Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hellfire and Brimstone

Sin is both far less and far greater a thing than we make it. Far less, for there are many things that are sins that we rarely think of as such. Far more, for it is a far more hideous thing than we have made it out to be.

Our concept of sin misses the mark by a wide margin. The concept of sin in the Bible is rather different from the concept that we have labeled with the word in American Christianity. We conceive of sin as being some egregious violation of a moral code, something beyond a mere mistake to a great ethical failure. On the other hand, we have little sense of sin as something truly terrible. It is simply a bad mistake, a larger error that is significant enough to earn punishment rather than forgiveness.

And so we have set the bar too high in qualifying sin and far too low in evaluating its worth.

Sin is any deviation from the will of God, any variation - no matter how infinitesimal - from a life perfectly reflecting the glory of God. Our purpose, in so many words, is to rightly reflect the image of God, and when we fail in even the slightest of ways to do so, it is sin. The word in Greek which we translate as "sin" is a technical hunting term (hamartía; ἁμαρτία), meaning simply, "to miss the mark." While many of us are aware of this, we rarely stop to consider the meaning strongly suggested by the use of this word - especially in a language that has words corresponding to moral failures of the sort we more frequently associate with sin. The New Testament authors, and before them, the translators of the Hebrew Bible from whom they took many of their cues, chose to use a word that means not moral failure but simply missing the mark. One might strike near the target or far away from it, but if one did not perfectly strike the center, it was a sin. The qualification for something to be a sin is simply any imperfection in our reflection of God. That means that any act, no matter how small, that we do not for God's glory but for any other reason, that any even good act that is not in accord with God's will, that the best act in the world done without God in mind, is sin.

Even this, however, does not sufficiently impress us of the need to take sin with greater seriousness. Without a conception of the magnitude of the evil of sin - any sin, no matter how "small" - we can neither appreciate the necessity of Christ's sacrifice nor take the true measure of its great worth. It is as though someone turned the Taj Majal into a house of prostitution, or the Pyramids into casinos. It is as though someone shattered Michelangelo's David, as though someone smeared dung across the Mona Lisa and then baked it in. It is though someone made pornography from the Odyssey. It is every great work of art desecrated and set to the most horrific of purposes, in complete opposition to the original ends of their maker. And it is worse. The horror of every great work of art turned against its maker's intent is still but a fraction of the infinite evil that is one, little sin. The most awful desecration imaginable is infinitely less than the worth of a little white lie.

For God is the great artist, and we are his great art. Our purpose is the reflection of his glory, the showing forth of his image. And when we sin, no matter how little we might in our fallen human wisdom deem that error, the consequences are incredibly grievous: that most incredibly precious image of God in us is broken, shattered and warped. This horror - I can think of no other word - ought to rock us to our core. Though we cannot now conceive of the depth of the evil that sin is, we ought to daily seek to deepen our understanding thereof. Few of us understand the evil of sin deeply enough to feel that it does indeed deserve death. That "little white lie?" It deserves death. That one piece of candy in the store? It deserves death. That single lustful glance at a woman's body? It deserves death. Because it is not "just" a lie, not "just" a piece of candy, not "just" a glance: it is a desecration of the very image of God.

To desecrate the image of God, to defile the picture of his glory placed in us, is a terrible thing indeed.

When we know this, when we in our heart of hearts recognize that daily, hourly, minutely, we deserve death and many times over, then we begin to first rightly conceive of why a just God is so very wrathful over sin and how utterly incapable we are of saving ourselves. Not only are we deserving of death so many times over that we could never repay, but even our ability to reflect God has been damaged in such a way that we are incapable of repairing it. And so God, in his great mercy, to display not only his wrath but his compassion and love, has done the impossible for us, knowing we could never do it for ourselves. And he thus shows himself the great and awesome God: we who are evil are saved not only from evil but to good, and are not only saved from death but raised to life. We can once again display the excellencies of the glory of God, and when perfected we will once more perfectly bear the image of the great King.

Going before us is our great high priest, Jesus Christ, who has suffered under every temptation but without sin, and who has suffered not only the great humiliation of taking on human flesh but further suffered death - and who has risen again to life to prove that sin and death are conquered. The lamb that was slain now stands the triumphant victor who daily destroys evil and will one day demonstrate the fullness of his conquest. And this is a conquest not like any we have seen, for it involves not merely the destruction of the enemy, but also many enemies' redemption.

We must know the horror of sin, and must recognize the depth to which it penetrates our lives, so that even many seeming trivialities are desecrations, before we can at last offer to God an acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Art lives

Once a week. That's my goal. Just once a week. If I can make that, I'll look to start upping it again. But once a week is important to me.

Why? Because I've recognized in the last week that writing is important in my life. Some of the largest breakthroughs I've had spiritually have come because God has used things I've written to turn around and smack me in the face; journaling and blogging have been a significant part of my existence since I came to college.

That doesn't mean I need to blog religiously; if blogging stops being useful, or if it's getting in the way of other, more productive things, it goes away. Frankly, though, until I'm spending the time I would otherwise spend on blogging on a book, and doing so seriously and with some committed drive, I don't think it's a good idea for me to stop blogging. It's healthy; it's a release for me; it focuses my thoughts in a more coherent manner - not only for writing but for life - and it helps me a hone a gift God has given me.

So you should all spam me quite ferociously if I don't have a blog post up every week by Sunday night at the latest.


One of the consequences of my not having blogged regularly for the last two months is that there are almost innumerable thoughts tumbling about in my brain, most of them so jumbled together that I find it difficult to separate them out sufficiently as to make this a coherent and intelligible post. I will, however, do my best.


I've been writing music for symphony orchestra for the first time since early my freshman year of college. When I was in high school, nearly everything I wrote was for orchestras of some size or another; I had never written a non-improvisatory piece of solo piano music before I came to college. Nor had I written any chamber music pieces of any scale or substance; I had written a small piece for the equivalent of a pop ensemble minus a singer and that was as close as I'd come. That's not to say that any of those things were bad; I simply composed in a very limited range.

And then, for three years, I didn't. Since I started taking private composition lessons during the spring of my freshman year, I've written
  • a flute solo,

  • a duet for flute and bassoon,

  • a brass quartet; a trio for piano, oboe, and viola,

  • a serial woodwind quintet (my least favorite piece of music, and the one from which I learned the most),

  • a string quartet,

  • a suite for piano,

  • a setting of Psalm 142 for tenor voice, flute, clarinet, french horn, cello, harp, and percussion,

  • a setting of Psalm 67 for choir, harp, two guitars, and a harpsichord,

  • an oboe solo,

  • several pieces of "popular" music for piano and vocals.

I wrote one very brief and very small-scale orchestra piece for a project for a friend - a minute long, with very restrained orchestrations. And that's it.

And I learned something quite striking this week as I pondered this new piece for orchestra that I've been working on over the last six weeks. Not writing orchestra music for the past three years has been incredibly good for me; indeed, it has improved my composition for orchestra more than I would have thought possible. Having written for the broad range of ensembles listed above has pushed me immensely as a composer, has required me to refine and sharpen my technical abilities, rather than simply relying on my ear and my instincts and the incredibly broad scale of an orchestra to accomplish my ends.

You see, an orchestra is large enough and thick enough in texture that one can hide a lot simply by having decent orchestrational ability - and if you've listened to enough John Williams growing up (I did) that's relatively easy to come by. But you don't become a masterful composer without learning how to write for each instrument. The orchestra is more than the sum of its parts, and that's one of the most profoundly satisfying aspects of writing for it. Yet no piece of music truly exceeds its weakest point, and so an understanding of all the parts of the orchestra is important if one wishes to master it.

My mastery of the orchestra is somewhere a few millennia down the line, and I'm quite content with that. I am aware, having written over 6 minutes of orchestra music in the last 6 weeks, that I can do things, can think and hear things, that I simply could not have heard even a year ago. So, I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to compose in a myriad of other style and for a wide variety of other instrumentations; had I not, my composition would have grown far less than it has as it is. And I am grateful for the professor who I've had - a man with whom I frequently disagree, yet from whom I have learned much.

I've also learned again that my soul as a composer and a creator lies in the sound of the symphony, indeed in the symphonic poem (a technical term describing the sorts of programmatic music I've always written). I tell stories. And, like a novelist who learns the craft of the novel better by writing short stories and nonfiction, I have learned to use the orchestra more effectively by composing for everything but. And now I'm telling stories on a grand scale again.

It's my soul laid out in notes on a page, in sound in the air: a sense of the grandeur of life, and of destinies and of hope, of terrible loss and ultimate victory, of the greatness of being a creature in God's world, a part of his story. It's the fire that runs in my veins blasting from the bell of the trumpet and singing from the sweet winds and calling out from the strokes of the strings.


Here, then, is a taste of worship as it ought to be: the heartcry of our soul, poured out with utter abandon to the God who creates, in whose image we have been fashioned even in this. The human heart is drawn to art because in it we see - broken, as ever in this life - a reflection of the One who made us. In the strokes of Van Gogh's brush, in the sound of a Rocket Summer concert, in the gentle curves of a vase, in the flowing motion of a dance, in sweet song and in choked-out monologue: we see a picture of the Creator-God, the Artist-King who made us. And our hearts burn, ache, expand as though to burst out of us as we glimpse the tiniest hint of his glory: as in the strains of Mahler's 2nd Symphony, or in the brush-colors of the Sistine, or in the whirl of the Nutcracker, we for a moment are caught up in transcendence and recognize the joy that our God has in creating, in making us works of art that reflect their creator just as every piece of music its composer displays.

As much as glory, our great and terrible brokenness is here revealed. Every piece of art reflects its maker. Not only is there a great deal of very broken art in this world, but every piece of Art in this world - every human being made to reflect the one true Artist - is broken, destroyed. And in the butchering of our music by musicians too busy to work hard on it, in the tear in a precious painting, in the broken shards of pottery, we begin to feel in the slightest measure the depth of pain that God has in our rebellion, our sin, our rejection of our one purpose in this life: to reflect him. For the broken pottery can no longer show its maker's hand, the painting can no longer show the painter's mastery, and the music can no longer show the loving craft of the composer. Just so, we no longer show for the goodness, the holiness, the love, of God - nor indeed do we show as we ought any part of His glorious character.

And so in art we have a picture painted broad, a poem writ large, a symphony screaming to be heard, of both the transcendent purposefulness and glory that our lives were meant to be and the broken emptiness that they are.

There is hope, though. Oh, yes, there is hope.

How? Because while the orchestra cannot be corrected midconcert; the painting never quite like it was, the pottery never put back together, we serve a God who not only can but every single day does do that with his broken creations.

What artistry this! What marvelous hands do now reshape the clay? And to a form not only as it was before, but better? Incredible, you say? Yes, I say: yet credible, too, for it is our great God and King, for whom no task of restoration and renewal is impossible.

Art lives.

Our lives.

- Chris

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Staple in My Head; or, The Manliness of Anthony Plopper

So, yesterday afternoon, my head encountered something much akin to a razor blade and began bleeding profusely, leading to my taking a trip to the emergency room and having it stapled back together.

This is not as random as it may perhaps sound, and one should not actually be alarmed that my head encountered something much akin to a razor blade, for that something was simply the elbow of my friend Anthony Plopper, whose manliness is simply too great to be contained by something as small as skin. No, his elbows are like razor blades, his ankles like great walls of steel (you'll have to ask Cody for some explanation on that one), and his feet like great and terrible monsters ready to come bursting out of any shoes containing them. Broken toes, lacerated heads, bruised femurs: all these are within his great and terrible power.

And that's when he's having fun.

In seriousness, for those looking for a tale of my head injury, it runs quite simply, and thus: yesterday afternoon, after the OU/TX game, a good-sized group of people was playing a pick-up game of Ultimate. It was an excellent game: very competitive, but also very friendly, with both teams playing quite well. In short, loads of fun. After about 45 minutes of play, my team (also Anthony's team) had the disc and we were moving it down the field with considerable aplomb. Our friend Cody Piersall launched the disc in a very lovely throw down the length of the field as I cut across the length of the field. I thought he was throwing it to me. Turns out I was wrong, as I discovered as I glanced back toward the disc, continuing my widthwise cut across the field and discovered Anthony and whoever was covering him (sorry, I didn't really have time to notice your identity, whoever you are) moving toward me - or rather, toward the disc - or rather, it made not a whit of difference for we were all to be in the same place very soon - quite rapidly. This elicited a moment of thinking, Bad! and then a rather longer and more painful moment of tangling bodies, connecting limbs, and general tumbling through the air, at the culmination of which I was aware that my head hurt about as badly as I've ever felt it hurt and that I was suddenly terribly sweaty. I found myself kneeling on the ground, wondering why I was perspirating so much more than I had been, holding my head. Someone commented that I was bleeding, and badly, and I thought, Nonsense! I'm not bleeding. I'd know it if I were bleeding. At which point I saw blood drip off of my nose and realized that all the extra liquid on my face wasn't sweat.

No worries, my friends! Head wounds are like that! You see, blood flow to the brain and thus to the head in generally is exceptionally high as compared to the rest of the body; the high blood flow is necessary to meet the exceptionally high demands of the brain. Thus, any wound of any significance at all on the head is likely to bleed quite profusely. And so it was in my case.

As it turns out, in midair Anthony's elbow connected quite firmly with the upper left part of my head, opening a cut in it approximately 3/4 of an inch long, and perhaps 1/8 of an inch across. This led to my bleeding. Also: a rather remarkable headache that persisted for quite some time. I maintain that no human elbow is capable of delivering such a cut, and therefore propose that Anthony be required to subject himself to regular scans for abnormal body enhancements, including but not limited to x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, mammograms, and fistograms. These should readily ferret out his methods for inflicting injury on people. I'm convinced he's an X-man, with adamantium ankles and retractable elbow-mounted razor blades at the very least.

All of that to say: I'm quite all right, thank all so very much for asking, being concerned, and praying for me. Other than a very slight headache (I've had worse ones after a hard sneeze), I'm doing quite well. I only required one staple in my head, and it should come out in around 10-14 days.

In this, as in all things, I know that God is being glorified and will continue to be. What precisely that looks like, I know not, but I know it to be true nonetheless.

May all of you be blessed!