Monday, January 19, 2015
I was honored to take part in this reading of Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail, written in response to public criticisms of the nonviolent direct action of the Civil Rights Movement. I wrote about my experience participating in this reading last month; you can read my reflections here. King wrote this letter from prison, without access to his library or research notes, so you get a sense from this letter the deep theological underpinnings of the movement. You also get a sense of the contemporary urgency of the "basic constitutional rights" still being fought throughout and beyond the United States. Thanks to Red Letter Christians for taking on this project, and to Micky ScottBey Jones for her leadership in bringing this special project together. I try to read this letter once or twice a year: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a good opportunity, as is the anniversary of King's death every April 4. Read it for yourself here.
Friday, January 09, 2015
The first time I met Margaret Feinberg, I knew I would like her. I knew because she gave me a candy bar. For free. And not one of those fun-sized ones; this was the whole enchilada, if you will, one of those candy bars you buy on impulse at check out. For free. Margaret was leading a conversation about publishing with a millennial audience in mind when I met her. This is something she's particularly qualified to speak to, as she's published about a bazillion books and articles, and she's given herself to a millennial audience in each case. That's not to say that older (and now, sigh, younger) readers don't go for her stuff, because they do. But there's something in the Zeitgeist of the millennial generation that lends itself to freshness, hopefulness, a lightness of being that's not naive or simplistic. Reading millennial writing isn't always illuminating, in the sense of learning something new, but it is almost always enlightening, in the sense of easing your load and dispensing with darkness.
From left: Hershey, Margaret, Leif
So it's not surprising that a book - Margaret's latest, Fight Back with Joy - with so serious a subtext as cancer is nevertheless brisk and fun and defiant and lively. Margaret sent me some of the early chapters some time ago, which I was eager to read, as she tells her cancer story in the book. She does so with great vulnerability and courage; the anxiousness and suffering that attends to a cancer diagnosis is not neglected or minimized. But this isn't ultimately a book about cancer; it's a book about joy, and joy - not as a feeling but as a discipline, as a resource - permeates the book.
I doubt people who know me well would characterize me as "joyful." I do laugh a lot, and I crack a lot of jokes and enjoy a fair amount of playtime with my friends. But I think closer to the center of my life experience is cynicism, a jaded view of the world. Blame it on the music I listen to, if you want, or blame it on my generation: the X in "Generation X" likely stands for "Expect to be disappointed." In any case, when things get hard, I don't typically fight back with joy, as Margaret suggests; I more often fight back with snark.
I remember a time when I was editing a devotional, and I added the phrase "Yeah, right" to a mildly humorous entry - which was, I hasten to add, my right as editor of a work-for-hire writer. (See? Snark.) The writer demanded that I take the phrase out, with the condescending comment "I can't affirm that kind of sarcasm." You can perhaps imagine how eager I was to work with her again. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that sees sarcasm as a character flaw; I hear it in the voice of the Lord in the Sacred Scriptures, for God's sake:
You can get a copy of Margaret's Fight Back with Joy pretty much wherever you want: from Amazon, from Barnes & Noble, from Christian Book Distributors, from an independent bookseller, maybe even from a local church. Give it a read, by yourself or with a group of friends. (There's a companion video series to support group discussion.) I know you'll like it, and you may well find yourself better equipped for the next joy-testing event in your life.
"Go ahead! Cry out for help to the gods you’ve chosen—let them get you out of the mess you’re in!” "Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much!"The occasional sarcastic barb, I've come to understand, is one thing; a lifestyle grounded in cynicism is quite another. Sarcasm may punctuate a point, but cynicism is a kind of abdication of responsibility; it assumes that things that demand to be changed are unchangeable, and it consoles a person with the notion that at least you get it; at least you're not simplistic and naive enough to think change is possible. Cynicism as a lifestyle starts the human story with the fall of Adam and Eve and ends it with the latest bad day. It finds evidence of original sin everywhere it looks, because it expects to find it. Cynicism is arguably chronic in our age, but it's no more inherent to our being than "original sin" is original to our existence. There's a story that predates the fall of Adam and Eve, a story that, as Margaret points out, is filled with joy.
A close inspection of the first chapter of Genesis describes the fabric of creation as knit together with divine affection and delight. Throughout the process of creation, God observes and celebrates the goodness of what he makes. The declaration “God saw that it was good” rings out like a holy chorus until God eyes all he has made and concludes, “It was very good.” God’s repeated declaration of “good” suggests that God delighted in the outcome multiple times. God was so pleased and happy with the results that he percolated with joy. The rich imagery of Genesis 1 suggests the kind of creative high an artist experiences upon completion of a great work. Another vivid illustration of the creation story is tucked into Proverbs. The personified voice of wisdom, one of God’s active attributes in creation, describes, “Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”Joy is inherent to God's approach to the world. Joy is characteristic of wisdom. As Margaret observes, "We spring from joy," because we are made in the image of God, and God is joyful in his bones. TWEET THIS: Joy is inherent to God's approach to the world. Joy is characteristic of wisdom. We lack imagination when we lack joy. But more than that, we lack the resources we need to persevere through the hardships we inevitably face. "More than whimsy," Margaret writes, "joy is a weapon we use to fight life's battles.
Sure, the virtue of joy is an upbeat companion for life, but that is not the whole story. The true power of joy supersedes a chirpy disposition, candy-coated emotion, or saccharine fantasy. It’s far more tangible than any magical notion of clicking your heels and discovering your bliss. Joy serves a useful and mighty purpose.TWEET THIS: We lack imagination when we lack joy.
Monday, January 05, 2015
I am the target audience of the recently released record The Art of McCartney. I see the word McCartney, I click "Add to cart." In this case, however, I clicked "Add to Christmas list" (thanks, Ginny!) which explains this late review of the album. Sorry. Paul McCartney is, undoubtedly, one of the most prolific musicians/songwriters of the past fifty years. Indeed, he's been actively contributing to the canon for more than half a century now, and he shows no signs of slowing down, as evidenced by his even more recent collaboration with Kanye West. Based on output, consistent quality and global influence, McCartney is certainly a good candidate for a tribute album by "the world's greatest artists." If only there were such an album. I was eager to get into The Art of McCartney, and I should probably admit at the outset that I've listened to little else beside it since I opened my Christmas presents. That said, the album is, on balance, disappointing. And it could hardly not be. The album is an odd marriage of incredible hubris and, in many cases, creative laziness.
"Put it there
If it weighs a ton" -
That's what a father says to his younger son.
"I don't care if it weighs a ton.
As long as you and I are here, put it there."
- When I, for one, see the word artists, I imagine a gathering far broader than music. I'm sure Terri Riches-Black (art director) and Stuart Crouch at Peacock (design) and David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images (cover photo) are great people and highly talented at what they do, but The Art of McCartney packaging is hardly on the fast-track to inclusion in the Louvre or the Smithsonian. It's text upon text upon text upon text, with a faint background photo of "Young Paul" behind the album's title and a centerfold of "signatures" from the "world's greatest artists" in an unimaginative script font.
- Maybe it's unfair of me to expect art when I'm handed the word artists; this is, after all, a collection of songs. But that only buys the producers of The Art of McCartney a few nanoseconds before I notice that "the world's greatest artists" are all in the field of popular music. What, Yo Yo Ma wasn't available to try his hand at "My Brave Face"? Wynton Marsalis couldn't give three minutes of his time to "The Pipes of Peace"? Is pop music (with the lightest touch of blues and jazz) the best art the world has to offer?
- And while we're at it, is the best pop music really dominated by white men from North America and Northern Europe? I mean, my collection of pop music surely is, but this is a collection of "the world's greatest artists" - 75 percent of whom are white and male, all of whom (with the possible exception of Toots Hibbert) are firmly ensconced in the First World. I thought pop rock was huge in Korea, but no Korean artists grace the album. I thought Paul loved Pussy Riot, but no love from Russia. I bet Ladysmith Black Mambazo would kill "Blackbird," but they, like "Blackbird," are nowhere to be found. There are, of course, artists closer to home who would have nicely diversified The Art of McCartney. Kanye is, apparently, a fan, and I for one would love to see what he could do with "Say, Say, Say." Stevie Wonder collaborated with Paul on "Ebony and Ivory" and "What's That You're Doing" and did a killer version of "We Can Work It Out" when Paul was awarded the Gershwin Prize a few years ago. But Stevie makes no appearance on this album. I count eight women and people of color combined on an album of thirty-six songs. The producers seem to think that, by and large, white men make the best music.
- But wait: at least the white people represented are, in fact, the world's greatest white artists. Right? Let's see: KIss, Def Leppard, Cheap Trick, Owl City, Alice Cooper, Sammy Hagar ... No disrespect to Owl City - I actually like their rendition of "Listen to What the Man Said" - but including them on a collection of the world's greatest artists is like giving Tina Fey the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor two years before giving it to Carol Burnett, or like opening the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Ringo Starr, Bill Withers and Green Day at the exact same time. I'm no enemy of the young, but there are some designations that only time can earn.
- One last complaint: these songs are "sung," yes, but they're also performed. I like Billy Joel's singing as much as the next guy, but the appeal of Billy Joel on "Maybe I'm Amazed" and "Live and Let Die" is his talent as a pianist; same with Alan Toussaint on "Lady Madonna." Paul McCartney is distinguished from John Lennon most by his ambitious musicianship, so to reduce his songs to things that are sung is to fundamentally misapprehend why Paul is one of "the world's greatest artists."
Thursday, January 01, 2015
This past year I've reflected a lot on the Civil Rights Movement, in part because the-fifty-year anniversaries of seminal moments in the movement keep popping up on the calendar, but mostly because the news is filled with regular reminders that the fight for basic human rights is far from over. I find myself turning regularly to the writings of Martin Luther King, the movement's most public and prolific champion of nonviolent direct social action as a force for cultural change. White memory of the Civil Rights Movement tends, I think, to focus on its emphasis on nonviolence. It's noble, poetic and, of course, absent of conflict. What's not to like? But this memory is selective at best, sentimental at worst. The notion of nonviolence divorced from direct action removes virtually all value from it; nonviolence becomes docility, meekness, impotence. Introduce direct action and white memory quickly becomes uncomfortable, because the nonviolence of demonstrators for civil rights was contrasted with the despicable violence of its opponents. TWEET THIS: The notion of nonviolence divorced from direct action removes virtually all value from it. The graphic novel March (volume two of three comes out in early 2015) does a great job of describing, in prose and pictures, the violent reactions to nonviolent direct action; more compellingly even, it portrays the discipline and spiritual preparation that came before every action. TWEET THIS: Even nonviolent campaigns for justice don't succeed without a fight. You prepare yourself for a fight. What follows, quoted from King's book Why We Can't Wait, is how the soldiers in the battle for civil rights in America prepared themselves for their fight. It strikes me that these are not casual commitments; you don't just do them until they've gotten you what you want. These are lifestyle commitments, life-changing commitments. They lend themselves to far more than nonviolent direct action, actually: commit yourself to these things and you'll probably get into some trouble; but commit yourself to these things and you'll probably change the world.
I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF—MY PERSON AND BODY—TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT.
THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS:
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.
TWEET THIS: Commit yourself to these things and you'll probably change the world.
- MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
- REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement ... seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.
- WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
- PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
- SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
- OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
- REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
- STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
- FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.