Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Who: Live in Houston, Texas 1975

Along with some thoughts on theology, I thought I would share some of my musical enthusiasms.  First up is an incredible (and obscure) performance by The Who from their 1975 tour.  John Entwistle (the bassist for The Who) called the 1975 tour the apex of the band's live career.  It is at The Summit in Houston, Texas and I will be posting the entire concert over the next few days.  The first number for this amazing show is "Substitute".

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Do You Have A Zombie Plan? Part II

It doesn't take long in this life to see particular groups of people peeling off the major interstate of human relationships into their own provincial enclaves.  This can be geographical (as in the small towns that recycle their populations) or metaphorical (as in the cliques that arise in schools and morph into adult subcultures).  Everyone within reach of this digital word finds themselves in the midst of some subculture or homogeneous people group.  It could be the good ol' boys in Rayne, Louisiana or the hipster Christians of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  It could be the Old Row fraternity scene at the University of Alabama or the Crips in South Central Los Angeles.

It all goes back to the idea of good ol' bootstraps, self-generated identity.  And identity is always the reservoir of self-assertion and, thus, suffering, violence, judgment, and fear.  As one of the Bloods on a Gangland documentary said, "If you ain't Blood, you're my enemy."  Similar but less ominous attitudes appear in other subcultures.  Imagine walking into a University of Georgia sorority party with an 80's bouffant hairdo and acid-washed jeans.  Even (especially?) the Christian subculture (whatever form that may take in your town) is much more about cultural ethics, politics, language, and subtleties than God's Law.

But, what about the coming zombie apocalypse?  What position do all of these individual members of their respective subcultures find themselves as they realize they are being stalked by the living dead?  Is there something universal here that we will be forced to recognize?  Come to the breakout session "The Zombie Apocalypse in Christian Thought" at the Mockingbird Conference to think about and gird yourself for the coming zombie horde.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened." Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened."- Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Willing to Sympathize

Thesis 14 of Martin Luther's Heidelberg Disputation: Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can do evil in an active capacity.

One of the greatest rock 'n roll songs of all time is also one of he most controversial.  Especially in the day and time it was written and recorded, "Sympathy for the Devil" by The Rolling Stones rendered the Christian subculture aghast and continues to do so up to this very day.  Mockers gleefully play it as a middle-finger tribute to Christianity while believers sheepishly admit they love the song with eyes lowered and feet kicking the dirt.  Seeing past the instinct to be reactionary (the threat to identity) always seems to bear fruit and, in this case, it bears much.

Luther (in the thesis above) discusses the active and passive capacities of the will with a strong pessimism about the former.  The Bible is rife with descriptions of the human race trying to be "as gods" (Gen. 3:5), bumping and crashing into each other at high speeds with maximum density.  It is as if the serpent's temptation is continually re-playing itself throughout history.  "The snake inside every man" as Robert Mitchum says in the great movie The Enemy Below.  The story of human interaction in the race toward self-deification.

It is here where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards firmly place Lucifer in the song:

I stuck around St. Petersburg

When I saw it was a time for a change 
Killed the czar and his ministers 
Anastasia screamed in vain 

I rode a tank
Held a general's rank 
When the Blitzkrieg raged 
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee 

While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

So, the Devil is associated with the active capacity of our wills.  Our compulsion to create and justify our identities by "doing what is in us" has the Devil watching "with glee".  So a thanks should go out to the greatest rock 'n roll band of all time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Brain Hemorrhage and the Nosebleed

"When school is not a good fit for a boy, when his normal expressions of energy and action routinely meet with negative responses from teachers and classmates, he stews in feelings of failure – feelings of sadness, shame, and anger, which can be very hard to detect beneath that brash exterior. Unable to “talk out” the emotional pressure, boys typically act out through verbal or physical aggression that walls them off emotionally from others, straining or severing emotional connections to the people and circumstances they find painful. And the worse a boy behaves, the more he invites negative reactions from teachers and other adults.” (Raising Cain)

My wife and I just had a little boy in November and it has been quite a joy to ponder all the mud puddles, puppy dogs, ball games, and baited fish hooks. It has also been an opportunity to re-acquaint myself (this time non-objectively) with the thought of Professor Rod Rosenbladt (on fathers and sons) and the documentary and book Raising Cain (h/t to Aaron Zimmerman for recommending it).

It is amazing how things that are actually true dovetail in the form of analogy. As I go through Raising Cain, I will pause to share interesting insights from the book as they lend themselves to analogy of the insights of the Reformation. In the particular piece I shared above, the analogy is to sin as condition rather than action. Bondage to self-assertion rather than free will acting through objective choice.

I usually describe it to my class as the difference between a brain hemorrhage and a nosebleed. If there is a brain hemorrhage (internal) and its symptom is a nosebleed (plainly visible), it is always our first instinct to treat the symptom without regard to that which we cannot see. So, we stuff Q-Tips up our noses and call it a day. But it is a symptom! Its status as outward manifestation is totally irrelevant compared to the brain hemorrhage that exists away from plain view!

Listen to what Jesus says in Mark 7:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mad Men

Like a lot of people, I don't put much stock in things like the Emmy Awards. But when the nominations were announced a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't help but be excited to hear that they recognized my favorite new show, Mad Men. As the first original series produced by American Movie Classics (AMC), it flew largely under the radar when it aired last summer.

On the surface, the show is about the culture surrounding the Madison Avenue-based advertising industry in the early 1960’s. It has everything one might associate from that period, from chain smoking to hard drinking to overt male chauvinism. But like all good works of art, a more subtle story flows underneath.

Don Draper, the protagonist, is a mid-to-late thirties advertising executive with a well-paying job and a beautiful family. The shiny exterior, however, belies the existential groaning within. In the first episode, Draper hits the viewer over the head with the answer he gives to a question of a potential client: “You’re born alone and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget.”

He’s right about that, by the way. You were born alone and you will die alone. No community is going to join you in that. They will have to face it themselves one day but they will do it alone. The question is where you go with that. Many people choose the Stoic route. Most religions take this way as do many agnostics and atheists. Another way is the Epicurean route. Most people I know, at least, go this way. The final way is Christianity.

Don Draper has chosen the Epicurean route. Get everything you can out of life before you die. This route carries with it a terrible cost. It seems the writers of the show want to emphasize this when they periodically mention the works of philosopher Ayn Rand (apparently she was causing quite an uproar during this period). Rand believed that the goal of life is to fulfill one’s inherent potential and “will to power”. In her system, one person wins over others in a Darwinian struggle to grab the golden ring. The weak fall by the wayside and no compassion is to be given. This is a terrible fate both for the victor and the vanquished. Lutheran theologian Mark Mattes puts it best:

“Humans exist for God’s good pleasure, not vice versa. In this truth, humans can find liberation from their self-imposed tutelage arising from the belief that their freedom could be secured in exercising their self-expression. The need to actualize this potential becomes a compulsion to authenticate and establish the self. In such self-expression, we become like Atlas, bearing the whole world on our shoulders, and in that way are doomed to be free (Jean Paul Sartre [1905-1980]).”

Mad Men attempts to show the truth of these words as they work themselves out on/in a very sublimated man. On the outside: smooth, masculine, and competent. On the inside: a towering inferno of confusion and pain; fueled by a hidden and quite sordid past.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Siren Call of Justice

“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.” - Homer’s Odyssey

One of my favorite guilty pleasures involves logging on to and checking the news and recruiting updates for University of Alabama football. I do this way more than I should, and I love every minute of it. The other day on the main "bulletin board", where fans of every team congregate to discuss the upcoming season, I noticed a non-sequitur topic called “Alcoholism… Disease or Choice?”. One poster (a Florida fan) said this; ”Choice. Alcoholics are mentally weak people.” Another poster (a Georgia fan) said, “Both, it's a disease but with will power you can choose abstinence.”

There are two ideas behind these thoughts. Both caused red-hot laser beams to shoot out of my eyes and fry the two posters in effigy. The first is a crass and cruel Pelagianism that is so prevalent in Christian circles and has been discussed at length on this blog.

The second necessarily proceeds from the first. It is a self-righteous and wrong-headed affirmation of justice. The idea that alcoholics made their bed, now let them lie in it. “Unlike me, these people are weak, and they should suffer the consequences,” they seem to chirp.

This attitude, also known as (with a nod to Bishop FitzSimons Allison) "the yeast of the Pharisees", is not limited to theological conservatism. Justice is a sweet, sweet sound to those who believe it does not condemn them. It hearkens over the land and sea and calls seductively and tantalizingly (much like a Shakira music video). Only when it is too late are the dead and rotting bones revealed, broken on the indifferent rocks of a legal shore.

St. Paul says in Romans 3: 10-12; “as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.”

This makes me flee from justice. I don’t want to be anywhere near it. The very word makes me sweat like the Peter Lorre character in M. Thank God for St. Paul’s later words in Romans 8:1; “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For all the justice lovers out there; don't be fooled by the siren's call. Justice in itself will not vindicate you or anyone else. Mercy is the only hope any of us have.