Friday, December 28, 2012

This Ain't No Memoir: How to Make a Scene, According to David Byrne

I've been moving slowly through How Music Works, the colossal tome by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, over the past few months. My pace started picking up in the second half of the book; there he stops sounding like a grad student with an overreaching thesis and starts demonstrating why he's right about everything, why we should trust his understanding of music and its interplay with our world. Most of the reviews I've read complain about Byrne not telling enough stories on himself, but I think the flaw in the book is limited to those opening chapters and his attempt to be a dispassionate analyst of music rather than writing from the gut. Passion, after all, is what has always inspired him in the music he makes, consumes, enters into, enjoys. Byrne tells plenty of stories in How Music Works, but I suspect we and he would get quickly bored by a chronological regurgitation of his career. How Music Works is the title of the David Byrne book I wanted to read: not a memoir but a training of the eye and ear by someone whose authority is rooted in experience.

So, for example, I was thrilled (as are many reviewers) by the chapter "How to Make a Scene." Here Byrne revisits CBGB, the crowded, cruddy manger where punk was born and music was reinvented. CBGB, we've come to learn in hindsight, was a "scene"--a place where something new was begun. And Byrne was there for the whole of it, as this chapter demonstrates. But he doesn't tell stories about CBGB; he dissects it. Missing from the chapters are photos of the chaotic mess that so many have reveled in and, Byrne alludes, that marketers in Vegas and beyond have tried to exploit. In place of such photos are sketched blueprints of the layout; I imagine them on napkins as Byrne meets with his editor over coffee. Byrne the musicologist doesn't want to revel in his glory days but understand how what got started actually got started. His analysis is helpful for historians, for music lovers, but also for those of us who have scenes we'd like to make today.

Read the whole thing, but in the meantime here are the eight elements of a scene in the making, according to Byrne.

  • There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material. CBGB was located in a cheap, rundown area, ignored by the yuppies and other commodifiers of culture. But it was also in New York City, where new cultural forms have a chance to be picked up and broadly disseminated. (Byrne overlooks this factor, which I consider essential.) It was small enough that an unknown band could sell it out, which had important implications both financial and psychological.
  • The artists should be allowed to play their own material. Byrne credits the owners of CBGB with the counterintuitive decision to let unknown bands play their own material, which meant the club wasn't just one more place to hear crappy covers of Fleetwood Mac or Donnie and Marie, but rather a place where people went to be stretched, to discover, to participate.
  • Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too). CBGB was where people wanted to be, not just where they wanted to play. And by building cohesion and a family culture it allowed for generative cross-pollination and a (sometimes begrudging) mutual appreciation and support. Bands didn't pay to hear each other play, but they heard each other and came to understand and respect each other, and ultimately rely on each other.
  • There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene. Alienation has great power over us; by itself it isn't generative, but when it has a place, crazy cool stuff can happen.
  • Rent must be low--and it must stay low. Making a scene is costly--not solely in the financial sense, as CBGB clearly demonstrated. While major record labels were spending ridiculous amounts of money to pack arenas and establish the sound of the seventies, artists orbiting CBGB were cramming themselves into low-rent apartments so they could survive as they continued to practice their craft. CBGB artists sacrificed their comfort, their privacy, their financial security to do something different. In the process they reinvented pop music.
  • Bands must be paid fairly. As Saint Paul once said, "Never muzzle an ox when it's treading out the grain." If that's too artsy fartsy for you, here's what he meant: "The worker deserves his wages." A scene is an ecosystem, and there has to be a common commitment to establish equilibrium and allow for the flourishing of the whole.
  • Social transparency must be encouraged. The line between performer and consumer must be porous if the movement is to gain traction. There's no special ordination or dispensation for those who are making the music; the audience has an equally important part to play in making the scene.
  • It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary. No scene survives if it is imposed on people. A scene is a social contract, a covenant of equal partners.
CBGB gave us Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie and any number of other trailblazing bands that redefined music in the late-1970s and early 1980s. The gestation taking place there was subconscious, for the most part. Byrne and his fellow artists didn't know what the future held; they were totally in the moment, in the scene, and the scene allowed them to imagine a lifelong vocation involving music. Those of us who want something similar in our own vocation--whether it's the dissemination of ideas via book publishing, or the rebirthing of the church in a new age, or something entirely different--would do well to seek out places like what CBGB represented and commit ourselves wholly to the scene being made. Who knows what will come of it, but at least we'll have actually made something.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmastime Is Here

Oh! that we could always see such spirit through the year.

Happy holidays from Loud Time.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Mystery That Animates All Beings

Tomorrow my friend Margaret Feinberg's book Wonderstruck releases. I wrote about it briefly here. Tomorrow is also Christmas day. Both events call to mind for me a reflection by Abraham Heschel, which I discovered at the very lovely website Inward/Outward:

"To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living."
--Abraham Heschel, Quest for God
Tonight, as visions of sugar plums dance in your head, I hope you also take notice of the divine margin in all attainments. And tomorrow I hope you wake up to wonder and, like Mary and the church after her, conceive the inconceivable surprise of living.

Merry Christmas from Loud Time!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Songs in the Wake of Silence

The governor of Connecticut has called for a moment of silence a week after the tragic shooting in Newtown. Silence can be deeply poignant and can focus our thoughts. But what we do in the moments after the silence can be quite awkward and even seem to undercut the sacredness of the silence. There are a number of songs, however, that can punctuate the silence with a kind of federal expression of lament. The following songs have served that purpose for me at different times in my life, so I offer them here for you as you grieve and as you take up the challenge of life after grief.

But if you could, do you think you would
trade in all the pain and suffering?
Ah! But then you'd miss the beauty
of the light upon this earth
and the sweetness of the leaving

Calling all angels . . .
Walk me through this world.
Don't leave me alone . . .
And finally, this benediction from the Finn Brothers.

Go in peace. God help us all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

You Just Don't Know 'Bout Me: David Byrne on Beyonce, and Other Concerns

I'm continuing my trek through How Music Works by David Byrne, former lead singer of Talking Heads. It's shockingly slow going, to be honest--although I think that has less to do with the book and more to do with me. Every time I pick it up I'm glad I did, but there are only a few days a week I see my way clear to pick it up in the first place.

I'm at the point in the book, however, where when I do pick it up, I'm rewarded for doing so. Today I'm reading from the chapter on collaboration, which ends with a reflection on "emergent storytelling" in songwriting, or how the attempt to match words sonically and rhythmically with music that's already been written often results in a song writing itself--snatches of lyrics that, upon reflection, relate naturally and intimately to one another and combine to tell a coherent and resonant tale. "This might seem magical," Byrne admits, "but it's true."

Therein lies the danger: words have the capacity to stamp out magic.

At times words can be a dangerous addition to music--they can pin it down. Words imply that the music is about what the words say, literally, and nothing more. If done poorly, they can destroy the pleasant ambiguity that constitutes much of the reason we love music. That ambiguity allows listeners to psychologically tailor a song to suit their needs, sensibilities, and situations, but words can limit that, too. There are plenty of beautiful pieces of music that I can't listen to because they've been "ruined" by bad words--my own and others. In Beyonce's song "Irreplaceable," she rhymes "minute" with "minute," and I cringe every time I hear it (partly because by that point I'm singing along). On my own song "Astronaut," I wrap up with the line "feel like I'm an astronaut," which seems like the dumbest metaphor for alienation ever. Ugh.
I can actually imagine David Byrne singing that Beyonce song, actually. In case you don't know it, it goes a little something like this:

To the left, to the left . . .
Everything you own in a box to the left . . .
Don't you ever for a minute get to thinking you're irreplaceable.
Whereas Beyonce sounds strong and defiant, as is typical of her, David Byrne's version sounds much more plaintive in my head. Beyonce keeps her head up, but Byrne's head is decidedly down.

I was surprised by how candidly Byrne throws Beyonce under the bus in this passage, but in his defense, he does sing along. Not to mention that rhyming a word with the same word is a pet peeve of mine as well. I once got so vocal about it that a friend wrote a poem to mock me for it. Each line ended with the word me, which was extraordinarily funny. The only line I remember, however, is this:

Loathing--such loathing!--for me and my clothing.
That, my friends, is a great little lyric. I daresay that my friend was engaged in emergent storytelling twenty years before David Byrne wrote a book about it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

God Is No Gentleman: An Advent Reflection

When the angel Gabriel visited our world, he went first to the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. There he met Zechariah, an old man who worked as a priest for the people.

Well, not for the people, exactly. Zechariah would walk behind the curtain separating the holy from the unholy, and then he would walk behind the curtain separating the holy from the holy of holies. Whatever he did back there, it was for the people only in the most formal, most clinical sense. Mainly he was what you might call a maintenance engineer—he did what needed to be done to perpetuate the temple system. He was rewarded for that work with prestige, prominence and power.

That's all well and good, but all the prestige, prominence and power in the world can't absorb the shame and hurt that a person feels when their secret dreams have gone unfulfilled decade after decade. Zechariah and his wife wanted children and didn't have any. So imagine the mix of feelings Zechariah felt when the angel Gabriel came to the Temple of the Lord and promised him a son.

One of those feelings is surely incredulity. In the face of this powerful promise the old man, on whom the faith of a nation was currently resting, griped to Gabriel, "How can this be?" Power, it seems, had come to mean very little to this priest of the Living God.

"Shut up," replied the angel Gabriel. Or words to that effect. And Zechariah did shut up, for roughly nine months, until his son was born and the Lord allowed him to speak once again.

Fast forward a little bit. The angel Gabriel had made his way from the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem to the little town of Nazareth, where he came upon a young girl of little account, named Mary. Gabriel greeted her with a very similar promise to the one he had offered Zechariah: "You will have a son."

"How can this be?" Mary responded, undoubtedly with the inflection of a range of emotions—one of which was surely anxiety, since as an unmarried young girl she would not be celebrated (as Zechariah likely would) but rather publicly shamed, perhaps even worse.

Whatever the angel Gabriel said to her, it surely wasn't "Shut up." Mary became pregnant, filled with the gestating life of the Son of God; but, as the angel Gabriel promised, she was also filled with the Holy Spirit and immersed in the power of the Most High. She would face challenges, most definitely, but God would be with her.

I've heard it said that God is a gentleman; he will not act upon someone without their consent. That doesn't seem to be the case with Zechariah, whose miracle child was imposed upon him. I think perhaps that God is less like a gentleman and more like a parent, who does us good sometimes against our protestations, but who asks sacrifices of us only alongside the promise of support and accompaniment.

The challenge for us is to recognize the good God gives us when we see it; and to recognize the promises God makes as he asks hard things of us. This is how we live well in the world, and, as Mary demonstrates each Christmas, how we bring God's good into the world.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Here We Come A-caroling: My Christmas Playlist

Around this time last year I posted a list of Christmas songs I don't hate. Here they are again, with new entries in bold type. Go get em.


These Are A Few of My Favorite Singles

  • "O Holy Night," by Tracy Chapman. A song that's far too often overblown (see this for an example) is made especially poignant and pensive by a reliable folkie.
  • "We're Following the Wrong Star," by Billy Bragg and Ben Sollee. I can never seem to get enough of Billy Bragg, and the fact that he even has a Christmas song fills me with Christmas cheer.
  • "Gabriel's Message," by Sting. Sting recorded this song for the Very Special Christmas project years ago; the version on his more recent holiday album isn't as good, but it's still good.
  • "St. Stephen's Day Murders," by Elvis Costello with the Chieftains. Leave it to Elvis to sing about murder for a holiday album.
  • "Angels We Have Heard on High," by Crystal Lewis. This contemporary Christian musician turned jazzy for her Christmas album, and this one is the best tracks among a number of greats. "Slow down, fellas," she jokes during the band's jam. "What's your hurry?"
  • "God's Own Son," by Nicole C. Mullen. I want to write a Christmas play just so I can choreograph this song. Funky tuba--what else needs to be said?
  • "I Saw Three Ships," by Bruce Cockburn. I've actually only ever heard this once, and I've never found it since. But it's awesome.
  • "Go Tell It on the Mountain," by Margaret Becker and Jennifer Knapp. I've always liked these two singers, and here they sound defiant and strong, singing a song that often sounds campy and quaint.
  • "I Don't Need No Santa Clause," by Fiction Family. Another great pairing--Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek--this is snappy and jangly.
  • "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," by Paul Simon. This isn't on a Christmas album, but it's incredibly catchy. Samples from a gospel preacher just add to the fun.
These Are a Few of My Favorite Albums

  • Shawn Colvin, Holiday Songs and Lullabies. I'd listen to this all year round if it didn't make me self-conscious. Best tracks are "Love Came Down at Christmas" and "Little Road to Bethlehem."
  • Jars of Clay, Christmas Songs. I like Jars a lot; we've seen them in concert several times. They interpret songs in really interesting ways. Best tracks are "Winter Skin," "Wonderful Christmastime" and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
  • The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Boogie Woogie Christmas. Seriously, who's cooler than Brian Setzer? Best tracks are "Blue Christmas," "Sleigh Ride," "The Nutcracker Suite" and "The Amens."
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama, Go Tell It on the Mountain. The singing group collaborates with an eclectic bunch of singers. Best tracks are "Last Month of the Year," ""Born in Bethlehem" (with Mavis Staples) and "I Pray on Christmas" (with Solomon Burke).
  • Oh Starling! Joy. This is probably hard to find, since it was produced as a fundraiser a couple of years ago for Scum of the Earth Church in Denver. But it's cool. Look for "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
  • Bing Crosby, The Voice of Christmas. C'mon. It's Bing. "Mele Kalikimaka" is wildly entertaining, and "Adeste Fideles" is old-school brilliant.
  • The Fab Four, A Fab Four Christmas. Christmas songs arranged to sound like Beatles songs. "Away in a Manger" sounds just like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." This will probably eventually get old, but it hasn't yet.
  • Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas. Every year for five years, Sufjan and friends put out an EP of Christmas-themed music. Then they boxed it. I lost volume 2 somewhere along the way, which is bitterly disappointing, since it includes "Once in Royal David's City." But "We're Goin' to the Country" and "Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming" are great, as is everything else.
  • She & Him, A Very She & Him Christmas. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward run Christmas hits through their ethereal 50s pop-chanteuse filter for some great tracks. Best singles are "Little St. Nick." and their gender-bending "Baby It's Cold Outside."
That's what I've got. What have you got?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Come Thou Unexpected Jesus: Intro to a Parable

Once upon a time there was a knock at my door.

I didn't typically get a lot of knocks. I live on the top floor of my building, and (at that time, at least) most of the other apartments on my floor seemed empty. I kept my door locked anyway, just in case.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I heard the knock.

Now imagine my surprise when I found myself answering it.

I wasn't particularly social, to be honest. I avoided others when I could. I tended to think of people generally as . . . two-dimensional, more like objects than people--annoying, or dangerous, or beneath me, or (I can admit it now) better than me.

See what I mean? Not exactly the "answer the door" type.

But this time, for whatever reason, I answered it. And there he was, standing at my door. Looking pretty wild, too, and not in a particularly attractive, Johnny Depp-y kind of way. His hair--messy, but in a way that suggested fresh air, not neglect. His skin--tight, wrinkled around the eyes, not clean exactly but not unclean either. His clothes--simple and functional, but not quite in style, like he never stopped walking.

Of course, I recognized him immediately. I guess I should have seen him coming.

He locked at me and smiled. I smiled and looked away.

"He you," he said. "Can I come in?"

I paused. Just because I knew who he was didn't necessarily mean that I could predict what would happen next. Especially when I realized I didn't actually know him well.

And yet . . .

There was just something about him standing there. The knock on the door had morphed somehow from an irritation, to an invasion, to a relief. Now that I had a guest, I suddenly felt less secure in my apartment by myself, and more isolated, alone.

"Sure," I found myself saying as I stepped aside to let him enter.

I still can't say why I did it. What will the neighbors think? crossed my mind, until I remembered that I didn't really have neighbors. Still, it is mildly scandalous for a single woman to let such an odd-looking man into her home. Maybe that's why I let him in.

He came inside. I took his coat and asked if he would remove his shoes, which he did immediately.

"Nice to see you, Jesus," I said.


Contact me for a special holiday discount on The Parable of the Unexpected Guest.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mayan Apoca-Mix

On December 21, the world will end--not with a bang, but with the whimpering wind-down of an ancient Mayan calendar. For the Mayans, there was no December 22. There may be for us--only time will tell--but just in case, here are some songs I'll be listening to on the last day of the world. (In alphabetical order, with the exception of R.E.M.)

"It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," by R.E.M. An obvious choice. I performed this once, and my audience was wildly impressed with me.

"The Afterlife," by Paul Simon. This is on his most recent album. Pretty dang catchy.

"Airline to Heaven," by Wilco (with Billy Bragg). I play this track off of Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2 as I drive away from every funeral.

"All That You Have Is Your Soul," by Tracy Chapman. Possibly my favorite of her songs--possibly the last thing I ever want to hear.

"All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands," by Sufjan Stevens. Winsome and melancholy--not a bad way to put a world to bed.

"Bad," by U2. Why not, really?

"Break It Down Again," by Tears For Fears. "Fast off to heaven, just like Moses on a motorbike."

"Bring On the Night," by the Police. "Time to kiss yesterday goodbye."

"Consider Me Gone," by Sting. A little jazz won't prevent an apocalypse, but it'll make it a little more snappy.

"Could Be a Lot Worse," by the Vigilantes of Love. All things considered, it probably could be.

"Dance Me to the End of Love," by Leonard Cohen. Or you could just listen to only Leonard Cohen.

"Dirt to Mud," by Paul Westerberg. This song ends mid-thought, which is probably how everything ends, come to think of it.

"Dog Days Are Over," by Florence + the Machine. I like it because it's accurate.

"Don't Dream It's Over," by Crowded House. I might pick the live one for this, because if it's over, it'd be nice if we all went out singing together.

"...Dust," by Elvis Costello. Nihilistic, atheistic. Given the circumstance, appropriatistic.

"The End," by the Beatles. Everyone wants the last word, but the Beatles might actually get it with this song.

"Final Hour," by Lauryn Hill. "Keep your eyes on the final hour." Not bad advice, actually.

"Glad Tidings," by Van Morrison. If you want a happy ending for the end of the world, this will make you smile as you fade away.

"Gone," by Ben Folds. If the end of the world were a break-up, this would make for a good break-up song.

"In My Life," by the Beatles. If the world is ending, everyone should look back at least once.

"Last One Standing," by Neil Finn. "Show what you're made of; surprise us both."

"Let It Be," by the Beatles. In the end, this one will beat out "Hey Jude" as the closer.

"Love This Life," by Crowded House. "Don't wait till the next one comes."

"The Luckiest," by Ben Folds. Hold someone close and tell them you're glad they existed.

"My Year in Review," by Bill Mallonee. Pensive, which I expect to be at the end of the end.

"O Come O Come Emmanuel," by the Civil Wars. It is Advent, after all.

"Out of Time," by Sam Phillips. A little dated, but hey, aren't we all?

"Redemption Song," by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Won't you sing with me?

"Sigh No More," by Mumford & Sons. Not a bad way of reframing an apocalypse.

"Sing Their Souls Back Home," by Billy Bragg. I want Billy Bragg in my last mix ever. You can't stop me.

"That I Would Be Good," by Alanis Morissette. One last prayer before we hit the road.

"True Love Will Find You in the End," by Mates of State. So say we all.

"Wanderlust," by Paul McCartney. "O, where did I go wrong, my love?"

"Wild Mountain Thyme," by Lucy Wainwright Roche. "Will you go, laddie? Go, and we'll all go together."

"I'm Gonna DJ (at the End of the World)," by R.E.M. These guys know how to jam when everything comes crashing down. This might be the first song of the rest of my life.

OK, that's my list. What's yours?

Friday, December 07, 2012

Be on the Lookout--There's a New Book Out

One of the great advantages of my job as an editor in Christian publishing is that I get to walk right up to significant authors and, because they may need me at some future point, they indulge me in conversation. Margaret Feinberg is one such significant and gracious author, and our preliminary conversation soon evolved into friendship. I've sought her advice over the years, solicited endorsements from her, but also played with her dog, Hershey, and ate fondue with her and her husband, Leif. Margaret is one of the good ones.

She's also one of the good writers. I've enjoyed her books, recommending many to friends and endorsing at least one of them. And now she has a new book coming, with an accompanying seven-session DVD Bible study.

Wonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God releases Christmas Day. I haven't read it yet, but Margaret has shared some key cuts from it, some of which are below. As is typical of Margaret's books, Wonderstruck is warm and personal, an invitation for you to "toss back the covers, climb out of bed, and drink in the fullness of life." She tells me that readers of Wonderstruck have been observed to suffer the following side-effects:

-An inability to stop smiling
-An uncontainable desire to pray
-A loss of interest in judging others
-A quiet, unshakable confidence in God
-A renewed ability to see the wonders of God all around

Those are all good things, things that wouldn't kill me, for one--only make me stronger.

Anyway, here are a couple of bits from the book, which I'm sure will read like a breeze. And if you're in a small group, I suspect you'll like the video guide as well; Margaret is infinitely charming and enthusiastic, and that comes across both live and on screen. So if you're looking for a new read in the new year, or some excuse to never stop smiling, tack this one on to your Christmas wish list.

“The wondrous calling of God on our lives is to become conduits of a holy replenishment. As children of God, we’re meant to live on high alert, watching for the possibility of divine restoration in the lives of those around us. We’re called to look where no signs of life are found, where others dismiss its possibility. And we’re invited to speak life—words of encouragement, hope, and peace that embody the goodness of God—whenever possible.”

"Breathing life begins with the simplest of actions. See someone. Really see. As you reach out and interact, offer your full attention to whoever is in front of you. Listen to someone. Really listen. Give someone the gift of your presence—your fully present, undivided attention. Pray for someone. Really pray. Though it may feel awkward in the moment, ask if you can offer a prayer, and bless the person with kindness. Give to someone. Really give of yourself. Find an unexpected way to help someone whose needs remain unmet. Radiate the generosity of Christ."


For more information on Wonderstruck, visit Margaret's website.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Wayne Made Flesh

I see Wayne pretty much every Wednesday. I know I see him on Wednesdays because four or five times every Wednesday morning he asks me what day it is, and I tell him it's Wednesday. Some people tell him it's Thursday just to mess with him, but I always tell Wayne the truth.

Wayne is one of the guys who stays at the temporary shelter that I volunteer with most weeks. I've written about him before; he's sort of an icon for me of what homelessness looks like. Wayne is big and bedraggled, long-haired and unkempt. He's a little withdrawn and hard to talk to (at least for me), but his presence is unmistakable and his absence (when he's absent) is noteworthy. He's an icon for me because he's one of those people who is, you know, iconic.

So when I hear "Wednesday," my first thought is Wayne, and when I see Wayne on other days, I get a little confused. And then this Sunday I was sitting in back of church when I saw Wayne walk down the aisle, settle in to the first row, turn around and wave to a friend, and start singing Christmas carols along with the entire congregation.

Wait a minute. This is Wayne the Silent, Wayne the persecuted homeless guy, Wayne the slightly and lovingly addled. This is Wayne who can't keep his days straight. And to top it off, this is Sunday. Isn't it?

The trouble with icons is that they can so easily slip into caricature. Wayne had become a caricature to me--not a person. Maybe he'd always been a caricature to me. Maybe I'd never really related to Wayne human to human. Maybe that's why I was so flummoxed by seeing Wayne do such human things as entering a church for worship, greeting a friend and singing Christmas carols. Maybe Wayne had been made flesh.

It strikes me that this is what incarnation is--that thing we celebrate on Christmas. Jesus existed prior to being born in a manger in Bethlehem; he existed prior to the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and the Holy Spirit overshadowing her and making her pregnant. "Before Abraham was born," he told the outraged Pharisees, "I am." Jesus existed before anybody saw him, just like Wayne existed before this past Sunday, and at Christmas his existence entered our material reality and blessed it for all of us.

When you know someone exists but don't see them, though, you fill in the blanks yourself. That's why Jesus was so controversial. His fulfillment of messianic prophecies didn't register in the minds of people who watched him fulfill them. Rather than celebrate the presence of God on earth, everyone from Herod to Pilate to his friends and neighbors tried to kill him. We love our icons to the point of idolatry, and when they take on flesh and don't match our imaginations, we don't know what to do with them.

This isn't just a problem for Jesus. It's a problem for everyone, including Wayne. We prefer to think of people as the icons they represent for us, and we fail to relate to them as the people they present themselves as to us. It's easier that way, for one; why mess with complexity when caricature is so neat and tidy? It's also more convenient in that it doesn't challenge our will to power. My idea of Wayne makes him the needy and me the hero, sacrificing myself on his behalf. My idea of my wife makes her the object of my affection and me the guy who loves well. If everyone around me is a caricature, then I'm the only real, whole person. In a two-dimensional world, the three-dimensional man is king.

Nevertheless, Wayne and my wife are not just ideas. They're flesh and blood. So was Jesus. Fully God, Jesus was made flesh, and it changed the world. And because Jesus was made flesh, I am called to repent of every time I treat anyone else as anything less.


That picture above isn't of Wayne; it's of activist author Shane Claiborne--another flesh-and-blood person who often gets reduced to a two-dimensional caricature.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Stuff Your Socks

It's that time of year again--the time when people take socks and hang them near where they set fires in their homes. Be careful, everybody!

If you're going to go to the trouble of hanging stockings by the chimney with care, may I suggest you stuff them with something? As a matter of fact, I have just the thing: The Parable of the Unexpected Guest!

This thirty-two-page booklet is an imagined story of a visit from Jesus--which, if you think about it, is what Christmas is all about. The booklet has always been available for cheaper than the price of a good song on iTunes (if you know the right people, such as me), and from now till Christmas I can do better than that.

Order ten or more copies of The Parable of the Unexpected Guest from me and I'll give you 50 percent off the retail price--that's $.75 a copy--and I'll eat the shipping. If you want I'll even sign them for you, although that ruins the mystique a little, in my opinion.

Sound good? Message me on Facebook or DM me on Twitter and before you know it you'll be decking the halls with tens of booklets.

Friday, November 30, 2012

You May Find Yourself

Lately I've been reading How Music Works by David Byrne, lead singer of Talking Heads. It's a fun read--parts of it come off like an undergraduate discourse on music theory, frankly, painting whole movements with very broad brushes, and I can almost see him shrugging his shoulders in that giant suit of his as he occasionally opines and moves on--but it's David Byrne, for crying out loud. Who wouldn't want to get inside his head about how music works? Brilliant.

Anyway, I'm at the point where he's describing the creative process for the album Remain in Light, in which the band tried to effectively learn pop music from scratch, as though they'd found their instruments at an archaeological dig. Their funk is post-funky, their rock is post-rocky. Byrne and producer Brian Eno had recently collaborated on a "found music" project that mixed together snippets of radio broadcasts, street sounds and the like from all over the world, and the experience was still in the foreground of Byrne's creative process. So as he sat down to write the lyrics (the very last stage of the game--all the instrumental tracks had already been laid down) he let the groove guide him. Here's how he recalls the writing process for "Once in a Lifetime," a song I loved as a kid and love even more today.

The gently ecstatic nature of the tracks meant that angsty personal lyrics like the ones I'd written previously might not be the best match, so I had to find some new lyrical approach. I filled page after page with phrases that matched the melodic lines of the verses and choruses, hoping that some of them might complement the feelings the music generate. . . .

In keeping with the rapturous nature of some of the tracks, I was also drawing lyrical inspiration from the radio preachers I'd been listening to. . . . At that time, American radio was a cauldron of impassioned voices--live preachers, talk-show hosts, and salesmen. The radio was shouting at you, pleading with you, and seducing you. . . .

I started by taking on the character of a radio preacher I'd heard on one of my cassettes. There was a serious use of anaphora--employing the same phrase to begin each sentence. It's a common device that preachers use, and it brings their speechifying one step closer to poetry and song. One or two fragments that I used--the repetition of the phrase "You may find yourself," for example--were straight lifts from the radio preacher, but from there I'd improvise and change the focus from a Christian message to, well, I wasn't sure at first what I was getting at. The preacher was focusing on the lack of spirituality in material striving. . . . I'd get myself worked up, pacing back and forth, breathing in sync with the preacher, phrases would come into my head and I'd jot them down as quickly as possible. I maybe went off topic once or twice.

Pardon me, but that's amazing. So method. "Once in a Lifetime" had become, for me, a kind of life sermon, an existential shout defying the vagaries of circumstance and declaring existence to be fundamentally good. It's preaching without the modernist fundamentalist hubris. Here's the video--perhaps you've never heard or seen the song, but having now read this passage from How Music Works I'm inclined to declare it the ultimate anthem of Generation X.

And now for the benediction: Wherever you find yourself, may you find yourself.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Please Pass the Funk

Happy Thanksgiving! You think your family is funky, check out Sly and the Family Stone:

Something gets me to put my head on tight
Because I know the future everything'll be alright
Until then I'll kick back and let the light shine
Remember all yours coulda been all mine
That's why you ought to be thankful

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I heard this song over the weekend and then found it online. I don't know who Alan Cohen is, but he may be weirder than Yoko Ono. Anyway, I found the song oddly entertaining and thought you might as well: a mashup of the Greek tragedy Oedipus the King and the Beatles song "Your Mother Should Know" (a Paul song, not a John song, just for the record).

Thanks to Teri Hemmert at WXRT in Chicago for turning me on to this song during her program Breakfast with the Beatles.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Ethics for Elitists: Part Two of Two

This summer, with three simple words, a friend of mine offended both me, an editor of Christian nonfiction books, and the editor of a magazine for Christian anarchists. "You're both elites," he told us, to our shared chagrin. "Don't worry," he quickly averred. "You're elitists, yeah, but you're elitists in Christian publishing." That's what we in the biz call a backhanded compliment.

Elitism isn't something you're born with, although it is something many people are born into. Elitism is a byproduct of power, and since power corrupts, elitism is corruptible and potentially corrosive. The power of an elitist can be godlike, and godlike power is something mere mortals should always handle with care.

So, what should we elitists do with all our power? Jesus sums up all the Law of Israel and all the commandments of God in two ideas: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength; and, love your neighbor as yourself. In a previous post I reflected on loving God as elitist ethic; here I'll spend a little time on what it looks like for an elitist like me to love his neighbor as himself.

(Please feel free to interact critically with both these posts. We elitists need to stick together, and two elitist heads are better than one.)

When elitists would ask Jesus how to be good, he would generally tell them to strip themselves of the trappings of power. Some of those trappings are material, consumable; to the rich young ruler, for example, Jesus suggested that he no longer be rich or a ruler. (I write about this encounter in my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville.) To the teacher of the law who asked Jesus to list the most important commands of the Bible, he responded with two: Love God, and love your neighbor the way you love yourself. When this elitist pressed Jesus to elaborate, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.

Teachers of the law in Israel were, like me (and maybe like you), the upper crust of a crustless sandwich. Governed as they were by Imperial Rome, they nevertheless mastered the ancient Hebrew law and lorded it over their fellow Hebrews. By contrast, Samaritans were outcasts, scorned by Israel and left to their own devices. Samaritans had been the first to slide into idolatry in Israel's complicated history with God. The prophet Micah called Samaria's sin "incurable." If this teacher was the upper crust, Samaritans were the crumbs.

So when Jesus tells a story that makes the hero not a teacher of the law or a liturgist of the ancient ways but a stinking Samaritan, you can imagine the bristling and blustering that went on. To think of a Samaritan as a good neighbor, let alone a heroic neighbor, was a kind of betrayal of centuries of tradition.

It's worth noting that Samaritans weren't falling all over themselves with love for Israelites. Jesus' interaction with a Samaritan woman at a Samaritan well is testy long before it ever gets warm or reverent. The story Jesus is telling this teacher of the law is outlandish, audacious: it suggests that people who would never have anything to do with each other could in fact love one another.

The moral of the story of the Good Samaritan is not that there are good nonelitists out there. It's not that since even nonelitists can show mercy, we elitists ought to do excel in it. The moral of the story is that there is no such thing as elitism. There are only neighbors in the world, and each of us must decide daily whether we will be a good one or a bad one.

Now, this lesson is easily coopted by elitists. "Ah yes," we mumble, the leather elbow pads on our tweed jackets straining as we stroke our salt-and-pepper beards thoughtfully. "We are all cut from the same cloth. Why, the wisest man I ever met was the janitor in the library at university. Jesus is right." We claim Jesus for our elitist team and pay lip service to some iconic nonelite. This sort of move is classic: its nearest neighbor, perhaps, is "I'm no racist. Some of my best friends are ____________."

Meanwhile we continue to enjoy our power, and we smile and nod at the janitor as we leave for the day, without considering what this neighbor might need from us, what we might need from this neighbor. We self-segregate, we elitists. So do nonelites, of course; the rules of the game are such that we all accept the status quo and operate within it, even find comfort in it. But self-segregating is not consistent with an ethic of Jesus.

As he unpacks Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, Jamie Arpin-Ricci reminds us of an important point: "How are we to love the least of these [described in this parable as the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and so on] if we never encounter them?" Elitists are, I suppose, "the most of these"; by contrast, everyone around them is the least. They are also, we know from Jesus, our neighbors, regardless of their or our station in life. But as Jamie reminds us, in Jesus' parable the least of these are also, somehow, mystically, Jesus. And so those who we think are the least are no such thing; it is we, the elite, who need the encounter. It is we, the elite, who need our neighbors.

Trippy, I know. The point remains that there are no elites, and there are no nonelites. There are only neighbors, and it is important to God that we love our neighbors as ourselves. For elites like me, that means using our power to engender a more loving culture, to make it more likely and not less likely that we will encounter our neighbors, regardless of their status, so that we can love them like we should, and so that they can love us like they should. Every neighbor brings something with them to the relationship. We elites may not bring much, but we do have power--cultural, financial, political, whatever. Good neighbors don't hoard what they have; they share it, and they make their neighborhood better for everybody.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ethics for Elitists: Part One of Two

This summer I was talking to a friend of mine when a friend of his happened to walk by. Like me, this new friend was an editor in Christian publishing. I edit books; he edits a magazine. "You two should really know each other," our mutual friend told us. "You're both elites."

We were both deeply offended, actually--I, because I've made a rather unelitist habit of drawing books out of previously unpublished and relatively underground writers; my new friend, because his magazine is a bastion of Christian anarchy, and you may well imagine how anarchists feel about elitists. So we blustered and bristled, at which point our mutual friend decided to reassure us. "Don't worry. You're elitists, yeah, but you're elitists in Christian publishing."

In other words, we are the upper crust of what is essentially a crustless sandwich.

The publishing industry depends on elitism, I will begrudgingly admit: if we were to throw the doors open to any old writer, the business model would collapse on itself. Publishing thrives on celebrity and scarcity; the books that perform best are few and their authors are famous. The problem with publishing unknown authors is that they're unknown, and most readers buy books by authors they know--or who are known by people they know. Demonstrate to a publisher that a benchmark number of people are buying what you have to say, no matter how oddball or unorthodox it is, and that publisher will be inclined to make some money off you. Being the arbiter of elitism is an asset, and what good is an asset if you don't exploit it?

Not exactly inspiring, is it? Still, plenty of unknown authors get published, which we might think of as the more trailblazing side of the business. Even that side, however, is vulnerable to ethical lapse. We can bestow credibility and authority on writers simply by granting them a publishing contract, sure; but we require that they contort themselves to make their book our book. More insidiously, we can whittle away at an author's credibility or subvert their authority by refusing to offer them a contract. The power of a publisher, like any power, is godlike, and godlike power is something mere mortals should always handle with care.

Publishers aren't the only elitist enterprise out there, I hasten to add. It's the one I know most intimately, but there are plenty of others, each wrestling with its own ethical dilemmas, its own little god complexes and petty jealousies that intrude upon its decision making. What we elitists need, I think, is an ethic.

As elitist as I am, I like things simple. Fortunately for me, so does Jesus, who sums up all the Law of Israel and all the commandments of God in two ideas: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength; and, love your neighbor as yourself.

Here I'll focus briefly on loving God as elitist ethic; in another post I'll spend a little time on what it looks like for an elitist like me to love his neighbor as himself.

There's actually not much to say about the God part. Loving God comes immediately into conflict with the god complex that so many elitists suffer from. We find it harder to appreciate the unique contribution God makes to life when we see ourselves as Godlike: God holds life and death in his hands? Well, so do doctors. God has the final word on the execution of justice? Well, so do lawyers and judges. God claims responsibility for souls as they move about the earth? Well, so do airplane pilots.

(When I was a kid, my mom and dad wanted my brother, my sister and me to pick our careers from a list of three: a doctor, so they'd get free medical advice; a lawyer, so they'd get free legal advice; and an airplane pilot, so they'd get free plane tickets. My parents, God love them, are stinking elitists.)

Once you've allowed yourself the conceit that you have sovereign control over some facet of your existence, not only do you feel a little more godlike, but God looks a little less godlike. It is much easier to objectify God--to make God the it to your I--if you've managed to displace even a little bit of your awe of him. God becomes at best your physician's assistant, your legal aide, your copilot. You can very easily dispense with God and get yourself another.

Elitism is a form of idolatry because of this two-part process. We objectify God while idolizing ourselves, or our work. Everyone suffers as a result. I once heard a speaker (itself an elitist enterprise) suggest from the stage that all idolatry ends ultimately in child sacrifice. Such sacrifice can take many forms, but even at its most benign--the paternalistic condescension of the elitist to the mere mortals around him or her--such sacrifice is tragic, the kind of thing that inspires lament.

So the first ethic for elitists is to undo the objectification of God that so easily, surreptitiously inserts itself into elitist enterprises. It is to stop thinking of God as a neighbor you're supposed to love, a peer you can identify with, and start thinking of God as the author of your existence.

It is to recognize that those lesser beings around you are still made in the image of God, and while you can do a lot of really unique, powerful things, you can't make someone in your own image. Only God can do that.

It is to acknowledge that while you often objectify God, God never objectifies you. God created you and is for you, wishing you well and acting for your good.

It is to humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and to trust that humility is not defeat but a proper calibration of our attitude. And it is to trust that this God you have humbled yourself before will in turn lift you up, like a good neighbor might.

Coming soon: part two, in which we consider how elitists might love their neighbors.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Split Decision: Voting Versus Giving Blood

Yesterday was voting day. It also happened to be the day I was scheduled to give blood. So just before I ate breakfast yesterday, I drove to my polling place and cast my vote; just after I ate lunch, I drove to Heartland Blood Center, where my phlebotomist tapped a vein in my left arm. I find myself wondering, which act had more lasting importance?

It was startlingly slow at the blood center; where usually many people would be cycling through over the lunch hour, yesterday there was only me. Meanwhile, at the polling place, I waited in a long line (nowhere near the hours-long lines in Virginia and Miami that Rachel Maddow would not shut up about, but for Du Page County, Illinois, a little lengthy). It struck me that some people's schedules seemed to have forced them to choose between voting and giving blood, and they chose voting.

I put the question to my friends on Facebook, and here's how they responded:

Matt: "I'd say it depends on who(m) you voted for. (I can never remember the who/whom rule.)"

Stener: "Giving blood :-)"

Mark: "depends on who you're asking! If you're currently in an operating room bleeding out, I think I know the answer :) But maybe the person elected will help end the completely unjustified denial of not letting me donate my perfectly clean O-negative universal donor blood because of outdated policies, so maybe your vote will help result in MORE blood donations!"

Justin: "The latter [giving blood] without a doubt..."

Marshall: "Vote. Thousands have already given their blood for our right to vote."

Sue: "voting. You can give blood any time (unless you've given in the past 8 weeks or have been pregnant or had surgery or are a man who's had sexual contact with another man or been around someone with the TB virus or have babesiosis or chagas disease)."

Christopher: "if Heartland is still giving a quart of Oberweis for a pint of blood, one will have a greater ROI than the other"

Juanita: "One will have individual impact, one will have systemic impact. both matter."

Al: "Are you just collecting stickers today?"

Dani: "You are ├╝ber responsible."

Sean: "I can't do either in the US. so do both!"

Julie: "Why the need for a hierarchy?"

So it was actually a split decision: Three for voting, three for giving blood, and thre for both. Julie is right, of course; it was no skin off my nose to vote and give blood in the same day. I'm sure it was for some people, but it wasn't for me.

For myself, I think voting is in principle more important, since it's a right and civic responsibility that can only be exercised on specific days, whereas you can give blood every twelve weeks or so. But I also think there are principled reasons for not voting, but the principled reasons for not giving blood are pretty few and thin. (My friend Joel offered his rationale for giving blood here.) This year's election didn't quite rise to the level of nonparticipation for me, but it came close, and in fact I did decline to vote in one race on my ballot because both candidates were onerous to me. And I know that some friends of mine saw the choice between, for example, an anti-government/pro-multinational-corporate conservative and a liberal who sends robots into sovereign nations to kill people, as no choice worth making. But ultimately I'm kind of glad that it worked out for me to vote and give blood on the same day. Most days of most weeks I'm going through a very predictable routine; shaping the direction my government takes for the next four years over breakfast and potentially saving a life or two with my precious bodily fluids over lunch gave yesterday a particular punch.

Anyway, polls have not yet closed on this split decision; your vote could tip the scales. Which is more important: voting or giving blood?

Monday, November 05, 2012

Concession #francisforpresident

St. Francis of Assisi is no longer seeking the office of the president of the United States.

After a brief but spirited campaign, it became obvious that several key factors were inhibiting his election hopes:

* In a race without any degree of financial restraint (not a great reflection on candidates who are seeking responsibility for a national debt crisis), a candidate who has taken a vow of poverty has little hope of making his voice heard.

* A campaign like Francis's, stubbornly focused on loving not only your friends but also your enemies, was unable to compete effectively with campaigns so comfortable slinging mud.

* Francis's adherence to a fringe sect of Christianity, while not an issue for everyone, was among many voters a hurdle to be overcome. Similarly, his history of friendly relations with Muslims set many voters' teeth on edge.
By themselves these strategic concerns might have been surmountable. But there were two issues that, had campaign staffers thought them through, made a Francis of Assisi presidency impossible:

* Francis was not a U.S. citizen and so ineligible to serve as U.S. president.

* Francis is dead.
As Francis's campaign manager I take full responsibility for these two significant oversights. I really dropped the ball there.

Even though our campaign to make Francis president is now coming to a close, at the end of the day we have no regrets. If nothing else, we helped shape the conversation in some significant ways.

* We championed environmental responsibility, reminding ourselves and one another that the earth is the Lord's, and we have an obligation to God as stewards of it.

* We argued for a foreign policy based in friendship, an acknowledgment that people in every country are made in the image of God and deserve to be treated as such.

* We offered a vision for living in the "new normal" of financial uncertainty, demonstrating a life of meaning and purpose cleansed of the toxins of a materialist, consumerist economy.

* We showed that a positive vision for the world does not demand a negative portrayal of other well-intended people, who are, in the grand scheme of things, our brothers and sisters.
So our campaign, like our candidate, is no longer up and running. Francis kept silent about which remaining candidate he would endorse in his place--largely because, as previously acknowledged, he is dead. We encourage you therefore to vote your conscience tomorrow, and to pray for and stay in dialogue with whichever candidate wins election and takes on the daunting responsibility of navigating, on behalf of an entire country, the many challenging issues facing the world today. Whoever wins will be your president but is also your brother, made in the image of God, and deserves your love and support simply by virtue of living and moving and having his being.

Meanwhile, our campaign and our candidate may be dead, but our vision is still alive and kicking it. We encourage you to read up on Francis and wrestle with his stubborn vision for the world. We have found it compelling and trust that readers of all stripes who approach his work in good faith will find much to inspire their sense of social responsibility, their inner moral compass, their love of neighbor and devotion to God. Here are three books to get you started.

Saint Francis of Assisi, by G. K. Chesterton. Written nearly ninety years ago, this portrait of the saint by an essayist of unparalleled wit and insight captures the colorful paradox of Francis' extreme asceticism and profound joy in the face of the world.

Chasing Francis, by Ian Morgan Cron. This book imagines an encounter between the pastor of a contemporary American church and the Francis of history, offering a kind of "stress test" on the values and priorities that characterize contemporary Christendom.

The Cost of Community, by Jamie Arpin-Ricci. Here Jesus' sermon on the mount (a concise and arresting vision for the world) is run through the filter of Francis's life and mission, and tested in the struggling neighborhoods of contemporary Western society. This book demonstrates that Francis's vision for the world is both utterly consonant with Jesus' teaching and still achievable, even in our time and place.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Ultimate DTR: Ten Ways of the People of God

You can't go long in church without hearing about the Ten Commandments. You can't, for that matter, go long in American society without hearing about them. The Ten Commandments are particularly well suited to American culture: they sound like the first half of the title to a self-help or business leadership book ("The Ten Commandments of Highly Effective People"; "Ten Commandments for a Better You!").

That's not what they are, of course. The Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God atop Mt. Sinai in the middle of an exodus from Egypt, where the people of Israel had been enslaved for hundreds of years. They were given to the people of Israel as they made their slow, challenging way to the "promised land" of Canaan, where they would settle and become a distinct nation. They were, in effect, the ultimate "define the relationship" talk.

My friend Sean Gladding is in the midst of writing a book on the Ten Words (how he refers to them); it's gonna be a winner. But you can't go the length of a book's publication process without hearing about the Ten Commandments. So I thought I'd try my hand at a paraphrase--casting them in terms of relationship. Feel free to tell me what's wrong with my meager attempt in the comments below; or feel free to draft your own paraphrase. What's the harm, really?


You are my people, and I am your God. This is how my people live well in the world I made for them.

Other people may have other gods, but you, my people, will have only me.

Other people may take little trinkets and call them gods, but you my people will not make a trinket of me.

Other people may objectify God with their words, but you my people will treat my name with the honor and respect I your God am due.

Other people may never rest—they may think they're above it or think they have no right to it—but you my people will follow my lead and rest regularly in my provision. Moreover, you my people will not rob others of their rest.

Other people may neglect, abuse or otherwise dishonor their parents, seeing them not as elders but merely as old, but you my people will show your parents honor.

Other people may see violence as a natural and appropriate way of solving their problems, but you my people will not kill.

Other people may treat sex as recreation and their spouses as commodities to be dispensed with at whim, but you my people will forswear adultery and treat marriage as a sacred covenant.

Other people may take whatever they can no matter how it hurts another human being, but you my people will forswear theft.

Other people may lie freely to serve their needs, regardless of the harm it might do to others, but you my people will live in the truth.

Other people may view the things and even people around them as assets to be seized and exploited, tainting relationships and unsettling the environment by their self-absorbed covetousness—but you my people will practice contentment and wish your neighbor well.

You, my people, are no longer slaves, thanks to me. You no longer have anything to fear; you are my people, and I am your God, and this is how my people live well in the world I made for them.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Late, Great, New & Improved Dr. Doctrine: Chapter Four

I recently wrote a little story as a favor to a friend. He went another way, so I thought I'd post it here.

It's worth noting that the theme of this piece is not something I'm totally comfortable with. I've lately been feeling the need to put myself in more direct conversation with the people who disagree with me. It helps that the person who got me started on telling this story is a friend; the prominence given to God's wrath among people preoccupied with doctrine notwithstanding, in this case as in most cases, love starts, surrounds and sustains the story.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little parable. And I hope you don't take it any more seriously than I do. It is, after all, only a story.


A few days later Dr. Doctrine and the Pied Piper met. Dr. Doctrine beamed brighter and brighter as they spoke: here, finally, was someone who understood the real priorities of medicine: first, do no harm; thereafter, prescribe the whole cure for the whole person. More than that, though: here was someone who could communicate the importance of good medical care in ways that made people eager to be treated, eager to make important life changes, eager to be healed and made whole. The Pied Piper could beat Dee Constructionist and Dr. Phil N. DeBlanc at their own game, and the town would be better off for it.

The day of the presentation came, and a large crowd gathered to learn the Pied Piper’s “exciting new method.” They were surprised to see Dr. Doctrine on the stage, but throughout his enthralling presentation the Pied Piper, true to his word, directed his audience to “seek true, whole healing,” which they would find at Dr. Doctrine’s office. By the end of the presentation, whole families were rushing the stage to thank the Pied Piper and to schedule appointments with Dr. Doctrine.

Things are better in town these days. Dee Constructionist and Dr. Phil N. DeBlanc are still in business, but they’re not growing like they had been, and more and more people are recognizing the flaws in their philosophies. Meanwhile, Dr. Doctrine hasn’t just added patients but other doctors, people who are committed, as he is, to treating the whole person with whole cures. This is, of course, nothing new: patients throughout the ages have needed exactly this kind of patient care. But sometimes the rediscovery of old things changes everything, people begin to look not just to the next new thing but to the tested and true. In doing so they move from sickness to health, from death to life. You might even say they’ve been born again. Dr. Doctrine is just fine with that: of all the medical care he offers his patients, new birth is his favorite practice.


To be continued . . . ?

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Late, Great, New & Improved Dr. Doctrine: Chapter Three

I recently wrote a little story as a favor to a friend. He went another way, so I thought I'd post it here.

It's worth noting that the theme of this piece is not something I'm totally comfortable with. I've lately been feeling the need to put myself in more direct conversation with the people who disagree with me. It helps that the person who got me started on telling this story is a friend; the prominence given to God's wrath among people preoccupied with doctrine notwithstanding, in this case as in most cases, love starts, surrounds and sustains the story.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little parable. And I hope you don't take it any more seriously than I do. It is, after all, only a story.


Things went on pretty much the same for a while. Dr. Doctrine saw fewer and fewer patients while his chief competitors grew larger and more prosperous. Then one day, as he sipped his coffee and flipped through the local paper, he saw an article that captured his imagination.

“Music Is the Best Medicine,” read the headline. A photograph sat alongside the text, a picture of a man playing a flute in a hospital, while sick children danced around him. The article wrote in glowing terms about this “exciting new model” of medical care, referring to the doctor as “a Pied Piper” whose “personal approach” was making patients excited about having their illnesses treated. This Pied Piper would be visiting the town in a week to elaborate on his approach. “A measure of music,” the article concluded, “makes the medicine go down.”

Dr. Doctrine leaned back in his chair. Is this just another flavor of the month? he wondered. Or does this “Pied Piper” truly care about his patients’ health? Just then, Dr. Doctrine’s phone rang. He reached over and picked up the receiver. “Dr. Doctrine’s office,” he said cheerfully. “Dr. Doctrine speaking.”

“Dr. Doctrine, it’s a great pleasure to speak with you,” the voice on the other line spoke. “I don’t know if you’ve read today’s paper, but I’m the ‘Pied Piper of Medicine’ visiting your town next week. I’ve looked into your practice and feel a real affinity with your approach to patient care. I was wondering if you’d be willing to join me on the stage at my presentation next week.”

Dr. Doctrine readily accepted the invitation, if for no other reason than to be available to push back against bad medical advice. But the Pied Piper wanted more. “I’d love to come visit you before the event, to compare notes about patient care, to make sure we’re in agreement. When I visit towns like this, I like to be able to refer my audience to a doctor who knows what real medicine looks like, and I think you might be that doctor for your town.”

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Great Big Friendship Blog: Keith--Friend, Leader, Bro

My friend Sarah Cunningham is running an experiment on her blog, encouraging people to show their appreciation to their friends. She's calling it the "Great Big Friendship Blog." Check it out; I think you'll like it.

The experiment happened to coincide with a surprise celebration for a friend of mine, Keith, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. Several of his friends were asked to reflect on what he has meant to our lives. What follows are my comments. Thanks, Sarah, for the excuse to share them more broadly; thanks, Keith, for inspiring them in the first place.


I was trying to think about whether I would talk about Keith as a friend, or Keith as a leader.

On the one hand, he’s been present to some of the most significant moments of my life. He was at, even in, my wedding. He and his family helped us move into our house. He came to my book signings. He and Angela were the first to visit us after my wife’s surgery this year. We’ve traveled together. We’ve even surfed together, and I’ve only surfed once in my whole life ever. So it’d be pretty easy to talk about Keith as a friend.

But then again, he’s also been a significant leader in my life. When I first moved to the area, he was a youth pastor and I was one of his volunteers. When we later worked together in an organization he started, he was my boss. When I got married, he officiated at the wedding. When we’ve traveled together, it’s been mainly me helping him on projects he’s taken on for himself. And when I wasn’t helping him on those projects, he was pitching me other projects to work with him on. So it’d be pretty easy to talk about Keith as a leader.

But then again, he hasn’t ceased to be my friend when he’s been my leader. And he hasn’t ceased to be a leader when he’s been my friend. Those two categories of relationship commingle with Keith—and not just with me. As I’ve observed over time, Keith offers friendship and leadership interchangeably to the people in his life. They’re a bonded pair for Keith, a mixed bag sometimes but always there together—friend and leader, leader and friend.

So to call Keith my friend doesn’t seem respectful enough of the influence he’s been in my life. And to call him my leader seems to downplay the very personal role he’s played in my life. I need a different word, a third word. It doesn’t have to consolidate the two, like friendler or something stupid like that. It just needs to be distinctly Keithy.

So I thought about it, and I settled on a word: Bro.

Keith is the only person in my forty-two years of life who has regularly called me "Bro." I’ve never called him "Bro" back until now. It’s just not in my lexicon. Bro is an artifact of a culture I know only through Keith. It only shows up in my life when Keith is in the room.

I know I’m not Keith’s only Bro, of course, because I’ve been at get-togethers at his house where people were throwing the word Bro around like it was a party trick. I have a friend who recently discovered that we both know Keith; he told me that he and a mutual friend occasionally recall a time when they both would see Keith regularly. They look at each other, get really quiet and serious for a moment, and just say one word to each other: “Bro.”

But I like the word Bro for Keith, because presumably it’s the short form of the word brother, and I think the word brother is an apt description of Keith—not just for me, but for a lot of people. Keith shines the brightest, in my opinion, as a friend and a leader when he is faced with friends who have happened on hard times. I’ve watched him fly across country to be with someone who’s struggling. I’ve watched him agonize for long periods of time over how to care for people who are hurting, challenge people who are digging their own graves, restore people who have either been removed or removed themselves from significant relationships. I’ve watched Keith go through adversity with people, unsatisfied with the prospect of merely praying for them or merely being there for them in a latent, passive kind of way.

Proverbs 17:17 says that a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity. We live in a time when it’s easy to be a friend—you’re never more than a click away. And it’s easy to be a leader: you just declare yourself one and read a book or two. It’s even easy to love in a culture like ours, when we’re too busy for loving one another to mean anything material, anything more than emotionalism or sentimentality. But it’s still hard to be a brother, and it’s harder still to be a brother for a time of adversity. That’s what Keith is: a brother for a time of adversity, where his friendship and his leadership align most clearly and creatively.

But brother is far too stodgy and formal a word for someone like Keith, so I’ll settle for Bro. Thanks, Bro, for your broship.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Late, Great, New & Improved Dr. Doctrine: Chapter Two

I recently wrote a little story as a favor to a friend. He went another way, so I thought I'd post it here.

It's worth noting that the theme of this piece is not something I'm totally comfortable with. I've lately been feeling the need to put myself in more direct conversation with the people who disagree with me. It helps that the person who got me started on telling this story is a friend; the prominence given to God's wrath among people preoccupied with doctrine notwithstanding, in this case as in most cases, love starts, surrounds and sustains the story.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little parable. And I hope you don't take it any more seriously than I do. It is, after all, only a story.


As frustrating as Dee Constructionist’s editorial was, it wasn’t Dr. Doctrine’s only problem. She had, it was true, been siphoning off a good number of his patients—patients he’d known from birth—but she wasn’t the only one. Also new to town was another competitor, this one appearing to be more in line with Dr. Doctrine’s philosophy but in actuality being just as dangerous as Dee Constructionist.

Dr. Phil N. DeBlanc had set up shop a couple of months ago. He had advertised heavily, targeting not Dr. Doctrine but Dee Constructionist with attack ads and making a strong, sometimes provocative case for a medical approach to health care. Dr. Doctrine had appreciated this re-assertion of medical care (although he found the tone sometimes abrasive), but as he observed the new medical practice he realized a shocking truth: DeBlanc wasn’t so much treating people as he was medicating people. Want to lose weight? Take this pill. Want to improve your sex life? Take that pill. Want to get rid of your cancer? Try this one or that one. For DeBlanc, every pill was the same hammer, and every malady was the same nail.

Dr. Doctrine had lost some patients to DeBlanc too. They had grown impatient with his slow, deliberate approach to treatment; they had grown tired of his seemingly intrusive questions about their diet and other personal habits. Mostly they were just looking for something new—either the exotic and empowering “self-care” promoted by Dee Constructionist or the formulaic approach on offer from Phil N. DeBlanc. In a world where the new and novel is king, the tried and true often gets sent into exile.

Dr. Doctrine was saddened by his town’s fickle and misguided thinking about its health, and he was of course worried about the sustainability of his practice. But he was resolute in his philosophy: patient care is inherently personal, it has an undeniable objectivity, and it is absolutely essential for patient well being. So he soldiered on, hoping for the cultural tide to turn in his favor, to his town’s benefit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Late, Great, New & Improved Dr. Doctrine: Chapter One

I recently wrote a little story as a favor to a friend. He went another way, so I thought I'd post it here.

This little story goes way against type for me. My friend and I think very differently about, among many other things, the way the Christian faith is best propagated in the world. In brief, self-serving terms: my friend believes that God's wrath is the clearest expression of the gospel; I think that when the apostle John wrote that "God is love," he meant that love ought to be the key characteristic of the gospel message and the church's mission.

That being said, I've lately been feeling the need to put myself in more direct conversation with the people who disagree with me, even with the people I find disagreeable. It helps that my conversation partner in this respect is a friend; once again, love starts, surrounds and sustains the stories we find ourselves in.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little parable. And I hope you don't take it any more seriously than I do. It is, after all, only a story.


To be born again, it’s been said, first you have to die. That sounds horrible, but some deaths are more sad than horrible; they happen over time so subtly that we don’t so much acknowledge the death as forget the life. Some births are like that too—taking place in hidden places, passing the notice of the many. Sometimes the only ones that notice either death or birth (or rebirth) are the doctors that take note of them.

Dr. Doctrine was one such doctor. He’d been around a long time. An anchor of the community, he knew the families in this place intimately. He had treated their illnesses and made difficult judgments concerning their care, judgments that sometimes hurt for a moment but always served their overall health and protected the broader community. Dr. Doctrine was as wise as he was gracious, and the community depended on his help to stay healthy—even to know when it was sick.

You might be surprised to hear it, but even doctors fall in and out of favor. One day Dr. Doctrine unlocked the door of his office, turned the faded sign from “closed” to “open,” and sat at his desk to read the latest issue of the local paper. He had lived long enough and seen enough of life that nothing in the paper surprised him—nothing, that is, until he turned to the editorial page, at which point he promptly spilled his coffee and nearly choked.

“Dr. Doctrine Is No Friend of Patients” read the headline on the left. He had heard such mutterings in the street, on occasion, when circumstances had forced the occasional quarantine, or when saving the life of a patient had meant amputating a limb, or when patients were unready to hear the hard truth of his diagnosis and left his office in tears, untreated. To the untrained eye, particularly the untrained eye of the skeptic, such care often seemed unfeeling and even hurtful. But here, emblazoned in print, seemingly reflecting the will of the people, was an indictment that cut to his heart.

Dr. Doctrine read on as Dee Constructionist, a local purveyor of “holistic care,” wrote at length about the hubris of modern medicine and the body’s natural capacity to heal itself. She’s right, in a way, he thought. The human body was created to be healthy, and much medical care is simply getting the things we do to ourselves out of the way so that God, the Great Physician, can bring healing. But she was also wrong, Dr. Doctrine knew firmly and passionately. A patient who simply assumed that his body would heal itself was ignoring, either unconsciously or willfully, his own culpability in his sickness. A patient who rejected medical intervention wouldn’t find himself feeling better; he’d ultimately find himself dead.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Five

I recently offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I was fielding questions about getting yourself published before I finished my intro.

I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. So I'm reposting what I meant to say here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. :)

A quick note on this final post: My presentation was intended for pastors in a denomination that does not ordain women. Please forgive my gendered language in the post.


The author-reader covenant isn’t just a binary relationship, of course, just as covenants themselves don’t only involve the two parties who enter into them. The best books don’t just change individuals; they change the world. That’s why books have served such a significant mission in the history of the church; that’s why writing is so embedded in the culture of the church.

But as I mentioned, we’re living in a largely post-literate age. People by and large don’t read anymore. And the church is in danger, as a result, of losing this key asset in its mission.

The danger isn’t on the side of the authors. A significant percentage of the 300,000 books published in America this year are Christian; my employer gets a couple thousand book proposals every year, and we’re only one of dozens of publishing houses. The danger is on the reader side; we need to recover the discipline of reading, and we need to help people recognize that the missional potential of reading is worth the covenantal sacrifice that comes with it.

So, how do we get people reading? There are a number of ways that pastors and other leaders can influence others back toward a culture of literacy.

One way is what I experienced: ask people in your congregations to lead other people in your congregations, or other people in their lives, in a discussion of a book that you love, or that you think they would love if they gave it a chance. It’s a big ask, for both the leader and the rest of the group, but the right book with the right set of readers can have remarkable impact.

Don’t just throw someone into it, of course. Give them a crash course in facilitating conversation—most importantly, the acknowledgment that they don’t have all the answers, and the acknowledgment that neither does the author. The best conversations about books allow for respectful dissent and critique, assuming the best of the author and acknowledging the limits of the people in the room.

Another way of cultivating a culture of reading is by citing sources in your sermons. That involves less work than it probably sounds like. The main thing is to step back from your teaching and ask yourself who have been your primary teachers on the topic. In many cases what you’ve learned will have come through books. Throw a JPG of the cover on a PowerPoint slide or just name the author and title—even at the end of the sermon, a sort of “further learning list.”

Some churches commit to reading a book as a community. This happened a couple of times with my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville: one church built a sermon series around the book; another church used the book to help them observe Lent together.

Many (not all) churches have libraries, but many of those libraries are hopelessly out of date. Victims of a culture that has moved beyond reading, they occupy spaces of a church building where nobody ever goes, or nobody ever stays. You might find a member of the congregation who has that stink of bookishness to them, and ask them to serve both as the library’s champion and its reformer. Give her a budget for one book a month and you’ll have twelve new books in your library in a year. Give her space to put the best resources of the library in people’s way—a table in the social room, a monthly plug from the pulpit, a column in the church’s newsletter. Challenge her to recruit a team to help her select books to buy or feature, or to advocate for a more robust culture of reading among the congregation.

If your church doesn’t have a library, you can take the risk of lending out (or giving away) copies of books from your own personal library. You are, for your congregation, what your favorite seminary or Bible college professor was for you: a guide into the daunting but important and ultimately edifying world of Christian thought and practice. Introduce your congregation to the books that helped you get through a tricky issue or deepen your discipleship, and I suspect they’ll gobble them up.

My wife one year organized a Christmas party for her ministry and asked everyone who came to wrap a book to exchange at the dinner table. It was to be a book that was personally meaningful, and it proved to be a significant night for people getting to know one another better and benefiting from the insights of one another. Some people took the exercise more seriously than others, but everyone remembers it, and they remember not only which book they brought but which book they took home.


Books are not magic. Not even The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia are magic. Books are a serious effort, on the part of both writers and readers, to wrestle with the basic premises and challenges of life. Books are finite—none has the last word—and because they are written and read by fallen human beings, their assertions and insights can’t be taken as gospel.

But that doesn’t mean magic doesn’t happen when a book is being written or read. By reading, by writing, we reach beyond the time and space we find ourselves in and connect ourselves not only to great cloud of witnesses, to the great heritage of Christian tradition, but to the ends of the earth. Books can be magical because mission is magical: finite, fallen, flesh and blood people acting in concert with the immortal, invisible, ineffable Creator of the universe to make the good news known among every tribe, tongue and nation, until, as the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus,

we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Four

I recently offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I was fielding questions about getting yourself published before I finished my intro.

I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. So I'm reposting what I meant to say here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. :)


I remember when I met Brian Mahan, the author of Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose. I sort of stalked him, and then I played my “I’m an editor for a venerable Christian publishing house” card to get him to go to lunch with me. I got there late and found myself short on cash in a restaurant that didn’t take credit cards; he and his wife (who had come with him) bought me lunch and drove me back to my hotel, sending me home with a hug and a copy of his wife’s new book.

We’ve since interacted intermittently; I’ve given him publishing advice (his more recent writing doesn’t fit our publishing program well, and he has bigger aspirations than us anyway), and he’s felt comfortable enough with me to poke in helpful ways at my theology and my discipleship. Now, when I think about issues related to vocation, or ambition, or virtue in general, my thinking is informed by his thinking.

I’ve loaned his book to some of my friends. Some of them get it; some of them don’t. I’ve found that younger readers are more receptive to him—largely, I think, because he’s a college professor, and he pictures college-aged readers (or thereabouts) as he writes. Older folks have ceased thinking and feeling like college students, and so some of his stuff to them seems silly or over-the-top. That’s my guess, anyway; it works for me mainly because I refuse to grow up. In any case, Brian picked his audience as he wrote Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, and he has enjoyed the fruits of that even as he’s come to live with the side effects of it.

Picking an audience is part of the cost of the covenant when you write to be read.

  • You have to turn yourself away from some people and toward some others.
  • You have to reach beyond your own intuitive logic to write clearly, comprehensively and methodically so that a stranger, without direct access to your brain or your nonverbals, can comprehend what you’re suggesting and interact meaningfully with it.
  • You have to cut material that is personally important but, to the reader, irrelevant.
  • You have to include material that seems to you superfluous but will help the reader warm to you and enter more fully into your content.
  • You have to subject yourself to the scrutiny of often harsh critics.
  • It can feel like a great sacrifice, writing to be read.

    But the reader makes a sacrifice too.

  • At the most basic, a reader sacrifices time and money, to acquire and read what you’ve written.
  • Beyond that, a reader often stretches beyond comfort or current capacity to learn something new or be confronted with something different.
  • Or a reader endures bad prose to get to a good point.
  • Or a reader endures the mockery or even scorn of other readers who have rejected the credibility of the author they’ve chosen to read.
  • In these ways and more, reading can feel like a great sacrifice.

    Every covenant involves sacrifice, though, so why should the author-reader covenant be any different? Not all writing or reading achieves this covenantal status, but we do well to expect it and aspire to it when we choose what we read or what we write.

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    Good Books & the Great Commission: What I Meant to Say, Part Three

    I recently offered a presentation titled "Good Books & the Great Commission." My goal was to demonstrate the role of book publishing in the church's disciple-making mission. I was planning to talk about the decline of reading in contemporary culture and the need for intentionality in creating cultures of reading in contemporary churches. I was fielding questions about getting yourself published before I finished my intro.

    I don't begrudge people their desire to see themselves publish. Honestly I don't. I still stand by my conviction, however, that reading can be missional, that the church can and should be a reading culture. So I'm reposting what I meant to say here, and you're just going to have to deal with it. :)


    Guess how many books are being published in America this year. 300,000. That’s a ton of books—actually it’s more like 150 tons. Here are opening lines to some of them.

    "Your eyes are like deep blue pools that I would like to drown in,” he had told Kimberly when she had asked him what he was thinking; but what he was actually thinking was that sometimes when he recharges his phone he forgets to put the little plug back in but he wasn’t going to tell her that.
    Here’s another one.

    As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting.
    And finally this one.

    He got down from his horse, which seemed strange to him as he had always believed that you got down from a duck or a goose.
    OK, these aren’t from actual books. These are winning entries from the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest, where people attempt to come up with the worst sentences to see print.

    This contest only works if people come to it with an understanding: some writing is truly awful. That’s not the only understanding, of course: some writing, we all recognize, is truly good. The trick is recognizing the difference. In this case, the finalists in the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest are, counterintuitively, good writing: so bad that they’re good, they fulfill their promise to their readers by creatively crafting the worst possible sentences. In these awful sentences, the writer and reader come together and celebrate the result.

    Put two strangers in a room together—people from two distinct cultures, without a common language—and before too long they’ll figure out ways of communicating. Their communication may never extend beyond nonverbal signs, but it may go far beyond that, from constructing new pidgin languages out of their two native tongues, to learning to speak and understand each other’s languages.

    It’s hard work, but it can be done, and we do it because we want to: “It’s not good for the man to be alone,” God tells us in the book of Genesis. We also communicate because that’s what beings made in the image of God would do: God communicates from the beginning, speaking the universe into existence, commissioning the man and the woman in the garden, inviting the man to name all the animals in existence—teaching him, in effect, the art of communication before he has anyone to communicate with.

    It’s not a long leap from spoken language to written language, and we have evidence of writing as ancient as 3200 BC. Anything that happened before written language, as a matter of fact, is by definition prehistoric—it predates the history we have available to us because it couldn’t be written down and preserved. Ancient writing had a clear audience in mind, and in every case it served a clear purpose—the ordering of society, the explanation of human origins, the assimilation of new people (whether children or conquered peoples) into the culture of the author. It’s no wonder that the first five books of our Bible tell us of our origins, tell us how the best life is to be lived, and demonstrate how a people came to be chosen by God and what are the implications of that chosenness: these are the functions of writing at their most basic, most primal.

    Writing is covenantal; at its best it’s not merely consumed or tossed out but creates a sense of intimacy between the two parties and in some small or large way binds together their destinies.

    Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

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