Next month:
February 2006

January 2006

Life is Precious: A Tribute to Wes King

Wes_king_tribute_banner1_1 One of Christian music's premeire singer-songwriters and guitarists, Wes King, has had a year or more of hardship.  Wes has Lymphoma, a form of cancer, and is currently undergoing chemotherapy and recuperating at home outside Nashville.  In order to help Wes, his wife, and children with all the medical expenses (and lack of current income), many artists have come together to record a double-disc tribute to him, performing covers of his songs, entitled Life is Precious.

You can now pre-order Life is Precious online here.  Essentially, you give as much as you are led to give to Wes, add on $3 for shipping, and when the CD come out in February, it'll be sent to you.  Listen to some of the song samples from Phil Keaggy, Downhere, Cheri Keaggy, and Jane Kelly Williams on the site as well.  Be generous.

Wolf Meets Lamb?

Wolf200 When we hear of conversions nowadays, we never quite know what to make of them.  They are so often subjective "encounters" or "experiences," without any reference to Scripture or verifiable fact, without any corroboration.  When the Apostle had his encounter with the Risen Christ (Acts 9:1-19), and had we been journalists investigating the event, we would have known at least four things: (1) Paul was blind for three days; (2) the men with him all heard the sound (Jesus' voice?); (3) Ananias had a vision regarding Paul; and (4) Paul can now see.  However, better than any other proof of what Paul spoke, we would eventually know that Paul (formerly Saul) is a radically different man, as passionate in serving Christ as he was in persecuting the followers of Christ.

Now we hear that feminist writer Naomi Wolf has had such an encounter with Christ.  Wolf, the author of The Beauty Myth, a 1991 polemic against the cosmetics industry, makes a most unusual claim in a recent interview: that during a therapy session she saw a vision of Jesus, "the most perfected human being that there could be -- full of light and full of love."  She experienced it as a 13-year old boy sitting next to him.  It didn't dull her enthusiasm for feminism, though, but strengthened it.  She does, to her credit, make one profound statement: "I don't claim to get where this being fits into the scheme of things but I absolutely believe in divine providence now, absolutely believe that God cares about every single one of us intimately."  No witness.  No corroboration.  Just a subjective experience.  And so, many will say, that's all well and good for her, right?

In contrast, in Anne Rice's conversion (see Jan. 22nd Post "Anne Rice Comes Out of Egypt") we have an individual who sought answers to her deepest questions about the Christ of the Bible, and found them through her study of the Bible and the answers rooted in a historical reality: the resurrection of Jesus.  We don't know where Anne Rice will end up on various doctrines of the faith, much less on the political spectrum.  But the Jesus she encountered is the Jesus of the Bible.  On the other hand, we really don't know what Naomi Wolf experienced.

Did Naomi Wolf see Jesus? Watch and pray.  Look for fruit.

Among the Ruins

"Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God's plans, but God is not helpless among the ruins.  Our broken lives are not lost or useless.  God's love is still working.  He comes in and takes the calamity and uses it victoriously, working out his wonderful plan of love" (Eric Liddell, in Disciplines of the Christian Life).

Most folks know the name of Eric Liddell from the popular movie, Chariots of Fire, where he refused to run in his scheduled race at the Paris Olympics because it was on the Sabbath.  Less known, and not featured in the movie, was his life as a missionary in pre-Communist China, where he ultimately died of a brain hemorrhage while ministering in a Japanese internment camp.

I love the phrase "among the ruins," because life in general and sometimes personally feels as if it is in ruins, where beyond the veneer of civility or civilization, like a false front on a building, there is the ugly mess of sin and tragedy.  It reminds me of C.S. Lewis's phrase for life this side of Heaven: "shadowlands."  Or as I sometimes say to myself and to my children (and perhaps I picked it up somewhere else), this life is just the dress rehearsal for the real life to come, the real drama, the bigger and richer Story.

It is comforting to know that God is writing the Story, that the Author of Life gets to say how it will end, that He has said how it will end -- that there will be beauty from ashes, and shadows will be exchanged for pure light, and in the end the angels who are reading along, following the plot, watching the tragic, the comic, and the fairy tale unfold, will close the book at Time's end, turn to one another, sigh, and say, "Well now, it was all about Love, after all, wasn't it?"

The Christ-Haunted Rosanne Cash

B000cetwoy01_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_1 One new release last Tuesday that I did not mention was one I had a difficult time listening to.  The album is Black Cadillac, by Rosanne Cash.  It is simply excellent.  It is also emotionally raw and exhausting, if listened to well.  It is an aural journey through loss.

Rosanne Cash is the daughter of the late Johnny Cash.  In Black Cadillac, she wrestles with the death of her Dad and June Carter Cash, his wife (her own mother was Johnny's first wife), as well as her own mother, Vivian Distin, who died on Rosanne's 50th birthday.  All died within a short period of each other.  As you might expect, there is anger, loneliness, resolution, and faith (of a kind) in the mix -- all expertly handled in country-folk-rock stylings, not quite the country of her father, but not unlike it either.

Cash speaks about the record on her website, where she indicates that "Black Cadillac" was the first song she wrote, actually several weeks before June died. It has a foreboding feel to it: "It was a black Cadillac that took you away. . . One of us gets to go to heaven, one of us has to stay in hell."  There's the pain of loss and even anger in having to deal with the grief of being left behind.

The crux of the album is in her dealing with what lies beyond the grave, in what goes on after life, and she comes to no clear answer.  Though it is a questioning surrounded by the answers of Christianity, she rails against sentimentality and platitudes. In "Like Fugitives" she says "Don't want your tired religion, I'm not a soul you save."  The song is in part about the Catholic church which she says ostracized her mother after her divorce from Johnny, as well as about some of the notes she received from some Christians who were upset on her anti-Iraq war stance.  And yet she says about her Dad "I will look for you/ Between the grooves of songs we sing/Westward leading still proceeding to the world unseen" ("The World Unseen"), as song inspired by the familiar hymn sung at a Christmas Eve service.

It's too much to say there is hopefulness in these twelve songs; rather, it seems Rosanne knows there must be more beyond the grave, or wants to believe there is more, but she can't quite come to faith in Christ, even though He haunts all these songs.  Perhaps the most hopeful song, even if she doesn't yet quite believe all she sings, is the beautiful "God is in the Roses":  "God is in the roses/ the petals and the thorns/ storms out on the ocean/ souls who will be born. . . . And every drop of rain that falls/ falls to those who mourn/ God is in the roses and the thorns." 

In an interview, Rosanne said that at the height of her struggle, she went to an Episcopal priest in Greenwich Village.  She asked him where her mother and father were.  He said, "Rosanne, I don't know."  May God give her a better answer.  May God give her the gift of faith that both Johnny and June had.

The "Little" Book

020530902x01_scthumbzzz_1 Language is a gift, no doubt, but one that is much abused.  Few heed the admonitions of scripture or good sense to be "quick to listen, and slow to speak" (Js. 1:19) or remember the reward of an apt word over an inept pronouncement.  How many times I have spoken, or written, only to realize what dribble hangs in air or rests on paper?  Not so with E.B. White.

You'll recognize White's name as the author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, two children's classics that were much loved in our home, but his prose ranged beyond children's stories.  He wrote a daily column or essay for The New Yorker for many years (before my time).  However, before I knew any of these other accomplishments and before I had children to read to, I knew him as the apparent co-author of the bible of English usage, The Elements of Style.   The 'little book," as White's Cornell professor William Strunk affectionately called it, was originally written by Strunk and privately published for his students and years later revised and modestly enlarged by White at his publisher's request, after Strunk had died.

The book is a model of brevity.  It says things like "Do not overstate," or "Do not explain too much," "Omit needless words," "Avoid fancy words," or simply "Be clear.  All are issued in just such commanding tones, and the writer, properly chastened, returns to his craft -- whether letter, article, or novel -- with renewed vigor.  I know I do.

The injunction "be clear" could not be more clear, and yet the authors' three-paragraph rationale is both fun and informative to read.  Listen:

Muddiness is not merely a disturber of prose, it is also a destroyer of life, of hope: death on the highway caused by a badly worded highway sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveler expecting to be met at a railway station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram. Think of the tragedies rooted in ambiguity, and be clear!  When you say something, make sure you have said it.  The chances of your having said it are only fair.

Oh, the pitfalls of language, the litter of unclarity.  "Be obscure clearly," he says, if obscure is what you want.  Say what you want to say. Say it well.  Language matters.

Knowingly or unknowingly, in fashioning rules, in emphasizing clarity and brevity, Strunk and White were mimicking the Author of Life, whose first recorded words over creation were simply "Let there be light."  No flowery or fanciful language.  Simply that: "Let there be light."  In contrast, in Eve's first recorded words, she actually adds words to what God had so clearly said (as in, ". . . and you must not touch it, or you will die"), and so is born the news commentator.  And still we go on.  One wonders if God sometimes regrets having given us language, and yet, even that he must have called "good."

Remembering Strunk, his college professor, White says this:

In the days when I was sitting in his class, he omitted so many needless words, and omitted them so forcibly and with such eagerness and obvious relish, that he often seemed to be in the position of having shortchanged himself --- a man left with nothing more to say and yet with time to fill, a radio prophet who had out-distanced the clock.  Will Strunk got out of the predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times.  When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said,"Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!  Omit needless words!"

At that, I can imagine him packing his briefcase and leaving the classroom, a visible demonstration of his three-word point.  Politicians, pundits, and pastors take heed! Omit needless words!  And as Strunk often said, "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!"  Better to be wrong than irresolute or inaudible, he would say.

I recommend The Elements if Style, as well as The Essays of E.B. White (an immensely pleasurable read on various topics), or, failing that, Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little.  They are models of clarity, brevity, and style, and full of life and humor -- like hearing God talk.

Remembering Well (or Why History Isn't Dumb)

Clip_image002_1 "Memory is the well of providence."  That's what came to me today while I was out walking. The poet in me said it aloud, to see if it sounded pleasing, because, after all, if it doesn't sound good, what good is it?

Memory is one of those things we take for granted.  We remember how to brush our teeth, dress, get to work, drive, and avoid this or that pothole or speed trap.  We remember who we left in bed this morning (or who left us), our children's first words, where we were when we heard the events of 9-11, or even how to talk (a regrettable memory, at times).  These collected memories form our history.  History is important.  If you don't think so, just consider what we mean when we say we have a "history" with that person.  It means we've had a difficult relationship or, at least, one that has existed for some time and with some intensity.  We remember that we do, because it's important to the future of that relationship or perhaps another one to come.

But my son doesn't think history is important.  It's dumb, he says, and boring.  I asked him if he remembered how to get up this morning, or how to eat.  He said sure.  I said see, you believe in history -- unless you knew your own history (how you did these things yesterday), you wouldn't be able to do them today.  I said you'd make the same mistakes over and over again if you didn't believe in history.  He said that's dumb, you don't understand.  He's 14, but he'll get over it.

Actually, though, if it isn't self-evident, we all believe that what happened a moment ago, or yesterday, or last year, or 200 years ago is important.  It's important for all the obvious reasons, the reasons everyone takes for granted (like remembering how to get up), but for Christians it's important for another reason.  Providence.  Memory is the well of providence.  It's a reservoir of God's goodness, the Story God's telling.

Providence is a word we don't use much.  In fact, most people only know it was the name of a now-defunct television series and, maybe, a city in Rhode Island.  In simple terms, providence is God's continuing personal involvement and management of the world, his working of all things to accomplish his ends (Rom. 8:28), in ways that are mostly inexplicable and mysterious yet wholly good.  He's It.  No fate.  No chance.  No stray atom.  Just God.

I said mostly not wholly inexplicable.  For example, I don't know why my wife finally lost a backgammon game to me today, and I can't imagine that it plays a significant part in God's providence, but I do know that it was no accident and not outside His plan.

Memory is the well of providence.  Memory and history are important to reflect and meditate on, for they reveal, in part, the workings of God in our own lives and the world around us.  Seeing that work of God builds our faith and causes gratitude to well up in us.  Well, like me --  On ocassion I have said that I'm glad I didn't marry that girl because if I had then my life would have been such and such (not so hot, that is, or OVER).  Thank God I say, to which my wife says amen.

But really, remembering is more than just thankfulness over what didn't happen.  It's that for a moment, on rare occasions, the tapestry is turned ever so slightly so we can see the beautiful design emerging on its face when what we generally see is the mess on its backside. Yes, the backside of life, like the backside of most people, is not always pretty, but it's what we get, and so when we get to see the flip side a bit, we can be reassured that something better is happening, something bigger than what we see.

It's not nostalgia, either.  Not the wistful longing for an idealized past, as in Lot's wife looking back with regrets at Sodom or the Israelites bitchin' about the desert and wanting to pack up and go back to good old Egypt.  Remembering is forward looking.  It leads to present action.  For example, in Genesis 9:14-15 God says he will remember his covenant with Noah.  Why?  So that now and in the future he will spare the world another flood.  Besides, the past never was as good as you thought it was, was it?

Several years ago I spent some time in a hospital being pretty sick.  I didn't much enjoy it.  I was not a very good patient.  I was often morbidly self-absorbed, or discouraged, and a burden on others.  And I know better.  Not a day goes by that I don't think of this sorry affair.  Why?  Because I want to remember what I was like and how God was faithful and people loved me nonetheless so, by His grace, I won't be that way next time (and make no doubt about it, there will be a next time for me, and for us all).  God's purposes in causing this trial are still mysterious and inexplicable, but they are good.

Memory is the well of providence.  I just need to draw on it more, to remember well.

So, that's just what happens when you go out walking.

The Reassuring Certainty of Paradox

Churchsign_1 Elton Trueblood once said that "[i]f a man wishes to avoid the disturbing effect of paradoxes, the best advice is for him to leave the Christian faith alone."  I take great comfort in this, not because I believe that God is pure mystery to us but because God is ultimately incomprehensible to us.  Indeed, God is much like my cat: Some things have been revealed -- the necessity of food, his need for 20-22 hours of sleep each day, and, well, other cat things.  But behind the whiskers, in the deep recesses of his brain, I don't really know what's going on.  OK, so it's a bad analogy in many ways, but the point is that God is not completely knowable by us.

Consider for a moment any of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith.  Begin with the Trinity.  Can you reconcile a being who is, at the same time, three distinct persons and yet one?  In the words of the Westminster Confession, "[i]n the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity."  That is paradox -- a seeming (but not actual) contradiction.  In reality, if we could comprehend like God comprehends, we would see the non-contradiction.

Or take the doctrine of the Incarnation, whereby we affirm that Christ is both fully God and fully human.  Just thinking of the possible ramifications of this is mind-boggling and raises a host of other questions, such as how he can be finite like us, limited in knowledge, and yet have the foreknowledge of God? One cannot provide a simple answer or, indeed, much of any answer to such riddles.

In this, as I say, I am comforted.  It reminds me that God is really God, that is, that for all that He has revealed to us, all that is necessary for salvation and the life of faith, He is ultimately incomprehensible.  I mean, a God should be that way, don't you think?  Else He's not much of a God.

It also confirms the authenticity of Scripture, that is, it must be true because if you were making up a religion, you certainly would attempt to make things clearer so we wouldn't have so many disagreements among ourselves.  I mean, I would (but won't, as religions can be nasty businesses to be in).  Indeed, a kind of guidebook with life decision maps and clear positions on all the issues would be helpful, rather than this collection of cobbled-together stories, parables, poems, and prophecies (or is that Poems, Prayers, and Promises a la John Denver, may he rest in peace) that we have to figure out somehow.  But God didn't do that.  He left a Book that gives us all we need and yet requires our constantly bringing it before Him for understanding, that requires us to continue to seek Him even after we are found.

You know, I don't have to understand it all.  My knowledge of God and His world might be a drop in a thimble, maybe, but no more.  And doubts need not worry me, either, as what He has told me is enough for life this side of Eden.  Flannery O'Connor had it right:

When we get our spiritual house in order, we'll be dead.  This goes on.  You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness.  Don't expect faith to clear things up for you.  It is trust, not certainty.

So, I am reassured by the certainty of paradoxes, the incomprehensibility of God, so when I say Almighty I mean it.  After all, He's really a Lion, not a cat, right? And we all know felines have a mind of their own.  At least this one's all good.  Of that we can be certain.

Blog Church, Lion in Babylon, and Rabbit Fur

Ever have times when you just have too many things you're thinking about?  Today's the day for me.  This is a bit random, but perhaps there is some connection here:

  • Though I will not dwell much on the topic of why I blog (can you imagine a more boring topic?), I do think the phenomenon of blogging is interesting.  So does Jeremy Huggins, a blogger who devoted quite a lot of time to an analysis of the movement in an article called "Blogging Our Hearts Out ," found in Critique, the newsletter of Ransom Fellowship.  He is particularly interested in how the emergent evangelicals champion the movement as ushering in a more communal, less hierarchical church, and he questions this.  As Huggins says, "Because the emergent bloggers feel that they have been let down, to some degree, by the church, they are seeking to circumvent traditional church structures and authorities, feeling that true community comes through collaboration and shared community rather than top-down through select individuals."  He asks, "Will the abuse of blogging lead the church back to a gnostic, disembodied spirituality?  It's something to consider.
  • Speaking of Ransom Fellowship, in the latest issue (sorry, not online), Denis Haack asks if all the cheering by evangelicals about the Chronicles of Narnia film, while understandable (as in, "finally a film about Christianity in the media!"), is really a good thing.  Before you dismiss him as a curmudgeon (I met him, and he's not, much), consider these comments: "Consider what our response [to the film] would be if the gospel, not the culture war, is our primary concern.  Remember that America is both clearly post-Christian, and increasingly pluralistic, and that much of the postmodern generation thinks it has seen and heard what we stand for, and finds it wanting.  That our desire to evangelize is primarily a power play, a way to gain political and cultural influence until we are able to impose our standards on society." Ouch.  Is that a bit harsh?  He asks "[W]hy not let the film (and book) stand on its own? Why not trust God enough to allow the Holy Spirit to use a great, subtly creative and powerful story to awaken non-Christians to the Story of the gospel?  It's something to consider, right?
  • JennyTo me the most intriguing new release today is an indie album by Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins called Rabbit Fur Coat.  Twenty-something Jenny's life is sadly representative of many young adults who have grown up in a tide of brokenness from dysfunctional families and relationships.  The pain is evident in her songs, though she has a beautiful voice and can pen a very human if sad song.  Here's a sample: "What are you changing?/ What do you think you're changing?/ You can't change things./ We're all stuck in our ways./ It's like trying to clean the ocean./ What do you think, you can drain it?/ Well, it was poison and dry/ long before you came."  Not too much hope there.  You can read a bit about her in a cover story from Harp, and listen to her here.

Enough said for now!

Larry Norman's Nightmare

Gasmask_1 I honestly don't know what to make of Larry Norman.  Larry is one of Christian music's pioneers, and I believe he had genius in his early years, and then. . . well I don't know what happened to him.  But nevertheless, he had genius.  I mean, take this song, for example, called "Nightmare" (from So Long Ago the Garden) a/k/a "Nightmare #71":

last night i had that same old dream it rocked me in my sleep
and left me the impression that the sandman plays for keeps
i dreamed i was in concert in the middle of the clouds
john wayne and billy graham were giving breath mints to the crowds
i fell through a hole in heaven i left the stage for good
and when i landed on the earth i was back in hollywood

the california earthquake it tore the land in half
while san andreas cleared her throat i heard tsunami laugh
the ground began to tremble the land began to sway
and people in the other states they were glad they'd moved away
but suddenly california just floated in the breeze
while every state that wasn't sank down into the seas

and soon i saw atlantis rumble and rise high
and the great egg of euphrates came down out of the sky
and out stepped shirley temple with guy kippee who was dead
and that communist bill robinson whom shirley called black red
they have a marionette of harpo marx they said it was an inside joke
but when i honked his horn he came alive and these were the words he spoke

"with the continents adrift and the sun about to shift
will the ice caps drown us all or will we burn
we've polluted what we own will we reap what we have sown?
are we headed for the end or can we turn?
we've paved the forest killed the streams
burned the bridges to our dreams
the earth is bursting at the seams
and in pain of childbirth screams
as it gives life to what seems
to either be an age that gleams
or simply lays there dying
if this goes on will life survive how can it
out of the grave oh who will save our planet?"

i said i'm pleased to meet you i always thought you were a scream
he said "have you ever thought of having helen keller in your dreams
i said errol flynn dropped by but he tried to steal my girl
the she ran off with ronald colman said something about a new world
now i'm stuck with my own cooking hey i'm lonely can't you see
well he grabbed my leg and said exactly eighty nine words to me
count them

"let the proud but dying nation kiss the last generation
it's the year of the pill, age of the gland
we have landed on the moon but we'll clutter that up soon
our sense of freedom's gotten out of hand
we kill our children swap our wives
we've learned to greet a man with knives
we swallow pills in fours and fives
our cities look like crumbling hives
man does not live he just survives
we sleep till he arrives
love is a corpse we sit and watch it harden
we left it oh so long ago the garden"

the strings snapped briskly then went slack the marionette lay dead
while hoover played with the motorcade the body slumped and bled
the man who held the camera disappeared into the crowd
i said the hope of youth, fictitious truth, lays covered in a shroud
then up walked elmo lincoln and he said i beg you pardon
but we left it oh so long ago, the garden

Oh my.  It's even wilder to hear it.  This apocolyptic dream manages to put John Wayne, Billy Graham, and Erroll Flynn all in one.  Harpo Marx shows up, and Shirley Temple, and Ronald Coleman saying something about a new world, and we're stuck with our own cooking.  What a song!

I don't know what's wrong with Larry Norman.  Some say a piece of a plane fell out of the sky and hit him in the head.  He has medical problems.  He needs money for his medical treatments.  He can't come outside.  He won't touch people for fear of germs.  He thinks the "United States is becoming a totalitarian society."  I wonder if he 's like Bob Dylan who interviewed once like this:

Q.  Do you have any children?

BD. Every man with medical problems has children.

Q.  What are your medical problems?

BD. Well, there's glass in the back of my head.  I'm a very sick person.  I can't see too well on Tuesdays.  These dark glasses are prescribed.  I'm not trying to be a beatnik.  I have mercuryesque eyes.  And another thing -- my toenails don't fit.

He's said a lot of things that alienated him from people.  He keeps reissuing records with "lost tracks", "found" tracks, "remastered" tracks, and more, and sells them at excessive prices to a small but rabid (and aging) fan base.  He doesn't seem to be able to write a song like "Nightmare" anymore.  These are all things that have been said about Larry.

I don't know what's true or false about all these claims about Larry, but I do think I know what's wrong with him.  He needs to be made whole again.  We both do.

"We sleep till he arrives." Keep the faith, Larry.

A Gracious Response

Clip_image002In an addendum to the earlier post today regarding Anne Rice's new book, I thought I'd give you my email to Anne Rice along with her gracious and prompt (as well as uncommon, for busy "celebrities") response.  I wrote:

Dear Anne:

I finished Christ the Lord at 3:30 a.m. this morning, a perfect preface to worship in my church today.

I am thankful for you words, both for helping the story of Jesus come alive again, and for your afterword, which detailed your coming to faith through seeking the answers to questions.  Scripture does say “seek first His kingdom, and these things will be given unto you,” and He has given unto you faith and knowledge of faith.

I suspect you and I would disagree greatly on political matters, as you might with many evangelical Christians and some Catholics.  Be encouraged.  These things won’t matter and will not divide one day, and we should be able to find unity around the one Faith without agreeing on every application of that faith.  My hope is that I can be open to learning, and even changing my mind, and, as you have said, your quest is not over either.  May we both find what is true, good and beautiful, and then embrace it.

Thanks again, and rich blessings,

Steve West

Anne wrote: 

Yours was a beautiful letter and I can't agree with you more: there is so much that unites us, so much evidence that love will save the world, and that faith in Christ is unifying and crucial and beautiful, and what we must all share.  I get hundreds of letters from fellow Christians and it is a great inspiration that so many are filled with pure love, regardless of the background of the one who is writing.  Thank you for affirming all this for me.  Take care and be well, Anne. 

Anne Rice Comes Out of Egypt

037541201801_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_2 A Catholic girl grows up, goes to college, breaks with the faith, loses belief in God, and joins the literary establishment (which tend to affirm these beliefs), finding popularity writing about vampires and other supernatural beings.  This the Anne Rice I never read, because I never wanted to, and yet now she is writing about Jesus at the age of seven? 

I admit that when I first heard of this book, I suspected it had to be a blasphemy -- Jesus the gay, the flawed, certainly the mere mortal, most likely.  But Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is anything but that.  Rather, it is a fictional account of Jesus at age seven, narrated from his perspective, yet it assumes his deity and sinless nature and imagines what it must have been like for him to slowly realize who is was and yet, at seven, not fully what he was on earth to do.  While Rice adds fictional elements to the story, filling in the interstices of the Gospel story, she is at great pains not to include anything that would contradict scripture or be out of character for the boy Jesus.  Her account is speculative, and yet it is based on meticulous historical research.  Truly, it is a fascinating read, one at the end of which you find yourself saying "well, it could have been like that," and one that sharpens our sense of who Christ is by giving us the rich context scripture sometimes merely assumes.

As fascinating as the story is, however, just as fascinating is the story of what brought Rice to such a telling.  In the Afterword, she essentially details her compulsion, her desire to conduct the scholarly research to get at who Jesus really was.  Having done the research, considering all the liberal scholarship out there, this is what she concluded:

     In sum, the whole case for the nondivine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified by nobody and had nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and would be horrified by it if he knew about it --- that whole picture which had floated around in the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years --- that case was not made.  Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I'd ever read. . . . I saw almost no skeptical scholarship that was convincing. . . . And I had also sensed something else.  Many of these scholars, scholars who apparently devoted their life to New Testament scholarship, disliked Jesus Christ.  Some pitied him as a hopeless failure.  Others sneered at him, and some felt an outright contempt.  This came between the lines of the books.  This emerged in the personality of the texts. . . . I'd never come across this kind of emotion in any other field of research, at least not to this extent.  It was puzzling.

She also came to disbelieve the liberal claim that the gospels were late documents, written after the Fall of Jerusalem.  She could not understand this, given the horrific and cataclysmic nature of that event.  She ultimately "found it absolutely impossible that the Gospel writers could not have included the Fall of the Temple in their work had they written after it as critics insist."  She ultimately found that orthodox scholar N.T. Wright answered the questions best in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God, believing that "Christianity achieved what it did. . . because Jesus rose from the dead."

Jesus rose.  Reading that at 3:30 a.m. this morning, I was strangely assured.  An atheist, Anne Rice, an educated woman, one who has read more broadly than I ever will, believes in the Risen Christ.  I have believed this over 40 years, so why does it mean so much to me to know that at the end of her searching, she believes it too?  I suppose because the claim is so outlandish, so crazy, so counter-intuitive, that the residual doubt that lingers in the recesses of my soul, the nagging but little countenanced "what if it's not true?," is banished for a time.  For a moment I can honestly say with total conviction, "My God, it is true, and. . . and if it is true, then so is all the rest."

Thank you Anne Rice.  Welcome Home.  I know your quest is not over.  I know there are issues we will disagree on.  I know you are politically liberal.  You don't need to just fall in line.  Be who you are, and keep searching for Jesus and the mind of Christ in all things, because even though you haven't fully grasped Him, he has fully grasped you.

Immortal Diamond: The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkinsg129x1631 Several years ago I was helping my wife clean the attic of her parents’ home.  We found 50 years of accumulated past wants --- the latest fashions (from the Sixties), four broken television sets, sad-eyed dolls, and outdated furniture.  Pushing the cobwebs away, brushing away dust, we attempted to bring order from chaos.  We searched for something, for anything worth saving.

I opened a mildewed cardboard box.  Inside was the dank smell of old books.  Reaching down in the jumbled pile, I fished out a worn copy of Modern American & British Poetry, copyright 1955.  Thumbing through it, I came upon a section devoted to Gerard Manley Hopkins.  I couldn’t put the book down.  The attic cleaning could wait.

The next day I rushed out and bought a copy of the only Hopkins book I could find: The Immortal Diamond: The Spiritual Vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  This slender volume contained a brief biography of the famous Jesuit poet and 53 of his best-known poems.  I was particularly captivated by two of Hopkins’ poems: “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty.”

The most refreshing thing that I found in these poems was their marriage of spiritual wonder and technical ability.  It can be a difficult marriage because so often the Christian, in his zeal, allows the poem to become overly didactic.  At worst, it can become nothing more than a prop for dogma, a propagandizing tract.  While Hopkins’ poems do carry moral meaning and serve a “teaching” function, he manages to give poetic voice to spiritual yearnings while respecting the nature and promise of the form.  Thus, at the outset I was pleased to discover a “religious” poet who remained a poet. 

You can read a bit more of something I've written on Hopkins here, but for now, enjoy one of his richest poems, "God's Grandeur":

The world is charged with the grandeur of God,

     It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

     It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

     And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

     And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

     Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs ---

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

     World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It was fitting to discover Hopkins in a humble pile of discards in a dusty attic.  For all his ability, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet of humility, full of wonder and hope at the beauty of nature and of the Divine, yet cognizant of his finite human form.  “I am all at once what Christ is, since he/ was what I am, and/ This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch,/ matchwood, immortal diamond,/ Is immortal diamond.”  Reading Immortal Diamond, I saw his many facets.  I saw words that shine.  And I remembered who I am before God.

Intelligent Design and Intelligent Designers

Dscf0049_edited Adrian Bejan is a distinguished professor at Duke University, an engineer.  In 1995, while listening to a speech by a Nobel laureate, and hearing him state that the design of living things is random, Bejan reacted strongly. He disagreed.  And so, "constructal theory" was born.

Now it's not that I understand much of what engineers say, but when I read about Bejan and saw what he was doing, I began to smile.  Bejan's theory is that by studying the design of living things, we can copy (or mimic) nature's successes in our own human constructs. He urged people in his discipline to consider the shapes of trees, river basins, or human lungs as promising blueprints that man-made devices should follow.

Random?  To the contrary, Bejan states that "[t]he design of living things is determined. That can be described with a principle.  I'm the guy with the principle."

Reading about Bejan, I recalled a classic land-use planning text by Ian McHarg called Design With Nature.  In this seminal book from the mid-Seventies, McHarg argued that humans can copy nature's designs to build better structures.  It was a tremendously influential book, and when I discovered it in graduate school, I was quite taken with it.

Dscf0094_edited It's not that Bejan or McHarg necessarily believe in "creation," as opposed to "nature."  Bejan alludes to evolution (presumably not necessarily to the exclusion of creation, of course) and McHarg laid all the problems with the environment at the feet of Christendom (a dubious attribution).  But the point here is not to debate creation v. evolution or discuss the mistakes of unbiblical ideas embraced by the church, but to notice where both men are pointing (the created order) and what they say about it's nature (it's designed) and what they tell us (we should pay attention to it).  You couldn't make a better case for a creational theology!  Sometimes theology and truth come from the most unlikely places (engineers and land use planners).

There's nothing new about looking to creation for insights about God.  That's general revelation, as opposed to special revelation (scripture).  But theologian-pastor T.M. Moore makes an excellent case for the development of a creational theology in a 2005 book called Consider the Lillies: A Plea for Creational Theology.  It's a book steeped in Reformed theology and Moore's own experience of trying to discern something of God's ways and workings from creation, and bears the artist's mark as well (he cites poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example).

Citing Psalm 19:1-4, Moore draws four conclusions: (1) there is a revelation of God in all creation; (2) this revelation is profuse and constant; (3) this revelation is clear and unmistakable; and finally, (4) it is ubiquitous (inescapable, unavoidable).  Creation is, in other words, a virtual treasure trove of accumulated wisdom about God and about how things best work.  This is precisely what Bejan and McHarg discovered (sans the God-talk) and yet what so few seem to recognize.

Dscf0013_edited Viewing the world this way is truly illuminating.  I recall the forests of giant sequoias my family and I wandered through in California a couple years ago.  Not only are they grand and awesome, reminding us of God, they also teach us so much.  For example, I discovered that though they have very shallow roots their roots are interlocking, allowing them to support one another.  Consider the wisdom of that for the body of Christ.  I learned also that fire is necessary to allow them to germinate, setting free millions of seeds.  Consider the fruit of trial and hardship for the Christian.  Think how much of what a tree does for its life (and our lives) that goes unseen -- producing oxygen, photosynthesis, and more.  Consider how much of our working out of our salvation is unseen by those around us.  These are just facile lessons from a non-engineer, non-biologist.  But it's really just the tip of what settled wisdom lies in creation.

So you see why I am smiling. Bejan and McHarg and their disciples discovered what Christians have known all along -- to consider the lilies, to learn from the natural world.  But we can be thankful for their reminder and their applications of creation's wisdom. 

592 Words, Oh My! (Art and Propaganda)

Honestly, folks, I'm a bit tired of this.  It seems I can't crack open a jewel case, read an interview with an artist, or listen to a concert nowadays without being told what I should think or do or who or what I should vote for.  Frankly, if I wanted an education on social issues or on moral conduct, I prefer to hear it from someone knowledgeable about the issue or, in the case of conduct, from, say, my pastor.  Instead, I have to hear it from artists! it's the difference between art and propaganda, even if the propaganda is true.

This came to mind recently as I discovered and listened to the superb new CD by songwriter Adrienne Young and her band, Little Sadie.  Gorgeous music, creative and award-winning packaging, and (here we go) a wholesome message -- The Art of Virtue.  I was absolutely blown away by the music (a bluegrass-folk-country mix) and the lyrical content (great stories, and songs affirming virtue!).   Who, after all, has a problem with songs that commend virtues like chastity, sincerity, justice, humility, and tranquility, among others?  What a novel idea!

Virtue But here's the rub: As I begin reading the extensive liner notes, a sinking feeling came over me.  I counted: There are approximately 592 words extolling virtue, a couple of prayers, a booklet with all the virtues listed and a chart where I'm supposed to write down how I did today on one of the virtues, and, then there's more admonitions about why and how I should support locally grown food, and so on.  592 words.

To make this argument, I could have taken a cheap shot at those artists or CDs that contain anti-Bush songs, anti-war songs, or some issue I may disagree on (there are plenty of those) but the argument here is not over content but form.  In doing so, it's helpful to use an artist whose content I largely have sympathy for rather than one whose content I largely disagree with.  The problem is this: art is not propaganda.  Art teaches through metaphor, symbol, and story, not didactic prose.  This is what Flannery O'Connor was getting at when she said that "the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.  A work of art (and the album is that) is weakened when the artist merely uses the art as a foil for a message.  In other words, art is prostituted and made to serve the message, ascribed value only to the extent it serves the message rather than being recognized as having value simply because it is good art.

There's much to be said about this topic, and some fair disagreement, but I'll leave it here:  In his excellent book called The Liberated Imagination, author Leland Ryken tells of an exchange with the composer Schumann that seems to say it all.  After playing a new composition, Shumann was asked what it meant.  He replied, "It means this," and simply played the piece again.

So, Adrienne, just give me the music -- thoughtful, rich. and deep music that makes me think about the profundities of life and the value of virtue over vice -- not 592 words.  That's really the more difficult task -- to be blunt, to know when to speak and when not to speak.  Just sing it to me.

Strange and Beautiful. . . and Sad

B0007op0x601 Of this week's abysmal dearth of new releases (once again), one release stands out: Aqualung's Strange and Beautiful.  It is a beautiful set of Brit-Pop in the vein of Keane or Coldplay, piano driven, minimalist (both lyrically and musically, though there is orchestration) and. . . melancholy.  Even sad.

If you're looking for lyrical profundity, this is not it.  Matt Hales, the mainstay of Aqualung, writes entirely of relationships.  Rather than give us symbols or metaphors that we can meditate on and give depth and complexity to the songs, he gives us emotions -- love lost, sadness, broken heartedness.  And yet these days I'm almost more content with an album that emotes rather than sizzles with rage or denunciation of someone or something.  I tire of the prophet, and so I appreciate the words of another human being sharing his honest emotions.  It is a moving record, both because of the beauty of the melodies and the intensity of emotion, even if it doesn't nourish me with hope.  And I suppose it is profound, only on an emotional rather than intellectual level.

Asked about the meaning or message of the record, Hales simply says "Life is brief. . . and the private things that go on between people are what define us, more than we know."  So true, and yet there's so much more.  It's a whole record of looking at life's horizontal dimension, never once seeing any vertical dimension, any transcendent meaning to give context to the relationships.  The best we get is found here, in "Brighter Than Sunshine":  Love burns brighter than sunshine/ Brighter than sunshine/ Let the rain fall I don't care/I'm yours and suddenly you're mine/ Suddenly you're mine/And it's brighter than sunshine.  Is that enough?  I don't think so.

Finding Home

Gkc_head It is probably true for most of us that G.K. Chesterton is more quotable than readable.  Chesterton -- the rotund, cigar smoking, prolific, and witty Englishman -- was a master of the quip, but his prose requires close reading.  His quips range from the trivial ("Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before" ) to the humorous ("It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged") to the profound ("The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man").  Well, there is really no end to it.  His books are full of such profundities and hilarities but, as I mentioned, require some patience.

Reading through a series of his quotes, one stood out to me, perhaps because I find myself constantly returning to its theme in writing and thinking.  He said (in one of his many "two ways" quotes): "There are two ways to get home; and one of them is to stay there."  For one thing, it reminded me of the lines from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding, one of his Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Mcj038261800001 Home -- the place I started from -- foreshadows the place where by God's grace I'll end up: Heaven.  When we leave home, after all the exploring, all the trying different ideas and experiences, we often end up back where we started from (sometimes geographically, more often spiritually).  For some, that might be a disturbing thought.  Not for me.  Home is where I learned about unconditional love (even when I failed courses or threw rocks through the neighbor's window).  Home is where I experienced the freedom offered by boundaries; having to play in the backyard, for example, yielded greater creativity (did you know clotheslines make good zip lines?).  Home was a place of unbridled imaginative play and unrelenting, wonderful, work.  Isn't that what I want in Heaven?

I imagined just such a place in something I wrote several years ago (The Dream of Home, available in the sidebar), a portion of which I offer here:

As for me, I’ll keep returning, no doubt, to that childhood home, the cookie-cutter house, to my youngish mother making biscuits in the kitchen, the old photos, Grandpa’s clock, and the door to my room, which I dream I’ll open one day not on a nameless void but on something like the surreal scene of. . .

Bob Dylan sipping coffee served by Mother Theresa in a diner run by Leroy Williams, the kindly janitor in my elementary school, while Flossie, the buxom black lady that used to do my Momma’s ironing belts out a Mahalia Jackson tune that segued into “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”  Long about twilight, we’ll all go out and play a game or two or three of Capture the Flag (and for once, I’ll get it) until, dog tired, we go home for dinner and reruns of Howdy-Doody, Astro-Boy and then play music until the crack of dawn.  It’s all that is good and true, only more, much more real.  Well, that’s just my dream of Home.

You really can go home, you know.  I hope we all get there.

You really can go home.

If you had a good home, then next time you consider that place, imagine the best things you found there somehow making their way to a reconstructed and heavenly earth, a very physical, earthy Heaven (where our feet rest on dirt, not clouds).  But if you had a rough home, remember the one you hoped for, perhaps a negation of what you endured, and then rest in the knowledge and hope of a curse undone in a heavenly home.

Carrying On

Peacehands1 "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. I won't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." (Martin Luther King, April 3, 1968)

The Quotidian v. The Next Big Thing

Coming home, I said I have a big brief to write at work this week.  To which my wife said she had a lot of briefs -- to wash, that is.  Such is the nature of our diverse callings at this time in life.  We had a laugh about that, and then a discussion about what we really dreamed of doing (neither of us are that hip on briefs, of whatever kind).

We had just heard a sermon in an unfamiliar church this morning about the importance of dreams, not the nocturnal kind but the dreams about what you'd really like to do with your life -- you know, like write a best-selling novel, live on a ranch in Montana, be a missionary, something really significant.  Using the example of Jacob, the pastor emphasized the importance of dreams, how we need to pursue our dreams if they meet three tests: Do they honor God?  Do they give us joy?  Will they bless other people?  As he said, if the dream meets this test, there will be obstacles, but where God calls He will also provide the means to overcome obstacles.  It was a part of a series called "No Regrets."

Haredwork This was all well and good, and I was on my way to dreaming, when the quotidian impinged.  If you don't know the word, the quotidian is the thing or things which belong to the everyday, the commonplace, the mundane, if you will.  Like tomorrow, I'm not writing briefs but vacuuming the whole house.  I need to pay some bills.   I have a few errands to run.  You know, these are not a part of the dream, not what I get excited about, and yet they must be done.

So by the end of the day I find myself not fully agreeing with the pastor.  Sure, some people like Billy Graham or Bono or George Bush or Martin Luther King have some big dreams, and some big things to do.  But many of us have the quotidian, the everyday, and need to be faithful in the place God has us, whether as employees, spouses, parents, deacons, or whatever.  Frederick Bueckner once said that "[t]here is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to either recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly" (Listening to Your Life).  God help me see it.

Kathleen Norris wrote a short book called The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work."  After months spent living with Benedictine monks, she says that these common, ordinary tasks "all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down.  Our daily tasks, whether we perceive them as drudgery or essential, life-supporting work, do not define who we are. . . as human beings.  But they have a considerable spiritual import, and their significance for Christian theology, the way they come together in the fabric of faith, is not often appreciated."

There may not be a big dream.  The "next big thing" may be that you get to do the dishes tonight, vacuum the house, launder the clothes, do the "grunt" work in your job.  God's dream for me, for us, is bigger than our big dreams.  He messing around with who we are.  He's making us new creations.  It doesn't get much bigger than that.

Analogical Thinking

Clip_image002 Dorothy Sayers, the cigar-smoking lone female member of the Inklings (which included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others) once said that "All thinking is analogic" (The Mind of the Maker).  A brilliant book, The Mind of the Maker explores various theological concepts (like the Trinity) by analogy to the human creative process, and also says quite a bit about human creativity (particularly for writers).  I have always found the concept useful.  For example, we may say "God is good," but the phrase is abstract without analogy -- that is, good like what?  Analogies are not perfect (can you really think of a perfect one for the Trinity?), but they are simply necessary to the way we think, a part of our created makeup.

So?  So, if all human thought is analogic, then simile, metaphor, and symbol are sanctified, a part of being made in God's image, as fundamental to life as air is to breath.  The artist's vocation is a high calling because they are given special gifts to use -- love of metaphor and symbol to help others not so gifted to think about what is true, good, and beautiful.  Another example: We believe in the Fatherhood of God, but isn't our understanding of that Fatherhood deepened by a story of a human father's love for his son or daughter?  And how do we know the love of God but by the many human demonstrations of love?  All thinking is analogic. Think about that.

And While We're At It. . . (Another Lament)

J0309185While we're lamenting the passing of the CD (and hoping it's not so), here's another thing to lament -- the loss of the handwritten letter.  How quaint, you might say.  Who does that any more?  And why on earth would you want to take the time to write out a note, with the possibility of mistakes that can't be easily corrected with the delete key, when you can say more and say it quickly with an email?  Why indeed?

I suppose this came to mind because I was the one in my family who had the time this year to send out some Christmas cards, and I decided that I'd write a personal note with each one (ok, so not every single one of them, as I'm lazy).  I see no reason to send a card that says simply "Merry Christmas", or one of those photo cards, and as much as the information in a Christmas letter is of interest, nothing beats a personal note.  I noticed a few things in the process.  I had to think about what I wanted to say before I put pen to paper.  I think that thoughtfulness and the process of organizing thoughts in the mind is useful and actually helps one to think better.  Second (and here we go again), there is something pleasurable about the pen in hand, the paper (or card), the uniqueness of the ink on paper (my handwriting is, unfortunately, not so good).  The ink, the pen, the card, the envelop, licking the envelope (the taste), the stamp, and then, the trip to the mailbox.  It's all so real, so tangible, like a ritual of remembrance.  And on a few, there was a prayer said as I closed.

Several years ago I read a short book by Margaret Shepherd entitled The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication.  While some of what she says is a bit over the top, she's right on in regard to writing handwritten notes to folks.  She notes how when we pick up our mail we all look for the handwritten letter, either ripping into them first or savoring them to open later after the bills and junk mail are sorted out.  She's right.  Since I was a child I have eagerly awaited the mail, hoping something personal came for me.  Really, what I want to know is  whether someone took the time to think of me.  Handwritten notes convey that sense of importance, of value to a person.  Indeed, iit's a way we value the image of God in others.  It's also more sensual (in all the right ways) than the ubiquitous email. (Another good book on the subject is Alexandra Stoddard's Gift of a Letter.)

So, I've made a pledge to write just one such note every week.  If I have the time, of course.

Bye, Bye Tactile Pleasures? (Are Books and CDs Obsolete?)

Apple 4 GB iPod Nano BlackA friend recently forwarded me a short article that appeared in a music business blog, Tripwire, entitled Jewel Cases Are for Old People, Consumers Embrace the Future.  As a collector of CDs, I was righteously provoked and had the same emotion I felt when told that the book was obsolete.  I don't believe it.  Yet, the author documents a meteoric rise in legal downloads of music, one which gives me pause.  Will CDs and books fade away?  If so, what do we gain, and what do we lose?  Well, here are my initial thoughts, under which lies a fair degree of ambivalence and caution because, as so many have documented (see Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society, for one), every technological advance always has both beneficial and harmful consequences.

Except for collectors like me, I suspect that most consumers are not wedded emotionally to the CD.  Apple was able to develop a small, very cool, container (the ubiquitous IPod) for a large quantity of digitized music, and I think most will love their IPods or other MP3 players as much as or more than the library of CDs.  On the other hand, no such cool container exists for books.  Not that it hasn't been tried (the Rocketbook, SoftBook, etc., and now EReaders on various handheld devices), but none function quite like a book held in the hand.  (For the early history of such attempts, see the 1998 Wired Magazine article entitled Ex Libris.) There is a tactile pleasure in reading the written word -- in turning pages, smelling the ink, knowing the book has history, and being able to jot notes in the margins and quickly skim through it -- that has not been duplicated in a digital device.  Reading a book is a sensory experience; curling up with my Treo 650 just doesn't cut it. 

To some extent the same tactile pleasure is true of CDs, yet less so.  We may read the liner notes or relish the packaging, but the sensation is less acute than that of book-reading. Plus, CDs have been around a lot less time than books.  So they are less culturally embedded  My conclusion: the CD may well fade, but I doubt the book will leave us anytime soon, if at all.

But hold on.  We know the benefits of our IPod, more music with less space, but what do we lose?  For starters, many excellent artists will not be enjoyed because their work requires patience and repeated listening.  I have noticed my impatience when I listen to music online.  I'm in that internet surfing mode.  If it doesn't pull me in on the first listen, I will likely move on.  Why? Probably because I have less commitment.  However, if I spend the money to buy a CD, you can be sure I will listen through all the songs at least two or three times.  Some albums grow on you.  Some take time to decipher.  And when I spend the cash on it, I'm committed.  I will give it time.  Thus, digital downloading plays to our impatience and lack of commitment, which is not healthy. 

Call me Luddite, but I did part with LPs (though I still miss them).  Maybe I'll be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital music world, but I hope I don't have to. I want to listen to less, but listen more deeply.  I want to be loyal to an artist.  I want to give them a chance.  I want them to explore concepts that may take a whole album to develop.  I want my CD.  How about you?

Message From the Country, Message From the Past

B0009y335601thumbzzz1_1 Although it's been a lackluster post-Christmas season week for new music releases, there is one notable exception -- The Move's reissued 1971 swansong, Message From the Country, a progressive rock must-have.  I came to The Move via Electric Light Orchestra, the highly successful Seventies prog-rock group founded by The Move's leaders, Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne, the sometimes zany but always creative minds behind the distinctive ELO pop sound. ELO created a novel fusion of rock and roll and orchestra which I first experienced on ElDorado, which I purchased on vinyl in high school (9th grade, I think).  I was blown away by the sound and remember playing it for my parents in an attempt to convince them that rock was serious music! Whereas ELO fused orchestra with rock, The Move was more chamber orchestra and rock, with a lot of genre experimentation.  For example, between the psychedelic-laced songs or straight rock and roll of Message, you will find a tribute to Elvis (Don't Mess Me Up), the jazz-rock of It Wasn't My Idea to Dance, and the Johnny Cash like Ben Crawley Steel Company (about a steel-driver turned bomb throwing revolutionary!).  And then there's nine bonus tracks, which include early versions of Do Ya (later done by ELO) and Words of Aaron.

My favorites on this record, however, are the more focused and lyrically straight ahead numbers, particularly the mostly acoustic and McCartneyesque No Time (also reminiscent of CSN) and the John Lennon homage, Words of Aaron.  Beautiful.  The Move moved me -- right back to high school, right back to a time when it seemed there was something new under the sun.  All from a bunch of boy-geniuses messing around in the studio on EMI's dime.

Feng Shui Hooey

Mainbg_1 House cluttered?  Bad karma or, rather, bad chi feng shui practitioners would say.  In a recent article from the local newspaper's Home and Garden section, the writer extolled the benefits of what some would say is just another philosophy of interior design.  According to one practitioner cited, feng shui is "simply a way to arrange your surroundings to promote energy flow and balance, which can help enhance the quality of life."  Hmmm.  Maybe they should talk with my son, as he has plenty of energy and I can't see that his room is arranged for positive energy flow at all! 

Actually, what the article only hints at is something I only found out about with more digging.  According to Marcia Montenegro in an article called Feng Shui: New Dimensions in Design, adherents of feng shui believe invisible, magic forces are tamed through occult forms of divination.  They posit a "seemingly harmless facade of intricate and detailed decorating advice [and need we also say costly], but behind it is a spiritual belief system based on the concepts of a magical force called chi, the opposing but complementary yin and yang [I sorta think of them as Glenda the Good Witch and her sister the Wicked Witch of the West], and the interaction of the five elements -- earth, water, fire, metal, and wood."  Since all objects channel energy, or life force, experienced practitioners need to help you arrange your surroundings in such a way as to channel the energy in positive ways.

Christians need not go much further.  Impersonal life force.  Channeling energy.  We've heard all this before in the many variations of New Age religion.  Why people will settle for this impersonal life force over a personal, loving God is a good question.  Is it because a personal God demands relationship and relationship accountability?  I suspect so.  So, it's no surprise that feng shui is not only hooey (I know, shui doesn't really rhyme with hooey, but I couldn't resist) but downright deceptive. Keep your eyes open.

But it's not good enough to see what's wrong with feng shui.  We can also make it a practice to look for what's right in what's gone wrong, something I'm really more interested in here -- that is, what is true, good, or beautiful about this pagan philosophy masquerading as an interior design craze?  At least three things come to mind.  First, as Christians we share a sense that objects are sacred, only we do not believe they emanate life force or energy.  Rather, created things bear the imprint of their maker.  Just as a painter's canvas is a window to the painter, so objects are windows to the transcendent God.  Pablo Neruda (who I do not know to be a Christian) says that "[e]verything in the world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stones, they are all hieroglyphics.  When you see them you do not understand them.  You think they are men, animals, trees, stars.  It's only years later that you understand."  I think the Orthodox believers among us understand this best in their use of icons as windows to God.  One can perhaps understand how this re-sacralization of the inanimate appeals to our naturalistic, materialistic culture who innately sense that something more must be at work here than what meets the eye.  Second, just as place matters in feng shui, so place matters to Christians.  Indeed, Christians have a penchant for the particular.  The Bible is not a book of abstract doctrines but for the most part is rooted in particulars of place, personality, and object.  God pronounces the created world good, in all its variety, and so we can and should pay attention and deeply appreciate the place we live in and the things that surround us.

Finally, that our surroundings effect us emotionally is no surprise.  God made us as sensual beings who taste, touch, see, and smell things.  It didn't have to be that way.  That it is that way says something about God and what matters to God.  Place matters. People matter.  Things matter.  In fact, everything matters.  And yet, we can also say with feng shui adherents -- "need it, use it, love it, or ditch it" -- as we can become obsessed with things, unable to de-clutter our lives of them, rather than having only those things we need or love.  So, feng shui has much to say about the focus of our homes, and about aesthetics, if we can only jettison the underlying pagan spirituality.

One item saved from our somewhat recent house reconstruction is a part of a door frame that has pencil marks on it showing the growth over the years of my two children.  Our carpenter saved it for us -- because he knew it had special meaning for us.  It does.  It symbolizes all those years of growing up and all we went through.  It evokes emotion just to see it.  Chi?  Naah.  It's a signpost pointing to the One who gave us that life together.  And I'll take a personal Holy Spirit over an impersonal life force any day.

Brian Wilson's Surpise

Path Last Summer I had the privilege of seeing Brian Wilson in concert at Wolftrap in Vienna, Virginia.  I was enjoying it all, of course, amazed at the incredible band, the SMILE set, and Brian's more relaxed presence (a far cry from his uptight performance the first time I saw him at UCLA in October 2002).  But then I heard a new song, a gospel song, called Walking Down the Path of Life, and was blown away.  The song (was it complete?) segued into Love and Mercy, a beautiful match for its lyrics.  Backstage, my friend asked Brian where the song came from.  He said, "God gave it to me." Naturally.  Brian released a single of it late last fall, with all the proceeds going toward Katrina relief.  Listen to these lyrics:

Walking down the path of life
I feel His presence day and night
Touch me heal me wash my sins away
Touch me heal me wash my sins away
Every night, I will pray
I'll be good, everyday
Give me hope, Hope and pray

Musically, the song hearkens back to one from the Carl and the Passions -- So Tough album released by the Beach Boys in 1972, specifically, a track called He Come Down.  The resemblance is uncanny, almost eerie, with the late Carl Wilson singing lead.  Lyrically though, it's quite a difference, as Walking is pure gospel, whereas He Come Down is a send up to TM and the Maharishi and universalism and who knows what else, thanks to Mike Love.

Get it here.

Why I Am Outwalking: Some Thoughts on Purpose

Welcome to OutWalking, a likely over-ambitious source of reflection on the true, the good, and the beautiful in the world. Here you can read posts on books, music, art, and life in general, from the standpoint of one who believes in the true "myth" as told in biblical account of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. You can also check out the regularly updated sidebar content.

Presumably, the title to a new blog should reflect something of its author, and so it does.  I liked the phrase "Out Walking" both for its literal meaning (I am a daily walker) and its metaphorical meanings.  To walk is to have some destination and, without sounding too cliche, I believe life is full of purpose, meaning, and ultimately, destination.  Indeed, as a Christian, I like to keep Home in my sights, both the one I came from and the one for which I am destined.  In walking, I also reflect, and pray, and sometimes (when I return), I write, and so you'll find my ruminations, reviews, poems, and essays in the sidebar here.  I find it helpful.  Perhaps you'll find these reflections helpful as well.  Finally, I should say the title is not original but comes from writer John Leax's wonderful book of poetry and essay of the same name.  Walk among his words sometime.

At bottom, this blog then is an extended meditation on God's common grace to the world. I walk in the world looking for what is true, good, and beautiful -- whatever the source. In fact, my eyes are wide open to it. Along the way I'll see the false, the bad, and the ugly. Discernment will be called for, but I'd rather walk in this way than be clositered away in a ghetto of supposed safety. This is my task: to walk wisely in the book of this world guided by Scripture, with eyes fixed on the Author and Perfecter of my faith and, in fact, of this world. Home is in my sights, a recreated world full of only the true, the good, and the beautiful. [The author of Outwalking is Steve West. Steve is a published poet and essayist, former editor of ProCreation: A Journal of Truthtelling in Poetry and Prose, founder and President of Silent Planet Records and The Pop Collective (a power-pop record label), and a principal in Stone Table Media, which develops audio biographies and incidental radio shows (including, most lately, one on Ruth Bell Graham). To pay the bills, he practices law.]