This has been several weeks in the making. In this post, I'm going to handle a huge topic with as much tact as I can muster, but there's a line between causing people to stumble and showing just how far that line stretches. This is an unbelievably dark topic, and this reads as an exposé (sort of), but I've been working a while on forming my thoughts on this, which are here presented for you.Read More
“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.” -CS LewisRead More
I began to get frustrated when I saw other people's pride (be it in the form of vanity, obsessive self-promotion, "selfies," or whatever) and I never realized that I was getting frustrated because it reminded me of myself and my own obsessive self-promotion. My chasing after beautiful words not because they're beautiful but because they made me look good. My "intellectual" selfies.Read More
There is magic in grief like there is magic in love. There is magic in mourning like there is magic in celebration. There is magic in the cracks in our systematic understanding of the world - for they are cracks that cannot be described by lists or equations but rather by poetry; they are cracks that cannot be filled by experiments or textbooks but rather by God.Read More
Defining Terms It's interesting that the term "Church Musician" is a thing, because two words together have rarely carried such enormous weight as these.
Church: - could refer to something generally "religious," - something established as a tax write-off, - to the body of Christ, - to a sect of cultish crazies, - or really any number of things in between.
Musician: - Someone with a penchant for understanding melody, harmony, and expression of feeling through tonal quality, - a person connected to some abstract muse or well of inspiration, - or (in some people's minds) simply someone possessing the skill of playing an instrument.
Church Musician: - Someone who plays music exclusively in churches - Someone who plays music, and church happens to be one of the places he plays - Someone who learned 4 chords and finds it acceptable to consider himself qualified to lead people before the Creator of music with no discernable passion, no evident display of intentionally honed musical skill, and the acceptance of a complete lack of innovation for the sake of perpetuating an increasingly stale "genre" of musical expression.
Music in Church
"The Church" remains today one of the most misunderstood things around, especially in a society completely saturated with it. A church is a place you go, a building to have a wedding in, redemption for Saturday night, the place that houses a man who does exorcisms, a brick-faced structure with a steeple, a clever source for punch lines on boards out front trying to convince you to venture inside, etc. Church is an event to invite your "lost" friends to. An alternative for teenagers to hanging out downtown in parking garages.
Church is safe.
I'm not going to build the case for "the church is not a building, it's the people" here, because it has been done a thousand times before far more eloquently than I would, and frankly I just don't feel like getting into it (because I'm trying to make this week's post shorter than last week's 2100 word colossus).
But I will come out and say that I believe that the church, even in a somewhat dumbed-down context, is extremely important. We have a luxury that is unprecedented and not by any means universal. Especially in the South, we have incredibly nice buildings where we are free to gather, teach, worship, and pray as we please, whenever we want. In this context, as has been standard since the formation of the church, it is important to note the importance and place of musical worship (I think of Paul and Barnabas singing in jail). Music is used because it offers connections that words cannot muster to the Divine, and has been proven to be so for ages. Worship is not Music, though Music can be used to worship. Again, I've talked about this before, and often, so I shan't do it again here.
This it the age of Youtube, where you can learn literally anything in the amount of time it takes a video to buffer. Guitar, piano, calculus formulas, bombmaking, DIY robotics, film editing, sound recording, etc. You name it, there's someone there to teach it to you for free. It is a seriously wonderful thing (which I say without even a taste of irony), the age of knowledge and information, because nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
What IS a problem, however, is the idea injected into the collective consciousness that knowledge = expertise. Or even proficiency. "Master modal scales in ten days!" boasts one video on Youtube. "Learn how to play Lead Blues Electric guitar!" "Understanding Jazz theory." We operate under the assumption that knowledge a musician makes.
Further than that, we classify music (correctly) as art, and art (incorrectly) as un-critiquable. I'm not getting into Aesthetic discussions of art vs. craft, because I believe that each requires portions of each other to be true - and music is certainly a shining example. The assumption is that music can't be "better" or "worse," simply "different" or "more approachable" or "prettier sounding." It's untactful to say "that sounds terrible," for it will be countered with, "well, you just don't understand."
It's easy to fall to this relativistic trap with something as objective as music because there's not a commonly accepted standard for "goodness" or "badness." For example, one can judge how good or bad an archer is by how many times he can hit a target from a certain distance. A mathematician by if his solution checks out with the equation. A basketball team by if they beat other somewhat equally matched basketball teams.
So does it make a guitarist a good guitarist if he can match a guitar solo with 100% accuracy? Does it make a song good if it gets caught in your head? Or is music judged based upon what it is designed to be: communication? Do we connect with music because of the technicality of its performance or because of the emotion it conveys?
And could it be said that the better musician is the more "natural" one, that isn't stuffed with theory and filled with scales and surrounded by black dots and stems on staved paper? Or does it require a bit of effort and attempt to supplement the talent that already existed? As a music major in college, I averaged 3-5 hours a day in a room with a metronome, a guitar, and a piece of music. While I do not ever pretend to even be close to the best in the room, I do feel as though considerable effort merits considerable respect, much to the dismay of current hipster art culture. It is not merely enough to be good - you must be consistently good and demonstrably innovative... and innovation only comes with knowing what has been, which only comes through practice and study.
So we have arrived at last. The point of the verbose lecture.
I have perhaps mentioned it before, but something a few years spoke volumes about the state of church musicians (or at least those involved). The Black Eyed Peas were delivering a remarkably underwhelming halftime performance during a Super Bowl and one of my friends tweeted: "It sounds like the Black Eyed Peas hired the church sound guy with a 'great heart.'" I enthusiastically chuckled and gladly retweeted it, because it says something about the expectations and the skill level of church musicians. That kind of thing can be said and not be untrue because we have lowered our expectations in order to allow those who want to help out a shot at doing so.
Do not misread this: I am incredibly grateful for volunteers - without them, next to nothing in the church would get accomplished. But I think that there is a compromise to be made and an expectation to be raised. Simply because somebody is not being paid for something does not mean that they are to be excused from professionality and criticism. We dont' know how to say "no" to people because we are afraid of hurting their feelings. Because we feel as though we can't infringe upon that "uncritiquable" strata of art creation. After all, that is elitism and elitism is bad.
But if I were taking volunteers for a medical clinic and found somebody who was inept at even drawing blood, I would have no problem saying he is not a suitable candidate to remove an appendix.
Similarly, if I were approached with two guitarists to play one Sunday morning, one a veritable virtuoso from birth, who can play a piece of music after simply listening to it once who hadn't so much as hit "play" on that week's set and another who sat and struggled through that set hour after hour until it was a part of him, I would take the latter every single time. Struggle produces beauty and competence, encourages humility, and mirrors the kind of professional attitude expected in every other walk of life.
Just because someone's a great carpenter doesn't mean that I'll give him credit for a house he didn't work on. Just because someone is a naturally great walker doesn't mean he deserves praise for walking well.
Especially in the church, for the reason that you should do ANYTHING in the church, excellence in all fronts should be expected. In the "Christian" music industry, infamous for its sub-par quality lyric and song content, we should have extra motivation to produce the best possible product, spiritually AND physically. Don't pretend that there's not a difference between a good band and a good "Christian" band (though this playing field is quickly leveling out and is not nearly as universal an assumption as it used to be). Don't pretend that there's not a difference between a good movie and a good "Christian" movie. And don't let anybody tell you that you can't be the one to raise these expectations.
This is long and ashamedly rambly. I was just in quite a rambly mood today, I'm afraid. Please read it all, for I have several times and am not yet dead, but know that I won't be offended if you turn it off halfway. Not everyone can handle the burden of truth being poured onto them.** **That was purposely arrogant and inflammatory. I'm trying to catch your attention by being humorously cocky and reproachable right off the get-go. If that didn't work, here's some wisdom from Doctor Who, which should interest every single one of you:
"Have you ever seen monsters?" "Oh yes." "Are you scared of them?" "No. They're scared of me." - The Eleventh Doctor
Doctor Who and Introduction
It is without shame that I tell you I am veritably enthralled by the long-running BBC Television show Doctor Who. I cannot pretend to be a Who-hipster, for I was not alive when it started, nor can I say that I've been a member of the Whovian society for any long period of time. Quite the opposite, in fact: it has been only a few short months. But in these few short months, I have found myself doing very little besides reading profusely, writing (I figure now, while I have the time, means, and motivation, is when I should write that book), and watching the Doctor save the universe in countless situations infinitely more creative than my feeble mind could contrive, and in the meantime highlight the beauty of humanity and their intense dependence on something bigger than themselves.
In the section quoted above, a little boy caught in the middle of a crisis involving your run-of-the-mill otherworldy Who beasties is talking with the Doctor. He senses the threat and accurately gauges the immediacy of the situation, but asks, in a moment of seeking reassurance, about the Doctor's history of dealing with similar things. The Doctor, famous for having dashed alien hopes of universe-domination, foiled plans of genocide, and saved his numerous companions' lives time and again, responds with confidence and appropriate swagger, then characteristically smirks in the face of evil.
Confidence is praised nowadays; misplaced or inappropriate confidence is arrogance and foolishness. We see both in the lives of athletes, in the style of movie stars, in the words of introverted twenty-somethings on blogs on the internet. We are quick to call it "arrogance" in other people, but just as quick to call it "confidence" in ourselves. We are quick to think ourselves unworthy of either, and quick to overcompensate.
Perhaps it is that our mirrors are rather cloudy and dishonest. Perhaps it is our eyes. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: I see a whole lot of loathing and so little efforts for improvement; I see a whole lot arrogance and so little preparation.
What This Is Not, and What This Is
I am not thinking today about image or self-confidence along those lines, necessarily, though those thoughts do come to mind. It deserves a whole spot of its own and is quite pressing, I'm afraid, though today is not the day for it. This is not about the back-end, or how you look at yourself in light of who you truly are, for that is only the second half of the problem. This is not about vanity or even necessarily physical things
What I am addressing is what I see when I look at the majority of my generation. I see a group of people content to be what the generation before them handed down, who can honestly say that apathy is a virtue. Who socially network rather than figure themselves out. I see a generation with access to more information and knowledge than any that has come before them, yet more ignorant than any about how to use it. I see boys seeing domination as strength and girls seeing beauty as worth. I see people who think doing something worthwhile means doing something worth Instagramming; I see people for whom thoughts are merely Tweets. I see an age of humanity defined by what somebody else has said rather than what they have worked for.
And I see so few confronting it. Too many of us see "comfortable" as a good thing. So many think that because their faith is not shaken, it is sound.
We have lost all concept of self, because we have plenty of things to distract from it... and they are sneaky things, at that: the conception that you are what your Facebook says you are or that who you are is defined by your job. Instead of asking ourselves, "who am I?" we post pictures of ourselves and say, "this is who I am."
There is a discrepancy there, and it is extremely bothersome.
The Swelling Hurricane
I dropped a sentence a second ago as sort of preparation for where this was headed, as a gust to store up some energy in these sails. I'll say it again here: So many think that because their faith is not shaken, it is sound. I spent a good deal of time in the Philosophy and Religion department at UTC (since I studied Philosophy) and noticed a particularly fascinating trend: that the grand majority of people involved in it were vehemently atheistic, both professors and students alike.
What happened is they started asking questions and seeking answers anywhere they could find them. And when they couldn't find them easily or the conventional answers of their small Baptist churches just wouldn't cut it anymore, they conceded defeat to the overwhelming pangs of despair. They looked at one group of people claiming Absolute Truth and saw a completely different group halfway across the world and 8 million people big claiming a completely different Absolute Truth and decided everyone was wrong. Or they succumbed to the problem of evil: If one of two contraries is infinite, the other is destroyed. God is infinite goodness; if there were God, there would be no evil. There is evil; so, therefore, there is no God.
The arguments against God are powerful and persuasive, indeed like monsters in the closet of an 8 year old are when it's dark and he's trying to sleep. But they're embedded everywhere, and we're trained not to fight them. We yell at characters in poorly written horror movies when they decide to go towards the creaking under the stairs or the moaning from the attic. We're embedded with a fear of evil and the desire to run when it's scary.
To keep a consistent theme, though: The Doctor tells us, "Never run when you're scared." (Rule 7)
There is a storm in the air, horesemen afoot, and the battle for belief is raging.
And we who believe are not winning.
The War Without a Winner (or, apparently, a study in alliteration)
Sam Harris wrote in his book Letter to a Christian Nation that it is religion, belief, "god" that has poisoned our world, incited wars, dumbed the people, and placated a mass of people to the point of wasting their lives chasing invisible friends and waiting on some future judgment that will never come. Christopher Hitchens calls belief irrational and destructive. Richard Dawkins calls God an unnecessary invention by people incapable of handling reality.
And more believers are believing them every day. The armies are being stacked in their favor, because believers are being convinced by faulty rhetoric that Christ and Reason cannot exist together. That metaphysics and God are equivalent, and that they have a place in haughty classroom discussion and nowhere else. But the thing is that the opposition is using recycled arguments to attack Faith, and Faith is using recycled arguments to respond. We're stuck in a loop with one side crying, "you're ugly!" and the other sticking their fingers in their ears shouting back, "la la la, I can't hear you!"
We've both become dull and insulting: the attackers of Faith have betrayed their god of Reason and the believers their God of Truth.
Here is the bottom line. Christians have become comfortable with their churches and their ideas that God is a exactly the thing that they imagine, so when something comes along and challenges the toy box they keep in their prayer rooms, they panic.
There is a fallacy in the study of logic called the Straw Man. It's basically as you would imagine: to "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position. Unbelief attacks Christianity based upon the constraints it has put upon it. Based upon what Christians have made it. It attacks tradition rather than Truth, because Truth is contested only by fools.
Jesus said that His purpose on Earth was to bear witness to Truth, which is why the Jesus we have constructed that exists to ease pain and hug people crumbles under attack. Straw men have no backbone, no substance, and burn easily when touched with fire.
But Christians are doing little to counter it. Instead of arming ourselves, learning the things of God rather the things we've constructed of God, and worshipping Jesus as Truth, we trust in the easy thing - which is also the easy thing to attack, and the easy thing to lose faith in. With a faith in the same Straw Man that is easy to attack comes all of the terrible things we write eloquently to fight: we succumb to vanity and pornography and insecurity and fear and addiction the thought that our dirty pasts are insurmountable and we're not rescued by our god because he's warding off crows from crops. Misrepresentations of God are being attacked because misrepresentations of God are being followed.
So what are those of us who wish to counter unbelief to do? We must figure out what we stand for and then stand for it. We cannot be told answers, we must search them out. We can't be handed faith, we must work it out for ourselves with fear and trembling. We can't forget that something obtainable can be taken away, so we must grasp it ever tighter when the threat of its removal comes upon us.
We must stand with the confidence that we lack, because monsters won't shy from uncertainty. Confidence comes through preparation, and somebody who tells you that God will give it to you just because you asked for it is lying to you. God will do His part - He's told you that.
But the ability to fight a war doesn't come from lying in bed. We must take up arms and learn to use them, study the opposition's tactics to be able to counter them, and face the beasties in our closets atop their black horses and say, "I'm not afraid of you because I know you. You can't say something to dissuade me because I know what you will say. You can't take away my God because He gave you the Reason you think refutes Him."
Salvation is not through works - do not think that I'm trying to say anything of the sort. But it is true that the children of God will be known by their fruit. Take a step back and look at yourself. All aspects of it. Look at who you are at school, at home, on the internet, and tell me what is being glorified: you, your Straw Man, or God? It's one of the three, I promise.
Because I am occasionally up to date with pop culture and whatnot, I will start this out with a bit from the newest attempt to redeem the story of Spiderman from the unbecoming path that Sam Raimi sent it down. Marc Webb, the director, says that he inserted a speech in the last portion of the film which was from a lecture that one of his professors gave about the nature of fiction and storytelling (source). The gist of it is this (because I've only seen the movie once and can't seem to find it quoted anywhere): it has been said that there are seven different plots in all of storytelling - Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. But in reality, there is only one plot in all of history: "Who am I?" It makes more sense in its unraveling. It is a question that is asked not of just every literary character, but every flesh character alive in the stage of the world. It is the root of every philosophical project (why am I here?), every scientific inquiry (how can these extraordinary things around us relate to me?), every artistic endeavor (how do I express this thing that's inside of me, and thereby discover the reason it's there?), every compliment and every insult that causes us to smile deep into the night or lie awake with a mirror fogged by an incorrect or malicious observation passed off as truth. It is what causes progress. It is what incites despair. The search for the answer to this question is one of the things that unites people across cultures, locations, and religions.
Some avoid it altogether. They choose to answer the question with "I'm someone who would rather not worry about it." It's a painful, humbling question to answer, so for a lot of people, drowning out the small voice that asks it when the activity around you gets quiet with noise in any form it embodies is the least painful thing to do. Some glibly dodge it: "I'm just me." Some defer it: "I can be whoever I want to be." Some despair: "I'm not worth it."
This is not about how to discover who you are. If you'd like to read what I have to say about that, I have a rather old thing I posted on Identity that may slake your appetite for a moment. But if it does not, I have provided on this site many an opportunity to contact me and request unduly long-winded attempts at forming answers, or, at the very least, beginning discussions. What this IS about, however, is Truth.
Yes. Here's the skinny: we are creatures fashioned in a way that we have a thirst for the stuff, and it has been hidden from us because of our unworthiness of its presence. Truth demands purity and there is nothing of purity in us, so there is nothing of Truth that we can comprehend. Truth disappears the closer we get to it because we use magnifying glasses to inspect its various parts rather than ladders to step back and see it more wholly. We get caught up with answers to "who are you?" such as "I am a musician" or "I am a businessman" or "I'm somebody who has dreams" and forget the part that's "I'm created for a King." We lose ourselves in minutiae when we haven't yet found ourselves in the Plan.
What was my King's purpose on Earth? "The Son of Man came to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Well, yes. But no. "He came to bridge the gap between man and God." I see you went to Sunday School, but not quite. "He came to die on the cross for my sins." Cute, and correct, but not what I'm looking for. "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world," He said to Pilate, "to bear witness to the truth."
Imagine if this were said about you: "There was a man (or woman) sent from God, whose name was _______. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to bear witness about the light."
Listen to this Hindu prayer, the cry of a nation searching the hearts of 330 million gods for what so many of us (claim to) already have the answer to in One: Lead us from Untruth to Truth, from Darkness to Light, from Death to Immortality.
When you ask yourself "who am I," is it that you mean "what do I do" or do you mean "do I bear witness to the Truth?" What do your actions tell you? Do you speak with love or bitterness? Reason or conceit? Do you live in a way that people will think "what is he pointing to? Because it sure isn't himself." Do you react with a grace that makes others ask "Where are her eyes? Because she sees something bigger than I do."
In the vein of last week's post, read the lyrics to the chorus of Oh, Sleeper's "In The Wake Of Pigs" and tell me if it's not the song you want your life to sing to anybody who can hear:
"You are not alone in the eye of the darkest storm We are the lighthouse shining a lamp from the shore To bring your journey home You are not alone, use this song to lead you home We are what's left of the love that can pierce through the callous Life you spent undone We are the legacy, that's left to breathe the wind to sail you home"
Will we be lighthouses? If so, shine. If you won't, you're either the wind stirring the sea, the waves battering the hulls, or the rocks that will wreck the boats of those trying to find the Shore.
Let church bells ring
Let children sing
Even if they don't know why, let them sing.
Why drown their joy
Stifle their voice
Just because you've lost yours?
The above quote is from the song "Church Bells" by Gungor, a band that enjoys all too much turning conceptions of cultural Christianity and worship music on their heads. They introduce my thoughts here nicely, because Michael Gungor is leagues more eloquent than I could ever hope to be. Also, I know for a fact that I will step on toes (because I've always been afraid of that in the past and stuff), and some third-party sources do nicely to refute the "but that's not how it's always been" counter than one loud-mouthed, snarky 20-something could.
Christianity is in a state of disarray today not because of the King it proclaims, but because of the people proclaiming Him. It conjures images perhaps of Westboro funeral picketers, money-hungry suits shouting religious cliches, belligerent and misinformed political arguments, philosophical lightweights trying to pick heady fights with people much more versed in their fields, low quality product being acceptable in the light of the producers' "great hearts," kitschy facebook statuses, and out-of-context scripture plastered as catch phrases. As a CHRISTIAN, Christianity turns me off, so it doesn't surprise me the looks I get when people ask if my band is a Christian one and I answer, begrudgingly, "yes."
I've written about music on many an occasion (Lovedrug, Bon Iver, Slash, and others I'm sure you could dig up if you truly felt like it), but it is something that somewhat defines me, so I feel like it's fair for me to give it one more go. A super brief overview of what some of the above things talk about: I abhor the term "Christian music." I also abhor the term "worship music." I don't believe that music is a thing which can be Christian, nor do I believe that it should be deemed "worship," because inherent in the idea of music IS worship. It's what music is, in its being. It is communication of something unutterable for the purpose of exalting one thing or another above everything else in that moment - it's just that in some situations (church, "Christian music," etc), God is specifically mentioned as either the recipient or the focus of the melody. Music may express worship of sex or money or fame or a woman or the spirit of creation, yadda yadda yadda. Now that we have that established.
The Part Where I Set Up Where I'm Coming From
I have the distinct pleasure of traveling with four other boys in a van across a fairly expansive territory, from flat Kentucky farmland to the southernmost border of sweet tea availability in South Georgia, setting up loud systems and bright lights and making it so that those leaving the shows experience the delightful buzzing in their ears that accompanies the exit of an appropriately volumed concert. And let me tell you, it is a privilege. We've screamed songs out in the middle of Traditional sanctuaries "tarnished" by our trusses and rugs and boutique amps and seen our Creator come down thick - not because of anything WE do, but because He moves when He's called. And sometimes it's just that He's easiest to see when we're shaken a little bit.
Now, I said this because we're often branded a "worship band from Chattanooga" so that some of these more, shall we say, set-in-their-ways churches, will allow us passage through their doorframes to play for their kids. Because there's something safe about "worship," and I find that very backwards. Entirely too easily, we allow worship (the musical branch of it. More on this in a bit) to be something to bring us pleasure - we quibble over genre, over location, over content, over hymns vs "praise choruses," and make it our business that if there is an aspect of "worship" that exists, we are professionals at arguing about it. So we have settled on making it as unthreatening a thing as possible so that nobody gets upset. We bring the noise down, ritualize the services, repeat praisey cliches, play vi-IV-I-V until the spirit falls, then rinse and repeat.
Or perhaps we read only from the KJV and sing only from The Baptist Hymnal and have Offertory Prayers after a hymn of introduction before we sing the first, second and fourth stanzas of "How Great Thou Art."
I don't have problems with any of these things. I absolutely adore Cathedralic pipe organs and think that hymns are some of the most beautifully penned and marvelously adapted bar songs in existence. I love services of music that stretch on when it just feels as though stopping the moment would itself be a sin. But I come strongly against the notion that either of these things are worship.
A Turn Of The Screw (or of the volume knob, as the case may be)
Music is a people thing that has developed out of a need to express something we can't understand. Worship is the heart thing that needs to be expressed. So if we talk about having a problem with the worship this morning, is it that we were offended by the music or were you really just saying that we have a heart issue that we don't know how to communicate except through bitter refusal to clap when the long haired, skinny jeaned kids with guitars finally quit playing?
Another thing that irks me: worship/church/Christian music has become synonymous with "crappy." The joke when the Black Eyed Peas took the stage a few Super Bowls ago with their famously terrible live mix: "It sounds like they hired the church sound guy with a 'great heart.'" We show up at a venue and the people in charge say, "Oh wait, you're, like, legit." Or when they expect a "worship band" and then say, "we didn't expect it to be this loud. Can it come down?" Perhaps we'll start giving away earplugs.
A Story for Illustration, and Examples to Follow
One of my favorite stories that my dad tells me of Billy Graham: dc Talk has taken the stage at a Crusade and commenced rocking face. Mark Townsend and Brent Barcus are shredding, Toby and backup dancers are doing backflips off of trusses and subwoofers, and kids are effectively losing their minds in the throbbing pit in front of the stage.
Enter the tongue-cluckers into Reverend Graham's suite, relaying the above information as if it were the worst news on the planet. It was a far cry from George Beverly Shay indeed. I mean, people were sweating down there, for crying out loud. Billy's son Franklin leads him over to a window overlooking the concert and says, "Daddy, believe it or not, all of those kids down there didn't come to hear you preach. They came here because they knew dc Talk was going to be here and they'll put up with you in the meantime. God used that band to bring them here." Much to the ladys' dismay, the Reverend then stamped his approval on the ruckus happening on the stage, saying, "if that's what gets them to where I get to share God's word with them, then they're what I want."
Worship's not music, you guys. But if it must take that form temporarily, I argue that it should be loud and filled with the voices of people bent not on checking our worship boxes but on building a fire so big that the neighbors have to ask what in the world is going on.
(Caution: the music linked to below has been known to cause side effects of blown pacemakers, headbanging neck cramps, old people complaining about "noise," and tons of people getting saved.) Tell me that this isn't worship. Listen to Mattie preaching to a crowd who may not hear any sort of Gospel presentation, if not ever at least not at festivals like this. If you can't understand him when the band comes in, just google For Today's lyrics to "Agape."
Or this? "You find yourself helpless, grown. Christ is not a fashion, fleeting away," yells Josh Scogin at around 4:34 to a crowd who seems more pumped to hear it than probably your average church service which proclaims the same King.
Or this (lyrics only)? This is Oh, Sleeper's envisioning of God's thunderous reply to Satan's hubris-drenched challenge offered in their song "Son of the Morning." "From the armories the Angels sing. You will fear them when they lift their wings. They will sing to a world reborn - they will sing as I cut off your horns," screams Micah Kinard with a voice that echoes what I imagine God's will sound like when He says the same thing. \
Or this? (lyrics only) "Cause I'm getting sick - sick from all this turning, Driver, sick from turning on You." It's cries of a heart broken by itself and turning, dependent, back to the place where it can be fixed. Come on, now.
I don't mean to single out Metal music here, because I understand that it isn't for everybody (nor is it the only thing I listen to), but it gets similar reactions from the Church nowadays that dc Talk did once upon a time. The "it's just noise" argument holds no water - for noises are what were told to make. Joyful ones. And anyone who tries to tell me Norma Jean isn't a joyful noise actually means "I just don't like it" and has never been in the middle of a pit screaming their lyrics back at them. Because scream Christ's name alongside an auditorium full of people and tell me it isn't slightly more shiver-inducing than the old ladies we met this weekend who made quips about our hair in the House of the Lord behind our backs.
Your attitude matters is what I'm trying to say. Disagree, but for the right reasons. Do not make the mistake of thinking that Worship exists in a building and is best experienced in the key of E, but rather understand that Worship is a thing between you and your Creator, where you say "I'm done making this stuff down here about me and it's time You took credit for everything, so here it is." And for the Love, it is time for those making the things they're labeling "worship" to start doing it with excellence, because I can't imagine that tarnishing the rest of it brings very much glory to the Receiver.
Camp ended yesterday. I thought I was going to be prepared for that moment all summer long: when we shut the gate on the cage containing all of the stuff we used this year and drive back jubilant that we all survived and kept the sickness banging at the doors to our bodies at bay with Emergen-C and sheer willpower. The ride back was, instead, silent and strange. After all, how do you end something like this?
This summer, I've: Played music in front of 3,500+ students and their leaders. Taught Bible Study to 167 hurting kids for a week at a time. Built 214 yards of wooden fencing. Hung 3 pavilions worth of fascia board. Dug 4 8x8 drain trenches. Moved a middle school out of one building into a brand new one, which we cleaned and painted. Door-to-door mowed an entire neighborhood. Seen 30 camp staffers who couldn't be more different literally become family. Walked 3 boys and 2 girls to the feet if my Savior so that they may glimpse for the first time just how inadequate they are and just how adequate He is. I've seen the shivers of sinners' first realization of the stakes of it all. I've watched the options being weighed - the recognition that life change isn't something that comes with no cost, and the laugher and pure, inescapable joy after the decision had been made when they realize that the cost is absolutely worth it. Lived for 2 months straight in a state of pure exhaustion, so that every morning was a battle to get up and do it again - and learned what it means to say "Christ is my strength." Escaped from my academic, heady mindset and experienced the world and God in ways books just can't grasp.
And I just don't know exactly how to handle the end of something like this. Don't get me wrong - I cannot WAIT to get home. I have missed my city, my family, my friends, those who, because you carry them in your heart, you carry home with you. But I don't know how to leave this either.
Let me briefly talk about something that has changed (or is in the process of changing) inside of me. On the first day of each week, after everybody has registered and we break from the first worship set of the session, all of the students follow their track leaders to a room for 2 an a half hours of ministry track and evangelism training. It's awkward, of course, because nobody knows the other people in the room, but it is the most crucial part of the week, because it sets the rest of it up for success or failure. We did the activity, right? I gave 6 kids notecards and stuck them on one side of the room and moved everybody else to the other side. On each notecard I had written two things: on the front, something that others see about them, and on the back, something they know about themselves. The holders of the cards only knew what was written on the back, so I made then wonder what exactly was on the front as the rest of the group walked by them and scoffed. All one boy knew is that he had an abusive father and that everybody who read the front of his card wanted to punch him in the face. Another only knew she had parents that didn't take care of her and everyone walking by told her to just go take a bath, already. After the non-card holders finished walking by the card holders, I made everyone tell them what was written on the front of the cards. "You shove kids in lockers," they tell one boy. "My father beats me when I get home," he says.
"You look an smell like you haven't bathed in a week." "My home was destroyed and my family was killed in the Tornadoes last year and I've been living on the street," comes the answer.
"You never go to church." "My parents persecute Christians."
And so on. I make a point that we don't know what's written on the back of these people's cards, and that no matter how gross or maddening the front is, each of these people needed love. Then we move on. But I couldn't move on.
My heart has been broken lately for the broken. Rage has been kindled against injustice in every form. Sex trafficking, domestic abuse, movie theater massacres, these Westboro nutjobs who just won't go away, date-rapists, preachers bent only on making money, elitist, introverted writers/musicians who hang out in Nashville coffeeshops and pretend they have their crap figured out and that the rest of humanity can just burn... I've wanted to bleed them slow that sell humans as slaves, to break the knees of every father who beats his children, to make cowards behind masks who tear-gas and open fire in rooms full of innocent people beg to be spared. We live in an age that celebrates vigilante justice because we CRAVE justice and we see so few fighting for it. But I was confronted this summer with the realization that I serve a King who IS justice. Who tells me, "vengeance and recompense are mine." Who commands me to love those people I hate - for that is my role, and I have to trust that men who molest little girls will get theirs as He sees fit.
It was like this: if a twelve year old who bullies children smaller than he is needs love more than he would ever admit, how much more to the most despicable of creatures need it? Also: who am I to judge what the back of anybody's card says? Who am I to assume that any action done by another man is anything but some semblance of a cry for love and understanding and a plea for a shoulder to cry on or a voice to say, "I know, man, but there's another way?"
If my enemies are the enemies of justice, what am I to do with my King's reminder that I am supposed to love them? Or: what if early Christians felt the way I have felt against Saul, who murdered their own kind in the coldest of blood?
As a philosopher (not in the pretentious way, merely as a lover of wisdom), I love engaging in discussion about justice. What it means, how it looks, etc. But as one who is sick of roundabout reasoning and the disappearance of definition upon its examination, I have learned this summer that the only way to escape this endless cycle if heady talk an conflict and unreadable consensus is through love. An the only way to have this kind of love is through the knowledge of an relationship with the God who calls Himself love.
Imagine with me a world who saw Christians not as this Westboro nonsense or as Fox News enthusiasts or as terrible tippers or as high-horse riding, Bible face-punchers or as picketers or as condemners of "sinners" or as all of the things my people have been (deservingly) labeled, but as people who stood together and loved the unlovable (think of how difficult that is) and prayed for mass-murderers and rapists and wife beaters and forgave anybody who slaps us or those we love in the face. What if we left the judgment and justice to the One who separates wheat from chaff, goats from lambs, and treated everybody as not beyond redemption, as WE have been treated?
Imagine what that kind of body could accomplish for their King.
I am incredibly far behind in my posting schedule, something which I could promise will be made up to you with bi-weekly posts or a string of witty aphorisms or free ice cream for everybody who didn't complain about it, but I honestly cannot make any guarantees. I graduate from College in a month and it feels as though the entirety of my existence is caught in a whirlwind and I have not even a trace of ruby red slippers with magical heels to tap together. I am not going to chronicle out the happenings of the past three weeks during which I exercised a bit of blog-silence, for such a journal would be incredibly lengthy and speculative and far more narcissistic an endeavour than I care to admit that I am capable of. So let it suffice that there are times, I feel, where it is necessary to take your brain out of the ten-thousand different vats you've placed it in, regroup, and redistribute it in those vats that need the most immediate attention.
I have posted a version of a paper I turned in a week or so ago pertaining to this subject, and though it is far from perfect, I plan on revisiting it, replacing things that I had to cut to fit it within the word restriction, and adding to it to form a more formal critique. You can read a draft of it at this link.
What I want to get out there today is something of a more heavy nature than the quaint little aphorisms I attempted to produce when last we talked. Something of a struggle I am undergoing, for which criticism, advice, and general opinion would be appreciated.
I do not attempt to hide my admiration for Frederich Nietzsche, even though there is a strikingly small area of material on which we agree. On the one hand he is the self-proclaimed champion against the rise of Christianity, a vehement and angry opponent of all things humble or Divine. He roars in defiance of anything which dares threaten a living being's climb to the height of its species potential, mocks the rampant herd mentality of modern religion, and cheers with a fuming pen the constant, infinite re-consideration and questioning and throwing out of value. Indeed, it seems as though the famous nihilist, in his own little ironic way, places extraordinary value on re-valuing everything people hold dear.
But I said before that I admire him, and that hasn't changed. All that he opposes is all that I hold dear, and the monumental force of his unparalleled thinking power and rough polemic stand in gritty contradiction to a Christ-follower's frame of mind, so what is it that I can learn from him? After all, it is a tidal wave like Nietzsche which often causes those on the fence about the Big, Important things to be tossed into the realm of radical skepticism and pure, unabashed nihilism. But for me, he seems to do the complete opposite. Though I am at this point no match for his towering intellect or his hurricane-force rhetoric, he has demonstrated to me a height to aim for - not to rise up beside him, but to rise up in opposition against him. Chesterton I am not. Lewis I am not. I do not presume to be on par with any of these men, nor do I pretend to be capable of their respective feats of enormous intelligent significance, but it fills my heart with the drive to overcome, to firmly establish where I stand and to defend it against those who wish to see it destroyed.
It sometimes takes the heavy fabric of the darkness to understand the beauty of a candle.
Apologetics is a field with a longstanding tradition in any platform of belief. The idea is simple: you believe something, so you must be able to defend your point of view against issues that may prove problematic if you are unable to deal with them. While I am an advocate that a Believer is, necessarily, an Apologist ("provide a defense for the hope that is in you" and whatnot), I think that each person's defense must be suited to that person's field of specialty. The premise is, after all, a simple one: know where you stand and know how to defend it.
And Heaven forbid we should live and not just speak our convictions.
Hence my qualm with the enormous amount of people, especially in this Bible-saturated Southern culture, who claim the same Christ that I do. Because a lot of the time that I spend (as sometimes the only non-professing Atheist in certain situations) defending a Christian worldview is wasted dealing with the mess Christians have made of it, which people like Nietzsche are entirely too giddy to point out. It is time used attempting to override the errant belief that there remain no intellectual Christ-followers, that the only Christian defense to tough questions is "Faith, brother," that the correct response to those struggling with things of the world from one who has been delivered from it is judgment and hatred. It is arguing that the Christ who inhabits me does not encourage cardboard signs outside of music festivals condemning the goers to Hell, but rather the man beside them holding an arrow pointing at their signs saying "Jesus is much more beautiful than this." He would not advocate the bombing of an abortion clinic but rather the holding of a shaking, scared teenage girl and saying "I'll love you no matter what." It is asserting that "standing for God" is not merely posting inflammatory, ill-formed "religious" drivel and retorts on Facebook statuses and YouTube videos that not only prove you an incompetent wielder of rhetorical power but a bumbling imbecile waving a plastic cross around. It is proving that the Prince of Peace cannot reside in a heart of one harboring bitter animosity towards someone who believes differently from them.
I often wonder if we began living as the One who lets us bear His name did how necessary Christian Apologetics would be... but alas, the supposed attempted emulation of perfection is imperfect, so Apologetics unfortunately must exist. A tiring, taxing thing it is, for it finds formidable enemies in those like Nietzsche as well as in prosperity gospels and in portions of the Church itself. But take heart in adversaries such as these! For only through struggle comes strength; sound footing perhaps from the knowledge of where not to stand.
Though I do not believe I am fit to do such a thing (at this point in time, at least), creating a body of work in response to one like Nietzsche's would bring me enormous joy. There is a dialogue that has gone largely untouched between the Nietzschians and who I will call the Chestertonians which would be an honor one day to contribute to, but until then I will hover just behind the line of "publication," whetting my sword for the day I am called into battle. Perhaps I can at least try to rally the troops, no?
What if we could escape the culture of Christianity, embrace the person of Christ, and meet the beast of Doubt, of Apathy, of Lies, on his own ground together? What if we were so rooted as a group that no "Hurricane Nietzsche" stood a chance at dismantling the anchor tethering us to Truth? What if, as the Prince of the Power of the Air rose each morning to breathe the despair of empty, infinite rhetoric into our ears, we were ready to meet him and conquer his darkness with light? What if those who were called by Christ's name realized what sort of responsibility such a claim entails, and began acting like representatives to the King?
What if we rid ourselves of this rampant spiritual apathy, the cuddly images we grew up with plastered on flannel graphs in Sunday School, the nonsense of self-help spirituality and the battle between denominations and instead tuned our wits towards oncoming attacks, loved even those not deserving of love and recognized that we children of imperfection all need complete Perfection equally? Our fight is not of life and death, it is of creeping doubt and insecurity and of that tiny twist of Truth into lies. So anchor yourself to Truth once you find Him, friends, and soon your Nietzsche will fall.
I have been thinking in aphorisms lately. It is slightly annoying and I am still not great at them yet, but they are very fun for provoking thought. I would love to hear your contributions. Continued from last post:
26. The Horrible of Mondays is unknown to the Sun illuminating them.
27. The comfort of Paradox comes with the realization that some things have solutions.
28. Give a man a pen and he will most likely lose it. Teach a man to pen and he will dream as big as the sky.
29. The most dangerous thing for human "productivity" is the sparkle in their eye when they talk of things they love.
30. The Philosophy of busywork: it is the means, not the end, which is valuable.
31. American Education: learning is best measured by receipts.
32. What if we handed out paint brushes as often and as freely as we do prescription drugs?
33. A life of regret: airtight backup plans padding forsaken dreams.
34. What has been seen cannot be unseen, only denied.
35. The more I learn, the more I realize that most of what I have learned is invalid.
I suppose there comes a point after 150 undergrad credit hours where any new information you take in becomes like dirty laundry piled up in a corner in your room. You know you eventually have to deal with it, but more important things are happening in the rest of the room, in the whole of the house, in the city outside of your house, in the world even larger than that. At some point you are doing it because you know you must, not because you particularly want to. So this week in the midst of travels, wordy inner dialogues, loud midnight shows, and an exhausted brain, I have compiled my own list of 25 of what Nietzsche called "Maxims and Arrows" that have popped up in my thought processes and have been jotted down in my Moleskine. They carry every bit of the weight of a wordy paragraph but only a fraction of the words. They allow for biting sarcasm or pensive tranquility or, at the very least, tweets to make you sound deep and dreamy. If anything, it is an exercise in brevity, which Lord knows I lack immensely, and which will take much more practice in order to reverse what 20 years of schooling have taught me. They are the anti-paper-stretch. Commence brain-dump.
1. A writer is a gilder of borrowed treasure.
2. There are 7 billion people on this planet, but of course yours is the correct view.
3. A man raised in a windowless house believes a ball of fire in the sky to be nonsense. But his reasoning is inferior to those who have felt its warmth.
4. By all means, question vehemently. It will not change the ebbing tide.
5. The Nightingale needs no reason to sing.
6. You can paint a wall to make it pretty. But even then, it is only a pretty wall, and is no good for conversation.
7. Cats are the most devious of domesticated animals. They are surely smarter than those who own them, and I think that they know it.
8. Lady Praying Mantises eat their mates while they are still alive. Females are terrifying across the spectrum of Creation.
9. "I think" often precedes a statement the speaker has thought little about. Think separately from your speech; speak with authority.
10. The more you look at and read aloud and analyze and ponder even your own name written on a page, the more it appears to be nonsense. What then of our analysis of Truth?
11. "Why?" Is the hardest and saddest of all questions.
12. Not because I believe it, but because I have the following words written on a blog: "Mass genocide is acceptable," I will be quoted as a supporter of mass genocide by my opponents. The followers of my opponents would believe it. Ladies and gentlemen, American politics.
13. Why must all be comprehensible? Embrace mystery.
14. Take comfort in being Wrong, for at the end of the day there will always be a Right.
15. Boredom is not about doing nothing - it is about how much you are putting off.
16. It is only when Reason has been exhausted that we may begin to Know.
17. Let me get this straight: we have emerged as the victors of hundreds of millions of years of physical, societal, and intellectual evolution, yet Jersey Shore is a thing? No sir.
18. Before a storm, there is a noticeable chill and rising tension that foretells the intensity of it. So it is, it seems, with women.
19. It is after the beauty of a moment that it strikes us as beautiful.
20. There is a buzzing in your ears after being enveloped by the sound from an appropriately-volumed show. Ear experts will tell you this is bad for you, but I will tell you that it is the remains of the Spirit.
21. Is it telling about us that our language has no future tense?
22. Beauty will soothe even the grumpiest of moods. God whispers sweetest when we yell loudest.
23. How much would this world improve if we focused on just one other person as much as we focus on ourselves?
24. This is a generation of vanity. If we smashed every mirror, would we have things left to say?
25. Some people are simply bent on being difficult. An argument with them is a waste of your energy.
If you are doing this post a week thing with me, I would love to read your tries at these. They are surprisingly challenging to get done! Try keeping it to two sentences (I think I only broke that rule once). Try making the thing that you are trying to get across the thing that you don't say.
Have a wonderful Monday, my friends.
I know, I know. Two days late.
If everything I loved faded or was stripped away, would I have anything left to live for? If the very fabric of society crumbled, if music failed to sound, if I remained as the last of mortal man in a sea of cracked pavement and ruined buildings and decayed civilization, would there be something worth salvaging? Could there exist some value other than in material or in accolades or in shiny gold medals pinned up in a glass case?
Hanging worth on things that I can hold or on places I can go or on words that I can write for others to read suddenly feels, in this peculiar state of mind, like an exercise in madness. A vapor cannot support a society. Philosophy does not prescribe value of life. Politics cannot attribute social worth. Love cannot be contained by words.
It seems like nowadays I check the weather on my phone rather than by opening my window and feeling the sweeping chill on my skin. I sit in class to check an attendance box while the world outside the windows spins further into the madness it started on whenever it was that we popped on the scene - when value became a thing that could be talked about, and when things began to go wrong. When we cast worship on ultimately pointless Degrees and sporting events and television and relationships and meaningless sex and religious dogma and sports cars and humanitarian causes and tech conferences and outlet malls and the almighty dollar and political campaigns and empty philosophy.
When I started trying to understand God, as if I were in a position to be able to do that. When I started trying to defend Him, as if He needed my defense.
I scribbled all of this in my journal in a moment of necessity to write, but wrote the whole thing using "we" instead of "I." Like the questions I was asking were for some betterment of society reason and for distancing myself from the blame for its downfall. Like I wasn't talking explicitly to myself. I started asking the questions I was scared to answer and scratched them out like that would make it as if they never existed. Like I could forget that I used as a platform for understanding what Is that which I could understand. As if my questions determined the fate of the Universe.
But they don't. Nor do yours.
Nor does our economical infrastructure or our Saturday afternoon hobbies or our friend groups or our pressing job interviews or our oversleeping through ill-set alarms, because WE, no, I am not the object of importance here. Because I am expendable. But when I take away the wonder I should be directing towards a purely unfathomable God who, for some reason wants to call me "child," with despair about not being able to understand Him, I have made myself and my intellect the object of worth.
If I base what I call important on something that decays, I am a fool. I am a priest to stones, a Mac enthusiast on a life raft in the middle of the ocean, a Bard in a boneyard. We live in a time where the things that matter are things we can gain, but I cannot help but see how flawed it is. It is no wonder nihilism is en vogue, because when material and fame and a good name are all you have to live for, there comes a moment of realization that these things cannot have any kind of value if they can be taken away tomorrow. It warrants a feeling of panic and a momentary despair. With clenched fists and spite in our throats, we declare that God must be imaginary, because of He were real our worlds wouldn't be dismantling in front of us; that the problem is not with our clearly infallible reasoning and perceptions and understanding, it is with God.
I have to ask myself if the things I am doing are being done in such a way that the worth I ascribe to them or the glory I get from them are not ends in themselves. If I am living for something bigger than the smoldering remains of a broken world.
In a way, the nihilist is right. The skeptic hits the mark. He who mistrusts what he sees is wiser than he who takes all at face value, for value is worthless and knowledge is fleeting indeed, though they can only be worthless and fleeting in the face of Someone who sets the bar.
When I was a child, I was paralyzingly terrified of sailboats. As well as I can remember through my own recollection and talking with my parents about it, it began one night when my family was staying at my great-grandmother's house, which is spooky in all of the glorious ways old, low-ceilinged houses should be: cases full of glassy-eyed, staring dolls, antiquated beams which creak under even the weight of thought, and what I remember to be an immense, looming, full-masted sailboat atop the dresser in the room I slept in. I don't remember the boat except for in the one mental snapshot I possess, so I cannot tell you if it was equally as scary in the daytime, or if I had even seen it before my sole memory of it. I may have been carried to bed by my dad after falling asleep on a couch, but I really can't remember.
But what I recall clearly: waking in the dead of night with the glow of a little yellow light illuminating the aging sails and the brown hull and spider's-web of twine representing ropes from afar, so that a thrice-as-large shadow was projected onto the wall behind it. It loomed enormous, starkly real against the dark void of the room, and I think that this is what terrified me the most. It was unusually tangible, as opposed to most things which after waking are vaguely foggy, as though clouded by barely-remembered dreams.
In all honesty, the thing probably wasn't all that big or fancy, it just struck my small brain as something truly big, and not big like jets or mountain ranges, but rather something unspeakable. Something of the Sublime: great beyond calculation or fathomability. The Big of nightmares, oppressing not just a volume of physical space but more a measure of your soul.
But despite all my attempts to remain terrified of them, I began learning (though I did not know it at the time) that wonder, marvel, and the kind of fear these boats inspired in me were merely knots on the same strand, and it turned to fascination.
I began collecting models of them, as much as a ten-year-old with nothing but an allowance can collect something that requires money to amass. The fear that once nested in my ribcage and made my chest feel hollow was replaced with wonder, and it was no less potent. When I think about it, that is what I collected, more than boats. I had harnessed a source of sublime fear and turned it into wonder.
When I grew older, I encountered the British Romantics and realized that they shared the same wonder, and had all sorts of lovely ways of trying to express it. Wordsworth described a craggy mountaintop lit by splitting lightening above a still lake atop which he floated in a stolen boat. Percy Shelley dedicated hymns to "The awful shadow of some unseen Power." Lord Byron describes a vacant Coliseum so vast, so desolate, with such a history of violence yet where his steps seemed "echoes strangely loud." John Keats called it the Nightingale, because of its mysterious, elusive nature juxtaposed with its infinitely enchanting song. Mary Shelley created a veritable monster out of the stuff, which her character Victor Frankenstein, even after laboring over every inch of him, describes his encounter with it: "I had desired it [the animation of his creature] with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."
You can hear it in the music of Sigur Rós, who sing sometimes in Icelandic, sometimes in nonsense, just because there is something that needs to be expressed but is bigger than mere words can handle. You can feel it in Hemmingway's "Hills like White Elephants" because to speak it would be to profane it.
The ancient Greeks called it the "Muse", The Romantics the "Nightingale." It is inspiration, and it is unbounded by human logic, unexplainable by empirical sciences, and untamable by any words or music or poetry that we could invent. It's wonder, sublimity, and breathless fascination that can present itself as crippling terror or as stillness after rain, and is the proper reaction to the things of God.
Yet still we think we can somehow grasp Him. We beg for the Truth, when in reality I cannot help but feel that Truth, all of it at the same time, would drown us in its crashing power. We talk to God, the designer of wonder and splendor, the operator both of joy that makes us light enough to fly and the kind of sublime terror that rots our insides, like He owes us an explanation. Cody Banette sings in the As Cities Burn song "Clouds": "I think that God isn't God if He fits inside our heads."
God Himself listened to 38 chapters of people bickering, reasoning, and trying to put words into His mouth before coming out of a whirlwind (!!) and speaking:
"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
What is man to do with this? In the words of my friend Ariel Parsons... what even? We react to these unknowable Grand things in whatever ways we can conjure: - With radical skepticism - saying that if we can't understand it and explain it and because human rationality eventually circles back on itself, we can know nothing at all. Perhaps there is nothing at all. - With microscopic probings - thinking that if we can perhaps understand the very small, can we possibly work our way up to the very big (although we do not even understand these very small mini-universes that make up the material of our bodies by the trillion). - With art - perhaps even forsaking the search for answers to the questions and instead trying to merely understand the spirit that makes us feel the Grand crevasses in our chests.
I am positive that the only reaction to an encounter with God - with all of the Truth and all of the Joy and all of the inescapable, sublime Terror - is as Isaiah responds in chapter six of his book. Next to the Source of such grandeur, man can only feel trapped on a boat without a mast in the sweltering heat of Horse Latitudes, unless, of course, he is provided with a Path. Unless he is given sails and a strong wind to push him home.
It has been a week, I'll tell you that. I had a few almost-decent things to put up here, or ideas of them at least, but none of them seemed to flesh out so well as they were written. So what you have instead are the tired ramblings of a tired boy who is scraping towards the end of his self-imposed deadline. Such are the contents of my days. I'm not sure what follows will be terribly uplifting, save for those who are teetering on the fence of Belief, unsure as to which side they should fall into. I'm not feeling very wordplay-y tonight, I suppose. But until I start hearing otherwise, this will continue to be my blog where I will speak what is on my mind.
Also, just so that none are unduly confused or enraged (because sometimes there is some conclusion-jumping that happens subconsciously), this is merely a collection of some frustrations, not my answers to all of them. This is not a Theological treatise. This is not an Apology for my Faith. This is not polemic Atheist-bashing. These are merely the thoughts of a somewhat weary brain. With that in mind, please feel free to comment accordingly, as I always welcome the appropriate exchange of ideas, conversation, and criticism.
I find it extremely interesting that even the most Godless of men cannot stop talking about Him. That the most vehement Skeptic marvels, despite what his circular Epistemic reasoning would have you believe, at His creation. That Empiricists don't question the origin of their faculties for observation. That those in the thick of it can doubt but never see the miracle in that very act of doubting.
I find it equally as interesting that the vocally Atheistic do not find the educated, perhaps Philosophically sound Believer to pitch their squabbles against, but rather teenagers on Facebook and comment boards on Hillsong videos on Youtube, and that these occasional anti-theistic tirades seem to occupy a great amount of their effort. It is strange to me that a nihilist would take any time at all to defend himself against the promise of purpose as if it were a contest to be won unless he were afraid of what happens if he's wrong. I don't understand why such endeavors are not seen as scrubbing toilets on Oceanic Flight 815.
I find the majority of my daily encounters with those less-inclined towards belief than I am and, honestly, sometimes I prefer it. I connect more easily with those for whom faith is a struggle, who see God as something nigh impossible to grasp ahold of and forge a relationship with, because I have seen that side. But in my many conversations with Atheists that I engage throughout the week, I have come across some saddening, though not particularly new, revelations.
Atheists have become smashingly boring, and this tires me. We are locked in this loop where they keep clawing the same questions in the desperate hope that we'll forsake our belief or something (or prove to themselves finally that they're right? I'm not sure), and don't even bother to see that the incredible majority of these have been answered already in formal, published works, with the rest of them talked about extensively in blog posts and radio interviews and the like. It has become an achievement to stump Average Joe Christian with Philosophically complex quandaries, and it is as interesting to watch as the MVP of your county's Little League baseball team hitting against Randy Johnson (Does he still play baseball?).
They are stuck pitching the same four-seam fastball that they've been throwing for years: the third-year University student counter to reason and faith that "if Science can't prove it, it isn't real." Their curveball: the intellectual mediocrity of "everybody" who affiliates themselves with Religion. The changeup: If God's there, why are there still bad things? I'm sure you catch my drift.
Perhaps the most famous Atheist of our time, Richard Dawkins, even wrote a book about it called "The God Delusion" which actually, literally, resorts to name-calling, the granddaddy of all logical fallacies - ad hominem attack. I cannot fathom what possible purpose spending all that time writing a book about why Something doesn't exist serves other than as the gasping attempts of a man desperate to find the source of the still, quiet urge inside of him to know what it all means. I know he possess that urge, because I have it too.
Sometimes I think perhaps I'm the only one of my friends who finds enormous comfort alongside the great frustration in the book of Ecclesiastes, but it has this to say: "He has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to end." Perhaps the most desperate worry, yet simultaneously sublime repose the Good Book has to offer.
The Preacher hits home again, though earlier in his book:
"For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow."
And he echoes it at the end: "My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh."
Can you feel it? The slow creaking of your joints under the pressure on your shoulders? The weight of the "unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with?" The sadness of "a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness" alongside the "wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing?"
Now feel the release of a Savior who tells you to drop your net and follow Him. Cast off that ensnaring burden of the world and focus on what is truly important.
Let Wordsworth's lines that he wrote a few miles above Tinturn Abbey sink in and sound deep inside of yourself to the point that you feel "that blessed mood in which the burthen of the mystery, in which the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world, is lighten'd."
God planted the desire inside of us and made it so that we couldn't know. He breathed it so that it took the whole Universe to declare His majesty and stuck us on the smallest speck of it possible. He gave us telescopes to see as far as eyes can possibly see and then told the boundary of physical space "keep going, so that they're always playing catch-up."
It is the strangest peace a heart thirsty for what are always unsatisfying answers can hear - that they both came from the same Source that gives us Salvation from the muck.
Some business before getting into the meat of it. If you are uninterested in this sort of thing, you may skip to below the line: I must thank you all for the unexpected and overwhelmingly positive reception of last week's little article. I have received many encouraging feedbacks and emails and have seen it shared often enough to make it the most-viewed post on this page. You guys are awesome. I am planning on doing more things in that vein, including what is shaping up to be an Introvert's Manifesto and Ebook, though I must admit that some of my motivation for that is that I've always wanted to write a Manifesto for something and publish an Ebook on my website. But in all seriousness, most of the reactions that I got to see only reinforced the idea that there are a lot out there who feel the way that I do though perhaps do not have the platform to say the things that need be said. So stay tuned.
I have still not decided what I want this blog to be. I read a lot of them that are very advice-y and full of lists and such, and those seem to have the most traffic. Because lists sell, this is fact. They are the "pop" of the blog world - easily digestible, somewhat predictable, often crafted to communicate one little gem of truth which sits, shining (perhaps literally with glowy text or clever puns) atop the screen, rather than relishing the subtle comfort of a web of it. I also read a good bunch that are quite heady and cerebral and rooted in idea, which is comforting because this is how I tend to think. But these I have rarely seen be "successful" in the commercial sense - they are often a bit wordy, even for my taste (imagine that), and inaccessible. Surely there must be a blend somewhere of the two which is neither pedantic sentence-flexing nor traffic-pandering formula. Still, I wish to talk about God when I want and spill thoughts on Philosophy or have nerd moments about music or even do reviews of books and film and albums. But none of these are exciting and revolutionary like the Introvert's Manifesto or charges to turn off our internet on Sundays or to alter the ways we behave with one another. And still on top of all of this, I at no time wish to dip into something trite for the mere sake of acquiring many page views. I maintain the wish for this to be a place of thought incubation as I referenced in this post a bit ago, and with that I accept that both bloggy, list-filled posts and the heady stuff are necessary at times. I've been doing this long enough to accept that it is no longer me sitting in a corner talking to the empty cloud of internet about the random stuff of the day; but today when I address "the audience," it is no longer rhetoric to make myself chuckle, rather a literal breaking of the 4th wall, because I now have one of those out there.
What the paragraph above should say is "this blog is a curious thing and once I figure out a way to make conversation more than simply leaving comments, I will do it, because then we can get this think-tank going and perhaps I can step out of the way." Because I feel as though perhaps I am wasting your time already.
Because I had a rather lengthy aside at the beginning, I will make today's post just a little shorter than they have been in the past. I need to do this anyway.
I have been unutterably blessed for more reasons than I can count, but for these purposes we will focus on the following: that I have been born here, in a country of unparalleled freedom, to a loving and supportive family, in a time when I can access the thoughts of anyone who cares enough to write them down and when I can give voice to my own whenever I see fit. It is something that I take for granted entirely too often.
I cannot help but think that God chose this specific time to place me in, because I have been given access to the most marvelous minds the world has to offer. I can, at any point that I want, sit and read Stephen Hawking or Ravi Zacherias or TS Eliot; I can watch TED lectures about deep cave exploration or string theory or education research or marvel at "mathemagicians" and improv musicians and subtitled talks from mute people about disabilities; I can sit at a computer and continue a 55+thousand word, several-month-long email conversation with my dear friend in North Carolina or talk with anybody in the world at the touch of a few numbers on a cell phone; I can listen to songs recorded with a guitar on a laptop's microphone that is more evocative than one I'd hear in an arena with tens of thousands of people or I can listen to my favorite band through headphones and a device I hold in my hand. Friends, there is true magic in this world, and we can experience it every day of our lives.
However, and I think that this is true in most cases, we do not know how, nor are we equipped, to handle it. Just recently in our history as human beings, what you learned was limited by what you could experience firsthand, or what you could reason with whatever faculties you possess. Gone are the boundaries of knowledge and achievement that one solitary person or community was limited to. We have been presented the apple promising the Wisdom of God Himself and we have bitten hard into its bitter-sweet savor. We have been promised the possibility of omniscience and still cannot tear our minds away from it.
It is a difficult thing to stop, this search for knowledge, and a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. Our minds have not been built to grasp infinity and timelessness and unending streams of knowledge and limitless possibility, yet we have been put in a place where new things will never stop coming to our frame of vision. Our Universe, as far as we know, is infinite, and yet we continue to try to understand it in its entirety.
Some people despair in this. They see elaborate epistemic proofs which seem to eliminate the very possibility of knowledge. They look at competing, perfectly justified beliefs as muddying the concept of what is real. They see the power of Empirical discoveries negating the validity of Rational ones, and vice versa. The more our ill-equipped minds see, the more we dismantle our necessity for God.
Says the Preacher:
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with hearing, nor the ear filled with hearing. (Ecc. 1:8)
But see, He planned for this. After all, it was He who set eternity in the heart of man. It was He who created us creatures capable of reason and, consequently, of doubt. It is why He sent us something of Himself in a form we could wrap our human brains around, to rescue us from the what Wordsworth calls "the burthen of the mystery... the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world." There is a reason He calls Himself Truth, because it is Truth that we crave, and it is Truth we cannot reach using human versions of God's things - logic, reason, and the like. Moses was told to tell the people "I AM sent me." Arguably the most powerful words that could be spoken by human lips. His name is not "Prove Me" or "I May Be," it is emphatic. Final. Independent of my human shortcomings and unchanging in time, space, and situation. Universal. I. Am.
I am by no means devaluing the wonder of knowledge and discovery, in fact, I whole-heartedly encourage it. Live in a way that you are constantly confronted with the marvel of this place of unending beauty. Roald Dahl writes, “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.” We are surrounded by it wonder, so long as we do not forget to look for it.
But just as oxygen is necessary for life to exist though an excess of it is lethal, so it is in this battle for understanding. It is perfectly normal to think of things that might be, for that is how we were created - to wonder at the heavens and try with all of our might to grasp things we cannot fathom - to think of things that might be so long as we do not lose sight of what Is.
***When I posted this, for some reason all of the html tags printed without opening and closing brackets and all of the text without apostrophes. So it looked like a mess. I have fixed most of it, but it was a weird problem that I've never had before, so if I missed anything I'd appreciate you letting me know so that I can fix it.***
I wanted to do something grandiose for my first contracted post not only of the year, but of, well, ever. Granted, it was something I imposed on myself and in no way has any kind of bearing on real life, but I still felt like it was kind of a big deal. So I've gone all week knowing that the deadline that I set in my last post was today. I sketched out the beginnings of some of those follow me as I try to figure something out posts and the I like to think about things like quantum physics even though I don't really understand it at all posts and the I want to make a list of the wonderful things of 2011 as we move into 2012 posts but none of it would flow.
I tried to force it. I wrote about forcing it. I tried to justify digging in the archives to find something worth reposting, but I felt guilty about that. I wrote about feeling guilty. I wrote part of my letter to men and hit a wall. Then I wrote about hitting walls. Then I came back to what I wrote about forcing it.
Of course, when I say I wrote about forcing it, I mean it came out like a bitter mix of poetry and yelling instructions at myself about how to escape writers block:
Just pound it out. Play until your fingers bleed, you need to change strings anyway. Play until the coating erodes and the callouses rip and one of you gives way to the other. It's like a drain that's stopped up, that's all. Play nonsense. Strum open chords. Pound that block away. Make it sound as dirty, nasty, offensive as you can. If music is what you're battling, write not music. Stomp every box and listen to the noisy, oscillating, overpowering signal hum amplified by the single coils and wait for the feedback. Turn it up. Make your ears hurt, make your speaker crack. Break something. De-tune as far as you can. Dogs had better be whimpering.
I seem to go back to music when things like this happen.
What you are seeing right now is a scarily accurate representation of how my thought processes unfold, which I find interesting, because I enjoy learning how other peoples thought processes go. I wanted to write about that.
I thought maybe an honest exploration of art and beauty, two things I think have lost meaning nowadays. But then I saw the trailer for The Artist that opened last year and realized that anything I had to say about art and beauty was fairly petty and irrelevant in comparison.
I wanted to make a list of things that I wanted to get done this year, but then I read about a man who threw 4,800 messages in a bottle into the ocean and got responses from most of them, and about this man who has taken a self-portrait every day for twelve years, through cancer treatments and paralysis, and all of the sudden my lists looked incredibly unimportant.
So I scrapped (or at least put on the back-burner) three or four pages worth of ink and hand cramps in favor of, apparently, these words telling you that I had plans to do something awesome and ended up doing some sort of meta-blog filled with things I could have written about. And then it hit me.
It hit at 12 o'clock last night, the night before the first day of my final semester of college, the night before the year that harbors touring opportunities and record label beginnings and graduation and promises of completed screenplays or short stories or poetry collections, on words embedded in a website that I just got done plastering my name across, just how much it isn't about me.
Justin Vernon sings in Bon Iver's song Holocene about vastness and sublimity. About the natural sort of sublime, akin to the interests of Wordsworth and Byron (whom you should know by now I adore, along with their contemporaries, more than any collection of literary period authors). The sort of thing David looked up at and asked, "who is this King of glory?" In the song, Vernon sings this line at the beginning of each chorus that doesn't punch you in the face, but rather settles quiet inside of the place that senses loneliness and houses doubt and interprets rhododendrons into the transcendent things Emerson saw them to be, and sits there until you can deal with it: "...and at once I knew I was not magnificent."
You have to hear it in the dark of a quiet room without people vying for your attention or pressing engagements looming over your head, because it is a thing of subtlety, as all beautiful things ought to be.
And once you hear it, you cannot un-hear it, but you wont remember until you're alone and listening only to what your brain has to say. You will realize that you tried all week to get something worth slapping your name on only to get frustrated and move on to wall-staring and coffee-drinking and creativity-avoiding because you can't shake that feeling that came all at once when you realized you were not magnificent.
This sort of realization isn't a bad one, I don't think, at least it isn't for me. I take comfort in the fact that it is not I who is magnificent, even though sometimes the self-worshipping part of me likes to try to convince me otherwise. I believe strongly in magnificence. I believe that it can be encountered and interacted with and marveled at and discussed and even argued against, though that doesn't make it any less real.
I even believe Magnificence has a Name to know.
Happy 2012, you guys. I'll see you here next week!