Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best Music of 2008

I’ve been thinking for the last month or so about how I was going to do my best of 2008 list. I have read other lists with fascination, both professional (Paste, Pitchfork, Emusic) and personal (Dad, Blake). Mine is certainly personal, so it’s really a measure of what I liked, which is a mix between raw awesomeness quotient and my personal taste. Explanations to follow, and the ordering here is approximate. I also included one song which I consider the best.

1. Frightened Rabbit - Midnight Organ Fight
Morgan suggested I listen to this album this summer, and he was so right. It rocks. Like Blake, I’m a big sucker for a Scottish accent. Besides appealing to anglophiles, this has a lot going for it. The music has a kinetic quality to it – it has a lot of energy but still is controlled. Lyrically it is surprising and interesting without being overly clever. And excellent breakup music. It’s emotional, it employs interesting metaphors, and all this delivered with a Scottish accent. I couldn’t get enough of it. I still can’t. Best Song: The Modern Leper.

2. The Submarines – Honeysuckle Weeks
I know this is a great album because the song “You, Me, and the Bourgoisie” is on all those iphone ads and I still don’t hate it. It sounds like fun and summer. The arrangements are full of things I like, like strings and twinkly sounds and vocal harmony. The lyrics have good sound play to them so it’s fun to sing along. Best Song: Swimming Pool.

3. Sandra McCracken – Red Balloon
I’ve been a fan of Sandra’s for a long time, and I was concerned when I learned she was pregnant that I’d see less from her as a musician. So far, the opposite has been the case. This year she released not only the lovely Red Balloon, but also a really fantastic EP with her husband, Derek Webb. Red Balloon is a great example of why I love Sandra—strong songwriting and strong singing, interesting, primarily acoustic arrangements. Best Song: Storehouse.

4. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
This band has a really distinctive sound, primarily because of the falsetto lead in a number of the songs. Jangly rhythm guitar makes a big difference too. It’s restrained, moody and quietly intense. Best Song: Lump Sum.

5. Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
I got a hold of this album recently, but it has really grown on me with each listen. I’ve been a fan of Jenny Lewis for a while, this album is great. It’s gritty and exciting. Lewis has a wide range of vocal styles, as this demonstrates. “Carpetbagger” the duet with Elvis Costello, is really fun. I love Costello duets of course. The other songs are singable and fun as well. Best Song: Bad Man’s World.

6. The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride
The sound of the Mountain Goats may be an acquired taste, the singer has a distinctive voice and the instrumentation sounds a bit prickly. However, once you get used to the sound, it is emotional, quirky, arresting. Many of the songs are written about fictional characters. I’m still trying to figure out what it means that there’s bits of a psalm in “Sept 15, 1983.” Best Song: San Berardino.

7. Sigur Ros – með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
This is a great album for reading and writing. Especially since most of it is in Icelandic or Hopelandic, so I can’t understand it. Like other Sigur Ros albums, it is epic and ethereal. It comes in swells. No best song here, because I can’t differentiate the tracks really and I like it that way.

8. The Weepies – Hideaway
I loved the first weepies album. Alert readers will note the prevalence of male-female duet bands on this list, and it’s no coincidence. I like that stuff. Hideaway has a gentleness to it that some of these others do not have. It’s quiet and comfortable, kind of like the a snow day. Best Song: Antarctica.

9. Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us
Another husband-wife team, the Mates of State kind of remind me of these other ones that I love, which is just fine. Theirs is a bit slicker than Submarines, Weepies or Derek and Sandra, and maybe a bit swingier. Best Song: The Re-arranger.

10. Elvis Costello – Momufuku
This album has much in common with perhaps my alltime favorite Costello album, All This Useless Beauty. For instance, it has a nice mix of the Costello ballad and the Costello rocker. This album feels particularly high energy because it was recorded with very little rehearsal, which must be what gives it so much immediacy. I like the part in “Flutter and Wow,” for example, when he shouts “to the bridge!” In fact, Best Song: Flutter and Wow.

Regrettable Omissions:
Stars – Sad Robots
Sandra McCracken and Derek Webb – Ampersand
Greg Laswell - Three Flights from Alto Nido
Anathallo - Canopy Glow
She & Him – Volume One
The Firemen – Electric Arguments
Common Shiner – EPs Never Have Titles

New to me in ‘08
Ingrid Michaelson – Girls and Boys
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova – The Swell Season

I was late to the party on these albums, but if you haven’t heard them, they are really fantastic. They might show up later as a desert island pick, in fact.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Review: EPs Never Have Titles

Earlier this week, I downloaded Common Shiner’s new EP EPs Never Have Titles for free from Let me tell you, you should download it too. And if you live in Chicago, you should go see them live, because they are truly dynamic performers.

For this review I tried to listen to the EP without thinking about my significant affection for the band’s members (they are friends of mine) and I still think it’s a strong album. Like in their earlier recordings, this one features clever, relatable lyrics with the occasional element of surprise.

Musically, the band gets tighter and more precise every time I hear them. Instrumentally and vocally, these four songs demonstrate their strength as musicians. The production sounds crisp and really benefits the rhythmic feel in many of the songs.

All in all, it’s fun, smart pop. And I would say that even if I didn't already love them.

Friday, November 07, 2008


I know it's been ages since I posted on this blog. It's been a tough semester and I haven't had the time and energy for additional commentary. However, I couldn't let this go by without comment.

I voted in my second ever presidential election this week. And I voted for somebody I respect and trust. And I feel hopeful about what our country could do in the next four years.

Perhaps I have a biased sample, since so many in my circles are outspoken liberals, but I detect I distinctive lightness the last few days. A cautious optimism. A sense that maybe things aren't so bad. The Op-Eds in Yesterday's New York Times felt almost giddy.

The system works, at least a little bit. Voter turn out was the highest, by sheer numbers, it has ever been. I hope that our President Elect and his administration can work with others and really change things. He has my prayers.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Kingdom"* Gender Politics

I’ve been reading a chapter from my friend Kristy’s book-in-progress recently (I’ve been taking forever, sorry, Kristy), and ran into a footnote (among other things of course) that made me think. She was discussing a book that talks about "kingdom questions" as opposed to earthly ones, and "kingdom thinking". Here's the footnote:
Given my feminist politics, I have serious reservations about using the term “kingdom.” Not only does it imply a male god, it also hearkens back to an antiquated form of patriarchy, where a male sovereign monarch ruled over powerless subjects. That is hardly a system of government I find promising, so it is certainly not an analogy to the divine I find meaningful. Because this term is so common in the contemporary debate over Christianity and civic engagement, however, I use it out of convenience and simplicity in this chapter. I also fear that avoiding the term “kingdom” would only obscure the sexism that haunts Christian thought.

This objection had never occurred to me before; I’m glad I have smart friends to point these things out to me. I find Kristy’s argument compelling – why do we rely so heavily on the authoritarian male terms for God and the people, animals and things that follow God? While the kingdom of God is a term used in the Bible, it made sense in the context of that culture and it’s first English translation. Today doesn’t the “city of God” and “new earth” language in revelation make more sense for our understanding of how God’s care and plan for the earth and its inhabitants works? Is patriarchal culture so woven into the bible and Christian thought that we have no choice but to take the negative consequences of that language with the good ones?

These are the questions I am most interested in discussion about: are there alternative ways to talk about God and God’s way of thinking, and what are the benefits and costs to Christians of using that language instead?

* These quotation marks are necessary, because they are drawing attention to the term. Ok? Ok.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thoughts on Satire

In February This American Life aired an episode that included a fascinating peek into the writers room for The Onion (it can be streamed for free or downloaded for a buck here).  The way they parse the jokes made me so geekily jealous.  I do a fair amount of joke-parsing myself, and sometimes get it wrong when I post regularly on the “blog”.  I even started a twitter account because I wanted to see how often I could be clever in less than 140 characters (hit and miss).

Meanwhile, I can’t stop writing mediocre papers for classes about satire and irony.  Is satire persuasive?  Is irony always cruel?  Bakhtin on laughter has been really helpful in this regard, I think I’ll come back to it later, but these questions fascinate me.

Since I’m in love with serious talk about hilarity, I’m both crazy about and perplexed by the recent discussion about humor in the presidential campaign.  The controversial New Yorker cover spurned quite a bit of discussion about what kinds of jokes, if any, are acceptable to make about Obama.  My favorite is Andy Borowitz’s list of acceptable jokes, including this one: “A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’ Barack Obama replies, ‘His jockey just lost his health insurance, which should be the right of all Americans.’”

There also has been some discussion with differing levels of condescending about whether everyone will get the joke.  And, indeed, a recent pew survey found that 12% of Americans do think Obama is a muslim – they lack the shared sense of reality that is necessary to get the joke.

This leads me to my complaint about satire as a way to make arguments.  If your audience does not already agree with you, not only is satire unpersuasive, it goes right over the audience’s head.  Making fun of people is not the best way to make them come around to your side.  It is a good way to move undecided’s or energize those who agree with you, but that’s it.  

Of course, this isn’t quite that clean and easy (see Larknews or A Prairie Home Companion for a good example of people laughing at their own foibles) but I think it’s something we should be careful of.  Also, Cara Finnegan makes a good point that in the case of the New Yorker cover, the subject of the satire isn’t included in the image itself.  Moreover, the image bothers me because it helps keep these kinds of imaginings about the Obamas in circulation, adding to the general feeling of otherness that is being attached to them, which will affect undecided voters who go with their gut feeling on election day.

In other words, I love a good satire, but I didn’t think this was a particularly well-executed joke.  But the excessive coverage of it (my own blog now is complicit in this I suppose) is way more damaging than the cover image itself.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Faith and Suffering

As part of my grant research I’m looking for ways to frame an analysis of talk about religious practices and health/illness. This morning I read the introduction to Faith in the Great Physician by historian Heather Curtis (reviewed in Books and Culture by Lauren Winner here).

Reading the intro to this book (and Winner’s review of it) brought to my attention the possibility that there might be more than one view of the role of God and faith in illness. In the interviews I analyze (conducted in 2006) we asked the participants if they thought religious practices like prayer or healing services could help prevent or heal an illness like heart disease, diabetes or depression. The answers ranged, but I don’t recall anyone suggesting that illness was a special gift or test and that suffering was in any way spiritual. Neither do I believe that this is a common conception in the contemporary church. However, Curtis describes the culture of the mid-19th century in America where this idea was dominant, especially for women.

Winner summarizes, “Sick people, in particular female invalids, believed that their sickness was God's will, and the most faithful response was humble submission. Women who patiently bore illness that kept them confined to bed for decades were understood as "spiritual virtuosos," who were often blessed by God with special visions that would sustain them through their trials. Their very bodies, passively propped up on pillows, were tokens of faith in the sufficiency of God's grace.”

Perhaps it is my 21st century sensibility that finds this perspective troublesome, and clearly tied up in sexist understandings of female virtue. I wouldn’t suggest we go back to this view, especially in light of the abilities of modern medicine to relieve suffering. However, the very availability of another possibility leads us to evaluate the problems of the current religious attitude toward illness.

Curtis writes at the end of her introduction, “divine healing had a dark side too: in addition to enabling individuals to overcome debilitating diseases, faith cure suggested that sick persons were somehow responsible for their condition and therefore suspect. Rather than risk God’s reputation or their own, many chose to suffer their pain silently or hide it all together.”

This reaction – that those who aren’t healed might not have enough faith – seems especially prominent in discussion of mental illness like depression. In Jane Kenyon’s poem cycle about depression, “Having it Out With Melancholy,” the most haunting poem is titled “suggestion from a friend” and simply says “You wouldn’t be so depressed/ if you really believed in God.” This attitude is clearly the danger that our Christian culture struggles with when we over-emphasize divine healing.

Knowing that the cultural attitude toward faith and suffering changed so dramatically in the 19th century, though, gives us hope for the future. Perhaps another view of the relationship between our faith and our bodies and the problems of our bodies is possible. Perhaps we can develop a way to think about the body, mental illness, and God’s power to heal that avoids punishing those who already suffer, but still looks for healing.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Desert Island Discs: Eveningland

I guess it was about 2 summers ago that my friend Leslie and I went to see Over the Rhine in Altanta. I’ve seen Over the Rhine live quite a few times, and they were fabulous that night, as usual. But I was really blown away by the band they were co-headlining with: Hem. I bought one of their albums, Eveningland, that night. It was a hard choice even then between Eveningland and Rabbit Songs, since both have such lovely interesting songs on them. I’ve since acquired all their records, but I think I made the right choice that night – Eveningland just barely edges out Rabbit Songs and Funnel Cloud for the distinct honor of my next Desert Island Selection.

All the elements of Hem’s aesthetic fit together well. Sally Ellison’s warm voice (and the lovely vocal harmony they use frequently), the delicate orchestration (heavy on strings and piano) and the evocative heart-wrenching lyrics. You might recognize them without knowing it, since their songs “Half-Acre” and “The Part Where You Let Go” have been featured on commercials for Liberty Mutual. When I saw them, their instrumentation was: piano, guitar, string bass, pedal steel. I know. I fell in love immediately.

I think “Lucky” is one of the prettiest love songs I’ve encountered (and I’ve heard a lot of love songs). Read this chorus:

If I should lose
I’ll wake up feeling lucky
if I should take a fall
or throw it all away
I wouldn’t mind lying beside you
the rest of my days.

I love the way “Redwing” sounds like it’s soaring, and I love the line “circling like sparrows”. I believe “Pacific Street” is a song about when the members of the band met each other, but to me it’s about old friends, and remembering good times even if things have changed, “because leaving things is just too hard for me.” It about wrecks me every time.

And they have this great slow cover of “Jackson” on this album too. Which means that not only is it a fabulous album in its own right, but also includes another of my favorite things: covers that are significantly different from the original.

Most of their songs have that sense of affection and longing. And have I mentioned the gorgeous arrangements? Because they are gorgeous. It’s a great album for a quiet morning or evening (maybe more evening, hence the name) with tea or a glass of wine and a book. Or if you’re me and will listen to gentle, slow-tempo stuff anytime, then anytime.

Past Reviews:

1000 Kisses
Sixpence None the Richer
Neon Bible

Why Should the Fire Die

Achtung Baby


Friday, May 30, 2008

Elitism and Popularity

I was interested in this New York Times article that mentions some of my concerns about the latest rash of anti-intellectualism in the public sphere.

Writer Susan Jacoby asks why “elitist” and “elite opinion” have become such negative terms in today’s political scene.  At its most absurd, Senator Hillary Clinton suggested that the unanimous opinion of economists was not to be trusted because it was “elite”.  I agree with Jacoby that there is a difference between populism that respects the abilities of all people and a rejection of expertise of achievement.  Indeed, the populism that I would encourage wants an educated population, where everyone can have an informed opinion about matters that affect us all.  Instead, it appears, “elitism” is any suggestion that people as citizens or as leaders should be expected to do or know more.

One interesting note, it seems that the opposite attitude is at work when it comes to issues of national security.  While it is “elitist” to trust economists on the subject of the economy, in the case of the war, we are expected to trust the judgment of the president and General Petraeus without question.  They are the experts; they have all the information.  Perhaps this attitude is deployed so effectively (at least until recently) by the Bush administration because the president is portrayed as so everyday in other situations.  

The cries against elitism are not necessarily a rejection of special knowledge, then, but against a certain segment of society – educated progressives who may have behaved too condescendingly throughout history, creating a negative reaction among others.  Perhaps to fix this problem, elites need better PR to consistently present themselves as relatable and trustworthy, instead of snobby and condescending.  I wonder if Al Gore’s public image today compared to in the  run-up to the 2000 election might be instructive in this respect.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In Defense of The Girls Next Door

Jim makes fun of me for loving The Girls Next Door.  Actually, everyone does.  But I don’t mind, I’m a bit embarrassed about my love for the show, in fact.  But I’m going to explain why I love it.  I recently read this Elle article that has a similar perspective.

Allow me to explain. First of all, I understand that Playboy is all about women as sex objects, and celebrates a particular kind of beauty (blonde, huge fake boobs, tiny waist, etc – so Barbie).  The male gaze is how plaboy makes its money – a male fantasy of these idealized women who are always available.  That’s what the mansion and the clubs are all about.  But here’s the thing: in the show, the men never show up.  Hef is so old and, well, relational that you don’t feel that these women are objects to him.  You don’t even think of their relationship with him as sexual even though it likely is (although maybe not, the guy is OLD).

Instead, the world we see on the show is pure escapism.  It has so little to do with my real life, and that’s why I like to watch it.  I watch tv to escape.  Holly, Bridget and Kendra live this ridiculous life where they hang out with each other and with other women, they have little projects and trips and adventures, and they never worry about things like money or responsibilities.  It’s like girl’s night out, except it’s their whole life, and everyone is beautiful.  But you aren’t really invited to evaluate the women so much as it’s just taken for granted that everyone is that specific kind of beautiful.  Sure, now that I think about it, it’s troubling, but my point is it’s never foregrounded.  And isn’t all tv that way anyway?

There’s also some kind of old-femininity power in Holly – she gets her way by scheming and batting her eyes, but she does it in an unapologetic but also self-aware way.  It’s kind of endearing.  And they way that Bridget is always upbeat and happy and finds ways to advance her future entertainment career is quite savvy.  Not that I’m claiming it’s a feminist show, of course it isn’t.  But it’s good fun for some girls trying to unwind after a long day of thinking hard.  And I like it.  And now you know why.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bakhtin for Worship Leaders: Ideological Becoming

I recently posted about Bakhtin’s idea of the living word as a useful concept for worship leaders.  Another concept that I think is helpful for understanding the Bible as both flexible and unchanging is Ideological becoming.

The idea of ideological becoming has to do with the ways a person combines available discourses to determine the ideologies they identify with.  Bakhtin is similar to other theorists, who assume that individuals assemble pieces of various discourses to construct their own identity.  To help understand this concept, Bakhtin talks about two different kinds of discourses: authoritative and internally persuasive.

Authoritative discourse refers to reified texts that carry with them the weight of history and authority. “The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher.  It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers” (Discourses p. 342).  This is especially applicable to religious texts like the Bible, whose authority is especially unquestioned in the context of the church.  While this authority gives a text advantages, it also creates a desire for rebellion.  Authoritative texts feel distant and irrelevant, or heavy-handed.  This poses a significant challenge for those hoping to breathe life into authoritative texts.

Internally persuasive discourse is one that an individual accepts into the play of their own identity and with other texts; they become a part of the becoming of a person.  Bakhtin writes, “Its creativity and productiveness consist precisely in the fact that such a word awakens new and independent words, that it organizes masses of our words from within, and does not remain in an isolated and static condition” (Discourses p. 345).  This kind of engagement might release a biblical text or old liturgy from interaction with it as a stagnant, static authoritative text.  What makes a text internally persuasive is its ability to invoke a response (“new and independent words”) and engage with other words.

This is where it becomes important that Bakhtin doesn’t think of these categories as mutually exclusive.  “Both the authority and the internal persuasiveness of discourse may be united in a single word – one that is simultaneously authoritative and internally persuasive” (Discourses, p. 342).  How do we make our worship one that is simultaneously authoritative and internally persuasive?

I think one way is by offering an opportunity for individuals to produce “independent words” in response to the older, authoritative words that might be presented.  For example, churches offer opportunities for congregation members to present their own art or writing in church, or to create art or writing during the service itself.  These active responses allow the words of scripture to become part of us, in dialogue with our own words, and becoming our own words.  As part of our ideological becoming.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Bakhtin for Worship Leaders: The Living Word

This semester I took a course in the language theory of Mikhail Bakhtin.  It was a great class, and there were several points in the class when I thought the things I was reading would work beautifully with theology.  Of course, Bakhtin was living in Soviet Russia, so he rarely references Christianity explicitly, except to talk about the authoritative voice or about “mythical Adam”.  However, I find his theory of language really compelling, and useful for thinking about the ways we interact with the biblical text as an utterance or set of utterances.

I didn’t have time in the semester to reflect on this blog, but now that I have a little space, I want to start articulating and sharing some of those ideas.  So this first post is about Bakhtin’s concept of the Word as a Living thing.

I find this concept especially easy to translate, since we are already accustomed to talking about the Bible as the Living Word of God.  Reading the term in Bakhtin, though, forced me to think about what it gets us to think about a word as alive.

First, for Bakhtin, a living word has its own character and history.  In his words, language cannot be understood as unitary unless it is isolated “from the uninterrupted process of historical becoming that is a characteristic of all living language” (The Dialogic Imagination, p. 288).  This means not only that the meaning of language changes over time, but also that the history of a word matters for its meaning today – that the meanings it has had in the past colors its present meaning.

When this concept is applied to the words at work in the church, it seems especially relevant, as the biblical text is thousands of years old, and many liturgical elements have been used for hundreds of years or more.  The historical and geographical reach of these texts means that there are a wide range of meanings that the stories and words have gathered over those various contexts.  These words carry a weight of meanings that give them richness, but also threaten to hold us down.

Second, a living word is not just a conduit in communication, but an actor.  Words impose their own meanings, histories and intents on a situation.  Bakhtin writes “the strong point of any concrete listener becomes a self-sufficient focus of attention, and one that interferes with the word’s creative work on its referent” (The Dialogic Imagination, p. 282).  In this passage not only does the word do work, but that work is interfered with on the part of a listener – the word is an interloper between speaker and listener, imposing it’s own will on meaning (or referent) that must be compensated for by a strong listener. This then requires extra vigilance on the part of a reader, both to read a text with good intentions, and to listen to others with a spirit of cooperation.

What does it mean if we take the idea of the biblical text as a Living Word seriously?  If we assume that it has actions and intentions separate from and sometimes at odds with those of a writer or reader.  Should we be concerned with the desires of the Word, or of its divine inspirer?  What would it mean to see our reading of the bible as the Word’s creative work?  How is our understanding constrained and enhanced by the history of the words in our translations?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

movie families

Sometimes to unwind, Jamie and I watch of movies of varying quality.  Don't judge; most of them are on TV, so we don't pay for them.  However, we have observed some disturbing trends.  The following movies that we have seen recently contain a family game of touch/tackle football:

Dan in Real Life

The Wedding Crashers

Just Married

The following movies that we have seen recently contain a scene where a family bursts into spontaneous song with piano accompaniment:

Must Love Dogs

Dan in Real Life

And more we can’t remember.

Ok, Jamie’s family is athletic, and they never play family football.  They occasionally go sledding and take walks.  My family is musical, but we do not hold spontaneous sing-alongs.  Sure, people burst into song frequently, but we don’t ALL join in.  Occasionally a rehearsal for a church song will end with a jam session.

So the question at hand is this: whose families do these things, and why are they always in movies?  The football thing mostly seems to be a useful plot device to play out sexual tension or a character’s unathleticism.  The music thing is a good chance to demonstrate how good of singers the cast are.  But seriously.  Who does these things?

Also, readers are encouraged to beef up these lists to improve the "trend" argument.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Inequity in Michigan

I was really upset when Jim alerted me to a recent ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court. The ruling interpreted the gay marriage ban that passed in 2004 (which I voted against) to also mean that benefits for gay partners in state-run institutions is also illegal. This is especially hurtful to state universities, who will likely lose top scholars who can get partner benefits in other states.

Regardless of how you feel about the sin-status of gay sex, I think we can all agree that humans deserve to be treated as such. It would be absurd if we ostracized and financially punished individuals in our society for other activites that are prohibited more explicitly and strongly in the Bible. But instead we often have usurers, gluttons and adulterers in civic and religious leadership roles. This is a clear case of discrimination that in the future we will see as repugnant as Jim Crow.

This is an issue of human rights and fairness, and it's embarrassing that in 2008 our society is moving backward instead of toward equality. I urge readers of this blog who still reside in Michigan to take a stand against this injustice.

edit: more discussion on feministing.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Desert Island Discs: 1000 Kisses

I’m done writing for the semester, and just in time. The Desert Island thing is coming back into style. Matt just posted a bunch all at once, and Blake has been talking a big game like he’s going to join in. (Speaking of people who talk a big game, I think Morgan should post another one soon too.)

I came a little late to the Patty Griffin party. Some of my friends were totally pumped to see her play Calvin my first year (I was pumped for the opener: Over the Rhine) but she blew me away, and I bought her then new album 1000 Kisses. It’s ten tracks of beautiful, kids. I’ve been variously obsessed with “Mil Besos,” “Tomorrow Night,” “Rain” and “Making Pies” but to be honest, whenever any of the tracks comes up in Party Shuffle I’m likely to go “I love this song!” And it will be true

Here are some reasons why Patty, and this album, are awesome: Patty’s voice is wrenching, warm and honest. The instrumentation is rootsy, warm and spacious. The writing is lovely – emotional and evocative, but broad enough that you can feel like you relate to it in a variety of situations. For example, “I'm not looking for the rest of your life/ I just want another chance to live” or “I wish you could see the way I see me in my dreams/ the way I laugh there way up high/ the way I look when I fly/ the way I laugh the way I fly.” Other songs, like “Chief” and “Makin’ Pies” draw us into a character with a story. I didn’t know until recently that “Tomorrow Night” was a cover, and had been recorded by Elvis (I know, that’s probably heretical) but I just listened to Elvis’ version on YouTube and Patty’s is better.

This is a good album for a rainstorm, a car trip or an afternoon of reading. Or any other time, really. You should listen to it.

Past Reviews:

Sixpence None the Richer
Neon Bible

Why Should the Fire Die

Achtung Baby


Thursday, May 01, 2008

bragging rights

This morning I was reading this New York Times article about Steve and Barry's. My favorite part is this quotation from Sarah Jessica Parker:

“What has changed,” Ms. Parker said, “is that now people have bragging rights about what they paid. I admired a woman’s pair of pants at a party recently and she said, ‘Fourteen dollars! H & M!’ It really is, among the people I know, part of what they do now.”

NOW? She obviously doesn't know any dutch people. I've been doing that... always.

Friday, April 04, 2008

40 years later

(I wrote this yesterday and then never posted it because of internet issues. Here it is anyway)

I wish that I was less sick and overwhelmed, so I could make a post about the 40th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death. Conveniently, I'm working on some copy edits on my recently accepted article about King's last speech. I think that now is a good time to remember Dr King, as some of the same discussions he raised are coming up again - about issues of Justice, race and religion.

I think it's also important for us to remember that 40 years is both a long time ago, and not so long ago. I think some people take a message of reconciliation and hope to mean that the history of inequality and hurt doesn't matter anymore, but that's a history that many people lived and that still affects the opportunities available to people today. I recently had a conversation with my colleague Marcus about some of the discrimination he has experienced in the last few years that made me realize that we still have a long way to go as a society before that history is truly past. Make no mistake: we've come a long way when everyone has at least formal access if not actual access to the best schools and jobs in the nations, and when a black man and a woman are competing for nomination for the highest office in the land. But we also have a long way to go before those people are not derided for those very characteristics, and until technical access means truly equal opportunity.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Desert Island Discs: Sixpence None the Richer

A big turning point for me in musical taste happened when I was in high school. Through some weird connection, my dad got a pre-release version of Sixpence None the Richer’s selftitled album. I fell in love with it. The band quickly replaced my previous favorite musical group: Point of Grace (for the uninitiated, this is your typical CCM highly-produced soccermom pop. You know – with the synth strings and the modulation for the last chorus).

Loving Sixpence opened my musical world to all kinds of new, cool, artsy-folk-pop like my next (and continuing) favorite: Over the Rhine. I also got to see the band a few times in cool venues, like the Calvin FAC and Dimnet Chapel at Hope College before they hit it big with their uncharacteristic pop song, “Kiss Me. I still wonder what would have happened if they followed up with one of the moodier songs from the album instead of the fluffy cover of “There She Goes” which got added to later editions of the album. In fact, in college I was annoyed that my copy had “There She Goes” tacked on to the end instead of letting the album close with strings and the lyrics “I will not let them ruin me again.”

Anyway, all that was to say that I would love this album forever because of what it got me as a fan of music – expanding my tastes to new and interesting music. But as an album, I think it holds together as quality regardless of my history with it. The combination of Leigh Nash’s sweet soprano vocals with minor chords and driving guitar and string riffs creates a pleasant rockiness, and unexpected moments of beauty and intensity. (Come to think of it, the heavy use of strings probably influenced my love of this album).

Most of the lyrical content on the album is about artistic frustration – it reflects the frustration the band had (and continued to have after their success) with record companies. Although as a teenager I couldn’t relate to the pressures of the CCM market, I could get angst, and some of the songs (“Easy to Ignore” for example) even have romantic angst. I mean, I was 15 when this album came out. The images and musical intensity of these songs still resonate with my older, somewhat less angsty ears.

The album isn’t just a big angst-fest, though, it features complex theological questions (like “The Waiting Room”) and an occasional journey into the fanciful (like “Kiss Me” and “I Can’t Catch You”). It reflects influence from central American poets, not only in “Puedo Escribir” – directly influenced by a Pablo Neruda poem, but also in other lyrical moments and references to the body, like “The Lines of My Earth.” Matt Slocum’s writing about an “artistic womb” and “Flames of knowing kissing me” weirdly resonates with some of the chicana literature I’m reading for class this week, actually. Regardless, the lyrics are rich and complex, with surprising images and pleasing rhythms. All things I still appreciate in a good song. I’m glad this album that mattered so much to me has held up over time.

Past Reviews:

Neon Bible

Why Should the Fire Die

Achtung Baby


Sunday, March 09, 2008

More Than Watchmen Wait for Morning

Today’s church service was filled with more lament than a usual fifth Sunday in lent. This week the state of Georgia was touched by the murder of two college women, one at UNC, and one at Auburn. The father of one of these women is a member of my church. While I have never met Eve Carson, others in our congregation knew her, and were especially yearning for the resurrection of the dead today. It is amazing the ways that God prepares for our needs before we even know them. The lectionary readings were all about God bringing life when there isn’t any hope – Ezekiel and the dry bones, the resurrection of Lazarus, a Romans passage that ends “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

I have my public speaking students report on the news in every class. I forgot to do it in my later class this Friday, so we put it at the end of class instead, and as my student listed these killings among death and war elsewhere in the world, we all felt stunned and saddened, even though our eagerness for spring break made the class open with a sense of excitement. We generally have time for discussion after the news report, and a student remarked that she feels guilty for the way she reacts to these tragedies briefly, and then returns almost immediately to her life – homework, friends, etc. We talked about that difficulty – we all want to be compassionate, sincere people, but if you truly felt every tragedy in the news, you would be paralyzed with sadness. I wish that I could have told them about the gifts of the Christian tradition – that it gives us a way to respond. We lament and hope. We cry out from the depths, like the Psalm 130 writer, but we also say, with him, “My soul waits for the Lord, in his word I hope. My soul waits more than watchmen wait for the morning.” This pattern of tears, prayers and hope are built into the life of the church. Lent is when we wait and pray. But sadness is always around us, demanding that we remember to wait for the Lord.

Friday, February 15, 2008

rhetoric is news

It's unusual for humanities scholarship to make it into the mainstream media, but check out this Slate article about a Rhetoric and Public Affairs piece on Obama's rhetoric.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Coins and God in the US

Last semester I wrote a paper about newspaper coverage of congressional bills adding “under God” to the pledge, declaring “In God We Trust” the national motto and putting it on currency. I noticed that they were carefully vague about the theological meaning of these moves, and embraced any monotheism, and that it was also set up as a clear way to differentiate our Christian Democracy from Atheist Communists. I argued that it was an interesting case of 1950s civil religion, and shed light on how those changes came to be and the relationship of religiosity and patriotism in the mid-50s, and that it offered interesting insights into lay-theories of the rhetoric of material objects.

Today, I read that congress is still worried about the words on coins. In some ways the arguments are the same – our identity as Christian is important, it should show up on material elements of our national culture. The argument now lacks the boogeyman of communist atheists, however, and instead accuses a vague enemy (even the mint itself) of trying to remove or forget God, given the motto’s less prominent position on these new coins. The whole thing still seems a bit silly, and I wonder what drives law-makers to worry about the design of coins instead of, say, people who are sick and can’t afford treatment. There are a couple of possible sources: first the paranoia of the Christian right – anything that feeds into their persecution narrative helps them get attention and money. Also, the presidential race has seen much less attention to typical religious conservative issues. Squabbles like this are an easy way for congressmen like Brownback to get a symbolic victory and pacify their restless constituencies.

Still, it’s weird that this same issue is coming up now, when in the past it appeared after WWII and after the Civil War. What does it mean that these kinds of national identity issues are coming up in the midst of an unpopular foreign war? Are we in some ways imagining ourselves into peace-time by behaving as though the war is already won?

Hat tip: I got this story from Pandagon.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sympo '08: what I will remember

While I expected to post a few intellectual chewing points, I must admit that the things I’ve been pondering from this year’s symposium have been more visceral. While I certainly have had some interesting and useful intellectual moments, I am sitting in the airport now thinking about what it means to come back to a place that was home, and the ways intense experiences make you feel close to people.

After emailing for months, trying to plan an alternative, interactive, multisensory worship service with others in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Glasgow, we finally met together for a stirring music rehearsal, and hours of final decisions and details to transform a lecture hall into a place of worship. It was odd and wonderful to find myself joking around while tying yarn on dowels with these new friends. At one point, everyone busted out their favorite Stanley Hauerwas story. Only at a worship conference. After our service on Friday, we had a panel discussion on Saturday afternoon in the same space, and Doug mentioned that you don’t think of a room in the same way after you’ve made it into a place for worship. I don’t know when I will visit the commons lecture hall again, but I think I will remember standing in a dim corner, watching images light up a sheet hung from the ceiling, leading singing.

I also spent most of the first day in Grand Rapids in a strange time warp, visiting places and seeing people who had been my everyday life, but aren't anymore, and have changed, just as I have. It was beautiful to realize that I was welcomed and loved, and to also see how we all grow and change. I was proud to be able to bring back some of the things I’ve learned in grad school, and to offer something back to the community that helped me grow so much when I was in college.

I hope to also comment on some of my intellectual thoughts, but I must admit that I’m a bit behind preparing for class. It was worth it, but I need to get back to real life eventually.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Obama at Ebenezer Baptist

I'm breaking my own rule and posting twice on one day to suggest that you all read or watch Barack Obama's speech at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta yesterday. It's a great bit of oratory, and a good example of why I am so excited about Obama for president. Here's an excerpt:

For most of this country's history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man's inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays - on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King's vision of a beloved community.

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

In the whole speech, Obama underscores themes of communal action for justice using the examples of the Civil Rights movement and Jericho (he has drawn on Joshua before, in Selma). He talks about compassion, conviction and the need for all of us to work together - as a community - to make a better life for everyone. He calls all of us to expand moments of personal compassion and connection into social action. Inspiring.

Desert Island Discs: Transatlanticism

I’m taking another break from reading, because it’s been ages since I posted a desert island pick, and Morgan just did one, which reminded me.

I was thinking “what do I love that I haven’t covered?” and then I remembered Transatlanticism. I’m a big fan of Ben Gibbard’s songwriting and voice. Some people that I know say they like his songs better in cover versions, because they don’t find his voice appealing. I disagree. While I do have a deep love for the Iron and Wine version of “Such Great Heights,” I love the Postal Service too. In fact, I thought for a bit about choosing a Postal Service album instead, but I’m not always in the mood for all the beeps and boops. Transatlanticism, on the other hand, I love most of the time. I love the way the instrumentation makes the songs seem stark and alien. I love the way Gibbard’s lyrics take you by surprise sometimes, like “the glove compartment is inaccurately named/ and everybody knows it” or “do they collide?/ I ask and you smile./ With my feet on the dash/ The world doesn't matter.” I think his delivery has just the right amount of emotional weight.

Sometimes the words in combination with the stark arrangements do make the songs achingly sad. I remember when I first got into this album it was a Christmas break and I was reading a sad novel, Hey Nostradamus. Fortunately, I was emotionally stable at the time, because sometimes the repetition of “I need you so much closer” can make me feel really sad. But artistic sad, a kind of sad that is beautiful, so I don't mind. And the whole song “Passenger Seat” makes me feel so wistful, especially the last stanza, and the solo piano ending.

All this intense emotion can push Death Cab songs over the edge into overwrought. Sometimes “Tiny Vessels” strikes me that way. I’m willing to take the occasional overstep, though, if it produces one “Passenger Seat” every once in a while. That song is emotional perfection.

Past Reviews:

Neon Bible
Why Should the Fire Die
Achtung Baby

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Blogging Sympo '08: Preview

I’m getting really excited about attending (and presenting at) worship symposium next weekend. I’m part of a panel about media in postmodern/emerging worship. I think it has a few more buzzwords in the title. Anyway, the other people on the panel are pretty great, so that will be a good time. I’ve also been involved in planning a worship service long distance, which has been a challenge, but I can’t wait to help lead the service on Friday.

As part of my preparation (and to avoid school work) I read through my blog posts from the last time I was at Symposium, three years ago. I usually think that I’ve come so far in the last 3 years as an adult and as a thinker, but reading these posts reminds me how the stuff I thought about my last year at Calvin are in many ways trajectories I’m still thinking about and developing. Here are the posts:

Creeds and Prayers


All of Life

It’s my plan (for now anyway) to try to steal a few moments to blog while I’m in Grand Rapids this time, too. Promising posts is always dangerous, so I won’t, but those are my intentions.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

thoughts from the first week of class

Our first day of class with Dr Condit last Thursday was inspirational in a lot of ways. A lot of the ideas we talked about in class (and will this semester) have serious significance for a religious perspective. This week Dr Condit explained her general purpose/framework for the class, and we discussed part of Walter Ong’s The Presence of the Word. Celeste was explaining the way the entire intellectual tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Derrida etc) is obsessed with figuring out the meaning of things. What if our central question was not “what do words mean” (especially now that Derrida has demonstrated that meaning is never static)? What if instead, we asked “What do words do” and “How do they relate us to each other?”

This change of orientation, I think, would also transform the way we approach Christianity, the Bible, and worship. Instead of interrogating the Bible for rules, we would ask how it relates us to God and its characters and each other. Instead of expecting to “get something out” of a church service, we would arrive expecting to DO something, to enact a relationship. If Christianity was presented not as a set of propositions we assent to for salvation, but instead as a set of relationships that we appreciate, and try to fulfill, how would it change the way we live? How would it change the way we talked to others about faith?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Public Scholarship, Celebrity Politics

My friend and colleague Becky Kuehl recently did a tv interview about celebrity endorsements in politics. You can watch it here. I'm posting this partly to brag about how cool my friends are, but also to add to the discussion I've been doing here about the primary. I think Becky is right that people are quick to dismiss endorsements by Oprah or Chuck Norris, but I think what they do is create novelty in a media environment where attention is at a premium. They give voters who are overwhelmed by the amount of information about candidates a way to remember one, and a suggestion for who to examine more closely. Although nobody would say "I'll vote for whoever Oprah says" the fact remains that most people are underinformed and apathetic. If a celebrity they trust endorses someone, perhaps it will motivate them to learn more.

Anyway, Becky said some smart stuff on tv. Way to go, Becky!