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.
Elijah & Greg
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2012
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’:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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’?
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’.
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 2009. Shields 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.
Elijah’s honourable mentions
- Silver & Gold Sufjan Stevens — A massive five-disc, 58-song, 2.7-hour Christmas feast!
- Shrines Purity Ring
- Fear Fun Father John Misty
- Information Retrieved Pinback
- Cancer 4 Cure El-P
- Love This Giant David Byrne & St Vincent
- Tramp Sharon Van Etten
- The Seer Swans
- Tempest Bob Dylan
- Coexist The xx
Elijah’s dishonourable mentions
- Mirage Rock Band of Horses
- Silver Age Bob Mould
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‘
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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…
- 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…
- 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
- 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
- Embassytown (2011): See above comments. Cloud Rank = SHOULD READ
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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!
Is America a force for good in the world? Many people would respond positively, convinced of some strange belief called ‘American exceptionalism’, and would top it off with a resounding ‘God bless America!’ But on the other end of the spectrum we find many who would respond with disgust, as if such a question was not worthy of a response at all. Perhaps both of these responses are true. In an interview on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Orson Welles declared,
I think one thing that is generally true, the one generalisation that is true about America is that everything is true about it. It’s impossible to say anything that isn’t true, good or bad. Our enemies are right, our friends are right. It’s an awful big country [with] an awful lot of different kinds of people in it.
I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. From my perspective, an expatriated American of Scottish extraction, I can’t bring myself to side with either one of the two extremist responses above. The disestablishmentarian in me would readily scoff at the first answer when looking at the actions of ‘America’ throughout its short history. ‘Manifest Destiny’; CIA plots to interfere with South American politics in order to stop the spread of COMMUNISM(!); capitalistic exploitation in America and in third world countries; the ill-informed invasion of Iraq in 2003; all those boy bands from the 90s – America isn’t a wholly good nation. But then again, such a thing doesn’t exist. That is not to say that America has done exclusively ‘bad’ things with this power. Throughout history America’s government—however manipulated by an insecure worldview—has acted in self-interest. Sometimes America’s self-interest is beneficial for the rest of the world and sometimes it isn’t.
When I left America for Scotland I was told by a Northern Irish friend that I would probably find myself defending my the States more than I expected. But to be honest, I never had an entirely bleak outlook on America in the first place. At different points I toyed with expatriation as a self-righteous act of political protest, but if anyone wants to lump America together as a homogeneous society of nit-wits I will try my best to convince them that this cannot truly be said of any nation. America, with more than 300 million citizens who for the most part find their origins in faraway countries, is a freakishly diverse and dynamic nation. But as it stands, and while this is not unique to America, many Americans (me included) and American governments have been guilty of making this world a poorer place in many inventive ways.
But America is also a beautiful nation full of beautiful people. This as well is not unique to America. But growing up in and around Los Angeles has shaped who I am in many ways and I wouldn’t change that fact even if I could. And while I profess a love for Scotland, it inevitably shares many of America’s flaws. I simply can’t escape what is broken with the world because I can’t escape the world. All any of us can do is aim to repair what is broken and spread what is good. But at this point we must ask the question, what is good?
Regarding America, and in celebration of the Fourth of July, when Americans commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (according to Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams), I will now point out two things that I think are exemplary of the good: American music and baseball.
Let me make clear that these two things are not free of their own flaws. For instance, in addition to the 90s boy bands I mentioned earlier, America is also responsible for Journey and a host of other terrible artists. Of course this is a matter of taste, and while some poor folk might think that Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are passé, their music had and continues to have a profound impact on culture around the world. Of course we are reminded of the words of Donne, ‘No man is an island’, and the two owe a great deal to a rich and fertile musical heritage borne from countless sources like the Negro spiritual. But it can be argued that, among many others, the highly influential genres of ragtime, jazz, country, rock and roll, soul, hip-hop, and grunge were all founded in the US of A. And of course there’s the broad Americana genre. Perhaps these developments can be attributed to the rapid economic growth of America throughout its short history, mixed with the continual convergence of various world cultures, all taking place alongside the development of music recording and transmission throughout the 20th century.
Regardless of the cause, American music has always pushed new ground and inspired subsequent generations of artists. See legendary musicians of days long past like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger (who is still kicking!). Their torch was passed to popular artists like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Johnny Cash, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Thelonius Monk, and Frank Sinatra. Then this was followed by a wave of dramatic developments from American artists like The Beach Boys, Blondie, James Brown, T-Bone Burnett, Devo, Philip Glass, Iggy Pop, Michael Jackson, Love, Ramones, The Talking Heads, Television, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, and Frank Zappa.
In more recent years we’ve seen the rise of significant American musicians like Lou Barlow, Jeff Buckley, Botch, Converge, Fugazi, Grandaddy, Aimee Mann, Neutral Milk Hotel, Nirvana, Pixies, R.E.M., Tupac Shakur, Daniel Smith, Elliott Smith, Sonic Youth, Sunny Day Real Estate, The White Stripes, Yo La Tengo, and yet more recent artists like Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Cass McCombs, and Frightened Rab…nevermind that last one. Of course there are many more artists that should be included in this list (I merely picked some of my favourites), but that only goes to show how important American music has been in the last century. In Sufjan Stevens alone we can see a massive and ambitious output of constant reinterpretation and innovation.
Now onto the second good thing I want to affirm about America, which probably came as no surprise to seasoned LITC readers. Baseball may not enjoy the global fame of association football, but I happen to think it is the greatest sport to ever grace the face of the earth (though football’s soccer’s not far behind – apologies to cricket, rugby, golf, etc.). I’ve professed my undying love for baseball through blog posts on several different occasions. And despite the inevitable corruption that plagues the sport (greed, performance-enhancing drugs, marital infidelity, bench-clearing brawls, etc.), there’s a magic and heart to baseball that is truly good.
In the classic 1989 film Field of Dreams, the character Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) is trying to convince the main character, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), to embrace his dream, a vision he had of a baseball field on his farm in Iowa. Because Ray has cleared land for this baseball field and has invested money into its development (outfitted with stadium lights and all), he is losing money rapidly and in this particular scene his brother-in-law is trying to convince him to sell the farm and leave his dream behind. Mann responds,
Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack…
And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces…
People will come Ray…
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.
There’s much more going on at the core of the film, but I won’t spoil it – you should watch the film. What I want to point out is this sentiment expressed so sweetly through James Earl Jones’ transcendent voice. Throughout many wars and economic depressions baseball has remained because it is a special vessel of goodness. I suppose that’s part of why I love the Tigers so much – they represent this beacon of goodness (among many other great beacons of goodness in Detroit) in the midst of a suffering place.
So this is to you, America! And while I’m not too keen on the cult of the American flag, here’s Ol’ Glory, which stands as a mere symbol for the hopes and dreams—noble and ignoble—of millions of people throughout the last 235 years and in the present. May God bless America, but more importantly, may God continue to bless this struggling world.
As is obvious from several posts (mainly from Greg), we here at LITC are huge fans of the musical emanation of the trashy Texan Josh T. Pearson. Only two years ago Greg happened upon Pearson’s 2001 album (as a member of the band Lift to Experience), The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. Soon thereafter the Band Evangelist passed the Gospel of JTP to his disciple Elijah and Crossroads became a mainstay for us two Pearson late-bloomers. But we’ve determined to never fall behind again!
March marked the release of Pearson’s first record since Crossroads, The Last of the Country Gentlemen (which Greg was evangelising leading up to its release).
On 25 March 2011, Pearson’s ‘Last of the Country Gentlemen Tour’ made its way through Glasgow. Fortunately for us here at LITC, we were in Glasgow at the time. In fact, we had booked our tickets well in advance and Greg had travelled thousands of miles from America to meet Elijah at his home in Scotland for a week of adventure leading up to the gig.
Stereo, Glasgow, 25 March 2011
At the show Pearson was selling an eleven-track live CD (seven of which are actual songs, while the rest are exclusively stage banter, all on a classy Imation-brand CD-R with a carefully photocopied portrait of Pearson, shown below), To Hull and Back.
The show’s opener, a British solo act whose name will remain unmentioned here, was dreadful: faux Americana, interminable roots/’blues’ compositions with lyrics that tried to conjure up images of railroad tracks and the devil at crossroads and all manner of rough & tumble, down-on-their-luck outlaw clichés. Let us just say that it was ultimately a Bizarro World version of Josh T. Pearson…
The sick taste of that experience was immediately washed away when Pearson shambled onto the small stage in Stereo’s basement, looking like a heartbroken Jesus on methadone and whiskey, nodding and uttering a low ‘How y’all doin’?' When a local yelled out, ‘Welcome back, Josh!’ Pearson replied, ‘I hope your years were better than mine…’ During his sound check, he told the audience that they’d need to ‘be super quiet or they’re going to go upstairs [to the restaurant]‘ which he reinforced during the show by stopping a song in the middle when some idiots started to talk and only resuming when there was absolute silence. Though this may seem like pedantry, Pearson’s songs often fell to a bare whisper and light strum, so an absolutely quiet environment was the only way we would actually be able to hear the songs as they were meant to be experienced.
Pearson began his set with what he said was a cover of a song by Boney M (we’d never heard of them, but apparently they were a reggae/disco group from the late 70s put together by Frank Farian, who would later go on to create Milli Vanilli), but Pearson made the song beautifully his own. At the last second, Greg took out his iPhone and recorded the song, ‘Rivers of Babylon’ onto the voice memos app—here is a link to the recording, which turned out surprisingly polished:
‘Rivers of Babylon‘ (Boney M cover) – Josh T. Pearson
In this song, Pearson sang, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your eyes tonight’ as he gazed up soulfully. It was as if he was dedicating the set to God, offering the pain and brokenness and loss that his songs contained not ultimately to us, the concertgoers, but to a divine audience. Many of his songs speak about God or Jesus: in ‘Country Dumb,’ he says that his kind of people are ‘failures each and every one, we’re the kind who will always need a savior’ and and in ‘Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ,’ he sings to his woman: ‘you don’t need a lover or a friend, you need a God and not a mortal man. Woman, you need born again, again–you need a savior and I just am not him.’ Yet many of his songs also speak of his own inability to control outbursts of anger or drinking (‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’) or rein in his adulterous desire (‘Honeymoon Is Great, I Wish You Were Her’). Pearson is the quintessential sinner looking for redemption while laying drunk in the gutter–if only more Christians could see their own moral failure and need for salvation as clearly as he does…
During his performance, despite several awkward false starts in reaction to the audience’s noise level (space which was occupied with Pearson telling some pretty wretched jokes), Pearson proved incredibly moving. Indeed, his lengthy and intensely personal tunes demanded the full attention of the audience. We here at LITC have come to the consensus that Pearson’s performance was in fact the best solo performance we had ever seen (at one point, I [Greg] even found myself choking up and with watery eyes in a mixture of joy and sadness at the beauty and despair of his set). You really ought to pick up his record from your local record store and catch him live if he ever comes your way.