Parkening and Hendrix – Teaching and Preaching

Many years ago Christopher Parkening, the famous classical guitarist, came to perform a concert here, at the newly renovated Pantages Theater in Tacoma.  My wife and I admire Parkening.  He not only is a great artist, but he is an openly evangelical Christian.  Prominent music critics have praised him as “the leading guitar virtuoso of our day, combining profound musical insight with complete technical mastery of his instrument” and “America’s reigning classical guitarist, carrying the torch of his mentor, the late Andrés Segovia” (the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times).

When we arrived at the theater, the line of people waiting to get in extended all through the lobby area and out onto the sidewalk, several blocks long.  I’d never seen anything like it here.  When the concert began, we saw him modestly walk on stage; there was a single chair on the stage, with a microphone on the floor in front of it.  Parkening sat down to play.  All the pieces were solo.  The music was subdued at first, a piece by Bach.  Gradually the program expanded as he played other works in various styles.  There were no stage gimmicks, yet he held us all enthralled for a lengthy concert, with several encores.  It truly was a memorable evening.  Parkening had a way of playing with perfect fidelity to the piece and a simplicity that made the hardest technical passages seem clear and easy.  The beauty of the music was, if anything, understated.  I was convinced that Parkening was the ultimate guitarist.

A few years later in a class here at seminary I mentioned my estimation of Parkening, and one of my students dared to contradict me!  He said the greatest guitarist was Jimi Hendrix!  I was, and still am, pretty unfamiliar with his music.  I’ve never liked rock music and have very little knowledge of it.  Besides, Hendrix played a different instrument, the electric guitar—so how could he be compared with Parkening?  I remembered what that student said, but thought little about it until a few months ago, when I came across Hendrix’s music itself.

Someone on Facebook sent out a link showing Jimi Hendrix playing at Woodstock in 1969—the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Curious, I clicked on the link and watched and listened to the clip on YouTube.  My first reaction was, “This is weird!”  I watched it twice.  I couldn’t process it; it was mesmerizing.  Hendrix used the guitar in ways that broke the mold of guitar literature.  The image and sounds of his version of the anthem have remained with me since.

Walking to seminary this morning, I thought about a famous line from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, when Catherine says, “I am Heathcliffe.”  While she loved Linton and planned to marry him, she confessed that her love for Heathcliffe was more basic to her.  Heathcliffe had grown into her heart, had become a part of her.  In the end, her love for Heathcliffe destroyed her and her husband.  Then it occurred to me that the relation of Hendrix to his guitar was like that.  You could say, Parkening mastered his guitar, but Hendrix was his guitar.

How can you compare them?  Each artist is superb, but in a different way.  Parkening shows us the composer’s work.  He is self-effacing; we see the beauty and design the composer intended.  Parkening’s life and career continue, his work continues to grow.  Parkening, as a Christian, lives first for God; his music is not his identity; he can live without it.

Hendrix gave a personal vision of his music.  When he played, people saw him and his vision; the composer was nearly lost in the originality and brilliance of the performance.  Hendrix died at the age of twenty-eight, only a year after his Woodstock performance.  His death under suspicious circumstances ended his brief, tempestuous life.  Hendrix lived for music, for his guitar; it consumed him.  The lives and lifestyles of these two men could hardly be more different.  

They provide an analogy.  Theology professors and preachers—they can be as different as Parkening and Hendrix.  The teacher, like Parkening, calm and disciplined, directs his students to the composer—to God as shown in his Word.  The classroom disappears.  The best teachers are clear, not showing themselves, allowing the students to see through the classroom to the truths of Scripture.  Thoroughness and balance are key.  On the other hand, the preacher, like Hendrix, consumed by God and personal in his faith, shows the work of God in him through his preaching and person.  People see how God changes and makes a man.  The best preachers are moved by God, and move others.  As Paul, they can say, “Be followers of me, as I am a follower of Christ.”

Is there an overlap?  Certainly—teachers preach and preachers teach.  Which is better?  God has made us all different, with different gifts.  We complement each other.  That one is better who uses those gifts best for the glory of God.  God will judge on that account.  May we learn from this analogy of both musicians—may we live for Christ, show him in all his glory, and be wholly consumed by him.

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