I’ve been really sad about James Horner’s death. I’ll miss having him in the world with us. I’ve told a lot of folks that he’s my favorite modern composer. Out of his whole canon of work this might seem a little funny, but for me, one of the most iconic scores he wrote was for The Rocketeer. This music is my childhood. I think I love certain kinds of adventure stories because my dad took me to our MANN 6 theater to see The Rocketeer when I was 8 years old; and that film wouldn’t have been the same at all without Horner’s music coloring the whole thing.
“James’s music affected the heart because his heart was so big, it infused every cue with deep emotional resonance.”
James Cameron and Jon Landau, from a joint statement about the composer’s death
A good buddy asked me a couple weeks ago about what he should read next, now that he finished Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He asked if I knew of anything like that, with that kind of richness. I thought for a little bit, and I gave two or three suggestions of other books that might scratch some of the same itches. But I realized that I couldn’t recommend anything quite as good as The Lord of the Rings. And I definitely couldn’t recommend anything better.
The following here applies beyond Tolkien (or whoever your favorite author or book happens to be). Reading a great book that’s the best in its genre is like having scaled the peak of the tallest mountain in a range. In all of the breathtaking beauty and precipitous slow-going, you’ve known the mountain and you’ve seen the view from the top. Any other hill or mountain peak won’t be quite as imposing and full of serious joy as the experience of that tallest climb.
So what do we do? There’s definitely joy and fun and richness in the other books. But realistically, nothing’s going to give the same experience as that one great book. To risk taking the metaphor too far, heading up that tallest mountain again will definitely not produce the same experience, and that can be a really good thing. There will be familiar places that will ignite the same joy and numinous awe. But on a second attempt, the climb will yield plenty of things you missed the first time. When certain scenes are familiar, you’re freed up to experience other nuances of the place. Your experience on the way up won’t go exactly like it did before, and the view from the summit and the highest places won’t look exactly the same: there will always be more grandeur.
It’s disappointing, but also glorious, that there’s nothing else like the best few books you’ve read. It means you have to keep coming back to them – there’s no substitute. Other books will remind you of that greatest one that was the most full and rich, and gave you the grandest views. So don’t move on exclusively to lesser versions of the giant. There’s a store of joy in the greatest books that’s more inexhaustible. Go back again.
Here’s an American folk staple, that’s been done countless times by an array of musicians. “Hard Times Come Again No More” was written in 1859, by Stephen Foster. Foster wrote some songs you might also know – “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Swanee River” among others.
“Hard Times” has a tone of lament that some of Foster’s other songs don’t have. It also has an enduring, universal quality in the lyrics, in the call to “pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor.”
This is a fun tune to search for, and listen to a mix of covers. It has also lived up to a certain mark of true “folk” music, in that it’s been passed around as a cultural possession, in a sense. But here’s one of my favorites by Iron and Wine. Enjoy!
In his collection of essays What Are People For, Wendell Berry writes about the role of despair and sorrow in producing hope and joy. It’s just great.
Reading these essays has gotten better and better the further in I’ve gotten. It’s really some beautiful stuff. I only wish I was reading the physical copy of this collection, and not a kindle version on my iPhone…
Anyway, on suffering, Berry says,
“[S]omething more is involved that is even harder to talk about because it is only slightly understandable, and that is the part that suffering plays in the economy of the spirit. It seems plain that the voice of our despair defines our hope exactly; it seems, indeed, that we cannot know of hope without knowing of despair, just as we know joy precisely to the extent that we know sorrow…
“Is it necessary, as some appear to have supposed, to cultivate despair and sorrow in order to know hope and joy? No, for there will always be enough despair and sorrow. And what might have been the spiritual economy of Eden, when there was no knowledge of despair and sorrow? We don’t need to worry about that.”
Wendell Berry, from an essay entitled “A Poem of Difficult Hope.”
In complicity with my last post, on metaphors and what-not, this may be my favorite John Mark McMillan song. Gloriously heavy on metaphor, this song, as far as my experience goes, does the very best job I’ve heard of understanding what’s meant when God speaks of the Church as the “bride of Christ.” How does the redeemed family of God relate, somehow, to Christ as a bride does to her husband? Give this tune a few listens and you might get a sense of it. The themes in McMillan’s poetry here of redemption, longing, and resurrection, are powerful.
An added note (inspired by my “Oceans” post) on the poetic nature of these lyrics – we HAVE taken the chorus of this song and tagged it in corporate worship at our church, because it lends itself so well to that type of a setting. The verses, however, I wouldn’t use for corporate singing. I think the misunderstanding that happens in church music sometimes, is that because a songwriter produces some songs that are written more for corporate church worship than others, we superimpose one song’s nature over onto others that aren’t as well-suited for the same things, and think we can do them all in church. But some songs may just always be more well-suited than others, for certain contexts. Worship leaders, choose wisely. Gray areas abound here, so that’s all the self-conscious, self-explaining I’ll do for now.
All that to say, I think this song may be the under-appreciated masterpiece from McMillan thus far.