Friday, February 24, 2012

Celebrating the legacy of Whitney Houston: One Moment in Time that meant so much

It happens so frequently these days it seems. We lose an icon and the chorus of responses says ' gone too soon.' The latest balladeer to have left us is Whitney Houston. A lady whose legacy is as great as they come. For anyone who grew up in the 80s or 90s, Whitney was the lady that every girl that could 'carry a tune' wanted to be. In Barbados back in those days, it was an eye opener when the female pop singer you were hearing on the radio was not Whitney. Over the last few weeks when the press has been recapping the many hits she had in that period, I found myself saying many times, " Oh yeah, she sang that one too!"

In those years I am sure many people can tell you of first dates, school dances, modelling shows, and Miss 'Whatever' pageants where Whitney held centre stage. I am sure all over the world that the experiences were the same.That is why it makes me  sad when people concentrate on highlighting the personal problems that Whitney Houston had, and the way in which her own behaviour led ultimately to her self destruction. For many this is a serious blot on what was a stellar copy book.

I have to add that there is a tinge of irony when such comments come from people who are Christians or describe themselves as spiritual in some way. These are the same people who claim that we who are atheists are just materialists who don't understand the value of the transcendent. They say that it is the soul not the body that really matters. They emphasise that the eternal is more critical than the temporal and things that speak to heart far more powerful than those which speak purely to mind. Well, if they really believe what they say, then the triumph outruns the tragedy in Whitney's life by miles.

Whitney Houston's physical body is no longer here but her'spirit' lives on in the hearts of millions and will do for years, decades, maybe even centuries to come. In the course of her struggles, she suffered personally and that was a shame, but she did not for the most part bring harm to anyone but herself. Her immediate family and friends will feel the pain, but for the wider world it is the gain of the music that will have the greater impact. In spite of her celebrity, we have come to learn how lonely  and depressed she was prone to feel after the lights faded at the end of a show of glitz and glamour. We've heard of how the pressure of maintaining her place at the top often told on her mentally, emotionally and physically. Yet, she battled through to give the world some of the most memorable performances of all time. In many ways Whitney Houston sacrificed her own life for the benefit of us all.

Of course, at this time of the year, we are often told of another sacrifice made in a different context which the faithful call the greatest love of all. That saviour being referenced is one who gave up his life after 33  years, 15 less than the number that Whitney shared with us. I know that it wasn't that our saviour wilfully went out there and destroyed his own body to cause his own death. Nonetheless, he certainly had the power to prevent his own demise. We can recognise that Whitney was a flawed human being, who was eventually unable to defeat her own inner demons. But our saviour, we are told,  was God in flesh. Surely there was no demon that could prevail against him. Yet, he chose to grace us for such a fleeting moment. One would think that after going through the trouble of travelling all the way down here, he would have hung around at least long enough to make the trip worth it.

Jesus if he wanted to, could have lived much longer. I understand that for the Christian his death and resurrection are important, but I fail to see why a more mature man hanging on the crucifix would have made the story less meaningful. James Sisnett in  Barbados just reached 112, couldn't Jesus have at least managed half that? We may not want to be greedy enough to ask for a 969 score like Methuselah in the Old Testament, but if you think about it, there is no reason why he should not have granted us that. Indeed, Jesus could still be living among us in the flesh. All he had to do was raise himself from the dead but delay the ascension. Just think of the things we could have learnt from the master if millions more had walked beside him.We could have had millennia of miracles.Well, that was not the plan. In fact we are told that we should actually love him more because he gave up his life for us, we are to adore him for what was effectively a suicide mission.While Whitney  tended to sing about miracles rather than perform them, there is no doubt  that her music had its own special brand of magic that could empower the listener. If we blame Whitney for leaving us in body too early, we should have some words of admonition for our Lord and saviour too. Fair is fair!

One Moment in Time: My personal experience

I know that some people would think saying that Whitney Houston's music could empower in a way similar to how their saviour does is nothing short of sacrilegious. Well, I will take a leaf out of their book and do exactly what they do. I will speak from my personal experience. In the wake of Whitney's death there have been people  reminiscing on songs like 'I'll Always Love You' ' The Greatest Love of All,' and 'Where do Broken Hearts Go?'  Many have recalled  the performance of the US anthem back in 1991. All of these were noteworthy, but my favourite Whitney Houston song, by some distance is  'One Moment in Time.'

 In 1988,when I was active in my church in Barbados, I got together with a few friends and we formed an instrumental ensemble with the aim of performing during services and other social activities. As teenagers we were all relatively 'green' on our instruments but we just felt we could combine our talents and do something positive for our church. I took on the role of leader, having no experience whatsoever in managing anything. I had no idea how far we could take the group, but the team gelled, we were having fun and that was all that mattered. 1988  was the year of the Olympics in Seoul and there was a lot of excitement in the air particularly surrounding the huge 100m clash between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis and the sudden emergence of Florence Griffith Joyner (Flo Jo). It seemed everyone was catching the fever. In the midst of it all was the release of this stunning piece of music by Whitney Houston which just seemed to capture everything about the Olympic spirit. " Give me one moment in time when I am more than I thought I could be."

I just felt that this was a song we could adapt and make our own. Looking back, I think we ourselves were hoping that one day we too would find our 'moment.' I remember distinctly sitting down and arranging that song for the instruments that we had. It was far from the full orchestra that Ms. Houston had at her disposal. We had two violins, two flutes, a clarinet, a saxophone and a guitar, but we had to make it work. I smile today when I remember putting together the music for the climax with the Pam-pam a namp, pam-a namp, pamanamanama, pam-pam a namp, pam-a namp, pamanamanama.and then the notes to, " I will be, I will be free!"

Well, the piece went down splendidly with the congregation the first time we came out with it and whenever we did it after that it just 'hit.' It quickly became the signature piece in our repertoire. So successful was the group in our church setting that we quickly started getting invitations to play at churches all over the country. By the next year we truly got our moment in time when we were invited to play at a national service at the historic Kensington Oval in front of about three thousand people and live on television for thousands more at home to see. We didn't perform " One Moment in Time" on that day but I felt that tune had brought us there. It was a thrilling day and a moment that none of us could have imagined one year earlier.

Over the years, I just took 'One Moment in Time' with me. I often had the notes of the song playing in my head, as I took off my track suit at the starting line when competing at inter house or inter school sports. I hoped that one day my own personal 'moment' would come. One day it did, in 10.77 seconds on March 1st, 1990. I had set the Under 20 Boys record for the 100 metres at my school. I was ecstatic. For that moment I was definitely  'more than I thought I could be.' Many highlights in life have come since but that moment still remains right up there with my greatest.

Praying tribute to Whitney Houston

With such good memories associated with Whitney Houston I was looking forward to paying tribute in my little way. Of course my theological perspective is far different now than it was in the days when her songs were popular. That change proved to be significant. My Christian friends  were thrown into ecstacy with the nature of the funeral on Saturday; thrilled at the reach their gospel got in just a few hours. For me, the few genuine touches of emotion, were interspersed with far too many 'facepalm' moments. 

From start to finish it was all about Jesus. Every person who took to the stage to perform or speak paid homage to the divine. From Kevin Costner to Stevie Wonder to Clyde Davis to Alicia Keys it was all the same refrain. So much so, that when Marvin Winans got up to give the sermon and said he was NOW ready to start the preaching, I wondered what church he had been sitting in for the preceding three hours.Everyone wanted to jump on to the Baptist bandwagon, many saying with a great degree of assurance that Whitney was in heaven warming up her voice to lead the 'Angel Chorus' before the Lord. I can't see a person's heart, but I have to think that some of the speakers were at least agnostic; simply feeling it necessary to play to the church gallery in order to score points with the faithful sitting directly in front of them. 

It made me recognise one more reason why so many people who agree with our 'no God' position intellectually, don't want to go all the way and declare themselves as atheists. We atheists would be hypocrites if we said we don't believe in God and then went to a funeral to talk about grandma upstairs  playing a harp. Indeed, we would not want to do that anyway,  because we would not be being true to ourselves. That's why in general I like people who self identify as atheists. We in most cases stick to our stated principles. We don't waver into belief when it suits us. It is unfortunate that people feel they need to be dishonest in order to comfort. However, I am convinced that's what much of the world thinks. 

So, those who stay in the agnostic or 'spiritual but not religious'  camp may  not be that open to the possibility of God. It might be more that that they want to be able to play the part of 'Christian' when circumstances demand it. They want to be able to live in both worlds. Sit with the atheists and make fun of irrational beliefs like talking snakes, virgin births and bodies ascending into clouds. Later, when tragedy strikes, they want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the faithful and declare that they KNOW the departed has floated up on a cloud to heaven and is singing in a heavenly choir before Jesus. This type of nimble theological footwork often leaves us atheists shaking our heads in disbelief. We who have declared our hand publicly as atheists know we have given up our chance to do this dance and therefore regularly get the doors slammed in our face when we want to come to their party or share in their wake. I know it may sound like an exaggeration but it's true. This feeling of not being able to take part on occasions that we desperately would love to is something that I am not sure that many people who are are not atheists understand. 

Message to my Christian Friends

Christians, with every invocation to the supernatural, you believe you are getting closer to God and doing his will to let us know about him. For you He is the one who provides all the inspiration, the joy, the comfort and the blessings. For us it is rather different. Every time you say 'Lord',  'Jesus' or 'Heavenly Father' you  push us further away. Sure we can listen through and politely smile when you start your testimonies. Of course we are not insecure egomaniacs that will throw a tantrum just because you use a prayer word. But we do feel a little bit hollow inside when you go all  'God ' on us. When you tell us that faith is all that really matters and God is the only one who can heal, you are effectively telling us atheists that there is nothing we can do to help. Because God is the one gift we can't bring you and you know that very well. We are convinced nonetheless that there is much we can offer  within our secular package. However, by just going on about God, you make us feel embarassed about our presents and  we sometimes just want to slink away unnoticed through the back door.

Often when I raise such objections in theist circles I get a patronising " Awwwh, so sorry that you feel left out, maybe you need a little atheist God  to make you feel happy." They just don't get it. Our displeasure with them also plays into the widely held view that atheists are basically sad people who would be much happier if we just accepted their God . In reality, the sadness is not caused by a rejection of Christ but rather by  the rejection of a Christian. What is often not realised is that when theists exclude us they are also hurting themselves. The truth is that they love us as friends and  family members and  want us to be with them in their hour of need or celebration. They just don't see a way to bring us into the circle unless we join them and their God on their terms. In those moments you want to say or do something to show them that their is a 'spirit' that soars above mere belief or disbelief in something. It is stronger than that which is contained in any faith tradition or secular ideology and it can unite us all as human beings.

This 'spirit' capable of transcending  the faith boundary is exactly what so many of Whitney Houston's greatest works tapped into.Songs like 'I'll Always Love You' 'The Greatest Love of All,' 'I am Every Woman' and my favourite  'One Moment in Time'  speak directly to that 'spirit'. The power of these songs comes from the fact that they can speak to people of faith or 'no faith.' For those that believe in God, they can relate to the sentiments and link them to the supernatural source they believe in. Persons more agnostic or atheistic can look towards the magnificence of the natural world, microscopic and macroscopic, and how when the right synergies are present the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. For me, that is the true power of the songs that were Whitney Houston's greatest. 'Yes Jesus Loves Me' may have been her last performance, but it will not be the song of hers that  leaves the most lasting impression. Why? Because songs that speak to one special faith club will never beat the ones that can embrace all humanity.

Yes, the church is where Whitney got her start, but that's not what made her Whitney Houston. Whitney Houston was a star not because Christians loved her or because the black church loved her. Whitney was a star because the world loved her. It is a pity that we didn't let her speak a bit more to that world in her final moment in time.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Carols and more for Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day! 

It wasn't how I designed it, but things evolved in such a way as to make it a full Darwin weekend for me at the university. A day  of activities on Friday with the secular community included a discussion, video, 'carol singing' and a celebratory cake for the famous scientist. Even a "Happy Birthday Song" which included someone cheekily wishing Darwin ' many more.' So we can now say it is not just 'believers' that sing birthday songs to people who have passed from this life. I suppose we can argue that we have an advantage in that we actually know the birth date of him who we recognise. And no, in case you are wondering, we did not get down on our  knees and pray to an " Evolving Saviour." 

The planned talk by Daniel Dennett was to be Friday's highlight, but mechanical failure of a plane, meant a wait of  an extra 24 hours.So Saturday ended up being  'Dennett Day', as the well known atheist philosopher spoke to a packed auditorium at the university. Much food for thought was delivered in that presentation. It was certainly worth the wait.

And now today, Sunday, I can share with the online community in recognising the famous author of 'Origin of the Species.' It does strike me that even though Darwin has made an amazing contribution to the field of biology, it is far more than that which people celebrate today. It is a recognition of the importance of scientific enquiry as a whole. The beauty of movement from a hypothesis in the mind, to a journey, sometimes lasting a lifetime, to look for evidence in the natural world. The development of a model, framework and a theory to tie it all together, based on what the data shows.  It is a narrative to remind us all that for good science we must follow the data where it leads us, no matter the impact it may have for our previously held beliefs, traditions or embedded cultures. Reality is not something we can get close to discovering if we put loyalty to our home tribe, or desire for self satisfying answers as our goal. It is an important lesson for us all to remember, no matter where we fall on the theistic spectrum.

On this special day, I leave you with two carols we enjoyed singing for Darwin . Hope you enjoy them too.

Carols penned by Dr. Marcia Epstein, Humanist Liaison at the University of Calgary.

Charlie Darwin looked about

(To the tune of Good King Wenceslas looked out”)

Charlie Darwin looked about
on the deck of Beagle;
thinking of the finch's beak,
and the wing of eagle.
Brightly gleamed the sea that day,
as the sun was shining:
Darwin paced the deck that day,
nature's laws divi--ning.

Studying geology, he
thought of ancient mountains,          
questioning theology, he
quested for  life's fountains:
pondering biology,
seeking a solution,
Darwin made a leap of faith
 into evolu--tion!

Though he knew not Mendel's Laws, nor
DNA's connection,
Darwin knew that time and clime shaped
natural selection.
'Origin of Species'  made
sense of  evolution,
So we know today that he
sparked a revolution!

Twelve Eons of Evolution
(To the tune of “12 days of Christmas”: add each verse to the first one until all 12 are sung)

1. We know that evolution made  DNA the key ( to):
our human family!

2) the clever chimpanzee, and our human family.

3) primates in a tree, the clever chimpanzee, and our human family.

4) dolphins & whales,

5) Fe--males and Males! (note: the tune changes at this point)

6) predatory mammals

7)  little furry mammals

8) birds of a feather

9) flying pterodactyls

10) great leaping lizards

11) phylum chordata

12)  tiny protozoa