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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.

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

Best Albums of 2012

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Dear faithful LITC readers,

Our favourite post of the year is here!  We apologise that it’s taken so long, but think of it as a late Christmas gift.  As with previous years, we’ve included our respective Top 10 Albums of the year as well as some honourable mentions and some not so honourable ones.  Feel free to share your favourite records of the year in the comments section.  Maybe you’ll even discover some unknown treasures within our lists.  Take care, readers.  See you in 2013.

Love,

Elijah & Greg

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Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2012

Valtari

10.  Valtari  Sigur Rós — Whilst I loved 2005′s Takk…, I found that 2008′s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust left much to be desired.  Valtari leans more toward Sigur Rós’ earlier style, a more ambient and reflective record although I’d hesitate before calling it ‘samey’.  Incredible tracks like ‘Varúð’ and ‘Varðeldur’, some of the finest I’ve ever heard from the Iceland post-rock legends kept me from pushing this record out of the top ten.  For this record the band also came up with they’ve called the ‘Valtari Mystery Film Experiment‘ in which they employed twelve filmmakers to make music videos for the album based upon what the song brought to their minds and without the final approval from Sigur Rós.  See ‘Varúð’ below, created by Inga Birgisdóttir, who designed the album cover and also directed the video for ‘Ekki Múkk’:

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Gentle Stream

9.  Gentle Stream  The Amazing — This was the first record of 2012 that really caught me by surprise.  Released in Sweden in 2011, Gentle Stream proves to be just that, a gentle yet wide stream of quality, what I would describe as a subtle mixture between Simon & Garfunkel and Dinosaur Jr.  Like their previous releases, The Amazing and Wait for Light to Come, there are still hints of psych rock (influenced by the presence of various members of Dungen) and classic rock and the finished product it is most satisfying.

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All We Love

8.  All We Love We Leave Behind  Converge — Before I listened to this record, I didn’t want to include Converge in this list because it’s starting to look like whenever a few of my favourite artists make a new album they inevitably end up on my ‘Best Albums’ list.  For those who know how I rate music, it’s unlikely that the top four will come as any surprise this year.  But give me some credit; I can betray bands I love when they make subpar records – like Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz or my ‘dishonourable mentions’ below.  Or last year when I resisted We Were Promised Jetpacks’ In the Pit of the Stomach, Atlas Sound’s Parallax, David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations, DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers, Danielson’s Best of Gloucester County, etc.  See, so when I include one of my favourite bands in my top ten I really mean it!

All that being said, I didn’t want to include Converge this year, so when I heard the first track, ‘Aimless Arrow’, I was relieved and heartbroken simultaneously.  I would consider the track their weakest opener to date (especially compared to their last record’s first track, ‘Darkhorse‘), and with its hints of ‘screamo’ and melodic hardcore (don’t worry, there’s no ‘singing’ on this track), I was fearful of listening to the rest of the record.  But the eight tracks to follow are all heavy, quality tunes!  The rest of the record features some spoken word, which works on top of the slow, thoughtful guitar work by Kurt Ballou.  But my heart was nearly torn in two upon listening to the tenth track, ‘Coral Blue’.  It’s not all that frightening until the chorus, which isn’t quite ‘screamo annoying’, but more confusing for those who listen to Converge.  Thankfully, that’s the extent of this ‘singing’ charade on All We Love We Leave Behind.  It closes out with the sufficiently epic title track and sufficiently heavy ‘Predatory Glow’.  No, on the whole this was no serious transition for Converge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  They tried that on You Fail Me and they failed me indeed.

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Sweet Heart

7.  Sweet Heart Sweet Light  Spiritualized — I know, great cover, right?  OK, it’s probably one of the worst album covers this year, but don’t let that put you off!  This here is an excellent record.  Jason Pierce, also known as J. Spaceman, the creative force behind all of Spiritualized’s incarnations over the last 22 years, wrote the album whilst undergoing serious medical treatment for his liver, which was left in a sore state as a result of many years of drug use, both prescribed and recreational.  But unlike 2008’s Songs in A&E, which was also inspired by a serious medical emergency (aspiration pneumonia and periorbital cellulitis), Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a much more hopeful, inspiring record, somewhat in the vein of 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space.

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Don't Bend,  Ascend!

6.  Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!  Godspeed You! Black Emperor — This is the Canadian post-rockers’ first record since 2002′s Yanqui U.X.O., and whilst I found Yanqui rather uninspiring after 2000′s masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, ‘Allelujah! is a return to form and then some.  Godspeed has a rare skill (shared with Sufjan Stevens) for making 20+ minute songs engaging throughout.  The tracks are engrossing and become, as the album title suggests, transcendent objets d’art, ushering the listener into heavy aural ascension.

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America

5.  America  Dan Deacon — I appreciated Dan Deacon’s music before (his 2009 release, Bromst was among my honourable mentions that year), but this record caught me by surprise.  The opener, ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’, is a buzzy digital number, which flows into the two subsequent tracks until Deacon decided to change the pace with ‘Prettyboy’, which seems to ruin the rhythm of the album, that is until we’re brought back into the jam with ‘Crash Jam’.  The highlight of the album is the four-part ‘USA’ opus below:

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Lonerism

4.  Lonerism  Tame Impala — Tame Impala’s last record, Innerspeaker, which came to me as such a surprise thanks to Greg’s preaching of the gospel, ranked 6th on my Best Albums of 2010 list, so in my desire to not be let down, I was suspecting that the follow-up wouldn’t be as good.  As with their previous material, Lonerism draws much from the past (‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards‘ could’ve been part of Magical Mystery Tour, right between ‘Blue Jay Way‘ and ‘Your Mother Should Know‘, or it could’ve totally replaced the latter and I wouldn’t have minded), but always with a sense of artistic integrity and completeness.  Thank you, Tame Impala, for defying the awfulness of your band name yet again and coming up with another excellent piece of psychadelic groove rock!  Oh and isn’t it groovy!

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Bloom

3.  Bloom  Beach House — After their excellent third album, Teen Dream (which ranked 8th in my Top 10 Albums of 2010), I expected Beach House to lose steam.  Every subsequent record was getting better and no band can keep that up.  Well, this loss of steam will have to wait until their next record, because I’d say that Bloom might very well be their best record to date.  Whilst their sound remains distinctively ‘Beach House’ (those keyboard and guitar-driven dream pop soundscapes and that husky female voice), the songwriting in Bloom has taken a step forward.  And even though this record demands more time and attention than their previous releases, the payoff is tenfold.  And how amazing is this Ghostbusters-inspired video for ‘Lazuli’?

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Dept of Disapearance

2.  Dept. of Disappearance  Jason Lytle — This was an exciting year for us Grandaddy fans: the band reunited after six years apart!  And very fortunately for us, the excitement didn’t end there.  Grandaddy principal songwriter, lead singer and guitarist, Jason Lytle, has kept busy since the break up in 2006.  In fact, Grandaddy’s final record, 2005′s Just Like the Fambly Cat, was written and recorded entirely by Lytle.  After the break up, a move inspired by lack of commercial success, Lytle relocated from California to Montana and toured with Rusty Miller in support of Just Like the Fambly Cat.  In 2009, Lytle released his first solo record, Yours Truly the Commuter and followed that with an EP, Merry X-mas.  Lytle and former drummer of Grandaddy, Aaron Burtch, joined with members of Earlimart to form the band Admiral Radley, who released their debut record, I Heart California, in 2010.  Each of these incarnations were superb (I Heart California was an honourable mention in my Best Albums of 2010 list), but none seemed to capture the magic that Lytle’s earlier work possessed in great measure.  Until now.  It’s safe to say that Dept. of Disappearance is a grower, but there was enough of pure goodness present from the first listen to keep me going.  Each track is excellent, and some are among the best Lytle’s ever written, such as the title track, ‘Matterhorn’, ‘Last Problem of the Alps’, ‘Somewhere There’s a Someone’ (below), ‘Gimme Click Gimme Grid’ and ‘Elko in the Rain’.

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Shields

1.  Shields  Grizzly Bear — I won’t make excuses or defend my pick despite the fact that Grizzly Bear’s previous record was my number one album of 2009Shields is just that good.  Still present are the Grizzly Bear trademarks we know and love, but this record is the band’s most aggressive and coherent to date.  At times it is far darker than their previous material (‘Speak in Rounds’), yet it still takes the listener into the clouds (‘Half Gate’).  In the midst of this more aggressive direction, Grizzly Bear also ventures into the realm of more accessible pop music, music that isn’t as dissonant as their previous releases yet retains its creative bearings.  On top of all of their unique qualities as proficient musicians and songwriters, Grizzly Bear demonstrate a continuing process of maturation, one that solidifies them as—in this listener’s opinion—one of the best bands of their generation.

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Elijah’s honourable mentions

Elijah’s dishonourable mentions

  • Mirage Rock  Band of Horses
  • Silver Age  Bob Mould

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Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2012

Another conflicted year of listening for me:  some of my favorite bands put out albums I thought were shite (Animal Collective, Sigur Rós) and other bands that I expected more from turned out mediocre fare (Passion Pit, The Avett Brothers).  Then there were the albums that had real moments of brilliance on them…but which couldn’t sustain that level of greatness throughout the entire record.   The following albums didn’t break into my top ten, but you should definitely check out the songs indicated:

  • Bloom  Beach House — ‘Myth’, ‘The Hours’, ‘Irene’
  • Charmer  Aimee Mann — ‘Labrador’, ‘Soon Enough’, ‘Slip and Roll’
  • Confess  Twin Shadow — ‘Golden Light’, ‘Five Seconds’, ‘Be Mine Tonight’
  • Lonerism  Tame Impala — ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Sun’s Coming Up’
  • Shields  Grizzly Bear — ‘Yet Again’, ‘Gun-Shy’, ‘Half Gate’
  • Time Capsules II  Oberhofer — ‘HEART’, ‘I Could Go’, ‘oOoO’; also did a great cover of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway

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Young Man Follow

10.  Young Man Follow  Future of Forestry — I don’t mind if I lose all indie credibility for putting a Christian, anthem rock band on my top ten.  This album falls somewhere in between Delirious?/Phil Wickham and post-Pop U2/Snow Patrol (right now, Elijah is raising his eyebrows/giving me a look of consternation/experiencing a slight taste of bile in the mouth).  I know that there’s a strong hint of  songwriting formulae, mixed with sentimental emotionalism, strategic falsetto insertion, and derivative production sleight-of-hand, but I can’t help it…I eat it up.  This is my sonic Kryptonite.  It moves me and I can’t help loving it.  So there you go.

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White Rabbits

9.  Milk Famous  White Rabbits — This was a late addition to the list.  I had loved the track “Everyone Can’t Be Confused” earlier in the year, but never got around to purchasing the whole album.  Two weeks ago, I finally got it and have enjoyed the carefully orchestrated arrangement and production of each song immensely.  As I began reading reviews, many of which were not kind, there was some talk about the band selling out and transforming into Spoon-lite (one of that band’s members produced the album).  I actually can’t stand Spoon, but I love these guys!

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Fiona Apple

8.  The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do  Fiona Apple — I’ll be honest, I’m not such a fan of the craziness that exists inside this woman’s head, but her startlingly stark songwriting, passionate confessionalism, and uncompromising originality make this album a work of undeniable greatness.

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Port of Morrow

7.  Port of Morrow  The Shins — There may be some measure of sentiment and nostalgia in this pick.  The 2001 album Oh, Inverted World was a life-changer for me (a moment captured and corrupted in Zach Braff’s film Garden State) and I can hear echoes of those glorious times in songs like “It’s Only Life,” “No Way Down,” and “For a Fool.”  For those purists who find this a shameless exploitation of The Shins brand (being that only one member of the original band plays on this album), a stance which I myself initially considered, I respectfully disagree.  The magic is still here…

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Adventures in Your Own Backyard

6.  Adventures in Your Own Backyard  Patrick Watson — Watson is one of those artists whose voice alone puts him into a category of talent and beauty that should earn accolades–but he is also a brilliant songwriter and musician whose idiosyncratic vision comes into its own on this release.  If you’ve never listened to his work before, his catalog is well worth exploring, including his work with The Cinematic Orchestra.

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Heaven

5.  Heaven  The Walkmen — This band has been loitering in the periphery of my musical tastes for a while–a great song here or there, but no album that absolutely blew me away.  Until now…you MUST listen to this record.

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Tramp

4.  Tramp  Sharon Van Etten — Such fine, delicate songwriting; beautiful, haunting, and frequently spare instrumentation to accompany her striking, melancholy voice; and brilliant production & instrumental assistance from The National’s Aaron Dessner (who better be working on a new album himself!).  I love so many of these songs with an affection that is reserved for a select few artists.  Listen to the song belong and try not to simultaneously smile AND ache:

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Break it Yourself

3.  Break It Yourself  Andrew Bird — I wrote about this album earlier in the year, wondering if it would grow on me more and more.  Boy, did it ever.  As I said before, Andrew Bird cannot make a bad album, but here, he’s certainly made a great one.  I think it really comes alive after the first 1/3 of the album is over, so don’t give up on it if you don’t immediately sense the genius.

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Silver & Gold

2.  Silver and Gold  Sufjan Stevens — I’m considering this a 2013 release, even though it is a collection of EP’s that Sufjan had privately given out to friends and family over the last five or six years.  Of course I love it—I’m a Sufjanite through and through.  But beyond my dedication to the man, this really is a beautiful collection of 58 songs that I think transcend the holiday season itself and act as a meditation on the human condition as a whole, refracted through the hopes and disappointments that we connect to a particular time of year and experience of faith, family, community, and tradition.  There are haunting covers of Christmas & holiday classics (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Let It Snow!” and “Silent Night”), worshipful church hymns simply arranged and devoutly performed (“Ah Holy Jesus,” “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates,” and “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light”), and Sufjan originals or adaptations that stand up to any of his other records (“Justice Delivers Its Death,” “Christmas in the Room,” “The Midnight Clear,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “The Child with the Star on His Head”) along with a myriad of lovely instrumental meditations (my favorites include “Make Haste to See the Baby,” “Go Nightly Cares,” and “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way”), crazy experimental electronica (not my favorite genre but occasionally delightful), and simple fun communal musical merry-making.  It’s also fun to view the collection in tandem with the albums he was working on during these years (The BQE and The Age of Adz).  You can actually download some of the best tracks for free on Sufjan’s Noisetrade page—and that is a truly wonderful gift from the greatest artist of our age.

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Fear Fun

1.  Fear Fun  Father John Misty — One day this year, I was listening to an unbelievably compelling live set of songs on KCRW by a band whose name I somehow kept missing.  I finally went onto the station website and discovered that it was Father John Misty.  This is the first release under this band name by J. Tillman, former drummer from Fleet Foxes.  I had some of his previous solo releases post-FF, which were pretty average folkish meanderings.  But this!  On this album, Tillman discovers some kind of alchemy that turns his melancholy into the rarest kind of beauty and wonder.  His songs sound like they were written 40 or 30 or 20 years ago—any age but now, yet they simultaneously capture the hidden spirit of some mystical contemporary world surrounding us that we may not perceive.  Even the songs I don’t absolutely “like” have a tangible genius to them.  I didn’t want to like this album—the creepy cover, the hipster pedigree, the critical darlingness of it.  But, for me, in 2012, this was it.

+++++

Greg’s honourable mentions (albums)

  • Among the Leaves  Sun Kil Moon — Such lovely instrumentation and melodies; such bothersome narcissistic lyrics
  • Born to Die  Lana Del Rey — I think one is not supposed to like this album due to its contrivances, over-production, other myriad reasons—nevertheless, I found it strangely compelling in a fashion from start to finish
  • Lonesome Dreams  Lord Huron — Quality folk/Americana
  • Strange Land  Yellow Ostrich — This ended up on exactly no one’s top ten—yet really quite a solid indie rock record!
  • Who’s Feeling Young Now  Punch Brothers — Not enough substance to crack the top 10, but some real winning songwriting here, with a eminently listenable sound throughout

Greg’s honourable mentions (EPs)

Some thoughts on Detachment (Tony Kaye, 2011)

Last night I had the pleasure of viewing Tony Kaye’s third and most recent ‘talkie’, Detachment.  The film was shot beautifully and acted brilliantly, and for those qualities alone it is worth seeing.  But the content is yet more intriguing.  Detachment follows a few weeks in the life of a substitute teacher Henry Barthes (Adrien Brody) as he takes up a temporary post at a New York state school in decline.  But the film could take place in any school.  In the New York Times review of the film from 15 March 2012, the film is ‘about the failing public-education system [in the United States].’  I would agree with this claim in part – yes, prominent in the film is this portrayal of the dysfunctional education system.  But it’s so much more than that.  I’d argue that the entirety of the film represents a microcosm of society at large.

This isn’t me dropping a shameful reference to my doctoral research, but I think a strong case could be made that Detachment is actually a parable.  By this I mean that the film is using the raw material of every day life to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  Just as Christ told parables the audience in the Gospels, the film is tied together by a loose narration from our Henry Barthes, with close-ups of his unkept face in a dark room (perhaps during a counselling session).  We’ve got representatives from various levels of society and various levels of engagement with and detachment from their current situations.  At the very heart of this parable is not ‘education’, for education is merely an outflowing of the deeper social illness.  The parable takes society back to the most basic social framework, a framework we all encounter by virtue of being born – family.

To quote the oft-quoted Larkin poem, ‘This Be The Verse’, They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  Most of the great conflicts in the film are rooted in family and parenting, just to name a few:

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW, SKIP TO THE NEXT SECTION TO AVOID THEM

a girl is expelled from the school after she threatened and spat upon Ms Madison (Christian Hendricks) and her similarly-tempered mother storms into the school hurling yet more abuse at the harmless Ms Madison.

Mr Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) takes up an odd stance at a school fence every afternoon hoping to be noticed by anyone as a result of being ignored constantly by his family members when he returns home from work every day.

Meredith (Betty Kaye, daughter of the director) is discouraged in her artistic endeavours and told that she ought to lose weight and conform to social norms by her father and ultimately decides to kill herself as a result of her extreme sense of rejection and isolation.

Erica’s (Sami Gayle) lifestyle as a teenage prostitute and her great distress when she is removed from Henry’s care by social workers.

During ‘parents’ night’ at the high school, virtually no parents show up, demonstrating a lack of both the parents’ concern for their children’s education and appreciation of the teachers.

And ultimately, Henry’s sense of detachment from being abandoned by his father as a toddler, losing his mother to a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol when he was a small child and caring for his dementia-stricken grandfather, whose abuse of Henry’s mother led to her substance abuse.

END OF SPOILERS

Like a parable, the characters are universal (as opposed to cliché) in order to open the eyes and ears of the audience to the deeper level of meaning.  In addition to his ‘counselling session’ narrative, at different points in the film Henry also tells the audience (by way of telling his students) the root of these social ills, calling on his students to avoid the ‘ubiquitous assimilation’ of oppressive values being shoved down their throats by a constant barrage of bull shit that has not only broken into media and culture, but has also infiltrated the very fabric of their family lives.

During the opening sequence we are given a quotation from Camus’ The Stranger, concluding with ‘And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.’  Throughout the film Henry is challenged to break down his wall of ‘compassionate detachment’.  The blurb from the official website states, ‘Kaye has molded a contemporary vision of people who become increasingly distant from others while still feeling the need to connect.’  Does that wall ever break down?  Well I’m not going to include any more spoilers – you should see it for yourself.

The aforementioned New York Times review concludes with, ‘Is it really this bad? Or is “Detachment” a flashy educational horror movie masquerading as nightmarish reality?’  No, it’s not really this bad – it’s worse.  As I mentioned before, I believe that the film is using the façade of the educational system (severely broken as a result of the deeper problem) to tell a bigger, more disturbing yet more hopeful story.  In a recent Guardian interview, Kaye states, ‘We live, we go through these realms, we learn, we figure out where we went wrong.  That’s what living is.’  Detachment won’t be tearing down the power structures built up in our society to control, but perhaps it can help inspire us to fight harder with all that we have in hopes that we might chip away at the foundations of such oppression.

Rest in peace, Steve Jobs

It’s late at night here in Fife and I can’t sleep.  So I do what many Western twenty-first-century twenty-somethings do – I end up on my computer, browsing the internet.  Tonight I am especially glued to the computer with the Phillies-Cardinals game going on.  If the Cards lose tonight they’re out of the playoffs, so I desperately want them to win in order to keep the prospect of a Cardinals-Tigers World Series alive.  For those who are unaware, the World Series rivalry between the St Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers (my favourite team) spans nearly eighty years.  The first time the two teams played each other in a World Series was in 1934, with the Cardinals taking the series in seven games.  They met again in the 1968 World Series, which the Tigers won in seven.  They last met in the 2006 World Series.  After having defeated the Yankees and Athletics in the playoffs, the Tigers went on to lose the World Series to the Cards in five games.  So in the [unlikely] event that both the Tigers and the Cardinals win their respective league titles and end up facing-off in the World Series, well, I will be an excited young man.

But the Major League Baseball 2011 postseason is not why I am compelled to share a few thoughts in a blog post.  The answer to that ‘why’ is sitting right here in front of me…literally…on my lap.  Yes, I am a ‘Mac user’, and tonight, as has been made clear from the incredible flood of identical status updates on Facebook (yes, I am a ‘Facebook user’), it was announced that Apple co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs has died at age 56.

Not only was Steve Jobs the official technological outfitter of hipsters, he was a proto-hipster.

Without a doubt Jobs’ death will be the talk of the town tomorrow.  Whether you loved him, hated him or found yourself generally apathetic toward him, Jobs has had a significant role in the daily lives of a great many people over the last few decades.  When I initially heard the news of his death I figured that enough people are writing about this, why make my own feeble attempt to eulogise, inadvertently adding to the cloud of ‘We’ve lost a visionary!’ chat?  While I have admitted to being a ‘Mac user’ I have neither a literal nor figurative Apple tattoo.  I am not especially wowed by Apple Keynote addresses.  I certainly don’t trouble myself with the false ‘need’ to possess a wide array of Apple products.  To be honest, it’s all very expensive and even if I had the money part of me doesn’t think that it would be especially responsible to indulge in consumer electronics.  But I have owned several Apple products.  As a child my family had an early Macintosh (we weren’t cutting edge or wealthy, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t stolen either).  All throughout my school years we used Macs in computer labs.  I first learned computer programming on a Mac.

When I went to university I used my extra scholarship money to buy my first computer – a 12-inch iBook G4.  A few years later that laptop’s display went kaput and I eventually upgraded to a black MacBook, the very MacBook that’s sitting on my lap now, four years after that purchase.  A couple years ago a certain Greg gifted me with some money, in celebration of my birthday/embarking on my PhD, meant specifically to assist my purchase of an iPod.  I only tell you this incredibly boring history of my Apple product experiences to highlight how my life actually is affected by the influence of Steve Jobs on a daily basis.

In a way I feel sort of dirty for thinking so much about this.  Nearly one billion people in the world don’t have clean drinking water, let alone a computer, let alone an expensive Apple computer (granted, I’ve never owned the ‘high-end’ Apple products).  It’s very evident to me that I should change my lifestyle, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t make extensive use of my Apple products.  My Macs have brought me through university degrees, have been the means of countless designs (like the designs you see here at LITC), blog posts (like this one), letters, mix CDs, recording songs, etc.  I don’t necessarily need to do all of these things on a Mac, but I have a Mac so I do.  And the iPod – unless I’m spending uninterrupted time with people it is a very common feature of my day.  I estimate that I probably use my iPod for, on average, two hours a day.  I don’t necessarily need to listen to music on an iPod, but I have an iPod so I do.

My point is not to make some profound argument about how the world would stop without Apple – it wouldn’t.  My point is not even to make some profound argument about how my life would be drastically different without Apple – it probably wouldn’t.  But the vision of Steve Jobs, a man who was genuinely passionate about innovation (and genuinely good at selling it), is the fuel behind the success of Apple, success that cannot be reduced to mere monetary units.  The Jobs-led Apple set the bar for other manufacturers (yes, this is a mild endorsement of one aspect of a capitalistic system).  Even though Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, they dramatically changed the way that our society experiences recorded music.  Aside from the technical innovations, Apple also brought a high aesthetic quality to the realm of electronics.  Why can’t our electronics be both functional and pleasing to the eyes?

It’s quite depressing to think about reducing a human being to a brand.  The media outlets will soon be publishing frightening news about how Apple’s success will decline because of Jobs’ death (which isn’t that frightening even if it was true).  Part of me finds this sort of revolting – Steve Jobs was a man with his own unique personality that, in theory, extends beyond the confines of a business, even a business as large as Apple.  But then another part of me realises that Apple was very much at the centre of Jobs’ life and he liked it that way.  Apple was not merely a business venture, but an invaluable outlet for Jobs’ vision and self-expression.

Apple is not dead and will continue to produce excellent innovations, but I don’t think that trajectory could have been so successful without the creative leadership of Jobs.

Steve Jobs wasn’t my friend and I generally do not have a great deal of respect for large companies and their leaders, but all-in-all I think he might have been something like an artist, and a great artist at that.  For someone I never knew and never followed with any sense of dedication, somehow I think I’ll miss Steve Jobs (or as I like to call him, ‘Esteban Trabajos’, with affection).  Thanks for sharing so many good things with the world, Steve.  We here at Lost in the Cloud salute you and will think of you as we experience the blessings of our MacBooks and iPods (and Greg as he uses his iPhone).

Cards won the game, by the way.

Why I am not a Scientologist

Last spring it was revealed that one of my favourite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood) was trying to pitch a new film to a studio.  In December of 2009, Variety reported on the new film, possibly dubbed The Master, with the outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman set to star.  A synopsis of the script was published by The Playlist last February:

‘The Master’ is the story of a charismatic intellectual … who hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in America in 1952 called The Cause.  The core dynamic centers on the relationship between The Master and Freddie Sutton, … an aimless twenty-something drifter and alcoholic who eventually becomes the leader’s loyal lieutenant.  As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.

Essentially the film has been seen as a critique of the infamous L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology.  The Master has encountered several snags since these reports, snags that some connect with Scientology’s influence in Hollywood.  But alas, the film seems to be under way, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix potentially set to star alongside Hoffman.

Anderson is a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.  I’m certain that The Master, or whatever it will be called, will be an excellent film – he just doesn’t make bad films.  I suppose that’s why it’s so shocking that he’s gone through such an ordeal to find a studio to back this latest project.  It’s easy to point the finger at the heavily-caricatured Church of Scientology, but in my reflections I’m not so sure that’s fair.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time investigating Scientology for someone who has never considered taking up the belief system.  Growing up in and around Los Angeles, Scientology was always something ‘close to home’.  In the last few years, Scientology has been the target of a significant amount of slander.  I suspect that this can be largely attributed to the erratic behaviour of one of their most outspoken members.  I’ve read a lot of Scientological literature (Dianetics, What is Scientology?, Scientology 0-8, etc.) and have learned a lot of Scientological terminology (‘Thetan’, ‘Clear’, an ‘OT’ = ‘Operating Thetan’, ‘KSW’ = ‘Keep Scientology Working’, ‘LRH’ = ‘L. Ron Hubbard’, an ‘SP’ = ‘Suppressive Person’, ‘Tech’, ‘In-Ethics’, ‘Out-Ethics’, ‘Orgs’, etc.).  I’ve heard many people criticise Scientology for its ‘outlandish’ beliefs, such as the fundamental belief concerning human origins (called ‘Incident II’): that the dictator of the ‘Galactic Confederacy’, a being named Xenu brought billions of beings to Earth and killed them with hydrogen bombs, though leaving their essences to inhabit bodies that are now people, etc…

That bit does seem like a lot to stomach—and I know that the orthodox Christian claims concerning such as the existence of a personal deity, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, could be just as alienating—but Scientological ‘cosmology’ is not my primary reason for rejecting Scientology.  The Church of Scientology’s Creed, written by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, states:

We of the Church believe
That all men of whatever race, color or creed were created with equal rights.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own religious practices and their performance.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own lives.
That all men have inalienable rights to their sanity.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own defense.
That all men have inalienable rights to conceive, choose, assist or support their own organizations, churches and governments.
That all men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others.
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind.
That the souls of men have the rights of men.
That the study of the Mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in nonreligious fields.
And that no agency less than God has the power to suspend or set aside these rights, overtly or covertly.

And we of the Church believe
That Man is basically good.
That he is seeking to Survive.
That his survival depends upon himself and upon his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the Universe.

And we of the Church believe that the laws of God forbid Man
To destroy his own kind.
To destroy the sanity of another.
To destroy or enslave another’s soul.
To destroy or reduce the survival of one’s companions or one’s group.

And we of the Church believe
That the spirit can be saved.
And that the spirit alone may save or heal the body.

Perhaps you read this creed and find no fault.  Perhaps you read this creed and see a bunch of convoluted and meaningless language.  When I read this creed something else jumps out at me.  At the very centre of Scientological belief is the view that a person is a spirit, a thetan.  According to their website, and one of their more prominent evangelical campaigns in the last few years, the heart of Scientology lies in an answer to the question, ‘Is Man a spirit?’  The official website states,

Yes.  A short exercise can quickly answer this for anyone: Ask someone to close their eyes and get a picture of a cat, and they will get a mental image picture of a cat.  Ask them who is looking at the picture of the cat and they will respond ‘I am.’  That which is looking at the cat is you, a spirit. One is a spirit, who has a mind and occupies a body.  You are you in a body.

Scientology breaks up the ‘Parts of Man‘ in this way:

First there is the body itself.  The body is the organized physical composition or substance of Man, whether living or dead.  It is not the being himself.

Next, there is the mind, which consists essentially of pictures.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the thetan.  The thetan is not a thing.  It is the creator of things.

Of the three parts of Man, the thetan is, obviously, most important.  Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body.  While without a body or a mind, there is still animation and life in the thetan.

The goal of a Scientologist is to become an OT, an ‘Operating Thetan’, defined by the Church of Scientology as ‘a spiritual state of being above Clear.’  It continues, ‘By Operating is meant “able to act and handle things” and by Thetan is meant “the spiritual being that is the basic self.”  An Operating Thetan, then, is one who can handle things without having to use a body of physical means.’

In order to achieve this OT state, a Scientologist much engage in a series of ‘gradient steps, each one slightly more advanced than the last and each with its own ability gained.’  The website continues, ‘At the level of OT, Scientologists study the very advanced materials of L. Ron Hubbard’s research.  According to those who have achieved OT, the spiritual benefits obtained surpass description.’

I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to set up a ‘straw man’ version of Scientology.  I could commit many different philosophical fallacies trying to incite hatred of the Church of Scientology, like rumours about conspiracies and brainwashing or the odd lifestyles of the late L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise.  I could also argue that the language employed in these statements is convoluted and meaningless.  But what I am sharing here are things directly from the Church of Scientology’s official website, in the sections that are meant to evangelise to non-Scientologists.  It has been my aim to briefly and accurately express some core beliefs of the Church of Scientology.  At this point I hope to highlight a fundamental disagreement between Christian orthodoxy and Scientological belief, ultimately illustrating why I, as a Christian, am not a Scientologist.

From very early on, the resurrection of the body has been a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy.  In the Creed of Marcellus (a precursor to The Apostles’ Creed) from 340 it is written, ‘… And [I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body [σαρκός], life everlasting.’1

The need for these sorts of credal affirmations of the physical body arose from a very early Christian heresy that is labelled ‘gnosticism’.  Within a very watered-down gnostic worldview we find the idea that there is an fundamental antagonism between God and the material world (dualism).  The soul is trapped in this material world and through certain esoteric knowledge the soul can find a way of escape.  From what I have gathered, the Scientological belief system very closely resembles a type of gnosticism.  But in light of their understanding of the resurrection of Christ, early Christians, like the second-century Ante-Nicene Father St Irenaeus, condemned such views.  Indeed, when ‘the resurrection of the body’ is mentioned in early Christian sources the phrase does not mean that Christ (as the ‘first fruits’ of the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15:23) has figuratively risen from the dead.  Contrary to the claims of critics like John Dominic Crossan and his ‘Jesus Seminar’, what makes the claim of the resurrection in the first-century Jewish context so problematic is that it only ever refers to a physical, bodily, literal raising from the dead.2

Whether or not one accepts that Jesus rose from the dead in this way, the early Christian Church held this view and when we say in the creeds, ‘He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day…’ we mean just that.  While St Paul condemns ‘sin in the flesh’ (ἐν τῇ σαρκί) in Romans 8, he is not condemning the body, but the sinfulness over which Christ has triumphed.  This is the key to the validity of the Christian faith.  It is both our present and future hope.  Part of the beauty of this hope is that it restores value and dignity to the creation, the physical creation, that God has created.  The Christian faith is not some collection of data that prepares our souls for a rescue from our bodily prisons, but it is a submission to the reality that God has begun to rescue and will fully rescue this physical world from its corruption and decay.

In this way we are invited to throw ourselves into the rushing stream of God’s kingdom.  We are asked to take part in God’s story through loving others as we have been loved by God.  We do not fight the oppression of the physical world.  Instead, we declare that this physical world has been redeemed by Christ and demonstrate that redemption through God’s working in our lives; caring for those who have been mistreated; being a beacon of peace in the midst of ongoing conflict; standing up for the dignity all people, regardless of nationality, race, age, gender or socioeconomic status.  We are to be constantly challenging the way that those with power (including those within our own large-and-small-scale ecclesiastical institutions) exercise their oppressive authority over the powerless.  God has come in a body through the incarnation, Jesus met the holistic needs of people during his ministry and in the death and resurrection of Christ God has exclaimed ‘I have redeemed the whole person, not merely his or her “soul” and not merely his or her “body”!’

In Scientological literature we are presented with this: ‘A Scientologist can be defined by a single question: Would you want others to achieve the knowledge you now have?’  In the Christian faith a similar question might be worded in this [admittedly cumbersome] way: ‘Would you want others to receive the present and future, holistic hope that you now have?’

+++++

1. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 23.
2. For a brief, accessible look at this literal concept of the resurrection, see Tom Wright’s Simply Christian (San Francisco: Harper, 2006), 111-6.

Imaging the Kingdom V: Agnosticism in the kingdom of God

This long-overdue installment of Imaging the Kingdom will be focusing on what I consider to be a healthy degree of agnosticism in the Christian faith, and I’d like to begin with a personal story.  In my first year as a theological studies undergraduate student I became aware of an interesting issue within American Christianity: the age of the earth and the interpretation of the Book of Genesis.  Coming from a more scientific background, accepting the idea that the universe originated with the Big Bang was no struggle for me.  Belief in the God of creation and the discoveries of contemporary science were not contentious, unless of course those scientific conclusions depended entirely on an exclusive naturalism, a presupposed atheism that is just as certain of the non-existence of a deity as theism is of the existence of one.  Despite claims of the purity and certainty of science and reason, I found these atheistic presuppositions to be more experienced-and-feeling-based, like a religion – but I digress.

Through my late exposure to American Evangelicalism I was confronted with another story, a story that claims with certainty despite strong scientific evidence (proof even!) that the earth alone is some 4.5 billion years old, that argues for a ‘young earth’ model.  If the earth is only several thousand years old, then how could biological evolution have happened?  Exactly.  This view also claims that the ‘theory of evolution’ (as if emphasising ‘theory’ makes it less legitimate straight away) is a fabrication of the godless scientific community.  While evolutionists have historically presupposed atheism—seeing evolution, as opposed to theistic creation, as a legitimate way of explaining the diversity of life on earth—I still found no significant tension between the concept of evolution and my belief in God.  That may simply be a matter of my own ignorance, but indulge me.

So as a first year undergraduate student I was confronted with these ‘young earth’ views and I wasn’t sure what I ought to do with them.  I decided to consult someone I trusted, someone whose name was synonymous with ‘wisdom’ in the seminary I attended: Ed Curtis.  Dr Curtis was (and still is) a white-haired sagely Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies who specialised in the Hebrew language and Wisdom Literature.  On top of this, prior to pursuing theology he studied physical science and worked as an engineer and physicist.  I approached Dr Curtis during a theological staff-student luncheon and eventually shared my recent confrontation with the conservative Evangelical position on creation.  He shared that he found himself confronted with the same tension, but in his gentle Texan-drawl he delivered a profound piece of wisdom that has stayed with me since: ‘If we only concerned ourselves with that which we can actually know we’d have enough on our plate.’

This reality puts a significant perspective on how we approach issues of doctrine, belief and practice as Christians.  The ‘that which we can actually know‘ that to which Dr Curtis referred is essentially boiled down to the love that God has revealed to us so explicitly.  In other words, as Christians we know that God loves the world that he created and the incarnation and giving of his Son Jesus Christ is a profound demonstration of this love.  Not only that, but in response to this love, empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to love God and to love our neighbour.  In fact, loving our neighbours is very much synonymous with loving God, as we hear in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:31-40 (NRSV):

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”’

Truly, if we primarily concerned ourselves with caring for the holistic needs of all of those around us we would have plenty with which to occupy ourselves.  That all sounds so beautiful, but that still leaves the issue of uncertainty wide open and Westerners don’t like uncertainty, right?  A more troubling thing is that these adamant ‘young earth’/’anti-evolutionary’ views are not bound the sidelines of public discussion – the prominent Republican political figures Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (the latter two are currently competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for president) all hold to and promote conservative Evangelical views on these issues.  In our society these people have a right to hold these views, but the general intolerance demonstrated by many who hold such views only seems to promote needless division.

So what happened?  Why are we at this point?  At one point our Enlightened Western world accepted that through the power of our good science and our right reasoning we can solve anything; we can be have certainty.  Over the last few centuries, the findings of science and reason began to challenge the way that we understand Christianity, from Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to remove all things supernatural from New Testament in writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in 1820 to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s 2010 book The Grand Design, which asserts that the origin of the universe need not be explained by the existence of God but by physical laws alone.  In reaction to these assertions, many Christians (especially, though not always, those of a more conservative brand) have outrightly rejected science and reason, or have tended toward developing their own exhaustive analytical philosophies and pseudoscience.

While there is no room for half-baked, reactionary ‘science’ in the marketplace of ideas, providing a rational defense for Christian belief/theology is not entirely out of the question.  But what I’ve come to appreciate is the freedom to simply not know.  In other words, the inevitable transcendence of God (the inability for humanity to know everything about God) means the inevitable ignorance of humanity.  The sheer otherness of other people should be enough to help us realise our inevitable, eternal ignorance.  Even our inability to know ourselves fully shows us our ignorance.  We don’t need to be insecure about uncertainty and paradox.  It’s okay to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ – it’s even okay to answer, ‘I don’t know and I probably never will.’

Over the last few years I’ve engaged with this issue of agnosticism with a close philosopher friend who directed me to the eminent 20th-century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein stresses the importance of holding onto epistemological humility in Philosophical Investigations (426):

Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness.  For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.

In the actual use of expression we make detours, we go by side roads.  We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.1

It seems that Wittgenstein is telling us that both our language and our ability to know are significantly limited, thus necessitating a self-reflective hint of humility in how we argue for/hold onto various ideas.  I see this fitting perfectly with a healthy Christian agnosticism, as Barth expresses in his Dogmatics in Outline,

Christian faith has to do with the object, with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, of which the Creed speaks.  Of course it is of the nature and being of this object, of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action.2

This is not to say that we stop our pursuit of the knowledge of God, but that while we pursue a better knowledge—a knowledge that, when coupled with action, has the potential to transform lives and deliver those who are oppressed from their oppressors—we must always hold onto that which is most central to the Christian faith: the grace and love of God.  We can and should disagree with one another, as diversity is part of what potentially makes the Church so effective, counter-cultural, welcoming and healthy, but we should also take very seriously the fact that none of us will ever know everything.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.3

+++++

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 127e.
2. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, translated by Colin E. Gunton (London: SCM Press, 1949), 15.
3. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 33.

The Cloud Rank: CHINA MIÉVILLE

It wouldn’t surprise me if many of our readers had not heard of the novelist China Miéville before.  I myself only stumbled upon a story of his in a collection a few years back, and had to read backwards from there to catch up with his writing.  Below, I’d like to share some thoughts about his newest novel, Embassytown and then list “The Cloud Rank” of all of his works that I have read, but before I do, here are just a few brief thoughts by way of introduction…

  • Miéville is primarily known as an author of science fiction/fantasy-esque novels, but they are eruditely creative, densely multilayered (political/spiritual/culturally reflective), and deeply engaging examples of those genres, that is, versus the kind that have implausibly-bosomed alien/elfin women in space/fairy bikinis.  Supposedly, there is a “school” of writing to which Miéville belongs called the “New Weird.”  I don’t know about weird, I just think it’s devastatingly clever. Except when it’s not (see Cloud Rank below for works that fall in the AVOID category).
  • He’s British and male, though his name seemed French and feminine when I first encountered it (he made himself the central character in the first story of his I read, mentioned above).  He is a avowed Marxist (I think? Maybe just a hyper-socialist?) with a PhD in International Something (Law? Economics? Can’t be bothered to fact-check anything floating about in my memory).  He has a shaved head, a plethora of earrings in one ear, and he’s far from either of the polar extremes one normally associates with the sci-fi/fantasy crowd (i.e. skinny nerd or fatty schlub). This last sentence is rendered wholly unnecessary by inserting…

    Portrait of the artist as a person you would hand over your wallet to

    His newest novel, Embassytown, was released in May of 2011, to mostly quite positive reviews.  It is set in the future on the most distant planet of the known universe, when human existence on earth is only a vague memory (or something like that).  I won’t go into the details of plot, character, etc.  All those things can be found in reviews elsewhere with considerable ease.  Instead, I’d simply like to tell you a few of my own impressions…

  • I initially found myself simultaneously intrigued and baffled by the world he created (aliens, technology, politics, etc.), yet I was willing to patiently uncover the meaning of words like “miab” or “immer” by their use in context.  However, I later became a bit bored with this lexical snipe-hunt, being that some words’ meaning seemed almost indeterminable.  Still, the wordsmithery of this writer cannot be denied.
  • The central character and narrator, a human woman called Avice, held my attention and affection throughout, though there was a disquieting passivity to her–intentionally, I’m sure, as Avice describes herself as a “floaker,” which is a neologism the author uses to define someone who is an underachiever/layabout/slacker combination mixed with a dose of elitist and a hint of mischievous social agitator.  I personally would hope to live up to such a description on my finest days…
  • In terms of literary pedigree, I found myself sensing the influence of two works quite strongly in his novel (though he may have read neither):  Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (if you’re ever in a used bookshop, look for this & buy a pulpy copy…it’s so worth reading) with its androgynous sexuality and ambassadorial politics, and C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra (I’m pretty sure that Miéville would not be a fan of Lewis, given his harsh words regarding Tolkien) with its re-imagined Edenic narrative and grand human themes.  If you liked either of those books, I think you would enjoy their offspring in Embassytown.
  • The book had the potential to be a microcosmic epic, an unveiling of life in a particular place that seemed to speak to the totality of universal existence.  But ultimately, it lost steam on this quest and became a story that was crushed by its own inability to live up to the grand vision it had promised.  And yet, this book is so much better than most of whatever else that is published every year, so it comes highly recommended nevertheless.

So where does Embassytown fall on the Cloud Rank of China Miéville’s literary output?  About the middle…

  1. The Scar (2002):  This is the second novel in the Bas-Lag trilogy.  It is a sci-fi sea novel (Miéville is also known for experimenting with hybrids of various genres) and one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ (Note: this book can be read as a stand-alone novel, but why not start with…
  2. Perdido Street Station (2000):  The first of the trilogy, sometimes a bit bogged down by detail, but absolutely brilliant in its world creation, vivid descriptions (it can actually be a somewhat intense read with the violent accounts of the horrific “slake moth” monsters and what not), and deeply compelling storyline.  I was gripped by this book.  Cloud Rank = MUST READ
  3. The City & The City (2009):  This is a crime/noir novel set in an Eastern European-esque location which actually houses two distinct cities, existing in the same geographic space but divided by an ingrained, mutual disregard established in a elaborate set of rules that keeps one city from acknowledging the other.  Brilliant conceit, but the story lost the central suspense narrative (to my mind) at some point. Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  4. Embassytown (2011):  See above comments.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  5. Railsea (2012):  Sometimes, a bit hit & miss, this is a postmodern re-imagining of Moby-Dick with trains replacing boats in a futuristic world.  If you can stick to the end, I think you’ll find it is ultimately a satisfying read.  Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
  6. Looking for Jake (collection, 2005):  A mixed bag of stories and other pieces, notable mainly for the post-apocalyptic vampire novella, The Tain, and a story in the Bas-Lag universe called “Jack.”  Cloud Rank = MOSTLY FOR FANS
  7. Iron Council (2004):  The third book in the Bas-Lag trilogy, half of it written in the manner of a classic western novel, other parts a narrative of class struggle, and yet other parts creepy sci-fi.  I was so deeply disappointed in this conclusion to the trilogy, I finished it only out of a sense of obsessive completism.  Cloud Rank = AVOID, UNLESS YOU HAVE THE SAME NEED TO COMPLETE THE SERIES
  8. Kraken (2010):  I could barely bring myself to keep reading a few chapters in–there was not much that I liked at all.  It felt like a D-grade rehash of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  And just to be spiteful, I will spoil the end here:  the whole thing with the kraken is just a red herring and the real villain is a former fundamentalist Christian who wants to erase the evidence for Darwinism. This is inexcusably bad.  Cloud Rank = AVOID AT ALL COST

Returning to the Cloud: Fall/Autumn 2011 Preview

Greetings to our faithful cadre of subscribers & readers…it has been some time since I’ve posted anything on our humble little weblog here (due to a overloaded class schedule at Fuller Seminary & increased summer childcare–all three little angels were home with me– combined with a new job at my church) but I am here to announce that a number of posts WILL BE forthcoming in the next weeks and months.  Here’s a preview of what you can expect on this site in Fall/Autumn 2011:

• A number of my favorite novelists have new books that have recently been or will shortly be published.  Along with a brief review of their latest work, I’d like to begin a new feature called, “The Cloud Rank” where I assess and position the rest of their oeuvre (or as many of their novels as I’ve read) against the new work.  Some of the novelists receiving this treatment will include: David Lodge, China Mieville, Tom Perrota, Julian Barnes, and graphic novelist Craig Thompson.

• You may also expect a response to this article about hell from the Summer issue of Biola University’s magazine.  I’ve largely worked through my issues with Biola, my former employer, so you need not expect a diatribe against the conservative evangelical establishment, and I find that I am generally opposed to the the Rob Bell book on eschatology that the Biola article denounces as well.  Rather, some points that the “expert” author makes about annihilationism are quite ill-founded and need a corrective voice to balance out, which I am happy to provide!

• I am also looking forward to reading the upcoming “multiple-views” volume on the topic of evangelicalism (about which John Stackhouse writes here) and adding some thoughts about the schism that seems imminent in the evangelical consensus and ways that we might avoid committing or being the victim of a “friendly-fire” tragedy.

• I am also hoping to do a Cloud Rank on the albums of The Smiths and Morrissey, hopefully publishing a Top 50 Smiths/Morrissey Songs list in the process.

• Finally, as we draw closer to the end of the year, you can count on Elijah and I to continue the long tradition of our best of the year in music here on Lost in the Cloud.

I offer my deepest apologies for this long absence and hope you will enjoy some of the posts in the days ahead!

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