Sunday, December 28, 2008

Motor Oilish Beer and Christian Hypocrisy: Audio Version

A couple months ago I posted a brief argument regarding ‘The Problem of Christian Hypocrisy which I expanded into a talk. A couple weeks ago I gave the talk again at my brother’s church. My wife said it wasn’t nearly as good[1], but I think it does the job. It includes some thoughs on the Historical Injustices of the Church as well. The mp3 is here.

If the topic interests you, I also recommend Dr. Os Guinness[2] on the topic here. Guinness actually contradicts me at one point, but that is part of the fun of taking on these questions.

[1] I was sick, jet lagged, teaching for the 3rd time that day and my rhetorical style was not thriving in the southern milieu, shaking my confidence a bit.
[2] Yes, THAT Guinness. He starts with a hilarious anecdote about the family business. It is worth clicking on the link just to hear this story. The great thing about an apologist in the beer industry is that he tends to not be constrained by standard strictures of propriety observed by many Christian speakers (which he evidences in the Q&A).

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Singularity of Bethlehem

I am always looking for ways to make Christmas an actual celebration of the event of Incarnation. By rejecting the liturgical year but keeping Christmas, Protestants have left themselves with a single day that can not bear the weight of all the expectations (both Christian and ‘secular’) that we have put on it. So for the last 5 years or so I have tried to embrace the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, working advent readings into my devotions and observing Christmas for more than just the 25th (as the church historically has done). So I am always looking for new ways to make Advent and Christmas reflective and worshipful.

Recently I have been leaning on poetry. This year I tried to create some. I challenged myself to write a poem in the last week of Advent that I would post regardless of its quality on Christmas Eve. I have already given my disclaimer for my brutal poetry, but I recently encountered this quote in Martian Luther’s Bondage of the will:

“What if any one, intending to compose a poem…should never think about, or inquire into his abilities, what he could do, and what he could not do…what would you think of such a poet?”

Hopefully you would think well of such a poet…or at least one who has considered his abilities, found them wanting, and tried any way.

The Singularity of Bethlehem

A misplaced star
awkwardly indicates
the singularity of Bethlehem.

The God-man paradox
even more befuddling
in its God-baby instance.

The infinite packed into
an adorable, finite vessel
Glory squished so dense.

The intractable mystery
suffers not from a deficit of intelligibility,
but a surplus.

God con-carne, meated
redeeming and ennobling flesh.

God soils his swaddle.
Meconium declares the glory of God.
The co-suffer has come to share our shit.

Wizards from distant deserts
and sheep wranglers from proximal hills
seekers and the sought
worship the baby

‘Who can abide the day of his coming’
Today as a helpless baby
Tomorrow, tatted up and into swords.

This annual training in waiting.

Well if you got through that, here is one of my favorite actual poems that I use in my Advent devotions. I don’t know if it is actually a Christmas poem (or even a Christian Poem), but it certainly does the job:

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, not seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Leap incandescent

Out of the kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then ---
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel.
For that rare, random descent.

-Sylvia Plath

Have a great Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Is the ‘Neon Bible’ Right?

The Arcade Fire[1] is indisputably one of the most successful indi/alternative rock bands of the last 5 years. I honestly wish I had a nickel for every chat room or comment block mention of them as ‘the greatest rock band of our generation.’ So I approached their first album, Funeral, with eager expectation. While I found the hyperbole overstated, it was a very fine album with fertile themes of community, neighborhood, family and the human condition. The Arcade Fire certainly falls on the list of my favorite things that are Canadian with hockey, beaver tails[2], Toronto, Banff, the Burgess Shale, Samantha Bee, the Drumheller dinosaur museum, the ‘two-ny’[3] and our friends Richie and Allen. So I moved on to their second album with heightened expectation.

The first time I listened to Neon Bible, I knew it was a thematically provocative piece. As pipe organs and orchestras swelled I caught lines like:

“…It's in the Neon Bible, the Neon Bible…”

“…Working for the Church while your family dies…”

“…Dear God, I'm a good Christian manIn your glory, I know you understandThat you gotta work hard and you gotta get paid…”

But, because their lovely artistic mumbling I didn’t catch half the words until my third time through it. By then I was pretty sure that it was an acerbic anti-Christian album. But after many more listens and a careful reading of the lyrics, I think it is far more complicated than that. Neon Bible is unquestionably dark. It is bitter and cynical about culture, commerce, media and the church. But upon more careful reading, I don’t really think they are making a full frontal attack on Christianity or faith. There is no doubt that faith is the pejorative theme of the work, but it is not so much faith itself, but the unholy alliances it makes with politics, television, celebrity culture, consumerism and the like. Win said in one interview “There's definitely an aspect of religion always combining with culture and becoming a third thing.” I think this idea is the thematic heart of the album. In this sense, it is a prophetic album, with themes that I often resonate with. Here are some thoughts on the most overtly spiritual tracks. But since this is an interpretive exercise it will also be a reflection on hermeneutics[4] in general:

Neon Bible

A vial of hope and a vial of pain
In the light they both looked the same
Poured them out on into the world
On every boy and every girl

It's in the Neon Bible, the Neon Bible
Not much chance for survival
If the Neon Bible is right

Take the poison of your age
Don't lick your fingers when you turn the page
What I know is what you know is right
In the city it's the only light

I have read a wide variety of interpretations of the title track. They range from the wholesale dismissal of Christianity to a critique of television.

The former interpretation takes its clues from “Not much chance for survivalIf the Neon Bible is right”

The latter takes the opening verse as a description of how the news delivers genocide and famine (a vial of pain) in precisely the same ‘entertainment’ medium as it reports amusing trifles or stories of beauty, justice or courage (A vial of hope…/In the light they look the same)

I think the meaning is something between these. In an interview Regine said that she thought of the title when she saw a church with a neon sign.[5] But there are themes of Television and consumerism as well. I think, fundamentally, they are decrying the contamination of religion in general and Christianity in particular with the more vapid aspects of our culture.

The king's taken back the throne
The useless seed is sown
When they say they're cutting off the phone
I tell 'em you're not home

No place to hide
You were fighting as a soldier on their side
You're still a soldier in your mind
Though nothing's on the line

Who's gonna throw the very first stone?
Oh! Who's gonna reset the bone?
Walking with your head in a sling
Wanna hear the solider sing:
"Been working for the Church while my family dies
Your little baby sister's gonna lose her mind
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home"
Hear the soldier groan "We'll go at it alone.

This is the most obvious Rorschach of the album. Many think it is about Bush and Iraq and the idea of a Holy war. I think that is pretty likely. If I could employ the hermeneutic of analogy
[6] it fits in with the larger theme of contaminating Christianity with the dark institutions of our world…in this case, politics.

But this interpretation does not seem to account for all of the themes. And so since I have nothing else regarding an ‘authorial intent’ interpretation, let me give you some reader response.

This song reminded me of the many soldiers I know
[7] that subsequently went into the ministry.
The line "Been working for the Church while my family dies” also conjures the image of my broken propensity to put the programs of the church above my responsibility to be emotionally and temporally available to my family. I actually think this second point fits into my hypothesized, overall theme, of human institutions as impediments to faith. I love the Church,
[8] but the church’s programs can undermine its mandate.

"Antichrist Television Blues"

I don't wanna work in a building downtown
No I don't wanna work in a building downtown
I don't know what I'm gonna do
Cause the planes keep crashing always two by two…

Dear God, I'm a good Christian man
In your glory, I know you understand
That you gotta work hard and you gotta get paid
My girl's 13 but she don't act her age
She can sing like a bird in a cage
O Lord, if you could see her when she's up on that stage!...

Wanna hold a mirror up to the world
So that they can see themselves inside my little girl!

Do you know where I was at your age?
Any idea where I was at your age?
I was working downtown for the minimum wage
And I'm not gonna let you just throw it all away!
I'm through being cute, I'm through being nice
O tell me, Lord, am I the Antichrist?!

This is, without a doubt, the most disturbing song on the album. The interpretive key is
that it used to have a working title ‘Joe Simpson.[9]’ If this is true the line “So that they can see themselves inside my little girl!” is beyond disturbing.
Like the political interpretation of Intervention, this track paints a picture of a man who uses his faith to justify, or even encourage him to throw his daughters under the machine of our celebrity culture.

My Body’s a Cage

I'm standing on a stage
Of fear and self-doubt
It's a hollow play
But they'll clap anyway…

I'm living in an age
That calls darkness light
Though my language is dead
Still the shapes fill my head

I'm living in an age
Whose name I don't know
Though the fear keeps me moving
Still my heart beats so slow…

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key

Set my spirit free
Set my spirit free
Set my body free

To me, the most obvious interpretation of this is a longing to be free of moral corruption. In Paul’s words:

1Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

There is very little doubt in my mind that that is eisegesis based on my perspectival biases. Yet for lack of a better interpretation I am going to go with it, making My Body’s a Cage my favorite track.

[1] The band is built around a husband wife team of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, is based in Quebec and is known for nearly orchestral arrangements. Both Funeral and Neon Bible were nominated for Grammys
[2] Not the actual tails, they are far too chewy. This is a version of fried dough we used to get every time we went to ottowa on family trips which was more than anually
[3] Canada’s first dollar coin had a loon on it so they named it ‘the loony.’ When the two dollar coin came out it was just an exercise in theme and variation.
[4] The study and practice of interpretation.
[5] My favorite part of this interview is when Regine talks about the church the bought to record in and says ‘It is funny that they get turned into condos where no one speaks to their neighbour. Nobody even knows who lives next door!’
[6] This is an interpretive method that suggests that if a certain pericope proves resistant to interpretation you should, at least, bound your interpretation by the themes of the larger work. Of course the problem with the hermeneutic of analogy is that if you get the overall theme wrong you will find many pericopes difficult to harmonize and will just impose your erroneous interpretation on them…which I may very well, in fact, be doing here.
[7] I became a Christian at an on base youth ministry at Ft Drum in Northern NY. Much of my early spiritual development was overseen by mentors that received much of theirs from the West Point Navigators chapter.
[8] I will post on this idea soon.
[9] The ex-pastor single parent father of Jessica and Ashley

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Explanation of Fantasy Ink

Every six months or so Bill Simmons re-pitches an excellent idea for an annual NBA publication. He proposes a document that contains pictures of players’ tattoos (by team) accompanied by explanations of what the ink means and why they chose it. I would SO read that. I find the psychology of tattoos fascinating…mainly because I am thinking about getting one. Here is a goofy fake interview which is how I would like my page to read in the Simmons Guide to NBA Tattoos if (A) if my unguarded field goal percentage didn’t hover around 7% and (B) if I actually had a tattoo:

‘Sacramento Kings’ twelfth man[1] Stanford Gibson (#7) has a single tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. It is a mixture of traditional and unconventional body art themes featuring a skull (traditional) held pensively by some sort of robed monk (untraditional). Here is the conversation we had with him:

SG: It was inspired by Caravaggio’s St Francis in Prayer . It is an existential theme that life is most fully experienced in light of our mortality.
SGTNT: So, it’s sort of a Heidegger thing you’ve got going on.

SG: I’m closer to Kierkegaard than Heidegger. And actually, I’d like to think I’m closer to Jesus than either of them. Meditation on mortality is a source of joy rather than despair. And I think the figure of Francis illustrates this more than almost any one else living or dead. He was a man of desperate joy and he lived like he knew that each of his moments was filled with ultimate value. I think this is, in a strange way, what the Christian and the secular existentialist have in common. For a Sartre or a Camus each moment was filled with ultimate value because this life is all we have. For Francis and the rest of us who hope in Christ, each moment is filled with ultimate value because the implications reverberate through eternity. Remember, two of the three authors[2] credited as proto-existentialists were Christians. The movement has its roots in both visions of ultimate value.

SGTNT: When did you get it and why?

SG: It was in my early 30’s when I was diagnosed with Graves Disease. I felt like I was too young to be loosing organs[3]. But it connected me experientially to my mortality at a relatively young age. I got the tattoo as a reminder of the ultimate value of each moment. There is a line from one of my favorite ancient poems[4] that pretty much articulates why I got it: “The length of our days is seventy years-eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass and we fly away…Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

The other thing is that I was raised to think that getting a tattoo was the surest sign of poor judgment because you have it forever. But that is precisely why I got it. Because I won’t have it forever. It has an expiration date that is approximately the same as mine. I will only have the thing for something between 30 seconds and 60 years. It is a reminder to both celebrate the deterioration of my body and to struggle with each breath to make my few moments count.

[1]Another Simmons theory is that NBA teams go about 7 to 9 deep and have no need for their 12th man, so they should use the slot as a marketing scheme and make it a blogger like Paul Shirley. I am afraid that that is as far as my imagination can take this.
[2] Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche
[3] The main treatment for Graves disease is to ingest a dose of radioactive iodine that kills your thyroid.
[4] Psalm 90