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 ( 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.