Either you only follow tweets for TMZ.com or ESPN Sportscenter or live under a rock away from the din and clang of the blogosphere if you haven’t heard the rumblings about Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) which will hit bookstores on March 29th.  For those following the flurry of activity, the basic issue that arose this weekend started when Justin Taylor posted a blog posting entitled Rob Bell: Universalist?  and later John Piper, the grandfather of neo-Calvinism, Synod of Dort extreme sport TULIP revivalism mentor for Mark Driscoll, and author of Desiring God, offered a rather snarky and damning (pun intended) tweet that simply read “Farewell Rob Bell” in relation to claims that Bell’s new book espoused a universalist view of salvation and Bell has finally been shown to be in league with the devil.   There have been claims from neo-Calvinists for a while that Bell and his NOOMA videos were merely drawing people away from orthodox Christian faith.  Swords began to rattle and the blogosphere exploded.  As reported in Christianity Today’s blog this weekend, Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday… that is the top 10 trending of ALL Tweets globally. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor’s blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers’ personal pages. The article had about 680 comments as of this morning.  Taylor, who is a VP for Crossway Books which publishes some of Piper’s work, has since revised his article, softening the blows he delivered originally including aligning the fate and character of Bell with II Corinthians 11: 14-15 –  “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” [to be expected, this is from the ESV which is the authorized version of neo-Calvinist Piper fanboys (yes… boys) everywhere since, as we have been told, other translations such as the ill-fated TNIV are too “gender-inclusive” and leading to the feminization of the Bible].  As many have pointed out, Bell’s book has yet to be released and these comments are coming from people who have either only seen the book jacket copy or a promotional video that Harper Collins has begun to circulate in promotion of the book.  In short, the blogosphere is offering a premonition of things to come akin to the movie “Minority Report” where people are charged and convicted of crimes they haven’t committed but *might* in the future – taking them out now will save collateral damage.

Some passing thoughts on this bit of cyber rumbling:

1. At its most base level, these type of fist fights in Christianity only serve to remind the world that Christians are seriously wounded, angry people with too much time on their hands to muse about this stuff, are more interested in winning fights on grounds of certainty rather than faith (the fate of souls can be known with certainty?!) and seeming lack of critical faculties in regard to self-reflection so as to see how much damage this type of snarking does in the name of Christ.

2. As Scot McKnight recently noted in a recent Christianity Today blog, this type of activity serves the book publishers best – in this case Crossway and Harper Collins are the winner –  as the church burns itself to the ground and should be a warning to leaders who choose flippancy rather than true compassion and reconciliation as their response in the very public age of social networking:

I’ve not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue … today … and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP’s book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke — and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity’s provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

3. I will ‘out myself’ as someone who respects what Rob has done, how he thinks, and frankly his deep and abiding concern for the well-being of all people who Christ died for – and I do mean *all* people as testified to in Romans 5:18.  True, I don’t find all his theology to be my cup of tea, but that is what makes him real to me… Rob actually has the humility to say he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to offer a one-stop shopping for everything.  Quite refreshing actually.  I will certainly read the book and look forward to seeing what Rob actually says… not what people who haven’t even read the book think.

4. On whether universalism is something worth a theological fist fight about, I suppose it matters as far as our dialogues move us toward humility before a God who is as mysterious and unknowing as He is revealed and apprehendable.  As a theologian I work with students who struggle with the final end of things all the time.  As a pastor who has performed many funerals for children, adult suicides, and family members who are atheists and well as asked the ultimate fate of those who don’t profess a faith in Christ nor have prayed the sinner’s prayer per our traditional understanding and therefore I get asked the questions of heaven and hell quite a bit.

Where we put the cross matters…

My short hand answer begins with where we have put the cross in our midst. For many the cross is iconically viewed every Sunday in church sanctuaries as something bolted to the wall at the end of the sanctuary, high above the ground and therefore beyond our grasp:

In this view there is only one way to approach the cross – it is a 2D thing in our 3D world that is unmovable, without blemish, and only reached through our reason since we cannot touch it or experience in any way that is existential.  There is a front door and no back door to this cross and there just one way to get there.

But what if we consider the cross as something that is truly in the center of our lives and not merely bolted to the wall? What if the cross that Christ died on and made the way forward for overturning the pattern of Adam as we hear in Romans 8 actually offers a new way, a new path, a new centerpoint for our lives that is truly 3D and in our midst:

Golgotha was a real place in the three-dimensional world with a cross planted in the midst of everything and in the presence of and for all people (Romans 5:18) that could be approached from all directions for this was a death offered for all the world (John 3:16) and not merely those who find the one aisle or doorway our small tribes might conjure as essential in phrase or practice.  This is a cross that is in the middle of everything we are about and everything God wishes for us.  What a shame to bolt that gift to a wall like a prized trophy head captured and preserved safely above all the muck and mire of real life.

Now, am I advocating for an essential universalism whereby everyone is saved and taken to paradise whether they like it or not?

No.

I stand on the belief that my ability to choose is something God counts as so precious as to give me a choice to love or not and thereby I can opt out of relationship with God, deny the offer of paradise, and build my own Hell whether on earth or in the afterlife akin to Satan’s famous aphorism from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “For it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”  I say this with all the Reformed theology in my bones as one who affirms God’s sovereignty in all things, understands depravity as the result of being deprived of God’s grace in a broken world and twisting that which is good into a disordered and not ordered form of love.  To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

Is there Hell? Scripture and the tradition of the Church says that this is as real as the world in which we live.  In fact, Christ is fairly pointed in declaring that perhaps Hell is already here and we have a chance to do something about it for folks who are living in this very real and not imagined Hell everyday… and not merely blogging about it.  In this regard I believe in Hell because I can see, taste and touch its stench all around me in the lives of the marginalized and down-trodden, the broken hearts and afflicted, the ironic and the nihilistic.  To that end my thoughts on whether Hell is real have more to do with the hope and prayer that by the time we catch up to the action of Revelation 20 that God has already put into play that Hell will be as empty as freakin’ possible and that Satan and all the demons will be left alone and tormented by the reality of a cross that stands in their midst as well… a cross that is not impotently framed on a wall like an IKEA wall hanging but holds the door open for all time so that all who seek entrance to this place of separation have to try and get by it first.

As Scot McKnight wisely stated, this whole cyber spat will probably just blow over by the time we go to work on Monday and that is a shame in some regards since what we believe does matter… and it certainly matters more than making arguments about a book nobody has even read yet.

So… what are your thoughts on all this? Does it matter? Why or why not?

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?

One of the tasks that many people struggle with in their search for meaning is locating people and places where they can feel at home.  This notion of ‘home’ is deep within us – that place where we experience peace, we are embraced by those around us, and the language and movements around us feel in resonance with who we are made to be or, better yet, called to be.

My daughter was recently doing a report on bats and the way some members of the animal kingdom have an ability called ‘biosonar’ or ‘echolocation’.  Similar to sonar used in submarines, echolocation is a biological event that creates context and discerns meaning:

Echolocation, also called biosonar, is the biological sonar used by several animals, most notably microchiropteran bats and odontocetes (toothed whales and dolphins), but has also been demonstrated in simpler form in other groups such as shrews, one genus of megachiropteran bats (Rousettus) and two cave dwelling bird groups, the so called cave swiftlets in the genus Aerodramus (formerly Collocalia) and the unrelated Oilbird Steatornis caripensis

One way to think of echolocation is the ability to send out a distinct signal that when it hits an object with bounce back in waves that will form the shape and contour of the surface that the sound came in contact with.  In bats it looks like this:


This seems relatively basic – sound goes out, sound returns.   The bat balances the dissonance of the echo in a stereophonic means between its right and left ear resulting a mental picture of that which cannot be seen with the eye, but is still apprehendable to the mind.

I think there is a ‘theological biosonar’ of sorts as well. As people try to make connections with others, find faith communities within which to call ‘home’, and to get a sense of place in both theological and sociological meaning, we all send out signals hoping that the image that echoes back is one of home.

Contemporary Shibbóleths – deep calling out to deep

We all use certain phrases, terms, actions or ‘shibbóleths’ (שִׁבֹּלֶת) to ‘feel people out’ as it were and determine our location in reference to self and others.  Do we belong? Is this a place called ‘home’? The notion of a shibbóleth is like this notion of echolocation.  The term is taken from Judges 12 in the Hebrew Bible:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שיבולת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סיבולת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.

The term “Shibboleth” (שיבולת) and “Sibboleth” (סיבולת) are so similar yet the difference would mean life and death.  Sure, we can wrap ourselves up in frustration at the ‘little things’ that people hold so tightly to, yet when it comes down to whether this is a place to be trusted or a place to fear… the little things matter quite a bit.

Petty though they may be, I have started thinking about my sense of echolocation – what are the shibbóleths that I listen for in order to get a sense of whether I am ‘home’ or not? What are the sometimes odd, quirky things that I hold to that have become a tuning fork for whether the place I am at is a place to call ‘home’?

Some of the things I have come up with (like most of life – it is a mix of the serious and mundane) are as follows:

– Equal access of both men and women to all forms of ministry

– high value of social justice and holistic responsibility

– salvation as living a ‘faith of Jesus’ rather than merely ‘faith in Jesus’

– both Tillich *and* Barth have things to contribute to the theological conversation

– more serious novels contain theological depth and conviction than most theological texts

– churches that don’t let kids put artwork on their walls need to turn the keys over to the next generation

– tattoos and comic books matter

– even numbered Star Trek films are superior to odd numbered ones and the original three Star Wars films are a dish best served on VHS tape

– if more contemporary Christian music (CCM) had the vision and artistic integrity of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Nick Cave I might listen

– watching It’s a Wonderful LifeThe Paper Chase and Moulin Rouge once a year is not repetitive

– writing in books is part of reading a book well

– three television shows in the past decade worth deep discussion are The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe

– having a coffee shop that you go to regularly and not shared with others because you want a ‘fortress of solitude’ from the places you dwell is not a bad thing

– Monty Python never gets old

– Partick Thistle rather than Rangers vs. Celtic

– adulthood is overrated… childhood is not

– shopping malls are soul-sucking prisons of doom

– Porter and Stout are the only options for grown ups

– any dog less than 30 lbs should be called a ‘cat’

– two greatest living theological writers in America at present are Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King

– April may be the cruelest month… but August is the greatest one

– Any advent liturgy that doesn’t dwell deeply on the genealogies of Matthew and Luke is akin to starting with season 2 of Battlestar Galactica… simply wrong.

– The one thing I agree with Michael Jackson on is that ‘children are our future’

– While ‘Highlander’ was a fairly lame movie, the ideas of blending Scottish and Japanese cultures with the question of humanity facing immortality is epic

– French press trumps drip; matcha green tea trumps earl grey

– “Yes” to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything and Almost Famous

Being a reformed pastor and theologian doesn’t mean embracing a Synod of Dort legalism and reminding people that Wesley and Calvin have much more in common than not.

OK… that’s a start…

what would *you* add?

As a theologian who works in areas of media culture and youth ministry education, it should come as no surprise that I have had a number of people encouraging me to comment on the latest MTV program Skins. For those not familiar with this latest attempt by MTV at capturing the coveted teen viewing market, Skins is a scripted TV show that first aired in the UK and surrounds the drug and sex fueled lives of teens where each episode casts the core characters in increasingly questionable scenarios: drugs and booze flows freely, kids regularly jump into bed together, take erectile dysfunction pills and spend the show with erections openly displayed, and parents leave for days at a time whereby teens hold parties with no boundaries and no end in sight. And this is only the first three episodes.  One of the things that has caused a bit of a media firestorm is that the show is not employing older actors playing teens like other teen dramas in the past where teens we put in explicit and questionable scenarios (think: Fame and Saturday Night Fever).  Here the youngest actor is 15 years of age and given the legal definition of child pornography puts MTV into some dangerous legal waters.  The public outcry has been significant enough that some major corporate sponsors such as Chevy Volt have pulled out of MTV entirely over the show.  However, the show is a huge hit thus far for the network with some 3.3 million tuning in to its première which has set a new first-episode record for MTV viewers ages 12 to 34.  The show is rated TV – MA which means that in order to view the show online via MTV.com, you have to enter your birthdate testifying that you are over the age of 18.  One can only wonder how many of the 3.3 million within the 12 to 34 range have shifted their birth date to mirror not their chronological age, but the maturity level that see themselves at. In a recent New York Times article in relation to the show, MTV spokeswoman Jeannie Kedas made the following statement assuring concerned adults that the show will continue to focus on key standards that are important to viewers:

“ ‘Skins’ is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way.  We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. We are confident that the episodes of ‘Skins’ will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers.” (emphasis added)

One has to wonder how MTV understands *what* their responsibilities are to their viewers.  MTV is a network owned by Viacom, that major cable giant who also gave the world Jersey Shore which is not show that has announced a return to Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best by any means.  As a network that has struggled with its brand for quite a while, this move in ‘reality child porn’ seems to be hitting a nerve in many ways – people are buzzing about MTV as a cultural force again, seeing the network as beyond edgy and willing to even face censorship and pornography charges for the sake of ‘real television’ about ‘real teens’.  What Skins announces for me is the apogee of Western cultures’ ultimate goal of taking children out of the equation all together as responsible, caring soon-to-be adults in the making and sell them to themselves as mere products of flesh without souls.  As such Skins is a true nexus point of teens as both product and consumer, nothing more and nothing less.  Akin to the horror porn films such as the Saw series and The Human Centipede, it is another instance of a case study whereby we sit and watch young people devour each other in a supposed Dionysian frenzy of liberty and self exploration as something we tell ourselves is simply “seeing kids as they are” but that in the pit of our stomach we know that we are watching youth who only want to be admired and liked then destroyed for our momentary escape from our malaise.  I may sound prudish in my comments here, but I suppose it is also the sound of lamentation.  As much as we are told this is a show showing us “the real deal” of teens in our culture, it is also a wish-fulfillment decades in the making. As far as I can tell, Skins is ultimately a sick indictment of Western cultures’ fetishistic, pornographic and deep hatred of youth (yes…hatred… not idolatry) as something that is forever lost in all its innocence and optimism in the wake of a culture utterly lost east of Eden without a compass, without hope, and therefore must destroy anything that reminds us of what we sacrificed in our gluttonous self-indulging of the bloated ego.  As Troy Patterson at Slate.com noted in his review of the show, perhaps the show is really just showing us how we wish teens would act:

I think I’m paraphrasing a Don DeLillo character when I say that Skins is not created as pornography about children but as a kind of cultural pornography for them. As such, it belongs to a tradition dating back at least to Blackboard Jungle. The show—a sporadically excellent adaption of a British teen drama—is superlative teensploitation, enabling youth to rejoice in the fantasy of their corruption, among other things. (Chief among those other things: To celebrate their music as if they invented the concept of dancing alone in their rooms?) Pissing off people’s parents is among the functions of its existence and the indices of its success. The audience is decorating its space on the far side of a generation gap.

To this I think Patterson is probably correct, but not for the reasons he gives in his review.  True, the show does take care to allow teens to see that ‘pissing off your parents’ is probably just part of being a teenager, but what I don’t agree with Patterson is that the so-called script that Skins is offering is not a descriptive script (just showing us what teens are like) – but rather a blatantly prescriptive one (how culture wants teens to be).

The “Animal House factor”

It is this prescriptive emphasis that is not-so-subtle and a raging current throughout teen focused media which I call the “Animal House factor”.  Movies like Risky Business and Animal House provide a prescriptive script for teens to fulfill, offering a road map for coming-of-age that has little to no spiritual or psychological grounding and results in teens merely acting these scripts out in hopes of finding the yellow brick road to the Wizard’s door after all the sex and drugs are over and perhaps given a chance to just go home at long last.  What we as consumers of shows like Skins are telling teens is that this is a way forward down that golden path.  What we *don’t* tell them is that we blew up Oz long ago, the ruby slippers were gambled away with other dreams that died with our innocence, and no one wakes up to find family – be it Auntie Em or Toto – around your bedside welcoming you home anymore.  No, what we have left are the moment-by-moment distractions, the entertainment machine that needs more young bodies poured into it daily, and the deepening sense that if we don’t turn up the soundtrack a little louder, the High Def a little crisper, the jump cuts and fade outs a little quicker, then we will see the angel with the flaming sword marking yet again how far we are from Eden and just how hopeless and lonely we truly are.

If our children are destroying themselves, then perhaps they won’t be able to see our true faces either.

“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”…

Numerous scholars of the Abrahamic religions have called Christianity, Judaism and Islam “religions of the book” in reference to the central role that the sacred text plays in each tradition and all three sharing similar narratives albeit interpreted theologically in differing ways.  As someone who studies and inhabits the Christian tradition, I would be a called a ‘person of the book’ as well.  The collected 66 books that constitute the Christian scriptures – representative texts that inhabit the Hebrew scriptures coupled with the New Testament corpus – are the ‘norming norm’ of the Christian faith and while there is a quite a large span within the big tent of Christianity reaching from those who hold the texts to be inerrant (wholly and complete as holy inspired and therefore without error) to those who espouse the texts as authoritative as inspired texts yet still formed with human agency to those who see them along other ‘weltliteratur‘: a text among others containing moral values and historical heft yet ultimately a product from within human cultural history.  Therefore ranging from fundamentalist frenzy to merely supplemental reading in a Great Books curriculum, the Bible continues to be one of the most influential (if not THE most influential) book in human history.   The role that the Bible plays in the forward movement and sustaining center point of human history have been discussed as the main concern in two recent films – The Book of Eli and The Secret of Kells.  While there a number of stark differences between these films (one is a fairly standard post- apocalyptic action film made for the multiplex while the other is an indie Oscar nominated animated short film looking back to the age of the illuminated manuscript that had limited release in art houses), what unites these films though is a deep sense that without ‘the Book’ – this text that is somehow imbued with Divine initiative and unique in all the world – civilization as we know it will fall into darkness and akin to WB Yeats’ The Second Coming we will fall into a spinning apocalypse beyond human control:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In The Secret of Kells, the tale is woven around the monastic community of Kells in Ireland and the production in the 9th century of an illuminated manuscript of the synoptic Gospels.  The story is told through the eyes of young Brendan, an orphan living within this monastic community who is introduced to Aidan of Iona, an elderly monk who is said to be the greatest illuminator of texts in all of Christendom.  Brendan’s uncle is the abbot of this monastic order and fears that their community will be overtaken by ‘Northmen’ – Viking invaders that have been savaging the lands throughout Scotland and Ireland and thrusting the world into anti-intellectualism and darkness – as well as pagans who continue to hold to folk religion.   In order to protect the monastic community, the Abbot erects large walls to cloister the community and seal it off from both Northmen invaders and the pagan outsiders.  Ultimately, the tale shows the tension between which future will be best – choosing to build bigger and better walls to protect a way of life from everything that is different or to journey into the pagan lands, to listen and experience what the world has to say in all its hopes, its loves, its dangers and its fears and allow art to speak into all these places as a dialog of hope and grace.  It becomes clear that the illuminated Gospels will never be completed unless it is taken outside the walls that cloister and ‘protect’ it for only in the pagan realm are there the materials and inspiration to truly make the text a thing of light or a deeply ‘illuminated’ work.  It is this journey of choice between creating stronger walls or finding the light of the world that already dwells ‘in’ the world with which the sacred text can be read by that the movie moves the viewer to choose for themselves.

The Book of Eli is in many ways a much simpler film – a ham-handed morality tale told through video game violence in order to keep a violence-saturated multi-plex audience attentive for the full two hours.

Yet that would be too harsh a judgement as the film is actually better and asking bigger questions than it perhaps even realizes.  Akin to The Secret of Kells, The Book of Eli has as its central concern the fate of civilization that while not the dark ages (saeculum obscurum) arising after the fall of the Roman empire but post-apocalyptic dark age that has haunted the imaginations of Western culture from filmic visions such as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and George Miller’s The Road Warrior to the contemporary literary visions cast by Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  As with the exhaustion of virtues and morality that cast the world into darkness in The Secret of Kells, the ravages of the nuclear option burn through the aesthetics of The Hughes Brothers film with Denzel Washington fending off simple-minded madmen with a machete, amazing martial arts skills for a guy walking for 30 years and sweet Oakley sunglasses to boot.   Behind the goofiness though is the haunting question of what will bring civilization back from oblivion and offer a center point around which human flourishing can prosper.  The answer seems to rely upon the same book albeit in a decidedly different form than the illuminated Gospels of Kells (you will have to see The Book of Eli to find out just how different… I won’t spoil it for you).  As the sinister character Carnegie (played to maximum scene-chewing pitch by Gary Oldman) makes clear when trying to get the Book from Denzel Washington’s Eli, what is seen as salvation to some is also power and domination to others:

[it is] a weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, f$%^&’ town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book

After watching both films, I was taken that in both cases there is still this haunting sense that this book as ‘the Book’ is still thought of as having such power and the ability to making society or destroy it.  Is this really the case in an age when every motel has a Gideon bible that is as ubiquitous as the free shampoos and conditioners?  Many people speak of the post-Christian age – a time that has long since seen this book as ‘the Book’ lose its luster and hold on the hearts and minds of thoughtful people.  Is this truly something that people, if they would but read it, find the center and still point in this ever twisting chaotic world or is it merely the stuff of film?

What do you think?  Are St. Augustine’s words ‘take up and read’ enough?

This summer I give a lecture for the Kindlings Fest 2010 Arts and Faith conference on Orcas Island.  For those who follow the Kindlings Muse podcasts on iTunes, you will know something of the focus – an opportunity to talk about cultural questions of meaning with folks in a relaxed setting.  The monthly Kindlings Muse program is hosted at Hales Brewery and Pub in the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle on the second Monday of each month.  If you are in the area, be sure to come down and join us!

Here is a link to the lecture I gave on Emerging Adults and how technology is shaping young people into what MIT scholar Sherry Turkle terms “the tethered self” – the lecture reflects on JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as a lens for how teens read the Gospels to some of Jeffrey Arnett’s work on Emerging Adulthood to the ways “electronic co-presence” through technology is re-framing identity formation:

[click here to connect to the Kindlings Muse website and stream or download the lecture]

Ever have that experience when you are listening to the radio or watching a television show and you know you are in the midst of a serious ‘water cooler’ moment?  Back in the 90’s, episodes of “ER” and “Friends” evoked such ‘water cooler’ moments: entertainment that was sold as pop entertainment yet hit some nerve in the collective zeitgeist that once you got to work the next day everyone was buzzing about it at the proverbial water cooler (or coffee pot, copy machine, to whatever collective gathering place you have in your cube farm).  For those of us working with teens and looking at the question of how teenagers are making meaning , this week’s episode of Glee entitled “Grilled Cheesus” was a water cooler moment .

[If you haven’t seen the episode – click here to watch it on Hulu.com ]

I have blogged about Glee here in the past to the way the show is lifting up the importance of anthems and ballads as theological forms for a new generation.  Already the blogosphere is a-buzz about this episode and some great discussions are occurring as to how the various teens discuss what faith is for them and showing that teens represent a large spectrum – from Christian fundamentalism to cultist wish-fulfillment  vis-a-vis a grilled cheese sandwich as an iconic cipher for the Divine to reformed and orthodox Judaism (who would have thought that Chaim Potok’s The Chosen would find a 21st century revival in the Glee characters of Rachel and Puck?) to atheism and all points in-between.   Dr. Kenda Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of the great new book Almost Christian has posted a wonderful reflection on the “Grilled Cheesus” episode with some useful questions to reflect on with teens and parents – click through here for her reflections and helpful points of dialog with the show.

One of the points in the show that I found a bit disconcerting was the perpetuation of a view that public schools have somehow banned discussion of religion of any type and that teachers are being told to (in the words of Glee’s cheerio coach Sue Sylvester) “keep the separation of church and state sacred.”  This is a view that is continuing to threaten how public schools are viewed by people from religious communities and a point that needs to be challenged.

For starters, there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between (unconstitutional) indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion on the one hand and, on the other, (constitutional) teaching about religion, which is objective, non-sectarian, neutral, balanced and fair.  In the episode, the New Directions glee club is told by the Principal that they cannot sing anything that is religious and to do so will be in violation of the law separating church and state.

Unfortunately, the writers for Glee didn’t look at the law at all…

For example, looking at the Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington Township v. Schempp decision which continues to be upheld  in which the Court affirms the constitutionality of teaching about religion in public schools when done “objectively as part of a secular program of education” means that Sue Sylvester doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on – whether in a track suit or not – if teens are singing songs found on the radio and part of our culture whether in the Gospel tradition or CCM.  True, what it means to be “objective” is not uncontroversial as many would argue that there is no such thing as true objectivity and every curricular item has some bias to it.  Fair enough.  That said, what *is* clear from Schempp is that the Court’s places a high value on neutrality…. not silence. Teachers and texts in our schools must be neutral in dealing with religion which is to say that they must be neutral among religions, and they must be neutral between religion and nonreligion.

So yes, Mr. Schuester, you can have the kids sing Joan Osborne’s “(What if God were) One of Us” if they want to and the Supreme Court is there in the audience swaying along.  (By the way – I will admit an emotional tie to that song in that Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” was sung in my ordination service along with U2’s “40” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” so there *is* bias on my part as well 🙂 )

On the other hand, one of the things the “Grilled Cheesus” episode did that was spot on is showing that in order for this neutrality to occur, we must cultivate a spirit of diversity and hospitality for all voices to be heard.   To be educated about religion and morality is to understand something of religions in its diversity. It is not open to public school educators  to include only one religious tradition in the discussion to silence the reality of others and this is something that the Glee writers could have teased out a bit more but was thankful for what they did. One of my grand laments in youth ministry education is that most programs – both undergraduate and graduate programs – offer no room for students to take course in World Religions nor alternate worldview courses unless these course are with a missionary bent.   If there is to be an honest assessment of faith, then all faiths must be discussed on their own terms and not as a strawman argument filled with stereotypes and ill-informed bias to be shot down without honest, deep assessment.  One of the points the teens in Glee make over and over is that part of what helps them understand their own identity is taking seriously the identity of others.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the episode, Mercedes confronts Kurt about his ‘arrogance’ at refusing to discuss faith with her given that she is his best friend at school.  She accepts that he is choosing to be an atheist and has listened to his reasons for not believing in a God, but as she confronts him and challenges him to at least come to a worship service at her church, she reminds him that to really be friends, they have to honor each other and not merely dismiss each other.  Great reminder to us all…

Time to make a grilled cheese sandwich and see what comes of it…

Faith communities love acronyms. There are landfills full of WWJD? bracelets to prove that acronyms distill complex ideas down beyond a catch phrase to a few letters and allow a certain hyperlinkedness to vast amounts of data.  In many ways, acronyms are a gift but they can also be a distraction by offering a seemingly summative and all-encompassing certainty.  The latest acronym to take youth workers and many church leaders by storm is MTD which is short-hand for Moral Therapeutic Deism.  Launched into the world via their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers (Oxford, 2005) which resulted from an in-depth study of American teenagers self-reporting about what makes up and sustains belief through the National Study of Youth and Religion.  The findings of the study distilled in Soul Searching hold that what is religious belief for teenagers in America across ethic and religious backgrounds is what Smith and Denton term MTD or Moral Therapeutic Deism which sees belief as a code of right and wrong behaviors (moral) that is centered on the question of what the person needs to feel better about themselves (therapeutic) and organized by a view of the Divine as completely separated from the realm of lived experience, completely at a distance, and only there to consult and affirm (deism).  After the study was released and the book published five years ago, a flood of reactions and later sub-industry has arisen around this model of MTD.  Churches are worried, parents are feeling guilty, and youth workers are frantically seeking new models to change this trend.  To be sure, Smith and Denton have some great data and the ‘wake up call’ to get serious about working with youth toward a deep and abiding sense of what makes up belief should be addressed.  That said, I do worry that many are adopting this MTD mantra without a critical examination of what is at stake and is the course correction proposed in Soul Searching and the MTD concern truly what we need.

In short:  is the supposed cure potentially worse than the disease?

Critiques of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching:

1. There is a danger of a “one size – fits all” view to what is considered biblical literacy and deep faith that plots toward rationalism over and against embodiment and practice :

Smith and Denton argue that “all religious groups seem at risk of losing teens to nonreligious identities[1] which assumes that there is an easily quantifiable religious identity is out there that we can appeal to that is somehow counterpoised to so-called ‘secular’ identities.  I have to admit being puzzled by this notion of ‘nonreligious’ identities and deeply suspicious of what the ‘religious’ persona that is backgrounding this assessment would look and feel like.  As someone watches a generation of young people grab a hold of all the consumerism that Evangelicalism had to offer to ‘mark’ their faith as real – shirts, hats, CDs, messenger bags, etc – as well as use catch phrases and social behaviors valued in certain circles but foreign to others, I am not sure I am buying what Smith and Denton are putting on the table.  They go on to state that “a number of religious teenagers propounded theological views that are, according to the standards of their own religious traditions, simply not orthodox.”[2] To that I would say… come to a Youth Specialties conference and see if you can find the orthodoxy that is being romantically idealized.  Here are people who work with teens and draw from the breadth and height of the Christian tradition – contemplative Celtic prayers mixed with various social networking platforms and funded by sociological and theological reflection.  One of the MTD critics who is voicing a similar concern to what I am reflecting on is Theologian Tom Beaudoin at Fordham University.  In the chapter “The Ethics of Characterizing Popular Faith” from his great book Witness to Dispossession, he underscores the fact that faith is complex and not an easily reducible thing:

[T]heology itself is discovering with ever greater complexity, the particular beliefs that are “sanctioned” by religious leadership, at any particular time and place, are deeply implicated in “nontheological” or “nonreligious” political, social, cultural, and economic factors.  The very opposition between “picking and choosing” and “accepting the whole” is itself a recent way of imaging, often for the sake of an intended control, what the options for belief are today – much like the opposition between fundamentalism and enlightenment, or relativism and moral fundamentalism.[3]

2. The study that Smith and Denton offer in Soul Searching doesn’t sufficiently allow for the inherently inarticulate nature of real faith.

Last time I checked, ‘faith’ was not ‘certainty’.  Following on from the fact that religious vs. irreligious identities are difficult and possibly problematic to view as a goal of our work with young people, the core of Smith and Denton’s work is a concern that youth cannot articulate what they believe with clarity and certainty. As they say:  “The bottom line is, when it comes to their religious belief about God, U.S. teens reflect a great deal of variance on the matter, and perhaps in some cases more than a little conceptual confusion.”[4]

Again, I would ask *who* actually has a LACK of variance in regard to their faith story and can offer a clear picture of belief

As noted by Nancy Ammerman in Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, faith is known through and practiced as “fragments”, “side plots” and “tangents”[5] more than systematically theorized and rendered.  Ammerman puts it this way: “A person may recognize moral imperatives that have a transcendent grounding without ever having a ‘religious experience’ or being able to articulate a set of doctrines about God.”[6] Think for example about the man born blind in John 9.  In this narrative, the man is questioned by many religious leaders (read: data collecting researchers) about what ‘happened’ to him.  Continually he can’t articulate a response that is enough for the religious professionals.  He ultimately states that in reference to who Jesus is that “whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,’ the man replied. ‘All I know is this: I was blind and now I see.’” (9:25)  And here is a man who Jesus celebrates and embraces for a faith that while can’t be articulated is a faith worthy of emulating as testified to its inclusion in our canon of Scripture.

3. The problem and later solution seems to revolve all-too-conveniently around institutional religion and doesn’t take into account the ‘Pandora Effect’ of social media, internet, web, globalization as a good thing

According to Smith, institutional representatives are the “agents of religious socialization”[7] and as such should bear the burden of righting the wrongs of MTD to a large degree.  That is fine on one level – churches, synagogues, mosques, and other institutional locations should continue to seek new ways of spurring on conversations for and about faith.  Yet what Smith and Denton don’t take into account is the role that other networks play is framing faith and that, in many ways, these serve to remind us that God does indeed move in mysterious ways.  Tom Beaudoin makes the following comment in regard to this aspect of Soul Searching: “The authors imagine religious beliefs as starting from pure official teaching, stewarded by contemporary religious leaders, well or poorly, through official channels, such as programs of religious education.”[8]

Now… I don’t know about you, but faith is a messy thing and how ANYONE comes to some understanding of God and what resources that belief is anything but clean.  When I was in high school, I had a lot of questions about what belief was supposed to be and thought that most things about Christianity was more in line with the Marxist critique: simply a ‘opiate for the masses’, a balm for those unwilling to embrace the horrors of a life without God with courage and choose a fairy tale instead.  So I read everything I could get my hands  – from Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain to The Tao Te Ching – in trying to make sense of what meaning actually was.  Yes, I count myself as a Christian and yes, I situate myself within the orthodox understanding of the faith as framed in the ecumenical creeds and Scriptures canonized by the apostolic faith.  But did my starting point begin with the Church?  Not really.  Is what resources and sustains my question for a deeper and more abiding faith generated solely by the church within which I find myself?  Somewhat.  Am I clear and articulate about what faith is for me?  I suppose better than some.  Does this cause me anxiety?  Not at all.   This leads to my last comment…

4. Eclecticism is not necessarily a bad thing…

Piggybacking on the last concern, there is the assertion in the MTD industry that eclectic approaches to faith development is something of an aberration and that authentic faith is to be found in categorical resolute allegiance to a particular faith tradition.  When Smith makes the statement that  “U.S. teens as a whole are thus not religiously promiscuous faith mixers”[9] he is seeing this as a good thing.

Is this a good thing?

Smith and Denton go on to state that “based on our experience talking through these issues face-to-face with teens around the country, we estimate that no more than 2 to 3 percent of American teens are serious spiritual seekers of the kind described above: self-directing and self-authenticating people pursuing an experimental and eclectic quest for personal spiritual meaning outside of historical religious traditions.”[10]

In many ways I don’t find comfort in this at all.  When did seeking manifold resources by which to ground and still release a faith in being that is larger than institutions, larger than reason, more compelling than route recitation of dogma and more enlivened than an appeal to a dead past?  Students I know find ‘common grace’ flooding through the music they listen to, the books they read in comparative lit courses, in the art they study from the 16th century, and even in the characters they follow on TV shows as ephemeral as Glee, as gritty as The Wire, as bizarre as Lost, and as ridiculous and ironic as Monty Python.  This is in keeping with St. Paul’s repose to the world as he spoke to the Athenians in Acts 17 – seeking not merely the so-called orthodox rendering of what constitutes the faith tradition, but beginning with a tour of their museums and finding whatever cultural artifact seemed to shimmer and resonate with that which connected with their searching for meaning.

So… what do you think?  As you listen to the cry of concern voiced by the MTD industry calling us to a deep state of alarm and fear for the sake of our teens, can we temper that fear and concern with knowledge that faith has always been a messy thing that is difficult to articulate, and often drawn from a crazy and seemingly random set of sources?


[1] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 88

[2] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 136.

[3] Beaudoin, Tom. Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[4] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 42.

[5] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives (New York: Oxford UP, 2007) p. 226.

[6] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, p. 226.

[7] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 27

[8] Beaudoin, Tom Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[9] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 32.

[10] 78