by Linda Ryan
I had the radio on last night, listening to my favorite classical station as I tried to drift off to sleep. The announcement came over the air that the next selection would be the perennial favorite, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Oh, great, I thought. Just what I need. That old hack I’ve heard so many times I can practically sing along with it. In fact, that’s precisely what the announcer suggested. I turned over and tried to pretend I was in the Cotswolds or perhaps down by the river back home, anything to take my mind off that impending da-da-da-BOOM.
Then the music started. My eyes shot open and so did my ears. Yes, all the notes were familiar, familiar enough to sing along with, but they sounded so different. The conductor had done something I hadn’t heard before; he had speeded it up! Instead of the more usual ponderous pace, the music almost danced. It bounced instead of plodded, seemed bright instead of dark and dense, and it even seemed to be a half-tone or so higher in pitch. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed hearing that piece more. I forgot about going to sleep, I was mesmerized instead. Who would have thought that a few beats per minute could make such a difference!
This morning I couldn’t shake the thought of how different an old hack could sound with just a small bit of change and the imagination (and courage) to actually take the chance. Then I thought, if Beethoven’s Fifth can sound so different, what other things that seem sort of hackneyed and ponderous or even just too familiar might be dragged out, brushed off, shaken out and set down in a different way?
I thought about the gospels. Why the gospels I don’t know, but the thought popped into my head and stuck. Now, I’ve heard a lot of sermons based on the gospels, some better than others, and none particularly memorable except for one that dealt with the mathematical computations of precisely how much wine Jesus made from water at that wedding in Cana. Quite a few of them took the same track: Jesus taught about what God wants of human beings, healed the sick and broken and died for the sins of the world so that those who believed (or believed the right things) would go to heaven and play harps when they died, otherwise they would go to hell and be crispy critters for all eternity, or thoughts to that same effect. Gospels are supposed to be good news, but it seems it is only good news if one follows the doctrines and dogmas of the church, says the right prayers, does the right actions, supports the church physically and financially and tries to convert the whole world to one’s own particular brand of theology. Where’s the good news there? “Join us, accept Jesus and get your ticket to heaven punched, trains leaving every half hour on the half hour from Track 42.”
Not being a priest, preacher, Biblical scholar or even theologian, I can’t tell anyone how to make the gospels pop the way that conductor did with Beethoven’s Fifth. Maybe it would be by presenting them as really good news — news that gets people excited (like winning a lottery) or make the heart feel good (the rescue of an endangered child or pet). Maybe it would be stressing that Jesus didn’t go around condemning people or asking them to repent before healing them or informing them that they weren’t beyond God’s love — if. Maybe it could even be that repentance really follows belief, not the other way around, and that the repentance is something that people really want to do once they believe, if they only have a good reason to do so.
Maybe a few beats a minute doesn’t mean much (unless it’s a heart that’s already in trouble), but it can make all the difference in pulling back the dusty velvet curtains and letting the sunlight into a piece of music. Maybe giving people a reason — or an example — of what difference there can be in their lives if they hear a gospel that really is good news. Maybe if we got back to the Christians in the earliest days of the church who follow the words of Jesus, “[E]veryone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). There’s nothing there about pounding people over the head with the Bible to prove to them what sinners they are, nothing about having to say the Jesus prayer or go about in sackcloth and ashes or with a whip called a “discipline” in hand. All it is is a commandment to love — and if that happens, the rest will fall into place like the familiar notes of Beethoven’s Fifth.