Sunday, June 20, 2010

Music to Write By

I wrote my master's thesis in the Summer of 1984 in a dark library cubicle. I wrote in long hand. The fingernail on my right index finger still bears a slight deformity from the ordeal. I would spend entire days alone writing, my only company a cassette player and head phones. I had four sides of music that got me through the thesis. Steely Dan, James Taylor, Supertramp, and Pat Benatar (yes, Pat Benatar).

Supertramp and Benatar were opposite sides of the same cassette, and they were particularly helpful in keeping me writing. Clearly, they were different. Supertramp was better when I needed to formulate an argument. Early in the day stuff. Even in The Quietest Moments, Can't Stop the Loverboy, Long Way Home. But when I had the argument and just needed to crank, it was Benatar. To the beats of Never Wanna Leave You, Heartbreaker, and Hit Me With Your Best Shot, I wrote about Elias Smith and post-revolutionary American Christianity.

So, as I prepare to drop into a concentrated dissertation mode, I ritually prepared by making three playlists. I needed some new music, something that would keep me interested enough to sit on one place for awhile. So, playlist one consists of a mix of some of my new favorites from their most recent cd's--DMB, Avett Brothers, Jakob Dylan, Wilco, Pearl Jam. The second playlist is the muse cd, when I'm searching for the writing line. It's soothing stuff, and as it turns out all female voices. Sarah McLachlan, Rachael Yamagata, Kim Taylor, Over the Rhine, Lucinda Williams, Brandi Carlile. And then there's the rocker, the get it done, crank it outm finish the footnotes, cd. Tom Petty, Kings of Leon, Gov't Mule, Raconteurs, M. Ward, Spoon, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. And for a touch with the summer of '84, Benatar's, Never Gonna Leave You and Supertramp's, Give a Little Bit, made the lists.

So, now that I have avoided actual dissertation work by writing about my playlists, back to congregational soteriological imagination.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Over the Rhine on a Sunday

I spent the better part of this week in Nashville for the Christian Scholar's Conference at Lipscomb University. It started several years ago as a conference primarily for biblical scholars in Church of Christ affiliated universities. It had fallen on lean times until revived a few years ago (with a big effort on the part of my friend, David Fleer). The revival has included a broader emphasis both academically and ecumenically. Natural scientists, humanities professors, social scientists, etc, now form sessions where papers are presented, books reviewed, and the like. And plenary sessions now find a common focus and typically feature top scholars in their field regardless of denominational affiliation.

This year's focus was on the Arts and Christian faith. The plenary speakers were outstanding. And there were real examples of Christian art, including a performance of the play "Doubt" (also a Meryl Streep movie). But my favorite event of the weekend was the Friday evening performance of Tokens. Tokens is a live radio-show in the spirit of Prairie Home Companion with a definite Nashville flavor and an explicit theological emphasis.

Lee Camp, a theology prof at Lipscomb, is the genius behind Tokens. He narrates the evening, ala Garrison Keillor. There's a blue-grass band of first rate Nashville session mucisians, a radio troupe of actors, and guest musicians. Camp also did interviews, one with the investigative reporter whose work led to the conviction of the murderer in Medgar Evers' civil rights case, and another with Rodney Clapp, a Christian publisher who has just written a book on Johnny Cash. Tokens is first class in every respect. And that includes the theology. It's not in any way preachy, but at the same time it is relevant and poignant. Much of it is carried by the sketches and the music, and so sneaks up on you over the course of the evening until Camp brings more fully into view through his artful commentary. (Way to go Lee!)

My favorite part of the evening was the music of Over the Rhine. I had never heard of them and didn't know any of their music. They are a husband-wife team, Linford Detweiler (piano) and Karin Bergquist (guitar and vocals), from Ohio who have been making music for over 15 years. Itunes classifies their music alternately as pop or rock, indicating the difficulty of placing them in a niche. Detweiler is an accomplished pianist, his beautiful playing ranging from a classical feel, to torch music, to jazz. Detweiler's voice is equally impressive. She takes charge of a song, whether its honky-tonk, jazz, or ballad. She's got range, both vocally and emotionally.

The description of her voice on their website is perfect. "Bergquist’s torchy, devil-may-care voice, brimming with Midwestern soul, unafraid to lay bare every emotional resonance. And again, there’s the life-and-death commitment dripping from her every word. 'I’m either into it or I’m not, because there’s no faking it with me,' Bergquist notes. 'Life’s way too short for that.'”

I was overwhelmed by their last song of the evening, The Trumpet Child. Detweiler's jazz piano and Bergquist's gripping vocal left me no place to go. I was inside every note. There's nothing like live music, and truly nothing like a great live performance, which this one was. The lyrics are outstanding.

The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum

The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long

Kingdom sentiments in the language of jazz. This is how I like my theology in music. Poetic, evocative, surprising. Again, I like how their website says it: "'Believe me, we don’t want to waste anybody’s time,' elaborates Detweiler. 'When we stop believing we’re doing our best work, we’re done. Every song has to be good, every record has to be great, every concert has to have some spiritual significance—something that we can’t quantify, something bigger than all of us.'”

Today I bought this song and their cd, The Drunkard's Prayer. My first favorite is "Little Did I Know."

Little did I know
That I almost let you go
Until I caught a glimpse of life
without you

Little did I know
How deep these roots had grown
Until I felt the earth quake here
without you

And this ache is gonna break me love
Until you come back home
Right or wrong
There is no home without you

And these eyes are never gonna dry
I never knew how I could cry
Until I thought I'd really lost you

Little did I know that I almost let you go
Until I caught a glimpse of life
without you

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Thoughts on Scripture: A Stranger Among Us

"The Bible, this ubiquitous, persistent black chunk of a bestseller, is a chink--often the only chink--through which winds howl. It is a singularity, a black hole into which our rich and multiple worlds strays and vanishes. We crack open its pages at our peril. Many educated, urbane, and flourishing experts in every aspect of business, culture, and science have felt pulled by this anachronistic, semibarbaric mass of antique laws and fabulous tales from far away; they entered it queer, strait gates and were lost. Eyes open, heads high, in full possession of their critical minds, they obeyed the high, inaudible whistle, and let the gates close behind them."

These wonderful words are Annie Dillard's from her essay, "The Gospel of Luke." I call them wonderful because they get at something that's important for me: they capture the distance between the world imagined in Scripture and the world we construe for ourselves every day.

Now, I'm the first to admit that some things in Scripture are more than problematic. If I were voting, there would certainly be stories I would toss. I'm with Jesus and many other biblical figures/writers. Not all Scripture is created equal. And part of a critical approach to Scripture is making sense of the diversity of witnesses to God's work in the world found under one cover.

The temptation in this critical task, however, is to domesticate Scripture, to make it all seem accessible or sensible. To make it our next door neighbor or best friend. To think of the Bible as we do a pair of old slippers. When we lose the "queer, strait gates" sense of Scripture, we are at risk of losing God as well.

As Brueggemann puts this, "I propose the stories must be kept in their embarrassing ancientness, for along with the refusal of modernity comes God as a vital and key character in this account of our lives. It is not, so it seems, to modernize the narratives without losing the primitiveness of this character who must be kept as the focal point of 'the news.' The ancient stories of the Bible are indeed sense-making midst our pervasive 'non-sense.'"

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that Scripture does not need to be interpreted in relation to our setting. I am not advocating for a literalist reading of Scripture. Far from it. Again, I am offended by some of what I find in Scripture and part of faithful interpretation is struggling with this offense. I am suggesting that the foreign-ness of Scripture is necessary for us to keep from over-identifying our own sensibility with God's. That the strange parts keep us from nesting too quickly. Taken together, they keep the possibility of a God who evades our grasp alive. And this is our only hope.

I think we assume that the first readers of Scripture found it all familiar, given their cultural proximity to its production. But I think otherwise. I think it has always been a strange book. How could it be otherwise and make any pretense as Sacred?

Finally, it seems to me that many modern approaches to Scripture of both the liberal and fundamentalist variety are to make it familiar. Views of inerrancy, for instance, are attempts to make the Bible explainable, stable, neighborly. They may provide some sense of stability, but at the expense of God as a character, and ironically at the expense of Scripture itself.

I am teaching an introduction to the Bible course for undergrads this summer. I will have students for whom the Bible is strange indeed, and students who think the Bible is their neighbor. While I'm hoping to make Scripture a little less strange, I don't want to do that at the expense of the great Stranger who calls us to inhabit a different world.