Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Oh, the streets or Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
-- Bob Dylan, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”

And so they are. In about 6 hours Kate and I will be headed to Rome, the first stop in a 16-day journey that will also take us to Venice and Florence, and perhaps a couple other cities along the way. It’s an impossibly extravagant venture, one we can’t really afford with two kids in college, but you do what you have to do. It’s our 25th wedding anniversary, and somehow a weekend at Lake Erie just didn’t seem quite adequate.

Twenty-five years is a long time. Twenty-five years ago I was skinny and had a lot more hair, and Kate, the silver fox, had dark brown hair. In between we had a couple kids, moved a few times, changed churches a few times (echoing Bono's heartfelt lament, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for," although I think we're pretty close this time), and became different people.

The reasons people marry are many and varied. I wouldn't have stated it this way 25 years ago, but one of the big ones for me is that I was in panting lust with the woman who was to be my wife, and, as a Christian, I had a hard time justifying just hopping in the sack. So I did what good Christian boys are supposed to do. I got married. There was a lot more to it, of course, because there is a lot more to Kate. But that was a big part of it. I was lonely, I was horny, and here was a beautiful, kind, intelligent woman who loved the Lord and who was willing to marry me. Did I mention beautiful?

I think the shit hit the fan about Day 3. And it has flown intermittently ever since, primarily because I've managed to chuck the turds at the rotating blades on a fairly routine basis. It has not been easy to be married to me. Everybody enters marriage with baggage. I came dragging old foot lockers and trunks, carry on bags, an assortment of Samsonite luggage, junk stuffed willy-nilly into plastic totes. The shit was everywhere, and although some of it was out in the open, some of it was buried deep in storage compartments, hidden away under lock and key. And here is one sad but glorious fact: the shit is still there, but 25 years down the line it isn't piled nearly as high as it was. This is because I am married to the woman who said "I do" 25 years ago, and who has lived through days where she has regretted that, but who has never once wanted to say "I don't."

Don't let anybody tell you that this Christianity business isn't hard, or that it isn't fraught with surprise and mystery. One of my friends has recently decided to check out of the business. It's too confusing. You look for God to show up, and when you really need Him to put in an appearance, He's AWOL. I sympathize. He doesn't play by any rules I understand. But I also look around at the people He has brought into my life. They are remarkable. And I know, without a doubt, that the way He seems to work is through those people, through the inexplicable love they have for me when I am not lovable, when I am not kind, when I am only concerned about the ongoing expansion of the Kingdom of Me. You can put Kate at the top of that list.

Because life is one big soundtrack to me, I carry around tunes in my head as I prepare for our trip. One is by Bob Dylan, and is quoted above. The other is by Bruce Cockburn. Bruce Cockburn is a Canadian musician who has been writing the soundtrack to my life since I first discovered his album Night Vision way back in 1974. I haven't missed any of his albums since. And he wrote a song that nailed the strange patterns, the halting little minuet that two non-dancers do when they are still trying to figure out the steps. Sometimes I despair of ever really changing. But sometimes, after 25 years, I survey the scenery and I discover something amazing. The rubble is still there, and it crunches underfoot. The ancient footprints are everywhere. But I look around, and there appears to be a new building under construction. It's not spectacular, but it's held up for a while, and if you squint your eyes it looks kind of pretty. I am 52 years old, graying and balding and fatter than I was back in my youth, and crazy in love. And I know, without a doubt, that God allowed me to marry the right person in spite of myself.

This is how Bruce Cockburn's song goes:

Guess I'd get along without you
If I had no choice
It's taken me this long to find you

Done a lot of getting ready for this
Some things we learn so slow
But look at you, you've got plenty behind you

There's lots of ways to hit the ground
Not many answers to be found
We're faced with mysteries profound
And this is one of the best ones

There are eight million mysteries
In the naked body
Can't even sight on some distant horizon

Like the nine billion names of God
Don't bring you any closer
To anyone you can simply set eyes on

But in the same way it's as real
Don't always recognize what I feel
But of the dancing scenes that life reveals
This is one of the best ones

Say what you will
There's no snake oil or pill
Can make love less painful or fine
There's no theatre
Even of the absurd
Can express what goes on in this meeting of hearts and minds

Guess I'd get along without you
If I had no choice
But please never make it so I have to

Paid a lot of dues to get here
And after all this life
I'm a loser if I don't live with you

There's lots of ways to hit the ground
Not many answers to be found
We're faced with mysteries profound
And this is one of the best ones

And so it is.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Goodreads and Bad Spam

I hate when this happens. And when you combine a technophobic personality (I know; I work in the IT world, but I've been faking it for 25 years) with a basic lack of attention, it seems to happen to me fairly frequently.

Here's the deal: A friend sent me an invitation to be a part of her Goodreads community. "What the heck is a Goodreads community?," I asked myself. So I clicked the handy link in her email to find out. The link informed me that Goodreads is an online community where folks can share with one another the books that have been most meaningful to them. Did I want to see the books that were most meaningful to my friend? Sure I did. So I created a login and a password (Mistake #1), and clicked the "Submit" button (Mistake #2). Up came a list of people with curious checkmarks next to their names. I thought, "Hey, isn't it wonderful that my friend and I know so many people in common?" What can I say? It was late on a Saturday night. I wasn't paying close attention, or I would have realized that my friend, who is from Ohio and 20 years younger than me, probably didn't know my high school English teacher in Crete, Illinois, or the guy who laid the tile flooring in our kitchen. I should have realized that those were my Contacts in that list -- all 438 of them. But I didn't. And so I clicked another magic "Submit" button (Mistake #3, and a big one) because I was impatient to move past the stupid list of names so I could actually see the books my friend liked. And every single one of those 438 contacts received email from me, asking to be a part of my Goodreads community. I'm sorry. I don't want to have a Goodreads community. I love books. I read them all the time. And I love all my contacts. Okay, I respect some of them, and loathe one or two, but they're relatives. But honestly, I have better things to do with my life than assign star ratings to my favorite books.

The good news is that I've now heard from more than a dozen people I haven't heard from in years. Ex-bosses. Former CCM stars. Which is kind of cool. But if you received that email from me, I apologize. I didn't mean it. Some 284 people on that list have added me as a "friend" in the past few days. Again, this is good, I suppose. I was their friend (or respected acquaintance, I reckon), and now I'm their virtual "friend." I've had more than 1,000 books recommended to me. Someone make it stop.

Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez -- Live from the Ruhr Triennale

Chip Taylor has led a nomadic life. The brother of actor John Voight, Chip started off with a less-than-successful stint as a professional golfer, dabbled as a songwriter and did pretty well for himself, writing hits in the '60s for The Hollies, Janis Joplin, and Merrilee Rush, wrote the proto-garage anthem "Wild Thing" (yes, that one, for better and worse), journeyed to Hollywood and acted for a while (Melvin and Howard), and dropped out of the music business for twenty years and survived as a professional gambler. But he saved the best act for last, re-emerging six years ago as a wizened, world-weary troubadour a la Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark, with young Texas fiddler and Lucinda Williams soundalike Carrie Rodriguez in tow.

Taylor and Rodriguez have recorded five albums now, and they're all worth tracking down. The Trouble With Humans, from 2003, is probably my favorite, but you could do a lot worse than starting with their newly released Live from the Ruhr Triennale. It's a fine compendium of the best songs from the previous four albums, and it's the only place to hear a Chip Taylor career overview, since Taylor includes not only his newer duets with Carrie, but also his own versions of songs that were hits for others ("Angel of the Morning," usually associated with Juice Newton, and yes, the inevitable rave-up closer on "Wild Thing"). There are also great covers of Merle Haggard ("Today I Started Loving You Again') and Johnny Cash ("Big River" and "Long Black Veil"), and a surprisingly effective honky-tonk take on Chuck Berry's "Maybelline." The band is phenomenal -- the Session Men Who Play on Two Thirds of All Recorded Music From the New Millenium (Bill Frisell, David Piltch, Greg Leisz), augumented with Carrie's jumping fiddle and Buddy Miller's twanging guitar work.

Basically, Chip and Carrie cover all the bases. If you're a fan of great country duet singing, telepathic interplay between band members, or great songwriting, there's much here that will delight you. If you happen to like all three, as I do, then you will be grinning from ear to ear.

Monday, September 24, 2007

John Fogerty -- Revival

John Fogerty, Mr. CCR himself, has a new album called Revival due out October 2nd. This one is getting a lot of pre-release hype, and it's being hailed as Fogerty's best work since his Creedence Clearwater Revival days.

Umm, no. It's not bad, and musically it's actually kinda great, but I haven't heard so many wince-inducing couplets since I ... well, since I sang a couple of those Vineyard choruses yesterday morning. Never mind. But if this rock 'n roll thing goes down the tubes, John, you probably have a big career ahead of you rhyming "loss" and "cross" and "grace" and face."

The good news is that Fogerty sounds absolutely fabulous. His voice, which is a force a nature, one of the greatest rock 'n roll sledgehammers ever, is still miraculously in its prime. And certainly he rocks harder here than he has at any time during his sporadic solo career. Fogerty gets in his scathing digs at the current presidential administration and actually conjures up the old dread of "Bad Moon Rising" on "Long Dark Night," the highlight of the album. There are two short rockabilly numbers here -- "It Ain't Right" and "I Can't Take It No More" -- that will have longtime fans recalling "Travelin' Band." And "Creedence Song" (not the only piece of self-referential work on the album) whips up that old, familiar swamp boogie that fueled albums like Bayou Country and Green River.

The bad news is that Fogerty doesn't have a poetic bone in his body, and he can only present ideas in hackneyed Hallmark Card cliches that I would like to think even the Hallmark company would have the good sense to reject. There's a lot of wistful hearkening back to the Summer of Love (including the song "Summer of Love," which manages the considerable feat of stealing the guitar riffs from both Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love"). There's a lot of cowboy imagery, in which John claims that what the country needs is a good gunslinger (which I thought he had labeled as the problem in "Long Dark Night," but maybe it's only a problem when the gunslingers are in the White House). Then there is the album's first single "Don't You Wish It Was True?," in which John opines that it sure would be swell if everybody loved each other. Don't come looking for deep thoughts. Or consistency.

So consider it a decidedly uneven effort. This is one time when singing the proverbial phone book would have been preferable to the actual lyrics.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A. J. Roach -- Revelation

Folksinger A.J. Roach may call San Francisco home, but he’s got the mountains and hollers of his native southwestern Virginia deep in his veins. It turns out he may have other things in his veins as well. And when you put that together, you end up with one hell of an Appalachian confessional album, called Revelation, replete with biblical imagery and harrowing addiction stories set to gentle banjo, mandolin and fiddle accompaniment.

“Revelation” is right. The power of this album lies in the juxtaposition of the traditional mountain gospel accompaniment and iconography with the tales from the gutter. Consider Roach’s alternate take on Psalm 23:

Whiskey is my shepherd; I shall not want
It maketh me lie down in a strange woman’s bed
It maketh me talk out of both sides of my mouth
It maketh me feel like I’d be better off dead

And there’s plenty more moonshine salvation where that came from. As is fitting for someone who hails from the same county that gave us The Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers, Roach has got it, but you just have to hear it to understand. Critics have given it a label, and called it the high lonesome sound, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s a gentle Scottish burr transplanted to the new world, encountering backwoods ghosts and night terrors, and emerging as something haunted and haunting. And Roach has it in spectral spades. He employs it on tales of sleeping in a freezing car, coming down from cheap cocaine, of walking bleary-eyed through the streets of Omaha. Revelation is a simultaneously grim and lovely album, full of sharp, vivid writing and soulful singing. It’s the southern gothic gospel of the halfway house and the homeless shelter, and it’s one of the best albums of the year.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hey Hey, They're the Granddaddies of Country Rock

With all due respect to Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan, the real shitkickin’ granddaddy of country rock was a Hollywood star, and a Monkee. It happened a full year before Parsons introduced Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers to the hippies with the International Submarine Band’s Safe At Home and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. And it happened a full two years before Dylan emerged as the country squire on Nashville Skyline. Mike Nesmith was the granddaddy’s name, and his music is now all but forgotten in the ongoing hipster backlash against the Prefab Four. It shouldn’t be.

I am no hipster, but I am as guilty of the backlash as anyone. I was a young adolescent in 1966 and 1967 and 1968, the time when The Monkees were omnipresent on television, on collectible cards, and on lunchboxes, and outselling The Beatles at the music stores. But even then I hated the goofy slapstick of the television show, found the hits (particularly the Davy Jones ersatz Broadway tunes) cloying and saccharinely sweet, and proudly disdained the efforts of four band members who couldn’t even play their instruments. I was in a band, and I couldn’t really play my instrument either, but I wasn’t getting rich by pretending I could. I thought The Monkees were everything that was wrong with commercial music, and I was smug in my own thirteen-year-old version of aesthetic superiority and anti-capitalist sentiment. Up against the wall, motherfucker. Now I need to go study for my algebra test.

To state the obvious, I didn’t buy any steeeeenking Monkees albums. So I missed out on all the album tracks that, four decades down the line, convince me that I was wrong. The recently released deluxe reissues of two 1967 albums – Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. – have been nothing short of revelatory for me. The third and fourth albums from the band, respectively, they show The Monkees asserting creative control over their careers. Having recently sacked their Svengali-like promoter and manager Don Kirshner, the band set out, by God, to play their own instruments, write their own songs, and make music on their own terms. And they did. And although Jones still has his cloying ballads, and half the tracks still sound disposable, one shining fact emerges: Mike Nesmith was the real shitkickin’ deal. Long before the hipsters claimed the hallowed ground as their own, Mike Nesmith was writing great country rock tunes.

I knew several of these songs – “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?,” “Nine Times Blue,” “You Just May Be the One” – from Nesmith’s later stint as leader of the First National Band. There’s no question about the country-rock imprimatur of that band. But the FNB albums dated from the early 1970s, well after the seminal contributions of Parsons and Dylan. What I didn’t know is that Nesmith had recorded equally twangy versions of the songs with The Monkees, and that those songs predate the generally acknowledged pioneers of the genre. Listening now, forty years after the fact, it’s amazing how well they hold up. And it’s amazing how little critical acclaim they’ve received. So I’ll do my small part to set the record straight. I’m still not a big fan of The Monkees, and Davy Jones still strikes me as the template for cuddly, utterly innocuous pinups from David Cassady to Donny Osmond to Justin Timberlake . But give credit where it’s due. Mike Nesmith singlehandedly changed rock ‘n roll music. And he did it while he was a member of The Monkees. Who could have imagined such a thing? Certainly not my smug, thirteen-year-old hipster self.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Paste -- Not For Sale

I don't normally post press releases, but this one is worth passing along, I think.


Today, Paste and OurStage launched our joint donation campaign aimed at helping The Not For Sale Campaign to end slavery around the world. For each sign-up to OurStage driven by this campaign, OurStage will donate $2 directly to NFS. The campaign will be tracked in real time on Paste Magazine’s web site –, showing abolitionist supporters the difference they are making with each registration.

Throughout the year, I’ve been increasingly exposed to the horrible global injustice of modern day slavery. It’s invisible to most people, but the reality is that 27 million people live in slavery around the world—from teens sold as sex slaves in Southeast Asia to children abducted in Northern Uganda and forced into unspeakable acts as soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army. About 80% are women and children. Even in this country, more than 200,000 people are held against their will, repeatedly raped or made to work without pay, trapped by threats against themselves and their families.

We’re thankful to be able to add our voice to the growing chorus of people fighting to end modern-day slavery through our partnership with OurStage. Our hope is to raise at least $25,000 in donations by the end of the year. The goal is to engage music and film fans to support the Not For Sale efforts by educating them on the enormity of this global criminal activity and then giving them an easy way to help solve the problem. By simply signing up with OurStage (a free online community, where you can discover new music and judge the best artists to be awarded monthly prizes), you can help end worldwide slavery.

I’ve gotten to know David Batstone who heads up Not For Sale, and his organization is working on the ground here and throughout the world, supporting both the efforts of those actively rescuing slaves and those doing the important restorative work to help them make a life for themselves once they’ve been freed.

OurStage has my deepest gratitude and respect for joining us in this cause. Sign up for OurStage at and tell others about this important issue. You’ll see a counter on our homepage over the next several months, showing how much you’ve helped raise.
The Facts
The commerce in human beings today rivals drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade for the top criminal activity on the planet. The slave trade sits at number three on the list but is closing the gap.
Nearly 200,000 people live enslaved at this moment in the United States, and an additional 17,500 new victims are trafficked across our borders each year.
The European Union (EU), has been unable to stop the flood of 120,000 women and children trafficked each year into its member states.
UN surveys from 2004 found 700,000 children forced into domestic labor in Indonesia alone, with staggering numbers as well in Brazil (559,000), Pakistan (264,000), Haiti (250,000), and Kenya (200,000).
Of those individuals extracted out of impoverished countries and trafficked across international borders, 80 percent are female and 50 percent are children.
We can, and have to, speak against injustice. Now it is easier than ever to end slavery. Everyone is invited. Welcome to the movement. Become an abolitionist today!

—Josh Jackson
To support the NFS efforts by registering on OurStage, please visit:
To donate directly to NFS, visit:

Friday, September 14, 2007


Everybody loves to see justice
Done on somebody else
-- Bruce Cockburn, “Justice”

Start with someone who has difficulty parsing the English language, add some bits of willful misrepresentation, mix liberally with inflammatory statements, and top with a hazy love of all things Flower Power that can’t recognize the ambivalent nature of the Summer of Love. That’s a recipe for slander, and I got a big dose of it yesterday.

Okay, I’m starting off all wrong. I wish this didn’t bother me. I wish I could just shrug it off as a difference of opinion. But it doesn’t seem to be in my personality to be able to do that. Yesterday the new issue of Paste Magazine (with the fantastically bearded Iron and Wine on the cover) arrived. As usual, there are about a hundred pages in this issue. But within minutes, all I could focus on was the two inch by three inch text square in the Letters to the Editor section that vilified me for my recent column on The Summer of Love. In that remarkably small text box I was informed that “Andy Whitman” is a pseudonym for ultra-conservative G. Gordon Liddy, that I am ignorant, that I don’t understand irony, that Paste needs to find an editor to ensure that tripe like mine isn’t published, and that, thanks to my ill-informed tripe, the letter writer will be cancelling his/her subscription to the magazine. So a few hundred thousand people got to read that, if they cared to do so, and it was enough to keep me up for about half the night.

Look, criticism comes with the territory, and I understand that. I just wish the criticism was based on an accurate understanding of what was said. It's more than a little frustrating to be vilified for views I don't hold, and taken to task based on a woeful misreading of what I wrote. But beyond that, I spent a fair amount of time last night, tossing and turning, simply thinking through and praying through why I react the way I do.

It’s the injustice of it all that gets to me. Okay, I don’t like criticism. But I really don’t like criticism when it’s unfounded. If I screw up, then call me on it. I may not like it, but I’ll probably eventually come around to your point of view. But when you totally misrepresent who I am, and when you just don’t have a clue about what I’m saying, then it pains me, to the point of sleeplessness, to contemplate what is being communicated. I start concocting elaborate revenge fantasies involving grammar lessons, a flaming pyre of Paste Magazines at the feet of the heretic, Jimi Hendrix’s highly combustible guitar, and Allen Ginsberg thumping on a tambourine and chanting “Ohhhmmmm” as the spectacle rages around him. Burn, baby, burn. That was part of the dazzling, golden sixties, too.

And it’s all wrong, and I know it. I don’t want to respond this way. So I spent a fair amount of time praying for grace, for compassion, for forebearance, for the opportunity to impart some basic grammar lessons and principles of literary interpretation to … You see how quickly it goes awry. It’s a battle. I find myself angry. And I find myself praying all the time. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But it’s so much fun being called “ignorant” in a national forum. It’s so much fun to read that in print at Barnes and Noble. I know. Most people won’t care. Most people I know won’t care. I understand that. But I think I need to pray some more.

Bruce Cockburn had it right. Justice is what we want to see inflicted on others, and the last thing we want to see for ourselves. So I pray for something that goes completely against my natural personality: grace. It's not deserved. That's the point.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Anders Osborne -- Coming Down

First, the bad news: Anders Osborne’s latest album is highly derivative, and he does little more than channel early ‘70s Van Morrison. Now, the good news: Anders Osborne’s latest album is highly derivative, and he does little more than channel early ‘70s Van Morrison. Since the new Van can’t sing like the old Van, there’s something to be said for imitation, particularly when you can scat off into the mystic like this guy. There’s also something totally delightful about the Swedish ex-pat Osborne, long a resident of New Orleans, paying homage to the iconoclastic Belfast legend. Call it international chutzpah. Fortunately, he has the voice to pull it off, and, surprisingly, the songs to match.

The Big Easy musical influences that dominated Osborne’s earlier albums are toned down here, although a sousaphone still peeks through occasionally to make its presence known. What’s left are the songs, stripped down for the most part to a lean acoustic guitar, drums, and upright bass. Osborne’s seen some hard times personally, as has his adopted New Orleans, and he alternates between rueful and occasionally harrowing reminiscences of addiction, laments for his drowned city, and (to balance out the gloom) stirring odes to love, love, love, love, crazy love. “Down on Dumaine” is his version of “Cypress Avenue” – a soulful look back on a neighborhood now gone. “Oh Katrina” is the tour de force here, the hurricane personified as the age-old heartbreaker and homewrecker. It’s a song that can stand with similar statements from Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, Shawn Mullins, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Otherwise, Osborne sings of his own wild nights and the Tupelo Honey who keeps him sane. He’s cooked up an altogether tasty gumbo of soulful blues, hard-won wisdom, and that impossibly great voice, magically conjured across the space of 35 years. “Between the hurricanes and the heartaches/My old heart is doing fine” he sings near the end of the album. As further evidence, he’s created one of the best albums of the year.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Some thoughts on Jeff’s sermon from yesterday …

“When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God!"” – Matthew 27:54

We don’t expect the most despicable people on the planet to experience spiritual transformation. It’s not supposed to work that way. We like it when sweet little old ladies like Mother Teresa encounter God early in their lives and then live out many decades of love and service. God bless the little old ladies. We don’t like it so much when, say, puppy murderer Michael Vick claims to see the light, and expresses a desire to use his prison time to get right with God. Despicable people should just stay despicable. Otherwise we have to start forgiving them, and we all know how messy that can be.

The particular centurion in question was a leader in the Roman army, which happened to be the occupying power in Judea at the time of Christ. The Romans, in spite of what you may have read in your high school or college history classes, were not always nice, enlightened people. They routinely executed anyone who was perceived to be a threat to their rule, and had, in fact, just done the same with Jesus, for the very same reasons. Before they did that, however, they tortured Jesus. They beat him, spat on him, mocked him.

We who have seen the tapes from Abu Ghraib have seen these diabolical dynamics played out. They are images that do not fade quickly or easily. There is far more than physical abuse at work here, although there is certainly that. There is also emotional degradation, humiliation, dehumanization. It is a scene that has been repeated throughout history, from the time of Christ to the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazi concentration camps, from Stalin’s gulag to the killing fields of Cambodia to Abu Ghraib. It is appalling and deeply disturbing what human beings will do to other human beings. It is who we are when we are at our worst. And the centurion in question was in on that kind of action, the kind that is designed to suck the soul right out of somone who has the inalienable right to his or her soul, his or her stamp of humanity. It is treating human beings as less than human, and becoming a monster in the process.

So what does it mean when that kind of monster, that most despicable of human beings, has an encounter with God? How is it even possible that such a monster should encounter God? What about the notion, found in Romans 1, that God gives people over to the desires of their hearts, to be the people they want to be, and that monsters who want to be monsters are granted their wish? Can they be turned into handsome princes again, just like that? Should they be?

Jeff didn’t say it, but I will. I live with a fundamental schizophrenia: I don’t want to have mercy on some people, but I’m really glad that God has mercy on me. There is something in me that rebels at the notion of the centurion, or of serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, receiving the mercy of God. It’s not fair.

Which, of course, it is not. But it is gracious, and I’m very thankful for grace. Apparently it takes an earthquake to rouse some people from their lethargy, to make them see the truth. It did for the centurion. We don’t know what happened to him. He’s never mentioned in the Scriptures again. He disappears from history, having undergone some sort of spiritual epiphany, but I like to envision the story continuing. I like to envision him approaching Peter, John, any of the surviving apostles after the resurrection of Christ. I can picture the revulsion on their faces, the utter distaste with which they must view the man. I can see him admitting his guilt, and what he now knows to be true about the Son of God. I can feel the unbearable tension in that room. And I can see Peter – it would have to be Peter – slowly reaching out to touch him, to embrace him. Peter would understand what it’s like to betray the humanity of another. He would understand real guilt, and he would understand real forgiveness. And that’s the scene I try to call to mind when I don’t understand, when my foolish heart proclaims its innocence, and I need to be reminded of the monster within.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Evangelicals and the Arts

Here is a recent article from Touchstone Magazine that I’ve seen rewritten under various titles for most of my Christian life. It starts out like this:

The modern Christians who are important writers are all from liturgical churches: Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox. The closest thing Evangelicalism has to a name that could rank with these is probably Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is not really a mainstream Evangelical but a Lutheran—again, from a liturgical tradition.

Try to think of a conservative Baptist, a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian, a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Evangelical Free Church or the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company. (Some have mentioned writers who used to be in those churches—but the phrase “used to” in the observation is telling.)

The liturgical churches foster a lot of schlock and kitsch of their own, but they also nurture great writers and great writing. So far, we Evangelicals have not. In fact, we often positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value.

This is something of a mantra in Christian academic circles, and I typically encounter this lament at least once every six months: where are the evangelicals, and why does their art suck? The kindly professors probably wouldn’t state it quite so baldly, being nice, proper academics, but the evangelicals would comprehend the question better because they don’t understand big words, so we’ll let the crudeness slide.

I've read these sentiments, and others like them, so frequently that they’ve become cliches. There's only one problem: they’re not true. They bear little relationship to reality.

Look, I love Flannery O'Connor as much as anyone. Kate will attest that I lobbied long and hard to name our first-born daughter Flannery in honor of Ms. O’Connor. She and the other High Church literary cherubim and seraphim – Graham Greene, Walker Percy, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien – have enriched my life tremendously. But Percy, the most contemporary of those writers, has been dead for fifteen years, and O'Connor, Greene, Lewis and Tolkien were writing fifty or more years ago. And you know what? In the intervening half century, evangelicals have actually produced some worthwhile work. Two of the most celebrated Christian novelists working today, Marilynne Robinson and Leif Enger, are writing from a decidedly evangelical perspective. Enger's Peace Like a River was named the 2002 Book of the Year in the L.A. Times, and was lauded in almost every review. Robinson's latest novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. This does not suck. And when you add in contemporaries such as Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, John Updike, and Anne Lamott, who really don't fit into either the High Church or the Evangelical categories, it seems fairly clear to me that non-liturgical, non-High Church Christians have as much of an impact on literature as their High Church contemporaries, and maybe more. And the odds are even more lopsided in the popular music world, where it is evangelicals like U2 and Sufjan Stevens who have arguably released some of the best and most popular albums created from a Christian worldview. In other words, the argument in Touchstone was valid thirty years ago. It doesn’t apply now, and it hasn't been true for a long time.

I will confess that part of it is that I don’t understand the categories. Why is it, for instance, that “liturgical” and “evangelical” are presented as mutually exclusive terms in the Touchstone article? In my church we incorporate elements of the liturgy and fixed-hour prayer into both our public and private worship, but theologically we would align ourselves along evangelical lines.

I also don’t know what to make of the many stereotypes found in the article – that evangelical art is often little more than religious propaganda, for instance. Sure, there is no lack of horrendous schlock out there. Just walk into the Christian Family Bookstore of your choice and peruse the puppy and kitty posters with Bible verses, or the rack of Precious Moments figurines. But the world the author describes is simply not the world I encounter. My church is heavily skewed, nay, infested, with artists – painters, poets, photographers, musicians, writers, standup comics, graphic designers. I would guess that artists make up 40 to 50 percent of the adult population, and many of these folks make their full-time living through art. They are not making “Christian” art or religious propaganda; they’re creating art, and they’re out there in the marketplace competing with everybody else. What I don’t know is how typical or atypical my church is. I don’t have any way to gauge how this compares with the evangelical world as a whole. So do me a favor. I’d love to hear from those of you in other evangelical churches, and find out how the arts are viewed in your church. Are they valued in and of themselves? Or are they viewed as “witnessing” tools? And for those of us in my church, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think the variables are within our church that seem to lead to a high view of the arts. Thanks.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Patti Scialfa -- Play It As It Lays

It's not her fault that Patti Scialfa must go through life known as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. Patti had her own (admittedly lowkey) musical career before she met The Boss, and she's sporadically released solo albums throughout her marriage. And they've been fine, albeit a little too reliant at times on Broooooce iconography and E-Street accompaniment to put them across. But Patti's new album Play It As It Lays, out today, is her first real musical triumph. She gets it exactly right, and she's very much her own woman.

Sure, Bruce is here, and contributes on guitar and harmonica, and fellow E-Streeter Nils Lofgren is around as well, but this music bears little to no resemblance to the music her famous husband has made. It's starker, more blues-based, more reliant on the slide guitar, full of gospel melismas that accompany decidedly secular tales of love and lust, betrayal and deception and doubt. It's the kind of album that could only be made by a 40-something wife and mother who is more interested in the hard work of loving when it's tough than in celebrity and notoriety. It's a fine album; sexy, soulful, literate, and honest. It's Patti doing Dusty in Memphis, and the E/Beale Street mashup works just fine.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

I'm Not There

Cate Blanchett (yes, Cate Blanchett) as Bob Dylan in Todd Hayne's upcoming film "I'm Not There."