The Shame of the Cross

I recently clicked on a link from a blog my friend Andrew contributes to and it took me to post from a Talbot Seminary prof, Joe Hellerman, entitled “Jesus, the Shame-Bearer” about “the public humiliation of Jesus’ death.”  His personal/vocational anecdote about honor-culture is skippable, but the focus on the shame Christ experienced on the cross (particularly in quotes from early church leaders) was powerful.  It lead me to post the following question in his comments section:

“Years ago, I came across a poem by the British writer Stevie Smith about Christianity/ Christ that questioned our faith, including the following lines:

And Sin, how could he take our sins upon Him?  What does it mean?
To take sin upon one is not the same
As to have sin inside one and feel guilty.

It is horrible to feel guilty,
We feel guilty because we are.
Was He horrible? Did he feel guilty?

The lines stuck with me, as an authentic question, but as I meditated on the issue, reading Isaiah 53, I began to wonder if, in some sense, while Jesus did not bear my experiential guilt (though he did take on my legal guilt), he somehow did bear the shame associated with my sin. In response to the poet, we might say, “No, he WAS not horrible–but yes, he FELT horrible as he bore the shame of our sin, experiencing the feeling of being a wrong-doer, though he did no wrong.”

Do you think there is a legitimacy to this? Not that we need to answer this question–I just wonder if, in some sense, this would be an answer…

I know that many Christians struggle with a lingering sense of guilt & shame over past sin. I wonder if contemplating “Jesus, the Shame-bearer” is a way of even adding those feelings of shame as something we recognize Christ bore for us.

I’m not totally sure if this is theologically accurate, though, which is why I ask!”

Hellerman responded that this (our feeling of guilt) wasn’t really what he had been talking about, which I do recognize–I was more using his meditation to launch into a related but distinct point. He was talking about Jesus’ personal sense of shame upon the cross & I was raising a question about our shame/guiltiness and Christ’s work on the cross.

On the note of Christ’s shame, it did make me think of how Christians have many times sanitized the image of Christ on the cross.  With our dread of nudity, we usually drape a little cloth over his genitals or even put him in a robe, yet his shameful FULL nakedness was most likely part of the punishment he endured for us (there are some who hold the view that he was covered with a cloth, but many hold to his complete nudity)!  The only film that I could remember that actually “exposed” the viewer to this aspect of the crucifixion was Martin Scorsese’s heretical and blasphemous film The Last Temptation of Christ

Like one from whom men hide their faces; he was despised & we esteemed him not

I have been thinking more about this question–did Jesus bear on the cross the shame that should be upon me for my sin, the shame that I deserve before God for violating his good design & purposes?  Or is it more that because of he took on our “legal guilt” that we are able to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebrews 10.22)?  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Whatever the specific theological reality, I believe it’s completely appropriate to devotionally consider both what Christ endured on the cross & to know that we are free from the burden of guilt and shame of sin.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

(“Before the Throne of God Above”)

Reformed and Always Reforming, Part I: “Who in the What Now?”

A while back, while outlining my “Reading List,” I promised I would write more about a very important book to me, namely Roger Olson’s 2007 book, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Theology.  I am now making good on that promise; however, rather than writing a short summary praising the book’s merits & interacting with any of its perceived shortcomings, I have decided (to follow Jesus!) to summarize THE ENTIRE BOOK for your consideration, which will require me to divide the posts into a number of parts. 

I’m not sure how many of our dear readers would be inclined to read the book for themselves, but I’d love to interact over the specifics of the approach he outlines in the comments section—I will even try to restrict my own editorial opinion to that location—because it is an approach that I am very seriously considering taking on as my own (to some extent).  To do this without input from my community would be foolhardy, in my highly-relational opinion.  So without further ado, I give you my post:  Reformed and Always Reforming, Part I:  “Who in the What Now?”

Olson’s central thesis in the book is that “it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative”—speaking specifically in this book about theology, which he defines as “reflection on divine revelation in order to believe rightly and understand what is rightly believed.”  He distinguishes between theology and doctrine:  “theology is process; doctrine is raw material and product.  Theology examines doctrines (beliefs about God) and produces doctrines, often by reaffirming, restating, or revising older ones.”  The last action of “revising” is central to the postconservative approach (or “mood” as he calls it) Olson will commend.

In the book, Olson sets up what kind of conservative he is “post” by describing his understanding of “conservative evangelical theology.”  The idea of being conservative is clearly connected to “adherence to tradition”—Olson posits that conservative evangelical’s (CE’s) have, perhaps unconsciously, established a “magisterium” that “exercises prior restraint over the critical and constructive tasks of theology” and while he acknowledges that many CE’s would deny this, “their conservatism shows in their tendency to slam down any and every new proposal for revisioning Christian doctrine” by an appeal to received traditional (or evangelical) beliefs.

He sees an example of a CE magisterium in the 1990 volume Evangelical Affirmations edited by Kenneth Kantzer & Carl F.H. Henry.  Olson perceives that this was an attempt to preserve “evangelical integrity [by] identifying who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the evangelical club” through establishing “firm evangelical boundaries.”  Throughout this collection of essays, “appeal is made repeatedly to…an alleged evangelical consensus” which Olson sees as something that would “be used in evangelical institutions in making decisions about hiring and continuing employment.”  In essence, it looks like a power play to consolidate the authority to identify who may call themselves an “evangelical.”  The problem with this is that it functionally places “a set of human statements on the same plane with scripture.”

In providing examples of specific conservative evangelical theologians, he divides them into two main camps:

  • Biblicist evangelicals:  those who “seem concerned to protect the propositional nature of revelation as primary and [who] seem to believe it is relatively easy with training and skill to move from biblical exegisis to establishment of sound doctrine without the aid of other sources and norms such as tradition, philosophy, or culture.”  They “tend to follow the methodology of 19th century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge” and Olson includes Carl F.H. Henry, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson, Norman Geisler, D.A. Carson and David F. Wells in this category.  Their approach contains the “idea that doctrines are to be mined out of the Bible and that evangelical doctrines are simply biblical teachings and not the secondary language of the church,” as well as a “frequent appeal to an evangelical faith once and for all delivered as a negative norm for ruling out new ideas.”
  • Paleo-orthodox traditionalists:  those who explicitly identify an “ancient, ecumenical doctrinal consensus” (sometimes including Reformational teachings, but usually based on the early church fathers) as a “governing authority for evangelical theology.”  These thinkers include Thomas Oden, D.H. Williams, and Robert Webber.

Olson also offers 10 features that he believes are common among conservative evangelical theologians which are a cause for concern to the postconservative approach (I’m not using quotes, but am condensing/editing Olson’s words in these sentences):

  1. A tendency to treat correct doctrine—orthodoxy—as the essence of authentic Christian faith and of evangelical faith, and a response to theological innovations as leading to apostasy.
  2. A tendency to treat revelation as primarily propositional, glossing over the personal and eventful nature of revelations as well as the revelational power of stories, images, and speech acts.
  3. A tendency to elevate some tradition to the status of a magisterium for evangelical theological identity (closing off fresh theological reflection & revisioning of doctrines).
  4. A suspicion of the constructive task of theology, rejecting or neglecting attempts to construct new doctrinal formulations or reconstruct old ones & a tendency to be defensive of their understanding of orthodoxy, patrolling evangelical boundaries.
  5. A view of evangelicalism as a bounded set category—within which it should be easy to tell who is in or out & a sense that they should have the authority to strip others of the evangelical label.
  6. A tendency to regard the “evangelical tent” as relatively smaller than the number of those who call themselves evangelicals.
  7. A high degree of suspicion towards both modernity (even though they may be influenced by it!) and postmodernity, which they see as relativistic and destructive of authentic Christian faith, which consists of absolutes known with a high degree of certainty.
  8. A tendency to think that it is possible to do theology relatively uninfluenced by history and culture (antihistoricist), and a recoiling from the idea that every doctrinal and theological formulation or method is culturally embedded, as they believe in and look for a transcultural expression of the gospel.
  9. A tendency to remain tied to fundamentalist roots (even though they would prefer not to use that term) in use of tactics such as harsh, polemical rhetoric and angry denunciations or ad hominum arguments when writing about fellow evangelicals with whom they disagree.
  10. A tendency to do theology in the grip of fear of liberal theology and insistence on placing every theologian or theological proposal on the spectrum of left to right as defined by attitudes towards modernity, with liberal theology representing maximal accommodation to modernity.

Olson also points to two “mediating evangelical theologians” who don’t totally fit into either camp:

  • Donald Bloesch, whom conservatives are fond of because of his strongly confessional stance and defense of traditional doctrinal formulations, but who can also be considered progressive because he denies biblical inerrancy and leans toward Karl Barth in a form of “evangelical neoorthodoxy.”
  • Alister McGrath, who is also defensive of traditional orthodoxy and reluctant to express support for theological innovation, but critical of the influence of modern rationalism on theology which craves certainty through empirical-historical evidences or logical deduction from a priori truths (rational presuppositions).

Olson ends his introduction by pointing out two groups which are vying for the attention of a new generation of evangelicals:  a fairly aggressive form of Reformed theology with a strongly Puritan flavor, influenced by Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper & Carson; and the emerging church network, led by Brian McLaren.

So now what does the postconservative approach look like?  That will have to wait until the next post.  However, since I’ve laid out so many names already, I will add those theologians whom Olson labels “postconservative” who are influenced by the last-generation theologians Bernard Ramm and Lesslie Newbigin, as well as philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, including:

  • Stanley Grenz (deceased)
  • Clark Pinnock (deceased)
  • Kevin Vanhoozer
  • John Sanders
  • John Franke
  • Nancey Murphy
  • James McClendon (deceased)
  • Miroslav Volf
  • Brian McLaren
  • Rodney Clapp
  • Greg Boyd

[Part II available here]

A modest proposal for Sufjan Stevens regarding the completion of his 50 States Project

Dear Sufjan,

The other day my friend Erin Hennessy saw you on the F train in NYC, but she couldn’t get up the nerve to say anything to you.  That got me thinking of what I would say to you if I ran into you (even though I never would, as I live on the other side of the country).  The first thing that came to mind was to talk to you about your 50 states project, which you began so beautifully with Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Illinois/The Avalanche.

Now back in the day (the early two thousands or so), I took your proclamation to make an album (or EP, maybe?) for each one of the 50 states seriously, even though some of my more cynical friends would mock me saying it was impossible for you to do in your lifetime (they would start with some calculations, ask your age, etc. PS We share the same birthday!).  The reason I believed you was because I saw this limitless sort of creative genius in you, and even beyond that, it was as if you were the Emersonian “Poet” for this generation of Americans–seeing and showing us the beauty and agony and the divine in the everyday, transforming the mundane into the sublime, telling us stories full of wonder and longing and brilliant details from towns like Ypsilanti and Holland and Romulus.

You made me suddenly attentive to the people and places of America: you imbued them with a magical luster simply by naming them in the midst of your deeply moving, melancholic, and rich melodies and arrangements, or by inserting them amongst such evocative mystical lines of verse:

When the revenant came down
We couldn’t imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon, oh God!
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
(Oh, history involved itself)
Mysterious shade that took its form
(Or what it was!), incarnation, three stars
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes

-“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

All that to say that I really, really wish the 50 states project would continue–I think it could become one of the national treasures of our country for centuries to come, a Leaves of Grass for the 21st century that American kids would listen to to understand where they’ve come from and what kind of people we are.  I heard at one point that you said the 50 states project was “such a joke,” but I would challenge you in earnest, if only for the sake of those future little kids, to reconsider abandoning this momentous endeavor.

Realizing that it might very well be impossible for you to write and record all of the albums yourself, what if you instead became the director of the project–you have set the standard quite high with your first two albums–and with the profound respect you have from your artistic peers, I honestly believe you could rally together the best artists from each state to collaborate with to make this happen, creating a kind of ark of American culture.

Here are some suggestions to begin with (I admit some may be wishful thinking) & I call on any reader to add to/better the selection of songwriters for any state (I have put brackets around bands with whom I have only a cursory familiarity & some states I have absolutely no idea about):

  • Alabama = The Snake the Cross the Crown
  • Alaska = Portugal The Man
  • Arizona = Calexico
  • Arkansas = ???
  • California = Elijah Wade Smith, Beck, Stephen Malkmus
  • Colorado = DeVotchKa, The Apples in Stereo
  • Connecticut = Rivers Cuomo?
  • Delaware = The Spinto Band
  • Florida = Iron & Wine, Aaron Marsh
  • Georgia = Deerhunter, Of Montreal, Bill Mallonee
  • Hawaii = Mason Jennings
  • Idaho = Built to Spill, Finn Riggins
  • Illinois = Sufjan Stevens
  • Indiana = Mock Orange
  • Iowa = Caleb Engstrom
  • Kansas = Drakkar Sauna, Mates of State, The New Amsterdams, The Appleseed Cast
  • Kentucky = Bonnie “Prince” Billy, My Morning Jacket
  • Louisiana = Jeff Mangum, Mutemath
  • Maine = [Phantom Buffalo]
  • Maryland = John Vanderslice, Wye Oak
  • Massachusetts = Lou Barlow, Winterpills
  • Michigan = Sufjan Stevens
  • Minnesota = Low, Cloud Cult, Lucky Wilbur
  • Mississippi = ???
  • Missouri = [Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin]
  • Montana = Colin Meloy
  • Nebraska = Cursive, Bright Eyes
  • Nevada = The Killers?
  • New Hampshire = [Wild Light]
  • New Jersey = Sufjan Stevens (?), Danielson, Yo La Tango
  • New Mexico = The Shins, Beirut
  • New York = The Magnetic Fields, Sonic Youth, Interpol, The Walkmen
  • North Carolina = The Mountain Goats
  • North Dakota = [The White Foliage]
  • Ohio = Robert Pollard, Over the Rhine, The National, Mark Kozelek
  • Oklahoma = The Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon
  • Oregon = Laura Veirs, M. Ward, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, The Decemberists
  • Pennsylvania = The Innocence Mission, Denison Witmer, Matt Pond PA
  • Rhode Island = The Low Anthem, Death Vessel
  • South Carolina = Band of Horses
  • South Dakota = Haley Bonar
  • Tennessee = Derek Webb
  • Texas = Josh T. Pearson, Ramesh Srivastava (formerly of Voxtrot), The Polyphonic Spree, Okkervil River, Devendra Banhart
  • Utah = [Joshua James]
  • Vermont = Anais Mitchell
  • Virginia = Thao Nguyen, Hush Arbors
  • Washington = David Bazan, Damien Jurado, Jeremy Enigk, Fleet Foxes
  • West Virginia = ???
  • Wisconsin = Bon Iver, Marla Hansen
  • Wyoming = ???

With the deepest respect & admiration,

Greg Stump

John Stump, composer of Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz

My uncle, John Arthur Stump, who was my father’s youngest brother, died on January 20, 2006.  His memorial service was held at a Vedanta monastery in Hollywood, where my other uncle (known there as “Jnana Chaitanya,” but to me as Uncle Dave) serves as a monk.  I was not at the ceremony, but my family brought back some memorabilia from the service and from Uncle John’s “estate,” including a large piece of paper densely printed with musical notation.

It was a sheet of music for a work entitled “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz (from ‘A Tribute to Zdenko G. Fibich’)” that John had put together, obviously as an unplayable and satirical parody.  The notations on the score included absurd directions such as “release the penguins” and “Like a Dirigible” and “Gong duet.”  It was an incredibly creative, erudite and rigorous act of nonsense, which felt completely consistent with other creations I had seen from my uncle.  He was famous in our family for his non-sequiturs (sending a sympathy card from a fictitious professor to me on Christmas), stippling artwork, and his fascination with music.  He had worked in the field of “music engraving” for most of his life, beginning in 1967, and I remember looking with fascination at his “music typewriter” in his office in my grandmother’s garage, so it didn’t surprise me that Uncle John would have created something like this fake musical piece.

What surprised me was the fact that this piece was actually something of a musical legend, but to my knowledge, Uncle John had never mentioned it to anyone in my family before.  When I received the copy of “Faerie’s Aire,” I showed it to one of the college students I worked with who was a music major (who has become a talented composer in his own right!) and he told me he remembered seeing this piece posted on the band room wall when he was a high school student…in Washington!  I asked some other musician friends and they all told me they had seen it as well.  When I searched the internet, I found it rife with references, accolades, imitations, and questions about the mysterious composer, John Stump.  It saddened me to think there was nothing that revealed anything about my Uncle John’s life in the public sphere, so I thought I would provide some facts & anecdotes here that could serve as a source on this brilliant, hilarious, and reclusive man.

  • John was born to Homer & Mildred Stump on March 24, 1944 in Kansas City, Missouri.
  • He grew up in Lakewood, California, studying composition and orchestration at Long Beach City College.
  • John also attended Cal State University Long Beach, where he played French Horn in an orchestra led by Aaron Copeland.
  • He was an obsessive fan of many musical groups (Beach Boys, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, The Go-Go’s), but none more than The Beatles.  He actually sent corrections to the early 1980’s published Beatles song collection “The Compleat Beatles” because he knew the minute details of the songs and scores so well (Uncle John would also test me when I was a kid on who wrote which Beatles song, as well as on which songs Paul played instruments other than the bass, etc.).  Though John loved all the Beatles, the one who shared his name was obviously his favorite…
A letter from Paul McCartney's personal assistant to John
  • The only known composition of John’s to be publicly performed was a three-part work for men’s choir based on the Dylan Thomas poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (of which I have a cassette recording somewhere) which was put on by a choral group at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood.  He also wrote “A Suite for Four Trombones and Four Trumpets” and he mentioned to me that he had written a pop song for Karen Carpenter (he knew a friend of her’s through CSULB) but nothing ever came of it.
  • Finally, John was a large man…by that, I mean profoundly obese, which may have contributed to his public shyness.  I often felt like he actually had something of a disdain for society and didn’t care what people thought about him, but to those who knew him, he was a thoughtful, funny, and brilliant man.  It’s sad that he was never able to see his talents and creativity celebrated while he was alive…perhaps he would have preferred a mysterious posthumous legend to any kind of recognition in his life.  Whatever the case, I applaud you Uncle John and happy 66th birthday on the 24th!

UPDATE:  I have posted more material and images regarding John here.  Enjoy!

Sources:  some background information taken from John’s obituary in “Vedanta Voices” Vol. 8, No. 3, March 2006, along with John’s “A Family History”.

The Stump family circa 1976. John is in the lower left hand corner…

UPDATE:

-Here is a copy of an obituary from page 3 of the Glendale Focus newspaper, Vol. 3, No. 2 (February 13, 2006) written by the publisher, Gary Kemper.

Other compositions by John:

String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident) COVER
String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident) page 1
String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident) page 2
String Quartet No. 556(b) for Strings In A Minor (Motoring Accident) BACK
Prelude and the Last Hope in C and C# minor

Eff you, Oscar…here’s The Arts & Faith Top 100

Oscars are on Sunday.  Some good films will be celebrated, some so-so films will get awards–sadly, the best film of the year (Fantastic Mr. Fox) will walk away empty-pawed (though you must check out this terrifically funny animated acceptance speech made by Mr. Anderson).

However, an online group affiliated with the thoughtful religious-y journal IMAGE (who once bastardly REJECTED a story I sent in!) just released their collaboratively determined top 100 films, somehow relating to Arts & Faith (not crystal clear on the criteria…).

One of the crafters of A & F 100, Jeffrey Overstreet, a film critic/novelist whom I had the chance to grab a meal with once upon a time, wrote a bit about the list in anticipation of questions raised by the list–here’s one response I liked quite a bit:

Question #6: Is it just me, or do most of these films look like hard work?

The Arts and Faith Top 100 are not favored for their difficulty. They are honored for their excellence, their beauty, their capacity to inspire us to become more fully human.

Each movie on this list explores fundamental and provocative spiritual questions. Questions that challenge us to grow in understanding. Questions that cultivate community through the experience of bracing conversations. Questions that kindle our deepest longings for all that is sacred and good.

In other words, yes—some of these films require serious work on the part of the viewer. But they are full of rewards for those who give them a chance.

The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films will arrest you with their vividness and strangeness. They are full of beauty and mystery. And unlike what is commonly categorized as “Christian art,” they will leave audiences with some doubt as to their precise application. They tease the mind into thought and reflection—again and again and again.

I agree wholeheartedly with his point & lament it at the same time.  As a culture, we’ve been raised on a steady diet of candy art, making these cinematic banquets taste bitter to our palates.  I’d love to encourage us all to line up a number of these films on the ole Netflix queue, yet at the same time, I feel MY OWN resistance to sitting down to 3+ hours of static camerawork, silence on the soundtrack, and characterizations that feel incredibly ripe for satire (ahh, the pretension!).

Let me then suggest two things:

1.  My own recommendations from this list.  I love the following films enough to own them–I will gladly loan them to you and am also willing to sit down and watch/discuss them together (if you live in a 20 mile radius of La Mirada, CA).

  • #2  The Decalogue (it’s about 10 hours long, in Polish–one short film per commandment, but they are not really interconnected so you can dip your toe in with a few films, maybe I, VI, or X)
  • #3  Babette’s Feast (Danish, Oscar winner, slow but beautiful story of the lavishness of grace)
  • #8 Andrei Rublev (Russian, B/W, slow as hades, but lovely as Abraham’s bosom)
  • #12  Wings of Desire (German, my favorite film of all time!  Just got a new Criterion edition too)
  • #15  Three Colors Trilogy (Polish/French, you should watch all 3 and tell me which you connected with the most)
  • #30  Stalker (Russian, MOLASSES SLOW, but deep as can be, haunting, beautiful)
  • #36 Days of Heaven (American, pretty accessible…amazing cinematography)
  • #51 The Spirit of the Beehive (Spanish, so sweet & profound & memorable)
  • #56  Ponette (French, on my personal top 10, unbelievable performance from a 4 year old)
  • #65  After Life (Japanese film about dead people picking one memory to live in forever)
  • #90  Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher (I didn’t actually LOVE this documentary–it’s a bit amateur–but the STORY is so worth exploring)
  • #96  The New World (American, I have the extended director’s cut–so powerful!)

2.  Please challenge ME to take on one of these based on your recommendation…I need to keep my tastes from atrophying due to my consumption of the “frivolity-industrial complex” produced films that are playing in my local excuse for a cinema.

With our great affection for lists, perhaps someday we’ll have a “Lost In the Cloud Top 100″…until then, enjoy these selections!

The State I Am In (or, I’m so bored with the C.E.E.)

“And so I gave myself to God; there was a pregnant pause before he said…’Ok.'” — Belle & Sebastian, from ‘The State I Am In’

For a while now, I have been feeling somewhat disconnected from the theological tradition in which I was raised—namely, conservative evangelicalism (or, as I suspiciously call it now, the Conservative Evangelical Establishment).  When I described my religious views on Facebook a while back as “evangelical-esque,” it became even more clear to me that I was uncomfortable aligning myself with a term that most of my community seemed to embrace with no anxiety.

It wasn’t that my conservative evangelical church or my friends were the problem, though occasionally my squeamishness would rear its head in those contexts.  My contention was more with certain types of people who seemed to speak VERY LOUDLY (or at least wear their merchandise) in the public square as representatives of all evangelicals, and even certain leaders within the movement (and I’m not talking about Pat Robertson and the “God Hates Fags” nuts, cause I’m pretty sure they are universally despised).  The types of people I was looking to distance myself from (and I KNOW this is going to be incredibly patronizing, harsh & self-righteous) include, but are not limited to the following:

  • “know-it-all” dogmatic polemicists (usually those who aRE FORMED in a certain theological system—ouch, sorry Calvinist buddies [not because you are this way, but these may include some of your heroes]—but also including a fair share of thinkers of other stripes, who like to think they are God’s gift to orthodox doctrine and love the way the words “heretical” and “heterodox,” if not “compromised Christianity,” roll off the tongue)
  • zealous morality crusaders (whose calling it is to inform non-Christians how they ought to behave as if they were Christians [Yes on Prop. 8 fanatics…and I mean the ones who acted like the world was going to end if it didn’t pass] and to remind loose-living, backsliding “carnal” Christians what a wet blanket, parade-pissing killjoy Jesus wants them to be)
  • Americangelicals (a word I believe I just coined, describing those who believe America is [or should return to being] a Christian nation, flag displayed in the church, patriotic songs sung in a worship service while F-22’s soar behind the projected lyrics, who usually end up acting as useful idiots to the Republican Party—ouch, sorry GOP buddies, of which I have been one my whole life!)
  • sentimentalists (collecting Precious Moments figurine versions of Moses, Jesus, and probably Satan) and other cheesy, tasteless simpletons (unlicensed stickers of Bill Watterson’s Calvin praying on the rear window, NOTW belt buckles, Left Behind novels, Contemporary Christian Music—ouch, sorry 80% of my extended family and acquaintances!)

Obviously these are caricatures of modern conservative evangelicals—however, you’d be surprised at how little scratching at the surface of the seemingly normal Joe Q. Evangelical in the pew next to you it takes to reveal the crazy-eyed & mushy-brained undercover fundy-brother beneath!  (If you doubt me, watch the documentary films Jesus Camp or Hell House, or read the article ‘Jesus Made Me Puke‘ or the book The Unlikely Disciple.  I know some may think I’m a-feared of “the world” thinking that I’m different and ashamed of the gospel, but I’m more scared of my children ever behaving in a manner that anyone with two neurons to rub together can readily see as gross over-simplification and reductionistic pig-headedness!  NOTE:  It has occurred to me that perhaps I am over-simplifying too.)

SO what’s to be done, I ask?  I’m obviously bitter (mainly because these kinds of voices tend to hold the power and the pocketbook in C.E.E. institutions) and disenfranchised to a great extent (this comes as no surprise to those who hear this whole tirade in reply to the question, “How are things going?”).  Where do I go, what do I do?

Do I bail from the C.E.E. and forge into other religious communities (the high church, the paleo-orthodox, the liberal)?  Do I try to work out my issues within the C.E.E. system while experiencing this incredible and often unbearable theological and intellectual, not to mention aesthetic, cultural and moral tension (the whole, “the church is a whore, the church is my mother” high-wire act)?  Do I go into exile from my community for a period and either come back head-in-hands repentant or fire-breathing prophetic?

I’m not sure as of yet.  And I ask all of these questions rhetorically and with only a mild sense of the exasperation that my critical, angry-young-man posture must produce in those who have sat and listened, responded patiently and gently so many, many times in these past years and even read this now.

In the midst of all of my frustration with the evangelical label, I am so grateful for the thoughtful brothers I have who will hear me bark and scowl and rage and who will even then pray for me, even in the midst of their own frustration WITH me, and whom I believe God will use to help me sort this out…my dear Matthew, Ryan, Dan, David, and Wade.  I definitely need to spend some time with Les & Steve in the near future, and am so grateful for my flesh & blood brother Mark, who is sometimes a comrade-in-arms, sometimes a sparring partner.  Finally, I am thankful for the inspiration of my dearly loved Elijah, who is so much younger & so much wiser than I am, sadly thousands of miles away.  I love you all and ask you, along with any dear reader to come across these longing and hurting words, to hope for me in figuring out where I am, where I am headed, and where I am wrong-headed…in the state I am in.

The Reading List (I Get High with a Little Help from My Books)

Somehow, these last few months, I have turned into a complete theology/church book junkie.  I mean, I’ve always picked up a few books every month, but this is different–I feel like a tweaker in a meth lab…cause it’s like I want to read them ALL SIMULTANEOUSLY!  Each one seems so incredibly necessary to think through in my current state of mind (which I’m planning on writing about soon).

Anyhow, some friends had asked for me to let them know what I was reading & so I thought I’d kill two birds single-stonedly by describing/potentially recommending some of the titles here on Lost In the Cloud (for it is a rather theological kind of a cloud we’re lost in here).  If any of you would like to read concurrently with me & discuss in some fashion (coffee house, email, Skype), I’d be happy to have a dialogue partner. Simply comment or email me at greg.stump22 (at) gmail.com…

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (David Dark):  The title alone pretty much sums up the theological state I am in (not at all in a “does God exist” sort of way, but rather a “what exactly do I believe about almost every secondary & tertiary theological issue imaginable” sense) and Dark’s talk of “redemptive skepticism” and critique of “imagined infallibility” will be stimulating for anyone feeling trapped in insular non-conversations in their Christian institutions.  It also doesn’t hurt that he has an extended analysis of an Arcade Fire song & highlights the way that comedy news (Stewart/Colbert) seems more acute and honest (in its satire) than most “real” journalism today.

The Blue Parakeet (Scot McKnight):  A quote on the back is something many of you may have heard me say years ago:  “What if I’m too conservative to be liberal, and too liberal to be conservative?”  This is a no man’s land that I have often found myself wandering in, feeling alone at first but then bumping into others who’ve strayed from their front lines as well.  In short, McKnight is proposing an alternative to the know-it-all fundamentalist or the weightless, naive liberal in terms of approaching scripture.  It’s probably not as radical as it sounds, but I’m interested.

Embodying Our Faith (Tim Morey):  I took a class with Tim during a Talbot summer session a couple years back called “Disciplemaking in a Postmodern Context” and that is just what this amazing guy does as the pastor of Life Covenant Church in the South Bay area and in his role as a coach to church planters.  His book sees the necessity of faith to be “experiential, communal, and enacted” in the church and I am highly anticipating the kind of rewarding a-ha moments from reading it that I experienced in his course.

Organic Church (Neil Cole):  I’m actually attending the church that meets at Neil’s home on a regular basis, where he graciously gave me a copy of this seminal work on the contemporary disciple/leader/church multiplication movement. He is pretty much dialed in to everyone leading out in the house church/simple church/organic church effort & this book is making a ton of sense to me philosophically.  I went to a conference Neil’s organization put on about “missional movements” where I picked up a book by the other speaker entitled:

Exiles (Michael Frost):  This man inspired me as I’ve not felt in many years.  Brilliant Aussie thinker/seminary prof/missional church practitioner who also co-wrote a foundational book, The Shaping of Things to Come.  I have not read one sentence yet, but if it’s a tenth as good as his talk, I will profoundly benefit.  I’m reading this with the inimitable Andrew Faris.

Deep Church (Jim Belcher):  “A third way (of being the church) beyond emerging and traditional.”  My good friend Pat Saia is reading this for his Doctorate of Ministry program at Fuller, so I’m looking forward to more conversations at the La Mirada Civic Center flame on the ideas in this book.

The Courage to Be Protestant (David Wells) & Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Kevin DeYount & Ted Kluck):  In contrast to all these angry-young-Christian, “let’s set fire to the way things are” types, my dear friend (and to be honest, mentor) Matt Rouse purchased these two swimming-against-the-postmodern-Christian-stream books for me to read and dialogue on.  This is exactly the kind of thing a rouge (self-proclaimed) like myself needs to maintain an open ear/mind to in the midst of my tradition-agnosticism.  I love Matt for challenging me and look forward to learning from these authors…while probably also having a hard time swallowing both their ideas and my pride in the process.

The next layer includes:

  • Evangelical Futures (ed. John Stackhouse)
  • The Lost World of Genesis One (John Walton)
  • The Tangible Kingdom (Hugh Halter and Matt Smay)
  • Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts & Interpret Trends (ed. Kevin Vanhoozer)
  • Who Can Be Saved? (Terrance Tiessen)
  • Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology (ed. Stanley Gundry and Gary Meadors)

The most important book I am currently reading is Reformed and Always Reforming by one of my theological heroes, Roger Olson (who incidentally looks like a total nerd on his book jacket).  But this book will need a post of it’s own, soon to follow.  Let me know if you’re interested in reading any of these together…cause the first one is always free.

Band Evangelist

In one’s life, there are certain callings that one sometimes experiences…some feel called to serve as missionaries, philanthropists, or teachers of underprivileged youth.  While those examples are great and all, I have heard a different call to serve humanity, and perhaps even the divine essence, through the ministry of ‘band evangelist’.  Now I can anticipate our comments section here already:  “Greg, THANK YOU for answering the call to an underheeded & much needed prophetic role in the music-listening community!” and “How can I support you, even enable you to be financially independent so that you may devote yourself full-time to this endeavor?”, but nae, my friends, I am not fishing for spiritual confirmation nor cash donations (though if you want to see MP3’s posted on LITC, it would help to see a little brass in pocket, nudge nudge wink wink).

All I ask is that you listen to me…a voice in the sonic wilderness.  And for those CYNICS out there, who would say, “Oh pish-posh, why do I need to find out about new music?  My tastes became ossified during my junior year in college…The Foo Fighters rocked then and they still do to this day!” or “Doesn’t the radio give us all the new music that’s fit to be heard?”, I say this:  WOE TO YOU!  You are the deaf leading the deaf!!  Woe to you,  DJ’s of Clear Channel and purveyors of codified ‘classics’, you hypocrites! You broadcast over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.  Dear reader, a day will come when our tastes in music will be tested by fire and let me tell you brothers and sisters, on that day, you are either humming true gold, or it’s chaff.

So, to those who have ears to hear, check this ish out.  I will only give a few recommendations for upcoming releases based on my confidence that these albums will be wholly worthwhile:

UPCOMING ALBUMS OF NOTE

Lightspeed Champion/Life is Sweet! Nice to Meet You:  this should come out on February 16, 2010.  The singer/substance of the band has such a lovely toned voice and his lyrics are shiveringly honest (he’s got a pretty unique look as well).  The melodies and arrangements are accessible but subversive (going next where you wouldn’t expect) and his band is as tight as a librarian’s arse.

Frightened Rabbit/The Winter of Mixed Drinks: due out on March 1, 2010.  Their last album was magnificent & under-appreciated in astronomical proportions (#4 record of the 2000’s for me).  I will say it now, that there is SOME trepidation in hearing this album…expectations are ionospherically high.  Lead scared bunny Scott Hutchison says that this new album is less confessional than their records in the past and “doesn’t really describe my life because if I did that it wouldn’t make for an interesting album this time around as I’ve been quite solid and content, thankfully.”  Solid & content sounds like a recipe for mediocrity, but I (and by extension, you) should give this new record a chance based on past brilliance & the strength of the two singles released so far.

Sleeping States/In the Gardens of the North:  this album was released internationally last year…we can only hope for some kind of distribution in these United States soon.  Or I may just have to break down and order an import.  This is more for the melancholiasts among you.

The XYZ Affair/???:  I was so looking forward to posting about a new album to be released by The XYZ Affair (one of the greatest bands I’ve heard on the super DIY tip), only to find that they have broken up.  However, it does seem like the recording will see the light of day under some new moniker before too long.  Believe me, I will keep you posted…

If you are interested in checking out any of these bands, but don’t want to drop some coin yet, you may go to The Hype Machine and type the group’s name in the search engine.  There you may find links to their music on other blogs which have money to buy space, width, whatever it is you have to pay for on the interweb to post MP3’s.

Well, I’m done steering the conversation toward all of my foregone conclusions.  I think I hear the voice of the Spirit telling me something…until my next proclamation:  RELENT & BUY LP’S!!!

The Top (Two Thousand and) Ten Films

Dear reader,

I give you these 10 suggestions (from the 35 films I saw this year) to consider as eminently watchable and deeply worthwhile cultural experiences…

10.  The Road:  It was bleak and heart-wrenching and so difficult to watch…but it was unflinchingly truthful and often had a kind of tarnished beauty.  An amazing film that I never want to see again.

9.  (500) Days of Summer:  I think I was dead center in the sights of this film’s demographic appeal.  Indie soundtrack (& Smiths shout out to boot!), check.  Ernestly romantic guy, check.  Lack of ambition as virtue, check.  Creative, non-linear, brain-teasing narrative structure, check.  By all accounts, a non-conformist, iconoclastic, incredulous contrarian such as myself should have seen right through this.  But I ate it up.

8.  District 9:  The Office with aliens.  Original and touching beyond all expectation.

7.  Avatar:  Utterly predictable storytelling, but I was almost literally transported into the world of Pandora (course, I DID see it in IMAX 3-D, which made this almost a given).  The mythic instinct come to life…

6.  Adventureland:  This film tapped into something pretty nostalgic for me, but it also is an amazingly honest portrait of summertime post-teenage angst in low-pay limbo.  Performances from main & minor actors hit me in the melancholy bone…and the songs made me shudder with recollection of an adolescence lived to that soundtrack (ROCK ME, AMADEUS!).

5.  Up in the Air:  My only criticism of this very fine and relevant dramatic comedy is in the casting of non-leads:  actual unemployed people as the victims of redundancy came off as schlocky & the hip actors (Zach Galifianakis, Danny McBride, Jason Bateman) in minor roles felt distracting (see The Invention of Lying for the most egregious use of this type of “pack casting”—i.e. “if I show up in your movie, that lets everyone know I’m in your crew”)

4.  Up:  I did not want to like this in order to resist the Pixarification of my soul, but alas my brain is fully washed and my heart is clay in the hands of these masters.  I saw it once with my wife & once with my kids.  So great & unforeseeably ingenious.

3.  Inglourious Basterds:   I really did love this movie, though my reservations of whether I SHOULD have loved it still haunt me.

2.  Where the Wild Things Are:   Never was a fan of the book…creeped me out.  Didn’t particularly want to like the movie, though I am a fan of Jonze & Eggars.  But after viewing, I could not get it out of my thoughts for days.  I feel like I lived that film somehow.  Moved me in profound ways on many different levels.  It will gain the recognition it deserved someday…

And in FIRST PLACE:

The furthest thing from the cluster cuss this could have been.

1.  Fantastic Mr. Fox:  The dialogue, the look, the details, the heart, the growling, the outfits, the voices, the humor, the pacing, the panache, the feel, the stillness, the child-likeness, the tears, the speeches, the GENIUS.  I will see this film many times more before I die…

Note: It’s fascinating to me to see THREE (ostensibly) children’s films at the top of this list.  Regression?  Longing for a care free world?  Return to innocence?  My only response is to ask what the cross is between an elephant and a rhino.

Honorable mentionsI Love You Man, Watchmen (the credit sequence alone was among the best looking cinema this year), Star TrekADDITION:  Zombieland !

Wish I could have seenThe Hurt Locker, Bright Star, Moon, A Serious Man, In the Loop, It Might Get Loud, The Informant!, The White Ribbon, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Thirst.

Biggest disappointments (and my respective “microview”—aka review with minimal words involving some sort of pun on the title):

  • The Brothers Bloom – The Brothers Wilt
  • Away We Go – Eww, Go Away
  • The Invention of Lying – The Venting of Denying
  • Ponyo – Panyo

Not as bad as everyone said it was: The Box (from Richard Kelly, writer/director of Donnie Darko):  which had some genuinely creepy, intriguing and touching moments, solid performances, lovely sense of time/place, before it crapped out.  And a score from (pretty much) The Arcade Fire!

Best Albums (and more) of 2009 (thus farther)

Our own brilliant Elijah Wade Smith posted his favorite new albums of the year a bit early this year (August) [ELIJAH ADDS: and with a stated reason for doing so…], but I’d like to pick up where he left off and share some favorite albums from this year, along with my definitive songs of 2009 and one marvelous musical discovery…

Since Elijah already listed 4 of the albums I would have chosen (We Were Promised Jetpacks, Cass McCombs, Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective), I will use this space to highlight 10 other albums (3 of which earned an honorable mention from my esteemed colleague).  Between my regular CD purchases and my beloved eMusic account (which I was not paid in any way to mention), I was able to purchase around 50 albums this year, but I still feel like I have certainly neglected many more releases that should have been heard (e.g. I have not heard one note of the new Muse album).

Sadly, this year some of my favorite artists only turned out middling efforts at best (Andrew Bird, Jeremy Enigk, Imogen Heap, Patrick Watson) and deeply disappointing at worst (Doves, Pete Yorn, Morrissey).  The jury is still out on the new Swell Season album (feelings are ambivalent–is it too derivative or a purposeful homage?) and I intentionally neglected to include U2‘s album, as I am unable to evaluate their work in isolation from their status/body of work.  A final note:  though Sufjan Stevens‘ “The BQE” was released this October, it feels like it belongs to another year (2007, when it was initially performed)…I will say that I LOVED his “You Are the Blood” on the Dark Was the Night compilation, and of course, I admire his work in general more than anything else I’ve ever heard, so I’m sure any appraisal of it would be unfairly elevated as well.

Without further caveat, I give you (alphabetically listed) the best, with my best…

TOP TEN ALBUMS (not on Elijah’s list):

Counter-offensive? Um, what counter-off...oh, that.

• Lou Barlow—Goodnight Unknown: I would include Barlow amongst the best living American songwriters.  His stylistic range is somewhat limited (he’s practically copyrighted a particular kind of staccato down strum), but if it isn’t broke…(I couldn’t force the “ain’t” in there).  He’s lyrically sentimental on some songs, but it’s the tender truthful sort, and then in other places he’s brutally insightful.  A beautiful, rich album:  see “Gravitate,” “Too Much Freedom,” and “Modesty.”

• David Bazan—Curse Your Branches: To quote from the Barsuk Records press release:

“…Curse your branches is his masterpiece — a beautiful, passionate, profoundly courageous work of art that deserves and will reward your close attention. It is a deeply personal, frankly autobiographical dispatch from the front lines of a crisis of faith. Song after song peers deep into the abyss of insoluble mysteries and comes up with something far more useful than answers.”

Do I agree?  Maybe.  Still, it’s light years better than any of the shite that makes millions these days.

• Neko Case—Middle Cyclone: One day, I drove my sister-in-law Megan’s truck up to LAX to pick her up and this CD was in the player.  Love at first listen.  I knew her voice from The New Pornographers (lovely, fierce, voluptuous), but her singing her own melodies and lyrics = twisted longing & lovely loss.  The experience was so intensely moving I ended up listening to all 30 minutes of the last song–which is only the sound of crickets in the field outside her studio.

• Hayden—The Place Where We Lived: He was on my top 10 last year…how in the heck did he put another little gem together so quickly.  I will say that he may be an acquired taste, so do give this album a test run before you trust my quirk-happy palate.

• Lightning Dust—Infinite Light: I have no recollection of where I came across this album, but it’s a rare flower:  timeless (and therefore similar to what has come before) and unique (the quaver of the singer’s vibrato–again, may not be to all tastes–and her wry, experienced, and [creepy to say it] sexy delivery…kind of a Chick Jagger if you get my meaning).

• Passion Pit—Manners: The sound of this album is like eating a substantial meal of sweets.  I’m not sure if people can keep from loving this band…it is my kid’s number one choice off my iPod.  Unbelievable hooks, propulsive beats & a mystifying falsetto…

• The Low Anthem—Oh My God, Charlie Darwin: I’m just going to admit that before two weeks ago, I knew only the name of this band.  I am so seriously excited about looking more into this band, past & future…go to iTunes and listen to the first three songs (then skip the next two) and tell me you can’t hear the talent.  I’m anxious to figure out the evolution (if you will) of the lyrical themes, but it’s work I look forward to.

• Matt & Kim—Grand: Another admission–I only discovered this band because of the placement of their insanely catchy song “Daylight” in a Bacardi ad.  BUT these two performers give me hope for the next generation of bands…and they DIY’d it without the help of a guitar, fueled only by raw passion and teen spirit.

• The Mountain Goats—The Life of the World to Come: Every song is named after a passage from the Bible, but just listen to the lyrics and you’ll know you’re not in Jesusland:  “I became a crystal healer and my ministry was to the sick / Creeping vines would send out runners and seek me in their numbers / I sold self-help tapes.”  I would strongly recommend “Hebrews 11:40,” “1 John 4:16,” and “Deuteronomy 2:10.”  I haven’t yet looked up any of the scripture references, but I think that the passages will probably function in a way similar to the inspiration of the 10 commandments in Krysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue.  Perhaps this could be a topic for some student of theology & culture…in Scotland?

• Regina Spektor—Far: This album almost didn’t make this list due to the dolphin noises she makes at exactly 2 minutes into “Folding Chair”–she needs a naysayer in her entourage.  But she can write a pop song or melancholy ballad with her piano and lovely, funny voice like nobody’s business (see “Laughing With,” “Human of the Year,” and “Genius Next Door” along with most of the other cuts…though “Machine” is a bit awkward as well).  She’s really amazing…

BEST SONGS OF THE YEAR:

I made an iMix of these which can be found by pasting the words “Sgt Grumbles Best Songs 2009” into the iTunes iMix search box…570 seconds of goodness at least.

  1. “Charlie Darwin”: The Low Anthem/Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
  2. “Hard To Be”:  David Bazan/Curse Your Branches
  3. “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)”:  Monsters Of Folk/Monsters Of Folk
  4. “Ten Thousand Words”:  The Avett Brothers/I And Love And You
  5. “Laughing With”:  Regina Spektor/Far
  6. “Too Much Time”:  John Vanderslice/Romanian Names
  7. “Two Weeks”:  Grizzly Bear/Veckatimest
  8. “Little Secrets”:  Passion Pit/Manners
  9. “My Girls”:  Animal Collective/Merriweather Post Pavilion
  10. “Wondering What Everyone Knows”:  Lightning Dust/Infinite Light
  11. “Daylight”:  Matt and Kim/Grand
  12. “Modesty”:  Lou Barlow/Goodnight Unknown
  13. “The Pharoahs”:  Neko Case/Middle Cyclone
  14. “Deuteronomy 2:10”:  The Mountain Goats/The Life Of The World To Come
  15. “The Executioner’s Song”:  Cass McCombs/Catacombs
  16. “An Almighty Thud”:  We Were Promised Jetpacks/These Four Walls
  17. “I Want You Back”:  Discovery/LP
  18. “Let It Last”:  Hayden/The Place Where We Lived
  19. “Lille”:  Lisa Hannigan/Sea Sew

BEST DISCOVERY:

• The album The Texas/Jerusalem Crossroads by the band Lift to Experience.  I don’t completely know how to describe how important this album has become to me.  It is simply one of the most fascinating ALBUMS ever recorded, as in a musical composition where everything is working together towards one purpose/theme on EVERY LEVEL IMAGINABLE.  You listen to it, and you must listen to in IN ITS ENTIRETY & you feel like you are in some run down warehouse listening to them play, no CREATE–right there and then–this mad, apocalyptic masterpiece of beauty and fierce passion that is flowing in some profane mixture of Ahab-esque monomania and true divine inspiration.  I don’t have the inclination to ruin the bizarre experience of discerning the “tale” of this one-of-a-kind concept album, but here is a formula that may help give a sense of what we’re talking about here:

Jeff Buckley + Explosions in the Sky + My Bloody Valentine (the book of Revelation/ fundamentalist preacher’s kid) + Texan pride/outsider art (messiah complex) – worst album cover art ever (it looks like it was designed on Microsoft Word!) = one of the greatest albums ever

Hard to believe, but it is a damn MAGNUM .357 OPUS

I was going to include some books, but I’ve asked enough of your time.  I will be back with more later…