Back in the fall of 2011 I was asked by a friend to try to provide a definition of evil. It was something I often talked about. What follows here is my rather sketchy attempt, notes merely, to delineate what is in truth an extraordinarily complex subject. To do justice, even to my own thoughts, on this subject would require much more time.
Furthermore I am going only going to discuss human evil and leave aside troubling questions about the incidental evils of earthquakes, mosquitoes and viruses. These natural evils do ultimately have to fit into a comprehensive answer to the question of evil, but I believe the real question here relates to that which we find in humanity. The capacity to choose to do evil things.
I have met a few people who actually don’t believe in evil. One woman, an established New York Times bestselling writer, told me that she felt that most things that were considered evils were really just extreme misunderstandings. In other words if people had just had more knowledge evil wouldn’t occur. My response to her… She lives in an incredibly sheltered world.
Let me enlarge that world a teeny bit with a couple of examples of what can only be described as evil.
The first comes from World War Two. In Poland, in late summer of 1944, the Russians were chasing the Nazis as they arrived at the banks of the Vistula River, which runs along the eastern edge of Warsaw. The Poles sensing that the Soviet Army was close rose up to overthrow their oppressors on August 1st. The Nazis were given such a bad time that they actually began to leave… That is until they realized that the Russians were not going to across the river. The Nazis then turned around. Then the city was leveled and more than 200,000 people died before the Poles capitulated near the end of September. The Soviet Army did not help, because they wanted to control Poland after the war. The atrocities got so bad inside Warsaw that troops under the German command even raided a cancer ward of Polish female patients. They were raped in their beds, burned alive and shot if they tried to escape. Illustrations of evil during wartime are endless some much worse than this.
A second illustration comes from the world of science. Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, conducted a series of experiments that showed that average people would administer what they were told were lethal electric shocks to unseen strangers at the behest of an authority figure. So focused were they on completing their tasks that they would violate their own consciences to order to perform their instructions. These tests have been replicated in various countries around the world with fairly consistent results.
Finally something from my own life. In the mid-Seventies I worked in a mental institution in California. It was a locked facility. When I first started working there I would come across one inmate named Bryan. I couldn’t tell if he was forty or sixty. He’d always greet me in the same manner. “Hi” he’d say in a high whiny voice. “Hi” I’d reply. “What’s your sign?” he’d ask. I told him I didn’t really follow astrology. “Oh…” he would sound dejected for an instant.“Is my mother coming today?” he’d finally ask. After a few days of this repetitious behavior I thought I’d respond a little differently. “Do you want me to find out whether your mother’s coming Bryan?” He beamed. “Could you?” “Yeah I’ll look into it for you.” “Thanks.” He smiled. I walked over to the nurses station and asked one of the other orderlies if Bryan’s mother was coming soon. He looked at me with a smirk. “Oh you don’t know…” “What?” I said. “Look in the patients record book.” He pointed to a stainless steel folder. I flipped it back, scanned down the page and read the following: “Bryan’s mother had him castrated at the age of six.” And the evil here is not only in the mother’s choice, but also in the ironic smirk of the orderly.
I’ve been thinking a lot of about evil ever since then… And I’ve come to a few conclusions.
First of all evil is connected to choice. It is not merely an ignorance of crucial bits of moral knowledge, but there is something actively added to the mix.
Secondly evil is a relationship. Or rather evil is a breaking of relationships. With Our family, our loves, our children, our friends, our animals, and land, our country, ourselves, and ultimately God. The lie is evil because it severs a relationship, even if only one side of the equation knows it. Likewise stealing, envy, prejudice, etc. are all breakers of relationships. Sex seems to be a zone that breeds strange forms of evil. It is not sex that is evil, rather it is the breaking of that bond of trust which is the real problem, especially when it is inevitable. And there is too much in our age that encourages a narcissistic selfishness with regard to fulfilling one’s “needs”.
One evil often breeds another. To damage a child is to create a crucible of dark possibilities. The abused child doesn’t necessarily become sympathetic with other abused souls. Au contraire, some do go on to abuse their own children.
Evil is often done when we are protecting ourselves. In other words our own pain is the justification for committing acts against others. I’m convinced that no evil is done in the name of being an evil badass. Everyone has a good excuse. Everyone is right in their own eyes. The distance between being a victim and a victimizer is narrow indeed.
The distance between great evil (war atrocities, rape, etc) and everyday evil (drunkenness, gossip, etc) is not very far at all. It could be argued that the smallest act of evil could unleash incredibly dark scenarios. A stupid fumbling advance at a house party sends a girl home on icy roads with too much alcohol in her veins. She crashes and dies on black ice. The boy later kills himself. The community is angrily divided about what to do about the town’s drinking problem. (This is a story I witnessed.)
Evil also tries to eliminate the effects of time. Evil wants it now. The most evil person would be the one who had the will and the means to get whatever was desired as near to the moment desired as possible.
Or look at it this way. You are walking down a busy city street. What can you do that will effect someone for the rest of their life in terms of evil? The options are nearly limitless. You can trip them, punch them, shoot them, push them into the path of an oncoming car, spit at them, yell at them, make derogatory remarks about their body, threaten them, even just laugh at them. And whatever you do will be remembered.
If you reverse this thought experiment and ask what can you do that is truly good to any person on that same street, the options are few. Because any action you do might be misunderstood, or inflame problems that you know nothing about, even a smile at the wrong moment could be construed as cruel. If you gave money to a homeless person, you don’t know if they’ll just go out and buy drugs or booze with it. The only positive thing I can think of would be to save the person from a car accident or a mugging. In other words to stop an active evil. To do real good takes time. You have to know a person’s needs. Good rarely happens instantly, unequivocally.
And so ultimately all questions about evil come back to ourselves, to our own desires, to what we are willing to do to get what we want. If life is only about having fun, feeling good, staying safe, then evil is already at our door. It will manifest itself in hundreds of small but insidious ways. And then the question is what to do about it?
That brings up the question of redemption… but that’s another much longer discussion. Maybe someday I’ll get to it here.
December 8th 2019
(This one was for Vanessa.)
I am currently in Tbilisi, Georgia. Far from everything I have known, living the Anadromous Life on the edge. And hey! You can support our work here and for The Anadromist channels by through in some coin at PayPal. Click THIS LINK HERE! And if you give $!0 per month or more than $50 you’ll get audio lectures. Thanks!
Well I have been busy on my new YouTube channel The Anadromist with a lot of ideas that I just didn’t have time for here. Especially my thoughts on Time and how to live in it instead of against it. We live in a culture that positively reeks in its hatred of the effects of Time. We want everything to happen now. Instantly without waiting. And the more I have thought about our defective relationship to Time the more central a role I have seen it play it the insane dysfunctions of the 21st Century: the politics, the propaganda, the efficiency of technology, the environment, the waste, the virtual worlds we choose to inhabit, the surrender of our imaginations to the grinding gears of commerce, the imitation worlds we create for tourism, the sense of entitlement, the dullness of work. Not that these things have a simple one answer fits all panacea, rather they are all issues exacerbated by the desire have the convenient instant life, or in other words to live as though Time were an enemy that must be vanquished at all costs.
I started to see our faulty relationship to Time as a problem in the early 90s. I gave a lecture on the subject at Swiss L’Abri in 1993. I have been mulling it over ever since. In many ways this is connected to many of my other ideas about Texture, Beauty, Images and many other subjects. But these thoughts about Time are at the center of my view of the dilemma of life as it is now lived. Feel free to disagree. After you’ve spent time listening to what I have to say.
Now after delaying long enough I’ve decided to get my ideas about Time out there in some form that might be of use to someone else. I have tried to the best of my ability to live by these ideas since I formulated them back in 1993. If you do the math that’s over 25 years of practical outworking. And the one thing I have seen clearly, when you add the effects of Time to life it gets much deeper and richer.
I am not saying that we are allowed to do this at all points. Au contraire. Just in transportation alone it is nearly impossible to live within a human sense of the meaning of time. We are required to move too fast to stay sane. Still one can, for instance, still apply these principles to the planning stages of a journey. To stay longer in places, rather than just passing through. That’s a simple way of incorporating Time into the hustle of the tourism industry. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway there are four video discussions now. And if you are thinking that ideas about Time are probably going to be dreadfully boring, then these talks really are for You. So you can start at the beginning or jump around. The argument builds, but necessarily in a straightforward direction.
(And I’ll keep adding the videos here until the series is finished.)
Well I need to get back to my life in Tbilisi Georgia. Oh and by the way there will soon be a channel on my Georgian life so stick around.
Keep swimming against the stream
Hey! People who are contributing to my sites are getting extra content not available online. They are also keeping me alive in Georgia. I must honestly say without the gifts given to me thus far this experiment would have collapsed a while ago. No much keeps me going for a while. So give through PayPal. $10 a month or a one time gift of the equivalent of $50 US. Gets you another 15 hours worth of lectures.
So let me put this card on the table. I am a Christian. And then let me put this one down. Nothing disturbs me more than Christian propaganda. What do I mean? As Jacques Ellul points out in the quote below, Christianity, which claims to be truth, after being put through mass media propaganda, ends up merely as an ideology. And as such “It serves everybody as an ideology with the greatest of ease, and tends to be a hoax.” And it is this hoax that many believe to be the truth. And it is this hoax that those who have rejected Christianity tend to believe defines it. But I am not here to defend the message of Christianity.
It is ironic that Christians invented the term propaganda, through the Roman Catholic Curia, to define the means of spreading the gospel. Something more like missionary work. Originally it meant something much closer to propagation. And propagation is the natural spreading or multiplication of an idea. Propaganda is definitely not natural. Now I can hear some people saying ‘Well missionary work certainly isn’t natural.’ But I would disagree. When Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark (chapter16 verse 15) “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” He certainly doesn’t mean doing so by impersonal and all surrounding means. He isn’t imagining mass evangelistic rallies in 80,000 seat sports colosseums, “Christian” Movies, pop music, comic books, video games, television channels, websites, social media, etc.
(And if you are wondering why I’m lumping all of these mass media together and calling it propaganda I suspect you haven’t read the entirety of this series which started several years back, where, following Jacques Ellul’s definition of Propaganda, we pointed out that much being disseminated by mass means is by default already propaganda. Go ahead. Stop. Go back. Catch up. Then come back when you can. I’ll wait. Click this to begin.)
A brief outline of Christianity and the developing system of Propaganda might go something like this. At the dawn of Christianity Jesus and his disciples had no access to propaganda techniques. Jesus emphasized personal human communication and consciously rejected the means of power. Christianity was seen as a powerless sect of Judaism by the Roman Empire. Yet the message spread as the absolute counterpoint to Roman propaganda, which was developed through the minting of money with Caesar’s image, the gladiatorial games and most of all through the unconquerable power of the legions. There were periods of violent persecution. And this persecution not only didn’t stamp out the sect, it caused the sect to grow. But there came a day when the Emperor Constantine legitimized Christianity, even converting to it himself and eventually in it’s closing days Christianity was made the official religion of the Empire. And this is the moment when things began to change. The Roman government turned the Christian faith on its head by using persecution and censorship created forms of propaganda to convert the decadent Empire in its waning days. Christianity survived, but Rome was already too far gone it fell. But the damage was done. Christianity was aligned with power now, which perverted the message of Jesus in many ways, though as long as the scriptures were there it couldn’t completely distort the humbler message contained in the Bible.
But distortion did occur whether through Crusades (a Christian imitation of Islamic Jihads), the selling of indulgences (which provoked Martin Luther and helped spawn the Reformation) or worst of all the Inquisition (in which power was grafted so deeply onto the Christian vine that it nearly killed it). All of these were also accompanied by successive waves of propaganda. But this propaganda, though fierce at times was much less total than propaganda had become by the mid-20th Century. After two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism and the propagandas used to combat the fascist and communist the world of the 1950s and 1960s saw Christian propaganda grow stagnant and completely ineffective. It is at this point that Jacques Ellul’s book Propaganda was published. Ellul too was a Christian. But he certainly didn’t spare his fellow believers. He knew what was coming. Allow me to quote at length from his book on the subject.
“Obviously, church members are caught in the net of propaganda and react pretty much like everyone else….
“Because Christians are flooded with various propagandas, they absolutely cannot see what they might do that would be effective and at the same time be an expression of their Christianity. Therefore, with different motivations and often with scruples, they limit themselves to one or another course presented to them by propaganda. They too take the panorama of the various propagandas for living political reality, and do not see where they can insert their Christianity in that fictitious panorama….
“At the same time, because of its psychological effects, propaganda makes the propagation of Christianity increasingly difficult. The psychological structures built by propaganda are not propitious to Christian beliefs. This also applies on the social plane. For propaganda faces the church with the following dilemma:
“Either not to make propaganda — but then, while the churches slowly and carefully win a man to Christianity, the mass media quickly mobilizes the masses, and churchmen gain the impression of being ‘out of step’, on the fringes of history, without the power to change a thing.
“Or to make propaganda — this dilemma is surely one of the most cruel with which the churches are faced at present. For it seems that people manipulated by propaganda become increasingly impervious to spiritual realities, less and less suited for the autonomy of a Christian life….
“I already have stressed the total character of propaganda. Christians often claim they can separate material devices from propaganda techniques — i.e., break the system. For example, they think they can use press and radio without using the psychological principles or techniques that these media demand. Or that they can use these media without having to appeal to conditioned reflexes, myths, and so on. Or that they can use them from time to time, with care and discretion.
“The only answer one can give to these timid souls is that such restraint would lead to a total lack of effectiveness. If a church wants to use propaganda in order to be effective, just as all the others, it must use the entire system with all its resources; it cannot pick what it likes, for such distinctions would destroy the very effectiveness for which the church would make propaganda in the first place. Propaganda is a total system that one must accept or reject in its entirety.
“If the church accepts it, two important consequences follow. First of all, Christianity disseminated by such means is not Christianity. We have already seen the effect of propaganda on ideology. In fact, what happens as soon as the church avails itself of propaganda is a reduction of Christianity to the level of all other ideologies and secular religions.
“Christianity ceases to be an overwhelming power and spiritual adventure and becomes institutionalized in all its expressions and compromised in all its actions. It serves everybody as an ideology with the greatest of ease, and tends to be a hoax. In such times there are innumerable sweetenings and adaptations, which denature Christianity by adjusting it to the milieu.”
And obviously Ellul’s words can be applied across the religious and political spectrum, which is the point of his book Propaganda.
Now I as a Christian first read these words around 1982. I had been deeply troubled by developments in culture at that time. These developments included the rise of a Christian music industry (known as CCM – Contemporary Christian Music, though I felt it really stood for Commercial Christian Music) a rising Christian movie and television industry, and most troubling of all a kind of conservative political movement that equated Christianity with then current right wing political issues. And I’m not saying there isn’t an overlap, but it’s also clear that at that time there was also overlap with the liberal spectrum as well, which was why many Christians voted for Jimmy Carter for president in 1976. Since that time the lines have been drawn much sharper. And that is a direct result of rising propagandas from that time. Today’s polarizations are the direct ancestors of the propagandas of the 80s, both left and right.
If one was to be transported back to America in 1970 one would find confused weak churches unable to really understand what was going on the steaming hothouse of the Sixties. Conservatives and fundamentalists not only had little voice propagandistically, they didn’t crave that kind of voice. They were reading Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth and digging in for the coming Antichrist. They just assumed it was all over. But the Jesus People, a now forgotten movement, sometimes erroneously called Jesus Freaks, were beginning to reap a bounty of new but less conventional converts from the cultural debris of the Hippie Movement in California. And they made underground Christian newspapers, Christian T-Shirts with slogans like ‘Christ, He’s the Real Thing’ complete with imitation Coca-Cola logo, bumperstickers, and most importantly Jesus Music.
Now there was about five years when this new Christian music had a fresh feeling to it. But by the end of the Seventies the music had been contained by the very newly dominant CCM industry. That combined with the new political consciousness, a product of a wing of the Charismatic Movement, created the new Christian propaganda which haunts us to this day.
And so whether in the highly repetitious music of 21st Century Hillsong churches, the more sophisticated pop music of so many imitative Christian bands, manipulative movies like God’s Not Dead, the theatrical megachurches, prosperity teachings, the dumbing down of so many Christians in favor of a feel good message.
Also there was a justifiably nervous attitude towards the developments in the secular world. And so many Christians backed away from engagement with that world, with the full support of the powers that be. And so a separate propaganda sphere was created. Christian girls could read Christian romance novels usually stuck somewhere between old school Harlequin novels and Little House On The Prairie. Although by the early 21st Century it was just as likely they would be encouraged to read Young Adult sub-Tolkien or CS Lewis Christian Fantasy novels that, while slowly growing in quality since the 70s, encouraged the newer generations to avoid reality and maturity in favor of a Christian version of the current regnant era of delayed adolescence. (By the way I think Lewis and Tolkien are both turning in the graves over this development.)
Christian boys could what? Listen to Christian commercial white-boy pop rap? Buy guns? Or more likely simply join the ranks of forgotten men everywhere. But one thing everyone could do was to express themselves with Xtian slogans on T-shirts, posters, tattoos.
Meanwhile Christian cable channels, YouTubery, radio stations and above all websites allowed the faithful to be completely surrounded in a sweet propaganda bubble. People sang and swayed in megachurches and little dying denominational churches. The cutesy imagery from Vacation Bible School classes for the youth only reinforced the cuddly Christian message. And as I’ve pointed out before the gospel of Christ became the gospel of Fun. Meanwhile the overall positivity was giving way to Christian accommodations with ‘tolerance’ in its new totalizing definition in several quarters. And those who didn’t understand the shift were left in confusion supping on the tepid remains of late 20th Century Christian propaganda.
Now I know not all Christianity is like this. I know this better than many of you. And there have been those who have questioned these developments through the years. A few are only just now beginning to question these things. They are questioning the hoax that sadly too often the faith has become. But that’s not my subject here. What I have wanted to point out is simply that those who in some measure believe as I do are no more immune to the scourge of propaganda than anyone else.
But it does lead me to a serious question: What can any of us do to live in a time like ours when the locusts of propaganda infest our deepest hopes and dreams. Well there must be more to say.
Come back soon for some possible partial answers.
As you can tell I like Georgia. I find nourishment in my interactions with the country and its people. Having got to know them better that only increases that strange sense of connection I feel to them. So much so that when I was offered a chance to work and live there I jumped at the chance. (See this story.) But I don’t want to be confused with a tourist who sees the country through a romantic haze of brave mountain men and fairytale women. No I see the reality quite well. I see the damage done to the country by the years of Soviet occupation. I feel the sense of frustration of a people perennially caught between forces much greater than they can possibly be. I feel the layers of impossibility and sense the deals made under tables. I am not blind. Like falling in love, one does not merely take the first impression. As seductive as it might seem from the outside. I have seen the poverty. I have felt the impassivity when confronted by seemingly endless trials. An impassivity bequeathed to all of the victims and collaborators of the Soviet Union. I have felt the same thing in Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic. And no doubt it exists in Russia as well. And so this little essay will be a look at some of the features of the country that are certainly problematic. I will try to avoid politcial topics, because I know better than to speak about things I don’t really understand yet. But if I wander into sensitive zones I do ask my Georgian friends to forgive me. I am only thinking out loud about the country I will be living in. And I promise the next essay will be just the opposite.
The first and most obvious problem in Georgia is poverty. I think anyone landing in Georgia from North America, Western and Central Europe, Australia, New Zealand, certain Asian countries, plus other places that enjoy a fairly high standard of living are going to be smacked in the face when they come across their first older woman begging with a little plastic bucket on the street. In America you only rarely ever will see such a site. Or when you see people standing on a street corner trying to sell a dozen eggs that they brought in from their house that morning. That dozen eggs would hardly bring in a dollar in US currency. This is serious poverty, not fat American poverty, but it is also not starvation poverty. Now there are things you don’t see in this picture. The effects of the failure of the old Soviet system is one of them. But also the fact that Georgian families most often live together – children, parents, grandparents. And so what you are seeing might Just be someone adding a tiny portion to the family income. Also a dollar of American money in Georgia will go a lot farther than it does in the West. I once figured that if my money ran too low I could eat for two dollars a day and still feel fairly full. Nevertheless the poverty is real. And quite sad at times.
The next thing to hit you if you start traveling anywhere are the plastic bags floating around. It’s truly sad to see trees and fences catching the blowing debris. And then comes the following question: Why does no one do anything about it? And here we come to the effects of seventy years of communism. The Soviet system ended up by creating two main spheres: the public and the private. Georgians tend to live in the private space. Pre-Soviet Georgia had a rich public space. You can see in the beauty of the older buildings built before the Soviet takeover in 1921. But because of the nature of egalitarian communism the public space was everyone’s responsibility, which meant practically that everything was done by bureaucratic fiat. And if the proper committees and departments did nothing then nothing happened. And if you complained then you got noticed. And getting noticed was NOT something you wanted to happen unless it was for awards. Therefore no one showed initiative in the public space. And while this is beginning to change, there are a few no smoking laws now for instance, the bags are still floating around. But ironically the bags are not an old Soviet problem they are actually a result of modernization. Whenever you shop, everything gets bagged over and over. In other words they are making the transitions from old stern bad service communism to new customer satisfaction capitalism. Now WE, in the West, are doing badly with our plastic bags. But at least there is more of a consensus that you don’t need everything bagged or that you can bring your bags. (Though none of this seems to effect our huge supermarket chains.) But the Georgians are still at the point where they almost insist you take another bag. And thus the nightmare grows.
And along with this is everything related to recycling. Glass, plastic bottles, paper, it all gets throw into the same garbage dumpsters. I’m told there is a tiny bit of recycling in Tbilisi. But the waste? Staggering. And people genuinely don’t know what to do about it. There are some grassroots efforts but they are a long way off still. Which then brings us to the most obvious and dangerous two problems in Tbilisi.
Pollution and traffic, which are inextricably linked. While the pollution is not near Beijing levels, it isn’t good. One friend with a child told me she worried what the effect would be on her daughter. Part of the problem goes back to the poverty issue. Georgians can’t afford expensive new cars. So most of the cars are shipped in from other countries like Germany and Japan, countries who don’t like to drive old used cars, or even have laws against doing so. I’ve never seen so many Mercedes in one place outside of Germany. And these are all used diesel chugging beasts, often dark exhaust streaming out of the tailpipes. And then there are the Japanese cars. And did you realize that, like the British, the Japanese drive on the left side of the road. Which means you have Georgians driving in the right lanes in left hand vehicles, misjudging the distances. I saw one car turn a corner hit a trash dumpster hard and keep on driving. Of course his steering wheel was on the wrong side. And traffic is another serious problem. I am not looking forward to driving in Georgia. I probably will someday. Fortunately I do understand the metro and bus systems. While the marshrutkas remain completely confusing to me. I will eventually graduate to taxis. (I rode in one that was a Japanese car. Unnerving.) Fortunately there does seem to be some political will to deal with some of the pollution and the Japanese cars are supposed to stop coming in… though there are still too many of them.
Another more truly modern problem is the new architecture. And that is connected with the desire to catch up with with the times. Always a bad idea. I’m told that had certain powers had their way that much of charming Old Tbilisi would have been torn down and replaced by bad postmodern architecture. You can see some of this on display already. People complained loudly. And much was saved. Or at least granted a stay of execution. And yet if one looks at monstrosities like the Biltmore Hotel (the large ugly spike in the middle of the city), which at least was talked into saving their Rustaveli Avenue facade, or the new Tbilisi Galleria Mall, one can imagine the pseudo Singapore or Dubai that was envisioned. The Georgians, who are quite proud of their country, need to realize that they should restore the unique glory of their country, their traditional modes of architecture are quite stunning, worthy of emulation. And worthy of updating. They don’t need another postmodern building shaped like a dog bone. They need to work on eliminating the worst aspects of their Soviet heritage and live with pride in a cleaner country. With work and effort I could see Georgia looking more like Switzerland a few decades down the road. (Not as clean obviously but who can be as clean as the Swiss?)
I’m told that one man in another city was so tired of the litter that ended up in his yard that, after cleaning his yard over and over and yet always finding more trash, he finally put a Georgian cross up in his lawn, effectively saying this is holy ground. Georgians still respect Christian things even when they aren’t Christians. The litter stopped over night. A creative solution.
As far as the architectural pollution goes that’s a much more elaborate problem. Georgians don’t need to copy other cultures bad taste. Postmodern architecture has done very little for anyone. Georgians are a vastly creative people. They can find unique answers to their own problems.
And when visitors come then they will feel even more of what I feel when I come to this special and unusual place.
And what makes it such a meaningful place to me? It’s the people I meet and conversations I have with them. But I’ll have to discuss that next time. Come back.
The main reason I became attracted to Georgian culture was because of the music and dance that leaks out whenever step into their world. Yes I have visited Georgia to explore puppetry. That was my justification at least for going as part of my nearly finished Gravity From Above documentary film project exploring the meaning of puppets through Europe. And I found so much great puppetry there. Truthfully though, it was the music and dance that called to me from half a world away. I have already introduced this subject in another essay. But as I am writing this Georgian Lessons series there is no deeper lesson that I could pass on than that found in Georgian music and dance. (I would recommend going back to my introductory words first, though it isn’t necessary.) My perspective on Georgian music and dance has deepened considerably since that earlier essay in 2012. And I hear much more in the music now than I did then.
So where to start?
It has to start with voices. If you have a trio of polyphonic Georgian voices you pretty much have everything. Add to that the handclaps and you have the rhythmic structures that underline the dancing. All of the other developments arise from those basic elements.
To look a little more closely, the voices almost always have a central voice, a bass, and high voicing. The central voice will often contain the melody, the other voices can provide a simple harmony, but more often it will immediately get much more complicated than that. The bass, particularly in Eastern Georgia, will usually be a drone. Sometimes the drone will shift pitches to offset the melody. The high voicings may spiral into orbit or in the case Gurian music will shift into a rhythmic yodel. The melodies themselves will often be bittersweet, sounding somewhere between the minor keys of Eastern Europe and the astringent modalities of the Middle East. But where the Arabic Middle East is positively allergic to harmonies, Georgia revels in them. Not only harmonies, but multiple melodies. And the harmonic structures will then do something unique in the world. They will dip into extreme dissonances as well. Not in a Modernist sense. This isn’t Schoenberg’s 12 tone row. Somehow, and here is the mystery, they resolve the most abstract of dissonances easily and often back into the bass drones.
A Gurian Song Performed by the Singers of Erisioni in Tbilisi, Georgia
Stepping into a Georgian Orthodox Church one evening I was overwhelmed by the intense beauty of the antiphonal polyphony. Somehow the tension between dissonance and harmony conveyed ineffable symbolic resonances of the unutterable sufferings and inexplicable meanings of life. And it made me realize how impoverished the vast majority of contemporary Western Christian church music has become in America. But then again this deep music was not congregational singing. It takes trained voices to sing in such a way as to convey the holiness of God in the Georgian Orthodox Church.
When in Georgian folk traditions, not the church music, you add the handclaps you suddenly have something deeply expressive of real joy. In many of the local Georgian regions Svaneti or Guria, for instance, the voices are already setting a beat. The clapping adds layers of motoric syncopation that practically propel the body into the dance. If this sounds a bit like African music there are aspects of Georgian dance music that indeed strike me as closer to African than most other standard forms of European traditional dance music. Not that it comes from any actual African influence. Georgian music in turn can also sound Greek, Middle Eastern, Persian, Armenian, Russian, even like Western Europe. And these areas have all had some influence upon the basic Georgian polyphony, which is stretches back into antiquity.
Add to the voices and basic rhythms the more traditional instruments, the panduri and chonguri, which are both in the guitar family; the doli, which is a handheld drum; the duduk a reedy droning flute, originally from Armenia; the garmoni, the Georgian accordion which has a unique tuning, and several others. And you start to have a powerful arsenal of musical tools to create an endless variety of sounds. Over time pianos, organs, guitars, electric instruments and electronic instruments have all been added to the stew. And curiously Georgia is now seen as one of the European centers of electronica. In talking with DJ Giorgi Kancheli he demonstrated the same respect for music that I encountered from so many other Georgians. He didn’t see his music as any sort of rejection of his musical culture.
And this was one of the aspects of Georgian culture that struck me forcefully. I was impressed not only by the Georgian music I was hearing, but also by the musical curiosity and knowledge that many Georgians displayed. One friend, a surgeon studying to be a neuroscientist, asked me if I knew the music of American composer Moondog. I was completely impressed. I did know of the blind street performer Moondog who used to dress like a viking of the sidewalks of New York City who made several recordings of his naïve symphonic music. Now how many Americans per 10,000 people would know of his work? A handful? Maybe. Maybe not. Have you ever heard of Moondog? And yet here was this young Georgian woman who was conversant with his oeuvre.
And I often found that Georgians knew these strange details from musical history. I pondered why. Why did this culture seem to have such a connection to musics from various corners of the world? And here is what came to me. Georgian folk music traditions are so complex that it makes it easy to absorb music from most other cultures with real appreciation. If there is some truth that the exposure to basic classical music is good for a child’s development then the Georgians are ahead of that game, since their folk music tends to skip Mozart and go straight to Stravinsky.
And that does raise the following specter. How shall future Americans learn to appreciate music beyond their own time and place given the diet of hollow commercial pop music that has been increasingly foisted upon us?
Now I don’t want Georgia to seem like some musical paradise. Stepping into the new mall on Rustaveli Avenue one hears that exact same hideous, predominantly American, shiny overproduced pop music playing to the masses globally. And people are simply absorbing it unquestioningly. This will have an effect. Likewise the success of the EDM rave and club culture is going to have an effect upon the musical traditions as well. What kind of effect? I can’t say. And since they are largely influenced by German electronica, a culture that mostly disdains its own Germanic heritage, which is understandable considering its 20th Century history, there are already serious tensions in this zone. But Georgia, despite the presence of some ultra nationalists who hate the club culture, is not Germany.
If you wander through the United States, choose a high school or university at random, and ask a collection of students to sing you a folk or traditional song very few if any will be able to do it. (I was recently informed how poorly even university level music students are with such things.) If you go to Georgia today, even with the omnipresence of the big commercial culture descending like an all consuming vulture, even in the presence of more postmodern forms of musical exploration, most Georgian youth would immediately be able to sing you a folk song.
The question then remains “For how long?’
The good news is that the vultures only consume a dead carcass. And Georgia as Georgia is not dead.
I have returned to Tbilisi Georgia nearly two years after my 2016 visit. And I am gaining a larger perspective than I had before. I’ve nearly finished learning the alphabet and I’ve met many friends, old and new, as I wander the streets observing the world around me. My observations directly connected to my chief aims of puppetry, music and dance will be covered on my Gravity From Above site, but here I am going to continue dealing with the other aspects of Georgian culture that call to me. And today nothing called out as loud as the legacy of Communism in the old Soviet Union, which Georgia was buried deeply within, as I visited the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum.
But before we enter that world a bit of background. A quick look at the wars of Georgia, both outside invasion and civil strife, produces well over a staggering 150 conflicts before the year 1800 from Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, the Mongols and the Ottomans among many, many others. And around the year 1800 the Russian Empire muscled its way into the area and presented a deal the Georgians couldn’t turn down, eventually swallowing them into greater Russia. To this day it is a common misconception that the Georgians speak Russian and write in the Cyrillic alphabet. Then after a very brief season of Georgian independence during the Russian Revolution Georgia declared itself as a state and from 1918 until 1921 they were free and the blossoms of liberty began to grow everywhere. Until they were harvested by the new Soviet Union and were ‘allowed’ to spend another 70 years under Russian/Soviet yoke.
Since the 1991 declaration of independence Georgia has remained free, though not without periods of strife. And so it is inevitable that the marks of both Russia and the Soviet Union (not the same thing at all) are still quite heavy on the land. To be fair some of these marks are not bad. Under the Soviet system education was encouraged as was theatre, ballet, puppets (!) and other cultural products… though always at the whim of the state censors. But other effects were much more troubling. Churches were banned under the atheist system. And many church buildings were destroyed or put to non-religious uses. I stepped into the Lado Gudiashvili Museum to look at work by that painter who had been part of that brief moment of freedom in the early 20th Century and who had continued on under the Soviet Union. He mostly stayed with a sort of surrealistic portraiture heavily influenced by his wide knowledge of Medieval Georgian frescos. And in 1947 he was asked to paint the altar of the Kashueti Orthodox Church on Rustaveli Avenue. He did it, then was barred for a while from the painters union. He often made scabrous sketches reflecting his cynicism of the Soviet system. But his fresco still stands.
Another area where the Soviet Union is still deeply felt is in the endless blocks of concrete apartment buildings circling the town. And they are often indeed gray and eerie as they house thousands upon thousands. And so while there is much new building going on these days it is hotels and not as often affordable replacements for these gloomy structures.
One question I sometimes wonder is where would Georgia be today if it could have stayed free in 1921. It’s a dream I know. Nevertheless the Georgian people have a lot of natural creativity and drive. Yet one gets the feeling that they are still digging out painfully from the basic burdens left by communism. And part of that burden is a kind of fatalism that I have encountered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. In Romania, in the Czech Republic, to a lesser degree in Poland, you often hear some equivalent to the statement “What can you do?” Here in Georgia it attaches itself to issues like traffic congestion, air pollution, recycling, etc. But not only that, these very creative people will sometimes hit a roadblock in their lives. And then you can see a cloud of fatalism passing over them. Which is odd because I’m convinced that this fatalism is a foreign import, it is not native to Georgia. Yet even I being one of the least optimistic Americans you will ever meet, always feel that there must be more options. The world may be dark, but I don’t have that fatalism that clouds future action.
The most interesting thing that happened to me with regard to Georgia’s communist past occurred today. I went to find a strange little museum that I’d heard about. One not covered in guide books. You probably already guessed that I mean the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Now if that sounds strange to you trust me on this, the title of the museum wasn’t nearly as weird as the museum itself. I took the metro to a stop I’d never been to before – 300 Aragveli*. (I don’t know what that refers to, it’s not an address.) After a rambling walk I arrived at a door that could be no other than the house museum. It featured hammer and sickle designs in Soviet red. And what was odd is that it didn’t look like commentary or in any manner ironic. And lo and behold it wasn’t. (See above.)
For those who don’t know history as well as you should, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was not Russian, he was in fact the most famous (or infamous) Georgian who ever lived. His Georgian name was Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili (იოსებ ბესარიონის ძე ჯუღაშვილი). He was born in the Georgian city of Gori, where a controversial museum dedicated to him exists to this day. Stalin is of course responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler and yet there are those, even in Georgia, who wax nostalgic for the old days. And I had indeed walked into such a place.
The museum was like a frozen tableau of the Soviet Union without any upkeep whatsoever. Entering the dark corroding building was like entering into a time warp of the days before 1991, no really before 1953, it was the grayest dingiest thing I’d ever come across, from exactly the kinds of minds that thought that people wanted big ugly apartments. I was brought into a room festooned with red flags and pictures of Lenin and Stalin and an old comrade, a true believer in Soviet style Communism, named Zhuli was speaking Russian like a native. A young Russian teenager and his mother were there too. And that was fortunate because the boy became my interpreter for the deeply felt tour Zhuli was just starting. I mentioned that I was from America, which produced a puzzled look from Zhuli, who then recovered quickly with the only question one could ask at such an occasion: Are you a communist? The answer was a simple ‘No’. I wanted to understand what was going on here much too much to say that I was anything but! Yet from then on he took it as his mission to convert me. To tell me of the heroism of comrade Stalin and the way things had been.
Zhuli told us that back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, during the summers, over 500 hundred people a day would come to this museum. And this place was the house that hid Comrade Jugashvili, where they printed revolutionary pamphlets and papers in Georgian, Armenian and Russian. He show us fading imitation copies, decaying on the walls. (“They don’t give us much money for this museum.’) They had built a loud printing press under the nearby house (a reconstruction since it had been torn down by the Georgians after it had been discovered) and had an elaborate escape hatch through a deep well. And that was fascinating in itself. The well was still there. And another printing press, same German make and model, probably used somewhere else for propaganda, was rusting under the house because the chamber would flood regularly. Zhuli showed us diagrams and models of the house plans. He showed us photocopy clippings of atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War 2. He showed us a large map with little lights that glowed where revolutionary cells had been. We walked by socialist realist paintings of Stalin, Lenin, Molotov and others. He told us of Stalin’s heroic escapes in times of danger. Not a word was whispered about purges, famines, gulags, murders, the millions.
I was just in awe that such a man still existed. Zhuli was a man who still lived for the party. He was a man in his 80’s with a cult-like devotion to communism. And he knew it was going to come back. And when I thought about recent far left appropriations of the hammer and sickle image, whether by Antifa or by Jeremy Corbyn supporters in the UK, I wondered if he might not have a point. Because this was a man entirely possessed by his ideology of total egalitarianism, and that idea had come back with a vengeance, though applied with different terms for oppression, among people in the West who know nothing about the Gulag and the millions of victims of communist totalitarianism from Russia to China and far beyond.
As I left I looked at a funny work of graffiti on the wall outside, and I thought of this earnest man inside for whom such a thing would be incomprehensible. Bourgeois hooliganism would be the only category he would have for such a thing. He called the independence of Georgia a blow for the ‘counterrevolutionaries’. But you knew he thought it was only temporary. As I walked back towards the Avlabari metro station I walked passed a massive new Sheraton Hotel going up not far from the Joseph Stalin Underground Printing House Museum. Here’s the new ideology Zhuli. Yes indeed there will be one world, it’s just not the one you were imagining.
*Discovered later: 300 Aragveli – The Three Hundred Aragvians are a detachment of the highlanders from the Aragvi valley, near Tbilisi, who fought to the last man against the invading Qajar (Persian) army in 1795 at the battle of Krtsanisi, .
This will be the last Georgian Lessons Addendum! At least until I travel there again. And this time we’re playing it easy. This will be a compendium of the videos I’ve taken while I was there. So if you think about visiting Tbilisi yourself consider this a few breadcrumbs. There is music, dancing, puppets, wandering around the Tbilisi and spending time at the incredible bazaar/flea market at the Dry Bridge. To watch all of this would take a while. (The first two videos are also a half hour each come back to them after you’ve watched the shorter ones.) But nevertheless you know where they all are. It’s hard to believe that a year has nearly passed since I was there. There are lots of jewels buried in these videos.
Another visual addendum to our Georgian Lesson series and then I think I’m done… or maybe not. One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Tbilisi last year was the architecture. It had a style all it’s own built up literally through millennia. I was absolutely taken by the curving lines, which seemed of a piece with the alphabet, of the buildings and streets. So allow me to share them with you. Tbilisi is a great great place to get lost. And you never know when you turn some corner on a humble street when a unique structure will present itself to you. Not only that I loved the sense of age and decay. This may not last, since city planners are doing more to revitalize various parts of the city. Though it does seem rather random. But go now before things get too ‘nice’.
Thanks for traveling with me to Tbilisi, Georgia. I think I’ll do one more addendum featuring videos taken along the way. But for now enjoy the architecture.
I have been writing mostly about what I saw in Tbilisi Georgia in March and April 2016. And in these observations I have been mostly noting what challenged my perceptions. These ‘Georgian Lessons’ have been primarily about what I learned. But now I’m going to flip the rules inside out and write a little something about what the Georgians might be able to learn from an outsider, a representative of a world that they both aspire to and wonder about. These will not be sweet little tidbits of practical knowledge. And some of these observations will be sharp. Again I am not romantic about the country. Since much of what I say deals with Georgia moving into the future it might be tempting to treat the country as a quaint land of happy peasants with their folk dances and songs with a desire to keep them as folksy as possible. But you’d be wrong. I want them to face the future squarely, but also to realize the many tragic errors that have already been made in the name of hypermodernity. I do not set myself as an expert on geopolitics, economics, legal reform et cetera. These are predominately cultural observations from one who has spent a good healthy chunk of his life weighing the nature of the cultural changes of our times. And mostly it friendly concern, for what I still find in the uniqueness of Georgian culture far outweighs its problems. Consider it advice that can be applied if it is found useful.
First a speck of history, Georgia as a country was buried in Russia, then the Soviet Union, for nearly two centuries. Many Western Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and the like, still consider it a Russian speaking country. Georgia for them is more obscure than Barbados, Vietnam or Fiji. Georgia was only released from its Russian servitude in 1991, which was then followed in quick succession by a corrupt government, a civil war or two, a revolution and finally, in 2008, a five day war with Russia. And most of that is also as unknown to outsiders as the 20th Century conflicts in Laos or Angola. But the main point is this. Georgia didn’t really opened up to the non-Russian world until very recently. And this is reflected in two main areas: First in the Georgians’, particularly the younger Georgians’, desire to be like other Europeans and Americans culturally. And secondly in the looming discovery of Georgia by the outside world, which will result in the descending vulture of tourism, with its truck-fulls of tempting hard cash.
My meeting with younger Georgians revealed a kind of wide-eyed fascination with the results of pop culture and technology. And this is only to be expected. The Soviet system certainly brought in certain kinds of modernity. Georgia is a very educated country as far as scholarly standards go. What is not realized though is just what this postmodern tide will bring along with it. Take the Smartphone, nearly ubiquitous in Tbilisi. The Smartphone may connect you all the time and everywhere. Yet it completely changes the habits of its users. Riding the Metro one did not see much in the way of reading anymore. But one did see the usual scrying into the palms, the games being played, the neurotic gazing at email and Facebook, the endless selfies. In other words though the Georgians have some cultural features, more conversation, even musicians playing for friends on the train, that help to fight against this particular curse, they still aren’t that strong. Because no one is. The Smartphone is stronger than those that use it, without exceptional choice.
Likewise when it comes to one of the prime features of Georgian culture, its music and dance, that hasn’t really stopped the arrival of the dance club. A short British documentary on the subject celebrates the electronica being produced in Georgia as a step towards cultural liberation. Which I find about as honest a thought as recommending cages to tigers. As a former sixteen year resident of New York City I think I can safely say that the dark deafening pulsing womb of club life has never led to freedom, unless your idea of freedom is to shake off the past and bath only in a perpetual now. Yes indeed the discos, raves, parties and clubs will make you more like the Europeans. But is that a worthy goal? The night life produces alienation first and foremost. Yes you can experiment sexually. You can add various chemicals to the mix. You can flee from the philosophies of the Orthodox Church. But where will you end up? It ends with people having atomized relations all round. They no longer sing together except as a joke. They live alone. There is no meaning to anything. Along the way there is a lot of laughter and fun. As well as a lot of hurt and emptiness. No matter what it seems like now, the club life, which late rising Georgians are quite tempted by, will end in a void. I am reminded of a song from Italy in the 1980s and a big American hit for Laura Branigan in 1984: Self Control. The chorus went like this. “I, I live among the creatures of the night, I haven’t got the will to try and fight, Against a new tomorrow, so I guess I’ll just believe it, That tomorrow never comes.” And that sums up that world perfectly. 1984. That’s how long we have understood the problem. The electronica and DJs may seem new and cool, underground, rebellious. But it is a well-paved overused road. It doesn’t have a gram of the integrity of real Georgian music and dance. But I understand. I really do.
There are many other ways in which Georgians are encouraged to seek parity with their Western cousins. Most damaging of all are postmodern cultural and philosophical choices and institutions, which if taken straight would drain the soul from the rich fountain of Georgian traditions. And one of the most threatening of those institutions is Tourism. And the eye of tourism is slowly turning its gaze upon this most unusual of countries. Georgia is still quite underdeveloped for tourism. I would say as of 2016 they still haven’t developed a real structure to support the kind of industrial tourism that feeds many corners of the world now. And I’m not against people coming to Georgia to visit. Not at all. Right now Georgia is getting many thoughtful tourists, the people who are more adventurous. (I don’t know if this assessment applies to the Russians who have been visiting for centuries and are still the most common tourists.)
But here is the problem: As the Germans, English, Australians, even a few Americans go home they spread the word to others. So far so good. And so more folks come, as they have been in the last six years. Then more hotels are built. Fancier hotels. (I hear Radisson Red is on its way, after the success of the Radisson Blu.) More infrastructure changes. A massive chunk of Tbilisi was being polished and renovated as I visited, at the expense of the people who used to live on that street.) That’s where Georgia is now. They are still a bit out of the loop. (Try mailing a postcard home? Nearly impossible.) Transportation is still quite a pain. And these are the kinds of things that keep foreigners happy when they come. But here is what the Georgians may not understand yet. When tourism as a postmodern entity finally arrives in full. Great pieces of Georgian culture will become imitations of what they once were. Everywhere that industrial postmodern tourism shows up it turns whatever remains of traditional culture into simulacra of what they once were. People want to see Georgian dancing and hear Georgian singing. And so shows will be set up just for them. (This has happened in Alaska with Native American culture and the Russian culture of the past.) This effect is nearly universal. And when you combine that with the youth exodus towards postmodern pop dance culture. The past becomes a bad museum. And the present is trapped in the sensations of this eternal moment The Big Wow.
Now I don’t think that it will happen that way in Georgia for a variety of reasons. But I give you my friendly concern as one who has the watched the process replicate itself over and over. At the moment Tbilisi is where Prague was in 1991. Tourists are coming. But the infrastructure still won’t hold them efficiently. TripAdvisor just recommended Tbilisi for hot new destinations for 2017. My dear Georgian friends do you know what that means? Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Next time, to wrap things up, I will be returning to the lessons that I learned from the Georgians I met on my travels. And why I really have to get back again.
Yes I know, it’s audacious of me to proclaim that I know ‘True Christmas Albums’. And yet when I scan for ‘Christmas Albums’ through the usual digital means 99% of the time what is found are anything but actual music about Christmas. Most of what is considered to be the top, the best, the greatest Christmas songs and albums of ‘all time’, the lists made by magazines, and YouTubers and the clickbaiters, even the ‘Christ-centered’ pablum, is predominantly just commercial holiday music. There is almost a conspiracy to keep anyone searching for real Christmas music from ever finding it. And rarely has a genre been so loaded with pure unadulterated crap as what is called ‘Christmas Music’. And so much continues to made year after year that it gags the gullet as if someone had jammed a fat red and white candy cane down your overstuffed larynx and then asked ‘What do you think of Christmas now?’ In fact so much cheesy, tawdry, over produced sentimental holiday (Is it really a holy day when you play this aural dung?) music has been made since the mid-point of the 20th Century that anti-Christmas music now exists as a separate micro-genre within this holiday fetish as a reaction against the infestation. And yet what does that accomplish? It’s really just the same thing for nihilists and cynics. And what good does it do to add cynicism to the commercial terror?
War on Christmas? Talk about coming late to the party? Christmas as a public festival was over by the time Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was accepted as a holiday ditty having anything to do with the event called Christmas. Christmas as Christmas was through when it was seen a fun children’s day complete with ‘Baby Jesus’ and cute little elves as Santa’s helpers helping to prepare for the balancing of the books of would eventually become a murderous Black Friday. Christmas now is a time to watch fantasy movies. Yes Christmas means Willie Wonka and Disney flicks. When it was discovered back in the 90’s that several Asian countries had mixed up the Christian imagery with the fantastic, as in Mary, Joseph, sweet little ‘Baby Jesus’ and the Seven Dwarves or, more tellingly, a Crucified Santa Claus, they weren’t getting it wrong. That is what we were selling. And so we have people who no longer recognize real Christmas carols and consider Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer to be a classic.
The foamy tide of ‘classic holiday albums’, I forbear to list them, is endless. They drone on and on in the background of retail establishments fed by satellite radio. They poison the air. They drain the life from anything resembling a festivity. And I include the many worthy rock and pop albums (I own many of them.) that clog the lists of the demiurges who find the tabulation of media favorites their last moral refuge. But rarely is an album of true Christmas music mentioned in any of these neurotically calculated lists.
And since for years I have helped supply my friends with the real thing I have decided to at least make one list that few people will ever read. I toss the meat out to the internet dogs. It is nearly Christmastime after all. Time even the dogs ate well. So here’s the Christmas T-bone steak Fido.
This list is not in ascending or descending order. The music is not necessarily easy to find. I will not be including lots of links or videos. You’ll need to hunt them down for yourself. If you find the standard pop/rock/jazz holiday music to be filled with enough good cheer and nostalgia to warm your heart during the Christmas season you probably won’t find these albums very clever or interesting. However if Christmas as either the old European winter festival (notice I did not say ‘pagan’, an overused poorly understood word) and/or as the Christian remembrance of Christ’s birth is meaningful to you, then I suspect these albums and the music contained therein will help you to find something extra at Christmastime.
The Twelve Albums
Christmas with Roger Wagner Chorale
This is basically the definition of a classic Christmas album. Choirs and classical orchestra. No extra production mojo. No extra electronic cinnamon and nutmeg. Just the classics done purely. Just Christmas and the real thing. This was made in the 60s. It hasn’t aged at all because it is timeless. Their version of O Come O Come Emmanuel is the gold standard along with the rest of this album.
Jesličky, staré nové písničky (also called Old Czech Carols) – Ritornello
Okay now it’s time to get seriously obscure. Ritornello is a Czech group who recreate Baroque era folk dances and celebrations. And this is one of my eternal favorites. Period. I found it when I first showed up at Prague in December 2000 surprised by actually finding myself in Prague to begin with. I had come looking for puppets and then as I entered the Old Town Square, my first evening there, as the winter market was open and I had no idea where I was, I looked around at the spires lit up in the night winter skies then suddenly I realized that I was actually in PRAGUE!!! And for me this music sums up my Prague perfectly. Jovial, serious, antique, mysterious European Christmas. The instrumentation is sheer perfection. Not a sentimental note to found. The singing is in Czech and sometimes Latin. The music is gutsy not flabby. It makes one want to ring in the season with a hefty glass of pivo. How ironic that one of the most sincere Christian Christmas albums on earth would come from the most atheist land imaginable. But it makes perfect sense to me. Jan Hus would understand.
Christmas From a Golden Age – Various Opera Singers
This is the true spirit of Christmas as seen through the angel throngs of 78rpm scratches, digitally restored, of various opera singers from the first half of the 20th Century. Some of these songs just sound creaky. But most of them sound utterly haunted in the Dickensian sense by the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Coventry Carol by Elisabeth Schumann is absolutely chilling. And Cantique De Noel (The original French version of O Holy Night) by Georges Thill is reverentially majestic.
John Roberts and Tony Barrand – The Second Nowell
This is the second of three ‘Nowell’ albums from these Christmas jesters. They are all excellent, but this one gets to the point for me. With rollicking accordion, reedy voices, hail and hardy harmonies and true Christmas mirth these Englishmen marooned in the colonies deliver the groceries. Whether sharing out the spare ribs of the highly symbolic wren or restoring the dance to the old time Christmas carol there isn’t a false moment. And it’s a recording you want to crank up and sing along with at the top of your lungs. You only think you know the old carols. Rediscover Christmas here!
A Medieval Christmas – Boston Camerata
And excellent demonstration of why Christmas, properly celebrated, is actually our portion of the Middle Ages still surviving. While stately, and profound, there is joy to spare with authentic Medieval instrumentation. It’s also a much needed respite from the 21st Century.
Traditional and Modern Carols – Paul Hillier
Another great choral album. This would be more obscurely researched than the Roger Wagner album with an emphasis upon antique Americana as well as an assembly of classics. This Is Jesus’ Birthday opens the album and is as far from a contemporary notion of singing Happy Birthday to Jesus as you can imagine. It’s all very well done.
The Christmas Story – The Waverly Consort
Another Medieval Christmas album, but this time things get much more serious as the Waverly Consort interprets the Christmas story in it’s entirety complete with horns announcing the angel Gabriel and ending with a ferocious dance piece for the Massacre of the Innocents. Excellent, profound, thrilling music all round.
Noëls Celtiques – Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde
A exquisitely beautiful album of choral music from the mysteriously named Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde (Choral Ensemble from the End of the World). This Celtic Christmas album has the lilt, bagpipes and tunes of the Celts. While also being filled with the organ and breathtaking choral approach of the French. Truly sublime.
Mont-Joia: Noëls Provençaux, Nautrei Siam Tres Bomians
Meanwhile down in the lower regions of France in another zone where the older language struggles to be heard this folk revival group from the 80s provides darker rhythmic minor keys, yet no less joyous, as an acoustic band strum and and harmonize their way to Noël bliss. There is another Provencal Christmas album of more recent vintage with many of the same songs which is also worthy. La Bela Naissença – Les noels Provencaux (Christmas carols from Provence). It’ll do in a pinch.
To Drive The Cold Winter Away – St. George’s Canzona
Here’s an interesting and truly recondite work. And one of my favorites. Here the old Baroque European winter festival mingles with the Christian story perfectly in Chestertonian fashion. The mixture of Playford dances with seasonal cheer is sheer perfection. I am captivated utterly by their version of the Playford dance The Dressed Ship. But the entirety of this is merry and festive in the deepest sense.
Noel We Sing – Boston Camerata
This is the Boston Camerata’s English and early American Christmas album. It’s just as researched and just as authentic. I like it even better than the Medieval Christmas. Highly recommended.
The New Possibility – John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album
And finally the closest I’m going to get to pop music… which is to say not at all. This is psychedelic folk guitarist John Fahey’s 1968 version of Christmas classics and obscurities. It’s ‘simple’ guitar music without echoey production values or anything else to clutter up his strangely sincere version of these old carols. He later rerecorded these in the 80s. He probably needed the money. The two Christmas albums from that period are good. But this version is much quirkier and ‘simple’ in the best sense.
A few more:
To Wish You A Merry Christmas – Harry Belafonte
No this is as close to pop as I get. There is something very real in Harry’s folk pop Caribbean Christmas music. He manages to find the heart of it even through the RCA production line.
A Renaissance Christmas – Boston Camerata
See Medieval Christmas above and add the word Renaissance.
A Baroque Christmas- Boston Camerata
See Medieval Christmas above and add the word Baroque.
The Christmas Revels – John Langstaff & Co.
This is a classic which later became the Revels industry. This is close in spirit to the Roberts/Barrand Nowell albums mentioned above. But you can tell it’s a show, where Roberts, Barrand and company sound like they are actually celebrating Christmas. And later that aspect of the performances and albums would stand out more and more. Nevertheless you can always find a few gems here and there.
Angels and Kings – The Mediaeval Baebes
There are two wintry themed Mediaeval Baebes albums, the other is Mistletoe and Wine. And there are some real gems on them. The only problem I occasionally have with them is that they do like to conflate the modern interpretation of paganism onto the older Christian past. But then again maybe turnabout is fair play since that is the opposite of what the Christians did… except they did it genuine old school paganism, which was a much different beast than what we imagine in our fantasy worlds today. Nevertheless their Gaudete is amazing, especially the first version on Mistletoe and Wine. But for a more purely Christmas album go with Angels and Kings.
Handel’s Messiah – Robert Shaw Chorale
The first version of Messiah that I know to bring to life the older, smaller, quicker, livelier Baroque version back to the present. I hesitate to call this a Christmas album though, since fully half of it has nothing to do with Christmastime. But the part that does? Are you noticing a Baroque trend anywhere here? It’s no accident.
So that’s it. Look for any of these if you want to get closer to the spirit of Christmas.
And if you don’t? Might I recommend A Mutated Christmas, Christmas at Luke’s Sex Shop or anything that’s really well produced in the last 30 years.
Get away from the noise
Have a meaningful Christmas
(We’ll get back to Georgia very soon.)
Tbilisi, as I mentioned in my Gravity From Above diary, was a rude shock to my American system at first. It just seemed like pure chaos on some level that I had never encountered before. Travelers to India, Africa, certain parts of South America will I’m sure bring back even more intense observations than mine. Nevertheless I have traveled most of America, much of Canada, maybe two thirds of Europe, as far as Romania, and to Juarez, Mexico. I’ve seen things that gave me a sense of culture shock before, but nothing on the level of Tbilisi, Georgia.
It was swirling blooming confusion of signs and cars, cats, people on the streets and a certain casualness that I didn’t get at first. The spoken language was not related to anything else outside of the Caucasus Mountains. (For those unaware Georgian is not Russian at all.) But not only that the actual alphabet just seems like hooks and squiggles. (I’ll do an addendum on signs and the language later.)
Then there is traffic. I don’t know where to begin. It seems like normal traffic at first glance. But then you slowly begin to realize that there is no traffic control. It a city of one million and one hundred thousand I counted maybe four or five stoplights. The police rarely seem to stop anyone. Yet you hear the barking of squad car loudspeakers all the time: A sound that, for these American ears, means pull over immediately. (Subtext: We’ve got guns and your license plate number and you’ll never get away.) But here? I was told they were just giving instructions. Hey you!!! Turn left!! ??? At least twice my life was in peril looking for a way to get across speeding highway traffic. Later I was told I should have used the underground passages. Which I would have used if I had seen anything like a sign I could read. Mothers with families, old ladies, giggling teen girls, men who looked unconcerned, all just simply walked in front of cars and they stopped. The key I realized was to see where the car was. Judge your luck. And go! But do NOT look the driver in the eye. If they think you see them they won’t stop. (Which I discovered was the opposite of France where eye contact stops the oncoming traffic.) I eventually learned to walk between moving cars, putting my best New York City moves to good use. And as I did my ballet around the vehicles I thought half-jokingly “Maybe this is why Georgians are such good dancers?”
Another thing that leapt out at me like the swipe of a bear’s claws was the street life. You see everything in Tbilisi on the streets, the good and the bad. People sell food. I don’t just mean vendors. I mean if a old man from the edge of the city in a village has a dozen extra eggs he’ll come down to the streets with his twelve eggs and wait as people walk by. And he’ll sell them one at a time if he has to. I saw a woman day after day with freshly plucked chickens selling them on the street, no refrigeration needed evidently. People sell fruit, vegetables, odds and ends. Booksellers seem to crop up everywhere, with Georgian books, Russian books and the occasional English title. And don’t even get me started on the huge swap meet at The Dry Bridge near the river. I couldn’t even begin to describe it, except to say that THAT was reason enough to visit Tbilisi all by itself. (I made a video of it that takes nearly a half hour to watch as a strait walk through.)
But back to the streets. Another thing that was quite common to see was older folks, mostly women, begging on the streets. And since my own elderly mother recently passed on this hit me strongly. A sign of obvious trouble with social welfare systems. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you are on in the USA. This is something you don’t want to see. In fact in America we have large industries dedicated to taking care of the aged. Or is it keeping them out of sight? The more I looked at these folks on the street the more I adjusted my eyes. It never became a good thing to me, as it isn’t to the Georgians. Yet there was something about seeing everything on the streets. There was less shame about it. And people did contribute to these people. It didn’t take too much money to fulfill ones daily needs. I reckoned that if I was really desperate I could live on less than five dollars a day for food easily. And stay full. The more I saw these old women, the more I realized that they tended to occupy one area regularly and they had people who would give to them regularly. Which was similar to the homeless in New York City. The difference is that in New York you rarely saw people who reminded you of your mother or grandmother on the streets.
Other things: Construction was going on everywhere. And ancient buildings sat in habitable decay everywhere. (See the photo at the top.) And there were nice stores all over. And one street might seem fashionable and next to it might seem like the end of the world. The sidewalks were uneven. Stores sprouted from holes in the wall. Traffic never stopped swirling. I only mastered about half of the alphabet while I was there, but there was Latin script in enough places to figure out how to navigate. The metro made sense. The buses were almost impossible. And I could go on and on but I think you get the idea.
But here’s what I began to see, and this meshed with my observations about Orthodox culture, my American culture is far more organized than I ever realized before. No one seems to collect taxes on these street vendors that I can see, yet they can make extra money for themselves. We have rules for absolutely everything: Protecting consumers, traffic flow, jaywalking, safety, even our children live in an age appropriate world. Even the most laissez faire anarcho-whatever in North America has never experienced anything like this. We all want a net to catch us when we fall. And yet I looked at this and realized that on some level this was more human. There was a net actually. The government provided some amenities and was learning to do more. But the net, the real net, was a thing called family, extended family, and a network of acquaintances. And I was actively beginning to appreciate this chaos. Because the more I looked at it the more I could see a different kind of order, almost invisible to the outsider, holding up the structure of Georgian society.
Now there many troubles in Georgia. As you can see I’m not romantic about the country. And there are many deeper and darker layers of problems I am not qualified to address. But there is one area I can discuss. As Georgia enters the contemporary world it will, and has already begun to, experience the problems of a highly technocratic postmodern age. I’ll deal with that next time.
But let me say this about my time in Tbilisi. I walked down dark streets at night. Houses all turned away from the road sequestered in courtyards. In all of my wanderings I never ever felt endangered. Never once felt that someone was watching me in a predatory fashion. Bucharest, Prague, Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, London, New York, Seattle, even Juneau here in Alaska all have given me more of a shiver of unease than anything I experienced in Tbilisi walking through the dark streets at night. Our order seems a bit like a mirage when I consider it. We live in a society where we thrive on rights. And while rights and the law are crucial to living, I can’t help feeling that often we only have rights left. And if you step on them, then comes the crush of the rules, of the law. Everyone wants what’s theirs. Maybe in Georgia they are a little less concerned with getting everything due to them. Maybe after their extremely rocky history many are glad to simply be here.
Come back again soon.
November 23rd 2016
Here then are the observations that began to accumulate around me after my journey to the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Tsminda Sameba) in Tbilisi Georgia. I don’t mean these to be anything definitive, nevertheless I did begin to comprehend something that had been tickling my eyes and ears for a couple of weeks.
First of all there was this: If in an Orthodox Church the actual times do not matter the way they do in America or Northern and Western Europe, to different degrees, then that helped to explain the rather casual attitude towards work and punctuality. Why only this week I stepped into my local Presbyterian Church and they were discussing whether it was exactly 10 o’clock or not. (‘No we still have a minute to go.’ ‘Well my watch says 10.’) This attitude would be positively incomprehensible in Georgia and I suspect many Orthodox countries. And this would make it quite difficult to enforce Western or East Asian standards of business production. Thus anyone coming from outside Eastern Orthodoxy expecting a certain kind of timeliness would feel very disappointed. But I adjusted my own expectations accordingly. When I went to see Nino Sukhishvili I was constantly playing tag with the times. I didn’t really lose a beat over this. People seem to come and go. And when I went to the theatre or the ballet the shows did start generally, though never precisely, on time.
Next and much more to the point. The Orthodox church service did not revolve around the sermon. In an American church, Protestant or Catholic, in many ways the liturgy builds up to the message. It’s a little less with the Roman Catholic Church who focus upon Communion, but it’s certainly still there. And when one leaves you discuss the message to compare what one already believes with the words of the minister. Did the sermon stick with the Bible? Was it delivered well? Did the words ring true?
Now what this means is that not only is the emphasis upon the truth of the message, but in fact this weighing of the message for truth is a hallmark of Western Christian culture. And it is also a fact that although the vast swaths of Europe and America think about God as much as they do the country of Vanuatu they nevertheless have inherited the same approach to ideas. So that an atheist judges the truth of a thing the same way. A third wave feminist who blames the Christian patriarchy for the sins of the world still will react with a miffed ‘That’s not true.’ Or perhaps ‘That’s just so wrong!’ So our churches have grown stale over the years but the assertions of truth don’t end, even if the speaker claims that Truth doesn’t exist.
Now look at Georgia and the Orthodox Church. I’m sure people care about the Truth in Georgia. But not in the same way. In fact, unlike the western branches of Christianity, the Orthodox Church believe the Bible is true and yet don’t really try to harmonize science and the Bible. In other words the Bible is true AND science is true. And I see no force trying to reconcile the differences. Now again I don’t see everything going on, but I do know that is a feature of Orthodoxy. In other words there are no ‘creationists’ in the Orthodox faith. There is paradox. Two truths held together. Looking from my position on the West Coast of the USA that strikes me as, well, radically different. So what this means in practice is that there is a lot of leeway in belief. But God created the world and Christ died for us and was resurrected. And maybe things most likely evolve or maybe not. It’s just a human idea.
What this means practically in international relations is this. Remember Russia is an Orthodox country. Even if that Orthodoxy is suppressed as it was during the Soviet Era. What happens when Americans come over with their true or false mentality? It just seems rather silly to them. Especially since publicly we change our truths like we change our socks. One minute, after World War 2, one must be a good member of the Christian Democratic world. The next they see us haranguing them about homosexuality, which only a few years back we weren’t in favor of. Is it any wonder that there are major conflicts? Neither side is even on the same page. How to communicate? Now Georgia isn’t Russia. That must be said. But many of these issues still hang over them as well.
And here’s one last Orthodox observation. The point of the service seemed to be the glorious mystery of God. The words seemed secondary. But the music, the actions of priests, the reverence of the congregation definitely seemed focused upon that aspect of faith. And that affected everything. For one thing the music was not being passed around to amateurs. The five women singing may have been mere congregants, but the sounds coming out of their voices put to shame anything I’ve heard in a western church service for my whole life. Only once in a while have I ever heard a church choir come anywhere near the beauty of that music. In America we value inclusiveness over the quality of the music. It is rare that I hear good music in churches these days. The songs we sing together are again more about collective feelings than anything to construed as depth. Every now and then we sing the old standards, which still are glorious (Amazing Grace, O For A Thousand Tongues, How Firm a Foundation) But even those get updated. (How on heaven or earth is Amazing Grace improved by adding a chorus???)
Or here’s another comparison: If I enter the standard Protestant church, or even many Catholic churches, is there any reminder of God’s mystery, his Otherness? If I walk into that same local Presbyterian church the answer is a resounding no. Not in the folksy/poppy music. Not in the various activities of the church, not in the potlucks, not in the architecture, not in the quilted wall hangings, occasionally the sermon gives hints. And that’s about it. So our inclusive faith essentially makes God into our pal. Make sure no one squirms.
Now again what is found in our churches is found in all aspects of our culture. And it’s a two way street. We’ve just become folksy dorky self-conscious people. Real things bother us. Even the approach to nature among folks who would never step into a church these days is often mostly recreational. We could all stand to watch and understand the great Russian films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Our walks into nature would change immensely. In his very Orthodox films the textures of the environment become alive and mysterious. But again we like to make things casual, cool, no biggy. And thus we live in a neutered world, as we gaze into our hands and make magic swishing motions over the devices at our fingertips. So yes I was overwhelmed to find God’s mystery in the Georgian Orthodox Church.
My feeling is that a cross-pollination between Western questing for Truth (capital T please) and Eastern Orthodox Mystery would be a beneficial thing on both sides. But I’m not sure they need our postmodern casualness however. Yet that seems inevitable as the ‘blessings’ of pop culture descend like crematorium ashes across the whole world.
(But we’ll get to that soon enough… Come back again for our next Georgian Lesson.)
November 14th 2016
Tsminda Sameba, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, rising above the city like a golden crystal. (As seen at night from the terminal of the funicular railway in Tbilisi, Georgia April 2016.)
My next Georgian lesson comes in a very different manner from the first. Although I had come to understand the cultural heritage of Georgia, it soon became clear to me that in order to make sense of Georgia’s many points of artistic creativity I needed to investigate the place of the Christian Church in the country. Like Poland Christianity plays a big part in the life of the people. Like Poland the Church was the glue holding the society together and giving an essence at odds with Communism. Much of Europe has shed its Christian roots in favor of some more contemporary definition of self and society. But like Poland Georgia has clung to its faith.
But unlike Poland the Church wasn’t an obvious catalyst for change during the Soviet era. For one thing Georgia was actually subsumed under the Soviet Union itself for historical reasons which would take too long to explain here. While Poland was dragged behind the Iron Curtain at much later date. The Soviets actually tried to destroy as many churches as they could. And Georgian homeboy Joe Stalin made sure that this task was carried out thoroughly. But as in periods of Muslim invasion and occupation Georgia seemed to have been denuded of Christians and then as soon as the pressure eased suddenly there were Christians everywhere. So when the 1991 coup came the Georgians were the first to bolt for independence after their own period of intense struggle culminating in the bloody 1989 April 9th tragedy, all of which most non-Georgians have never heard of. Immediately the Georgian Orthodox Church became a strong force within country again and they started rebuilding ruined churches.
And so I was arriving in what was essentially a peaceful island caught between the Scylla of the Middle Eastern eruptions not too distant and the Charybdis of Russian/Ukrainian tensions not much further north. I arrived in Tbilisi to research music, dance and puppetry. But soon it became clear to me that it would be important to go to church to make sense of this unusual country.
Georgia (Sakartvelo) is an Eastern Orthodox Christian country. Statistics for the country range between 83 and 80 percent of Georgians being members of the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Autocephaly means being independently governed and not under another Patriarch of the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church. That means what the aging Catholicos, Ilia II, is the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church without any outside interference. You see the distinctive architecture of the Georgian Orthodox churches everywhere. And since independence they have also constructed the largest church in Georgia, and one the largest Orthodoxes churches in the world, the Tsminda Sameba Cathedral სამების საკათედრო ტაძარში (Holy Trinity Cathedral), often just called Sameba by the locals. Sameba can be seen easily rising above the city in the night from the mountains next to Tbilisi.
As I strolled around Tbilisi, dodging traffic, through the crowds, feeling the sweat of a warmer season on its way, I often passed Orthodox churches. They always seemed to have people coming and going. A baby christening might take place on a Wednesday afternoon. People walked by, some crossed themselves. Some might kneel before entering a church. One young woman stopped on a bridge nowhere near a church and made a cross. The only church in sight was off in the distance. I entered a couple of churches as I had more tentatively back 2000 in Romania. People bowed before icons, even kissed them. A normal working man wearing jeans and a plaid shirt walks into one church. Soon he is prostrate on the ground in the middle of the pewless church. I understood all of these gestures as acts of faith in a manner different than anything I had quite seen before. I sat off in corner as a visitor observing what I didn’t really understand.
The more I researched music I realized how important it was to attend to a serious service to hear Georgian liturgical singing. (Tinatin Gurchiani later apologized that she could not get me into see a Georgian priest and music expert before my departure.) And so I determined I would go to Tsminda Sameba on the last Sunday of my trip. It would require some planning to get there on time. Or so I thought.
Now I have been to many different kinds of Christian churches. I’ve been to Anglican High Church and folksy Roman Catholic Masses. I’ve been to churches so dead you’d need an EKG to detect a pulse. And I’ve been to Pentecostal churches where the preacher was rockin’ the organ and shouting “C’mon y’all look like you’ve been hit over the head by a dead wet possum!” I’ve been to African-American churches of various stripes and styles great music and bad and to Jesus People Godstock gatherings in the hills of California replete with acoustic guitars and roasted lambs on spits. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I wasn’t the casual visitor without a clue. I knew enough about Orthodox doctrine to realize that the icons weren’t idols and that the rules would be different. But how different didn’t occur to me until I arrived at what I thought would be a little late at Tsminda Sameba Cathedral.
And truthfully when to arrive presented me with my first conundrum. I’m coming from a culture where church starts almost exactly on time. If the sign outside the church or on the website says 10am or 11am. That’s when it starts. Period. Hard as I looked on line for when Sunday services start at Sameba or any Georgian Orthodox Church the more befuddled I became. Finally I saw one person on Trip Advisor who had written ‘Go at 9 in the morning.’ Of course they wrote to go then. They didn’t exactly say that’s when things start. So at 8:00 I left my friendly and quiet guesthouse and strolled out to the metro to find my way to the church. My first clue that things were a little peculiar in Georgia was that the streets were as quiet as 5am in New York City on a Monday might be. That is hardly a soul was on the streets at all. This was the first time I’d been on the streets before 10:00 since I’d arrived a few weeks earlier. The metro was quiet. Hardly anyone looked like they might be going to church. And when I arrived at the subway exit I found myself mystified by the bus schedule and so decided to walk the last couple of kilometers up the hill to the cathedral.
As I walked up the initial stairs onto the cathedral grounds I noticed only a few people going towards the grand building. Maybe I was late? I decided to follow them. I walked through a grand room that had been a burnt out from a fire that left it dark and eerie. I followed the few people through a set of glass and brass doors into the main structure. I could hear the angelic voices of women singing somewhere up ahead of me. I entered a large chamber that felt as if I was under the main floor. I found myself on a terrace within the large room looking down one floor from a cement and marble balcony upon a congregation in the middle of a service that seemed like it had been going on for sometime and that had no specific focus. And everyone was standing, except for some occasional soul who would be on a chair nowhere near the center of the pewless floor. In Orthodox tradition sitting is considered resting and you do not rest in church. I descended to the lower floor to find people engaged in various points of attention. Some were stationed before icons. Some were awaiting the return of a priest with the communion host. A group of five ordinarily dressed women in headscarves were off to the side and would occasionally singing another short exquisitely haunting song in Georgian harmony. There was from what I could tell no congregational singing. I eventually moved back upstairs, after climbing the stairs further to find that the larger main room of the cathedral did not seem too busy, to watch from above to try to get an idea about what I was watching.
Eventually a priest came from behind a closed door with the Eucharist which he personally dispensed only to those who had been waiting. Eloquent blessings seemed to follow each supplicant. After a while I could see he was calmly talking to that specific cluster. But he seemed to make no larger speech to the entire congregation. And during all of this at certain moments the heavenly music of the women ascended out from floor. It was deep, overwhelming and mysterious and so very different from any other service I’d ever been to. I eventually wandered out again. The service continued. More people were arriving. I passed through the blackened chamber, down the stairs, down the hill again towards the metro pondering all the while.
And I was struck by so many thoughts, thoughts that reflected back to the core of Georgian society and ultimately contrasted so strongly with ours.
(But to find out what those observations were you’ll have to return for Georgian Lesson #3 here at The Anadromous Life. And you’ll want to even if you have no interest in God or religion.)
You can read about my full journey to Tbilisi in Georgia here:
So imagine the following scene: A church decides to have an Easter sunrise service on a Sunday morning. One of the features of this event is to attach a cross, that looks suspiciously like a white frosted cake standing upright, to a cloud of helium filled balloons that will float off into the distance. There is some talk that maybe someone will find it. There are some printed words somewhere in the confection. And there is a prayer that it might be a mighty witness for the gospel as well as an offering of praise. I beheld this with my own eyes in the late 90s. The Gospel of Fun has indeed taken over the church.
Now if we are going to use our imaginations seriously let’s picture this: Present at the balloon offering there are a host of other Christians representing different traditions down through the ages; Martin Luther, the Reformer is there next to John Calvin, Augustine and Paul are looking on, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are standing near T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers. Frederick Douglass and Dostoevsky turn to each other. Saint Nino of Georgia, Thomas Aquinas, Jane Austen and Charles Finney are all in attendance. And finally Jesus himself is present. And what would such a cloud of witnesses make of this strange diminution of the truth of their faith into a pop spectacle. (And balloons do pop!) Could any of these believers from times passed not be disturbed, even deeply saddened, perhaps some even to the point of tears. And Jesus? Who suffered and bled and died for all of humanity? What would he think of balloons being offered in his name? I certainly can’t claim to know. But I do remember the story of the unworthy offering of Cain way back when.
And this strange image of balloons and sweet crosses flying into the sky is only the tiniest metaphor of the shape of a Christian faith now also tainted and deformed by the new universal Gospel of Fun.
The examples are legion… and I am thinking of the exorcism story in the Bible when I use the word legion. Where to start (because there is no end): What about Happy Birthday Jesus cakes for Christmas? Or Youth Bibles to make the Faith more Fun and Exciting? How about Catholic balloons? Speaking of balloons, what about hot air balloons shaped like Jesus? There are at least two. T-shirts featuring Pepsi or Coke graphics with ad slogans modified into a ‘Christian witness’? How about images of a laughing Jesus? Church music, like much contemporary religion, has turned into a blood bath of feel good commercialization. In the extremities we find such phenomena as the Toronto Blessing, where for over a decade congregants engaged in laughing, dancing, shaking, barking like dogs and entering trances all in the name of being ‘drunk in the Lord’. Sounds like Fun doesn’t it? And it is, with a capital F.
The Gospel of Fun and Positive Thinking (we’ll get to that down the road) have essentially taken over much of Western Christianity and beyond. And I can already hear many of my Christian friends saying ‘Hey no fair. We have to do whatever we can to reach out for Christ. Don’t be critical.” What’s really odd is that the general impression of the Western secular world that Christians are still all hellfire and brimstone. The media jumps on every weird ‘Christian’ they can find. Think Westboro Baptist Church. Think of the crazy Florida pastor who was going to burn copies of the Koran. Or the naïve folks in the Jesus Camp documentary. They leap at every utterance that any celebrity makes that suggests that they are still clinging on to some bigoted form of traditional morality. And in reality most churches in America have long ago converted to a feel good version of the Faith. Concepts like hell, heresy, judgement are nearly taboo in most Western churches. God is a therapeutic deity. The point is to be positive, whole, healed, happy and to have Fun.
That it’s impossible to find such a message in the Bible doesn’t seem to cause too many sleepless nights . The anti-intellectualism which had surfaced within Christian circles in the second half of the 19th Century has had the effect of making sure that the average congregant is no more worried about these contradictions than they are about eating a moist birthday cake.
Interestingly the word ‘fun’ does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Neither do any of its relatives; amusement, entertainment or diversion. Although one word does show up which is an elderly relation: merriment. And some folks try to shoehorn words like blessed, happy or joy under the Fun umbrella. But merriment is an interesting word. The word in the New Testament is a Greek word which can also be translated as ‘cheer’. And it is a good thing to be of good cheer. The prodigal son was certainly cheered up by his father’s celebration. But then there is this ominous passage in the twelfth chapter of Luke where Jesus tells the parable of the rich man who has worked all his life just to finally kick back and have some fun. His motto? ‘Take life easy; eat ,drink and be merry.’ And then next word out of God’s mouth is ‘You fool. Tonight your life will be required of you.’ It’s more complicated than that, but I think we can easily see that the philosophy of Fun gets no free ride from Jesus.
And in fact Fun with a capital F did not enter the Christian world until the 1950s. When in order to combat juvenile delinquency and a fear of Communism para-church organizations began to seriously create youth ministries who would lure kids into the fold with ‘funspiration’. These ministries continued into the Sixties and they hooked up with the Jesus Movement in the 1970s. This was a crucial time. These new Christian hippies moved away from the stale and boring traditional churches and into the charismatic world. They brought with them the new catchier praise songs, developed by the youth ministries during the folkie era. Catholics had guitar masses. They brought a looser, more casual, approach to the Faith. Jeans and T-shirts came into the church. And they also brought in the T-shirts with cute Jesus slogans. By the mid-eighties the transformation was fairly complete. The older culture of easy listening Christian crooners and televangelists had merged with the newer Christians and their peppy tunes and Christian market. Eventually New Agisms would be interlarded. And lashings of Positive Thinking culture.
There is an informative book called The Juvenilization of American Christianity by Thomas E. Bergler (Eerdmans). In it he states that “Of course these changes came at some cost. White evangelicals invested heavily in young people and aggressively adapted to their preferences for an informal, entertaining, feel good faith. They ended up with their churches full of Christians who think that the purpose of God and the Christian faith is to help them feel better.”
And so for far too many folks the Gospel of Fun has superseded the Gospel of Christ, and they can’t even see it. It is identical to the aging hippie wearing high tech spandex biking gear. How can you explain it to them? Rational argumentation is dissed as judgmental. Everyone is supposed to smile. Check out their Facebook pages. (Of course there is a very dark side to all of this Fun and Positivity. Try to express a thoughtful dissenting opinion on internet sites like IMDb or in response to a newspaper editorial and just watch the knives come out.)
You know this might all be a bit of a downer… But if you look at it a different way it’s just so Cute.
I think we’ll have to continue this next time…