Monday, November 29, 2010

Do we all worship the same God?

I've been hearing discussions in several places lately about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In almost every case, I've been distressed that so many people are so ill-informed about basic facts of our religious history.

The first thing to note is that it's practically a meaningless question. Jews and Christians and Muslims regularly consider each other to be, in some way, getting God wrong. Whether the God they're getting wrong, then, is the "same" one is a distinction almost not worth making.

But then there are folks on the other side of the coin, who want to use our common belief in Jehovah as some sort of banner. Pretty much anything that comes before or after the phrase "After all, we all worship the same God" is guaranteed to be a wish for peace that is quite simply unrealistic: such people are either naive or haven't been paying attention. If we're ever to have complete peace among folk of different religions, it won't be because we've all suddenly realized we "worship the same God." Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland worshiped the same God.

As did Cain and Abel.

That last fact should take us to where we belong: that brothers and sisters and cousins draw blood from each other is an underpinning of the Abrahamic faiths. It's built into the very worldview of all three religions (as well as most other religions) that humanity will be in sin and conflict for a good long time.

Nonetheless, it's important to separate fact from fiction and fancy.

Some say that the spiritual world is bursting with thousands of deities and semi-deities to be aligned with or mollified (Hinduism, pre-Islamic Arabic religions); some say that we are the pawns of a band of gods and goddesses who align with or against each other (Greek, Roman, Norse religions); and some say that there may be no gods at all but rather there is the world and we can either align ourselves with it or not (Buddhism).

Then there are folks who say there is one and only one God, the creator and sustainer of all that is, the summum bonum, the unmoved mover that exists beyond our cosmos and created it ex nihilo, who made Adam out of clay, who brought Noah through the flood, who made himself known to Moses, who makes himself known to man through his revelation (rather than some mystic divination on the part of man), and who can for lack of a better term be called "The God of Abraham."

Among those folks are the three great Western religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That's right, Western. All three are part of the Western tradition of life and thought, and all three are what we would now call Middle-Eastern in origin. Think of two distinguishing marks of the West: one, a confidence that a single omnipotent Creator has created an orderly creation that can be explored and understood, leading to an explosion of understanding and exploitation of the natural world; two, a confidence in humanity's place as over-and-above, leading to [in our best moments] a sense of responsibility toward the natural world and to a placing of the human at the center of art and literature — and, in the Christian world, a placing of the human figure at the center of visual art. It's easy to see that these three religions have ineluctably shaped the West.

Now, it's obvious that Jews and Christians and Muslims have divergent beliefs about the one true God. Indeed, even within each of those groups there are divergent beliefs such that one can truthfully if only poetically say that my wife and I "don't worship the same God," although we would affirm that beyond the level of idiofide we most certainly do. But, even with those divergent beliefs in mind, it's a bit acrobatic to say that Muslims and Christians and Jews don't worship the same God.

Certainly the God of the Koran is different in many dimensions from the God of the J account or the God of St Paul's letter to the Romans; no more different than is warranted by the divergent relationships God institutes with Ishmael and with Isaac. But those relationships are surely no less real for being divergent. And the nature of those divergences is in fact covered right in the scripture that Christians and Jews call sacred. Remember that God promises Abraham he will be the father of great nations; Abraham, in his old age, and with an old wife, takes the initiative of fathering Ishmael with his servant Hagar. Then he has a legitimate son, Isaac, with his (still old) wife Sarah. So both diverging lines carry the blood of Abraham, and both are the fulfillment of a promise to the "father of nations," though Christians and Jews believe that the offspring of Isaac carry the primary covenant. The children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac have been at war ever since.

Exactly who is the Jehovah we worship? We can note that Genesis 16 and 17 and 21, which touch on God's relationship with the Arab people, indeed his covenant with them, are not only part of our shared history but part of our (Christian, Jewish) vision of the character of God.

Here we have a clear picture of God saying to Hagar that he hears her affliction and will have his own way of caring for Ishmael and seeing to his descendants, promising to make of them a great nation, assuring Hagar and Ishmael (and Abraham) over and over that, in that distinctive repeated phrase, he hears them. In the face of such a promise, I find it difficult not to hear the shrill voice of Sarah ("Cast out the son[s] of this bondwoman!") in much of our modern discourse.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

3 stories about shoes and church

1
When the new pastor came to our church, he wore boots several times with his suit on Sunday morning. In San Antonio, and in Texas in general, this is not such an odd thing. The boots weren't beat-up old work boots; they were dress boots, the kind you'd wear with a suit. But more than a few people raised a huge stink about it. They just couldn't get over the fact that the pastor was wearing boots — boots! — in the service. Perfect example of the metonymy of loathing here: the previous pastor occasionally wore boots with his suit on Sunday morning, and nary a complaint. The problem wasn't the boot: the problem was that these people just didn't like the new pastor, so they complained about everything they could possibly think of to complain about. (He cheerfully continued wearing boots.)

2
The interim music minister at our church, a gentle PhD from Mexico City, caught on to the casual unstuffy atmosphere that had been our church's tradition for decades, and took it a bit further by wearing sandals. After not too many Sundays of that, one man went into the pastor's office and said, "You tell that Mexican to put some shoes on." Yep. Listen to that: the easy stereotyping, the toxic assumption about how church works. You, the pastor, will do as I say now. Unbelievably and believably, the people who care what shoes you wear on holy ground won the day. The music minister voluntarily moved to black oxfords. Then he moved to another church.

3
My niece Hannah sang a solo one Sunday morning. Even as a teenager, she had a big rich voice, and on top of that the musicianship to wield it well, and on top of that the x-factor that makes a performer able to bring a crowd to a different place. She sang beautifully. Afterward, a family friend, someone her dad's age, early 40s, came up and said the song was nice and everything but Hannah's shoes took away from it. (Hannah was wearing clean, bright, new-ish Chuck Taylors.) This friend, a fine singer herself, said that a lot of people probably couldn't think about the song or anything else because the shoes were so "distracting." Seeing as this sort of crapped on Hannah's day, I often wonder if this lady, in many ways a perfectly fine person, knows that Hannah's lasting impression of her is the ugly pettiness of this one interaction. Fitting, no?

It turns out that shoes are not a distraction at all. They can be a beacon, an arrow that points straight to the heart of a person's spiritual life.


Friday, November 19, 2010

brin and tolkien

Back when the Lord of the Rings movie series was happening, the science fiction and technology opinion writer David Brin wrote this discussion of the series' philosophy for Salon magazine.

He gets so much wrong that I find it hard to think that anyone could find him persuasive, yet several folks I know have over the years, as this essay has gotten famous. So, a while back, I sat down and took it bit by bit. Having just recently seen a recommendation of Brin's essay again, I thought I'd bring it up here and see what you think. Note that I'm basing this rebuttal on his complete essay, which was abridged for Salon, but is now no longer available in its entirety on Brin's website.


> This fits the very plot of "Lord of the Rings," in which
> the good guys strive to preserve and restore as much as
> they can of an older, graceful and "natural" hierarchy,
> against the disturbing, quasi-industrial and vaguely
> technological ambience of Mordor, with its smokestack
> imagery and manufactured power rings that can be used by
> anybody, not just an elite few.

A self-serving synopsis there, eh? First, they're not striving to preserve the old hierarchy. They know that the old hierarchy is passing. An entire stream of the story is that the old is passing away (admittedly the feeling here is elegaic) — but the good guys are the ones making way for the new, the rule of man on earth, while the bad guys are hanging on to the old hierarchy, the subjugative power for wizard Sauron. What they're fighting is Sauron's evil power, not the passing of the old order.

And there's nothing more "technological" about Sauron's Mordor than about the Shire, whose hobbits love gadgetry but who don't use it to destroy everyone. As for the rings, referring to them as "manufactured" certainly fits Brin's technological point here rather than referring to them as "conjured," which is the far more accurate characterization.

Meanwhile, can this ring be used by just anybody? The point is that it destroys everybody, even its wielder. As Simone Weil pointed out, in talking about the Iliad,

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it.... Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.


It's not just anyone who can truly use that ring: it was made by Sauron for Sauron, and anyone else who "uses" it isn't really using it to its fullest potential. It's the ultimate elite symbol, and that a ragtag band of fellows, led by a simple hobbit, could upend this hierarchy is the opposite type of message from what Brin interprets.

Brin, after all, refers to the rings incorrectly as "man-made" (they're made by a sorcerer, not a man, a fact as important to the story as it is important for him to gloss over in this essay). He posits the moral of the Ringwraiths' corruption as, "Don't try putting on the trappings or emblems or powers that rightfully belong to your betters. Above all, don't try to decipher and redistribute mysteries." Wrong again: the Ringwraiths became corrupt not because they were trying to "usurp the rightful powers of their betters — the High Elves." The Elves' power wasn't rightful at all, as both Brin and Tolkien acknowledge, but the one ring's very purpose was to subjugate the Ringwraiths, and the Elves, to Sauron.


> Still, scientific/progressive society has been known to
> listen to its critics, and not just now and then. Name
> one feudal society whose leaders did that.

To name just one, England. What on earth does Brin think of the Magna Carta?


> Were any orcs or "dark men" offered coalition positions
> in King Aragorn's cabinet, at the end of the War of the Ring?
> Was Mordor given a benign Marshall Plan?

Of course not: they weren't humans. Germans, nasty as their plan for domination was, are human, as are Soviets, Chinese, Americans, Mexicans, Brits — we're all humans. We come together in coalitions, even with those who are technically our enemies, just as the men in Tolkien did: men of Gondor, Rohan, and so on. The other creatures don't represent Nazis or the Yellow Peril. They represent Satan and his demons, foes of all men.

The misplaced discussion of the dark creatures in Tolkien as being "racist" is based on the fact that we see these creatures as men rather than as demons. There are no good Orcs, just as there are no good demons. Brin may not like the terms of Tolkien's fantasy, but he can't just twiddle them around however he likes.


> Let me avow upfront that I share the more recent, upstart
> belief in universities, democratic accountability, science
> and human improvability — one that questions the fated
> persistence of "eternal" stupidities. Above all, any
> "golden age" lies in our future. It has to. Or what are we
> striving for?
>
> Anyway, people with my view had better be right. Because
> if humanity is as obstinate as the cynics and Romantics
> believe, we shall surely go extinct quite soon.

A perfect example of the bankruptcy of a secular worldview. Everything he says is a shadow, faithful to the shape but a shadow nonetheless, of what a Christian would call truth. The striving for a better future — is it any coincidence that it comes from Christian Europe? The Christian message, of a better day yet to arrive, and its vow to remake the fallen world to closer resemble that day — from "on earth as it is in heaven" to "we shall build Jerusalem in England's green and tender land" — is the very source of progressivism, as its faith in an ordered creation is the source of empirical science. But we're striving for that better day as a means of preparing the way for it, not building it. Human nature is obstinate, no matter what cynics and Romantics believe. But, in secularist language, the Christian worldview says that we will all go extinct, and that we will never go extinct. The end of the world, as it is envisioned by a secular mind, is a beast with two horns that the Christian mind escapes right between. No, we won't just weave on forever, and, no, we won't just go up in smoke.


> But things were different in kingdoms of old, where one
> official party line was promulgated and alternative
> sources of information got routinely squelched. And that's
> in every kingdom, mind you. Go ahead, name one where it
> didn't happen.

OK, to name just one: Israel. Israel! Has this guy ever even casually flipped through Chronicles? Honestly, this is kind of fun, but if you're going to be so chip-on-the-shoulder, ya better be sure of what you're saying.


> Next time you reread LOTR, count the number of powerful
> beings who are vastly uglier than anybody with that kind
> of power would allow themselves to be. Why? How does being
> grotesquely ugly help you govern an empire?

But the real question is, once you've gotten enough power, why on earth would you bother posing as an angel of light? Tolkien's point here is obvious. No one in his right mind would envy Sauron's bling-bling lifestyle as a bodiless eye surrounded by fuming waste, but Sauron isn't in his right mind. That is yet another way in which power corrupts. Does Donald Trump know how ugly he is? No face-lift or hair job or tailor could ever give him what he's missing. Right?


> Enlightenment, science, democracy and equal opportunity
> are still the true rebels, reigning for just a few
> generations (and still imperfectly) in one or two corners
> of the Earth, after elite chiefs, romantic bards and
> magicians dominated our ancestors for maybe half a million
> years.
>
> Don't you think a little pride in that rebellion — a
> radical revolution-in-progress, still fresh and incomplete
> — might be called for?
>
> A rebellion that, among many other things, taught serfs
> like you to read so you can enjoy epic books and picture
> things differently than they are.... One that, for all its
> imperfections, gave you a better chance than in some
> peasant village of old.... this culture may not be as
> romantic as those old kingdoms. But isn't it better?
>
> You are heirs of the world's first true civilization,
> arising out of the first true revolution. Take some pride
> in it.

Finally, he sounds persuasive! But the flipside of that question is, where is the poetry? Why does the only nondystopic future, Star Trek, end up so saccharine, to use Brin's example? Maybe it's because these stories really aren't going anywhere. That is to say that an endless progress is no progress at all. The sword-and-sorcery tales, to the suprise of their myopic fundamentalist critics, are essentially Christian in that the progress eventually ends. That's why it is true progress in the first place. These tales are not so much a longing for lost hierarchy — who really wants to be a slave, even under King Solomon? — as a symbol of the ultimate hierarchy.

As is not often enough pointed out, America's experiments in democracy were not inspired by Greek "democracy" or Roman republicanism, but rather by the example, in Deuteronomy chapter 1, of a people who freely chose their own leaders to lead them and whom they could hold accountable, precisely because they did have a king, who they saw as the real king, God himself. The later arguments about the divine right of kings stemming from the kingship of God were self-serving and wrongheaded. Samuel's conversation with God encapsulates the Biblical Christian view, if not the traditional Euro-Christian view: that God is the only king, period, and that human monarchy leads to dissolution — which in fact it did, as that flip through Chronicles shows us.

So our love for princes rescuing princesses from dragons and living happily ever after answers a Christological longing, not a hierarchical one. And it's right at the heart of Tolkien's tale; without acknowledging that, Brin, for all his excellent analysis of human history (purged though it is of its theological source), won't make any progress at all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

the legacy of 1066

A while back we saw the very good movie "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." The English subtitles had all sorts of weird translation issues, which is strange because Swedish is so close to English. For much of the first part of the movie, Catherine and I had trouble understanding exactly what the "guardian" was.

It all clicked when we realized he was the girl's parole officer. I mentioned that that right there is a legacy of 1066. All those sturdy old Germanic words still in use in the Germanic languages don't necessarily stay in English after 1066, particularly in the area of law enforcement, for obvious reasons.

So, whereas we might ordinarily have a Germanic word like "guardian," we use the two Latin words "parole officer" instead. This is why cops, even average ones, have a peculiar patois that leans heavily on French and Latin words. It just sounds more official to us.

To Catherine's great credit, she was interested in that exploration.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

charts, charts, and more charts

As I mentioned before, I'm now doing music for not one but two brand-new churches, Holy Trinity Anglican on Sunday mornings, and Grace Anglican Fellowship in the evenings.

Although between and among these churches and Christ Episcopal, from whom they both split, there's a bit of a Paul-and-Barnabas situation, the happy fact is that all three get along surprisingly well, and wish each other well too: they mention each other by name in uplifting prayer, every Sunday; there have been and are going to be at least a couple of joint events in the near future, with old friends from the dispersed congregations getting together.

Since I'm putting together the music for two different services each week, for churches that, for all their shared DNA, have developed their own identities and styles, I've found myself whipping up new charts at an alarming rate. I've got a large body of lead sheets and scores that I've written over the course of 30 years of leading worship in one way or other (you read that right): lots and lots of classic old hymns from the Baptist (and in recent years Episcopalian) bag, tweaked to sound fresh and new while mostly allowing people to sing the harmonies they know if they want; lots and lots of original songs I've written for special purposes over the years, some of which have dated better than others; and lots and lots of popular worship songs from over that period.

But, even then, the distinct needs of each congregation are demanding as much from my quill as from my shelf. I gotta say, it's been such fun putting all this together I didn't realize how much I'd done. In the past month, I've drawn up 27 new charts, representing a solid hour-and-a-half or so.

Whew!


Friday, November 12, 2010

culture and substance

One of the invisible important decisions you make when pretty young is how you're going to consume substances that change your body and mind.

What is coffee for — what is it? A way to make up for your habitual lack of sleep? An occasional pleasant pep-up? A bitter dark taste that sets off dessert perfectly as its mild stimulant sets off the wine you had with dinner?

What is drink? Is it a social lubricant? A reward? An escape? A permission to break or bend your rules? An end-of-the-day relaxer? A way of announcing high-culture plans, or romantic plans?

All these things matter, and yet they're rarely discussed as you decide who you're going to be and how you're going to engage the world. I saw how some of my friends in school treated alcohol: as a way to go wild. (You could go to a high school party and not drink a sip and people would assume you were wasted if you said something funny.) I saw how my parents treated it: as an enjoyable array of flavors to go with dinner or evening or party. They were in their 20s in the early 60s, the Mad Men era, and have their generation's confounding tolerance for Old Fashioneds and Manhattans and Martinis. Not surprisingly, even though I rarely drink 20th-century cocktails at all, much less as a way to ritually say "evening has begun," I otherwise treat alcohol pretty much the way my parents do: as a nice civilized thing to have with dinner or among friends, not as a way to become someone else or "loosen up" or go crazy or excuse myself from the rules.

All this because I was just thinking about cigars.

Ask me whether I'm a smoker, and I say No, of course not. But I do enjoy the occasional cigar. Cigars are made of tobacco, and when you smoke one you are smoking, which makes you a smoker. This puts me with people in my grandparents' generation, who would say that they "don't drink," and yet enjoy wine and beer with dinner and friends. Which is of course drinking.

But that doesn't mean they're not saying something meaningful about their experience.

Here's a question to ask: how many people do you know who have expressed a desire to quit cigarettes, wishing there were a simple way to do so, making and breaking vows, setting goals and keeping them or not? How many people do you know who smoke cigarettes who wished they didn't, or wished they did less? Looking around, I'd say it's vanishingly impossible to find people who don't feel that way.

Now: how many people do you know who say that about cigars? "Man, it's an awful thing, and I wish I could give up cigars, but it's just so hard!" Looking around, I'd say it's vanishingly impossible to find people who do feel that way. Don't believe I've ever met one.

That fact gives us no information about tobacco, but it does give us plenty of information about cigars versus cigarettes, and why people use them in the first place, and the results they're going for, and the results they actually get.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

to bow or to stand

Several years ago, I taught a Sunday school lesson about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the delightfully-named trio who defied King Nebuchadnezzar, the delightfully-evil-named dictator of the third chapter of the book of Daniel. Honestly: it's hard to say the names of those three in an unjazzy way, or the name of the king without a sneer.

In the lesson, after poking fun at church retellings in which the three are invariably the same age as the audience (in Backyard Bible Clubs and VBS the illustrations show kids, in youth groups they're teens), I mention the glaring question that stares out at us from the page: Where was Daniel? This is, after all, the first-person account of the prophet's life and ministry. (That's the first half of the book; the second half contains his deliriously baroque end-times prophecies.) He was, plain as day, "a ruler of the province of Babylon." Plain as day, "all the rulers of the provinces" showed up to bow before Neb's graven image. Plain as day, there were only three who stood out like the three hairs of a 7th-grader's mustache, refusing to bow down: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

The only reasonable conclusion (though it's not explicitly stated) is that Daniel was in fact present, and that he did in fact bow.

This is an uncomfortable thing to consider. I found out much much later that other teachers had privately disagreed, teaching their students that Daniel must have refused to bow but was exempted, or that he wasn't in town. (Naturally, they never told me that they disagreed with me. Why on earth would they? Ach, phooey.) But those possibilities are each far more unlikely. A quick Google search shows (besides my answers.com article from a couple of years ago) a number of rather implausible theories and acrobatic evasions: most commentators start from the assumption that Daniel couldn't have done such a thing, and therefore conclude that he must not have been there. But all the facts clearly point to the reality that every official was there and had been called in from the furthest reaches of the kingdom.

While it's horrible that Daniel would have bowed, it's not at all out of keeping with the behavior of other Bible heroes, who regularly behaved out of character. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures proclaim often that there is no one who is really righteous, and that we're all sinners who fall short. Abraham and Moses and David — all role models of the faith — were terribly flawed; there's no doubt that Daniel was too. And what's so wrong with admitting that?

The rest of the book shows that Daniel bravely stood against tyranny and stood for his identity and his God for the rest of his life, and the total of his actions show him as a role model for integrity in the face of overwhelming political and social pressure.

I'd say that's good enough.

Monday, November 8, 2010

natural law vs political law

A friend shares this video of Bill Whittle talking about natural law vs. political law. Though you might not agree with his conclusions, it's definitely a valuable distinction to make, and he makes it persuasively. (Natural law: 70mph + 1/2 ton car + tree = splat; Political law: 55mph speed limit.)

One thing, though, that stuck out in his presentation just proves that even the most reasonable among us can be guilty of thinking in a way that's trapped in our own chronological or geographical territory. He says, outrageously, “The United States of America is the first, and as far as I know the only, country in the history of the world founded on natural law.”

King George would, rightfully, protest here. Royalists believed that their political order was founded on natural law, and the insurrectionists of the colonies were founding a political order on a horrible, and dangerous, upending of natural law.

To a royalist, natural law starts with God, the King of all the universe, and ends with rocks and trees and animals, which, on this earth, are under our dominion — a dominion granted to us, feudally, by our King God in the first moments of our creation. Between those two extremes, the hierarchies of man, in which men and women are placed in feudal protection and dominion of other men and women, through the two great pillars of Church hierarchy and State hierarchy, are indeed divinely appointed. We belong in not the Republic of Heaven, nor the Anarchy of Heaven, but rather the Kingdom of Heaven, and those who believe that we must not only pray but work for the condition on earth as it is in heaven must swear their fealty (often through a procession of lords, earls, barons, and other nobles) to an earthly king.

Well, I can’t be entirely persuasive on that point, because naturally I agree with Whittle that America is founded on a vision of natural law that is the correct one. But it would have scored him a few points higher to point out that England and other monarchies were operating on a political law that they believed conformed to natural law, rather than simply saying we’re natural and they’re political.

The past is indeed a foreign country!

Friday, November 5, 2010

"Where did you go?" "Out." "What did you do?" "Nothing."

I'm sitting here with Greta, thinking about her childhood — what will it be like? — and mine, and the possible difference between her upbringing (and mine) and that of the children around her. It can all be summed up by the title of a book we had around the house, a title that came bursting in on my mind uninvited this very moment.

How to Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself. I derived endless joy just from the stubbornly redundant title; it seemed to speak with my voice about inchoate desires to live uninterrupted and uninterfered-with: every child's dream of adulthood, and (what we didn't realize when we were kids) every child's birthright. There's no such thing as even adult life that's truly uninterrupted and uninterfered-with, but every child, like every adult, needs getaway time, time to just be, time to do whatever.

The book itself had all sorts of information: how to make a little tank out of an empty spool and a rubber-band and a matchstick, the rules for mumbly-peg, how to make a kazoo out of a comb and plastic-wrap. But the book's entire frame was that a child not only should have a good bit of completely unstructured time, but could have such time.

Now, when I was a suburban middle-class kid in the 70s and 80s, I was indeed signed-up to the gills: Cub Scouts, piano lessons, bass lessons, Super Sleuths, all that. But I also had stretching arcs of time time time, tons of it, to play and explore and form clubs with my next-door neighbor, to roam the neighborhood unfettered, to play roughly six hundred million rounds of four-square on various neighbors' driveways, to swim, to play a game of my own invention involving the precision handling of a screwdriver one threw into the ground in just such a way.

That's what I want for Greta. Not just an upbringing like that, but a context in which an upbringing like that is possible.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

minor 3rds and sadness

One of the great texts on music and its acoustical properties is Hermann von Helmholtz's Tonempfindungen — "Sensations of Tone." In it, he talks about things in such minutely measured detail that his book, written in the 1850s, was still used as a textbook in audio acoustics into the 1960s. Think about that: that's after the advent of electricity, wax recording, radio, magnetic tape, electronic instruments.

Helmholtz also discussed in some detail the physiological basis of our emotional and affective responses to music: specifically, that the minor third was sadder-sounding than the major third because in a major third the tones have a ratio that's less dissonant. (The major third is 5:4, the minor is 6:5. Ratio can be measured not only with tone generators but also with, for instance, guitar-string lengths.)

Now, a fascinating discovery about these tone-relationships, not just in music but in human speech. In conversation, one of the ways we can tell how a person is feeling is the relationships between the pitches of that person's speech. And guess what? A minor third very effectively communicates sadness. It's unmistakable.

Read the article. And don't forget to listen to the revealing recorded examples.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Happy All Saints' Day

As usual, we often let the crazy run-up to a holiday overshadow the actual holiday. In this case, All Saints' Day, in which we remember all the saints as a collected group: your grandparents, and that inspiring spiritual mentor from your childhood, and Martin Luther, and the nameless 12th-century Flemish farmer whose influence made this very day better in some way better — all the butterfly-winged effect-causers of the near and distant past who have given you the faith that is yours, in this world that is yours.

And that someday someone will be thankful for the unknown unnamed saint that is you.