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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… onto my 2010 top ten albums:

10 – Glee Cast / Journey to Regionals

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

9 – Kayne West/ My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

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


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

8 – Florence + The Machine/ Lungs

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

7 –  Bruce Springsteen/ The Promise

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

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

6 – The Black Keys/ Brothers

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

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

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

4 – Neil Young/ Le Noise

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

3 – The Hold Steady/ Heaven Is Whenever

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


2 – Mumford and Sons/ Sigh No More

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

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

1 – The National/ High Violet

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

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

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

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

Let me know!

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…

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