Monday, December 21, 2009

The Noughties: Best of the Decade 2000-2009

Okay. As of today here is my "Best/Top" list for the Noughties--the decade of 2000-2009. There's 7 of each because it's more than 5 and less than 10, as well as being biblical and all, and they're not in a particular order. I didn't put comments on each one because these aren't reviews, and all really should be experienced more than talked about. Some criteria include media I actually consumed (never got into Lost or saw City of God, for example, so such things were off the table), cultural relevance (so none of my especially weird, obscure stuff) and, of course, artistic merit (sorry Britney Spears, though "Toxic" was pretty brilliant). I especially tried to include stuff that, looking back, had strong ties to the decade that was, whether starting trends or voicing a zeitgeist. Check it out, laud or bash away, expand your horizons, add your questions, comments, or snide remarks. And Happy 2010!

Best Albums:

All That You Can't Leave Behind (U2)--After a decade (90s) ending with boy bands and pop-tarts, U2 came along and saved rock n' roll.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (Various)--Gave attention to the genius of T-Bone Burnett and opened a huge window for a revival of roots music, seen in the new folk and bluegrass-influenced bands.

Kid A (Radiohead)

Elephant (The White Stripes)

A Rush of Blood to the Head (Coldplay)--The Coldplay people were remembering when they were lauding Viva la Vida. Had they kept in this direction, it wouldn't have become fashionable to hate Coldplay.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Wilco)

The Rising (Bruce Springsteen)--What we needed after 9/11. What we still need.

Best Songs:

"Hey Ya!" (Outkast)--Irresistible dance/pop/hip-hop/funk in the tradition of Pariliament/Funkadelic. You know you loved to "shake it...shake-sh-shake it like a Polaroid picture"!

"Clocks" (Coldplay)--The song that was on every TV commercial and was copied by so many other bands...and for good reason.

"American Idiot" (Green Day)

"Paper Planes" (M.I.A.)--Stirred up all kinds of trouble in a kicky, pop way.

"Crazy" (Gnarls Barkley)--Same Funkadelic pool as Outkast--much more sinister, haunting, and melodic.

"The Rising" (Bruce Springsteen)

"Beautiful Day" (U2)--Because there were few better comments on the times than the images of tuna fleets, Bedouin fires, and oil fields juxtaposed with the bird with a leaf in her mouth and the post-flood rainbow.

Best Movies:

The Lord of the Rings (trilogy)

No Country for Old Men

Memento--Brilliant example of the trend of non-linear storytelling (see also Mulholland Drive, Adaptation), with a gripping, classic "amnesia" action plot to boot (a la North by Northwest).

Juno--Heralding a fresh era of fresh indie filmmaking, movies like this one and Little Miss Sunshine are examples that sharp writing in the hands of strong actors and directors all telling an honest story can still result in classic films. And a superb soundtrack doesn't hurt, either.

Man on Wire

Knocked Up--The best (so far) of the Apatow company and their heartwarming, offensive, immoral morality plays.

Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2--If there's any doubt that Tarantino is the best of his generation, these perfections of the spaghetti western/samurai genre should put them to rest. Just give the man a genre and he'll master it.

Best TV:

The Office

Curb Your Enthusiasm--You only thought Seinfeld was over. It just moved to HBO and got better!

The Sopranos

The Daily Show with John Stewart--What sharper commentary can there be on our times than the fact that truth in media is found on a "fake" news show.

The West Wing

Arrested Development--Because I couldn't quite get The Royal Tennenbaums on my best movies list. This show was ahead of its time and would likely be a hit if debuting today.

Battlestar Galactica

Best Books:

The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)

Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser)

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (David Foster Wallace)--A writer's-writer, including depression and suicide, Wallace's use of our native tongue is like discovering a strange city under the floorboards of your kitchen.

Simply Christian (N.T. Wright)--Simultaneously carrying the mantle of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity apologetics, while heading in the very different direction of Wright's brilliant-yet-practical presentation of the faith.

Fortress of Solitude (Jonathan Lethem)--Though separated by so many elements, I experienced and witnessed so much of this Brooklyn story in small-town Texas. This is a mark of powerful story-telling.

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)

The Road (Cormac McCarthy)--Social commentary, a father-son parable, and running from cannibals all in one alarmingly lean novel.

News Stories:

Google, Facebook, and Youtube

Hurricane Katrina

Election 2000/Supreme Court Elects Bush President

Iraq/Afghanistan Wars

Human Genome Mapped

U.S. Elects First African-American President

September 11, 2001

Honorable Mentions: The Colbert Report, Red Sox Win World Series, Mulholland Drive, "Hurt" (Johnny Cash's cover), Pope John Paul II Dies/Benedict XVI Ascends, "Stan" (Eminem), 30 Rock, There Will Be Blood, "Single Ladies" (Beyonce), Family Guy, High Fidelity (movie), China: Sleeping Giant Awakes, Freakonomics (Levitt, Dubner), Indian Ocean Tsunami 2004, God's Politics (Jim Wallis), The Dark Knight, Good Night and Good Luck

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I'll Be Home for Advent

As I write this—sitting in a bookstore, drinking coffee—there is a girl talking on her cell phone to her sister. She is buzzing around looking for a book the sister had recommended, the title of which she’s forgotten, but she can’t stop talking about how excited she is to get home for Christmas to see her sister and family. She talks about finals and her look definitely betrays that she is living in Abilene for college. I’m sure she has many friends and an enjoyable enough life here. But this is not home, and her life for now is very much shaped by the hope of home.

One of the special things about Advent and Christmas is that our lives are especially shaped by hope. We are hopeful about seeing family and friends, about time to rest and slow down, about giving and receiving gifts—there’s a sense of anticipation and even camaraderie. The vast majority of our culture is still in on this, and what we’re in on is something hopeful. And this hope shapes our lives. Despite the jokes and complaints we make about Christmas being hectic and frustrating, we really do tend to—as a culture, and even other cultures around the world—we tend to rise to the occasion of togetherness and anticipation. We rise to a lifestyle—albeit temporarily—of hope.

It is a sad state of American Christianity today that our thoughts of the “end times” are characterized by pessimism and fear. For the apostle Paul and the early church, “end times” was a subject of triumph. Paul doesn’t write, “Things are so bad, Jesus must be coming soon to take us away from all this.” No, Paul’s understanding was that, having won such a magnificent victory over sin and death, Jesus’ kingdom reality must only be a heartbeat away. And what’s more, that heartbeat is yours and mine. Just as we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, so we are to be living from that kingdom and building it until Christ comes in final victory to lift the veil between heaven and earth and to establish his kingdom forever. This is the Blessed Hope of Advent.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some Angel Named Harold?

For your consideration, I want to reintroduce you to Charles Wesley's brilliant Christmas hymn "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." I believe this to be one of the (if not THE) greatest Christmas song in the church's musical canon. It is thick with theological insight and rich with biblical imagery. If you will take a moment just to read these words (aloud please), perhaps as a poem without music, I think you will be stricken by their power. (And please forgive the lack of gender-inclusive language. No offense intended.)

Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings;
Mild, he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Even that familiar first verse deserves closer attention, with concepts like God and sinners being reconciled, and the plea for nations to rise and join in worshiping the true "King of kings" (Wesley's original words, replaced with "newborn King" by George Whitefield.) And for a real mind-scramble, let me introduce you to some stanzas we don't usually sing:

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman's conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent's head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruin'd nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Adam's likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man.
O, to all thyself impart,
Form'd in each believing heart.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

I'll admit this is no "Frosty the Snowman" or "Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer," but maybe there's some stuff in here we should consider in our Christmas observances. In my humble Methodist opinion, little Chuck Wesley has given us a powerful work of art here, chock full of crunchy fruits and nuts!

And it's made all the better paired with Felix Mendelssohn's wonderful music. Mendelssohn was surprised at the idea of his "secular" music being used for sacred text, but this act of redemption only enhances the signficance of the hymn. Listen for this song during key moments of your favorite holiday films like It's a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas, and if you sing it this season, maybe think about the words and the message of those herald angels: Glory to God in the highest! Glory to the newborn King of kings! And on earth, peace...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Patrick Swayze & the Night Visitor

A few years ago my wife and I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in April so we could find a place to live and get settled before I began seminary. We had decided we would camp in this beautiful part of the world while apartment-hunting. We had left Amarillo, Texas, well into spring with temperatures in the 70s, but we arrived at the end of the Vancouver winter with cold, wet weather in the 50s.

After asking around we found a beautiful area to camp several miles north of the city. We pitched our tent at a secluded campground with pine trees all around and snow-capped mountains that reflected into a perfect lake. After setting up camp we went into town for a while to see what leads we could get on apartments. Later, we returned to camp, grilled some hot dogs, and settled into the tent where we watched a movie on the computer (Dirty Dancing, I believe--roughing it!) Then we zipped into our sleeping bags and drifted off. It was perfect...until somewhere around midnight.

I heard a distant rumbling. The ground began to shake. Do they have earthquakes around here? Then I saw a blinding light as bright as the sun shining through the fabric of our tent. It was like high noon in West Texas. I couldn’t believe it but there was a train that ran about 20 yards away, roaring by our tent at midnight! I tossed and turned the rest of the night hoping another a train wouldn't come, which it didn’t. But that bright light and pounding rumble proved to be an inescapable memory.

The prophetic ministries of Isaiah and, centuries later, John the Baptizer were something like that train—bright, shocking, disturbing light shining into the cold darkness of Israel’s hearts. Many generations had come and gone since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since Moses and the Exodus, Jeremiah and the Judges, since King David, Solomon and the Temple, and hundreds more years of back and forth faithfulness and disobedience.

Despite God's own long-suffering and faithfulness, his people had routinely grown complacent in their worship and calling. Their experience of God was marked by dead ritual devoid of justice and mercy, and their cold hearts were no longer open to God’s warming love. They neither felt it nor showed it. This is when prophets appear on the scene. This is when God comes.

The same could be said about our culture today--perhaps even the church. Maybe we have gotten settled into the cold darkness and need to experience the shocking light of God’s presence. He is still the God who comes, barreling through the night, invading our secure little tents and our scenic slumber. That’s what Advent is about. Sleep in heavenly peace? How about "the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together"!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Praying with Kings of Leon

In June I, in essence, emerged from 2 of the darkest years of my life. Those couple of years were spent in self-examination and intense struggle with what I found. I've never known such loneliness, pain, or distance from God. One of the worst things I discovered is that my ability to share myself--my true self--with others is all but nonexistent. This was gas for the fire of my self-exile. I have a life filled with the most wonderful family imaginable, caring friends, compassionate colleagues, and work centered on communing with the Living God and ordering the community of his people. Yet I was completely alone, cold, and blind.

In September 2008 I found a voice for my much-needed prayer. I was watching Saturday Night Live when Kings of Leon, a band I had only known from the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, began playing "Use Somebody." At first I just liked how they sounded like early U2 and were sort of raw and exposed. Then came the first line: "I've been roaming around always looking down at all I see. / Painted faces fill the places I can't reach. / You know that I could use somebody...someone like you."

That was it. God was a lover who seemed to be utterly ignoring me. And my true life, hidden in God, was as far away as he was. On it went: "Off in the night while you live it up I'm off to sleep / waging wars to shape the poet and the beat. / I hope it's gonna make you notice... / someone like me."

Over the next months I clung to this song like a security blanket. "You know that I could use somebody" was my constant plea to God to throw me a line before the dark waters engulfed me for good. And yes, it was that bad. But the song carried me along until the sun began to shine, and the waters stilled. Now the song is getting a lot of radio-play, but my heart doesn't ache so much when I hear it. Instead I just love how tight the bass and drums are in the second section. I'm thankful to have had Kings of Leon as prayer partners.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Manna-Eating Pelicans!

While we technically have a few more weeks until summer ends, I can sense the turning of another page. It has been a wonderful summer for my family and me—busy, but enjoyable. Despite the busyness, I got to have some great summery moments.

One such moment occurred when we were at the beach. Each morning I would let my wife and daughter sleep in while I slipped out early for my quiet time. I’d walk down to the pier and sit out over the water, reading my devotion book and Bible and prayerfully enjoying the differences between the Pacific Ocean and central Texas.

The first morning, I watched huge pelicans circle the water then dive straight down and SPLASH!...breakfast. As I sat there in the morning quiet, I heard someone sneeze. It sounded like they were under the pier. I looked down into the water and there was a seal. Of course I said, “God bless you.” Over time, I looked out to see the seal’s family, paddling and rolling around, playing and having their breakfast.

My devotional reading that first morning was the story from Exodus 16 about God providing manna for his people. Each day every family gathered as much as they needed for that day. It melted away with the sun’s heat and they were forbidden from gathering for the next day, with the exception of the Sabbath. They were simply to trust that God would take care of them from one day to the next.

As I read this, I looked out on the pelicans and seals—and now there were 4 dolphins rising and diving not 100 yards out. I reveled in God’s care for his creatures. These sea creatures didn’t worry about tomorrow. They simply came out to see what the Lord had for them today. I could feel God smiling at his creation. I could also feel Jesus saying, “If the Father cares so much for these, will he not much more care for you?” Today, I'm determined to dive in…SPLASH!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Confessions of an Ex-Inglourious Basterd

I just went to see Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, in all its bloody, quirky, fiery beauty. As with most good art, this film left me satisfied yet troubled to confront my own bloody, quirky, fiery beauty.

First, the movie is a great piece of filmmaking. Tarantino is at his best, showing his trademark style of being as much a cinema fan and afficionado as a solid and visionary director. The guy has chops, and there are plenty of original as well as reverential choices he makes throughout. It is impossible not to get swept up in the sheer joy Tarantino obviously has in the journey of his film. And there are a number of solid performances of surprising depth and even understatement--a lot of closeups and dialog displaying Tarantino's (also the writer) brilliant ear for language. Inglourious Basterds is a beautiful, complex, troubling and even humorous piece of art.

Like some of the paintings I recently saw at the Getty museum in L.A., the film was not just pretty to look at; it really challenged me. I'm troubled by the joy I felt watching Nazis getting maimed and killed in the most horrific ways. I was cheering on the basterds as they scalped one Nazi or beat another with a baseball bat (these are in the TV ads, so no real spoiler). After all, they're Nazis--they've got it coming, right? Right?

In some ways I felt this was something of a cultural catharsis. Tarantino is going back and rewriting history in what my angry flesh feels is a very satisfying way. Seeing swastikas burn and get carved into...well, I'll have to stop lest I get into spoilers. But you get the idea. There's a strong feeling of satisfaction, even relief, at some of the most evil people in history getting what most of us feel they deserve.

But throughout the movie, there was always my underlying value system reminding me that that's not how Jesus handled the evil people around him. "Oh, Robert! You didn't go and take Jesus to a Tarantino film, did you? You were so happy with the violent come-uppances before you dragged Jesus into the whole mess." Well, I tried to leave him at home, but he just insisted on coming along. He's like that sometimes.

Anyway, there was all kinds of Old Testament stuff going through my head in my attempts to rationalize my elation. Little Quentin has nothing on the Judges or any number of Old Testament figures exacting the Lord's vengeance on those who would thwart his will. Just picture Ehud confronting fat King Eglon, coldly whispering in his ear, "I have a message for you from the Lord," and then thrusting his machete in the king's gut so deep that the fat swallows the handle (Judges 3). Tarantino wishes he could write so well.

So, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I cheered on the destruction of Nazis. I was not overly-sensitive to the violence, just enough to assure myself that I'm not a serial killer. But Jesus was there with me in the form of the Holy Spirit, reminding me that my sin is no less sinful than that of Hitler himself. Nevertheless, it is paid for. And even an inglourious basterd like me has been given the right to be called a son of the Living God...and vengeance is his!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Permission to Slow Down

In a few days my family and I are going on vacation. It’s time to slow down and notice things. That seems to be what summer is about. The Gershwins said it best in "Porgy & Bess": Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. The smell of mowed grass and barbecue, the feel of the sun’s warmth, the glorious sight of baseball under a blue sky, these are a few of my favorite things! Whether packing in as many vacation experiences as possible or just sitting on the porch watching the sun go down each evening, summertime is a time to notice life. It is a time when we let life happen, rather than trying to force it into our own daily constraints.

Typically, the worst part of summer vacation is that it ends. So, here are a few summer ideas that might work in autumn, winter, and spring.

1) Let life happen. Make plans and work hard, but enjoy the passage of time.

2) Rest. A key about summer is that it seems to give us permission to relax, but God already gave us not just permission, but a command to rest. After all, he did!

3) Notice things. Each season has its own sights and sounds and smells that are the stuff of life. Make time to take it all in.

4) Enjoy loved ones. Family reunions, cookouts, ballgames, and vacations don’t have to end with the summer. Whatever it is, it should be shared with the people we love.

5) Worship. God made all of these seasons for his glory and to enrich our lives with their beauty and the lessons they can teach about living more faithfully in the process of life, death, and resurrection.
And right now it’s summer; so fire up the grill, pour the lemonade, and PLAY BALL!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

King of Pop vs. King of Kings?

(Disclaimer: I'm a lifelong fan of Michael Jackson's entertainment--from J5 as a kid in the 70s on up. See this post. But I'm also a pastor who "conducts" funerals and memorial services, which I believe are to be acts of worship of the Triune God. And I'm always considering the questions below. So, please indulge me with a little grace here.)

It was interesting to watch the memorial service for Michael Jackson yesterday. It was mostly a beautiful celebration of a sometimes beautiful, oftentimes odd life. One of the things that stood out most to me was a sort of back-and-forth between messiahs: Jesus and MJ.

There was Mariah Carey singing her rendition of “I’ll Be There,” yet almost putting the words in God's mouth, even singing a “thank you, Jesus” at the end. You had Lionel Richie just coming right out with the song “Jesus is Love”—and he tore it up! And, of course, Stevie Wonder was in another world with his “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” but especially his powerful dirge “They Won’t Go When I Go,” which had the entire Staples Center hypnotized.

And there were other moments throughout the service, with gospel choirs and preachers and mourners pointing to Jesus as the true source of comfort and hope.

But behind it all—songs and sermons and soliloquies—were images of the dearly-departed, often in cruciform pose. There were words of the special burden Michael had, to be such a pure man-child in such a fallen world. And, of course, there were the songs—ending on an appropriate note with “We Are the World” and “Heal the World.” The whole thing was beautiful, albeit confused and unusual—like the one memorialized.

Not wishing to trample the man’s grave, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that MJ may have carried a bit of a messiah complex (as well as Peter Pan/arrested development issues), which was only enabled by his entourage and many of his fans.

But it all brings up the interesting question of the role and activity of Christ in culture (about which H. Richard Niebuhr had much to say). Is it beautiful to sing “we are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving,” or is it idolatrous? Is it right to tell people to “heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race,” or is it deluded? And if it’s wrong, are there levels of “wrong-ness”—i.e. are such songs at least better than the death and lust and destruction sung about by so many others, or is it all idolatry and sin? In the end, is there room for both the King of Pop and the King of kings?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Believe in Anything

I couldn’t help but notice the headline in USA Today a while back: Psychics Make a Fortune During Uncertain Economic Times. The article goes on to say, “Anecdotal evidence indicates that psychics, astrologers, palm readers, Tarot card shufflers, numerologists and other paranormal specialists have become the rage as investment advisers and brokers appear clueless. After all, if the times aren't normal, why not try the paranormal?”

One would think our churches would be bursting at the seams these days. Those who have placed undue hope in money and the material have found their foundations shaken if not crumbling. This would seem the prime time for folks to turn again to the eternal Lord of heaven and earth, the one true God, the Ancient of Days who is the same yesterday, today, and forever…right?

G.K. Chesterton so perfectly said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.” It saddens me that it often seems to be the poorer segment of our society that spends the most money on the lottery. Likewise, it is sad to see people so desperate for security and hope and, well, money, dropping their dough on what is only evil and opportunistic.

The article continues, “Nina Melrose, 42, a Dallas soothsayer who reads palms and Tarot cards, advises clients on which stocks to buy, basing her picks ‘solely on my psychic ability.’ She declined to say how prescient she had been. Others steer clear of specifics. They offer common-sense advice—at rates up to $5.75 a minute—that some people wouldn't need a mind reader to provide. Valerie Morrison, who charges $85 a half-hour, has increased her schedule from three days a week to five because of rising demand. She tells clients to buy gold and silver, sell their antiques and pass up new clothes. ‘Anything they can do where they can put cash in a safe,’ she says. ‘If we just hold tight, we're going to get through this.’”

People seem desperate for answers and, even more, for hope. Where is the church? What are we doing during all this? The world needs good news. And we’ve got the best news ever!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson and Track Spikes

Jeff Richardson could moonwalk in his track spikes. That did it...Jeff was officially the coolest guy in Jr. High! When he wasn't beating everyone on the track, he was midfield, dancing to Thriller on somebody's boom-box. The students' interest drifted from their teammates' events and crowded around the main event: Jeff Richardson popping and breaking and doing the moonwalk in his track spikes.

Then there were the garage parties. We would get together after school on Friday and decorate someone's garage with posters and tattered old rugs and christmas lights. A garage or shed became our own little dance club, away from parents and teachers and the disconnectedness of small-town life. What was happening in a garage in Memphis, TX, population 3417, was also happening in LA or Manhattan or Paris or Berlin: people dancing to Michael Jackson.

I couldn't do the moonwalk in track spikes, but I could do it in my sock feet on my grandmother's kitchen floor...and occasionally in those garages. And I could pop. The best song was "Wanna Be Startin' Something." The beat would just get into you, the strings lulling you into a trance. And there we'd be, carried away into our own little universe. Jeff Richardson wasn't around for these dances. Even in 1983, our black friends lived literally across the tracks and we didn't see them again until school. "Mama say mama sa ma ma coo sa..."

In the end, we don't remember our icons as they were at their time of death or even as they were in their heyday. We remember them as they were in our cars and our bedrooms, in theaters and our living rooms, in small-town garages and at track meets.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rant: Christian Music

I don’t listen to a lot of Christian music. The reason for this is twofold. First, the quality of the music—creativity, power, beauty—is lacking. There don’t seem to be a lot of Christian songwriters who have a good feel for inventive chord changes, beautiful melodic structure, rhythmic dynamism. It’s as if they've only ever listened to…Christian music.

Having spent years making my living as a Christian musician, majoring in composition in college, even first coming to know the Lord as a result of Christian music, I’m heartbroken by the sheer boredom I experience upon a couple of minutes tuned into national Christian radio.

The other reason I don’t listen to much Christian music is lack of lyrical depth. This, again, is a twofold problem. First, there seems to be only a very basic theological grounding. Now, if the intent is only to present the Gospel in its simplest form, maybe this isn’t the worst thing. I was drawn to Christ by Stryper singing, “We are the soldiers under God’s command / we hold his two-edged sword within our hands.” As a teenage guitarist into Motley Crue and Ratt, but also a 5th-generation Methodist, this scratched me where I itched. But what next?

I eventually found Rich Mullins—a real poet by anyone’s standards—but then he died, having spent his career being largely ignored by the Christian industry. People have their favorites, but they always end up sounding as cheesy as most preachers trying to sound “relevant” (more on that in another post).

The other end of the shallow lyric pool in Christian songwriting is lack of lyrical quality. If the theology is shallow, the actual lyrical craftsmanship is all but absent. Christian songwriters seem to think it a badge of honor NOT to have really worked on their lyrics. “It just came to me and I wrote it down.” You don’t say! I’m sure that’s much more spiritual than actually working hard and straining toward perfection with God’s gifts. Or maybe the gift is lacking. (Oh snap! No I didn’t!)

One of my favorite bands—King’s X—a prime example of brilliant musicianship and stunning lyrics, ended up getting shunned by their Christian fans when their lead singer/bassist came out as a homosexual. Maybe this shunning was warranted, we make our own decisions about such things. My decision is quality and honesty. I am not deaf to the point of view of the artist, so there are plenty of conclusions that secular (and Christian!) artists come to with which I completely disagree. But I would rather listen to someone’s honest, creative, and beautiful music about their pain and questions rather than someone’s trite, contrived, and bland music about their shallow faith and empty answers.

So, I continue to search. There are a handful of decent Christian artists out there. There are many hymns that have proven their quality through time. But the findings are few and far between, so I search on. The world is searching. In a culture that communicates more and more through the sights and sounds of the arts, the church desperately needs creators worthy of the Creator. Step it up, Christians. We haven’t come as far as you think.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Best Romantic Comedies

Okay, I'll admit it: Despite my high cinematic standards, I enjoy accompanying my wife, my crush, to the occasional romantic comedy. In fact, when done right, I think a film like When Harry Met Sally can be a meaningful and lasting piece of art. Paste Magazine listed their picks for the 17 Best Romantic Comedies of This Decade. Paste can be pretty artsy, so you won't find a lot of what we'll call "Jennifer fare" (i.e. Garner, Aniston, Lopez, etc.). But some of their picks are pretty original; some are absurd. I'll list them here, and readers feel free to share what you think of their picks and/or share your picks for ALL-TIME BEST ROMANTIC COMEDIES.

17. Waitress (2007--Keri Russell; dir. Adrienne Shelly)

16. The Science of Sleep (2006--Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gael Garcia Bernal; dir. Michel Gondry)

15. Ghost Town (2008--Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Ricky Gervais)

14. Bridget Jones's Diary (2001--Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth)

13. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005--Steve Carell, Katherine Keener, et al; dir. Judd Apatow)

12. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008--Scarlett Johannson, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem; dir. Woody Allen)

11. Lars & the Real Girl (2007--Ryan Gosling, a sex doll)

10. About a Boy (2002--Hugh Grant, Rachel Weisz)

9. Juno (2007--Ellen Page, Michael Cera)

8. Knocked Up (2007--Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, et al; dir. Apatow)

7. Sideways (2004--Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, Thomas Haden Church)

6. Punch-Drunk Love (2002--Adam Sandler, Emily Watson; dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

5. High Fidelity (2000--John Cusack, Iben Hjejle; dir. Stephen Frears)

4. Wall-E (2008--Disney/Pixar)

3. Amelie (2001--Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz; dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

2. Before Sunset (2004--Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy; dir. Richard Linklater)

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004--Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet; dir. Michel Gondry)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hamilton on Homosexuality

Following is an excerpt from an interview with Adam Hamilton, pastor of the Kansas City-area mega-church, United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. The interview is from the Wesley Report blog, and can be found in its entirety here. Hamilton offers an interesting take. Feel free to share your own.

SHANE: You recently preached a sermon on a controversial topic: homosexuality. Your position on this subject seems to have moved left over the years, but you show an unusual amount of respect for people on both sides of the issue and you even appear to be attempting to forge a "third way." What would be your advice to congregations that take far left or far right positions on this? Is it possible to take a traditional position on homosexuality and still be a congregation that effectively reaches gays and lesbians?

ADAM: I think it will be increasingly difficult to be a vocal proponent of the current UM [United Methodist] position on homosexuality [that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching] and effectively reach the next generation, or to effectively reach gays and lesbians. I think one might hold the current UM stance and not address the issue and reach them. One might, for the next five years (ten years in the south) articulate our current position with great compassion, and still reach young adults, homosexuals and their friends, family and co-workers.

But the world is changing and I think the church will see this issue differently in the future. I'm convinced that all of the evangelical churches will wrestle with this issue in ten to fifteen years or they will have lost a generation and will themselves begin a steady period of decline. Sunday I asked our congregation to raise their hands if they have a close friend or someone they love who is gay. 90% of the congregation raised their hands. These folks already see greater complexity in this issue than the church does. They may still be a bit more conservative, but they will not tolerate churches that speak in ways that are cruel and insensitive about their friends. It's one thing to debate homosexuality as a hypothetical argument about someone you hardly know. It is another thing to consider a position regarding the life of someone you love.

My own journey and position on this involves several things: First, I continue to acknowledge that the scripture teaches that heterosexuality is normative and, to use Leslie Weatherhead's language from his book, The Will of God, God's "intentional will."

The second is to recognize that there is a small portion of the population that seems to be shaped differently from that intention, either at birth or by early childhood, and usually not by a choice that was their own. For these heterosexuality will be very difficult to live into, even with the kind of "reparative therapy" offered by some.

Next, after thirty years of daily Bible reading I have come to recognize that the Bible is a more complex document than most people would like to admit. It is both a book written by human beings who were shaped by their cultural and theological presuppositions, and the limitations of their knowledge, and it is a book through which God has spoken and continues to speak. This recognition gives us the ability to wrestle with the texts on homosexuality and to at least ask questions of them (did God really intend that homosexuals be stoned to death? Does God really see the gay children who we baptized, gave third grade Bibles to, confirmed and raised up as an "abomination"?)

Fourth, we have a clear mandate, throughout scripture, concerning demonstrating love. We are to "do justice and to love mercy." Finally, what has most affected me and my views of this issue over the years has been my love of the children in our congregation. Having been in this church nearly 19 years, more than a dozen of the children I've baptized and watched grow up in the church later "came out" - I love these children (now young adults) and as I listen to their stories, and the way they've been treated by other Christians, I find myself being very protective of them.

Likewise, in a congregation of 16,000 people, if we're reaching a representative sample of the community, 5% of these - roughly 800 people - are gay or lesbian. And I feel a great compassion and care for those in my flock that I know who are gay. So, both in my theological reflection about the nature of God, the nature of scripture and the nature of love, and in my personal experience with children and youth I care about in my flock, I find my views moderating on this issue.

I've tried to navigate a third way that says that we at Church of the Resurrection will agree to disagree about this issue - we've got folks on both sides. But we will continue to try to learn, grow and understand more clearly both the issue of homosexuality and how God looks at his children who are gay. And we will be a place where no one's children are turned away, or wounded by our church. I have tried to model how we might affirm the normative status of heterosexuality while seeing homosexuality with fresh and more sensitive and understanding eyes than we have in the past.

I still have a lot of unresolved questions about homosexuality, but what I've said captures the struggle, and the journey, I've been on.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bob Dylan Gets It

Bob Dylan gets it (see post High Plains Drifter). On his new album Together Through Life, Dylan captures that hot, dry spirit of the High Plains and the entire Lone Star State. Really, the whole thing feels like a drive from Houston to Laredo to Brownsville in a dusty old El Dorado convertible--stopping in borderland cantinas and reminiscing about lost love and unrealized dreams. If you care more about honesty and art than pretty pop singing, then you should open your soul to this new album. If you are a Texan by birth and/or disposition, you should take time to let this album grow in you--it doesn't grow on you, it grows in you.

Here are some excerpts, highlighting Dylan's thoughts on Texas, from a recent Rolling Stone cover story. " 'You feel things, and you're not quite sure what you feel,' Dylan says of the region. 'But it follows your every move, and you don't know why. You can't get out of it...' The album bottles the feeling of King Ranch country along Highway 77... 'Spirited guys from down there,' Dylan believes. 'Independent-thinking guys. Texas might have more independent-thinking people than any other sate in the country. And it shows in the music... I think you really have to be a Texan to appreciate the vastness of it and the emptiness of it,' Dylan says. 'But I'm an honorary Texan.' "

Dylan gets it. And so should you. If you're planning a road trip this summer, or if you just want to pretend you're on a Tex-Mex adventure, you've got to include at least a couple of tracks from Together Through Life. I'd suggest "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," "If You Ever Go to Houston," "Jolene," and "It's All Good." The last one is a lesson in not going gentle into that good night, with lines like "Big politicians telling lies / Restaurant kitchen all full of flies / Don't make a bit of difference / Don't see why it's all good."

When Dylan met French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently, the president asked Dylan where he was from. "I'm from the Lone Star State," was Dylan's reply. Then, for a gift Dylan gave the president a Texas-style belt buckle (we call 'em turkey platters). If you know that Dylan is from Minnesota, and really from nowhere, then you understand how funny it all is. But then on "I Feel a Change Comin' On" he sings, "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver / And I'm reading James Joyce / Some people they tell me / I've got the blood of the land in my voice." Indeed. Dylan gets it. And if you don't know who Billy Joe Shaver is, you've got some work to do.

High Plains Drifter

There's something about this place that I can't get away from, no matter how hard I try. I lived in Boston, full of history and culture but no sunsets. I lived in Vancouver where snowcapped mountains rise against beaches and cityscapes, but there was no space. Even the beaches and deserts and mountains and collision of glamor and struggle in California, which probably came closest to capturing my heart, still left me longing. To steal from Eastwood, I am a High-Plains drifter.

I don't know that you have to be born to it, but it helps. Most folks don't get it. Miles and miles of scrub and sky. For me it is miles and miles of soul. It's not a blank canvas. You camp out under a blanket of stars so thick you think you could reach your finger out and give it a swirl. You watch blue-black thunderheads roll in, empty themselves, then roll on out. The sunset moves through layers of pink and orange and red so vast you swear you'll never look down again. It's not a blank canvas, but there's room--room for soul.

When you finally do look down, there's dirt. There's dirt and canyons and cattle and snakes and ugly plants with ugly names like cactus and yucca--even the name sticks in your dry throat. In the summer, hot winds blow dust from the west. In the winter, biting winds blow snow from the north. Water is playa lakes, odd oases that attract all manner of migrating birds. Trees are dry, twisted mesquite. Mountains are 500 miles to the north, south, or west. And beaches? The whole place is a beach...with no ocean.

I think that's why you almost have to be born to it to really get it. It's not an accidental place. The people are solid and original. They don't talk a lot, but when they do they tell stories. Most folks keep farmer's hours--before dawn to after dusk--no matter what they do for a living. It's just in them--hard work, think for yourself, take care of your neighbor, take care of your own.

Yes, there are guns and rednecks and barbed-wire fences and sonsabitches--the place isn't a commune. Maybe it is backward, in some good ways and some bad ways. But you get out of this place what you bring to it. So, for some it's empty and dead and boring. And for others, it's filling and alive and beautiful. For me, it's home.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trouble With Exits

I’ve been having trouble with exits lately. My wife and I were driving in Dallas a while back and I just kept passing the exit we needed. It was one of those double exits that split into two highways going in opposite directions as soon as you exit, so I just wasn't understanding the signs. Four times, going one way and then the other, I couldn’t get it right. And then, even in Abilene, my iphone GPS was telling me to take the Jake Roberts Freeway. But the Jake Roberts Freeway apparently has about 4 other names, and "Jake Roberts" wasn't on any of the exit signs. So three times I watched the little blue dot that represented my car get off the little purple path I was supposed to be following.

One of the most frustrating things about exit trouble is getting back on track. There’s no telling how long you may end up going in the wrong direction before you can get back on the right road. Like Rain Man, of course I’m an excellent driver; but, these days exits are the bane of my existence. It takes a lot to admit this. We men are infamously fragile when it comes to our driving. We can end up nose-down in a muddy river and still swear we know where we’re going.

I look back at my life and see many exits that should not have been taken--choices that got me off track from an ideal direction. Or shouldn't I have taken those exits? Some were outright sin that led me away from God, and would have led me to a literal dead end. But others were bypasses or scenic routes that seem to have gotten me where I needed to go...eventually. They may have even gotten me to a better place than I might otherwise have gone.

The big difference between then and now is heading, knowing where I'm going. I don't have some big life plan--just some things I think I need to be and do while I'm around (and a number of these were not even on my radar a few years ago, while others have become completely irrelevant). But my real heading is Jesus, who calls himself "the Way." I have the strongest belief--faith, even--that he is the right direction. I'm aware enough of those "dead-end" exits to usually avoid them. And with such joyous traveling companions and the right heading, the occasional scenic route or even rocky road don't cause me to worry and wonder so much. But I still hate driving in Dallas.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I Wish I'd Written That (Top 5)

This is the only friend, the end. (No, there aren't any Doors songs, but I could easily name several I wish I'd written.) Here are the Top 5 Songs I Wish I'd Written, the aural works of beauty, power, and/or perfection that cause a tinge of jealousy before I go ahead and sink into their exemplary songwriting craftsmanship. Please take some time to enjoy #20-16 and #15-11 and #10-6. Hope you've enjoyed being reminded of some old favorites or being introduced to some new ones. And the hits just keep on coming!

5) "'Round Here"--Counting Crows

First, there's lyrical perfection like "Step out the front door like a ghost into a fog/ where no one notices the contrast of white on white. / And in between the moon and you / angels get a better view / of the crumbling difference between wrong and right." Then you throw in Adam Duritz's uncanny ability to deliver the phrases with the skill of poet-singer-songwriters like Dylan and Springsteen. Finally, you glue it all together with just a great American rock n' roll band, and you've got a great song with other great lines like "Round here we talk just like lions / but we sacrifice like lambs..." I actually wrote a song called "Dying to Hear It" that was inspired in part by this song. It's a decent tune that a lot of folks like, but I still wish I'd written this one!

4) "Praying for Time"--George Michael

Okay, I finally had to admit that I'm a George Michael fan...and this was the song that did it. To be honest, I was floored by "Father Figure" and a couple of other cuts from the Faith album, but I just couldn't get past "I Want Your Sex" and the title cut (even though it is a decent pop tune), as well as the whole Wham days. But the next album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, allowed me to go back and admit, this guy can write a song...and can sing the hell out of it, too!

Remember when George gave up appearing in videos and became a serious songwriter? "Praying for Time" is beautiful, "Freedom! 90" was a great pop tune, perfectly produced and passionately delivered. If only he'd stayed out of that bathroom... But he also had contract headaches and other personal issues that just kept him from what he seemed like he might become. Maybe there's still hope for Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2. Ya gotta have faith...

3) "Walk On the Wild Side"--Lou Reed

This is one of those songs that defies description. Gets under my skin every time, with its simplicity, intimacy, beauty, and horror. All about real people in the Warhol/Velvet Underground/NYC scene that was the antithesis of the hippie stuff happening at the same time on the left coast and up the road at Woodstock. A perfect example of less is more.

2) "Walking in Memphis"--Marc Cohn

What a great, fresh song. That piano riff just carries you along like you're, well, like you're walking in Memphis...with your feet 10 feet off of Beale. (Just fyi, Beale is a street in Memphis, about which W.C. Handy wrote "Beale St. Blues"--see how it all comes together?) Cohn is a super songwriter. Unfortunately, he's also the victim of the "Best New Artist" Grammy curse (see also Starland Vocal Band, Paula Cole, Milli Vanilli, etc.), not to mention the fact that Cohn got shot in the head a few years ago! But he's still going. And if you're gonna be a one-hit-wonder, what a hit!

1) "In Your Eyes"--Peter Gabriel

The most beautiful love song ever written? Certainly one of the deepest and most sincere. A glorious praise song? That's between you and God--it works better for me than many "official" hymns and praise songs. "In your eyes, / the light the heat, / in your eyes / I am complete. / In your eyes / I see the doorway to a thousand churches, / the resolution of all my fruitless searches..." I know that does it for me--toward my wife, toward God--a better lyric expression of love than most others I've found.
And that's it! For now...

My Friend Thomas

I met Thomas when we ditched school together. We were 16, and my friend Scott and I had planned to skip out after homeroom and take Scott’s ...