Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black on a Sabbath

I have a new playlist this week, inspired by the most recent Black Keys cd. It's simply titled "Black," and it has a mix of songs from groups with the word "Black" in their band name. Now, I teased you with the Black Sabbath reference in the title. Truth is, I don't own any Black Sabbath music. But I do own quite a bit of Black Crowes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and Black Keys music. And I'm a big fan of all three groups. So, I made a playlist of about 25 songs to aid my dissertation writing.

All three bands are blues-rock oriented. This might explain in part their common choice of the word "Black." Your song choices are somewhat limited when your band performs under the term black. No Barry Manilow covers here.There's a certain grittiness to what they do. All of them feature great guitar work and soulful vocals. All of its great played very loud.

A few years ago, in my previous job, I asked an English prof who had taken a sabbatical to study the blues to do a presentation on the gospel and the blues at our annual Bible lectureship. He not only made a presentation, he brought the best blues players in the region together to play live. We hosted the session in the commons area of the library. Yes, the library. The windows were rattling. I had students write letters of complaint about the old dudes who were rocking the library and keeping them from studying. It was one of my prouder moments as the Bible lectureship director.

The English prof made a pretty big point that the blues never really make the turn to good news. This is what makes them the blues. Their power was precisely in their ability to capture in unvarnished form the underside of life.

This might very well be right. It is certainly the most valuable contribution the blues make with regard to truth telling in the world. And I would add that this capacity to come alongside the sufferer, not to talk them out of their suffering, but to join them and to name it, is part of the redeeming work of God in the world.

Which is why I hesitate a little with the assessment that the blues, if they are the blues, never make the gospel turn. There is no question, for instance, that the music of the Black Crowes dips into the musical genre of gospel if not its content. And nearly the entire cd, Howl, by BRMC is devoted to not only a gospel feel, but gospel lyrics. When you listen to BRMC, you get the sense that they have positioned themselves on the razor's edge. They have placed themselves on the faultline between light and dark and for them it could go either way. For them, the black is black. It's the other side of light, not simply the color of the leather they wear as a biker band. It is the place of struggle, the place from which light must shine if light is to be any good at all.

So, I am attracted to these bands musically. They are good. They make my head bob, even though I know how dorky that looks. But I am also appreciative of the worlds they evoke. As I write, I am listening to my playlist. BRMC: "It's the weight of the world I know as I struggle to be whole. It is the weight of the world I know..."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Five Finger Sermons

Some of you have asked if you can hear the sermons in my series on the "five finger exercise" that I've been blogging about for the past few weeks. You can hear them, all except the first one which for some reason did not record (which is a shame, because its my favorite in the series). But you can listen to Believe, Confess, and Repent at the following link:

Of course, that leaves us minus the sermon on baptism. I've decided not to do that one. Just kidding. I'll be gone this Sunday, so I will preach the one on baptism on Feb 6 and it should be online sometime after that.

I offer this link with some trepidation. I hate listening to my sermons. Do I really sound like that? Do I really talk that slow? Am I chewing on something? Why did I leave that part out? Why doesn't that make sense? So, I have chosen to believe that I am much better live than on tape or cd. This only applies to preaching. I am a much better friend on paper, or on facebook, than in real life. And I'm a much better basketball player when I talk about it than I am when I actually step foot on the court. But preaching? So much better live. You have to trust me on this.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Circumstances of Allegiance

I would not be a Dallas Cowboys fan today if I hadn't become one when I was six years old. Jerry Jones would make me absolutely sick (because he turns my stomach fairly frequently as it is) if it weren't for Mel Renfro, Bob Hayes, Bob Lilly, Chuck Howley, Cornell Green, Don Perkins, Lee Roy Jordan, and so on. Jerry world, with its enormous grandiosity, second only to Jerry's own overgrown sense of himself, should make me root for the Redskins. But Don Meredith and Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome...

I teased my Auburn friends that they only won the national championship over my Ducks by using "professional" players. But truth be told, any team that benefitted from Nike's largesse as much as the Ducks do would put them automatically on my root against list, except for the fact that they are the Ducks. And that means Dan Fouts, Bobby Moore (aka, Ahmad Rashad), Russ Francis, Bobby Newland, and the memories of the afternoon sunshine on my face as I sat in the endzone at Autzen stadium as a boy. So, I'm hoping that Nike continues to pump massive amounts of money into the program that produced Dave Wilcox and Norm Van Brocklin.

So, this might be an essay on how loyal I am, the facts be damned. I will admit to believing bandwagon fans to be a lower species of human life. As a sports fan, I mate for life. But what really got me thinking about this was the way the word missional gets thrown around these days. It's almost like Jerry Jones owns the word now. But I've been down with missional long before it became the buzz word. I wish I could separate the word from its use, get the Cowboys a different owner, make the Ducks respectable without the Nike money printing press. Given that I can be a grumpy purist, its possible that I might be one of those guys fighting against the word (gasp) if it weren't for the fact that I found it when I did.

I've tried to learn to live constructively with my new circumstances. I've adapted the way I talk about things over time. I try not to use the term "missional church" so much now. And I try not to use it as a catch-all adjective meaning "good." "This lunch is so missional." I try to use it these days to talk about a new missional era. And I'm convinced that its use is still worth all the trouble. It refers to something that is with us, and will be for the unforeseeable future. More, change comes through new language, and the irritating aspects of the word can serve processes of transformation.  Still, its become harder to be a fan. So I guess what you want is that when you think of missional and me, think Tom Landry, not Jimmy Johnson.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cake on a Sunday: I'm So Sick...

I'm so sick of you
So sick of me
I don't want to be with you

So go the lyrics to the catchiest tune on the new Cake cd. I would listen to the song regardless of the lyrics. It's infectious. Great beat. Thumping bass line. Great guitar work. Pleasing melody. I can't help but tap my foot and smile when the song begins. It's so happy. Except for these lyrics.

The bridge is done in semi-rap style and sets the theme of the song deeper.

Every shiny toy
That at first brings you joy
Will always start to cloy and annoy

Every camera every phone
All the music that you own
Won't change the fact you're all alone (All alone!)

Every piece of land
every city that you plan
will crumble into tiny grains of sand

This message is hardly new, though seldom is it packaged with such a catchy beat. It sounds like an Ecclesiastes update. All is vanity, even your ipad. There is nothing, it seems, free from the inevitable loss of shine, from an erosion of meaning and significance, from a going to seed.

Of all the wisdom books, I'm down most with Ecclesiastes. If one of your favorite Bible verses is from Proverbs, I'm likely to avoid you at parties or take you out in the yard and rub your face in the world. My own experience is closer to cloy and annoy. Even things that are good and have provided meaning over time can lose their ability to sustain you. 

This "all things are vanity" take is not the part of the song that makes me despair. I think that this is not only a reality, but necessary for faith to avoid the clutches of idolatry. The troubling part of the song to me is the line, "won't change the fact that you're alone." That's the zinger. Nothing worse.

So, I found comfort watching the video. It's shot in front of an abandoned building. And there are a number of requisite images to convey the less than uplifting tone of the song. But it is still performed by a band. And that is the most striking image of the video. These guys playing together. I have so often wanted to know the feeling of playing in a rock band. It is a joyful "being with." It appears on this side of things to be a way of being connected to others--in time, in space, in melody--that very little else can match. So, the song itself in all of its catchiness says to me more than the lyrics. 

"I'm so sick of you, so sick of me..." Catchy, huh?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Good News of Repentance

My hunch is that few of us have had someone say, "Repent!" and received that as a positive thing. It sounds like scolding and none of us enjoy being scolded. But when Jesus announces the nearness of the Kingdom of God in Mark 1:15, the word repent is tied to the word gospel, or good news. "The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is near; repent and believe the gospel."

I typically hear the word repent a little like the old song, "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why..." We receive it as a warning related to bad behavior. And when John the Baptist calls for repentance, its often attached to his dire warnings for the religious leaders who come to observe what is going on in the desert.

But I would point out precisely here that there were many who gladly received John's baptism of repentence. For them repentence was good news, and I think not because they felt particularly guilty about this or that sin. Rather, the appearance of an Elijah-type figure in the wilderness preaching baptism and forgiveness of sins signaled that the Kingdom of God might be finally coming. And that when the Kingdom of God comes, there might be a reversal of fortunes. The winners might be declared losers and the losers winners.

Jesus' announcement that the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom is near would certainly match this expectation. This announcement holds out the possibility that life might now be lived under different management. That regime change might be afoot. Those who benefit from the current power arrangements won't be happy, but those willing to turn their lives in the direction of the coming Kingdom of God will find themselves suddenly on the right side of history.

The Kingdom of God is not simply an improvement of conditions on the ground. The Kingdom of God is an alternative to those conditions. To belong to a new regime that exists as an alternative to all other power arrangements requires an entirely new set of commitments. To belong to the new age coming in the fullness of time necessitates more than change--it necessitates a turning, a reversal. One simply cannot stay the same and welcome the Kingdom of God.

So, repentance is the opportunity to align our lives with the interests of the coming reign of God. And to the extent that we believe that the Kingdom of God is peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, then the call to repentance will be received as good news. Repent and believe the good news.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

So, what to do about those pesky "Christian" albums that Dylan produced in the 80's. Most assessments of Dylan pan these years as a low point in his career. While his soul might have been saved, he was lost musically. He sold out, became preachy, turned his back on his previous work and his audience. You get the picture.

But I've read in the past few weeks a few reassessments of these years from Dylan devotees who had once been in that group that held that the Christian years were the low point for Dylan. Truth is, these reappraisals go, when taken now in relation to the overall body of his work, the Christian albums aren't really that much of an anomaly. In fact, some of his most interesting songs, musically speaking, are on these albums. And no one denies that Dylan is vitally engaged with the music in these works. If he's lost, no one told Dylan. And his concerts, these writers admit, were nothing if not passionate. From that standpoint, this may have actually been Dylan at his best.

So, as a theologian, it might seem that my take on this might be "told you so." I am glad if the knee-jerk because-its-Christian-it-must-be-artistically-inferior days might be waning. But that's less because I'm a theologian and more because everyone's work should be taken on its merits, Christian or not. Truthfully, as a theologian these are not his most interesting albums to me. I'm not sure what Dylan's personal beliefs are these days, but his current work is still shot through with biblical allusions and theological themes that are more interesting to me than his particular brand of theology in the "Christian" albums.

But what does interest me in this reappraisal is the issue of passion. In fact, its this characterization that makes me want to listen more deeply to these albums. I am convinced that the best art is done from the inside out, that passion communicates, that passion embodied conveys authenticity. And that passion comes and goes, or at least those times when everything is shot through with it.

I think this is true for artists, but also for being Christian. I don't think its unusual for there to be seasons when we're set on fire, completely sold-out, animated by some source of passion beyond ourselves. These are days to cherish. But I don't think it unusual for that to be only for a time. When your hair is burning, its tempting to think this is the way things should always be and that this is how everyone should be. This is understandable, and maybe we need people who are on fire to believe that so that we can remember what that's like too even if it feels a little condescending. But I think that these days mostly live on through something that burns on a little lower flame, one that doesn't flame out.

I think Dylan's recent stuff is his best, most interesting. And I don't think we get these last few cd's apart from his "Christian" period. So, here's to passion and its lingering genius.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Speaking Salvation

The day I was baptized in the cold waters of the Yamhill River, I made the "good confession." I placed myself in a line of many before me who had confessed Jesus as the Son of God as a part of my baptismal experience. My dad, who baptized me, made me repeat the confession, not just affirm it with a yes response to a question. I felt at the time that this was part of the burden of being a preacher's kid. I had a little extra duty to perform. I said after him, "I believe...that Jesus is the Christ...the Son of God." Of course, in my tradition, the really important thing came next--the baptism itself. The confession was merely the prerequisite for the thing that counted.

But I've reevaluated that moment over time. The confession, like all confessions, brought about a new state of affairs. I have a greater appreciation for Paul's statement in Romans 10, "with the heart we believe and so are justified, but with the mouth we confess and so are saved." Confession, I am convinced, does not just point to realities (though it does that for sure), but is part of what brings those realities into being. My confession that afternoon brought about a new state of affairs.

This, I realize, is a very strong view of language. I think I'm justified in this from both a philosophical and theological point of view. It will suffice here to say that in a faith that believes God speaks the world into existence, it is not too far a distance to affirm that what we say or speak participates in this larger work of creation.

From that perspective, it is not surprising to notice the numerous confessions that sprinkle the pages of the NT (and OT for that matter). Or to be struck by the pastoral epistles' insistence that Timothy and Titus focus on "healthy words" (sound doctrine) in contrast to the words of others "that eat away like gangrene." When we confess certain things, we participate in bringing about certain realities.

And this is salvation--participation in an alternative reality, in a new state of affairs. So, with the heart we believe and so are justified, and with the mouth we confess and so are saved.

Friday, January 14, 2011

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together

Today I sent students back to their primary classrooms--their ministry settings. For a week, we dwelled in Scripture, read books, talked together, laughed together, shared food, and enjoyed each other here in Rochester, Michigan. In particular, we spent the week discussing ministry issues surrounding gospel and cultures. Our time together in these intensive weeks is important and formative. But theses students do the bulk of their learning in our graduate program by being together in online community while they discern the work of God in their ministry contexts.

This group has in less than a year become an amazing learning community. They were together as a group only once before--this past August. But they found each other this week as dear friends, joined by our common work. An ethnographer would have a field day in their presence. Their community is already thickly construed, dense with stories, inside jokes, rituals, and roles. I marveled as I watched them this week.

This week, and others like them over the past year and a half, have been confirmation that we have created a powerful learning environment. We are producing missional leaders in a collaborative, collegial community. Our students live full time in Michigan, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois, and even Brazil. Yet we have a well defined, common learning space in the rhythm of intensives and online interaction. And the actual practice of ministry sets the agenda. Our conversations move more often than not from the congregation and its immediate context to the readings or course materials, not just the other way around.

I think the design of our degree has attracted a particular kind of student. And this type of student is a motivated learner who knows the stakes in play in the day-in-day-out of ministry. They are bright, ignited by theological depth. And they are interested in the frontiers of ministry, willing to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom. They are preachers, elders, youth ministers, church planters, campus ministers, church volunteers, etc. And all of them are explorers who have little patience for MWF at 9:00 am while the world is spinning around them.

My second year students, a different group, spent the week in Durham, NC. Part of that time they spent with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the "new monastic" community with which he is involved. I have received email from some of those students telling me what a rich week of learning this has been for them. And I also received today a note from Jonathan.


I wanted to write and let you know how much I (and the community here) enjoyed your group of students last weekend. Higher education is changing, and I suspect the sort of cohort model you're developing will become more and more important within the academy. But it is now and always has been good news for the church to put action and reflection on the ground, together in the same place. Was glad to be part of it and wanted to celebrate both your vision and the work you've put in to make it happen.

Peace and all good to you,


So, today I am thankful. Thankful for Rochester College who had the vision for this, especially for John Barton and Rubel Shelly who have encouraged me every step of the way. For the outstanding faculty who have been more than willing to stretch themselves, work past their familiar landmarks, and learn new ways of engaging students. And I am particularly thankful for these courageous cohorts of students who have established the validity of our vision.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

I opened my Dylan playlist today like I would a fortune cookie. What would rise to the top in random mode? Would my faith in fortune cookies be bolstered by Bob's ability to name my reality? What was I hoping for? Something like "The Times, They are a Changing." Today, I would have even taken "Rainy Day Women." But no, I got "Cry Awhile."

I like this song. There are days when its good to hear that its someone else's time to cry.

I'm on the fringes of the night, fighting back tears that I can't control 
Some people they ain't human, they got no heart or soul 
Well, I'm crying to The Lord - I'm tryin' to be meek and mild 
Yes, I cried for you - now it's your turn, you can cry awhile 

Well, there's preachers in the pulpits and babies in the cribs 
I'm longin' for that sweet fat that sticks to your ribs 
I'm gonna buy me a barrel of whiskey - I'll die before I turn senile 
Well, I cried for you - now it's your turn, you can cry awhile 

Well, you bet on a horse and it ran on the wrong way 
I always said you'd be sorry and today could be the day 
I might need a good lawyer, could be your funeral, my trial 
Well, I cried for you, now it's your turn, you can cry awhile

Your funeral. My trial. I know the sentiment. But I wasn't willing for that to be today's fortune. So, I hit random again. Like a Rolling Stone? Ring Them Bells? Shake, Shake Momma? Nope. I got Most of the Time.

Now, this is absolutely one of the greatest Dylan tunes ever. It's easily one of my top two or three favorites. But its not the most uplifting song. Here Dylan's trying to convince himself he's over the woman he loved. Why he hardly thinks of her at all, "most of the time." Which is this sad song's way of saying "all of the time."

Most of the time my head is on straight
Most of the time I'm strong enough not to hate
I don't build up illusion 'til it makes me sick
I ain't afraid of confusion no matter how thick
I can smile in the face of mankind
Don't even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time.

OK, one more try to wrest a happy fortune from Dylan. Hit the random play again and get "When the Deal Goes Down." A touching song to be sure. But I was hoping for something more uplifting than death. Good thing I don't believe in fortune cookies.

So, I thought about changing artists, just for this Sunday, to come up with something a little brighter. Unfortunately, my itunes seems to be missing artists who are uplifting. This explains a lot. It made me think of the opening lines from the movie High Fidelity: 

"What came first? Music or the misery? We worry about kids playing with guns or some kind of violent videos where a culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs, about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listen to pop music?"

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Top Ten Covers

Just playing around yesterday, wondering if I could come up with the top ten covers in my itunes library. It was hard. Even with a fairly high standard for consideration, I had over 25 songs in my first cut. And I've left a lot of really good ones on the cutting floor to get down to ten. Johnny Cash's covers of  Hurt and Personal Jesus, Lenny Kravitz's cover of American Woman, Sheryl Crow's Sweet Child of Mine, Antony's cover of Knockin on Heaven's Door. You get the idea.

But here are my current favorite 10.

10. Sweet Jane, Cowboy Junkies. Two Velvet Underground songs make my list. You know you have a good cover when its kind of the definitive take on the song. And I think the Cowboy Junkies's version is the definitive one.

9. Ain't No Sunshine, Tyrone Wells. Stripped down. Peel the paint of the wall vocal. And a live recording. I get goose bumps every time I listen to it.

8. Masters of War, Pearl Jam. This is a stunning cover of the Dylan classic. They played it live after the beginning of the Iraq war. Vedder's vocals, the great guitar work, the moment in which they performed it. Awesome.

7. Oh! Sweet Nuthin', My Morning Jacket. I love how versatile these guys are. This was from their Bonaroo performance. Some covers are great because they do something new with an old standard. This one's great because they capture something of the original. Again, Velvet Underground.

6. Ain't that a Shame, Cheap Trick. I know, how could I leave off Johnny Cash and keep Cheap Trick. But I love this version of the old Fats Domino song. The guitars are so good, the build up so powerful, the vocals so cheeky. I always want to dance when I hear it.

5. She Said, She Said, Black Keys. The distortion they add to the Beatles' familiar guitar riff makes this a different song. And I like it. I can never just hear this once.

4. One, Johnny Cash. The emotion and gravity in his voice make this great song feel even more important. Johnny Cash doing U2. Pretty great.

3. Ramble On, Train. Who would've thought. Train covering Zeppelin. But I love, love this cover. I think I might like it better than Zeppelin's version. Great voice. Great guitars. Pretty straightforward cover. It's on the Knight's Tale soundtrack.

2. Hard to Handle, The Black Crowes. I would not advise anyone to cover Otis Redding. But they do, and this is the definitive version of this song. Great guitar riffs and amazing vocal. Just a fun, fun song.

1. Rusty Cage, Johnny Cash. Cash does Soundgarden. Go figure. These are amazing lyrics and Johnny Cash was meant to sing them. "You wired me awake and hit me with a hand of broken nails. You tied my lead and pulled my chain to watch my blood begin to boil...When the forest burns along the road like God's eyes in my headlights, when the dogs are looking for their bones and ice picks are raining on your steel shores..." And the Rick Rubin arrangement is great. I love this song.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


In Mark's gospel, Jesus comes proclaiming the "gospel of God," saying, "the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe the gospel." The last three words in this statement have always stood out to me. Most good news I am predisposed to believe. I think that this is because most of what I consider good news already conforms to what I value or believe. But this good news is connected to the word "repent," which indicates that believing might require me to see the world differently. Belief might require quite a risk, and seeing this announcement as good news might fight against my natural inclinations.

Whether or not you believe that this announcement of Jesus constitutes good news, the truth is there is no hope for anything beyond the way things are now unless there is some announcement of a reality that requires us to see things differently. And in the New Testament, the thing to believe to make a difference is often the resurrection.

Paul says in Romans 10, "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." So, here's a reflection on "believe with your heart" and "you will be saved" in anticipation of Sunday's sermon.

I am convinced that "believe" in the New Testament means more than just intellectual assent. Believe here is something rooted in the heart, in our will and imagination. I want to be careful here not to make belief a quantifiable, a measurement by which we are thrown into perpetual anxiety about whether or not we truly believe. For instance, I think it is possible to "believe with your heart" and still entertain doubt, to still have moments of despair. What I think Paul has in mind here is the notion that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus (not the belief in resurrection in general, but belief in the specific person Jesus and what his life represents--that God honors this particular existence) evokes an entirely different world of possibility with an entirely new set of commitments and practices. And its not hard to tell if your life is oriented in a different direction in anticipation of a different reality even if we lack purity or consistency.

The most obvious difference here is that we no longer set our affections in life as if death has the final word. And this sets in motions all kinds of other commitments. We reckon time differently. It would be hard to prove from my life perhaps, but I think it would make mid-life less of a crisis. It would change what counts for progress or success and change our evaluations around words like strong and weak. And these kinds of changes are important in embracing the particular life to which Jesus calls people. The life of the Kingdom of God is full of risk. It requires us to love enemies, to turn the other cheek, to go the other mile, to always forgive. These kinds of commitments are unsustainable, and have been deemed by many Christians impractical and unrealistic, apart from a belief in the heart that God raised the one who lived like this from the dead. It is belief in the resurrection that makes sense of language like "whoever would save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Kingdom will save it." This life is never wasted. God always honors it.

And this is what saves us. It's not simply checking the box "true" next to the statement "God raised Jesus from the dead." "Saved" is the actual lived existence of people who have chosen to live in a life framed by the world imagined by the reality of the resurrection of Jesus.

On a personal note, I frequently despair here. I often find myself living within a different frame of reference that suggests that I am the only one that can guarantee the kind of life I want or deserve or need. And I have from time to time serious doubts about the possibility of an actual resurrection in the first place. I think "believe in the heart" has to combine both the intellectual and practical side of this equation (notice here that I am not contrasting head and heart, intellect and emotion). There are times when my practice fails to point to my belief in this reality. In times like that, my understanding keeps me in the game. And in those times when my understanding fails, my commitments to practicing a particular way of life keeps me in the game. And all of this under the prayer, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief."

Monday, January 3, 2011

Shame on Me

I got a letter today. It's one of those letters. I keep them and read them every now again to remind myself not to take myself too seriously.

"Mark Love. You are destroying the church all for your fifty pieces of silver. Shame on you."

That was it. Unsigned. You would think someone with this kind of literary skill would want to take credit for the work.

I have some notion of where it came from. I have been informing congregations in Ontario and Eastern Michigan (at their invitation) about participating in Partnership for Missional Church, and one congregation in particular has some very dedicated members who have taken to sending me discouraging email. This person, if I am correct, has never met me, heard me speak, etc. I'm afraid if they knew me, they'd be a little disappointed.

When I receive mail like this, and I have received my share, I always wonder what they imagine my response might be. I doubt they even think about it. It's not really about me, clearly, but about whatever need they have to respond to fears of their world under siege. I imagine, though, that they might be disappointed to know that these just make me smile.

I chuckled the most with the attempt to shame at the end. I wondered whose mother they were trying to evoke, mine or theirs?

I think I'm rather impressive in this letter. I am a colossus, wrecking the church, evidently worse than even Judas himself since my pay is twenty pieces of silver greater. It makes me wonder if I'm working the wrong side of this, from a monetary point of view.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Sean Wilentz, in his new book Dylan in America, writes the following: "Anyone interested in Dylan’s body of work must face the challenge of owning its paradoxical combination of tradition and defiance." I love this statement, especially the "paradoxical combination of tradition and defiance" bit. As I noted in my last post on preaching, a vivid, living voice always combines both strong elements of continuity and discontinuity. There has to be both traditional and subversive elements. I like Wilentz's choice of the word defiance in this regard.

We have no choice about the tradition part. None of us are born free of the moments or movements that come before us. Some of us live under the illusion of being the first human (e.g. Alexander Campbell's desire to read Scripture as if no one had ever read it before), but I would argue that those persons who are tagged with the adjective "original" are often those most acutely aware of how they stand in relation to what has come before. In fact, what is new is often not the evasion or usurping of the old, but the fusing of various traditions.

What we do have some say about is our relationship to the traditions we receive given our level of awareness. Some of us are content to stay within the smooth banks of what has been handed to us. Though even this represents some form of change, since we never do the same thing in the exact same situation--we never wade into the same stream, it is always moving. The meaning of the event, even for those content with simply mimicking, is therefore never the same. One can never go home.

Using some of the same logic, the decision to be subversive or "defiant" is also ironically what keeps a tradition vital and alive. Subversiveness extends the life of a category. And Dylan does this well. Even when Dylan "plugged in," he still saw himself extending the musical influences that had brought him to that moment. According to Wiletz, he is acutely aware of himself as a minstrel, a vaudevillean, a troubador. He is keeping these traditions alive by blending them, bending them, and even defying them. He is original precisely because he is so vitally aware of various historical streams.

So, here's my hypothesis: the more thickly construed one's sense of the world inherited, the more articulated that sense is, the greater the possibilities for creativity, for newness, for originality. More, the greater we understand how we have been thrown into the reality we now occupy, the more likely our acts of defiance and subversion will be life giving.