Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The World Needs Tuning

William T. Allen

William Timberlake Allen was born in Aberdeen, South Dakota in 1926 and grew up there. After serving with the U.S. Army in World War II, he attended Northern State College from 1946-1948. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Music Composition from Northwestern University in 1950, and his Master’s degree from the same institution in 1951. In 1954 he received his Ph.D. in Music Composition from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. He was a member of the music faculty of Houghton College from 1953-1991, and was “Composer in Residence” for many of those years. He has composed works for organ, piano, and choir, including the opera “Young John Wesley,” written in 1983 for Houghton College’s centennial celebration. Dr. Allen is also an amateur poet, and the author of several plays and musicals performed at Houghton College. The following essay was edited by Benjamin Walker from a talk delivered during a faith-journey chapel at Houghton College in the spring of 2004.

I come to you out of the past, from a country called Yesterday. My four grandparents were all born before the start of the Civil War. My father arrived in 1879—three years after Custer made his Last Stand. Dad, as a boy raised on the plains, was once allowed to ride his Indian pony 20 miles across prairie to visit his brother in town. Evening came, and street lamps made circle reflections of light on the main street. The pony had never seen such a thing, and—I want you to think of this charming picture—he hopped over each circle of light.

Civilization, however, was advancing: by the 1920s, many people had radios! Just to think of it! I remember sitting as a young fellow in front of a large, fancy console in 1932 hearing the presidential election news: Franklin Roosevelt was trouncing Herbert Hoover. It was a time of depression and dust storms and tumbleweeds piled high.

My home, though dust did seep in, seemed a secure place. We had a piano in our Music Room, and I took to it gleefully, realizing early on that I wanted to be a musician—a composer and piano player. While I was visiting school friends who were sons of the local Wesleyan pastor, I tried out their piano. It made their mother quite nervous, as my tunes were deemed by her inappropriate. Years later, one of those Wesleyan lads, hearing I had arrived at Houghton College where my piano playing sometimes got the same response, inquired, “Is he really saved?” My confident answer: “O blessed assurance—yes I am!”

My hometown church was what you could call “1930’s liberal.” I’ll explain it this way: our Sunday School paper featured a serial about a boy who was trying to break into radio announcing—radio, remember, was big in those days. Its nifty title was “Take It Away, Sam.” Week after week though, there didn’t seem to be any spiritual point. However, not to worry: missionaries had arrived! A Miss Beatrice Hollenbeck, a serious Christian (blessed be her memory)—along with her sister and another helper, took over our Sunday school program and urged gospel truth upon our hearts. The good old flannel graph was put to work. We saw a beautiful figure—a yellow angel—representing Satan in disguise. That cruel deceiver had fooled many, and he was ready to fool more she explained, sowing biblical truth in the soil of tender young minds. Goodly sprouts did appear, but still many a noxious worldly weed was ever ready to undo the harvest. False worldly glory, for example, tempted when, in a high school band uniform, I strode to the center of a basketball court at halftime, sat down at a piano, and offered a big-time blast of boogie-woogie. The applause of the cheering crowd was positively intoxicating.

A few years later, during World War II, the U.S. Army sent me a letter. They were taking piano players. They were taking practically everybody. I was there when Bob Hope entertained us soldiers on the island of Saipan. A young lady with his troupe played part of the Grieg Piano Concerto. I envied her, and sought keyboards wherever I went. In Tokyo, after the war, I came across a huge organ in the Mitsubishi Department Store—an instrument similar to the one in Wanamakers in Philadelphia. Somehow I was allowed to play it. I was perched at the top of a long staircase, and as I made a stab at the Hallelujah Chorus, I glanced down to see those stairs lined on both sides with curious citizens of Tokyo, dressed in both Western and traditional Japanese garb. Never mind that I wasn’t a legitimate organist. Ah, how cheap fame doth heighten the wretched ego.

After finishing up with the army, it was time, I deemed, for college and music study. In due time, I was invited to teach music at Houghton College. “If you love the Lord,” was part of the invitation. I wrote the Dean of the College that I had been brought up to believe in the Bible. A true, but rather inadequate testimony. Looking back, I am amazed at how little I truly knew of such things. A friend in retrospect pointed out to me: “You saw yourself as a Christian.” But he was too polite, or too wise to add, “An ignorant Christian, of course.” Well meaning and eager to please. I was unschooled in how to declare my faith, but they had hopes for me. I was signed on, and I’m forever grateful for the many prayers that were offered in my behalf.

What a new experience this community was.

Inch by inch, struggle, by struggle, Houghton began to change my life. The Lord, as told in Psalm 139, knew my frame before it was made, knew I would be drawn to Him, knew my life should change, and knew that someday I should stand here to declare His mercy and His glory. What a privilege it was for me to discover at this place faculty, staff, townspeople, and students who were not game-players but sincere believers! One of the greatest characteristics of the “old” faculty was the strong sense that, however academically gifted they might have been, they were first of all genuine and committed Christians who cared deeply about the spiritual life of others. Dr. Stephen Paine, President of the College, spoke in no platitudinous language as he said, with that familiar right arm gesture, and in vigorous words right out of Middle English: “Students, get glory for God!” His voice still rings in my soul. Dr. Charles Finney, Music Department head at the time, supported me in my Houghton pilgrimage. Indeed, I became a kind of Poster Boy that he used to ease administrative doubts about newly hired music faculty.

In the 1950s, dramatic attempts were confined pretty much to readings and short skits. Interested in producing something of more length, I joined with English professor Charles Davis in putting together a small musical called “Ardelia,”—a kind of quaint period piece. It didn’t hurt the show’s official acceptability that the Dean of Women and the Chairman of the Music Department were in the cast. The whole presentation took place in the old chapel on the top floor of Fancher Hall, with piano instead of organ accompaniment.

Our musical “Ardelia” broadened much later into a full production, but efforts reflecting the localany allowable action on stage. There were many others: “Everane” was a comment on Houghton weather, while “Selectra” was a zany spoof with classical overtones, starring hero “Jukus Bacchus.” scene were what was really desired at the time. What local scene, you may ask? Well, there was a campus snack shop, called at one time “The Bent Cent” and at other times “John and Charles Wesley Snack Shop.” And downtown, the “Twin Spruce Inn”offered meals and a juke box. After the twin spruces were cut down, it was renamed the “Twin Stump Inn.” Adventurous souls drove all the way to “Bob and Aggie’s Diner” in Caneadea to eat chili and watch the tube glowing at the end of the counter. For those without wheels, a coffee machine in the basement of Luckey Memorial became a social gathering place, and not surprisingly there subsequently appeared such dramatic turnouts as “The Coffee Machine” and “Coffee Machine Revisited.” These short musicals were entertainments, written for a society that in those early days was thirsting for

`“Coffee Machine Revisited” enjoyed a unique ending. All through the play we expected the return to Houghton of Bobby Blackjack, rambunctious young rebel, notorious dissident, and twisted purveyor of relativism learned at the University of Chicago. Finally, the great moment! Slowly drawing aside a curtain, stepping forward with a surly demeanor, and dressed sort of like early Marlon Brando (very early Marlon Brando) was none other than Houghton College President Stephen Paine!

But enough of these mere entertainments! Enter a serious production: Houghton’s Christmas Concert of 1961! The Houghton College Oratorio Society performed composer Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms—certainly not too far out for contemporary ears, but a bit of a shocker to listeners back then, accustomed to hearing Handel at Christmas. Conductor Charles Finney wanted us to reach out, “stretch our ears,” as he liked to say. After all, Stravinsky’s composition was over thirty years old. It was ever Dr. Finney’s goal to sing to the Lord a new song. Soon after the concert, however, the Music Faculty met with the Powers that Were, who encouraged us to perform something a little less new the next year. We followed the suggestion. But Symphony of Psalms is now seventy-four years old. Perhaps the Greatbatch School of Music is ready for a repeat performance— though maybe not at Christmas.

Meanwhile, in all of this time, how was my Christian journey? I was learning some extremely valuable lessons. The Lord takes you as you are. It’s all right if other persons are wiser, better informed, better trained, better teachers, better speakers, better theologians, better piano players, better everything than you. There’s still room for you in heaven. There was a point when I prayed to the Lord, “If I’m not saved, save me now,” though the journey is life-long, of course. Indeed, any past look at my life reveals, with increasing clarity, how God steered me away from potential disasters, and so, I praise the name of Jesus. I give thanks to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—quite often in the middle of the night. I know eternal life is mine, and that another Person paid the price for it. This is too wonderful to comprehend!

Finally, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” Words of St. Paul to the Philippians: words for us. We are to dwell on good things, not only yesterday, but today! And not just today—always!

Exalt the LORD with the blessed jangle of heavenly praise!

Miriam of ancient days, take up your timbrel!

Trees, clap your hands exultantly!

Prophets, whirl ecstatically! Trumpeteers, blow up the trumpet in the new moon!

Worthy art Thou, O LORD, forever!

But also—we know it full well—there lives that blessed non-jangle of our lives, the non-jangle of calm faith, of quiet moments alone, of serene contemplation, of fervent, silent prayer, of the Spirit’s intercession— groanings too deep for words!

Non-jangle soothes our ears, and we are refreshed. It creates a space in which our minds can dwell on good things. My “serious” compositions, such as my piece Andante Cantabile, are meant as pleas for sensitivity and quietude in an inquiet world. It is music of meditation, of non-jangle, composed long ago by a 21-year-old dreamer, who is grown old, but is still dreaming dreams of that great and awesome day of the Lord’s coming, when, Prophet Joel tells us, those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Of course, we must always have Art. It is part of all of us, and we couldn’t be very happy without it. But Art cannot save. This world needs tuning, but Art will not get us all in tune. I firmly believe that only the power of Christ can do that.