June 2013

Gerald Elias: Virtuoso Extraordinaire

It is one thing to be a virtuoso in any given endeavor, but to be gifted in two diverse areas is rare. However, we were treated to a presentation by such an individual at our May meeting, where our guest was Gerald Elias, a master violinist and, in recent years, a talented author of mystery novels. Mr. Elias is renown for his musical talents, having performed as a violinist for years with the Boston Symphony and the Utah Symphony (as Associate Concertmaster), and a faculty member of the Music Department at the University of Utah. He is a graduate of Yale, and first violinist of the Abramyan String Quartet, and also composes music. The main topic of his presentation was a discussion of his four mystery novels, which (as you might suspect) all have musical connections.

The titles of each novel are taken from musical selections, and all have a central character whose name is Daniel Jacobus. “Jacobus is a blind, reclusive, crotchety violin teacher living in rural New England. He spends his time chain-smoking, listening to old LPs, and occasionally taking on new students, whom he berates in the hope that they will flee.”

The first of his novels is The Devil’s Trill, published in 2009, and it deals with the theft of a Piccolini Stradivarius from a musical competition. As in all of his novels, the reader is given a peek into the underworld of classical music, with its backstabbing teachers and performers and shady violin dealers. The title of this novel is taken from the composition by Giuseppi Tartini, and Mr. Elias treated us to a virtuosic performance of this selection on his violin. His instrument is a Gagliano made in 1789, and it produced excellent sound in our Elliot Hall setting.

His subsequent novels are Danse Macabre (2010, the title being taken from the composition by Saint Saens,) Death and the Maiden (2011, the title from the composition by Franz Schubert), and Death and Transfiguration (2012, the title from the tone poem by Richard Strauss). Mr. Elias honored us by performing musical excerpts from each of these works.

A question and answer discussion followed his presentation, and he joined us for refreshments and one-on-one conversations to conclude the evening. Signed copies of Gerald Elias books are available at Kings English (1511 South 1500 East in Salt Lake City) and at other major bookstores; public libraries also have copies. He indicated that more novels are in progress, so we have much to look forward to. He maintains a very informative website

—Art King

A Comparison of Moralities

In a recent news item, reported by David Edwards on rawstory.com, an Alabama pastor has decided to ban the Boy Scouts from using his church for their meetings. Since he disagrees with the organization’s national level decision to allow boys who are gay to participate, he has decided to stand in defense of his own overriding views of “right.” Pastor Greg Walker of the First Baptist Church of Helena said he was forced to decide “…as a church pastor and Christian… I can’t allow a group to openly support a sinful lifestyle under the umbrella of First Baptist Helena”. The pastor says “I hate that this had to happen, I really do.” He really hates to do it… It is an interesting personal ethic to be able to claim distress over a decision that is actually all yours. He wants to frame the situation as a difficult one for him, pained over feeling obligated to follow some kind of “higher law”… even though it hurts people. The ethics of not hurting people is not at the top of his priority list.

Compare that to this story. I recently went to a screening of God Loves Uganda, a really stunning documentary about the (detrimental) influence of American evangelicals on the country of Uganda. In the story line we meet Bishop Christopher Senyonjo who was confronted with the issue of homosexuality–some young boys went to him for counseling, saying they felt god had abandoned them. The bishop’s response was pain that they felt so alone and he told them to not be ashamed of who they were. There was nothing in the political or cultural landscape in the country supporting such views. In fact, the pastor lost his church, was forbidden to wear his robes, shunned and now a target as an “activist”–a very dangerous thing to be in his country. His interpretation of how to proceed is something that came from his personal humanity.

One pastor feels “bad”, but moves in a direction that punishes a group and indeed the whole community to make a point. Another pastor is overwhelmingly weighted by his social structure to conform and yet is so compelled by his humanity that he ends up losing his career and social standing to follow his internal compass of ministering to his fellow humans. A morality that does not encompass humanity stands up very poorly in comparison to a different brand of morality.

Do see that movie if you get a chance. The danger of religious zealotry is pretty disturbing.

—Lisa Miller


As a French major and as a humanist, I’ve often heard the term “herding cats” in reference to the difficulties of grouping together independent thinkers. Living in or visiting Paris will confirm one stereotype about the French for sure-they don’t appreciate being told what to do! I certainly had never seen hundreds of completely naked humans biking through public streets until I visited Paris in my early twenties. When I did see them, I was incredibly impressed by their comfort and poise while performing such a seemingly awkward and uncomfortable feat! However, it was only my follow-the-herd upbringing that made me astonished to see people doing something so bold, sexual, and amusing in public. Looking back, I am sure that even as a devout Mormon 16-year-old, something about the French culture seduced me just as much as did the language. People who think for themselves, embrace science, and dare to be different? Yes, count me in!

While I do my best to embrace what I can of Parisian culture here at home in Salt Lake City, Utah, there is no doubt that most of my neighbors, co-workers, family members and even friends fit into the general American culture of doing as one is told, or believing what one hears. It is difficult to be a free-thinker at times, to bite one’s tongue at every passing mention of “magic” and “miracles” happening in the non-profit world where I work, and to remain quietly on the outside during office lunch conversations circling around Mormon community gatherings, LDS mission stories, and singles-ward dramas.

What a sincere relief it is, then, when I can find solace in community that works for me. When I can socialize with older, wiser, mature and experienced fellow freethinkers! What is most meaningful to me about being a member of The Humanists of Utah is the sense that not only am I not alone today, there are hundreds if not thousands of non-religious Utahans who have come before me, lived out lives of truth and goodness, and passed along their wisdom to their communities—via family ties, friendships, and community discussions and events. I absolutely love hearing your stories, and being a new part of the histories and herstories we are all building together.

—Elaine Ball
Certified Humanist Minister

President’s Report

You may remember that my message last month was about violence and guns. I wrote about how I had guns and violence as a part of my life. Well I would like to add to what I said by looking at our history here in the U.S. Much of what I have to say is quite obvious to most of us, but I want to say it anyway.

You might say this country was and continues to be forged in violence. Europeans came to this continent and eventually killed off most of the Native Americans or ran them off their land. For Native Americans, “Manifest Destiny” was a curse.

We had a bloody Revolution to create this nation.

We tolerated one of the most violent institutions there can be, slavery. An institution that steals people from their homes, then buys and sells these human beings and forces them to labor with only a bare subsistence lifestyle.

Also, with violent abandon, we nearly made a thriving species of Bison go extinct by slaughtering them by the hundreds at a time.

We’ve participated in world wars and many other regional wars, “peace keeping missions” and the like.

We have horrid “racist organizations” that are steeped in violence.

I guess the reason I’ve been on this rant about guns and violence is because after a tragedy like Sandy Hook, I see on the internet blogs and threads, people “wondering why we are so violent.”

When I see those kinds of questions, I just want to scream, “Just take a look at human history for hell’s sake!” There I said it. I feel better now. Enough said.

I hope you will all come and join us for our summer movie night on June 13. I hear it is a really good one. Plus I will be bringing the popcorn and a carrot cake.

I’m also going to bring a CD I have of cartoons. I remember when there was a cartoon or two before the main feature. I guess I’m dating myself, but I think I’ll re-institute the cartoon at our movie night. I also think we should have more movie nights throughout the year on nights other than our regular meeting time, perhaps on our old discussion night periodically.

Hope to see you soon.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU