Thursday, December 31, 2009

Read Aloud Thursday - The Wind in the Willows

Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word

My mom gave me a nicely illustrated edition of The Wind in the Willows a few years ago, and after our success with My Father's Dragon, it seemed a good time to try this classic English adventure story. My kids did enjoy it, though they weren't as enthusiastic about it as they were with Charlotte's Web or Three Tales of My Father's Dragon. I think some of the older British vocabulary and humor were beyond them (at 5 1/2 and 2 1/2), though I did try to explain as much as possible. The pictures were beautiful, and after reading How the Heather Looks, I couldn't help wondering if they actually depicted the section of the Thames where Kenneth Grahame took his inspiration for the setting of The Wind in the Willows and Earnest H. Shepard did the illustrations for earlier editions. (Inga Moore illustrated the edition I have, and her lush full-color illustrations, some even two-page illustrations, made it much more engaging for my children than Shepard's ink drawings, as classic as they may be.) Maybe someday I will travel in England and see for myself!

I think we will revisit this classic again in a few years when we will be able to have more fruitful discussions on topics such as friendship, coveting, selfishness, stealing, and making wise/foolish choices. I did find it a little unsettling that everything ends well for Mr. Toad in spite of all the bad decisions he makes. But Curious George puts me in the same quandary, and I still read them to my kids because they are fun and imaginative. The Wind in the Willows is also fun and imaginative, and the varied characters of each animal are endearing, even Mr. Toad and his mischief. I suppose it can be an illustration that the Lord causes the sun to shine upon both the just and the unjust as well as an example of mercy and grace in the sense of not receiving the justice that is due for one's actions. Stories that don't necessarily support one's values need not necessarily be avoided, for they can provide many fruitful discussions.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Evening in the Palace of Reason by James R. Gaines

Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment is a book about history, about culture, about those who thought they were great and those who really were. It begins by reconstructing a meeting between Johann Sebastian Bach at age sixty-two and Frederick the Great, who was basking in the expansion of his kingdom after just a few years on the throne. Each chapter thereafter, traces the family history and lives of these two men bringing it back to the crux of their meeting in 1747. In an attempt to mock Bach's command of counterpoint and improvisation, Frederick challenged him to compose a three-part fugue on a nearly impossible theme, that is, it was nearly impossible to use this theme in the structured forms of composition for which Bach was known. Bach delivered this request on the spot, causing Frederick to set the bar even higher with a request for a six-part fugue. Bach declined the second challenge, but played a six-part fugue on another theme. In the matter of only two weeks, however, Bach completed his Musical Offering, a sixteen-movement work for piano that is considered a work of genius by all who have studied it.

Around these historical details, Gaines demonstrates that this musical challenge was really a duel between two competing worldviews: the principles of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. They "met at the tipping point between ancient and modern culture, and what flowed from their meeting would be a more than musical expression of that historical moment" (8).

Bach's life and work were informed by his faith. He accumulated a significant theological library for his time and carefully read and marked the text and commentary of his 1681 Lutheran Bible and Luther's collected works (169). His music was founded upon the firm principles of faith and belief in a universe ordered and governed by a sovereign God, so whether the subject was sacred or secular it could be marked S.D.G., soli deo gloria, to the glory of God alone. In contrast, "the 'enlightened' composer wrote for one reason and one only: to please the audience" (220).

I do not know the beliefs or religious background of the author, James Gaines. His accounts of the Reformation and Bach's high esteem of Luther occasionally hint at skepticism, but there is a touch of sarcasm in his treatment of the Enlightenment's optimism and hope in human reason, too. At any rate, his detached journalism does not prevent him from posing the following thesis - "Bach's Musical Offering leaves us, among other things, a compelling case for the following proposition: that a world without a sense of the transcendent and mysterious, a universe ultimately discoverable through reason alone, can only be a barren place; and that the music sounding forth from such a world might be very pretty, but it can never be beautiful" (12) - or from concluding with the late 18th century irony that "those who continued to claim their trust in reason did so more in hope than confidence, almost as an article of faith (of all things)" (259).

I didn't need to be convinced that Bach was a great composer, but it was intriguing to learn more of his personal history and his music (though I must admit that the music theory behind counterpoint is a little beyond me). I'm ready to start building a music library of his complete works, beginning with Bach: The Art of Fugue; Musical Offering! Karl Barth might have had portraits of Calvin and Mozart at equal heights in his study*, but if I were one to hang portraits of theologians and composers, I would have to choose Bach over Mozart. Calvin, of course, could stay!

*An interesting quote from an article by Theodore A. Gill in Theology Today from Princeton Theological Seminary:
"And with a now not so secret delight, I remember noting as I left Barth's study on a first visit those portraits of Calvin and of Mozart hanging over the adjacent doors. He has written of them: 'There are probably very few theological study rooms in which pictures of Calvin and Mozart are to be seen hanging next to each other and at the same height.' What he does not write is what he said when he noticed how taken I was with the juxtaposition. 'My special revelation,' he smiled, looking at Calvin. 'And my general revelation,' he said, as he beamed at Mozart. Was he smiling because it was a joke? Or because he knew something we didn't?"

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

I have been reading this month, but I haven't felt like writing about what I've read. I've considered giving up blogging, but for now I'm going to revert to my original plan when I started over a year ago, that is, to record my favorite quotations from the books that I've read with very little commentary. In order to avoid copyright infringement, I will limit myself to no more than five quotations and will provide full bibliographic information at the beginning of each post.

Chesterton, G. K. The Man Who Was Thursday. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1986 reprint of 1908.

“The rare strange things is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere...” (3)

“But indeed, this comic contrast between the yellow blossoms and the black hats was but a symbol of the tragic contrast between the yellow blossoms and the black business.” (72)

"'When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face but for an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good that we feel certain that evil could be explained...Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front – ?'” (110)

“'No,' said Syme, 'I do not feel fierce like that. I am grateful to you, not only for wine and hospitality here, but for many a fine scamper and free fight. But I should like to know. My soul and heart are as happy and quiet here as this old garden, but my reason is still crying out. I should like to know.'
'I am not happy,' said the Professor with his head in his hands, 'because I do not understand. You let me stray a little too near to hell.'
And then Gogol said, with the absolute simplicity of a child - 'I wish I knew why I was hurt so much.' (118)

I've heard some people comment on the incomprehensibility of this short novel, and I can't say that I've figured it all out either. I was able to guess how the plot would unfold fairly early in the book, but I haven't unraveled the meaning or determined if it was meant to be allegorical, satirical, or both. I'll leave such ponderings for another day. For now, I enjoyed it as a well-crafted story with beautiful descriptions interspersed with tidbits of wisdom. I look forward to reading more of Chesterton, both fiction and non-fiction, including The Complete Father Brown Stories, Orthodoxy, and Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox. What is your favorite Chesterton work?