, the Hebrew God did not act alone, but instead counseled with His divine assembly: "Let us make man in our image" (Gen. 1:26). It was only after these important stages that the new creation was deemed "good."

Similarly, good ideas do not randomly burst on to the stages of our minds. They instead take the form of what science writer Steven Johnson calls the "slow hunch." These hunches steadily inch along, growing and progressing with both time and nourishment. More often than not, unions with other hunches bring about a grander, more complete idea worthy of the label "good." The modern increase in social connectivity has created a global network for ideas to conjugate in a flurry of creativity. In a world where no one person possesses even one percent of all available knowledge, the public support should be behind an interconnected, Hayekian model of society. As Johnson says, "Chance favors the connected mind."



Though there are obvious economic and political implications in embracing an innovative culture, I find the most important implication to be ethical in nature. I'm always slightly uncomfortable with the use of the adjective "open-minded." The term has become an irredeemable, self-aggrandizing cliché due to its abuse by persons unfit for its description. Too often, it is exploited by those who tend to think that disagreement is akin to close-mindedness. Even worse are those who confuse being ignorant or lacking moral commitment with being open.

Humility is the true prerequisite for an innovative mind because it makes one teachable. Innovation is about sharing: the sharing of ideas, criticisms, and experience. If our slow hunches are to move forward, we must be less worried about appearing "open-minded" on the surface and more focused on humbling ourselves.
William Hamblin, an historian of the Middle East and ancient religions, understands this well: "In the nearly forty years I have spent studying ancient history and religion, one of the most important truths I've discovered is this: I know fewer answers today than I "knew" when I started studying four decades ago...Ontologically, I believe there is absolute truth. But epistemologically, I believe that truth about the human past cannot be absolutely understood by humans…This is not because of the relative nature of truth, but because of the limited nature of the surviving evidence from the past, and the imperfect nature of human reason, knowledge, and understanding. In the tension between intellectual hubris and humility, I think most of us could use a healthy dose of the latter."

If pride comes before the fall, imagine what follows a little intellectual humility.


My goal is that this blog can be a space for innovation; an environment in which a diverse range of ideas can collaborate and perhaps breed something worthy of the label "good."