This morning I am watching the sky over Athens, Greece, as a new day brightens this fascinating city.
Yesterday, Pat and I toured the Acropolis, a mountaintop collection of ancient Greek temples. Greeks of 2500 years ago believed in a multiplicity of gods who were contending with each other for power.
I woke up thinking about their pantheon of many gods, and how different that belief is from my Christian faith in One God.
Believing in one God means the world is in divine harmony, because God made the world the way it is supposed to be. This belief enables me to reconcile the obvious contradictions of good and evil in this world.
The pagan religion, it seems to me, does not enable a believer to adequately find true harmony in this world, because all the “gods” or forces of nature or spiritual forces, are contending with each other. Therefore there is no ultimate reconciliation of good vs. evil.
Is the universe in harmony with itself, or not?
So this morning I am considering this idea of harmony, or not-harmony. Is the world humming along in a harmony that was coded into it by a Creator? Or is it just a bunch of god-wannabe forces working against each other?
Just looking around in the world as it presently exists, it seems more like the latter.
Being a musician, I began to consider musical harmony. Think about the perfection that Mozart manifested in his symphonies and sonatas. Lots of harmony and perfect precision there. It’s nice to listen to, and very impressive. But I prefer the dynamic, existential dissonance of Beethoven’s music. Why is that?
Is there something about the dis-harmony, or dissonance, that is more appropriate, or more true, than appreciating a harmony that doesn’t really exist?
But let me go back a little further in musical time that Mozart and Beethoven.
Harmony and dissonance in music go back further than those two geniuses.
A half a century or so before them were Bach and Vivaldi.
Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi were able to appropriate old modes and melodies that had been floating around since ancient (Greek, Indo-European, etc) times, and weave them into intricately constructed masterpieces of musical construction.
Bach was a pioneer in this; he was a genius. He experimented with the ancient Greek modes, blending them with tuneful elements of his own Germanic heritage to produce new inventions of musical expression that had never been heard, or even dreamed of, before. In fact, a series of his compositions are called “inventions.” They are carefully constructed, in almost the same sense that the later sound-generating machines of Edison, Bell, or Marconi came to be known, in the late 1800s, as “inventions.”
While Bach was the master inventor of the new (what we call baroque) music, Antonio Vivaldi was, during that same period, the grand master of musical passion. His universally popular “Four Seasons” (my all-time favorite) violin concertos express a level of instrumental virtuosity that surpass, by their emotional intensity, Bach’s work, which is more cerebral or scientific.
Of course Bach had his emotions going hard-at-it too, but in a very different–what we might call a “German”–way. While Vivaldi was. . . from Venice. And. . . well, you know how Italians are, very expressive. (This all goes back, metaphorically, to the Greeks and Romans.)
Bach and Vivaldi were analogous to the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of their age.
Just as Bach had propelled the world into totally new forms of music in the 1700s, Bill Gates, working in the late 1900s, wove computer software into a whole new world of innovative technology.
Just as Vivaldi had propelled the violin, oboe and other instruments into unprecedented explorations of emotional catharsis, so did Steve Jobs, by his unpredictable innovations make computers “sing.”
While Bach was carefully constructing, on his keyboards, inventions of technical music wonder, Vivaldi was making the world ring, and sing, with creative passion.
There were others, of course, of that age: Telemann, Corelli, Pachelbel. Many great musicians during the baroque.
Then along came a prodigy: Mozart. He cranked out one masterpiece after another, and made it seem as simple as breathing. In Amadeus, music found its highest possible level of precise perfection.
Even so, listening to a meticulously perfect Mozart symphony or sonata does not pack the dynamic crescendo that would soon arrive under the masterful musical poetry of Ludwig von Beethoven.
What Bach did with the keyboard was raw creative genius, honed into exquisite constructions of sound. It is similar to what Gates did with software.
What Vivaldi did with instruments–violin, oboe–was pure passionate profundity, similar to what Jobs did with (what used to be called the computer) Apple.
Now, how did I, watching the day dawn in Athens, arrive at all this rumination about Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Gates and Jobs?
I don’t know. How irresponsible of me.
I began this inharmonic quest about two hours ago with intentions that were totally different from what this essay has become. While watching a new day brighten the sky over Athens, I had an idea about the difference between paganism–belief in multiple gods or forces of nature that are contending with each other–and Christianity, which eventually dominated Greek (and European) culture. Having toured the Acropolis yesterday, I was considering all the huge architectural structures that the ancients had constructed here in Athens.
Those Greeks, and later the Romans, of ancient times seem to have been highly motivated with memorializing their devotion to a pantheon of many gods, mostly Athena and Zeus. They did so by building very large structures of architectural precision and grandiosity. I’m quite amazed, but there’s something missing here.
Then a Hebrew teacher named Paul came to Athens. He saw all their temples and memorials devoted to the gods, and promptly proclaimed to them otherwise:
This pantheon, or multiplicity, of forces you are worshipping– I have to break it to ya– are not
truly gods. Rather, those entities are merely elemental forces in nature, and all of them subservient in power to One God:
YWHW, who sent his son to show us how to live and die.
What an innovator that Paul was. What followed is history, as Christian Europe would attest for the next 1900 years or so.
However, methinks some consequence, yet hanging in the world, shall bitterly begin with this year’s contentions.