Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Handel Meets Shakespeare Meets Jesus Christ

Recently I had the wonderful experience of attending the Dallas Symphony Chorus’ dress rehearsal for Handel’s Messiah. Seeing and hearing the work in a practice-setting provided not only unique insight into the behind-the-scenes antics of a brilliant conductor and the strenuous discipline of expert musicians, but also a cost-free ($5.00 parking) opportunity to enrich my soul and mind through the transcendent power and authority of great art. But of course Messiah is more than great art—it is worship, and whatever the aesthetic power of Messiah, its liturgical power is greater. But what really makes Messiah so spiritually potent?

Is it the music?

I am no expert in music, much less classical music, but I have listened to classical music almost every day for over two decades; that at least gives me a snippet of credibility regarding what is good, better, or best in classical music. Perhaps what I have to say falls within the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face category, but I have no qualms in asserting that Handel falls short of the glory of Mozart and Beethoven; in fact Handel’s music, even Messiah, only remotely approaches the emotional complexity, tonal splendor, aesthetic power, and innovative creativity of Debussy, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, or Bach. Handel may be a star but he is only a lesser orb in the symphonic galaxy, albeit with a divine radiance that brightens his artistic gift. However, as I watched and listened to Messiah last evening, another aesthetic revelation dawned upon me (actually it didn’t dawn upon me but its light was newly rekindled upon my soul’s horizons)—the inferiority of music to rhetoric.

After all, God did not say, “In the beginning was the music,” did He?

No, what makes Handel’s Messiah so powerful is not the music but “the Word.” Now please do not expect a full discourse on the aesthetic supremacy of poetry over music (although that is a fact) much less a diatribe about the power of God’s word blended with classical music, despite the critical relevance of that topic to the pedantic and mundane tastes of contemporary worship! Besides, such a lofty aim is far beyond the space and time I can sacrifice to this brief essay, and thus I lower my sights to a less complex but certainly important topic—Handel’s music expressed through biblical language in Shakespearean style.

Now think about this—the person unfamiliar with the Shakespearian verbiage is at a distinct disadvantage to appreciate Handel’s Messiah. Not only does the archaic phrasing inhibit the uninitiated ear from swiftly apprehending key biblical references in Messiah—

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain.
O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength;
lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God!
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, Arise, shine, for thy Light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

–even worse, contemporary ignorance of Shakespearian phrasing diminishes our ability to comprehend Messiah’s meaning—

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplish'd, that her Iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

How can we catch the message if we don’t understand the pitch? One should not jump to the conclusion that I am defending the manuscriptal superiority of the KJV—oh, prithee, constrain thyself from such lascivious imaginations—but I am nonetheless attempting another kind of KJV defense, an aesthetic one.

Surely no one can argue against the fact that the Shakespearian English of the KJV represents the most elegant diction in the history of the English language. After all, isn’t the Bard himself the pinnacle and prototype of rhetorical excellence? How, then, except through our own literary ignorance and linguistic laziness, could we prefer the “simpler” and “clearer” modern biblical translations that seek to accommodate the pedestrian language of contemporary “culture”? Just because Shakespeare may be unpalatable to the modern tongue and unpleasant to the contemporary ear, should we then throw the Bard out on his “arse”? The following scenario should make us laugh and wince at once—

Handel without the beauty of Shakespeare!

Imagine the reaction of the culturally informed if the following ad appeared in the Morning News:

In response to popular taste, the Dallas Symphony Chorus,
under the direction of Buford Samples,
has written a contemporary adaptation of Handel’s Messiah,
stripping away the archaic and irrelevant language of the King James Version Bible
and modernizing its message with blended (and bland) wording from
the NIV, NASB, The Message, Living Bible, and Cotton Patch Gospel.

Of course the only thing louder than the outcry would be the laughter, and God pity the reputation and credibility of the poor buffoon who would undertake such an aesthetic affront . . . he might as well take a pocket knife to Monet or Renoir.

But the issue is not merely one of the aesthetic superiority of Shakespearian English—it is also an issue of cultural orientation and aesthetic sensibility. After all, it’s not just Handel who refers to the KJV. Consider this list—Milton, Bunyan, Donne, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelly, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Coleridge, Joyce, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Irving, Cooper, Melville, Faulkner, James, Conrad, Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Yeats, Lewis, Pound, and Eliot—and those are just a few of the classical writers! Get the point?—

By depriving ourselves, our children, our students, and our contemporary Christian culture of Shakespeare’s English biblically expressed in the King James Version, we are in fact unwittingly depreciating our aesthetic sensibility to recognize classical references to biblical language, thus diminishing our intellectual capacity to appreciate and understand biblical concepts within the texts, canvases, and scores of classical literature, art, and music.
So the next time your child opens the Bible, ask yourself,

“What are the odds that, two hundred years from now, great art, great music, great literature will be directly quoting the Bible translation my child is reading?”

“Is my child reading a Bible translation that will heighten his appreciation
of complex language?”

“Is my child reading a Bible that will enhance or diminish his ability
to recognize biblical references in classic works of art, literature, or music?”

Or perhaps this simple question would be sufficient to make our point?

“Is my child reading a Bible that will show him
where Handel meets Shakespeare meets Jesus, the Messiah?”

Alas, methinketh thou knowest the answer!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Blues, Bar-B-Q, and the Bible

After four hours in two doctors’ offices, Judy and I did not want to fight the five o’clock Dallas traffic, so we targeted the nearest restaurant to redeem our time and wait for the automotive tide to ebb. Memphis-style bar-b-q, even at a more upscale joint such as Red, Hot, and Blue, is not usually the kind of fare to which I would treat Judy, not because she doesn’t like bar-b-q, but because of the predictable clientele and ambiance (?) at such an establishment. What were the odds that the maitre de would seat us within earshot of a testosterone-charged tableful of young bucks whose conversation would be spicier than the bar-b-q? Pretty high, so my modus operandi now is always to find a table as far away from groups of males as possible; if I hear it, I won’t let it pass; depending on my mood, I’ll rebuke it or move; I sometimes make Judy nervous (she thinks it’s dangerous) by my perennial hostility to a culture that is rotten to the core with vulgarity but, hey, I’m not a passive guy; besides, it vexes my righteous soul. As we walked to the table, I cut my green eyes around every corner to be sure that Bubba and Baby were not too close and, to my delight, our early show at 5:00 p.m. meant that we had beaten the crowd, albeit only figuratively and chronologically, of course.

The auditory atmosphere was supercharged with the blues, something I know too much about. In my prodigal days I could sit for hours alone in my room, harmonica in mouth and slide in hand, and belt out a respectable white-boy’s version of Jimmy Reed or Robert Johnson, but once I realized I was just eatin’ with hogs, I went home to my father’s house and have sat at His table ever since. But I had made the choice—Memphis-style bar-b-q—, which I couldn’t get, at least in this place, without the blues.

To my disappointment, whoever laid the tracks made some bad selections—Eric Burdon after his glory days for one—but Clapton’s version of “Roll and Tumble” warranted respect even from the dark and dead muses that inspired him. So good, in fact, was Clapton, that I had to check my old passions at my new heart’s door and remind myself that what Eric sang about, in fact how he sang and played, was not just incompatible with Christianity but in fact antithetical to it; after all, rock and roll is a visible and audible metaphor for illicit promiscuity, right? Only the na├»ve and rebellious will deny it. That’s when I noticed the Bible.

There it was, under a little girl’s arm. A big, black Bible, right smack dab in the middle of bar-b-q and the blues. “Salt and light,” I thought to myself, “’Look at the sky burnin’ hellfire red, somebody’s house is burnin’ burnin’, down, down, down, down . . .’ Yeah, that’s why God hasn’t burned this house down—salt and light.”

She walked behind her Dad and little brother, in that order, they first, she last, with the big, black Bible. I remarked to Judy, “Do you see that?” She did.

Almost in disbelief, we watched them, dry-rub bar-b-q on our lips and raggedy blues in our ears; she wasn’t just carrying this Bible; she opened it; and even more to our amazement the father commenced a Bible quiz with his two pre-adolescents. He was an unusually handsome man, movie star looks with an athletic physique. “A pastor?” I asked myself. Probably, and I could also pick out the denomination by the attire and demeanor. But I was blessed, and then suddenly burdened, burdened almost to tears. I thought of my own father, at that very moment lying in a hospital bed in the twilight of life, and how from a child he had taught me the Holy Scripture. For a few moments I thought I would get up from my seat and ask the dad, “May I speak to your children?” and then tell them, “Remember this. Burn it in your memory—your father teaching you the word of God in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Remember this, for one day he will pass through the portals of death and you must remember what he has given you, what he has done for you, teaching you the word of God in this Babylon of bar-b-q and blues.” But I retreated from this emotional crescendo and decided only to continue to watch.

That’s when I witnessed the rape.

George Thorogood raped the little girl with the big, black Bible.

He did it like this, auditorily.

"Bad to the bone, Bad to the bone, B-B-B-B-Bad to the bone.
B-B-B-B-Bad, B-B-B-B-Bad, Bad to the bone."

Any red-blooded son of Adam knows the raw sexual force of Thorogood’s music and lyrics. With her Bible open and in the midst of the Bible quiz, the little girl’s head began to rock back and forth with the vulgar virility of Thorogood’s licks,

"Buh-Buh-Buh-Bad" . . . her head rocks right . . .

"Buh-Buh-Buh-Bad" . . . her head rocks left . . .

Right, left, right, left, right, left . . . head rocks this way, head rocks that way . . .

"Bub-Bub-Buh-Bad, Bad to the Bone."

There it was—the culture war right before my eyes, and in my ears—the little girl with the big, black Bible in her hand, bar-b-q in her mouth, and the blues in her rocking head; and the father, the handsome father, the strong father, the good father, the well-intentioned father, what was he to do? Was he handsome enough, strong enough, good enough to withstand Thorogood, to withstand the power of culture gone mad, the power of paganism democratized? The dreaded answer came too quickly—the dad laughed and chimed in on the chorus—“Buh-buh-buh-buh-bad to the Bone.” “Should I pray, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ or is the dad just seizing the moment to dull the blunt force of the blues by a humorous miming of the music for his daughter’s sake, seizing the moment that he might talk to her about it later, yes, later, and then explain why and why not?” I wondered, I doubted, and I also feared; I feared that the father, the son, the little girl, and the big, black Bible were being drowned, swallowed up by a torrential tide they had neither the boat nor the sails to stem.

After all, Thorogood (what an ironic name!) doesn’t call his band “The Destroyers” for nothing, or does he?