It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To

church_candles_by_wedamajeI really do feel like crying about it sometimes. It’s the same every year. You’d think I would have got used to it by now. But I haven’t.

I want to celebrate my special day. I want to celebrate with friends and family and anyone else who wants to come along…but so many people want to tell me that actually my special day is not the day I thought it was at all. No. It’s something else. I understand the confusion, I really do, but that doesn’t always ameliorate my frustration when they make out I’m making too much fuss about it.champagne_350x350

I’m talking, of course, about Christmas. The clue is in the name – Christ + mas(s): Christmas is a Christian festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus, God’s Son. And tomorrow, Sunday, is when all over the world the Christian Church begins the countdown  to this special event with the season we call ‘Advent’.

screen-shot-2013-11-08-at-165724Now don’t get me wrong. The way in which we celebrate doesn’t actually matter that much – witness the many different types and styles of celebrations and traditions all over the world. The Christian communities are certainly not sticking to one set pattern. The form doesn’t matter as long as the substance remains. And it is that ‘substance’ that is so often the cause of all my fuss.

Rather than being a Christian celebration with the coming of God amongst us (‘Emmanuel’ , should you wonder why you are singing that at some point this season) I have heard on innumerous occasions that actually Christmas is all about –

a) the children

b) being with family

c) a time for giving

d) a time for indulging and over eating/drinking

e) Santa Claus

or

f),  which is ‘none of the above as it is a totally commercialised endeavour to part us from our cash’.

There is no doubt that each of these, in some way, forms part of the celebration for many people. But that is not the same as being the cause or focus of the occasion. I can imagine myself attending a football match and being witness to some hooliganism. Am I accurate in assuming that violence is at the heart of the game?

Or on a lighter note, following The Great British Bake Off I may notice that the bookshops are stocking more recipe and ‘big name’ cookbooks around baking. Am I accurate in writing off the program as merely a propaganda stunt on behalf of the publishing industry?

creche_figurinesThe list could go on and on…the BBC has a section specially aimed at children called Cbeebies – does that make the whole organisation an outlet for children only? No, of course not!

Yet, that seems to be what has happened with Christmas in the West. I’m overjoyed that so many families and children enjoy sharing in the celebrations. I’m certainly not going to be the one to judge those who use the festival as an excuse to punish their bodies with alcohol and excess eating – or those who are trying to make a living by selling us the things we might choose to use to celebrate at home. All are welcome!

But welcome to a celebration of the birth of Christ. Welcome to share in the good news of peace and goodwill from God to humankind. Welcome to join us and sing the carols, give the gifts and enjoy the feasting and times of fellowship with one another.

Just please don’t try and tell me that I’m celebrating something else.

In closing I’d add that I would have a great deal more time for those who claim that Christianity is a load of silly nonsense if they put their money – and time and effort – where their words are and actually didn’t celebrate Christmas.

It’s a religious festival. If you don’t believe it or don’t like that is your choice. But please don’t come along to my party and tell me to stop making a fuss about its real meaning…

After all, as a Christian, its my party and I can cry if I want to.

 

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Bach Humbug!

Ok, so it’s a pretty poor attempt to shoe-horn this into the Christmas season but it was worth a try. But that may be the slightly off-centre type of thinking that makes us human.

computer-model-reconstruct-bach-bachs-most-realistic-appearance

Computer-generated model of Bach, based upon information from paintings

Towards one end of the scale such left field thought processes generate terrible puns like mine. At the other they may reach the heights of creativity and the like. And for many, the likes of J.S. Bach are right out at the point that draws acclamations such as ‘genius’.

Whether or not you agree I think we should all be wary of some of the claims from researchers at Washington University regarding the ‘mapping’ of Bach’s music. The team have, for the first time, precisely analysed Bach’s music note by note and have been able to present the information using computers and over a million annotated labels. The results have been published on MusicNet with the hope that composers and the like can make good use of them.

So far so good. But they also have in mind the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and are hoping that machine learning researchers can use the algorithms they have created to both re-create and to replicate Bach’s music.

bwv1043Some already have their eye on using AI to finish Bach’s unfinished fugue or to generate music tailored to the individual by analysing the minutiae of favourite pieces of music.

These thoughts – plans even – are not isolated to the world of classical music. There are similar endeavours throughout the tech industry. But I think we should all be worried, disturbed and rightly resistant. Not, in a luddite sense, to the technology itself. But to the claims, motives and outcomes that are not currently being critiqued or challenged by the industry itself.

First are insidious claims that the machine knows best. In most of the reports researchers were quoted as saying that using algorithms to complete Bach’s fugue would result in the ‘definitive’ or ‘expert’ version.

I wonder if Bach would agree? Who else, after all, could truly be said to be worthy of giving the final judgement on his music? Or are we to cede the joy of our individuality to the machine? Besides, if you asked me for the best version of anything, so much of my response is to do with the ‘whole me’ – my mood, my experiences, my needs at that moment in time. What I consider best one day is not certain to remain at the top tomorrow. More likely it will become one of, rather than the. Or the best so far.

When will we learn that Technology is a way of doing things and not the only way?!

Also worrying is the trend towards using such technology to tailor our own experiences and interactions with the world.

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MusicNet analytics

Now I’m reasonably ok with e-bay or someone using what I have looked at to suggest some alternatives, based upon which search terms I have used.

It bugs me most of the time because I like to do that old fashioned ‘browsing’ thing – browsing from before the days of the internet where it meant more like:

‘Rummaging through a load of un-related things because I wont know what I want until I see it.’

(I am one of the generation who, on rainy afternoons, might pick up all kinds of interesting ideas because they had resorted to flicking through encyclopedia when there was nothing else to do.)

bach1Just occasionally, the algorithms work and I will use the suggestion offered. However, most of the time, for an unbelievably complex series of reasons, responses and unconscious associations beyond even the best super-computer, I baulk at the suggestions offered.

In short, I don’t want a computer-fed-playlist of music that I like. I’ve no doubt the researchers would do a fine job and that I would find most of the music had some appeal. But music is not about me. If my music was limited to the confines of my taste and my interpretation it would pretty soon begin to turn sour in my mouth – or ears at least.

“So God created human beings in his own image.”

Genesis 1:27

Whatever else Genesis tells us about the world and why things are the way they are it is absolutely clear that we are not machines or machine fodder. God is the source of all of our creativity and imagination. Just as we see God’s creativity in the Universe around us and in our own being, we are called to explore that pull to imagine in every aspect of our lives.

Rather than looking for the ultimately limited and short-sighted ‘quick win’ of things being perfectly suited to our own needs I feel we need to embrace God’s gift of complexity.

“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvellous – how well I know it.”

Psalm 139:14

Being made in God’s image means I am fundamentally a relational being. I learn by exploring and interacting with the world and with others because they are not like me.

piano

Just as each human being is an expression of God’s creating love we too find God in our creating and loving.

True, sometimes what we create – from the suffering of others to especially poor puns such as ‘Bach Humbug’ – are painful and difficult to celebrate. But the answer lies in developing our creativity, not ceding it to technology.

The lack of humility of humans before humanity (and the rest of creation) is more frequent and more disturbing. Yes, music, like all the Arts, makes use of structure and all kinds of physical, chemical, psychological and physiological structural interplay. But just being able to analyze these events is not what creates them.

And using the results of such tools to barricade myself into a world of ‘just what I like’ not only impoverishes me but makes me god of a smaller, meaner, less creative and imaginative world  – one not even of my own making; one I have ceded to a machine.

But I’ll leave the last word to the great man himself…johann-sebastian-bach-quotes-3

 

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