Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dylan on a Sunday

Today was a pretty great day for someone who writes a regular blog called Dylan on a Sunday. He performed on the Grammy awards. It wasn't the greatest performance. He croaked out a quick version of Maggie's Farm. What made it a great night was that he performed with two newer groups that I really like--Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers. An inspired grouping. But back to this in a minute.

I feared I wouldn't be home in time to see them perform because I spent the early evening watching the Portland Trailblazers play the Detroit Pistons live in Auburn Hills. I'm a huge Blazer fan, have been since their expansion year, 1970. Who else knows that their original starting five were Rick Adleman, Geoff Petrie, Gary McGregor, Jim "Crazy Legs" Barnett, and Leroy Ellis? So, I'd go to see the Blazers any chance I get.

But it was even better to watch them tonight, because the Pistons honored my friend, Garth Pleasant. Garth is retiring after 38 years of coaching at Rochester College. They gave Garth courtside seats right next to the Blazers bench and I sat with him for warm-ups and the entire first quarter. There's nothing like it. The game is so powerful when you see it from that level. And it was so great to be that close to the players on the bench as the play developed--to see their reactions, the way they root for each other and laugh at each other. I was within feet of Lamarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Nate McMillan, and Buck Williams. I know its ridiculous, but I was on cloud nine.

Rudy Fernandez, the Blazers back-up guard, nearly jumped out of his skin when the Pistons introduced their starters. The Pistons use these massive flame throwers at either end of the court to announce each player. Its loud and produces amazingly intense heat. Rudy was not prepared for the first blast and his teammates had great fun at his expense. I like that I was part of that. I was struck by other things I would never have necessarily known. This team loves Joel Pryzbilla, the back-up center who is just coming back from a serious leg injury. And Andre Miller, their aging, slowish point guard gets massive respect from his teammates.

And the tribute to Garth was great. They gave him a framed Pistons jersey with his name on it. They interviewed him in front of the crowd. And they had him shoot free throws for charity. I groaned a bit when he bricked the first one and banked the second one in. But from there on, he was money. Nothing but net. Lots of money for charity. Way to go Garth.

The Blazers won. So, I would have been happy with my choice even if it meant that I would miss Dylan and company. I walked into the house and turned on the television just in time for the first note of Mumford and Sons. Perfect. And they just killed it. They performed with such power and passion. They made the Avett Brothers look tame, which is no small feat. Both bands performed well. So, Dylan was just the cherry on top.

They had reported on Paste's website beforehand what songs Mumord and Avett were doing, but they didn't know what Dylan would do. Given the folk-ish flavor of his playing partners, I thought it would be something from his early stuff, and I swear I thought about Maggie's Farm being the perfect choice. Full of attitude, energy, protest. I've decided for myself, I'm not gonna work on Maggie's farm anymore. So, when he started croaking out the words, I just smiled.

He looked and sounded old next to his playing mates. His shirt was tucked in like an old man's with his pants kind of hiked up around his waist.  His voice was a croak. He wasn't playing a guitar or his keyboard, so he looked a little awkward just standing there "singing." But the whole thing was worth it just to see how much Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers were into it. They played with Bob Dylan. It would be a little like what it was like for me being in the Blazers' huddle tonight, only a thousand times better.

The days that all the tumblers fall together are rare. Many days things like awe and wonder and thankfulness are practices. We have to remember to keep them alive through disciplines. But some days they wait for us, stalk us, pry us open. Today is one of those days for me, and I think it is likely also one for Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers. And it is linked to those other days that have been like that for me. Thick with sensory memory. Perfect.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Baptism and Rene Descartes

This past Sunday marked my last sermon in a series on the "five-finger" exercise. That meant a sermon on baptism--the big enchilada where Churches of Christ are concerned. If you're interested in the entire sermon, you can find it (give it a few days) at

Here, I just want to talk about one point I made in the sermon. The idea that being a Christian without the experience of baptism is a fairly recent phenomenon. To my knowledge, it is only a recent development (within the last 150 years?) that baptism has been seen as optional or even unnecessary. Before that, people argued about the mode or proper subject of baptism, but not about its necessity. So, why this recent development.

As with all problems I experience in life, I blame Rene Descartes. I am kidding, mostly. It's not Descartes himself, but a legacy that exalts the interior of the individual as the place of ultimate reality. Decartes' dictum, "I think, therefore, I am," captures a prevalent impulse that locates what is most real within the individual conscience. The real action takes place, not external to me or even involving my body, but within me. So, we say things like "baptism is the outward sign of an inward reality." What's important here? The interior of the individual. And who am I as an individual? The sum of my thoughts and feelings. Baptism is only important as it relates to those, which means sometimes it is not important at all.

This exalting of the interior of the individual corresponds to understandings of language, symbols, and rituals that also characterize the Enlightenment and certain "modern" notions. Symbols only point to reality, they don't participate in it. Words only point to what is real. Rituals, like baptism, are "mere rituals" or "only symbolic" of greater realities. And because all the real action happens inside me, what's real doesn't need to be mediated to me through a sign or language or ritual, it comes to me directly.

It is not surprising, in light of this, that evangelicalism in North America, the reigning champion of this view of the individual, would diminish the importance of baptism. Lest we are too hard on evangelicals, however, it is important for those of us within Churches of Christ to recognize our own affinity with this view of life and the sideways way we attached it to baptism. The same impulse, for instance, that privileges the interior of the individual in relation to baptism also allows an individual to feel justified in switching congregations if they are personally dissatisfied. Or, this impulse is present in the primary ways we evaluate worship. "I enjoyed that today." Or, "That didn't connect with me at all." We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about how our worship will connect with the interiors of individuals.

Part of the Enlightenment impulse related to the individual also had to do with notions of progress and self-mastery. The appeal of baptism for many early Stone-Campbell leaders was precisely because it was something we could do to guarantee our salvation. Ironically, it was a way to guarantee our standing before God apart from tradition--a naked (no, not literally) encounter between the individual and God.

I want to put baptism in a different light. Like all things, if it is saving, baptism is something God does through the mediation of others--community, water, Spirit, death and resurrection of Jesus, etc. Second, symbols and rituals do not only mimic or point to realities, they help to create them. They are not simply substitutes for something more real. They accomplish something in ways that other, perhaps more straightforward, accounts of things can't. Baptism does something real that is greater than whatever it is going on inside of us. Finally, the measure of all things is not the interior life of the individual. We are persons and have identities not because we are self-conscious, but precisely because we are conscious of the other. As individuals, we are not the measure of the meaning of life. The saving work of God on our behalf comes through our bodily participation in a community called into the realities of the work of Jesus. Baptism enacts this very reality. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dylan on a Super Sunday

Today we get the Black Eyed Peas for our Super Bowl entertainment. I'm good with that. I like watching them perform. And its a bit of a switch up from recent performers. The past few years have gone more the living legend route--The Who, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty. They've needed acts that don't give them any wardrobe malfunction worries.

So, I say why not Dylan. No wardrobe malfunction worries here. (You're shaking yourself, aren't you). This got me to thinking what the set list might be for a Dylan Super Bowl. What three songs would he do?

Before I give you my lists, I think its worth noting that a recent Dylan tour was of minor league baseball parks. There's something classic about that, something pure. And the Super Bowl, in contrast, has become the most silicone-enhanced, over-hyped, steroid-ridden celebration of consumption we experience in American culture. So, wardrobe malfunction safe aside, Dylan would be an ironic choice.

Given the nature of the Super Bowl and my own Dylan favorites, I'd choose the following:

Things Have Changed--One of my favorite Dylan songs. This song is up-beat enough to get the crowd moving. And the jaded lyrics would be the perfect counter to Super Bowl hype--"I used to care, but things have changed."

Beyond Here Lies Nothin'--In the same vein, and off the most recent cd. I'd go with Cold Irons Bound in this place, but its just too long. Beyond Here Lies Nothin' rolls. It's shorter. And it would again suggest that this "super" thing might have gotten a little out of control.

Highway 61 Revisited--I would love to hear Dylan's current band get after this classic. It's a fun Dylan song, a great one to end on and would again send the message that people will watch nearly anything if you set up grandstands. "Now the rovin gambler...was trying to create the next world war. He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor...He said I think it can be easily done. We'll just put some bleachers in the sun out on Highway 61."

I'm thinking though, that he'd have to go with more familiar tunes. Old standards that everyone would recognize. So, a more realistic playlist would be as follows:

Like a Rolling Stone. This would get the crowd going. How does it fee-ul?

But then we dim the stadium lights and bring the mood down. We give everyone something da-glo to waive. Dylan sings Knockin on Heaven's Door. And the 20-something nudges his dad and says, "He's doing Guns and Roses!"

We end with an updated The Times They are a Changin'. The band rocks it out. There are pictures of Egypt on the big screen. We'll end by remembering that the Super Bowl is just a game. "Your sons and your daughters are beyond your control..."

Either list, I'm good.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope

I'm cruising through N. T. Wright's recent book, Surprised by Hope, (on my mother's ipad--don't get me started) marking quotes. Part of Wright's thesis in this book, close to the work in my dissertation, is that our truncated views of salvation also truncate our understandings of mission. I read Wright's stuff about hope and I think, "amen." But it dawned on me as I read that some of what he's saying many Christians would find shocking. Do these shock you?

"It comes as something of a shock, in fact, when people are told what is in fact the case: that there is very little in the Bible about "going to heaven when you die" and not a lot about a postmortem hell either."

"The wonderful description in Rev 4 and 5 of the 24 elders casting their crowns before the throne of God and the lamb, beside the sea of glass, is not, despite Charles Wesley's great hymns, a picture of the last day, with all the redeemed in heaven at last. It is a picture of present reality, the heavenly dimension of our present life."

Wright finds troubling the view of the future in these classic hymn lryics.

"Till in the ocean of thy love
We lost ourselves in heaven above."

"Heaven's morning breaks and earth's vain shadows flee..."

He writes, "Some of the hymns in the revivalist and charismatic traditions slip easy into the mistake, cognate as we shall see with misleading views of the "second coming," of suggesting that Jesus will return to take his people away from earth and "home" to heaven. Thus declares that wonderful hymn, "How Great Thou Art," in its final stanza, declares:
              When Christ shall come, with shout of acclimation,
               And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
The second line might better read, "And heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart."

Wright points out that in the climactic scene in Revelation, the saints are not taken up into heaven, but the new Jerusalem comes down to earth. Moreover, he suggests that our preoccupation with heaven as a home owes much to a spiritualizing tendency (Platonic?) that simply doesn't appear in the NT, and with consequences.

"English evangelicals gave up believing in the urgent imperative to improve society (such as we find with Wilberforce in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) about the same time that they gave up believing robustly in the resurrection and settled for a disembodied heaven instead."

"Much Christian and sub-Christian tradition has assumed that we do all indeed have souls that need saving, and that the soul, if saved, will be the part of us that goes to heaven when we die. All this, however, finds minimal support in the New Testament, including the teaching of Jesus, where the word soul, though rare, reflects ...what we would call the whole person..."

"Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize this enough, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word as a synonym for life after death in the popular sense."

"The early Christians hold firmly to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world."

"Only in the late second century, a good 150 years after the time of Jesus, do we find people using the word resurrection to mean something quite different than what it meant in Judaism and early Christianity, namely (what people came to believe later), a spiritual experience in the present leading to a disembodied hope in the future."

Enough? To be fair to Wright, I've lifted these out of context. The blows are likely easier to take in context, Still, he does mess with most of our understandings of the future, but only because he thinks there's something more promising in the biblical understanding. So, read the book to get the full picture.

p.s., for those of view looking for an alternative to marcus borg, et al, this is a good place to go.