Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year's Eve Meditation

I’ve always assumed that destiny—my destiny, your destiny, our destiny—is out there, out front, down the road a bit and around the corner. Destiny isn’t; destiny will be. I’ve always assumed that destiny was a future event that we aspired to. And in a sense I suppose that makes sense: destiny has the same etymology as destination, after all. But lately I’ve been wondering whether I have placed destiny so far forward for no other reason than to keep it handily out of reach.

Is destiny something I, you, we, aspire to, or is it something we defer for as long as possible? I think of Augustine, who saw purity and continence as his destiny—“but Lord, not yet!” I think of Oz, the Emerald City, the reality of which proved less inspiring than the idea of it, or the yellow brick road that led to it. I think of my own destiny fantasies—the inevitable celebrity, the inordinate wealth—that I somehow intuitively recognize are more valuable when they remain ethereal, better coping mechanisms than life coaches.

So now I’m wondering whether destiny isn’t so much some future, far off thing as it is something present and parallel, another way possible that pokes me now and then with its possibility, a ghost that haunts my everyday existence and urges me to repent and hear the good news. The kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, is near—more now than not yet. The life I’m meant to live—not the “best life” that involves conspicuous, relentless consumption and obnoxious self-assertion and –preservation but the responsible, mature, vocational life fashioned for me in secret by the Creator of the universe—is knocking me off my horse, tapping me on the shoulder and whispering in my ear: “This is the way, walk in it.”

No destination, only destiny. No future, only the ever-present now awaiting my awakening, your awakening, our awakening.

Maybe not. But it does make me wonder . . .

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Getting Better All the Time

Paul McCartney has had a pretty good 2010. His Beatles catalogue was finally made available on iTunes; his post-Beatles discography is being remastered and re-released; he was awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by President Obama; he was honored alongside Oprah Winfrey and other artists by the Kennedy Center; even a street he once walked on in his bare feet is now a landmark protected by the British government. Money can't buy McCartney love, but in 2010, he had love (and money) to spare.

The problem with all these accolades is that they're almost entirely retrospective. Meanwhile, Paul is regularly putting out new music. Of course, among his more recent releases is the album Memory Almost Full, which includes songs like "Ever-Present Past" and "At the End of the End," a song about his death. I fear that Paul feels his best years are behind him; I worry that he thinks back to "When I [was] Sixty-Four" and decided it was, for all intents and purposes, "The End."

That doesn't need to be the case. I think what Paul needs, to reinvigorate his own creative process and reassert his reputation as a living artist, is some creative collaboration.

Paul is known as much for his collaborations as for his personal creative genius. The overwhelming majority of Beatles songs, whether he wrote them in total solitude or had nothing whatsoever to do with them, are a shared songwriting credit with John Lennon. His post-Beatles work was marked by the upfront participation of his wife Linda and the distinctive contribution of ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine. He charted hits with Stevie Wonder and king of pop Michael Jackson. It's difficult, actually, to think of Paul McCartney in isolation; he's at his best when he's working with someone.

But since the mid-1980s Paul has, more or less, as a commercial artist, been keeping to himself. And since the mid-1980s, he's been thought of as an artifact of the past moreso than an artist of the present. So I would like to propose that Paul get back in the collaboration business.

He's not totally given up on collaboration, for the record. He's put out three albums with the techno-artist Youth (Martin Glover) as "The Fireman." But Fireman music isn't radio-friendly, and I want, for Paul and for the rest of us, more McCartney on the radio. So may I humbly suggest the following artists as a sort of to-do-be-do-be-do list for Sir Paul in his forthcoming creative renaissance.

Ben Folds. Ben Folds is the sort of angry genius that nicely offsets Sir Paul's cheery genius. Ben writes great melodies, crafts brilliant harmonies and comes up with startlingly honest lyrics. So does Paul. And the energy! Ben Folds tops my list.

Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy fronts Wilco, he has a respect for music history and a good track record of working with music and artists from earlier eras, as evidenced by his partnerships with Billy Bragg on the Woody Guthrie catalogue and his recent work with Mavis Staples. Speaking of whom . . .

Mavis Staples. In many ways the moral conscience of the late 1960s music scene, she once turned down a proposal of marriage from Bob Dylan, telling him to get religion. And he did!

John Legend. Legend meets legend, come on now.

They Might Be Giants and/or Justin Roberts. The biggest names in "kindie rock" would allow Paul to explore his silly, still-youthful side. Also, I went to high school with Justin, and that would bring me one degree closer to the Beatles.

Alicia Keys. She's a soulful genius, as is Paul at his best. I don't believe Paul has collaborated with a woman to date (besides Linda, at least), but Alicia Keys would be a good start.

Win Butler. The singer-songwriter for Arcade Fire is so hot right now, and he knows how to craft a highly textured song, something Paul mastered with tracks such as "Live and Let Die." Imagine the possibilities!

Elvis Costello. Elvis produced Paul's great Flowers in the Dirt album, which I believe Paul called his most energizing collaboration since John Lennon. It's time for a reunion.

Willie Nelson. A genius and legend in his own right, Willie Nelson has some experience with collaborative projects, having helmed the supergroup The Highwaymen and sung with Elvis Costello, among others. And speaking of country . . .

Alison Krauss. Alison Krauss is younger than I am but is already a legend in country and bluegrass music. She collaborated with Led Zeppelin alumnus Robert Plant to great effect. Gorgeous melodies and harmonies, what could go wrong? And speaking of bluegrass . . .

Chris Thile. The mandolin player from Nickel Creek went Beatlesque in his collaboration with Switchfoot lead Jon Foreman for their Fiction Family project; bluegrass (or, as a friend of mine called it, "new-grass") would be relatively unexplored territory for Paul, which is hard to imagine, but it's true.

Jon Foreman. See above. And Switchfoot is anthemic in ways that early Wings were anthemic. Time to rock again, Sir Paul.

Sean Lennon. All I am saying is give it a chance.

Sam Phillips. She recorded John Lennon's "Give Me Some Truth." She released the enormously Beatlesque (and enormously awesome) Martinis and Bikinis. She's one of my all-time favorites. Do me this favor, Paul! And speaking of favors . . .

Neil Finn. Lead singer of Crowded House, in my opinion he is the best singer/songwriter of my era, having picked up lyrically and musically where the Beatles left off. He's written a song that everyone can sing along to, "Don't Dream It's Over," and several others that people would do well to learn; singing along to songs like his makes the world more awesome. Paul's written several such songs--imagine trying to decide whether to close your concert with "Hey Jude" or "Let It Be"--and he deserves the company of someone who knows what that's like.

Anyway, that's what I wish for when I think of Paul McCartney. Anyone I've overlooked?

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Self-Publishing Class

I keep track of what I read--I use that "Living Social" service somehow connected to Facebook to log books I'm reading, books I've read, books I want to read. I adopted the service sort of on a whim; I'm reasonably certain that there are better alternative services, with more utility at least. But in any case, I've found it useful and, at times, gratifying to be able to click on a button announcing "I'm finished" when I turn the final page.

One of the apparent shortcomings of Living Social is that it doesn't access self-published books--at least not all self-published books; it's not clear to me which it lists and which it doesn't. I discovered this because lately I've been reading a fair bit of self-published books. Right now I'm reading two--one by three friends, one by a "friend" whom I've never met--and I'm reading about a third (a friend just released his self-published book, and it's generating some buzz around his core networks). I find it mildly frustrating that my reading some of these books will go unannounced, unarchived--this despite the fact that I work for a conventional trade book publisher, which one would assume ought to feel threatened by the self-publishing industry. We make our money, after all, not only by selling books but by signing authors:

no authors to sign = no books to sell
So when authors choose a route that doesn't require us, well, that feels less like a snub and more like a shot across the bow.

We're not generally threatened by self-publishing, however. I'll be honest: most of what gets self-published is not saleable. That's not to say it's not good (though I'll be honest: much of it is not good), but the otherwise good author may not be able to attract a crowd, and a trade publisher needs a crowd as much as it needs an author.

no author to sign + no crowd to buy = no job for Dave

I thought about publishing my next thing--The Parable of the Unexpected Guest--through a self-publishing outlet. But I started researching it and got bored + lazy, so I sucked up to the right people at my employer and got them to sign it. Now I just have to find a crowd . . .

But I digress. I thought about self-publishing because I've started to really get it: it's not merely the vanity thing I had once made it out to be--or, at least, it's not necessarily more vain a move than publishing with a conventional trade publisher. In fact many of the self-published books I'm reading strike me as a new kind of humility, or what passes for humility in an age of living online--a kind of humility that doesn't denigrate the life of the mind and the creativity that's inherent to being human. These folks self-publish because they write, and they write because they think, or they write in order to think, or they write because or in order that they can be creative with words.

I'm coming to the conclusion, actually, that for a particular class of people writing a book is a sort of rite of passage. It's a discipline, really, a way of synthesizing, processing and communicating what they have come so far to understand. It's like a dissertation for the student of a particular life, an intellectual travelogue for a postmodern pilgrim. Whether the book itself is broadly read is ancillary to the act of writing itself; in a world where publishing has become a working-class utility rather than an aristocratic luxury, it's enough to have written. You can then go on with whatever's next.

Some self-publishers go on to write books for publishers like my employer; some others continue to publish "off grid" as a sort of conviction, even though they have the attention of publishers like us. Some others will never write another book. Not everything any of them has written is great or even good, but for this class of people it's good nonetheless that they've written. God bless them: they honor a tradition older and more profound than publishing. They honor writing, and thinking, and creating. May their tribe increase.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Joy Slips In Unnoticed

This very nearly made me cry the first time I saw it. From the creative minds at Improv Everywhere. Merry Christmas from Loud Time.

Guerilla Handbell Strikeforce

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve: A Tale of Two Cities

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
(O little town of Bethlehem)
Dressed in holiday style.
(How still we see thee lie.)
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.
(Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.)
People passing, children laughing,
(Yet in thy dark streets shineth)
Meeting smile after smile.
(The everlasting light)
And on every street corner you hear . . .
(The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.)

Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

Strings of streetlights—
(How silently, how silently)
Even stoplights blink a bright red and green.
(The wondrous gift is given)
As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.
(So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.)
Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch.
(No ear may hear his coming)
This is Santa’s big scene
(Yet in this world of sin)
And above all the bustle you’ll hear . . .
(Where meek hearts will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.)

Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pray for the Imprisoned

Former Illinois Governor George Ryan is still in prison. He was denied his request for a new trial, based on changes to "Honest Services" laws imposed by the Supreme Court, and to be allowed to live free during the retrial to attend to his dying wife. The details of Ryan's conviction are complex, amounting to abuse of office while he was Illinois Secretary of State that resulted (somewhat indirectly) in the accidental deaths of six children. His wife Lura's cancer has spread throughout her body, and she will likely die in a matter of months.

Governor Ryan could not seem more different, on the surface at least, from his successor and fellow convict Rod Blagojevich. Ryan looks like a stereotypical Republican--old, white in hair and skin, stocky and suity; Blagojevich looks like a Chicago Democrat--young and healthy, with bushy dark hair and mildly progressive white skin, with an inexplicable optimism and an aura that invites suspicion or derision, depending on the context. I've never really liked Blagojevich; I never really liked Ryan either, but I feel more sympathy for Ryan than for Rod.

Ryan, for one, has served time. He's in prison and dealing with it. He has been since 2007. Also, his wife is dying, and he can't get to her; she can get to him, of course, but she's unwell and they're separated by a state and a penal system. It's hard not to feel for a guy who has to endure these extreme hardships--including watching his wife die from afar--in the public eye.

Beyond his current situation, I'd like to suggest that Ryan handled his scandal better than Blagojevich. Rod became a national laughing stock in the wake of his arrest, embarrassing himself on talk shows and reality television--even making a commercial for pistachios, of all things. After his scandal broke, by contrast, Ryan became a national leader, declaring a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois and commuting the sentences of all Illinois death row inmates, and visiting Fidel Castro in defiance of a national embargo on Cuba. Both were reasoned acts that provoked nationwide conversations; the closest Blagojevich came to such statesmanship was a showy offer of free public transportation for senior citizens, which many didn't need and which deepened state debt and nearly undid the public transportation system for everyone.

So I think of Ryan as a governor, and Blagojevich as a politician. That doesn't mean I think Ryan is innocent of the charges he was convicted of, nor does it mean I think he's incapable of playing politics. Ryan is unique among people in the prison system in that he can appeal his situation not only to the courts but to the public. He has a willing accomplice in the media, many of whom are now old family friends by virtue of his career in politics and their career in news. They also have their own interests: there's value in milking a story as prolific in human drama as Ryan's, from the kids that died to the cancer that's killing his wife. We follow this drama not because Ryan is an inmate in federal prison but because he knows the right people to play, the right buttons to push.

There are doubtless countless other inmates in prisons throughout the country who face the loss of loved ones while they're inside; they have no reporters visiting their cells or their loved ones' hospital beds. Prison is a desolate place, with so much attention given to keeping order that little time or energy is left for tending to the hurting. I don't blame the guards or the wardens or anyone for that; it's the system we want, I think it's fair to say. We just don't want to admit we want it.

We feel bad for Ryan because we know who he is; we feel nothing for most inmates because we don't know who they are. Ryan is asking for clemency and special treatment; I'd love to see him lead again, to tell his story not as a plea for special circumstance but as an illustration of a fundamental flaw in how we dispense justice. I'd love to see Ryan show solidarity with his fellow inmates, to use the power available to him to provoke a national conversation again, to help us figure out how to acknowledge the humanity of the convicted--with all the relational complexity that attends to it.

So, while I'm not a fan of George Ryan per se, I'll be praying for him this Christmas, him and those like him who are separated from their loved ones for reasons we understand. I'll also be praying for me and those like me who don't like crime but are uncomfortable with our current system of punishment.

Monday, December 20, 2010

An Open Letter to Survivor

This morning Jud "Fabio" Birza will collect a check for $1 million, thanks to his ability to "outwit, outplay, outlast" twenty people in the Nicaraguan rainforest. I'm happy for Fabio; as the season unfolded he became my pick to win--not because I thought he had the goods to pull it off, but because he was the least onerous of twenty seemingly irredeemably onerous people.

I knew we were in trouble this season on Survivor when "the young tribe" (contestants under forty--please don't make teams by age ever again) openly fretted that the woman with a prosthetic leg ("Kelly B") would win sympathy votes from the jury and so (a) made her life horrible at camp and (b) conspired to get rid of her early. I don't think a sympathy vote was going to be a problem with this crew of misanthropes.

The "old tribe" (I can't believe I've reached the point where I would be on the "old tribe") wasn't any better, with alpha males conspiring to take down a person, Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson, who (a) should have been their hero, (b) could have gotten them all the way to the end and (c) would have refused the money had he gotten there. I think "the love of the game" was present in most of the contestants this season, but I also think "love" in this case is a misnomer: I saw no real love, of neighbor or enemy or anything, only obsession.

In a season where a neurotic woman (Holly Hoffman) steals a teammate's shoes and doesn't get voted off for it but instead becomes the beloved preachy matriarch; in a season where the "hero" (Jane Bright) hoarded food and pouted and would not shut up about North Carolina; in a season where a guy (Dan Lembo) who repeatedly proved himself useless in competitions and in camplife made it to the final five; in a season where the winner (Fabio) didn't make any enemies despite peeing in the pool that his fellow contestants had to keep jumping into; in a season where the villain (NaOnka Mixon) got bored and quit--in a season this annoyingly dysfunctional, we your fans are less excited by the finale and more relieved. Even hobst Jeff Probst seemed to be glad it was over; he was more eager to talk to audience member Terry Bradshaw than many of the actual contestants.

Probst announced some changes for the next season, which were as wonkish and boring as the weird ramblings of the winner when asked what he'd do with the money: a rewritten contract with the competitors, so that if they quit, the show can use its discretion to decide whether to include or exclude them from the jury (insert dramatic tribal music here); also, starting next season, eliminated players have a chance to earn their way back into the game (at which point they will most likely be immediately voted off again).

Dearest Survivor, I fear you've lost your way. In season 1, the winner was obvious from the beginning; Richard what's-his-name was clearly, undeniably outplaying, outwitting and outlasting everyone else. The losers recognized and accepted that they had been beat. The audience understood the logic of the final vote, drama included. And for all Richard's quirkinesses and controversies, he remained likeable.

We've come a long way, since now the show comes up with ways to give money to "fan faves" and the final vote is more often than not a full-on pouty protest--like the airing of grievances, the jury's own "Festivus for the rest of us!" Sorting out the heroes and the villains doesn't work for a show like Survivor; the heroes get kicked out early by the villains, who are better at capitalizing on their defeats than playing to their strengths. We're left to root for the lesser of twenty evils, and the show no longer makes sense. Up becomes down, young becomes old, winner becomes loser, and vice versa.

I suggest, dear Survivor, that you worry less about protecting and shoring up the "fan faves" and concentrate on making an exciting show. Find contestants who are interesting in and of themselves, whose egos are in check in advance. Reward teamwork more than infamy, both in airtime and in playtime. Kick a player off for being a jerk; give a player a reward for being extraordinarily kind. How about a season of players who don't care about the money? Players who want to test themselves, not prove themselves? You change things up a little bit every season; I submit that, if you concentrate less on changes to contracts and more on the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, you'll wind up with viewers anxious to learn who won, rather than an audience that's relieved to be through with you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent: O Come, Immanuel

Over the Rhine wrote "The Trumpet Child" as a riff on the future coming of Christ. Here's the song being performed (not by OTR) at a church; lyrics (from Over the Rhine's website) follow beneath.

The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race

The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum

The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long

The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand

The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Perpetual State of Incarnation

It’s not unreasonable, I think, to consider the best art a sort of blood sacrifice. I hate to draw attention to all the popular songs with lyrics referencing the loss of blood, because I know people for whom such lyrics trigger awful things, but trust me they are many. Maybe the best example of what I’m getting at is a line from Red Smith about the art of writing: “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

It’s blood because it’s so personal, so passionate. It’s a sacrifice because, regardless of motive (and much motive behind art is egoistic in the most notorious sense), it is spilt on behalf of others—often people you’ve never met or will meet, often people you don’t or wouldn’t particularly enjoy being around. Your blood, shed for them.

In that respect, Jesus may rightly be thought of as an artist. Maybe that’s why so often Jesus’ words are set in red ink: to remind us that while his crucifixion was a blood sacrifice for all of us, his life to that point—the things he did, the words he spoke—were no less born out of passion, no less shed for us. The incarnation itself—God taking on flesh, Jesus being born and growing up and spending three years announcing that the kingdom of God is near—was a passionate act of sacrifice.

We don’t think about the sacrifice of Christ in the incarnation very much during Christmas. We celebrate the baby Jesus and we sing songs about how awesome it is that he would come, but we don’t think about the cost of the coming. Containing an infinite God in flesh cannot be comfortable; forsaking the power and privilege of divinity can’t be pleasant. Speaking truth to the powers that be, all the while knowing that they will respond to your truth with violence, and that while you could stop it at any time, you won't—we speak of Christ’s crucifixion as his passion, but his passion in truth attended to his whole time on earth, occupying every act, flowing through every word.

I just got back from a gathering, sponsored by living legend Tony Campolo, called the Red Letter Fellowship. It was suggested to us that the call to Christian discipleship is a call to speak and act in pursuit of a perpetual state of incarnation—that God’s kingdom would come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. To illustrate what this state might look like, Tony points to Isaiah 65:

Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.

Jesus illustrated this state of incarnation variously, but when he announced his mission, he turned likewise to Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus got in trouble talking like this, and as I looked around the room at the members of the Red Letter Fellowship, I saw a great number of people who have gotten into trouble for taking Jesus seriously when he talked like this. These days, to speak and act in pursuit of a perpetual incarnation is itself often a sort of blood sacrifice. In that respect, following Jesus is a good art, and Jesus himself is always looking for more artists.

So, on this third Sunday of Advent, allow yourself some creative space: what art might Jesus be inviting you to make with him? What good news might Jesus be asking you to proclaim with him?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Rest in Peace, John Lennon

Thirty years ago, John Lennon was shot dead. Forty-one years ago he wrote the following, with Yoko Ono (and during the time that he shared all writing credits with Paul McCartney).

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism,
ism ism ism
All we are saying is give peace a chance

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Minister, Sinister, Banisters and Canisters,
Bishops, Fishops, Rabbis, and Pop Eyes,
Bye bye, Bye byes
All we are saying is give peace a chance

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Revolution, Evolution, Masturbation, Flagellation, Regulation,
Integrations, mediations, United Nations, congratulations
All we are saying is give peace a chance

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
John and Yoko, Timmy Leary, Rosemary,
Tommy Smothers, Bobby Dylan, Tommy Cooper,
Derek Taylor, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg, Hare Krishna
Hare Hare Krishna
All we are saying is give peace a chance

The song goes through occasional reiterations, reflecting on new passing fads and controversies, always retaining the intro of "everybody's talkin' 'bout" and ending with the chorus of "all we are saying." So today, on the thirtieth anniversary of John's death, why not take a stab at your own verse. Here's mine:

Everybody's talkin' 'bout
fashion glasses
lads and lasses
fumbled passes
greenhouse gasses
death and taxes
Latin masses
veni, vidi, vici.
All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Gospel According to Bob Dylan

For the second Sunday of Advent, the lectionary calls for a reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Here Matthew designates John the Baptist as "a voice" foretold by the prophet Isaiah, "calling out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord.'" If I were to make a musical out of Advent, I think my pick for the role of John would be Bob Dylan.

Dylan has in recent years been cast as many things, from the unseen prophet of the Cylon apocalypse in Battlestar Galactica, to the minstrel accompanying Victoria's Secret models as they prance around in their underwear. This year an album was released that imagines Dylan's music as the score of the African American experience in the United States. And yet as well-executed as those castings have been, I think John the Baptist is much less of a leap.

Picture a wild-haired, wild-eyed man on the edge of a river, who despite his utter lack of self-regard (and even self-care) and profoundly counter-cultural appearance and demeanor, can't help but attract a diverse crowd. Picture them looking warily at one another until a gravely, nasaly voice penetrates the ambient noise and lays into one and all with this prophecy:

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.

For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside ragin'.

It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

There's a little of nothing and a lot of something in the phrase "the times, they are a-changin'"--enough, I suppose, to unsettle those of us who need unsettling; enough to encourage those of us who need encouraging. But you can't just say it, because change that merits this kind of anthem doesn't just happen. You can't point to seasons changing or micro- or macro-evolution and get off on a technicality. This isn't a song of chronos, in which every tick of the second hand is, for the record, a change. This is a song of kairos, a ripeness of moment in which change is as profound as it is necessary--a curse to some, perhaps, but an overdue blessing to the minds of many.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

This is what I imagine John the Baptist singing about, out there in the wilderness. This is what straightening paths for the Lord sounds like. The changes John baptized people into got him killed--got Jesus killed, even--and yet the changes themselves vindicated the suffering of those who suffered then, just as they vindicate the suffering of those who suffer now. To the intransigent on the shores of his river John the Baptist pleaded "start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone!" But to those whose suffering had reached its fullness of time, I picture John anticipating the words of Julian of Norwich, whispering into the ears of the poor and suffering as he dipped them into the water:

All will be well,
And all will be well,
And every manner of thing will be well . . .
For the times, they are a-changin'.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Dangerbooks! Living Mission

Let me first make a commitment: not every "dangerbook" I review will be one that I edited. I'm not so naive as to think I, who live in relative comfort and who rarely venture outside my home, let alone into discomfort of any kind, might be thought of as a "dangereditor." But I have found particular gratification in the editorial process on those books that challenge me, and so I freely admit that I sometimes seek them out. Hence my first "dangerbook" review, found here, was a book that I edited.

The nature of challenging books is such that, in the current reading climate, they're often strategically overlooked in favor of books that are "safe for the whole family" or some other category of innocuousness. Don't cry for these dangerbooks, of course: they're doing fine, and they're not so naive as to think writing books that threaten to change people is a viable retirement strategy anyway. Nevertheless, I like to do my part to showcase these books, as much out of appreciation for their impact on me, as out of my conviction that the responsibility of publishing is to push and stretch and confront and afflict, even as it encourages and empowers and even comforts. With that in mind, I bring you Living Mission, today's book o' danger.

Living Mission is a followup of sorts. Its editor (and author of chapter one) is Scott Bessenecker, associate director of missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and author of the book The New Friars. That book profiled five contemporary mission organizations that defy the caricature of missions and instead live among people in extreme poverty, advocating for justice and developing self-sustaining communities undergirded by faith. In Living Mission Scott hands the microphone to representatives of each of these movements to give further definition to how they came about and what they're all about. (Full disclosure, I've also edited books by two of the contributors.) As they see it, mission that is living and not hollow has essentially five traits:

* First and foremost, mission is incarnational--which is to say, emulating Jesus by living among and like those they serve (even though they don't have to).
* Next, mission is missional--which may elicit a "duh" from the audience but needs to be said anyway. It chases after the things God chases after--kingdom values--which often grate against the overarching values of the status quo.
* Next, mission is marginal, seeking out the places and people being neglected (and often actively suppressed or simply sacrificed) by the powers that be.
* Then mission is devotional, striving to keep its savior and lord and source of strength in view. This type of mission attracts a lot of activists, after all, and such people can often lose sight of their "why" as they chase hard after a particular "what."
* Finally, this living mission is communal. Those who engage in this type of mission are making a home for themselves, with new neighbors and an expansive and diverse family. Outsiders cannot swoop in and save a community; this isn't a comic book. No, communities are saved when they discover Christ and one another together, and when they step out in search of God's kingdom come, God's will done, in their neighborhoods and cities as it is in heaven.

As foreword writers Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove rightly observe, in a world where as many as two billion people live in megacity slums, "is the good news . . . really the promise of Disneyland and a trust fund?" We don't need to read this book just out of appreciation for the people who take such a difficult challenge for themselves; we need desperately to read it because the world so many of us occupy--the world of Christian publishing and suburban living--is not the whole world in God's hands. Whatever normal is, it's not us; whatever God's doing in the world, it's not leading to a utopia of shopping malls and worship CDs.

Some of the contributors to Living Mission live in Cambodia or Mexico or other harsh urban environments, but some of them live in San Francisco, London, Omaha, where they also regularly confront the underbelly of economic idolatry. We need to read Living Mission because it offers a map through the world where we find ourselves to the place where God is leading all of us together.

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'...