Six Thoughts, Post-Referendum

Several short thoughts, nothing more.  Due to lack of sleep and general exhaustion, this won’t be my finest bit of writing ever, but here goes…

1. MANY VOTES WERE FRAUDULENT – Don’t worry, this isn’t what it seems to be.  I’ve not got some conspiracy theory floating around in my head about mass instances of voter fraud.  I suppose I mean ‘misguided’, but that didn’t seem strong enough.

I would like to look at the simple language of the Referendum ballot: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  In all honesty, I think both sides of the debate have obscured the question, whether intentionally or unintentionally.  I think when most people look at that question they aren’t reading ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ at all.  It could be any number of things:

‘Should we sack the Tories?’
‘Should Alex Salmond and the SNP run Scotland?’
‘Should Scotland be an independent country on 19 September 2014?’
‘Do you want to lose your pension?’
‘Do you want to lose Coronation Street?’
‘Do you appreciate the monarchy?’
et cetera

The heart-breaking thing is that whilst some of those suggestions are legitimate or even debatable knock-on effects of union or independence, none of them are really an answer to the bigger question and the first two (and variations of them) are particularly deceiving as they involve conflating party politics and national sovereignty.  I think that the Better Together folk were wise in having a Labour politician lead them (although they couldn’t find someone who sounded more Scottish than Alistair Darling?), indicating a cross-party effort to maintain the Union.  Although Alex Salmond is an incredibly talented politician, he is also the First Minister and the leader of the SNP.  Granted, the Referendum is a direct by-product of the SNP’s election to Scottish Parliament in 2011, but it could’ve been more effective to see less divisive faces leading the Yes campaign.

This all adds up to a wee bit of confusion when it comes to answering the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  In defence of the Yes campaign, I would argue that it is likely that many people were not thinking about the future of Scotland with a fully devolved and independent Scottish Parliament made up of all Scottish political persuasions.  We wouldn’t need to ship our best and brightest to Westminster.  They could stay here in Scotland where they have the opportunity to represent the interests of the people living in Scotland — because that would be the entire purpose of an independent Scottish Government.  Instead, folk were thinking about a decade of Alex Salmond.

I also think a lot of folk have been using language to imply that had Scotland voted ‘Yes’ on 18 September, we would be an independent country on 19 September.  Had we voted ‘Yes’, the new government would not have been established until 24 March 2016.  This would allow a year and a half of consultation and negotiation; and to play into the previous point, a democratic vote for all eligible voters in Scotland.  I’m seeing a lot of ‘still in the UK’-type language on social media this morning — no matter the outcome of yesterday’s Referendum, today we would still be in the UK.

2. SCOTLAND IS NOT THE SOCIALIST HAVEN SOME OF US HAVE BELIEVED IT TO BE — Results this morning indicate that areas of a higher working class and unemployed population came out overwhelmingly in favour of independence.  In many of our minds (me included), we’ve harboured this delusion that the vast majority of Scots are like the working class folk in Glasgow and Dundee.  But the reality is that Scotland is not as different from the rest of the United Kingdom as we thought.  Of course, a Conservative politician in Scotland is most likely much further to the left than a Conservative politician in England. See Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives.  She’s a woman and a lesbian at that — two qualities that would have many of the English Tory gentry up in arms.  But overall, it’s only common sense to acknowledge that not all Scots are socialists and up until only a few decades ago, Scotland had a long spell of complicity in the electing of Unionist/Conservative Governments in Westminster.

3. THIS IS NOT A TORY VICTORY / THIS IS NOT AN SNP DEFEAT — One great frustration among many I have with the result of this Referendum is that many folk are seeing this as either a Tory victory of an SNP defeat.  It is neither of those things.  At most, it is a Better Together victory and a Yes campaign defeat.  Make no mistake — this vote does not indicate Scotland’s approval of Westminster or the UK Government.  Likewise, it does not indicate Scotland’s disapproval of Holyrood and the Scottish Government.  Instead, a slim majority of Scottish voters decided that our best option at this point is not full independence.  Not only that, but in the midst of their grief, the SNP and the Yes campaign should take some consolation in the fact that over the length of this campaign the support of Scottish independence is at a record high.  It seems clear that the majority Scottish people want more power devolved to Scotland (a clarity that could have manifested itself in a result today had David Cameron not very sneakily traded a second, devo-max Referendum question for allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote back in the Edinburgh Agreement).  If Westminster politicians stick to their promises, we will be seeing further devolution in future.

As far as the future of the SNP goes, I believe that a large number of Scots think that the SNP has done well for the Scottish people, hence 2011’s election of a majority SNP Scottish Government in a parliament designed to avoid majority governments.  The SNP isn’t going anywhere any time soon.  If anything, a ‘Yes’ vote would’ve been the best way to ensure that the SNP would eventually dissolve.

4. AT A CERTAIN POINT, A ‘YES’ WOULD MEAN THE SAME THING AS A WESTMINSTER GOVERNMENT — As one might expect, the first results that came in early this morning were the smallest council areas. When a majority of councils had reported (most of them ‘No’ votes) it became clear to me that had the bigger councils voted ‘Yes’ overwhelmingly, this would create the same lopsided democracy as we find at Westminster.  Sure, in this hypothetical situation where ‘Yes’ won as a result of only a handful of large council areas, in numbers the ‘Yes’ would have it.  As is already felt by the smaller councils, particularly in the Western and Northern Islands, they would be governed by the will of places like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.  Folk have used this as an argument against independence, saying things like ‘Well, the Highlands and Islands have a different culture from the Lowlands, so we should have the opportunity to be independent countries too!’ I think that’s nonsense and you don’t need to think too long to realise that the Western and Northern Islands would be more closely managed and find greater clout in a smaller, more local Scottish Parliament (as opposed to Westminster).  But what I really want to express is that, should Scotland one day decide to be an independent country, I would hope that would be the will of the vast majority of Scots, with support from the further flung parts of our beautiful country.

5. THE UK IS BECOMING INCREASINGLY INHOSPITABLE TO THE OUTSIDER — A major part of why I supported a ‘Yes’ vote is because I am noticing a trend of hostility and inhospitality to outsiders in the United Kingdom.  (Given the results of the last European Parliamentary election, some might even argue that this is a European trend.)  As an Angeliño-Glaswegian, I have a particular interest in the rights of immigrants, although my native language, skin colour and accent put me at a great advantage among non-native residents of Scotland.  The cancer that is British fascism and isolationism is spreading beyond the confines of the political fringes.  Many BNP voters have been making their way to UKIP, a seemingly more politically viable party these days.  I thought that political separation from the UK would enable Scotland to become more intimately associated with the rest of Europe (and the rest of the world).  Unfortunately, no amount of devolution will allow for that in a United Kingdom.  I suppose that is one of my biggest fears in the wake of the Referendum results — that Scotland would become yet more xenophobic.  And here’s a wee reminder to those who think that the SNP’s brand of nationalism is the same as Nazi nationalism — the SNP has never stood for ethnic nationalism, that’s the job of the SDL.

6. WE CANNOT LOSE MOMENTUM — In the wake of this morning’s result, it would be easy to become discouraged or complacent.  Those who supported ‘Yes’ might feel downtrodden and exhausted with nothing to show for it.  This isn’t the result of a simple football match.  This was bigger than any General Election.  And now the opportunity seems lost.  It might be difficult to face the day today.

Those who supported ‘No’ might feel as if their work here is done, dusting off their hands, accompanied by a large sigh of relief.  After the overwhelming nature of this very long and divisive campaign, we might feel too tired to continue.  But there is much work to be done.  I believe that many ‘No’ voters are not entirely convinced about this current system in the UK.  Perhaps they believe that the best way for change is to remain part of the UK and renew it from the inside out.  I can appreciate that.

Today we find ourselves in the midst of a nation divided.  But we are still Scotland and despite the fact that we are not the socialist haven many have envisaged, we have many shared ideals, ideals that are not represented by many of the folk at Westminster.  We cannot give in.  We cannot feel defeated and we cannot feel as if our task is finished.  We must unite as Scotland with love for one another in order to press for the change we need.  We must hold those who made promises accountable to those promises.  We must fight for a fairer and more just society.  We must fight against the special breaks given to large financial institutions.  We must fight for the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.  We must fight to do our part to demonstrate care and respect for nature and the precious natural resources so exploited by UK.  And if it be our united will, we must fight to rid the UK of our hypocritical and immoral nuclear arsenal.

These are just some of the things we value.  Let’s write a longer to-do list together.

Hearts

North American Aviation

NAAI had just left North American airspace when I realised.  You see, when I find myself in the midst a long distance journey I become incredibly emotional.  I’m not sure why exactly.  Maybe it’s the thin, recycled air.  Maybe it’s the persistent hiss of the jet engines.  Maybe it’s the realisation, when looking out the window onto the earth and sea below, that I am truly an insignificant wee speck of matter inhabiting a tiny plot on a tiny planet within a tiny solar system within a relatively small galaxy within an unfathomably large and expanding universe.

But I find another theory yet more romantic.  In even the recent past, travelling nearly 10,000 kilometres, across an ocean and then a continent, would take ages — months upon months.  During that time, on top of the regular roller coaster of emotions during any given six-month period in life, travellers would face an even greater confrontation with their own mortality and the mortality of others.  And I think when I find myself 10,979 metres in the air, travelling at 902 kilometres per hour, passing over the land and sea, in those 10-12 hours I experience just a small taste of the emotional stress of those who had to make the journey in weeks, months or even years.  Whatever the cause, I always fall victim to this neurosis when I travel great distances.  But this visit to the place of my birth featured more substance than I had expected.

I should’ve realised that things would be incredibly different.  In the two and a half years since my previous visit, I was blessed with a niece and three new nephews.  I wasn’t prepared for the pain of saying goodbye to them two weeks later, knowing that I won’t be around to share in those special early moments — whether that is first words, first steps or the first day of school.  Will they remember me when they see me next time?  I don’t even know when ‘next time’ will be.  And alongside all of the other joys and sorrows that I missed in the last two and half years, I lost one of the most influential and important people in my life.

I’m a man who has been blessed with two amazing grandfathers.  My mother’s father died in March 2010.  He had been very influential in at least this last decade of my life.  But before I converted to Christianity and sensed a calling to church ministry, my passions had been devoted to a good number of things attributed to my father’s father.  And that’s not to say that since conversion my paternal grandfather has not been a continuous influence.  He taught me countless things about life and virtue and filled me with the riches of wisdom and curiosity.  But when my father’s father died in December 2012, in accordance with his wishes, no funeral was held.  I was encouraged by my family to stay in Scotland.

In honesty, my grandfather’s passing probably came as a relief to some.  His quality of life had been worsening steadily and he hardly resembled the man he was before Alzheimer’s set in.  But even in the midst of his battle against that horrific disease, I saw definite glimpses of my stubborn, cheeky, but ultimately tenderhearted grandfather.  In his pride, a younger version of my grandfather would have abhorred his state in the final years of his life.  But that’s neither here nor there.  It has happened as it has happened.

Although I haven’t lived with my parents for a decade, like any good and decent child, I’ve kept a fair number of my belongings, mostly books and vinyl records, at my parents’ house.  This trip seemed as good a time as any to sort through what remained of my belongings in California.  Very conveniently, my father had consolidated most of my things to a few boxes in the shed.  Among these boxes was one full of my most treasured possessions — the things given to me by my grandfather.  I had started the collection from before I can remember (with the help of my father, who had also passed things down to me).  It went hand in hand with my obsession with spaceflight and aeronautics, all inspired by my grandfather.  Pictures, technical manuals and diagrams, slide rulers, NASA Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle mission patches and memorabilia.  I used to stare at these things for hours upon hours.  And here they were again, just as magical as ever before.  Well, almost.

When I was younger, if I had any questions I could just visit my grandfather.  He was always up for talking with me, and not just about his work in the aerospace field.  He taught me countless life lessons that remain with me to this day.  During this visit to California, these scraps of paper and miscellaneous in a box took on new significance – they were my grandfather’s continued presence.

I arrived at LAX on the Monday.  My time in California would be full of visits and wee travels.  Saturday was booked for a visit to my aunt and uncle’s house for a gathering of some of the Smiths.  My grandmother was there, visiting from Yucca Valley.  My uncle had planned to take my grandmother home on the following Monday, but my father and I had planned on spending that day together and we both had the same thought — we wanted to spend our day with his mum and in the High Desert (and perhaps make a visit to Joshua Tree).  When we got to my grandmother’s house on the Monday I had a close look around.  It was the first time I had seen the place after my grandfather’s death.  It had gone through some changes when his condition worsened and he required 24-hour care, necessitating relocation to a care home, but this was it — my grandfather was gone.  At some point I had a frantic thought.  There was a particular item that used to hang on the wall in my grandfather’s house.  He had always told me it was his most prized possession, but I couldn’t find it.  I asked my grandmother where it might be and she seemed to think that it had been given to my family.  My father didn’t recall and being that I had been gone for two and a half years, I sure as hell didn’t have it.

This item was a strange thing – a plaque of wood with a small engraved brass plate beneath a block of translucent plastic, within which was found a piece of God-knows-what.  My grandfather told me the short story behind the object numerous times and I wish so much that I had made a recording of his words, in his own voice with all of the proper details.  But I’ll do my best to tell it as he told it.

But before we get into my grandfather’s story, some background is necessary.  In the midst of the Cold War, on 4 October 1957, the USSR launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1.  The Soviet Union launched their second Sputnik satellite, this time carrying a small dog called Laika, in November.  It wasn’t until the end of the following January that the United States launched Explorer 1 in response.  On 12 April 1961, the Soviets bested the Americans once again when they sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space aboard Vostok 1.  He spent 108 minutes in space, completing one orbit of the Earth.  In May the Americans responded when they launched astronaut Alan Shepard into space aboard the Mercury 3 spacecraft dubbed Freedom 7.  Astronaut Gus Grissom spent 15 minutes in space during the sub-orbital flight of Mercury 4 on 21 July 1961, but the Soviets answered with a second orbital flight manned by cosmonaut Gherman Titov on 6 August.  It wasn’t until the third manned American Mercury mission sent astronaut John Glenn into space on 20 February 1962 that the United States was able to achieve Earth orbit.  Astronaut Scott Carpenter repeated Glenn’s mission in May.

Although having trailed the Soviet Union for the first five years of what was named the ‘Space Race’, on 12 September 1962, the US President John F. Kennedy, whilst speaking at Rice University in Houston, Texas, announced,

We choose to go to the Moon.  We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

To journey to the Moon!  An ambition in the minds of the earliest creatures capable of sight and cognition.  A god, a disk, a face, a perfect celestial sphere!

In order to achieve this ambitious pledge, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) followed the success of the Mercury missions with the Gemini programme, which set out to test necessary steps in order to develop a mission capable to sending humans to the Moon, things like extra-vehicular activity (‘spacewalks’), longer duration flights and orbital rendezvous of two spacecraft.

As to be expected, the steps to get to the Moon were planned out meticulously.  The successor to the Gemini programme, the Apollo programme, was designed to work through different phases, culminating in an eventual Moon landing.  The basic steps were as follows:

1. Test out the manned Command/Service Module (CSM) in Earth orbit.
2. Test out the manned CSM in Moon orbit.
3. Test out the manned Lunar Module (LM) in Earth orbit.
4. Test out the manned LM in Moon orbit.
5. Land on the Moon.

Each successive stage couldn’t be completed until the previous stage had been tested thoroughly.  The contract for the construction of the CSM was awarded to North American Aviation, the company for which my grandfather worked at the time.  But due to design flaws (of which my grandfather played no part), what was the to be the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 1, was destroyed on the platform during a launch simulation test on 27 January 1967, killing all three astronauts on board – Command Pilot Gus Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger Chaffee.

The Apollo 1 tragedy was a major setback for NASA and the Apollo programme, and in September 1967, North American Aviation merged with Rockwell Standard to form North American Rockwell.  Following much grieving, drama and deliberation, the Apollo programme was allowed to continue and my grandfather served as the Electrical Supervisor for the construction of the Command Module with North American Rockwell.

After a series of unmanned tests, the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7, finally took place between 11 and 22 October 1968.  Much was riding on the success of Apollo 7 – the future of the Apollo programme and JFK’s pledge to reach the Moon before the end of the decade, the future of NASA, the future of North American Rockwell, as well as the Americans’ desire to reach the Moon before the Soviets.

Despite a lot of nerves, the mission went as planned and when the astronauts returned they held a meeting with the ground crew from North American Rockwell.  Thus officially begins the wee story behind my grandfather’s most prized possession.

When in Earth orbit, a spacecraft and its contents experience weightlessness, and when there are bits leftover from the construction of the spacecraft they sometimes emerge from their nooks and crannies and can pose a threat or distraction to the astronauts inside.

During this meeting with the ground crew, Captain Wally Schirra, Commander of Apollo 7, produced a large box containing what he said were the bits found in the Command Module by the astronauts whilst in orbit.  My grandfather and his co-workers held their heads in shame.  I believe some expletives were uttered when he told the story.

Schirra opened the large box to reveal a slightly smaller box, to the slight relief of the ground crew.  And that slightly smaller box contained yet an even smaller box.  He proceeded to open the boxes like nesting dolls until the final box, a very small box containing seven small bits of rubbish.  In the standards of air and spaceflight, Apollo 7 proved to be an exceptionally clean machine.

The Commander and crew felt the need to express his gratitude to my grandfather by suspending the wee bit of rubbish (some woven insulation from electrical wiring) in a block of translucent plastic mounted to a piece of wood with a brass plaque that reads:

THIS ARTICLE, FLOWN ON
APOLLO 7 OCTOBER 11-22, 1968,
IS PRESENTED TO
T. J. SMITH
BY
CAPT. WALLY M. SCHIRRA
FOR THE CREW OF APOLLO 7

‘There are only seven of those in the world’, my grandfather would say.  But where had his gone?  I searched all over and asked everyone I could.  My time in Los Angeles was winding down to a close.  Resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t find the plaque, I packed up my box of space memorabilia and shipped it to my home in Glasgow.

As I was packing my clothes for the journey home, my father asked me, ‘What about this safe box?’  He was referring to a small army-green box that I had scoured the week previously.  I supposed that I had spotted a few things that I would have liked to take with me back to Glasgow: some pictures of my grandfather with his crew for the Space Shuttle Main Engines, a certificate from Ian Ross, then Director of John Walker and Sons Ltd, Kilmarnock, commemorating my grandfather’s Hole-In-One from 28 April 1992, and a few other certificates of achievement from NASA and North American Rockwell.  There was even a picture of the moment when Wally Schirra (looking well chuffed) gave my grandfather (looking well irritated) the small piece of wire insulation at that meeting.  As I moved papers around I realised, there it was – the plaque.  It was right under my nose the whole time, hidden between papers in this small army-green box in my father’s shed.

DSC_0132 01

God & the Dentist

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Courtesy of jesus-withyoualways.com

Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic.  Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written.  It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus.  Please forgive me when I fail at this.

Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’  Normally I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click.  Here’s the clip:

I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:

cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.

In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.

They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:

All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.

After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’  I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me.  But why?

Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational.  Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends.  I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them.  But with that being said, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same.  For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies whilst Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…).  I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey.  So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.

So what about this video do I find particularly offensive?  Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation?  Let’s walk through the ‘script':

Dentist [after working on a patient’s teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
D: God?
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?

At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that.  Many of my atheist friends say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’.  The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning.  ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism.  But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment.  And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God?apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people.  That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon.  So the patient decides to respond:

P: Well, I do.  Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists.  If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?

Oh dear.  Now, despite his unpleasant personality, I’m starting to side with the dentist.  Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’).  I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post.  It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq).  But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  There are two major problems I have with her decision.

1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist‘s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you.  If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better.  But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense.  In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure.  This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence).  The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world.  And whilst there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society.  ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent.  No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent.  Some people believe that dentists are actually evil.  So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.

2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists.  I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here.  In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us.  It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but it’s some type of existential logic.

For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical.  I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us.  This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’  Matthew 16:13-17, NRSV

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV

Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9).  If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God.  As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:

As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.  Luke 18:35-43, NRSV

There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  James 2:5, NRSV

I didn’t choose to become a Christian.  Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.

This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:

D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly.  It’s the same way with God.  It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.

Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him.  Why would I have any problem with that?  Being that we’ve just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me.  At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus.  This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human.  As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’  Matthew 1:23 (cf. Isaiah 7:14), NRSV

Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19).  It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen.  God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up.  God is here, in our midst.  And yet, whilst I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’  Poses some other difficulties.

I do believe that God listens.  I do believe that God cares.  But as I have written in a previous post,

I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it.  I don’t know why the universe is chaotic.  I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer.  I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year.  I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant.  These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless.  But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.

I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God.  The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted.  For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt.  This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.

A life of belief in God is not always cushy.  It’s never easy.  The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it.  One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’

Best Albums of 2013

BAo13

We finished this list with but a single day left in the year.  We did not forget about you, dear readers, for we know that you would be lost in a musical netherworld without us to guide you out like Orpheus leading Eurydice by the hand (shout out to Arcade Fire!).  We’ve scoured the globe (quite literally) for the finest tunes in 2013.  There were some outstanding albums this year, about which you shall soon read, but the year was not without its disappointments (for us, this would be albums from Atoms for Peace, John Vanderslice, Josh Ritter, and to some extent, Sigur Rós).  And you won’t soon find Kanye West’s Yeezus anywhere near our list (have we poisoned the well for some readers?).  Still, it was a solid year, a year that the annals of music will look back on with a double thumbs up, if not quite a leaping in the air high-five.  So without further ado, we give you Lost in the Cloud’s Best Albums of 2013.

Love,

Greg & Elijah

Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

guessing the others10. guessing the others  swimming in speakers — I was first made aware of swimming in speakers by our resident Band Evangelist, Greg, back in April.  Duo Christopher Clarke and Meadow Elizabeth Erskine present a fine collection of both timeless and timely tunes, hearkening back to yesteryear’s American and Western European folk traditions whilst also venturing into the freak-folk electronica wave (and doing it oh, so well!).  Erskine is also behind the design of the very delicate album art.  They’ve not received an awful lot of press, but hear you me, keep an eye and an ear out for swimming in speakers.

Phosphorescent  Muchacho9. Muchacho  Phosphorescent — 2013 was a great year for the advancement of the freak-folk movement.  Combining Eno-esque production with Brian Wilson-esque harmonies and the country charm of Willie Nelson, singer-songwriter Matthew Houck has struck gold.  With Muchacho, Houck produces aural sweetness on every level, highlighted by his wavering voice.  Every second of the expertly produced 46:28 minutes wash over the listener like a warm Southern breeze.  And it’s not short of hoots and hollers neither!

Love's Crushing Diamond8. Love’s Crushing Diamond  Mutual Benefit — I must be on a desperate singer-songwriter bent this year.  Although Jordan Lee has been producing through his project Mutual Benefit for more than four years, this is his first LP, and although it’s running time is hardly over a half hour, it is well worth the four year wait.  This album caught me out of nowhere.  As with my number nine and ten albums, there’s a sweetness and maturity to the production of Love’s Crushing Diamond that keeps the listener eager for more.

Trouble Will Find Me7. Trouble Will Find Me  The National — As Greg pointed out, singer Matt Berninger’s voice might not be for everyone.  But like Greg, it’s for me.  And it might be for you.  Now, when I first heard 2007’s Boxer, I was unconvinced.  I found the music rather, dare I say, boring.  I’ll admit that Boxer has not yet become for me what it is for so many of my esteemed colleagues (one of Greg’s Top 50 Albums, for instance), but The National’s previous record, 2010’s High Violet, changed my opinion.  Trouble Will Find Me has only encouraged this continued trend of admiration, with more of the same of what The National always does, but somehow through those obscure lyrics and linear songwriting, they bring you through the mire and give you hope.

Monomania6. Monomania  Deerhunter — I wasn’t ashamed to admit that I wasn’t taken with Bradford Cox’s previous release (as Atlas Sound).  2011’s Parallax was my biggest disappointment that year.  It has a few gems, but by and large I found it boring.  It lacked the magic that flowed forth from all of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound’s previous releases.  So I approached Monomania with caution.  I almost let it slip past me this year, but I must thank my lucky stars that it didn’t.  It’s a departure from Deerhunter’s previous release, 2010’s Halcyon Digest (my third favourite record that year), but definitely a departure in a brilliant direction.  The album starts with a growl and persists with some heavy garage rock. Cox’s vocals oscillate between their typical dulcet tones to heavy distortion, reminiscent of The Stooges.  The guitars seldom let up.  All in all, I think I can sum up this album in one word: exquisite!

Secret Soundz, vol. 25. Secret Soundz, Vol. 2  The Pictish Trail — 2013 has been an eventful year for Johnny Lynch (aka The Pictish Trail), most notably when he announced (seemingly prematurely) that the King Creosote (Kenny Anderson)-founded, Johnny Lynch-run label, Fence Records, was to cease operations (the link to this announcement is now dead).  Since then, Kenny has announced that Fence is still alive and kicking and Johnny has launched Lost Map, taking with him several Fence regulars.  In the midst of this reshuffle, The Pictish Trail has released his first record since 2010’s In Rooms (which isn’t exactly your typical LP, consisting of 50 30-second songs).  For those of us eager to get our hands on The Pictish Trail’s newest tunes, which have speckled Johnny’s live sets for the last few years, Secret Soundz, Vol. 2 comes as a great relief, and if The Pictish Trail hasn’t exactly on your radar over the last decade, you should change that right now.  With his typical fine balance of earnestness and levity, something reminiscent of David Bazan (and not just because of the beard), The Pictish Trail acts as something of a spiritual intercession for us, a prophet who guides us through the banality and pain of life, but with a bold sense of hope on the horizon.

Partygoing4. Partygoing  Future Bible Heroes — I’ve been a fan of Stephin Meritt and Claudia Gonson’s band The Magnetic Fields for some time now, but I wasn’t completely sold on last year’s Love at the Bottom of the Sea.  Upon hearing that their electronica-based project Future Bible Heroes was to release their first record in over a decade, I had mixed expectations, but decided to give it a go anyway.  (*I wish to emphasize that the presence of Futura typeface and a kilt on the album cover had nothing to do with my willingness to listen to this record.)  Partygoing proved to be one of my biggest surprises of the year – and to think that it nearly passed me by!  Ever present are Meritt’s reflections on love, death and darkness, sprinkled with irony and humour, simple songs that prove incredibly touching without resorting to sentimental kitsch.  Chris Ewen’s accompaniment provides the perfect backdrop for Meritt and Gonson’s vocals and as a whole, the record shines.

Wandrous Bughouse3. Wondrous Bughouse  Youth Lagoon — Youth Lagoon’s first record, The Year of Hibernation, came as a great surprise to me back in 2011, especially considering it was the produce of then 22-year-old Trevor Powers in some shack in Idaho.  It came in fourth that year, just behind PJ Harvey’s Mercury-prize winning Let England ShakeThe Year of Hibernation was an inspired record and what it lacked in orchestration (which was very little) it made up for in innocence and artistic purity.  Any orchestral and production gap has been closed on Wondrous Bughouse.  The maturity of Powers’ songwriting and production is staggering, offering echoes of the later output of The Beatles and Elliott Smith.  Still present is Trevor Powers’ unique voice (both literally and figuratively), but with more confidence and tact than his debut release.

Pedestrian Verse2. Pedestrian Verse  Frightened Rabbit — It should come as no surprise that Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse is featured near the top of this list.  Their last full length, 2010’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks, ranked very high on both my (number 3) and Greg’s (number 2) Top 10 Lists that year and their 2008 record The Midnight Organ Fight is one of the shared entries from both my and Greg’s Top 50 Albums of all time.  Needless to say, we love us some Frightened Rabbit.  With the release of two EPs since The Winter of Mixed Drinks, 2011’s A Frightened Rabbit EP and last year’s State Hospital, our inflated sense anticipation could only amount to disappointment with Pedestrian Verse, right?  WRONG.  With instant classics such as ‘Acts Of Man’, ‘Backyard Skulls’, ‘Holy’, ‘The Woodpile’, ‘Late March, Death March’, ‘December’s Traditions’, ‘Housing (in)’, ‘Dead Now’, ‘State Hospital’, ‘Nitrous Gas’, ‘Housing (out)’, ‘The Oil Slick’ (yes, that’s the whole album…), Pedestrian Verse somehow proves even more accessible (and perhaps even more complete) than any of their previous releases.  There’s a great sense of honesty in all of Frightened Rabbit’s music, and here with Pedestrian Verse, singer Scott Hutchison further exposes his own tendency toward immature sentimentality and gives us something more upon which we might latch in order to keep our heads above the waves.

Reflektor1. Reflektor  Arcade Fire — When I first heard this record I knew it was going to be on this list, but I didn’t expect it to be number one.  But as with most of the music I find worth listening to, Reflektor is a grower.  Being the silly man that I am, I wasn’t a fan of Arcade Fire’s first record.  When Greg and I decided to share duties when reviewing our shared Top 10 Albums entries in 2010 I dodged this confession by having Greg do The Suburbs writeup.  These days I find Funeral far more listenable, but you still won’t find it anywhere near the top of my favourite albums list.  The same goes for their second release, Neon Bible.  I found certain songs on both records very strong, but it wasn’t until The Suburbs that I found myself completely enamoured with an entire Arcade Fire record.  This might put a foul taste in the mouths of some of our LITC readers and maybe for ‘Arcade Fire purists’ the placement of Reflektor here at the number one spot—in light of my mixed feelings regarding Funeral, in particular—is seen as sad and weak.  But for these things, I am unapologetic.  Early Arcade Fire’s unsteady musical footing and maudlin lyrical content was wasted on me.  But with Reflektor the band has reached musical nirvana.  Conceptually, intellectually, musically, lyrically – it’s all there, stripping back contemporary pop sensibilities and gifting us with an organic piece of pop genius.  And as I said before, Reflektor is a grower.  The tracks I once considered weaker, the last five, are now the ones I to which I cannot stop listening.  They hammer home some of the conceptual genius of Reflektor, this play between Eurydice and Orpheus (see the Rodin sculpture which features prominently the cover of the album) and the paradoxical insanity of the ‘Present Age’ (see Kierkegaard’s Two Ages).  In the midst of the convergence of these themes, Reflector also proves highly listenable, echoing the bodily and rhythmic sensibilities of a Haitian carnival.  So if you’ve not already, find yourself a comfy seat this New Year’s Day and Reflekt.

Honourable Mentions

  • Once I Was an Eagle  Laura Marling
  • Sub Verses  Akron/Family
  • Desire Lines  Camera Obscura
  • Tomorrow’s Harvest  Boards of Canada
  • Everyday I Get Closer to the Light from Which I Came  Jesu
  • Country Sleep  Night Beds
  • {Awayland}  Villagers

Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

The Weight of the Globelily_and_madeleine_cover110. Lily & Madeleine/The Weight of the Globe EP  Lily & Madeleine — Based on their EP alone (buy the deluxe version of it, for the heavenly spare acoustic versions), these teenage sisters belong on this list, but their autumnal (both chronologically and stylistically) LP had a number of outstanding tracks as well (though didn’t completely live up to the trajectory their earlier work had promised). They are best when outside production & instrumentation is minimal and the simplicity of their voices intertwining with timeless lyrics over rudimentary piano or guitar are left to enchant the listener.  Listen to EP tracks “In the Middle” and “Back to the River” and album cuts “Disappearing Heart” and “Paradise.”

We're Not Lost9. We’re Not Lost  The Show Ponies — I chipped in a bit for this local LA band’s fundraising campaign to make this album, so hopefully it’s not a conflict of interest to place it on the list. First of all, they are a kick in the pants to see live (they’ve played twice at my church this year–pretty amazing to have such a talented band come to your door). But though their energy is infectious and exhilarating, I think they’re actually at their finest when they let the soulful, Appalachian-tinged violin of Phil Glenn (really the finest calibre of musician imaginable, though all of the musicians in this band are profoundly talented) wander among the rich harmonies of the two lead vocals in their slower numbers. Check out “Gone,” “We’re Not Lost,” “Pieces of the Past,” and “The River”–keep an eye and an ear open for these kids, cause they’re going places (I just read Elijah’s review of swimming in speakers’ album and saw that he had written something exactly like what I just wrote–only he wrote his review last week. Me and this guy are twinsies, for realz).

Us Alone8. Us Alone  Hayden — His last two albums have also been on my top 10 lists in 2007 & 2009…there’s just something about Hayden’s idiosyncratic songwriting style; his moody, introspective lyrics; and his naturally gifted musicianship (he’s playing all the instruments on this album) that resonates with me at a pretty deep level—but I always give the caveat that Hayden is not for everyone.  What some find morose, I find beautifully melancholy.  I’m in line with one of the fans he sings about, for whom music was once “Almost Everything,” a song which is a profound & bittersweet capsule of his career. I love the lyrical fast one he pulls on “Motel”—parents of young children will appreciate his escapist fantasy. “Blurry Nights” is a lovely duet with his sister-in-law, Lou Canon, whose self-titled album from 2011 Hayden produced. And “Instructions” is a haunting, yet sweet song about what to do with his remains once he’s died. Only Hayden…

Lives7. The Lives Inside The Lines In Your Hand/Threep  Matt Pond — This kind of smooth-throated, melodic pop is where Elijah and I part ways (he’s more of a raw-throated, energetic punk enthusiast). But Matt Pond makes songs that I love listening to. His album (The Lives…) is solid, confident, and catchy, but especially great on “Love to Get Used” (a favorite song from this year) and “Human Beings;” the EP (a combination of Three EP’s, I presume, that I got off NoiseTrade) has some great instrumentals (which I’m not usually fond of in any genre) and outstanding tracks in “Starting” and “Remains.”

Modern Vampires of the City6. Modern Vampires of the City  Vampire Weekend — I really enjoyed this album so much & this despite my own reticence (being that VW are over-hyped, schticky, pretentious origins, etc.). Yet from start to finish, it is a polished, captivating album, asking questions that go so much deeper than the value of an Oxford comma. Listening to this record, I found myself moved to ponder, enchanted to pick through the layers of instrumentation, and I even chuckled more than a few times at the brilliant/dense lyrics and their delivery. They’ve won me over with this one…”Step” was a song of the year, and “Don’t Lie” and “Hudson” are highlights among the many great tracks on this album.

Once I Was an Eagle5. Once I Was an Eagle  Laura Marling — This is one of those records that has to be listened to (and appreciated) as a whole album.  It’s hard to pull a track out of this organic work, which feels like a poetic self-declaration of independence (I don’t know from whom or what) whilst simultaneously a homage to musical dependance upon a host of singer-songwriters, so I can only recommend that you take an hour, put this on, and lose yourself in this roaming, searching acoustic masterpiece that exists somewhere between Joni Mitchell and PJ Harvey.

Alone Aboard the Ark4. Alone Aboard the Ark  The Leisure Society — The work of British musical gadabout Nick Hemming, the songs on this album borrow from a wide variety of genres, yet Hemming’s wry and knowing voice, along with his timelessly assured songsmithery, literary wordplay, and the band’s orchestral accompaniment bear the indelible stamp of a band in the tradition of late 1960’s Kinks, yet one which also adds multiple other layers of complexity.  There’s not a bad track on the album, but from “The Sober Scent of Paper” on, it just gets unbelievably good (especially “Everyone Understands” and “We Go Together”). Shout out to my mate Wade for hooking me up with this band, whom I’ve never heard from outside of his recommendation.

Trouble Will Find Me3. Trouble Will Find Me  The National  — This is one of the best bands around today; heaps and heaps of talent and style; truly distinctive: musically, vocally, & lyrically. That all being said, about half of this album—the more upbeat half—somehow feels a bit like they are on autopilot, which is to say, just cruising at a high altitude, but not really soaring. As to the other half? Genius unparalleled. “Demons” was simply one of my favorite songs of the year and there are three songs at the end of the album that stand among the cleverest and loveliest songs I’ve EVER heard: “Slipped,” “Pink Rabbits,” and “Hard to Find.” I could listen to them on infinite desert islands.

Pedestrian Verse2. Pedestrian Verse  Frightened Rabbit — For those of you who know how much Elijah and I profoundly admire these Scots, it might seem inevitable that their new album would rank so highly. To which, I say, “Nae!” These guys have earned this place (though I’m sad to see this album has not ranked as high on many end of year lists), producing their third masterpiece in a row—albeit one that has fewer of the anthemic odes to the suicidal, desperate, or simply screwed up (though they have achieved a near apotheosis of this genre in “State Hospital”).  Even though they’re digging the knife in at religious folk like myself in a number of tracks, their masterful songcraft, propulsive and perfectly complimentary musicianship, and esprit de sadcore leads me to absolve them of this pettiness (though I have to say, the criticisms of religious hypocritical condemners feels pretty tired–we get it, there are mean, small-minded people in the church…and everywhere else too).  They are one of the few groups that consistently make important music nowadays (or “Music Now” as they might say).  Tracks to check out: EVERY ONE, except “December’s Traditions,” but especially the first five tracks, climaxing with the epic anti-social love song “The Woodpile.” And make sure to get the Bonus Tracks too. (Got to see them play live this year—they are unbelievably amazing. Don’t ever miss an opportunity to see them play. Just, don’t, ok?)

neko-case-13776170351. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You  Neko Case — The first time I played this album, I knew it would get under my skin and did it ever. It’s funny that the first single, “Man,” is the one song I actually can’t stand. But every other song on here has Case’s Queen Midas songwriting touch all over them. She is tender, intimidating, self-deprecating, illuminating, sometimes shining like the only star in the night sky, other times whispering through the crack of a closet door. At one point, she sings, “I wanted so badly not to be me”—but how could anyone listen to this album and not feel exquisitely grateful that she is exactly who she is? Her “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is poignant to a breaking poi(g)nt. There is some powerful musical experimentation happening here too; the music walks a tight rope, careening & almost losing balance, but ultimately it only makes you unable to take your eyes (and ears) off of what is happening. All of the fighting in the title was worth it. You rule, Ms. Case.

Honorable Mentions

  • Reflektor  Arcade Fire — I’ll just be honest and say that I haven’t actually listened to this album enough times to really justify NOT including it on the top ten. My first few listens were not that gratifying, sensing a bit of unredeemed pretension (which AF always have, but which they most often transcend) and visible effort, so I put the album on hold. But there were enough tracks on the double album that really did have some of the old magic and made me think when I really settle down and sink my teeth into this, it will be rewarding. Favorite tracks thus far include: “Here Comes the Night Time,” “Joan of Arc,” and “Afterlife.”
  • Regions Of Light And Sound Of God  Jim James — There was something strangely magnetic about this album to me. I found James to be some kind of hillbilly mystic wunderkind. I don’t know why it’s compelling to listen to a man chant vowels & nursery rhymes (as he does on “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)” but the more I listened to this, the more fascinated I became. Also listen to “Dear One” and “All Is Forgiven.” (Don’t hate me, Wade!)
  • Defend Yourself  Sebadoh — In some sense, this is a return to old-school Sebadoh of 1994’s Bakesale, but all that really means to me is that there are some amazing Lou Barlow tracks (though nothing quite up to his best material) like “I Will,” “Calves of Champions,” and “Let It Out,” mixed in with some interesting, noisy, but lesser tracks from the other two band members.
  • Bigfoot  Cayucas — I really liked the first four tracks off this album; the main shortcoming is that it feels like Vampire Weekend’s first album a few too many years late (and a bit of a Pet Sounds rip-off at times too–Brian Wilson could sue over “A Summer Thing.”)  The lyrics often get to be a bit too much. But worth a good listen…
  • Somewhere Else Indians
  • Love Cloud Cult
  • Stiches Califone

Albums I Never Got to REALLY Listen to Which I Wish I Would Have

Big Wheel and Others  Cass McCombs; We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic  Foxyygen; Hummingbird  Local Natives; White Lighter  Typhoon; and nearly everything on Elijah’s list.

Lost in the Aesthetic

As you might have noticed, we have had a wee bit of a redesign here at Lost in the Cloud.  But how you would have noticed, I am not sure, since any visits to this blog in the last year or two will have proven generally underwhelming (even more underwhelming than when we post more often).  Thanks to Greg’s posts John Stump, composer of Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz and Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions (both published in 2010), we still receive between 100 and 200 views on any given day.  But those views are the result of a couple of brilliant niche subjects and not the steady traffic that results from consistent and thoughtful blogging, the initial challenge we set for ourselves here at LITC.

Granted, Greg and I are quite busy with relationships, our respective church ministries and life in general, but this is my formal recommitment to Lost in the Cloud and the first order of business was the redesign.  It seems like the last design update was only a few months ago, but looking back at my records I realised that the blog hasn’t had any design changes since September 2011, which, in graphic designer terms, is ancient.

I’ve always aimed to make the aesthetic of the blog efficient, playful and thoughtful.  Those values played a significant part in the inspiration for my original ‘yod cloud’ design back in 2004.  Since those initial doodles I have employed the wee cloud in a large number of designs, including this painting with the full Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew name of God (יהוה‎ or YHWH) which was commissioned for a church in 2006:

Vanityoil on maple, 4′ x 5′, commissioned for Grace Brethren Church of Long Beach

Later on in 2006 I was part of a mix CD club with Greg and some friends and for my round I decided to make a mix that was a playful reflection on the mythical history presented in the Christian Bible called Die Geschichte (The Recapitulation).  This was when I discovered the versatility of the yod cloud design:

CreationI. The Creation

The FloodIV. The Flood

SinaiVI. The Exodus & the Wilderness

TransfigurationXII. The Life of Christ – The Transfiguration

The playfulness of the design is made quite obvious in these illustrations and it was this yod cloud in the Transfiguration that most captured my imagination.  I began to use it obsessively.  I even designed a book stamp featuring it:

Stamp

In 2007 I devised and led an art project made up of a group of university friends that formed a small orchestra and theatre/dance group and performed a theatrical and orchestral version of Sufjan Stevens’ ‘The Transfiguration’ at Biola University in La Mirada, California.  The programmes featured the illustration from the Transfiguration above:

The Transfiguration Flyer

The iconic clouds played a very prominent role in the performance, adorning dancers as well as musicians.  So two years later, when Greg and I were first inspired to start our own blog the name, taken directly from the coda of the song above, came rather quickly, and the yod cloud was sure to be a design feature.  So here’s a wee walk-through of the header designs we’ve employed in the last four years.

Our first header was rather simple, featuring the yod cloud prominently:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-colour2.jpg

As with many of my designs, looking at it now I see it as cluttered, boring and lazy, but I think we really liked it at the time.  The second design was introduced in November 2010 and was nearly identical, but with a few changes:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-ii4.jpg

One cloud was added and each cloud employed finer lines, which tidied up the look a wee bit.  Also, the text was brought out to the foreground.  Nothing too major until July 2011, when the third overhaul took place:

cropped-lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-viii.jpg

For some reason I went back to my early design days and employed a whole lot of drop shadow and opacity.  Making two dimensional designs ‘appear’ to have three dimensions was all the rage.  Not long after this design I realised that the white background was looking very boring, so in September 2011 I added the sea foam hue:

lost-in-the-cloud-header-update-viii2.jpg

I would consider this a definite improvement, but it frightens me that I went more than two years without altering the design.  That is a reflection of how much (or how little) attention I’ve paid to Lost in the Cloud, and for that I apologise (although I suspect that most folk pay no attention to the design and those that do probably never thought of our blog’s aesthetic as much to look at).

This leads me to the current design:

litc-header-2013-sm1.jpg

The Andersonian echoes should be screaming at you (though I assure you, it was subconscious).  I’ve decided to really shake it all up.  The hallmark yod cloud is there, but I’ve actually finally tailored it into a nice, clean, modern design.  The hand-drawn element of the previous designs had its own charm, but I’m in the mood for this streamlined cloud.  Flanking the redesigned cloud are navigatory motifs (left) and cloudy-scientific motifs (right).  And yes, I think I just invented the word ‘navigatory’, but I’m pretty sure you know what I mean.  We’ve got the text in a cleaner, modern typeface (the old stenciled typeface was really getting on my visual nerves) that stretches across the whole of the header and below it you may notice nine wee symbols.  These are actually international weather office map code for describing different types of high clouds.  Along with ditching multiple clouds and the old typeface, I also flattened everything.  I think this might be related to the rekindling of my love for printed media and classic branding (see a series of redesigns of professional Scottish football badges I attempted over the last five months).

If you have stuck it through and are still reading this post, let me both apologise for my self indulgence and extend a hearty thank you to you!  Greg and I are back to post more regularly and we hope it’s as exciting for you, our readers, as it is for us.  And maybe I’ll finally get around to manufacturing some merchandise (like this yod cloud badge) for those eager to rep LITC…

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Band Evangelist, ch. 5

It’s been over a year now since I wrote my last chapter of “Band Evangelist.”  How is that even possible?  Well, I suppose that sometimes there are periods of silence between the testaments, right?

In any case, here’s a run down of some of the really amazing music that is already available, or is coming out this year.  So far, I think it’s going to be a banner year for us indie-disciples…and here’s the why and what for of the first part of 2013 in music (skip to the end to start playing some tunes as you read along!):

  • Pedestrian VerseFrightened Rabbit (February 1):  Will definitely end up on my top 10 of the year.  These guys are reaching a level of infallible music-making that should secure their place in the pantheon of rock demi-gods (though I’m a strict indie-monotheist–as in “Glory be to S-FJ-N”–there is a certainly room for a henotheistic heavenly council).  Speaking of gods, FR are a bit rough on us believers on this album, as in MULTIPLE tracks talking about how hypocritical, naive, and oppressive Christians can be (a bit of cliche by this point, no?), but man can these boys write a beautiful song full of disdain.  Talent oozing like oil slicks on the North Sea.  Maybe the Prophet (Elijah) can give some insight into the Scottish Catholicism (?) that has turned these boys’ stomachs so deeply against Mother Kirk.  PS The deluxe version of this album has some solid bonus tracks and concert DVD material.
  • Country Sleep – Night Beds (February 1):  I have to give full credit to my boy Wade for turning me onto this gorgeous album out of nowhere.  I told him that they sounded like the prettiest of Ryan Adam’s mellow songs (at which point, he began playing a new Ryan Adams album I hadn’t heard…losing my prophetic edge here!) mixed with kind of a Bon Iver frozen hauntedness.  Highly recommend a full listen to this!
  • Us AloneHayden (February 5):  I always say that Hayden is an acquired taste, so this album is not for everyone & probably not even for his fair-weather fans.  More the real followers–the kind for whom his music is almost everything.  But great, mature songwriting, tasteful little jams, & uniquely clever musings all around.
  • The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hand Matt Pond (February 5):  He lost the PA that used to follow his name, but he’s written an album that holds up to the best of his earlier work (Several Arrows Later, for my money).  If you can’t take lovely-throated, hook-filled indie-pop with sunny melodies covering dark lyrical waters, then look elsewhere.
  • guessing the others – swimming in speakers (February 5):  I can’t tell you how this strange, lo-fi, folky-electronic outfit with a whimsically beautiful female lead voice came to my attention, but it has become a go-to mood elevator in the same way watching Amelie can change my perspective from cynical to wonder-filled.
  • Days Into YearsElliott Brood (February 28):  Interestingly, though I am not a tremendous Ryan Adams fan, this band also reminded me of his smoky voice over Neil Young crunchy guitars and often a Band of Horses retro-rock cool.  I still need to sit with this album more, but I’d give it a solid recommendation already (also thanks to Wade).
  • Sub-VersesAkron/Family (April 30):  I would call myself a casual fan of this band–I have most of their albums and enjoy some tracks immensely while others are more solidly moderate.  But the two songs I’ve heard from this new release (below) produced a Pavlovian reaction of aural drool leading to one-click ordering.
  • Modern Vampires of the City Vampire Weekend (May 7):  I think there’s been sufficient backlash against VW that we can look past the hype, calculated affect, and branding to simply listen to some lovely tunes that integrate  things like the harpischord and loopy bass lines with fragile, self-consciously hi/low lyrics that nevertheless pluck at the heartstrings.
  • Trouble Will Find MeThe National (May 21):  Some of you will not like Matt Berninger’s voice.  That’s ok.  I do & I love everything else about this fraternally-formed, preternaturally talented group.  They have a musical golden touch.  If this is for you, it will be the kind of trouble you would want to find you.  If not, just keep walking.
  • CurrentsEisley (May 28):  Now I’m getting into murky waters.  I haven’t followed this band of mostly female family members for a LONG time (sorry Wesley Chung), but something in me feels like this may be the album that brings me back.  But don’t take my word for it–just an intuition.
  • The Weight of the GlobeLily & Madeleine (June 11):   This find came to me via the Asthmatic Kitty email update (an epistle from the indie One’s priestly cult) & if the beauty of these two young ladies’ voices, melodies, and ageless lyricism doesn’t merit a head-shaking double take in any listener, then I have no ear, no eye, no soul.
  • OverseasOverseas (June 11):  This is a new project with David Bazan (former frontman for Christian indie-heroes Pedro the Lion & a talented, but faithless solo performer in his own right) and some other hipster guys from bands that exceed my coolness pay-grade.  Don’t know that I’m recommending this, as much as just putting it on your sonic radar.
  • Kveikur – Sigur Ros (June 18):   Sadly, I was not among the admirers of their most recent release, Valtari, which felt rather aimless and amorphous to me; however, supposedly they are moving to a more “direct, aggressive” style–which I’m not totally sure what that translates to (the video below doesn’t bode terribly well for me).  I am a Takk/Hvarf man myself, so that’s what I’m secretly hoping for a return to.

There are a few other upcoming releases I have no details on, but believe should be amazing:  a new Arcade Fire album, surely one by Neko Case, and one by the lesser known but charmingly gifted Jeremy Messersmith.

Some misses of the year so far:  Josh Ritter‘s The Beast in it’s Tracks (a middling effort of post-divorce woe & rebound that’s mostly just depressing); I was utterly bored with the Thom Yorke project, Atoms for Peace; and don’t anyone tell my dear friend Matt Clatterbuck, but I sadly do not like the new Yo La Tengo either!

Question:  Did anyone get the new My Bloody Valentine?  Low’s The Invisible Way? The new Strokes?  Iron + Wine?  If so, what do you think?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!!

Frightened Rabbit:

Night Beds:

Hayden:

Matt Pond:

Elliott Brood:

swimming in speakers:

Akron/Family:

Vampire Weekend:

The National:

Eisley:

Lily & Madeline:

Overseas:

Sigur Ros:

The World Unchained

DjangoUnchained

WARNING: Contains spoilers

This article was originally published in the February 2013 newsletter for Govan & Linthouse Parish Church, Glasgow.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a screening of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained.  If you’ve never seen a Tarantino film, they are known for their excessive violence, brutality and coarse language.  Django Unchained is no different.  I’m not suggesting you see the film, that is, unless you’re willing to endure 165 minutes of brutality (but it’s brutality with a point).  If you are planning on seeing the film, I warn you that this article will contain some spoilers.

The film is made out to be a western epic.  It takes place in the pre-Civil War United States.  The main protagonists are Dr King Schultz (played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz), a German immigrant and former dentist who works as a bounty hunter, collecting rewards for the bodies of federal outlaws, and Django (played by another Academy Award winner, Jamie Foxx), a black slave who has been separated from his wife, another slave called Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington).  Schultz first ‘unchains’ Django as he is being transported by slave drivers through Texas.  Previously, Django had been a slave on a plantation where three murderous outlaws, the Brittle Brothers, had worked as farmhands.  Schultz wishes for Django to assist him in identifying the Brittle Brothers so that he may collect the reward for their bodies.  Schultz, who throughout the film demonstrates his utter distaste for the institution of slavery, offers Django his freedom, $75 and a horse in exchange for his assistance (and feels awful for not simply giving Django his freedom straight away).  After the slaying of the Brittle Brothers, Schultz asks Django, who demonstrates great skill in the ‘art’ of bounty hunting, if he would join him as his business partner for the winter and Django accepts his proposition.  Django reveals that once he is finished with their winter’s work, he is going to try to find his wife and rescue her from slavery.  Schultz, who has developed a very close friendship with Django, insists that he helps Django, as they discover that Broomhilda is a slave on a large plantation outside of Greenville, Mississippi, a particularly dangerous part of the States for a black man, free or not.

After the winter they come up with and carry out a complicated plan to reunite Django and his beloved Broomhilda.  But after their plan is uncovered, Schultz and Django are given an ultimatum: either they pay the exorbitant amount of $12,000 to purchase Broomhilda or she will be killed by her owner, the ruthless and bigoted plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio).  After they comply, Candie proposes that the transaction is not official until Schultz shakes his hand.  Schultz, who has been having flashbacks of an event during which Candie ordered a runaway slave to be torn apart by dogs, refuses to shake hands.  This is the point in the film which I believe carries the most moral weight.  As we, the audience, have been battered with the injustice and brutality of racism and the institution of slavery throughout the film, we feel something of that same moral weight.  Ultimately, Schultz’ refusal ends up costing him his life.

The film continues from there, but it’s at this point that I want to ask a question: what does Django Unchained have to teach Christians?  Our two main protagonists exhibit many Christ-like qualities throughout the film, but the one which I think is most profound, as a result of the build-up of the film, is Schultz refusal.  On principle, Schultz sees shaking Candie’s hand as some sort of approval of Candie, his vicious treatment of slaves and the whole of institutionalised racism that still, even in the age of a black President, finds expression in some parts of American culture.  Although some Americans, particularly the Quakers in the North, were opposed to slavery during the first half of the 19th century, the institution was still regarded as rather normal for most Americans.  Still, Schultz refuses to betray his strong sense of justice, even a sense of justice perhaps rather clouded by his recent career as a bounty hunter.  He demonstrates this passion in his last great speech immediately preceding his refusal to shake Candie’s hand.  After completing the paperwork for Broomhilda, Candie offers Schultz some rhubarb pie, but Schultz declines.

Candie   ‘Are you brooding ‘bout me getting the best of ya?’

Schultz   ‘Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan.  And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.’

Candie   ‘Dumas…?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas.  He wrote The Three Musketeers.  I figured you must be an admirer.  You named your slave after that novel’s lead character.  If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would of made of it?’

Candie   ‘You doubt he’d approve?’

Schultz   ‘Yes, his approval would be a dubious proposition at best.’

Candie   ‘Soft hearted Frenchy?’

Schultz   ‘Alexander Dumas is black.’

The weight of the tone of the speech can only be captured if you see the film, but written out here, we can see that Schultz is able to undermine Candie’s ignorant racism with his poignant and authoritative presentation.  Candie, a self-professed Francophile who, although he does not know the language, insists on being called Monsieur Candie, is left stunned and confused.

Schultz’ words here remind me of the Parables of Christ.  Taking something trivial such as the raw materials of everyday life and turning it on its head in order to shift the worldview of his listeners toward that of the truths and values of the kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, Candie did not have ‘ears to hear’ the truth that Schultz uttered.  Do we?

Of course, our context is quite different.  The context of slavery-era Southern United States is a far cry from present day Govan and Linthouse.  I’ll even say that we live in a fortunate part of Scotland with a long heritage of fighting for social justice.  But have we grown complacent?  Perhaps we don’t have slaves in our context, but throughout our congregation and parish there are new battles to be fought.  Among others, the people who suffer in poverty, the people who struggle with addiction, the people who have immigrated from other countries, the people who seek asylum – they all suffer under various institutions of injustice here.  Maybe we’re responsible for some of that with our behaviour.  In Django Unchained, white people are appalled at the scandal of a black man on a horse.  I’ve heard people express their shock about the scandal of a recent immigrant with a bankcard or a mobile phone.

No matter how much we try—and we do try—justice is not the way of Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other nation.  Nations are made up of all kinds of people with very different ideals, some of which propagate institutionalised oppression.  In reality, the Church looks very much the same, and while I am grateful to God that the Church of Scotland and that Govan and Linthouse Parish Church are very much composed of a diverse body of people, I think we can unite in discipleship under the leadership of one man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The words found within our Gospel readings for the month of February have a great deal to teach us about the way that being a Christian turns the institutions of this world on its head:

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,

for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh…

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:17-21, 27-31

As Christians, it is our daily challenge, not just in the month of February, but for the rest of our lives, to seek the values of the kingdom of God.  And we are not called to do this simply because we are good people or we think we will get a box of treasure in the future.  We are called to love because God loves this world.  God desires that we ‘unchain’ the world from oppression — what an unworthy honour for us!

May we be inspired by the love and grace of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works of the kingdom and fight with great conviction, as Dr King Schultz fought, the injustices in our community and beyond its boundaries.  It’s no simple task, but maybe we could keep each other accountable.  Next time you see me, I’d appreciate it if you reminded me to be more like Jesus and Dr King Schultz.

Many blessings,

Elijah

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