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?

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

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

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

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

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

The “Animal House factor”

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

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

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?


“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!

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

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

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

As I have begun to receive comments on my recent book Freedom of the Self, one of the questions I have had is for follow-up reading – people who are tilling the same soil I am seeking to work in bringing together continental philosophy, Christian mysticism, and a deep concern for the contemporary accelerated culture within which live in Western culture.  One of the books I point people to right away is Peter Rollins’ 2006 book How (Not) to Speak of God. It is a dense wee book filled with amazing insights from Rollins work in the academy as a research associate at the Trinity School of Ecumenics in Dublin (he holds a PhD in Post-Structual Thought from Queen’s University, Belfast) and has kept that scholarly reflection in tension alongside faith communities such as a collective in North Ireland  he founded called ‘ikon’ that in true Emergent spirit is a blended presence of live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre and ritual in an act of what Rollins terms ‘transformance art’.

One cannot read Rollins’ book without seeing the role that irony has played and currently plays in contemporary thought be it theological or culturally embedded.    It has been said that irony is the final trope of theology – that the literal assertion of any theological proposition be it creedal, hermeneutical, or

experiential is ultimately radically undone in the face of its practical outworking given the inherent limits certainty has on things of faith.  Kierkegaard’s famous aphorism that “it is the objective label ‘God’ that ultimately negates the subject” or Martin Heidegger’s grand pronouncement “Das Heilige läßt sich überhaupt nicht ‘theologisch’ ausmachen, denn […] immer dort, wo die Theologie aufkommt, [hat] der Gott schon die Flucht begonnen” (“Wherever theology comes up, God has been on the run for quite a while”) both resonate with the notion of irony as a grand theological trope.  In short, you can’t box up the gift you really want after all…

In Rollins’ book, the place of theological irony is not overtly labeled per se but (rather ironically I might add) is deeply implied throughout.  Rollins lays claim to this tradition in his introduction (ironically subtitled “the secret” given that Rollins quickly notes that there is no secret) by citing Wittgenstein’s final sentence in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (xiii)    As Rollins further argues throughout Part 1 of the book, the tradition of ‘naming’ God has de-evolved into a practice of ‘heretical orthodoxy’ where authenticity in relation to God is falsely boundaried by theoretical constraints born after the Enlightenment where God is only apprehended ideologically vis a vis a disembodied theology.   Here Rollins chooses conversation partners amidst the ‘Masters of Suspicion’ (Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx) and seeks to embrace a way of approaching God that acknowledges that “one of the central elements of the postmodern critique, namely the recognition that relativism (i.e. the claim that there is no meaning) is ultimately self-contradictory, for to say there is no meaning to the universe is itself a meaningful statement, as it makes a meaningful claim about the way that the universe really is.” (11) The path upon which Rollins ventures is a contemporary recovery of the apophatic tradition.

Rollins appeals to the work of Pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart and other mystics within the Christian faith by noting the challenge of naming God is perpetually bounded by kataphatic or positive language that would correspond with the procession of the divine out of itself into its manifestation in and as the cosmos, as opposed to apophatic or negative language would articulate the path of the created soul’s return to the unmanifest divine transcendence.

Simply put, kataphasis for Rollins has given way to what he terms ‘the idolatry of ideology’ where the primacy of validity given to ideological renderings of God is comparable to fashioning idols.  Conversely, the road of apophasis leads to a silence that continues to be anything but quiet since God desires to be known.  As Rollins concisely states, “revelation [of God] ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown.” (17)   What Rollins advocates as the via media – the middle way – through the constraints of kataphatic and apophatic extremes is what he terms “the third mile” or what philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas terms the way of eminence, where ‘naming God’ would bespeak the completion of the created soul’s return to God as the unmanifest source of the manifestation which the creature is.  This ‘third mile’ of eminence is for Rollins the way of orthopraxis (right action) in fulfillment of orthodoxy (right belief) .  Referring to Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles, this way of God is a movement of procession where the transcendent cause shows itself transcendently embodied in the cosmos whose procession it is.  As Hans von Balthasar has put it long ago, in the kataphatic mode of theology, emphasis is placed on the “manifestation of the unmanifest.”   As immanent to all creation, God “has the name of everything that is” and “the theologians praise it by every name”.   In this regard Rollins agrees yet calls our naming/theology to be incarnate/praxiological.  Rollins makes clear that it is only in going this ‘third mile’ – which he reframes later as going from ‘knowledge’ (orthodoxy) to ‘love’ (orthopraxy) – fulfills the meaning of theology into superabundance.  In this way the Christian path is one that moves beyond mere ethics “[f]or ethical systems allow us to follow rules whether we love or not.  While ethics says, ‘What must I do in order to fulfill my responsibility?’ love says, ‘I will do more than is required.’  (65)  Rollins concludes his book with a number of rituals and liturgies that provide typologies for performing this ‘third mile’ in the midst of marginalized and silenced communities.   As I mentioned earlier, there is a level of irony in the writing of this book – the seeking to unname God in order that God may be made known as a project that ‘names’ the unnaming as such in print.  That said, I commend How (Not) to Speak of God to those seeking a confessional approach to this deep tradition of theological irony and apophasis and perhaps finding means to (re)new ways for services of worship that give voice to those silenced as well as those seeking the name of God as one ‘unnamed’.


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.”

Friends – my new book Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity and Mission at the Crossroads is about to be published and I have a web deal for you.  The book will be available July 1st but won’t be up on Amazon and other sites for a few more weeks.  My publisher has a “web deal” price of $16.80 if you order directly from the URL I am providing.  Feel free to pass it around to those interested in picking it up:

http://wipfandstock.com/store/Freedom_of_the_Self_Kenosis_Cultural_Identity_and_Mission_at_the_Crossroads

The gist of the book is fairly basic:  what it means to be a “self” in the world has been co-opted by the extremes of self-help gurus on the one hand who tell us that everything should feed our ego (“be all that you can be”, “you deserve a break today”, etc.)  and those who feel the individualism of culture is so problematic that community should be everything and the self either ignored or dismissed.   What I strike out to do in this book is reclaim what it means to have identity – to be a self – in this age after modernity and point toward a model of being and having identity through a model of what I call “the kenotic self”.    As the book jacket says:  “Freedom of the Self revitalizes the question of identity formation in a postmodern era through a deep reading of Christian life in relation to current trends seen in the Emergent and Missional church movements. By relocating deep identity formation as formed and released through a renewed appraisal of kenotic Christology coupled with readings of Continental philosophy (Derrida, Levinas, Marion) and popular culture, Keuss offers a bold vision for what it means to be truly human in contemporary society, as what he calls the “kenotic self.” In addition to providing a robust reflection of philosophical and theological understanding of identity formation, from Aristotle and Augustine through to contemporary thinkers, Freedom of the Self suggests some tangible steps for the individual and the church in regard to how everyday concerns such as economics, literature, and urbanization can be part of living into the life of the kenotic self.”

The book moves between philosophy and theology in the first section but doesn’t keep its head in the proverbial clouds.  The second section of the book – The Space of the Self – is a how-to discussion ranging from economics (what role does spending play in our sense of self?) urbanization (what does being a self mean in today’s urban neighborhoods?) and the role that the Christian church can and should play in the world exemplifying what I am terming “missional openness” to others.

If you click through the URL above, you can read some of the reviews for the pre-release copy if you are curious.  But my hope is to get a conversation going with you and hear ways this model of “the kenotic self” can play out in your communities and how “missional openness” can challenge some of the fortress mentality that is crippling so many faith communities including those in Emergent and Missional models (I spend quite a bit of time both affirming the Emergent and Missional movements but also critiquing them).

Blessings and peace my friends – would love to have your feedback and please pass the URL to those you might think enjoy these themes and conversations.

But wait… there’s more!  Also you can get 40% off the retail price with the promo code BSCB10 – that bumps the price down to $12.60!