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
Say it again

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


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.

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.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Violent Wind

It was one of those moments. I was yelling at the TV. Not so much in anger as frustration. It was the second Bush-Kerry debate and the question to each concerned the role of faith in their life as a political leader. Dubya went first and talked about his faith as a deeply internal thing. It's what gave him peace in the midst of the trials of being president. It's what I expected.

Kerry went next and talked about his life-long relationship with the Catholic church. And in very similar ways, he talked about his faith as a private, inner thing, something that gave him inner strength and conviction.

I wanted a very different answer from each of them.

Not that I should be surprised. For most of us faith is primarily an internal thing, something that gives us inner strength. In my dissertation research, I am conducting interviews with members from various congregations. One of the interview questions is "As you understand it, how is the Holy Spirit related to salvation?" Every single answer to this point--every single one of them--has something to do with inner peace or strength. Salvation and the Holy Spirit, it appears is my own private possession.

Again, this is not surprising. When you read a book like Charles Taylor's, Sources of the Self, you get sense of just how much Western society has been dominated by notions of a buffered self--or the person as a completely self-contained entity. The personal is the primary horizon of interpretation for most Westerners. We are hard wired philosophically to think of reality as consisting of subjects and objects with self-defining essences and characteristics. A world of subjects and objects becomes also a world of fact/value or public/private splits. And on those splits, faith gets placed on the values and private side of the ledgers. Bush and Kerry were well within the mainstream of Western/American spirituality.

But this is not the only way it has to be. Nancy and I are dwelling in Acts 2 these days. I was struck the other day by the NRSV's translation of the coming of the Spirit as a "violent wind." When the Spirit comes, representing a new age in which the rich will be brought low and the poor raised up, the wind isn't just soothing and peaceful. It is also violent, disruptive, disturbing, commotion causing.

I wanted Bush or Kerry, one of them, to say faith is what keeps me up at night. It's what won't give me rest, keeps me stirred up. It's not my safe-haven from the world, it's what keeps driving me into the world. It's what won't let me rest with my wealth in a world of hunger. It's what is causing me to want me to see the world new each day. It's a violent wind.

I often have people tell me that they know a personal decision they have made is a "God-thing" because they have such peace about it. That might be right. But in a world where we have made such peace with the way things are, it might be a sign of just the opposite. God is just as likely to be in the option that gives no peace.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

Great day with Dylan today. I had a mix going when I ran today and two of the songs were perfect for my increasingly slow running pace: Thunder on the Mountain and Watching the River Flow. They made the last mile a piece of cake. As I cooled down Like a Rolling Stone came on, which has to be in the top ten of great Dylan songs. Hearing that song reminded me of the concert in England in 1966 when they booed his electric performances, including the final song, Like a Rolling Stone. Scorsese's, No Direction Home, has the footage from the Don't Look Back movie that captured that performance. The interviews with the fans afterward are priceless. They call him all kinds of names and accuse him of prostituting himself for commercial gain. One fan accuses him of turning his back on the spirit of the music--music that Dylan himself wrote.

Anyway, it got me thinking again about culture and change and meaning. Dylan's done alright. The people interviewed seem silly now. Dylan was still Dylan after he went electric. This is not to say that they weren't right about the meaning of his music changing. Form is a big part of meaning. Adding a band changed the meaning of the performance. But I know this as well. If Dylan hadn't changed, the meaning of his music would have. An attempt to freeze the form in time would also have changed the meaning of the music. Meaning is a moving thing. Form does convey meaning, but its more complex than that. Form is in relationship to lots of other factors, most of which are constantly in motion.

The original meaning of Dylan's early performances were lost once they were over. They gained and/or lost significance in light of new circumstances, in the ongoing play of life. (This is part of Gadamer's point in Truth and Method). The meaning of those early performances continues to change today with each new Dylan cd, or even with a new Ben Harper or Bruce Springsteen cd. Our field of interpretation is always shifting.

In light of this, it is interesting to listen to Dylan describe himself as a "musical expeditionary." The meaning is always out in front of him, in every new performance (not unlike the notions of gospel I've been working with). For Dylan, the music does not come from the past, but from somewhere new. The river is always moving for Dylan. He's just watching the river flow.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Gospel and Cultures, 5

Theology should be about more than just the history of ideas about God. It should be about God. Think about that. This means, among other things, that it should be about God's engagement with the world. Which means, in turn, that theology should not be limited to the library or the minister's study, but should be primarily done in relation to the conditions of the world. The question, therefore, is how would you do that? And what would be your criteria for judgment? How would you know it was God?

For a good part of Western Christianity, questions about God began, not with God's engagement with the world, but with Greek notions of what God must be to be God. God was above history, established in a set of attributes that pertained only to God (omnipresent, omnipotent, etc).

Defining God apart from history, or God's actual engagement with the world, has certain advantages. The biggest of these is that it is really difficult to narrate a series of events that indicates God's continuing presence. God is tough to track in history. Israel found this out in relation to the exile. The long dislocation of Israel from the promise of land, king, and temple made it difficult to narrate a continuous story of God's steadfast love. Did God keep his promises? Had he forgotten Israel? Was Yahweh big enough to deliver on his promises?

Israel's theologians responded in at least two ways. One was to locate God, at least in part, in wisdom traditions (ontology?) that had little or no connection to the specific stories of Israel's past. Another, however, dislocated Israel's hope from a golden past working itself out in the present, and located it in the future (eschatology). Hope was still connected to actual social conditions, e.g. peace, joy, righteousness, but was now out in front of immediate history as a series of sequential events.

Jesus' announcement of the gospel of the Kingdom brings the question of God into the actual conditions of history. The Kingdom of God is about actual social circumstances. Sharing possessions, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, lifting up the lowly. The question of God is a question related to history. Like Israel's prophets, however, the Kingdom of God for Jesus is a future reality. It is not the steady progression of a series of events from the past to the future (teleological). The Kingdom is the reality of the future breaking into the present (eschatological). Its precedent in the present is not the immediate past, but the future. God's primary relationship with the world is not above, uninvolved, but in front of the world, actively engaged.

OK, this may seem like a set of fine distinctions, deep theory that only some theologians talk about. But this is very practical, because it points to how we might meaningfully talk about God in the conditions of life, which is turn related to our concept of gospel. If God's involvement with the world is not strictly chronological from past to present--one event leading to the next, leading to the next--then it may often be experienced as surprise, disruption, disorientation--or news. Part of staying in the mode of gospel is openness to surprise. A lot of implications here. But for now let's say that the category of surprise allows us to speak of God meaningfully in the conditions of human experience without it being a story of continuous progress.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dylan on a Sunday

Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Dylan are touring this summer, playing mostly minor league ballparks. Would love to see that. Not so much for Mellencamp, though I think he would be fun live, but I'd love to see Willie, and of course Dylan is Dylan.

The NYTimes had a review of their recent rain-soaked performance in New Jersey. The thing about the Times is not only that you get the news (I know, a certain take on the news), but you get it with great prose. And John Caramanica has some great prose here. I love how he describes Dylan: "Mr. Dylan doesn’t have the relationship to melody he once did, but for Mr. Dylan it’s less of an obstacle than an opportunity to reframe." I love this sentence. This is the key to classic, even inspired. The reframe.

First of all, who among us has the relationship with melody we once had? I've never been more exhausted before in my life. Moving across the country feels different than it did 20 years ago. I had coffee with Tony Jones a few weeks ago, and he talked about being located in a seminary just isn't right for him, but for someone like me, and I quote, "in your stage of life it makes a certain sense." We just moved into an apartment right across the street from, I kid you not, The Older Person's Center. And today at lunch I found out that next year I qualify. That's some cold...

Point is, there are a lot of things I do differently than I used to, but I think no less artfully. Dylan doesn't sing like he used to, if singing is what he ever did, but his vocal limitations have invented all new interpretations of some of the greatest songs ever written. And much of it is way better, e.g. I much prefer his current version of "Lay, Lady, Lay."

Again, Caraminica writes of Dylan, "In his pugnacious, sprightly and often invigorating hour-plus set, the shape of songs was far more important than the meaning. He took ownership of several decades of American music: 'Thunder on the Mountain' was a fast blues, 'Lonesome Day Blues' had slight Cajun touches, and 'Like a Rolling Stone' brandished flashes of gospel and even pop-country." The reframes bring depth and new life.

Reframing is a big deal in Scripture. The richest parts of Scripture are those that have been reworked over time and in new circumstances. It's two qualities that makes them rich. They've been around. They can be reframed. They're classic and new all at the same time. It's not just saying the same thing again. It is a new thing altogether, and yet the same.

Here's the irony. It is the limitations of the new circumstances that make the classic new. Only in a new set of circumstances can timeless themes be timeless. Only in the reframe, the nod to limitations, can something new emerge. Limits can provide the opportunity for new creativity. So today I'm embracing my limits. I'm nearly old enough for the Old Person's Center. I no longer have the relationship to melody that I once did. I can't wait to see what happens. It's all about the reframe.