As with most end-of-year seasons with “top 10 lists” and retrospectives of “the best” and “the worst” lists I am doing my reflection on what I am bringing into the new year (and hopefully leaving behind).  As I often do at Christmas time, I begin reflecting on what the new year will hold by reflecting on poetry and essays that have inspired and challenged me through the years. One favorite poem is TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi.  It is a stark, beautiful poem that Eliot supposedly began thinking about as an undergraduate and then published in 1927.  Yet nearly 100 years later it still holds so much power even today.  I love its use of the Magi from the East searching for truth who leave behind their “summer palaces on slopes” with “silken girls bringing sherbet” as place holders for the modern condition: people surrounded by so many distractions and abundance yet still lacking contentment since we are perpetually searching for something deeper than the bland surface-deep life we find ourselves in.  As the Magi eventually find their world turned upside down by finding a birth that is “hard and bitter agony” like death, we too are called by Eliot to see that the only path to life will be through the death of that will holds us back from the deeper life we are called to.  This year I am challenged again by those amazing last lines:

We returned to our places, these
Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their
gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I am left wondering this question as we turn the page on 2014 and turn our faces toward 2015:

What alien gods are we still clutching and refuse to let go of?

Are we still “at ease” in our current life or have we become “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” and if the latter is true, what will we do about it?

Perhaps this new year we can all put down those alien gods and old dispensations once and for all.

(If you are not familiar with the poem, here it is:)

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sore-footed,
refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and
grumbling
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high
prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a
temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with
vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for
pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so
we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment
too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I
remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old
dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their
gods.
I should be glad of another death.

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Artist Dan Meth recently posted a map of the ‘fantasy world’ that pulls together over 30 different fictional/fantasy worlds into one glorious landscape – Narnia, Middlearth, Earthsea, Wonderland, Never Never Land, Oz, Whoville, Florian, the Land of the Lost, you name it.  What I love about the map is how by glancing at it I am drawn back into the narratives, characters, plotlines and epic grandeur of these places that are so very remote from the so-called ‘world’ in which we live day-to-day yet so real in deep and abiding ways.

One of the things that fiction does is allow us to see the imagination as a necessary part of what it means to be human.  More than mere escapism, fantasy literature draws readers into a world that pushes us to wonder ‘what if’ rather than ‘what is’ and it is shift into the possible (albeit improbable) that allows to live into a life that pushes against and even challenges the all-too-readily accepted way of things.

As I have argued in many ways throughout my writing over the past decade and most recently in Freedom of the Self, one of the most important moves in the Christian narrative is when Jesus framed the way for the community to remember him was to be ‘poetic.’   In Luke 22: 19, Jesus caps off the directive to celebrate the Eucharist with the now famous injunction to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’   The directive of Jesus for this remembrance is a creative act as seen in verse 19 where the ‘do this’ (poieite) of remembrance recalls poiesis, the root of ‘poetics’ or what we term ‘poetry.’  To ‘be creative/make poetry’ in remembrance of Jesus is a threatening move for many people.  Much of Christianity is hemmed in by a commitment NOT to be imaginative – that somehow the drive and focus of the Christian story is to never change, to hold fast to well-worn narratives, to guard the past and not seek any voices or advice that could suggest that perhaps there is a new day dawning and new voices to add to the choir.  As congregations dwindle in numbers, as younger generations leave communities of faith in droves, I wonder if some of this is that Christianity lacks the imagination to see these young people as unique, unrepeatable miracles of God – voices that will certainly challenge, renew and yes, reimagine what it means to live into a world that seems to have gone mad.

When we journey to Middlearth, Narnia, Earthsea and many of these other so-called fantasy lands we celebrate the impossible made possible and feel a leap of purpose and conviction that was once the animating factor in faith for the early church.

To this end I continue to feel that we need more fantasy in our theological diet today.  People need to read the fantastical and strange in order to release our hearts and souls from the predictable and staid so that the faith and hope ‘for that which is not seen’ can be believed and faith can once again rise like the roar of a lion and the song of a mere Hobbit.

What fantasy books do you think create a space for faith to arise?

What have been those grand narratives for you?

Today Marvel Comics released Fantastic Four #587 which continued the story that began some 50 years ago with four people whose life was changed forever by a gamma radiation blast in space which changed them into the comic book heroes known as The Fantastic Four.  Yet issue #587 is a game changer of sorts.  Over two years in the making, the storyline for the Fantastic Four has come to an end with the death of Johnny Storm (The Human Torch), the brother of Sue Storm (The Invisible Girl) and brother-in-law of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and BFF of Ben Grimm (The Thing).  Death is something that is not uncommon in the world of comic book superheroes, even the most overtly messianic superhero Kal El – better known as Superman – has died.  Yet death in pop culture is rarely death as we who live in the so-called real world experience it.  In an interview on CNN, Marvel Editor-in-chief Tom Brevoort didn’t even deny that the possibility of rebirth stands over the newly deceased Human Torch:

“It’s very easy to develop cynicism about the stories we tell,” Brevoort added. “The only way to combat and conquer it is to have a story that touches on the humanness of people that has emotional resonance and truth to it. The fact of death is something every human being can relate to. I would argue that a well-told story of a character’s demise is not necessarily undone by them coming back later.”

In pop culture there is always this playfulness with the life cycle given the fantastical way in which life can be expanded beyond the limits of mere mortality – people change into superheroes, learn to become wizards, transport through time and space, and meet talking animals on the other sides of wardrobes.  So battles occur, people die, and death takes for some but not all and not for all time.  We cheer when our hero leaps up and saves the day in the darkest hour as we munch our popcorn.  Then we blink at the light of day as we leave the movie theater and get into our car and have to face a world that is seemingly random, often painful, and rarely just in regard to who dies and who lives.  And when people die… they stay dead.  But life does go on, and we remember those who have passed from this mortal coil, living from our memories and continuing their life as a legacy of our own.

So will the Human Torch appear again in some distant new comic book?

It is pretty likely.

Does the knowledge of this cheapen the death scene in issue #587?

Yup.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I love comic books, anime, manga and think that, along with the character Elijah Price/Mr. Glass from M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable, that they are indeed telling stories – albeit fantastical – that are more ‘true’ than we care to realize.  But the comic nature of death is not something that I can believe in anymore.  Yes, as a Christian I belief in a life that extends beyond the temporal but this everlasting-ness of life is also rooted in the death and life around us everyday.  Death is a very serious thing and an ugly thing.  There is no rhyme nor reason to it.  It is indeed a release from pain and suffering, but it is also a loss of life pure and simple – it is a loss of loved ones, of beauty we behold everyday, the stillness of water on a clear lake, the sound of children’s laughter and the feel of morning sun on your face.  It is as Hamlet mused ‘the final frontier’.

 

So… what do you think?

Does the promise of rebirth in comics help us expect a rebirth as well and therefore take away ‘death’s sting?’  Or does this pop culture cheapening of death distract us from the reality of death?

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  So wrote Charles Dickens in the opening line to The Tale of Two Cities.  And yet this is only the beginning.  As the rest of the sentence continues:

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.

Written in 1859, Dickens’ novel is set in the midst of the French Revolution as it is breaking out and the story chronicles the hopes and fears of a generation watching this seismic shift occur in Europe from both London and Paris.  Many people recognize his infamous opening words – it is a wonderful, paradoxical summary of the human condition and many of us can state without blinking that our lives are summed up as ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’  Yet as the sentence continues beyond what we have become so familiar with. To be sure there is a lot more going on than merely ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’  What makes this age – let alone any epoch of human history – the challenging age that it is and that it is an intermingling of belief, foolishness, wisdom, incredulity, despair and hope as well as the best and worst of times.  In the end, we live in and amidst change that is occurring so fast and so furious that we just can’t keep up with it.  This is one of the many reasons we turn to music – to give us the sonic height, breadth, depth and simple space to stop, reflect and acknowledge what it means to be human amidst an ever-changing culture.

2010 was a year like many years in pop music – some great releases (the best of times) and some recordings so vile (the worst of times) that the fact that they were actually recorded, some producer gave a thumbs up from the sound booth, and now exists in perpetuity on a server somewhere is a haunting reminder that this is truly a fallen world.  But there were albums that rose to the top – ones that offered a way of listening to a world spinning fast and furious with a renewed sense of place and purpose.  Also, it is important to note these are ‘top’ albums and not necessarily the ‘best’ albums of the year.  Like the tide hitting the shore after a massive storm, not everything that rises to the top is necessarily the best – what hits the shore is just that… ‘hits’.  These ‘hits’ are in some respects the flotsam and jetsam of the year.  Some of the albums I choose this year reminded me of where I came from and others showed me – perhaps with both horror and wonder – where we are headed.  Some were deeply nostalgic and others knocked me off my feet and still have me feeling like the first time I saw a platypus… like some weird alien life-form appearing without being announced.  Some of the albums were confessional and others prophetic.  Some were just simply great albums to listen to when driving on a warm summer day on Highway 20 near Winthrop and others fit well with the feeling of my favorite coffee shop as twilight falls on a rain night on Capitol Hill in Seattle.  So try as you might to find some common thread between them akin to Pandora trying to create some perfect radio station for me, there simply isn’t one.  In the words of that great music critic Donald Rumsfeld… it is what it is.

In compiling my top ten albums for the year, I am following the pattern I have had for the past decade on this blog of limiting my number of choices to the year into the decade – top 8 for 2008, top 9 last year for 2009, and this year I get to round out the number with a top ten.

Yes, I feel like David Letterman this year (although I don’t have the pull to get U2 to do the Top Ten list for me like Dave can do).

Again, as for the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of these choices, like most things in life you can try to distill it down to a number of competing factors but as I have written elsewhere I am more of the belief that music finds us and grabs a hold of us more than we reason and force a feeling for.  I have had a lot of music recommended to me – some of it sticks and a lot of it doesn’t.  In my younger more idealistic years I would to try and embrace the hipster choices, rush to the hottest indie acts, grab the least hot track from iTunes.   Perhaps it is due to age, crankiness, staring down the barrel of 50, or plain old stubbornness but I have found that if it doesn’t connect in the first few listens… then the song and I need to part ways and I need to free up space on the iPod.  So what follows are a series of first dates that just kept going – albums that I fell into and keep falling into this year.  I don’t think all the tracks are stellar on the albums I chose, but there is enough of a consistent thread joining the project together to consider it a winner.  Lastly, I realize that we are increasingly living into an age of the digital single (or ‘dingal’ if you will) where albums really are a thing of the past.  I am still a strong believer that artists can do profound work in miniature as well as large canvas.  I have a number of singles/dingles that populate playlists and mix tapes that stand apart from albums and that is a great thing, but the album is a special event.  As the name recognizes, it is a movement of images akin to a photo album that while offering a collection of distinct images that are distinct can come together in the hands of a musician and be a tapestry showing a story that situates each single/dingle in a context or family.  Sometimes only 30 minutes and sometimes over an hour but the album does something that the single/dingle will never do – it gives us a community of meaning-making that both enlarges the single/dingle and humbles it at the same time.  Like life, we make sense more as a part of an album rather than as one-hit wonders.

So… onto my 2010 top ten albums:

10 – Glee Cast / Journey to Regionals

Before you go screaming into the comments box, hear me out: no television show has done more for pop music in the last five years than Glee.  Seriously.  Taking past pop staples and doing mash ups with current acts seemed like a one trip pony at first, but as the show has continued, the way in which Glee is situating the context of teen coming-of-age in the midst of a continuous musical number has more truth than fiction.  Most every teenager is essentially a walking soundtrack: rhythms and beats punching through their Mp3 players in the hallways, at the bus stops, walking in the mall or waiting for their girlfriend afterschool, music is identity.  Whether it is Fame, Grease, Footloose or Glee, the truth is that we may roll our eyes at such a shameless money machine as this Fox comedy (each single/dingle they sing goes to the top of iTunes sales for the week – the royalty checks for the members of Journey alone much be making for a happy Christmas this year) but the fact remains… the musical numbers are actually really good.  Whether the show holds it together beyond this second season remains to be seen (after the ‘Grilled Cheeses’ episode it seems to be losing its luster a bit IMHO) but their first run to regionals and the season finale was as good as it gets.  The release “Journey to Regionals” is just an amazing, fist- pumping anthem to idealistic teendom.  Yes, these are impossible dance numbers to imagine for a public high school in Ohio.  Yes, there is no way these kids could have all appeared in the same school and been called ‘losers’.  Yes, Journey songs get a bit tiring and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was done better in the ‘Wayne’s World’ movie.  But as an album of optimism that literally (here it comes) twinkles with possibilities… it doesn’t get much better than this:

9 – Kayne West/ My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

What is there to say about Kanye West that over the past couple of years hasn’t already been said?  Few people hold the place in pop culture that Kanye does – whether he was the most hated man in America for usurping Taylor Swift’s MTV acceptance speech or now the source of George W. Bush’s *only* disappointment in his entire presidency as noted in his recent interview with Matt Lauer on NBC and in his memoir Decision Points – the man certainly galvanizes opinions.  When his latest album was released I had some low expectations but this is a release that is one of the best hip-hop CDs in years.  Taking all the celebrity and power issues that were beginning to show up in his 2004 release The College Dropout (some would argue still Kayne’s best album to date) Kanye has pulled together an anthem for the new millennium.  Going back to the R&B and Soul sampling that made him the go-to guy for Jay Z, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy lives up to its title by sounding otherworldly and timeless yet so fresh at the same time.  With Hip Hop royalty like Rhianna and Jay Z on board as well as serious indie cred by sampling Bon Iver, Kanye West is proving what many critics have argued and record sales show: Hip Hop is the last truly innovative pop music genre alive today. As a genre that can sample the past with dignity (rather than either parody or shameful disrespect as in many current slouching so-called indie bands), bridge every musical genre effortlessly, and move between racial and economic classes yet still remain distinct, it is the last musical superpower on the planet.  True, Kanye West is a middle class kid from Chicago and doesn’t have the gansta narrative of Tupac, but he knows his limits and draws into his records the talent and depth of the future as well as the past.  As a art performance piece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is really a wonder.  True, he drops the F-bomb like rain in Glasgow in November, but he pulls together pop culture and high culture deftly as seen in his promo video for the single “Power”:


Many people will be putting My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as their number one release for the year for good reason and as a hip hop release is stands toe-to-toe with the best of them.

8 – Florence + The Machine/ Lungs

I only listen to two radio stations with any regularity anymore: KEXP 90.3 and KPLU 88.5.  When I lived in Scotland I would stream them to my office computer in Number 4, The Square at the University of Glasgow and get my fill of great jazz and NPR (KPLU) and some of the best indie playlists on the planet (KEXP).  I say this to note that radio stations are going the way of the dodo bird and it is getting harder to get exposure to new music from good sources.  One example is Florence + the Machine which is a band I haven’t heard too many people talk about but thanks to both an NPR spotlight and hearing a couple tracks on KEXP encouraged me to check them out.  Lead singer and songwriter Florence Welch is the daughter of a professor of Renaissance Art at University of London and this influence shows throughout the album.  At once blending heavy drums, harpsichord, hand clap loops, Irish Harp, and choirs with at times a jazz time signature and at others a straight 4/4 pop riff, Florence + the Machine really brought a unique sound in their release Lungs that is both instantly singable (try not joining in on “Dog Days are Over” while driving in your car), rhythmically full and pushes us toward triumphant love (“Cosmic Love” has already appeared in numerous TV shows at critical ‘first kiss’ moments for humans falling for aliens (“V”), vampires (“The Vampire Dairies”), or superheroes (“Smallville”).  At times the band swerves into Tom Waits territory (which is a good thing BTW) and at others just a simple pop ballad.  Overall a really fun album that I doubt will make many top ten lists this year but deserves some respect.  This video of “Cosmic Love” is fairly goofy, so I recommend just turning off your monitor and just listen to the track… sometimes (as the Buggles told us so many years ago) video really does kill the radio star…

7 –  Bruce Springsteen/ The Promise

OK, OK… the songs were recorded in 1978 and only remastered and released in 2010, but give me a freakin’ break… this is the Boss!  To be honest I didn’t take to his last studio release in 2009 “Working on a Dream” all that much (with the exception of ‘The Wrestler” which is classic Boss) and hearing that he was releasing some ‘lost tracks’ that were recorded around the time of Darkness on the Edge of Town was intriguing yet seemed like a Hail Mary throw to get some quick cash at Christmas.  But as a hard core Boss fan I caved and picked up The Promise and was simply blown away at two things: (1) that songs he essentially gave away to other artists (“Fire”, “Because the Night”) just sound amazing and fresh now that the Boss has taken them back, and (2) the songs that he wrote during the Darkness on the Edge of Town season of his career were in some ways more mature than he was and that time and they need to marinade these past decades so that the Boss was ready to sing them.  Granted, the songs he ‘gave away’ like ‘Fire’ and ‘Because the Night’ are fairly standard, but listening to the title track – ‘The Promise’ – is to be immersed into a world that is haunting and current in 2010: unemployment and underemployment crush the life out of youth and their ideals, hopes for lasting relationships seem to disappear and only the hope of escape is left.  Sure, writing a song in your twenties can fill the song with power and anger, but with the Boss now in his 60’s there is now a wisdom and hopefulness in his voice and performance amidst the doubt and despair that is something few grown-ups today seem to offer the next generation.  Having the Boss share these gems thirty years after they were first penned is to be introduced to long time friends who can at once remember the pain of youth and yet have lived through it into a sobriety and solidity that comes from weathering life’s storms well.

This performance of ‘Because the Night’ was taped during Bruce’s appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Show last month and he is backed by the Roots who, for my money, take the song to another level:

6 – The Black Keys/ Brothers

Whether you are a fan of Quentin Tarantino as a director and auteur, he certainly gave pop culture a reminder that 70’s soul and funk deserves to be canonized – if radio stations have forgotten about it, then his soundtracks were going to raise the funk from the grave.  One of the things you feel very quickly with The Black Keys is both the homage to 70’s funk acts and the seamless sense of immediacy in the tracks – like this is a first take and the raw energy is front and center – that only Jack White has seems to pull off.  Dan Auerbach (on guitar and vocals) and Patrick Carney (on drums) who make up The Black Keys had a strong outing with their Danger Mouse produced 2008 release Attack and Release.  In the Pitchfork review of Brothers earlier this year, they noted that while Danger Mouse only produced one track on the album, his fingerprints are still all over Brothers –  the quasi-dirge vibes riffing a deep scratchy Delta blues sound blended with Parliament-era falsetto funk vocals from Auerbach and then brought to a froth with some funky, quirky blended bass lines and rhythm grooves from Carney is just amazing.  You so want to be in a nice venue when these guys crank it up and the album captures some of that lightening.

5 – Gil Scott-Heron/I’m New Here; Roky Erickson/True Love Cast Out All Evil

I suppose I am cheating a bit by putting two albums under one as tied, but part of my indecision is the similarity in their relative authoritative distinctiveness [translation: you just can’t say “No” to either of these guys]. Of all the albums that came out this year that spoke of redemption and rebirth just by virtue of coming into existence, these two releases – Roky Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil and Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here – both have equal claim. Both Roky Erickson and Gil Scott – Heron are legends whose careers have influenced generations yet careened off the road after falling headlong into LSD, Heroin, Booze and everything in-between.  Erickson is credited with coining the phrase “psychedelic rock” during his time with the 13th Floor Elevators; Scott – Heron was a formative spoken word performer in the 1970’s that many consider to be the Godfather of Rap and cited alongside Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson as one of the most important figures in modern R & B and Hip-Hop.  Both essentially disappeared from recording for the past two decades with only the occasional release or track sample but this year saw both not only returning with a full length treatment of their work, but releasing one of the best records of either of their career.  In the case of Roky Erickson, his producer Will Sheff worked through over 60 songs that Erickson had written in the past 20 years and boiled down the tracks into a 14 song compilation of southern gothic and folk rock that, while under 60 minutes, is truly gripping.  The proper artist designation should have Erickson coupled with Okkervil River on the record label since they are the backing band on every track and give all the songs control and depth.  But Roky Erickson is the preacher of the day in these songs and when he sings “God is Everywhere” you believe him.  Gil Scott – Heron’s I’m Not Here is a similar testimonial to endurance and coming through the ravages of prison and drug abuse without any fanfare or triumphalism but with a voice that is a cracked, smoky baritone with tread marks and battle scars, he sings with a conviction and humility that breaks your heart even while you are grooving to the beats.  Lonliness and anxiety fill songs like “Where Did the Night Go” where sleeplessness only adds insult to injury with the fact that, as a poet, he can no longer verbalize his love in a way his lover can understand.  It is as if he has awoken like Rip Van Winkle into a world that no longer speaks his language nor understands what it is to be human.  This is brilliantly done on the amazing track “New York Is Killing Me” where he laments that he lives in a city of “eight million people, and I didn’t have a single friend.”  Of the stunning tracks on I’m New Here, his electronica-addled cover of blues pioneer Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” is the stuff of Grammys.  This is a song of wrestling with the demons that haunt so many but few have the courage to face let alone acknowledge as companions in this journey through life.  Gil Scott-Heron’s cover speaks with the authority of one who not only looks the Devil in the eye, but also holds his head high and swears by a God that is larger and more profound than simple answers and easy redemption – the ending spoken word response at the end of his cover of “Me and the Devil” is chilling and hopeful at the same time.  If more churches preached the way Gil Scott- Heron or Roky Erickson embrace their shadows for the sake of the light… then perhaps they wouldn’t be so empty.

4 – Neil Young/ Le Noise

Neil Young + X + Daniel Lanois + a lone Gibson guitar = ? It is like a math problem where the X factor could lead you into despair, angst or greatness depending on what divine intervention moves into play.  Rather than go back to either his Crazy Horse days, Grunge grandfather or folky balladeer stance, Lanois introduced Neil Young to his inner Jack White and stripped him down to a fuzzed out Gibson guitar and wailing voice left alone in a noir-era LA mansion.  The result could have been a car crash… but the X factor tilted toward the sublime and Le Noise is a force to be reckoned with.  With the polished anger of a wild man who has wandered the labyrinth of his mind for a bit too long, Le Noise comes off as John the Baptist kicking over his amp and declaring ‘Behold, here comes the music that will take away the sins of the world!’  Lanois is a genius producer – his work with Bob Dylan, U2 and others gives a sense of his ability to work with huge egos and bring out the best in them.  Le Noise is a short outing at just under 40 minutes but that is also its strength – it doesn’t overstay its welcome and leaves you restless for more.

3 – The Hold Steady/ Heaven Is Whenever

As Craig Finn stated in relation to the band’s 2005 album Separation Sunday, much of their music is about real people finding real redemption. In a world where religion promises a life to be found beyond this one and humanitarians and politicians alike can spend a lot of time and energy blaming everyone for the ills of society yet never get beyond the rhetoric, Finn believes that rock and roll may be the last chance for kids today to find not only a reason to live, but the force to do it.  In an NPR ‘All Things Considered’interview, Finn called many of his songs “a prodigal-daughter story… it is about a girl who grew up in a religious background and goes off to try to find something bigger, better, or something she’s missing. And [she] has a lot of experiences and ends up coming back, not only to her family and to her town, but to her church.”  Heaven is Whenever continues this narrative and picks up many of the battered and bruised characters Finn has acquainted us with in the past Hold Steady releases.  True, Heaven is Whenever is a bit more polished in comparison to their last album Stay Positive or Boys and Girls in America, but make no mistake… the Hold Steady are still the best bar band you are going to encounter.  With all the swagger of a honky tonk and the guilt of Catholic school gone bad, The Hold Steady play simple tunes with sing along choruses that play well for the working guy ordering domestic beer and nachos yet draws characters, images and metaphors from such deep wells as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, the Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire and most of the Torah and Pastoral Epistles.  Craig Finn looks like just another CPA, but he sings with the wisdom of disappointment that never stops looking for light in the darkness and the literacy of a Don DeLillo/George Eliot mash up.  Heaven is Whenever is not their best album, but is still buries a lot of what was released this past year.  Take the single ‘The Weekenders’ for a spin and see what I am mean:


2 – Mumford and Sons/ Sigh No More

When your parents are John and Ele Mumford, the leaders of the UK Vineyard Church, you would think that such a child would either end up as a drug addict, some raging atheist given over to free market capitalism, or a safe church leader following in a parents footsteps. What doesn’t often come to mind is the vocation of “It Guy” in the alt-folk-rock scene and moving millions of units with a debut album that name checks not only God but Shakespeare and Steinbeck as well.  Marcus Mumford has certainly defied labels and the band’s debut album is a wonder.  Sure, he is in line with Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, and other neo-folkies and as such Mumford and Sons can be seen as merely riffing on an already fading trend.  But just listen to Sigh No More and you will quickly realize that this is something more.  The lyrical depth is truly amazing, the arrangements are both quaint and surprising, and Marcus’ voice offers the dust bowl scrap and grind of Grapes of Wrath with the whimsy of an public school head boy sneaking out for fish and chips and seeing the dirty streets at 3am for the first time.

This version of “Awake My Soul” was recorded live on tour and is a fitting celtic-tinged affirmation of the need for a soul to be wide awake in the world of wonder:

1 – The National/ High Violet

Matt Berninger, lead singer of The National, has a voice and writes songs that get compared to a lot of other artists –  Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits to name a few. What I have yet to hear is the comparison to artists found on John Hughes movie soundtracks.  Take just about every cut on the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack could be covered by The National and I would venture to guess that Berninger spent a good portion of his adolescence with many of the misfits that populate the Hughes teen film canon.  As demonstrated in their last release The Boxer and this years High Violet, The National is a band concerned with coming-of-age

On High Violet, you could also argue that the effect of Tim LeHay’s Left Behind series and millennial fever is part of the back story given the apocalyptic images of floods, bee swarms, and even brain-eating zombies.  Most of what this conjures up for the listener though is the strange effect loving something more than yourself means in a world that is falling apart at every turn.  Given that Matt Berninger became a father during the recording of High Violet speaks to this anxiety of now having to provide and protect a life other than your own.  to express the fear of a man who now must put a wife and young child ahead of himself.  “Afraid Of Everyone” is what encapsulates this anxiety to perfection.  As Berninger sings of being afraid ‘of everyone’ you honestly believe him.  And yet the movement of the album doesn’t live in the paranoia of Radiohead nor the burn-the- world-down-and-start-again anthem that is found in Nine Inch Nails.  No, with songs like “England” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” The National sing of being fearful for others and the love that breaks their heart over and over and over again.  In short, it is just a stunning album filled with complexity, brooding, wonder and at times quick wit and one of the lasting releases that I can imagine playing again and again.

So… that is my list for 2010.  In case you are wondering, I do realize that Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire and many, many other favs are not on the list.  I am certain that they will find space on other lists and I doubt their lack of mention here will hurt their fan base or their year end sales.  As I said in the beginning, these are ‘top’ by virtue of floating up on my shoreline… and I am so glad they did.

I would love your thoughts and comments and even hear your top albums of the year.

Let me know!

Due to my mad schedule of late with too many meetings, writing deadlines and seemingly endless crises to deal with, I haven’t been able to sleep well and finding myself needing to get up and work.  As such, I am reliving the days of having an infant in the house where waking up every hour leaves you in a state where lack of sleep renders the line between dream, nightmare and waking pretty dang blurry.  This is the space of liminality – a place between places as the conscious and unconscious crash together like waves in a storm without a shoreline to settle the feud. One of the great thinkers – if not THE greatest thinker – on the topic of this liminality of conscious and unconscious is Sigmund Freud.

In a letter dated September 21, 1897, we have one of the most famous letters of Sigmund Freud written to his friend Fliess.  Here we read an example of Freud’s notion of a dreamscape in this account:

I received a communication from the town council of my birthplace concerning the fees due for someone’s maintenance in the hospital in the year 1851, which had been necessitated by an attack he had had in my house. I was amused by this since, in the first place, I was not yet alive in 1851 and, in the second place, my father, to whom it might have related, was already dead. I went to him in the next room, where he was lying in his bed, and told him about it. To my surprise, he recollected that in 1851 he had once got drunk and had had to be locked up or detained. It was at a time at which he had been working for the firm of T____.’ So you used to drink as well?’ I asked; ‘did you get married soon after that?’ I calculated that, of course, I was born in1856, which seemed to be the year which immediately followed the year in question. (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, 1900: 436).

Now this dream appears in chapter 5 of The Interpretation of Dreams; where it is a part of a collection of dreams that Freud labels “absurd” dreams – dreams that negate fact – in this case the possibility of carrying on a conversation with one’s deceased male parent. A set of dreams that, as are often true of the sets of dreams that Freud presents in The Interpretation of Dreams, need to be read as a whole. They all concern fathers and the issue of a father’s death, and there’s at least a strong possibility that one of the other dreams which is not presented as a dream Freud’s own, may in fact be so.

Freud offers here a dream in which a ghost speaks, a type of dream he cites repeatedly. These dreams – all concerned with murderous sibling rivalry and/or the father’s downfall – share unconscious contents making their interpretations mutually relevant. Curiously enough, given this rich body of content and its reference to fathers and so on, the place at which Freud decides to take up the meaning of this dream is the number “five.” The exciting cause of the dream, Freud said – the “day-residue,” in his jargon – was his reaction to having heard the night before he had the dream that “a senior colleague of mine whose judgment was regarded as beyond criticism had given voice to disapproval and surprise that the fact that the psychoanalytic treatment of one of my patients had already entered its fifth year.”

At this point Freud begins to welcome the seemingly random and often bizarre as building blocks of our conscious life – fiction and imagination are welcomed players as much (at times even more so) than systematic facts. In short, Freud is welcoming the consult of Oedipus and Hamlet and the interpretation of art and literature into the supposed pure scientific realm. He is now less caught up in narrow, crass desires like solving the patient’s problems in a systematic manner, and instead he opens up the exploration of a new kind of relationship.

Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams could be argued, as some have done, as being the first modern autobiography.  But an autobiography that is willing to blur the lines of fact and fiction – for maybe we need *both* in order to make any sense of life in the end.

When you read through The Interpretation of Dreams, you do not encounter a systematic and orthodox psychoanalytic text nor can you argue that the work represents a scientific document. The title itself is misleading in that throughout the entire work there is not a single fully interpreted dream. In a similar fashion to watching television where people surf in and out of programming when the action just gets going, all the interesting interpretations break off when they’re starting to get good, only to emerge a hundred pages later to be cross-referenced with another dream. This is certainly not a systematic treatise in any way.   Rather The Interpretation of Dreams is the recounting of the process by which Freud achieves his uniqueness as Freud, the creation of a persona and the creation of a process of writing life at its unconscious and conscious levels at once.  This process is ultimately a process that has something to do with Freud’s own neurosis after the death of his father. Furthermore, the dream work allows him to recapture powerful memories of his own past and to do something with them that, aside from rendering them less troubling, makes literature of them, allows him to speak in a powerful way of the things that really concern him: family romance, mythic history, fantasy.

There is always the question even after a century of reading and re-reading The Interpretation of Dreams whether the products of Freud’s mature genius belong with Science or with Art, with fact or with fiction but the subtle reading of psychodynamics which begins with The Interpretation of Dreams continues to provide the hermeneutic or interpretive ground for much of modern thought. The implications of his changed thinking about traumatic etiology point toward a recurrent issue in the dream book – personality structure is not so much discovered as created by analysis and the prototypical analysis is of the self as something known as much by construction as deconstruction. Looking back at his own history, while Freud had several models to display his views on the true nature of the human subject, it is in the form of the dream that Freud finds the paradigmatic vehicle for interpretation, as each image leads to others, stratified by epochal moments of emotional growth.

Is this not something to take on board as we consider how theology is construed in relation to how people live their fractured and seemingly disconnected lives?  When a life is put under systematic rigidity and asked to conform, we rarely (if ever) can succeed with any integrity.  However, the mash-up of selfhood that Freud offers: life as the stuff dreams are made of, blending and swirling in and out of consciousness and build upon fantasy, fiction, imagination and wonder as much as certainty, linear progression and will power.  Perhaps it is no accident that the Bible calls us back to dream time and time again – whether Joesph is interpreting dreams for the salvation of his people or whether the mark of the Church in Acts 2 is a place where, akin to the prophet Joel, dreams will be in tandem with visions for a new life and people.  Perhaps we are in an age seeking a ‘dream theology’ after all… a rendering of God and the implications of the Divine framed not by conscious reason but by the not-quite-waking wonder of dreams within dreams that grow and deepen beyond the limits of our wakeful reason.  To dream anew, to bear dreams of the future and live them into today… this is the task at hand.

Perhaps we do need to read Freud with our Barth… and our Margaret Wise Brown…

Goodnight nobody… goodnight mush… goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”…

I have the honor of being appointed to the Board of Directors for IMAGE journal – a quarterly literary journal the seeks the intersection of faith and the arts.  Quite a gift to be part of this amazing and deeply thoughtful journal.  While housed at Seattle Pacific, IMAGE is an independent literary journal that has published work from writers and artists such as Anne Lamott, Wim Wenders, Luci Shaw,  Kathleen Norris, Annie Dillard and Ron Hansen to mention a few.  Greg Wolfe, the editor of IMAGE and chair of the MFA program at SPU, asked me to write a letter to the Board as a means of stating why I am excited about being part of this community of faithful artists – here is some of that letter:

I am grateful to be asked to participate in the work of IMAGE and so look forward to finding continued ways of supporting this important journal and vital community of artists who contribute and are supported by its work.  The intersection of faith and the arts is something I take very seriously both personally and professionally.  I suppose I see a similar thread in my story to that which Pablo Neruda evokes in the opening stanza of ‘Poetry’:

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived

in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where

it came from, from winter or a river.

I don’t know how or when,

no they were not voices, they were not

words, nor silence,

but from a street I was summoned,

from the branches of night,

abruptly from the others,

among violent fires

or returning alone,

there I was without a face

and it touched me.

The limits of what has been deemed ‘faith’ by many theologians of the Church has been a source of concern and at times deep pain for me. Where friends of mine in seminary would find solace in systemic and doctrinal theology, I would turn to Flannery O’Conner, Cormac McCarthy, WB Yeats, Jim Crace, and other literature to find what George Eliot called “the Mystery beneath the processes” of our faith.  Prior to coming to teach in the School of Theology at SPU in 2005, I was a Lecturer in Practical Theology and Ethics at the University of Glasgow, Scotland and served as Director of the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts.  This was a place to find the nexus between my theological and pastoral training at Fuller Seminary and my PhD work was in Victorian Literature  and Theology (I wrote my dissertation on George Eliot’s early translation work of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and Strauss’ The Life of Jesus and its influence on her early fiction – Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede and Mill on the Floss).  I continue to serve on the editorial board of the Oxford University Press journal Literature and Theology and am an active member of the Society of Religion, Literature and Culture which holds its bi-annual meetings in Oxford.

Perhaps more than any verse, Jesus’ command to the gathered disciples at the institution of the Eucharist in Luke 22: 19 frames why I am excited and humbled by the work of IMAGE.  As Jesus presents himself in the elements of poured wine and broken bread he proclaims the injunction to “do this in remembrance of me” which has been emblazoned on the front of alters, etched into glassworks and pottery, and sewn into liturgical cloth for generations.  For some, this statement has become a license to merely preserve, fence in and ultimately fortress a way of life by taking Jesus’ command as a call to arms against the winds of change.  During my six years in Scotland while in the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts at the University of Glasgow, I also served as Associate Minister at the Glasgow Cathedral.  As ‘high liturgical Presbyterians’ (yes, there are some) the serving of the Eucharist included the traditional ‘fencing of the table’ and view from the ruling Elders that the Eucharist must be presented in a ‘decent and orderly’ fashion.  To evoke theologian Paul Tillich, form had taken such a priority over content and meaning to the point of almost silencing the luminescent reality of the Host in our midst.  Is this what Jesus had in mind?  Digging deeper into the passage, we find that St. Luke records Jesus’ words as “τοῦτο ποιεῖτε εἰς ἐμὴν ἀνάμνησιν” in the Greek and chooses “ποιεῖτε” or “poieite” as the action to be taken in remembrance of Christ’s life and ministry.  Poieite is a potent call – the call of poiesis is our cognate for poetry in English and not a term that is something to be fenced in.  “Make poetry in remembrance of me” could be argued as Jesus’ command as he deconstructed the elements before the disciples whose feet had only moments ago been washed clean preparing them to walk anew into the world.

It is this call to ‘make poetry in remembrance of me’ that remains a clarion voice for my work as a theologian committed to the Arts and something I have seen through the pages of IMAGE.  I believe that IMAGE and the community which is supported and enlivened by its work is a voice and presence that is needed now more than ever as we continue to live in a time that seems to want only pragmatics (how we live) at the expense of beauty (why life is worth living)

Blessings and peace and continue to ‘make poetry in remembrance of Christ’

I was in fourth grade when Paul McCartney’s musings in 1976 that ‘you think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs, I look around me and I see it isn’t so…oh no…’ filled the airwaves.  Retrofitted by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman during a montage dance number in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge in 2001, the question of whether there is a place for love anymore continues to perplex and befuddle.

I am a second reader on a senior thesis honors project looking at phenomenological turn in the work of Jean-Luc Marion.  One of the grand works of Marion is his reflections on the absence of love in philosophy.  As he notes in the beginning of book The Erotic Phenomenon:

Philosophers have in fact forsaken love, dismissed it without a concept and finally thrown it to the dark and worried margins of their sufficient reason – along with the repressed, the unsaid, and the unmentionable.  Doubtless other forms of discourse claim to recover from this escheat, and, in their own way, they have sometimes succeeded.

I fear that he is correct.   Spend time in the philosophy section of your local college, university or seminary library and flip through the generous tomes that bear the heft and girth of centuries of the ‘philo-sophia’ or ‘love of wisdom’ and where is the passionate call to love and be loved in return?  As Marion goes on to say in The Erotic Phenomenon, we have relied too much upon poetry, novels and even theology to frame the conversation and therefore releases philosophy from its mandate.  Such assumptions need to be reconsidered :

Poetry can tell me about the experience I have not known how to articulate, and thus liberate me from my erotic aphasia – but it will never make me understand love conceptually.  The novel succeeds in breaking the autism of my amorous crises because it reinscribes them in a sociable, plural, and public narrativity – but it does not explain what really and truly happens to me.  Theology knows what love is all about; but it knows it too well ever to avoid imposing upon me an interpretation that comes so directly through the Passion that it annuals my passions – without taking the time to render justice to their phenomenality, or to give a meaning to their immanence.

It is this last statement about theology that vexes me the most.  Have we so easily resigned the task of critically reflecting upon the nature of love to the ‘soft disciplines’ that we have lost the ability to speak of love, let alone render some grounded understanding of what love truly entails – this most elusive yet necessary of all truth?

Perhaps the question isn’t whether people have had enough of silly love songs… it is why they continue to stomach such shallow ones.  Perhaps we haven’t given people many choices…

well… last week I started my top 9 list for 2009 spelling out the first five downloads and streamings for the year.   This week will round off the final four for 2009.  So… without further adieu…

4. Mark Knopfler, Get Lucky – As I have said in other postings, I have had the privilege of attending schools with great music alumni – Garfield High School (Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones) and University of Glasgow in Scotland (Eric Clapton went to the Glasgow School of Art for a spell).  Glasgow is a city of great musical heritage – whether being the port from which Johnny Cash’s grandparents set sail from for America or the emo arthouse stylings of Belle and Sebastian it is a rich place to be from.  Mark Knopfler is certainly no exception.  Born in Glasgow and later to be the lead singer/songwriter for Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler is simply one of THE great rock guitarists out there.    With the release of Get Lucky this year, Knopfler has now released equal amounts of music as a solo artist as well as the lead for Dire Straits which makes this release an important shift.  Many reviewers are luckwarm to brazenly thumbs down about the album, but I frankly find Knopfler’s storytelling only growing more grounded with every release.  From the opening strains of pennywhistle, brushes rapid fire on the snare and rabid fiddle playing wrapping around the opening line “Southern bound from Glasgow town, she’s shining in the sun/My Scotstoun lassie, on a border run…” on the lead track “Border Reiver” you know this is a supreme Celtic shout out through and through.  The album rounds off with “So far from the Clyde” and “Piper to the End” in the event that you didn’t pick up the post code of this release and is a strong CD all the way through.  As always, Knopfler’s guitar technique is front and center on a number of tracks, but it is the sage-like musings of the seasoned storyteller that takes you back in this CD. The lost soldiers on “Remembrance Day” recalls the bitterness of loss amidst war that “Brothers in Arms” did in the Reagan era, the track “Before Gas and TV” opens wide the storyline of “Money for Nothing” without the irony – a working class outside the stream of change and not included in the vision of upward mobility that continues to frame a consumer culture.  It is unfortunate that the reviewers didn’t catch the Glasgow vibe – many simply wishing for another “Sultans of Swing” or “Money for Nothing”.  But standing against the artists out there, Knopfler is a giant and the waters of the Clyde flow through words and finger picking…

3. mewithoutyou, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright – I mentioned this in an earlier posting on my facebook page, but I once again will admit to being very, very late to this party.  I had the privilege of working with a student on her honors project this past term and through her reflections she introduced me to mewithoutyou. Yes, there is a debt Aaron Weiss (singer, chief wordsmith and religious vagabond for the band) must pay to Sufjan Stevens, The Polyphonic Spree and the Handsome Family for kicking open the door for this “hey, let’s play crazy music with whatever we find laying around but make it so compelling that people will listen deeply rather than run away” genre.  But what separates mewithoutyou from the fray of Sufjan Stevens wannabes is the depth and integrity with which Aaron Weiss had been willing to go in his creativity and seeking after the muse regardless of what religious camp they may find themselves.  Having signed with Tooth and Nail a few years back, the band flew a distinctive alternative Christian band flag with the proper noun in their band title – mewithoutYOU.  These days, Weiss considers himself to be a theological freegan polyglot finding hybridized meaning in his readings equally of a Greek morality play rendered by a Sri Lankan teacher named M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen from a children’s book (click on this hyperlink to see the video to the song “The Fox, The Crow and the Cookie” which bears a striking resemblance to Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” aesthetic), Christian traditions as seen in the revisioning of King David in “The angel of death came to David’s room” to the turning to Sufism with his anthem that anchors the CD entitled “Allah, Allah, Allah”.  In this move toward seeking wisdom from such seemingly polarizing sources has left many scratching their heads – some calling Weiss a “backslider” and betrayer of the Christian faith to those who denounce this theological journey as merely a play for a wider audience.  It takes courage to journey into such waters and for fans of a certain stripe it will take more than courage… it will take faith.  And perhaps that is what mewithoutyou is offering their audience after all is said and done.

2. Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart – of all the releases this year, this has probably been met with more befuddlement mixed with rage and disappointment than any other.  This is of course due to His Royal Bobness ‘(HRB) rabid fan base  coupled with Dylan being the closest thing to a living legend that American popular music has still recording that existentially stems from the folk revolution of the late 1950s.  As a bearer of a legacy, Dylan’s every move is watched and turned over and over.  On a recent Kindlings Muse podcast we tackled the question of Dylan and his legacy through such artists as Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens.  During the Q and A portion of the show, one of the audience members asked bottom line question – “So, where is Bob Dylan going?” It seems that he has gone right to the heart of American chestnuts – the Christmas song – and played it straight up.  Some reviewers think that this project is nothing more than a joke – basically an ironic mockery of the Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, et. al.  industry of tree-trimming carols that assault shoppers in malls and become the stuff of disdain for children as their parents remember their past.  These are people – IMHO – who still think that irony and sarcasm are the twinned voices of the generation.  No, I listen to these gems and hear nothing by honor and a tapping into something so much deeper than irony.  To his credit, I think the home and hearth that HRB is crowing on about in these standards is a home that the man who sang “Like a Rolling Stone” would like to come to rest in.  Like George Bailey in the finale of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I think HRB is tired of singing alone and would love a singalong.  Mark my words all you naysayers… this is a recording that will be with us… and we will be better for it.  And of the nine downloads I have listened, this is as guilt free as it gets – all proceeds from the sales of the CD will provide 500,000 meals to school children in the developing world through the World Food Programme, 15,000 meals to homeless people in the United Kingdom through Crisis and more than 4 million meals to 1.4 million families in America through Feeding America.  Take that you cynics…

1. U2, No Line on the Horizon – Sure, they are the biggest band in the world and may be the biggest band in the short history of rock and roll (the jury is out) – so why can’t they have the biggest and best release of the year?  Yes, perhaps there is no surprise here for those who follow Theology Kung Fu (which one friend called a “U2 lovesite”), but when I heard the first single “Get On Your Boots” I honestly thought “so, this is it, isn’t it?  U2 are trying to re-capture some energy but this feels all wrong.”  But then the album was released and the digging into the album began and as I have written in many venues (my theological reflections on No Line on the Horizon were published as an article here)  this is yet another masterpiece of production, songcraft, and zeitgeist ready-at-handness hitting hard on questions of faith, war, poverty, racial discord, and what it means to be human.  The current 360 tour only seals it for me – this is U2’s year yet again and it is… wait for it… “magnificent” (click here to watch the boys perform “magnificent” during their weeklong stint on David Letterman… to see is to believe).

Well friends, that is the list.  Let the dogs of war loose – what did I miss?  where did I hit the nail on the head?  Where would you put these?

I am a bit late to the game in picking up Alex Ross’ Pulitzer Prize winning “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and can’t say enough good things about it.  Ross is the chief Music Critic and an Editor for the New Yorker magazine and has pulled together a seminal primer for ‘reading’ the evolution of culture in the 20th century through the music that formed our lives and times.  the rest is noise - book cover - alex rossRoss stakes a claim early in the introduction that “twentieth-century classical composition…sounds like noise to many…yet these sounds are hardly alien.  Atonal chords crop up in jazz, avant-grade sounds appear in Hollywood film scores; minimalism has marked rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward.  Sometimes the music resembles noise because it is noise, or near to it by design.  Sometimes, as with Berg’s Wozzeck, it mixes the familiar and the strange, consonance and dissonance.  Sometimes it is so singularly beautiful that people gasp in wonder when they hear it.”

I love this description and the way Ross is so spirited in his call for us to move from being passive listeners toward an engagement as full participants in the music that fills our iPods and cascades out of the windows and doorways of dorm rooms and bars, concert halls and the church sanctuary.  As I wrote in a recent theological review of U2’s recent album “No Line on the Horizon”, music is something that shapes and ultimately frames not merely marking the memories *of* experiences we partake in, but literally *are* the experiences themselves.  For many of us, music is as vital to what it means to be alive as anything else.  We return to the songs that give us hope, provide companionship in the midst of lament, carve out space for reflection and lay out a map for our journey both in recovering our past and forging into the hope of a redeemed future.  “We are born of sound” muses Bono in the song “Breathe” off “No Line on the Horizon” and I believe he is absolutely correct.  To read The Rest is Noise to realize just how profound the birth of the twentieth century is and the genius that is found in the music we have been midwifed by into the life we now hold so dear.

“I see only four possibilities.; They might attempt, like the Amish, to isolate themselves completely for the rest of American society, banning all art works except the scriptures. They might, secondly, attempt to impose a censorship program, allowing people (or trying to allow people) to see, read, or hear, only what the censors declare harmless or beneficial.  They might attempt to put their energies into harmless or “wholesome” arts like ballroom dancing, athletics, symphony orchestras that plays safe traditional music, hymnals, and fiction with clearly recognizable inspirational messages. Or they might try to develop a great art so powerful that it would counteract, by its very strength, the shoddy culture it opposes. [ In the end, we must accept that] bland art is no defense against powerful bad art.” (Emphasis added)

–       Wayne C. Booth from the University of Chicago when discussing if art and religion can go together in today’s world. (found in “Religion Versus Art: Can the Ancient Conflict be Resolved?” Wayne C. Booth, Arts and Inspiration: Mormon Perspectives, edited by Steven P. Sondrup. Brigham Young University Press: Provo, UT, 1980, pp 30 – 31.)