Sing to the Lord
Allen C. Guelzo’s “Play American” (January) offers up an interesting thesis: American concert attendance has plummeted due, firstly, to a largely foreign performance repertoire and, secondly, to a focus on performance as an end in itself. I don’t want to dispute that American symphonic music has suffered a dearth of performance, or that Americans have thus been given the impression that fine art is the province of highly cultured moral degenerates from across the ocean and their snooty cosmopolitan peers. Americans, it is true, have been left with the merely moralistic, sentimental kitsch of the sort Benjamin Myers wrote about in the November 2016 issue (“The Sentimentality Trap”).
If nothing else, Guelzo has challenged us to take seriously American composers. However, I think there is a larger problem than the obscurity of nineteenth-century American composition. (The twentieth century fared better.) Certainly we want to cheer for the “home team.” But can Americans agree on what sort of national home merits our praise? Do Cincinnati or San Antonio locals feel any more kinship to New Yorkers and Angelenos than they do with composers who lived in Leipzig and Vienna? And is the beauty of symphonic music communicable to people who have not been raised to express their deepest loves in song?
This last point places much of the burden on churches; the real culprit lies in Guelzo’s unfortunately underdeveloped point about performance for performance’s sake. Whether in the basilicas of Renaissance Europe with all the panoply of organ and orchestra, or in the a capella harmonies of Puritan New England, churches have long served as incubators for musical literacy and the expression of our deepest loves through music. It was assumed that the Church not only ought to support the arts, but that God ought to be praised with the highest art—visual and oral, spoken and sung—found in any given culture. Yet, in time, the separation of church and concert hall gave rise to the celebrity composer and, thereafter, Guelzo’s celebrity performer. And once art had moved out from church and into the specially built performance venue or museum, the church reciprocated by moving away from the arts, embracing instead the demotic. The Church is the great incubator of artistic and musical literacy no longer. The folk song idiom of post–Vatican II parishes and the praise and worship blight of modern Evangelicalism are surely sincere praises of God, but the vast majority of the churchgoing population is not raised to praise him, our highest good, with our highest beauty.
san antonio, texas
Allen C. Guelzo responds:
William Rhea takes the question of American symphonic music’s neglect to a higher aesthetic level by asking what purpose music serves in the first place. Like all the arts, music allows us to teach moral truths, to remember deeds worth celebration, and to achieve a measure of transcendence, however modest. These things do not necessarily begin in a religious location, since vernacular (or folk) music certainly serves those ends, but in an ecclesiastical context they certainly should call forth an effort commensurate with the God whom we are worshipping (see Mal. 1:7–8).
The emergence of the celebrity composer did not necessarily mean the end of profoundly religious art. Otherwise, we would have little reason to honor Mozart, Vivaldi, or Monteverdi. It was only when religion began to lose its integrity that art emerged as a surrogate, and only with the emergence of a commercial class that could indulge art from its own pocket that artists no longer required elite or ecclesiastical sponsorship. Measure the decline of great composition and you will find it tracking pretty accurately the decay of our culture’s religious awe.
Bible Belt Survivors
I was deeply moved by Russell D. Moore’s Erasmus Lecture and article, “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” (January). His clarity and precision in pinpointing the challenges facing contemporary Christendom in America are matched by his courage in confronting the rampant hypocrisy and duplicity that have sadly come to define many in today’s Evangelical circles.
In recent years, many (especially younger) Evangelicals like me have grown deeply concerned about the problem of “cultural Christianity” and its deviation from biblical theology, as well as dismayed at the failure of Evangelical leaders to consistently demonstrate the values they claim to cherish. The 2016 election revealed many of the weaknesses and divisions within the religious right—accurately described by Moore as “a pre-existing condition” with far-reaching consequences—and much rebuilding is needed in the days ahead.
Many of us who, like Moore, grew up in the Bible Belt lament the way the religious right—once a standard-bearer for conservatism—appeared to flagrantly compromise itself by endorsing and celebrating a fundamentally flawed candidate and condoning serious ethical failures. Their fixation on defending Donald Trump at all costs was evident in their hostile reaction to those who refused to celebrate the (then) candidate’s deviant character, conduct, and conversation. The impact went far beyond support for an individual but actually marked a shift, as it is said that now (white) Evangelical Christians regard personal character as less relevant for public leadership.
Against this backdrop, Moore observes the disconnect between the politically motivated who are theologically deviant and the theologically engaged who are politically apathetic—something we would do well to recognize within our own circles of influence.
Several realities described by Moore struck a chord with me as we assess the state of Evangelicalism: The culture of the “Bible Belt religion” cannot be the foundation of the religious right, and indeed it is ethnocentric to assume that the religion of the South is truly Christian. It is also erroneous—and even dangerous—to assume that the contemporary Church is theologically well and simply needs to be mobilized politically; rather, the Church needs to be reinforced with truth. The end goal is not strengthening the religious right—enabling people to use Christianity as a means to an end—but instilling the Church with core Evangelical truth; only then will the Church be truly missional.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this defining lecture is that Moore not only offers an accurate and fairly comprehensive diagnosis of the problems with the religious right, but also lays out a practical way forward—one that is rooted in a return to the good news itself and a renewed commitment to the gospel mission.
As America faces a time of transition, religious conservatives must “build collaborative majorities” on the issues we believe will lead to America’s flourishing, even as we recognize that we are not part of the majority culture and perhaps never have been. We must “play a long game of cultural renewal,” never sacrificing long-term influence for short-term political power. Most importantly, we must know “the difference between the temporal and the eternal”—approaching our public advocacy through the lens of what matters most. As C. S. Lewis stated, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. . . . It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”
Religious conservatism in America is at a crossroads. The decisions we make in the coming months and years will have an impact for generations. Will our religious leaders speak prophetically to a changing culture, even when it means risking temporary access to those in power? Or will they be “driven by the populist passions of the moment,” staying silent in the face of our leaders’ ethical failings and even defending serious moral compromise in an attempt to gain a seat at the proverbial table?
The choice is theirs—and ours. We would be wise to heed Moore’s clarion call.
Like Russell Moore, I too think of myself as having “survived the Bible Belt” in the sense that this culture has so often confused, cheapened, and gotten wrong the missio Dei, not least by seeing Christianity as a means to an end, failing to see the Christ as the proper goal. J. Gresham Machen’s equating this with liberalism is a novel stance that I believe to be correct.
With Trump, many of us chose between viable options and selected a man who, if elected, would be elected by a group composed of many believers rather than a woman who would be entirely beholden to an extremely liberal voting bloc, increasingly hostile to orthodox Christianity. That said, I, like Moore, was troubled by the willingness of too many Christian leaders to move beyond choosing between the options to waving away or baptizing immorality.
Moore is correct that the problem with Evangelicalism is that it has not been and is not Evangelical enough. It wants to be loved, and sacrifices too much to gain the affections of an increasingly ungodly culture. Evangelicalism has too often forsaken its rightful source of wisdom for Republican or Chamber of Commerce talking points, which strikes me as akin to trading your birthright for porridge—or Babe Ruth for cash.
Paths of Virtue
Andrew M. Yuengert draws a contrast between central planning and “situated action” (“After Planning,” January). The contrast between planning and the spontaneous emergence of “a plan” has always seemed like a false dichotomy to me. It is a particularly difficult problem for virtue, because virtues are habits of right action resulting from the continually updated application of reason.
The solution, it seems to me, is something like 1986 economics Nobelist James Buchanan’s vision of the “relatively absolute absolutes.” He wrote: “There are some moral values that have been in existence a long time, that have been proved by the test of history. . . . [It] is best to live our ordinary lives by treating those as ‘relatively absolute absolutes.’ . . . [But] they are not beyond examination; nothing is sacrosanct.”
So, on the one hand, virtues are customs and traditions that we all know because we were raised in societies that valued them. But at the same time, we need some plan, some means of evaluating and updating.
Imagine a new university. Where would we put the sidewalks? One answer is that no central planner or architect could possibly know enough to do that. So we should wait two years and then pave the muddy paths, which is where the sidewalks should be. But wait a minute: What about the buildings? Those don’t emerge spontaneously; for those we actually need an architect and a theory of collective interaction and intellectual synergy, to decide which departments should be close together.
The question, then, is how to find a balance. And that is the question Yuengert raises about his “manual of good living.” Thinking of everything like the sidewalks, emerging spontaneously and without plan, won’t work. But trying to plan everything, as if everything were buildings, won’t work, either. Virtue principles need not be vague, but they should be general. Once the essential features of the good society are laid out, people will find their own paths.
durham, north carolina
Andrew M. Yuengert responds:
Michael Munger asserts that the “false dichotomy” between planning and spontaneous order is a “particularly difficult problem” for virtue. Munger and Aristotle define virtue differently, however, and I do not see the problem for Aristotle’s virtue.
Munger’s virtues are “habits of right action resulting from the continually updated application of reason,” “customs and traditions that we all know because we were raised in societies that valued them.” These “virtues” are nothing more than routines whose usefulness we re-evaluate periodically. If virtues are nothing more than inherited protocols (“relatively absolute absolutes”), then the problem for virtue is whether or not to rely on it to solve well-defined problems like how to design sidewalks and buildings.
Munger’s definition makes virtue a quasi-technocratic “manual of good living,” which is exactly what virtue is not in the Aristotelian tradition. Virtues are embodied; the jumping-off point for Aristotle’s discussion is that maxims of virtue do not make you virtuous. Julia Annas’s extended exploration of the analogy between virtue and excellence in practical skill, in Intelligent Virtue, makes this clear.
Annas offers the example of a talented piano student. However excellent a pianist the teacher might be, the student does not aspire to impersonate her; he aspires to become a virtuoso in his own right. The student wants to acquire mastery for himself—to make his own music, to bring his skills to bear in a new way. His goal is not to master a manual (although this may be part of his training), but to become a virtuoso pianist. The excellence of the virtuoso is neither static, nor unintelligent, nor impersonal; it is vibrantly dynamic, intelligent, and personal.
The same is true for virtues—the excellences of the virtuoso in living life well. The courageous person does not follow “rules for courage,” or simply mimic those whose courage he admires. To unreflectively apply “courage routines” to current problems is not courageous, and is likely to result in either rashness or cowardice. The practically wise (or prudent) person’s habits of good living are anything but routine and unreflective. What makes the actions of the wise admirable is not that they are proper or decent (although they might be), but that those actions are creatively and intelligently adapted to changing and sometimes challenging circumstances.
Aristotle’s virtue, defined as embodied excellence, cannot be captured by technocratic planning. This does not mean that virtue can substitute for planning. (I argue that it cannot.) Nevertheless, intelligent planning ought to respect the place of virtue in a flourishing society, and not plan as if virtues were irrelevant.
I found myself nodding along in agreement with Matthew Schmitz’s Back Page essay (“Violent Lessons,” January), until I came to the following statement: “It is no accident that the Holocaust was perpetrated by a vegetarian.”
After reading and rereading that statement, I still can’t make any sense of it. Schmitz seems to suggest that vegetarianism makes a person more likely to commit acts of violent atrocity. What lesson, then, shall we learn from the eating habits of Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and the twentieth century’s many other carnivorous mass murderers (including many Nazis)? Given the fact that there are hundreds of such notorious meat-eaters for every one or so vegetarian, would it not be more logical to say, “It is no accident that [violent atrocity x] was perpetrated by a meat-eater”?
But Schmitz’s statement is not only out of touch with logic and history; it also fails to appreciate the many different reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet. I come from a long line of vegetarians (starting with my grandfather) who chose a meatless diet after studiously assessing its medical benefits. Yet we are conservative, gun-owning, orthodox Catholics. I used my first BB gun to kill squirrels that ate from our avocado trees and rats that inhabited the trash heap. My choice of diet has nothing to do with “becoming sentimental about animals,” and everything to do with what promotes the body’s good health.
Schmitz’s statement seems designed to personally offend vegetarians. If offense was the intent, then mission accomplished. If not, he made a poor choice of words. Either way, his otherwise fine article suffered significantly as a result.
charlotte, north carolina
Matthew Schmitz responds:
As far as I’m concerned, gun-toting, varmint-shooting vegetarians are soldiers in the army of the Lord.