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?

Doug Gay, a colleague who teaches Practical Theology at University of Glasgow, recently posted a citation on his Facebook page from Alastair Gray’s stunning 1981 novel Lanark that gave voice to much of what I been wrestling with for the past two weeks. For those not familiar with Lanark, it is reminiscent of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses with echoes of William Blake’s poetry, Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, and George McDonald’s Lilith and splashes of Irvine Welch and David Foster Wallace. Like Joyce, Gray is tearing away the facade of society and looking deep beneath the images toward a deeper notion of what is really animating life. Like Joyce’s Dublin, Gray sets much of his wanderings in an unsympathetic repose of Glasgow in all its decay and longing. Rather than trying to universalize humanity in abstraction, he instead drives us to the particular, the intimate and the real. The central character in the first two books is named Lanark who akin to Joyce’s characters is a persona in constant transition. Lanark’s name changes to Thaw in the second two books for no explicit reason but this further goes to illustrate the liminality of identity. In this passage, Thaw ponders the lack of imagination for people in the city of Glasgow and the cost of this lack of imagination

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, “If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.”

“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in painting, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. what is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or a golf course, some pubs connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

While I had visited Glasgow prior to moving there, I didn’t imagine life in Glasgow nor how I would reimagine the world because of that city and its people. Yes, I thought about my life in the university as a research student, serving in the Cathedral as an Assistant Minister, and relationships we would be establishing. But I never considered how this city with its poverty, its joy for living, its working class and upper class sitting side-by-side in the Tinderbox on Byers Rd. or singing the same songs at a Partick Thistle game would cause me to reimagine how I was to live, to serve, and even to believe. Over the six years we lived in Glasgow, my imagination shifted in ways both subtle and dramatic. Seismic shifts in how I saw faith, life and the resources I would draw from to make meaning in the world. Like Lanark’s Thaw, I only allowed myself to consider Glasgow as a parody of sorts – a place Belle and Sebastian made music, where AL Kennedy wrote her novels, and launching pad from which to see the Highlands and Islands of the Celtic twilight. What I didn’t take into account was that I would grow to see that much of what I learned was deeper than a renewed reason and was really a transformed heart. But this always comes with a cost and part of that cost was seeing and listening to the world in different ways, seeking out conversation partners that would not be valued (read: not authoritative) by some, and even dreaming of a world that was not the world of others.

This morning our church reflected on the stoning of Stephen in the book of Acts. In chapter 7 Stephen, one of seven deacons of the followers of Christ, is charged with sedition and treason (“We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God” – Acts 6:11) and as such is sentenced to death before the Sanhedrin. Chapter 7 of Acts is Stephen’s grand sermon where he challenges the lack of theological imagination of those who consider themselves stewards and guardians of the faith. He rolls back time to recount from the very foundations of the faith that there is an expansiveness and wideness to God’s working in the world that is now ushering in a new way and depth that not only continues on all the God has been doing, but will increase it even further to the very ends of the earth. Stephen is so passionate about this vision he has that he essentially turns to the so-called guardians of the tradition and utters these words:

“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” – Acts 7: 51 – 53

With this Stephen is put to death with stones emblematic of the cold, hard, unchanging and unbending hearts that surrounded this first martyr of the renewal movement now called the Church.

I find a lot of commonality in Stephen and Thaw and will admit that after the past few weeks wondering whether we live in a world where renewal and change will ever come to the venerated institutions that guide and manage our public discourse, our view of the Good, our vision for humanity and even the so-called orthodoxy as to what passes as true faith and right belief. I wonder with Thaw if all that we sometimes truly offer the world around us is more of the ‘same’ – the repeated refrain of old sayings that are safe and don’t cause mischief, the repose of the theologically rigorous yet little of the prophetically bold, the caution of partial activism that only serves to justify my life yet offers little enduring justice for others, and an economy of sacrifice that is measured carefully and with restraint and therefore costs me so little as to seem like a fad rather than faith. And yet here is Stephen, pounding out the faith story to the point of death and taking no prisoners along the way. Here is Stephen, caring so much for the future to be realized in the now that he will stand at the gates of power and no longer be silent. Here is Stephen, not even an apostle of the Church and merely a deacon, willing to engage the collected powerful and remind them that faith is only seen in what we release from our grasp and not in what we guard and protect at all costs.

There are times when people need to reach ever deeper into their hearts and ask with all sincerity whether the world is truly that which they ultimately desire and for those that we call our neighbors.

Is this all – as Alastair Gray’s Thaw muses in relation to Glasgow – that we offer the world and ultimately all we offer ourselves? Are we so tied to the way things have been that we cannot hear the worlds of prophesy when they knock on our door and preach to us truth?



Where were you on September 11th, 2001?

As for me, I was nine hours ahead of my family and friends in Seattle as I was finishing a day of work.  Sitting in my office in the Divinity faculty at the University of Glasgow, I received a phone call from Diana saying that “something was happening in New York” and that I should log onto the computer.  An hour later I was in my flat watching the unfolding of this decade’s most defining few hours.  Nine years later and the aftershocks of 9/11 are still with us.  Few events have globally shifted culture in the last hundred years like this and popular music has certainly been re-framed by it.  As one could expect, pop music took up the events and aftershocks of 9/11 and painted both with the broad strokes of a Monet and the pointillism of a Pollock by pouring energy and space for contemplation into the violence, the patriotism, the wars and rumors of wars.  Perhaps even more so than other art forms seeking to make sense of this apocalyptic moment where what we understand the world to be was shattered before the eyes of millions, pop music in all its immediacy, its primacy of emotion, its desire to communicate quickly and resolutely in a matter of minutes, and its disposable nature and willingness to be discarded for the next 4 minutes vocal exclamation and pounding beat was THE form that has framed what 9/11 was and is for a generation.  Sure, the scholarly monographs are being written with its the critical analysis giving arguments for the why and how of such an event and this too will have some effect on how generations will seek to understand those events.  But it was the pop song that showed up first and they are the artifacts that show we people were not only thinking… but feeling.

To this end, compiling a list of top albums for this first decade of the new millennium is impossible without seeing pop music through the dust clouds, death, and wreckage of those events on September 11th.  Everything that followed those days has some symbiotic relationship to the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pursuit, capture, and execution of Saddam Hussein, and the reality that all of this is far from being ‘over’.

One last thing to mention is Columbine. On April 20th, 1999 Columbine High School was assailed not by terrorists from another country but from ‘within’ as two teenage American boys entered a public high school in Colorado with semi-automatic weapons injuring 21 people, killing 12 students and 1 teacher.  America entered the decade haunted by the reality that all was indeed not well in our land and the fear and anxiety of losing our children in a place that is supposed to be safe – a school of all places – meant that nowhere was safe.  Layering this on top of 9/11 made the decade one marked as fearful both within our borders and from without.

So in picking ten albums for the past decade that have marked out a path for pop music and pop culture, it is with the ever-present reality of Columbine and 9/11 that I listened to these albums and think they offer a representative taste of the decade in its anxiety, its disappointments, as well as its hopes and glory.  I haven’t listed them in any hierarchal order in part because I honestly can’t put one over the other (with the exception of my top album which is the last entry at the bottom… by the way… spoiler alert… it isn’t Kayne, Arcade Fire, or Taylor Swift… so don’t hold your breath for one of those) so I offer the list as a whole as they have become in my remembrances  – they are a ‘shuffle’ play of the decade that saw so much pain, such loss, and many surprises and new beginnings that showed that life isn’t done with us yet.

Once – Music to the Motion Picture Soundtrack

Small things change the world in more ways than we realize.  My decade began with starting my first faculty post, Diana starting her PhD program, and my first daughter being born.  To say that so-called little things don’t have big impact hasn’t held a newborn infant and realized that the world just shifted under the weight of it all.  The indie film “Once” was a small thing that brought big changes as well.  Here was a small film set in Dublin where the primary characters were fairly depressed, sad people and nothing sizable happens in comparison to the global turmoil that surrounded its release in 2007 as the war in Iraq continued on.  Yet here was a simple little story – Glen Hansard (lead singer of the Frames) played a lost soul busking on the streets of Dublin amidst the heartbreak of lost love and meets Marketa Irglova, another lost soul selling roses in the street who is in a difficult marriage yet yearns for something more for herself and her young daughter.  In releasing the film, the trailer pushes you to believe that this is a love story between these two and yet the true story (like love itself) is so much bigger and courageous than that.  The song “Falling Slowly” won the Best Song Oscar and the scene in the movie of the two sitting in a music store working on the song is heart warming in ways only a Wesleyan conversion experience can describe.   What the album achieves is a simple, deep collection of songs about love lost and found, about a desire to love in a world so damaged that it doesn’t know where to begin, and about the power of creating art as a way through the madness of a world at war with itself.

Radiohead – In Rainbows

We all thought that the tipping point for music distribution was going to come with MySpace – the idea that the grand democracy of the web would allow artists to break free from the record labels and get to the audience directly thereby cutting out the middle man and making music affordable again.  It never happened.  But what did happen in the past decade was a band offering up one of the best albums of their amazing career for… well… whatever you wanted to pay for it.  On October 10th, 2007 amidst a number of email blasts, a simple website offered Radiohead’s latest album – not a single or three song EP mind you, but a complete album – for whatever you could (or were willing to) pay for it.  But this wasn’t the surprising thing.  What was most surprising was that In Rainbows wasn’t some cast-off collection of B-sides thrown together for a publicity stunt – this was (and is) a stunningly great album.  The record industry was knocked silent for a bit waiting to see what would happen next – would Radiohead lose money? Would fans demand this model?  Well, Radiohead moved a lot of copies… and eventually sold a lot of physical CDs as well and the fans embraced Radiohead even tighter.  Whether people will hold up In Rainbows as a great album on it own remains to be seen, but coupled with the breakthrough of showing that great music can get out to people, can make a profit, and doesn’t have to be stolen (read: burning someone else’s copy or using Bitorrent)


Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

There was a world before 9/11 and in many ways Ryan Adams’ debut solo album is the bridge from that world and the world we have now inherited.  At the turn of the millennium Ryan Adams was quite possibily one of the truly coolest guys in music. Only 26 years old at the time, he was the voice and primary songwriting talent behind the alt-country band Whiskeytown which along with seminal alt-country bands such as Uncle Tupelo and Wilco help to usher in a revival of the Gram Parsons legacy of the ‘cosmic cowboy’ vibe for a new generation.  Overly confident, musically gifted, charisma to burn as he blended punk and country and Hollywood stardom into a New Yorker ‘look at me, I’m the center of the earth’ presona – Ryan Adams was simply something to behold in concert.  The album begins with an argument between himself and David Rawlings (partner of Gillian Welch – see the discussion of Time (The Revelator) below) about Morrissey’s song ‘Suedehead’ and then leads into the barn burner opener “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”.  This crash of genres – moving deftly from Morrissey to this alt-country hard core twang opener speaks to the mash up of genres that feel so at home for Ryan Adams such as the story that he named the album while in the studio and saw a poster of Mariah Carey who was wearing a T-Shirt that had the word “Heartbreaker” on it.  Yet with all this arrogance and swagger, Heartbreaker is exactly what it’s title states – a real album of heartbreak.  Songs like “(Oh My) Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up” are simply stunning in their lyricism and depth with the latter song being one of the best break up songs written… ever.  To hear some of these songs is to be astounded that they came out of this swaggering, mouthy 26 year old punk who just liked being a rock star.  In many ways I don’t know how he pulled it off as the subsequent albums over the decade just haven’t touched what this album did.  But at least lightening struck this boy when it did.  A great album for long haul driving and watching the sun set in the horizon.  Pitchfork put “Come Pick Me Up” as one of its top 500 songs and it certainly deserves to be on that list.

Tom Waits – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards

Perhaps it isn’t fair to put a collection of B-sides, unreleased tracks, and music for soundtracks and consider it a worth album for this list.  Perhaps.  But this is Tom Waits and Tom Waits’ garage is freakin’ gold.  Released as a 3 CD set thematically organized around the themes of ‘brawlers’, ‘bawlers’, and ‘bastards’, it is a testimony to Tom Waits’ gift as a songwriter and performer that all these supposed throwaway tracks are stunning in their own right.  As a song that embodies the zeitgeist of the decade, go buy ‘Road to Peace’ and put it on constant rotation.

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

U2 released three strong albums this past decade, but they started the decade in 2000 with one of their most integrative efforts to date.  All That You Can’t Leave Behind hit the streets in October of 2000 and launched what Bono said in a number of interviews as their “campaign to reapply for the title of ‘best band of the world'”. The album took the best of the bands’ twenty  year history and distilled it down into a series of songs that are both classic and yet move the band confidently into the 21st century.  The political power of “Walk On”, the idealism of “Beautiful Day”, the stadium punch of “Elevation” and others blend into a truly potent album and still sounds fresh.  What is astounding is that although these tracks were written prior to the events of 9/11, they were the very songs that many people found solace and hope within during the chaos and discouragement of the next few years. Is it a stretch to say that U2 is prophetic?  Not for this fan.  Just seeing their 9/11 tribute performance where they blend “Peace On Earth” with “Walk On” as if they wrote it for that night is a wonder to behold.

The National – High Violet

For those of you who followed my top ten of 2010, you will recognize The National and their amazing 2010 release as my top pick of the year. As such, it bears repeating that The National really came into their own in the latter part of the decade and while some would place their earlier release – The Boxer – higher, I will stand with High Violet.   As I mentioned in my previous post, Matt Berninger who is the 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.  In this way the album is truly a product of this 9/11 haunted decade.   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.


The White Stripes –  Elephant

Here is a serious question: where would popular music be right now without Jack White?  I am glad I don’t have to answer that question for a number of reasons, but three readily come to mind: (1) resurrecting the career of country singer Loretta Lynn by producing her album Van Lear Rose which simply buries most country albums and puts some serious post-punk energy into her already storied and passionate gifts as the Queen of Country Music, (2) proving that there were other things going on in Detroit other than Motown, and (3) giving the world the challenge to rip open the studied, boring, factory slickness of the studio album and bring it back to its rawness and immediacy – if it ain’t fresh… don’t bother listening.  Like a freakish mutation of The Carpenters from the sweet innocent 70’s, Jack and Meg White took the weird, creepy ‘brother/sister’ act to a whole new level.  Take The White Stripes’ album Elephant and the now ubiquitous sounding “Seven Nation Army”.  While there are haters and imitators alike, the needed push that The White Stripes offered the decade was a gift.  In the end, throw the sound board in the pickin’ river and rip up the stage with your guitar and a drum kit.  Elephant sounds like something that Robert Plant only dreamed of but isn’t capable of imagining himself into these days (granted, I like the whole T-Bone/ Alison Krauss move… ) It is both a nightmare and dream but one that we are still not ready to wake up from.  Where Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up” is my vote for the ultimate break-up song for the decade, Elephant gets my vote for the album that gets played once you are fed up and ready to pound your fists against the wall.  I don’t know if that is a category… but it worked for me many, many times.

Over the Rhine – Drunkard’s Prayer

Marriage is not an easy thing and anybody who tells you different has watched too many Disney films.  Having a marriage survive beyond the first few years these days is something of a miracle and being able to put a song together (let alone an entire album) that gets the pathos and joy of this wild, strange endeavor of intimacy is truly rare.  Karin Berquist and Linford Detweiler – the songwriting duo and core of Over The Rhine – have put out some astounding albums over the twenty years that they have been a band, but the angels and demons that they wrestled to the ground in the midst of a marriage that teetered on the brink of oblivion is a wonder and is a gift for the ages.  Drunkard’s Prayer is a love letter written in blood, sweat and tears of real love put to the test and facing the darkness before any hope of a dawn.  It is a simple, painful, truly drunken romp through a love gone dead and lifeless and two lovers being asked to identify the corpse that was their life.  It is an album I want to give to couples on their 10th anniversary, and their 20th, and for every decade after.  Like the good wine that was drunk in times of joy and sorrow… it is an album that truly gets better with age.

Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator)

In a decade that seemed to have lost all its innocence, there was certainly a turning back the clock with the move of alt.country acts like Old Crow Medicine Show, Whiskeytown, Jeff Tweedy, and Wilco to name a few who rose in stature during this decade.  Probably nothing launched this movement though quite like The Coen Brothers brilliant film O Brother Where Art Thou released in 2000 but gained a strong cult following once it was released in DVD following the 9/11 attacks.  The soundtrack was a bluegrass tour de force produced by T-Bone Burnett to great acclaim and introducing the world to Gillian Welch.  Gillian Welch, an orphan born in New York City and moved to Los Angeles at the age of three with her adopted parents, isn’t the person most people would pick as the legacy bearer for bluegrass.  But like a pastoral vocation, one doesn’t choose their calling… its chooses them.  Having bummed around University of California, Santa Cruz as a bass player in punk bands, it was when she heard bluegrass and Patsy Cline era country that all the lights went on.  Her albums take time seriously and if you are not patient, then she is not someone you will enjoy because akin to public transit to can’t rush it and it will come to you when it is good and ready.  But Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings (my vote for the best guitarist of the decade next to Mark Knopfler) create a space that is deep yet won’t drown you.  Every time I have seen them live (four times now) I have come away feeling like I wanted to be a better person… few musicians do that.  Her last album – Soul Journey – came out in 2003 and she is way overdue for another release so lets pray that we get sometime to start the new decade with.  But of her releases this past decade, it is Time (the Revelator) that truly stands as a masterwork.  Joyous and cautious at the same time, it is an album that takes stock of what is precious and worth loving and holds it before with gentleness and grace.  While her previous releases dealt with the internal canvas of a person struggling with being an orphan and the poverty that infects our past both spiritual and economically, Time paints a much larger picture by taking on what it means to be an American in a world that after 9/11 seems so strange.  Drawing on such diverse themes as the sinking of the Titantic, Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and the endlessness of time itself, Time is truly the central character in this album and the one figure for Welch that has the perspective to render our momentary frustrations and longings in a context worthy of souls created by God.  The ending track “I Dream A Highway” is a universe in miniture: a 15 minute testimony to the movement of time and the grace that will carry us through this life and beyond.  This song alone makes Time (The Revelator) worthy of this spot in a top ten list, but the album is strong as steel and worth a listen.  

The video below is from an amazing performance in 2004 that Welch and Rawlings performed as part of a BBC in-studio.  In this great venue of a church, you get a nice taste of this magical duo and especially Rawlings amazing guitar work:


Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (Come on feel the)

I have to admit feeling like a hipster wannabee putting Sufjan Stevens at the top of my decade list and I went an entire day trying to figure out a way to take him off the list entirely.  There is now such a backlash against the Sufjan cult that I just want to run way from all the skinny jeans, blogging, emo, self-reflective indie cool of it.  But standing in the rain scrolling through my iPod I kept coming back to Illnois and the wonder of it all.  Spin magazine had anointed Sufjan with the appropriate title of “Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday school” and perhaps this is the best way to think of him – a mash up of Smith and sanctification peppered with pathos yet dripping with the sublime.   His vision of art has been something of seeking beyond the art itself and Illinois captures this madness at its true blinding reality.  In an interview in the Grand Rapids Press, Stevens spoke of art in this way:

“Art is … a reflection of a greater divine creation. There really is no separation…There’s a fullness of being in the world that takes into consideration the supernatural and the natural, and everything we do and say is evoking and expressing eternal things without even knowing it.”

One of the things I have loved about the career of Sufjan Stevens has been his unwillingness to be pulled into the CCM orbit nor to seek so far into despair as to abandon the very thing that gives life to his art – namely his appreciatation for wonder and mystery in the face of God.  As he notes in an interview in Pitchfork around the time of the release of Seven Swans:

“I do have to reckon with the material I’m singing about. And I want to be responsible for what I’m singing about. But I can’t be responsible for an entire culture, or an entire church. I can’t be responsible for Christendom. I think that when people react reflexively to material that is religious, they’re reacting to the culture of religion. And I think an enlightened person is capable, on some level, of making the distinction between the institution of the culture and the culture itself.”

Sufjan Stevens inhabits a strange sub-genre of “good musician artists” who happen to be Christians: (David ‘curse those branches for dropping me” Bazan, Danielson, Rosie Thomas, Ester Drang, and Half Handed Cloud among others) – as opposed to so-called “Christian artists” found only in Christian bookstores. They are different because they are subversive Christian musicians. They do not directly evangelize and they barely even mention the name Jesus. They are not under pressure to convert any souls through their music, only pressure to make good art.

Sufjan signed with Asthmatic Kitty, a small label in Holland, Michigan near Hope College where he attended.  After releasing Michigan he went headfirst into his Anglicanism with Seven Swans which began his journey of flexing his “I’m brooding, I’m happy, I’m brooding, I’m happy” style that flew Icarus-like towards the Holy of Holies in one instant and then fell into the arms of a lover the next – melted wings and all.

Seven Swans is a quiet, intimate work, wholly concerned with Stevens’ relationship with God. The ‘Seven Swans’ of the title represent the gifts of the Seven Sacraments of the Holy Spirit, willing to persist in the face of the mystery of God and fully engaged with the world through art and liturgy. Stevens writes as a believer not willing to accept the easy answers, as one who knows the failures of sin, the silence of God and the complications of belief. The work often has the tone of a Lamentation or a Psalm.

Oh the glory that the lord has made /And the complications you could do without /When I kissed you on the mouth/

Tuesday night at the bible study /We lift our hands and pray over your body /But nothing ever happens/Oh the glory that the lord has made /And the complications when I see his face /In the morning in the window /Oh the glory when he took our place /But he took my shoulders and he shook my face /And he takes and he takes and he takes

—“Casimir Pulaski Day”

And in my best behavior /I am really just like him /Look beneath the floorboards /For the secrets I have hid

—“John Wayne Gacy, Jr. ”

“In the Tower above the earth there is a view that reaches far/Where we cede the universe/I see the fire, I see the end/Seven miles above the earth, there is Emmanuel of Mothers/With His sword, with His robe, He comes dividing man from brothers.”—from the Revelation themed “The Seer’s Tower”

As an Episcopalian who is a bit embarrassed by the institutionalization and commodification of most church culture, Stevens stands in line with artists like Dorothy Sayers and Flannery O’Conner, who considered excellence at their craft the primary discipline of a Christian. One gets the impression that Stevens doesn’t want to be a mouthpiece or a preacher, but rather that he wants to be someone who lives and looks for God in the doubts, the stories and the musical movements of the Spirit.

I have mentioned to some that I have not taken to The Age of Adz yet – his latest release that frankly confuses me more than anything.  Being a hater of a Sufjan Stevens project is a dangerous game in some circles (those skinny jeans folks will bludgeon you with their messenger bags, chuck copies of The Believer at you, dump a cold Americano on your laptop and cut off your wifi just to add insult to injury) but I am risking vulnerability and ignorance in hopes of finding something redemptive in it since I think that of the artists this decade, Sufjan Stevens provides one of the clearest blueprints for what true artists should be engaged in – art that matters and transcends the rubble of this age and hopefully leaving us with a smile that is only joy when shared with others and we seek for justice and reconciliation.

So… that’s it for the list.  So many that should be here and are not.

What do you think?

Where did I hit and where did I miss for you?


There is something I need to get off my back.   One of the topics I realized recently that I haven’t dialogued about on the blog is where I find myself theologically – in short, what I believe about God.  People I am around are usually trending toward one of three vectors:

(1) Those for whom some abstracted religious exploration animates their everyday life and touches on some aspect or combination of themes drawn from fairly traditional religious traditions.  In this I am fortunate beyond belief to have such a wide range of friends and colleagues who represent just about every imaginable belief system under the sun: atheists, religious libertarians, agnostics, fundamentalists of every stripe, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, reformed and orthodox Jews, and one friend who calls herself a Zoroastrian but only because she didn’t know what else to put in the “religious views” section of her Facebook profile and thought it sounded cool.

(2) Another group of folks would be the majority of the people I swim around with day to day:  people who would call themselves Christians of one persuasion or another: cultural and devote Catholics, liturgically geeky Lutherans, heady Pentecostals, loads of Methodists of every stripe, herds of self-described non-Denominational folks and Evangelical types, and thoughtfully Biblio-centric Episcopalians who dig on KEXP.org, the Bible, and vestments that smell of incense.

(3)  The last group are a jumble sale of secularists of every stripe – those blissfully indifferent to spiritual things (“whatever floats your boat”) or product-centric consumers enraptured with the transcendence of buying things where the warehouse sales  and 1-click web purchases take the luminous place of grand cathedrals and daily devotions due for the pious or politicos whose sense of justice and human potential is best met in Ira Glass aphorisms, reading Harpers in indie cafes, and populating FB status updates with stump quotes linked to key broadsheet periodicals.

No one is a purist in this life and all who find home in Western culture is tainted (for better or worse) by all three vectors – religious seeking writ wide and abstract, the blessing and curse of Christianity’s dominance in culture, and secularism found in government, consumerism and indifference ebbs and flows through most everyone life.

I too am a composite located in the midst of these vectors – a theological geocache of sorts – and yet still frame much of my heritage around my work as a theologian and, more specifically, a Presbyterian.  This Scottish tradition of the Reformation holds a particular view on Christianity and culture at large.

Much of why I am a member of the PC (USA) is summed up in the following three areas of theological focus – the three ‘C’s of Presbyterianism:

I. Christ centered – meaning making finds its center in the Christ event

Presbyterians have a theology that places all of life in the hands of God.  While this is in no way distinctive in the religious marketplace, the notion and vital position of God’s sovereignty is the cornerstone of Reformed Theology after John Calvin and a key orienting concern for my tradition.  The geocache of this is the movement of God’s reconciling presence within humanity through the incarnate life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that God is intimately involved in the details of daily human life as seen in the incarnate Christ (Emmanuel = God with us) and continuing the in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We recognize how easy it is for people to place idols of all kinds in the place of God (Calvin called human beings “idol making factories”), to worship many things before the worship of God. As a result of this assertion, Presbyterians hold that humanity has a predilection to sinful behavior – a desire to be isolated and removed from God (Sinatra’s “I’m going to do it my way” is the modern version of John Milton’s notion of Satan’s fall from grace framed in the exclamation “it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”). However, the truth of this is not the entirety of our lot in this life:  at the same time humanity strives toward isolation Presbyterians assert that we also hold that humanity is loved and forgiven by God in ways that are inexplicable, undeserved and utterly surprising. God’s grace  is the cause of our daily renewal and therefore we – all of humanity – is invited to live in the fullness of hope and mercy regardless of our desire to be in isolation.  All we have to do is accept the invitation to love – to be loved and to return this love with an intimacy that is found between where a vine grows and binds itself to a branch. In all of this, as the reformer Martin Luther described himself, Presbyterians hold that we are “justus et peccator”, “made righteous and yet a sinner.”

Presbyterians ground much of our thinking in this regard in our structure of governance – that if how we choose to worship, to gather in community, to support one another, to love the world and sacrifice for the sake of others.  Where some Christian sub-traditions are named and therefore framed around a personality (John Wesley for Wesleyans, Martin Luther for Lutherans) – Presbyterians are akin to Episcopalians and Catholics by framing the tradition around its governance structure.  One document that holds us accountable to is the Book of Order which articulates these key theological values: God alone is the Lord of the conscience. That is, people, being prone to error, are going to be wrong a good portion of the time. Conscience cannot be coerced by any human agency, but only persuaded by God. All power in a Christian body, we believe, is persuasive.

Another way that Presbyterians keep this Christ centeredness core is through worship that is renewed yet traditional – we worship together using new music and old music, new prayers and old prayers, new ways and old ways, using the freedom given to us by our Book of Order.  Preaching and teaching is a big deal and for some Presbyterians get a bit heady in their worship services.  Education has always been a high value from the Scottish reformation (Scotland has four universities founded in the later medieval period while England had only two) and as such this is a tradition that places a high value on preaching that stimulates our minds and moves our hearts, instructs as well as inspires.

Presbyterians are a ‘big tent’ tradition in that we hold (as our system gives us the freedom to hold) a variety of views on scriptural authority and theology, yet we are one community, united around the grace and love of God demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  One of the things I greatly appreciate is how diverse our tradition is… even when it is difficult to be in the same room together.  Yet isn’t that how family is?

II. Creedal

Presbyterians govern themselves by a constitution, based on our Reformed theology that gives  us direction and insight for doing things “decently and in order.” This constitution contains the historic and ecumenical confessions of faith of the church from the earliest days of Christianity (The Book of Confessions) including the Apostles and Nicene Creeds which join us to the Church universal.  This creedal affirmation is not to replace Scripture nor denounce our personal and corporate experiences of God, but likened to a lens, it gives us clarity in reading the fullness of our lives and only helps to frame the Scriptures and traditions of the Church better.  This also is to help frame the rules for the day to day business of being the church outlined in the The Book of Order which I mentioned previously.

III. Connectional

Lastly, Presbyterians do not try to be the church all on our own in their local gatherings, but are connected together in a web of relationships that extends accountability to the larger church. Likened to concentric rings emanating outward from a rock hitting the water that once they hit the shore return in waves back toward the center, our sense of community in local churches reaches out to the larger family of believers and the larger collective is always viewing its business in light of the local congregation.  A collection of churches in a region are joined together as a Presbytery. Each congregation in the region sends its pastors and elects Elders to represent it at Presbytery meetings which occur every other month on average. As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament I serve as part of Seattle Presbytery and also participate in the life of my church – North Creek Presbyterian. A collection of Presbyteries in a region are joined together as a Synod. Each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it at Synod assemblies and there is a nationwide General Assembly to which each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it (the General Assembly – or GA – is occurring in July 2010).   Rather than a system of endless committees and administrative nightmare (which some people see our church tradition as being… and at times guilty of!) this is a system that provides the means of accountability at all levels. There is always in place an approved method of dealing with disputes, complaints, unhappiness and inappropriate behavior by officers and/or members.

One of the things I celebrate most about the PC(USA) is that we have a form of government that encourages us to be the “Priesthood of all Believers.” We are a representative democracy, electing our leaders in administration, spirituality, and service on a regular basis. In fact, the form of government of the United States of America is based so heavily on the Presbyterian form of government that at the time of the Revolutionary War, the King of England was known to have called it the “Presbyterian rebellion.”

We are one of the few denominations that ordain lay people, thus placing our clergy and our laity on an absolutely equal footing. We ordain people to the office of Elder (or Presbyter, from the Greek) to be leaders in spirituality and administration. We ordain people to the office of Deacon to be leaders in service. We ordain people to the office of Pastor to be preachers, teachers, and administrators of the sacraments. We are a denomination that has ordained artists, writers and musicians to their respective callings for the service of God’s people. All our ordinations are equal and all are for life.  The fact that I serve a denomination that sees the manifold ministries of the Gospel broadly expressed and corporately supported in such incarnations as children’s television (Fred Rogers of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was a PC(USA) minister) to novelists (Frederick Buechner) brings me joy.

What about you?

Where do you trend on these three vectors I described in the beginning?

Everything happens for a reason.  Live together or dies alone.

Well… that was it.  Just finished watching the season six (and show) finale of LOST with my Labrador laying at my feet…

The summations of LOST are surely flooding the inboxes, FB status updates, and Tweets of many of your friends even as we speak.

LOST was a show that I came to late in the game.  I had recently moved back to the USA from Scotland when Oceanic 815 crash landed on that mysterious island for its pilot episode September 22, 2004.  My life was pretty crazy that fall – Diana was pregnant with Miriam, I was juggling a couple of jobs, a new mortgage, and trying to acculturate back into American life.  Having flown back and forth across the Atlantic more than a few times that year in the process of relocating to the states meant that a plane crash premise seemed a bit too close to home anyway.   When early adopters of the show tried to explain it to me, it seemed to defy a clear plot or even character explanation (“well… they are on this island… with a polar bear and some monster in the woods that you can’t see…”)  The comparisons to Gilligan’s Island for the emo set came to mind.  Then I finally succumbed and watched season 1 on DVD that summer.  As season 2 started up and we learned about the Hatch, the DHARMA initiative, the HANSO foundation and were introduced to new characters like Mr. Eko and Desmond Hume (my two favorite characters of the entire series) I was definitely hooked.  That said, I probably didn’t out myself as a LOST fan until season 3 kicked into gear.  Like a lot of what made LOST a great show, I had to embrace the mystery of it all and the fact that, in the end, whether I ever had all the answers wasn’t the point.  I was along for the ride come hell, high water, smoke monster or Others.

LOST was, plain and simple, a near perfect pop culture TV show and in that way came to demonstrate what life is about because pop culture, plain and simple, is about us.

It’s basic conceit was seen many times before: strangers thrown together by fate are forced to solve a supernatural puzzle.   Going back to the German romanticism of Goethe, Fichte  and Schilling through to recently cancelled attempts such as The NineHeroes,  and Flashforward – this premise is hardly unique.  As a prime time show on one of the big four networks, it had quite a battle against the cable, YouTube and Netflix world it found itself in.  Additionally, given that it couldn’t bring in audiences with overt sex and violence like HBO and Showtime, it actually had to be creative in ways the shock and awe ease of soft core porn and gratuitous bloodshed (read: Sex in the City, Sopranos, True Blood, Six Feet Under, Deadwood) never did.  Where cable shows I just referred to were quickly lauded for being ground breaking and transformational in the medium, I would love to see how they would fair if these shows had to keep people’s clothes on, offer the suggestion of dread rather than show extreme violence, and offer characters who live out of their hopes and losses and not merely their sex lives.  Just sayin’ … but I digress…

Slate – one of my fav online magazines – has been focusing its TV club to a ongoing discussion of season 6 and I have to agree with the summation that was offered by Chadwick Miflin:

I’ve written before that this show is as much about power as it is about free will. As the season ends, I’m realizing that on Lost they’re one and the same. Those who have power can exert their will on others, shaping their destinies… the show is all about God complexes. How we pursue our own and how we make sense of everybody else’s.

Too true.  As the final scene in the church panned on the stained glass window that literally framed all the major world religions, the one character that has always been at the foreground has been God.   Whether people will feel that the show ended on a note of supreme synchronism or Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” is a matter of opinion and ultimately not terribly interesting to many folks.  Yes, the notion of what/who is animating everything, holding the universe together, bringing all THIS (whatever THIS is – “there is no “now” here, Jack”) is certainly vital to what makes us human.  But that it is also a mystery that will always escape my full comprehension is fine for such a time as this.  The bigger question – and what LOST ultimately challenges us as fans to reckon with – is not what it ALL means, but what do the people and place you are right now mean to you.  For those who are ready to “move on”, they embrace being embraced by love that goes beyond them and choose life with others rather than trying to stand at objective distance as a spectator.  In the end, the choice is ours.

Ben on the bench – being forgiven and invited doesn’t mean we still don’t have a choice to make

One of the simplest and most iconic images I will take away from the finale is Ben just sitting on the park bench outside the church as someone completely forgiven.  As John walks away from his wheelchair with the words “I forgive you”, as Hugo reminds him that he “was a great number 2” and asks whether he is coming ‘inside’ to be with everyone, Ben chooses to remind on the outside – forgiven and invited through and through.  Salvation (“letting go” or “moving on” in LOST speak) is not only a matter of being forgiven and being invited… we have to accept the invitation.  If we are not ready, no one is going to force us into glory.  The choice – as millions of tent revivalists have told millions of gathered standing on sawdust under the canopy of canvas, fire and brimstone – is ultimately ours to make.

My friend S. Brent Plate, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in New York, recently summed up the LOST phenomenon as the ‘ultimate reality show’ in that it doesn’t offer all the answers much like… well… life.  In a recent article in Religion Dispatches Plate sums up LOST this way:

Every time I have watched Lost over the past six seasons, John Donne’s seventeenth century refrain has echoed in my head: “No man is an island, entire of itself/ every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Simultaneously, the words of the great modern Catholic monk, Thomas Merton in No Man is an Island, reverberate: “We learn to live by living together with others, and by living like them.”

The island is not just a lost island, but a metaphor for human individuality, and ultimately of the bankruptcy of that mythology. There is no individual, says Donne and Merton, at least not one worth knowing.

In other words, the secret of Lost was already summed up in the mantra of the second season finale: “Live together, die alone.” Such a great contrast to the existentialist view of life that tells us we are born alone and die alone. Contrast Merton: “We learn to live by living together with others.” Even one of the main writers of Lost, Damon Lindelof, says “in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community.” That is the secret that is revealed, unveiled. This is the apocalypse of the story.

In the end, it’s a love story…

Where do I place the center of the LOST universe?  I believe the simple genius of the show, what kept people coming back week after week and year after year, was that once you boiled down the six seasons, it was essentially a study in love: what it means to love well and see the world as one does who loves utterly and completely.

St. Augustine: The Patron Saint of LOST

If there was a patron saint for the LOST universe, it would be St. Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine argued that the universe is essentially a study in ordered and disordered love.  Ordered love is that which we live through redemption, grace and mercy.  It is the love of God in and through us.  It is the ability we have as created in the imago Dei (image of God) to love with reckless abandon.  To riff on Rick Warren, it is a purpose-drivenness to life.  In contrast, disordered love is that which is without concern for the other (or ‘Others’ in the LOST universe).  It is only concerned with our base nature and survival found in pragmatism and isolation from others.  Some would call this ‘sin’, ‘hell’ or even death.  How do we move from disordered to ordered love?  For Augustine it begins with illumination.  The world is a darkened place without light and in particular, the light provisioned by God’s illumination and enlightenment.  Where the manifold world religions and various Western philosophical traditions from Aristotle onward concur with the goal of humanity finding  enlightenment as vital, Augustine points to the illumination found in God as something of a different order than mere stoicism or right thinking.  For Augustine everything comes down to relationships.  God is first and foremost a relational reality and not merely an organizing principle.  Additionally, while God is primarily the basic support and underlying principle of our knowing activity for what is right and just in the world, God is not just what we long to see, but what powers the eye which sees.  So the light of God is not just ‘out there’, illuminating the order of being, as it is for Plato; it is also an ‘inner’ light. For Augustine, Alia est enim lux quae sentitur oculis; alia qua per oculos agitur et sentiatur (“There is one light which we perceive through the eye, another by which the eye itself is enabled to perceive”) This light is a “second light” to the light of God’s illumination so that soul is illuminated as bright as the external world: haec lux qua ista manifesta sunt, utique intus in anima est .   Similar to the light that is found on the island that is so pure and so perfect in all its truth  that Jacob guarded for so many centuries, it is this light that the world is known by and will continue to be known by unless it becomes disordered.

The importance of memories – flash backs, flash forwards, sideverses

Another legacy of LOST that ties to Augustine is the role that memories play in what it means to be human.  The show started after the dust of 9/11 and the Iraq War were settling around us and our cultural break with the 20th century brought with it some nostalgia.   For memory to be brought into embodied awareness in LOST (be it the sideverse, flashbacks for the viewer, what have you) memory must be formulated and awakened and is therefore perpetually engaged.  As seen particularly in season 6, the awakening of the true self means memories of lives we didn’t even know were latent and lost.   It is this in memoriam – memory as loss – that is core to Book X in Augustine’s autobiographical Confessions and constitutes the notion of nostalgia as the latent memory of the subject as a self overlaid by false images, or ‘false memory’ that distract the self from itself.  Nostalgia comes from the Greek roots νόστος nostos “returning home” and άλγος algos “pain”, to refer to the pain a subject feels because she wishes to return to her native land, and fears never to see it again.  Youth culture is framed by the perpetual state of nostaglia – triggering instant occasions for longing and loss without sufficient means to satiate this longing.  In this way nostalgia is akin to the notion of Sehnsucht found in German romanticism which the poet and essayist Matthew Arnold termed a “wistful, soft tearful longing” that is a deeper form of joy.  As the LOST sideverse characters slowly became aligned with the discord of their sideverse world due to the discord in the LOST island world, memories of how things were supposed to be came together and memory become a call to reality.  When all is said and done for Augustine, this nostaglia can either lead us into despair or redemption – because the longing for home will either call us to isolation or love ordered by finding ourselves with another.

So in the end, LOST is simply the 4 minute pop song to slow dance to, a soap opera that is faintly familiar, a romantic comedy in the multiplex in junior high, the soaring final battle scene in the epic drama, the t-shirt you have had since college you can’t seem to get rid of, the child’s drawing on the refrigerator, the dog laying at your feet on the winter’s night, the park bench you visited over the years that marks all the moments at the crossroads prior to taking the road less traveled by.

Why you may ask?

Because LOST is a memory bound up in love and longing that signaled for millions of people that as ridiculous as life on the island was, the reality of the life we live day to day was just as insane and far-fetched if it was devoid of love.  It is the material thing that signals something beyond itself and triggers the deeper nostalgia for something more.  For without love and the eternal light by which to see, hear, touch and taste that love by, this life – whether in a flash back, flash forward, or alternate reality – would not be worth living whether we battled commuter traffic or a vengeful smoke monster, punched a time clock or punched in a sequence of numbers every 108 minutes.  For in the end, it is about Desmond finding Penny, about Charlie finding Claire, Jack and Christian embracing, Sun and Jin finding each other, and it is about living together in the light of love rather than dying alone.  Perhaps this is something Ben is still pondering on that bench.

In 1976 Paul McCartney and Wings mused on the lead single from the Wings at the Speed of Sound album about whether “people had enough of silly love songs?” The next line answers without irony (probably because we didn’t ‘do’ irony in the 70’s) “I look around me and I see it isn’t so/ oh no.” For six seasons LOST sang along with McCartney and so did we.  We haven’t had enough of silly love songs by any stretch of the imagination and I worry about the day that we do.  While Sir Paul says it in song, St. Paul certainly said it best in poetry (as testified by the number of weddings I have done where couples choose these words from 1 Cornithians 13) when he framed the nature of love in this way:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Part of me loves to think of St. Paul watching LOST and nodding with approval as the show wrapped up tonight.   Perhaps he popped in his favorite LOST themed mixtape tonight that has in addition to tunes by Driveshaft,  Mama Cass Elliott, Bob Marley and others played on the show, Captain and Tennille’s 1975 Neal Sedaka cover song, “Love Will Keep Us Together” which appeared in episode 13 of this final season (“Some Like it Hoth”) and thought “yup… that about sums it up.”   Whether the island moves or not, whether the smoke monster escapes or whether the stock market collapses, love will indeed keep us together and will help us to remember… and to let go… and to move on.

Live together or die alone.  Everything has its reason.  Indeed.

Time to take my Labrador outside before closing my eyes for bed… it has been a long day’s night…

goodnight Ben…hope you find what you are looking for

In my classes this week I have reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan and have to admit being a bit taken aback that what I am offering as a reading of the text seems foreign to students.  As such, I thought I would put some of these thoughts out here in the Theology Kung Fu dojo and let you reflect on this reading.

This text beginning in verse 25 of Luke 10 comes after Jesus has thanked the Father for hiding “these things” from “the wise and the intelligent” (10:21), and now a “lawyer,” whom we would think is wise and intelligent, comes to test Jesus. Will he “get the picture” or will it be hidden from him? Just before the lawyer arrives, Jesus has blessed his disciples for seeing what they have seen and hearing what they have heard. In the parable, both the religious leaders and the Samaritan “see” the man in the ditch (vv. 31, 32, 33), but who really “sees” him?

This text should not be studied in isolation from what follows — the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42).  An interesting contrast is presented with these two texts. The lawyer asks, “What must I do? (v. 25) and he is told twice to “continually do this” (vv. 28 & 37 — present tense in Greek — all poieo – the same word used by Jesus in the call to the Lord’s supper). This emphasis on “doing” could easily become the “busy-ness” of Martha, even though “poieo” is not used of her work, but more “religious” words for “service” or “ministry” — diakonia/diakoneo both used in v. 40 (“tasks” and “do work” in NRSV). This “doing-ness” is in contrast to the “continual listening” (imperfect in Greek) of Mary (v. 39). In both stories there are unexpected actions — a Samaritan who cares and helps a Jewish man; and a woman who sits as a disciple and listens and learns. The Samaritan is told to “go and do likewise,” while Mary is praised for not going and doing. The Samaritan shows us about loving our neighbor. Mary shows us about loving our Lord. Both are vital in living our lives Christianly.

In 10:25, Luke uses a more technical term for “lawyer” (nomikos, related to the word for “law” = nomos) rather than “scribe,” who were also considered experts in the law. Six of the nine times this word for lawyer is used in the NT they are in Luke. The only time it is used previous to our text, we are told: “But by refusing to be baptized by him [John], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30). The image of “lawyers” does not improve through the gospel (11:45, 46, 52; 14:3). The reader would already be a bit suspect of a “lawyer” coming to Jesus.

We are also told that he comes “to test” (ekpeirazo) Jesus. The only other time this word is used in Luke it is Jesus’ quote to the devil: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:12).  What is this lawyer doing to Jesus? If we take seriously the image of inheriting, we may think that the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is ridiculous. It is akin thinking that there is something I could do to inherit some of Bill Gates’ fortune — or even the fortunes of a less wealthy (but much older) person. An inheritance is usually determined by the giver, not the receiver.

Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with two questions of his own. “In the law (nomos), what has been written? How do you read?” I have discussions with my students at SPU where it has been easy to agree on “what has been written,” but the interpretive question, “how do you read?” or “how do you interpret?” has caused great differences. In looking up the Greek word for read (anaginosko), the lexicons suggest that reading was always done aloud and generally publicly. Jesus does this in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16). Jesus’ second question might mean “How do you understand it?” but it may also go further and imply, “How do you interpret the law to others?”

The lawyer answers with the twice-daily repeated shema from Dt 6:5 which is the core law of the Torah — except that he adds “mind” or “understanding” to the Hebrew text “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”– and he includes a command from Lv 19:18 about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. (See also the “great commandment” passages: Mk 12:28-34 and Mt 22:34-40 where the question is asked by a nomikos) According to most sources, these two commandments were not combined prior to the time of Christ.

Jesus first responds with a very mainline denominational answer, “You answered rightly (orthos from which we get ortho-doxy). The lawyer knows the right answer. He has “read” the Torah rightly.  Jesus then responds with a very unPresbyterian answer, “Keep on doing (here we have the use of poieo again, this time in the present tense = denoting continuous or repeated actions) this and you will live.” Does this imply that one can inherit eternal life by “doing” the law — by loving God and neighbor as one’s self? Do works count?

The short answer is “Yes, works count” — if one is trying to “justify one’s self,” which is what the lawyer is seeking to do. First of all, by asking what he might do to inherit eternal life, and secondly, by the comment in v. 29 and the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Fuller NT scholar Joel Green in his commentary on The Gospel of Luke interprets the question this way:

Whereas Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Plain had eliminated the lines that might be drawn between one’s “friends” and one’s “enemies,” this legal expert hopes to reintroduce this distinction. He does so by inquiring “Who is my neighbor?” — not so much to determine to whom he must show love, but so as to calculate the identity of those to whom he need not show love. By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question: in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries. [p. 426]

Another way of phrasing the question posed by the lawyer is this:  Lawyer: “What is the limit of my responsibility?”  Jesus’ answer: “Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, consider, who needs help from me? Then you will see that love’s demand knows no limit.”  A sin of the lawyer is that he is only concerned about himself. What I do to get myself ahead religiously? This is in contrast to the (despised) Samaritan in the parable who expresses his concern for the other person.

In this text to take literally the meaning of “neighbor,” which in Greek (as well as Hebrew and English) has the basic of meaning of “to be near”.  “Neighbors” are those people who live next door — the nearest people in the “neighborhood.”  Looking then at the three responses to the man in the ditch, the Greek verb used of the first two is antiparerchomai, (vv. 31, 32) which literally has three parts:

erchomai = to go; par(a) = by; anti = on the other side

In contrast, the verb with the third man is proserchomai (v. 34) which literally has two parts:

erchomai = to go; pros = to

Also, drawing near to someone is not the sole definiation of neighbor.  Another form of erchomai is used of the robbers “falling upon” the traveler. Both the robbers and the Samartian “draw near” to this “certain person”.  What is different is how they draw near and for what reason.   Clearly, the answer to the question, “Who is the one who comes near (or is neighbor)?” It has to be the third person. The other two widened the distance between themselves and the man in the ditch. They would not come near to him. They would not be neighbor to him. The third comes near.

“KEEP DOING LIKEWISE” — Towards a Constellation of Hospitality

Probably the most common understanding of this text is that we are to act like the Samaritan in the text, rather than the priest or the Levite. He “sees” and “has compassion” (splagchnizomai) on the needy person in the ditch. He “cares” (epimelo – v. 34) for the man in the ditch. He also asks the innkeeper to “care” (epimelo – v. 35). The Samaritan doesn’t provide all of the direct aid to the needy man. He is also described by the lawyer as the one “doing mercy” (poieo to eleos). The verbs used with the Samaritan are worth emulating: to have compassion others; to come (near) to others; to care for others; to do mercy to others. It is not enough just to know what the Law says, one must also do it. To put it another way, it is not enough just to talk about “what one believes,” but “what difference does it make in my life that I believe.”

In addition, the description of the robbers’ work on the dead man indicate that there would be no identifying marks about his status, his occupation, his race. How would the lawyer (or the Samaritan) know if this half-dead man was a neighbor or not? He is a person who needs a neighbor.

Who will respond? Who will come near?

Note also that the Samaritan acts not to receive anything for himself (like self-justification). He responds to the needs of the man in the ditch and his actions cost him — time and money.

A question that needs to be asked, especially with this interpretive approach to the parable, is “Why a Samaritan?”

The idea of being a “Good Samaritan” is so common in our culture, that most people today don’t realize that “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient Israeli war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the “true” Jews. They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Previously in Luke 9, the Samaritans had refused to welcome Jesus — the “bad” Samaritans. Note that the lawyer never says “Samaritan.” He can’t call him a “good Samaritan” (a phrase that doesn’t occur in the text). Anyway, we are still left with the question, “Why a Samaritan?”

If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch.

Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.

If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman — an ordinary Jew — in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew.  If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.

One answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” is that Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don’t profess Christ.  Can we learn about “acting Christianly” from AA for example?

This approach highlights some of the Luke’s themes: Since the man in the ditch had been stripped of anything that might identify him by social class, or perhaps even nationality; he is helped simply because he is a person in need. There should be no distinctions about whom we are to help. In addition, the help involved the use of one’s resources. For Luke, wealth is not necessarily evil, it depends upon how it is used.

Another answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” and the biggest challenge in this text for me is that – in the end –  we are not to identify with the Samaritan as the only person Jesus is pointing to for the listener to emulate.   This is probably the biggest challenge to most readings of the parable I think needs to be reflected upon.  A Jew would find that so distasteful that he couldn’t identify with that person. He wouldn’t want to be like the Priest or Levite in the story, so that leaves the hearer with identifying with the man in the ditch as well as see the role that the innkeeper plays in creating a space where hospitality can and does take place.

When Jesus tells the Lawyer to “do likewise” at the end of the parable, he does not exclusively identify the Samaritan.  Rather, the Lawyer says that the one who exhibits mercy is the one we are to turn to.  To that end, we have a constellation of three – the Samaritan, the one in the ditch, and the innkeeper – to point to.  The Samaritan outreach, the one in the ditch who received care and allowed himself to be cared for, and the innkeeper who open a space for reconciliation and healing to forge in grace.  To point only to the Samaritan is to support the move of most Americans who see mercy coming in a one-to-one correspondence without the assistance and support of others.  Also, if we do not see that in some capacity we are also called to be willing – like the one in the ditch – to receive support from another person… perhaps even perhaps offering the face of salvation in a form that is from a racial, cultural dislocating place and will we be willing to receive help and healing from one that is not ‘one of us’.  Lastly, we need to see the role of the innkeeper – the one who opens space for this community building moment to take place – as vital for mercy and grace to awaken and be seen in the world.  At any given time, we are called to these three roles and all are part of discipleship in the world.

The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must at times get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy – Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable’s World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only those who need grace can receive grace.

Think back to Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5 – 7 and the Sermon on the Plain earlier in Luke chapter 6.  Jesus makes a list of all those who are blessed – Markarios – in the Kingdom of God.  Those who are hungry, those who weep, those who are poor.  What ultimately makes them blessed is that they know they need someone other than themselves to live.  They are in need – therefore they can allow someone into their lives at a deep and profound level.  This is what Jesus is pushing the lawyer with by putting the view of the Kingdom from the ditch.

A Jew who was excessively proud of his blood line and a chauvinist about his tradition would not permit a Samaritan to touch him, much less minister to him. In going from Galilee to Judea, he would cross and recross the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria. The parable therefore forces upon its hearers the question: who among you will permit himself or herself to be served by a Samaritan? Who among you is ready to open your home as the Innkeeper to allow reconciliation to happen for others? In a general way it can be implied that only those who have nothing to lose by so doing can afford to do so. But note that the victim in the ditch is given only a passive role in the story. Permission to be served by the Samaritan is thus inability to resist. Put differently, all who are truly victims, truly disinherited, have no choice but to give themselves up to mercy. The despised half-breed has become the instrument of grace: as listeners, we should choke on the irony.

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be reduced to two propositions:

– In the Kingdom of God mercy comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes.

– Mercy always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it.

One might attempt to reduce these two sentences to one:

In the kingdom… mercy is always a surprise.

The problems with the lawyer is that he couldn’t see God as possibily coming in the form of that whom he perceives to be his enemy, or that he was so weak as to need saving, or would even be called to offer hospitality to those who would be beyond saving. He hadn’t recognized the depth of his own sinfulness. (He wants to justify himself and probably had a bit of pride that comes along with that.) He was too strong and healthy. He assumes that he has the ability to do something to inherit eternal life. He assumes that he can do something to justify himself. He is not helpless in the ditch. He doesn’t need God’s grace.

When the lawyer realizes that “the one who had mercy on him” is the true neighbor – Jesus tells him to “Go and do – pioete – likewise”.   Don’t merely live your life as a checklist of the Law, rather – live your life as poetry – with passion and depth and humility as the unique, unrepeatable miracles you are.  This challenge, to live with a view from the ditch – that although we have been battered and bruised in this life there is One who offers compassion – but are we ready to accept all that this entails?

Jesus will draw this together as he challenges his disciples, on the night that He was sentenced to death, to remember him by “doing – poiete – this in remembrance of Him.”

Johnny Cash’s career is one for the ages – a story with the resonance of Moses: his grandparents immigrated from the Glasgow shipyards and he was born into poverty in the land of promise as the son of a share cropper yet gifted with a voice that could sing into the poverty in all of us as well as beyond that poverty into something more.  He was a mentor to Elvis and a bad boy before thugs got record contracts.  His early career was truly the all-american success story – he was more than famous – he defined fame itself in early days.  He crossed genres and mediums – scoring hits on the pop charts as well as country chards, had a long running television show and did film work.  Then in the 70’s as disco took hold and moved us into the 1980’s, Cash’s currency began to wane.  It was through the revisionism of Rick Rubin – the wunderkind producer par excellence – and his American Recordings series in the 1990’s that brought Johnny Cash back to us with a holy vengeance.   Like a junkyard dog who refused to die without sinking his teeth into you one last time, Rubin turned Cash loose on tracks by artists as diverse as Nine Inch Nails, Neil Diamond, Sheryl Crow, Soundgarden and Tom Petty to rip the songs part with his sharecropper growl and claim them for himself.  Of all the haunting covers he recorded with Rubin over the next decade, none captures Cash’s gift like Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat and Trent Reznor’s Hurt (which won Cash a Grammy for the song and video).  The Mercy Seat sounds like a lost track from the At Folsom Prison sessions – a stark, raw final exclamation of a man on death row in a electric chair.  Hurt is one of the most ‘human’ songs to be recorded in popular music and is one of the few examples of the video medium serving the song as opposed to distracting or covering up a bad song with dance numbers or CGI (Click through to the video and take a moment to see what I am talking about).

The release this week of Ain’t No Grave marks what is being said to be the final installment of Rubin’s American Recording series.  Ain’t No Grave is the sixth installment and is a welcome close to this incredible series.  Granted, the tracks are obviously a culling together of reminders from recording sessions past (the five CD American Recordings Box Set that was released a few years ago is an example of how much surplus material Rubin still had just laying around the studio).

Thematic CDs are nothing new for Cash – Columbia released a 3 part series (Love, God, Murder) a few years back to ride Rubin’s American Recording success.  That Rubin culled this collection to identify Cash’s thoughts on death, loss, and life after the grave is poignant to say the least.  The only original tune on the collection is “1Corinthians 15:55” which holds that iconic verse “oh death, where is thy sting?”  Cash sings from this space as someone in the throws of the end and resting in the promise of death as opposed to denying it.  It is truly haunting to hear these songs knowing that Cash is no longer singing this mediation upon death – these songs are the preamble to his embrace and a call to confidence in death for a generation that is terrified by it.  Having lost his wife – June Carter Cash – just years prior to these recordings and knowing that the end was coming, Rubin reflects in the February 17th Rolling Stone that these tracks were born from confidence and not fear: “He didn’t really have fear and he already was dealing with pain,” Rubin said. “I think he had acceptance. When he knew he was going to die, he was calm and matter of fact about it, and … that was it.”

It really is a wonderful, honest, clear reflection on life and the gift of death that reminds us to take stock of what we have and the God that awaits us both in this life and the life that is yet to come.

As I teach Postmodern Theology at Fuller Seminary this quarter, I am reminded that so much of what is shifting in current discussions surrounding what constitutes ‘faith’ is a deep concern for the sake of the poor and the marginalized in our world.  The outpouring of support these past few days for Haiti, the constant desire to end human trafficking, the desire to return to the first impulses of the Reformers – to say once again that if the Christian faith is anything then it is deeply practical and bound up in God’s care and longing to reconcile a broken and battered world.  This is not a God of Deism that sits far off, indifferent to the cries of captivity, loss, mourning, joy, and wonder.  No, a generation is arising that so deeply cares about what it means to live and breath each moment of the day that they are willing to sacrifice everything – job security, church traditions, safe zip codes of comfort – just to taste it once before they die.  These are members of the community of loving defiance amidst the comfortable clubs of conformity that fill our web searches and reality shows.

One of the writers I continue to come back to and think has been lost in the Emergent swelling of writers is Millard Erickson.  Erickson was ahead of the curve prior to the wave of Emergent folks who blossomed in popularity in the last 10 years and I think needs to be re-read.  One book that is quite compelling is The Evangelical Left: Encountering Postconservative Evangelical Theology (Baker Books, 1997).

In it Erickson surmises the shift from evangelicalism as a movement toward a “post-conservative evangelical theology” which is marked by the following characteristics:

* Eagerness to engage in dialogue with nonevangelical theologians. Indeed, “they seek opportunities to converse with those whom conservative evangelicals would probably consider enemies.”  In particular Erickson refers to liberal and catholic theologians.

* Concern with theology’s domination by white males and Eurocentrism. Recognizing the influence of social location on theological work, postconservatives seek to include women, persons of color, and Third World Christians in theological scholarship.

* Broadening of the sources used in theology. This frequently includes an emphasis on “narrative-shaped experience” rather than “propositional truths enshrined in doctrines.” The sources may include, in addition to the Bible, Christian tradition, culture, and contemporary Christian experience.

* A discontent with the traditional ties of evangelical theology to the “evangelical Enlightenment,” especially common sense realism. Rejection of the “wooden” approach to Scripture, in favor of regarding it as “Spirit-inspired realistic narrative.”

* An open view of God, in which God limits himself and enters into relationships of genuine response to humans, taking their pain and suffering into himself. God is a risk-taker, not one who controls everything so that nothing contrary to his desires can occur.

* An acceptance, rather than a rejection, of the realm of nature. Nature, although fallen, is never abandoned by grace, which then pervades it.

* A hope for a near-universal salvation as far as access to God’s grace. God has not left himself without a witness in all cultures, sufficient to bring people to salvation if they earnestly seek it.

* An emphasis in Christology on the humanity of Jesus. While retaining belief in the divinity of Christ, this is thought of more in relational than in substance and person categories.

* A more synergistic understanding of salvation. These theologians are, overall, more Arminian than Calvinistic.

* A rejection of triumphalism with respect to theological truth-claims. Postconservatives are critical of belief in epistemological certainty and theological systems.

What do you think of Erickson’s points?  Given that Erickson wrote this over a decade ago, did he sum things up well and what did he miss as we enter the next decade of the 21st century?

In my new book – Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads – I outline an argument to move away from the posture of consumerism and into what I call “the Kenotic Self” based on Philippians 2:5-11.  In the book I track the forgotten path of the Kenotic self in philosophy dating back to Aristotle and Augustine through to Derrida, Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion and theologians such as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Graham Ward.  In light of this move toward the Kenotic self for 2010, here are 5 things to consider for ‘twenty-ten’ and 5 questions to ask yourself in making economic decisions in the new year drawn from the latter half of the book where I spell out the lifestyle choices of the Kenotic self:

1. God owns all things. As we hear in Ps 24: 11 and Job 41:11, the notion of personal and corporate ownership is an illusion. We have a lease relationship with this life. The fact that people in the U.S. speak of “owning” a home when the truth of the matter is that a vast majority of so-called “home owners” are tenants in a residence “owned” by a mortgage company or bank shows how far we have come as a culture into the illusion that “debt” can be equated with “ownership.” This mentality has seeped into the marrow of our understanding of God’s ownership of creation and all that dwells in it. Regardless of stance on free will and human ethical agency, it is central to the Christian story that God is the not only the sustainer of creation, but the owner as well. We are “stewards” of the garden, not owners. As John Taylor points out in his book Enough is Enough: “Only in his unbroken awareness of God is man’s technological mastery safe. Only in his acceptance of creaturehood can his dominion [over creation] be prevented from becoming raw domination. For being answerable to God, man remains answerable for his fellow creatures and for the soil of his earth.”

2. God provides all things. As the Bible reminds us, there is no need for anxiety: Matt 6; Luke 12: 22–31; no need for love of money: Heb 13:5; no need to serve two masters: Matt 6:24; no need to seek secondary treasures: Matt 13:45. In short, what is needed is provided for—all the rest is fuel of fear at best. Part of the concerns surrounding economic flux in the global market and the rash responses—from Y2K paranoia to increased interest in Middle East oil reserves—has to do with a need to manage and control those things we need due to our deep lack of faith. In short, we pay lip service to God’s providence the more we hoard goods and services unto ourselves at the expense of others. The notion that we are to “focus on our family” as a “primary concern” only exacerbates the divide between our nuclear family and the “widow and orphan” whose caring is not additive, but central to our understanding of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

3. We release all things. Henri Nouwen spoke prophetically in regard to the only true prayer is the prayer offered with open hands. Jesus’ ministry was one of freedom for hospitality through our availability to others. In this way, the extreme is the normative—we are to sell all, give all, and ultimately receive all and pure gift as we hear in Luke 12:33–34 and Mark 10:21, 29–30. To “hold on” and grasp things is harmful—both to relationship with God (i.e. “Eye of the Needle,” Luke 18:18–24) and to one’s own identity and relations with others as we hear in 1 Tim 6:8–10. It is important to remember that the judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah was a judgment primarily based upon a lack of hospitality—they had become so consumed with feeding their own lusts and desires that they had no time nor vision to acknowledge the needs of others. In this notion as Americans do not stand apart from Sodom, but in the Sodom town square.

4. We are called to desacralise all things. Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society argued that money in and of itself when we imbue it with idol-like mission—in this way money qua money has power in itself and we need to act counter to this temptation and set people and relationships in primary consideration as having priority over things. In this way we need to work toward a redefinition of the Good Life: not quantity of things but quality of relations. As we are challenged under the divine command ethics of the ten commandments, we are not to mission any other God than God, period. To hold things and the monetary value we have placed upon those things above drawing people close in relationship with ourselves and their Creator is to choose graven images. This goes for the notion of usury or putting interest upon money borrowed from others. As we hear in 2 Cor 8, we are challenged not to coerce more money from people but liberate people from addiction and release people from debts. The work of DATA and Jubilee 2000 is not merely fad, it is a mandate. As we learn from liberative and emancipatory theologies, God’s concern for the poor is primary throughout scripture. The “new poverty” is the poverty of ignorance to the cry from the margins. Theologian Ron Sider reminds us: “Are the people of God truly God’s people if they oppress the poor? Is the church really the church if it does not work to free the oppressed? [Regarding Matt 25:41] The meaning [of Matt 25] is clear and unambiguous. Jesus intends that disciples imitate his own special concern for the poor and needy. Those who disobey will experience eternal damnation . . . Regardless of what we do or say at 11am on Sunday morning, affluent people who neglect the poor are not the people of God . . . God is not neutral. His freedom from bias does not mean that he maintains neutrality in the struggle for justice. He is indeed on the side of the poor.” What are some of the challenges that remain before us in striving toward an authentic and humble biblical economics? We are reminded of the Lausanne Covenant:  “All of us are shocked by the poverty of millions and disturbed by the injustices which cause it. Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple life-style in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”  In many respects, little has changed in the 30 years since the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, but the challenge before us as people of integrity is still there.

5. Create communities of loving defiance. Ron Sider puts it this way in Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger: “The church should consist of communities of loving defiance. Instead it consists largely of comfortable clubs of conformity. A far-reaching reformation of the church is a prerequisite if it is to commit itself to Jesus’ mission of liberating the oppressed.” There is a need for intentionality among the faithful to form a new vision of the church as “communities of loving defiance” is a world moving with the inertia of consumerism and an ego-born appetite that shows no natural hope of slowing. The time for a spiritual reassessment of economics and the “new poverty” where the deficits of the soul are acknowledged on the balance sheet alongside the deficits of the check book in now needed. Bonhoeffer made this all too apparent as a factor for authentic discipleship: “Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of anxiety. If our hearts are set on them, our reward is an anxiety whose burden is intolerable . . . When we seek security in possessions we are trying to drive out care with care, and the net result is the . opposite of our anticipations.”

Here are five more resolutions to ask yourself for ‘twenty-ten’ form Ron Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:

6. Does this purchase I am about to make move toward a globally sustainable personal lifestyle? Are the choices you are making sustainable outside of the US?  Can someone from different economic system live into the life you are surrounding yourself with?  If making high end purchases – clothing brands, technology upgrades – are not attainable by others then why are you binding yourself to such a lifestyle?

7. How am I distinguishing between necessities and luxuries in my economic priorities? One of the best ways to life into this is to surround yourself with a community of discernment who have permission to speak into your purchases and economic decisions.  Remember, what becomes normative is what we spend up to.  Find friends who share a lifestyle you wish to hold as normative and then give people permission to hold you to it.

8. Work toward eliminating “status expenditures”—can a basic Mp3 player do the job that the iPod can? On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was amazed that most of the brand clothing lines (think: ‘7 for all mankind’ jeans) merely have labels attached to them where as the same jeans in a discount store do not. Same jeans sans the label.  Another thing I advise college students to do – wait 1 day for every dollar you are thinking of spending on entertainment items.  If a new CD or download costs $12, then wait two weeks before buying it.  I have often found that the “need to buy” and the “need to have” diminishes merely by waiting to see if you really want and need it. I still have that stupid T’Pau CD that if I had waited a few days I would have released how lame it was...

9. Work toward distinguishing between expenditures for creativity and recreation and excessive self-indulgence. People spend often when they are bored and as a way to alleviate loneliness and boredom.  “I don’t have anything to do, I will go shopping.”  If the chief question is community and connection, then begin with people and have spending follow.  Additionally, you do not need to spend money to spend time with people – i.e. you do not need to buy food as an excuse to spend time together.

10. Strive toward severing the connection between what you earn and what you consume. This is by far the most difficult task for many. The reality that “downsizing” is incredibly difficult shouldn’t surprise anyone—but the call to do so is certainly central to what it means to life selflessly and self-fully rather than selfishly.

Let me know what you think.  Since I am in the final stages of editing Freedom of the Self, your comments may make it into the final book!

Like most people I both love and detest “best of” lists – I often gawk at what people choose (I mean, do the Oscars EVER get it right?) but at the same time can’t keep myself from pouring over them.  With that, I culled through my downloads and streaming for the year and akin to past Theology Kung Fu lists, have let the year set the number.  So here are my nine recordings to consider for download and streaming (you will see why I make this designation as you look at the list) before singing Auld Lang Syne at your New Years party:

9. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse with David Lynch, Dark Night of the Soul

One of the marks of this decade was the move of artists to (in the words of the Flobots) ‘fight with tools’ such as Garage Band, Facebook and MySpace to subvert the industrial strangehold on music distribution to varying degrees of success.  In the vain of Radiohead releasing ‘In Rainbows’ for ‘donation only’ via the web, Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse teamed up with a bevy of artists to record an amazing album true to its Carmelite title –  a homage to St. John of the Cross’ passive purgation into the ‘dark night of the soul.’  Filmmaker and auteur David Lynch (he of Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead fame) joined in to create filmic versions of the project as well as producing a photo journal.  The entire project was slated to be released with EMI this Fall but the project was pulled.  But if the move to the ‘computing cloud’ has taught us anything it is that no power on heaven or earth can stop the world wide web.  The album can be heard in its entirety via NPR’s First Listen site here.

My favorite track: Suzanne Vega on “The Man who would play God” and Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals on “Just War”

8. Fanfarlo, Reservoir

Lovers of Hey Marseilles, Arcade Fire, Beirut will find a home with Fanfarlo’s bookishly twee graduate student  aesthetics.  Similar to the Decemberist’s Victorian revisionism, the London sextet took their name from, of all places, from a book by the 19th century French critic Charles Baudelaire. As lead singer Simon Balthazar said in an interview on NPR “I was reading French symbolists at the time, and I sort of just reached out on the table and there was this book [by Baudelaire].”  Keeping with Baudelaire’s romantic sensibilities, Fanfarlo blend cello, violin, trumpet and mandolin into literate reflective flow that feels both at home at the circus and the critical theory post grad seminar.

7. The Flaming Lips/Stardust – “Borderline” off the Covered: A Revolution in Sound compilation

It probably isn’t fair to put just one song… let alone a cover song… let alone a cover of a Madonna hit from the 1980’s… in a list of “best of” releases at the end of the 21st century, but what can I say?  Wayne Cody, frontman for The Flaming Lips teamed up with Stardeath and White Dwarfs (which is fronted by his nephew Dennis Cody) to record this freaking AMAZING revisioning of this Madonna chestnut of yore. Like Madonna – while the songs made for great fun on the dance floor, it was the visuals with the dawn of MTV that grafted music to image for all time and this isn’t missed by the Lips.  As with all things Flaming Lips, there is the tinge of spaceman irony in their aesthetic – to hear them is to see them as it were with the big bunny suits and huge plastic beachballs. As the Lips toured this year they threw this cover into the mix to roaring acclaim and you can see why in the video of the song.  As the song builds, watch Wayne Cody in the background with his Emo puffy coat banging the large gong while his nephew in the argyle vest throws his hair around like Kurt Cobain at prep school and think “I bet Thanksgiving is a riot at their place…”

(btw – the Covered compilation that has this track also has a cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” by… wait for it… Adam Sandler. Yes… THAT Adam Sandler.  He sings it straight up and it isnt that bad…)

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

When Fox Confessor Brings the Flood came out, the days of Neko Case being the secret crush of KEXP and NPR listeners was over.  With that CD, the sometime-singer in The New Pornographers whose pure voice channeling Patsy Cline, swirling lyricism of a bookworm, and non-sequitur arrangements forged by someone who spent too much time on craigslist (she bought up 100 pianos on craigslist and stored them in her barn… go figure) came to roost.  While the 2009 release of Middle Cyclone wasn’t quite the level of genius that was Fox Confessor, it still stood head and shoulders over many of the releases this past year.  Her cover of “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Nature” stands in the middle of the playlist as a tent pole for the eco-centric themes running throughout – whether it is the fact that Killer Whales get their name for a reason in “People Got a Lot of Nerve”  to the 30 minute plus (yes… 30 minute plus) ending track “Marais la nuit” which is just the sounds of her backyard at twilight (I wonder how many people just download that single…) it is really a tour d’force.

5. The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come

I first came across the Mountain Goats (the band fronted by John Darnielle) with their release “The Sunset Trees” a few years back and especially the single “This Year” which is a rousing singalong that I usually play every year now on my birthday and love the “maybe this year in Jerusalem!”

There is a level of irony that so-called Christian bands will try to reach their audience by making their songs as abstracted and removed from biblical references as possible with not so much as a fish symbol on their CD cover art, yet a deeply ‘secular’ band like the Mountain Goats will release an album of songs whose titles are all direct biblical citations.  To read the linear notes and track listing in “The Life of the World to Come” is to get more engagement with the Bible than a year of Sundays in half the rock band churches popping up in warehouses everywhere.

Yet rather than either dismiss the project as the work of a cynic or disregard the songs as having no hermeneutic relation to the texts cited in the title, take a moment and just listen to the stories that Darnielle spins forth in each track with a Bible in your lap.

“Matthew 25:21” takes the parable of the Sheep and the Goats into the room of Darnielle’s mother-in-law as she is dying of cancer.  When you think of his chosen text as a rendering of promise for the “good and faithful servant to go into the joy of the Lord” it puts irony out in the hallway.   For U2 fans, Psalm 40 is considered almost untouchable since the definitive version anchored their “War” LP in 1983.  That said, the Mountain Goats take in “Psalms 40:2” is a kicker with a pulsing bass line fronted with Darnielle’s charistmatically frantic voice proclaiming “He has fixed his sign in the sky / He has raised me from the pit and set me high” that he is seeming to dare God to save him.  In “Genesis 30:3,” Darnielle sits at an old beaten piano singing about a kind of love few songwriters have the courage to reflect on let alone sing aloud.  Here Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, offers her maidservant Bilhah to her husband so that they can bear a child: “I will do what you ask me to do / Because of how I feel about you” sings Darnielle with a weight to his voice that speaks of love, understanding and pain in ways that much of what is called CCM could learn from.

I will upload my top 4 downloads tomorrow… any guesses what will make the number 1 spot? 🙂