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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, December 16, 2003
    The St Kilda piano problem
    A news report this evening tells us of a discovery puzzling historians of the Scottish Islands: why the occupants of one St Kilda home possessed a piano. These islanders were the strictest presbyterians, for whom music was, well, let's be plain, evil. So evil they wouldn't have it in church even. But one family owned a piano... why?

    I put it down to my balloon theory: the impression I have that if you squeeze people too hard in one place then they'll burst out in another, like one of those thin balloons people make animals out of. If a community are so squeezed creatively, then it's inevitable that someone will burst out in song at an inappropriate moment, or keep a piano under wraps in the back shed for playing when the wind's blowing away from the manse.

    Now, in the Christmas New Statesman Richard Reeves makes a case for progressives / leftists, normally at odds with religion, to embrace it. For three reasons - because delivering policy means engaging with community leaders, who are often religious people; because religious ethics agree with left-of-centre objectives, especially social justice, poverty reduction and welfare; and because society needs communal values - and "values are what religions excel at".

    This affirms the journey I've been on most of my life, which is nice. The article also points towards an answer to the St Kilda piano problem:
      There remains, inescapably, a tension between individual freedom and traditional religion. As Grayling puts it: "In humanist ethics the individual is responsible for achieving the good as a free member of a community of free agents; in religious ethics he achieves the good by obedience to an authority that tells him what his goals are and how he should live." But it is possible to see that free agents might choose, of their own volition, to submit themselves to the commitment, community and discipline of a particular faith.
    Just as the crushing Christianity of St Kilda failed to kill the spirit of the free agent islander with the piano, so too the commitment, community and discipline of good religion can bring music to a tired, grey, brutalised political world.