I think I stumbled across a new verb yesterday that badly needs to be integrated into the English language: to robell.
It describes the process whereby young evangelical Christians cast off the shackles of what is perceived to be a dogmatic church authority soon after discovering that there are deeper books than Jesus Calling and deeper thinkers than Mark Driscoll.
Soon everything is up for grabs. They fall into a vast crevasse of theological ambiguity as they wrestle with the contemporary theological questions that somehow seem to have evaded Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas or Maximus the Confessor. These questions can include whether Christians can play a game of poker once a month with some buddies or not? Is Keynote a theologically more appropriate slide show presenting software than Powerpoint? Or even “Which is better: Grand Theft Auto VI or Anselmian formulations of penal substitionary atonement (the grand total of your understanding of which stems from a twenty minute sermon you downloaded off the web)?”
The robell is surely the most terrifying threat to Christian integrity in the world today. Not greed, nor violence. The scourge of robellion probably needs to be headed off with some angry paperback books describing how to become conversant with the robellious, how to win them back to sanity and failing that, how to kick them out of your community in such a way as they’ll never trouble you again. If in your haste to get those books to the presses, you engage in some light plagiarism (or better yet, “citation errors”), then fret not. The Kingdom of God is at stake! You must clarify without hesitation that if Jesus lived in Iowa in the 20-teens, he would definitely prefer The Wire to Mad Men and he would be gluten free out of solidarity with the wheat intolerant.
In other news, here is Stanley Hauerwas speaking Christian. Curiously, that is a standard that many of the words uttered by Christians somehow fails to meet.
Your Correspondent, A new word he gives you
So far, the absolute best thing about doing a PhD has been the people I get to hang out with. I am sure that normal service will be resumed that I will much prefer spending time reading in the New Year but right now the books that I am reading are about the history of the Irish economy, which is a boring chore that has to be overcome when one wants to develop a theology of wealth with the Irish economy in mind.
Or at least that is what my advisor is advising.
I have two office buddies and we get on tremendously well. They are both American, and they are very patient with my opinionated ways. Everyday is spent largely in silence with the occasional break for chat which might be about whether Andre Villas Boas is going to be sacked or might be about whether natural law exists or it might even be (nerd alert) to pray.
Yesterday we had a conversation about Toms Shoes. You might be unfamiliar with this particular phenomenon of “social entrepreneurship”. Perhaps you are so fortunate you don’t even know what “social entrepreneurship” means. Here’s their shtick, from Wikipedia:
When Toms sells a pair of shoes a pair of shoes is given to an impoverished child, and when Toms sells a pair of eyewear, part of the profit is used to save or restore the eyesight for people in developing countries.
In the interests of fairness, let’s see what they say on their own website:
The podcast interview begins at about the 39 minute mark and lasts for ten minutes. It is fascinating for what it doesn’t mention. Blake Mycoskie is feted as an entrepreneur. The entire conversation is premised on the idea that the company he has set up is flourishing. Many people have received shoes and spectacles. That means many shoes and spectacles must have been sold. There is some allowance for the serious critique that has been levied at Toms “One for One”™. There is a description of the new website where buzzwords from the high style world go to war with classic Christian terms. Hence he “curates” something that satisfies our “desire” to give gifts that are “thoughtful”.
Before we get to what isn’t mentioned, let me run through the problems with Toms. My dear friend dealt with this years ago, but you may not have seen that.
Toms shoes are crappy shoes for the wilderness. They may be fetching and fashionable in the shopping malls of Santa Barbara or the oil company offices of Aberdeen (on Casual Friday, natch) but they do not give sufficient support in the dusty outback around the edges of the Kalahari. They may not even protect against the basic diseases that afflict the shoeless. So in other words, if you lived in Africa, you wouldn’t wear them. So why are you happy to pass them on.
Toms gives a pair of shoes away in the developing world every time you buy a pair in the developed world. That seems like a good idea until you think for a moment. There is no marketplace anywhere in the world where one cannot buy shoes. Shoes are produced, distributed and consumed in every province and city and village in the world. So when you give a pair of shoes away in Angola, you are competing with utterly unfair bias against the other competitors in the pre-existing Angolan shoe market. There were tradespeople and traders, there were truck drivers and maybe even designers whose productive work is rendered meaningless by the thoughtless consumption of westerners.
And this is the interesting thing that goes undiscussed in the interview that I listened to. The founder of Toms (not just a corporation but a “movement”) talked about how this new endeavour, the Marketplace, was an extension of his philosophy to help support similar social entrepreneurship. What he doesn’t mention is that his company gets paid for “curating”.
Of course, we all know he gets paid. But he can never mention that in every transaction that occurs, he gets some money. Even though he could probably defend himself based on how the success of the Marketplace rests on the power of the “brand” he has cultivated, he and the interviewer never get into the ins and outs of how the company is growing and expanding, opening factories in Kenya and promising an overhauled production stream by 2015. If we were interviewing the boss of Boeing or Chrysler, we’d want to know about the figures and the profits and the money. But it is utterly undiscussed.
And I think this is the biggest of all the very many problems with Toms. It is the clearest example of the futility of good intentions. You buy Toms because you just want to help? But in no other quarter of your life is your desire sufficient. You just want to be a lawyer? Well pass the damned Bar exam! You just want to run the marathon? Well go train. You just want a cup of tea? Put the kettle on! In every other part of your life, the idea that good intentions is sufficient is called immaturity at best and very often, laziness. But when it comes to money, it’s the best we can do.
So Toms is an example of how we, as a society, are infantilized on the issue of economic justice. We dream of utopian scenarios like 6 year olds (“Why can’t we just print more money?!”) not because we desperately want to see things change but because we don’t. Toms sells shoes that lets us feel the glory of a world put to rights without having to put anything right. Or at least, that is what it advertises. Like most things that involve a carefully curated brand, it is false advertising. It is Slavoj Zizek’s fat-free chocolate and decaffeinated coffee transplanted to shoes and glasses, jewellery and headphones made out of wood from some rainforest somewhere.
My good intentions are not interesting. Blake Mycoskie’s desire to help people is insufficient. You can’t cure the problems of consumerism with more consumption. You aren’t undoing capitalism by baptising it with “a higher purpose”. Marx might say you are slowing its inevitable collapse and therefore prolonging its human-destroying excesses.
When charity seeks to redeem capitalism, it will be co-opted, commodified and become a co-conspirator in the pursuit of profit. Hence, when a capitalist manages to talk about his thriving company without mentioning profits, it may be because he is hiding something.
Your Correspondent, Charity is the opium of the privileged
My Main Claim
Gravity is fundamentally a movie about prayer.
What it postulates is to be human is to pray.
We see this most clearly in the film’s final word of dialogue, where Sandra Bullock has managed to somehow escape the clutches of the vast abyss of airless space and lands in a lake of water, almost drowns, and finally manages to crawl on to the sand of the beach in an unknown location (Isle of Skye maybe?) on the planet she calls home. Her words are, to nobody, to everybody, to God: “Thank you.”
To understand this, we have to go back to the decisive scene where the plot hinges.
There we find Sandra Bullock’s character giving up the will to live. She is lost in space. She thinks she finally has located a radio frequency that will put her in touch with Chinese astronauts. In fact, all she has achieved is to contact an amateur AM radio enthusiast somewhere inside the Arctic Circle. He believes her name is “Mayday”. He has absolutely no English. They have no means to communicate with each other.
In the background she can hear his dogs barking and howling. This sound, this creaturely sound of home evokes a profound emotional reaction in Dr. Ryan Stone. She longs to hear the dogs bark again. Then she mimics her radio operating friend, in his mimicking of a wolf’s cry. She is lost from her pack, her tribe, her clan, her species, her home. It is a picture of what it means to be a human being. We are somewhere between the other animals who are creatures – wolves, dogs – and God the Creator.
Dr. Stone floats in this unimaginably simple and yet complex space. In this, she is representing all humans, even as she is separated from them so profoundly that she cries for her “pack”, certain she’ll never be reunited with them again.
Why I Think My Claim Is Right
We found out earlier in the film that her daughter died at the age of four. In her soliloquy, overheard but uncomprehended by her AM radio friend, she speculates that they may be soon reunited. She will die. Nobody will mourn her. Nobody will pray for her soul. She can’t even pray for her own soul because nobody ever taught her.
“Nobody ever taught me how to pray.” she says. And tears fall from her eyes and float out into her capsule’s cabin.
And right at this moment she hears across the radio, the sounds of a baby crying in a shack in northern Mongolia or Alaska.
If Christianity is true, then the most basic cry of humans is the cry of birth and that means that is a cry that God himself has made. Jesus’ first prayer was his birth cry.
If Jesus is God, then even the wailing of a child is sacred.
If the Kingdom of God has come amongst us, a teardrop can be a more potent prayer than all the words of priests, sages and gurus.
Is It That Simple?
Not really, no.
This scene is the narratival and theological heart of the film but what happens next complicates things.
She hallucinates the return of George Clooney’s character, Matt Kalowski, who sacrificed himself to give her an opportunity to live. In this vision, she is inspired with an idea that will ultimately lead to her salvation.
What began as a simple pious presentation on screen of the fundamental human truth that we long to cry out for home now gets much more complicated. This is an effects-driven, CGI-heavy space movie. I don’t want you to think I’m arguing this is some elaborate philosophical thesis projected in the local Cineworld. For that, we have to wait a while for the next Terence Malick film.
But this prayer, followed by hallucination of a miracle is, I think, a serious step into depth on behalf of the film-makers. Let me be so bold as to suggest that the father and son team who directed and wrote this film are doing something very subtle and interesting here. What we have is a dramatic depiction of situation that the Christian finds herself in after Feuerbach.
Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.
Feuerbach was a friend of Marx, a German intellectual in the middle 1800s who developed a vicious and penetrating critique of modern Christianity. He looked at the comfortable Lutheran church of his day and saw nothing but self satisfied contentment dressed up in supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
He said Christianity is a collective hallucination. In Christianity, society projects all its internal abilities and potential on to a figment character, a charismatic phantom, God.
Now think back to Gravity.
She hallucinates. She projects all her own internal abilities and potential on to this figment character, this charismatic phantom, Matt.
He doesn’t exist.
The director, Alfonso Cuarón, has taken us to the edge of a profound picture of prayer. But where does this picture take us? To a stress induced delusion. He has subverted the religious scene we have just witnessed and shown it all to be wish fulfillment.
He is unwilling to make a pious film about how a general religiosity binds us together in some comfortable sentimental ease. The arrival of George Clooney’s character is an answer to prayer that destroys the credibility of prayer. Cuarón knows Feuerbach. He knows that religious belief is now as much about religious doubt as faith. Nothing can be simple for us anymore, if it ever was. The “miracle” is a figment of her own self-conscious. Dr. Stone is in the quagmire of faith after Feuerbach and Darwin, Nietzsche and the wars of the 20th Century.
But that is not where Cuarón intends us to stay. He won’t leave us there. Perhaps the God that we are calling out to is nothing but a product of our sub-conscious.
So Is It About Prayer, Or What?
Perhaps it is all a figment.
But, the vision tells the truth. From a psychologist’s perspective, Dr. Stone’s subjective experience has absolutely no referent. And yet it points towards the one thing that leads her home. And so Cuarón manages to undo Feuerbach and all the doubt and second guessing that Christians have inhabited since the 1840s by out-Feuerbach-ing Feuerbach.
Everything that Feuerbach says might be true of particular and general Christianities. It is wish fulfillment. It is corporate projection. That may well be true on the psychological level AND STILL God may be real. AND STILL, God intervenes.
The reason why that argument is sustained is that when she does finally make it to the Chinese space station, the Orthodox icon that sat above the dashboard of the Soyuz capsule is now replaced by a small dollar-store statue of a smiling Buddha. The different Feuerbachian expressions of religiosity that human culture has created may be referring to a shared human desire for the world to be charged with the grace of a supreme deity and yet nonetheless obtusely point us towards the gracious and supreme deity who is real.
Conclusion: Why I’m Sure I’m Right
Maybe I’m reading too much into this movie. I suspect that since we are dealing with the man who made Children of Men, that is not the case.
But here’s why I think my interpretation is in the right direction:
Dr. Stone is this titanic figure of human stamina and ingenuity. She refuses to give up. She yearns to live on. But when she finally arrives at her moment of salvation she issues this prayer of gratitude.
That “Thank you” reconfigures everything that has happened on the three different space-stations. It must be understood as a journey through Feuerbachian doubt and out the other end. It is at this point, at the creaturely point where the human is back on terra firma, that she stands up for the first time in the entire movie.
Remember how she stands after struggle? She has been lost in space, where life cannot exist. This experience has enfeebled her. She stumbles and then she stands. Her standing is pierced by weakness. This is a Christian anthropology, a reflection of the Imago-Dei. Human beings are lost in the complex and simple space between creature and Creator. Our lostness is experienced as alienation. Our suffering sighs are often our most eloquent prayers. But only when we understand ourselves as recipients of a gift, subjects of generosity, captive to gratitude, can we we ever hope to find land upon which to stand.
Of course, I’m also convinced because they made a companion piece shot from the perspective of the Inuit and with his talk of sacrifice and his depiction of human life in community even in the harshest of terrains, it sort of seals the deal.
Nobody can teach you how to pray. Prayer is the breath of God, returning whence it came.
Your Correspondent, He defies gravity.
It is not directly relevant to my study, but I am reading today about the history of the Irish economy before Independence. It is estimated that even a few years before the Famine struck, Ireland’s diet of “potatoes and grain alone provided a substantial 2,500 calories per person for direct consumption.” Famine had occurred twice in the early 18th Century and there was a major famine in 1740-41, but the five years in the 1840′s are proportionately speaking, one of the most severe devastations ever wrought on a human society.
But as ever, we must be very clear that theologically, the Famine wasn’t something that happened to the people on this island. It was done to them. And as ever, war and Empire sit in the background, too busy with its own carnage to pay heed of those starving in a fertile land.
After a wet summer, blight arrived in September 1845 and spread over almost half the country, especially the east. Famine was largely avoided at first, thanks largely to adequate government relief. But the potato crop failed completely in 1846 and by December about half a million people were working on relief works, at which stage they were ended. The winter was hard. By August 1847 an estimated three million people were being supported by soup kitchens, including almost three-quarters of the population of some western counties. The 1847 harvest was not severely harmed, but it was small because a lack of seed. The blight returned in 1848, and in 1849 over 900,000 people were in workhouses at some time or another. After 1847 the responsibility for supporting the poor had increasingly been shifted from the government to the local landowners who, by and large, did not have sufficient resources to cope. Noting that a few years later Britain spent £69 million on the (futile) Crimean War, Mokyr argues that for half this sum “there is no doubt that Britain could have saved Ireland”. It is also unlikely that an independent Ireland, with a GNP of £85 million, could have saved itself without outside support.
- Jonathan Haughton, “Historical Background” in The Economy of Ireland, 11th Edition (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2011), 9.
Your Correspondent, They that die by famine die by inches.
This is a film about prayer.
Your Correspondent, A longer explanation will follow
I’ve fallen badly out of the habit of writing here. I have many fine ideas to share. Of course I do, since I spend much of my life reading the ideas of damn fine thinkers. But when the evening comes in here in Aberdeen (which usually happens about 12 minutes after the sun rises), I never quite have the energy to batter away at this keyboard for my dozen faithful readers.
What can I say?
IDK. Totes soz.
As a result of the PhD programme, I have many new friends who are Americans. Although they’ve all cottoned on by now to the fact that I’m a no good peacenik, they still graciously tolerate my company. One of their number was telling me about a pastor in America who was spending $1.7 million on a house (but due to tax efficiencies and other methods he might be paying only $400,000). While that is small change compared to the shenanigans German bishops get up to, this is pretty astounding. Someone managed to find Stanley Hauerwas for a comment and he called it “an offense to the Gospel.”
Christianity Today, the publication of record for English-speaking Protestantism weighed in on this conversation.
It is an almost definitive example of the most reasonable contemporary Christian thinking on wealth. The author confesses she is rich. She feels a need to describe what that means.
I haven’t ever needed to worry about how we would pay for groceries or keep the electricity from being shut off. When one of our children outgrows a bicycle, we buy a new one. When a school fee is due, we write a check. When the co-pay for one of our children’s surgeries registers $200, I don’t decide what necessity we’ll temporarily live without.
There’s more. About seven more lines dedicated to the comfort she and her family
endures enjoys. She goes on to draw on the ideas about power advanced in a popular Christian book and concludes that while we need to re-focus our understanding of money, there is a crucial “Biblical” observation we cannot neglect:
Of course, for this to happen we will need to make the important biblical distinction between the moral neutrality of having money and the sin of loving money (1 Tim. 6:10)
The Bible citation there might make you think she is making a point in reference to that text, at the end of Paul’s 1st letter to his apprentice Timothy. But neither that verse, nor the surrounding passage give any grounds to speak of the “important Biblical distinction” that is drawn. In fact, the passage is morally anxious about money. Not a hint of “neutrality” can be found in the verse or those surrounding it:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
We came into the world with nothing and leave with nothing. Maybe you can take from that that the stuff that passes through our hands in the interim is neutral, but a clearer reading is that such stuff is irrelevant.
This is supported by the fact that the very basic rudiments of life are described as the ingredients for contentment. Food and clothing. Not bicycles, private schooling or even medical care. The desire to get rich plunges “people into ruin and destruction”. He goes so far as to say that people eager for money have lost their way from God, “have wandered from the faith”. What is Paul’s “important Biblical teaching” on our attitude to money? FLEE FROM ALL THIS.
The article descends into a conversation about a thing called “privilege”, which I think is a (well-meaning) intellectual and moral vortex. I don’t need to engage in any further recapping. I am sincere when I say that this is a most reasonable example of Christian thinking on this issue. Apart from a contradiction over whether apologies are needed for being wealthy, it is clearly written. If we weren’t Christian, the points would make perfect sense. But that this extreme evasion is reasonable shows how serious our predicament is.
What I need to do now is to ask you what the hell we think we are saying when we describe something as morally neutral?
What’s the reality backing up the idea of things as morally neutral depending on whether they are used for positive or negative ends? Is that a reality that we discover in Scripture? Even if it is, how do we decide whether the morally neutral thing is used for good or bad? By what metric do we measure? Is it intention? Is it consequence? Is it maximisation? Is it tradition and the status quo?
My supervisor is fond of reminding me that obedience to God’s call on our life is never abstract. It never takes place “in our heart”. It always happens in space and time, with a person or a place or a thing as its object. We cannot be obedient to God in intention without action. We cannot hear God’s invitation and mentally assent. We can’t hide from the Kingdom of God by making these metaphysical hedges. If you play ontological poker with Creation, it will win. Money is a thing we have invented. It has no substance apart from its use. There are two ways you can cut it: either it has no neutrality because it is always in use, in transit, doing what it does and that has moral weight -OR- it is always passive but is perpetually in use by you and me. It does nothing. We do everything.
So either money is always morally weighty or the moral implication of money is just an extension of the moral weight of our actions.
At no point do we get to wash our hands and talk in the way we wish we could.
Because when it comes right down to it, we’re Christians. For God’s sake, may we start taking some of what that means seriously and stop speaking like Warren Buffet’s moralistic do-gooding nephews and nieces.
Your Correspondent, He would like to be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap.
I came across this quote from the esteemed German theologian Emil Brunner this morning. He posits a proposal that I find deeply unsettling:
Equality always means the removal of fellowship. Fellowship can only exist where people are unequal; fellowship is only possible where we are necessary to each other.
- Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, 213.
I can trace a vague line from Aristotle to Martin Buber that helps describe how he gets to this conclusion. For those of us evangelical Christians who are almost pre-cognitively egalitarian, how do we respond to thoughts like this?
Your Corresdpondent, He calls sandwiches ‘sammies’, ‘sandoozles’, or ‘Adam Sandlers’.
I link to this article simply as a proof that such butchering of positions occurs within the church. Stephen Webb is a Christian and so is bound by the philadelphian love of his brothers and sisters that the New Testament is filled with. He begins by saying that he has friends who are pacifists. And then he proceeds to replace them with straw men so ugly and lacking in virtue that I suspect we’d be better off if we just fed them to cattle.
Early in it, he says:
To be human is to depend on the protection of
Grand. We’ll agree with that. But right before that he has said pacifism is “absurdly idealistic.”
On a simple scan, it would seem to me that the safest way to depend on the protection of others would be to depend on them in a society where we agree that no one kills anyone else. I want to rely on neighbours who don’t use lethal force. That is, absolutely, one solid way to be protected in society.
Of course, Christian pacifism, which might be better described as Christological non-violence, (more accurate, but crap as a slogan on a poster) is not even affected by these kinds of surface level, pragmatic questions. Christians are non-violent because they say Jesus is the Christ. They don’t sit down, do politics, military strategy or idealistic philosophising to come to this conclusion. Instead they stand up, on Sunday mornings, and sing words like these and that ends the conversation.
Your Correspondent, Is a vegetarian between meals
The state of the Irish economy continues to be alarming. While unemployment rates have not risen so far this year, it still stands at a cataclysmic 13.3%.
A while back, Pope Francis spoke about how youth unemployment was one of the most pressing problems facing the world. The reason he made such a stark claim was surely informed by where he lives. Almost 25% of young people in the EU are unemployed.
One of the more cautious books I have been reading, written in the midst of the Celtic Tiger boom concludes towards the end of its argument:
the level of life satisfaction as expressed by individuals is not strongly related to GDP growth, although it is linked to the unemployment rate.
The authors thus argue that Irish economic policy shouldn’t be directed towards increasing average wealth so much as it should be directed towards increasing employment rates. They use an illustration from the Warwick economist Andrew Oswald.
A spectator who leaps up at a football match gets at first a much better view of the game; by the time his neighbours are up it is no better than before.
It is an interesting argument. It is interesting because of what it reveals about the authors. They think they need to explicitly raise an argument to justify the claim that something other than “Keeping up with the Joneses” drives economic desire and activity. The underbelly of the illustrations deployed reveals the fundamental assumption that all things being equal, people want to be richer than their neighbours. The statistics show that people actually don’t worry that much about being richer than their neighbours. They worry about having a job. So we should work to get people back to work.
Now consider the illustration of the football match spectators. Typically, people jump out of their seats because they are excited and think a goal is about to be scored. When a goal isn’t scored, you find yourself one of a handful of people half standing, head in hands, around the stadium. But when your team do score, you find yourself joined by tens of thousands, standing as fully straight as they can be with their arms upraised, chanting and singing. The assumption might be that we go to football matches to see the game. That assumption might be held so commonly that you would never think to question it. But the real reason a football fan goes to see a game, the real factor that brings about satisfaction, is exactly that goals will be scored and your “view of the game” will be obscured. (This is taken to its logical conclusion by Man City fans who turn their backs to the pitch and jump up and down, a dance they call “Doing the Poznan”.)
Going to see a football game to get a view of the match is as simple a description of human motivation as you could hope to find and so we could easily mistake it as the description of motivation for all the humans in the stadium. Theoretical assumptions can become so ingrained in the way that we think that we don’t even notice we believe them. And when that happens, we are definitely not noticing the things we are not believing, while we believe in those other things.
An example is that the economy should grow. That we should get richer. But just as a good football game cannot be measured simply by how many goals are scored (Proof), an economy can’t be determined by such simple arithmetic. Football is about satisfaction and community, enjoyment and strategy and many other things beside, which Declan Kelly will happily talk to you about. Popular economic thinking can all too easily miss the plurality of functions and commitments that undergird a nation’s economy, especially those values which are not easily measured. If we are getting richer at the expense of some of us not having work to do, that wealth is impoverishing.
All this is to say that as a theologian, you can find out a lot about a person’s beliefs by the stories they tell to explain things. This is true of Jesus and his stories about lost coins and lost sons and lost sheep. And it is true of Andrew Oswald and his illustration that he himself might not fully understand.
Your Correspondent, Has no idea how to raise employment levels
Almost finished now.
My final project for my computer science degree set out to develop a genetic algorithm that would generate ringtones for mobile phones. I think the less said about the outcome of that project the better. But the most entertaining part of the project was reading a bit of music theory.
As a teenager I remember many interminable disputes about which music was better. I used to argue with great high-mindedness that Radiohead and R.E.M. were the best bands. I often would argue this point from some idiotic notion of “musicality”. I, a man with less musical ability than a flatulent dog, would lecture others on why Blur, Oasis or I don’t know, East 17, weren’t as good as Radiohead.
Of course, that is bullshit. Music is music. While we can talk of one piece being better than another, we are always firmly in the realm of relative subjectivity. I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like. I like The Hold Steady and Blackalicious, I like Shakira’s pop songs and Oscar Peterson’s piano. Here are two songs I like especially and now you know it would be dreadfully churlish to comment meanly on it. Right?
1. Country Feedback by R.E.M. is my favourite song of all time. Who knows why. This is a dark song! I don’t. It competes with You Can Call Me Al and Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. But it always wins. There is a bass line in the song that just sort of connects with me, everytime I hear it.
I have seen R.E.M. a good few times live. They never played this song, even though it is, by many accounts, their favourite song too. Along with the fact that I never got to see The Beastie Boys and Aimee Mann never played “I Know There’s A Word For This” in any of the gigs I have gotten to attend is my big live music regret.
Among the many lovely gifts I have received through my life, one of the loveliest was the recording of Country Feedback made by Wife-unit and my friend Nelly for my 30th birthday. It is even better than late-era R.E.M.’s live performance.
Whatever else you think, you will think it quite lovely.
2. C.S. Lewis said something to the effect that the songs we sing in church was sixth rate poetry set to seventh rate music. I think he was being too charitable.
It is a funny thing that in the churches most likely to deny evolution, the very process of natural selection is on display every Sunday as one song gets added to the mix and another is tossed away without regard on a regular basis. The songs adapt in each successive generation, iteratively changing to compete in their eco-system, or more accurately, their market. Praise music is big business and it sickens me.
It is salt in the wounds the business produces such dross. For a long time in my current church, I think people assumed I was that most common of tropes: Husband dragged along by faithful wife. I look so like a thunder storm gathering over the hills during worship. I despise the way the songs are all about us. I hate the way that they involve declarative statements that weren’t true for Theresa of Avila or Mother Theresa and definitely aren’t true for me. I don’t “offer up my life” to God. God offers up his life to me. All the heresies of the church can be found if you are especially unlucky on a Sunday morning. Sometimes in the same freaking song.
But natural selection of hymns isn’t a new thing. It has been going on for millennia. There are some songs written in our generation that have content and don’t grate on the ears. In Christ Alone comes to mind, with its terrific line: “No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me.” But I long most Sundays for some songs with substance. So, as lame as this is, my second song is a song of praise.
My second song is a song of praise penned over 250 years ago in America. It is a song that expounds on an obscure but lovely scene in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is a song about the grace of God and the pilgrimage of following Jesus that takes a lifetime. It features many artful metaphors, especially the idea that we are instruments of God’s love. Here it is, sung by one of our great hymn writers of our age:
Your Correspondent, This flower is scorched, this film is on.