Artist Dan Meth recently posted a map of the ‘fantasy world’ that pulls together over 30 different fictional/fantasy worlds into one glorious landscape – Narnia, Middlearth, Earthsea, Wonderland, Never Never Land, Oz, Whoville, Florian, the Land of the Lost, you name it.  What I love about the map is how by glancing at it I am drawn back into the narratives, characters, plotlines and epic grandeur of these places that are so very remote from the so-called ‘world’ in which we live day-to-day yet so real in deep and abiding ways.

One of the things that fiction does is allow us to see the imagination as a necessary part of what it means to be human.  More than mere escapism, fantasy literature draws readers into a world that pushes us to wonder ‘what if’ rather than ‘what is’ and it is shift into the possible (albeit improbable) that allows to live into a life that pushes against and even challenges the all-too-readily accepted way of things.

As I have argued in many ways throughout my writing over the past decade and most recently in Freedom of the Self, one of the most important moves in the Christian narrative is when Jesus framed the way for the community to remember him was to be ‘poetic.’   In Luke 22: 19, Jesus caps off the directive to celebrate the Eucharist with the now famous injunction to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’   The directive of Jesus for this remembrance is a creative act as seen in verse 19 where the ‘do this’ (poieite) of remembrance recalls poiesis, the root of ‘poetics’ or what we term ‘poetry.’  To ‘be creative/make poetry’ in remembrance of Jesus is a threatening move for many people.  Much of Christianity is hemmed in by a commitment NOT to be imaginative – that somehow the drive and focus of the Christian story is to never change, to hold fast to well-worn narratives, to guard the past and not seek any voices or advice that could suggest that perhaps there is a new day dawning and new voices to add to the choir.  As congregations dwindle in numbers, as younger generations leave communities of faith in droves, I wonder if some of this is that Christianity lacks the imagination to see these young people as unique, unrepeatable miracles of God – voices that will certainly challenge, renew and yes, reimagine what it means to live into a world that seems to have gone mad.

When we journey to Middlearth, Narnia, Earthsea and many of these other so-called fantasy lands we celebrate the impossible made possible and feel a leap of purpose and conviction that was once the animating factor in faith for the early church.

To this end I continue to feel that we need more fantasy in our theological diet today.  People need to read the fantastical and strange in order to release our hearts and souls from the predictable and staid so that the faith and hope ‘for that which is not seen’ can be believed and faith can once again rise like the roar of a lion and the song of a mere Hobbit.

What fantasy books do you think create a space for faith to arise?

What have been those grand narratives for you?

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?



One of the things I enjoy about Christmas are the occasional essays written over the years reflecting on how people understand, struggle with, celebrate, or simply tolerate this Yuletide season.  The following s a wonderful essay by EB White (author of the famous “Elements of Style” and the classic children’s novels “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little”) celebrating the wonder of Christmas as seen through the essays of a grammar fiend – who knew Christmas was a relative pronoun?

EB White on Christmas and Relative Pronouns

We had a Scrooge in our office a few minutes ago, a tall, parched man, beefing about Christmas and threatening to disembowel anyone who mentioned the word. He said his work had suffered and his life had been made unbearable by the demands and conventions of the season. He said he hated wise men, whether from the East or from the West, hated red ribbon, angels, Scotch Tape, greeting cards depicting the Adoration, mincemeat, dripping candles, distant and near relatives, fir balsam, silent night, small boy sopranos, shopping lists with check marks against some of the items, and the whole yuletide stratagem, not to mention the low-lying cloud of unwritten thank-you letters hanging just above the horizon. He was in a savage state. Before he left the office, though, we saw him transfigured, just Scrooge was transfigured. The difference was that whereas Scrooge was softened by visions, our visitor was softened by the sight of a small book standing on our desk – a copy of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.”

“Greatest collection of essays and opinions ever assembled between covers,” he shouted, “including a truly masterful study of that and which.”

He seized the book and began thumbing through it for favorite passages, slowly stuffing a couple of small gift-wrapped parcels into the pocket of his great coat.

“Listen to this,” he said in a triumphant voice, “‘Avoidance of the obvious is very well, provided that it is not itself obvious, but, if it is, all is spoilt.’  Isn’t that beautiful?”

We agreed that it was a sound and valuable sentiment, perfectly expressed. He then began a sermon on that and which, taking as his text certain paragraphs from Fowler, and warming rapidly to his theme.

“Listen to this: ‘If writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice of either the most or of the best writers.’”

“It was the practice of St. Matthew,” we put in hastily, “Or at any rate, he practiced it in one of the most moving sentences ever constructed: ‘And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’ You’ve got to admit the which in that sentence is where it ought to be, as well as every other word. Did you ever read a more satisfactory sentence than that in your whole life?” “It’s good,” said our friend, “It’s good because there isn’t a ten-dollar word in the whole thing. And Fowler has it pegged, too. Wait a minute. Here. ‘What is to be deprecated is the notion that one can improve one’s style by using stylish words.’ See what I mean about Fowler? But let’s get back to that and which. That’s the business that really fascinates me. Fowler devotes eight pages to it. I got so excited once I had the pages photostatted. Listen to this: ‘We find in fact that the antecedent of that is often personal.’ Now, that’s very instructive.”

“Very,” we said, “And if you want an example, take Matthew 2:1 ‘… there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ Imagine how that simple clause could get loused up if someone wanted to change that to who!”

“Exactly,” he said, “That’s what I mean about Fowler. What was the sentence again about the star? Say it again.”

We repeated, “And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”

“You see?” he said, happily. “This is the greatest damn book ever written.” And he left our office transfigured, a man in excellent spirits. Seeing him go off merry as a gig, we realized that Christmas is where the heart is. For some it is in a roll of red ribbon, for some it is in the eyes of a young child. For our visitor, we saw clearly, Christmas was in a relative pronoun. Wherever it is, it is quite a day.

– EB White, “Relative Pronouns” from Writings from The New Yorker 1927 – 1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

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.

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

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

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived

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

it came from, from winter or a river.

I don’t know how or when,

no they were not voices, they were not

words, nor silence,

but from a street I was summoned,

from the branches of night,

abruptly from the others,

among violent fires

or returning alone,

there I was without a face

and it touched me.

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

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

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

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

In a series of articles published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Benton (aka William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, a small Christian Reformed college in Holland, Michigan) has been raising a veritable army of angry adjuncts and underemployed PhDs through his revealing what he sees as “the Big Lie” of the academy – that universities are not telling the truth about employment prospects for those graduating with PhDs in the Humanities and ‘trapping’ vulnerable graduate students into believing that ‘the life of the mind’ is the only calling worth pursuing and that other career options could be as if not more fulfilling.  If you follow the comment threads to Benton/Pannapacker’s postings, you will hear the anger, outrage and disappointment of many graduate students who concur with him.  In spite of the irony of the author writing under a pen name and publishing an article on the ‘Big Lie’ (why not publish under your birth name if truth is such a value?), there is a deep concern brewing about re-evaluating what a university is for and ultimately what a faculty member is charged with.

Last week I received the call that many academics wait for – the notice that the Board of Trustees at the University had voted to extend me tenure.  I went on this journey once before during my time on faculty at the University of Glasgow so to go through it again was tiring to say the least.  It is a long process of evaluation through many vantage points in closed rooms – students focus groups, peer teaching evaluations, guild endorsements, reviews of published scholarship, administrative interviews, and meeting with the President.  In many ways, tenure is an ancient rite of passage more than a means of securing employment or (as many people think) the so-called ‘freedom’ to do and say whatever I want when I want (this was the number one thing that people said to me after the announcement – “so… are you going to just spout off and do crazy things?!”)  No, tenure is not a freedom to be self serving nor should it be seen as a means of subverting the very institution that has embraced me.  It is truly a statement of covenant in the oldest sense of the word – a commitment to a mission beyond the confines of contracts and student evaluations. In many ways, tenure is the ultimate act of faith extended by a body to an educator and scholar – a promise to support, nurture, and give space to voice the mission of the institution not as a mere employee – but as a physical embodiment of the institution itself.  In short, tenure is a burden of grace and trust not to be taken lightly.  It does sadden me to see other faculty who see tenure as a licence to ‘do their own thing’ – pull back on working with students in co-curricular ways, starting side businesses that take most of their attention away from campus life, stop sticking their necks out through submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals and seeking book contracts, and basically coasting through the remainder of their career in utter silence as the ultimate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.  These are few, but represent why the public views tenured faculty with such scorn.  For the public that Benton/Pannapacker speaks to and now has a substantive following, these are the faces of the voodoo dolls newly minted PhDs are sticking pins into with relish (which to layer irony upon irony Benton/Pannapacker is possibly another candidate if he is merely stirring up dissent and not courageously using his tenure status to make the changes he himself desires – I would love to know how his letters of petition to the Board of Trustees at Hope College have been going as well as his offer to cut his own salary to enable a younger faculty member to find employment.  As a scholar of Walt Whitman, he might find some courage in Leaves of Grass or as a faculty member at a Reformed school being one of the Elect…)

The challenge I want to lift up as a tenured faculty member is basically this – is the role of tenure a freedom ‘from’ the institutional restraint we perceive holding us back or is it a freedom ‘for’ living into the very mission of the institution that has chosen to embrace us?  Is perhaps the gift of tenure a gift of stewardship – learning how to be truthful about the difficulties of the profession and prospects of employment as Benton/Pannapacker frames so well in his article and also honestly take stock of how tenure means embodiment of the institutional legacy rather than merely licence to be left alone?

What do you think?

I was in fourth grade when Paul McCartney’s musings in 1976 that ‘you think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs, I look around me and I see it isn’t so…oh no…’ filled the airwaves.  Retrofitted by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman during a montage dance number in Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge in 2001, the question of whether there is a place for love anymore continues to perplex and befuddle.

I am a second reader on a senior thesis honors project looking at phenomenological turn in the work of Jean-Luc Marion.  One of the grand works of Marion is his reflections on the absence of love in philosophy.  As he notes in the beginning of book The Erotic Phenomenon:

Philosophers have in fact forsaken love, dismissed it without a concept and finally thrown it to the dark and worried margins of their sufficient reason – along with the repressed, the unsaid, and the unmentionable.  Doubtless other forms of discourse claim to recover from this escheat, and, in their own way, they have sometimes succeeded.

I fear that he is correct.   Spend time in the philosophy section of your local college, university or seminary library and flip through the generous tomes that bear the heft and girth of centuries of the ‘philo-sophia’ or ‘love of wisdom’ and where is the passionate call to love and be loved in return?  As Marion goes on to say in The Erotic Phenomenon, we have relied too much upon poetry, novels and even theology to frame the conversation and therefore releases philosophy from its mandate.  Such assumptions need to be reconsidered :

Poetry can tell me about the experience I have not known how to articulate, and thus liberate me from my erotic aphasia – but it will never make me understand love conceptually.  The novel succeeds in breaking the autism of my amorous crises because it reinscribes them in a sociable, plural, and public narrativity – but it does not explain what really and truly happens to me.  Theology knows what love is all about; but it knows it too well ever to avoid imposing upon me an interpretation that comes so directly through the Passion that it annuals my passions – without taking the time to render justice to their phenomenality, or to give a meaning to their immanence.

It is this last statement about theology that vexes me the most.  Have we so easily resigned the task of critically reflecting upon the nature of love to the ‘soft disciplines’ that we have lost the ability to speak of love, let alone render some grounded understanding of what love truly entails – this most elusive yet necessary of all truth?

Perhaps the question isn’t whether people have had enough of silly love songs… it is why they continue to stomach such shallow ones.  Perhaps we haven’t given people many choices…

As with most years, my wife and I sat in front of the fireplace and watched “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Perhaps it is because my Scots-Irish heritage goes back to the Bailey clan that I connect with George’s bildungsroman so well. I have to admit that I am a bit of a weeper when it comes to such things, and after years of watching the film (pretty much every Christmas since high school), it’s the same story and the same result: George Bailey, the everyman of America’s early 20th century – survivor rather than thriver of the American dream – feels his life is worthless and decides to kill himself. Given the chance to see what life would be like for everyone else if he had never been born, he finds that life is indeed the greatest gift of all. In its now iconic ending that Frank Capra sets up so well, all the townsfolk show up at George’s house to bring gifts of money (akin to suburban Magi), but the most important gift they bring is something George has had in spades all along: friendship that has endured for decades. George’s now-famous brother, Harry – a war hero and all-star football player – comes center stage and raises a glass in toast to “my big brother George, the richest man in town.” Everyone joins in the chorus of “Angels we have heard on high” and the bells of all christendom chime to announce not only that Clarence, the angel second class, has now got his wings – but that the world is not forgotten if we remember it and each other.

Needless to say – I love this stuff and it only gets better as the years press forward. Every stage of life draws a different emphasis in the film – I longed for a relationship like George and Mary’s courtship in my late 20’s, I saw the pain of George struggling with his dreams in relation to his occupation – a job he never wanted but was destined to fulfill. In my 40’s I watch George the family man – the guy who for all the good he is doing in the world comes home and creates chaos for his wife and kids. Here is a guy I can relate to all-too-well – the darkness of anxiety and fear that you bring home with you and find leaks out into your relationships with those most dear to you. The looks on his children’s faces when he explodes in the living room should be required viewing for every father – it doesn’t get more real than this guys…

That said, as I face Christmas Eve with my children this season – I will be raising a glass to George Bailey amidst the darkness of the day as well as the light. Here is to taking another step into the world with faith rather than fear…here is to not having all the answers…here is to the courage to say “I am so sorry” when we explode like monsters in the presence of our kids and wife and see our dark humanity all-too-well… and here is to friends and the community of saints that surround us that remind us that despite all this we can live another day to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

Here’s lookin at you, George Bailey… Merry Christmas…

(view the ending at YouTube.com here… but have some Kleenex with you…)

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

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

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

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

8. Fanfarlo, Reservoir

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

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

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

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

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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