Holding back the forces of chaos
Political theorist Hannah Arendt once said, “Every generation Western Civilization is invaded by barbarians. We call them children.” Raising my first-born, who’s now four years old, I see the wisdom in this statement. I love my little girl to death and admire her resilience, intelligence, memory, empathy, and creativity, but toddlers do not know best. We talk to her about eating her vegetables, about making good decisions, about using gentle, loving hands, about eating her vegetables, about saying ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’, about eating her vegetables…We have to repeat these things over and over because good behavior isn’t natural, and in fact, is learned rather slowly. The natural state of humanity is barbarism not civility, played out in countless poor choices.
But make no mistake, I understand that she is learning things all the time, good and bad. It’s amazing to be able to see clearly how at one moment she doesn’t know something, then all of a sudden she does. Being able to control her limbs, to walk, to say common words, to answer abstract questions, to manipulate the environment around her.
One difficult concept to accept is that even as her parents, even as the most influential people in her life, my wife and I are not her sole source of information. I can’t begin to imagine the way outside forces will influence her as she grows up. Outside forces, or to use a better term, institutions, aren’t just going to teach her pieces of information, they are going to teach her how to live.
We are all affected by institutions. School, work, family, church, neighborhood, government, coffeehouses, bars, libraries...Any place where we gather with people, we have the makings of an institution which can influence how we live. There is a really great book about this called A Time to Build, by Yuval Levin. His thesis is that the major institutions in our society like education, media, or government have abandoned their role as formative powers, choosing instead to be performative forces bent on self-aggrandizement. Self-centeredness is a reversion to our barbaric origins. Absent institutions that unify, individuals in a society resort to the tribes who we think can best fight for our own interests.
I think a lot about institutions when I look at the musical form Theme and Variations. Mozart wrote a set of variations on the tune we know as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. You don’t have to listen to more than 90 seconds to understand what’s going on. We hear the melody, simple and straightforward. Then we hear it, in full, with adornment. Then we hear it again, embellished in a different way. Theme and Variations is exactly what it sounds like–a melody, presented again and again in a new light, showing off the composer’s imagination.
Bach’s most famous set of variations is colloquially known as the Goldberg Variations. With 30 variations, this work can run from 40 minutes in length to well over an hour, and it’s taken on a mythical status in the piano repertoire. It starts off with a beautiful tune, full of subtle polyphony; it has all the hallmarks of Bach’s style. Just listen to the first minute or two.
One could expect similar variations of the tune as you hear in the Mozart example above: iteration after iteration of the melody, audible, yet fancied up in new and creative ways.
But Bach often stood as an iconoclast; he always built upon the best. So while this is a set of variations, he doesn’t write what we expect. Just listen to the second time marker in the video above, at 4:27. The melodic theme is completely absent upon hearing this, the first of the variations. And the second, and the third. It takes a trained, musical ear, and even then, a primed and prepared one, to figure out what’s going on. Bach isn’t varying the melody, he’s varying the bass line of the theme. Our ears naturally do not focus on the bass because it’s lower in pitch. But of the 30 variations, none feature the melody, the highest pitches in the theme, yet all are strategically governed by the same bass-line progression.
This a compositional contradiction here: by imposing a severe limitation on himself, creating variations on a patently unobvious theme, he gives himself the chance to be even more creative than a standard Theme and Variations. Instead of having to vary the same melody over and over, he draws upon every style and genre in his arsenal, such that each variation lacks an obvious relationship to the last, yet each is ruled by the same fundamental harmonic progression and lengths of phrase. Listeners marvel at the Goldberg Variations not only because it’s a thrilling musical journey– and you never know where it’s going to go next–but because he achieves this incredible variety through incredible sameness.
When I think about Theme and Variations, I imagine the different institutions we are a part of. The theme represents one individual soul, the constant that ties it all together, and each variation is a picture of the different roles, character traits, and responsibilities we take on in our lives. The variety therein reflects the institutions which have formed us. If institutions neglect their formational role and choose to perform for their own acclaim, corruption looms. Instead of having ties that bind, poisoned seeds remain.
I couldn’t help thinking about this when I listened to the podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Corrupt intent or not, the journalism here convinced me like nothing else how easily a pure and holy institution can turn rotten. Living in a fallen world, living in a world where we wait for redemption, the greatest intentions can turn from formative to performative. Performing for our own glory/sustenance/survival is our natural state.
I was reminded of this when reading Peter’s epistles. Jesus’ foremost disciple wrote to a group of believers whose faith was being tested by heretical forces. As they await for Jesus to return, they are tempted to turn away from the faith that they knew. “For this very reason,” Peter tells them
make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:5-8
Both letters speak in great detail about maintaining holiness while waiting. I like this list because it gives you something to do. Pursue these things and you’re re-grounding yourself in Jesus. Maintaining, whether faith or institutions, need not be a stagnant thing, there are always traits and qualities to increase.
Bach, and his Goldberg Variations, play this out in musical form. Every note that Bach wrote is grounded in the bass-line of the original theme. It’s precisely the variety of each subsequent variation that corresponds to Peter’s list. In seeking out mastery of style after style, using every ‘trick in the book’ as it were, Bach shows his faithful pursuit of excellence, all rooted to one source. The result is incorruptible, holy music.
May we do the same in our lives. Even when tested, even when stressed, we can pursue excellence. Rooted in Jesus, we can build up and form those around us and hold the chaos the world seeks to impose by:
pursuing goodness to people and creation,
gaining knowledge of the world around us,
practicing containment and self-control,
learning patience and waiting, and
treating others with godliness, affection and love.
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