Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Skipper Hall, SMU Student Body President, 1925-26

As manager of the Sacramento Methodist Assembly, Bryan Hall (1896-1989) was said to skip with enthusiasm from one project to another. The nickname “Skipper” was therefore used to describe the pastor who brought an abundance of energy and passion to his work. In 1980, I conducted an interview with Skipper Hall and began gathering information about a man who holds a special place in the hearts of the people who knew him and gained inspiration from his work as minister. What I learned has been used to publish a book titled Skipper Hall: The Life and Religious Philosophy of a Methodist Minister in New Mexico. In this blog I want to tell what I learned about the education Hall acquired in the 1920s at Southern Methodist University. In the process, I hope to introduce followers of this blog to a unique man and explain how SMU shaped him throughout his career as a minister.

Bryan Hall at SMU, 1925
Hall graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1926 after serving as the school’s student body president during the 1925-26 school year. After leaving SMU, he served the Methodist Church for almost fifty years and was shaped throughout his career by the education he received at SMU. 

Hall had joined the Methodist Church at the age of seven and received the calling to become a minister when he was twenty and working at a laundry in Corpus Christi, Texas. He decided to join the ministry after listening to evangelical preachers in local churches and finding fault in what he described as their “unreasonable” and “goofy” descriptions of God. He especially disliked what he called their “negative” view of God. As he described it, “They made a big to-do about hunting for sinners, and there were no shades of grey. Everything was black or white."

One day, a man who worked with Hall at the laundry asked, “Are you going to work here all your life? The Church could use a man like you.” When Hall explained that he didn’t have an education, the co-worker said, “Well, you can get one!” That conversation prompted Hall's decision to return to school.

Bryan Hall in 1900 (age 4)
In 1919, at the age of twenty-two, Hall moved to Dallas to finish his high school education at Powell Prep School. He then entered SMU, and in 1925 received an A.B degree in history. Although he never had any doubts about becoming a Methodist minister, he majored in history due to his conviction that history demonstrated how humanity was gradually moving forward and improving. “Studying history and getting a historical perspective was, for me, more inspiring than studying the Bible,” he explained.

Hall remained at SMU after earning his A.B. degree so that he could get an advanced degree in theology. After one year as a theology student, however, he had run out of enough money to continue and was advised by a professor to abandon the last two years he would need for the degree and leave SMU. Although Hall later felt the professor was accurate in his assessment that he had already learned everything he needed to know to work as a pastor, he also believed the professor had given him bad advice. “I might have gone further in the hierarchy of the church if I had stayed in school,” he said.

Before he left SMU, Hall had learned enough to form a foundation that would hold his insatiable search for knowledge throughout his life. He particularly enjoyed the classes at SMU that taught him about the ancient world, classes about the Hebrew search for God and the Greek search for truth. He learned how the Gospels brought the Hebrew and Greek traditions together, creating a new religious philosophy stemming from the teachings of Jesus. What he learned at SMU stayed with him the rest of his life, and he was particularly grateful for professors named Giese, Goodlow, Kern, Rice, and Workman.

During the 1920s, when Hall was a student at SMU, Christians in the United States were divided between “fundamentalists,” who accepted stories from the Bible as literally true, and “modernists,” who employed science and rational thought to explain what they read in the Bible. To this day, high school history students study the John T. Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, a trial that embodied the fundamentalist and modernist arguments of the 1920s. Although I never talked with Hall about the Scopes trial specifically, I have no doubts about which side he would have taken in the philosophical arguments presented at the trial. Scopes, a substitute high school teacher, was accused of breaking the law by teaching evolution, and Hall would have certainly supported the defense arguments of Scopes' attorney, Clarence Darrow. By Hall's own admission, he was a modernist. 

During his time at SMU, he even became deeply involved in the struggle against fundamentalism after the school dismissed two professors — John Rice and Thornburgh Workman — for their modernist views. Hall, who was student body president at the time, led protests and petition drives to bring the professors back. Although he was outraged by the dismissal of Rice and Workman, he seemed to have tempered his outrage by the time I interviewed him over sixty years later:
"[Rice and Workman] were simply bringing the scholarship of the last 150 years down to the level of lay people. They were training preachers to understand the scholarship so they could bring it to the level of the common people. However, the men running the school faced the fact that they couldn’t finance the school without firing the liberal thinkers. When the men running the school went to places like Lubbock or Amarillo — which were hotbeds of ultraconservative Church of Christ people — they would face controversy from fundamentalists and would not be able to raise money…. I didn’t know it then, but had they not fired our Bible teachers they could not have raised money, and SMU might not be here now. I couldn’t see that, and I was part of the protests. As I see it now, the president was forced into firing those teachers."
After Hall left SMU in 1926, he sought an appointment as a Methodist minister in New Mexico and faced opposition due to the protests he had led as a student. Fundamentalists in New Mexico suspected the protests were evidence of his modernist beliefs, and they did not want a modernist working as a pastor in their state.

Bryan and Gladys Hall, 1926
In front of a committee organized to determine whether he should be accepted into the ministry, Hall confronted the same questions that had bedeviled the professors who were fired at SMU. Did he believe in the doctrine of original sin? Did he believe in the virgin birth of Jesus? Did he believe in the immortality of the flesh? Did he believe in the preexistence of Jesus?
He was spared from answering these questions by the committee's chair, a man named C.S. Walker. Walker was well-versed in religious philosophy and sympathetic to Hall's situation. During the committee's interview, Walker cut Hall's answers short before he had time to elaborate on his modernist viewpoints. If Hall had answered the committee's questions without interruption, he would have told them about the ideas he had developed as a student at SMU.

On the issue of original sin, he would have explained that his position was halfway between the theology of Augustine and Pelagius. (As he explained it to me, “Augustine was a man who believed in original sin. Pelagius was a heretic who got expelled from the church.”)

On the issue of the virgin birth, Hall would have pointed out that the Bible traced Jesus’ lineage back to Joseph, and he believed there was no point in tracing the lineage to Joseph if Joseph had not parented the child. Hall also believed the virgin birth made no rational sense.

On the question of immortality he would have told the committee that his ideas did not involve the restoration of the physical body or the resuscitation of the flesh.

In regard to the preexistence of Jesus, he would have explained that he did not believe Jesus existed before he was born or “wherever you want to draw the line in the womb.”

Hall had dealt with the scholarship surrounding these issues when he was a student at SMU. He had also learned as a student about the controversies that would await him after he left school. Hall knew a graduate of SMU who had tried to join the Northwest Texas Conference of the Methodist Church as a pastor, only to be turned down when he said he did not believe in the virgin birth. According to Hall, his friend cried after he was turned down and proclaimed, “I feel the call of God, and [they] won’t let me join the conference.”

Bryan "Skipper" Hall (early 1970s)
The fundamentalist-modernist controversy had touched Hall directly at SMU when Paul Kern, the Dean of the School of Theology, called Hall and six other students into his office. Dr. Kern told the students, “Now, you boys are sincere and you want to answer things honestly. If you go to a [conference committee] meeting and they ask you if you believe in the virgin birth and you say no, the newspapers are going to play it up and you’ll hurt Southern Methodist University. So I suggest that you not appear before any committee.”

Hall said that he was the only one of the seven students called into Dr. Kern’s office that day who stayed with the Church as a minister. In explaining his reasons for remaining, Bryan said, “I stayed with the church believing my experience with God was just as good as any one else’s. No one had the right to tell me my experience with God was wrong.”

Once, while passionately debating an issue of philosophy with an SMU professor, a student sitting across from Hall said, “Why don’t you shut up? Go make ‘em cry and get your money.” Hall could never have been that type of pastor. He had learned too much from his professors at SMU to view his obligation to the ministry so cynically.

The interest in religious scholarship that Hall gained from SMU stayed with him throughout his life. When I interviewed him in 1980, he explained his religious philosophy with references to religious thinkers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Breasted, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Leslie Weatherhead. He easily quoted passages from the Bible taken from different translations. He was also well-versed in the Biblical apocrypha, as well as the philosophy of John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church. Hall had not studied all of these religious thinkers at SMU. Like all college graduates, he still had much to learn after he left school. However, what he did learn at SMU provided him with an unquenchable desire to continue studying religious and historical scholarship. No school could hope for more than to inspire its students to a lifelong passion for learning. To that extent, SMU served Hall well.

Hall left SMU with the dream of someday preaching in a town that contained a university. He thought he could make religion understandable to a congregation of well-educated people. Although he served numerous communities in New Mexico throughout his long and distinguished career, he never had the chance to preach in a university town. Nevertheless, he served the small-town congregations of New Mexico with the dedication and commitment that helped improve the lives of everyone he met.

The following quote from Hall provides insight into the intellectual life sparked by his experiences at SMU:
John Wesley believed that we grow toward perfection even as our Heavenly Father is perfect…. I interpret that to mean that we forever move toward a richer maturity. We never reach the place where we are satisfied. I am continually growing, and I never reach the place where I say I am saved. Methodists do not believe that once a person has had an experience of salvation, that person is then saved. We believe that a person must continue to grow and develop as long as they live. There are some who grow senile and quit developing in the last years of their existence. However, the idea that we inherited from John Wesley is that we must continue to mature spiritually.
Hall spoke those words to me in March 1980 when he was eighty-three years old. His mind was sharp, and he was still as intellectually curious as ever, reading works of religious scholarship and philosophy. When I interviewed him, he referred to the works of John Locke and George Hegel, which he had recently been reading. As he told me, “I have spent my entire life learning and searching.”

For me, Skipper Hall serves as a prime example of a person committed to a life of learning, a person who is open to new ideas and prepared to abandoned outdated ideas of the past. He was a “modernist” in the truest sent of the word, someone who used his ever-expanding knowledge to make our world better. 

* * *

More information about Skipper Hall and how to purchase my book about his life and religious philosophy can be found on my website at ClassicalTyro.com.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Unraveling Bolero

At the time Maurice Ravel composed Boléro he was 53 years old and suffering from the early stages of FTD (frontotemporal dementia). FTD is a form of dementia that is similar to Alzheimer’s. Those afflicted with the disease slowly lose their ability to speak and understand the speech of others. The disease is also marked by spurts of creativity, as well as compulsive behavior. 

Boléro, which Ravel completed in 1928, might easily be classified as an exercise in compulsive behavior. One might also hear it as a product of Ravel's disease. The entire piece is built on a single melody divided into two phrases repeated nine times. A drum beat based on a Spanish bolero begins the piece and is then repeated over and over until the end. Here’s how Ravel described the piece.
“… What I had written was a piece … consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music‘ — of one very long, gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts and there is practically no invention save the plan and manner of execution. The themes are altogether impersonal ... folk-tunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind, and (whatever may have been said to the contrary) the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at viruosity … I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for the listeners to take it or leave it.”
Boléro was Ravel’s last great work. As his disease worsened, he was unable to compose music, and he died in 1937, nine days after undergoing experimental brain surgery.

In 2008, The New York Times published an article about Dr. Anne Adams, a woman who had been trained in mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Like Ravel, Dr. Adams suffered from FTD.

In 1994, when Dr. Adams was in the early stages of FTD, she became obsessed with Ravel’s Boléro. Then, at age 53, she began painting “Unraveling Boléro,” a painting that provided a visual image of Ravel’s music with the height, shape, and color of the images in the painting corresponding to each bar of the music.

Just as Vincent van Gogh was known for forging great paintings from his own mental illness, Maurice Ravel’s Boléro and Anne Adams’ “Unraveling Boléro” provide a journey into minds afflicted with FTD. Both Ravel and Adams were 53 years old when they began wrestling with Boléro. Consider this an example of illness serving as creativity's muse — or, as Albert Einstein said, "Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous."

Ravel, Boléro (Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Wiener Philharmonic)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Defining Music, Part Two

In yesterday's blog I described music in simplistic terms as “the moments defined by what I am listening to.” In this blog I want to provide four additional items to my description. I should also add that any attempt to define something as abstract as music is probably a futile task.

In any case, here's some food for thought.

1. Nothing should be ruled out when describing something as "music."
What someone calls "music" might be a Mozart piano concerto, the songs of a humpback whale, or the cacophony of hammers hitting an anvil — it depends on who is listening and how they want to label it. We are not obligated to like what others call "music," but common courtesy requires us to refer to something as music when others think of it that way.

John Cage, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 112 Radios 
(performed by students of Hunter College of The City University of New York)

John Cage, 4’ 33” (composed in three movements, performed by David Tutor)

2. Music is the language of emotion.
In ancient Greece music was described as a language that spoke directly to human emotion. In what has become known as the doctrine of ethos , the Greeks expressed the idea that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when a piece of music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion. Aristotle’s idea of music is still alive in the way we use music to exaggerate the drama, horror, or comedy in Hollywood films.

John Williams, Theme from "Jaws" (performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra)

3. Instrumental music is a prime example of abstract art.
Just as abstract visual images might refer to something that goes beyond reality, instrumental music might be used to portray aspects of human existence that cannot normally be described with sound. After all, what is the sound of "love," "fear," or "spiritual redemption?" Why does Russian music sound so “Russian” and Aaron Copland's music sound so "American"?  Only great music can answer that question, and the answer cannot always be expressed in words.

Aaron Copland, Rodeo, Fourth Movement 
(performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Warfield)

4. Some music requires repeated hearings before it can be fully understood or appreciated.
Musical masterworks tend to get better the more they are heard. The first time you listen to Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus 127, for example, it might have little effect on your emotions. After hearing it several times, however, you might begin to describe it as "spiritual" and marvel at its ability to express profound truth. Listen to the quartet embedded below, and think of it as providing a contrast between Beethoven's inner turmoil and his public persona. It may take several hearings, but you should eventually be able to hear the difference between the "private" and the “public" in the composer's life. 

Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 127 (performed by the Jasper String Quartet)

And so it goes... 
This blog was written under the influence of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.

Yeol Eum Son, piano

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Defining Music, Part One

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I love all types of music. I am deeply affected by both the power of Beethoven’s symphonies and the elegance of Chopin’s piano etudes. I find great energy and fun in the Beatles’ early songs, as well as anything recorded by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I am even thrilled by the seemingly stagnant music composed by Phillip Glass.

I also find joy in the sounds of everyday life. Listening to the rain fall outside my bedroom window at night calms me down, as does the sound of a train in the distance. Some of the most enjoyable sounds I have heard came from when I was with my father on the banks of the Kiamichi River in Oklahoma. Late at night we would wait for the cowbell to ring on the trotline we had spread across the river, a sound telling us that we had hooked catfish. The campfire was crackling. In the distance some dogs had treed a possum and were howling to save the world.

I call all of that “music.”

For me, music is the moments defined by what I am listening to. It doesn't matter whether I am spending three minutes listening to Bruce Springsteen moaning about love's desire or ninety minutes listening to Gustav Mahler passing judgment on Judgment Day. It’s all music. When I spend an evening listening to children splashing in a swimming pool at the house next door, I refer to it as “music” to my ears.

Music does not only come from the sounds I hear. It also comes from the sounds I pay attention to, sounds I experience for the pure joy of listening.

Sometimes the joy of listening comes with no need for musical knowledge. Knowing about major and minor tonalities is unnecessary to understanding the beauty (and possibly the terror) in the sounds of a thunderstorm on a summer evening. A knowledge of musical meter contributes nothing to the euphoria of hearing fireworks exploding on the Fourth of July.

Sometimes, however, I need a little musical knowledge or I might not understand what is happening in a piece of music. Without a little musical knowledge I might not fully appreciate the music I am hearing.

In most cases, the need for knowledge comes when I am listening to classical music. Classical music can be so full of musical content that the “story” told in a sonata, concerto, or symphony might escape me unless I understand the terminology.

I might not need lessons on how to listen to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs. However, I need someone to explain Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or I might never really understand the power of its message.

When I spend time listening to a symphony by Haydn, for example, simply knowing that it will be divided into four movements helps me enjoy it more. Knowing that the first movement is in sonata form and the third movement is in triple time makes the music even more meaningful. And I can't stop there. Haydn's symphonies are endlessly entertaining — if I am willing to learn about them.

None of this means that classical music is better than other types of music. It only means that classical music is different. In most cases, classical music requires knowledgeable audiences. Many other types of music, on the other hand, require little more than paying attention and having a good time.

I'll say it again, I love it all. Music of all types enhances my life, feeds my soul, and elevates my spirit. It doesn’t matter whether I’m listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, Johnny Cash, or that cowbell ringing on the trotline in the middle of the night.

Flatt and Scruggs, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, “Eroica”

How to Play the Cowbell

This is Part One of my two-part attempt to define music. There's more to come in my next posting when I provide four additional elements of the definition of music that I use to help students on their journey through music history.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Making a Difference

Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves…. We do ourselves the most good doing something for others.
– Horace Mann
Teachers merit great admiration for having the courage to place themselves in the trenches of public education and do something every day to serve children. Teachers are indeed a special breed and deserve nothing but the highest praise.
And their work is not easy.
Considering the extraordinary demands placed on teachers, I find it remarkable that teachers achieve as much as they do. At times, I wonder how anyone can do the job. 
As an illustration, let me offer a description of my own experiences as a teacher. Although I am no longer teaching in a public school classroom, the memories of the pressure that accompanied the job will remain with me forever.
Upon driving into the parking lot every day at 7:15 a.m. (or earlier) I always took a deep breath and braced myself for the stress that would define the next ten hours.
Throughout the day I found myself juggling several tasks at once. Before school I tried to complete administrative paperwork while students surrounded my desk. Every student needed something from me and every one of them seemed to talk at the same time. As students asked me questions, I sat at my desk with piles of paperwork in front of me, paperwork that included various types of administrative trivia: forms for students needing special accommodations, surveys or inventory for administrators, and progress reports for parents and counselors.
While trying to process several demands at once, my mind was also reviewing my lesson plans for the day. I'm not sure how I kept everything straight. I kept yellow sticky notes scattered around my desk with reminders of everything I needed to get done, but in the constant confusion I often couldn't keep track of the sticky notes.
And the stress never let up. During the school day I found myself standing in front of each class facing thirty-five adolescent personalities, each one needing my attention and an affirmation of their self-worth. While trying to provide students with their individual and group needs, I was forced to deal with constant interruptions from intercom announcements, students needing to leave class and a steady stream of people knocking on the door — students, teachers, and administrators. I often felt forced to teach between the cracks.
Finding time to go to the restroom was a luxury. I would try to go between classes, only to have my walk down the hallway interrupted by many of the students, teachers, and administrators I passed on the way. Again everyone seemed to need something from me, and if they asked me for something as I walked down the hallway I might later forget what they wanted because I didn’t have a sticky note to write it down. Sometimes I never made it to the restroom before the next class began.
If I wasn't in my classroom helping students during the all-too-short lunch period, I would find myself nursing a sandwich and a bag of potato chips in the teacher’s lounge while I listened to other teachers grumble about administrators and the educational system in general. I would then return to my classroom for my afternoon classes, awash in the gloominess of the teacher's lounge. 
For me, the so-called "planning" period placed in our daily schedule never seemed long enough to complete the unfinished administrative tasks that had built up during the day. My planning time was almost always occupied by completing paperwork or going to meetings with special education facilitators, counselors, administrators, or parents. Too often, I had no time to plan lessons for my own classes, much less get any papers graded.
Quiet time to gather my thoughts at school was nonexistent, and during my evenings at home I was often too tired to do much more than take a nap in front of the television before I began grading papers or creating a lesson plan for the next day. Teaching was not a job I could leave behind once the workday was over. 
What I have described about my day at school does not include the interruptions that stemmed from breaking up fights in the hallway, confronting students possessing drugs or alcohol, leading students through fire drills and bomb scares, and even trying to keep students safe from someone firing a gun. (Yes, that happened at my school.)

From what I have heard in the professional development workshops I have been leading over the last 18 years, my experiences as a classroom teacher seem to be shared by all public school teachers.
It has been estimated that 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and I understand the reasons people leave. Teaching is a demanding and stressful job — to say the least — and I have not even mentioned the sometimes unruly students that often magnify the stress. I have also not mentioned the inadequate salary that has forced many teachers to seek part-time jobs so they can pay the bills.
None of this, however, is meant to discourage young people from thinking about a career in teaching. Many careers have a high level of stress, and many jobs are ultimately full of frustration. Teaching, however, can often be quite a fulfilling profession, a job that can make you feel you have done something worthwhile with your life.
Teaching is also a vitally important job. I’ve heard school described by an elementary student as the “Big Chance.” Education provides opportunities for children in their personal lives, and no less that the health of our society depends on how well we educate our children. Everyone dedicating themselves to improving the world by becoming a teacher should be able to sleep well at night knowing they have done something to help others.
If any prospective teachers are reading this blog, I recommend that you take the leap but do it with your eyes wide open. It won't be easy, but your nation needs good people willing to place themselves in the trenches and make a difference. Yes, teaching is stressful and the pay is not great, but the rewards are plentiful.
I would like to thank all teachers for the sacrifices they make. Hang in there, and keep working hard. In the end, you just might win a few victories for humanity.