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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Where were you on September 11th, 2001?

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

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

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

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

Once – Music to the Motion Picture Soundtrack

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

Radiohead – In Rainbows

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


Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

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

Tom Waits – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards

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

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

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

The National – High Violet

For those of you who followed my top ten of 2010, you will recognize The National and their amazing 2010 release as my top pick of the year. As such, it bears repeating that The National really came into their own in the latter part of the decade and while some would place their earlier release – The Boxer – higher, I will stand with High Violet.   As I mentioned in my previous post, Matt Berninger who is the lead singer of The National, has a voice and writes songs that get compared to a lot of other artists –  Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits to name a few. What I have yet to hear is the comparison to artists found on John Hughes movie soundtracks.  Take just about every cut on the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack could be covered by The National and I would venture to guess that Berninger spent a good portion of his adolescence with many of the misfits that populate the Hughes teen film canon.  As demonstrated in their last release The Boxer and this years High Violet, The National is a band concerned with coming-of-age

On High Violet, you could also argue that the effect of Tim LeHay’s Left Behind series and millennial fever is part of the back story given the apocalyptic images of floods, bee swarms, and even brain-eating zombies.  In this way the album is truly a product of this 9/11 haunted decade.   Most of what this conjures up for the listener though is the strange effect loving something more than yourself means in a world that is falling apart at every turn.  Given that Matt Berninger became a father during the recording of High Violet speaks to this anxiety of now having to provide and protect a life other than your own.  to express the fear of a man who now must put a wife and young child ahead of himself.  “Afraid Of Everyone” is what encapsulates this anxiety to perfection.  As Berninger sings of being afraid ‘of everyone’ you honestly believe him.  And yet the movement of the album doesn’t live in the paranoia of Radiohead nor the burn-the- world-down-and-start-again anthem that is found in Nine Inch Nails.  No, with songs like “England” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” The National sing of being fearful for others and the love that breaks their heart over and over and over again.  In short, it is just a stunning album filled with complexity, brooding, wonder and at times quick wit and one of the lasting releases that I can imagine playing again and again.


The White Stripes –  Elephant

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

Over the Rhine – Drunkard’s Prayer

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

Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator)

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

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


Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (Come on feel the)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—“Casimir Pulaski Day”

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

—“John Wayne Gacy, Jr. ”

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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


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]

“Any of you in high school during the 1980’s?”

This was a lead question by Tim Neufeld, lead singer of the band Starfield, during the opening Big Room session of the NYWC in San Diego (National Youth Workers Conference) this afternoon.  The question was met with a roar of affirmation and in many ways was the right question to ask.  Youth Ministry in America is a field that has a number of outliers – contemplative, ecumenical, urban, globally minded – but still struggles under the legacy of the explosive growth in the field during the Reagan era of the 80’s that framed youth ministry as event-driven and programmatically framed where numerical growth in a youth ministry is a mark of success or failure.

*BAM!* (I was just hit in the head by a Frisbee… nothing major…I am fine… )

The exhibit hall here at the NYWC is filled with pounding music, vendors selling witness-wear T-Shirts with various morphing of pop culture semiotics and references to bible verses, bigger and more effective video projection units, Christian video games, flashy camp experiences and tons of books promising the latest method for helping youth find their way in the Christian faith. This is pretty much the same as past NYWC I have been to and blogged about.   Amidst all the glimmer and glitter of this festival celebrating a vocation deeply concerned with the state of teenagers in our culture, there is also a tiredness and almost last-ditch “Hail Mary” attempt to recover the glory days of the 1980s when youth ministry in America was reaching out to the suburbs, Contemporary Christian Music was gaining a large audience, and Zondervan, Youth Specialties and Word took youth ministry publishing to a new level.

Kids who were in youth groups during those glory days are now the youth workers wandering the exhibit halls.  These are the ones who responded to Tim Neufeld of Starfield when asked if they were in high school in the 1980’s and when they stop by to talk to me about graduate education there is often a notable pause in the midst of the noise surrounding them as if they are really unsure about what they actually need to meet the challenges they face.  When I ask them what youth ministry for the 21st century should look and feel like… to a person they don’t mention anything around this convention center.  Or at least not that which meets the ear and blinds the eye.  It keeps coming back to a simple thing:  being in relationship with kids and modelling a life that is worth living amidst the madness of the consumer driven age.

In many respects youth ministry leading into the 21st century has been an exercise of confidence in an unchanging message coupled with an ever-increasing attempt to turn up the volume to be ‘heard’ above the crowds.  But that era is fading and the writing, as they say, is not in the book stalls but on the proverbial wall.   A change is happening and the method of turning up the volume just isn’t working like it used to.  These tired and burned out people who spend a lot of time on iPhones following the FB status updates and texting with the young people they are committed to yet in a way that isn’t seeming to change anything.  These folks, like my friend and soul brother Lars Rood who is a Youth Pastor in Dallas recently blogged about being here at NYWC, are part of a tribe I celebrate.  These are people who think and feel with a depth that folks in the academy often don’t take seriously – which is a crime.  Youth workers are some of the most ingenious, entrepreneurial, energetic people you will meet. As Lars puts so well, this is a group that have hearts committed to being with teenagers and that is something to be celebrated:

Being around other youth workers who love all parts of youth ministry is an amazing thing.   I don’t feel like I have to try to “explain” what it is I do with my life. I don’t have to justify my role or why I hang with students all the time.  I don’t have to be the “slightly older guy” who is still hanging around and I don’t feel guilty for wearing shorts and a v-neck.  I love knowing that we all “get” each other and value the gifts, skills and sacrifices we make to do what we do.

Part of what it means to be in a “tribe” is also to realize that the larder for the winter is low on food, that the hunting may mean taking us to new lands, and that banging rocks to keep the demons at bay can only work for some long before we either give up in exhaustion or find a new vision and purpose.

So I sit here with the folks in my tribe and ask whether it is truly time for a revolution.

Moving from ‘weak ties’ to ‘strong ties’

In the recent New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell published a provocative article entitled “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted.”  In it he recalls the way the Civil Rights movement took shape and caused a massive shift in our country in a time without Facebook, Twitter, or cell phones.  When he reflects on this point, he notes that many of the Civil Rights activists had personal relationships at the core of their work and passion which is what he calls a ‘strong tie’ form of activism.  By contrast Gladwell notes that the use of social media platforms to galvanizing change is hampered by ‘weak ties’.  As he puts it in the article:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this [the forms and effectiveness seen in the Civil Rights movement] at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

Gladwell goes on to note that ‘weak tie’ networks can foster a high level of participation as long as it doesn’t cost too much and doesn’t demand change of how I live my life.  He cites examples where FB campaigns have raised millions yet at 9 to 10 cents per person.  There is certainly volume to be found, but social change only occurs at a robust and lasting level when someone gives more than 9 to 10 cents of themselves.  ‘Strong tie’ relationships are those that are led by a selfless commitment at all levels and a personal invitation mirrored with incredible commitment to change that will risk everything. Another part of this is that a vision for change must be made and led in a directive fashion and cannot be left to the masses to figure out on their own.

Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Back to the NYWC in San Diego and the tired youth workers that are walking by the book stalls and T-Shirt sellers.  Many of them have over a thousand FB friends, have churches that both trouble and support them and a burning desire to serve in ways that the US Congress could learn something from.

But that isn’t enough for the revolution.

But perhaps this weekend it is time to start forging some ‘strong ties’ beyond the ‘weak ties’ and asking each other the hard and difficult questions as we listen to the booming voices, see the endless books, T-shirts, and stickers promising a new day that requires little of us beyond putting the merchandise into a bag and keep walking.

The revolution in youth ministry will not be loud because embracing someone, sitting with them face-to-face, committing to a new way of doing things that defies consumerism and the cult of immediacy, and turning to a different road less travelled by is a solemn thing.

No, the revolution will be quiet people.  So we need to turn things down a notch so we don’t miss it.

Thoughts?

Like so many people this year, I have been swept up into the world of Lisbeth Salander and the Millennium Trilogy of the late Stieg Larsson that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Needless to say, the books follow a fairly predicable pot boiler thriller formula akin to a Scott Turow, Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel: an innocence protagonist is thrust (whether by chance or fate – you choose which *you* think organizes our lives) into a deeper world of deception and  intrigue than typically meets the innocent eye.  In the midst of this awakening to the darkness of the world that lurks just below the surface, the hero’s journey takes on the classic bildungsroman tradition of German Romanticism where a gathering of companions occurs to assist the protagonist in their journey of self discovery, healing, and building of courage to take on and overcome the evil (“All the Evil” as its called in The Girl Who Played with Fire)that only they are equipped to deal with.  In the midst of this journey, the protagonist will face a choice – either to run from their fated journey toward redemption of both world and self and try to remain in their seemingly safe world that existed prior to being chosen/thrust into this dark world…. or they will choose to face down the dragons, the beasts, the evil of the self and world and risk losing everything – life, love, hope – in the name of redemption.  It is a tale as old as time to be sure and this latest iteration found in the world of a Swedish cyberpunk computer hacker and a washed up magazine journalist is written in the well-worn genre to be sure.

But there are thousands of thrillers published every year – what has made this trilogy such a global hit?

I think in many ways one of the reasons is that Lisbeth Salander (in addition to being one of the most evocative female protagonists in popular fiction – a mix of Alias’ Sydney BristowBuffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly’s River Tam with photographic memory and serious ink) has ripped the curtain back to show our worst fear in the 21st century and exposed the truth of the world in which we live:  there is no such thing as forgiveness as we had previously hoped or even imagined because now that our lives exist in cyberspace, our sins can never, ever be erased. Lisbeth Salander is the bearer of the apocalypse in so many ways: the idea of ‘starting over’ is a novelty of an age where people could forget their past by burning a box of letters from old lovers, throw away pictures, move to another state and begin again.  To think that only 20 years ago the quaintness of a movie like 1991’s City Slickers offered up a world where after your life had spun out of control you could have a “do over” and start again – new life, new love, new future.  That world is as antiquated as Western Union delivering a telegram to your door.  In the Millenium Triology, Lisbeth Salander shows us the truth:  there is no “do over” as we might have imagined.  Everything you have ever written online is always there, every picture uploaded and tagged, every whimsical thought benignly put onto Facebook, every video caught on a phone and loaded onto YouTube, every email pinged back and forth sits on a server somewhere as a ticking time bomb just waiting for a person to hack into it and pull a file together.

In his July 19th article in the New York Times entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting“, Jeffrey Rosen shows us the unforgiving landscape of the digital age in all its starkness:

[The question for all of us is simple:] how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever. With Web sites like LOL Facebook Moments, which collects and shares embarrassing personal revelations from Facebook users, ill-advised photos and online chatter are coming back to haunt people months or years after the fact. Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

Strangely enough, one of the comforts I find in all this “exposure” is that it is long overdue that we learn that, in the end, forgiveness is ultimately never about forgetting.  As someone who came through 80’s evangelicalism and its view that God forgave us in a way akin to a divine Etch-A-Sketch: we ask for forgiveness and that prayer somehow shakes God up and down vigorously and leaves a clean slate so total that somehow God can’t ever access our past ever again.  From Aristotle’s view of the soul as the ‘unscribled tablet’ from “Περί Ψυχῆς” (De Anima or On the Soul) through to Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes and John Lockes’ Tabula Rasa and onto City Slicker’s mantra of the “do over” there is a perpetuation of forgiveness as equivalent to forgetting.  To be honest, perhaps that is the true prayer of our hearts – that what we desire isn’t forgiveness anyway but merely forgetting on the behalf of God and others.  How many of us choose to move on from the regrets, losses, flame outs in our lives with a ‘year zero’ approach – never speak of the past again… this is the new day…

Forgiveness is something so much more profound than mere forgetting. For one reason, forgiveness means we are forever changed in our redemption where mere forgetting is leaves us in the sameness of our brokenness.  Sure, we make a break with the past in forgetting, but we are still the same without any deep and abiding shift in who we are and therefore only ready, willing and able to make the very same mistakes and errors over and over in some sick and twisted version of Bill Murray’s 1993 Groundhog Day (which coming out only a couple of years after City Slickers signals to me that the “do over” mantra perhaps didn’t have the purchase we had hoped).  But forgiveness never forgets but is rehabilitating and unflinching in its gaze upon all that we have been and become and never lets us settle on the ease of walking away from our past nor merely getting everything back ‘as it was’ after we say “I’m sorry.”

[SPOILER ALERT]

This was the genius of Jeff Bridge’s Oscar winning turn as “Bad Blake” in last year’s Crazy Heart. As a drunk and relationally derelict fame-faded country singer, Bridge’s Bad Blake burns through bottles of whisky and serial relationships as an attempt as ‘forgetting’ as forgiveness over and over and over again.  Yet when he stumbles into the relationship with a young women and her son whose love not only won’t allow him to forget his past, but also shows him that life worth living will cost him more than his own self-despair and loathing. When tragedy hits and causes a reckoning, Bad Blake loses everything but instead of trying once again to forget he begins the journey of forgiveness that alcoholics know in ways that so-called sober folks can only guess.  To stand up at AA meetings week after week and introduce yourself as an alcoholic is an act of forgiveness and the furthermost thing from forgetting as it gets.  Like a communal Lisbeth Salander, AA meetings hold up evidence of where and what you have done and we stand before the collected evidence and acknowledge that while the fact of our failings remain, the bigger story is the faith of forgiveness that wraps its arms around our failings with all the blood, sweat and tears of our past included and walks it into the light of day.  The fact that Bad Blake ends the film without the girl he loved because the damage done was too great is a testimony that forgiveness also means we don’t get the world as we wish all the time… but healing and redemption is still worth it.

Let Lisbeth Salander dig away… what is forgotten can still be forgiven.