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.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

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