Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Film about the power of music: A Late Quartet

Lovers of classical music should make a point of seeing A Late Quartet. Non-lovers of classical music might also profit, with the additional pleasure of seeing four actors distinguishing themselves as they play four musicians.

The Fugue is a world-renowned string quartet based in New York City (lots of wonderful shots of Central Park along the way).The four members have played together for 25 years, and seem fair to go on for many more, until its much-loved leader and father figure is diagnosed with Parkinson's and must give up playing the cello. The role is played by Christopher Walken. I've always thought that Walken was creepy and weird, but here he won my heart entirely. Playing this role, he gains our complete sympathy and respect as he portrays an already grieving widower who must face another terrible blow alone. His maturity, wisdom, and dignity make a powerful impression and show us clearly how it can be that one person of great integrity can hold a group together.

The fault lines in the group begin to crack open as the leader announces his imminent retirement. Fear, jealousy, self-aggrandizement, and betrayal begin to take over. The ensuing misadventures of the younger three musicians could be a soap opera if it were not for superb, subtle acting by Walken and the ever-extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman. Catherine Keener and newcomer Mark Ivanir are very good too. There are a few false notes in the plot where the film threatens to become sentimental and/or predictable, but these are soon overcome by the superb ensemble acting.

Most of all, the inner workings of a classical music group, as depicted, is inspiring. Anyone would learn a great deal from this movie about the mutual selflessness required of classical musicians. The string quartet is portrayed as a representative human community which is able, at least some of the time, to set aside acrimony, jealousy, and marital infidelity for the sake of its higher calling.

The Christian community is like this when it is working as it is supposed to. There is a story about Toscanini, who was supposedly a terror on the podium. One day he rapped his baton, stopped the rehearsal, and said, "Gentlemen, you are nothing!" That was no surprise to the long-suffering members of the orchestra. It was indeed a surprise, however, to hear the great maestro say, "Gentlemen! I am nothing!"  But then he declared, with even greater intensity, "Gentlemen:  Beethoven is everything!"

Thus the musicians were recalled to their great task, which cannot be performed without the subordination of individual needs and wants to the service of something far greater than themselves, for the mutual enrichment of performers and audience alike.

"Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory." (Psalm 115:1) 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

An Open Letter to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Because we had no Internet for 2 weeks after Hurricane Sandy, I have several messages in the pipeline which will be posted in due course. Here is the first one.

Rye Brook, New York 10573
October 28, 2012

As a Christian and a pastor, I have always admired Billy Graham, so it was a great shock to see your full-page advertisement in The New York Times yesterday. I believe such ads cost upwards of $10,000, but that is not the worst of it. I never thought I would see the day when Billy Graham would endorse a presidential candidate—that is what the ad’s message not-so-subtly indicates.

The visual image is arresting. Here is his life-sized, rugged face, looking like a sculpture on Mount Rushmore or an Old Testament prophet, with an autographed message about biblical principles. The power of the image is clearly meant to derive from the personal reputation of Billy Graham. On the contrary, I believe that his personal reputation will be severely damaged by this ad, and his legacy tarnished.

Indeed, I wonder if Dr. Graham is fully aware of what the association has done in his name. If he is, his message about “biblical principles” is an even greater disappointment. There is nothing in the Bible about abortion. The biblical teaching on marriage is strong, but occupies a surprisingly small amount of space in the Scriptures. Speaking of “the nation of Israel” as though there were a simple equivalence between Israel in the Bible and the modern nation of Israel with all its fraught problems is disingenuous, to say the least. Entirely missing from this message is the teaching about the poor which pervades the Bible from end to end. Governor Romney’s indifference (“I’m not worried about the poor”) verging on disdain (“the 47 percent”) toward the less privileged among us is a matter of record. The message of this advertisement gives preeminence to some biblical principles over others that are equally if not more important.

It is a subject of further puzzlement that Governor Romney is a Mormon, a faith with a strange, fanciful, and reductive portrait of Jesus Christ. Where is the “biblical principle” in that?

I don’t know how many people will actually write to you, but if my canvass of my friends and colleagues is any guide, my opinion is widely held by those who have seen your advertisement. Many suspect the BGEA of creating this as without its 94-year-old founder’s full awareness.

Most distressing of all, this advertisement gives a distorted picture of what is central to Christian ethics, because it reduces the gospel to three or at most four narrowly or politically interpreted "principles" while ignoring the central message of Jesus about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, and otherwise ministering to "the least of these" his brothers and sisters. I am saddened that this should be the almost-last of the great evangelist's legacies to us.

Yours in the fellowship of Christ,

Fleming Rutledge