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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 12, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Casting Crowns, "Service" Projects, Pronunciation

Music is such a private taste, and so hard to describe, that I find most music reviews to be nearly pointless. That is, I learn such a tiny amount from the review, compared to what I learn from listening for ten seconds, that it's almost not worth the effort of reviewing it.

And yet ... sometimes I come across an album or a group that I find so exciting I have to tell people about it. But then I'm not really reviewing so much as doing "word of mouth" -- with as big a mouth as possible!

The idea, then, is that I tell you what a friend would: "Wow, this is so cool, and here's why, you gotta check it out." Then you either check it out or not.

So let me tell you about the powerful new album Come to the Well from the Christian rock group Casting Crowns.

Christian rock? Oh, come on!

Well, that's how I normally feel. I only started looking at Christian pop in a serious way when the album in support of the movie Amazing Grace came out. What I found was that, with a few exceptions, the Christian pop groups were wonderful when they sang old standard hymns with modern arrangements, but their own original music wasn't very good.

And it tended not to be very good in the same ways: The lyrics were too on-the-nose, so they seemed banal; there was no poetry in them; and there was a constant note of self-congratulation: "Isn't it cool that we're Christian"?

That's probably not fair, but it's the impression I got.

Casting Crowns was not among those groups. Instead, I ran into them as a referral by Amazon from other purchases I made. I gave them a listen. I downloaded Come to the Well.

And I've been listening to it almost constantly for days.

With rare exceptions, their lyrics are not self-congratulatory. On the contrary, the lyrics are, if anything, self-critical: Here's how, as Christians, we aren't measuring up. We're too judgmental. We've lost our fire. We stand by as spectators, doing nothing while the world destroys itself. We're not worthy of Christ, so only his mercy can save us.

And when the lyrics aren't self-critical, they tend to be anthems inspiring us to better action: I think particularly of the surging, driving "Courageous" and the confessional plea "My Own Worst Enemy."

The music itself is good, solid, driving rock. Think: U2 bearing witness of Christ. Except when it has a more folky feel, as in "City on the Hill" and "Jesus, Friend of Sinners."

Here's where the album shines: Mark Hall, the lead singer and songwriter, has a terrific voice in every sense. He sings powerfully, yes, but he also writes powerful words to sing.

This man knows his scriptures. And he writes the way Jesus taught. In fact, he often takes images that Jesus used in his sermons, then expands on them, literalizes them further.

But in extending the metaphors, he keeps both ends of the metaphor alive. So that when he writes in "Wedding Day" a clear treatment of the Church as the bride of Christ, he also makes it a beautiful, personal song about real-world weddings.

And not every song is utterly Christian. "Angel" is a love song, very personal, by a man in love with the woman he's marrying -- like the best country love songs. If this song isn't sung or played at every wedding reception for the next five years, it's only because the bride and groom haven't heard it yet.

Hey, it's been nearly 35 years since my own wedding, but "Angel" brought me to tears thinking of how much I love my wife. I'm playing it now. Had to stop typing to wipe my eyes.

OK, so I'm a sentimental fool. But I prefer it to cynicism! Guys, seriously, even if all you download is this track, listen to this song and I bet you'll play it for your wife to tell her how you feel.

And "The Well" is Christianity at its best, drawing from Christ's image of himself as the provider of living water, as the song invites everyone to come to the well from which that water is drawn.

Naturally, I didn't stop with the album Come to the Well. I didn't download the Casting Crowns Christmas album Peace on Earth until after Christmas, but it's one of the best Christmas albums I've ever heard. "While You Were Sleeping" is a new take on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" -- but extending it to a critical view of America today.

The other songs are mostly traditional songs done in a very nontraditional way, with surprising but beautiful harmonies and rhythms. "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is an exception, in that Mark Hall has revised Longfellow's original words and written a new tune. And it's better than the traditional one.

I also downloaded Lifesong, an earlier album. It's very good -- it's not criticism to say it's not as consistently good as Come to the Well. It has brilliant songs like "Love Them Like Jesus" and "Lifesong," and a very good country-Christian story song, "Does Anybody Hear Her."

"Stained Glass Masquerade" is the best treatment of hypocrisy I've ever heard -- not least because it's sympathetic, showing the desperate wish for goodness and fear of discovery that lie behind many hypocrisies.

These albums are so good, and deserve such close attention, that I'm limiting myself to downloading a new album every couple of weeks, so I have time to really listen to each one, song after song.

It's worth pointing out: As a Mormon, I'm definitely a Christian, but I have my doctrinal differences with the version of Christianity that Mark Hall offers in his songs. Still, he draws from the aspects of the faith that we have in common, and where we would disagree in a Sunday school class, I don't disagree with the music.

So I can be moved and stirred by "Already There," even though I don't believe that it is possible for anything to exist outside of time, including God (it's actually a philosophical impossibility, which is why it's usually presented as a "Mystery"), but that's not important, because it's metaphorically true to say that Christ is already there where we're going.

It's possible to find a work of art beautiful even when I disagree with some aspects of what it depicts.

By the way, "Casting Crowns" comes from the fourth chapter of Revelation, verses 10 and 11:

"The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 'Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.'"

I know there are some people who think Christian music should be hymns and oratorios; some are offended by modern and pop music in a religious setting. To those people, I can only say, Don't get this album.

But to those who think every kind of art can be religious, and that artists' deepest faith will always show up in all their works, this is a superb example.

And I take back what I just said. Even those who think pop music can't really be Christian, just download the track "Love Them Like Jesus" and listen to it. The music is beautiful, and I don't think there has ever been a better explanation of how you minister to those who are in need of comfort. I can't imagine any Christian disapproving of the song.

*

It's time for us to put a stop to the way the schools are stealing our children's time. No, I'm not talking about homework -- though it's outrageous that the schools think they own even five minutes of our children's time when the school day ends.

I'm talking about the sheer arrogance of our school system daring to require that seniors do senior projects, beyond their classwork. At Weaver, where our daughter attends, that takes the form of "service projects." At other schools, they're supposed to do a project in the field they expect to study or practice after graduation.

Maybe the things they learn from these projects are intrinsically good. It's also a good thing for children to have regular dental checkups. But that doesn't mean it's the business of the school system to require it.

My seventeen-year-old just finished her senior project. Twenty hours apparently doesn't sound like an excessive amount of time to the school administrators who dictated this requirement.

And the project was certainly a worthy one -- my wife had coordinated a similar project, providing blankets for Project Linus, among the women in our church group several years ago.

But our daughter is in the drama program at Weaver, so she is already constantly involved in after-school rehearsals, in memorizing scripts, in coming up with costumes, writing scripts.

Add to that the time she spends on church attendance and service -- we Mormons spend a lot of time in our church community -- and the burden of homework demanded by her AP and other classes, and we barely saw her all through the autumn.

Maybe there are families where parents and teenagers are perfectly happy not to see each other, but ours is not one of them. This is her last year of high school. She will be going away to college next year. This is the end of her life as a child in our home.

And that senior project stole twenty hours from us that we could not spare, and will never get back.

There is a whole lifetime for her to do service projects, and as for the usual "senior project," isn't college a good time for kids to start their college work?

In our children's senior year of high school, it's outrageous for the school system to force them to do a major project above and beyond their classwork. How about teaching them effectively in class and then letting them have a little freedom?

We have involved our children in service through their whole lives. We have also given them educational experiences far beyond what the schools offer. So why does the school think it's their job to assign projects beyond their schoolwork? Who do they think they are?

I can just hear a school system do-gooder saying, "But Mr. Card, not every child has parents who provide them all these opportunities."

To which my answer is, Feel free to offer those children an opportunity for extra projects, if they want them. The fact is, all families are different, and children are therefore faced with a different set of experiences and opportunities. It's not the schools' job to give children identical childhoods.

And when they steal family time from us, they make themselves my enemy.

I'm sixty years old. I had a stroke last year. How long will I be a part of my children's lives, or have them as part of mine? But the school decided they knew best about how her free time should be spent.

Time is our most priceless commodity. Because education is important, we give the school system many hours of each school day in which to help us prepare our children for their future lives.

But that's what we need to keep in mind here. The schools are supposed to help us. The children are ours, not theirs; the schools are servants of our children, not their masters.

I don't care how many degrees or how much "expertise" school administrators or teachers might have. None of it gives them the right to take even one second of our children's time beyond what we have delegated to them by law.

Are their lousy parents in the world? Are their children who misuse their free time? Sure. Of course. But fixing those situations is not the business of the school system (beyond the requirement to report child abuse, and provide lunches and transportation to those who need it).

Most of us are good parents. We love our children. We treasure our time with them.

It is also a proven fact that the relationship between parents and children is far more important for their future happiness than anything the school system supplies.

We know our children better than you do, O administrators, and we love them far more, and we will supply their needs, thank you very much.

Because there's one thing we can give them that you can never, never, never provide: Freedom.

Free time in which to be children, in which to play, yet safely, with adult supervision where required. Freedom to make their own choices, freedom to have friendships or read books or watch movies or play games or just walk or run or nap or sit around wondering about things.

You can't give them that. In fact, your entire organization exists to do the opposite: To take freedom away from children by assigning them things to do.

As long as you stay within your bounds, you provide a good service for our children.

But when you step outside those bounds, you are thieves, dictators, tyrants. You should not have the power to take a single hour away from our families, outside of the normal school day.

If we choose to let our children take part in sports or music or plays or clubs or voluntary service projects, then it's great that you provide opportunities.

We're happy to have our tax money subsidize such offerings.

But the moment you require something -- by making homework apply to grades and credit, by making seniors carry out projects outside of class time -- then you have forgotten yourselves, you have exceeded your authority.

We only tolerate it because our children themselves are afraid of the consequences of resistance. "My teachers will be angry," "It will hurt my grades," "I don't want to make waves," our children say. And so we endure it.

(You notice that I didn't write this until after our daughter had completed her service project.)

That's why it's essential that we get a school board that fights for parents and keeps the "experts" reined in within their proper bounds.

The school board, elected by us, should require the school system to use the school day wisely and teach well -- and then leave the rest of our children's time to their families.

Until the school system can guarantee me that I will have many more years to be involved with my children's lives, then they should shudder at the thought of depriving any father or mother of even an hour of free time to associate with their children.

If there are parents who don't want or value such time, so be it. But there are far more of us who do, and we're tired of "experts" who are so ignorant and arrogant that they think that their uses for our children's time are more valuable than ours, and then use the powers and pressures of school to steal that time from us.

Senior projects of any kind are time-wasters, but senior service projects are pernicious, because they fail in their purpose before they even start. For the moment that it becomes a requirement for graduation, it ceases to be service and becomes involuntary servitude.

You know: slavery. Yeah, that'll teach them the joy of service.

If any school board candidates had the courage to run for office on a pledge to eliminate any requirements that intrude on family time, they'd have my vote -- and my money to help their campaign.

*

Those who have wrestled with the spelling of English words will appreciate this poem about the miseries and inconsistencies of English spelling, "The Chaos," by Gerard Nolst Trenité.

It is amusing to me, of course, that the poet's own name shows us the nightmare of spelling in other languages, which make constant use of diacritical marks like that accent over the final e.

But it's true that English is full of gross inconsistencies, and this poem does a masterful job of demonstrating many of the most outrageous examples. The joke is that words spelled alike are pronounced differently, while words pronounced alike are spelled with absurd differences.

For what it's worth, all these inconsistencies arose quite naturally -- they were usually not inconsistent when the spellings were originally set. The "gh" sound, for instance, was like the German "ch" in Bach; but it either went silent or turned into other sounds, while the spelling preserved the memory of the old sound.

I'll bet, though, that most readers will find that they don't get at least some of the jokes -- because almost nobody pronounces all these words correctly.

The Chaos
Gerard Nolst Trenité

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it's written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation's OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won't it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It's a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is: give it up!

See http://www.spellingsociety.org/journals/j17/caos.php


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