Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Some Thoughts About New Orleans

If you read, listen to or watch the news, you're undoubtedly aware of the disastrous recent events which have devastated New Orleans and other cities and towns near the Gulf of Mexico. People will be recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina for a long time to come.

I grew up in Southwest Missouri, but I visited New Orleans back in the '70's, during a trip to Florida with my father and my brother. During that trip, we visited the French Quarter.

New Orleans has contributed a number of positive things to American culture, including its unique cuisine, as well as the style of music known as jazz.

However, what I saw in the French Quarter during my visit to that neighborhood was a cesspool of immorality. For example, posters visible from the street (and therefore visible to any child walking down that street) featured prominent, vulgar photos of strippers, their breasts concealed only by strategically placed stars or "pasties". I was not surprised, therefore, when I later learned about some of the more decadent aspects of Mardis Gras, where female celebrants have been known to parade around topless, and where public drunkenness and loutish behavior are fairly common.

Another well-known aspect of New Orleans culture is the prominent role of "voodoo" in that culture. Whether or not one believes that voodoo rituals have any real power, it is an incontestable fact that voodoo is a pagan religious practice which is incompatible with biblical Christianity.

Some people say that such things are part of what always gave New Orleans its "charm". I guess that's a matter of perspective. I personally don't find it very charming when people thumb their noses at God.

I don't consider myself to be a "prude". I've seen artistic depictions of nudes, and unlike some of my fellow Christians, I don't believe that such subject matter is invariably inappropriate in an artistic context. Nor did Michelangelo believe that that was the case when he painted the famous Biblical scenes on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel.

However, there is a big difference between artistic, tasteful depictions of the unclothed human body and depictions which promote the lowest forms of sensuality, as did the posters I saw in New Orleans.

Other big cities, such as Chicago, also have strip clubs, but most of them display outdoor signs which only vaguely allude to the activities taking place therein. That's true even in Las Vegas, which is nicknamed Sin City for good reason (making it one of my least favorite cities in America). New Orleans, however, seems to have a unique and longstanding tradition of blatant and very public carnality.

None of this, of course, in any way negates the value of the lives of the people living in New Orleans. God loves them all, just as He loves you and me. At the same time, it should be pointed out that God also loved the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, but that love did not prevent him from destroying those ancient cities as punishment for their extreme iniquity. Love and judgment are not mutually exclusive.

Let me acknowledge that morally upright people also suffer during natural disasters. It would be presumptuous and unloving to say, of any individual victim of such a disaster, that that victim was being punished for his or her sins. That might indeed be true in some cases, but only God is in a position to know for sure. There are other possible explanations for why an individual might be the victim of such a disaster.

Moreover, even in situations where people really are being punished for their sins, that fact does not absolve Christians of the moral responsibility to show love, compassion and charity to disaster victims. After all, sinfulness is just a matter of degree. Not one of us can claim to be without sin.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that God has punished cities and even nations for practicing and tolerating ungodly behavior for prolonged periods of time. I suspect that that may have been a factor which led to the current disaster. No doubt, there were also ample environmental reasons which could be cited by meteorologists and other scientists. But it does not follow from the fact that a disaster is partially attributable to natural causes that the disaster was not also God's way of making a point. It is not for nothing that insurance companies often refer to such disasters as "acts of God".

Therefore, while I do sympathize with those who have lost homes, possessions and family members, I can't honestly say that I am eager to see the rebuilding of New Orleans, unless that city demonstrates a willingness to turn over a new leaf and reject the sinful excesses of the past.

Even apart from moral considerations, it seems to me that rebuilding New Orleans would be just plain stupid from a financial point of view.

New Orleans has always been extremely vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding on account of its location in what has been described as a "bowl" surrounded by levees. I'm reminded of Jesus' saying to the effect that wise men do not build their houses on sand. Perhaps there is a connection between New Orleans' obvious rejection of Biblical standards of behavior and its unwise choice to build on land which has always been poorly protected from natural disasters.

If New Orleans is rebuilt, it will be rebuilt with Federal money. That means that every American has a vested interest in how that money is spent. Wouldn't it make more sense to simply declare New Orleans to be a lost cause, and to build a new city further inland, in a place where such disasters are far less likely to occur in the future? Why should Americans from other areas of the country be required to subsidize the stupidity of rebuilding on unsuitable and extremely vulnerable land?

Yes, it's true that when fire destroyed substantial portions of Chicago during the 19th Century, the city was rebuilt bigger and better than ever. But that's comparing apples to oranges. Unlike New Orleans, Chicago was not in an inherently dangerous location. The Chicago Fire was caused by unwise building practices, not by any aspect pertaining to the location itself. Fires still occur in this city sometimes, as they do in any town or city, but modern building codes have substantially reduced the likelihood that another Chicago fire could ever destroy property on a scale comparable to the original Chicago Fire. But it is difficult to conceive of any innovation which would make the original location of New Orleans any less vulnerable to future disasters comparable to Hurricane Katrina.

There are probably those who favor the idea of rebuilding New Orleans itself, in its original location, based on their sentimental attachment to that city. However, the bottom line is that the city (80% of which is currently underwater!) is pretty much destroyed at this point. Even if New Orleans was rebuilt in its original location, most of the old historic buildings would no longer be there. Regardless of where the rebuilding takes place, nothing there will ever be the same.

When I heard that Katrina was headed for New Orleans, I prayed that God would spare as many people as possible, and I wept for the potential victims as I prayed that prayer. I still weep for the victims, and I pray that America will reach out to them with love and compassion. But I also pray that we will learn from the mistakes of the past, and that we will have the wisdom not to repeat those mistakes.

UPDATED COMMENTS AS OF 1/2/2005: My TV has been out of commission for the past couple of months, and I've been too busy with activities pertaining to my search for a new job to read the newspaper very much. I'm not sure what the status is down in New Orleans, in terms of the rebuilding effort.

I suspect, sadly, that people will fail to heed the lessons of the first disaster, and I suspect that they will try to rebuild New Orleans in its original location, even though it will probably cost almost as much money to do that as it would to simply rebuild the city in a new location. It is very much reminiscent of earlier situations in which people, buoyed by Federal dollars, rebuilt their homes in the same flood plains, along the Mississippi, which led to the destruction of their original homes.

I'm a committed Republican, and I'm glad I voted for Bush, but I was disappointed in President Bush's assurances to the effect that we would rebuild the original city, apparently at its original location. He said, in an obvious attempt to placate people angry at him for FEMA's slow response, that an America without a New Orleans was "unimaginable". Even if that's the case, relocating a city to a more sensible location is not tantamount to failing to rebuild the city. The current location of New Orleans is, by the admission of most serious scientists, an environmental disaster site. Destruction of wetlands has prevented natural processes from rebuilding the land which is lost every year due to runoff.

Compassion and common sense are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to show compassion for the people of New Orleans without subsidizing the stupidity of rebuilding the city on the original site.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Brief Introduction to My Visual Art

In addition to my musical talents and interests, which I discussed in my last entry, I am also a photographer and a visual artist. (I create highly realistic stippled pen & ink drawings based on people's portraits, and I also like to create colorful abstract images using Photoshop. In the future, I also hope to create realistic digital paintings using Photoshop, Corel Painter and other programs.)

At the moment, time doesn't permit me to go into great detail in terms of discussing my visual art, but I hope to do so in future blog entries, which will also include samples and (when appropriate) links to my gallery web pages.

Monday, August 22, 2005

My Grand Ambitions

When I was growing up, my parents would often take me to visit my maternal grandparents in St. Louis, on Lawn Avenue, just south of Forest Park and the Planetarium. They lived in the parsonage provided by Barnes Hospital, where my grandfather, George Bowles, served as the Methodist chaplain. It's been many years since I set foot in that house , but I have warm memories from the times I spent there.

My grandmother had a spinet piano in her living room. One day, when I was about nine years old, I sat down at the piano and began to improvise. I'm pretty sure that it sounded horrendous, since I'd had no training at all, but what it lacked in terms of melody and harmony, it made up for in terms of passion! Upon hearing me, my mother decided that it was time to get me enrolled in piano lessons. The following Christmas, I awoke to find a new Story & Clark console piano in the living room. Shortly thereafter, my parents found an elderly, chain-smoking classical piano teacher named Mrs. T.A. Baker, and I began taking lessons with her. (I didn't much care for her smoking habit, but she amply compensated for that deficiency by nurturing my musical potential.) Those first music lessons involved the most incredibly rudimentary melodies one could possibly imagine, but by the time I ended my lessons with her approximately seven years later, I had acquired a great deal of proficiency as a classical piano player. (Later, I studied classical piano, in college, with a Cuban pianist named Luis Rojas, who had performed at Carnegie Hall.)

However, I did not aspire to be a professional classical pianist, even though I loved classical music. My musical aspirations were shaped by other experiences in my life. Specifically, when I was 13 years old, I accepted Christ as my personal Savior. I'd been raised in the Methodist church, but I came to a point in my life where I realized that that wasn't enough. There was a spiritual vacuum in my life, in spite of my efforts to be a good kid, and it had become painfully obvious that I needed divine help. While becoming a Christian wasn't an instant panacea which solved all of my problems, it did help to reverse the downward spiral of my life at that time.

I started high school in 1970. During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I became a part of what became known as the "Jesus movement". I started attending a storefront Christian coffeehouse downtown. Initially, it was known as The Encounter, and about the only person there, other than myself, was the proprietor, who was a student from a local Bible college. Then the place changed hands and changed its name to the New Wine Coffeehouse, and before long, it was the hip place to be on Friday and Saturday nights if you were a young Christian living in or near Springfield, Missouri.

During that time, I began to hear a number of Christian folk-rock singers and groups, and even a rock band or two. Larry Norman, who was to Christian rock what Elvis Presley was to secular rock, performed at the New Wine Coffeehouse. I became a huge fan of his. I also loved it when the E Band, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, came to town. (Greg Volz, the band's lead singer, later spent a number of years as the lead singer for a better-known band named Petra.) During those early years, other seminal contemporary Christian musicians who came to town included Love Song, the Children of the Day, and Andrae Crouch and the Disciples.

As an extension of my passion for my new faith (which also found expression in numerous hours of "street witnessing"), I started writing my own Christian pop songs, during my sophomore year in high school, and I performed on occasions at the New Wine Coffeehouse. I gradually became convinced, on the basis of public reaction to my performances, that this was what I wanted to do for a living once I graduated from high school. I thought that was entirely feasible; after all, others were showing that it was possible to make a living in such a manner.

Little did I know how difficult such a path would prove to be. Many years have passed since that time. I'm now 49 years old, and I still have not even come close to being able to earn a living as a musician, despite commendations from a number of highly respected musicians, both Christian and secular. Yet, I still persist in believing that God has great plans for my music. I would be lying if I said that it had not been extremely frustrating at times. My faith has been severely tried (and, in some cases, found wanting). Yet, I still have a passion for music, and for the God who gave me my musical talents. For some years now, I have focused primarily on instrumental music, particularly music which is influenced by my love for jazz, blues and Latin music, and by my classical music background (although it has been many years since I played real classical music). At present, I am practicing the piano, on a semi-regular basis, at a local church, which has a beautiful Boston grand piano. (Hence the title of this blog entry.) During the past year, I have written several new pieces of instrumental music, which I hope to record soon.

Therefore, I solicit your prayers, if you're reading this entry, and if you believe, as I do, that the world needs more music which promotes truth and beauty, and which is founded on a Biblical worldview. Please pray that I will find the resources I need, both monetary and otherwise, to make my "grand ambitions" a reality.

Friday, August 19, 2005

A Life Worth Living

Welcome to my new blog site. In this initial entry, I hope to introduce myself in a manner which will stir interest in this blog, and which will bring visitors back again and again.

At the risk of sounding pretentious, I'd like to ask a simple question for you to ponder: What makes life worth living? Many factors can influence one's perceptions with regard to that question.

Few reasonable people dispute the notion that life can be more enjoyable when one has an abundance of material things. Most people also desire some measure of power, although the type of power which is desired can vary widely from one individual to the next. Fun experiences can certainly enhance the perception that one's life has been worthwhile. There is nothing inherently wrong with material things, power or pleasure. But none of those things present the entire picture, at least not for people who believe, as I do, that there is one God who created all that there is.

Ultimately, all of our evaluations concerning the value of our own lives and the lives of others are subjective, and potentially misleading. If there is a God, and a forthcoming day of final judgment, then the true value of our individual lives will only be revealed to us on that day. Then God will have the final word. It is likely that most of us will have some surprises waiting for us.

If there is a life after death, then the things which will ultimately determine the value of our lives here on earth are those which will endure even after we have died. Treasures on earth are transient, but treasures in Heaven are eternal. Therefore, those of us who are sufficiently farsighted to care about how we spend eternity try to live our lives in such a way as to make every moment a positive investment in the future. That means trying to live life in a way which is pleasing to God, even if it means that we must sometimes forfeit temporary pleasures we might experience here on earth.

Virtually all of us, including myself, do this imperfectly. Nevertheless, there is value in making an effort. To make a real effort means to consider the consequences of all of our actions, even including such seemingly trivial things as the creation of entries in one's personal blogs.

Of course, when our own efforts fall short (as they often do), God's grace and mercy are available to all who seek those things, and who also meet God's criteria, which have been clearly communicated in many ways, particularly through the revelation of his written word, and through the life and teachings of the incarnate word of God, Jesus Christ.

Of course, these beliefs of mine, while popular in certain circles, are far from universal. It would be folly to pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, every person has certain foundational beliefs, the understanding of which is crucial to an understanding of all other aspects of that person's life. Since this is my first blog entry in this new blog, I feel that it's important to establish the foundation of my life, so that those who read my subsequent blog entries can read them with an understanding of their context.

By its very nature, a blog is an expression of personal opinions. By my very nature, I am human, and therefore fallible. (Some would say extremely fallible!) I don't pretend that the things which I will write in this blog constitute ultimate truth (although I may, from time to time, refer to things which, being of divine origin, do fit that description in my opinion). Nevertheless, for what it's worth, I think that those who take the time to read what I have written will be rewarded for their efforts.

Like my life itself, this blog will be a journey. I welcome you to come along for the ride!