Friday, July 30, 2010

Author Quits Christianity?

Author Anne Rice, whose works include "Interview with a Vampire", has decided that she is quitting Christianity; not quitting Christ, but quitting the church. I certainly cannot blame her, and it is quite interesting that CNN would pick up this story so quickly, but more on my thoughts later. Here are the barebones of the story, per CNN.
"[Rice], who wrote a book about her spirituality titled "Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession" in 2008, said Wednesday that she refuses to be "anti-gay", "anti-feminist", "anti-science" and "anti-Democrat".

Rice wrote, "For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian ... It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

"My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me," Rice wrote. "But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become."
I point this out not because there is anything more significant about Anne Rice than anyone else, but rather because it reflects a similar thought process that I have been finding my way through. Just as Anne experienced, my conscience will not allow me to be a rank and file "Christian": supporting all the popular causes, backing all of the religious-claiming candidates, perpetuating prejudice and judgment toward people who do not believe what I believe. Jesus did not judge or ridicule imperfect people. He loved them. Clearly going to church does not make you like Jesus, in the same way that sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken. I have instead chosen to distance myself from following the lead of mainstream, fundamentalist American Christianity.

I refuse to be a single issue voter.
I will not throw my lot in with a single political party.
I am unwilling to judge those who have different beliefs than mine.
My place is not to look down on 'sinners' or feign perfection.
I enjoy being around salt of the earth, honest, screwed up people.

Like Anne, I too am an outsider to much of the Christian community, but this is not something I am ashamed of or concerned with. My reaction to being an outsider is to seek a middle ground between myself and the ubiquitous entity that is known as 'church'. As I search for ways to love people and work for the good of humanity and remove judgment like Jesus did, I hope to see 'church' - and churchy people - do the same. But until that common ground is located I am going to try to follow Jesus, rather than follow his followers. I think Gandhi would understand, just as Anne Rice does.

And so on...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


This has been an interesting summer for me. When it began, I was involved in a significant relationship and expected that to play a giant part of what my summer would become. I was looking forward to my internship, looking forward to spending time with the friends I hadn't seen in a few months, and being home again after a year of school that saw me travel throughout Europe and take on new responsibilities at school. I had plans, things I wanted to do and a mental list of the people I wanted to spend my time with. There were a great deal of expectations, and I did not expect my plans to be let down.

The summer I anticipated and the experiences I have had over the last three months have very little in common. That relationship has since come to an end, for better or for worse (thus far it has personally been for the better, but I do miss the friendship I had with her). My internship has been largely what I expected, but with significantly less work to do than I hoped. I have turned filling dead time into an art form on par with Van Gogh and Monet. But more than anything else, I have learned a great deal about myself, other people and the world at large. I want to reflect on what I have learned and what it means for me now and in the future; I will write concerning a pair of those topics now, and perhaps follow up with more in the future.

Entering this summer I was a part of a handful of communities: my London community, my dorm community, my high school friends and my church. If you had asked me about the communities I belonged to three months ago, I would have named another group of people. However, that group has since largely rejected me and attempted to ignore my existence. To be perfectly honest it is disappointing that this group chose that road, though not unexpected. I still care about them as human beings; when I call a person "friend" there is nothing fake about it. Yet, the actions by that group allowed me to realize a couple of things. First, there are some people who function as if they are still in high school and drama is "in". Second, I want no part of that drama. Individually they are all great people who I enjoy spending time with; together, something completely different is created.

Being separated from that group (and the relationship I was in) has turned out to be wonderfully positive for me. Instead of being on the fringe of a group where I may or may not have been wanted or welcomed, I became free to spend time with people who love me and accept me for who I am. I was able to foster the real relationships I have. They always say that in tough times you find out who your real friends are. It has been incredibly refreshing to spend time with people who want to spend time with me, and it is remarkable how much more positive those experiences are. In that sense, this has been a fantastic summer.

I also have learned about stepping into a new community. If you have read this blog, you know my skepticism and hesitations toward church. As such, I have often chosen to stay away from church communities and small groups to avoid conflict and difficulty. However, this summer I approached and was welcomed fully by a group of young adults within my church. Some of these people I have known for years, others I met only this summer. But they all treat me as one of their own, as a person that matters to them. Seeing the way they have accepted me with open arms (and let's be fair, I can be a headache sometimes) has taught me a great deal about accepting other people in love and without judgment. And for both these things I am grateful.

I fully expect to become a full-fledged member of this community if I end up living in Cincinnati long term. I am confident that I will be welcomed completely, and that I will be free to grow and learn with these people in a positive, loving, honest environment. I enjoy spending time with them, learning from them, listening to them. It may seem to them as if I speak my mind too much or that I am an abrasive, confrontational person, but that isn't the case. Rather, I chose to approach them in as real a way I knew possible, speaking the truth that I believe to them when asked, consequences be damned. More on that in a moment. But the fact that they have welcomed me even while seeing who I am in an honest way has had a real impact on me this summer. And I anticipate it will continue to impact me in the future.

Consequences Be Damned
Back during the spring I made a decision to begin living my life a certain way. I have mentioned this mantra I took up – consequences be damned – a few different times in this space. But as summer took hold, I began to realize that this mantra alone would not suffice. Through personal experience and conversation with people whom I trust and respect, I added a small piece to the mantra: act in the name of truth, consequences be damned. In previous conversations I have used that phrase to define hope, and I should note that it is not mere coincidence that one of my goals from the decision I made was that I begin living life in hope first and foremost, rather than letting fear gain a foothold.

Now, some of you will see that mantra and ask what is this truth that I mention, that I am seeking to act in the name of. Unfortunately, I cannot hand truth to you. I believe that truth is unique to a certain extent for all of us, and that my truth is not identical to my buddy Torian's truth or anyone else's truth. That isn't to say that any one person's truth is better; rather, it takes different forms and can exist on multiple sides of an issue or problem (I realize that this sounds a great deal like pluralism...and to an extent it is. But not in the way that many would assume it to be).

Anyway, this mantra began to manifest itself in my actions as I continually recalled it in the midst of making difficult decisions and choices. Let me provide an example. My mind is constantly going, always thinking. If a topic comes up, I have an opinion on it, guaranteed. In the past, I would often suppress my own thoughts to keep from rocking the boat, so to speak (some people close to me might not believe me on this, but it's true). However, consequences be damned means speaking my mind when my opinion is asked. And so I have done it. If you ask my opinion, you will get it. Straight and honest. In my previous post on honesty, I recounted a story where I battled with hiding my thoughts or bringing them to light and ultimately said what I was thinking. Learning to appreciate that freedom to be truthful regardless of the consequences has been invaluable for me this summer. It has allowed me to love other people more honestly and to approach situations where I see a problem in a more direct and unapologetic way.

I aim to continue holding this mantra close and keeping it a significant part of who I am and of the decisions I make. I realize that there is always the chance that unabashed honesty can sometimes create a mess, but I would rather clean up that mess than live in fear of making one. A mess created because of honesty can be cleaned up; one caused by fear, deceit or hiding is much more difficult to rectify. I anticipate making messes in the future, and I plan on cleaning them up. No regrets, consequences be damned.

And so on...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


"The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

Ran across that last night while out with some friends of mine. One of the people I was out with noticed it and pointed it out to me. Glad she did. There is a great deal of reality contained there.

Sometimes I get the sense that we approach truth as if it were like spending money. If the money spent will go to my benefit, I will likely not hesitate to fork it over. If there is no benefit for me, odds are the money will stay tucked in my wallet/checking account/piggy bank. We are honest in situations where it might be to our benefit - like if we are wrongly accused of a crime, for instance. Being completely honest has an immediate and lasting positive effect on us. Holding back the truth would be potentially damning, so we don't do that. But when honesty might have negative consequences, we dance around the truth and distance ourselves from it as much as possible. If I am dating someone and she asks if a pair of jeans make her look fat (or whatever), and they do, I can save myself a great deal of trouble by just lying and saying they look great even if they do not. While this is a tongue in cheek example, it does illustrate that there are times when ignoring the truth can be "beneficial" for us. Or at least it seems that way.

The concern here is not truth itself, but rather what we do with it. Like my friend pointed out at the pub, truth is rarely pure and never simple. It is dirty, just like hope. But like hope, truth has great value even as it tracks mud around the house. And that value is not just something we are providing to others. That value is ours first, regardless of who else is involved.

Ayn Rand is one of the most important thinkers and writers of the 20th century, author of such books as Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and The Virtue of Selfishness. She had a great deal to say about honesty and truth, and the quote below is one of the most profound ideas I have ever encountered on the subject of honesty. It is a bit lengthy, but trust me when I say it is well worth the length (emphasis added).

"Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud – that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee – that you do not care to live as a dependant, least of all a dependant on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling – that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others."
- Atlas Shrugged, p.1019

I love that. Honesty is not a social duty but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice. His refusal to betray his own beliefs and perception of truth in order to avoid conflict and disagreement. The first time I read those words, I thought it was pretty interesting but attached no significance to them. Then I read it over a dozen or more times. And I started to grasp it: if I am to claim to be an honest person and be true to myself, I have to be willing to speak my mind and be unashamed of what I have to say, no matter what the consequences are. I refuse to live a life where I must hide my truth and bury my honesty.

After having read those words over and over again months ago, I made a promise to myself that I would be honest and straightforward with other people. No more dancing around the truth, no more hiding who I am and what I believe. I will tell you what I believe, who I am, and not hide the details. If the reality of who I am as a person causes someone to see me as an enemy or to leave me as a friend, so be it. I would prefer not to waste time on someone so fickle.

Once I made that decision I began speaking my mind and standing up for what I see as truth with a resolve that I never had in the past. Many of the words I have written in this blog would not have been possible had I not encountered Ayn Rand's wisdom and passion for the truth. Now, certainly I have encountered many who disagree with me and some who are simply looking for a fight (intellectually, of course). There have been a few instances where I stood up for something or someone and ended up with a larger mess than I had anticipated. But do you know what? So be it. I won't apologize. Speaking my mind and standing up for my truth has provided me with liberation and freedom that I did not understand before, let alone experience. Refusing to swallow what I have to say has given me great joy. No, I am not perfect, and I do not claim to be. Nor would I say that I am correct in all my beliefs. But there are core traits and perspectives within me that I refuse to betray. I know now that the friendships I have and the people who love me do so not conditionally, but rather as a result of those people seeing the reality of who I am and wanting that relationship anyway.

On Tuesday I had a conversation with someone that I had been putting off for a while. I had been putting it off because I was afraid of what the consequences of revealing the truth might be, afraid that I might be looked at differently or thrown to the curb. Living as a relative prisoner to the truth exactly like John Galt was talking about in the quote above. But then Rand's words entered my head for what must have been the thousandth time. I realized that I was dancing around the truth, just as I had chosen to stop doing. The truth I had to say certainly was not completely pure or even slightly simple, but that is the nature of truth. I realized that if I am going to take those words seriously, if I am going to honor the pact I made with myself, I have to speak the truth regardless of what consequences it might have. Consequences be damned, as I like to say. And so I stepped up to the plate and said what I had to say. Strangely enough, it worked out pretty well, to make a long story short.

Selfishness has become a bad word to us, something we claim to strive to avoid. Yet, honesty is selfish. If I challenge people to accept me for who I am, I know that I can count on the ones who do and can pay no attention to the ones who do not. Any love I obtain will not be a fraud, because the people who love me will have every opportunity to see who I am and what I am about, and to abandon me if they so choose. I can rest in the assurance that the people who love me know who I am and love me anyway. Honesty is not a social duty. We don't owe it to other people. Rather, it is an invitation for us to explore how the world reacts to who we are as people. Honesty allows me to truly be me, and to not apologize for it. And I refuse to apologize for who I am.

And so on...

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Different Kind of Hope

Sometimes it becomes difficult to separate Jesus from his followers. As in "if a Christian says something, they must be speaking for Jesus, right?" Well, no. Not exactly. Don't get me wrong, that isn't a condemnation of Christ-followers; rather, it is simply an acknowledgment of reality. Many Christians act as if they know God's will, and that their words are direct from the Creator himself. An "agree with me or else" kind of attitude. It is no secret that I have become very disillusioned over the years with the church. Non-capitalized. I see many differences between what churches teach and what Jesus taught. I see a difference in focus between Christ and many of his followers. Myself included. (By the way, any time I rail on the church or organized religion, know that I'm not claiming to be innocent myself...I'm speaking about myself and to myself as much as about anyone else.)

I've written often in this space about my growing passion for the broken and marginalized. Developing my heart for poverty and need is perhaps my most important goal at the moment. My home church (the Vineyard in Colerain) has recently started down this path as well, jumping on the World Vision bandwagon and pushing the book The Hole in Our Gospel, which I cannot wait to read. Sitting through my pastor's sermon about God's heart for the poor last Sunday was one of the best church experiences I have had in a very long time.

Yet, even as I see my church (and many others) beginning to focus on the broken and empty and starving and alone, I still hear Pat Robertson saying that the earthquake in Haiti was vengeance from God. I can't escape Republican talking heads spouting that we should scrap the welfare system, despite the great good it does for many Americans in need. I see judgment placed on the poor and alone, on victims of AIDS and other diseases, on single mothers and children with no fathers. If that is what being Christian is about, I want no part of it.

But then I read this and am renewed:
He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
Psalm 146:7-9

That is the God I want to follow. The one who champions the oppressed and hungry. The one who heals the sick. The one who sustains the fatherless and the widows. The God who does the things I wish I could do, who loves the people I wish I could love when I cannot. I've seen God painted in many different ways over the years, as a warrior and a lover and a creator and a judge and a king. But God as a provider, a sustainer and a father to the broken, oppressed and alone is by far my favorite.

Hearing those words gives me hope. Hope that I can see the oppressed and hungry find real improvement in their lives. Hope that the fatherless and widows will experience love and strength in a tangible way. Hope that God might show me that love too. I've written before about acting in the name of hope, about doing things with that idea in the back of my mind. I'm certainly not backing off from that at all; I still believe that hope is acting in the name of truth, consequences be damned. But I'm starting to realize that those things I am passionate about are also God's passions. My hope can and will certainly manifest in actions, but now I believe it can simply be a state of being. Living in a perpetual state of hope. Maybe these are two different manifestations of hope, maybe they aren't all that different. I don't quite understand everything about that, what implications it has. But it is exciting to think about.

And so on...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Making Lists: Albums

Part of my personality leaves me prone to creating lists, as many people close to me are well aware. I’m not sure why or what it is, but grouping or ranking things comes naturally to me. In an effort to provide new content in this space more often, this will be a new series of sorts; expect more of these posts on a fairly regular basis.

The first list I want to share is musically based. While I may not be as knowledgeable about music or as skilled in creating it as some of my friends (such as Tessa and Shelby respectively), I enjoy sound creations as much as anyone. Below I will lay out the ten albums which I am currently enjoying the most, and hopefully be convincing enough to nudge you in their direction. If I sound ignorant, it is because I am. So cut me some slack, if you would be so kind. Happy hunting.

De-loused in the Comatorium – The Mars Volta
This album is one of my favorites for popping into the car stereo and driving with. The uniqueness of sound created by the Mars Volta is fantastic; even after having listened to this album on and off for a few years I am always discovering new layers to the music. The concept album aspect intrigues me as well (the songs tell a story based on the death of a friend of the band). While the band has put out a good deal of new material since this studio debut album (and solid material at that), none of it has stuck with me like this one.
Songs that stick: Son et Lumiere/Inertiatic ESP, Drunkship of Lanterns, Cicatriz ESP, Televators

OK Computer – Radiohead
I ran across this album a bit later than most; despite its release in 1997, I didn’t hear it until ten years later. This album, similar to De-loused, is one that I have listened to off and on for the last few years, but I still haven’t grown sick of it. While Radiohead is certainly a rock band, they don’t fall in the trap of writing music that all sounds the same (ala Nickelback). Each song on the album carries a unique feeling with it, and that diversity between tracks is a large part of the joy I take from the album.
Songs that stick: Paranoid Android, Exit Music (For a Film)

O – Damien Rice
As I said when I profiled him in the most recent Art and Artists post, Damien may be my favorite musician at the moment. He writes and plays with passion and honesty that I have not often run across. His debut album, O, is a fantastic piece of music. So many of the songs deal with heartbreak and lost love, such a relatable thing for many of us. The contrast between his less polished vocals with Lisa Hannigan’s beautiful singing voice provides a constant reminder of the separation they often sing about. This album is folk music at its finest, and one that I enjoy greatly.
Songs that stick: Blower’s Daughter, Older Chests, I Remember

Greatest Hits I – Queen
Yes, I realize that choosing a greatest hits album might be cheating. I don’t really care. This album is one of the best collections of music I have ever heard, and nothing is more fun to listen to in the car with friends, belting out each song louder than the last. I have many great memories associated with this album, which might contribute a bit to how much I enjoy it.
Songs that stick: Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen, Don’t Stop Me Now

Word of Mouth – Timmy Curran
Curran is a retired professional surfer turned musician, something that you might expect from the free feeling that comes with this album. The lyrics don’t strike me as terribly deep or challenging, but the music is quite positive and flows well.
Songs that stick: Comatose, Slow, Joan

Amethyst Rock Star – Saul Williams
Saul is another artist I have profiled in the Art and Artists series, and beyond being an incredible poet he is a talented musician. This album contains a number of Saul’s poems put to music or shaped in a new way, and the results are breathtaking. Instead of mindless lyrics combined with a hip hop beat, Saul presents the listener with pure poetry as lyrics, intelligent and surprisingly well suited to the drum and bass or hip hop background the words are placed on. I rarely ventue into the hip hop genre, but this is a grand exception. This album is one that will definitely make you think, but the beat is enough to make your head bob and knee bounce all the same.
Songs that stick: Tao of Now, Coded Language

We Were Here – Joshua Radin
Another folk album that I greatly enjoy. Radin’s music is fairly subdued, volume control is certainly not an issue with this album. However, listening to these songs evokes some sense of familiarity with who Joshua Radin is despite my never having met him. There is a great deal of relatability contained in the lyrics, and the acoustic guitar/string pairings make for beautiful, soothing music.
Songs that stick: Everything’ll Be Alright (Will’s Lullaby), Winter

Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
Old, yes. From a different era, certainly. But a fantastic album nonetheless. This album contains one of my favorite individual songs of all time, some of the best synthesizer work I’ve come across, and an altogether fantastic combination of sounds. Wish You Were Here only contains five songs, two of which last over twelve minutes each, and three shorter songs. Something about WYWH makes me want to listen to it again and again, and so I do.
Songs that stick: Welcome to the Machine, Wish You Were Here

Narrow Stairs – Death Cab for Cutie
I don’t have anything profound or special to say about Death Cab or this album. I just greatly enjoy the sound, the cadence and the content. This another one of those albums that I could turn on and never reach to skip a song.
Songs that stick: I Will Possess Your Heart, Grapevine Fires

9 – Damien Rice
You didn’t really expect me to leave off Damien’s other album, did you? This effort has a distinctly different feel from O, but I love it all the same. 9 tends to be a faster, more upbeat album musically, while hitting on the same topics of love and loss. My only wish would be that Damien put out a third full length album; this one leaves me wanting more from him.
Songs that stick: 9 Crimes, Dogs, Coconut Skins

Certainly there are other albums that I enjoy and enjoy greatly. These include: X&Y by Coldplay; Whatever and Ever Amen by Ben Folds Five; Everything in Transit by Jack's Mannequin; Till the Sky Turns Black by Ray LaMontagne; I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning by Bright Eyes; The Wall by Pink Floyd; No Sir, Nihilism is Not Practical by Showbread; Strange and Beautiful by Aqualung; In Rainbows by Radiohead; Under the Iron Sea by Keane. I'm sure I am overlooking many great albums; feel free to add to the list in the comments below.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Making Money Off Jesus

One of my pet peeves is the existence of the Christian bookstore. Family Christian Stores, Berean Christian Stores, etc. It bothers me that these places exist and are as prevalent as Hallmark or Barnes and Noble. Why do Christian bookstores bother me so much? They bother me because their primary reason for existence is to make money off Jesus.

The first I remember feeling such frustration with a Christian bookstore was the summer after my freshman year of college. My mother had asked me to pick up a book or cd or something for her from the store, so I swung by Family Christian after I got off work that day. Walking up to the store, I noticed a rack of shirts on sale outside the store. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the shirts all had a common theme: patriotic, God loves America themed shirts, complete with a matching Bible verse. Similar to this one. The message? America is better, and God loves us more. Oh, the theology.

According to Berean’s website, they stock over 170,000 products. Pardon my generality, but that is a ton of products, all targeted at the Christian community. All created in order to make a profit. A profit off the name of Jesus. Oh, the almighty dollar.

As a student and supporter of the free market, I understand that when a market exists untapped, someone will come along and fill that market segment. The Christian community is a huge segment of the market, and inevitably someone will begin to create products with the hopes that Christians will buy them. This is simple business, a fact that exists in every segment and within every community. But do Christians have to participate so willingly?

Let me step back once again and attempt full disclosure. Yes, I own Christian books and music. Some of my favorite authors are sold within Christian bookstores, such as Don Miller, Brennan Manning and others. Just yesterday I purchased four “Christian” books off the internet, and while two of them were authored by atheists, they were published by Christian publishers with the aim of selling them to Christians. Like me. And I bought them. Amazon is my friend.

I attempt full disclosure because I don’t want it to sound like I am condemning all Christian authors or Christian books. Not at all. Just parts of that culture. Like I said, I understand the need for the market to fill the Christian segment. If there is demand, supply will follow. Yet, I wish that people weren’t so eager and willing to make money off of Jesus.

It seems that within conversations like this, I always come back to a line from Saul Williams' poem The Sermon on the Mount of the Inevitable Progression from Saul to Saul; if you sense a bit of deja vu, it may be because I have cited this poem and line in a previous post. The poem reads: "how many tables and laptops and Cadillacs and pews and pulpits would be overturned in THIS day", and I wonder if Christian bookstores might be added to that list. When Jesus overturned the moneychangers' tables in the temple, it was (in part) because they were seeking to make a profit off God by charging Jews more than they should have been for temple money or sacrificial animals. Are Christian bookstores so different? Would Jesus walk into Berean and be pleased, or would he overturn tables? I wonder if his reaction would entail more of the latter than the former, and I wonder if anyone realizes it. (Certainly some do...check out this article for a unique perspective on the issue of making money off Jesus).

Thus, I have two requests. Not to anyone in particular; perhaps to those indefinable "powers that be". These are relatively minor; I would certainly not ask that these stores close and stop doing business.

First, stop making money off of The Good Message. If the goal of a Christian bookstore is to save souls rather than make money, why are Bibles sold? Why are they not given away instead? I can understand if an author must charge money for a book in order to make a living and be a self-sufficient member of society. But Bibles? Something tells me the authors of that book aren’t interested in profit making. I have an inkling that Jesus might not be a fan of his words being sold rather than given away freely. Leather bound, gold engraved and diamond encrusted (I jest) Bibles don't exactly fit with a message of love for the poor, broken and marginalized.

My second request is that Christian bookstores stop selling political texts and apparel. It bothers me when Christian authors write with the intention of being political or something similar. Example: you can find in any Christian bookstore a copy of How Would Jesus Vote?, a book attempting to convince you of how Jesus would vote on a number of contemporary issues. Don't even get me started on this one. Thing is, I don’t remember Jesus being very political. I remember Jesus avoiding politics completely and just focusing on people. When asked about his opinion of Caesar and paying Roman taxes, Jesus said "give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matt 22:15-22); doesn't sound as if Jesus was very concerned with politics. But maybe that's just me. Amazingly, you can even find books by Sarah Palin, Laura Bush and even Michael Savage (title of his book: Liberalism is a Mental have got to be kidding me) in many "Christian" bookstores. Yes, those are links within the Christian bookstores' websites where you can buy them. Christian bookstores: stop combining Jesus with politics. And making money off the combination. I do not appreciate it.

Oh, one more thing. Please put away the America-is-a-Christian-nation-and-better-than-everyone-else shirts. I love my country as much as anyone, but to make it sound like we are more moral or religious than the rest of the world is sickening. As if Jesus loves us more because we are American. Oh, the humanity. Are we so quick to forget that Jesus was Jewish?

And so on…

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Gandhi Had a Point

“I once heard someone say there are only two reasons people are not Christians. #1, They've never met a Christian. #2, They've met a Christian.”

Ran across this quote among some user reviews for a book I’m looking to buy (more on the book - Jim and Casper Go to Church - in a future post). I think there is a great deal of truth embedded within that statement. It reminds me of Gandhi’s famous quote: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Is Gandhi's quote fair? Honestly, I think it is. Without question, the Christian community (myself included) does many things that do not fit with the message of Jesus. We ostracize the homosexual community, ignore the homeless and pretend that going to church once a week makes us good people. And that just encompasses the most recent generations. I could go on and on about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Protestant-Catholic conflicts in Ireland, countless televangelists caught up in fraud and embezzlement. I do not mean to attack the entire church and claim that I am perfect; rather, I recognize my imperfections and hope for the church (as a whole) to do the same. It should not be acceptable for Jerry Falwell to say "If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being", just as it should be unacceptable for the pope to try and brush child molestation by Catholic priests under the rug. To be fair, the majority of people I know who call themselves Christian (or Catholic) are as fed up with these sorts of actions and words as I am. I cannot think of any friends who support Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or take Benny Hinn seriously.

But even so, the Christian community is much larger than the small communities I am a part of. We would not know what Falwell and Robertson have to say if there were no audience that wanted to hear them. There should be no audience for James Dobson when he says that homosexuals (through gay marriage) "will destroy the Earth", yet Focus on the Family has 2.3 million monthly magazine subscribers. Are we, as the body of Christ, really willing to listen to and even support these individuals?

As Gandhi said, we Christians are so unlike our Christ. I know I struggle with this problem daily, sinning and judging despite my sincerest attempts to avoid those things. If the central message of Jesus is to love, to love God and love others (as I believe it is), then any message of morality or repentance must exist as a result of love, not of judgment. But instead of making love our first priority, it seems that the Christian community wants to make people change who they are as a prerequisite for being treated as human beings. I am embarrassed by opponents of gay marriage who slander entire communities of individuals and then wonder why LGTBQs aren’t attracted to the church. Shouting "God hates fags" at a ballgame does not send a message of love. Neither does holding up gruesome signs of aborted babies or protesting outside of Planned Parenthood. And so on. But I don't want it to sound like I am only speaking to the "radical" crowd. I know plenty of self-proclaimed Christians who voice their hatred of gays or liberals or Muslims on a regular basis; it may be subconscious and it may seem harmless, but spouting hateful rhetoric delivers a very different message than one of love - it sends a message of judgment and hypocrisy. And yet we wonder why young people are leaving the church in record numbers.

Certainly I am not arguing that Christians should support gay marriage or abortion or whatever, nor am I arguing that Christians should oppose them. Those are issues that we must all choose our own positions on, and we should be free to do so without the threat of being slandered by Christians who might think differently (on both sides). We are called to be Christ to the world, and that means that we are to love the world…even despite the world’s imperfections and flaws. Or maybe because of the flaws. But regardless, we are to love the world first. If we were all to do that as an entire body acting in the name of Christ, perhaps leaders like Falwell, Robertson and Dobson would be forced to consider their words more carefully, perhaps the pope would have to get his hands dirty and fix the problems of child molestation within the Catholic church, perhaps gays would feel welcome on Sunday morning. And maybe even Gandhi would begin to like our Christians.

And so on...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Art and Artists: Damien Rice

The next artist I want to approach is Damien Rice. Damien is an Irish folk singer and songwriter who has released two studio albums, O in 2002 and 9 in 2006. These two albums feature Lisa Hannigan on a large number of tracks, and the two have become synonymous with each other despite having not worked together since 2007. The Irish Times describes Damien as “a most excruciatingly honest songwriter”, a claim that holds true after listening to his music. Because of his place in the folk/folk rock genre and having not put out new material in a few years, many are not familiar with Damien Rice and his music. His music tends to be acoustic guitar led, usually with strings (cello or violin) and/or drums in the background. If you are familiar with Damien and enjoy his music, please add your thoughts. For those that do not know his music, perhaps this will provide incentive to do so.

In keeping with my hope of finding an outside opinion about the art and artists I will be presenting, I sought out an old friend of mine whom I know to be a fan of Damien. Shelby has performed some of his music before on stage, giving her a somewhat unique perspective to my own. She is one of the most musically talented individuals I know, and it was an easy decision to ask her to contribute here. Once again, she and I both answered seven questions that I created, hoping to provide some insight into what sets Damien Rice apart.

1. How did you first find out about Damien Rice?
Shelby – I first found out about Damien Rice about three years ago. I sang his song, Volcano, at a backyard wine and cheese tasting with a friend of mine.

Kevin – At a New Year’s Eve party (2008 – 2009 I believe) I was discussing music with one of my friends. Folk has been a favorite genre of mine for a while, and this caused my friend to bring up Damien Rice as an artist I might enjoy. He introduced me to Damien by having me listen to Cannonball and Blower’s Daughter, two songs off the album O. At the time, I was unsure about Damien, as I usually am the first time I hear an artist. A week later, I was at a Border’s bookstore closing sale and picked up a copy of his debut album, O, on a whim. I certainly didn’t regret it.

2. What is your favorite song that Damien has written?
Shelby – My favorite song is Blower's Daughter (video here). It puts me in such a sensitive, soft, beautiful mood whenever I hear it. But there isn't a song of his that I don't love. Volcano, 9 Crimes, Delicate, Rootless Tree. They're all so rusty and honest.

Kevin – I have two favorites, one from each album. From O, I Remember is an incredible song. Damien and Lisa each sing half of the song, expressing the confusion and emotion of two lovers who no longer are but remember what once was. It’s a heavy, beautiful song. The album version is fantastic, but what set that song apart for me was a live version done for the BBC (here). I have never seen a live performance done so flawlessly as that. My favorite song off 9 is Coconut Skins (here), an upbeat, quick song about the worth of being still and not knowing what to do or wait for. It is a catchy song, an easy listen, and one that will certainly get stuck in your head.

3. Are there any themes to his that stick out to you?
Shelby – Heartbreak. The extreme vulnerability of being intimate with a woman. Then the mistakes and confusion that come later in a relationship- getting back what little you gave, or often times just being betrayed.

Kevin – I can’t really argue with what Shelby said. Many of his songs (Delicate, Volcano, Lonelily, Rootless Tree, etc.) deal with broken emotions and relationships that have gone sour; in those songs his ability to make the audience understand and feel his emotions really shines. One can tell that he has invested emotionally into both his past and his music. By combining the two, the emotion contained in his songs is palpable. Raw and beautiful, all the same.

4. What makes Damien an important artist in our generation?
Shelby – His honest lyrics. Being relatable and raw are elements that this generation really gravitates toward. That's what I love about his music the most, and at the same time am bothered by it. I love how truthful he is, but there is not very often a redeeming moment in his music. It's kind of good for sulking, which I would say actually isn't good for this generation, especially.

Kevin – There is something about his music that really sticks with me after listening to it. The relevance of his music to my emotions sometimes takes me off guard; it is strange sometimes to listen to him sing about what I am feeling, as if he knows my situation and penned the song with me in mind. I agree with Shelby that Damien seems to focus on the path behind him into the valley rather than finding the path back up. However, we live in a culture that wants to go, go, go and never slow down. We want to identify our problems and immediately fix them with infomercial products and miracle gels. But Damien seems to recognize that he doesn’t have to fix everything immediately. While he may mourn the loss of a lover in a morose way, he shows that we don’t have to run to someone else when a relationship goes bad. He tells us that it is okay to remain in that place, that an immediate respite from our pain is not necessary.

5. Describe Damien using one word.
Shelby – Gray. What I mean by that is... his main theme I would say is confusion. Most of his songs are all about the gray, tough parts in love; the messy, gritty confusion. And I just picture a heartbreaking shade of gray when I hear him.

Kevin – Honest.

6. How have his songs influenced you?
Shelby – Mmmm...I think they allow me to feel pain when I need to feel it. But I have to watch myself in how much I listen to him, to be honest. I can get myself into too the same sulky gray if I don't switch to something else after a while!

Kevin – His songs have allowed me to better understand my own emotions and hang ups when it comes to broken relationships. I love the way he writes songs that are packed with emotion but are unhurried and subdued, very still. It is as if he wants us to feel his emotion without having to show it himself in a flamboyant fashion. That helped me understand that I can feel real, powerful emotion but not make a spectacle of it. I can maintain my demeanor even as the world might seem to be crashing down around me.

7. Explain why you think more people should get to know Damien Rice and his music.
Shelby – Oy. Everyone should. Because he's real, sensitive, and rusty! He's just a mess, but he puts it all out in the open. I think people should be a bit more the same.

Kevin – He may never make you want to tear up the dance floor, but he will make you feel. I find that to be valuable beyond measure.