Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Night Without Vision

I've been hanging out in the book of Micah the past few weeks. There are some stunning pictures there. All of us know, "do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God." But there are several other striking oracles found in this "minor" prophet.

Last week I preached on Micah's warning against prophets, those who cry "peace" when their bellies are full, but declare war against those who put no food in their mouths. For these pray-for-pay prophets, it will be night without vision. The point is bigger than this for Micah. It's the refusal to see some things, mainly injustice, that makes us blind to everything. Worse, sometimes worship can be precisely the thing that keeps us from seeing what God is up to in the world. It can be our refuge from God, not our refuge in God. We can use the talk of God or the things of God precisely as a hedge from doing what God requires of us. My fear, as someone who gets his bread from being a professional theologian, is not that someday it will be for me night without vision, but that this might already be the case.

The realities of globalization mean that I can't buy a piece of fruit or fill my tank with gas or fund my ira or max out my credit cards without participating in a system of decisions, policies, trade agreements, labor practices, etc, that are largely invisible to me. They are invisible to me because they are pervasive and complex. I cannot simply excuse myself from them, nor can I get at their complexity. And so, I turn a blind eye and go to worship. And here's the thing--most of these structures and systems and policies in the main do not favor the least of these. Night without vision.

This week, I'm in this ironic little hope oracle in Micah 2. Things are desperate in Jerusalem. The Assyrians have the place surrounded. The walls of Jerusalem, the very thing Judah depended on to keep them safe, has become their prison. But God knows what to do in situations like these--he tears down the walls. It's the last thing we'd expect. These walls represent for us the very promises of God. We can't imagine that God could be present apart from them, or that there would be meaningful life apart from them. But Micah knows that it is absolutely the case that the things we trust for our security can become our prison. And God is gracious to tear them down, even if it means using Assyrians. That's grace I can usually live without.

So, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

There are two new books out on Dylan and I'm trying to create the space and money to read them both. I don't read everything on Dylan. I've been given books on Dylan on the mistaken assumption that I am as obsessed as the person who gave the book to me, and I haven't read them. But I'm anxious to read these books. The reason is a great interview with both of the authors that I found last week.

Greil Marcus, Bob Dylan, is a critic who has followed Dylan closely and written a lot about him through the years. Sean Wilentz is a historian who has written something of a cultural history, Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz claims to have become a writer because he became a fan of Dylan's. "I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant. I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it—I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it, was my way of doing that."

I love the interview because both talk about things that in which I am interested in my other life--the way words and performances create worlds, and the way an artistic imagination works and is funded. For both, the song is the medium that allows Dylan to capture multiple, stray worlds in a single place. They know his world, the literary references, the folk history, Dylan's own notions of historical consciousness. They hear the echoes, recognize the allusions, and know just how large the imaginative landscape is from which Dylan performs. And I'm interested in that. So, over time, I will buy and read these books.

But the interview is great as well. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

SW: One of the marks of Dylan's genius is the ability to shuffle time and space like a deck of cards. He can make the past sound like the present and the present sound like the past. In doing this, he is a great, great historian, like Greil says. But Dylan also does something that historians can't do, which is to actually commingle the past and the present in ways that are astonishing.

GM: So it's that sense that there are so many worlds behind and within the songs to discover and live in, but also this sense of empathy for the people who appear in his songs. Dylan once said, maybe sarcastically, that all of his songs really ended with "Good luck." But that may be what he says to the people in his songs.

SW: In the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, he talks about how virtual reality has taken over, or is taking over—he calls it "hegemony"—and people are just not able to write songs like the ones that he is singing for the dead and out of the dead; they can't write those kinds of songs any more. He makes it pretty clear that, in some ways, all he can do to battle this hegemony, as he calls it, is to sing those songs, and to continue to write his own songs out of that tradition, out of those traditions, the many traditions, not just one. It's not exactly the attitude of a big rock star who thinks he's all powerful; this is a guy who feels like he and the world are up against forces that are so complex and so overpowering that singing these songs is all that he can do.

SW: You're up against a lot in this world, and you may be up against more now than you were in 1961. But as he says, he finds his lexicon in the songs, and in the songs he can find a measure of hope to battle against it. But that means more than just protesting; it's not about protesting. Well, maybe it is always about protesting—all of his songs are protest songs. But it's really about exploring realms of human imagination that he finds being flattened out in this virtual reality in which we live.

I hope my work is in some measure is recognizable in light of that last sentence.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thoughts on Hipster Christianity

A recent book by Brett McCracken has brought a new term onto the scene--"hipster Christianity." McCracken's book and his notions of hipster Christianity (which I should note I have not read) have gotten a lot of play in places like Christianity Today and even the Wall Street Journal. If you google the phrase now you'll find all kinds of sites noting the phenomenon from one perspective or another. There's even a quiz you can take to discover whether or not you're a hipster Christian. Turns out, I'm borderline hipster. Who knew?

Who does McCracken have in mind? Young evangelicals rebelling from the evangelical sub-culture that created them. A hipster, Christ-following leader might do the following:

    Get the church involved in social justice and creation care.

  • Show clips from R-rated Coen Brothers films (e.g., No Country for Old Men,Fargo) during services.
  • Sponsor church outings to microbreweries.
  • Put a worship pastor onstage decked in clothes from American Apparel.
  • Be okay with cussing.
  • Print bulletins only on recycled cardstock.
  • Use Helvetica fonts as much as possible.
So, I recognize myself a little in this list. I'm definitely a beer snob, though I doubt I would ever sponsor a church outing to a microbrewery. I've hosted Christian coffee houses where we've featured music from Arcade Fire and clips from Cohen brothers films--though Nick Hornby and recent Clint Eastwood films are more my speed. And I've never in my life voted for a Republican presidential candidate.

But I'm definitely not young, not evangelical. I would rather worship in a pew with a kneeling bench than on a sofa in a room full of sofas next to someone texting on their iphone (I don't own an iphone, but I do own a Mac). I don't have any clothes from American Apparel and still believe passionately in preaching as an indispensable aspect of a healthy worship ecology.

The biggest evidence I have that I might not be a hipster Christian is that when I'm around them, I don't feel cool. I do feel cool in most groups of ministers I encounter, but that's typically a very low standard.

I was with two of the "hipster" leaders that McCracken has in mind just a few days after the Wall Street Journal piece came out. Tony Jones was kind enough to host some of our graduate students for a week in Minneapolis to talk about Christian practices of hospitality, and part of that time we spent at Solomon's Porch with Doug Pagitt. They were having great fun with McCracken's book (at the expense of?), though neither were particularly convinced that McCracken had an argument. We spent much of the week identifying the ways we were not hipster. Hipster was the most used word during our time together.

But here's the thing. This whole discussion has me thinking about belonging in Christian community. It's so easy to think of church as a place where flourishing occurs for people like me. Tony said as much about Solomon's Porch. It's not a particularly diverse group. In some ways, they are very hospitable. But they've created a particular way of being church in which some move more easily than others. 

This is not a rant against the emerging church movement or a congregation like Solomon's Porch. I could point this critique just as easily at the congregations that I have served, or at the fairly traditional congregation with whom I now worship, or at church movements like the Vineyard. The forms we choose, the aesthetics we create through language, music, art--all of this tends to invite some and exclude others. I suppose some of this is unavoidable and we should even celebrate the fact that the Christian movement is not a mono-culture, that it can be expressed in so many ways. I'm sure, I know beyond a doubt, that there are some serious, practicing Christians at Solomon's Porch who would not be if the Porch didn't exist in its unique configuration.

But I don't want that to be the last word on this subject. I do think the measure of a congregation, its particular cultural relevance, should always be that persons who have a hard time flourishing anywhere else can flourish in Christian community. One big measure of a church should be how it functions for the least of these. Put another way, how high is the bar set for cultural competence? Can only those particularly adept at a fairly complex set of cultural practices flourish? Or more properly, can only those who can produce and appreciate certain cultural forms find a home among us?

Finally, I am concerned about the category "cool" in this regard. Cool is a very high bar in terms of cultural competence. I know that no congregation would say that its aspiration is to be cool. But congregations and their leaders are always setting cultural markers that determine what it means to really belong, and some of those markers tend to be more exclusive than others. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Out of Practice

I've recently agreed to a semi-regular preaching gig. In many ways, I'm excited about this. I think in terms of my craft, I'm still improving. And I'd like to see what that looks like on a more regular basis.

But in other ways, I realize I'm out of practice. Sermons aren't just speeches. They come from what Barbara Brown Taylor calls the preaching life. It is more than just reading a text and finding something to say. Sermons come from life as much as they come from the Bible--and they come from a particular kind of engagement with life. And I think I might have a little rust in this regard.

For instance, I used to be in the habit of having two kinds of books going all the time--a novel and a biography. I wasn't surfing for sermon illustrations. I was widening my interpretative horizons by listening to other stories and other lives. I can't tell you the last biography I read (maybe Dylan's, Chronicles) and the only novels I've read recently were the Harry Potter books I read from Thanksgiving to New Year's last year (yes, I read all of them straight through). I've been reading other kinds of books the past few years. And while they have changed me, deepened, me, challenged me, they haven't done what stories of other lives do. (I've decided that getting a PhD is reading the same 10 books over and over for four years. I'm ready to read some different books).

I refer to this kind of reading as funding the imagination. The more thickly textured your imagination, the more you have to say about things. There's more raw material lying around that allows a spark to become a fire.

I'm more and more convinced that really interesting people read across diverse literatures. They know more than one thing, and because of that, they are able to draw inferences and make connections in ways that surprise us and leave us wanting more. I think this is the genius of my friend, Richard Beck, whose blog is never dull. And I never see Richard when he doesn't have a book in his hand, and not just a psychology book. He reads broadly in diverse literatures. Good preachers do the same thing. And I will need to find a rhythm again for this kind of life.

And please don't tell Richard I think he's interesting. He's insufferable already.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Though I write here frequently about Bob Dylan, the truth is I listen to him much less than I listen to other artists. I don't have a Pandora station for Bob Dylan, (though I'm more likely to listen to the channels I've created where he is likely to pop up now and then). Dylan songs are sprinkled throughout my itunes playlists, but none of them appear in my top 25 played songs list. Don't get me wrong, there are times when I could spend the whole day listening to Dylan, especially his later stuff (I seldom listen to an entire album of his early songs), but these days come along only occasionally.

I'm not exactly sure what mood it is that makes Dylan the appropriate musical companion. I know there are musical moods for which Dylan is not particularly useful. Joy, for instance. If I want ridiculously happy music, better said, music that makes me ridiculously happy, Dylan's not the choice. If I need background music, something to stay comfortably in the background, Bob's not the guy. And, somewhat surprisingly, he wouldn't be a choice for a broken heart. I mean, Dylan sings about the gritty moments of life, and broken hearts are certainly on that side of life. Dylan's songs know about broken hearts, but not in an overly sentimental way. Everyone's heart gets broken. That's the deal. Move on. Dylan knows love, and he knows love disappointed, but he doesn't linger there.

The possible exception might be, Till I fell in Love With You.

Well my nerves are exploding and my body's tense
I feel like the whole world got me pinned up against the fence
I've been hit too hard; I've seen too much
Nothing can heal me now, but your touch
I don't know what I'm gonna do
I was all right 'til I fell in love with you

It's not so much that his heart has been broken, but life is hard enough without the burden of love, or worse the loss of love's safe harbor. It's the absence of love that makes the other stuff, the bad stuff, harder to bear.

Still, Dylan is no Sarah McLachlan, nursing love's pain for all its worth. Or Elvis Costello for that matter. They'll hand you the stinking kleenex. Dylan, not so much. And I like that about Dylan.

So, here's a few stabs at what kind of day would send me to Dylan. An ironic day. A thoughtful day, but in a whimsical kind of way. A look the world in the eye kind of day in order to wink. Or a day to remember things deeply. I hope I have one soon.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Because Some Days You Can See It

Today is one of those days--one of those days when it seems worth it all.

I work in one of those jobs that is more about planting seeds than bringing in the harvest. It's not always obvious that you're accomplishing anything. Somedays its invisible. It's just grading papers and going to meetings and hearing yourself talk.

But today Wayne Beason came by my office. He's just accepted a job to work with InterVarsity as a campus minister in Chicago. He gave me his spiel (he has to raise support), and it was good. He's taken some of what he's gotten in our new degree in missional leadership and made it sing. He sees the differences. He's choosing some things and not others. He's exercising critical judgment in impressive ways--ways that will definitely make a difference.

I put Wayne in contact with Mark Willis, a young, gifted, imaginative church planter in Chicago. And I thought about how many of those kinds of guys I know. The people who are willing to venture onto ministry frontiers, like my new monastic friends Ryan Woods and the Allelon house (featuring my son, Josh). Or a guy like Travis Stanley who is a community organizer in New Orleans. Or a woman like Cheryl Russell who along with her husband Tim is making courageous decisions about her life in ministry to the city. Or a woman like Jen Christy who is directing student ministries at Pepperdine University.

After Wayne left my office, I read a facebook notification from a group, Half the Church, that is taking concrete steps toward addressing gender issues in Churches of Christ. I certainly don't think of Stephen Johnson, one of the leaders of this group, as a student of mine because he's always been a peer and has surpassed me in so many ways (though I did have the privilege of chairing his DMin thesis). He is, however, working with former students like Laura Clark and Olivia Hodges. I can't tell you how proud I am of what they're doing and how hopeful I am that their efforts will make a difference.

So, I've spent the better part of the day giving thanks for all the outstanding young church leaders I know because of the fact that I've been fortunate enough to hang out at places like ACU and Rochester College--guys like Ben Ries and Aaron Metcalf, Jarrod Robinson and Collin Packer, Josh Ross and Richard Maddeaux, to name but a few. I am having a thankful day.

I should be quick to point out (am I too late?) that I'm not taking credit for who they are and what directions they've taken. Many of them are doing things I don't have the first idea about. And they have certainly had many outstanding teachers and significant influences. With some of these I've mentioned, I have had only passing interaction. But I've been a part of this enterprise--the seed planting enterprise--this business of calling them, along with many other seed planters, to something bigger than themselves. And they have delighted me. They are the dirt under my fingernails (in the best possible sense), the proof that I have real dealings with the world. And I know that the best I've given some of them is to not get in their way. And maybe for others to say what little I know with conviction. But they have passed across my life like fireworks. And so today, I'm glad that I get to do what I do.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Band of Joy on a Sunday

Before Robert Plant was the front man for Led Zeppelin, he sang for Band of Joy, a group backed by Zepp drummer John Bonham. Band of Joy is also the name of Plant's new cd. The question might be, is the name a tribute to his past or a nod to a certain continuity that marks all of Plant's work?

Plant's body of work since Zeppelin has certainly been diverse. He's done everything from cover old 50's rock and roll classics to his recent T-Bone Burnett produced collaboration with Allison Kraus. He has been at the very least musically adventurous.

I really like this new offering. It's mostly covers from a diverse catalog, everyone from Los Lobos, to Richard Thompson and Townes Van Zandt. There is still a Nashville feel to the cd, but its sweatier and bluesier. There's feedback and distortion, a swirling bit of tremolo. Alison Kraus has been replaced with Patti Griffin and there are accents of the Delta and the Mediterranean reminiscent of his previous cd, Mighty Rearranger. I love the songs Silver Rider, Can't Buy My Love, and Angel Dance.

The darker arrangements make the title Band of Joy seem out of place. But the cd does deliver joy. It's not a giggly kind of joy, but a belly laugh kind of joy. Though the settings are dark and rolling, Plant's voice hovers above it all. Because whatever a Plant cd should be, it should be about his voice, the one thing that marks the continuity in Plant's music. And against these settings, his voice is the light, blond as his hair. Blond joy. And not a cheap joy. It's dancing after you've admitted the worst and still find cause for celebrating. And if the gospel aspires to anything, it should be this brand of joy.