Friday, April 02, 2021
Wednesday, March 31, 2021
You’re smiling; that’s enough.
I’m holding on to you like a diamond in the rough.”
The second was one of the lesser lights to nineteen-year-old me, but it’s the song she used to promote this new record, and it’s doing it for me quite nicely these days. It’s hard to believe she had this much soul when she recorded it in her thirties; I don’t mean that as an insult to my thirty-something readers (that’s an age range, not a quantity), only to point out just how much soul she crams in there.
Monday, March 29, 2021
Is the more or less middling: the mean average
Is not noticed.
—W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety
Monday, September 21, 2020
Every September I attend a retreat for the Academy of Christian Editors. A feature of that retreat is a sharing circle where we each get roughly a minute to introduce our favorite book we read over the past year. You can see this year’s complete list here.
I always find this exercise a little stressful — I want my choice to be distinct and memorable, something I won’t be judged for except to be judged as distinct and memorable myself.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. This novel inspired by true events is set in the mid 1960s at a “reform school” for boys. All the students are tyrannized by the staff, but the black kids are routinely terrorized and brutalized. Whitehead is a master at creating characters and carrying the reader into and through terrible things, and he does so here again. Schools like this one existed in my lifetime. Maybe they still do. I’m haunted by that: How many other atrocities are we allowing to exist, and why are we allowing it?
Mandela and the General, a beautifully drawn graphic novel recounting the true story of how newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela, who was actively dismantling the century-old system of apartheid that had privileged whites over people of color, met with and earned the respect and loyalty of the leader of a nationalist resistance group bent on taking South Africa back for the whites. A story I’d never heard before — powerful, compelling — and nobody else had picked it. #winning
Monday, September 14, 2020
A lot of my new albums are not new, however. Case in point: You’re the Man by Marvin Gaye, the (intended) follow-up to his 1971 release What’s Going On. The record was shelved until this year, when it was released to mark the late artist’s eightieth birthday. I picked it up on Record Store Day in April. It’s a double-album, but the second disc is just b-sides and alternate takes, even a Christmas song. I lean hard into the first disc, and particularly side one. The title track is a nice jam that holds up well as an exemplar of its era; my favorite track is “Piece of Clay,” not written by Gaye but delivered with his signature passionate wisdom:
Everybody wants somebody to be
Their own piece of clay.”
Like I said, it holds up.
For my birthday this summer I asked for and received a vinyl edition of an album I loved when I was not yet married, Tanita Tikaram’s 1988 debut Ancient Heart. I already had it on CD—like I said, I’m not very disciplined these days—but I wanted to hear it scratched out at me at 33 revolutions per minute. Tikaram was, at the time, being compared to Van Morrison and other resilient voices; I eventually would buy her second disc and lost track of her after that, but something about this album really did it for me. Her breakout hit was “Twist in My Sobriety,” but every track has gravitas to it—even the sing-songy ”Poor Cow,” which my friend Chris and I would play on our college radio program as we announced the cafeteria’s lunch menu for the day. “Slice her up, slice her up, slice her up, poor cow.” Turns out I wasn’t very disciplined then either.
Monday, September 07, 2020
Monday, June 22, 2020
The year I graduated high school and started college, U2 released their film and record exploring the spirit of America. A friend and I went to great lengths to secure our copy of Rattle and Hum (along with a half-gallon or so of Drakkar Noir for the ladies). Featured on the album was “God, Part II,” Bono’s tribute to John Lennon. It featured a veiled threat against Albert Goldman for his salacious biography of Lennon, but otherwise it was a riff on the original idea of Lennon’s “God.” Instead of disillusionment with the world, however, Bono set his sights on himself: “[I] don’t believe in riches but you should see where I live” is only one of his confessions in the song. Disillusionment with the self was the theme of “God,” part 2, in the first year of my adulthood.
Fast forward 32 years. I’m turning fifty and disillusionment has gone out of favor. Everyone is a true believer - or at least wishes to be identified among the true believers; everyone is tempted at all times to be the first (or at least not the last) to out and expel the unbeliever, or the untrue true believer.
Perhaps disillusionment-fatigue is a consequence of all that we’ve learned in the intervening years about ourselves and our context. These days we’re aware that there is not one world to interact with but an aggregation of overlapping empires to be loyal or disloyal to. As Wendell Berry puts it in his masterful novel Jayber Crow,
All the world, as a matter of fact, is a mosaic of little places invisible to the powers that be.
Our little worlds are of little consequence; it's the overarching empire that breaks and makes us.
Meanwhile, there is not one self for each of us to grow tired of but an intersection of many selves to be put forward according to the demands of the moment. As the great Ben Folds puts it in his song “Best Imitation of Myself," our task increasingly seems to be putting forward one of our many selves, "withholding the rest so I can be for you what you want to see." Our intricate selves are of little consequence; it's the persona, not the person, that drives our success.
To survive in this age of overlapping empires and intersecting selves, we have by and large dispensed with disillusion - which is a shame, because as I have long held, disillusionment is a gift, even a spiritual discipline. Disillusionment is the dispersal of illusions, and so without it we are left clouded in our understanding of ourselves and our world. There is no independence to declare, no singular self to confess.
What, then, is the theme of “God,” part 3? St Paul famously wrote,
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? (Romans 7:24, The Message)
The end of the rope, I think, is a fitting theme for “God, Part III.” Here’s my lame attempt to to offer an anthem to send us out into the next season of life, divested of false hope and in search of true hope.
I don’t pretend to think that my take on “God, Part III” is the only or even the best vantage point, and of course I know stepping into the shoes of Bono and John Lennon and St Paul sounds crazy. But as another poet-prophet once put it, unless we get a little crazy, we’re never going to survive.
“God, Part III”
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost.
America is a concept through which we assert our moral vision.
Race* is a construct in which we sin against one another.
Sin is a classification by which we judge and are judged by ourselves and one another.
Church is a designation with which we settle our insecurity.
Evangelicalism (my own little place) is
a robust theology and a tenuous subculture;
The theology does not support the subculture
and the subculture does not uphold the theology.
Christianity Today does not speak for me.
The Christian Century does not speak for me.
The New York Times does not speak for me.
The Reverend Al Mohler does not speak for me.
The Reverend Jim Wallis does not speak for me.
The late Billy Graham does not speak for me.
The great David Dark does not speak for me.
President Trump does not speak for me.
Vice President Biden does not speak for me.
Nobody speaks for me, even as
Everyone speaks to me.
I don’t speak for GenX.
I don’t speak for cis-whites.
I don’t speak for men;
I sure don’t speak for women.
I don’t speak for evangelicals (my own little place).
I don’t speak for Presbyterians.
I don’t speak for Catholics.
I don’t speak for agnostics.
I sure don’t speak for Jesus
(though I trust he speaks to me).
I speak for no one but myself
And I sometimes fail to tell the truth
About and to myself.
I believe in the great American experiment
And the failure of the American experiment.
I believe in the perseverance of the saints
And the inevitable betrayal of the same.
I believe in the coming judgment
And the boundless mercy of God.
I believe that God will burn away every sin
And wipe away every tear.
I believe that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be:
world without end. Amen.
* I am aware that the cultural references in this post are overwhelmingly if not exclusively white (the invocation and benediction are inspired by John Coltrane’s masterful work of mysticism A Love Supreme"). This is an unfortunate truth about me, that I am largely if not overwhelmingly shaped by white American culture. I'm working on it.
I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you. Sign up for Middling here.
PS: Here’s another clue for you all: Bono was the Fly, John was the Egg Man, and the Walrus was Paul.
Monday, June 08, 2020
Monday, June 01, 2020
Trigger warning: If you don't like asterisks, you're not going to like this post.
If you don't like reflections on uncomfortable topics, you're not going to like this post either.
I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.
The world is a f***ed up place.
These are the words that keep coalescing in my head, the only words that I can muster up when I try to articulate the emotions that surface for me around Ahmaud Arbery. He was shot and killed months ago — I keep trying to remind myself that this assassination is not new news — but I only learned of it when video evidence of the killing finally surfaced. Another execution of another black man at the hands of white men. Another act of degrading violence. Another anecdote in the centuries-long history of racial tyranny and terrorism in the United F***ing States.
I can’t bring myself to type “f***” because I am a Christian and Christians don’t say such words. When I was a kid I used to entertain myself by citing Cohen v. California, the Supreme Court case that affirmed the very sensible argument that freedom of speech extends to vulgar language, so that saying “f***” is our constitutional right. I was a stupid f***ing kid — not because I would occasionally say “f***” but because I took such glee in indulging stupid stuff like this for myself when real human beings were getting shot in the streets for stupid stuff. I was a f***ing Karen before Karen was a f***ing thing.
But I was a child then, and I have since put childish things behind me. I recognize now that when I was enamored with Cohen v. California I was being a stupid f***ing kid, like those f***ers over in Michigan who thought they’d show all of us by marching into government buildings wearing weapons of mass f***ing destruction and ranting about how the state was taking away their f***ing rights by requiring them to change their behavior during a global f***ing pandemic. Those f***ers went home to sleep in their own f***ing beds that night. I’ll be they high-fived each other on their f***ing social media accounts before they kissed their f***ing kids good night.
For some stupid f***ing reason those f***ers can get away with provocative actions like that and Ahmaud Arbery can’t even go for a f***ing run in his own f***ing town without getting shot and killed by a couple of f***ing a**holes who think they’re part of a master race or something. And when they’re caught in the f***ing act they just appeal to some f***ed-up arbitrary law that some f***ing politician threw at the f***ing wall to appease his f***ed up constituency, and then all the other f***ed up politicians who were looking to score some easy points voted yes instead of “hell no” or “what the f*** is this bulls***?” and so suddenly white people with guns can shoot black joggers and call it a f***ing citizen’s arrest.
This is the same f***ed up logic that got Trayvon Martin killed for walking home from a f***ing store, that got Jordan Davis killed for listening to f***ing music in his own f***ing car, that got little twelve-year-old Tamir Rice shot dead for playing with a toy f***ing gun while grown-a** white men in f***ing Michigan are prancing around in camouflage playing with real-a** f***ing semi-automatics in full view of the f***ing police without any f***ing consequence. The world is a f***ed up place.
I can’t say “f***” because I’m a Christian, and Christians can’t abide by vulgar language. We can, apparently, abide by vulgar legislation, vulgar acts of public provocation, vulgar expressions of unchecked entitlement, and countless other displays of vulgarity that demonstrate plainly how f***ed up the world is and yet don’t rise to the level of gross impiety of four-letter words.
Comedian Buddy Hackett used to do a bit about the word “f***.” As I heard the bit, he asked some nice-looking Christian lady in the audience if she ever cussed. Of course not, was her proper and predictable response. He then offered a scenario, say, dropping an anvil on your foot. The immediate, visceral reaction is not one of propriety but something guttural, something vulgar: “Ouch! I broke my f***ing foot!” Some words, he argued, are particularly suited for the moment, even though they wouldn’t normally make it through our filters. Some moments defy filters. Some filters muddy up a moment.
I'm reluctant to sign my name to this because I’m a Christian, and it wouldn’t be nice to do so. I think it’s entirely possible that by owning this rant, I'll be subjected to shame by my church friends and my Christian employer will call me down to HR for a chat. But more than that, I’ll resist the idea of putting my name to it because I have shaped my filters in such a way that such language has no place, and in turn my filters have shaped me into a person who is focused on scrupulously moderating his language so as to describe gross violations of human dignity like the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in nice, polite terms, rather than demanding in an outdoor voice and with the most visceral, arresting language available to me that all of us, starting with myself, refuse to tolerate such demonstrations of our inherent vulgarity as a society, and instead scrupulously refashion society in the manner of Jesus, who among other things stood between a vulnerable woman and a crowd that thought it would be both cool and well within their rights to stone her to death; Jesus who stood between a man healed of his blindness and authorities who felt entirely entitled to coerce him and his family into betraying Jesus and one another; Jesus who told his followers in starkly plain language to obey God and not cower before people who were in the habit of enforcing their social power with weapons of mass intimidation; Jesus who threw the opportunists out of the temple and welcomed marginalized ethnic communities into the family of faith.
That’s a long sentence, a byproduct of the filtration system I’ve been enculturated into and have reinforced with my own participation in it. The world is a f***ed up place, and I’m right there f***ed up in the middle of it. May God have mercy on every f***ing one of us.
This lament is for Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and Christian Cooper, and for Tamir Rice, and for Trayvon Martin, and for Sandra Bland, and for Philando Castile, and for Botham Jean, and for Eric Garner, and for Michael Brown, and for Atatiana Jefferson, and for Freddie Gray, and for Emmett Till, and for so so so many others.
Monday, May 25, 2020
Monday, May 11, 2020
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