CD Review: St Luke Passion (Bach)

This would have to be one of the more bizarre CDs that I own.  Very briefly, the St Luke Passion refers to the two chapters in the Gospel of Luke that describe Christ’s trial and death.  When the composer J.S. Bach died, one of his musical manuscripts which survived was a setting of this passion for choir, orchestra and soloists.  Half of it was written in Bach’s handwriting, the other half in his son’s.

Now, most people are familiar with Bach’s St Matthew Passion and his St John Passion as being the only two surviving passions, and this one has long been argued to be written by someone else, but just copied out by Bach because he was interested in it.  So we don’t really know whether it was by Bach or not.

Anyway, this particular passion was picked up in the early part of the 20th century by the composer Carl Orff (most famous for his Carmina Burana).  He had the idea of cutting out most of the part of the piece that weren’t just straight recitative (the story parts).  So apart from a few choruses here and there, most of this is just the straight words of Scripture, with different singers taking each character.

But what makes this so different from the other two real passions of Bach is that Carl Orff’s idea was to add percussion and more orchestration to these recitative parts (which were normally only accompanied by a harpsichord and low strings) to beef them up and make them dramatic.  Sadly, Orff’s version was destroyed in a fire.

So enter Jan Jirasek in the early 90s, now the third composer to be involved.  He went along and completed the piece, in line with Orff’s idea.

So what you end up with a piece that sounds as if it should be Bach, but with all sorts of bizarre touches (mainly percussion) thrown in.  However, oddly enough, it works really well, and I think both Bach lovers and people who like things a bit more modern could happily live with both.

Most importantly, from a Christian point of view, nothing detracts from the story being told – if nothing else, it becomes more dramatic.

4 1/2 out of 5.

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Review: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (Jonathan Edwards)

I had long heard of this sermon, and had a little booklet containing the text of it lying around at home, but it was only recently that I finally got around to reading it.

Jonathan Edwards is a name that is becoming more familiar in Christian circles now (especially with the work of John Piper to keep reminding us).  Edwards was an American preacher in the 1700s.  Under his preaching (and others), America saw its first great revival.  One of the most legendary of these revival sermons was this one, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  It was renowned because of the effect it had on its audience.

Listeners writhed in anguish.  Some fainted.

I didn’t quite faint, but then again, I am a Christian.  The sermon is quite to the point for the non-Christian: you are only ever a split second away from Hell.  You may think you’re young and healthy, but there are a million ways that young and healthy people can die, and when you do, if you’re not a Christian, you’re going straight to Hell.

Expand that out, with some of the most extravagant language used to describe Hell, and you have a sermon that would have been fairly chilling to an audience of the time.

The most interesting thing that I found about this sermon was how markedly different the style of preaching was back then compared to now.  I’ve grown up getting used to expositional preaching, where the preacher explains what the Scriptures mean (and usually keeps pretty closely to the text).  In fact, preachers who take one verse and then run off on tangents are usually regarded with a bit of suspicion because they’re not really preaching the Bible.

But in this sermon, Edwards, takes a handful of verses and runs with them for what must have been at least an hour.  In fact, the sermon is so strongly designed to scare that I think we’d be horrified at any minister that dared to preach it now.

I’m at a loss to know how to review something like this, because, despite the huge difference in style: 1) Edwards’ point about the reality of judgment is correct (just because we don’t like talking about it, doesn’t make it go away) and 2) many people became Christians because of that sermon and his ministry.

So are we too soft nowadays?  I don’t know.  What do you think?

Book Review: Family-Based Youth Ministry (Mark DeVries)

Rachel and I are about to get involved with the youth ministry at our church, and so for that reason, we used it as an excuse to read this book that I’d been hearing about for a long time.

To sum it up very briefly, Mark DeVries’ take on youth ministry is that it does the church a great disservice because it separates young people from older Christian adults (especially their parents) and creates a subculture.  Then, when young people are too old for youth group, they don’t seem to fit into the church.

This is an idea I was fairly comfortable with, for no other reason than the Bible doesn’t really speak much about Sunday School and youth group, but it does speak a lot about parents training their children and older people training younger people.  So I think, just on the Bible along, you could mount a case for this type of ministry.

Oddly enough, DeVries doesn’t spend so much time building the case from Bible verses, but instead from a massively researched bunch of case studies, psychological studies, etc that demonstrate what is going on in youth culture, what happens when we make gaps between older and younger people, the impact of parents and mentors on kids’ faith, etc.  It’s fascinating stuff, and I think it really backs up what the Bible would have said all along.

The main dilemma with this book is that if you’re looking for a youth group system (ie – “Meet this week, do this study, then do this activity”), you’re not going to find it.  They have some suggested parent/young people activities in the back of the book and some studies that can be done with adults and children together, but on the whole, there’s no set system.  In fact, there’s an appendix that lists a summary of nineteen different models of youth group, just to give you an idea of what’s out there.

But for stimulating ideas and thinking, this book is well worth the read.

4 out of 5.

Film Review: Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

The thing that this film has left me pondering is this – why do we like to be horrified? Why do we like to spend time considering the bad things that happen in this world? It’s not just a matter of horror and gore, either. A Shakespearean tragedy or the vast majority of operas may not have buckets of blood, but we know from the moment it starts that everything’s going to go pear-shaped and that most of the main characters will end up dead.

So why on earth do we go and watch these things?

I’m still shaping my opinion on such things, and everybody will have a different answer. But I believe, first and foremost, it’s because horror is a reality check on the existence of evil. Over the last couple of decades (if not centuries), more and more, things that were considered wrong and offensive have become permissible in our society. Almost all forms of sex are acceptable. Divorce is not a big thing any more. Nobody really cares about swearing any more. With the “death of God”, a lot of things that were morally acceptable went out in society.

But all of us know, deep down, that there are rights and wrongs. There are some things that are so horrendously and obviously wrong, that they stand out in our mind like a freak of nature. And the fact that they are so blatantly wrong and horrible stirs us. It causes a reaction in us. A hundred years ago, it would have been scandalous for someone to leave their spouse. Now we wouldn’t batter an eyelid. But something like a serial killer or a cannibal – that still horrifies us and causes a strong reaction in us.

It is in this area of the strong reaction that the horror genre exists. I think most people who don’t like horror – and I can understand their reasons for not liking it – have a suspicion that people who like horror are somehow sick or like dwelling on unpleasantness. I don’t think that’s the case. The reason horror fans like their horror is because it causes a reaction. In the same way, a happy film makes the feel-good filmgoer feel all happy, in the same way the romantic comedy gives the romance-lover a mushy glow, the horror film causes a reaction in the watcher.

However, it needs to be understood, especially from a Christian point of view, that the level of horror of a particular story is really only relative to our perception of what is horrible before we go in. As I’ve said in previous posts, one of the problems I have is that the things that used to be perceived as horrible are now starting to become mainstream. For instance, when Saving Private Ryan premiered, no one had ever seen a war film that featured intestines hanging out, and limbs blown off. Steven Spielberg did this for shock value – and it worked. It was shocking.

But now this kind of thing is kind of mainstream. The most classic example is the recent 300. Here, decapitations and bloodletting are just portrayed as part of the action of war – and dwelt on so much that it’s quite clear that the filmmakers think it’s a bit of fun – and so do their audiences. If we were to watch Saving Private Ryan now, I think we’d find it a much tamer film, with a lot of its shock robbed from it.

So the only thing really left to horror filmmakers nowadays is to find new and more bizarre spins on gore, or to content themselves with the old trick that never fails – have a really quiet moment of suspense, followed by a horrific “jump” moment. Sadly, these gimmicks, while semi-effective at freaking audiences out, cannot replace what is at the heart of horror – a moral compass carried around internally by the viewer that recognises the horror of evil.

Anyway, I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think it’s important to preface why it is that viewers (and Christians are no exception) find films that deal with dark and nasty topics (like Sweeney Todd) so fascinating to watch. It’s an interesting one, because if you look at most Christian reviewers, they’re caught in a bind: as Christians, nearly all the events in this film (and other horror stories) are completely morally reprehensible, so from a moral viewpoint, there’s no good behaviour to commend in this film. And yet, they find themselves absolutely fascinated by the story. A classic example is to look at this page of reviews on ChristianAnswers.net. You’ll notice that all of the reviewers said that the film was morally offensive (if not extremely offensive) as far as content went, and yet all their reviews of the film were positive.

Are they all sick? Of course not. The story is designed to be well told and to get a response from them – while at the same time, the filmmakers would agree with the audiences that the events it portrays are morally offensive.

So while some Christians might consider this a problem, to my mind, I think it would really be horrible if we saw this film and actually thought that everything that Sweeney gets up to is perfectly acceptable. (Which is why I got far more up in arms about the recent A History of Violence, where revenge killing is portrayed as an acceptable way of handling violence.) However, that said, some people are quite happy to avoid all thoughts of things dark and horrible, and I can understand that as well. The point is the maintenance of the moral compass by the audience and the filmmaker, not of the particular events that are being portrayed.

Prologue over, I’ll briefly talk about the film. For those of you who don’t know yet, Sweeney Todd (sung by Johnny Depp) is a barber who returns from London after years abroad. He was sent away 15 years earlier by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who wanted him out of the way so that he could make a move on his wife.

Sweeney comes back to his old home, above the pie shop of Mrs Lovett (makers of “the worst pies in London”), only to find his wife killed herself years ago and his daughter (now 15) lives with the Judge as his ward. Sweeney vows revenge and pulls out his old silver razor blades with thoughts of doing more than shaves. However, after disposing of someone else in a particularly nasty way, he and Mrs Lovatt see that they might be able to help each other out. He will kill people (only those with no families or relatives to trace them) and she will grind them up to give her meat for her pies.

And did I mention that all of this is done as a musical? Stephen Sondheim’s music, which I’ve never found particularly hummable, is nonetheless very clever and certainly gives an added flair to this story than would otherwise be there. Sometimes, the music is darkly in tune with the scenes, sometimes working in opposite directions, giving it a brilliant feel of irony.

And with Burton’s trademark “darkly beautiful” look, everything looks picture-perfect and dark. In fact, almost too dark on the print I was watching, which I felt was especially dark. But then maybe it was planned that way. Certainly, the almost monochrome look of the film works brilliantly because whenever we see blood (as demonstrated in the memorable opening credits) and when the first murder occurs (and the musical and the film both string this out with a very long buildup), the red is quite striking. In fact, red and black are the colours you’ll remember most from this film. And gory as all this is, the finale takes it all to spectacular new levels.

Just in case you think it’s all mindless gore set to music, I should say that the term “musical thriller” is apt, and there is actually a very clever storyline here at the same time. We soon realise that Sweeney is far more than a distraught husband and father out to fix up his life. Revenge utterly consumes him. The young man (whose name I forget) who accompanies him to London on the boat, meets Sweeney’s daughter and spends all his screen time in the film trying to rescue her. Sweeney, meanwhile, despite knowing that she is alive, never seems to care. He just wants to kill the Judge.

And, in this story, where the only authority figures are corrupt, the only justice and retribution in this story is going to be dished out by circumstances. And so ultimately the end is satisfying (but very dark).

As my 70-something uncle (who accompanied me on this movie trip) said afterwards, “It was good music. And I liked all the blood.” I don’t think I could say much more.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The New Strategic Selling (Stephen Heiman & Diane Sanchez)

Now this book actually is worth the read, especially if you sell to big companies.  I wish I’d had this book back when I was working in the property statistics market.  While I wasn’t strictly a salesperson, I was responsible for looking after a salesperson, and I often went on sales calls with him.

We’d rock up at these companies, do a big pitch for how great our software was.  They’d give us a noncommittal answer, and then we’d never hear back from them again.  Or, when we tried to chase them up, we’d hear that, “They’re still thinking it over.”

Or worse yet, after six months of, “They’re still thinking it over,” we ‘d hear that the one person we knew in the company had moved on.

If only I’d had this book.

This book contains nothing about what it calls sales tactics, which is what to say when you’re in a room with somebody making a sales call.

Instead, it’s all about sales strategy – working out what you’re trying to achieve to move your sale forward.

And the genius of this system is that it deals with the logistics of the Complex Sale – a sale where there are multiple decision-makers

There are many great nuggets of wisdom in this very clearly laid-out book, but the most amazing one to me is the concept of Buying Influences.  The four groups of people that will influence whether you make the sale or not.

The four are:

The Economic Buyer – the person (or persons) who actually sign off on the money.  They probably won’t care about the bells and whistles, but they’ll want to know whether your product will be good for the bottom line of the company.  Even if everybody else is keen on your product, this person can say no.

The User Buyer – There’s usually multiples of this character.  This is everybody who will actually use the object or process that you’re selling.  They won’t sign off on the money, but they’ll all have an opinion on whether your stuff is good or not.

The Technical Buyer – This is the gatekeeper, designed to screen out salespeople on technicalities.  (In the sponsorship world, these guys are the sponsorships managers – trained and ready to read and reject a sponsorship proposal in 7 seconds.)

And, finally, the one I’m not entirely sure about whether I believe in or not:

The Coach – The person who wants you to make the sale and will guide you to all the right people that you need to talk to and give you the information you need to make the sale.

I’m not convinced on this one, probably because I’ve never had a coach on any large account that I’ve been working on.  But then again, I was lamenting my misfortune at the beginning of this post, so maybe that’s why.  Also, I can’t remember too many salespeople telling me about having a friendly person on the inside that helped them make the sale.  But then again, maybe they have.

Anyway, I’ll stop there, before I cause any more boredom in the non-sales readership of this blog.  But seriously, if you’re selling to big companies, this book has so much useful information and will give you such a clear sense of purpose on what to do in the large sale that it’s really worth it’s weight in gold.

5 out of 5.