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Archive for January 2020

The Piano

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When I am stuck in writing a book, when I am stuck in a problem in life, if I go to the piano and play Bach for an hour, the problem is usually either resolved or accepted. I find, as I grow older, that I turn less to the romantics and more to the baroque composers, though they’ve always been my favorites. In college I asked if I could learn something with more feeling in it, and my professor gave me some Chopin. What I had really been wanting, of course, was Bach.

And I did, years earlier, discover counterpoint for myself. We were visiting my grandmother in the South. What I remember most about her big old house was that there was a small conservatory, always green-smelling and warm, and that there were birds in it; and I remember her white, cluttered bedroom, off which was a screened sleeping porch entirely surrounded by trees covered with Spanish moss and filled with the singing of birds; and I remember the music room, with double doors leading to the living room. I spent a lot of time there, the doors closed, and one evening after dinner I was leafing through some old music and came across a rondeau by Rameau. I hadn’t been taking piano lessons for more than a year or so, and I will never forget the shock of joy with which I heard my left hand repeating what my right hand had been doing, heard both hands together, one starting the melody, the second coming in with it: the feeling of discovery, of sheer bliss, is still vivid.

Here in Crosswicks we have my mother’s piano. It is older than I am, has become difficult to tune, is not always predictable. Keys stick. Notes do not always sound when struck. When we moved back to New York for the winters it was clear that the piano would not stand another transition. In any case, we did not want to empty the house completely; it still had to be Crosswicks.

For a while we lived in a lovely but almost empty apartment. My mother came up from the South to visit, and one day she said, “You do miss a piano, don’t you?” Yes, I did. Desperately. We kept our eyes and ears open for a second-hand piano, and eventually found one which Mother bought for me. It was not a great piano, but neither am I a great pianist. For a good many years it was perfectly adequate. Then it got to the point where the bass sounded dead and the treble sounded tinny, and tuning didn’t help at all.

One evening we were at Tallis’s for dinner. The friend who had cashed Emily Brontë’s check and I were with him out in the kitchen. Hugh was coming up after rehearsal; had he been there he probably would have shut me up, but I was beefing about the piano, and said, “If one of your ritzy friends is breaking up a big house and wants to dispose of a piano, I’m in the market.”

The following Sunday after church we were again up in Tallis’s apartment, and he staggered us by announcing, “Madeleine, I’ve decided to give you my piano.”

Hugh’s response was, “You can’t! Where will you put your pictures?” For the top of the piano was covered with dozens of photographs—friends, godchildren, people from all over the world, famous and infamous, majah, minah . . .

The piano is a Steinway grand. It came to Tallis from Austin Strong, the playwright. It has been played by Paderewski and Rachmaninoff. It has also almost undoubtedly been played by my mother, though none of us knew this at the time. Austin Strong was a friend of my father’s; they were of the same generation, and they saw each other weekly at the Players Club. My mother was a splendid pianist, and one of my earliest memories is hearing her run through an opera score while friends from the Met stood around the piano and sang.

The piano is now in our living room in New York. Tallis quite often remarks that things know where they belong. And The Piano is quite definitely an icon. I am convinced that the fact that Paderewski and Rachmaninoff have played it affects my own playing; the first night it was in our apartment I took my bath while Hugh walked the dogs, but instead of going to bed, I wrapped myself in a huge towel and, unable to resist, went to the piano. When Hugh came in he began to fumble with the dials on the radio-phonograph control, which are out in the hall by the front door. “What are you doing?” I asked him. He answered in surprise, “Are you playing? I thought it was WQXR.” Such was the effect of The Piano.

Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, 165-167

Written by Scott Moonen

January 27, 2020 at 7:06 pm

Posted in Books, Music, Quotations


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In Galatians 5, Paul presents a list of the “works of the flesh” followed, and contrasted, by the “fruit of the Spirit.”

Underlying the works of the flesh are fleshly appetites and fleshly strength, what you might call an “arm of flesh” (2 Chron 32:8). Consider how anger functions: we desire personal glory or vindication, and we go to war for it.

The fruit of the Spirit does not exist in a sphere apart from appetite or apart from strength. Rather, it grows out of spiritual appetite and spiritual strength. Spiritual appetite desires what is simultaneously true, beautiful, and good (e.g., Philippians 4:8). Spiritual strength is the strength to govern ourselves (self-control) and to die to our selves. Spiritual appetite is superior to fleshly appetite, and spiritual strength is greater than the arm of the flesh (Proverbs 16:32).

Although a spiritual appetite requires us to die to ourselves, we find that it is not just a rejection of our fleshly appetites, but instead is the fulfillment or perfection of what we were seeking. As Lewis says, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Thus, in God, we find not a deprivation of pleasure and glory, but eternal pleasure (Psalm 16:11) and glory. In Jesus, we do not lose our opportunity for vindication, nor do we experience shame; but we find true justification and eradication of shame, so much so that God is proud for us to carry his name (as in Job 1:8) and pledges himself as our own redeemer-avenger (e.g., Romans 12:19).

Written by Scott Moonen

January 27, 2020 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology


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I love Psalm 16:3, the treasuring of God’s people. Here, together with the following verse:

As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. (ESV)

All my delight!

I was a little startled, however, to discover the NET Bible and Robert Alter had a slightly different take (both admitting that the meaning is unclear):

As for God’s chosen people who are in the land, and the leading officials I admired so much—their troubles multiply; they desire other gods. I will not pour out drink offerings of blood to their gods, nor will I make vows in the name of their gods. (NET Bible)

As to holy ones in the land and the mighty who were all my desire, let their sorrows abound—another did they betroth. I will not pour their libations of blood, I will not bear their names on my lips. (Robert Alter)

But upon reflection, these readings are not opposed to one another, and perhaps God has even left it ambiguous on purpose to provoke our reflection. We are to delight in our fellow saints, but equally we are to oppose those who prove to be false.

Written by Scott Moonen

January 25, 2020 at 1:27 pm

Posted in Bible


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Pentecost is the great undoing of Babel, not by reversing it but by subverting it.

There is a way in which the enduring form of Pentecost’s gift of tongues is the speaking and singing of God’s word and worship in every language. James Jordan writes:

The meaning of the Gift of Tongues is this: Formerly, only the Hebrew tongue was a fit vehicle for the Word of God; but now all languages will become fit vehicles for the Word of God. The Spirit will transform all languages and cultures, and over the course of time, they will become increasingly fit vehicles for God’s Word and Kingdom. The . . . Gift of Tongues was a sign to the Jews that this had taken place; indeed, as a judgment on the Jews the gospel was not preached in Hebrew at all. Jews from every nation heard the gospel in their own languages, not in Hebrew or Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic.

Reflecting on this, it strikes me that the Reformation was a new and concentrated Pentecost, a time when both word and worship scintillated into many tongues.

Written by Scott Moonen

January 25, 2020 at 9:36 am

Posted in Miscellany


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In every dimension the liturgy means joy. . . .

Joy is lively. Joy is active. When we rejoice, we don’t mumble or mutter. We shout and sing at the top of our lungs. When we rejoice, we move, clap, sway, dance. Joy doesn’t belong down down down down in my heart. Joy grips my body, my tongue and hands and feet. Clothed in the Spirit, my body rejoices. What should liturgy look like? Don’t think grim and proper Presbyterians. Think African Anglicans. Think Brazilian charismatics. Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t bottle up the joy. . . .

Dismissed from the liturgy, we go out in joy—to find joy in pots and pans, trees and flowers, mountains and sunsets, sleek cars and powerful smart phones, joy in a husband or a wife, children or siblings, friends and neighbors. We find joy in all God’s gifts, which means we find joy in everything because we have nothing we have not received (1 Cor 4:7).

We cannot find joy in abusing his gifts. There’s joy in sex, but no joy in adultery. There’s joy in a family feast, but no joy in a house full of bickering, back-biting, and strife. There’s joy in material goods, but no joy in greed or a life devoted to Mammon. . . .

We enter with joy, receive forgiveness with joy, ascend with joy, hear with joy, feast with joy, depart in joy. The liturgy welcomes the sad, sad world and leads it to the joy of God. The liturgy confronts the false and fruitless joys of the world and reorients them to the One in whom there is fullness of joy. Cultures always aim at joy but miss their target. Over decades and centuries, the liturgy redeems culture by redirecting its quest for bliss. Liturgy redeems because it’s a culture of joy.

Peter Leithart, Theopolitan Liturgy, 106-109

Written by Scott Moonen

January 25, 2020 at 9:20 am

Posted in Quotations, Worship

Worship is warfare (4)

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Music is a militant art. In preparation for the temple, David and the leaders of the army establish a permanent orchestra and choir (1 Chr 25:1). The military’s involvement is noteworthy, a signal that temple music is part of Israel’s arsenal.

Peter Leithart, Theoopolitan Liturgy, 75

See also:

Written by Scott Moonen

January 25, 2020 at 7:26 am

Posted in Quotations, Worship

Glory and beauty

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The skill of the true artist is to show the real in the light of the ideal and so transfigure it.

Roger Scruton, Why Beauty Matters

Written by Scott Moonen

January 25, 2020 at 7:22 am

Posted in Quotations


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Erotic love, in its true inter-personal form, does not belong in the world of contracts and deals. Its foundation is not a contract but a vow. Contracts have terms, and when the terms are fulfilled they are at an end. Vows do not have terms, and cannot be undone by any calculation. The unity created by them is, as Hegel put it (in his discussion of marriage), a ‘substantial unity’: not a unity of purpose or place or pleasure but a unity of being. Lovers dedicate themselves to each other, and it is in part for this reason that they are so much at risk: to place a commission in another’s hands is to risk something; to place yourself in another’s hands is to risk everything.

Roger Scruton, The Ring of Truth. HT: Alan Jacobs

Written by Scott Moonen

January 22, 2020 at 2:52 pm

Posted in Marriage, Quotations

Living faith

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but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.” (Hebrews 10:38 ESV)

The opposite of faith is inactivity. Possibly a bustling inactivity, but inactivity.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:11 ESV)

Written by Scott Moonen

January 20, 2020 at 3:39 pm

Posted in Miscellany

Contentment versus anxiety

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A very useful heuristic, a potent filter: When someone criticizes you, train to immediately ask yourself: “Would I rather be him/her, or I’d rather be me?” before taking the remark at face value. It works wonders.

Nassim Taleb

Written by Scott Moonen

January 20, 2020 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Quotations