Friday, May 30, 2008

New Millennium U2

U2 Fridays continue as we turn our attention to “New Millennium U2.” First, though, a couple orders of business: I plan to make one concert from each tour available for download (each for a limited time). Last week we did Zoo TV, this week’s is from 2001’s Elevation Tour in Boston (many think the Slane Castle show was better, but I like this set list much more).

I actually vacillate quite a bit about U2’s last two albums (2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). Don’t get me wrong, I really want to like them, and sometimes I really do, but there’s also some cringing involved as well.

ATYCLB was hailed as “U2’s third masterpiece” (I trust I don’t need to tell you what the first two were). In my view, this album has some high highs (Kite, Beautiful Day, Walk On), but unlike their other two magna opera, it also has some pretty low lows (Wild Honey, Peace on Earth).

HTDAAB, I think, is the better of the two. Its best songs (Original of the Species, City of Blinding Lights, Crumbs From Your Table) may not have the staying power of Beautiful Day, but its lows (A Man and a Woman) aren’t as low as Peace on Earth, either.

On to Bono’s lyrics. He has obviously stopped trying to consciously write beautiful lyrics (which he hasn’t done since 1988’s Rattle and Hum), but sometimes it seems like he’s stopped trying altogether:

“Freedom has a scent, like the top of a newborn baby’s head.”

“I like the sound of my own voice; I didn’t five anyone else a choice; an intellectual tortoise, racing with a bullet train.”

“Where I grew up there weren’t many trees; where there was we’d tear them down and use them on our enemies.”

“In New York summers get hot, well into the hundreds; You can’t walk around the block without a change of clothing.”
(And don’t even get me started on the whole “monkey stealing honey” debacle.)

Still, when you see or hear them live, they’re still the best band in the world. I just wish Bono would take better care of his voice so it holds up until the tour ends. And lads, drop me a line and I’ll help you choose your set lists….

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Aristocratic Missionalism

The second of Niebuhr's five options regarding the relationship of Christ to culture is dubbed "The Christ of Culture." This position, Niebuhr argues, is adopted by those who hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, and has been represented by the early Gnostics, Abelard, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, and the various "culture-Protestants" who have dominated the religious scene since the eighteenth century.

Advocates of "The Christ of Culture" are to be congratulated, Niebuhr maintains, for making Jesus appear less alien than he does in the "Christ Against Culture" mindset.
"The cultural Christians tend to speak to the cultured among the despisers of religion.... They are missionaries to the aristocracy and the middle class, or to the groups rising to power in a civilization. "
The main difficulty with this view, argues Niebuhr, is that its watered-down flavor is so diluted that it fails to win the respect of true pagans or the truly pious. Carson remarks that:
"[Pagan writers] suspect that what is to them a compromised position will weaken the purity of their paganism, or of their liberalism, or of their Marxism—just as, from the other side, the orthodox suspect that these cultural Christians have sacrificed too much of what is essential to Christianity. "
From where I sit, I see a disturbingly fair amount of this "aristocratic missionalism" in my own circles. The main difference, though, is that the much-coveted prize is not so much the respect of politicians or scientists as it was in Niebuhr’s day, but the props of the bohemian, soul-patched Gen X-er (the well-inked Gen Y-er works, too, but he doesn’t tithe).

The way this plays out in the contemporary scene is in our obsession with "the arts" and "the city," and our palpable disinterest in anything that likes NASCAR, wears a blue collar, and rocks a John Deere cap unironically.

In biblical terms, these are the same people who would have bragged to Jesus about how impressively ornate their temple was, right before he pronounced that not one of its edgy, postmodern stones would be left upon another.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Carson on Niebuhr: Christ Against Culture

In D.A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited, the author seeks to bring some biblical-theological insights to bear upon H. Richard Niebuhr's famous work, Christ and Culture. The project sounds welcome enough, but I'm not far enough in to the volume to really see what Carson is attempting to do just yet.

The first of Niebuhr's five options for understanding the relationship of Christ and culture with which Carson interacts is Christ Against Culture. Citing Tertullian as an advocate of this approach (Christians are a "third race" distinct from Jews and Gentiles), Carson sums up Niebuhr on this point thus: "... for the Christian, political life must be shunned, and so also military service, philosophy, and the arts." Included within this group would be certain Mennonite groups, the early Quakers, Leo Tolstoy, and, Carson adds, Stanley Hauerwas.

This position is inadequate, Niebuhr argues, since escape from one's culture is an impossibility. At the end of the day, Tertullian is a Roman and Tolstoy a Russian, whether they wanted to admit it or not. Among the various theological problems with this approach is the subtle assumption that while sin abounds "out there" (in the culture), it is largely absent "in here" (in the believer).

It seems to me that the root of many evangelical myths and misunderstandings about "the world" is seen at this very point. The world is almost purely demonic while the Christian bubble is virtually divine, when in point of fact, common grace makes the culture much better, and spiritual pride makes the church much worse, than most evangelicals want to admit.

For my own part, I see the doctrine of the two kingdoms as providing the necessary basis for the kind of cultural engagement during which one need not cross his fingers or grope for the underlying redemptive significance of the Lakers losing game three to the Spurs Sunday night.

In a word, the culture must not be made into a false idol, but it need not become a false devil either.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Carson on Christ and Culture

I have been asked to review D.A. Carson's new book, Christ and Culture Revisited, for Modern Reformation magazine.
I plan to blog my way through it as I go, so stay tuned....

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

All the Secrets, But No One to Tell

Man, this place is a snoozefest lately....

Maybe this will wake you all up, it's a perfect recording of the best show U2 ever played.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Look! There in the Wilderness: It's a Pilgrim, It's an Exile, It's... Patiently Enduring Man!

When I initially saw the trailer for the film Iron Man, I think I actually laughed out loud (and not the good kind of laughter, mind you). But to my surprise, it has received a 93% on the Tomato Meter, which culls together of all the reviews a film receives nationwide. Plus, I was told today that Robert Downey Jr.'s character doesn't actually have superpowers, he's just rich and can afford to invent the cool gadgets that make him a superhero (you know, like Bruce Wayne). So maybe I'll swallow my pride and see Iron Man after all.

Still, I think the whole "superhero" phenonmenon betrays a not-so-subtle theology of glory that is very American, not to mention evangelical/postmillennial. By contrast, Reformed confessionalists ought to feel a certain discomfort when such "super," "amazing," and "fantastic" expectations are imported into the Christian life.

Now if Reformed amillennialists could sponsor their own superhero, it would be a huge box office flop. Picture, if you will, (drumroll please)... "Patiently Enduring Man." In addition to the "P.E." embroidered on his otherwise unremarkable chest, he would known for his ability to stand in long lines without getting too annoyed, sit in the waiting room at the dentist's office and calmly read two-year-old issues of People magazine while waiting for his name to be called, and basically be content to plod his way through largely ordinary and humdrum life.

And while Batman is portrayed on the big screen by Christian Bale, and Spiderman by Toby McGuire, Patiently Enduring Man would be played by Michael Gross, the guy who starred as Mr. Keaton on Family Ties.

You see, as woefully unsexy and unappealing as the virtue of patient endurance may be in the world's eyes, it is what the believer in this age is called to exhibit. And if such a calling just isn't "authentic," "urban," or "contextual" enough, it's best you bow out of the game now, rather than run the risk of facing the same fate as that archetypal Patient One, whose gig was such a box office flop that they crucified him for it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

U2 At Their Best

(Unfortunately I will not have internet access until late Monday, but feel free to comment anyway and I’ll respond when I can.)

In my view, the 1990s gave us U2 at their artistic peak (there, I said it).

Here’s why I think so….

If U2 had done what many wanted them to do (and what many bands in fact did), namely, kept doing what made them famous by recording The Joshua Tree Part II, Part III, Part IV, and so on, then today when we heard the name “U2” we would say: “Oh yeah, U2. Weren’t they that Scottish band from the eighties with the singer prancing around waving that white flag? What ever happened to those guys anyway?”

But by reinventing themselves and seemingly repudiating their former earnest selves (remember: Bono described the sound of their then-forthcoming 1991 album Achtung Baby as “the sound of four guys chopping down The Joshua Tree”), they really did breathe new life into a career that they were all pretty bored with anyway.

The best album of their ‘90s threesome was, of course, Achtung Baby. It was dark (it works best at night, you know, unlike The Joshua Tree, which should be listened to in broad daylight), it was sensual, and it was very European. Everything changed with this album, especially Bono’s songwriting. Instead of overt attempts at beauty, it was all about irony: “Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief. All kill their inspiration, then sing about the grief” (The Fly); “She wears my love like a see-through dress, her lips say one thing, her movements something else” (So Cruel); “To touch is to heal, to hurt is to steal; If you want to kiss the sky, you’d better learn how to kneel” (Mysterious Ways).

I’ll narrow things down even more. There was a night when U2 actually reached their zenith, a high point that I doubt they’ll ever reach again. That night was August 28, 1993 (and yes, it depresses me that this was 15 years ago). That night they played the RDS Stadium in Dublin, and speaking as someone who owns scores of U2 bootlegs, this was the best show they have ever played. Bono’s voice was perfect (remember those days?), the setlist was almost ideal, and with the exception of one screw-up by Edge during One, the band was spot on.

On that night more than any other, being U2 fan was the coolest feeling in the world.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Late, Great, Planet 'Net

I will be out of town until Saturday evening, meaning that this week's U2 Friday will be pushed to Monday. Not that it matters, since lately it seems like the cyber-rapture has occurred, leaving the hallowed halls of the worldwide web desolate and empty.

If I need a microchip implant to log in to my Blogger account when I return, I will owe Mike Seaver a huge apology....

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Patron Saints of Earth

Concerning G.K. Chesterton’s view of sainthood, Dale Ahlquist observes that one of the saint’s most profound characteristics is not his saintliness, but his humanness.

“[Saints] are just like us, with all the human variety and frailty and fascination and personality and pain and talent and lack of talent that you expect to find in any human being.”
Far from being the halo-crowned type of mystic, Chesterton says, a true saint has his hands in the dirt rather than his head in the clouds. Saints can afford to be dirty, he argues, while the seducer must be clean.

Of course, the Reformed insistence upon the tension between the already and the not yet demands that a saint be both otherworldly and worldly. “Head in heaven, fingers in the mire” in the words of one poet, “The face of a sinner, but the hands of a priest” in the words of another.

It is here that the seeming heaven/earth dialectic appears in its most acute form. If we turn earthly pleasure into a false god we err on the one side, while we err on the other by turning it into a false devil. It was not a rebellion against hell that caused Lucifer to lose favor, but a rebellion against a proper angelic enjoyment of heaven. Likewise, it was not Adam’s enjoyment of earth that precipitated his fall, but it was his failure to enjoy earth creaturely, that spelled his undoing.

In a word, just as it is wrong to enjoy earth too much, it is equally wrong to enjoy it too little.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Boring Sights Or Bored Sightseers?

Continuing our look at G.K. Chesterton's call for secular, world-affirming Christianity, I'd like to turn our attention to the believing response to what the Reformed call common grace. Chesterton writes, "The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder." He adds:
"What is now needed is the most intensive imagination.... It is not merely seeking new experiences, which rapidly become old experiences. It is really learning how to experience our experiences. It is learning how to enjoy our enjoyments."
In other words, there are no boring sights, only bored sightseers.

A line of Conor Oberst's comes to mind in the Bright Eyes song Road to Joy: "My mind races with all my longings, but can't keep up with what I've got." The point being made here is that we mustn't lose amid our eschatological, future-focused hopes the ever-present joy of the earthly, the simple, and the wonderfully mundane.

"Men rush towards complexity," Chesterton says, "but they yearn towards simplicity. They try to be kings, but they dream of being shepherds."
"The point of the story of Satan is not that he revolted against being in hell, but that he revolted against being in heaven. The point about Adam is not that he was discontentedwith the conditions of earth, but that he was discontented with the conditions of the earthly paradise."
A sense of wonder and enjoyment of the providential blessings of earth is essential to true humility, and is also a direct by-product of a robust, two kingdoms-driven love for all things ordinary. Sometimes we become so obsessed with the next big thing that we barely notice how good the beer tastes that we're drinking while we dream.

Children, Chesterton points out, are constantly asking grown-ups (often to their frustration) to "Do it again!" Well, he concludes,
"... perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, 'Do it again' to the sun; and every evening, 'Do it again' to the moon."
World without end. Amen.

Friday, May 09, 2008

U2 Friday, Part Two

U2 Fridays continue here at De Regnis Duobus, this week focusing on one of the two best epochs of the band’s history, as well as upon one of their two best album triads. The years under consideration are 1984 – 1988, and the albums being discussed are The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum.

1984’s The Unforgettable Fire marked a radical departure for the lads. Gone were the anthems, the rebel songs, and the white flags that decorated the stage during the War Tour. This album was very European and quite sensual (by which I mean the very opposite of cerebral). Most of the songs can be likened not so much to stories being told, but to pictures being painted (“Carnival, the wheels fly and colors spin, through alcohol, red wine that punctures the skin. Face to face, in a dry and waterless place”). No, it doesn’t make much sense, but that was due to producer Brian Eno’s insisting that Bono improvise most of the lyrics. In fact, the penultimate song (“Elvis Presley and America”) resulted from Eno playing some random, slowed-down music backwards and handing Bono a mike and telling him to improvise one take, which is what appears on the album (“And you know, though no one told, you tried; and your heart is left out from the side”). Amazing stuff.

1987’s The Joshua Tree is perhaps the band’s best album (certainly the best of this threesome). Unlike its predecessor, this is American through and through (the band originally wanted to call it The Two Americas). Whether The Joshua Tree is U2’s best effort or not, I would certainly argue that it represents the band at their lyrical best. Some great lines include: “She runs through the streets with her eyes painted red, under a black belly of cloud in the rain. In through a doorway she brings me white gold and pearls, stolen from the sea” (“Running to Stand Still”); “She stands with a naked flame; I stand with the sons of Cain, burned by the fire of love” (“In God’s Country”); and “I don’t believe in painted roses or bleeding hearts while bullets rape the night of the merciful” (“One Tree Hill”).

Rattle and Hum (1988) is the soundtrack to the film by the same name. An eclectic mix of live recordings and new songs, I find it hard to listen to all the way through. I prefer to skip songs like “Pride” (which I rarely like when played live) and “Freedom For My People” (obviously). The song that stands out, in my opinion, is “Heartland” (“Freeway, like a river, cuts through this land into the side of love like a burning spear”). And though I’m not a huge fan of “When Love Comes to Town,” I love the line, “I was there when they crucified my Lord; I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword; I rolled the dice when they pierced his side, but I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.” In the words of B.B. King (who sang that line) to Bono: “You mighty young to write such heavy lyrics!”

I miss ‘80s U2….

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Puritans, Pagans, and the Proper Place for Pleasure

It has been observed that there are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count, and those who can't.

G.K. Chesterton has a different take on how to classify people, arguing that there are two groups into which a large majority of mankind can be placed: puritans and pagans. The former tends to make innocent things seem guilty, while the latter tries to make guilty things seem innocent. Both are obsessed with the trivial, with puritanism displaying indignance, and paganism devotion, toward things that don't really matter. The problem with both, Chesterton argues, is that they lack the common sense needed to put pleasure in its proper place.

Chesterton drew an interesting parallel between the puritan and the gnostic. Both, he said, attempted to portray the physical world as evil. "Idolatry," he writes,
"... is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils.... Sin is in a man's soul, not in his tools or toys."
His point was that the puritan-slash-gnostic avoidance of legitimate pleasure is merely a reaction against the pagan pursuit of it. The incarnation of the Son of God, Chesterton insists, avoids the pitfalls of a fear of the spiritual on the one hand and the physical on the other.

What Chesterton seems to be arguing for (though he wouldn't use these terms) is a kind of secular, worldly Christianity that does not merely hold its nose and begrudgingly make peace with the culture, but embraces it, and its legitimate pleasures, with open arms, thanksgiving, and wonder. "Drink," he urges the believer, "because you are happy, but never because you are miserable."

If you'll forgive the "emergent" po-mo rhetoric, it seems to me that a robust, embodied, world-affirming Christianity does more justice to both the incarnation of Christ and the imago Dei in man than does the world-flightiness of much of the American church, whether evangelical or Reformed.

Score "one" for the Catholics.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Good Mourning

As with the first beatitude, the second focuses more on the outward circumstances, rather than the inner disposition, of its subjects. Just as “blessed are the poor in spirit” describes a willingness to suffer material loss for the sake of the kingdom rather than a sense of inner, spiritual bankruptcy, so “blessed are those who mourn” has more to do with lamenting the seeming suspension of God’s justice in this world than it does with feeling sad in our hearts.

Comparing Matt. 6:4 with the corresponding beatitude in Luke’s gospel is helpful here. He doesn’t say “blessed are you who weep in your hearts,” but “blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (6:21). The contrast, then, is not between the inward and the outward, but between the present and the future.

I mean, anyone can mourn—it’s as easy as reading the morning paper, getting irritated, and resolving to do something about the direction this world is heading. The hard part of the beatitude is the second half (the part that postpones our comfort to a future time). In a word, what we do with our mourning reveals where our heart’s treasure lies. And if this is true, we may justly shudder as we consider the this-worldly nature of the hope that characterizes much the evangelical and Reformed church.

What makes this beatitude especially astonishing is how different its ethos is from that which was espoused in the Old Covenant law. Even a cursory reading of the second half of Deuteronomy 28 will amply demonstrate that, according to Moses, “Cursed are those who mourn.” Israel, as an earthly type of heavenly glory, was expected to exhibit military might and material abundance as tokens of God's favor, and any failure to prosper was indicative of Yahweh’s displeasure. Jesus, it seems, overturns that principle altogether, and Paul, echoing him, actually appeals to his own experience of what used to be considered covenant curses in order to validate his own apostleship.

From a human perspective, it’s no wonder these men were killed.

Friday, May 02, 2008

A New Topic for Fridays

Now that we have dedicated the last several Fridays to discussing (read: arguing about) the best music, films, and television of the past three decades, I would like to focus our attention for the next few Fridays on arguably the best rock band of the last thirty years: U2.

In my view, a question like "Which U2 album is the best?" is virtually unanswerable—not because they’re all great, but because there are, by my count, four distinct U2s.

Let me explain….

The albums released in 1980, 1981, and 1983 (Boy, October, and War) are so different from what they put out during the rest of the decade that they belong in their own category. The same goes for ’84, ’87, and ’88: The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum form a threesome (I almost said “trinity”) that stands on its own. And the other two U2s, of course, are Nineties U2 (1991’s Achtung Baby, 1993’s Zooropa, and 1997’s Pop) and New Millennium U2 (2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb).

Early ‘80s U2 was awesome. Growing up in Orange County I used to listen to KROQ 106.7 as a kid, and to this day I remember where I was when they played "New Year’s Day" in 1983. As a lad of ten I recognized how good these guys were. I went to Licorice Pizza (!) and bought War (the best of the first threesome), and the rest, as the fella said, is history.

My favorite song on War is, brace yourself, "Like a Song" ("Angry words won’t stop the fight; two wrongs won’t make it right; a new heart is what I need; O God, make it bleed"). "Drowning Man" and "New Year’s Day" are runners up.

And I don’t care what anyone says, I like the October album, which was their sophomore effort (you know, the one about God?). I have a killer, and very rare, live version of "With a Shout" ("I want to go to the foot of Mount Zion, to the foot of he who made me see"). Best song on their debut album Boy? Either "Another Time Another Place" or "Shadows and Tall Trees" ("Do you feel in me anything redeeming? Any worthwhile feeling? Is this life like a tightrope hanging from my ceiling?")

And yes, I own the original British LP of Boy with the shirtless kid, Peter Rowan, on the cover. Jealous?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Confession

I got to, umm, come clean about something. Whew, this is awkward.... OK, here goes: In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I've been two-timing you all by agreeing to contribute to another blog. But I promise, it's just blogging, it means nothing to me. You, the faithful reader of De Regnis Duobus, you're the one I really care about. When I'm with them, I'm thinking about you the whole time, I swear.

So... we cool?