A scant few: “religion” words and passages

In the last post (“Religion?“), I tried to spotlight a line of demarcation between religion on the one hand and Christianity on the other.  I do believe there can be such a thing as true religion—i.e., a practice of religion that in some sense really is Christ-ian.  Here, I think not only of the aphoristic wordings of James 1:26-27, but of all those souls, far more devoted than I, who go about doing all sorts of good because of their devotion to Jesus.

On the other hand, I do try to pay attention to the definition of terms (see here and here for other examples) whenever anything is discussed, and I want to be clear on what I am (and am not) seeking to denigrate in these posts on “religion.”  So, toward a clearer definition—in terms of scripture—we find in one reputable English version (ESV) that the word “religion” or “religious” appears seven times:

  1. Acts 17:22
  2. Acts 25:19
  3. Acts 26:5
  4. Col 2:23
  5. James 1:26/27 (3x)

But an English word’s presence only tells us so much.  I mean, who cares what the English says unless it can be shown to be a reliable translation of the original language?  (And the ESV is certainly one of the more reliable translations available today.  I’m just making a general point here.)  We must either know something about the original or trust that the translators are handling the language correlation well.  Here, on a level that barely scratches the surface, I’ll refer to the original language….

The Greek term θρησκεία | threskeia and cognates serve as antecedents for the Acts 26, Col 2, and James instances.  In other words, the Greek antecedent is different in Acts 17 and 25.  A good hunt would eventually involve appeal to reputable lexicons to determine the range of meaning of that word in all period literature.  For purposes here, we’ll keep the definition at a “gloss” level:  it means, roughly, “religious observance.”

That is one level of investigation, but let’s dig down into another layer.  What about any other passages that began with the same Greek word but do not show up as “religion” in English?  There is only one additional instance of threskeia not translated as “religion” by the ESV:  Col 2:18, where “worship” is the English rendering.  (I think the choice of “worship” here can throw off even the most pure-spirited bloodhound on the trail of angel, religion, or worship “creatures”!)

The results of such searches may be different in other English versions.  For instance, the HCSB chooses a word other than “religion” in both of the Colossians 2 verses.  The NASB opts out of one of them.  The KJV actually skips both of them but chooses to give “religion” in two additional verses (Gal 1) in which the Greek original is different.  Consideration of all of these translations may serve either to clarify or to blur.  An illuminating sidelight here is that the KJV’s choice of “Jewish religion” for Ἰουδαϊσμός | judaismos in Galatians 1:13 and 1:14 is fairly close to current English usage, at least as I hear it.  In other words, the “Judaism” or “Jewish religion” referred to here might be a direct ancestor of some observant-but-less-than-centered manifestations of Christian religion today.

In Colossians 2:23, Paul might have been intentionally distinguishing between whatever had been genuine in Jewish religion and something false.  He might even have coined a term, because this compound word is found nowhere else in scripture:


The Abridged Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (a/k/a “Little Kittel”) has this to say about Col 2:23:

The word ethelothreskeia . . .  seems to denote, not an affected piety, but a piety that does not keep to its true reality, to Christ, but is self-ordered.

Surely there is a distinction to be made between genuine religion and self-made (or other un-admirable types of) religion.  If I were a better person, I’d aim for stronger association with the former.  For now, I’ll have to be content with distancing myself from the latter.


While working on another essay, I looked up a quote to make sure I was remembering it correctly, and I inadvertently found this in a collection of quotes about “clear thinking.”

Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration —courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth. – H.L. Mencken (attributed)

Actually, I’d have to agree that much “religion” often rises up in postures that oppose the things Mencken listed.  And, the more I experience—either from within, or at arm’s length—of “religion,” the less interest I have in that per se.  The thing is, there is something that matters a lot more than “religion.”  (I’m trying here to be a little bold, to think clearly, and to be open, honest, and fair in pursuing true things.)

I can manage a mostly polite tolerance for religion, but I think it’s quite sad that some people think Christianity is a religion like that.¹  Authentic Christianity, I would say, is actually very supportive of the things listed as venerable in the above quotation.  When I ponder friends and acquaintances who seem to have less faith than I (or no faith at all), I sometimes wonder what they include under the “religion” umbrella.  What do they think I support or believe in or even champion?  Do they assume I’m into “religion” because I’m into the God of Abraham and and Jeremiah and Jesus and Paul—along with the responsible study of the scriptures that deal with each of those and more?

Some friends might be wasting energy putting a deadbolt and bars on a door to a house that only a few would be interested in taking out a mortgage on, anyway.  That old house may not be condemned by the city, but, as it stands, it’s not a place I want to live life.  I’m not really into remodeling and “flipping” that kind of house, either.  (Now speaking non-metaphorically:  I think I’m done with house ownership and am renting!)  Thom Schultz, an astute observer, and the founder of the Christian publisher Group, has produced multiple pieces (in audio and blog format) about a Christian subset labeled “the dones.”  (He also identifies the “almost-dones.”)  I’m not sure if I quite fall in either category, but it’s worth thinking about.

I wish those who fancy themselves atheists would have come to know genuine, responsible, thoughtful Christianity and not a falsely² religious manifestation of it.  I think there would then be fewer atheists . . . and more devotion to Jesus (or at least more willing support for those of us who want to follow Him).  Real Christian religion has nothing to do with false fronts, denominationally handed-down decisions, hidden injustices, or dishonestly glossing over realities for the sake of appearance.  And of course authentic Christianity maintains an energetic interest in truth.

In a follow-up post, I’ll share a few tidbits about “religion” words/passages in the Bible.   (Spoiler alert:  there aren’t many.)

¹ I realize here that there’s religion and there’s religion (and maybe religion, too, on top of those!).  In other words, what is called religion on TV might not be religion in the mind of a given individual . . . and real religion might be something yet different from either of the others.

² I specify “falsely religious” because there can be such a thing as true religion.  Here, I think not only of the pat saying found in James 1:26-27, but of those souls who go about doing all sorts of good because of their devotion to Jesus.


Of writing, wordsmithing, and making mistakes (2)

[The first installment is here.]

In writing these posts about writing words, I looked up the word “wordsmith” to make sure it was properly one word and not two, and I also confirmed another thing I suspected about it:  common dictionaries do not show a verb use of “wordsmith.”  So, it is currently proper to say “Joe is a good wordsmith,” but it is not (yet) correct to say “Joe, would you wordsmith this for me?”  I intentionally left “wordsmithing” in the title/slug of these blogposts, because it was more important to me to have three parallel gerunds there than to be proper with a figurative word.

As time passes, words do change in meaning and in usage; modern dictionaries tend to be good repositories of information on relatively current usage.  Incidentally and yet substantively, I originally led that last sentence with “Over time,” but thought better and changed it to “As time passes.”  “Over time” is an awkward prepositional phrase I tend to avoid, but I don’t think it’s as bad as “over $10,000.”  (It is better to say “more than $10,000.”)

Recently, I “caught” (when you read that figure of speech, do you think of trapping or fishing or baseball or a virus or a “catch” in a skeletal joint?) a couple of typos for a coworker, and she caught an error or two of mine in another document.  Sometimes this kind of collaboration can work really nicely, especially when a writer isn’t too proud to proofreaders-marksadmit mistakes—or the potential benefit of a minor (wordsmith’s) change.  My use of a dash in that last sentence reminds me that, many years ago, a coworker was very humble in accepting my proofreader’s suggestions for his writing, but he absolutely hated the dash.  I, on the other hand, love the dash.  I find it very expressive, helpful in communication, and under-used in most other people’s writing . . . so I overuse it in my writing, to a fault.

I have of course discovered more errors in my own writing than I care to admit.  There will probably still be one or two in this post, even after I revised based on the second draft (below) or the third (not shown—there was too much red on it).


My aggregate number of written errors would be well into seven figures, I figure.  (Was that a clever use of a figure of speech or an annoying redundancy?)  I recently completed revisions of two of my books, having corrected several outright errors and having improved several other transitions and expressions, but I’m sure there are still errors present.  My father has discovered quite a few of my errors in various readings of my stuff.  He almost always knows whereof he speaks—far more than I—but sometimes he doesn’t know the jargon of a certain sphere of thought, or I simply might not care to be “correct” on this or that point, choosing rather to leave things consistently nonstandard instead of going to the trouble to force 47 instances to conform.

Most readers know that I care very deeply about scriptural text.  However, I am not one who holds to the popular evangelical doctrine of inerrancy.  Primarily, I refer here to minor scribal errors—those that involve “jots”/”iotas” and misspellings and even word substitutions—but my disenchantment with the notion of inerrancy goes beyond these.  Even the most contemporary, meta-evangelistic¹ statement I have seen about inerrancy, as pure-hearted as it seems to be, leaves me dissatisfied.  I am quite certain that errors exist in many available foundational manuscripts from the early centuries CE, and I am not at all sure that God cares about any particular conception of inerrancy, as concocted by humans, even if some original autographs might one day be discovered.  With that said, I will re-confess a little joy that came when I discovered and reported an error in an important Greek scripture e-text.  You might want to read about that here, and don’t miss the wonderful quotation at the bottom from linguist Moisés Silva about mistakes.

Please know, again, that I’m all too aware that I myself am prone to error.  It gives me strange pleasure, then, to find even one error in the work of a master writer.  Here is an extract from chapter 46 of a John Grisham novel (The Chamber) I recently finished.  I believe this is the first error I’ve ever found in any of the eight or ten of Grisham books I’ve read:


His proofreaders are great, but they missed that one.   (One may “marshall forces,” but that’s the wrong spelling for the noun.)  One particular proofreader friend of mind is the best I’ve ever personally known.  I have served as a proofreader for a few others (notably, CH, GDC, and GLF) and have probably failed or annoyed the authors as much as I’ve helped them, but I persist with the pen as well as the computer keyboard.  I’ll close this piece by sharing some proofreading marks I made on a corporate mass memo to its customer base.  I think this memo would have benefited from more review and revision!

B. Casey, 2/12/17


¹ Here I mean to imply a figurative “evangelism” about the scripture which is, in turn, a core element in (non-figurative) evangelism.  It is possible to be “evangelistic” about scriptures without being evangelistic (good-news-sharing-oriented) about Jesus.

Of writing, wordsmithing, and making mistakes

During the past week or so, I have been writing, shaping, and “wordsmithing” a five-page memo for my boss.  It has been a learning process in some respects, and he’s been very patient in explaining some aspects of the subject matter to me so I could state things more purposefully.  We have an essentially finished product at this point, but I am left with a couple of questions:

  1. Did I say this or that in the best way possible?
  2. I found a typo and an another error or two in the fifth of six drafts.  How likely is it that errors yet remain in the memo?

In one way or another, I am often involved in writing.  I’ve written (typed) newsletters, hundreds of blogposts, five books, a few articles, hundreds of pages of music, program notes, research papers, memos, and volumes of substantial e-mail since the dawn of the home computer age.¹  All this writing has involved many, many mistakes.  I know all too well how often I make a mistake.  My typing speed can peak near 100 WPM, but the real speed is probably more like 70-75, minus 20-30, because of all the backspacing and correcting.

My engagement with writing sometimes extends into reading other people’s writing with a critical eye; I’ve been known to sit down with a pen in hand while reading a newspaper or magazine—not because of any plan to share “mistake finds” with the author but because it’s so proofreaders-marksnatural to notice and correct mistakes that it can actually seem slower to read without marking them.  (This proofreading habit/trait/obsession is sometimes annoying to me and often inexplicable to others.)

Aside:  the word “error” might be etymologically related to the word “err,” but the former should be pronounced with a different initial vowel sound.  No matter how many newscasters, talk show hosts, teachers, and business professionals say it incorrectly, “err” does not rhyme with “air.”  (Okay, this is a pet peeve, and at some point I’ll have to “cave” [what an interesting verb, that . . . I hadn’t previously thought about its imagery] and admit that language is a fluid thing.  What was once incorrect might later be considered correct.)

How humbling, and sometimes maddening, and yet delightful written language can be!  (Did you know there is a book called The Joy of Lex?)  Turns of phrases, diction and declamation, alliteration and consonance, puns and homonyms, synonyms and other -nyms (not nymphs, mind you!), and etymology can all be pleasures—or the causes of annoyance.  I often second-guess my choice of “may” and change it to “might” (as I did at the beginning of the previous paragraph), because I was taught that “may” indicates permission whereas “might” indicates possibility.  Punctuation can be a singularly annoying facet of writing.  American and British punctuation have developed differently, e.g., the use of “single quotes” vs. double quotes and the placement of a comma or period in relation to quotation marks.  Despite my non-Britishness, in terms of punctuation technicalities, I feel a great sympatico with British guru Lynne Truss, who wrote this in Eats Shoots and Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:

I saw a sign for “Book’s” with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped. . . .

Moving away from the personal and toward the more generally applicable . . . I further agree with Truss’s assertion that “proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.”  (Read that quote again and see if you don’t agree, too.)  Even the onslaught of errors with plurals and possessives (and plural possessives) may chafe, and I should probably pay less attention to them, reserving energy for deeper matters of writing such as clarity, transitions, and solid, rational argumentation.  (Redundancy and repetitiveness and repeating oneself are also issues and matters of concern!  I counted 15 instances of the phrase “with regard to” in one man’s presentation.)  Still, there is the baseline need to know words.  Usually, I know when I don’t know a spelling or a usage.  For instance, last week, I was not confident of my ability to use the term “cash flow” in our work milieu, so I asked someone who knows far more about it than I do.  It might surprise many of my readers to know that “cash flow” may be used as a verb, i.e., “that business operation won’t cash flow.”  In a sort of word-reverie that occurs in my odd head from time to time, I began to wonder whether, in future years, the two words will become one.  “Flow” is already both a verb and a noun, so maybe an evolved, concatenated “cashflow” will eventually be the norm.

Continuing in the word trance . . . thinking about two words vs. one leads me to the term “set up.”  I prefer to use two words when it’s a verb and one when it’s a noun (not hyphenating the two).  Thus, I would set up a schedule for graduate students to be responsible for an ensemble’s setup.   Others might take no thought for this term at all or might see it differently, using the hyphenated “set-up” as the noun.  I would say that the least accurate usage occurs with the verb use of the hyphenated version:  “John, would you set-up the tables for me?”  (Did you notice the adjectival use of the word “verb” there?  I opted for the unadorned word “verb” as an adjective since “verbal” is commonly used to mean “oral,” as in “verbal communication.”  Ain’t words great?)

I have discovered more errors in my writing than I want to admit.  There will probably be some in this post.  By the way, I looked up the word “wordsmith” to make sure it was properly one word and not two.

To be continued . . . 

In the meantime, enjoy this 30-second video from the old Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Or if you prefer a more contextually robust experience, here’s the full 2-minute version.

¹ Are we seeing the sunset of the home computer age already?  I sincerely hope not, and yet it is clear that small-device screens (less useful for most e-activities I care most about) are increasingly depended on.  More and more websites are designed with smart phones in mind, so it takes more steps to access what I want to access on a full-sized screen.  The younger generation seems not to understand the benefit of a real map (perspective beyond a few streets!) and more screen real estate (perspective beyond the 18 words simultaneously visible in a text!).  It also appears to have increasing difficulty understanding written communication with good punctuation (and without texter abbreviations).

Philosophizing with Matthew Crawford

Matthew B. Crawford has a distinctively interesting curriculum vitae that includes, but is not limited to, work as an electrician, a bachelor’s degree in physics, apprentice work with a VW mechanic, academic abstract-writing in a sweatshop environment, a PhD in something like political science, and an 11-month position as the executive director of a “think tank.”  He quit to open his own motorcycle repair shop.  (I know.  Whew! )  The interests I share with him include lean, strong academic writing and motorcycles, but I’m no repairman.

The draw to Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soulcraft:  An Inquiry into the Value of Work runs deeper than mere affinity.  I find his writing uniquely on point as self-help, as a challenge to vocational/economic presumptions, and as social commentary.  Filled with well-crashop-classfted pages and chapters, the book is not light reading by any stretch, yet the author has a way of breaking up the intense and perfectly worded analytical verbiage with down-to-earth phrases like “bending metal conduit” and “master of your own stuff.”  I first came in contact with Crawford at the all-faculty meeting of Sheridan College/Gillette College in the fall of 2014.  Crawford was the guest speaker, and I actually took some notes.  (I mention this to suggest a consistently high assessment of his content.)  Fast forward two years, when I read this book review, about the same time as I came upon a copy of the book at Walls of Books in Atchison, Kansas.

I don’t claim to grasp fully the philosophical, educational, and economic angles that Crawford handles adeptly as he probes white-collar and blue-collar work.  Despite the bias inherent in the book’s title, Crawford’s emphasis is not to denigrate the work of thinkers and “knowledge workers”; I’d say he rather handles both sides fairly, but he does engage in a bit of “affirmative action,” seeking to right some wrongs that have led to societal devaluing of manual labor.  Crawford challenges assumptions, as well—for instance, the assumption that every smart young person ought to go to college:

So what advice should one give to a young person?  . . . Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers.  You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or a low-level “creative.”  To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.  (p. 53)

Crawford also seeks to connect the world of the intellect with the world of manual labor:

If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.  (p. 164)

I imagine Crawford, now that he works in motorcycle repair, would say he still thinks vibrantly, but differently so than when he was in academia or employed in “knowledge work.”  There might seem to be a built-in conflict (risking loss of credibility?) when one thinks deeply, writes eloquently, and produces a highly significant book:  such enterprises as philosophizing, writing, and reading do not represent what he has set out to advocate.  Again, though, he does not aim to oppose philosophy or graduate school or books (or even think tanks); he aims to highlight aspects of manual labor that have for decades or even centuries been downplayed or ignored.  Below are some more excerpts from Crawford’s book.  Maybe your appetite will be whetted for more from the book.  (And now I get to combine a little manual labor with thought as I trade in this book to the bookstore, helping my wife, the manager, by considering its best possible exposure . . . and then engaging in my periodic activity of alphabetizing and shelving books.  It can be satisfying.)

The popularity of Dilbert, the office, and any number of other pop-culture windows on cubicle life attests to the dark absurdism with which many Americans have come to view their white-collar work. Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life.  It usually indicates that somewhere beneath the threshold of official notice fester contradictions that, if commonly admitted, would bring on some kind of crisis…. (p. 126)

A carpenter faces the accusation of his level, an electrician must answer the question of whether the lights are in fact on, a speed shop engine builder sees his results in a quarter mile time slip.  Such standards have a universal validity that is apparent to all, yet the discrimination made by practitioners of an art respond also to aesthetic subtleties that may not be visible to the bystander.  (p. 207)

How far we have come from the hand oiling of early motorcycles is indicated by the fact that some of the current Mercedes models do not even have a dipstick.  This serves nicely as an index of the shift in our relationship to machines.  If the oil level should get low, there is a very general excitation that appears on the screen:  service required. Lubrication has been recast, for the user, in the frictionless terms of the electronic device.  In those terms, lubrication has no rationale, and ceases to be an object of active concern for anyone but the service technician.  In a sense, this increases the freedom of the Mercedes user. He has gained a kind of independence by not having to futz around with dipsticks and dirty rags.

But in another sense, it makes him more dependent.  The burden of paying attention to his oil level he has outsourced to another, and the price he pays for this disburdenment is that he is entangled in a more minute, all-embracing, one might also say maternal relationship with… what?  Not with the service technician at the dealership, at least not directly, as there are layers of bureaucracy that intervene.  Between driver and service tech lie corporate entities to which we attribute personhood only in the legal sense, as an abstraction; the dealership that employs the technician; Daimler AG, Stuttgart, Germany, who hold the service plan and warranty on their balance sheets; and finally Mercedes shareholders, unknown to one another, who collectively dissipate the financial risk of your engine running low on oil.  There are layers of collectivized, absentee interest in your motor’s oil level, and no single person is responsible for it…. It used to be that, in addition to a dipstick, you also had a very crude interface, simpler but no different conceptually from the sophisticated interface of the new Mercedes.  It was called an “idiot light.”  One can be sure that the current system is not referred to in the Mercedes owners manual as the “idiot system,” as the harsh judgment carried by that term no longer makes any sense to us.  By some inscrutable cultural logic, idiocy gets recast as something desirable. (pp. 61-62)


A lady and her songs

400.  It’s not a magic number, but when it refers to a collection of songs by a single person, it might just elicit a “wow.”

Almost four years ago, an acquaintance had been in touch with a mutually respected undergraduate music professor.  My parents regularly see the same man at church meetings, and the subject of the prior dialogue came up in conversation with him.  Within a couple of weeks I was in contact with Carole, a dear lady, and we began work on her musical creations together.

The backstory:  Carole Obrecht, born in 1935 in rural Indiana, now lives in Nebraska.  Now a widow, a few years ago, she was taken to the hospital with a serious illness (MRSA), and her children were told she had about two weeks to live.  She spent 43 days in the hospital, recovered, and was referred to as “a miracle patient.”  With a new lease on life, about a month later, she experienced a fountain of gratitude in her soul and began composing words and melodies—most of them in the broad category of congregational gospel songs.  Many times she has looked back in amazement at this burst of creativity.  For each song, Carole would eventually

  • type a lyrics sheet (in Word)
  • sing the melody into her computer’s microphone
  • (initially) use her keyboard to devise rudimentary harmony

By the time I got to know her, Carole had created more than 100 songs.  She needed someone to edit and notate them properly for potential church use and for posterity.  That’s where I came in.  It takes a certain complement of proficiency and experience to do this type of work.  I happen to be agile with music notation/engraving, I have some good software, and I know fairly well the kind of music Carole creates.  In the spring of 2013, I also had some extra time available, so Carole sent me a handful of songs, and I began work.  It soon became clear that I would not be able to use her keyboard work as a basis, so I would work out new harmony in all-vocal arrangements.

Carole and I worked with each other patiently (she, all of the time; and me, most of the time) in the early phases, trying to figure each other out.  Almost always by e-mail but periodically by phone, we would discuss this issue or that.  We worked through a standard template (the style, typeface, size of musical staffs, how to show her name, the copyright, my name, etc.).  I believe she still overestimates the limited value of filing her materials with the U.S. Copyright Office, but one of her goals is to make things easy to navigate for her children, should any issue arise, so it’s understandable that she would spend time and money on copyright filing.  Carole has been a perpetual model of consideration and grace in responding and thinking out loud with me, even when she doesn’t quite agree.

Behind the backstory:  When Carole and I began our partnership, I was deep into what I might call a disadvantaged phase of vocational life.  My musical creativity had begun to be squelched and constrained.  I have written more than 100 songs myself and have arranged many more than that, not to mention a sizable catalog of instrumental works, but I’ve had little inspiration to produce music in the last decade.  When one is discouraged, he needs something to do in order to feel useful, and a little extra money would be good, too, but how to negotiate. . . .  Although I had arranged for hire before, I had not engaged in any sort of ongoing relationship.  Carole and I easily reached an agreement under which I would be paid on a per-song basis.  Now that that was out of the way, we moved ahead with the substance.

The process:  I receive a dozen songs at a time, each song consisting in a .docx lyrics file and a .wma audio file.  These are the three phases of work on each creation:

  1. Melodic dictation—listening to Carole’s recorded voice and notating the melody (perhaps 20% of the time spent here)
  2. Harmonic arrangement—writing three underlying voice parts, arranging each song for congregational use (perhaps 50% of the time)
  3. Lyrics insertion—either retyping or reformatting and importing (30%)

carole-listWhen a sheet music draft is complete, I e-mail it to Carole, in the form of a .pdf file with an accompanying .mid sound file for her to listen to.  She will often note words or phrases she wants to change; seeing music and words on a page together can give her new eyes.  (At times, the changes can be extensive, and it’s back to the drawing board, but this is relatively rare.)  A typical song might require 75-90 minutes of initial work on my end, 2-3 e-mail exchanges, and 15-20 more minutes of editing work.  The final steps for each song are (1) my sending edited files (to the left is a group of the .pdf files) and (2) Carole e-mailing to confirm the files are received and saved on her end.

Carole had piano instruction as a young girl and also remembers vocalizing with her mother at the piano.  After childhood, Carole was not trained as a musician.  She hasn’t studied, for instance, any principles of melodic contour or the important balance between unity and variety (so, for example, some melodies are relatively predictable), but she produces some pretty good songs!  Most of them are tuneful and accessible to the average person.  During the process of notation, if I find a measure or two almost like the melody from two lines above, but not quite, I adjust the notes, and Carole is fine with this.  When a melody has too great a range or suggests a nonstandard harmonic progression, I often recommend a change, and most of the time, we move in that direction.  The style of many of the songs tends to reflect the generation in which Carole grew up and perhaps a halcyon sense of congregational singing that is on the decline, but the music is an expression of her genuine faith, and she trusts that the Lord will use the songs according to His pleasure.

A few challenges:  Carole’s voice is remarkably strong, so it’s rarely difficult to take melodic dictation on her tunes.  She has a wide range, but she sometimes starts a song too low for congregational soprano lines.  This doesn’t typically present much difficulty—I just transpose it up two or three steps—unless the melody ranges high as well.  Once in a while, she seems to meander a little, and I suspect such instability is attributable to her having had a cold at the time, or perhaps she was less focused than usual because the next song was on her mind, too.  Sometimes, apparently feeling some out-of-genre expressive impulse, she changes keys midstream; on a few occasions, we have decided to leave the key changes intact in the final product.  (Changing keys is difficult for an a cappella group to navigate.)  Her sense of rhythm is fine but sometimes presents challenges, as do a few other technicalities that require adjustments.

If I can’t figure out how to notate one aspect or another, I just say so, and Carole suggests something else or sometimes goes back to the drawing board herself to record another version of the melody.  My Sibelius music software has some bugs in the way it handles lyrics as they are being imported, matching syllables to notes:  it thinks “trials” has one syllable and “Savior,” three, so I have to manually divide those words and a few other frequently used ones.  The software also has no idea what to do with the word “reigns,” so I have to trick it and correct after the fact.

A few characteristics:  Carole loves words and phrases such as “thrill in His glory” and “our Savior has conquered sin.”  Even more, she loves faith- and hope-filled expressions that look toward Heaven.  In her catalog may be found strong notes of gratitude to a loving God, and of evangelistic concern for others, that they might share in what she has found.

Carole loves choruses and codas, and I have sometimes picked up that her others-conscious heart just can’t bear to let a song rest with the last word in the final stanza.  She is compelled to say just one more thing—in the hope that, eventually, some soul will be a bit more inspired to faith in God . . . and so she adds a chorus or a coda to say that one more thing.

Sometimes, in our e-mail exchanges, one or the other of us will refer to a song as though it is a “child” of hers:  “this one seems a little unruly and needs some parental love” or “you must feel this is a special child.”

My feelings:  We have been working together for nearly four years now, and I remain grateful for this working relationship.  My available time for “Carole songs” ebbs and flows, and Carole understands this and works with it beautifully.  She has become a friend.  We surprised her once by dropping in on her at church while we were traveling.  Carole is also my elder sister, sort of a “great aunt” in faith.  She prays for me and my family with great empathy, even as she cares for many others, including her own family.

Carole, thank you for your constancy and your example of faith.  They are treasures, as are the poetic expressions of your sincere heart—a heart so very thankful to God.  At times, you and your songs have amounted to a spiritual rope to hold onto—a constant in a sea of uncertainty and negative circumstances.

Our respective loose-lwp-1485716870438.jpgeaf binders full of songs grow by the month.  A couple of days ago, we reached song number 400.  As we celebrate this milestone, and as we move into what may be the last hundred, Carole, I pause in gratitude for you.

B. Casey, 1/29/17

Major and minor (prophets and tonalities)

Almost always, I draft my posts days or even weeks before they become public.  This one, however, was conceived, drafted, revised, finalized, and published all within a couple of hours on the same day.  That is speedy for me.  And it may be good, or it may be bad. . . .

As one comes to understand harmony, s/he grows to perceive that not all major-key musical works are “happy.”  Furthermore, although few minor-key works are effervescent or jubilant, minor harmonies can certainly carry a variety of moods.  They may sometimes be mournful or ominous, yes, but also yearning, or plaintive, or resolute, or even annunciatory—and more.  Minor keys are often used in a transitional or modulatory manner, within a larger structure that shifts its mode to major—such as in the 18th-century horn concerto I’m listening to now.  It also bears mention that a minor key (which wasn’t conceived of per se as “minor” until a relatively late time in music history) in the Middle Ages or Renaissance is a different animal than the minor of, say, the German High Baroque, the early 20th century for a Scandinavian composer, or the current era.¹

The “minor prophets” of the Hebrew Bible are so labeled because of the size of the written work that remains.  Not all of them are minor in terms of significance—even speaking relatively.  Yes, Isaiah is a major prophet in anyone’s literary analysis, but Micah also left an important message, and so did many of the others, as far as I can tell.

I often like music in minor keys, but I don’t like to read prophecy, regardless of whether the prophet is considered minor or major.  Sometimes I forget (or try to forget) this aversion, and then I read prophecy again.  Invariably, I regret it.  It makes me upset—not because I identify with the people of Judah or Israel and feel harshly criticized to the point of self-defensiveness.  No, I get upset because I simply don’t get prophecy.  The tenor often seems to be one of stern criticism or mournful repentance or hopeless doom—and I do understand those, in general terms—but so many of the multiplied words are lost on me that I become wistful at best . . . and irritated or disenfranchised or hopeless at worst.  Maybe an early 20th-century blues song (in a major key, mind you) or a hippie folk song would be good about now.

“Why not read a commentary?” you ask . . . “You know, something that could help you understand, you ignorant wretch who must repent, or something worse will befall you?”  Although I have some at my disposal, I have come to believe that there more authors who misunderstand the import of Old Testament prophecy than is the case with any other type of literature.  A lot of the problem, at least in the western world, has to do with the silly enterprise of trying to apply Israelite prophecies of, say, the 7th century BC to modern-day Syria and Iraq or the USA.  Many gullible people have bought into that kind of garbage, and more off-base books on prophecy have sold than better-conceived ones.  I suppose I feel I know just enough about prophecy to know when a preacher or author is full of baloney (deserving true prophetic condemnation in some cases!), but that’s roughly where my knowledge and insight leave off.

And it’s frustrating, because I want to understand Israel’s history during the centuries that led up 20161208_210607.jpgto the birth of the Messiah.  John Bright’s book The Kingdom of God has lately drawn me to the prophecy of Amos.  Aside:  I’m confident in saying that Bright, who died a couple of decades ago, was not one of those careless, pop-theology authors who merely wanted to sell books . . . no, I infer that he really “gets” Amos.  The prophet Amos, as Bright painted him, was a man of the old ways.  A man who deeply “got” God’s original covenant with the people.  A man who was deeply distressed with the state of Israel under the kings and who called the people back to God as King.  With that vision in mind and heart, I started reading Amos this morning.  And I hated almost every minute of it.  The message is redundant at best.  I can’t hear much of the message I suspect the people of Israel would have heard.

So I think I’ll listen to some minor-key music from the Renaissance.  Or maybe a folk tune in the Mixolydian or Dorian mode.  Those are nice, and I can understand more of them.

P.S.  I wrote this post after having read the first four chapters of Amos.  I almost quit in a minor fit of frustration.  Much of the material in the last five chapters was much more understandable for me.  Finishing Amos today was not a major accomplishment, but one I wanted nonetheless to document!

¹ All of this pertains to “Western music,” i.e., it does not speak to music of the Arabian desert, Tibet, India, etc.

Repertory breadth: of Bruckner and the Bible

Anton Bruckner is an interesting figure in 19C music history.  I have only a general impression of his music and have never participated in deep study of his works as either a conductor or player.  I once considered programming at least a movement of one of his symphonies, but that never occurred.  At the intersection of Bruckner and the Bible, there would be much to inquire about.  I won’t be analyzing Bruckner’s faith or his life, though.  I’m going somewhere different (and won’t be probing very deeply).

In or near my CD player right now are these discs:

  • Anton Bruckner—Symphony No. 3
  • Doobie Brothers—Takin’ it to the Streets
  • Phillips, Craig, & Dean—Where Strength Begins
  • Frank Bridge—Orchestral Works vol. 3
  • Edgar Meyer/Yo-yo Ma/Mark O’Connor—Appalachian Journey
  • Carter Pann—The Piano’s 12 Sides
  • Fernando Ortega—Home

A nice smattering, yes?

I like variety.  I suspect many people think they’re getting variety these days when they listen to two different rappers or three pop-country “singer-songwriters.”  Ah, the choices we make.  Maybe I should have substituted some Stan Kenton, Miles Davis, brass ensemble or choral music for the Phillips, Craig & Dean or one of the two orchestral CDs . . . but the above list nonetheless provides a good deal of diversity.

pandoraSince I also like high-quality sound reproduction (not to mention valuing my hearing), I don’t use earbuds very much, and I’ve never had an iPod.  I have rarely used my smartphone or small tablet as an .mp3 player.  On the other hand, I have been streaming Pandora through speakers a lot lately and would like to recommend that some of you Pandora users try out the channels marked in blue to the right.  I was very happy to find the “Classical Complete Performances” channel; it seems to have little to no commercial interruptions.  The “Chamber Winds” channel is a favorite of mine, and I’m working to refine it more.  The offerings here so far are really only about 1/4 true-blue “chamber winds,” but it still makes for transparent listening.  “The Folks” consists in gentle, folk-ish songs; it and “Acoustic New Age” “and “Classical Guitar” are all very good streams, too.

Back to Bruckner and the point I started out to make.  There’s this ongoing thing with the so-called Three Bs:  the powerhouse music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.  A few have added other Bs such as Bruckner and Britten.  For whatever reason, I once programmed two entire orchestral concerts of “B” music with only marginal recourse to one of the original Three.  Instead, I used music of Bax, Britten, Beach, Barlow, Brouwer, and Bernstein (Elmer, not Leonard).

For grins, I’m going to make a hypothetical exercise a little more challenging here by pretending my CD stack had been this one full of various “B”-composed art music:

  • Brahms—Symphonies No. 2 and 3
  • Boccherini—String Quintets
  • Bridge—Orchestral Works vol. 3
  • Beethoven—Symphony No. 7
  • Bruckner—Symphony No. 3
  • Borodin—Symphonies No. 1 and 2; Prince Igor
  • Bax—Tone Poems

Now, I rarely use the “Random” or shuffle functions, since I tend to like hearing one style or genre for a while before moving on.  What if I had pushed the “Random” button and then found myself in another room when the next track started playing?  Could I have identified the composer as Brahms or Borodin?  Bax or Bruckner?  (Boccherini, Beethoven, and Bridge would be a bit more distinct and easier to identify here.)

There’s been this other thing occurring in music appreciation and music history classes through the decades since the invention of the phonograph.  It was at first called the “drop the needle” test.  The professor would actually drop the needle of the record player in a random groove on the record, let the music play for a few seconds . . . and then the students being tested were required to identify the piece:  composer, title, and sometimes more.  The tough profs might play only an obscure section of the second movement of a symphony, and you almost never got the first few notes, so you really had to know the piece in order to succeed on the test.  (The last time I did this for a class, I edited some .mp3 files with the precise excerpt I wanted to play and collected them into a playlist.  It worked fine, but it took way too much time to prepare.  The record player would have been easier!)

As an undergraduate student, I think I experienced this type of test three or four times.  On the graduate level, the method was brought back with a vengeance.  There, our esteemed professor would inflict on us entire exams that consisted of a few pages of each of several scores.  The title and composer were blacked out, of course.  Based on other clues in the score, we were to write our analytical thoughts that led us to a guess as to the style, the genre—and the composer and title, if possible.  As with certain math tests, we were graded mostly on “showing our work.”  The reasoning was more important than the correct answer.  Although I made good grades in those courses, I never really aced one of those tests.  It’s difficult to know a whole repertory (body of music literature) so well that you can make a very educated guess as to the composer and style after hearing or seeing a small bit of music.

So, earlier today, when I heard some music coming from my study, I knew immediately that it could not be Bridge and had to be Bruckner.  That particular comparison really wasn’t that difficult, but I could probably be tripped up if presented with early Bruckner passages vs. late Beethoven ones.  Some Bax might sound like some Bridge—unless I knew the work of each of them very well and could identify the musical language used by each.

Here’s where all this connects to the Bible.  Does any one of us know the biblical texts—the entire repertory—well enough to succeed on a “drop the needle” test?  If we were presented with a few sentences, could we identify them as having come from

  • Paul’s letter to the Colossians as opposed to the Galatian or Ephesian letters?
  • Matthew’s gospel vs. Luke’s?
  • Ecclesiastes vs. Proverbs?
  • 2Timothy vs. Titus?

Many of us could nail many passages from Genesis onto a reasonable place on the wall, but can I hear Isaiah and know it’s neither Jeremiah nor Amos?  Can I distinguish where the history of Joshua leaves off and where 1Samuel begins?  If 1Peter sounds like Hebrews to me, I don’t know either of them well enough.

Maybe I need something more than a Bible app . . . something more than background biblical Pandora.  I also need more devotion—both to the texts and to the God their authors served.

B. Casey, 1/7/17

How would one describe the Indescribable?

I wrote the following in response to a book review published here.

It’s always well-advised to seek a more adequate, thorough understanding of God, as the author Powell has suggested.  Trinitarian thought may provide “the basic conceptual framework of a Christian vision of God,” but such a proposition appears more speculative and historical than explicitly scriptural. . . .

[The remainder of this blogpost is a considered expansion on the original response.]

In the NT writings, the expression “the Spirit” (often seen in juxtaposition with God or Christ (i.e., “Spirit of God” or “the Spirit of Christ”) clearly depicts something real and active, but most of the Spirit texts may reasonably be read as referring to the essence/core of God—not necessarily to a third entity.  Moreover, simplifying the basic reading of the Greek genitive case to the simplest English possessive form can clarify:

For example. in Rom 8:14, the phrase πνεύματι θεοῦ | pneumati theou is sometimes given in English as follows:

“led by the Spirit of God

The phrase can become, in an alternate translation,

“led by God’s Spirit” or “led by God’s Essence

In the first rendering, the Spirit almost seems to jump out as a different entity, but this ontological understanding is not necessary.  The Spirit could be a “third,” or this and other passages could simply be dealing in specialized ways with God and not referring to a separate entity per se.  One could also reasonably de-capitalize “Essence,” remembering that such explicit “proper noun” differentiation by upper-case lettering was not a part of the earliest manuscripts:  “all who are being led by deity’s core essence are ‘sons’ of our deity.”

In using language (and lower-case letters) like that, I am not in any sense intending to de-emphasize or de-elevate thoughts of God.  I am only seeking to understand and probe more deeply than typical assumptions and common-market literature allow.  I have noticed that some secular labeling frameworks these days (I think here of voice-dictation modules for electronic devices) appear to default to lower-case letters or some other means of ostensibly devaluing the believed-in divine.  While that trend bothers me on some level, it doesn’t seem inherently secular or disrespectful to use an expression such as “the essence of deity” or “our father’s holy spirit” or even “the spirit of the christ.”

The presence or absence of capital letters is a surface-level concern.  We ought to probe more deeply, considering how we conceptualize the “Spirit.”

The baseline assumption of the orthodox theologian is that “the Spirit of God” is a third “person” of the “Godhead.”  (N.B. the quotation marks:  these are figurative expressions.)

The common question of mass-marketed pop-Christian literature is “How can I live a ‘Spirit-filled’ life?”

At the root, at least for me, is the proposition of attempting to describe the Indescribable. 

And how might people attempt to depict the indwelling, ongoing aspects of the Almighty in our age?  Maybe by fashioning a model with multiple entities and/or by attempting to reduce aspects and operations of God to three distinctly labeled partner-beings.

I suggest that (1) “Father,” (2) “Son,” and (3) “Holy Spirit” is an insufficient framework.  It is, after all, a superimposed idea, not as biblically based as most people think.  God transcends our rational attempts to figure Him out, and I appreciated Bruner’s (the review author) spotlight on Powell’s (the book author) attention on the healthy reality of the mystery that is our God.

In speaking of the so-called Trinity (with capital “T” used advisedly),  the late Leroy Garrett has said that he doesn’t want to require of God something that the scriptures do not themselves require.  I agree:  the “trinity” construct may be a helpful and even unifying framework, but it should not be presented as an end-all, absolute way to understand God.  

Do you meet other believers on Sundays and park near a sign that says “Trinity ___ Church”?  Maybe you can move beyond the underlying assumption.

Do you sing the third stanzas of songs that address the “Holy Spirit” seemingly out of obligation, or the songs that include the wording “Three in One”?  Maybe you can reconsider those.

Trinitarian doctrine has been adhered to through the centuries by most Christian believers, but it is not beyond challenge.  Historically, “the church’s understandings have gone awry in so many other instances that we ought to suspect divergence here, too.  But there is something more important than the history of Trinitarian thought:  its restrictiveness.  It is a confining doctrine, placing God in a box rather than moving us to ponder and worship the Infinite.