I am the national poster-boy for cultural illiteracy. Well, maybe that’s too harsh. It’s probably better to say that I have gaps — blind spots — in my cultural education. I’ve read Shakespeare, Tolstoy and many of the classics. I know the difference between Mozart, Sting and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I can identify van Gogh and Monet at a glance. It’s just that there is so much I don’t know, so much that passes by without creating any spark of recognition at all, as if I were blind.
For instance, it was only in the past year that I got to know Raymond Scott. Like many kids, my musical education began with Looney Tunes and the wacky melodies of The Raymond Scott Quintette. Scott was an engineer turned musician, obsessed with how he might use technology to take music in new directions. He began his experimentation in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, when radio was the new entertainment medium of the day and the joyous sounds of jazz and swing battled against the dark terrors Hitler had unleashed in Europe.
Scott realized early on that the microphone altered music in interesting ways. He built his musical compositions by ear, recording musical vignettes and playing them back for his band, refining them and re-recording until he was satisfied they had achieved whatever was in his head. The six-member “quintette” (Scott liked the sound of the word better than sextet) consisted of a drummer, bass, trumpet, clarinet, tenor sax and Scott on the piano, all performing in a circle around a couple of large diaphragm microphones.
Scott’s joyous and manic musical style is reflected in the quirky titles of his compositions, such as “War Dance for Wooden Indians,” “Girl at the Typewriter,” “Egyptian Barn Dance,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” and “Powerhouse,” a piece featured just this year on a series of Visa credit card ads.
Many animated cartoons were scored with opera or other classical music. The manic hi-jinks of Looney Tunes seemed a perfect fit for Scott’s mad music — it helped that Warner Brothers already owned the rights to Scott’s catalog.
Raymond Scott’s engineering talents led him to build electronic music machines that were the precursors to our modern-day synthesizers. He worked with and encouraged the young Robert Moog, whose name became synonymous with the first commercially successful keyboard synthesizers.
Those Visa ads piqued my curiosity. I instantly recognized them as something I had heard from my childhood. I knew this music, but I realized I didn’t know anything at all about the man who had created this unique sound.
As a child watching Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, the musical score had simply entered my subconscious and stuck there as part of the experience. It never once occurred to me that there was a person behind that music, a gifted man with a peculiar way of thinking that enabled him to write music that broke new ground. I just never thought about it.
And so, it took me some 50 years before I thought to ask the questions “Where did that music come from?” and “Who was the genius behind those sounds that I had loved as a child?”
That’s what I mean when I say that I had a cultural blind spot. I suppose I assumed that Raymond Scott’s music created itself out of thin air!
In every experience of our daily lives we benefit from the creativity and energy of countless men and women like Raymond Scott. When I step into my car, I am beholden to the mass-manufacturing ideas of Henry Ford. When I turn on the lights, I can thank the tireless experimentation of Thomas Edison. When I stepped into the polling booth last month, I benefited from the political thinking of Thomas Jefferson.
The minutia of our daily lives are lived out in a rich cultural framework that has been created for us by the genius and hard work of countless men and women. We know this, even if we are often blind to the fact, or simply incurious about who it is we are indebted to.
But strangely, when it comes to life itself, to the universe and the elements that form it, to the earth and the stars, to the amazing richness of animal and plant life on our planet, we assume as I once did that all of these things simply sprung up out of nowhere. Remarkably, “sprang out of nowhere” is the accepted scientific dogma of our age for this miracle we call life.
Blinded by our own form of illiteracy, we are sure there could be no genius behind DNA, no genius behind species adaptation, no genius behind the mind and our ability to think, question, solve problems, imagine as yet unmade things that might be. We simply assume that it all created itself by means of a remarkable and very long string of lucky circumstances.
Jesus sometimes has an undeserved reputation for meekness. In fact, he often said things that made his listeners furious. After healing a blind man (John 9), Jesus got into a dispute with the religious leaders over whether his power came from God or Satan. He pointedly explained that the fact that they would ask the question meant they were blind to what God was doing before their very eyes. They were incensed.
Some Pharisees overheard him and said, “Does that mean you’re calling us blind?” Jesus said, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.” — John 9:40-41, The Message
All of us have blind spots. But when it comes to the question of God, many of us claim, as I did for many years, to be confident that he is a myth and that Jesus was just some addled holy man from the distant past.
We take that stance despite overwhelming evidence all around us that we owe our existence to an unsung creative Genius.
In this season in which Christians celebrate the incarnation of the Creator God into the life of a child named Jesus, let me invite you to stoke up your curiosity about the possibility that there is an unacknowledged genius behind all of life. If you are certain that life sprang up out of nothing, is it at least possible that you are suffering from an intellectual blind-spot?
Click to hear a sample of Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse.” Powerhouse_excerpt