Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Marry Our Fortunes Together: Sting and Paul Simon in Concert

I have had the good fortune of seeing several living legends in concert. Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Peter, Paul & Mary, David Bowie--some lived up to their legendary status, others have not. How they do isn't entirely the point; the point is to participate, to have a point of contact with someone who in small and big ways marks our cultural history for us. But most of them were awesome anyway.

Last night I got to kill two old birds, Sting and Paul Simon, with one rock show at Chicago's United Center. Sting--the lead singer, bassist and main songwriter from one of my favorite bands, the Police, whose solo work was always in the background of my late adolescence and early adulthood, eluded me for years before I finally first saw him perform in the late 1990s. He's a true artist, regularly reinventing his songs and reconstructing his band accordingly--as a saxophonist, for example, I was sad when he parted ways with Branford Marsalis and started favoring the trumpet in his arrangements. The trumpet! I suppose I'll still listen ...

Paul Simon is, it turns out, one of Sting's "mentors," an idol even to other idols. His music didn't just shape me, it shaped a generation--two generations, actually, as his constructive engagement of African musicians in the 1980s was as influential as his New York folk standards from the 1960s and 1970s. I sat next to a woman probably ten to fifteen years older than I am; we sang along to many different songs, but we sang along together to even more.

I like the premise of a show like this. It requires a level of musical maturity and mutuality; Simon must appreciate Sting as much as Sting appreciates Simon; Sting must take ownership of Simon's songs as freely as Simon does his. And then, of course, they have to blend with one another. In this case, that's no mean feat: far beyond the typical pop orchestration--drums, bass, guitar, keyboard--each artist's repertoire required a wide range of additional instrumentation. Their bands had to learn one another's songs, had to gel with one another, the musical equivalent of Simon's lyric from "America": "Let us be lovers; we'll marry our fortunes together." Two bands become one band, never losing their own identities, creating something new and dynamic and meaningful.

As eclectic as Sting can be, he played to the crowd last night. Before he was a tantric Viking living in a castle, doing yoga and playing the lute, he was a hardscrabble musician fronting a leading British new wave band, competing for fans with the likes of Elvis Costello and the Clash. So he knows how to rile people up. He name-dropped Chicago a lot, each time eliciting a loud cheer; he and his background singer frequently encouraged the crowd to take over the vocals, which only made us happier. Even though Sting is debuting a Broadway-bound musical in Chicago later this spring, he steered clear of the unfamiliar stuff. He didn't even mention the musical, let alone play any songs from it. No, his set list was, by and large, limited to the hits, stuff we'd all heard a million times, stuff we drove in longing to hear.

Simon, however, leaned into his status as the pop music sage. His first song, performed alongside Sting and immediately following Sting's adult-contemporary opener "Brand New Day," was the subversive "Boy in the Bubble": "It's a turn-around jump shot," he sang in the house that Michael Jordan built.

It's everybody jump start
It's every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
The Boy in the Bubble and the baby with the baboon heart

And I believe these are the days of lasers in the jungle--
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires
In contrast to Sting's radio-friendly list, Simon went for a few deep tracks. I took notes for each tune, but what I wrote down for a whole set from him was not song titles but phrases like "Some zydeco song" and "Some song about wandering in Mexico." He has enough gravitas that he could get away with it; we followed him wherever he took us.

(It's probably worth noting that I'm much more familiar with Sting's discography than Simon's, so what counts as a deep track to me might be very familiar to Simon diehards, and similarly, I might be misremembering a few Sting songs as chart-topping that were, in reality, B-sides or even more arcane.)

Anyway, here are some of my highlights:

* Paul Simon, dancing wildly backstage as Sting performed "Walking on the Moon.
* Sting performing a tender version of Simon's "America," which suddenly exploded into a raucous rendition of "Message in a Bottle."
* Simon pivoting from a Chet Atkins instrumental ("Wheels") into the Latin-flavored, drum-heavy groove "The Obvious Child."
* Simon and Sting wrapping "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and moving straight into "Every Breath You Take."
* Simon and Sting closing the night with a tribute to the late Phil Everly, "When Will I Be Loved."

Here's the set list:

Together
Brand New Day
Boy in the Bubble
Fields of Gold

Sting only
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
Englishman in New York
I Hung My Head
Driven to Tears
Walking on the Moon

Together
Mother and Child Reunion

Paul Simon
Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover
Dazzling Blue
Graceland
Still Crazy After All These Years
Me and Julio

Together
Fragile (sung by Paul Simon)

Sting
America
Message in a Bottle
Hounds of Winter
They Dance Alone (Gueca Solo)
--Sting notably left off the verse directly addressing Chilean dictator Agusto Pinochet
Roxanne
Desert Rose

Together
The Boxer

Paul Simon
That Was Your Mother(?)
Hearts and Bones(?)
Misty Train(?)
--a cover, Simon called it his "favorite song"
Wheels (instrumental by Chet Atkins)
The Obvious Child
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
You Can Call Me Al

Together
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Every Breath You Take
Late in the Evening

Encore
When Will I Be Loved
--no band, just Sting and Paul Simon, one mike and a couple of guitars

Monday, February 17, 2014

Presume Innocence

Jordan Davis is dead. A hung jury won't change that. Several guilty verdicts of attempted murder won't change that. Repealing or otherwise reforming Florida's Stand Your Ground law won't change that. Nothing will change it. Jordan Davis is dead, the latest in a tragically long list of young black men who died violently because someone supposedly felt threatened by them.

I think of the black men I know--of Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others--and I can't imagine anyone feeling threatened by them. They're too good, too friendly, too gracious. I think of what the world would have lost if they'd been shot dead when they were young, what the world would lose today if they were shot dead. I can't imagine it.

And yet everyone is a stranger more regularly than they are a friend. For a country of nearly half a billion people, these men I call friends are unfamiliar to most. And so it remains a risk for my friends to go anywhere, to do anything. A broad cultural imagination, dominated by white culture with its insidious, festering prejudices, has presumed them guilty rather than innocent, has randomly (and not so randomly) partitioned off the land into places they belong and places they don't belong. As a white man I go pretty much anywhere I want; black men find out after the fact where they are welcome and where they are unwelcome, in often humiliating and sometimes violent ways. They are presumed guilty by the music they listen to, by the volume they set their music at, by the style of their clothes, by the cars they drive, and most fundamentally by the color of their skin. Murder trials that end in acquittals reinforce the tragic mythology, so obvious and yet so rarely acknowledged, that we have made this a white man's world, and black men are trespassing in it.

It's an irony that our courts function under the presumption of innocence, and yet for black men in particular our streets function under the presumption of guilt. I'm not immune to this; I have absorbed the cultural portrait of black men as dangerous, and in weaker, shameful moments I allow it to color my perceptions of reality. But I hope that more often than not I resist this indoctrination and give black men the benefit of the doubt. And when I do, more often than not I discover a friend worth having, a man worth admiring--men like Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others, whom I'm fortunate to know.

I guess, in the wake of the murder of Jordan Smith and the trial that culminated in calling his violent death not a murder, I hope that all of us who are not black men will take our cues not from an insidiously racialized white culture but from the courts. I hope we will extend to black men the courtesy extended by the courts to people like Michael Dunn (who shot Jordan dead) and George Zimmerman (who shot Trayvon Martin dead). I hope we will resist the impulse to presume guilt when we encounter black men, and commit ourselves instead to presume innocence. If we do, we may have the great honor of meeting and befriending people like Napoleon and Leroy and Anthony and Ed and John and Romal and Alvin and others. At the very least, a few young black men may have the opportunity to live a full life and share their greatness with the world.

***

There's a meme running on Twitter called #dangerousblackkids. It's worth a long look. Here's an example.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ten Commandments Scavenger Hunt! Part Two, Commandment Nine

My friend Sean Gladding, one of the best people in the whole world, has written his second book, Ten: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-Out Culture. Sean is a strong and sympathetic storyteller, helping us enter into familiar stories and even familiar theological assertions--in this case, the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words, as he prefers)--with fresh perspective.

The story begins with an angry patron of a coffeehouse thrusting a newspaper under the nose of an unsuspecting local pastor. The Ten Commandments have been politicized yet again. What comes next is a weeks-long group conversation about what's really behind each of the Ten Words, what's really behind our visceral reactions to them and our efforts to understand and uphold them.

I thought it might be fun to run a kind of "Ten Commandments Scavenger Hunt." I'll send a free copy of the book to the person who posts the news article, song, image or other artifact that best illustrates the commandment of the week in contemporary life--either here, in the comments, or elsewhere with the hashtag #10Cscavengerhunt.

Get Ten by Sean Gladding at 40% off! Click here.
Last week's winner was Karl Mitchell, who has excellent taste in music and blogs at Ponderances of a Visionary. In response to the post on covetousness (the Tenth Word--Sean counts them down in reverse order), Karl offered this little ditty:

See how easy it is? You can do this! I believe in you! So, without further ado, here's the ninth commandment, along with an excerpt from Sean's book.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16, New American Standard Bible)

"Maybe the Ninth Word still has something to say to us. Because all these ways of bearing false witness against each other, whether through advertising or gossip or telling racist jokes, lead to one thing: the erosion of trust. And without trust, how is it possible to have any kind of genuine communication? How is it possible to have any kind of meaningful relationships with others?" [John] reached for another book. "Truth telling is thus not a general virtue so much as it is a necessity for maintaining harmonious relationships. It is one of the clearest manifestations of love of God and love of neighbor." . . .

Will interjected, . . . "A little half-truth here. A little deception there. A little doubt sown here. A little gossip there. A little rationalization, and slowly the trust necessary for relationships unravels. Everything comes undone. Every word of deception carries a price tag. Every lie. Every half-truth. Every untruth."

He leaned forward. "And here's the irony of our situation. When we bear false witness against our neighbor, we think our neighbor is the one who is going to pay the price. That's why we do it. . . . But the reality is, we bear the cost." . . .

"Joan Chittister says this, 'Truth is its own reward. It requires no memory. No elaborate explanations. No conspiring confederates. And no fear of exposure.' Telling the truth is liberating."
So, there you have it: a taste of the Ninth Word from Sean Gladding's Ten. Now it's your turn. Fetch me an example of bearing false witness--of lying, or gossiping, or dehumanizing, or even advertising--from somewhere in the broad cultural landscape. Use the hashtag #10Cscavengerhunt. The best example gets a free copy of the book. I'll announce the winner next week. Don't worry: you can trust me.

And do me and Sean a solid and spread the word about this contest; when it comes to scavenger hunts, the more the merrier, I always say. (That's a lie: I actually almost never say that.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Better Late: On Time, Success and Faithfulness

I read the following recently in The Geography of Time, a study of how time is experienced in different cultures, by social psychologist Robert Levine:

My colleagues and I asked people how much they thought punctuality for appointments was tied to success. To my surprise, Brazilians rated people who are always late for appointments as must successful and punctual people as least successful. Our data also showed that Brazilians rated a person who was always late for appointments as more relaxed, happy and likeable—all of which tend to be associated with being successful.
If that's the case, then I'm more successful than my friend Dave, because every week he beats me to Caribou coffee for our Friday coffee klatch. It means I'm more successful than my boss and fellow team member, because they're always already in their seats by whenever I saunter in to our weekly team meeting. I'm more successful than the homeless guys I watch TV with on Sundays, since they're already on their second cup of coffee by the time I pull into the church parking lot.

Of course, what's true of Brazil isn't necessarily true of the American Midwest. Such flagrant tardiness is generally frowned upon, to put it mildly. My boss and my friend, and even those homeless guys, are more gracious toward me than social mores require of them.

I do like the notion of not being ruled so strictly by time, though. I stopped wearing a watch years ago because I felt surrounded by clocks even without one, monitored by time more closely than by the National Security Agency. In some countries, time is a slave to the people; but in my country--and thanks to my country, increasingly in a global economy--time is the slave driver, and our failure to defer to it is typically met with swift and severe punishment, and such punishment is judged to be right and good.

I read this paragraph from Levine to the middle-schoolers at my church as a way of demonstrating to them that how we define success is culture-bound and arbitrary. Show up late to an appointment in Brazil and you're a big shot. Show up late to a middle school class in Illinois and you're sent to the principal's office. I told them, in fact, not to waste their time pursuing success; it's too ephemeral, too arbitrary, too fickle to merit their attention. I told them, in fact, that the only time Jesus talked about success, he was shaming the most successful people in his social networks:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)
No self-respecting, church-attending, God-fearing middle-schooler wants to be a child of hell, and no red-blooded American evangelical wants to make people more hellish than they already are. But the pursuit of success sometimes leads to just such an outcome.

I told those kids that they should pursue faithfulness instead, and that pursuing faithfulness might occasionally result in their being judged as unsuccessful by the people around them. I told them they might sometimes be tempted to forsake faithfulness in favor of success, and that they might sometimes suffer at the hands of people who have sold their souls to the success gods. I didn't sugar coat it for them. But I left there feeling more strongly, not less, that success is an idol, a serpent hissing sweet nothings in our ears. I left there at least temporarily recommiting myself to follow the apostle Paul's advice to his student Timothy:

Set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. ... Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:12, 15, 16 NIV)
Perseverance has more to do with faithfulness than success, because what counts for success inevitably changes, and faithfulness to the God who never changes and who is himself faithful to us inevitably outlasts it.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Ten Commandments Scavenger Hunt! Part One, Commandment Ten

My friend Sean Gladding, one of the best people in the whole world, has written his second book. If you're familiar with his first, The Story of God, the Story of Us, you'll know Sean as a strong and sympathetic storytelling, helping us enter into familiar stories and even familiar theological assertions with fresh perspective. His new book, Ten: Words of Life for an Addicted, Compulsive, Cynical, Divided and Worn-Out Culture, is set not in the ancient past but in the present, and it explores how we might think about the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words, as he prefers) in our contemporary context.

The story begins with an angry patron of a coffeehouse thrusting a newspaper under the nose of an unsuspecting local pastor. The Ten Commandments have been politicized, forcing needless expense on taxpayers and raising the hackles of people who are tired of the oppression of the morality police. What comes next is a weeks-long group conversation about what's really behind each of the Ten Words, what's really behind our visceral reactions to them and our efforts to understand and uphold them. Every now and then the newspaper makes its presence known again, evidence of how insightful a dissection of the human experience the Ten Words are.

I thought it might be fun to celebrate the book with a kind of "Ten Commandments Scavenger Hunt." I'll post one of the Ten Words here (Sean counts them down in reverse order), along with a brief snippet of the book. I'll send a free copy of the book to the person who posts the news article, song, image or other artifact that best illustrates the commandment in contemporary life--either here, in the comments, or elsewhere with the hashtag #10Cscavengerhunt. I'll announce the winner when I post the next commandment.

You have to articulate the connection you see between the commandment and the artifact; don't just hit and run on this thing. And do me and Sean a solid and spread the word about this contest; when it comes to scavenger hunts, the more the merrier, I always say. (I actually have never said that before in my life.)

Get Ten by Sean Gladding at 40% off! Click here.
And now, for our first adventure, here is our tenth word:

No lusting after your neighbor's house--or wife or servant or maid or ox or donkey. Don't set your heart on anything that is your neighbor's. (Exodus 20:17, The Message)
And now, a word from our author:

Will turned to the wider group. "There's so much to envy, isn't there? Houses. Careers. Marriages. Children. Education. Beauty. Athletic ability. Physique. Skin. Hair. Talent. Good fortune. ...

"The problem is not with desire itself. It's with the object of our desire: that which belongs to our neighbor. ... I see him as my competitor and not my neighbor." ...

Jenny spoke up. "That shouldn't surprise us though, right? Our entire economy relies on this dynamic. ... We read magazines full of beautiful, shiny people who drive beautiful, shiny cars and have beautiful, shiny things, and we want what they have."
All right. There you have it. Now it's your turn: Go fetch me a cultural artifact that symbolizes the Tenth Word (#10Cscavengerhunt). I want it. I need it. I've got to have it.

***

Oh, one more thing. Here's a short video of Sean talking about the book. Hope you enjoy it!

Sean Gladding, author of Ten from InterVarsity Press on Vimeo.