DAY TWO: Donald Vroon "On Spiritual Matters"
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On Spiritual Matters
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"Some of us have found something worth having, something that enriches all of life, and we are going to hang onto it even if there's little chance to share it."
by Donald Vroon
[NOTE: The following is a frankly sublime heartfelt declaration from a man after my own heart. For nobility in life-expression, for generosity of spirit, for great art and music. Every paragraph –– nearly every sentence –– commands one's attention and thought. Whoever has read Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind might know what to expect, but this is better, more compact, more memorable, more decisive.
Donald Vroon is a longtime, much-admired editor of “American Record Guide.” As one can see from the title, this article is not about records, however, or even particularly focused on music. It originally appeared, I believe, in 2009 and can be found at the URL below. I have taken the liberty of editing and reformatting the piece for easier reading. ~ FreeThinke ]
I was raised with a strong awareness of the spiritual realm. I don't consider myself conventionally religious, but I am a believer in God and in Christ. I have no desire to force that on others, but the Calvinism I was raised on taught me to treasure the great, the noble, the brilliant, and the excellent –– that's part of serious Christianity ... So I took delight in art and music. I internalized the conviction that God designed mankind to live on a much higher level than most of us do. He gave some of us great gifts to delight and enlighten the rest of us. It is sad that most people remain so poor in spirit when there is so much out there to enrich us.
There are many motives for music-lovers, and I have quite a few myself. I certainly get a thrill out of the purely sensual aspects of music. The sounds themselves excite me. But what drew me to it was the ability of music to create and express spiritual joy and aspiration. It is "uplifting"; it allows us to rise above the daily grind, the exigencies of life; it brings us near to God. It gives us a glimpse of what humanity can be and was intended to be by its creator. This vision has driven all of my life, so music has spiritual significance to me. Music also expresses and encourages spiritual longings that cannot be satisfied by material things. Music gives expression to much that is too deep for words.
In the final analysis, what the human spirit seeks and longs for is God, Himself. God may seem hard to find, but He is generous and gives himself freely, often incognito, and even to people who don't believe in Him. He is the father who provides for his children. And one way he does that is to create and inspire geniuses, who in turn create great art, music, and literature--essential nourishment for the human spirit, divine food for the soul that seeks the divine. Yes, great art and music and literature are soul food--spiritual nourishment--as much so, I am sure, as Bible study or prayer or formal worship.
It has always been true that the finest things in life--the best life has to offer--are not obvious and ubiquitous, but must be sought out. It has also always been true that most people have no aspirations beyond the material and the mundane and are content to live barely human lives. When you see the world for what it is, the Christian doctrine of original sin makes sense. There is an undeniable perversity in human nature; it runs down the way water runs downhill--as if its "natural" course was down--which, of course, cannot be true without qualification. It is hard to believe that people are basically good or even seek the good. But it is also impossible to believe that God created people as depraved and gullible as they seem to be. And that's not the only paradox.
Good and evil have both been expanding all my life. A few people are aspiring higher; a few people have always been creators of good and have made the world a better place. But most people are getting stupider, sillier, more gullible and perverse. That's why democracy is an illusion and never works the way it's supposed to.
People do not know what is good for them and don't want it when they see it. People don't want to use the brain God gave them but would rather be coddled into a false sense of security--would rather believe what they want to believe than make an effort to find the truth. In our time this has gone so far that there is widespread denial that truth even exists. And in our time politicians get elected on the basis of appearances, slogans, advertising--we have no idea what we are really voting for or what they are really like. They have expert advice in how to cultivate the appearance of sincerity and strength, and people are too stupid to look beyond appearances. As Jacques Barzun so memorably put it, "Human stupidity is ancestral and endemic. The ship of fools has sailed in every age from every port."
It may be that the saddest thing about growing older and wiser is the realization that things never were as hopeful as you thought they were, that the stupidity runs much deeper than you ever suspected. If you keep growing, maturing, and learning all your life it eventually becomes obvious that most of your fellow creatures stopped growing, maturing, and learning when they were around sixteen.
Nobody reads books. Nobody thinks and meditates. Nobody has intelligent conversations. (Listen to the talk in stores, on busses and subways--or in college dorms.) Nobody can write or spell. (Public signs are full of misspellings, and both signs and announcements are routinely ungrammatical.) Few people can even drive a car sensibly and intelligently--they don't put their minds to it. (It is becoming impossible to drive anywhere without getting stuck behind drivers whose mind is obviously not in gear--and mobile phones have made that much worse.) What little intelligence people have hardly seems to be applied to anything at all. Their music is vulgar or vapid. Their eating habits are foolish. They have no taste and no self-control; they are so much like pigs that it is downright charitable to call them sheep.
Yet as people get stupider and stupider the world gets more and more complex and must therefore increasingly be managed by a smaller and smaller group of people who may not be truly educated but are smart enough to understand power.
True democracy hasn't got a chance! It has been slipping away from us for many years, though we still bow to it as a slogan or an ideal.
Our music is part of the civilization we have lost. You and I are relics from the past, hanging onto something that has been cast aside by the masses and their manipulators as the spirit of the age has turned into a vapor. The younger you are now the more decline you will see--and it will become more precipitous every year. We are already beyond the age of the book, when people expanded their minds and imaginations thru reading. Now the minds and the imaginations of almost everyone everywhere are controlled by a small group of people who dominate public consciousness thru "the media" (mostly visual, including computers). Millions of people all over the world are manipulated daily to want the same things. Mind control is a current reality. Independent thinking is all but dead.
I am loyal to great music first of all because I thirst for greatness; I long for the excellent and the noble and the truly beautiful. But I am sure that part of it is my conviction that this is one way to resist thought control, to remain different and independent, to stand out from an increasingly amorphous mass. I must listen to music that engages the brain as well as the emotions. I will do nothing that will allow my brain to turn to mush; I have seen too many brains turn to mush. I will not learn about the world from television. I will not believe what the politicians say. I will not spend hours passively staring at a screen –– TV or computer. I will defy our whole culture to keep my brain alive!
I guess it's obvious that I believe one must rebel to remain mentally alert and independent--or spiritually alive. I thought it in the 60s, and I still think it. Mindless rebellion is immature, but there is so much now to rebel against--and in the name of the mind and the human spirit! And if you reject your programming you will soon find yourself in trouble--and that too will get worse in the years to come. It is getting worse every day as sheeplike Americans choose security over freedom.
They are led by false prophets. We are breeding generations of people now who never knew freedom the way so many of us knew it in the past, who have become accustomed to the programming of Big Brother, who don't seem to mind being watched all the time, who have always been political or economic pawns in someone else's game and can't imagine it any other way. Those people all think you and I are eccentric.
But there will always be a few people like us--that's how we know that our music will last. As in the last Dark Age, it may only survive in monasteries (or their contemporary equivalent), but God will not abandon the human race entirely.
But remember: God has always blessed us through isolated individuals and tiny groups.
"What everyone thinks" has always been wrong--even idiotic--just as "what everyone likes" has no value. You can fool most of the people most of the time--history proves that overwhelmingly, and our own time makes it even more vivid. It is the age of mass markets, where the only thing that counts is what masses of people can be made to believe, to like, to buy. People like us are being pushed to the margins and cast aside. But hope can only be found in what is being cast aside with us.
The churches have a lot to answer for in the triumph of popular culture in our time. 30 to 50 years ago the churches heroically maintained their own culture, against the mainstream culture--and did their part to promote classical culture. The more orthodox the theology, the stronger the bulwark against the incursions of the general culture. The better churches found their identity in theology or liturgy, so they were impervious to wholesale invasions and takeovers from the culture at large. The one had nothing to do with the other. But in recent years popular culture has invaded almost all the churches, including ones that claim to be orthodox theologically--and changed them almost beyond recognition.
Look what it has done to the music! Instead of using music that glorifies God with the very best human creations and inspirations, churches nowadays choose music for its entertainment value, to please the audience.
There is a huge gap between trying to praise God in a way appropriate to his divinity and choosing music that will make people comfortable and not challenge them and thus guarantee that they will come back.
I got a Master's in Theology at Princeton almost 40 years ago. Almost all my teachers are dead, and so is the spirit they projected. It all seems so futile now. Written over the doors of our churches is "Ichabod"--the spirit has departed. My mother ... dearly wanted her boys to be successful and famous. I repeatedly told her that she shouldn't wish that on her own offspring. Success and fame are the products of spinelessness and compromise, of playing ball with the powers that be, of consorting with the zeitgeist. If she wanted us to have integrity, none of us would be a great “success.”
I feel sometimes like the ascetics who lived in the deserts of North Africa. I am not at home in this world, and I cannot share its values, which I find corrupted.
For example, I hate buying food: the acres of junk that my neighbors eagerly consume because they are programmed to buy it, the horrid music that blares constantly over the loudspeakers reminding me that this store was not designed for people like me, the commercial announcements designed to make me want what they want me to want, the displays designed to capture the "impulse buyer", the miserable selection of old fruit that has been shipped thousands of miles so it was never allowed to ripen properly and is artificially treated to look good so people won't realize how worthless it is, the meat from meat factories where animals have no life worth living but are (mis)treated as raw materials in a product. No, this is not how we should live. Look what all those fat people buy and you'll see why they are fat. And if you are what you eat, aren't Americans of all people among the most pitiful?
Worst of all is the atrophy of all those God-given brains. The evidence is everywhere: public signs and announcements (have you ever heard a grammatical announcement on an airplane or in an airport?), level of writing in newspapers and magazines, the inability of almost all public speakers to talk (why, pray tell, do we tolerate--let alone elect--politicians who cannot speak their minds in clear English sentences?), the level of writing and editing in the few books that still get published, the turning of libraries from books to videos and music videos--where the libraries still have adequate funding--the hours the average American spends in front of a television set or a computer screen, the movies he watches, the music he listens to, the language he uses, the books he doesn't read--to say nothing of the ugliness of this country, scars of commercialism everywhere; the ugliness of people's clothes and houses, the shallowness of their religion, the failure and hypocrisy of the political system –– why go on? It's an "end times" scenario. Not much worth saving is left, and almost nobody cares –– and the ones who do are considered very strange.
Let's be strange together. Let's somehow keep alive an alternative to the sleaze and slime of our culture. Maybe we can even let the world know that not everyone in America wants to corrupt the rest of the world. Some of us have found something worth having, something that enriches all of life, and we are going to hang onto it even if there's little chance to share it. (In fact, what we value separates us from the people of our own land and unites us with like-minded people everywhere. That makes our patriotism questionable, and that may become a real problem as conformity more and more rules our land.)
We are today's counter-culture. Like the counter-culture of the 60s, we can see what's wrong and we know a better way. Counter-cultures attract small followings; it is not in their nature to recruit many "followers". Real Christianity is a counter-culture. So is the love of wisdom and knowledge--and of great music, art, and literature. Counter-cultures never actually turn around the culture, but sometimes they prevent a total collapse. Look at the chances the churches, the schools, the whole country missed in the 60s. Counter-cultures bear witness to truth and beauty and hope to give people some idea what they are missing (rejecting). Counter-cultures keep these things alive when the larger culture rejects them. If they are kept alive, they will be there for spiritual people to find--for the seekers and the sensitive.
The Apostle Paul used to talk about the difference between "the life of the flesh" and "the life of the spirit". It's a wonderful distinction that has been much misunderstood. The "consumer society" we live in serves and strengthens the life of the flesh--that is, it appeals to greed, pride, power, cravings, self-indulgence. It does nothing for the life of the mind or spirit. It is precisely an enemy of the spirit. Its whole spirit is mistaken and destructive (though, of course, it's "good for the economy" that people should indulge themselves and not be frugal or careful about their spending). Spiritual people try to distance themselves from it, try to focus their attention elsewhere. That is very hard to do. The spiritual life always was a tremendous challenge. But it is about ultimate things rather than proximate things, and our economy is built on instant gratification.
Classical music is such a huge part of my life because it is so spiritually rich and enriching--because it is about ultimate things, intangibles, imponderables, mysteries, and heights and depths. It is definitely one of the forces that enable us to transcend the "life of the flesh" and live "the life of the spirit". It has spiritual effect, whether you believe in God or not. It is civilizing. It adds to the solid core that keeps a civilization alive and keeps true values before our eyes.
(Please don't write me silly letters about how Stalin and Hitler liked classical music. I am not saying it redeems people and wipes out evil. And every good thing can be abused. Religion itself is proof of that: history is full of its abuse.)
In the 60s it used to appall me that Americans were so proud of their military might and their great wealth. The "patriotic" types used to brag that we were the richest country on earth and the mightiest. That means nothing! It made me laugh. Who cares? Are these things that matter? In the light of history and in the light of all the wisdom of the ages, all those riches and all that military might could not make us great--and did not. They made us smug, they made us proud, they made us arrogant. We became the New Rome (three or four books were published with that title, all identifying the USA). All the Biblical prophecies against Rome could be applied to us.
Today we Americans are no longer the richest people--there are countries ahead of us in per capita income. But we still have the strongest economy, and we have become even more arrogant as the undisputed leader in military might. And these things still don't matter, and our leaders still don't seem to get it. Everything is done to increase our riches and our might--there is never enough--but we have forgotten what counts. Even freedom and justice are being passed by--to say nothing of less popular spiritual values. As a people we seem to have chosen to go wrong. The evidence is everywhere and quite depressing. Everyone hates prophets of doom, but what can a prophet say about this country?
Some readers will be tempted to call me a bitter old man. But I am neither old nor bitter. When an idealist is twenty he thinks he can make a real difference in the world. At 30 he still thinks so but realizes that a great many people stand in the way. At fortyhe realizes that they will never get out of the way. Part of maturity is to accept our inability to change the world; the world is hell-bent in another direction and not interested in what we have to say or offer. Maturity does not mean giving up your ideals or giving up the fight, but it does mean giving up your illusions –– being "dis-illusioned", seeing things as they really are, not “if only.”
But why would this make us bitter? We are sustained by the very spiritual values that revealed the emptiness and vanity of the world around us in the first place. It is because our lives are so full that we are distressed by that emptiness. Life need not be so tawdry and bleak as it is for most people. But we are very happy people –– not bitter by a long shot. Sometimes we are frustrated, naturally. People make it so hard to share the joy. And people seem so attached to things that are shallow and sterile and yield no real satisfaction. Frustrated, but not bitter. Not with all the wonder, the glory and the joy!
~ DONALD VROON