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Blog Entries July-Sept 2011

30/9/11
Continuing the module on Religion and Music with Transition Year, I used the song Stairway to Heaven by Led Zepplin as this had been suggested by a student the previous week. Not sure how religious this is - I'd never paid much attention to the lyrics before and they're rather obscure, but with a few possible religious references included. In the same class I also included God Bless the Artists by The Roches (could be the theme song for Faitharts!) and Shot Down by Larry Norman (an excellent version by Michael Anderson). The latter song tells of the stick Larry Norman got from some Christians when he first started mixing the gospel with rock music. Have yet to read over the students' comments on the songs - will report back here soon. The songs can be sourced on sites like iTunes and 7Digital, or streamed from We7, Grooveshark, Eircom Music Hub etc

28/9/11
Earlier tonight I got to attend one of Liam Lawton's workshops on his new Glandalough Mass, including settings that incorporate the new Mass texts. The event was across the road in my local parish of Templerainey, Arklow. I expected to observe but ended up singing in the men's section - I think I got the hang of the melody lines, but as for the men's harmonies, I was a slow learner! I thought the music was very appealing, from the soulful Kyrie to the uptempo Glory to God. One of my favourites was one of the proclamations of the mystery of faith, Save Us, Saviour of the World. It was a great insight into the creative to hear Liam outlining some of the reasons for various musical choices he had made. I like his encouragement to choirs to sing only the melody lines for a few weeks, so that congregations would get used to them, and not be put off joining in by harmonies being introduced too early. The evening ended, suitably, with a prayer, accompanied by piano player Mark who was effective but unobtrusive for the whole workshop.

25/911
Had my first class with Transition Year last week and first off I'm doing my module on religion and music. There's so much material out there, but each year I like to rely on a combination old favourites and new material. I lways find Amy Grant's version of What About the Love (by Janis Ian and Kyle Fleming) goes down well. It has a powerful message and a great final verse. I've added the song in video form on left above. When Will We Ever Learn to Live in God, a Van Morrison/Cliff Richard duet also went down, thank's I'd say to the catchy rhythm. A more challenging song I tried was Now is the Time for Tears by Charlie Peacock from the "Coram Deo" album (a brilliant music resource for RE). Most if not all these songs are available on download or streaming sites like iTunes, 7Digital, We7, Eircom Music Hub etc.

6/9/11
Today I came across a blog post "What's the Problem with Christian Rock". I sympathise with some of what the writer Marc Barnes is saying - - he thinks the average Christian Rock song , as played by Christian radio stations is weak and imitative, not worthy of its subject matter. But I still like Larry Norman, Mark Heard, Randy Stonehill and early John Michael Talbot. These were always a cut above the average anyway. Apart from the article, the follow up comments are well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the area.

30/8/11
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler, a film shown on RTE in the early hours of last Thursday, told the inspiring and true story of a Catholic social worker in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto to save them from deportation to extermination camps. Anna Paquin, a former child actor who has made a fine transition into adult roles, played Sendler, and was the emotional heart of the film. While it lacked the dramatic intensity of Polanski's The Pianist, one thing the film did well was to show the internal conflicts among the Jews about whether they should let their children be looked after by Polish families who would pretend the children were Catholic. Some couldn't let go emotionally, some couldn't believe that the cultured Germans could plan such a fate for the Jews, some feared their children might be converted, though Sendler stressed that this wasn't her intention.
Though it was somewhat slow in developing the story in the early stages, there were some heart-rending moments, especially when children were separated from their parents, even to save them. There was an especially unsettling scene as children were rounded up from the ghetto orphanages - they went off singing as they thought they were going to a better place. The bleak faces of the adults and Sendler's frustration told a different story.
Nazi atrocities were not that graphically portrayed, though the atmosphere of fear was well conveyed. The worst sequence was the interrogation of Sendler by the Gestapo.
As for specifically religious content, it was unobtrusive. The local priest was seen helping Sendler, convents were seen to be hiding Jewish children,
respect was shown to the Jewish tradition - there was no intention to convert the children, and Sendler kept records so that the children could, if possible, be reunited with their own families after the war.
Scenes that would be useful in class include a Seder meal, a family discussion on whether the children should be hidden with Christian families, an early scene where some of Sendler's co-workers can't bring themselves to help the Jews because of prejudice (see clip above, which also features other useful scenes).
A Jewish community scene also discusses the issue of what to do with the children and raises the difficult of lying to stay alive e.g. documents are forged, Jewish children pretend to be Christian by learning to bless themselves and say Christian prayers - mental reservation anyone?
As the film ends there's a touching addition where the real Sendler speaks about the Jewish mothers who
gave up their children and the Christian mothers who risked their lives to save them. She died in 2008 at the age of 98!
For more information on Irena Sendler, including educational resources, go here: http://www.irenasendler.com/

25/8/11
I'm glad to say the arts figured strongly in the World Youth Day ceremonies in Madrid last weekend. And fortunately it's possible to look back on some of these events online. The music of the opening Mass on the Tuesday and the closing Mass last Sunday was superb I thought - massed choirs and orchestra, composed largely of young people. The Way of the Cross last Friday wasn't as striking as that in Sydney three years ago, but the scupltures used were quite striking. I liked what Pope Benedict said about them: "In these images, faith and art combine so as to penetrate our heart and summon us to conversion. When faith's gaze is pure and authentic, beauty places itself at its service and is able to depict the mysteries of our salvation in such a way as to move us profoundly and transform our hearts". Ireland's Dana sang at one session, the band L'Angelus from USA played a set at one of the venues as did John Angotti. You can look back on some of these events at wydcentral, click here and scroll down for the video archive.

22/8/11
On Monday of last week RTE broadcast the annual Eurovision Mass for the Feast of the Assumption, this time from Fribourg in Switzerland. I love Masses in French and the choral and orchestral music was fine as expected, but the introduction was a pleasant surprise, with some background information on the area, especially relating to religious artists whose work featured during the ceremony. The area also hosts a museum of stained glass, and we got to see people doing restoration work on these. During the ceremony the camera often lingered on the beautiful windows in the church. We got to see the artist Marcel Dorthe at work and one of his artworks of Mary figured prominently in the coverage, as it was set up in the church for the occasion. Well worth a look - at the time of writing the programme is still available to view here.

9/8/11
Finally I get back to blogging. About two weeks ago I went to see the L'Angelus sacred hymns concert in Carrig-on-Bannow as part of the annual Phil Murphy Weekend. Great that this long-running summer festival should include a faith element (there was also an Ó Riada Mass). The group performed some old favourites from last year and some new songs - including the haunting "Were You There" (clip on left). For some songs they were joined by their mother Linda and little brothers and sisters. The band kindly allowed me to film the event and I hope to add some more songs soon - check out "faithartswebsite" on YouTube, where there are also songs from last year's concert.


12/7/11


(to view clip without leaving this page hover mouse over bottom of picture and click play button bottom left)

The Tree of Life: director Terrence Malick specialises in reflective storylines, interesting characters and stunning visuals. The Tree of Life includes all these but the emphasis is not so much on plot this time, which makes for challenging viewing. It's a long film (about 2 hours 20 mins), it's episodic like a series of memories, the timeline isn't chronological, the viewer will have to work hard to make sense of it at times, but I'd say the patient, reflective viewer will find it rewarding. The plot, which is only one aspect of this complex film, concerns a family in USA in the 1950's - the father (Brad Pitt) loves his wife (Jessica Chastain) and children but is gruff and rather domineering. This causes problems for his three sons, one of whom, Jack (Sean Penn) we see in his later adult life, trying to find meaning. The film was most appealing to me in the family life scenes, but these scenes are just fragments, only sometimes approaching "normal" film style.
The acting throughout was superb - Pitt can be both appealing and off-putting as the father, Chastain is the moral and emotional core of the film as the mother, Sean Penn doesn't have a lot to do, while the child actors are excellent, especially Hunter McCracken as the young Jack.
The visuals are beautiful - the camera lingers lovingly (boringly, I'm sure some will say!) on water, skyscapes, sunflowers. These visuals are accompanied subtly by light classical music, and overall the clarity of the picture is exceptional - see it on Blu-Ray when it comes out on DVD!
There is a strong faith element, but it's more reflective than preachy. The Book of Job figures strongly (the film starts with a quote from the book) and a variety of prayers and scriptural quotations graces the film. Some of the background music is religious as well - e.g. there's a striking Agnus Dei at a particularly significant moment.
Big meaning of life questions are raised and answers are only hinted at. The issue of human suffering is tackled, mainly through the efforts of Jack to make sense of what he has learned about God and the world. The father is a religious man, but it seems too much on the surface, while with the mother it's a more internal thing. Her opening voiceover (clip above), on what she has learned about the difference between nature and grace is crucial to an understanding of the film's themes.
Needless to say I was wondering how this might be used in school. Certainly I can't see myself showing the full film - I'd suspect students might mitch to avoid it! But there are some useful clips - e.g. the opening voiceover of the mother, a scene where young Jack is praying, a sermon in church, a scene near the end that may be a representation of Heaven.
One could fault the film for its perfunctory plot, its overuse of lingering pretty pictures, its excessive length,. Some critics have accused it of being ponderous and pretentious (which I wouldn't agree with). Yet it gives the impression that it was well thought out and that everything is the way it is for a good reason. The one thing I'd be less inclined to make allowances for is the difficulty at times of making out what the characters are saying - what with the regional accents and the mumbling and whispering. There's little enough dialogue, so I would have thought it should be clearer. I'd be inclined to activate the subtitles when I get the DVD.
The more I think about the film the more I find I want to see it again, and that wasn't my first reaction. I think it's one of those films that call for a second viewing - there's just too much to take in first time around.

Got to Italy on holidays last week, and I was struck more than ever before about the how casually there's so much religious art around. Of course you can get it in the museums and famous sites, but there was an ambundance of it even in the smallest and most obscure churches you'd stumble on. We were in the Lake Como area and the hillsides leading down to the lake were dotted with little churches, monuments, monoasteries. It wasn't always allowed to take photos, but I'm including here a pic of a rather distinctive Baptismal font from a church in Bellagio. It might be useful for projects/classes on Baptism - higher resolution version available on request, along with one of the font on its own. There was a painting of the Baptism of Jesus right above the font.