Monday, September 1, 2014

Some thoughts on "Year of the Boss"

I read a blog post last week called “The Year of the Boss” about a guy who tried to focus on listening to more Bruce Springsteen this year than normal.  I’m not sure from the post how much of the Springsteen catalog he made it through in the year…Born to Run, usually considered Springsteen’s best album, wasn’t mentioned and Human Touch, usually considered Springsteen’s worst album, was mentioned. 

So, I wrote down some thoughts after I read his post.  I'm not sure exactly how to label what is below.  Some (all?) of my thoughts are in agreement with what he says, some overlap, some may be subtle pushback (Springsteen is hit and miss?).  I’m not guaranteeing a complete or coherent thought, the internet allows you to be lazy and not have a summarizing thesis statement.  

But, first I'll back up and take a running start…


“The equivalent of writing a hit song = something familiar, something new.”  
     - Bruce Springsteen paraphrase (Danny Clinch: Still Moving)

“Something familiar, something new.”  In the many ways of thinking about what great artists do, I think those four words summarize a key answer to the mystery.  To stereotype for a moment - Some artist focus on the “something familiar” side, these fine folks show up frequently at the Grammys and in all sort of marketing, consumeristic situations that shoot judgmental-ness intravenously into my blood stream. 

Other artists focus on the “something new” side, and, although the internet world is making changes, they are seldom heard until someone on the MTV side of the equation sites their influences and introduces the world to them.

At times, I wonder…perhaps there is a genius to be had in both of these categories?  Maybe the rock star icon, the imagery, the facade, the marketing is actually more of a part of the art formula than we realize.  And, on the other side of the tracks, maybe we need to do better at taking the time to process art that we don’t (yet) understand.

But, maybe some of the greatest artists feel so true and helpful to our souls because they pull us into their world by saying, “I get you”.  And, then, they teach us something while we are there by saying, “don’t stay but move forward”.  They move us along and it feels right, because we’ve started off at a safe spot - they feel what we feel.  “Something familiar, something new”.  Or, in more of Springsteen’s own words, “Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well inside of your heart and head at all times. If it doesn't drive you crazy, it will make you strong.”  Familiar and New…they are not synonyms, but more like contradictory ideas.

If something like this is true then there are a variety of implications.  For example… 
  • I strongly respect anyone trying out a new artist every year.  I respect it, because it ends up allowing a broader range of influences to feel familiar to the person, which opens them up to even more journeys of familiar-to-new, presumably making you a better person.  In other words, my hunch is that when the author of that blog post spends his next year listening to Bob Dylan, the Springsteen familiarity-base will make more of the Bob Dylan catalog more quickly familiar / accessible.  Both Bruce and Bob have helpful insights into the world around us…so, getting more quickly onto the familiar > new pathway will more quickly release new, helpful, life-transforming thoughts about life.
  • But, I think this concept also implies that it would not be possible to understand Springsteen’s music (or any artist’s music) in a year.  If what I’m saying about familiar > new is true, the only situation where you could ever appreciate a large music catalog in a year would be with an artist who grew up just like you, listening to the same type of music as you, read the same books, etc.

    Using Springsteen to dive deeper on that thought, it would be impossible to “get” all his music without a familiarity with Bob Dylan.  …but, more than that, without a familiarity with Woody Guthrie (to understand Dylan or the Boss, actually), without a familiarity with Elvis Presley, James Brown, Sam & Dave, Mitch Ryder, Reaganomics, 9/11, westerns, Robert Mitchum movies, the Beatles, etc.

    I think there are two points to be made here.  One, it’s naive to think that any artist can be fully understood without understanding what they are responding to and being influenced by in their music.  And, two, part of the reason an artist like Springsteen can take so many people on their path from familiar > new is the diversity of his influences.
  • The last implication I'll point out is - I think there is integrity to artists taking this familiar-to-new path in their artistry. The artist needs to be taking the familiar-to-new path themselves, and, then, they invite us in on the journey. If this is true, it makes me hesitant to over critique musicians (or any artist).

    The artist’s job of moving people is a difficult one.  On one side, they are criticized for making the same album over and over again (which may be the most legitimate criticism since it may just reveal a fear of the familiar-to-new journey).  But, on the other side, they are criticized for not hitting the sweet spot of a theoretical familiar-new ratio.  Some jump too far away from the “familiar”, upsetting their fans.  Or, others find out after they’ve taken the jump that the “new” place they jumped to wasn’t as stable as they thought it was.  Either way, they are doing a noble thing by trying to make the jump, because as they make that jump, I make that jump.  
Here’s some irony to close out everything written above.  Essentially, I’m totally unfamiliar with Russ Ramsey and his ‘catalog’.  So, what business do I have interacting with his blog post.  Should I first go back and listen to everything he’s listened to, or read everything he’s read?  Or, should I just jump in and post some mental processing and see what happens?  Maybe in the midst of Russ’ post and this post, I was privileged to have someone take me from someplace familiar and drop me off at some place new…?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

16 Things I like about Darren Aronofsky's Noah movie

Here are 16 things that this evangelical Christian likes about the Noah movie...

I like the sense of creativity, the sense that anything could happen, the sense of magic, the sense that…in this movie-world…it would make perfect sense for the sun to stand still, staffs could turn into snakes, people could be swallowed by whales, animals could come two-by-two into a boat…you get my point.  A magical movie-world where God can do anything without breaking the movie-rules, seems like an excellent accomplishment.

I like the image of sin.  And, I like it that sin seems bad. The Bible is foundationally built on this idea that sin is bad and deserves punishment. 

I like a strong patriarchal character when portraying a time and culture of strong patriarchal characters.

I like the emphasis on justice.  To me, this is the most amazing part of the movie…  How can you take us, as a pluralistic-don’t-say-anything-is-sinful society…and, create a world where there is no second-guessing that it is right for the world to be destroyed?  If you read the Old Testament and all the battles and total destruction of cities, man, women, children….this is an important concept to consider.  Even more difficult…how can you take a person that God says was righteous and show that this person, Noah, was also full of sin and would also deserve to be destroyed, but God in his graciousness spared him and his family?  Darren Aronofsky does this by showing that sin can corrupt even our best thoughts.  Sin can corrupt our very acts of following out God’s orders.  And, very impressively, Mr. Aronofsky takes the viewers on a psychological trip where they go from seeing Noah as a great man to seeing Noah as someone that they could hate because of his evilness…someone that could justly be destroyed.  I think it’s a wonderfully explicit  picture of the corruption of evil in our hearts, our human depravity (speaking Calvinistic-ally).  Noah tells his wife that sin is in her love for her kids.  Sin is in Noah’s love for God.  How do you walk the balance of showing that Noah was righteous, but still sin-tainted?  Noah, the movie, seems to accomplish this task.

I like the foreshadowing at the beginning of the movie when the bad guy, I think Tubal-Cain is his name, says several times, “I’ll be damned”.

I like the picture near the end of the movie when the consequence of sin, pain in childbirth, is interspersed with two people fighting for their lives, giving us an allegorical flashback to Cain and Abel. 

I like the way Noah thinking about killing his grandchildren foreshadows Abraham killing Isaac. 

I like the way Noah is the gateway for the survival of the future of humanity…Christ-type?

I like the way the movie made me slow down and think about what it would be like to see a humanity that is so bad that God would be willing to wipe them off the face of the earth.  I think that, at some point, this would make you wonder if God should continue with humanity at all.

I like the emphasis on humans destroying God’s creation.  God is introduced to us in the Bible as a Creator.  It makes sense to me that part of humanity’s rebellion against him would include destroying his creation.

I like the fact that Noah is sort-of an ultimate fighter.  If the world as violent as it was in Noah’s day, he would likely need to have some sort-of defense skills to stay alive.

I like it that I went back to the Bible and looked up the Nephilim, which means “giants” and are described as “mighty men who were of old, the men of renown”.  …granted, the word ‘transformer’ is not used.

I like it that when I went back to my Bible I saw a verse that finds God saying to Noah, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird…”…basically all of creation.  A) That fear/dread load is probably a heavy load to bear, B) the movie gives a picture of a Noah to be feared, C) I had never spent time thinking about this aspect until I saw the movie.

I like the way it showed the struggle of the godly and the ungodly in God’s lack of responding to them in the fashion that they would prefer.  The bad, Cain-guy, wanted God to speak to him in a certain way, but because God wouldn’t speak to him in this way, he ignored the voice of God through Noah and he hated God.  Even righteous Noah wanted God to speak to him in a certain way, and struggled because God wouldn’t speak to him in the way and in the timing that he preferred.  Today, people struggle with this same thing. 

I like the way it showed a humanity that believed in God, but still did their own thing.  They (at least Tubal-Cain) were not atheists.

I like a movie that examines important Biblical themes and concepts…such as sin and justice.  And, personally, I feel quite okay forgiving a movie that pushes the outer boundaries of what a narrative, Biblical story can be, when it gives such a good picture of the Biblical themes and concepts.  Because it obviously wasn’t attempting to recreate a documentary style atmosphere, my brain was released to think about themes, psychology, theology, instead of noticing tiny little details that he got wrong.  If I were to have directed the movie, my conscious/Bible-respect wouldn’t have allowed me to make the choices that Darren Aronofsky made.  But, I still highly enjoyed the world that he created. 

In my mind, I think Noah is a great movie.  Thanks for making it, Darren Aronofsky.

“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dave Ramsey's 20 Things Rich People Do...

Not that I care so much about being rich, but I thought this was a good list...

Actually, I'm going to start doing them right now.  See you poor suckers later.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A longer (and more serious) than usual post about a trip to help with the tornado damage in Washington, IL

I’m at home after church on Sunday talking to my wife about how we handled the tornado warning that went off during the cup portion of the Lord’s Supper at our Milwaukee church.  The phone rings, and my buddy from Illinois says, “Are your in-laws okay?  I was watching the Bears game and they said that Washington, IL, was wiped out by a tornado.  Isn’t that your wife’s hometown?”.  Not that I have a lot of experience in this category, but these types of questions typically put a new spin on your day.

We make phone calls to my in-laws.  After a few no-answers, my wife gets through, and finds out everyone is okay.  The tornado barely missed the community center where her family meets for church.  It missed the community center, but, it had managed to create a path through the middle of town, through apartments, housing developments, ending in farmland.  Everything in this path was dismantled and then deposited in mangled forms all over the city.

We started looking at pictures on the internet.  The pictures could have been taken anywhere, all the landmarks were gone, everything was leveled and looked like your average pile of debris.  We eventually found out that among approximately 1,000 damaged homes, only one person had died.  For some reason this made the damage seem more bearable. 

We decided to head down to Washington to help with the clean-up over the weekend.  Friday night we arrived in Washington before the 6:00 PM curfew.  Saturday morning, myself, my wife, her Dad and brother, all went over to the Bethany Community Church to get our volunteer assignment.   However, the line for assignments was out the door, parking was backed up on the street.  Instead of waiting potentially hours in the cold to get an assignment, our crew decided to risk getting through the policed barricades and going into the affected area on our own. 

We waited in line outside of the affected area for about 30 minutes as cars were checked by the police, and, we finally entered to what looked like the aftermath of a bombed out village in a World War 2 movie.  Piles of debris were everywhere, homes gone, vehicles flipped over, walls missing, glass and splintered wood everywhere, insulation blowing around like snow flurries. 

We jumped in helping people with their homes.  And, there was a spectrum of damage.  Over the course of the weekend, we helped homes that had damage, but were still livable.  They must have felt blessed to have come so close to the tornado, but with minimal damage.  We helped people whose homes will likely need to be destroyed, but they weren’t hit hard enough that they lost all their belongings.  They must have felt blessed to have been in the path of the tornado, but still been able to have pictures, clothes, stuffed animals, memories.  And, for others the tornado made everything disappear.  I imagine they are thankful for their lives.

We attended a worship service on Sunday with a church family who had been spread out during the week.  Spread out all over Washington, but grateful to be serving, grateful for their lives, grateful that their community center is several 100 yards to the west, grateful for a higher hope, grateful for a church calendar that had been wiped clean with one thing now written on it “Help people – physically and spiritually”. We sang as a body of Christ.  We prayed as a body.  We opened God’s Word together. 

The world is a mix of happy and sad and in-between.  The world is complicated.  Some people lose their house.  Some people lose all the letters their deceased father wrote to his children for their eighteenth birthdays. Some people have their spouse die only to have their name infamously changed to “at least only one person died” and repeated 10,000 times every day all over the community.

We hear things like this and they sound unbearable.  And, in some ways they are, but over the course of my weekend in Washington, I kept noticing that the mixed feelings I was observing in myself seemed familiar.  

We, as Christians, know of a story of happiness and sadness.  In our church services, we sing about death.  We thank God for sending Jesus to die to pay the penalty for our sins.  We are told to rejoice in trials.  We’re an odd breed.  But, maybe it’s actually not odd at all, maybe it’s the only thing complicated enough to make sense of a complicated world.  A complicated world, where I hurt and rejoice at the same time.  A complicated world, where a savage tornado does something horrible and yet brings a community together in a nearly impossible way.  A world where a church can go from fearing for their lives in a hallway of a community center to having two packed services the following week and blessing the community with the spoken message of the gospel.

“We”.  That can be a beautiful word.  Knowing that it’s not all about you.  In an ultimate sense, the ultimate “we” occurs between a Heavenly Father and his children.  But, there’s a “we” in the body of Christ, the church.  And, part of the beauty of a body is that it is together.  It’s together all the time.  Sometime your hands are working fine, but you have a head ache.  Sometimes your hands feel arthritic, but there’s no headache.  Our bodies are a mix of pleasure and pain.  As a church body, we function this way. 

We know Jesus who has suffered more than anyone.  We know that God is sovereign in the ups and downs of life.   And, as we understand these things, I think we reach out to others.  We know about suffering, because our body suffers and our Head suffered.  Our faith family is full of people who are suffering while simultaneously experiencing joy and sustenance.  There’s something core to our faith that relates to your ups and downs.  It makes sense of them.  It gives them purpose. 

We can’t explain all the reasons for suffering.  But, observing life in Washington, IL, over the weekend, I feel convinced that suffering provides the home field advantage for faith of a believer.