Musical and Literary Endings

One my favorite bands is “The Bad Plus,” a genre bending jazz trio.  I love just about everything they have done.

I say “just about” because they have a few songs that end in a discordant or incomplete fashion, and to me that’s no ending at all.  I recall a story about a son who always knew how to aggravate his composer father.  He would play seven notes of a scale on the family piano and refuse to play the last.  His father, no matter the situation, would inevitably have to come back to the piano and play the last note.

My question — Is this a matter of taste?  Or is it “wrong” to end a song discordantly?  As far as my limited knowledge takes me, jazz is the only musical genre that does this, however rare it might be.  Can discordant endings be appropriate in certain musical genres and not others?

I tend to think that it is wrong to end a song discordantly.  Songs are like stories and should have a beginning, middle, and end.   The songwriter has a duty to their audience.  There should be wholeness, completion. Don’t get our attention and then not deliver.

But then I check myself, because I don’t always mind, and sometimes even like, movies or books with ambiguous endings.  Should ambiguous or endings be considered ‘discordant’ endings?  Why or why not?



Losers in History vs. Losers in Sports

Historical memory will sometimes romanticize losers.

Robert E. Lee, Hannibal, Napoleon, Vercingetorix — all of them have a romantic glow about them in the minds of some.  In this ‘Romantic’ narrative, all of them begin as significant underdogs, but through pluck and brilliance make Goliath quake.  They nearly succeed, but then one mistake, or one setback of fate, and cruel reality overwhelms them.  So, Lee would have won had Stuart been at Gettysburg, Napoleon would have won if it had not rained at Waterloo, Hannibal if he had attacked Rome after Cannae, and so on.

Life can sometimes imitate art, but it is usually messier.  One can certainly make arguments for the causes of all of the military men I mentioned, but making them tragic heroes can blind us to reality.  Were all of them really underdogs?  Lee and Vercingetorix had many, many, advantages.  Napoleon nearly always faced divided allies.  Hannibal was not forced into choosing what amounted to an all or nothing strategy.  Furthermore, failure on a grand scale like theirs can rarely be attributed to one event.  All of them exhibited, to my mind, poor strategic thinking and were sunk not by fate but by their own choices.

Have you noticed that we don’t romanticize sports losers?  No one waxes eloquent about Joe Flacco, loser in two AFC Championship games, or Donovan McNabb, loser in a variety of NFC champioship games and one Super Bowl.  No one cares that Jake Delhomme nearly beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.  Commentators killed Miami for losing the NBA championship to Dallas.  No romanticizing there.  The list goes on.  Perhaps the one exception I can think of might be Joe Frazier, but of course he beat Ali once, and was treated horribly by Ali in a way that should draw our sympathy.  My wife brought up the point that we romanticize Dan Marino.  Is there a common thread?

We also never romanticize political losers.  Michael Dukakis?  Who cares?  McCain, Mondale, Dole, — I can’t think of one romanticized defeated candidate.  The concept of gallantry amidst futility (or at least perceived futility) inspires admiration for some historical figures, but not political ones.

What can account for this difference?  I have no answers, but would like some suggestions.



9th Grade: ‘Faith,’ Reason, and The Crusades


This week we wrapped up our unit on the Crusades.  This difficult era raises many questions for us:

1. Did the Crusades attempt to stem the tide of Moslem aggression, or did they in fact cause more Moslem unity and a resurgence of Moslem power?

Some see the Crusades as a legitimate attempt to strike against Moslem expansionism.  Others argue that the Crusades forced the Moslems to unite once again. Having been invaded by the West, they determined to renew their attacks against them.  Do the Crusades bear any blame for the eventual collapse of Constantinople in 1453?

2. What role should faith and reason play in everyday affairs?

The Third Crusade is a good example of this problem.  Richard I fought his way to Jerusalem, but went home in part because he believed he could not hold the city even if he took it.  Therefore, it was pointless to risk his live and the lives of his men for nothing.  Some criticized his actions, saying something to the effect of, “You must step forward in faith, and watch God bless you.  This is what faith is all about!   You cannot think of this in practical terms. That is not thinking with faith.  Put  a foot into the Jordan, and then watch it part.”

We see this same question also running through the idea of the tragic Children’s Crusades, though here the Church strongly opposed Europe’s youth to no avail.* How should the balance between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ guide our daily lives?  How should we answer the argument of many young people who participated in the ‘Children’s Crusades,’ which ran something like this:

– God has called his people to crusade for Jerusalem.  We believed so in 1097.  Has God changed?  He is the same, yesterday, today, forever.  Therefore, His call is the same.  We must still vie for the Holy Land.

– But how shall we go?  Let us not trust in princes, horses, or chariots (i.e. Ps. 20), let us know that our trust is in God, by marching out in true faith.  We see in Scripture that Moses led the Israelites to the Red Sea and it parted. Joshua marched around the city, and it fell.  Guided by God’s word, we shall emulate their example.  God shall make a way for us to take Jerusalem, and do so in a way so that all glory goes to him.

– Many argue that the problem with the Crusades was a lack of organization, supplies, or reinforcements.  This only betrays worldly thinking.  Would more supplies have made the Crusaders less greedy in 1204?  Would it have made them less violent inside Jerusalem’s walls in 1099?  No, the problem has been our lack of faith and obedience.

– Jesus pointed out the strength and purity of the faith of children.  Therefore, who better than the Church’s youth to undertake this venture?

We know that the Children’s Crusades (both of them) ended in utter disaster.  But what would you say in response to their argument?  How can you disprove them? What is faith’s relationship to reason?

3. The west attempted at least seven times at retaking Jerusalem.  What should this tell us about them?
– That they were foolishly stubborn?
– That they were intensely dedicated and willing to make great sacrifices for achieving their goal?
– That they were a people of faith willing to trust in spite of adversity?
– That they were foolish, naive, and used ‘faith’ as a cover for their prejudice and desire for gain?

In the end, the Crusades would have many unintended consequences.  The West was exposed to Greek literature and philosophy for the first time.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance, and Exploration may all have been by-products of this, among other things.  The Crusades also raise many questions about using violence as means to bring about the Kingdom of God that are still with us.  If we agree with the Crusades, should we also agree with the bombing of abortion clinics?

Next week we will return to our look at Medieval Feudal society, and I hope that the students will be confronted with good questions.

Dave Mathwin

*I should note that scholars debate when these crusades took place, and whether or not there was one crusade or two.  A few even doubt whether or not they were children at all, as some believe they may have been a mass of landless unemployed.  My rendering in class was the traditional story.

8th Grade: What would the ‘Occupy’ Movement think of Solon?


After the test early in the week, we spent the next few days looking at the rule of Solon in Athens from 590-570 B.C. The ancient world regarded Solon as a great sage, but as we saw, his head was not in the clouds.  He took a society ready to fly apart at the seams and left it with an established social context in which democracy could take root.  I wanted to highlight a few key lessons.

First, the background:

Before Solon there was Draco, a member of the Athenian aristocracy.  His name itself came to symbolize harsh governmental policy, i.e. a ‘Draconian’ law.  His policies helped cement the divide between rich and poor and threatened to make it wider. This dynamic is not unusual.  When one group in society separates itself from others because of wealth or status, they tend to fear the rest of society and thus, isolate themselves all the more.  This increased distance only requires more force to ensure the divide.  One can think of the ante-bellum South, for example, and various laws enacted that made it criminal to educate slaves.  Society built like this can’t last for long.

Enter Solon.

He recognized a few key things:

1. Society needs the rich.  One can argue that the rich abused their power but they are still Athenian, and their resources can benefit Athens
2. The divide between rich and poor must be healed if we are to survive.  This will require sacrifice from the rich
3. This led to what may have been Solon’s invention, and may not have been — a graduated income tax.

No one likes to pay taxes.  One of the reasons I this is so is that no one really knows where their money goes.  It gets dropped into a vast ocean, never to be heard from again.  Solon, perhaps recognizing this, did things differently.  He did not ask for a direct sum from the wealthy, but offered them opportunity.  The wealthy could fund specific projects.  They could just pay directly for a religious festival, a bridge, or a naval warship.  Of course, they could also get full credit for their funding, i.e., ‘This festival to Athena sponsored by Diodotus.’  So, paying taxes became a way to earn ‘kleos.’  The wealthy could contribute in how much they gave.  Enhancing the well being of Athens was directly connected with enhancing their own status in the community.

Problem solved.

Could this apply today?  We are much too big to do what Solon did on any appreciable scale.  Yet I wonder, with the ‘Occupy’ movement and other kinds of resentment against the elite building, if we couldn’t borrow his ideas. What if we did this for the very rich, and put their faces on front pages with captions like, “Warren Buffet posing with fighter jet paid for with his taxes,” or something like this.  Would this help?

But, we should note that if we had a competition of fame/honor in paying taxes to the government, that would imply a certain relationship and attitude towards our government.  Would that attitude be appropriate?

Solon did not create democracy in Athens, but he established a context for it to exist.   Democracy cannot exist everywhere.  If the majority have an ‘us v. them’ attitude then they will use their power to ‘get revenge’ or exploit the others.  In this environment, society will become cancerous and destroy itself.  Democracy can only really work when the power of the majority does not just represent merely the majority, but in some sense, all the people.


Dave Mathwin

Chesterton Strikes. . .

[The problem] I mean is [modern] man’s inability to state his opponent’s view, and often his inability even to state his own.  . . . There is everywhere the habit of assuming certain things, in the sense of not even imagining the opposite things.  For instance, as history is taught, nearly everyone always assumes that it was the right side that won in all important past conflicts. . . . Say to him that we should now be better off if Charles Edward and the Jacobites had captured London instead of falling back from Derby, and he will laugh. . . . Yet nothing can be a more sober or solid fact that that, when the issue was still undecided, wise and thoughtful men were to be found on both sides.  . . . I could give many other examples of what I mean by this imaginative bondage.  It is to be found in the strange superstition of making sacred figures out of certain historical characters, who must not be moved from their symbolic attitudes. . . . To a simple rationalist, these prejudices are a little hard to understand.

From G.K. Chesterton’s “The Thing.”

Chesterton, as usual has a wonderful eye-opening point here.  But, as usual, after he blows you away you need to step back and make sure you agree.  The question is, what wars would have been better if the ‘other’ side had won?

Let’s remove the very obvious ones from contention.

Clearly the world might have been better off if, for example, the ‘Whites’ had won the Russian civil war against the ‘Reds.’  On the flip side, the right side won W.W. II.  I’m interested in the more controversial examples.

I do think the right side won W.W. I.

Some would disagree, but I say the right side won the American Civil War.

I say Europe was better off that Napoleon lost.

I realize that it is harder than we might realize to think of many wars that we wish would have gone the other way.

If we take Chesterton’s example, the Stuarts did not have a great track record, and it is hard from my perspective to see that they ‘should’ have won.  But I would love for someone to make a case for it.

Can anyone make a case that Carthage ‘should’ have won the Punic Wars?

Some might argue that the ‘wrong’ side won in the Peloponnesian War.  But in my opinion Athens had descended into self-worship and lost what made them great by that point.

I can offer a few moderately controversial assertions.

I would argue that the world would have been a better place if Phillip lost at Charonea, or if Alexander lost at Issus or Guagemela.

Greek democracy limped badly by Phillip’s time, and may never have returned to greatness.  But Philip snuffed it out completely.  By the time the Romans meet the Greeks, all the Greeks have to show them is absolutism, and this disease seeped into the Roman political consciousness.

Alexander obviously has many admirable qualities, but I don’t like him.  He was a butcher.  His success inspired others like Caesar to kill for glory.  His success romanticized him.  Maybe if he had lived he would have turned sour to those that came after him, but his early death sealed his reputation as the ‘boy conqueror.’  His failure to establish a workable political system led to the splintering and continued disintegration of the Greek world.  Though I would agree that Phillip & Alexander don’t create Greek weakness, they capitalize on it.

Can someone else make a good  and controversial case that another major conflict should have gone a different way?

Hannah Arendt’s “Imperialism”

This is a short, very dense, sometimes erratic, but mostly very insightful book on a topic that has a lot of heavy hitters in the field.

Briefly, the negatives:

1. I agree that imperialism had mostly negative effects for all concerned, but I don’t agree that it was 100% negative in every way. Arendt mentions nothing positive. To be fair, she did not set out to write the definitive treatment of the subject.

2. She strongly links the rise of imperialism with the political rise of the middle and upper-middle class early in the book. Both happened at the same time, but it seemed to me to assume the cause and effect link rather than prove it. I am definitely intrigued by the argument, but must have missed something.

Her strengths far outweigh the negatives. Among her arguments:

1. Imperialism (which does not involve consent) by governments based on consent of the governed is bound to result in disaster. The contradictions and hypocrisy will force governments into a quandary. To maintain control, they must employ people who have no real respect for the political process. Power, and ‘the Game’ become the only justifying forces. Thus, abuses of power would be very likely, which make control over the areas all the more difficult.

2. If you don’t want to go this route, than you have to go the route of the non-sensical double standard. So, the French called the Algerians “Brothers and Subjects.” So. . . which is it?

Imagine never knowing about a great party going on somewhere.  You don’t miss it because you didn’t even know about it, and even if you did, you never have any inkling of attending.  But now imagine being invited to this party.  How exciting!  Except when you get there you discover that various rooms, foods, and activities are all off limits to you, while available for others.

Which is worse?  To my mind, the answer is the latter, and this was and is the problem of imperialism.

Her basic theme through the book is that imperialism quickly became a ‘this is going to hurt me more than you’ venture for Europe in the late 19th century. Not only did it create a kind of split personality for involved nations, it led to ideologies of expansion, with power at its root. So it is no coincidence that the all-encompassing theories of Social-Darwinism, Communism, Neitzche, Anarchism make their mark during this time. Arendt argues that imperialism did benefit Europe economically. But even this, she argues, is dangerous. Economic power, like tyranny, has no real limitations. So — it is fools gold. Some recent scholarship argues it was worse than that — imperialism did not profit even the dominant countries, however much certain individuals (like Cecil Rhodes) benefitted.

3. This focus on power and expansion would naturally lead to a clash and mutual destruction, i.e. the two World Wars.

4. Imperialism heightened focus on race, and a focus on race would inevitably destroy the concept of nations and human rights. There is no ‘humanity’ in racial ideology. With race such a vague concept, groups dominated by racial thinking will inevitably be rootless and continually need more ‘living space.’

I think her overall theme is that imperialism separated Europe (and America to a lesser extent) from the confines of reality. The natural limitations of creation prevent us from allowing our bad tendencies to have too much free reign.

On page 89 she has great quote, one that I don’t fully grasp but would like to one day:

“Legends [rooted in facts, which give us a sense of responsibility] attract the very best of our times, just as ideologies attract the average, and the whispered tales of gruesome secret powers behind the scenes attract the very worst.”

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Great stuff, but as I said, dense and tiring.

Henry of Huntingdon and the Nature of Reality

Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English People:1000-1154 is one of the more entertaining medieval primary sources.  He drops in the occasional good anecdote, casts his narrative in a theological arc, and displays familiarity with Scripture and the Latin classics.

What fascinates me about him, however, are two passages that cannot help but shock the modern reader.

First, his description of the death of King William:

In the year 1100 King William ended his cruel life in a wretched death.  . . .  [while hunting] there Walter Tirel, aiming at a stag, accidentally hit the king with an arrow.  The king was struck in the heart, and fell without uttering a word.  A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up from the ground in Berkshire. . .  (p. 48, Oxford Classics Edition)

And a little later he writes,

In the same way Earl Geoffrey, among the ranks of his own . . . was struck by an arrow from a foot-soldier.  He scoffed at the wound, but after a few days died of this injury, excommunicate.  See how the vengeance of God . . . is made know throughout the ages, and is executed in the same way for the same crime!  While the church of Ramsey was being held as a castle [by the Earl] blood bubbled out of the walls of the church and the adjoining cloister, clearly demonstrating the divine wrath and prophesying the destruction of the wrong-doers.  Many witnessed this, and I myself saw it with my own eyes’ (p. 83, Oxford Classics Edition).

What are we to make of these appearances of blood?

Like Lewis’s famous “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument with Christ, we do not have many options open to us.

We cannot say that Henry is a mere gullible simpleton.  As we have already noted, he was a well educated man.

We might say that he simply wrong about the first instance.  He does not claim to have seen it himself, and one could argue that he merely reports the prejudices of local simpletons.  But we would still have the second example to deal with.

We can argue that he was lying in the second example.  But this event occurred within his lifetime and many would have witnessed it.  If he was lying he opened himself up to be contradicted quite easily.  Of course, he could still have lied.

Maybe he didn’t see blood at the church, but something that looked like it.  But everyone knows what blood looks like, especially soldiers.

So what would it mean if he accurately reported the truth?

1. It might have been a direct miracle from God.  This could be a valid interpretation of the second incident.  But the casual, offhand mention of blood in the first example make me doubt this.

2. It could have been the ‘expected’ way God works to reveal Himself in creation.  Perhaps this would put what happened at something slightly less than ‘miracle’ level intervention, but above ‘every day providence.’  This could be an interpretation of Henry’s words in the second instance, and explain the seeming nonchalance of the first.

The problem with this is that most of us would not expect this today.  Has anyone witnessed such a thing?  I’m guessing that if we saw it we would be more likely to call it a ‘miracle’ if we saw it today.  If we accept option #2 does it imply that God changes the way He reveals Himself over time?

3. Or, might it be that creation was built in some way to respond to sin in this way?  In other words, in different periods of time or different places is the human connection to creation closer, more ‘symbiotic?’  Has the West’s self-imposed distance from creation over the last few centuries meant that this would/could not happen anymore, at least in the developed world?

4. Owen Barfield seemed to suggest in Saving the Appearances that reality can be shaped in part by our perception of it.  Unfortunately, I could understand very little of his argument in that book.

Has anyone else read it?

While this sounds strange, C.S. Lewis hints at this view (Barfield was a good friend) in Ransom’s talk with Merlin in That Hideous Strength, where Merlin harkens back to a time when Nature could respond against evil, or perhaps even be manipulated by those with a special relationship to it.

This, in turn, might shed light on the heretofore puzzling comment in Mark’s gospel (6:5) that Jesus could  do no miracles because of their lack of faith.  Maybe our relationship to reality is one that flows in many directions.  Since we no longer believe such things to be possible, they no longer happen.  But if we did believe. . . ?

This last view might change our view of the past in a variety of ways.  Egyptian folklore, for example, is riddled with tales of magic and magicians with unusual powers.  Should we see more historical truth in them then we have so far?

As you can probably tell, I tend to prefer one of the last two options, but I have no real strong feelings.  I would love to hear other possibilities or insights.