Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Brief Layman's Theology of Fasting

There are certain physical manifestations of emotional occurrences that are common to all of humanity. Insomnia is characteristic of overwhelming anticipation; who can sleep the night before Christmas morning? Indigestion is often associated with stress, as well as high blood pressure especially if the stress is chronic. What are the physical manifestations of intense longing? Perhaps insomnia, diminished pleasure in other activities, the inability to focus on anything else, or anyone else. As the villain in the movie Hitch said, “Colors are dull, food has lost its taste…” When you want something (or someone) more badly than anything else in the world or out, your body reacts by suddenly losing its desire for other things, including things necessary for survival. You’re not hungry, you can’t sleep, and you can’t take your mind off of the object of your affection.

David wrote Psalm 63 in the Judean Wilderness while he was running from King Saul. Inside the rain-shadow of Israel, the area gets less than 11 inches of rain per year. It was during this time, running for his life while being pursued by an army, hiding as a fugitive in one of the most barren places in the country, that he penned the following words:

“Oh God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you,
My soul thirsts for you
My body longs for you
In a dry and weary land where there’s no water.”

Forgetting about his own weariness, forgetting about his physical thirst and hunger, David writes that he earnestly seeks God. He can’t even begin to think about his material needs when he is so desperately longing for his Lord. “I have seen you in the sanctuary, and beheld your power and your glory”. David had an intimate knowledge of the goodness of God, and the satisfaction of knowing him and its superiority over even the richest of worldly pleasures. “Your love is better than life… my soul will be satisfied as the richest of foods” David knew that the love and approval of God was better than even life itself, and was ready to forfeit it even as his being was being supremely satisfied in the presence of his Lord.

I would like to suggest that this is the basis for fasting. Fasting is outcome of a soul saying, “God, I want you so bad I don’t even care about physical hunger, I don’t care about physical thirst, I don’t care about death. All I want is you”. When someone is madly in love, it is like his self is elsewhere while his body tries to maintain status quo. He remains listless as other things go on around him because he’s only thinking of one thing. If you ask him if he wants to get something to eat, he’ll reply, “It’s okay, I’m not hungry”. If you ask why he looks so tired or weak, he’ll tell you it’s because he hasn’t been sleeping well.

During these intense periods of longing for your Maker, that is when you fast. You take the time that your body normally uses for daily survival-maintaining rituals (such as eating), and you turn that time towards God.

Men and women who are madly in love with God sometimes seem like their mind is elsewhere. Maybe they don’t exhibit those extreme symptoms of a romantic obsession, but if you could picture them in your mind’s eye, they will always be looking upwards. They are God-centered, heaven-faced, and always thinking about the object of their utmost affection, Christ Jesus their Lord.

People who remind me of this are John Piper, my friend and mentor Greg O’Brien, and my dear friend Mushroom Cheng. Anyone who talks to these people for more than five minutes will know what their minds are constantly thinking of, or who their minds are constantly thinking about. I look up to these people and admire their single-minded passion. I want to be obsessed with Christ and his supremacy to the point of being slightly aloof all the time. That’s the level of desire I want to have for my Lord and savior.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Thought

The Jews have always had privileged access to the words and commands of God. Ever since they became a nation, the God has spoken to his chosen people through a number of different ways. He spoke to Moses as a burning bush and chose him to be Israel's leader and his spokesperson and through him, he gave them his written commands, which they were to bind on the tablets of their hearts. After Moses came his understudy, Joshua, followed by the Judges. There were, of course, numbers of prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. He spoke through David with the Psalms; he used a draft-dodger by the name of Jonah. He used a talking donkey to speak some sense into Balaam; during the days of Moses he even manifested his divine presence as a pillar of fire or a spiraling cloud in order to provide protection for his people.

Then one day, after the prophet Malachi spoke his last word, came silence. For four hundred years, God's people heard not a single peep from their Lord. Kingdoms rose and fell, Israel found independence for a brief period of time only to be crushed again by the mighty Roman Empire. Chanukah was invented. Finally, after four centuries of silence, the God of the universe finally spoke again. His first words?

Goo goo ga ga.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lots of good thoughts packaged into a bad blog

Been thinking about momentum in the context of sports. Momentum is an illusion, even in physics. In physics, momentum is the product of an object's mass and velocity. An object's momentum is an arbitrary equation; it's a number constructed out of two other numbers that are real quantifiable measurements. Actually, now that I think about it, I don't want to go down this slippery slope because if I call momentum an illusion, then I have to call all other physical measurements such as velocity and vectors illusions. The only real measurements of any object is its mass, volume, and position in time. And even then, illusions though they're not, they are still arbitrary. Alright, that's a thought for another day.
At any rate, momentum is certainly an unquantifiable element in a sporting competition. You often hear color commentators report about it based on highly unscientific factors, like "which team needs the win more" "which team scored more in a row" or "which team overcame an enormous psychological obstacle by accomplishing something they've been struggling at" (i.e. Brandon Jacobs' monster catch and run for a TD on Sunday). They factor in excitement and morale. They factor in winning streaks. In short, they factor in things that are completely irrelevant to a team's likelihood to win.
Momentum is not real; not in the physical world and not in sports. But what is real and what isn't real anyway? Is evil real? Augustine famously made the argument that evil has no real substance; it is the absence of something. I always hated that argument. Anyone who wants to argue that cold is not real because it is the absence of heat, or darkness is not real because it is the absence of light can first spend the night naked and blindfolded on my front porch before we engage in meaningful discourse.
(I believe the fulcrum of this debate is your metaphysical foundation. Augustine and Aquinas presuppose a universe constructed out of matter. Varying degrees of being have varying degrees of form and less unintelligible matter, until you get to the highest being, which is actus purus, pure act. According to this metaphysical worldview, things that lack form, such as darkness or evil, lack existence. But I embrace a good deal of Humean skepticism in this matter. For me, perception doesn't point to a metaphysical structure. All I can be sure of is the information of my senses. For me, that's where existence starts. Sorry, Aquinas, but the problem of theodicy remains)
My point is, though there are no scientific ways of quantifying momentum, in sports or in physics (I would argue that the current "scientific way" of quantifying momentum isn't scientific; it's mathematical), it exists. We can't actually grasp it, and we argue about who has more of it (or at least Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth do), but it's real. Ask any football player what it's like to be down two TDs in the first quarter of a four-quarter game. Ask him if playing the other 45 minutes of football is easier if you're down two TDs or up two TDs. Ask him which one is more like stopping a freight train and which one is more like accelerating a freight train going downhill. When your opponent has all the momentum, it is very difficult to regain it by sheer force of will.
Normally in sports, when you're sent reeling you need to stop the game in order to regroup. You can call a timeout or just hang on and try not to lose any more yardage before halftime. During the break, you need to re-center yourself, get hyped up, adjust to what your opponent is giving you, and hopefully turn it around. I guess all this is to say that, when you're in the middle of the game, it's hard to stop something that's happening.

In no particular order, the list of amazing subjects I touched upon that I did immense injustice to: theodicy, metaphysics and its death after Modernity, physics and the nature of the world, being and existence, the arbitrariness of time and position, thrownness, continental philosophy and the connectedness of the universe, and of course, going for it on 4th and 2 at midfield.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

If you're out of tune, you suck

Lately I’ve tried to stay away from saying anything too disagreeable when I get on my soapbox. I didn’t feel like getting into any debates online and I was too lazy to properly research my position, so for the most part I’ve been keeping my opinions to myself. However, I think I’m ready to subject some of my thoughts to peer review. The topic is “intonation as a measure of musical quality”. Go ahead and tear into it, you vicious, liberal...

The progression of music through history, like any progression of art through history, can be charted by its stages of rule-breaking. Music establishes its boundaries, visionary artists transcend those boundaries, and then music establishes new boundaries. Throughout history, almost every element of music, from rhythm to dynamics, from melody to meter, has had rules broken by some class of music, ranging from high-brow classical to low-brow popular.

While this is not an exact science, trends of music culture can be identified. Before Beethoven, few composers would dare modulate outside of their parallel and relative keys, but the introduction of new dissonances in the Romantic era of classical music saw artists bring on increasingly chaotic chord progressions. Brahms did things with the orchestra that Mozart wouldn’t dream of; he bent and broke rules, and established new rules of conduct for the same works; symphonies, concertos, and whatnot.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the classical world started getting tired of even the most fundamental rules of music; the paradigm of keys and traditional rhythmic patterns. French Impressionism paved the way for the likes of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and their work in atonal music (music that essentially lacks a central key signature). Everyone began experimenting with unconventional time signatures; ones where the numbers aren’t always divisible by either 2 or 3.

The astute connoisseur of music will identify these trends in any genre. The Beatles aren’t iconic just because of their great music and its represented ideology; they revived the traditional guitar-based rock band and paved the way for all rock music afterwards. The patron saint of alternative rock music is U2; there are few alternative artists who haven’t stolen (or borrowed, or w/e you want to call it) from their familiar delay-pedal electric riffs. Before jazz got big, seventh chords were unheard of and likely to be considered noise rather than music!

Anyway, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes and generalizations, but my point is, there are no musical rules that haven’t been broken. Good, new music happens when a forward-thinking artist says, “hey, let me try this that no one’s ever done before” and it catches on.

Now, of all the rules that have ever existed and of all the ones broken, one rule in my mind that has stood steadfast across all genres and time periods is the rule of intonation. What I mean is, I CAN'T THINK OF ANY KIND OF MUSIC WHERE A RULE GOVERNING QUALITY ISN'T "THE SINGER OR MUSIC MUST BE IN TUNE*. We’ve left all the other rules in the dust; thanks to the foggy world of Indie, good music nowadays doesn’t even have to have discernible conflict and resolution, cadences, refrains, theme and variation, consistent key or time signature. thanks to pop radio, good music nowadays doesn’t even need to have real instrumentalists! For every rule, there’s at least one accepted artist breaking it.

BUT THE ONE RULE IN MY MIND THAT IS STILL UNTOUCHABLE IS THE RULE OF INTONATION. I can’t accept as a musician an artist that intentionally sings off-key, no matter what cultural messages it sends out. I don’t think I am ready for it, and I don’t think our world is ready for it. Does anyone else feel this way? I am thinking primarily of two songs. One is “Paper Airplanes” by MIA and another is “Anyone else but you” Moldy Peaches, which was featured in the recent film, “Juno”. Oftentimes on the radio, you’ll hear musicians who don’t rely on auto-tune enough and have off-key parts in their songs, but I think these two offenders are particularly egregious because to me, in their music they don’t even sound like they’re trying.

I think because of alternative and indie music, the traditional standards of judging vocal quality is now out the window. People with “bad voices” can still earn fans if the fans feel that their voice is unique enough to stand out. With the birth of rap, there is now “good rapping” and “bad rapping”, although of course there’s vast disagreement as to what is which. However, no matter what timbre of your voice and what inflection of your rhythmic poetry, one rule that still stands fast to me is, “IF YOU'RE OUT OF TUNE, YOU SUCK”. I’m sorry MLIA, I know you’re trying to convey to us your laid-back, gangsta lifestyle full of swagger with your relaxed style of singing, but it’s no excuse to relax your vocal chords to the point of wretched tonal quality. It’s one thing to try to bend some rules; it’s another to make my ears bleed and make me want to kill something when I listen to your music. I’m sorry, but I’m not ready for it.

Does anyone else feel this way, or am I too doggedly stubborn with my musical preferences? Are most people really okay with out of tune singers; is intonation perhaps just a wretchedly joy-draining pet peeve of mine? No one else wants to slay an innocent victim when “Paper Airplanes” comes on the radio?

My final point is this. I admire Jay-Z and I love his music. I also support his campaign against the over-use of auto-tune. From a firmly ethical standpoint, I’m still undecided about whether auto-tune is good or bad for the music world; whether its considered cheating or its as legitimate as any other electronic aids. But, come on Jay-Z! If you’re going to sing that poorly in the first 10 seconds of your song, how the heck do you expect to convince people that auto-tune is bad? Plus, you’re a rapper! This isn’t even your fight! Why don’t you let the indie artists, who stand to lose a lot more, take the lead in this crusade?

*The closest exception I can think of is the use of the whammy pedal by electric guitarists, which in a way is a descendant of the classical vibrato; but even then the controlled pitch-shifting is a far cry from the junk you hear from artists who don’t even try to sound good.