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Tag Archive: Idolatry

The Fish, Out of Matter: R.I.P.

Posted: Sunday, June 28, 2015 (9:49 pm), by John W Gillis


Yes bassist Chris Squire passed away last night at age 67. I don’t usually pay too much attention to what goes on in the entertainment world, as I don’t have much personal investment in it, and never really have. But there have been some exceptions to that. Chris Squire would be pretty close to the top of that exception list.

csSquire had noted on Facepalm® last month that he had fallen victim to a brutal disease, so today’s news was not entirely surprising, but it was disturbing nonetheless, and I’m feeling as if I lost a friend. That’s a silly sentiment, really, considering I never met the man, and may not have gotten on very well with him if we had met. I haven’t had any interest in the music he’s been involved in for the past decade and a half or so, and even the older Yes music can wear a little thin these days.

Yes, as a band, has become little more than a Yes tribute band after parting ways with Squire’s co-founder Jon Anderson several years ago, and, frankly, they’d exhausted their musical genius decades ago. But, at least at the time, it seemed to be a formidable genius, indeed.

My older brother introduced me to the Yes cult when he gave me the Close to the Edge album for my birthday. That would have been late July 1974, when I turned 14. Thinking that the side with two songs looked somewhat more inviting than the side consisting of a single, 18-minute song, I played the second side of the album first. I was absolutely transformed in my relation to music by the end of that first twenty minutes. After spending a few moments in silence, futilely trying to understand what had just happened to me, I flipped the album over and listened to the title track. My wonder and consternation were magnified. As the saying goes: I was blown away.

As he handed me the record, my brother told me that it would cure me of my interest in Grand Funk Railroad. I took that as one of those annoyingly paternalistic things older brothers say to their little brothers to keep the pecking order establishment clear, but by about the time my next birthday had come around, I’d sold all my Grand Funk, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, and other non-Yes albums to a kid up the street, for $10. I would eventually listen to other artists again, but the terms of my engagement with music had forever changed, and there would be no going back to Alice Cooper. For the first time in my life, I’d experienced music as a form of art, and not just as a come-on, or an entertainment.

Prior to my initiation into Close to the Edge, I’d spent many hours listening both to “hit” radio and to albums from popular rock bands, searching for a personally satisfying connection with the music: convinced that such meaning was available for the mining, and invariably disappointed as the music failed to deliver. A satisfying ditty here, a satisfying ditty there, perhaps, but even at that tender age, I knew experientially that the music I was listening to was shallow and contrived; that the excitements it created were ephemeral and, ultimately, phony. But Yes music was different.

It’s not uncommon to hear Yes music referred to as “spiritual”, as one way of distinguishing it from most other rock. I get what’s meant by that, which is to say that Yes music is not vulgar, and that it is open to and even traffics in a certain level of transcendence. But to grasp the importance of that, it is important to understand that all music is spiritual, for better or worse. If it weren’t, it would only be sound, because “spiritual” is really just a synonym for something having meaning, and music, by definition, is the appropriation of sound, as sound, into meaning, expressed in time.

But meaning in music can range from boring monotony to cheap titillation to transformative profundity. There’s nothing unspiritual about cheesy music, it just wallows in the shallow end, and it often leaves the intellect unengaged – if not disengaged. So, we could call such music spiritually incomplete or even impoverished, but it remains spiritual even when it is so in a trite or even denigrating way. Political slogans function in much the same way. We could draw an analogy and say that most pop music relates to music-as-art similarly to the way sloganeering relates to literature (i.e. writing-as-art). It would not be inapt to relate both depraved forms to propaganda. It is not for nothing that sensitive souls have from time to time been alarmed concerning the presence of the demonic in certain music. Nor should we fail to recognize that sacred music actually exists, even if one can hardly find a modern liturgist who is cognizant of that fact. Not all bad music is debauched.

The sensual nature of music implies that it always approaches us at the level of our passions, but it is a further engagement on the intellectual level that allows music (or language) to engage a person in a fully human way, in a way that is spiritually “complete”, and thus to form a deeply penetrating meaning. Yes was by no means the only or even the first rock band that pushed their music beyond the banalities of pop and into a realm of deeper musical meaning, but they took advantage of the opportunities presented by the times to produce work that stands as paradigmatic of the possibility of intellectually serious commercial rock music. Thematic development, intricately interwoven melodic and rhythmic phrasing, shifting modalities and tonal centers, complex meters and metrical diversity, all coupled with the esoterically ambiguous but aesthetically charged character of Anderson’s lyrics: the Yes experience was a compelling introduction for this young teen – and many others like me – to the pursuit of the spiritual goal of art, which metaphysics calls the third transcendental attribute: beauty.

I became a hard-core Yes fan. I absolutely loved their music. For a time at least, being a Yes fan seemed like an important part of who I was. Modern people attach themselves to musical acts – or sports teams, or TV shows, or any number of products and/or ideas – in ways that are pretty totemistic. We wear their logos, or colors, or names, or other symbols. We say that we idolize them, because, well, we do. We “identify” with them, because they somehow provide meaning to us; they mediate some greater, unreachable reality for us in ways that allow us to feel we have at least some small part in it. None of this is particularly healthy, but some attachments are worse than others. I drew the Yes logo on my jacket. I wrote their lyrics on my t-shirts. I put their album covers on my walls. After high school, I dropped most of the outward pieties, although the devotion lingered for years, until I found a better way to what I was really seeking.

I was very glad, at the time, to be a Yes fan, and I’m still glad that I was. In fact, I was blessed to be a Yes fan, because in showing me how the musical genre which modern consumer culture had basically imposed on me (rock) could be used as a vehicle to strive, with excellence, the path to true beauty – and to the awe and wonder which beauty inspires – Yes also showed me the path which leads to the first and second transcendental attributes: truth and goodness. That is to say, Yes ultimately showed me the path that leads to God.

It is true that I was not only already baptized, but lived in a family that honored virtue, and acknowledged Christ as Lord. It is also true that I would eventually have to unfix my eyes from all my “idols” in order to properly turn them to God. Nonetheless, Yes opened my eyes to His reality – whether anything like that was ever the band’s intent or not. This is no exaggeration. I was as convinced an atheist as a 14-year-old can be: disgusted with the world, utterly alienated, and frighteningly self-destructive. I was one sad-sack kid. I still grieve for that kid, constantly. It is a grief that deeply informs my relationships with my own children. I don’t know what would have happened to me if Yes hadn’t happened to me. Yes music was a ray of light in the dreadful darkness of my adolescent existence that started a revolution in my life, however slow-moving that revolution turned.

Though I’ve moved on in many ways, there are still three albums from Yes that I would grab for my proverbial desert island supply. One is Close to the Edge, another is the brilliant Relayer album from 1974. But the third would be the 1975 solo album from Chris Squire: Fish Out of Water. Less brash than the band albums, it sounds like what I once hoped Yes would come to foowsound like as they matured. It didn’t quite work out that way. The album nodded toward the Yes mode in places – the thematic resolution at the 12:00 mark of “Safe” is a minute and a half of probably my favorite rock bombast ever. And the outro that follows it, closing the album, is as gorgeous as electronic music gets. Squire’s distinctive bass playing combined the driving rhythmic foundation of electric bass with a melodic sensibility that really set him apart from other bassists. I always hoped he’d record a second solo album before he retired. He had forty years, but he never did it.

But I am thankful for what he gave the world in his work. I don’t know anything about his personal life, but I hope he died in peace with himself and his world. I pray that his family and friends may be comforted in their grief. And now that he has died and faced his Maker in judgment, I pray that Chris recognizes Him as his Lord and Savior, and that he might know the peace of his Lord telling him that “you will be/safe with Me”. Cue the outro…

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On a Nationalized American Religious Disposition

Posted: Saturday, September 3, 2011 (8:57 pm), by John W Gillis


I don’t take many calls that come in from 800- or similar area codes, but I took one this morning, because I am expecting a call-back from HP regarding a warranty replacement hard drive for Ezra, my Windows 7 desktop computer (which I had prematurely identified last week as suffering from software problems, but which were being caused by a failing hard drive).

The call was from an organization looking to add my name to a petition supposedly being submitted somewhere or another as a token of protest against the legal successes of a militant atheist group committed to outlawing the observation of the National Day of Prayer. This anti-religious campaign, I was assured, represented an affront or assault (I can’t remember which now) on my “Christian rights”. I listened to the entire recorded message from the organization’s general counsel, but hung up before I could be roped into providing a telephonic “signature” to the petition (or be hit up for a contribution, which was undoubtedly the real point of the call).

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the goal of this group: resisting the pernicious agenda of an angry minority intent on manipulating the law to enforce a practical atheism on American society in a kind of ironically inverted federal establishment of (anti)-religion. It also might not be prudent to blithely assume that such clowns, and their judicial enablers, will never be able to pull off their ultimate goal – they have made significant inroads already, after all. Moreover, every battle lost involves real casualties, even in a winning war. Making it illegal for the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer would surely strike an historically alienating and politically chilling blow against liberal society’s foundational building block of religious freedom, and even against the idea of tolerance itself, and it would teach a stark lesson to society (and to society’s children): that solidarity can and should be trumped by religiously intolerant ideology. This would be grievous, because sans the bitterclingers of atheistic denunciation, the National Day of Prayer effects nothing but a spirit of national solidarity across a wide and diverse body of people, many of whom profess religious views and affiliations that would have surely made them enemies to each other in most pre-American societies – and even still today, in more than a few places:

Religious Hostilities in the World, 2009 (Pew Research)

Still, I have a hard time getting worked up about defending the National Day of Prayer. Partly because I don’t like it. Contrary to those opponents who claim the practice “supports religion”, I think it undermines religion, usurping religion for secular/political purposes. Despite the finding of the U.S. District Court judge who, in April 2010, found in favor of repressing the National Day of Prayer in part because it “promote[s] a particular religious practice”, it is in reality the utter opposite of a “particular religious practice”; it is the very definition of a generic “religious” practice – at least from a religious perspective. It is “particular” only in the sense that it is national, and focused on the nation over against any understanding of the Divine – that is to say, over against religion! Hardly the kind of thing that worried Madison, Jefferson, or their compatriots.

Having been thoroughly steeped in the Old Testament, I am far from comfortable with the idea that God can and should be reduced to a generic concept, or a least-common-denominator deity, invoked for the sake of serving the interests of the state. That smacks of idolatry to me. Nonetheless, I don’t denounce the practice as idolatrous per se, since I can see how it is quite possible to build toward the realization of theological truth through the embrace of virtue inherent in the social idea of solidarity, and so I can warily accept it in Christian hope while rejecting its reductionism.

But perhaps the thing that bothered me most this morning was the acute absence of that other crucially important social idea: solidarity’s sister, subsidiarity. Here was this guy, from somewhere probably half-way across the continent, calling me – a complete stranger – to ask me to listen to a pre-recorded spiel from some overpaid lawyer who wants to argue a silly case in a federal court somewhere, and finally to place my essentially anonymous name as a quantifiable object on a petition (assuming one actually exists) to be submitted as evidence that there is some sufficient mass of people within the republic who object to the theological rape of the public square. Good grief.

Can a handful of judges and lawyers really be allowed to determine the religious character of a nation of over 300 million people? Do we really need lawyers to tell us how and when to pray at all? Is this what citizenship has been reduced to: reciting your name (in perhaps an indignant tone) into a computerized phone bank’s storage array? And what does it mean to fret about a symbolic national prayer event when local churches close for lack of parishioners; families fracture at a continually alarming rate (when they even bother to form at all anymore); the fundamental communal institution of marriage is recast as a personal lifestyle choice of the self-focused individual – until we no longer even know what marriage means; entire generations continue to be reared in a “pop culture” that stridently and effectively promotes alienation from society; employers routinely lack any fealty toward either the communities that support them, or their employees; and political speech has been largely reduced to a propaganda of binary options embracing either faster or slower centralization of power and decision making into a federal bureaucracy.

We don’t need a national day of prayer; we need to stop expecting Leviathan to fix our problems for us. We need to re-learn the idea of community, as an antidote to unfettered individualism – beginning with marriage. And we need to start building a national fellowship based not on cues taken from distant politicians, but on a broad commitment to the commonweal rooted in the social cultivation of virtue – a true patriotism, which can only take place in a society that is open to honest and vigorous religious (and moral) dialog in the public square. This, it seems to me, is not something to be accomplished through national campaigns, events, and petition drives, but by the simple practice of virtuous citizenship, and by the practice of a truly hopeful religious ecumenism: one that refuses to sacrifice truth for serenity, but insists that a real knowledge of God is possible among honest men and women.

It is by their gods that human beings are shaped and known

Posted: Monday, May 9, 2011 (6:21 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Monday, May 9th, 2011:

A second helping from the wonderful essay by David Bentley Hart: John Paul II Against the Nihilists:

For the late pope, divine humanity is not something that in a simple sense lies beyond the human; it does not reside in some future, post-human race to which the good of the present must be offered up; it is instead a glory hidden in the depths of every person, even the least of us – even "defectives" and "morons" and "genetic inferiors," if you will – waiting to be revealed, a beauty and dignity and power of such magnificence and splendour that, could we see it now, it would move us either to worship or to terror.

Obviously none of this would interest or impress the doctrinaire materialist. The vision of the human that John Paul articulates and the vision of the "transhuman" to which the still nascent technology of genetic manipulation has given rise are divided not by a difference in practical or ethical philosophy, but by an irreconcilable hostility between two religions, two metaphysics, two worlds – at the last, two gods.

And nothing less than the moral nature of society is at stake. If, as I have said, the metaphysics of transhumanism is inevitably implied within such things as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, then to embark upon them is already to invoke and invite the advent of a god who will, I think, be a god of boundless horror, one with a limitless appetite for sacrifice.

And it is by their gods that human beings are shaped and known. In some very real sense, "man" is always only the shadow of the god upon whom he calls: for in the manner by which we summon and propitiate that god, and in that ultimate value that he represents for us, who and what we are is determined.

Amen. We are not only created in the image of our Creator God, but we are continually shaped in to the resemblance of the gods we worship. This, it seems to me, is pretty much the entire point of the Old Testament.

Inaugural Symbolism & Real Power

Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 (11:31 pm), by John W Gillis


All the fawning that’s fit to publish…

It’s been a rather surreal two days, focused around the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of these United States. The people around me all seemed to be grounded rather normally, but every time I’ve braved the elements and exposed myself to the mainstream media, it’s as if somebody (me? them?) has entered another world.

I’ve stayed far away from TV for the most part, but I was walking through the living room last night while Joyce had MSNBC playing, and I heard popular historian Ken Burns tell Keith Olberman that, if MLK’s “I have a dream” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address speeches were 10’s, he would rate Obama’s inaugural address an 11. Aside from vanquishing whatever professional respect I might have had for this made-for-TV intellectual, it was just plain embarrassing. Obama – at his best – is vacuous compared to those two men, and from all other accounts, the inaugural speech was not even vintage Obama.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe’s web site today offered the following tease for an inauguration-related “human interest” story:

Residents were frozen in place yesterday, spellbound by the unifying spectacle on their televisions.

The unifying spectacle? I appreciate that a lot of people are excited about what happened yesterday, but a victory party on the part of those who feel they have won – as much of a spectacle as it may be – hardly constitutes a unifying moment. Unification would seem to require the establishment of some sort of common ground among adversaries, not a simple reversal of political fortune. Those of us, for instance, who see the current abortion holocaust as the gravest moral evil this nation has ever perpetrated (and there is no small number of us) are horrified at the prospect of this man becoming President, because of the positions he has taken, and has pledged to maintain, on matters of the most profoundly serious social morality. I hardly feel like part of the party today, and I’m surely not alone in that.

Beyond the social politics and other policy storm winds of Obama, there is another element to the hoopla I find deeply disturbing. At one point today, I clicked through a few links and was browsing a forum discussing the Event, and a commenter opined that the Event was of almost unprecedented historical importance, because a Black man had been elected President of the U.S.A. He then instructed those who disagree with him to “stop being such haters.” Now, I am getting so completely fed up with the relentless insults coming from the radical left wing and their allies, in the form of accusing anyone who disagrees with them of “hating,” that I almost lost my cool at that moment. But that aggravation aside, I think there is an even more perverse intellectual error going on in this person’s thinking, and it is representative of what I see all around me today.

To a certain extent, I can understand the excitement around the symbolism of a Black man being elected President – especially among those considerably older than me. Having been born in 1960, I don’t really remember the Civil Rights movement of the mid-sixties. I was vaguely aware of the “Black Power” movement that came a bit later, but I came of age in the era of Equal Opportunity laws and Affirmative Action; a time when the Black man clearly became the worst enemy of his own people. Those with longer memories, who remember the systematic mistreatment and the struggle for basic justice and respect (and especially those who experienced it), will understandably place more importance on the symbolism of Obama’s ascent to the Presidency, but I think there is a serious danger in allowing symbolism to overshadow reality, such as we’re witnessing in the media’s interpretation of the “spectacle.”

After all, "a Black man" was not elected President, Barack Obama was. If Colin Powell had been elected President, I would be a much happier camper today. If Alan Keyes had been elected President, I would be happier still. Symbols do not get elected to public office, men and women do, and who those men and women are is of far greater import than what they are. I’m glad the United States has come to the point where a Black man can get himself elected President, but it fills me with a certain shame that the Black man we chose is one who embraces such misanthropic, unjust, and outright evil policies. Not because he is Black, but because – whether out of political expediency or a genuine but perverted moral conviction – he is committed to a radical support of a policy that involves the extermination of “undesirable” human beings. I couldn’t care less what color he is, and I’m disappointed that so many people do care – and care intensely.

But regardless of the motivations behind Obama’s support – and I have no doubt that it is quite complex – there remains this tendency to focus on the symbolic at the expense of the real. Politics is prone to this, of course, and Obama himself was shown to be a master of substituting symbolic language for substantive argument or suggestion during the campaign. Television in particular thrives on it, being as it is so poorly suited for intelligent discourse. As much as I wish people would reject Barack Obama’s politics, and as much as I admire Alan Keyes (albeit with reservations), I genuinely hope that the “spellbound” folks celebrating this inauguration would have been far less enthusiastic if it were Keyes being sworn in, because budgets and policies succeed the inauguration, and these things are crafted by men and women, not symbols. I hope they’re naively celebrating a misguided policy direction, and not a dangerously mindless accretion of the power of public sovereignty and devotion to a symbolic vessel. That, indeed, would be nothing but the most primitive form of idolatry, as Moses very clearly told his people many, many years ago. We do not need to go there.

Turning Aside from the Way Ordained

Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2008 (11:20 pm), by John W Gillis


Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matt 7:21 (NAB)

9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Deut 11.18, 26-28, 32
Rom 3.21-25, 28
Matt 7.21-27
(view the readings at the USCCB site)

Very interesting how the two reading cycles converge in today’s liturgy – which they certainly don’t always do. The first reading is not on a cycle, but is usually an Old Testament reading that somehow typifies, or at least contextualizes, the reading in the Gospel cycle. The Gospel reading today is from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus finishes by making a startling distinction between effective and vain forms of encountering Him. I sometimes hear people refer to this as the difference between giving lip service and real service to God, but I don’t think that goes far enough.

True, in Mt 7.24-27, Jesus clarifies the distinction by differentiating between those who act on His words and those who don’t, but I don’t think this is just about the need to put faith into action. It is about faith being rooted in truth, in God’s will. This seems very clearly illuminated in the first reading.

Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, God has placed before the people His words, and invited them to respond. Paralleling the “act on them”/”not act on them” distinction in the Gospel, we see the options to obey or not obey the commandments, bringing about blessing or curse.

The curse in Dt. 11.28 is identified with three phrases: not obeying the commandments; turning aside from the way ordained; and following other gods not known. There’s no distinction made between the first two terms – disobeying the commandments is turning aside from the way ordained – but the third term is given as a reason: to follow unknown gods. In other words, turning aside from the way ordained is said, by the LORD, to be done for the purpose of following other gods.

I think it’s important not to miss the significance of the assumption this verse is pregnant with: that one does not fail to obey the commandments except to follow other gods – perhaps even that one cannot turn away from the way ordained (The Way) without following other gods. So not only is following the LORD without obeying the commandments excluded a priori, but so is any semblance of agnosticism – at least among those who have heard the commandments, the “words.” This is sensible enough: having encountered the truth, one can accept it or reject it, but one can hardly claim to be unaware of its existence.

I think the NASB, HCSB, NIV and NJB get this verse wrong by translating it: “turn aside from the way… by following other gods.” (To its credit, the NASB does put “[Lit: to follow]” in the margin.) I’m not suggesting that following other gods is not in and of itself a turning aside from the way ordained – it’s a violation of the 1st Commandment – but the wording in these texts envisions sin (turning away) following from idolatry, instead of the other way around. There may be a reciprocal relationship between them, but I think the text is trying to tell us here basically that pride goes before a fall; the desire for falsehood precedes the lie.

Many of the loosey-goosey translations seem to botch this passage at least as badly. I see far too much leaning in them toward the wrong-headed idea that fidelity to God is about worshiping the “right” god, and, conversely and even more so, that worshiping the “wrong” god is what constitutes a sinner – and especially an enemy. This is an overly simplistic reading, and I think both the Matthew reading and the Romans reading witness against it.

Just a few verses earlier in Deuteronomy, we read: “be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them” Deut 11:16 (NAB). The word that the NAB here translates “lured away” is often translated as “deceived.” Idolatry is enticing, but it is by means of embracing falsehood (deception) that one is brought to idolatry. When Jesus says “I never knew you [evildoers]” to those who protest: “we cast out demons in your name,” we see the fruits of religious self-deception at work in those who may be very much in conformity to the exterior norms of a life of faith, and even impressively so, but who are not transformed themselves to a life of fidelity to God’s Word, which amounts to taking the truth as a yoke to bear, without regard to personal cost – that is the knowledge of Christ that unfolds in the life of the disciple. We cannot turn back from that path without “exchanging” gods.

This is essentially what Paul is getting at in the Romans reading as well, though he comes at it from a very different angle. Paul had to deal not only with practitioners of religious self-deception, but with teachers of it. The issue is complex, and deserves much more time than I can give it here, but we are still talking about the difference between approaching the spiritual life as an exercise in religious conformance, and approaching it as a humble – and grateful – subject of the encounter with ultimate truth. We are not made right with God through the practice of religious activities – ritual or charismatic – but through persevering faithfully in the ever-unfolding encounter with truth, as God has revealed it in the person of Jesus Christ.