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.