Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cowboy Junkies on a Sunday


Christmas brought music, some of it new, some of it old. I'm digesting the Avett Brothers cd, I and Love and You. Thanks to my cousin Hugh and Craig Jenkins for the tip here. But with a bit of leftover iTunes money I went old. I bought the Trinity Sessions cd by the Cowboy Junkies, circa 1988. This purchase comes at a time where there are so many others on my want list. So, its selection is a pretty big deal.

I had heard of this cd before, but didn't know it really, with the exception of the beautiful and haunting, Sweet Jane. When I drove the rental truck from Texas to Michigan, however, I heard an interview with Michael and Margo Timmons (Cowboy Junkies leaders and brother and sister). They talked about their new cd, but they also talked in reverent tones about the 20 year anniversary of the Trinity Sessions cd. I knew then I had to own it.

The Trinity sessions were recorded in The Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. They talked in reverent tones about the "magic," even the spiritual quality of the room. This went beyond the magnificent acoustics. They experienced something "beyond" or transcendent in that space, a bond. Everything sounded better immediately. The room brought out something unique in their music. It is a uniquely beautiful cd.

When I saw Wilco a few years ago in Minneapolis, Jeff Tweedy paused between songs to talk about how great the room felt (an auditorium on the UofM campus). They had just come from Detroit and played in a room Tweedy described as a bomb shelter. He talked about what a miserable experience Detroit was and how equally wonderful playing that room in Minneapolis was.

I have played basketball in friendly gyms, places where the rims seemed close and the baskets wide (Benson High, Portland, OR), and I have played in rooms that I felt certain would never yield me any points (e.g., Sunset High in Beaverton, OR). And I have experienced the same thing in preaching. I love preaching in the space at the Richardson East Church of Christ, Richardson, TX, and the Westover Hills church in Austin. Conversely, it took me several times before I felt comfortable in the space at the Highland church in Abilene, TX, a congregation I attended for 6 years.

I can't tell you what it is about each space. In fact, in Austin, I shared very close quarters with an interpreter for the deaf which always distracted me a bit. In all of these cases, its more than just arrangement, lighting, etc. There is an affinity with the room, a link of some sorts. I'm sure it could all be analyzed and some scientist could tell me the exact factors. But for the moment I chalk it up to something uncanny.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Top Ten CD's

So, its that time of the decade. Everyone is making their best of the decade lists--best college football team, best films, etc. And while I'm tired of it, there is something wonderfully democratic about this exercise. It is an expression of judgement. No one gets to tell me what the best music is. I can have my own top ten list. They may not be the best--they're my favorites. And it was very hard to narrow down to ten--I have a lot of great new music from this decade. And so, because I have my own blog and because I can, here are my top cd's of the decade.

10. Elivs Costello--North. A criteria for this list is wanting to listen to the whole cd all the way through. And this one fits that bill. These are torch songs. Think Sinatra, not the Attractions. Elvis whispers sweet nothing in our ear in smooth arrangements, his voice just misshapen enough to give them some character. "Still" is one of my all-time favorite songs.

9. Bruce Springsteen--The Rising. A time like the aftermath of 9/11 is the perfect setting for someone like Springsteen. The cd has a weight to it, a consistency, born of the subject matter. Bruce's ties to both the rock and folk traditions provides the perfect sensibility here. Just enough anger and grief and introspection here without any Toby Keith idiocy. I like every song on this cd.

8. Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation--Mighty Rearranger. Again, I listen to this one straight through every time. Great music often combines genres in new ways. Here we have Delta Blues and middle eastern music brought together in a very satisfying way, and sung by one of the best rock vocalists ever. "Shine it All Around," "Dancing in Heaven," "Mighty Rearranger" all great songs.

7. Spoon--Gimme Fiction. Spoon is one of the real finds for me recently. I feel cooler than I should listening to Spoon. And its hard for me to pick between Ga ga ga ga ga, or Gimme Fiction. Gimme Fiction gets the nod for one of my favorite songs, "The Delicate Place." Everyday should have a little Spoon.

6. Ben Harper--Both Sides of the Gun. I saw Harper perform "Better Way" on Letterman and knew I had to have this cd. Harper has great range, and its all on display here. You've got protest music like "Better Way," and beautiful love songs like "Happy Everafter in Your Eyes." All of it makes you want to dance (if a person were inclined that way), and most of it makes you chuckle a little.

5. Wilco-Sky, Blue Sky. Don't skip any songs on this cd. Jeff Tweedy is genius. I'm never embarrassed by a Tweedy lyric, and the "middle eight" in a Wilco song is nearly always a revelation--not the way you expected the song to go, e.g. "Hate it Here." Lyrics, vocals, guitars. Great.

4. Johnny Cash--American IV. What an amazing, amazing thing the American series is. Rick Rubin, who produced these Cash sessions, provided the perfect setting for Cash's wise and weary voice. You don't want to hear Cash sing everything he does on these albums (Bridge Over Troubled Water), but there are classics here, especially among the covers. American IV features the original, "The Man Comes Around," and the great cover "Hurt."

3. Bob Dylan--Modern Times. I hear all of Dylan through Time Out of Mind, Modern Times,and Love and Theft. TOoM came out in the 90's so is eliminated that way. Modern Times gets the nod because its a little darker, the songs featuring Dylan's "fearsome wheeze" a little better. "Spirit on the Water," "When the Deal Goes Down," "Workingman's Blues #2," "The Levee's Gonna Break." Great songs. Plus, Time Out of Mind came with four videos, "Things Have Changed" being my favorite.

2. Brandi Carlile--The Story. I was listening to Brandi the other day and my son asked, "who is this? She's good." Another find of the decade. Great, great voice, and great songs. It's tough to choose between her last two albums (Give Up the Ghost came out a few months ago), but The Story gets the nod because of when it came along in my life. I found the chords to Turpentine the other night and like many Brandi songs, simple structure, easy to play, beautiful melody.

1. U2--All That You Can't Leave Behind. The first cd I bought this decade was my favorite. I knew with the first listen that this was a great cd (it usually takes me a few times through). I still listen all the way through. It holds up great and my favorite song changes from time to time. At first it was "Stuck in a Moment," then "Kite," then "Beautiful Day," then "In a Little While." I had fallen away from listening to music for awhile. This cd brought me back. Seeing them a few months ago in Chicago kind of frames the decade in music perfectly.

There are a lot of honorable mentions: The Raconteurs, Tom Petty, Black Rebel Motorcyle Club, My Morning Jacket, Lucinda Williams, Tyrone Wells, Pearl Jam, The Black Keys, Radiohead, Jet, Green Day, Kings of Leon. And ten years from now, I might still be listening to these and have let some of the above drift down a notch or two. But I like this list a lot. I hope the new decade brings as interesting a mix as this.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I've been working a lot on Acts 2 lately for a presentation I will be making in May. Acts 2 is familiar territory for a member of Churches of Christ, especially verse 38, "Repent and be baptized..." and some other stuff. What we typically skim over to get to verse 38 is the apocalyptic/eschatological language.

For instance, Peter's sermon begins with a long quotation from the book of Joel. Great stuff there, particularly the stuff about the Spirit being poured out on all flesh, and men and women, young and old prophesying. What we typically skim over is the "blood, fire, and smokey mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day." Joel is not a sunshine prophet. The new beginning comes out of the ruins of an old world. It is no wonder in this regard that the Spirit's coming in Acts 2 is in the "rush of a violent wind." Hope cannot be built on the foundation of the way things already are. A new day requires a leveling of the old. It requires crisis, risk, the end of an old order so that the new one might emerge.

Much has been made of the various phases of Dylan's career. There was the early, folk/social protest phase. There was his Christian phase. And now whatever name you give to his most recent cd's. But there is one thing that holds all these phases together for me. It's Dylan's view of hope. Or, maybe better put, his apocalyptic view of the world. For Dylan, the old world is always at the brink of collapse for the sake of an emerging new possibility. And his primary source for this imagery is Scripture.

It's very prominent in the early stuff. In songs like All Along the Watchtower, biblical images are mined to describe the crisis of the old world and the possibility of the new. The Times They are a Changin' could have come straight out of Luke-Acts.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

Or notice the old/new in The Groom's Still Waitin'.

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the stage,
Curtain risin' on a new age,
See the groom still waitin' at the altar.

From the Christian era, there is much to choose from along these lines. It is little wonder that Dylan found Christian community with a Vineyard community given their eschatology. He found a world ready made for his version of hope.

Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams,
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
Cross the valleys and streams,
For they're deep and they're wide
And the world's on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride.

This apocalyptic language is also present in his later music. One of my favorite Dylan songs is Summer Days which I'm convinced carries echoes from the book of Jeremiah. The song describes an age of opulence that cannot possibly be sustained. Their singing songs to the king as if summer will last forever. But this is a world coming to an end. The end/beginning is also found in songs like the Levee's Gonna Break and Thunder on the Mountain.

Thunder on the mountain, fires on the moon
There's a ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today's the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I'll plant and I'll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer's on the table, the pitchfork's on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself

Dylan's songs, regardless of the vintage, are full of smoke, thunder, fire, and rising water. The world as it is currently ordered cannot last and its destruction leaves open the possibility for something truly new. The real value of language like this is that it refuses the status quo. It imagines that something new can truly come into human experience, something that reverses the tables or threatens the current arrangements of power for the sake of those who suffer now. This language, in Scripture, is not used to foster resignation, waiting around for heaven. But it is designed to encourage hopeful engagement with the world for the sake of the new and emerging day of salvation.



Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What's Better Than Jesus?

It's weird how your brain gets trapped around a way of seeing things. In my long unraveling, which I think might be an appropriate way to think about life, I am now spinning around the notion of how Christo-dominant my theology has been. Now, Christo-dominant means Christ-dominant ("el nino" means "the nino"), and that would seem to be a good thing. He is, after all, the image of the invisible God... No one comes to the Father except by the Son....I want to know nothing except Christ and him crucified...

I know the verses and I am not running from them at all. In fact, in my unraveling they have gained significance even while that significance has changed.

And for an initial warrant for this little excursion at the edge of our imagination, I would simply point out that Jesus signaled realities greater than himself as well. In John's gospel, Jesus reminds us over and over again that he has been sent to do the will of one who is greater than himself. More, he tells his disciples that it is better for him to leave them so that the Spirit might come. Jesus even expects that greater things will actually be accomplished by his followers.

My hunch is that if we had similar discourses from the Father and Spirit they would sound much the same. "It is better for you that I send you my Son," the Father might say. And we can definitely imagine the Spirit saying, "My job is not to seek my own glory, but to glorify the Father and the Son." Back to this in a moment.

I think I would also say that Jesus thinks the Kingdom of God is greater than himself. Jesus is the Messiah, the One upon whom the Spirit rests, and, therefore, the rightful one to announce the coming of the new age. He is irreplacably the inaugurator of the Kingdom of God. More, he embodies the reign of God, his life a living demonstration of the reign and rule of God so that when we follow Jesus we know we are treading on the path of the Kingdom.

Still, Jesus does not proclaim himself. His proclamation is not of the fact of the incarnation. He doesn't say, "Repent, God has become flesh!" And he is coy about his identity in various ways in the different gospels (John, being the exception here). Jesus comes proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God. And in relation to that Kingdom, his earthly ministry is limited. Jesus does not finally establish the Kingdom of God on earth, and his mission is limited in some way to the lost house of Israel. Something greater is still on its way. Evidently, the final realization of the Kingdom of God among humankind requires more actors than just Jesus.

Now I could spend several paragraphs qualifying these last few, offering all kinds of caveats. I will simply stipulate here to all the verses talking about the full-sufficiency of Jesus. I don't think this mitigates against my larger point. And what is my larger point? I was afraid you might ask me that. Remember, I am unraveling.

But for starters, let's go back to the Gospel of John. The drama of abundant life played out in John is not simply an interaction between "Jesus and me." There is a larger drama on display, a story of Father, Son, and Spirit in which none of the divine persons is sufficient alone. There is always a greater than, a someone else, a something more to come. There is always room, always possibility, always abundance. This openness to the other in God is so important for overcoming views of life that are primarily closed, sorted into categories of us and them around narratives of inevitability. This is one of the gains of a Trinitarian imagination, of learning to think of God as three persons.

This is particularly important in mission theology. Many have laid the imperialistic tendencies of Western mission at the feet of a disproportionately large Christology. The work of Christ is finished. The church is the possessor of this finished work. Mission is taking Christ to the nations. It's a closed story. This is sometimes contrasted with a mission grounded more in pneumatology, that is in a doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit blows where it wills and always precedes the church in the world. A robust doctrine of the Spirit is also often accompanied by a more vibrant eschatology, the future breaking in fresh ways into the present. This is an open story.

Now, obviously good Christology should yield good pneumatology, eschatology, and vice versa. I am arguing not for one or the other, but an open imagination informed by a dynamic view of the Trinity.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I'm interested in inspiration and performance and how they go together. I have some ideas about it based on my own experience. For instance, I believe that a creative imagination can be cultivated, it can be funded through practices and habits and disciplines. But that doesn't mean it can be routinized or mechanized or reduced to a failsafe process. Inspiration requires raw materials but it cannot be manufactured. Inspiration shows up, it isn't often summoned. There is a structure to a creative life, but no guarantees.

Along these lines, I read with great interest the interview Bill Flanagan (MTV) did with Dylan after his latest album came out. The interview is expansive, Dylan holding forth on Obama, Sam Houston, Ulysses Grant and Hitler, among other things. But there's a lot about songwriting and creativity as well.

I love Dylan's interviews. He's both candid and coy. He challenges the assumptions of many questions, avoids any cliches, and refuses the easy labels. And he will admit to no processes. When asked, "You wrote a lot of songs with Robert Hunter. How does that process work?" Dylan responds, "There isn't any process to speak of, you just do it." When asked if he would more likely paint (Dylan is getting attention now for his painting) or pick up his guitar if he saw a little girl walking down the train tracks pulling a wagon with a statue of Buddha in it with a three-legged dog following behind (I kid you not, that's the question), he says "Is it a cloudless blue-gray sky, or is it about to rain?...The three legged dog, what type? A spaniel, a bulldog, a retriever?" When asked (this is my favorite) if he could write a song about George Bush, he replies "Well, sure. George's name would be easy to rhyme."

He describes his songs in certain tensions, if not contradictions. He downplays any deep significance to his songs. A hammer is a hammer, not some clue to a deeper riddle. His songs have characters, but Bob insists he is always the singer. But while he claims a realism to his lyrics, he doesn't deny being a mystic and moving in the world at different layers and levels. And while he denies deeper significance, he talks about knowing classic archetypes that an artist must know to say something meaningful. Inspiration, he insists, is hard to come by, but acknowledges that he's been fairly prolific.

Dylan wants, it seems, to be an innocent among his songs. He offers them with a shrug to keep the rest of us from taking our interpretations too seriously, while simultaneously making his work look effortless, possessed by a simple genius. And this may be the truth of it all.

But the interview also reveals a man whose palate is full of colors. He reads widely in history. He knows art. He knows architecture. He knows his musical roots. He has habits of life that fund his imagination. And he knows that his music has a certain structure. He's not inventing something new every time. He has some familiar loops, or structures, if not formulas. A song has rules, and Dylan tries to "stick to the rules. Sometimes I might shift paradigms within the same song, but then that structure has its own rules... Some formulas are too complex and I don't want anything to do with them." He writes in the thick mix of what has been given to him.

I think I recognize this creative map. I certainly nodded at places, smiled at many, and laughed out loud at a few. And I smiled at the end of the interview when Flanagan asks, "A lot of performers give God credit for their music. How do you suppose God feels about that?"

"I'm not the one to ask, " replies Dylan. "It sounds like people giving credit where credit is due."


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

Detroit's public radio station has a great Saturday show that features rock and roll. Much of it is devoted to local music, a rich tradition in this area. But they also play other songs, maybe songs off the beaten path, but great songs nonetheless. Yesterday I was listening in the car while doing errands when a Dylan Song, Political World, came on. It's not one on the top of my list, and after listening I wondered why, because it's a great song.

I have never pretended to be a Dylan expert. I have always marked the late, late turn in Dylan with 1997's Time Out of Mind, for which he won a Grammy. It was my turning point with Dylan. It was the taste that fully opened the Dylan palate for me. The album was produced by the legendary producer, Daniel Lanois. And Dylan writes at length in his autobiography, Chronicles, vol 1, about the tumultuous time they had making that album.

What I wasn't aware of, or had forgotten, was that Lanois also produced Oh Mercy (1989), from which the song Political World comes. So, I guess I'll be spending some iTunes money soon. In reading up on Oh Mercy, many see this as the turning point cd, opening up a new direction and sound for Dylan.

Dylan credits the change in sound direction to a new guitar technique he developed on the road. Whatever the source, the change is pretty dramatic. This is not to say that Dylan's latest cd's sound the same. They don't. Time Out of Mind is dark and bluesy. Modern Times and Love and Theft swing and venture sometimes into the sweet and sentimental. Together Through Life, Dylan's latest, features a Tex-Mex flavor. But all of them roll, I don't know how else to describe it. One bar rolls into the next. It's like a big 8 rolling on even pavement. No hoots or jags. No bridges needed. And when I saw Dylan in concert, his performance of the classics bear this same feel. And it feels like an improvement.

But I digress.

What's interesting to me is the nature of collaboration. Dylan and Lanois have not teamed up since Time Out of Mind, but there's little question that the combustible collaboration produced something significant. There may be teams that have produced something significant because of a common vision, temperment, etc., but often it is the case that the "new thing" comes through ordeal.

Now, there must be something more than putting people together who hate each other to produce something new and exciting. I've been in collaborative situations where different approaches end up in sabotage and disaster. I know large church staffs that have plenty of conflict, but no significant collaboration. One thing that strikes me about Lanois and Dylan was that they found each other at the top of their games. Their reputations were made and established and would not be ultimately damaged by a bad album. They had a risk margin. More, secure in their reputations, perhaps neither personalized the conflict.

This to me is the key. I am convinced that most of the time a few things have to get broken for something significant to arise. That does not come without a little anxiety. It is often the margin for risk measured in the capacity of individuals to not personalize conflict that makes the difference.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Springsteen on a Sunday


This is more properly a David Brooks on a Sunday. But he's not cool, hence the Springsteen tag. Brooks is smart. And he's a good writer. He tends to be more conservative than I am, but he writes thoughtful articles that come from a variety of sources. So we will use his love of Springsteen to highlight his writing.

In a column this week, Brooks writes about emotional educations (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/27/opinion/27brooks.html?_r=1). This "second education," Brooks maintains, is more important to our long term happiness and doesn't come through traditional educational channels. It is essentially a cultural education and comes to us through exposure to popular music, movies, and from our friends and family.

I like this, mostly because it justifies my near obsession with certain forms of music and the hundreds of dollars I have spent on itunes. I have certainly had my share of formal education through traditional channels, but I am also deeply invested in this "second education" as well. And if Brooks is right, then this has been a good investment.

Brooks' primary instructor in his second education was Bruce Springsteen. He writes about the religious experience that accompanied hearing a Springsteen album on the radio. know these people, these who count their spiritual/cultural awakening to a Springsteen album or concert. My good friend and colleague, John Ogren, recently travelled from St Paul to the Meadowlands to take in two nights of Bruce. That would make four Bruce concerts in the last two years, one of which he took his two young boys, to initiate them in this formative world. (Brooks also writes about taking his kids to their first concert). I am not one of these people. Bruce is well represented in my itunes, and I think The Rising is one of the most significant cultural responses to 9/11 out there. But he lacks a sense of irony for me. His music is too earnest, and that often results in cheesy.

Brooks admits as much. Springsteen majors in anthems, not irony, in victory and defeat, not so much in meaning or lack thereof in life. And this is where I think Brooks is on to something. Many who comment on popular culture from a "Christian" perspective look for biblical allusions, or points made in songs that might support a Christian teaching or lesson. These are for me often superficial and pointers at best to deeper resonances. Brooks talks about Springsteen's world.

"What mattered most, as with any artist, were the assumptions behind the stories. His tales take place in a distinct universe, a distinct map of reality. In Springsteen’s universe, life’s “losers” always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.

There are certain prominent neighborhoods on his map — one called defeat, another called exaltation, another called nostalgia. Certain emotional chords — stoicism, for one — are common, while others are absent."

This universe is funded by many sources. But the issue is the world writ large, or universe, imagined in the body of material. Good artists have both a definable and thickly articulated world (this is why Dylan on a Sunday works for so many weeks). Brooks thinks his second education at Springsteen's feet allowed him to see his life through a different world. As he points out, the characters in Springsteen songs are not typically "about a middle-age pundit who interviews politicians by day and makes mind-numbingly repetitive school lunches at night." Still, Bruce's map of the world "has worked its way into my head, influencing the way I organize the buzzing confusion of reality, shaping the unconscious categories through which I perceive events." A second education, a very formative education.

In this sense, music is both important and necessary. And asking what kind of world is being imagined by an artist is important and necessary.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I have this spot in a coffee shop in St Paul. It's a Dunn Bros and they roast their own beans in a big red roaster that sits in a corner among the table that host their guests. I like the table right next to the roaster. I like it mostly because its the easiest place to plug in my computer, but also because its red and sometimes in the cold months it produces a little heat. It also gives me a view of the entire place, which is what my ADD requires for work to get done. A little movement and distraction keeps me from getting totally bored.

Its like having a favorite pew at church. I don't have a pew per se at St Matthew's Episcopal, where I attend when I'm in St Paul. But I do have a section. Just back of half-way on the right nearer the wall as you face the altar. There I kneel and stand and pray for others and read and pass peace and pretend to sing. There I respond to the liturgist's "The Peace of Christ be with you," with "And also with you."

And there's something like that at Dunn Bros as well. I'm in there enough (its my primary office when I'm at Luther Sem) that all the coffee shop employees know me. Most call me by name. Today, a young woman who only works on the weekends was there. She is a college student at the U and nearly always has a concert t-shirt on. One day we were both in there wearing a Bob Dylan concert t-shirt. This mutual recognition began a little liturgy between the two of us. Something for us to say to each other that connects us, honors our common humanity. I don't know her name, and I doubt she knows mine, but we are connected through this liturgy.

Today she could hardly wait to begin. "I have tickets to Tegan and Sara," she said enthusiastically. For this is what we do. We tell each other about concerts we have attended or are going to attend. She often is going to see bands that I have only barely heard of or don't know at all. She mostly makes me feel old, but also young because she assumes I will know her bands. I was thankful today that I knew Tegan and Sara. (And also with you). I had heard that Tegan and Sara live in Portland (the Hawthorne district, along with Death Cab for Cutie and other alt bands) and asked her if she knew whether or not this is true. "I think that's right," she said. "They're orignially from Canada."

"I saw U2 in September," I offered. "Wow," she said, "how awesome is that!" The Dunn Bros equivalent of "The word of the Lord." "Thanks be to God." She pours my medium coffee, dark roast, in a "for here" mug with no room, without asking. And sometimes, like today, she will go back into the back as I read and put Dylan's greatest hits in the cd player. "Your sins are forgiven."

I heard Miroslav Volf speak yesterday. It was great. He was brilliant, and funny, and self-effacing. And he wore jeans. My kind of theologian. And he talked about why he currently worships at an Epsicopal church, having grown up a Pentecostal. "Wine and God," he said. He reported that on his coming to America, while at Fuller Seminary, he went to evangelical churches that served communion in trays with juice in what he called "shot glasses" (I know this arrangement well). Now, Volf likes a shot glass as much as the next guy, (more than a lot of the next guys I hang out with), but not with grape juice. He asked where he might find real wine to be shared from a common chalice. "Oh, you'll have to go to the Episcopal church for that." So, he went.

That might get one to the Episcopal church, but not keep one there. What kept Volf there was the liturgy. He was lamenting the lack of the gospel found in the preaching in many churches, the Episcopal church being no exception. "But its there every Sunday, in the liturgy."

"The peace of Christ be with you."

"And also with you."

This was my last Sunday at St. Matthew's for awhile (unless I fail my comps and have to come back). I told the rector as I left, "I need a few more Sundays of this." She's a good preacher, but that's not what I'll miss. It's the way the liturgy makes me feel welcomed, the way it connects me to everyone else in the room, and everyone else in the world, and Christians through history. I love the prayer time for the church and the world. And the words of welcome around the table speak the gospel to me every week.

I feel welcome at most Churches of Christ because I've been doing it my whole life. I'm a third generation preacher in this tradition. I'm bona fide. And most of the time, people there know me before I walk through the door. How could I not. But this is a luxury that most do not have as they visit in "free" churches. I wonder how it is they might feel welcomed. (I have often felt excluded at places where I am not known, precisely because they rely on intimacy, not liturgy to connect them to each other).

No one knows me at St. Matt's. They have no idea what a Bible lectureship is, much less that I directed one. Nancy was far more famous at St Matt's than me. But I felt profoundly welcomed and a part of things, primarily because of the liturgy.

Being at both St Matt's and the coffee shop today reinforced how powerful symbolic action and ritual is in creating a sesne of belonging and community. Wednesday night I will celebrate with friends who have already completed their comps, and others who soon will. We have developed a repertoire over the last few years that marks our common life. We will go to our place, Town Hall, and will toast the promise of our common life. And the sharing will be so thick with the repeated pattens of our life, we will have to wipe it from our eyes. Liturgy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I recently read a piece on Highway 61 and its relationship to the blues. Seems that this stretch of road has a bit of lore surrounding it, including the story that accounts for the naming of BB King's guitar, Lucille. And of course, Dylan has a song, Highway 61 Revisited.

It's one of those songs that has grown on me over time. It's rolling and fun. I love both Dylan's version and the cover by Karen O and The Million Dollar Bashers on the I'm Not There soundtrack. The whistles (outrunning the law), the oddball lyrics, the smiling vocal, all give you a sense that your on the lam from reality, which is what any good road trip ought to be.

I love the scenes from the Dylan documentaries when he's composing on a typewriter (ask an old person), and its just rolling out of him, stream-of-consciousness, onto the white paper. And this song feels like that. Words running over the dotted lines, fenceposts flying past your doors. Who knows what could happen? The life you still might have is out there.

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn't give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there's only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol' Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61.

So great. (I love this version of the Abraham story. It could've happened this way on the road, on Highway 61).

The road is one of those big recurring music themes. Every good musician has a road song, and for many its a signature song (Springsteen, Thunder Road, Doobie Brothers, Rocking Down the Highway, BB King, Riding with the King, Jackson Browne, Running on Empty, Clapton, Further Up on the Road, Tom Petty, Running Down a Dream, the list could go on). The road is full of promise. It's adventure and possibility. It's a way to be free just for awhile of those things that tie you down, that make your arms heavy and your head sore. You never know what you might see. Think how many stories begin with the phrase, "I was driving once between Abilene and Dallas, along the backroads, and... ."

The road is Jack Kerouac, Thelma and Louise, Homer, Clark Griswold, Bill and Ted, Hope and Crosby, Harry and Sally, Bonnie and Clyde, Brando and James Dean. And the road is made up of actual roads all with their own stories. My world has been marked with long stretches frequently traversed, an eye-ful of life. Abilene to L.A three different ways, or to Portland five different ways. L.A. to Portland. Abilene to Dallas or Austin or San Antonio. Portland to the Coast or Seattle or the Wallowas or north through Spokane into Montana and the Dakotas, St Paul to Detroit. I've driven a 68 mustang, a subaru station wagon, my brother's vw beetle, a jetta, a sciorroco, a 24 foot u-haul with my father-in-law's cadillac in tow, a mercury marquis, a bmw 318e, a jeep cherokee, a lexus, and other lesser cars hardly worth mentioning. Warriors all. And in each case with the stereo blaring.

No road trip is right without some cranking music. Middle of the night. Cruise control. Led Zeppelin. Boston. Heart. Lenny Kravitz. Queen. More than a little head bobbing, fake keyboards on the dash, drum solo on the steering wheel and rear view mirror. Music and the road, the road and music. They just go together. And so today, Dylan is calling me into the freedom of the road. I'm on the lam, for just a few minutes, from comps. Wanna go?

Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61.

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren't right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you're right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61.

Now the rovin' gambler he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Good to Great?

Wednesday, I will write for eight hours on issues of gospel, congregation, and culture for my PhD comps. Part of that time will have to do with notions of leadership, so I've been reading in the literature on leadership. There are leadership books that have real merit and cross the boundaries related to certain kinds of organizations. For instance, the sensemaking literature is equally valid for a retail business as it is a church. But some of this lit doesn't translate as easily, in particular the business management literature.

The book, Good to Great, has received high marks for methodology and results. This came from real social science research--grounded theory to be exact--and its conclusions are both apparent and surprising (the mark of any good study of this sort, it seems to me). And there is certainly much to commend the book, especially if you're an alpha dog running a major corporation. Seriously, if I was running a major corporation being evaluated by the bottom line, I would use this as my Bible.

But the author and lead researcher, Jim Collins, claims more for this book than business application. This book is not about business, he tells us, but about organizations, any organizations. And it is within all of them to be more than good. In fact, for Collins, good is the enemy of great, and all human organizations have the capacity to be great.

One of the keys here is knowing that one thing at which you can be the best. The paper company, Kimberly-Clark, for instance, got out of the paper mill business and focused on toilet paper and diapers because they could be the best at that. Apparently, and this is a quote, they had a real passion for diapers. God bless them.

These companies (only 23 out of the Fortune 500 list qualify) also have heroic leadership of an underdog sort. Humble-but-driven types who put the good of the organization ahead of their own ego needs. They make sure that the work gets done without taking any of the credit for it. Moving from good to great just depends on finding one of those persons--who, by the way, should also be brilliant. Otherwise, you're stuck with good, or worse.

Now I like this on the surface, because this rips the notion of the outside gunslinger who comes in and sets everything in place. Slow and steady, it seems, wins the race. The big flashy guys are often more trouble than they are worth. And Collins' book also blows up the myth of compensation driving excellence, i.e., without a big bonus structure, leaders simply do not perform. Not a factor, says Collins.

But as someone who coaches congregational leaders, I am overall discouraged by books like these. While Collins thinks that the principles apply meta-organizationally, the truth is it works only when an organization's identity can be boiled down to one thing simply stated. Great diapers. But there are some human organizations, congregations among them, that aspire especially to things that cannot be reduced so easily. A concept, like shalom, for instance, which should animate a congregation's life, is complex and holistic. It has to bring many things together. So, shalom refuses reduction and bears tensions which cannot be resolved easily as favoring one over the many (one of the marks of "great" is being able to get rid of dead weight quickly, even if its your brother-in-law).

It's got to be embarrassing for Collins at this point to have Fannie Mae as one of his exemplars. Doh!

Which brings up the question of criteria for evaluation. How does one measure greatness? Is it only internal to an organization? Would, for instance, a company that refused exponential push toward internal satisfaction for the sake of a better world be greater than Fannie Mae? In other words, how can one evaluate an organization apart from the conditions of the world around it, conditions that they both exploit (in good and bad ways) and create? Fannie Mae has left all of us in a helluva mess. How does society as a whole factor into evaluating something like this? And might a concept like the Kingdom of God lead to a different group of "greats?" Maybe some of these organizations still make it, but maybe they don't.

Don't get me started here. My frustrations are numerous with this book. I will stop with one last one (to keep me from getting started). I'm guessing that most church leaders, not to mention most business leaders, would look around the room after reading a book like this and either fire the preacher or give up. Again, I like some of the principles here. The bit about freedom and responsibility is very helpful, if not a little prosaic. But they are all stated in aspirational terms--things we would aspire for. And aspiration beats the snot out of most of us, paralyzing many of us, and sending the rest of us off on a never-ending, neurotic quest for a messiah. Collins is convinced there are more of those just lying around than we think, but my hunch is that most groups of elders would look around the room and disagree.

Here's the good news (perhaps even great). Churches are invited into strategies that do not pretend to words like "great." We are invited, all of us, to embody words like "leaven" and "mustard seed," words that know power in something other than big and awesome. And we are assured that even with pathetic little faith, God can still be revealed. This is no excuse for shoddiness. But it is an invitation to begin where we are with what we have because that is the point. God can be seen even in that--especially in that.

Because this too is an expression of human potential--the potential to welcome one another as we are, not for how great we might become. And most congregations have more real hope there than they do in the pages of Collins' book.

As I read Collins' book, I kept thinking of all the people who taught me things about being human who had no capacity for "making the leap to great." The chronically ill, the mentally challenged, the hopelessly awkward. They shall inherit the earth. And that's pretty great.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

I am in the middle of taking my comprehensive exams. The trick to these exams is to bring several different texts together under a unifying theme. It's great if the books themselves provide the the overlap that allows for themes to emerge. But sometimes you have to create them yourself. And really, if it weren't for this kind of creative challenge, I'd be doing something else. I'm not sure what, because I'm too old for the NBA (and other things).

But here's the point today, quick and easy because I have books to read. I started the Dylan on a Sunday thing on a whim thinking it might be a few song lyrics for a few weeks. But its turned into something way more. The reason for the productive vein? Well, Dylan is a fascinating figure. There's plenty to comment on. But more is that I'm listening to Dylan while immersed in a life of interpretation. I'm constantly reading and thinking about things, and Dylan crosses the path of that imagination often. This is called intertextuality. Multiple texts interpreting each other, creating new meaning in the process.

Thinking about Dylan has produced blog posts on phenomenology, eschatology, apocalyptic, narrative, and love. Hmmmm, things I've also be reading about.You can't do this with everyone. Brittney Spears on a Sunday is probably a week or two max. Dylan's texts are sufficiently thick to cross literary boundaries at several places. But this is the way meaning occurs, thick description of multiple texts.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday


I got a text from my friend, Richard Beck, the other day. "Christmas in the Heart. Spoof or on the level?" He is referring to the new Christmas cd released last week by Bob Dylan. This is not a question that would be asked of Andy Williams, or even Sting or Bono. The very idea, however, of Dylan singing Winter Wonderland is a little jarring. A Christmas album requires a certain level of melodic competence and sentimentality (namely, crooning) that aren't often associated with Dylan. I haven't yet bought the cd, but the 30 second snippets on iTunes confirm the initial impression, "jarring."

And so the question. Is Dylan dealing from the bottom of the deck here? Does he know that this is a different animal than Amy Grant's Christmas album? Is he winking at us all? Or is he playing it straight, adding his voice to the chorus of great performers who have done Christmas albums (Jim Neighbors, Motown Christmas, A Chipmunk's Christmas are some of my faves)?

Rolling Stone's reviewer detects an earnestness here and the review in the Chicago Sun-Times reminds us that the Ray Coniff singer stylings found on this album have always held a certain fascination for Dylan. They think he's on the level. But as a ministry friend of mine used to say, once you learn how to fake sincerity, ministry is a breeze.

(Contrast this with Slate's hilarious review. "Mommy, Santa's scaring me! Just in time for Halloween, Bob Dylan's Christmas album is here, its arrival harkened by the 68-year-old legend's fearsome wheeze—a sound more Beelzebub than Jolly Old Elf. Christmas in the Heart is being called a goof, the latest of Dylan's many efforts to ├ępater la bourgeoisie, confound his worshipful fans and exegetes, and generally mess with people's heads.").

This question is not just a question to ask about Dylan's Christmas album. It's a question that blankets his entire career (which was my response to Richard's text). For some, Dylan has always been a fraud (Robert Zimmerman), inventing himself (telling stories about crossing the country with hobos in box cars) in calculating and outrageous ways to make sure that everyone is looking at him. Others take Dylan's poses as the necessary invention to go along with out-of-the-ordinary gifts. This, it seems to me, matches Dylan's own public statements. Listening to his radio in Hibbing, MN, he felt born to the wrong family, that he belonged to a life other than the one he had inherited from his parents. But even in those statements, there's enough of a combination of earnestness and mischievousness that you're just not sure.

Dylan reminds me of the story, Big Fish, where the Father has told such outrageous stories about himself that all of us are convinced he's putting us on. Turns out in the end, however, that while there were massive embellishments, the stories carried the truth of his life in ways that more straightforward accounts simply couldn't. It's not just that Dylan has lived into the stories that he has told so that they are now true in that they accurately deliver him to us (though I think this is certainly the case). It's that they are connected in some way to a core that is really Dylan. They are ultimately believable, even in their clearly fictional elements, because they share a riciprocal relationship with something irreducibly authentic. There was something in him big enough to pull this off. I'd like to think that if this weren't the case, we'd all be the wiser.

Richard chooses to accept this offering on the level (in his own words, he's sappy that way). I think its probably both. Dylan has to know this is not Bing Crosby, but he's gonna sing the Bing Crosby songs anyway. There's some mischief here and he knows we can't look away. But this is who he is and what he does. He just might pull it off, and I'm pretty sure he thinks he has.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Israel and the Scope of Salvation

It's not surprising, given our context. But precisely for that reason, because its explainable by our circumstances, the need to resist is all the stronger. It's not that we've reached some pinnacle from which to stand and judge all prior arrangements and agreements. But things have a way (the Spirit of God?) of showing themselves from time to time that are against the grain and deserve our attention for that very reason.

While this is true of many things, I have in mind here our notions of salvation. I have been bushwhacking at this for awhile now. And I've been staring at this picture long enough that every detail looks different to me now. And this new picture recommends itself at the level of fit (the pieces hang together in a more inclusive manner), of strong biblical attestation that brings more of Scripture into play, and it can be found in the tradition, even if at times as a dissenting or minority voice. It has the added benefit of bringing the question of God into a more satisfying relationship with human suffering. And that ain't small potatoes.

At its most basic level the shift can be said this way: salvation is about God and the renewal of all of creation. Which is to say, salvation is not about the eternal status of my skinny backside. This is not to say that there is no benefit to the individual within the scope of God's work on behalf of all creation. There is enormous benefit, including forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But this is one piece of a much larger picture that has God at its center.

The reach of this shift is enormous. I have written about many of the aspects from time to time here. It changes how we view God's engagement with the world, how we define gospel, understand eschatology, interpret the death of Jesus, and learn to recognize the Spirit of God. That's a big enchilada.

Equally as impressive as the magnitude of this shift is the stubbornness of the old perspective, the one that equates salvation with my personal destiny without remainder. And I have been searching for therapies, ways of interrupting this imagination long enough for something new to take root. Which means, I am constantly bracketing aspects of this phenomena so that it can appear in its force and complexity. And today I had another little aha moment.

I am reading NT Wright's book, Justification. Wright certainly is sponsor of my interests along these lines. And Justification, is a response to John Piper's push back against the "new" directions being charted in Pauline studies. Central to Wright's reading of Paul is the relationship between Jesus and Israel. Jesus is not God's plan B when the Israel thing didn't pan out. Jesus is the representative Israelite, the Israelite who fulfills Israel's calling in the world.

Now this is important for all kinds of reasons (not least of which is that it makes Romans 9-11 the high point of Paul's theological argument in Romans, not an embarrassing parenthesis). But at a far more fundamental level, it keeps Israel as an indispensable part of the story of salvation. Let me explain why this is significant.

I read a paper at a conference a few years ago arguing for an approach to theology that took the rich variety of biblical perspectives as its methodological starting place. I was challenged by an evangelical scholar who wanted to collapse all biblical narratives under an overarching scheme, namely creation-fall-redemption. Similarly, I have had a professor the past few years who uses this three-fold scheme as shorthand for the biblical story related to salvation. I resisted at the conference and in class (though to myself in class. I was, after all, being graded) and reading Wright today confirmed my sense of resistance. And here's why (all that to say...).

This three step shorthand cuts too easily from the Fall to Jesus. From this perspective, the problem is too easily summarized in individualistic terms. Adam sinned. Adam needs to be saved. What is at stake is individual guilt.

In contrast, Israel's calling in the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not so easily reducible to individual salvation. God chooses a people to live together a particular way of life that has as its goal the blessing of all creation. It defines salvation from the first word as social, political, and ecological, without neglecting the burden of human sin (which is certainly also social, political and ecological). They are all of one piece. Jesus is not plan B. Jesus is plan A fulfilled, in continuity with God's saving purposes in the covenant made with Israel. He is Jesus Messiah, the representative Israelite.

My professor, Pat Keifert, told me once that a person's theology is determined to a large degree in relation to the place assigned to Israel. I wonder if this is what he had in mind, at least in part. The larger point is that I think the exclusion of Israel as a necessary part of our shorthand version of the salvation story might be one of those places that both reveals and reinforces our individualistic assumptions regarding salvation. The creation-fall-redemption schema fails to adequately interrupt our a andropocentric soteriology. As NT Wright puts it, "God is not circling around us. We are circling around him." Or as my former student, Jarrod Robinson, put it, "Salvation is not so much getting God into my life, but getting us all together into God's life."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Brandi Carlile on a Sunday


The new Brandi Carlile cd came out this past week. I discovered her about four years ago when a friend sent me KINK (a Portland, OR radio station) Live cd consisting of performances done in their studios. Brandi's song was my favorite in that particular collection of songs.

I loved her last cd, The Story. I saw her in concert summer before last in St Paul at the state fair where she played some of the material that would be on her new cd. It was great, and I've been anticipating its release ever since.

This cd lives up to the anticipation. It's different than The Story in some ways. It doesn't have as much of the rocker sensibility that you have with songs like The Story or My Song (a little bit in I Have Dreams and the bridge of Before it Breaks) , two of my Brandi favorites. Not much growling on this cd. And I miss that. Some of my favorite moments in the concert in St Paul were covers of Fortunate Son and Folsom Prison Blues. Brandi can flat rock and she has the band to pull it off (she is backed primarily by twins who play guitar and bass and who are great vocalists in their own right). Not much of that on this cd. Some reviewers, in fact, have placed it in the country genre.

(Another favorite part of the concert in St Paul was when Brandi played about 10 opening verses to country standards that she grew up hearing. She can do the country thing. She knows how to slide into a note).

What this work does feature is the piercing clarity of her voice and portrayals of the tenderness of life, especially with regard to desire for the other. These two things, her voice and tenderness, go very well together. She has two qualities in her voice that make it striking. It has an edge to it. It's textured and distinctive. But it is also clear as a bell, especially as she slides into falsetto. These things don't often go together. You're either Bonnie Raitt or Sarah McLachlan, not usually both and even both in the same phrase. This gives her songs a great emotional depth in performance.

In Pride and Joy, for instance, the of resignation and loss is captured perfectly with the break at the edge of her tone: "The time of day I can't recall, the kind of thing that takes it toll... all in all it wasn't bad, all in all it wasn't good." No less moving, however, is when her voices opens up in the longing chorus. With plaintive transparency she sings, "Where are you now? do you let me down? do you make me grieve for you? do I make you proud? do you get me now? am I your pride and joy?" A perfect fit.

It's worth noting here that Rick Rubin is the producer of this cd. I buy almost any cd when I know he is the producer, regardless of the artist. (Though I have resisted the latest Neil Diamond cd). Rubin has a way of isolating the voice of the performer, finding just the right setting (usually spare) to bring out all the textures. The most vivid example of this is the multi-cd collaboration Rubin had with Johnny Cash toward the end of Cash's life. Cash's voice, wavering but proud, fills the space completely that Rubin leaves for it. And some of the same Rubin trademarks are in play here. To go back to Pride and Joy, there are piano accents that don't carry the melody but give it a certain pounding gravity. And as the second chorus reaches its climax the strings come to the fore and swell the lilting longing of the song. Pretty great.

There are several good to great songs here (love Before it Breaks, but I can't get around Caroline, performed with Elton John). The song I keep coming back to, though, is Oh Dear. It may not ultimately prove to be my favorite song on the cd, but it is the one that has grabbed my attention through the first few listens. It has a Beatles-esque quality to it, espcially in the call and response sections. The ukulele and the harmonies are perfect (thanks, twins, someone help me with their names). And the vocal is sublime. No one moves from full throat to falsetto more brilliantly than Brandi, and this song showcases that ability. "Together you and I forever... It's only you that my heart desires, only you alone can break my fall." Beautiful.

Brandi sings about the desire of love, and often of love that is just out of reach. Her voice is built for longing and this cd is a perfect fit. Another Rick Rubin cd, Jakob Dylan's most recent effort, features the lyric, "my line of work suits me fine." That's a wonderful thing to find and beautiful to behold. Fit, vocation, meaning. Brandi's line of work suits her fine.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Love, Freedom, and Causality

Just wondering out loud here. Join in if you like. I could use the company.

I've been thinking a lot about the differences involved in understanding God related to one's starting place. If a person starts with divine attributes (God, to be God, must be simple, persisting, eternal, etc), then the issues one deals with in theology are of a certain piece. And a lot of those issues have to do with causality. From the vantage point of classical theism, God is a single acting subject, the first cause of all things defined primarily in relation to an eternal will. God's freedom from this perspective is defined as a freedom from any impinging influence. God is only free as long as there is no necessity in God related to creation. In other words, God can only be thought of as free if God has no need of anything outside of God's self. God, therefore, can only be over/against the world, radically other than the world. And the world can only experience God causally, as the One who puts all things into motion. From this perspective, then the answer to any contingency is the priority of God. Why did a tornado work its way through downtown Minneapolis after the vote by the ELCA to ordain practicing homosexuals? God. Why was my son born with a congenital heart defect? God. We might build into this system any number of co-implicated systems, but our issues all revolve around God as a single, causing, actor.

But what if we begin with a narrative that assumes God as a loving community, Father, Son, and Spirit. God exists by making room for the other. In this sense, God's freedom is defined in relation to the other. God is free to be God by always opening space for the other, even creation. Here, the arrows do not always point in the same direction, from one to the many. Even within God there are mutually implicating relations. What causes things in an economy of love is complex and has various sources. The question of contingency has several possible answers because love is always making room for other actors. God's power is not so much a power over, but a power with. God's response to a chaotic world is not simply control over, but participation with. The goal of God's love is not to be over all, but to be all in all. This way of being with the world cannot be stated in simple formulas of cause and effect. It is complex and mysterious and does not answer readily to the question "why?"

Just thinking out loud.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

Brad East, who has a great blog, sent me a link this week to an audio file featuring NT scholar, NT Wright, playing guitar and singing a Dylan tune. http://media.odeo.com/files/4/3/4/1036434.mp3

You know you're a particular kind of nerd when you get excited to find a biblical scholar singing a Bob Dylan tune. I'm that kind of nerd. Of course, Dr. Tom is singing vintage Dylan, Blowin in the Wind, a social conscience song. Impressive, but predictable. It might have been a little more exciting to hear him sing Rainy Day Women or Positively Fourth Street. Still, thankful to hear this particular cover.

Richard Hays, another NT scholar, spoke at a conference that I directed a few years ago. We were hanging out in my office before it began, and he picked up my guitar (which I occasionally took to the office) and began to play--and play very well. Turns out he played in a rock band in high school and worked his way through Yale as an undergrad by playing in pubs throughout New England. Before a Q&A time at the conference, I asked him if he would play my guitar and sing for the conference attendees. He played and sang the old Buddy Holly tune, "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone." Awesome. He brought the house down.

So, I've decided that I'll know when I've arrived as a conference speaker if they ask me to play my guitar and sing. I'm thinking A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, or maybe maybe I'll plug in and go Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. I'd have to take up smoking to sing that one.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gospel and Cultures, 6

When I began this series of reflections months ago, I was after the notion that gospel was a particular way of naming the church's engagement with the world. What is it that defines the church's relationship with the surrounding world? News. Good news. And this is a different kind of engagement than words like truth, mystery, law, etc. The question then is, how does the church stay in the mode of news?

A few weeks ago I suggested that because the gospel is related to the kingdom of God, a future reality that is breaking into the present, surprise is always a category of the gospel. The church stays in the mode of news by attending to surprises, particularly those related to hope.

But not all surprises are good surprises. Not all of them are connected to the in-breaking of God's future. This requires a certain judgment related to a particular way of seeing. Paul calls this way of seeing "the word of the cross." This "word of the cross," he says, "is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18). This word is not obvious to all. It is a scandal to both Jews and Greeks--not a way of seeing at all. But for those who are being saved, it is the wisdom of God.

But what is this "word of the cross?" For Paul, it seems to be the capacity or ability to see the patterns of death and resurrection at work in life. "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live..." "I want to know Christ and the power of his rising, share in his sufferings, conform to his death..." "We carry in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal bodies..." The death and resurrection are not for Paul simply a formula whereby we experience forgiveness of sins and a home in heaven. Death and resurrection is a script for our lives whereby the powers of sin and death are overcome. Death and resurrection is a way of life, a way of participating in the life of God which is coming for our salvation. It is a being saved, a way of living and seeing that has transformative power.

And this way of living and seeing produces a specific wisdom, a wisdom not of this age or of the rulers of this age, but a wisdom of the age that is continuously coming. It is a way of seeing through the things that belong to the future--faith, hope, and love. By attending to the world through faith, hope, and love, the hidden rule of God becomes manifest both in God's movement in the world and in our lives. We learn both to recognize and enact pictures of God's coming future.

To the extent that this discernment (discrimination, judgment) produces a unique wisdom, the church remains in the mode of news. The gospel is not another way of saying what already is the case. It is not simply a particular way of naming general human experience. The death and resurrection of Jesus, and all that surrounds the eventfulness of this way of God's being with and for us, is new. It is a resistance to the powers that be, a refusal of the status quo, and the embrace of hope, the possibility of a new, coming world, ordered by different powers.

This does not mean that other wisdoms based in other criteria of judgment are pointless or powerless or even evil. The news of God's way of being with us in death and resurrection is not an obliteration of all other categories, but a conversion within them. The strategy of the new age is not to overcome other perspectives through force or power. Rather, the power of the new age always comes through leaven and mustard seed, God's victory hidden in death, in the unsuspecting, and through passionate identification with what is passing away. The new comes not through obliteration, but through passionate, suffering engagement. The way of death and resurrection is not a way to avoid the world until heaven arrives, but a way of entering the world more completely with different eyes, serving different powers. God's desire, after all, is not to forsake creation, but to fill it, to be all in all, to transfigure it. Those who live through the resources of the new age, the word of the cross, learn to recognize the signs of God's coming and announce it as newsworthy.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

So, Dylan has a Christmas record coming out this year. I know, huh. Dylan and a Christmas record. That will be interesting. I mean, what does he sing? Can you imagine a barbed-wired, six packs a day rendition of O Holy Night? Not exactly Pavorotti we're dealing with here. Dylan has about a four note range. And even though its all about the interpretation, I cringe to even think about it.

But would he go the other way, away from the high Christmas hymns? I can't imagine Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus. That would scare the kids. Maybe a monotone, I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas or Winter Wonderland.

Maybe it will be a collection of originals. Bob spent 30 minutes writing 20 new Christmas songs. Herod Knows Where You Live, Lost My Shoes in Egypt, Not Hard to be Wise in Bethlehem, That Star Won't Hunt, Holy Ghost Came Callin, Jesus was a Department Store Santa. You know, some sideways take on the story that mixes irony and hope without committing too much in the way of belief. Records them all in one take, no rehearsals. I would definitely buy that record, and even start playing it the day after Thanksgiving.

Hope never reads the story straight off the page. Hope isn't what's at the end of how things might work out anyway. The "new thing" isn't simply the unfolding of the story as we know it, which is why a bit of irreverence, some anachronism, and a little typological playfulness is the way to best communicate hope. Sounds like a Dylan Christmas cd to me.

Monday, September 14, 2009

U2 on a Monday


Last night I was in Soldier Field in Chicago for the second night of U2's 360 tour. It was a spectacular night, one I will always remember.

I am a huge U2 fan, but was somewhat skeptical that a stadium show could scratch my U2 itch. But once the concert started, I was so inside the experience that it just wasn't a factor, at least not negatively. In the words of "Put on Your Boots," the boys from Ireland "let me in the sound." I was close. But on the positive side, it was simply an amazing thing to be with nearly 100,000 people moving with one energy. Even leaving the stadium at the end of the concert, with all those people being pushed through a very limited space toward Grant Park, was a great feeling. We have all experienced something significant together.

But how do you describe the concert in words. The stage was enormous and quite the spectacle (the photo from a set done by Snow Patrol before U2 came on). A multi-media/giant spaceship that moved and lit up and displayed things on an enormous, expandable screen. It was a character in the U2 drama, and most of the time a positive one. The space/future theme of the stage was underscored by the opening as the band walked into "Major Tom" and by the ending as they left to "Rocket Man."

There is simply nothing like live music. The thumping bass in your chest. The ear splitting guitars. The energy of live performers, especially someone like Bono. The surprise of an innovation in lyric or melody or rhythm. This show had everything that makes live music great.

And of course with U2, you're looking for meaning, and Christian meaning. And last night's meaning was hope. This space ship was not 2001 a Space Odyssey, the future as an ominous darkness where technology threatens us. This future was hopeful and full of justice. Gone were some of the darker images related to society (e.g. Bullet the Blue Sky). This was God's future pressing on us.

My favorite U2 song is "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," which has not been a regular on their concert playlists on recent tours. This is properly an eschatological song. There's still something coming, the kingdom come, "where all the colors bleed into one. You know I'm still running." It was their 6th song this evening, right on the heels of Magnificent and Beautiful Day. It was worshipful, and it was not lost on Bono that we were gathered on a Sunday.

The best part of the evening for me was the first encore. The band had left the stage and the first thing we saw to open the encore was an amazing video from Desmond Tutu. He said that the same people who fought for civil rights in America were the same people who fought Apartheid in South Africa and who continue to fight injustice in the world today. He was animated and joyful as he designated us gathered that night as the same people--the very same people who had fought in all of these places. And he promised us that the wind of God's justice would be at our backs. At the video's end, the band played "One." Perfect. And then Bono played his guitar and sang a soulful verse of "Amazing Grace," which led into the properly eschatological, "Where the Streets Have No Name." All we needed was the eucharist. (The people down the row from us had their own elements, an incense all its own).

This was what worship should be. A diverse group moving as one. Pure bliss and joyful embodiment. Praise accompanied by acknowledgement of the world as it is (with not a little complaining and lamenting). And hope for what the world will one day become in the grace of God. A call to belong to that day. Perfect.

Set list

1.Breathe
2.No Line On The Horizon
3.Get On Your Boots
4.Magnificent
5.Beautiful Day / King Of Pain (snippet) / Blackbird (snippet)
6.I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
7.Elevation
8.Your Blue Room
9.Unknown Caller
10.Until The End Of The World
11.Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
12.The Unforgettable Fire
13.City Of Blinding Lights
14.Vertigo
15.I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight / I Want To Take You Higher (snippet)
16.Sunday Bloody Sunday / Rock The Casbah (snippet)
17.In the Name of Love
18.Walk On

1st Encore
19.One / Amazing Grace (snippet)
20.Where The Streets Have No Name / All You Need Is Love (snippet)

2nd Encore

21. Ultra Violet (Light My Way)
22. With Or Without You
23. Moment of Surrender

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Moltmann And the Father of Jesus, the Son

This is one of those weeks I will always remember. I drove Wednesday morning from Detroit to Chicago to join around 300 others for a conversation with Jurgen Moltmann, a conversation hosted by the Emergent Village bunch. I will cap the trip with a U2 concert in Soldier Field on Sunday night. Bono and Moltmann, two of my favorite theologians. Awe and wonder all the way around.

Moltmann is 83 years old. His life is an amazing story (you might want to read his autobiography, A Broad Place). He was a German soldier in WWII, taken priosner, and found God in a Sottish prison camp. Amazing story, and consequently his career as a theologian finds few parallels. His work has sounded the themes of hope, justice, and ecology, all in the pursuit of knowing the God of Jesus Christ. His work is important for my dissertation in many ways. I am currently immersed in his books as I prepare for my comprehensive exams in a few weeks. I am richer for this engagement, by a long ways.

Here's the one thing you should know about Moltmann (from my perspective). HE refuses to think about God apart from the human experience of Jesus. Which sounds kind of obvious to many of us Bible-believing type folks. But Moltmann shows that for most of us, this simply is not the case.

Most of us begin with a version of God based on certain assumptions that we inherited from the Greek philosphical tradition. For God to be perfect, God must be simple, free, unchangeable, impassable, independent, etc. This is sometimes called classical theism, and Moltmann suggests that this view of God results inevitably in a kind of monism--God as a single acting subject and everything else as an object. Christian theology in the West has often assumed this view of God. God was thought of as a single substance, identified with the Father, and the Son and Spirit were sometimes thought of as modes of this one substance. The beginning assumption is the unity of God, the three persons being the hard thing to explain.

Now, here's the deal. There are a lot of problems one gets into when accounting for the real problems of the world if God is thought of as as single acting subject. For the Greeks, the problems of monism were expressed in the problem of theodicy. If God is all powerful, and if God is good, then how can bad things happen? Either God is all-powerful, and not good. Or God might be good, but not all powerful. There are current forms of Christian theology that opt to begin with the assuption that God is all powerful and the goodness of God will work itself out in the end. The tornado that swept through the Twin Cities a few weeks ago was God's punishment for the ELCA's decision to ordain homosexuals, says John Piper, the most prominent voice in the new Calvinism that explains every event as an event under God's providential control. But as Moltmann suggested yesterday, such a God is a monster.

In milder forms, Christian monism simply puts the world on the receiving end of all of God's stuff. The world is perpetual object to God's perpetual subject. All the arrows point one way, and the church is often thought of as being on God's side of the arrows. We've got all the good stuff. The world is simply our target, our strategic concern. This leads easily to mission as a kind of imperialism, or benevolence and evangelism as a kind of paternalism. This is the implication of the criticism Moltmann brings to Barth's theology. (God is a single-acting subject in Barth's theology, from Moltmann's perspective).

Moltmann does not begin with the assumptions about God located in classic theism. He begins with Jesus as the Son of the Father. We know God as the Father of Jesus, the Son. It is in this relationship of mutuality that we begin to understand God. This is true also of the relationship between Father and Spirit and Son and Spirit. God is not one substance in three forms, or one acting subject in three modes. God is three persons who each have centers of action and have a dynamic and reciprocal relationship. And in any relationship, any reciprocity, there is need and vulnerability. There is openness to the other.

In fact, it is this openness to the other that constitutes God as love. And it is this love that makes room for creation. And it is this love that leaves space for a free creation. And it is this love that marks itself as suffering, enduring love. As Moltmann said yesterday, God's power is not expressed by the fact that he controls all things (the opposite of love), but in that he bears all things and suffers all things. This is a game changer in so many ways.

At the conference yesterday, people talked to Moltmann about how his book, The Crucified God, gave them a lease on life--new hope--in the most tragic of circumstances. The loss of an infant son, the persistent struggle of disability, the opression related to class and race and gender. That's a pretty hefty theological legacy. I doubt that Piper's theology has many stories like that. The answer to why in Piper's theology is always God, and that causes more problems that it solves. For Moltmann, there is no answer to the question why and if there were it would not satisfy us. But in the crucified God there is a who and a where and a when related to suffering. There is a God who suffers all things, who lashes himself to the world on a cross, and whose resurrection will not allow suffering to be the last word.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Wilco on a Sunday


This morning is a cup of coffee and the new Wilco. I like Wilco. It's smart stuff, both musically and lyrically. The new cd, Wilco, the Album, is perhaps more modest than their previous cd's. It doesn't have some of the jagged, experimental edges of their earlier work. But that makes it more immediately inviting to me. And so, coffee and Wilco this morning is a pleasurable thing.

Wilco refuses the happy face, the easy ending. Jeff Tweedy sings often with tongue planted firmly in cheek, rolling around in the irony of it all. The title track to the cd offers comfort to world weary listeners. Wilco cares, Tweedy sings, and will offer you a sonic shoulder to cry on--in my case comfort from an itunes download.

Wilco touches for me that feeling related to the complexity of life. Whatever it is we think we're up to gets lost too easily in the thick and bewildering nature of things. Even the offering of one's life for another, dying "alone like Jesus," gets lost in the sweep of generations and the numbing pursuits of daily life. We forget. The grand gesture is lost.

Still, there is somthing about bringing all this brokenness together in one place--this refusal of the easy happy. The fact that all of us are one wing short of being able to fly throws us all together under the same aching need. And there is hope there, in the commonness of our ache and pain.

I've been reading Jurgen Moltmann this week, preparing for my comprehensive exams which are coming up sooner than I need them to be. Moltmann sees the world as the history of God's suffering. He is following the minority theological tradition that begins not with a catlogue of God's attributes, but with the passion of God, his willingness to suffer and his openness to creation. Sorrow is the mark of God's evelasting love, the only place we can accurately attribute to God all power.

So, the paths of my reflection crossed over coffee in the Wilco song, Everlasting, Everything. In all the irony, Wilco still sings of hope.

Everything alive must die
Every building built to the sky will fall
Don't try to tell me my
Everlasting love is a lie

Everlasting, everything
Oh, nothing could mean anything at all

Every wave that hits the shore
Every book that I adore
Gone like a circus, gone like a troubadour
Everlasting love forever more

Everlasting, everything
Oh, nothing could mean anything at all

Oh, I know this might sound sad
But everything goes both good and the bad
It all adds up and you should be glad
Everlasting love is all you have

Everlasting, everything
Oh, nothing could mean anything at all
Everlasting, everything
Oh, nothing could mean anything at all

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Great lyrics on a Sunday


Sunday is a day for words. I am currently missing the liturgy around the Lord's table that our congregation in St. Paul used each week. I wanted to live in the world described by that slice of the liturgy. Words can provide a merciful place to live.

In a similar way, a great song lyric is gold. Usually, a great lyric is made by more than a clever turn of phrase. It's great if it sounds great when its sung. So, melody and rhythm and attitude have a lot to do with it as well. So, some of my favorite lyrics from an ipod genius playlist today, not in any order of greatness or in any sense exhaustive.

"But let me tell you I got some news for you
And you'll soon find out it's true
And then you'll have to eat your lunch all by yourself"

The last phrase is the clincher here. That will show you, you'll have to eat your lunch all by yourself. And Glen Frey sings it perfectly in the Eagles rendition. My understanding is that this is a Jackson Browne song, which brings us to the next lyric.

"Doctor, my eyes
Cannot see the sky
Is this the prize for having learned how not to cry"

This whole song is an amazing lyric. Browne is one of the best, I think. So, another verse from a great song, The Pretender.

I'm going to rent myself a house
In the shade of the freeway
Gonna pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day
And when the evening rolls around
I'll go on home and lay my body down
And when the morning light comes streaming in
I'll get up and do it again
Amen.
Say it again
Amen.


Great use of the amen. Which brings us to the use of halleljuah. No lyricist can match Leonard Cohen.

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah...

Finally, great lyric from a great Dixie Chicks song.

How long do you want to be loved?
Is forever enough? Is forever enough?



Sunday, August 16, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

You've probably read the story somewhere on the web. Dylan was stopped by two young-ish cops for looking suspicious in a NJ neighborhood. He was out wandering the neighborhood, looking at houses, before a concert. He had no identification and the cops didn't recognize him. They escorted him back to the hotel where he was vouched for. Crisis averted. http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090815/ap_en_mu/us_people_bob_dylan.

I love this story for a few reasons. First, I love the idea of Dylan just wandering a neighborhood looking at houses before a concert. What else are you going to do? Second, Dylan had to love this. He was unrecognized. He was free, normal, treated like everyone else. Finally, I love that the cops said that Dylan couldn't have been nicer about it. Most celebs would have thrown a fit.

The whole celebrity thing has to be crazy. My parents live in Malibu and I see celebs there all the time. I leave them alone because it has to be tiring to have people gawk at you or approach you in coffee shops.

I am hardly a celebrity, but I did have a very public job for a few years. It was a very weird feeling for people to greet me in stores or the health club locker room (where people are sometimes naked and some still not reticent to introduce themselves) and I had no idea who they were. With someone like Dylan that has to be magnified a billion times.

I have three John Updike quotes taped to a print that hangs above my desk. Two of them apply here. (The third is "In the moment of starting, everything is more fascinating than writing"). The first says, "Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face." The second, and my favorite, is "One can either see or be seen." Dylan has to be used to his life as a being seen. What a great thing not to be recognized.