Posted by: jcfretts | November 12, 2017

7 Days, 7 Photos

There’s a “chain meme” (what else might it be called?) going around, challenging folks to share one black and white photo per day, featuring no people, and no explanations.  Architect and urbanist Sarah Lewis challenged me.   With over 60,000 digital photographs in my collection, how could I refuse!  I took a little different tack, though, and decided – on a whim – to try and select pictures with an underlying theme.   Here, I’ll explain the theme.  (I have since seen a different variation, emphasizing that they should be scenes from daily life. Oops.)

I selected photos from places which have profoundly shaped me.  It’s not a comprehensive collection–my hometown is missing from the pictures, as are pictures from Lynchburg and Muncie–but it does include some places very special to me.


23376519_10214513080159887_24420221771103376_n1. Indianapolis, Monument Circle.

Moving to Indiana for college was a big deal for me.  Terrifying, emotional, bold. But the people I discovered there were wonderful and kind.  After graduating, I began a successful career in Indianapolis, with an outstanding mentor and community of peers.  Here, I learned to be a professional.

Here, I also became involved in a large and impactful church, as well as non-profits the likes of which I could have only dreamt of as a child.  When I lived there, at least, Indianapolis government had long been a shining example of progressive, practical bi-partisan cooperation.  Simultaneously, the Lilly Endowment insured that Indianapolis was a global center for the study of philanthropy.

And, Indy is pretty. The city was laid out by a disciple of Pierre L’Enfant. Its form and spirit borrow from Washington, DC, and ultimately Paris.  This monument (with a wonderful civil mar museum under it) was designed by Bruno Schmitz, a German who won the competition for its design.

west hollywood_seven ftns_057

2. Seven Fountains (and a palm tree), Hollywood, California

In 2001, I traveled to California with several friends to “make sure I didn’t like it.”  I’ve been back many times since, because I found that I love it.

This picture is from a later trip, and represents not only a love for California, but a profound learning experience.  In 2005, the Congress for the New Urbanism was held in Pasadena, California (another favorite spot, and, incidentally, founded by a group of pioneers from Indianapolis.) Between the sessions and tours, I learned a tremendous amount about housing design, mixed use development, urban form, and the history of Southern California.

This picture is the exterior of the Seven Fountains Condominium.  It is deceptively simple and unassuming — yet elegant.  There are lessons to be learned about simplicity and the play of sunlight, but the greater lesson in within.  Beyond the facade is a labyrinth of tiny courtyards and seven fountains, surrounded by unique condo units. It is a masterwork of residential architecture, combining elegant design, individuality, and a bit of social engineering.  It is one of two projects I toured on this trip, the other equally profound in its influence on me, at Mission Meridian.  Both projects were designed by Moule and Polyzoides.


3. Bear Bridge (Moabiter Brucke), Berlin, Germany 

Fun sculpture, fun urban building.  But so much more:  this is one of my favorite corners in the world, and it changed me.

In the three weeks that I lived here in 1995, the building in the photo had not yet been built.  This picture, then, would have been centered on a small window in the side wall of am historic courtyard apartment building, above a vacant lot.  That window was the view from my high-ceilinged rear apartment across the willow-lined Spree River.  Across the street, the Spree-Bogen development had brought fresh modern architecture to the neighborhood.  The combination of old and new, public art, and public riverfront made this a magical neighborhood.

I returned in 2009 (when I took this picture), and was delighted to discover the neighborhood to be as wonderful as I remembered.  And while my window had been covered up, the vacant lot had been transformed into another wonderful residential building.

This, then, is the address where I lived as I learned to adore European urbanism, small-scale modern architecture, and city living.  This is a photo of both my home and my teacher.  And the bear is cool.


4. WQED Studios, Pittsburgh

The Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh was, and is, home to some of the finest cultural and educational institutions in the United States.  I was fortunate to grow up in the afterglow of steel-era riches: glorious cultural institutions were surrounded by physically decaying communities around them, still abundant in pride and spirit.  That’s the Pittsburgh of my youth in Western Pennsylvania: an odd mix of glorious urbanism, and urban decay.

This picture represents Oakland, then, with the wonders of the Carnegie Museums and Pitt’s Tower of Learning.  Equally profound, though, is what emanates from inside this  unassuming brutalist building.  This is the headquarters of WQED television, the first public broadcasting station. This is also where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed.  Before my Mom took me to the Carnegie Museums, before school field trips took us to plays at Soldiers and Sailors Hall or the international classrooms at Pitt, WQED came to me.

In an era before parents worried much about “screen time,” I grew up watching Sesame Street and Mister Rogers on WQED.  In an era before you watch a movie in your car (like my nephews do), we nonetheless measured the remaining distance to Grandma’s house in how many episodes of Mister Rogers and Sesame Street remained until we arrived.   Mister Rogers introduced me to Pittsburgh’s trolleys before my Aunt took us to ride on one of the last ones in service.  He brought cheff Julia Child, and jazz legend Johnny Costa to my living room. I could go on — as many have — celebrating the impact of both Sesame Workshop and Fred Rogers.   They brought a bigger, smarter, more diverse world into my home, along with kindness and laughs.

As I grew, WQED brought concerts, plays, travelogues, and famous books to life through their analog over-the-air signal.  Later, other Public Broadcasting stations would teach me history, and then reshape my understanding of the world (multiple times) through in-depth documentaries.

This photo represents cultural Pittsburgh, and it represents the world brought into my home through WQED and other PBS stations.

5. Kurfurstendamm, Berlin, from Zoologischer Garten


I’ve already talked about how the experience of living and studying in Berlin, for a mere three weeks, transformed me.    It also changed me as an architect–perhaps MADE me an architect, despite three years of education prior. Design – both traditional and modern design — “clicked” for me in Germany.

This photo also began a smaller, more occasional journey into nighttime photography.  This was a “welcome home” moment, returning to Berlin from two weeks traveling Europe.  The following day would be a flight back the US.  We stepped off the train at Zoo Garten station (then one of the main stations) and had this magnificent, glowing view of Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche.  It was before the instant gratification and computer-assisted world of digital photography, but using my best knowledge of photographic exposure, I attempted to capture it.  When the pictures came back from being developed, I was elated with the result.

Speaking of Gedachtniskirche: when I could pronounce it without fumbling, I realized I was making real progress in teaching my tongue to wrangle the German language.

DSCF26486. California Theater, San Jose, CA

Back to California! I have actually had the privilege of working in Cali multiple times.  First, designing a sales center for medical products in Orange County, then later working on a competition project with our San Jose office.  For the competition project, I was based in San Jose for three weeks, and then in Pasadena for a week. This provided amazing opportunities to explore both Northern and Southern California.





7. Metro. Washington, DC


My first trip to Washington, DC, I was the obsessive travel planner, making sure we saw EVERYTHING.  I was 15.  Washington became the place I dared not dream I might one day live.  Washington is beautiful.  It was, to me, like ancient Rome, polished to glistening white and planted with magnolias.  (Yes, I now know Rome was gaudily painted. Their loss.)   Washington is steeped in history and sacred ideals. It hosts the worlds great treasures in countless museums. Like Berlin, it is verdant and lush, with modestly scaled (height-limited) buildings.

When I attended the Congress for New Urbanism when held in Washington, I fell madly in love with Connecticut Avenue and Dupont Circle.  Rock Creek park! Ice cream and chess at midnight? Farmer’s market the next morning? I don’t play chess, but this whole scene of LIFE was magical. When I visited my sister in Washington’s suburbs, we spent a beautiful day in postcard-perfect Alexandria, and I decided that one day I would live there.  Alexandria – where we had actually stayed when I was 15.

When my first nephew turned two, I decided to move to Washington. I wanted to design housing, and live in Alexandria.  I was blessed with the amazing opportunity to do precisely that.

Now, I call the Washington area home. I still dream of the day I can afford to actually LIVE across the river, but for now, visiting weekly is just fine.


Why do Christians hate gay people? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be about love?

In the two days since the Supreme Court affirmed the right of marriage for gay couples nationwide, my social media feed has been a blend of sheer joy, horrified sorrow, and anger. I have dear friends whose marriages are now validated (most of them both Christian and gay), and I have dear relatives who are mortified and fear God’s wrath. In the midst of these extremes, it occurs to me that in our modern American culture, many non-Christians might not have the faintest idea why gay marriage is such a big deal to many Christians.

In this post, I will summarize my understanding of “why.” There was a time when I still shared many of these reasons for fearing “gay rights,” so I think I can address some of the roots of that opposition. Here I will only summarize the why. In a future post, I will address the “why not”– how my beliefs and opinions have been radically changed.

I’ll give you the summary first. In brief, many American Christians share these beliefs and feelings:

  1. Sin–disobeying God’s teachings–is a real thing.
  2. They fear God’s reaction to sin: in the past, He has destroyed sinful nations
  3. God has explicitly destroyed nations guilty of SEXUAL sins
  4. People I love will burn forever in hell if they don’t believe the right things about sin

In tension: Sin, grace, and judgement
The Christian Bible holds two ideas in tension (please forgive the vast oversimplifications): the idea of a judgmental God, demanding strict adherence to a moral code, and the idea of a forgiving and loving Jesus who “completed” the impossible task of saving believers from inability to comply with that code (“sin”). Even the sentence you just read could shatter my readers into a dozen denominations and sects debating its finer points.

Resolving this tension between judgment and grace likewise had the earliest Christian churches in fits. Some questioned whether the god of the Old Testament could even be the same god to which Jesus prayed. (cf. Marcionism) Theologians have continued to debate these issues for two millennia, starting with the writers of the inter-church letters of the New Testament (“epistles”), and continuing to the present day. A famous writing from the apostle Paul addressed the question. Some of his followers had apparently asked if Jesus’ actions freed them from the moral code entirely. Paul’s answer in Hebrews 10 was a resounding “no:”

” If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left.”

Yet Paul’s writing in his letter to the Romans spends pages building an elaborate argument that nothing can separate those who follow Jesus from the love of God:

” Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death…. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?…. I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (excerpts from Romans 8, New International Version)

But the ellipses–oh the ellipses, the sentences I have omitted. Paul’s elaborate argument is filled with paragraphs more nuance and subtlety that I dare attempt to address here. Let it suffice to say, then, that two thousand years of church history renders a majority opinion: even Christians saved by Jesus shouldn’t commit “sin,” or they will find themselves subject to God’s judgment, and perhaps his condemnation (depending on your school of thought). Even for those who believe Jesus’ paid the price for their sins, there remains a lingering fear of God’s judgment and condemnation.

Sodomy & Destruction
Both the Old and New Testaments condemn certain sex acts between men. As many are quick to point out, the Bible also condemns shrimp, pork, women who talk in church, divorce, and sex during menstruation, among other things. Here, I won’t debate whether the translation is accurate or whether the Old Testament laws apply. The words are there, and a simple reading in English says these are sins.

But why are modern Christians so willing to eat shrimp and get divorced, but terrified about accepting gays? One word: Sodom, the city from which we misappropriate the word Sodomy. (more on that in a minute)

The Old Testament is littered with cities and nations that God and/or the Israelites (at his command) destroyed because of their sins. The city of Nineveh is famous for being warned by Jonah (assisted by a certain whale) that God was going to destroy them. The city and its people repented and changed their ways, and God did not destroy them.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is different, though. Just before God destroyed it, we read the tale of how the men of the city wanted to have sex with the male guests in Lot’s house (who happened to be emissaries from God). Lot offered them his daughters instead (what??!!) but they refused. When we read this through a modern lens, it sounds like a gay pride parade gone bad.

My subsequent post will more fully address how we have misread this story, but let me at least say this: the story can also be read as a tale of gang-raping the strangers as an expression of dominance; the perpetrators were not likely “gay” as we define it today. It is a story of being unwelcoming in a culture that valued hospitality more highly than we can comprehend. Most importantly, neither sex nor gang-rape is the reason Sodom was destroyed–according to the Bible itself. Ezekiel 16: “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.”

Sodom–and Sodomy–are why many Christians fear gays. God did not even bother to use a human army, he just obliterated the cities. He rained down fire, and turned them to salt. All because they were gay perverts. (Or, because they were arrogant and didn’t help the poor, if you believe Ezekiel.)

Many Christians believe this is an historical account. Many non-Christians probably can’t grasp that. But based on this story in its common understanding, it appears that God has a special hatred for gay sex acts, a hatred so strong he will destroy nations that allow it.

Victorian sex ethics, 1950’s psychology, and early 1980’s propaganda from the politically organized “Religious Right” have only reinforced these beliefs.

It’s personal
Jesus did teach love, and many of the Christians who are vehemently opposed to gay-anything are also deeply loving people. American Christianity, though, often focuses on “right belief.” One must not only believe in Jesus, but believe the right things about Jesus, as defined by a certain denomination or local church.

I knew a man who was infamous for asking uncomfortable questions of his children and grandchildren regarding their beliefs. It alienated members of the family from him and from faith, but his motivation was love. He did not want to see them condemned to hell for having wrong (or no) belief in Jesus. He loved them too much to allow that to happen because of any inaction on his part.

I know people who have wept this week, because they sincerely believe that allowing gay marriage saddens — or enrages — God. They are weeping because they don’t want their children and grandchildren to grow up with wrong beliefs in a promiscuous culture. They do not want the United States to be a nation which loses God’s favor, or receives his destructive anger. Most of them do not want to see anyone – gay stranger or misled grandchild – burn in hell.

I respect and honor those fears and desires. I just think they are unfounded, a subject I will address when next I sit down to write.

In the interim, to those who are offended, angry, or afraid, I simply offer words often spoken by Jesus: “do not be afraid.”  I mean it: I hope you will be less afraid.

Posted by: jcfretts | June 20, 2015

Burning my flag

When I was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania,  I had a Confederate battle flag in my bedroom. To me,  it was a symbol not of the Confederacy,  but an innocent icon of the “south,”  where my grandparents lived and my Mom grew up.  (It also reminded me of the beloved TV show,  “The Dukes of Hazzard”) It represented sweet people with thick accents who loved me, and the southern half of my gene pool.   My grandma would tease my Dad and call him a yankee,  but she loved him dearly.   It was friendly banter,  like rival small-town sports teams who still cheered for the same major league team.

It did not represent —  to me,  at least– a living ideology,  but a long past history.  If I’m not mistaken,  I even bought my flag at Appomattox battlefield –  where the Civil War ENDED.

As I have grown older,  two things have changed.  First,  I have become aware that the Civil War and its sentiments are not as far removed from the present as my younger self believed.   Its impact on culture continues:  it is embedded in the DNA of our histories,  our institutions, our cities, our language,  and our religious practices. Second,  I have learned that that flag has been used (and even continues to increase in use?) to champion fringe movements encouraging racism and disunity.   That flag represents pain — historic and contemporary pain —  for people of color.

Last week, I was traveling in Europe and came across a specialty store which sold “western wear.”  The store was festooned in American flags… and the Confederate Battle Flag.   I was embarrassed and incensed.  This symbol of the long dead and deadly past lives on as a representation of the United States abroad.  Had the store been open,  I might have ventured to confront the proprietor.  Would he sell a Nazi flag?  Or worse –  was the Confederate flag a substitute for the Nazi flag used by modern day racists?

Less than a week after I passed that store,  our nation found itself in mourning for a massacre committed under that banner,  and in extensive dialog about that very flag.  I threw my flag away years ago,  but wish I still had it — so I could burn it as a ritual of mourning and repentance. 

No matter what good things that flag represents to people with southern heritage,  we must also be enlightened to what it means to others,  in the present. The swastika symbolized good fortune for millennia,  but no longer.   For Christians especially,  we are charged with sacrificing our own interests and freedoms for the sake of others.   It’s a hard teaching from Paul in 1 Corinthians : “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak…. if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (What actions of others contributed to the stumbling of the Charleston murderer?  But that’s another topic.)

Paul is writing about meat and idol worship,  but the premise resonates from Jesus teachings’ on love: love your neighbor as yourself. Once I become aware that the Confederate battle flag causes pain to some,  and that it is actively used as a banner for hate and disunity by others,  why would I still cling to its sentimental value? Love for others demands that I reject it. 

One commenter on a Facebook post summarized my sentiments beautifully.  Karen Redwine,  responding to a post by The God Article,  offered this: “I love my southern heritage and my roots are planted there in many ways, but cruelty and evil are not what I choose to identify with. If removing that flag would remove all traces of racism, then, let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Posted by: jcfretts | August 8, 2014

A eulogy for my Dad

Over the last several months, we’ve said many goodbyes, never knowing which would be the last. We’ve had many chances to reflect on our lives together.  This wicked disease has offered this small blessing – the opportunity to engage in these tender moments.  Two thoughts were foremost in Dad’s mind as he dealt with the frustration of an early departure from this life.  First, he hoped he had made a difference.  Before leaving Pennsylvania, the local farm community presented him with a plaque which stated, “In Don we trust.”  I know there are many people who felt that way in many places. The stories we’ve heard over the last several days have reiterated over and over again that my father was a confidant, advisor, and faithful supporter to so many.

The second thing Dad hoped was that he had been a witness.  He believed firmly that believing in and accepting Jesus led the way to both a meaningful life and an eternal life. He also believed in our obligation to be the representatives of Jesus’ on earth, in the flesh, through our actions.  A commitment to serving the mission of Jesus through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service” is a phrase common in several Methodist liturgies, and a phrase which he embodied.   

If the phrase “in Don we trust” rings true for you, know that his care for you flowed from his trust in God, and his understanding of Jesus teaching.  My Dad hoped that he had made a difference.  A difference in agriculture, a difference in education, a difference in the church, a difference in the lives of people around him.  He hoped he had been a witness. A witness to the love of God, and the need for a life built on the teaching of Jesus. 

It is our hope that Dad’s witness has inspired you to offer your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service, so that Jesus may be visible in your life, and celebrated as savior and God.

Posted by: jcfretts | June 29, 2014

A new offering: liturgy of giving for the 21st century

What does a collection of offerings look like in an era of e-currency?Jesus didn’t really make a habit of collecting an offering, except some loaves and fish.  Nonetheless, in religious practice, the giving of an offering or sacrifice as an act of worship is an ancient tradition. The practice remains symbolic and meaningful in Christianity today:  participants pool their resources, and offer them to the work of God through the assembled community. The collected gifts are usually presented formally at the altar in front of the church.

In modern practice, however, it has become an awkward vestige. Increasingly, Americans conduct all their financial transactions electronically. Many congregations have adopted e-giving practices. Members of the congregations gladly sign up for automated giving, rather than writing checks or depositing cash in the collection plate.  It is, frankly, an easier and more reliable way to fund the work of the church.

But what of the liturgy of the Offering in worship?  We pass empty offering plates, and offer empty plates to the work of God.  In a way, the symbolism has become negative–we “offer” nothing.  The tradition has become an anachronism. Some non-liturgical churches have minimized the ceremony to a a minor footnote in worship–passing the offering plates during the sermon, and bypassing any formal presentation of the collection.  But what of the liturgically-inclined?  What might an updated liturgy look like?

Here are two possibilities for consideration.

Offering, with collection and presentation

Invitation:  “Many in our congregation utilize online giving.  If you have additional offerings for the work of the church, our ushers will collect those at this time.  You may also place your prayer requests (reservations for events, visitor card, etc) in the offering plates.”Prayer of consecration: “Almighty God, we give you thanks for the gifts of our congregation to your work in this community and the world.  We offer the gifts presented here, the gifts given in the past week, and the gifts of our time and talents.  Use them; use us to your glory.  Amen.”

Offering, without collection
Assuming offering boxes at the doors and a predominance of e-giving.
Invitation:  “Many in our congregation utilize online giving.  If you have additional offerings to the work of the church, you can place those in the offering box as you leave today (alt: bring them to the front at this time).   This week, our community has given (dollar amount) to the work of God, and we have (number) people participating in ministry leadership.  Take a moment to reflect on how you will serve God this week, and then let us offer these gifts of time, treasure, and talent to the Lord.”(brief musical interlude with modulation to a doxology)

Prayer of consecration: “Almighty God, we thank you for your many blessings to us and once again dedicate ourselves to your service, offering the gifts of our time, our talent, and our treasure to you. Use them; use us to your glory.  Amen.”

I invite my many pastor and theologian friends to further develop these ideas.
Posted by: jcfretts | June 29, 2014

Verizon, we’re breaking up #divestVerizon

Dear Verizon, 

We’re breaking up.  This week, I will begin new relationships with other wireless and internet providers.  You used to tell me that you never stopped working for me. It was your mantra. But you lied.  By advancing your lawsuit to the Supreme Court, you won the right to discriminate against certain content and provide preferential treatment to other content..  Oh, you’ve promised that you won’t do that. Maybe you won’t this year, while eyes are on you.  But you will, and your competitors will.   You acted in your own best interest, and not the interest of the country or your customers.  You stopped working for me.  So I’m dumping you.

(Others, join me in breaking up with Verizon!  And tweet about it @Verizon #divestVerizon   Learn more about net neutrality here: )


Posted by: jcfretts | March 15, 2014

The man who takes care of Bill

“This is the man who takes care of Bill,” she said as she introduced Kenny to her neighbor.  Kenny winced a little as he forced a smile.  It was true–he was the man who took care of her brother.  They had taken care of each other for 44 years, in fact.  And six months ago, they had gotten married in the District of Columbia.  But she didn’t know that.  They didn’t want to upset her.

They left Sister’s house, and came back to finalize the loan on their new home in Arizona.  They had supportive family in Arizona, and the climate would be better for Bill’s ill health. Bill was a veteran, and they had applied for a loan through the veteran’s administration. When they called the loan officer, they discovered that the loan had been denied – they could only apply Bill’s assets and income, not Kenny’s.   After some scrambling and a larger down payment, they managed to secure the loan before the movers arrived at their existing residence.  But when signing the loan, they were required to sign as “Kenny… unmarried.”  “Bill… unmarried.”  “But that’s not true,” Kenny exclaimed to the closing agent.   “It is in Arizona,” she said.

For over forty years, these two southern gentlemen–now in their seventies–have loyally cared for each other.  Bill left his career as a Baptist pastor to be with Kenny. They quietly served in the civil service in an era when their relationship had to be invisible.
This is a true story.  I’ve only taken a little literary license to tie it together, and changed the names.   This morning, Bill and Kenny moved to a state which will ignore their marriage.  They will need massive legal documentation to preserve their rights to care for one another, manage each others’ finances, be together in the hospital–rights that would otherwise be guaranteed by their marriage certificate.    Forty-four years of caring for each other.  Now, Kenny is “the man who takes care of Bill,”  as he suffers from Parkinson’s and declining mental acuity.  These are not promiscuous young men caught up in a supposed “fad” of homosexuality.  These are loyal lifemates.
Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s one of only two commandments Jesus gave. A lawyer asked “But who is my neighbor?”  (Can you hear his pride at finding the loophole?)  After some paradigm-challenging discussion, he and Jesus agreed that the neighbor in the now-famous story of the Good Samaritan was “the one who had mercy on him,” and Jesus said “go and do likewise.”    Until this morning, Bill and Kenny were my next door neighbors. Arizona Christians: have mercy on them.  Be a neighbor to them.
Posted by: jcfretts | March 6, 2014

The Homeless Organ of Cameron Carpenter

I am intoxicated with the magnificent irony of Cameron Carpenter’s “international touring organ,” debuting this weekend in New York.  It is at once a brilliant creation of modern science, and an act of murder.
Cameron Carpenter is a musician of exceptional skill and talent. The irreligious and irreverent Carpenter already brought a new perspective to an art form dominated by church musicians and classicists.  The uniqueness of each instrument, though, frustrated his efforts to expand the boundaries of organ performance.  Each organ has a unique collection of pipes, keyboards, stops, and pedals.  A magnificent performance on one machine would need to be adapted and re-learned for another. Further, no organ belongs to its organist, leaving the organist forever a vassal to his patron.  Thus, an artist intent on performing widely is forever hampered by the capacity of the local instrument, or his ability to quickly learn its quirks. 
Carpenter’s performances are known for their athleticism, pushing the limits of human-machine interaction.  The organ is his dance partner–but he has a different partner each night.  To advance his craft, Cameron needed a permanent dance partner.   To solve this dilemma, he commissioned his very own touring organ. An electronic organ. No pipes.  It is arguably an organ simulator, with the ability to recreate the world’s great pipe organs, even modifying their sounds to fit the venue in which it is played.  In this device, the organ is ripped from its steampunk magnificence and firmly planted in the 21st century.  Like modern Americans, the organ has been freed from its place-bound existence and made endlessly mobile, for better or worse.
To be sure, this organ meets his purpose.  Carpenter is now a touring organist who owns his instrument.  It is no mere calliope or accordion, but rather the grand organ of a cathedral, a concert hall, or a theater, packaged “to go.”  Now, Cameron will play from the same console, with the same mechanical capability each night.  His dances on the pedals and keys will be more precise, not hampered by inconsistencies between instruments.  The organ may well become a prototype console, allowing for consistency among future instruments.  In these ways, the new organ breathes new life and new possibilities into an ancient art form, and allows its owner to display his great prowess.
Amid the technological marvel and personal triumph, though, I find myself asking, “at what cost comes this advancement?”  To make a disembodied pipe organ is to remove the essence of the instrument. 
As an architect, I know that the entire building in which an organ is housed is part of what creates the distinct sound experience of the organ. The music of a pipe organ is shaped and tuned by a blend of architecture, mechanics, and artistry.  The room shapes the sound of the organ. The physical and acoustic needs  of the organ shape the volume and appearance of the room.  To make a placeless pipe organ capable of replicating every organ, in any room, is to create the ultimate generic instrument, and to allow its performance in generic space.
To be sure, electronic organs have existed before, but none so grand and fabulously ironic. After all, the original purpose of the organ to be a generic instrument, replicating other instruments. I fear, though. that with the international touring organ Carpenter has simultaneously taken the art and craft of organ-making to its highest height, and signed its death warrant.  Nonetheless, I will be there for the first act of that glorious funeral at Lincoln Center on March 9.
Posted by: jcfretts | January 5, 2014

The Great Christmas Cop-Out

“Peace on earth, goodwill toward man.”  No, really.
I recently attended a Christmas presentation at a local church in which an actor portraying a friendly neighbor named Ned explained how the “peace” we talk about at Christmas is really inner peace.  Sorry Ned–I think you’ve missed the point of Jesus and traded it for a half-truth.
Now,  I must give this church credit: they did not over-evangelize the audience, but gently suggested that thinking people can find value in studying the Bible and following Jesus.  But the assertion that we have to explain away the angels’ message of peace strikes me as a cop-out.
Jesus taught and modeled a gospel of radical love and radical forgiveness.  The only times we know he got angry, he was reacting to hypocrisy, injustice, or a lack of love–usually from church leaders or his disciples.   Yes, “peace on earth,” can be inner peace that comes with a loving attitude and faith in God.  But if we stop there, we miss the effect of living like Jesus.
The Bible predicts our failure in this regard, saying that there will be those “having a form of godliness but denying its power:”

People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—  having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.”   2 Timothy 3:2-7

This passage from 2 Timothy is actually quite harsh – I don’t accuse the host church of the sins in the preceding verses.  But I do question if we American Christians have achieved a form of godliness–along with some of these sins–while denying the real power of the good news of Jesus.  The long term effect of treating everyone with radical love and forgiveness is peace on earth.  If we have not achieved it, it is largely our fault for not taking Jesus’ message of love seriously enough.
Does it really work?  Have we seen “peace on earth” resulting from something as soft as love and forgiveness?  Yes. Gandhi modeled it for us, and brought peaceful change of government in India. Mandela modeled it for us, and brought a peaceful end to apartheid and began a national journey of reconciliation.  The great successes of reconstruction in Germany and Japan are stories of forgiveness and compassion toward former enemies. My friend Tim modeled it, forgiving the man who murdered his father, and then going on to build a ministry of love and education in the murderer’s neighborhood. None of these are perfect examples, surely, but they show us that love and forgiveness are effective at bringing peace — certainly more effective than any other approach.  My entire lifetime–40 years, now–the United States has  worked for “peace” in Israel. I’m no expert on the subject, but building walls and bombs and a culture of hating the “other” does not seem to have proven effective there.  We strive for “peace” in the middle east by arming selected countries and regimes.  Has that brought peace?
Inner peace, explained in the local Christmas drama, is only part of the story.  Jesus really offered us peace on earth, if we want it.  So this last day of Christmastide, as a follower of Jesus, I cry out with the angels “peace on earth, goodwill toward man!”  Perhaps we were supposed to hear it as a command, rather than a proclamation.
Posted by: jcfretts | January 2, 2014

Modern America: is anything new under the sun?

Read these excerpts, then guess their source and to what they are referring:

  • The people are “ruled by a few…the powerful and wealthy elite.”
  • “The ruling elites structured society in their own self-interest. About half to two-thirds of the annual production of wealth went to the top few percent of the population.  The great gap between the wealthy and the rest (90 percent or more) had calamitous effects on the latter, including a life expectancy of about half that of the elite class.” 
  • “Wars were frequent, initiated by one group of elites against another for the sake of expanding their wealth and power…”
  • The social and political system was “legitimated by religious claims.”

OK, have you made your guess?  Who wrote this, and about what?  I could easily make most of  these statements to describe the current state of affairs in the United States.  But in fact this is part of an introduction describing the “ancient domination system” common to the ancient world and most of human civilization. Theologian Marcus Borg offers this introduction to the ancient domination system to provide context for reading the New Testament in his book Evolution of the Word.  Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at Jesus the countercultural messiah who preached good news to the poor.  And to re-read Machiavelli.  The more things change, the more humans seem to stay the same.

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