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?

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

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

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

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


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

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

Contemporary Shibbóleths – deep calling out to deep

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

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

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

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

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

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

– high value of social justice and holistic responsibility

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

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

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

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

– tattoos and comic books matter

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

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

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

– writing in books is part of reading a book well

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

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

– Monty Python never gets old

– Partick Thistle rather than Rangers vs. Celtic

– adulthood is overrated… childhood is not

– shopping malls are soul-sucking prisons of doom

– Porter and Stout are the only options for grown ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK… that’s a start…

what would *you* add?

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?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critiques of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Eclecticism is not necessarily a bad thing…

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

Is this a good thing?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] 78

My goodness how time flies!  Seems like yesterday that I started blogging on various topics and connected with many of you in this space to reflect on ways in which contemporary people were meaning sense of their lives in the high, low and middle brow culture.  When I first started blogging in 2005, the medium was still in its infancy: people who grew up on TRS 80 (seen in the picture insert) or Commodore 64s were finding out about “the Cloud” in new and exciting ways and communicating with each other in more fluid mediums.  Blogging was essentially a form of journaling for a larger audience back then and has become a critical part of how people share ideas, try out new views and opinions, and solidify relationships across barriers of place, culture and context.

As we crest into the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it is a good time to take stock of where we have come from and where we are going.  It is interesting to note that when I started this blog, my youngest daughter Miriam was born.  She is now in school full days as a Kindergärtner.  Similarly, this blog has grown up and so (hopefully) have I.  In taking stock of the many threads that I have posted along with other friends and professional colleagues over the past five years, it has become clear that we needed a name change if we were going to move this conversation format into the next decade.

So… why the name change?  When I started the blog, the name “Theology Kung Fu” seemed like a fun, playful way to frame what would happen in this space – putting discussions of creativity, culture and God stuff in a space of respect, discipline and constant movement that was not adversarial but honoring and complementary.  Hopefully some of that has taken place. That said, sometimes even the best intentions aren’t always enough especially if one is to grow beyond mere intentions and into wisdom.  On one level the name, while attempting to be a bit clever, has also become strangely juvenile and goofy akin to acid washed jeans and Gumby T-shirts at your grandmother’s funeral – something that at times cheapens and detracts from the issue at hand.  On another level, the phrase can be seen as promoting a type of cultural parody that while has never been my intention yet can be taken as ignorant and even worst engendering stereotypes.  To be frank, even the most well-intentioned and seemingly benign things need to be looked at from a larger context and here my thanks to a friend of mine who challenged me on this point on how this could be seen in some circles and he made a great point.  I am thankful for having my eyes opened to the wider conversations in our culture which is ironically what this blog is about.

In addition to the name change, the blog needs to grow up a bit more and settle on making more constructive reflections on culture and theology and not merely flagging the odd and kitschy without some redemptive suggestions.  As I move forward I hope to do this.

So… welcome to Theology and Culture: a theoblog for conversations on creativity, pop culture and God stuff. A new blog that is now five years old, ready to move beyond diapers and potty training and get on the big Yellow school with the others in the marketplace of ideas.  I want to thank those of you who have chimed in from time to time over the years and hope that you will continue to visit and add Theology and Culture to your RSS feed.  I will be striving to blogging about once a week – sometimes posting links to things you might find of interest, sometimes generating commentary, sometimes just offering some existential musings in the moment we find ourselves in.  I would love to hear your suggestions for discussion threads, topics of reflection, or merely what ways a blog like this can encourage and help you.  Let me know!

Blessings and peace to you all and looking forward to this next chapter together!

Jeff

One of the most difficult things about being a pastor is death.  No… strike that.

One of realities of being human is death.

No… strike that as well.

Here, let me try this:  one of the hardest things about being ANY human is knowing what to say and think about death.

Better… we will go with that and move on.

Today I officiated a memorial service for a 30 year women who died of a drug overdose.  Her life was difficult in numerous ways but as testified to by family and friends, she always wanted to become more than her circumstances.   She had two children – a 16 year old and a 4 year old.  Her parents were divorced and remarried.  Her husband speaks very little English.  All of this came pouring into the meeting room at the church as we planned for this memorial service.  They had been recommended to our church through a series of connections.  As we sat and discussed the service, her father pushed a stack of CDs over to me with track numbers.  “These are songs that she liked – ones that remind us of her and that she loved to sit and listen to,” he said.  I looked them over:  Sarah McLachlan, Mariah Carey, and… Metallica.  “Have you heard of them?” he asked.  One of the tracks he choose was “Nothing Else Matters” from Metallica’s 1981 “Black” album.  “These are going to be great,” I said “these will be… awesome.”

“Nothing Else Matters” is a slow burner to be sure.  Written as a goth ballad, Metallica’s lead singer James Hetfield wrote this song with only one hand strumming an Em chord while he was on the phone with his girlfriend. Since he held the phone with one hand (remember, this is 1991 and no bluetooth and cell phones were still the size of minivans but at least down from the monster trucks of the 80’s), he plucked the four open strings of a standard Em chord with the other, which eventually made up the first two bars of the song.  It is a song of separation and a deep desire to get closer written with one hand holding onto the connection to what keeps him alive in this life and using the other to grasp at whatever will turn our longing, our hope, our love into an anthem large enough to fill stadiums.  It is a song written so as to not forget what it means to be alive, and to give that gift of life to others through love and faith.  The song is about longing for something more and seemed to fit perfectly for this memorial service.  As the family and friends came into the fairly standard church sanctuary, more than a couple or eyebrows were raised as the Metallica tune filled the pews and spilled across floor under the alter and to the foot of the cross that hung on the wall.  Tears started to flow as “Nothing Else Matters” became more than a metal ballad but a song of anger, promise and release wound up in chords and bars and rhythm.  The open casket with this young women’s body lay there as the song continued on:

Never opened myself this way

Life is ours, we live it our way

All these words I don’t just say

and nothing else matters


Trust I seek and I find in you

Every day for us, something new

Open mind for a different view

and nothing else matters


never cared for what they say

never cared for games they play

never cared for what they do

never cared for what they know

and I know

So close, no matter how far

Couldn’t be much more from the heart

Forever trusting who we are

No, nothing else matters

As the song ran its course, arms covered with more ink than a stack of comic books were rubbing their eyes and waiting for something beyond James Hetfiled’s simple tune as we looked toward the cross that hung over that casket.  “Nothing else matters” opened the way for “something else” must matter amidst all this sorrow.

When people ask me what pop music has to do theology, it is in moments like these I wish I could bottle up and hand to the cynics.  People get married, celebrate graduations, drive across the country and bury their family members to simple pop songs.  People continue to seek after something that surrounds and empowers their lvies and for this reason I don’t believe in the post-Christian jargon some are used to evoking – I have yet to see that era truly in full bloom.  However, the notion of the ‘after-Church’ world is certainly true. Granted, the ‘after-Church’ folks could truly benefit from the deep traditions and meaning found in the ancient church made new in their midst.  But when death comes screaming into your world people will act like a proverbial drowning man at sea and will grab the most stable and recognizable thing found floating by.

For millions of folks it won’t necessarily be the hymnal in church pews but the song on their iPod that reminds them of hope, faith and love.  These crazy songs make sense out of the chaos of life in ways so many other things shoveled at people never does.

I have a picture in my mind of this young women listening to “Nothing Else Matters” as we gathered there and perhaps wishing that as her family and friends gathered in this place they would write one more verse of that song with their very lives – that verse being lives lived in remembering her laughter, her love of the sunshine, her passion for music, and what it means to live out this love with others and in the presense of God who lives with us now.

As the service continued I read aloud of Psalm 23 and Romans 6: 3-9 and spoke of Paul’s promise that death dies and life will truly live at the end of all things and do hope that these words of promise got a grip on folks as they sat there.  But I can bet that an old 1991 metal ballad is finding new life tonight for folks and hopefully there is a new verse being written in the lives of this family in deep mourning.  That “something else” does matter, that we can reach out not with one hand restrained but embrace each other with both hands fully and experience an even stronger embrace of God’s grace and mercy.

Some would say that Metallica came to church today.  But I think the gathered were ‘churched’ by James Hetfield and the band in ways we have yet to see the fruit of.

To escape the Seattle heatwave, my daughters took me to see “Toy Story 3” last night (air conditioning and a good flick beat sitting in our house that was reaching 90 degrees upstairs).  I had read quite a few reviews and heard that Pixar really hit the ball over the back field fence in completing the Toy Story trilogy and this was certainly the case.  My friend Jeff Overstreet – author and movie critic – mentioned that he has never seen an American film trilogy that had each film continually exceed the previous film with each new release like the Toy Story franchise has done.   I still hold the first one in highest esteem, but will have to say that the maturity of Toy Story 3 and (dare I say it) humanity with which the film raised the bar for choosing loyalty, compassion, and ultimately stating in no uncertain terms that (akin to 1 Corinthians 13) without love everything else in this life is not worth living for was masterfully done.  I won’t go into the film’s plot beyond saying what has been generally revealed in press releases:  the story begins with Andy – the owner of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and all the other assorted toys – coming of age as he “puts away the things of childhood” and readies himself to move out of his home and go off to college.  Through a series of missteps, our cohort of toys are separated from Andy and end up at Sunnyside Daycare and enter into the Mattel and Hasbro equivalent of Shawshank prison.  It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination (this is still a Disney movie after all) to guess that there will be a reunion with our fearless action figures and their owner, but what happens is what takes this movie from being a thing of mere multiplex and into the realm of Gospel proclamation.

(NOTE:  SPOILER ALERT – STOP READING *HERE* IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING OF THE FILM!)

As Andy prepares to finally take his leave of his mother and his childhood home, the toys watch from the concealment of a cardboard box as Andy’s mother hugs her son and tells him (to paraphrase) that she has to let him go so that she will always have a part of him with her.  In short, Andy’s mother makes the move I am arguing for in Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads in that what constitutes the kenotic self as the defining mark of followers of Christ in the world is this: in order to fulfill the mandate of love at its deepest and most abiding, we must relinquish that which we wish to hold on to the most… for only in the freedom and risk of love is it actually alive and not idolatry.

The toys – especially Woody – see this exchange and take the risk of love as well.  Packing themselves up neither to be mothballed in the attic nor to be archived on a shelf in Andy’s dorm room as a token of childhood, the toys are given away to another generation.  As Andy sits on the lawn of a young girl at the end of the film with his toys at his feet, his car sitting in the middle of ‘the road less traveled by’ and idling ready to head off into adulthood, he takes a moment to lament and grieve these physical markers of his youth with this new owner.  Rather than merely doing a “dump and run” of donated goods, Andy ‘stories’ each toy into life for her – telling her their name, how he liked to play with them, even evoking the voices he gave them.  But if this was just a ‘telling’ then we would have merely a hand off from one person to another without any connection.  No, what Pixar does next in why so many bloggers and reviewers have outed themselves as getting misty-eyed at this end of this seemingly benign animated film.  Andy doesn’t merely tell her about the toys and his experience… he plays with her and allows her to own these toys in her imagination and the way she needs to understand them.  They leap around the lawn, zooming in and out of make believe scenes – an older college bound boy and a young girl finding a common language and tying their lives together that seems so simple and care free and yet exhibiting the hunger to make connect that is lost in the age of Twitter.  By relinguishing his stories, his sense of play, and his love for these toys, Andy is not only giving this young girl new toys – he has reminded himself of the meaning of love as a freedom to release and remember.  As Andy drives off down the road, we are left with not only a new chapter in the lives of Woody, Buzz and the rest… but a calling to what it means in this life to not grasp and control but to truly give and receive love as free people.

In the end, Toy Story will be remembered as one of the most human trilogies on film and a call to us all to seek after a repose of relinquishment and release for the sake of love that will take us to “infinity and beyond.”

There are just some things that when you encounter them, you go “Oh…yeah… that is just so weird that it must be divinely inspired.”  For me, those things include the Smokey Bacon Maple Bar at Frost Donuts in Mill Creek, genre defying movies such as Repo Man, The Big Lewbowski and The Princess Bride to name but a few, and anytime either a banjo or ukulele gets some serious truck in a song.   To the latter point, Amanda Palmer’s recent announcement in Paste magazine that she is slated to release an EP of Radiohead covers played on… wait for it… the ukulele (!)  just warms the heart of this 60’s boy from Honolulu to no end.  On her blog post for February 22nd she put it rather missionally:

“A Radiohead ukulele cover album might just have to be what I do to Shed The Past and Find God… Some people ACTUALLY find god and record christian albums. I just find Radiohead.”

(For a sample, here is Amanda Palmer covering “Fake Plastic Trees” during an in-store performance via YouTube.)

To all you CCM refugees… I hope you are listening…

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

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

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived

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

it came from, from winter or a river.

I don’t know how or when,

no they were not voices, they were not

words, nor silence,

but from a street I was summoned,

from the branches of night,

abruptly from the others,

among violent fires

or returning alone,

there I was without a face

and it touched me.

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

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

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

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