Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Not the Usual

 I bet he get lots of appreciation

News for my readership (both of you):

My double-secret blog (that's this one) has been nominated in the Best Underappreciated Blog category of the 2011 CANNONBALL CATHOLIC BLOG AWARDS.

Of course I'll post about it again as the deadline approaches.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Shebna Shrugged

Y'all are already way, way familiar with these two bits:

Isaiah 22:

20 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, 21 and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22 And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

Matthew 16:

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

We act out the Isaiah 22 bit in class. A weak point last year was that the kids didn't grasp why King Hezekiah doesn't just hand the key to Eliakim. I put my keys on Eliakim's shoulder because that's what it says; but it seems odd. Nobody put keys on someone else's shoulder.

So this year when we cover Isaiah 22, and Eliakim still has my keys on his shoulder, I expect discussion to continue something like this:

"Eliakim, why didn't I just hand you my keys like a regular person? No idea...that's ok. Anybody? Cause he's shorter than you! Oh my, you are the clever one, but no. Listen to this bit of prophecy from Isaiah Chapter 9 and see if you can figure it out.

6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." 

Who's this prophecy about? Jesus? Yes, why? Because he's the Prince of Peace? Yes, good. Why will the government be upon his shoulder? 'Cause he's the Prince? Well, yes, but why is it on his shoulder? No guesses...ok, look, when I carry my keys I can do it like so (I take the keys from Eliakim's shoulder and hold them between two fingers). Can I carry my 20-lb. grandson like keys? No, he's too heavy. Right, I carry him more like this (I pretend to carry him slung in the crook of my arm). Now if I'm a fireman carrying another grown man out of a burning building, can I tote him like my grandson? No he's too big! So what do I do? You have to put him over your shoulders! Yes. When someone carries something on his shoulders, what do you know? That he's carrying a lot of weight! Yes, if you're carrying all you can bear, the load is on your shoulders. OK Eliakim, I'm going to put my keys back on your shoulder...how do those little keys feel now? Heavy! Yes, that responsibility is a great burden. C'mon, show us how heavy all that responsibility is...that's it. But isn't it also a great honor to be trusted with the king's keys? Yes. OK class, tell me: who bears responsibility for Hezekiah's kingdom? Hezekiah! No...Eliakim! Yes, Eliakim...how do you know? He got the keys! Yes, and why are they on his shoulder...because keys are heavy? No, 'cause the kingdom is heavy! Yes...is it literally heavy? No...but to do it is hard. Yes, as we said before it's a heavy responsibility."

Later on when we get to Matthew 16, we'll cover this:

"Y'all remember a couple of months ago when I gave Eliakim my keys? Yes. Did I just hand them over? No, you put them on his shoulder. Because...they're heavy! No...think first, then speak. Because he's responsible for everything. Yes. So when Jesus says he's giving his keys to Peter, is that going to be fun for Peter- to have that power? No, it will be hard. Yes, but it's also a great honor...an honor which carries a heavy responsibility, but also great authority. In fact, back when Eliakim got the keys, Isaiah also said, "...he will become a throne of honor to his father's house." That sounds pleasant, doesn't it? Having a throne, having authority, being the bossman: hey servant, fetch me a pizza. And then Isaiah says, "And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father's house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons." Yes? What's a flagon? It's a kind of pitcher. So how did Eliakim and Peter probably feel about bearing the weight of the keys? Honored? Yes, and...scared? Yes, and...worried? Yes. Would you want them? No. Why? I would be afraid I'd mess up. Yes. But maybe you or Peter would get some help...from...Jesus? Yes. Or the Holy Spirit. The Church knows that even though Peter and his successors, who are...popes...yes, are sinners, God helps them not to teach anything about Himself that isn't true."

An aside on lesson plans:

Most of this post is about working the shoulder material into the catchetical year in order to add something I noticed was lacking last time. But part of is about deciding where to add the new material. In this case, I'm planning to use Isaiah 9 in addition to most of Isaiah 22 to discuss Eliakim's key. Then when we get to Peter's keys in Matthew, I'll go back to Isaiah 22 for the bit about the weighty honor.  Because the class runs through the Bible chronologically, my default position is to just cover stuff in order. But sometimes for the sake of future review it's better to save some early bits for later. In other words, suppose part of an October O.T. lesson has bits A, B, C & D; and I'll want to review them in February during an N.T. class. Sometimes it's better to teach A, B & D, but not C. Then in February, new learning about C will be tied to the review of A, B & D. The C bit will then be a bridge between the O.T. material and the N.T. material.

Finally, because I still have last year's lesson plan outline, it's easy to see how and where this new information should be included.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Too Flat a Pyramid

 I think the Beatles are underrated. That's not the subject of this post, but I say it in the interest of full disclosure. I was 6 years old when Please Please Me came out, and even a first-grader knew he'd never heard anything like that before. I got the 45 for my next birthday; but I can date my childhood by Beatle songs better than birthdays.

(I should mention my wife saw the Beatles live at Olympia Stadium in Detroit in 1964. Yes, she is older than me.) 

A few years ago I read Can't Buy Me Love, a Beatles bio that came out in 2007. Of particular interest were the bits on Hamburg, before they had made it big, but were preparing to make it big. Hamburg photos taken of them by Astrid Kircherr are my favorite Beatle images. Some examples:

Kids: George was 17 when they first went to Hamburg. Seventeen.

The book filled in a lot of detail about the Beatles in Hamburg, which had been treated in a 1994 movie called Backbeat. I liked the movie more than Paul and George did.

This summer, on our July Adriatic cruise, one of the shows featured a tribute band called the Backbeat Beatles. After the second song I told Janet they sounded more like the Beatles than the Beatles. They even talked like they were from Liverpool. Anyway, after the show, instead of taking it easy, the band changed clothes and headed up to the piano bar, where Janet and I are if we aren't in the jazz bar. For over an hour they sang songs they hadn't done in the show, with "Paul" on the piano. Just terrific. Then afterward they sat around with us and a few others 'til 2am talking about the Beatles, Liverpool, music, kids, travel, politics. They were all from Liverpool, had been raised on Beatles music; I'm guessing they were all late 30s-early 40s. At least one wife was with them. "Paul" seemed kind of familiar...turned out he played George in Backbeat, and later arranged to use the Backbeat name for the tribute band.

So I asked one of them (let's say it was "John") if they ever play Beatles songs their own way, or do they have to do them straight all the time? John said they perform them like the Beatles: audiences tend to think of Beatles music as kind of preserved, and not to be done except as how the Beatles did it. But when they practice, or do sound checks, they'll do their own thing. I asked if he'd ever listened to any Beatles covers on YouTube: one reason I like YouTube so much is that it shows thousands of people doing their own versions of well-known songs. I already know how the original artists did a song; when I listen to a cover, I want to hear what that individual brings to the music. I elaborated a bit, saying that I expect Beatles music will endure beyond their lifetimes: people two generations removed from the 60s cover their songs on YouTube, and make no pretense of doing the songs like the Beatles did; each person does them his or her way. I like that. It keeps the music from being embalmed. Plus unlike in the Beatles' day, no music industry executive or radio dj with a playlist can decide what music will or won't be available for me to hear. The bureaucratic-managerial pyramid had been bypassed, or at least flattened way down, thus allowing listeners to buy whatever 99-cent songs they like by anyone who made their music available on the net.

But John said he didn't think that flattened pyramid was such a good idea. Oh...why not? Well, he asked, what really great bands can you think of?  I rattled off a dozen. Yes, he said, but name some from the last 15 years or so, since the mp3 format became popular. Ehhh....Smashing Pumpkins maybe...no...I give up! John said right, there aren't any great new bands these days in part because the music industry can't perform the winnowing process as it used to do. New music is being made available faster than anyone can keep up with; and it's virtually impossible for a new talent to get any traction before they're washed over by even newer music. A band like U2 is still a big deal because they were huge before the mp3 era, and aren't likely to ever have any real competition. And John wasn't confident that those old great bands would have had the same success today: partly because the modern listener's attention is too diffuse due to the proliferation of inexpensive downloads, and sites such as YouTube; and the weakness of the music business model in which the promoters risk their paychecks and resources on correctly distinguishing great talent from good talent.

I hadn't thought of that. I'm not persuaded, either. But still, I've always assumed that flattening the pyramid was a good thing, and it hadn't occurred to me that it might not always be true.


A couple of Beatles covers I like; your mileage may vary:

Norwegian Wood

Here Comes the Sun

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bible Culture

I listen to a good bit of white spiritual music, via cd/YouTube/mp3, and especially on local KJV-only old-time-religion radio. My favorite station features a medley of preaching, Bible reading, quiet advertising, singing by assorted amateur adult and children's choirs from the broadcast area, and professionally-recorded music. Once a day all the obituaries in the local paper are graciously and unhurriedly read; I expect that gentle voice will someday read mine.

I'm Catholic. The station's worldview and mine are not in perfect accord, but that keeps me on my toes. It's what one might call a left-handed blessing: I don't know where I'd be as a Catholic without the challenge of living in the Bible Belt. Regardless, the thing I most appreciate about the programming is how the culture of church and Bible extends into the day-to-day social world of the listenership. In other words, the programming is pitched at people for whom the Bible isn't just part of Church- it's part of Culture. Most of the songs are not hymns- they're just songs with a Christian context. And not just a Christian context (Jesus loves me/ I love Jesus), but a Bible context (I'm a sinner who is washed in the blood of Jesus). That streaming of the Bible out of Sunday worship into the rest of the week is something American Catholics would do well to emulate. An example of what I like in this "Bible-believing" culture is a song about Lazarus. You know the story about Jesus raising Lazarus. It doesn't hurt to read it again:

John 11 (edited):

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  So the sisters sent to [Jesus], saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  ...Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; Jesus wept. Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.  Jesus said, "Take away the stone."  So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me."  When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out."  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth... ."

Here's the story again, retold as poetry:

There were a little family/ Who lived in Bethany.
Two sisters and the brother/ Composed the family.
While they were living so happy/ So good, pure and kind,
Their brother was afflicted/ And by disease confined.
When Jesus heard the tidings/ Far in a distant land,
So quickly did he hasten/ To see the holy land.

When Martha saw him coming/ She met him on the way,
And told him of her brother/ Who’d died and passed away.
When Mary saw him coming/ She ran and met him too.
Fell at his feet a-weeping/ Rehearsed their tale of woe.

When Jesus saw her weeping/ He fell a-weeping, too,
And wept until they showed him/ Where Lazarus lay entombed.
He rolled away the stone/ Looked into the grave,
And prayed to his heavenly father/ His loving friend to raise.
He rolled back the cover/ Looked into the gloomy mound,
And as the breath was given/ He walked upon the ground.

If we would only but love Jesus/ And do his blessed will,
Like these two loving sisters/ He’d always treat us well,
And at death he would redeem us/ And carry us to the sky,
And there we’d live forever/ Where pleasure never dies.

You can see how well the story is understood, and is retold in the composer's own voice; yet it remains remarkably close to its Bible source.

And the words set to music, recorded in 1960: The Little Family (1:42, very short)

The song springs from a culture which reads, likes, is conversant with, is familiar with, is at ease with the Bible. That's what I'd like Catholics to have: that same familiarity and comfort level.  To not just respect the Bible, but to like it.

(That's Ollie Gilbert at the top: she's the singer)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tissot & Rockwell

James Tissot (1836-1902) was a French painter known for a series of paintings on the life of Christ, and an uncompleted series treating stories from the Old Testament. In pursuit of historical accuracy, he made assorted trips to the Middle East. Tissot researched its architecture, clothing and other details which are evident in his work.

I like to use his paintings in Wednesday Sunday School, and can usually recognize a Tissot. This is a personal favorite:

Sarai Is Taken to Pharaoh's Palace

Pharaoh: "Hey baby, you're lookin' good...can I get you a beer? That putz you're traveling with says you're his sister... izzat right? Sarai...what sorta name is that? Cat got your tongue? You no speaka Egyptian? Hey, look at me when I'm talking to you."


New topic: this afternoon I was surfing around and found a Prodigal Son that I wasn't familiar with:

I use Rembrandt's Prodigal Son in class, and am familiar with others, including Tissot's, but never saw this one before today. Based on the buildings and the clothes, I'd say the parable is set in a Dutch/ Flemish medieval context, which was a typical way that Dutch/ Flemish medieval artists would paint Bible stories. After chasing several Dutch/ Flemish dead ends, I accidentally learned that this painting was done in 1862 by...Tissot!? (he painted more than one Prodigal Son). I'm not sure what moved him to paint the story this way (I suppose it's an homage to Northern Renaissance artists), but Tissot shows all the expected details. There are steep Flemish roofs; a stepped gable; flying buttresses on a Gothic church. Faithful Fido. The Jewish family's father is well-dressed, and the women wear their wimples. Leaning on the half-painted green wooden porch, the elder son, who couldn't be happier to see his brother, is a bit less finely-clad than his father.

But looking at Tissot's painting reminded me of a 1945 painting that wasn't a Prodigal Son, but rather its thematic opposite, the Responsible Son. A painting in which a son, having also suffered much, returns from "his journey into a far country" not having shirked responsibility, but having borne it. Whose family and dog "receive him safe and sound," and are uniformly happy to greet him from a half-painted green wooden porch.

Was Rockwell influenced by Tissot? I don't know beyond my own opinion. Born and bred in New York City, Rockwell would've had ample opportunity to see scores of Tissot's paintings in local collections. But you may wonder, if Rockwell was influenced in this case, then why is his composition vertical rather than horizontal?

Because his format was fixed:

Let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Safety Corner

I have been living in my city since 1965. Like most kids my age, I rode a bike all over the place through highschool, and then through 4 years of college. Never had a problem sharing the road with cars.

A popular Saturday spot in my teen years was a little bridge in a downtown park. Among the many unremarkable corners I rode around to get there is one that in the last year or so has received numerous ummm, safety enhancements.

First, as part of an ongoing local practice of giving bikes their own separate lanes,  separate bike lanes were added going straight & turning right.

And a picture of a bike was painted on the lane going straight just to make it clear that's not a lane for motorcycles or Smart cars or runners or people with strollers. And a straight-ahead arrow was painted too, in case a cyclist wanted to turn right into the car lane (I think); as the Australians soldiers said in the trenches of 1918: too late, chum!

To further separate bike & vehicular traffic, a curb was added, which has the side effect of pinching the turn for cars.

And a sign was added to indicate that bikes bear right, and vehicles keep left, although the vehicle side seems to conflict a bit with the bike and arrow painted on the ground which are going straight. It may be best not to pay too much attention to the sign's arrows.

Then a set of three pickets (is three pickets enough- I'm thinking seven) and reflectors were added to physically separate the vehicles and bikes that go straight without turning right. I think. If my aging joints get too crabby about the high-impact of running, and I start riding a bike again, I'll have to be careful here not to impale myself three times. And if I ran around this corner I suppose I'd use the bike lane. I'm not sure. Maybe runners need their own lanes too; no runner wants to be hit by cars or bikes. I should mention that I run without a helmet- in case that's relevant.

I've read the local paper every day for 25 years, never seen a word about this corner being a danger for anyone (which isn't exhaustive research). Which isn't to say that nobody on a bike was ever injured here, although the local papers seem to be vigilant in reporting car vs. bike accidents. But as a once and future bike-rider around this very corner, I think it may have been safer when it was dangerous. If that's what it was in the first place.

 The Safety Corner

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Vremya & Avrupa

After our visit to Ravenna, the ship stopped next in Bari. I didn't know a thing about Bari before planning our day there, but we were both pleasantly surprised. Among the places we visited was Bari Cathedral, also known as San Sabino, whose relics rest there. The current church was constructed on the site of the prior cathedral, and consecrated in 1292. Walking around in San Sabino, it's obvious that many bits of the older church were re-used, which emphasize how old Bari is compared to cities in the US.

Among San Sabino's visual treats are the remnants of frescoes which used to be much more comprehensive:

This fragment was particularly striking:

That looks like a child held by its mom on the left; I don't know who they are. To the right, I suppose that's Jesus being nursed by Mary. But what's interesting isn't so much those images, but the areas around them. My first impression looking at this fresco was that it had been vandalized. See all the diagonal white scratches in the outlined areas below:

But looking more closely you can see that the scratches aren't from abuse: such scoring enables a new fresco to be applied over an old one without sliding off. That is, the nursing Jesus fresco is newer, and lies on top of an older fresco. Part of what impresses is simply how many centuries of human effort have left their mark here: prior cathedrals built on the same site, possibly dating back to the 400s; the cathedral built in the 11th century and destroyed in the 13th; the present cathedral built using bits of the ruined church; and then assorted encrustations over the next thousand years or so, including frescoes atop frescoes, and later architectural features (some of which were removed in the last century to restore the church to a more original state). But also remarkable is how casually old stuff was cast aside, covered up, reused, or demolished without much ado. Time in Europe is so much older, more pervasive, more substantial than time in the New World. For example, when the Mississippi River last changed its course from the Atchafalaya Basin to its present route past New Orleans, there was probably already a cathedral church in Bari. And a cathedral is likely to be there still when the Mississippi returns to the Atchafalaya.

During the rest of the day in Bari I was percolating on the glacial pace of human time in Europe; and how to express a movement that may run more slowly than the Mississippi changes its course. Usually English has the right words; sometimes it doesn't. And the words that best told me what I grasped at in Bari were Vremya...and Avrupa. Vremya, время,  is the Russian word for 'time'. Avrupa is how the Turks say Europe. To say Time and Europe with regard to Bari's cathedral sounds too sleek, too glib, to express the scale of time that lies there, millennium upon millennium with such lack of fuss. Vremya & Avrupa suggest more primal concepts. They speak to the difference between my time-world, and a place which was civilized long before there were minutes and seconds.

Think of it as Catholic Time.