Wise as Serpents

Sometimes the meaning of Jesus’ words, and their application, seem entirely obvious once you read them.

Sometimes He confounded His audiences both then and now.  He did not always seek to give answers.  It seems to me that sometimes He wants to draw us deeper into a Mystery.

His command to be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Mt. 10:16) has always perplexed me.  Do we have to be one or the other, or can we be both wise and innocent at the same time?  The command to be “innocent as doves” seems easy to understand, but of course hard to achieve.  The first part apparently asks us to mimic the cleverness of the Devil, which might seem easier to our fallen selves but surely more dangerous.  And how to apply this first admonition?  I have no idea.

I thought about this saying of Jesus during one particular section of Kyriacos Markides The Mountain of Silence, a series of interviews with one particular monk from the monastery on Mount Athos.  I strongly recommend the work, not because of the author but because for most of the book he simply allows his subjects to speak at length.  Early on in the book the author tells of two events in the life of the monastery.

In W.W. II the Nazi’s began to overrun Greece and the monks on Mount Athos wondered what they might do.  The monastery is located at the very edge of one of the Chalcedonian peninsulas and remains somewhat isolated territorially.  As a pre-emptive strike of sorts, they decided to ask Hitler to put the monastery under his personal protection.  They correctly deduced that Hitler would be flattered to do so, which might have spared the area damage from bombs, or at least allowed the monks to stay.  They then proceeded to use their privileged position to hide many Jewish women from the Nazi’s, the only time in their long history that they have allowed women within their walls.

Turkey invaded Greece in 1974, which again endangered both the physical structures of the monastery and its spiritual independence.  This time the monks made a special appeal to Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union to have the monastery put under his personal protection.  Perhaps they hoped to hearken to Russia’s own special monastic tradition. Or perhaps they hoped to appeal to Russia’s rivalry with Turkey in the late 19th/early 20th century over the fate of the Balkan Orthodox Christians.

Both instances, and especially the appeal to Hitler, did not at first impression sit well with me.  But then I reconsidered.  In neither case did the monks side with their protectors.  They stood above the purely national aspects of the wars — but not the moral ones.  They had the foresight to use Hitler’s vanity for good.  In the second instance they may have exhibited real foresight in standing above the national aspects of that conflict.  Alas, based on what very little I have read, it appears that many Mediterranean churches use the events of the 1970’s as a rallying point for Greek nationalism and ignored deeper spiritual aspects.  The monks on Mount Athos avoided this.

Might we consider these actions as correct applications of the Jesus’ words cited above?  Perhaps.

One can springboard from thoughts about these incidents to speculations about the relationship between the church and state, something the church in the west may have to reconsider in light of recent events.  In western thought the classic exposition of the issue came from St. Augustine’s City of God where he outlined the nature and purpose of the “City of Man” and the “City of God” — in simplistic terms — the state and the church respectively.  Augustine seems to advocate cooperation between the two when it appears that interests genuinely align, even though they may seek to achieve the same ends for very different reasons.

This sounds entirely reasonable. It looks like something along the lines of what the monks of Athos did in the circumstances cited above. But I wonder about its applicability in modern democracies, a context Augustine did not envision.

A monarch or emperor has the sum total of political power in his hands.  He may share power with unofficial advisers or an an official council like a Senate.  But whether an absolute ruler or no, the power remains with him.  In these situations the Church can easily stand aside and say, “This is good king, we can work with him, ” or the opposite as the case may be. Whether they cooperate or no, they stand outside the power structure and can detach themselves (in theory) from it with ease.

But in democracies power coheres with the amorphous “majority.”  Cooperation in the sense Augustine entails with a democracy would likely mean the need to become part of the power structure itself. Standing outside said structure effectively puts you within the minority.  Influencing government would then involve not cooperation with the City of Man but joining the City of Man.  Of course in a monarchy all are equal because everyone is in the minority.

We shall need great wisdom to navigate this dilemma in the coming years.

Structure vs. Sound

I always enjoy musicians who can talk intelligently about their music.  Glenn Gould combined his brilliant technique with a brilliant mind, and thankfully, availed himself of many opportunities to speak.

The video appeals to me on a number of levels.  For starters musician and filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon almost parodies the speech and approach of a rather stuffy French intellectual (though I would never assert that’s what he actually was). What really intrigued me, however, was their discussion of whether or not one can truly play Bach on a piano instead of a harpsichord, which leads then to other digressions.

Gould breaks down composers into two types:

  • The first seek to create the “ultimate” piece that can only be played in very specific ways, in very specific settings.  Such composers, he argues, concern themselves primarily with the reception of the music rather than the music itself.
  • The second (whom he clearly prefers) concern themselves with the structural integrity of the music itself.  Gould always admired Bach for his “vertical and horizontal” integrity.  That is (I think) the piece went somewhere definite (vertical), but never at the expense of the relationship of the notes to each other (horizontal).

Certainly Bach has been a much more enduring composer than either in the first group Gould mentions.  Who can think of Paganini without the violin, or Liszt without some long-haired guy playing the piano?  But Bach shows up everywhere, with mandolins, saxophones, organs, and in different genres like jazz and even some heavy-metal.  His structural integrity allows then, for improvisation and modification.*  The fact of his endurance and applicability must give us hints as to how to operate in other areas of life.

Historian Arnold Toynbee talked about the traps that civilizations fall into that bring them down.  I appreciate that Toynbee often gave a spiritual focus to this topic, and focused on “idolization” of ephemeral techniques or institutions as one key problem.  In other words, at some point in the past a particular institution or method helped achieve some great good.  The solution to our present concerns then, means returning to some point in the past.  Toynbee comments,

We can see that this nemesis would bring on social breakdowns in two distinct ways.  On the one hand it would diminish the number of possible candidates for playing the creator’s role in the face of any possible challenge . . . On the other hand . . . these ex-creators, by virtue of their previous work, will now be in positions of power and influence. In these positions they will not be helping the society move forward any longer; they will be “resting on their oars.”

Classical education, it seems, can easily fall into the temptations of the first category of composers above.  We, perhaps unlike others, seek the “perfect” for all time in our educational content and methods.  This in turn can lead us to idolize the past, freeze it, and bring it forward to today.  But if we do this we forget that education involves primarily the transmission of certain experiences and beliefs from one generation to the next.  For it to transfer, it must have life, which means it must have some degree of wiggle-room and applicability in different contexts.  Athens’ own history is an example.  With their curiosity and passion for eternal things they might have created the idea of classical education.  But eventually they became a parody of themselves.  “For the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21).

But then one might counter — isn’t that what public schools essentially do?  They have a curriculum that is essentially interchangeable and standardized.  This curriculum, based on the standardized test, can then be easily transferred from one teacher to another.  In many classical schools, curriculum seems much more teacher-centric and would not transfer nearly as easily.

However, such approaches to curricula are essentially gnostic.  They have no incarnation.  Without a definite incarnation of an idea or method in the person of a particular teacher, there can be no power, no application, no life.  The Spirit could not descend until after the Son had come.

Perhaps we can conclude by saying that if one ever writes curriculum, pay extra attention to its structure instead of its sound.  When we play Bach, let Bach be Bach.  But be sure to put something of yourself into your own performance. I have never understood objections to those who say, “But Bach wouldn’t have played it that way.”  We do not go to concerts to hear Bach play, after all.**


*I remember reading one musician who said something like, “If Bach was alive today he would be a jazz musician.”  For those interested I include here part of an interview with the famous jazz pianist Keith Jarrett conducted by fellow piano player Ethan Iverson, on the subject of Bach.

EI:  Do you play the piano every day?

KJ:  Now I do, yeah. There was a long time in my life (when I was ill) when I didn’t practice really at all regularly, but now, yes, I do. It really depends on what I am working towards or away from or both. Sometimes I have to slowly erase one thing and move towards another.

I was just working on Bach over the last few months, and now I have to shelve that and pretend that I know how to do a solo concert, and while I’m pretending that, that’s practicing. But! I thought I was going to shelve the Bach, but now I’m playing the Bach, and for the last twenty-five minutes I do the other thing and it works very well. Because by the time I do the finger-work that Bach requires, and the control thing, my fingers are ready to be completely out-of-control and in-control at the same time. I didn’t realize that it was helping me improvise until Gary Peacock looked at me between sets and said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

EI:  So, at one point, going between jazz and classical felt like more of an embouchure change than it does now? Is it beginning to even out?

KJ:  It really depends. When I was getting ready to record Mozart I couldn’t have mixed both. And in general, that’s the case. I generally don’t mix things. But I’ve seen how it seems to work this time, and I’m just taking advantage of it. Probably I’m in better shape than I was before, due to some of the patterns Bach forces upon you. The jazz player doesn’t ever play these patterns: they don’t come up; certainly not in the left hand. And working on the fingering puts you in a hypnotic state, playing the same phrase down one half step at a time or down a scale, and you’re doing the same fingering but it isn’t the same fingering, depending on how many black keys are involved. And Bach has this crazy ability to change key in the middle of a scale. So you’ve changed harmonic center in the process of playing what you thought was a simple scale so you can’t take your eyes off the music. And even with the bass line, if you stop looking you think you know what it is, but he always thought it out so well that it’s not always not predictable, but his note is always better than yours.

EI:  Do you work out your fingerings early on, or keep experimenting?

KJ:  I’ve had all kinds of experiences. With the Shostakovich, I just played it and played it and played it. When I realized I was going to record it, I had to say to myself, wait: I’ve got to find an edited version of this with fingerings! Because what I normally do is find different fingerings every time I play, probably. I just improvise that part of it. It works sometimes, but it doesn’t work in the studio, when you don’t want to do a second take. So I went through three different editions of the Shostakovich and ended up with absolutely no fingering: theUrtext, with no fingerings at all, and that’s always what I prefer in the end. With the Bach, I’ve been able to stick with that. I don’t even like making a mark on the page…

**If you listen to Glenn Gould recordings of Bach you will usually hear him humming faintly in the background.  Some object to this, but I like it.  It reminds me that the music I’m hearing doesn’t come to me disembodied, but from a real person in love with the music he plays.  Thus, Gould recordings can nearly achieve the immediacy of a live performance.