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July 2004

Divine Office

Sunday Night Journal — July 25, 2004

I have a new office—a very nice new office—with which I am extremely, even excessively and unreasonably, pleased. A few days ago I was writing to someone about an entirely unrelated matter and found myself beginning to babble about my new office. In describing it to people, I’ve found myself about to use the description that “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” but I stop myself, because I do hope that no matter how nice my new office is, it really isn’t in the same league as heaven. And I hope and expect that heaven will not include the maintenance of computer systems (although I won’t be surprised if purgatory does). Still, the expression is apt in a couple of ways.

I work for a small liberal arts college. I’m in charge of administrative information services, which means that I’m responsible for the systems that manage the “back office” functions of the college—the very mundane stuff such as student records and financial systems which are necessary for, but a step removed from, the real work of the college, which of course is education. As anyone who has ever worked in higher education knows, the administrative side of the school is generally apart from and often perceived as being in opposition to the rest of the institution: we are, after all, only overhead, a cost of doing business, and there is frequently a degree of resentment on the part of the faculty about the resources we consume: like “powerful” to “House Ways and Means Committee” or “shadowy” to “Opus Dei”, the word “overpaid” often seems permanently attached to the word “administrator.” Those of us on this side of the house tend to operate in our own world. Just to name one difference, the traditional academic routine of long breaks and a summer lull is not for us—we work right through them, and only notice academic events that involve us, such as student registration.

The other half of information technology here, as at most colleges, was called until recently Academic Computing and deals with computing as it applies to education: student labs, technology in the curriculum and in the classroom, and the like. My school decided several years ago to build a new library. Early in the planning for the building, the decision was made that all information technology services would be housed there, mainly in order to bring library services and academic technology services closer together, as they had been overlapping considerably for some time. My department was included in this plan more or less as a tag-along: plans for the new building included a lot of computing infrastructure that we would share, and so it just made sense for us to have office space there.

Concomitant with the planning for and construction of the new library, my department was busy with the implementation of an entirely new administrative software system. This has been a huge project and we have not paid attention to much else. We had been informed that we would be moving to the new library, but beyond going to an occasional meeting to discuss some specific details of our office space and of the system room, the library project proceeded without us. We knew it was in progress but gave it very little thought until the time for us to move in became imminent.

To communicate the shock we felt at the sight of the nearly-finished facilities really requires some before-and-after pictures, which I don’t have. It’s not that the new office is luxurious. It would certainly not set any hearts on fire in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. But it is large and open and pristine, and it has a huge desk, guest seating, and a great deal of storage. I have a weakness for desks: give me a goodly expanse of open desk, a blank legal pad, and a pen, and I feel capable of great work.

The old office was, by comparison, a slum. And here is where we get into the theology of the thing. While it is true that the old office was in an old building which is in great need of renovation, its worst aspects—the really slummy aspects—were my doing. My office was one of several rooms that housed three people and a lot of hardware. It had become a warren of equipment, much of it broken or obsolete, and boxes of forms we no longer use. In part because it was so full of junk, and in part because of scheduling problems resulting from the whole little complex having its own keys and alarm codes, the housekeeping staff more or less abandoned us to our own devices years ago, except for emptying the trash. Consequently the whole area had become pretty grungy.

My office in particular was disheartening to say the least, and often elicited clearly heartfelt sympathy from visitors seeing it for the first time. Roughly one third of it was occupied by useless equipment which I, due to some mild neurosis, could not bring myself to discard: for example, a cabinet maybe three or four cubic feet in size containing two mighty 650 megabyte disk drives, which had housed a significant chunk of the college’s administrative database in 1991 or so. (If these numbers mean nothing to you, consider the fact that the laptop computer on which I am writing these words has about forty times that amount of storage.) Half the space was occupied by an enormous desk which was mostly covered in stacks of loose paper and trade magazines which I felt that I should look at but never did, and therefore did not discard. There was no place for a guest to sit (and I admit that as a typically introverted computer geek I did not consider this a problem, but rather the contrary). Ten years of spilling things while eating lunch at my desk combined with the fact that the room was only vacuumed every few months had left the cheap carpet, which was not merely not stain-repellent but positively stain-receptive, fairly nasty.

I am, in short, a grievous sinner given the unmerited grace of a fresh start. It wasn’t until I saw the nearly-completed building that I finally paid attention and realized just how much work and planning had gone into the project. Aside from the obvious monumental labors of the workers who did the actual construction, my colleagues in Academic Computing and Library Services had spent many long hours in meetings that were either difficult and contentious or deadly boring to make the thousands of decisions required.

And I had to do almost nothing except walk in and take possession. I am, to be sure, repentant, and will try very hard not to make a slum of my new office. But the grace came first, and I am grateful.

Mission: Possibly from God

Sunday Night Journal — July 18, 2004

I was not at all prepared for the most recent album by The Innocence Mission, Befriended. The Innocence Mission have been around for some time, their first album having been released in 1989. The only one I’ve heard extensively is the second, Umbrella. It’s a good, well-crafted album, but it didn’t make a strong impression on me, and except for a few tracks from Glow (1995), I had not heard any of their later work. Listening to Umbrella again now, I think it’s better than I gave it credit for being. It has a dense, crowded, sound, and although all the elements are excellent I wonder if some brutal excision might have helped the overall effect. I don’t know much about recording, but I have the sense that certain frequency ranges are crowding each other, and that the guitar and voice parts are competing for my attention more than they should do. The songs are complex and intriguing, both musically and lyrically, although a bit diffuse.

But however good Umbrella is, Befriended seems to be in another class altogether.

Before I say anything else, let me admit that my first impressions don’t always last, and that I have been known to retreat from initial enthusiastic judgments, especially where music is concerned. In six months or so I’ll revisit my opinion of this album and find out whether I still concur.

With that out of the way, I must say that Befriended has gone immediately into a very select group of pop music works which affect me so deeply and engage my attention so completely that I can’t listen to them in the car, which is where I most often listen to music, having a daily thirty-mile (each way) commute. Pop aficionados will get a sense of the company in which this places Befriended if I say that other albums in this very small group are Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Emmy Lou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, and the best of Nick Drake’s work.

These are all very different artists, but what they have in common is the ability to evoke something which I find myself calling “transcendence” without really knowing exactly what I mean. This is a word we abuse, I think, often meaning merely “very very good.” But what I mean here is something different, and “submergence” would do almost as well: it’s a sense that the work puts us in touch with the most essential core of our souls, which is, paradoxically, the point where we are most directly connected to the literally transcendent—i.e., that which is above, beyond , out of reach, but nevertheless what we most want and need. I’ll venture to suggest that the emotional power of these works arises from the fact that they are able to make us aware, equally and simultaneously, of both the object of our desire and its unattainability. They give us almost unbearable joy and almost unbearable sadness: a yearning which is more desirable than most pleasures.

It would of course be impossible for me to explain exactly what it is about Befriended that produces this effect in me. It’s also certain that it will not produce this effect in everyone. But I’ll make some attempt to describe the music. It might be described as light, almost minimalist folk-pop. The basic texture is one voice and a couple of acoustic guitars, only lightly embellished with electric guitar and a touch of strings (or string-like synthesizer) or piano. Some tracks have a very restrained acoustic bass. There’s very little percussion. Terms like “wispy” and “gossamer” come to mind, only to be immediately discarded, because in spite of its delicacy the music seems to have a deep core of strength. “Sparse” is perfectly accurate, though, and all is done with immaculate taste and restraint, leaving the listener with a sense that absolutely nothing is out of place, superfluous, or absent. I can in fact imagine a critic complaining that the music is a little too controlled, though I wouldn’t really agree with him.

The songs are full of gorgeous and affecting melodies. And as is the case with all first-class pop music, the lyrics are indispensable. Karen Peris, the singer and main songwriter, showed, on Umbrella, a level of skill and care with words that is far beyond that of most pop songwriters, and she has only gotten better. There are fewer words here, and simpler, but they somehow cut much deeper. Most of them are firmly rooted in very ordinary things:

When Mac was swimming
I was running late
Walking around New Orleans
Looking for a birthday cake
It was a great surprise to him
So many people came

Some of the lyrics leap from these humble things to mystical heights; some (like the one above) remain very much down to earth but still refer, by implication and gesture, to the heights, sometimes in the simplest possible way, as in a song called Beautiful Change:

The snow is here
The light is bright

The lyrics seem very feminine and somehow domestic. One feels that one is eavesdropping on the inner life of a suburban housewife who also happens to be a mystic.

One reservation: Karen Peris has an odd voice. I have tried a couple of times to describe it and failed. I didn’t entirely like it on Umbrella. Whether that was an effect of the style and production of Umbrella, or her voice has just gotten better with age, I don’t know, but on the more restrained Befriended it’s beautiful, rich and warm in the low registers and almost unbearably poignant in the higher. But it may not be to everyone’s taste. She also has some oddities of pronunciation that sometimes obscure the words.

There is only so much a listener’s praise can convey, so here are some links where you can find samples of the music, as well as a little more information on the band (not as much as I would like, actually). Here is the band’s web site. You can download one song on the Befriended page there.


Great IDea

Sunday Night Journal — July 11, 2004

The new issue of Touchstone arrived a week or so ago. Touchstone, which subtitles itself “A Journal of Mere Christianity,” does a marvelous job of serving as a platform for what has been called “ecumenically orthodox” Christianity. I like it better than the somewhat similar First Things, partly because it is less academic and partly because it is more focused on spiritual life and less on political and social questions.

This issue is devoted to the emerging attack on atheistic evolutionism known as the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. I haven’t yet read the featured articles and am greatly looking forward to them. There have always been philosophical problems with atheistic evolutionism, but that didn’t matter because its proponents were able to stigmatize any dissent as unscientific. I am unqualified to judge the scientific arguments, but it seems that ID is making progress in providing a scientifically respectable alternative to the crypto-religion of evolutionism. (I use the latter term as shorthand for the insistence that Darwin and his heirs have proven that no cause beyond the physical is required or indeed acceptable to account for the physical world.) The premise of ID is the fundamentally commonsensical one that living things are so complex that they must be the work of an intelligent designer; this of course is easy enough, and often enough, said, but the ID movement attempts to support common sense with scientific evidence.

What is so frustrating about the argument between theism and evolutionism is that adherents of the latter refuse to admit that their philosophical system is a philosophical system, insisting that it is a matter of pure fact and that any challenge to it is by definition irrational. One need not read very much at all in evolutionists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet to recognize that they have a very intense emotional attachment to atheism, which is (one supposes) both cause and effect of their evolutionism.

Opinions on this question arise from a pre- or sub-rational sense of what is plausible. There was a time when I felt a great deal of tension between my conscious belief in God and an underlying sense that the idea of a lifeless, meaningless, purely material universe was fundamentally more believable or at least more likely than the idea of a conscious Creator. As the years went by and I lived with and meditated upon the latter idea, my attitude slowly shifted, and I now regard the notion of creation by chance as little short of preposterous. And I lean toward the belief that at some point in the future people will wonder how we could have believed such a thing, much as we wonder at the superstitions of our ancestors.

To the evolutionist, of course, it is the concept of an active intelligence acting upon the physical materials of the universe that is absurd on its face. Rational argument alone will not change many minds on this subject, certainly not the minds of doctrinaire evolutionists. What, then, can the ID movement hope to do?

It can present, to minds not already given over to materialist axioms, a scientifically respectable alternative to evolutionism. It can deal a serious blow to the pretensions of scientific materialism. It can buttress the confidence of theists who are troubled by evolutionists’ contemptuous dismissal of their beliefs but who have not the knowledge and credentials to challenge evolutionism in the scientific arena. (Anyone, of course, can challenge the basic logic of evolutionism, but this is generally fruitless; the significance of the fact that evolutionist doctrines merely push the fundamental question of causation backward without resolving it simply does not register on them, or does not strike them as worth thinking about. In this respect evolutionists are much like those who reject any transcendent source of morality and naively accept their own moral axioms as self-evident, requiring no source, authority, or justification.)

What ID cannot do is provide direct support for the Christian faith. More specifically, it cannot resolve the apparent discrepancy between the history told in the Bible and the history told by science. The Christian story of salvation requires a state of innocent perfection, a fall into sin, and redemption. It is extremely difficult to fit this story onto the framework which science gives us for the development of life, and this is true whether or not the scientific account assumes the absence of God. I am always a little taken aback by Christians who do not see this difficulty. The usual response, of which George Sim Johnston, in his generally excellent Did Darwin Get It Right? provides a good example, is to take the very long periods of time and the gradual development postulated by science as the problem, and to say that these don’t matter, that the seven days of Genesis may be considered symbolic, and that the important thing is that God created all things, not the time he spent doing it or the mechanisms he used.

Well and good, but the problem is not, at bottom, the millions of years and the gradualness. The problem is how creatures lived during those years. The problem, as my sister-in-law Christy put it succinctly some years ago, is death.

Not only Genesis but the Gospels and the letters of Paul tell us that death entered the world because of sin, and that sin entered the world through the first man and the first woman. The current scientific consensus, on the other hand, shows us a period of millions of years in which animals destroyed each other in blood and pain, and a period of at least tens of thousands of years in which man (as far as we know) did the same, not only to the animals but to his brethren.

I have never come up with, or heard, a persuasive reconciliation of this conflict, and it troubles my faith. It does not seriously disturb my faith, because I am persuaded by many other evidences that Christianity is the most plausible account of the world in which I live, but it does trouble it. I make do with two responses. The first is to conjecture (I can’t call it much more than that) that the innocence and the fall described by Genesis are not just more but far more subtle and mystical than they are portrayed there, that the fall took place not along the timeline on which we live but on another ontological level altogether (no, I am not entirely sure what I mean by that), and that the world we know, including the very long and death-full past we think we know, actually somehow came into existence with that fall. Or that the past fell along with the present when the first man and woman sinned. But although I sometimes think I see a glimmer of truth in these conjectures they are hardly coherent enough to put into words.

My other response is to put the whole question aside as having, in the present state of both faith and science, no good answer. I can live with this. I can tolerate this puzzle—I am obliged to tolerate a great many—and anyway am more like Chesterton’s poet, who wanted to get his head into the heavens, than like his lunatic, who wanted to get the heavens into his head.

Neither response is terribly satisfactory. I am not a seven-day, six-thousand-year creationist, because I cannot, without the support of some very good authority, depart so far from what the best investigators seem to have established. But sometimes I wish I were. Try for a while the thought experiment of looking at the world as if you were a six-thousand-year, literal-Genesis, Adam-and-Eve creationist and you will see what I mean: the entire Christian story leaps immediately to a level of simple and immediate plausibility that it simply does not have for most of us most of the time.

20' 00", More Or Less

Sunday Night Journal — July 4, 2004

John Cage’s famous “composition” 4' 33" consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. I’m told that he resented the people (of whom I am one) who assumed he intended it as a joke, and that he had in mind a perfectly serious exercise in listening. His intention was to provide an opportunity for people to attend actively to all the ambient sounds of their environment.

Insofar as I know anything of Cage’s ideas, which isn’t very far, I don’t much agree with them. I gather that he was concerned with breaking down what he viewed as an arbitrary line dividing music from all other sound, and that 4' 33" was part of that effort. But the invitation posed by 4' 33" is nevertheless very much worth accepting.

Last Saturday I had planned to wash the cars, but began hearing thunder, and went outside to check on the situation. The sky was indeed looking pretty dark over in the west. I would have gone back in, not at all displeased to have a reason to postpone the car-washing, but I heard the sound of something that sounded like a recorder or a penny-whistle—more woody than metallic, so I think it was the former. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It seemed to be coming from the south, but that seemed impossible, as the nearest houses in that direction are too far away. Although our house is in a small town, it’s in an odd location, with a lot of undeveloped (and I hope undevelopable) swampy and wooded land around. It fronts on a little creek, beyond which is a stretch of woods that climbs a bluff-side for a couple of hundred yards, with the nearest house in that direction at the top of the bluff.

Wherever it came from, the sound of the flute was as sweet as it was unexpected. It was too distant for me to hear it clearly or to follow the tune it was playing, although I thought it might be something more or less Celtic. I sat down in the wooden swing in the front yard and for the next twenty minutes or so engaged in a Cagean exercise of placing my attention as completely as I could on the sounds and sights of the coming storm. Mobile Bay is a hundred and fifty yards or so to the west, beyond a line of trees, and the sound of wind and waves rose together, soon overcoming the small and distant sound of the flute. The thunder became louder and more frequent, the clouds black overhead. The temperature dropped several degrees within a few minutes. The tops of the trees swayed wildly and noisily. I expected at any moment to be drenched by rain, but the rushing sound just kept getting louder. At last a few large drops began to fall. Looking through the line of trees toward the bay, across the lot which my wealthy neighbor has converted into a playground for his children, I could see rain falling, but the wind was so strong and I was so sheltered by the trees that little of it reached me. I expected to be driven inside by the deluge which the storm must have borne, but it never came. We had only caught the edge of the storm as it drove past in a northeasterly direction.

Mr. Cage did have a point; on some mystical level the difference between music and mere sound may indeed become arbitrary, or at least indistinct. For some years now I have not been able to experience silence. I have tinnitis, generally described as a persistent ringing in the ears but more accurately a constant colorless tone that might be one of the overtones of the ringing of a small bell, somewhere around the 5000hz range. Sometimes it’s worse than others, and in general I haven’t found it terribly hard to live with, although I’m sometimes anxious that it may be a harbinger of worse hearing problems to come. At any rate the more quiet is my environment, the more noticeable is the tinnitis, and so it has had the effect of making me appreciate sound, almost any sound that is not actively unpleasant, even more than I always have. Someone (and if anyone knows who it was, please let me know) has said that in heaven all that is not silence is music. Or is it the other way around? No matter. I look forward to it eagerly, and will perhaps appreciate more than many the silence, which I imagine to be the aural equivalent of the perfect blackness we see between the stars.

Thunderstorm monitoring station