[This post is more of a personal reflection whilst on holiday in the USA. I hope regular readers will forgive the indulgent nature of the post, the slightly ‘high-brow’ style, and recognise its missional nature and intent.]
Patriotism is a particularly potent shaper of national identity myths. It’s difficult to escape this conclusion at the end of tonight’s 4th July concert here in small town Kentucky. The setting is spectacular; a balmy summer evening sitting around the county hall square with several thousand concert-goers listening to the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. The music is stirring; a programme designed to inspire and quicken the patriotic pulse by Copeland, Sousa, Harris, and Foster. The finale is truly moving, the promised ‘final bang’ is delivered with flawless timing. As I promptly get to my feet to join the standing ovation at the concert’s conclusion I am genuinely engaged by the power of the music to evoke emotion and fervour.
The music, the military symbolisms, the flags, the anthems. Each of them, aptly summed up in the words of the Orchestra’s conductor, an expression of, and testimony to, the freedoms enjoyed by the concert-goers. For this was America, the ‘land of the free’. My memories take me immediately to another land, far away, that is equally convinced of its own national destiny. I can remember shivering outdoors in the icy depths of winter as proud Russians were as fervently convinced by their own mythologies of the ‘motherland’. As a British citizen, in the face of two powerful and competing alternative patriotisms, I am at a loss to know how to respond. As a European citizen I am scarcely able to summon anything that might pass for patriotism; all such symbolism was stripped from the draft Constitution long before it got to the starting line. However, as a citizen of God’s transforming reign, I am both profoundly encouraged and profoundly disappointed.
The reasons for this are reasonably obvious to me, although I suspect there is a much greater subtlety to the issues than I am immediately able to summon for a blog like this one. I am disappointed by my suspicion that all such national identity myths are derivative of our created identity as ‘icons’ of God and of the Christian notion of a redeemed identity re-created in the likeness of Christ. Despite this, I am encouraged by a longer term eschatological perspective that describes the way that the Christian story of our origin and destiny will trump all alternatives that are limited in their scope to any particular nation, tribe, or tongue. I am encouraged that true freedom is no stranger to the prison cell, the torture block, the gallows, or even the cross. I am encouraged by the essential Christian vision of disciples who are pilgrims in lands that feed, clothe, and sustain them. Yet, each of these lands will one day have to relinquish their claims to the loyalty of their citizens and will have to cast their golden crowns, flags, and patriotic symbols before the throne of the Lamb.
Perhaps, at a very human level, I am also encouraged that deep down there is another factor at work. Our concert ended with a very un-American rendition of Pytor Illiyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’ overture, accompanied by the artillery of the Kentucky State Guard. Aaron Copeland and Tchaikovsky are fine examples of composers of patriotic music. If the tapping feet, the humming, and the many people surreptitiously accompanying the conductor’s baton indicated anything, it suggests that the best music retains a capacity to transcend its patriotic origins. Quite simply, the ‘1812’ overture and Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common man belong to the world, they belong to everybody. If great music is able to subvert its patriotic intentions, we can have greater confidence that the good news of Christ is not only for the Jew and the Gentile in all their cultural, ethnic, and national uniqueness, but that it is ultimately good news for the Jew and the Gentile beyond all cultural, ethnic, and national mythologies.
Two of the pieces that made tonight’s audience smile were those that offered variations of excerpts from more than one popular American tunes; Arthur Harris’s ‘Americana’ and Morton Gould’s ‘American Salute’. They got me looking forward to sitting down to listen to a performance at some point in eternity that is titled ‘Symphony for the kingdom’. I wonder which great musical works such a symphony would quote from?