Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Site of the Day: Christian Vision Project

I've made no secret of my man-crush on Andy Crouch, the director of the Christian Vision Project. That dude is as cool as he is smart, and he's really cool. I mention this because (a) I've historically neglected to link my site to the CVP site, an oversight I've now corrected (see the sidebar below); and (b) I've recently learned that the great DVD curriculum assembled by the CVP--Intersect | Culture--is now available for $25, which is half what I paid for my copy at last year's Catalyst Conference. (A couple weeks later I got a free copy, so it all works out. I heart CVP.) If you have some missionally minded, creatively inclined friends who enjoy hashing out what posture Christians ought to have toward the culture they perceive themselves as living in, you'd enjoy this. Buy it (or at least take a peek at it) here.

Monday, August 27, 2007

My wife and I are just back from vacation. In Las Vegas. I learned a bit about myself in the weeks leading up to our trip; we began to realize that we couldn't mention where we were headed without immediately offering some sort of caveat: "It was a special offer" or "We don't know what we'll do there, since we don't gamble." It became a spiritual discipline for us to simply say, when asked where we were going, "Vegas."

I came back from Vegas to a churchful of inquiries--"What did you do?" "How much did you lose?" From there I went back to work, where my evangelical colleagues asked me similar questions, complete with awkward hesitation, stern, disapproving looks and nudge-nudge-wink-wink presumptiveness. So I'm now inclined, rather than to immediately respond to such questions, to ask people what they think I did in Vegas. It'll be interesting to hear what people think of me.

So I'll start with you, gentle reader: What do you think I did in Vegas?

Friday, August 17, 2007

The One Who Saves Your Bacon Is Your Friend

Yesterday my car wouldn't start. I was stranded in the suburbs, alone at the pet food store with my misery. I was sweaty and cranky. And my car, in case I neglected to mention it, wouldn't start.

On such occasions I regret my general ignorance, for I had no clue whatsoever what might be causing my car to not start. I called my wife, who suggested I call her dad, who told me it was probably the battery.

Now what? I had a few options: my father-in-law was willing (bless his heart) to drive out to me to recharge my battery, but that would have been an hour-long round-trip for him. I could ask someone in the parking lot to give me some help; they were much closer than my father-in-law. But I didn't know them, and they might think I was a serial killer or something, and I can't have that.

So I compromised and called my friend Bill. (I called him that, incidentally, because that's his name.) Bill was nearer by, at home practicing his guitar while he waited for dinner to cook, and he suspected I had a bad alternator, not a bad battery, but he nevertheless dropped everything (except the guitar) and came to my rescue. Bill, yesterday, saved my bacon.

I wish I felt free to ask my anonymous neighbors at the pet food store to help me when I'm in need. I wish I lived in a world where people didn't need to fear serial killers. But this is the world I live in, and in the world I live in, the one who saves your bacon is your friend.

Thanks Bill. You saved my bacon, my friend.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Le Roi Est Mort; Vive le Roi

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Two days from now, serendipitously, I'll be in Las Vegas to give proper tribute.

Elvis loomed large over my childhood, right up there with Jimmy Carter and Pope John Paul II. He defined cool for me till I was old enough to mock his bloated later years; by that time I was in college, where I and some friends took every opportunity to tear apart the mythology and mysticism of the King of Rock and Roll. Still, a bowl of grits purchased on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis is one of my most cherished college memories.

That's the nature of our idols, isn't it? We revere them until it suits us to revile them, and all along they continue to exercise their transcendent power over us.

I'm now five years younger than Elvis was when he died; maybe that's why my cynical self-promotion at Elvis' expense has given way to today's expression of sentimental solidarity. All day I've been listening to my CD of Elvis' thirty #1 hits, and regardless of what you think of the man and his music, he certainly did own the industry in his day.

And yet he remained a person in spite of all the hoopla. He had weird eating habits and a probable drug problem and horrible interior decorating skills. And he had a sense of humor, as evidenced by this piece of audio tape--a performance of "Are You Lonesome Tonight" at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Pop Quiz

Do me a favor: randomly ask someone (preferably under the age of 20) what the following phrase means:

ineffably sublime potentate

Then report your findings here. I'm just curious. My first response, from a fourteen-year-old, was "Umm, undeniably perfect."


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Age to Age

I'm conflicted today, and I'm blaming it on Sunday's worship experience.

I'm also digesting this post from its much longer first edition. It's been mentioned to me that I've outed my church before on this blog, and that despite my effort to be circumspect and respectful in the process of writing this post, I've still been a little too harsh with my opinions. So I'm editing myself out of respect for the other members of my church and its recent guests.

I'm certainly not the first to get all worked up over how a worship service is conducted, and even typing that phrase makes me realize how silly an idea that is. But for whatever reason, how we worship gets people stirred up.

Really, the details of my earlier, longer post are just details that set me to thinking about how worship ought to be organized. As significant to my thinking as this weekend's worship service was my recent rediscovery of Nickel Creek. Their greatest hits album was loaned to me this weekend by a junior higher at our church. I think it's safe to say that there's hardly a musical genre more dead than Bluegrass in the popular imagination, and yet a few years ago these three Bluegrass (or "Newgrass," I'm told) musicians, each under the age of twenty-one, got everybody jamming to the fiddle and the mandolin again.

They did it not by reasserting the genre, not by banging everybody on the knees with a banjo and shouting "Why can't you see this is better than the tripe you normally listen to?!?" but by reinventing it. The Bluegrass community had its own internal debates about how to understand Nickel Creek, but no one could deny these kids' musicianship, their place in the historical progression of Bluegrass as a genre, or the wide appeal of their music. In the meantime Nickel Creek proved compelling to the broader public; they sold a lot of records and concert tickets, and recruited a lot of new fans to the genre.

All these factors conspired to get me thinking this weekend about how, as a member of a congregation, I ought to approach worship. I think regardless of how the traditional-contemporary divide ultimately shakes out, the conversation needs to be one about creation. How have we done it? is a question with finite value; so is the question How is everyone else doing it? Ultimately each congregation must ask of itself: Who are we, and what are we doing here, together, this Sunday?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Suffering for Sufjan

I've bought two ringtones in my life. One was as cool a sappy ringtone as I could think of to alert me to incoming calls from my wife: "Wish You Were Here" by Pink Floyd. (Her ringtone for me, by contrast, is the lilting voice of Lionel Richie asking "Hello--is it me you're looking for?") The other, I'm proud to say, is from an obscure song by Sufjan Stevens, which is tagged to announce incoming calls from everybody else.

My fondness-bordering-on-fanatical-obsession for Sufjan is well documented here and elsewhere. But I happened on this ringtone by happy accident--searching with my wife for ringtones based on Beatles songs. Sufjan contributed a quirky recording of Ringo Starr's "What Goes On" to a collection of underground artists giving tribute to the fortieth anniversary of the Beatles' Rubber Soul album. Lined up against the original, a straight-up Colonel Parker Memphis-rock standard, Sufjan's cover is virtually unrecognizable--which is pretty impressive, to be honest.

So yesterday I took the afternoon off to accommodate a whole host of errands, the first of which was donating blood, for which I was richly rewarded with cookies, Diet Coke, a pint of ice cream, two travel mugs, a thermos, a travel case and, presumably, a partridge in a pear tree. My cell phone (which was supposed to be turned off, incidentally) started ringing, and my phlebotomist and all her phlebotomizing friends and clients started laughing.

Apparently Sufjan is an acquired taste. I felt just a little like Peter the disciple of Jesus in the courtyard of the temple as Jesus stood accused inside, or Peter the apostle among the circumcision group as Paul the apostle advocated for the uncircumcised: suddenly I had to decide if I would defend my conviction that Sufjan is among the greatest musicians of our generation, or if I would join the mocking chorus and salvage my reputation at Sufjan's expense.

I leaped to Sufjan's defense, I'm simultaneously proud and embarrassed to say. I did so as much to reinforce my carefully cultivated reputation as a musical savant as I did to introduce this new audience to the joy of Sufjan. But at least I stood up for something; that's never a given.

I wonder occasionally how I would have done in the courtyard of the temple had a little girl accused me of fraternizing with Jesus. I wonder less often how I would have done if my friend the advocate of the Gentiles were being derided by the circumcision group in my presence. But they're both legitimate exercises, I think: who I'm willing to suffer for is a good indicator of who I can legitimately call my friend. I'm reminded of a song by Mark Heard:

What kind of a friend could pull a knife
When it's him or you and his kids need shoes?
What kind of a friend would do you in
When the bomb goes off and the shelter's his?
What kind of friends do friends become
When the musical chairs get down to one?
What kind of friend could I become?
What kind of friend am I?

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...