Monday, August 12, 2013

A Slight Detour

Here’s the gist of questions recently raised. Why are you telling these old stories now? Why are you stuck in the past when there are so many more relevant problems and questions facing the church? One answer is that, the mission of the church was understood in various ways by leaders in the Hungarian Reformed Church back in the 1940s and 1950s. Those differences had an impact on the lives of the men and women whose stories will be told in following blog posts. I wonder how different understandings of the church's mission and the relationship of church and state affect us today. Reflecting on my own story has also helped me understand my own extended journey. Here's how it began.

At My Childhood Home

Mom & Dad & Four Sisters
Voices drifted up through the register that allowed only a whiff of heat to seep through to the second story of our old brick farmhouse. One time, lying still and silent, spying on the adults, I heard the hushed voices of my father’s visitors telling of water torture and bamboo slipped under the nails of Christians in China. During other visits, short films flickered in the dark, revealing atrocities in China and Russia.

Exposure to these reports made me realize that the cornfields surrounding our house were no protection, and fearing that enemy paratroopers had silently drifted down during the night, I often fell asleep filled with quiet terror. Born at the end of World War II, I came to consciousness hearing stories of tanks capable of crushing buildings bigger and stronger than our brick farmhouse. Undoubtedly, the images of Communist atrocities merged in my mind with World War II mayhem and created a monster more fearful than wild things of children’s books.

The big bad wolf of my nightmares would not be stopped with bricks and sturdy wooden doors. Sometimes imagining bamboo slivers under my nails, I would fall asleep begging God to fix the world and protect my nails. And so I made a kind of treaty. Remembering my mother’s assurance that God would never give me more than I could bear, I promised to bear as long as my courage held up. When faced with bamboo slivers, I was quite sure, though, that I would deny him, but I would not mean it. This fear haunted my childhood. We worried about bomb shelters and radiation sickness, and wondered whether we would be able to keep family secrets if faced with diabolical Communist inquisitors.
Catherine, Marilyn, Cathy Weber &
 me with my brothers Jim and Sam

Then, with the 1956 revolution, Hungary joined our family’s prayer list. My father was appalled when the United States and other western countries seemed to look the other way, having calculated that the cost of defeating the Soviet Union was more than their weakened economies and war-tired citizens could endure. And so despite its efforts to slip from under Communism, Hungary, like other Eastern Bloc countries, fell more firmly under the control of Moscow. Though stories of barbarism leaked out, it seems that we, the West, found it convenient and useful to ignore them.

The Wisdom of the Young

During my high school and early college years, touched and energized by the Civil Rights movement, I signed on for justice. We opened our ears to the cries of the poor, hopefully singing “We shall overcome somedaaaaay,” wanting to believe that if we looked long enough and deeply enough into our essential human nature, we would find the answer to peace in our time. In an effort to free ourselves from the rigid morality that circumscribed our lives and stunted our creativity, we opened our hearts and minds to different political systems and different cultures. We sang. “Oh Freedom,” trusting that we would truly become one world singing in perfect harmony.

Oddly enough, I could hear the cries coming from Latin America and South Africa, but could not really listen to reports of torture coming from Romania and the Ukraine. Because Communist ideology promised a world of bounty for all, we could barely hear stories of Romanian refugees in our churches and communities. We wanted to believe that in search of a better omelet, only a few eggs would be broken. For many young Christians, it was appealing to embrace a system that promised equality and justice for all, and we heard the words of Jesus confirming our beliefs. By demythologizing the monster, I had defined away the source of childhood fear and recreated it as savior.

Over the years, my father’s discussion mode softened and was not as harsh as when we carried on ferocious arguments during the 1960s and 1970s. But as his death approached in 1984, he gloomily predicted a future swamped by relativism, dulled to the lowest common denominator, run by faceless, spineless bureaucrats, awash in materialism, and lacking in the moral underpinnings necessary for genuine charity. He had faith that God was in control and that Christ had won the victory over sin and death, but if I had to place him somewhere on the Already/Not yet spectrum, he would certainly have landed squarely in the Not yet camp.

Like many others, I wanted to believe that the already encompassed the political liberation underway in Europe, and if somehow they could just get it right, the system would work and God’s kingdom would come in our time.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

So What's with the Genevan Psalter?

Back in Debrecen, I had been advised to look for Dr. Istvan Almasi, a musicologist well-acquainted with the Genevan Psalter. It was not difficult to find him, generous with his knowledge and gracious with his opinions. Below are some excerpts from a refreshing interview.

Dr. Istvan Almasi, Musicologist – Kolosvar (Cluj Napoca)
June 9, 2003

When I described the first part of the project, to collect testimonies and record psalm singing, he smiled and nodded, but when I suggested the possibility of creating a new version of the Psalter, he was adamantly opposed to what he described as yet another attack on the Psalter. I explained the position that a new, updated version would attract a new, younger audience. He willingly explained his.
Farkas Utca Church, Kolozsvar, Romania

"The 1607 Molnar translation of the psalms was a wonderful gift along with the original melodies and rhythms. However, especially in Transylvania, the Psalter was a victim of theological and social trends. Enlightenment thinking, rationalism, greatly affected the church. Whether related to this trend or to a reaction to it, I am not certain, but in the 1777 Kolosvar edition of the Psalter, the number of psalms was first reduced, and the last full Debrecen edition was published in 1778. By the end of the 19th century, only forty psalms remained in the Transylvanian Psalter."

What Happened?

"In reaction to the Enlightenment, Renewal trends stemming from the Pietistic movement swept through the church bringing with it a whole host of Anglo-Saxon hymns and songs. The melodies of these new songs were much easier to sing than the more complicated, modal music of the Genevan Psalms. Many of the tunes were profane, that is, popular music sometimes from bars and dance halls. It was the music of the people. The effect of this music was to dramatically change the taste in church music."

If the music tastes had changed so much, did the remaining 40 Genevan tunes play a role in the preservation of faith?

 “You may be absolutely certain that the singing of the Psalms did help preserve faith during the Communist era!” Although there were only forty psalms left, they were well-used!"

How was the church affected by Communism?

"Although there were some people of strong character who resisted Communism and remained faithful, many more succumbed to the fear and pressure, either leaving the church altogether or collaborating with the state." In his opinion, the assertion that the pressure of Communism strengthened the church does not reflect reality. "Communism was a disaster for the spiritual life of the people, for the church, and for society in general. During that period, lacking pastors, many congregations faltered."

Can you tell me more about the history of the Genevan Psalter in Hungarian Reformed Churches?

Farkas Utca Church, Kolozsvar, Romania

"The scales, modes, moved from the large 6th interval of the Dorian scale to the reduced Aeolian scale." He sang the changes. "In 1542 the first edition, Bourgeois tunes appeared, followed by Goudimel’s harmonies in 1556. Those harmonies were brought to the Hungarian Reformed Church by Marothi and have been used in the village of Szaszcsavas for 200 years."

He attributed the practice of slowly singing the psalms in unison and without the original rhythms to the poor training of cantors and the low level of general musical instruction. The introduction of the organ also played a part in the demise of good psalm singing. Because organists were often poorly trained, they slowed down to pick out the notes; the congregations slowed down as well.

"Though this psalm singing may be ugly to the trained musician’s ear, it is sung from the heart. I am happy to
be among such singers and to worship with them even if their singing is not perfect rhythmically or in beautiful harmonies." He noted that in Hungary, mid-20th century musicians attempted to restore the integrity of the Genevan Psalter resulting in some positive changes.

How would you describe the Reformed heritage? 

It is purely a matter of dogmatics and theology. Any attempt to assign cultural baggage to being Reformed is utter nonsense.

I have heard several people, especially here in Transylvania, describe their reformed identity in cultural and even ethnic terms. Can you help me understand this?   

It is a historical matter. Hungary became largely Protestant as a result of the Reformation. During the 17th century Counter-reformation, the Roman Catholic Habsburgs, Austrians, tried to crush this threat to their authority and waged war on Protestant Hungarians. This is when the political and ethnic content joined the religious definition. In Transylvania Hungarians who were anti-Habsburg were also anti-Catholic and thus considered Reformed. Existing as an oppressed minority has reinforced this understanding of being Reformed.

What Do You Think? Two Versions of Psalm 25

In all the documentation of our interview project ten years ago, I called it The Psalm Project. When the Dutch Psalm Project came to Calvin College a couple of years ago, I was immediately drawn to the name. At the same time I remembered Dr. Almasi’s exclamation that such a project would be an attack on the Psalter. He also said, “Music has the power to capture and transform in a way that no other medium can. Teaching the psalms to children depends on the love for the psalms and the ability to lead them to Christ.” Maybe that's the key.

Below are links to two recordings of Psalm 25, a contemporary one by The Psalm Project performed at Calvin College. The other is by Ernst Stolz, a Dutch musician who responded to a hearer's lament that the psalms should be sung by advising all listeners to sing in their own languages. Sing along if you like.

1. The Psalm Project’s Psalm 25. If you would like to hear more, search for them on YouTube.

2. Psalm 25 from the Genevan Psalter  (Ernst Stolz) Search for his name on YouTube to find many nice recordings of early music.