Turkey

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

While recording his "Beyond Nature" album, Phil Keaggy spent many hours doing three things -- playing acoustic guitar, taking long walks in the woods and reading books by C.S. "Jack" Lewis.

"I took all that in and it influenced the music, which was quiet and contemplative and that fit with that moment in my life," said Keaggy, in a recent interview. "All of that was connected. … I think you can feel a spirit behind that music."

So it isn't surprising that this 1991 classic included song titles such as "Brother Jack," "Fragile Forest" and "Addison's Walk," referring to a Magdalen College footpath that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Oxford friends often walked while discussing literature, faith and life.

While "Beyond Nature" was an instrumental recording, the liner notes included this Lewis quote: "Nature is mortal; we shall out-live her. … Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life."

So this was a "Christian" album, one inspired by the apologetics of Lewis? That's the kind of question musicians often hear after recording instrumental music during an era in which "Christian music" debates almost always focus on lyrics.

"I just play," said Keaggy. "I don't try to analyze all that."

In recent years, Keaggy has recorded a series of instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, who -- like the guitarist -- has for decades mixed folk, rock, jazz, classical and Celtic music into a style that writers struggle to label. Both record most of their music in home studios on their own terms. Both draw the attention of critics outside the "contemporary Christian music" niche.

The duo's latest work, for Johnson's Ark label, is "Cappadocia" -- taking its name from an arid, volcanic region in what is now Turkey. Early Christians hid in this isolated haven during persecutions and the Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to "exiles" in several places, including Cappadocia.

Johnson visited this region in 2017 and was stuck by remnants of Christian life, from pieces of frescos and engravings to a rose-shaped window in a sanctuary carved into a hillside. Thus, the disc includes song titles like "Chapel of Stone," "Parousia (A Presence)" and "That Which is Hidden."

Complex facts on persecution hiding behind that Muslim Ban hashtag

The late 1980s were dark times for Jews trying to flee persecution in the fading Soviet Union.

Finally, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) acted, adding language to a massive 1990 appropriations bill to offer special assistance to refugees in persecuted religious minorities. Year after year, the Lautenberg amendment has been extended to provide a lifeline to Jews, Baha'is, Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iran, the former Soviet bloc and parts of Asia.

"There's nothing new about the United States taking religion into account when it's clear that refugees are part of persecuted minority groups," said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"Tragically, religion is part of the refugee crises we see around the world right now and that certainly includes what's happening in Syria and Iraq."

Thus, Tadros and a few other religious-freedom activists paid close attention -- during the #MuslimBan firestorm surrounding President Donald Trump's first actions on immigration -- when they saw language in the executive order that was more nuanced than the fiery rhetoric in the headlines.

In social media, critics were framing everything in reaction to this blunt presidential tweet: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" Trump also told the Christian Broadcasting Network: "If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States. … If you were a Muslim, you could come in."

However, the wording of the executive order proposed a different agenda, stating that the "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

The New York Times, however, summarized this part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations."

Truth, tolerance and faith

ISTANBUL -- When it comes to religion and politics, many skeptics are convinced that strong faith leads to judgmentalism, which leads to intolerance, which leads to oppression and, ultimately, theocracy.

Many people disagree, saying that it's impossible to defend basic human rights without a religious or at philosophical commitment to moral absolutes.

It's easy to tell who is who when they speak out.

Consider this voice: "Freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. ... There is no freedom without truth."

That was the young Polish bishop who would become Pope John Paul II, arguing for a tight connection between truth and freedom at Vatican II.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins disagrees, to put it mildly: "To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Don't be surprised if they are used."

While it's easy to find examples of religion being used to justify great evils, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson finds it hard to grasp how Dawkins and company can study history and say things like that. It's no surprise that Gerson feels this way, since he is best known as the White House scribe who wove faith-based images into so many speeches for President George W. Bush.

"This anti-religious viewpoint claims too much. Do its advocates really intend to lump the Grand Inquisitor with the Amish? To say there is no difference between radical Salafists and Sufis?", asked Gerson, speaking at a global conference entitled "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century." This gathering in Istanbul was organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

"Surely the content of religion makes some difference," added Gerson. "But the central problem with this anti-religious attitude is this: It would remove the main source of reform -- the main source of passion for justice and change -- in American history."

If it's hard to maintain a demilitarized zone between religion and politics in America, it's even harder to do so in a land like Turkey, where many politicians insist that they have created a "secular Muslim state."

Many other Turks have severe doubts about the success of that project, especially those in the nation's shrinking Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish minorities. Ask the Armenians if trying to separate "truth" from "rumor" raises tolerance issues in modern Turkey.

While Gerson discussed a wide range of issues in an off-the-record dialogue session, including the Iraq war, his keynote address focused on the big picture -- his conviction that in "every culture, standing for truth against lies and conspiracy theories is essential to tolerance."

At the very least, he stressed, tolerance requires a belief in at least one absolute truth, a belief in human dignity. And without some kind of doctrine of human equality -- that, for example, all men are created equal and in God's image -- it is hard to defend universal standards of human rights and social justice.

In American history, said Gerson, the source of that moral truth has often been found in the prophetic voices of religious believers.

Thus, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote these words in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." A truly "just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."

Moral relativism, on the other hand, forces leaders to root their decisions in power and power alone, said Gerson. The result is "the rule of the strong -- the rule of those who can seek their wants and impose their will most effectively."

Thus, as a contrast to King, consider this voice from the bloody 20th Century.

"Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition -- if relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be bearers of an objective, immortal truth. ... From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable."

The speaker? That would be Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.