Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Prima la liturgia, poi le parole?

Some thoughts of Gawain about the decline in church attendance being the result of a lack of art in the church struck a familiar chord. I was a choir director for a number of years at a Lutheran Church. The Lutherans are a funny lot, liturgically speaking. They have all the liturgical traditions of their closest denominational relatives (Anglicans and Catholics), and yet one would be hard pressed to find this rich liturgical inheritance practiced with any regularity here in Canada.

There is no equivalent movement in Lutheranism to rival Anglo-Catholicism, so the only option for those Lutherans who are more liturgically inclined is to either move to Waterloo, Ontario, where the Lutheran community is large and diverse, and you have great men like Pastor Paul Bosch concerned about liturgy, or, failing that, attempt to bring the liturgical practices that have been there all along, right in pages of the Lutheran Book of Worship they crack open every Sunday, into their own church.

This, my friends, is also known as "pissing into the wind".

For five years, the church pastor and I attempted to bring art and liturgy pack into cold, empty space that was the church. The members of the congregation who were most opposed to these changes also happened to be the most vocal. Support for the reintroduction of weekly communion or the presence of an altar cross would be whispered to us, as though people feared for their lives if their views got out.

The strangest part about the entire exercise was that the main objection to the changes, most of which were very minor, was that we were changing their traditional ways of worship. But here's the thing, and I wonder if others who have been in protestant churches in the past 25 years have noticed the same thing - there are no traditional ways of worship in most churches outside the liturgical orbit of Catholicism. If you asked one group what the liturgical tradition for say, Christmas was, you'd get one answer. You asked another group, you'd get a completely different answer. Many of the immovable "traditions" were things they had only started doing a few years before. Which led us to believe we were working with a blank slate. What a blunder.

So why did they object so much to what amounted to, in effect, a kind of liturgical Counter-Reformation? A return to their own lost traditions.

The only answer we could ever come up with was that they didn't like what they took to be the "Catholicisation" of their church. Most of these people had grown up still firmly under the impression that the Catholics were all going to hell and that a service that resembled theirs would perhaps imply to God that we too were a popish lot, and God might send us to hell too. For celebrating the Eucharist every week. Never mind that in 1997, Lutherans and Catholics signed a document that from a theological perspective, ended the Reformation.


How does one explain this kind of thing? I recognize now that, as someone who wasn’t a Lutheran, just how important these things were to them. What was so important to these people, that were they willing to tear the church apart to keep it out? It was art.

Contrast this with all these wonderful posts over at Heaven Tree about Bali, their culture, and how their life is infused with a kind of aesthetic sensibility, where cab drivers become kings and bureaucrats become gods. Here was a group, upper-middle class and quite worldly, for whom the thought of a more dramatic service or a more colourful church was anathema. These people completely lacked the aesthetic sense so palpable in other parts of the world. For them all that mattered was the Word, and even then, a sermon with too much metaphor and cadence was tut-tutted at coffee hour.

The pastor and I worked to change the services precisely because we believed that if anything was going to “save” the church, it wasn’t going to be jacking up the fees for using the parking lot, or changing more for weddings and funerals (this was the church consensus – revenue generation as solution to spiritual ills). Instead, it was going to be by restoring the active participation of the congregation in the church services they attended. The only way to do this was through a return to the magic and mystery of the ancient rites, because they were the only thing that could attract people who didn’t care for God back into the church.

In other words, we wanted to turn the church into the Bali Arts Festival. And how bad would that have been?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Why oh Why

did I do it?

Why did I find myself this morning checking out the National Post?

I haven't been over there since they put up the paywall. I used to enjoy reading Mark Kingwell, and let's be honest, when that paper was born, neo-con zaniness aside, the arts and culture section couldn't be beat by any newspaper in the country.

But....that was so long ago. The paper seems a pale, yet strangely angry, shadow of itself. Funny too, that anger, given they've got Steve Harper in Ottawa now. Corcoran's still peddling his missives that would make the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal blush, but, true to my own form, and this blog, the article I found myself reading was the following screed by William Watson, who happens to be an economics professor at McGill.

The title let me know I was going to be in for a 1990's right-wing anger fest - "Let social activists pay for the CBC". Aaaaah....the old "activists" trope. Boy, I haven't heard that one in years. I thought it kind of died out, what with Steve Harper, of National Citizens Coalition fame, being PM.

One would think a Yale-trained economist who writes for the Post would have received the memo that "activist" is a word that should be used sparingly, what with all those corporatist bagmen, like the PM and his Secretary, Jason Kenny, formerly of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, running the country. (Don't you love those quaint populist names for these tax the poor, free the rich social activist groups?)

But I digress. So, let's get back to what this Yale-trained economist has to say about CBC radio. He poses a nice, clear question: "Why should we be subsidizing what so often amounts to social activist radio?"

Well, let's see - I take it Professor Watson here is going to now answer this question by providing evidence of CBC radio's "social activism" (what a wink wink nudge nudge term "social activism" is - it's akin to a conservative secret handshake, like "special interest" and "the poor" - the latter always said with just a dusting of approbation).

So what does the dear professor take social activism to be? Everything he heard on the CBC that day. It's just that simple. Really.

I won't bore you with rehashing the litany of things he found distasteful about the CBC that day, because it's just one of those things about the right-left divide in politics. I look at the list and go, hey, what a bunch of interesting things to learn about - and he goes, why aren't we discussing what a dream globalization is? Or why aren't there more Hayek and Friedman discussions on the CBC? In other words, why is Professor Watson's kind of social activism not being discussed?

And in it's own way, it's a good question. The CBC should have "free-market supporters" (read here corporatist windbags, these guys wouldn't know a free market if they wound up standing in the middle of one looking for a pair of socks - they all have an all too narrow view of equality) like William Watson on, and let him go head to head with Judy Rebick or someone like that.

I mean, it's not as though Watson and his kind don't have a pulpit (The National Post, and to a lesser extent, the Globe and Mail), but sure, let them, even more often than they already are, on the CBC - because then all the social activists are there, like Professor Watson, free market activist, and no one can use that old, tired phrase, because the social activists are paying for the CBC

Then we can actually get on to a discussion about what's really wrong with the CBC, which isn't much of CBC radio One (Professor Watson doesn't appear to know there are two CBC Radio stations). Oddly enough, the problems stem from the fact that the CBC has adopted a lot of the 1990's neo-con corporatist psychobabble and has essentially refashioned itself into precisely what these guys wanted institutionally, except that in doing so it has lost much of what made it utterly different from private broadcasting.

That Professor Watson couldn't even identify the real problem on CBC Radio, Radio Two, just goes to show how out of touch he is with things here in the public world - perhaps he should climb down from his ivory tower and spend a bit more time checking things out before proclaiming that social activists like him should be paying for the CBC.

And here's the irony - I suspect that Professor Watson and I would agree on something - that the death of an elitist streak at the CBC over the past 15 years has been perhaps the greatest blow to its strengths, and has helped to make foes from friends and deliver it to the very enemies of anything public, like William Watson.

I mean this - I would love nothing more than to find some hard-core institutional economist wipe the floor with Professor Watson's rehashed, tired, one-sided musings about the glories of the free market and competition. (I understand this is hard, seeing as most good economists spend their time doing research instead of penning anti-CBC smears that look like they were written in 1992).

I'd love to see intellectual rigour brought back to every nook and cranny of the CBC - because it's exactly what this country needs to stem the damaging of discourse by smart men peddling shallow ideas.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Naxos Music Library

So I was returning some books to the Music Library at the University of Toronto, and I espied a sign that said "the Naxos Music Libary is now available to students".

My thoughts turned - does that mean what I think it does? After coffee with my chums, I settled down to my work computer, and after finding the proper link (they make it nice and difficult to find), I found myself logged into this.

Good freaking Lord! Holy Mary Mother, Mother of the Sweet, Sweet Baby Jesus!

Since discovering this er, yesterday afternoon, I've listened to Iranian Classical Music, the Ramayana monkey chant, operatic overtures by Franz Schreker, the First book of Madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi, as well as his Ballo Delle Ingrate and Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Right now, I'm listening to the Preludes of Charles Valentin Alkan.

This is serious. It will change my relationship with my family and friends - there will never be a lack of new, obscure music playing in my head or my house.

Now I know there are some of you out there, lurking, saying, "Naxos is the Wal-Mart of classical music! Your love of this is condoning the very things you despise in other spheres of cultural life!"

The availability of this kind of knowledge, where I can sit my toddler son down and teach him more about classical music aurally than I could have dreamed of doing myself in all my years as a student is exactly the kind of thing I wish there was more of in our capitalist society - this is precisely the place where, if capitalism works, more power to it. If dumping the riches of western civilization onto the Internet is profitable to Naxos, hey, who am I to complain? If classical musicians, some of whom I know, make some money by recording for Naxos, hey, all the better - it's not like they're whipping Indonesians children into finishing up that last batch of porcelain nativity scenes.

This is really all a meandering way of saying that if you have institutional access to this service, use it, and if you don't, the monthly cost is fairly reasonable for what you get in return.

And to completely scare the last of you off, this also means there's going to be a lot more music talk on this site!!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Why the Financial Times is my Weekend Paper; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Liberalism

Does everyone, at some point, realise they've come to a certain place in their life where it's both a social and personal necessity to have the newspaper delivered to their door?

It happened so innocently. This young boy, clever and confident, came to my door last summer with an offer I couldn't refuse - a 7-day subscription to the Toronto Star at a price lower than the cost of weekend paper at the news stand!

This boy, who I'm sure will one day sell air conditioners in Iqualuit (if only that were a description of his future prowess as a merchant), dashed off to an idling mini-van where, I presume, his parents or local paper kingpin (or both) produced the required paperwork to put him one sale closer to a free Schwinn bike (with tassels) or bubble hookah.

And I waited eagerly for that first paper. Then, one morning, a dull thud at the porch. The paperboy! Or, more accurately, the paperguy in his mid-40's with the paisley bellhop's hat. I rushed downstairs, opened the door, and there it lay - my first paper. It wasn't in swaddling or a basket, but for the next few minutes, this paper was my baby.

Unfortunately, unlike the real baby I was home looking after, the daily Toronto Star soon became a pile of unread scrolls left to dessicate at the bottom of our entranceway. Some days we wouldn't even bring the thing inside until the following day. Some baby- some parent.

Then there was the weekend paper. Am I the only one who has trouble reading the Saturday Toronto Star? This enormous beast, a giant prop for the local car manufacturing and real estate industries, and the sheer number of pages devoted to selling you things, or telling you where to buy things, or what kinds of new things there are out there to buy, or where you can go eating while you shop for those new things, or...

Like the previous paragraph, the Saturday newspaper quickly became a burden best abandoned. The only bright spot in all of this was the Sunday Star - Not only could you finish the paper, but there were actually moments when the Star managed to climb out of its intellectually wishy-washy over-earnestness and produce something genuinely interesting.

So I decided, after four short months, to abandon all but the Sunday edition, which is compact, with lots of articles and is overall a decent attempt to raise the intellectual and cultural bar of the paper.

Alas, I needed to fill the newspaper vacuum. I starting buying the Saturday Globe and Mail, but, like any rebound, I enjoyed immensely it for a while but soon found myself bored and looking for something a bit more sophisticated, more exotic. And I found it in the Financial Times.

“Wuzzah?” I hear you saying in your head, “I thought you were some kind of post-structuralist Marxist – what’s a guy who knits his own hemp socks doing buying the Financial Times?”

Well, dear readers, I’ll tell you – it’s a great paper! Despite the title, it bears little resemblance to that corporatist Pravda, the Wall Street Journal. It does have stock prices, but it also has well-written editorials which present a well-thought out, decidedly liberal view of the world. All this on that distinctive salmon-coloured newsprint. Most importantly, and this is who brought me to the paper in the first place, it has Tyler Brûlé.

But that’s for another time.