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No such thing as secular

Updated: 2017-08-22T14:14:00Z


The Creational Structure of Kendrick Lamar’s Flow


Even by hip-hop standards, Kendrick Lamar thinks he is special. Consider this section of Posted on 08/22/17 Even by hip-hop standards, Kendrick Lamar thinks he is special. Consider this section of “DNA,” from his 2017 album DAMN. I got hustle though, ambition flow Inside my DNA I was born like this, since one like this Immaculate conception I transform like this, perform like this Was Yeshua new weapon I don’t know if Lamar really believes he has a genetic link to God. But I do think that there is a core element of his work—his  artistic DNA, if you will—that reveals something important about the nature of the Creator. And you can hear it in this song. I’m talking about Lamar’s“flow”—the patterns, rhythms, and rhymes that make up his lyrical delivery. If we put aside the meaning of his words for a moment and simply consider the way Lamar organizes his verses, we can perceive a powerful reflection of a key characteristic of God’s creation: the principle of variation. Although God delights in diversity—after all, he made both sea cucumbers and mountain lions—creation is in fact rigorously ordered. DNA is the key. It is a shared blueprint, a basic structure that is common to all life on the earth. But when the DNA sequence of one creature changes slightly, the result—magnified over the eons—is extraordinary, resulting in the teeming variety of the living world. God’s creation is not scattershot. As in the biological world, one of the most important principles in music is that of “variation.” When a composer applies the principle of variation, they repeat a familiar musical idea while introducing a slight change. Just as small changes in one creature’s genome can have expansive effects, a composer’s creative use of the technique of variation can lead to a musical landscape of dazzling variety. It only takes a few seconds of listening to “DNA” to recognize that Kendrick Lamar is just such a composer. In the first 88 words of the song, we’re hooked, thanks to his use of variation: he make small changes in his flow in order to keep us interested, while maintaining clear patterns that reveal an underlying logic. As in creation, the song’s complexity and variety emerge out of simple building blocks that tie everything to each other. Just like in DNA. Let’s dig in to Lamar’s “DNA.” If we listen to the very beginning of the song, we hear a sentence (a musical “phrase”) that has 15 syllables: “I got loyalty got royalty inside my DNA.” Each syllable lasts one quarter of a beat, resulting in the most basic rhythm one can imagine: a constant stream of pulses going by (it reminds me of the evenly-spaced “rungs” on the DNA’s ladder-like structure.) But just as in DNA, it is the patterns of basic elements that really matter. In the song, the last syllable (the “A” of the word “DNA” in each phrase) lands on the fourth beat of the bar. This happens three more times. Because we hear this pattern four times in a row, as well as the word “DNA” in every phrase on the exact same beat, we hear these four phrases as one unit. In short, we perceive a deep and logical rhythmic order that governs the widely varied words and images in the lyrics. In the next phrase, Lamar makes two changes that further develop the richness of the song. The most obvious is that he discards the refrain of “DNA,” which signals to us that we are now in a new section of the lyrics. The rhythmic structure is different as well. The fifth phrase (“I was born like this, since one like this / immaculate conception”) has 16, not 15, syllables. This is not a small, abstract difference; we can hear it easily in the word “conception,” in which the last syllable falls slightly after the fourth beat of the bar instead of directly on it, as in the firs[...]

Colossal and Taming Our Inner Monsters


The dark science-fiction comedy Colossal, now available on DVD, offers an unconventional Posted on 08/21/17 The dark science-fiction comedy Colossal, now available on DVD, offers an unconventional riff on the classic monster movie. It’s worth seeing on that score alone, but what makes it especially compelling is its canny allegory of personal responsibility. For all its outlandish quirks, this bizarre creature feature channels a surprisingly biblical message about waging war with the monsters inside of us. Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, an unemployed writer and alcoholic party girl forced to return to her hometown in middle America after being dumped by her boyfriend and kicked out of their New York apartment. Back home, she reunites with a childhood friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who cheerfully lends her some furniture and offers her a job at the local bar he manages. Things seem to be going well for Gloria until this arrangement devolves into a nightly ritual of binge drinking with Oscar and his buddies. Once personal secrets are revealed and childhood jealousies become inflamed, things quickly spin out of control. Meanwhile—and this is quite a meanwhile, which will involve some spoilers—a giant kaiju begins wreaking havoc in Seoul. Gloria soon discovers a mysterious connection between her and the creature. Horrified to find that her drunken antics are inadvertently responsible for massive casualties half a world away, she desperately attempts to contain the situation by quitting the booze and avoiding the park where she’s able to make the monster manifest. She even compels her beastly counterpart to carefully scribble a note of apology in the ground. But when a second monster emerges over Seoul to provoke the first, an epic battle seems inevitable—both overseas and at home. In the process of all this strangeness, Colossal becomes a peculiarly apt metaphor for spiritual character development. Gloria’s rampaging kaiju is, of course, a thinly veiled metaphor for her out-of-control lifestyle. In lesser hands, such overt symbolism might seem trite and unconvincing, but Hathaway and director Nacho Vigalondo offer a sympathetic treatment of Gloria's alcoholism, one that is as credible as it is audacious. Viewers who have struggled with this or another besetting sin will have no trouble appreciating why her personal demons could seem every bit as intimidating—and destructive—as a 10-story monster. In one of my favorite scenes, we watch as Gloria tests her suspicion about the monster’s true identity. After gingerly stepping onto the playground at the park, she first holds her left hand high above her head, then extends both arms out wide. Running home, she reluctantly turns on the television and watches in transfixed dread as the latest footage from Seoul reveals the monster perfectly imitating her hand gestures. In a brilliant flourish, the camera offers us a silhouetted view of Gloria from behind as the creature spreads its arms on the TV screen in front of her. In that moment, we see Gloria and the monster as one. What makes Gloria a compelling protagonist, though, is her willingness to accept responsibility for this monstrous identity and to seek a way to make things right. In that regard, her response to the death and destruction in Seoul mirrors a Christian response to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit: authentic contrition, followed by honest confession and earnest repentance. Gloria can’t wish the monster away or undo its collateral damage, but once she acknowledges her connection to the creature, she gains power over its calamitous potential. And that enables her to confidently engage the film's intractable second monster—another thinly veiled metaphor that, in a sense, represents the tempter’s jealous resolve to destroy sinners. The Bible says that when we admit our own powerlessness over our inner monsters, Jesus himself comes to dwell in our hearts, displacing [...]

‘All Lives, You Say?’ Wilco and Psalm 139


Sometimes the events of the day make such little sense, or are so filled with evil, more Posted on 08/17/17 Sometimes the events of the day make such little sense, or are so filled with evil, more rhetoric brings little understanding. Sometimes we need art. Although nothing in the song specifically references last weekend’s white-supremacist rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Va., Wilco’s “All Lives, You Say?” was released this week in direct response to the fear and hatred that was on display in that city. Proceeds from sales of the song are being donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “All Lives, You Say?” pointedly recalls Wilco’s earliest Americana days, as well as lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo, with its lilting country shuffle, twangy atmosphere, and melancholy melody. It also offers up a sentiment that, at times, feels pretty biblical. All lives, all lives, you say? I can see you are afraid Your skin is so thin Your heart has escaped All lives, all lives, you say Tweedy presents his rebuke with a mumbled tone of resignation, but it cuts nonetheless. That phrase, “all lives matter,” despite its underlying truthfulness, arose in repudiation of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in that context is a cop-out. There’s an implied “too” at the end of “black lives matter,” but too many can’t hear it. We need to be reminded that black lives matter and we need to say with our own mouths that black lives matter, because far too often the available evidence suggests that they do not. In a few short, prophetic lines, Tweedy nails the festering insecurity, the fear of a loss of privilege, and the desire to equivocate that lies at the heart of outright racism and that too-often simmers between the syllables of a phrase like “all lives matter.” He calls it out for the heartless cancer that it is, even while humanizing those who say it. It’s a subtle bit of brilliance that convicts and challenges. I have long seen Psalm 139, particularly verses 13 through 16, used as a Scriptural claim for the sanctity of human life. David’s beautiful and poetic language describes each of us as being “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s an ennobling reminder of God’s purpose, his artfulness, his attentiveness, and his excellence. And although this passage is often cited in defense of the unborn, it should also bring sobering tears to the eyes of anyone witnessing the systemic injustice faced by people of color in the “Land of the Free”—let alone the blatant dehumanization that was expressed in Charlottesville. If human life is sacred, should we not honor it more thoroughly than we do? That seems to be the question Wilco is asking. The verses leading up to the middle section of Psalm 139 cover some critical ground. David, who was painfully familiar with the sting of sin and hypocrisy, proclaims God’s omniscience. The Lord knows everything, from our smallest actions to our deepest thoughts. He knows our Bathshebas and Uriahs, even those we won’t admit. “My mind is gone,” Tweedy similarly sings. “It's too hard for me to know when I'm wrong.” His song, along with David’s psalm, reminds us of the limitations of our perspective. Later in Psalm 139, with hardly a bridge or chorus of separation, David moves straight from outright worship to protest rock: If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Tweedy echoes this despair. “This is the last dying gasp of a deadly lung / Turning blue on a lawn in the sun.” On Wilco’s Bandcamp page, Tweedy dedicates “All Lives, You Say?” to his recently deceased father, who was named after a Civil War general. “[My fat[...]

The Prophetic Witness of Whose Streets?


Hate wins. It’s tempting to believe that statement to be true after this past Posted on 08/16/17 Hate wins. It’s tempting to believe that statement to be true after this past weekend in Charlottesville, Va., where a scheduled and approved white-supremacist rally erupted in violence, leaving many injured and one counter-protester dead. Yet as I followed the reports, my mind also turned to Whose Streets?, a new documentary about the uprisings that followed the 2014 police killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. There was hate in Ferguson too, but Whose Streets? also captures its opposite: love. Talking about his experience in the midst of the Ferguson protests, one unnamed activist said this: “Lot of people didn’t do it justice when they put it in their timeline. Because when you’re in the heart of it, when you get to see the faces, then you feel that black love.” Directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, Whose Streets? puts us in the heart of it. The documentary includes first-person interviews with a handful of activists, but its real power lies in its extensive use of camera-phone video footage, some taken during the hours Brown’s body was left on the street and others from the ensuing days and nights of protests. On one chilling occasion, residents standing behind a chain-link fence are told by law-enforcement officials via loudspeaker to return to their homes. When one of them shouts, “This is my backyard!” they’re fired upon with gas canisters, smoke enveloping the screen. In these immediate, visceral images, we feel the hate that the protestors faced in the form of a massive military presence (dogs, trucks, weapons), one that was notably absent from Charlottesville. At the same time, we also see flickers of love, as when onlookers gather the wailing mother of Michael Brown into their arms at the scene of his death, or when protesters demanding an inquiry into his killing walk arm in arm, forming a united, sacrificial front in the face of rubber bullets and tear gas. Yes, there was property destruction and looting as well—that’s what most news reports focused on—but Whose Streets? reveals much more than that surface anger. In many ways the documentary is a reminder of Nicholas Wolterstorff's contention that justice and love go hand in hand. After the violent weekend in Charlottesville, though, we have to wonder: is it really possible to protest in love? Can anger and indignation be directed toward good? Perhaps the closest model we have for this is that of Jesus disrupting the marketplace outside the temple—delivering, in the words of New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, “a protest from the legal and prophetic heart of Judaism against Jewish religious cooperation with Roman imperial control.” Christ’s actions were prophetic. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus quotes both Isaiah and Jeremiah, noting that what God had intended as a “house of prayer” had been transformed into a “den of robbers.” Prophets and justice have long gone hand in hand. During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. stirringly referenced Amos, pledging to “work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Can something like Whose Streets? be prophetic in a similar way today? Writing for TC in 2015, in the wake of Ferguson and camera-phone footage depicting the deaths of other black men at the hands of police, Kimberly Davis described the use of camera phones as a “measure of justice,” though “partial, at best.” Whose Streets? captures both the effectiveness and limitations of this technology as a tool for justice. There is much to the story that the footage doesn’t cover, a context and structure that Whose Streets? lacks. Yet there is also a cumulative truth t[...]

Project Runway and Clothing as Story


Clothes have always told stories. They indicate social class, signify accomplishment, and Posted on 08/15/17 Clothes have always told stories. They indicate social class, signify accomplishment, and mark points in history. People can be defined by the clothes they wear: goth, hippie, punk, hipster. What we wear tells a little bit about who we are, whether we’re creative, edgy, girly, simple, or minimalist. Clothes have also been key in the narratives of Scripture—think of Joseph and his colorful coat. Fashion designers are also trying to tell a story through their clothes—either a story of innovation, a breaking off of tradition, or of trying to communicate who they are through their designs. This is especially true on Lifetime’s Project Runway, which unveils its 16th season on Thursday. Hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum and fashion consultant Tim Gunn, the show brings in fashion designers to compete for a chance to show a collection at New York Fashion Week. But the designers must make it through a series of intense design challenges first. Designers are often pulled outside of their comfort zone by making clothes from unconventional items, such as creating an avant-garde look that can withstand the rain or reworking fabric from a tacky men’s suit. They’ve had to draw inspiration from different motifs for these challenges: butterflies, bowties, and even an American Girl doll. On top of this, all of the challenges need to be completed under a time constraint. No matter the challenge, the model should walk down the runway still expressing the designer’s unique vision. The judges should be able to look at the clothes and know which designer they belong to. This reminds me of the way Scripture uses clothes to tell stories. We know a little bit more about a figure in the Bible when their clothing is described for us. John the Baptist’s rags suggest his unkempt life; Joseph’s coat describes his relationship with his father; the priestly garments of Exodus denote Aaron’s honored place in God’s covenant. Even earlier are the garments that tell of Jesus’ coming. After the fall of Adam and Eve, we see God design the first clothes. To cover their nakedness, God provided the first animal sacrifice and “made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” This points to the more sufficient sacrifice that would cover all of fallen humanity—Jesus Christ, the perfect lamb of God. Of course Christ’s clothing was significant too. Before he was crucified, the soldiers placed a purple cloth over the fresh wounds they had inflicted on his back. Purple is the color of royalty, but Jesus’ captors didn’t believe he was the true king of the Jews, let alone the king of all. In the book of Revelation Jesus is adorned differently. He is clothed in a long robe with a golden sash. This robe has been dipped in blood, marking his death on the cross. We also see a great multitude clothed in pure white garments. Jesus bought these robes for undeserving sinners, clothing us in his righteousness. As another season of Project Runway gets underway, with fashion designs that represent all sorts of new stories, may the clothes remind us of the design of Scripture, which tells the greatest story of all. Comments (1) [...]

Star Wars Forces of Destiny: When Small Acts Mean Great Things


As a writer, I’m tempted to measure my success by the amount of views my articles Posted on 08/14/17 As a writer, I’m tempted to measure my success by the amount of views my articles get or the number of publications I’ve sold. There’s something in me that wants to be known and celebrated. I want the projects I pour my heart into to be appreciated by the masses. I want people to recognize my name. I want “bestselling author” attached to my biography because it means I’ve succeeded at my life’s goal! Or does it? There are a lot of “I wants” on that list, a phrase common to 21st-century North American culture (see Arcade Fire’s Everything Now). Yet “I want” wasn’t a sentiment Jesus endorsed. In fact, Jesus did a lot of small, selfless things for seemingly insignificant people—washing feet, visiting lepers, having dinner with tax collectors, and speaking with prostitutes, to name a few. His one-on-one interactions had a different power than the sermons he delivered to thousands of people. Through small acts of kindness, Jesus demonstrated his concern for the individual. And if Jesus cared about the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned, that means he cares about me in all my imperfection as well. The Disney web series Star Wars Forces of Destiny focuses on small actions that carry surprising significance. At about three minutes long, each episode features a previously unknown moment in the life of a familiar, female Star Wars character. In “Sands of Jakku,” Rey (from The Force Awakens) saves BB-8 from a ravenous creature, while in “The Padawan Path,” Ahsoka (The Clone Wars) interrupts her busy schedule to protect an innocent family. The tagline of the series is, “The choices we make, the actions we take, moments both big and small, shape us into forces of destiny.” As a die-hard Star Wars fan, I have quibbles with how some of the dialogue, actions, and events in Forces of Destiny feel out of character for the franchise, but I love the idea of small actions mattering. These shorts remind us that the women heroines in the Star Wars saga aren’t fighting the Empire on behalf of a faceless universe; rather; they’re fighting for the individual lives that comprise it. This is particularly true of the episode entitled “Ewok Escape.” “Can you believe it?” says a disgruntled Stormtrooper bullying a pair of Ewoks. “These things are everywhere. Primitives. I’m surprised the Empire didn’t deal with them when we arrived.” The Stormtroopers and their racist (alienist?) attitudes get their comeuppance when Princess Leia pauses from her bigger, seemingly more important, mission to come to the Ewoks’ defense. Later, they thank her with a humble gesture: a gift of a dress and a spear. Small acts of kindness, respect, and love have weight. “The size of the task is irrelevant,” writes pastor and author Rick Warren. “The only issue is, does it need to be done?” Warren goes on to say that it wasn’t despite Jesus’ greatness that he performed small acts of kindness, but because of it. “Small tasks often show a big heart. Your servant’s heart is revealed in little acts that others don’t think of doing,” Warren writes. The Bible is full of stories that demonstrate how God delights in small people, small events, and small numbers: the poor widow who gave away her two coins; the shepherd who chases after one lost lamb; even the disciples, whose tasks often included doing little things for their master, such as acquiring a donkey. Each of these acts resonates with meaning beyond their immediate impact. While we might want credit for the big things, like winning an election, writing a best-selling novel, or blowin[...]

Glen Campbell’s Adios


After a long, painful, and disarmingly transparent dance with Alzheimer’s disease, Posted on 08/09/17 After a long, painful, and disarmingly transparent dance with Alzheimer’s disease, one of the greatest talents in American popular music takes his exit. Glen Campbell set a bar so high few bothered to even notice it any more. He was in the firmament. That’s what made his final chapter—which came to a close this week at age 81—so riveting. There was a lot more to Glen Campbell than “Rhinestone Cowboy.” He was one of the best guitar players of the 1960s, adding his unique tone and dexterity to songs by Elvis, The Beach Boys, Merle Haggard, Frank Sinatra, and many others. He even played on Pet Sounds and filled in when Brian Wilson decided not to tour with The Beach Boys anymore. Only the best players in the business got to be members of the famous Wrecking Crew, and Campbell was one of them. Campbell seemed utterly unconcerned with labels or lanes. His music transcended genres, landing at the top of the pop and country charts numerous times. His voice was amazing. His instincts were almost always spot-on. He possessed a personal charm that lit up the small screen. Though I was too young to have seen his initial television series, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, I grew up with regular and never-to-be-missed Glen Campbell TV specials. He sang gospel songs right alongside love songs. He constantly tipped his hat to the artists and songwriters who had influenced or encouraged him. His 2005 album, Meet Glen Campbell, interpreted songs by U2, Foo Fighters, The Velvet Underground, and others. Following in the footsteps of his friend and compadre, Johnny Cash, Campbell demonstrated the ability of a great song to transcend style. His final album, Adios, was released this June. Campbell first announced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis back in 2011. Instead of retreating from the public eye, he bravely played the brutal hand he had been dealt for all to see. He mounted a tour with several of his family members and invited a film crew to capture his slow fade. The resulting film, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, is heartbreaking and beautiful. His dogged faith in a loving God is clearly conveyed in the conversations he had with his family members and the songs he continued to perform. “A Better Place,” from his 2011 album Ghost On The Canvas, acknowledges past failures, reinforces our need for each other, and looks with faith to a healed and redeemed world: I've tried and I've failed, Lord I've won and I have lost I've lived and I have loved, Lord Sometimes, at such a cost One thing I know The world’s been good to me A better place awaits you'll see   Some days I'm so confused, Lord My past gets in my way I need the ones I love, Lord More and more each day One thing I know The world’s been good to me A better place awaits you'll see A better place Campbell was frustrated, as anyone with this disease would be. He was even angry at times. That he, and his family, allowed unflattering footage to remain in the final cut of the film displays the generosity and honesty that makes the work so important. That his Christian faith, though tested, continued to sustain him suggests that there was more to it than simple fodder for country songs. Watching this giant of a talent leave the stage long before his body did was a painful reminder of the brokenness of the world. It’s revealing that his ability to play music outlasted his recognition of family members. Somehow he stayed connected to the music long after he lost touch with so much else. This reinforces my suspicion that music is inherently spiritual—able to capture and connect with those things beyond our temporal world. My own grandfather succumbed to dementia la[...]

On Being with Krista Tippett—and Jesus?


If you’ve followed faith podcasts for any length of time, you’ve heard of the Posted on 08/08/17 If you’ve followed faith podcasts for any length of time, you’ve heard of the award-winning On Being with Krista Tippett. Depending on your comfort level with discussions of religion in general, you’ve responded to the show with appreciation or apprehension. I swing back and forth between the two. I’m grateful that in a post-Christian world, someone provides a public space for discussions of “faith, ethics, and moral wisdom.” And I’m grateful for Tippett’s hospitable approach to the lived experiences of her guests, who represent various faith backgrounds. At the same time, I long for the Gospel of Christ to be presented with a grace that is unafraid of difficult differences yet remains faithful to the truth of Scripture and creed. Tippett consistently models one part of this equation beautifully; the other is more difficult to pin down. Since 2001, first as a radio program and now as a podcast, Tippett has interviewed a wide range of people representing art, science, academia, religion, and social action. Whether her guests have professed any faith tradition or none, from Danah Boyd to the Dalai Lama, Miroslav Volf to Maya Angelou, Tippett’s opening question remains the same: “What was the religious or spiritual background to your childhood?” Tippett’s own faith background is rooted in the Christian tradition influenced most notably by her grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher in Oklahoma. In various interviews and in her bestselling books, Tippett tells the story of growing up in a religion-soaked culture that contrasted starkly with the environment she encountered in her post-university work in the 1980s in Cold War Europe. In the mid-1990s, disillusioned by the limits of political and journalistic work to address what it means to be human, she returned to the United States to study theology at Yale Divinity school. She wanted her work to offer a response to the “black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be” and to the political presence of conservative Christians she felt had distorted the rhetoric of faith. An exchange during a recent episode provides an excellent summary of what motivates her work. In a conversation with Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, the discussion turned to the value of making connections across religious boundaries. Tippett referred to such a connection as a profound paradox: “ don’t give up the ground you stand on, right? The world becomes larger because you have seen this other, and you may have an appreciation for them or a curiosity about what they bring into the world, but it’s also, the ground beneath your feet is somehow richer and more interesting.” Earlier this year, Biola University hosted a live recording of On Being. In a Q&A session prior to the event, Tippett described her interview approach as one of genuine curiosity, and stressed that a hospitality toward differences is especially appealing to the “young among us growing up in this world of plurality.” At the end of the conversation, a Biola representative reflected on the possible similarities between the On Being podcast and Jesus’ approach to conversation—that of a generous, steady questioner and listener. The possibility had occurred to me also. I began to study On Being transcripts for an inventory of Tippett’s questions. The more I considered these alongside the questions Jesus asks throughout the Gospels, the better I understood where Jesus might fit in on an On Being episode, and it wouldn’t be in Tippett’s chair. It seems to me that Christ’s questions are asked with a different kind of generosity, one that a[...]

ABBA meets Amos on Arcade Fire’s Everything Now


The music of Canadian rock band Arcade Fire serves as a mirror, a reflection of the Posted on 08/07/17 The music of Canadian rock band Arcade Fire serves as a mirror, a reflection of the surrounding culture. This was most overt with the aptly titled Reflektor, a concept album about social media and the digital age. With their fifth record, Everything Now, they’ve crafted an ambitious, though succinct, collection of songs about the ubiquity of the instantaneous and disposable in Western culture. We want everything, and we want it now. Everything Now is an examination and evisceration of our culture of immediacy. Its retro vibe calls back to the disco era of the late 1970s and early ’80s. Synths pulse, pianos twitter, and the four-on-the-floor bass drum beats drive the dance forward with a steady, lulling pace. Like their previous efforts, this is a concept album with A Big Statement, though Everything Now leans less into the poetic and more towards the blatantly prophetic. Everything Now is a series of pessimistic laments perceived through glittering disco lights. It’s ABBA meets Amos, the Old Testament prophet. Everything Now also functions as a compilation of anti-worship songs, in that they call out the empty idolatry of Western consumer culture. The album’s booklet art has the aesthetic of a catalog. In the viral marketing leading up to the album release, Arcade Fire created a fake corporation, released satirical music videos, and even had a “Creature Comfort Cereal” giveaway contest. The album’s title track, which repeats the lines “I need it … I want it ... I can’t live without it,” points to the internal emptiness of the pursuit of material wealth: (Everything now) And every room in my house (Everything now) Is full of s**t I couldn’t live without (Everything now) I need it. (Everything now) I can't live without (Everything now) Can’t live (Everything now) Every inch of space in my heart (Everything now) Is filled with something wrong, then it’s dark The ashes of everything now.  Following this theme of the glorification of consumption, “Infinite Content” is an angry punk rock anthem, immediately followed by “Infinite_Content,” a lackadaisical summery tune with the same lyrics: “Infinite content, infinite content, we’re infinitely content!” An inconspicuous play on words, “content” stands for both material and tranquility, “stuff” and serenity, as well as the desire for the former to bring about the latter. There is tiredness in lead singer Win Butler’s voice; the melodies stay in a fairly narrow range, and one can perceive an underlying existential fatigue even in the most upbeat of songs. Many of the lyrics address suicide. On “Creature Comfort,” Butler mournfully croons, “God, make me famous / If you can’t, just make it painless.” The American Dream—the pursuit of happiness—appears to be more of a nightmare of endless striving, a vanity of vanities. On “Good God Damn,” there’s a lingering sense of hope that follows its suicidal motif. Butler sings, “Put your favorite record on baby / And fill the bathtub up / You can say goodbye / To your so-called friends.” Yet he follows that with this: “Maybe there’s a good God, damn / Maybe there’s a good God / If he made you.” This theological query about a divine presence is most overt in the lengthy track (and the best on the album) “We Don’t Deserve Love.” It’s a lament in the biblical sense, addressing both individual and corporate sins, culminating in this exasperated falsetto confession: Mary, roll away the stone The o[...]

Dunkirk and Our Deep Need to be Rescued


War movies tend to chronicle one of two things: victory or defeat. The former typically Posted on 08/07/17 War movies tend to chronicle one of two things: victory or defeat. The former typically offer triumphant affirmations that a nation’s great sacrifice was worth it; the latter often serve as protest art about the futility of military conflict. Dunkirk offers something different. As a story of rescue first and foremost—of salvation amidst military failure—Dunkirk is at once distinct and familiar, a war-picture anomaly that ultimately recognizes our very personal need to be saved. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Dunkirk dramatizes the 1940 evacuation of beaten British forces from the windswept shores of France. With sparse dialogue, a largely unrecognizable ensemble cast, and an omnipresent Hans Zimmer score that evokes a ticking stopwatch and thrumming propellers, Dunkirk doesn’t tell a story as much as it provides an experience. As unseen German forces bomb, torpedo, and fire upon the hundreds of thousands of soldiers awaiting evacuation, the movie’s main character is fear. And in the face of that fear, we witness instinctual acts of both cowardice and bravery, often from the same person. Take, for instance, the shockingly young soldier who cuts in line to sneak onto a boat and then—not long after—risks his life to open a hatch for those trapped below when the boat is struck by a torpedo. Dunkirk’s most striking images are those of rescue, a few of which I’ll spoil here. There is that aforementioned hatch, opened by the young soldier, which sends a shaft of light into the rising water in the ship’s hold. In another scene, a British pilot who has been shot down in the English Channel can’t escape his flooding cockpit—until suddenly a harpoon breaks through the glass, held by one of the British civilians who have volunteered their own vessels to help with the evacuation. The movie’s most stirring moment of rescue comes near the end, when a German warplane bears down on the last of the soldiers standing exposed on the beach. A different British pilot, ignoring his depleting fuel warnings, swoops in to chase off the German plane at the last minute. Spent of fuel, he glides over the beach one last time, the battering of bullets and buzzing of engines giving way to a momentous quiet. We know that this pilot is not veering back toward England for a victorious landing on a welcoming runway. He’s going down. If he survives, he’ll need to be rescued as well. There is a sense of humility here, one that can even be detected in Dunkirk’s most traditionally “victorious” moment. As the British civilian fleet approaches the shoreline, Zimmer’s score unfortunately forgoes its atmospheric intensity in favor of swelling strings, while cheers erupt from the waiting soldiers. Yet as inspirational as the scene means to be, it still isn’t a depiction of the cavalry coming to turn the tide of battle. These “little ships,” as they’ve come to affectionately be called, better resemble makeshift ambulances. In this way Dunkirk stands in stark contrast to triumphalist military films, where death and sacrifice almost always come in the context of ultimate human victory. Consider Saving Private Ryan, in which the brutality of the opening Omaha Beach sequence is offset by the smaller, personal win guaranteed in the title (as well as the Allied powers’ eventual success, of which the Omaha Beach invasion was a crucial part). Saving Private Ryan, which I greatly admire, nonetheless exemplifies what Christian pacifist Stanley Hauerwas wrote in The American Difference: “We ask soldiers to kill and [...]

Vikings: Grace Given, Rejected, and Received


Vikings has taken its viewership by storm. Premiering in 2013 and airing on History, the Posted on 08/02/17 Vikings has taken its viewership by storm. Premiering in 2013 and airing on History, the series is based on the life of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) and his journey from a humble farmer to a ruthless, marauding Scandinavian king. Ragnar’s rise to prominence comes through the brute overpowering of his enemies and ceaseless ambition, yet the show also makes room for a consideration of the equally powerful effects of grace. In the first season of Vikings we are introduced to Athelstan (George Blagden), an English monk who has been captured and kept as a slave in Ragnar’s household. As Athelstan performs his duties, a deep sense of trust and loyalty develops between him and Ragnar. Though he deeply struggles with his own Christian faith, he shows consistent grace and kindness toward Ragnar and his captors. This stands in stark opposition to his Christian counterparts. While the majority of the English are greedy, manipulative, and morally bereft, Athelstan reflects a Christ-like sense of patience, care, and a forgiving spirit toward his enemies. This contrast demonstrates how uncommon extravagant grace is. We can't help but wonder how someone who has such cause for retribution can still exercise such forgiveness. More than weaving a coherent picture of good-versus-evil or victory over one’s enemies, Vikings untangles common preconceptions about what loving our enemies really looks like. Athelstan’s offer of grace softens Ragnar’s heart. (Spoilers ahead.) Soon he asks Athelstan deep questions of faith, challenging his own devotion to paganism. Ragnar even learns the Lord’s Prayer. What we see in Ragnar’s friendship with Athelstan is the effect grace can have on a willing and responsive heart. The true depth of their relationship becomes clear after Athelstan’s death. Ragnar carries Athelstan’s body for many miles up a steep mountain, where he insists that Athelstan have a Christian burial. He even constructs a cross as a grave marker. Ragnar stays with Athelstan for nearly a day and often holds back weeping as he mourns the death of his close friend. Athelstan’s grace cultivated true friendship between a Christian and a pagan. Although Athelstan is deeply loved by Ragnar, his kindness isn’t received in the same way by the rest of the community. One of Ragnar’s most loyal companions, Floki (Gustaf Skarsgard), responds to Athelstan with bitterness, skepticism, and hatred. Here we see how grace can be rejected. In the same manner that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, Floki’s heart becomes calloused. Floki is determined to resist the kind of grace that ran headlong against his own obsession and pride. The character of Athelstan demonstrates the very different effects grace can have on individuals. In our own lives, grace can have this double effect. In some cases, grace softens our hearts because it reminds us how undeserving we are to receive it. Being shown forgiveness when we have perpetrated wrong can have a disarming effect on us. It knocks down our defenses. In other cases, grace hardens our hearts because it exposes our own sin. We’d rather cover it up, defend it, or minimize it because we don’t want to confront it. We see in the ministry of Christ this same double effect of grace. Many, especially those in authority, resisted the message of Jesus, while others—the poor, outcast, and the spiritually needy—received God’s grace with open arms. Vikings reminds us that the only prerequisite to truly being changed by grace is to recognize our need of it.   allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0[...]

The Sneaky Simulation of Imagine Dragons’ Evolve


Sitting around empty bowls of soup, my brother was recounting some of his experiences Posted on 08/01/17 Sitting around empty bowls of soup, my brother was recounting some of his experiences working at a theme park a few summers ago. He was bemoaning the lack of roller coasters at the park: “It seemed like every new ride was a simulator. I mean, I get it. They take up less space; they’re cheaper. But it’s no match for the real thing.” In 2017, simulated reality surrounds us. Imagine Dragon’s Evolve encapsulates this moment in popular culture perfectly. As the name indicates, Evolve is a slightly different musical direction for the Las Vegas crew known for arena rock. Pop culture is currently obsessed with EDM—electronic dance music—and Imagine Dragons joins the movement, as “I Don’t Know Why” opens with blips and synth haze reminiscent of the score for Netflix’s Stranger Things. On Evolve, lead vocalist Dan Reynolds weaves together intense feelings and first-person sensations. In “Whatever It Takes,” he celebrates the adrenaline of success against the odds. The album’s hit single “Believer” proclaims, “Pain! You made me a, you made me a believer … my life, my love, my drive came from … pain!” Later, he encourages his lover to enjoy the fleeting exhilaration of make-up sex in lieu of promises broken. With Queen-inspired harmonics, “Yesterday” celebrates living in the euphoric present: “No tomorrow without a yesterday … I haven’t got one single regret, no.” Imagine Dragons’ thumping drums couple with resounding choruses on several songs to build the tension and release common in EDM. It’s a curious thing to listen to music that is a mixture of produced and recorded sound. The tracks are a blend of synthesized beats and studio recordings. It’s even more curious how Imagine Dragons can maintain their big arena rock sound even though several tracks of each song are generated by a computer. Evolve aims at an expansive, live feel, as though you are hearing the album performed from a huge stage outfitted with pyrotechnics. What’s the secret? Simulation. It turns out that a producer can simulate expansive depth on a record. EQ, reverb, and delays clip the upper and lower sound frequencies and distort the sound with echo to make it feel more distant. This pushes certain instruments and tracks back stage, sonically speaking. In contrast, crisp, louder vocals draw the lead singer to the front of the “stage.” This all works together to “cement the illusion” of a vast, three-dimensional space in our tiny earbuds. Interestingly, Evolve begins and ends in the same place: darkness. While Evolve starts as a flush of intense desire between “strangers in the night … passing in the shadows” (“I Don’t Know Why”), it ends with the dispassionate invitation, “If you ever wanna join me baby, I'll be dancing in the dark” (“Dancing in the Dark”). Perhaps unintentionally, Imagine Dragons’ latest becomes a fitting metaphor for a simulation culture—people chasing raw feelings and desires in the dark. I was struck by how the producing on Evolve reminded me of Hillsong United and Elevation Worship. After all, worship music thrives on the feeling of presence—as though we are worshipping in a crowd of 30,000 people—which is why many worship bands release live albums. In “Walking the Wire,” Reynolds encourages us to put our hands over our headphones, close our eyes, and “feel the wind in your hair / Feel the ru[...]

Seeking Escape—and Enlightenment—in Popular Culture


I’ll admit it. Sometimes I use popular culture to distract myself from reality. I Posted on 07/31/17 I’ll admit it. Sometimes I use popular culture to distract myself from reality. I want to spend some time in a fantasy world where everything is just a little bit too pretty and the problems are low-stakes and easily resolved in 20 to 60 minutes. (A recent choice for me has been Supergirl). Especially during a time when politics and world events seem uncertain and high stakes, it’s nice to use pop culture as an escape. But is this irresponsible? Might it even be anti-Christian? Certainly, we shouldn’t avoid uncomfortable realities altogether. It’s not healthy for individuals or good for society. But there is plenty of middle ground where some escape into fictional worlds or semi-fictional realities is part of a balanced spiritual life. What’s more, something doesn’t have to be difficult or depressing to reflect truth or be meaningful. Here at Think Christian, we’re continually seeking God’s truth in unlikely, pop-culture places—so many, I no longer think of those places as “unlikely.” A recent Washington Post essay by Emily Yahr considers our relationship to popular culture from a slightly different, but still illuminating, perspective. Pop culture can serve a useful purpose in allowing us to set aside more serious concerns for a moment and rest mentally and emotionally so we can do something about our larger concerns. Yahr cites a metaphor that NPR’s Linda Holmes makes using The Martian. In the movie, Matt Damon’s character, who is trying to escape Mars, spends a lot of time growing potatoes. The potatoes are not necessary for the escape, but they are necessary for him to stay alive to keep working on the escape. Light pop culture, Holmes says, can be like those potatoes—it helps us keep going so we can work on the bigger thing. Yes, Christians can be refreshed in other ways; we also have our direct connection to God through prayer and the support of God’s people. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also benefit from a little evening wind-down with The Great British Baking Show or Playing House (to name two of my favorites, both of which we’ve recently covered on TC). Yahr also notes that the very things we sometimes use to “escape” might be supplying us with new ways to think about cultural and political problems. The distance of fiction and art has long been an effective way to offer social commentary, especially when direct arguments have a hard time fitting into the available political climate. Art and culture can help us think differently—and, we often argue at TC, can sometimes offer a surprising glimpse of God’s kingdom. Yahr points out another reason we might indulge guilt-free in a bit of popular culture: it functions as an easy topic for conversation, a common ground where relationships can be built, relationships that might eventually blossom around more serious concerns. This is especially important for Christians, because building relationships with others can be an important part of missional living. Sometimes people respond to a direct offer of a spiritual conversation or reveal their pain in a first encounter, but usually trusting relationships take time and effort to cultivate. Talking about The Bachelor or Game of Thrones can be one way to begin those relationships. Being able to enter such pop-culture conversations as equals is one reason a Christian might want to stay engaged in things that at first seem like a silly escape. Of course, we should pay attention to the various messages we find in cultural obje[...]

The Big Sick’s Ministry of Presence


One of the most powerful things a film can do is take us into the small sacred spaces that Posted on 07/31/17 One of the most powerful things a film can do is take us into the small sacred spaces that exist in the quiet moments between people, where we can witness a ministry of presence. The Big Sick is defined by these sacred spaces, each one offering a different experience of family, loss, and healing.   Screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon based The Big Sick on their own relationship, in which they navigated the cultural differences between them and also faced a daunting experience that came to define their love. It is a formulaic romantic comedy in some ways, yet it also draws the audience into the characters’ lives by focusing on particular places, and the intimacy that makes them sacred. The first space is the comedy club where the main character—played by Nanjiani and also named Kumail—performs. There is a sense of community and intimacy among Kumail and his fellow comedians, emphasized by the dark, small area backstage where they frequently gather together. Yes, there is anxiety and anticipation, yet this space is also defined by the little family Kumail has formed, which supports each other professionally and personally. In an especially moving scene, the stage becomes a confessional; Kumail loses his usual composure and begins to divulge all of the things that are weighing on him. Even as the dark backdrop and the bright spotlight expose his vulnerability, his family of comedians offer affirmation from offstage. Another space we are invited to witness is that of the dinner table where Kumail’s biological family gathers. Kumail also engages in a sort of performance here, playing the role of the dutiful son for his Muslim Pakistani mother. There is good humor here, especially when Kumail’s mother receives young women as potential partners for him, pretending it is all a surprise to her. We too are seated at this table, watching the nuanced glances among family members. Once Kumail explains that he is in love with Emily (Zoe Kazan), a white woman, and that he no longer prays or finds Islam meaningful, Kumail is not invited to these dinners anymore. He becomes excommunicated and the pain of that hangs over him. Having this place where he can belong is important to him, yet he risks it for the sake of Emily. The third space is defined by family as well, though not Kumail’s. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) After Kumail and Emily break up, she is rushed to the hospital for mysterious reasons. Her friend calls Kumail because no one else is available. He waits there until the arrival of Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) and then feels compelled to stay. While they keep vigil, the camera staying close to the characters so that we can see the isolation and tension they feel, they are eventually drawn into a space of shared pain and brokenness. As the relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents develops, the camera gathers them in the same frame. Eventually, an otherwise sterile and possibly antagonistic environment is transformed into a sacred space filled with grief, pain, and healing.  Kumail’s decision to stay, sit, and wait demonstrates a ministry of presence, a sacred call to be with others in their suffering. Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen wrote that “when we experience the healing presence of another person, we can discover our own gifts of healing. Then our wounds allow us to enter into a deep solidarity with our wounded brothers and sisters.” Even though Emily is the patient, these three people in the waiting room are also wounde[...]

The Ear Hustle Podcast and Remembering Those in Prison


The first rule of prison life is to mind your own business. In a world without secrets, Posted on 07/27/17 The first rule of prison life is to mind your own business. In a world without secrets, eavesdropping on another's conversation—“ear hustling,” as it's known in prison-speak—can get you in serious trouble. But audiences have nothing to worry about when they tune in for Ear Hustle, a new podcast produced from behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison in California. Listening in on these biweekly conversations about prison life may even provide Christians a meaningful new way to respond to the biblical summons to “remember those in prison.” Winner of Radiotopia's 2016 Podquest competition, Ear Hustle invites listeners to step inside one of America's most notorious lockups to hear its inhabitants' real-life stories, in their own words. It's made possible through a unique collaboration among Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, both of whom are currently incarcerated at San Quentin, and Bay Area visual artist Nigel Poor, a volunteer who works with inmates at the prison's media lab. Each half-hour segment explores a different facet of life behind bars, featuring the hosts' first-person interviews and impromptu “yard talk” sessions with actual prisoners. Woods and Poor overlay these conversations with their own observations and experiences, framing each episode as a casual chat between a respectfully curious outsider and a comfortably self-aware insider. What emerges from their interactions are surprisingly relatable tales of human brokenness and personal identity in a world that feels both foreign and familiar at the same time. In the lighthearted first episode, for instance, we hear about the domestic squabbles that crop up when two brothers, Eddie and Emile, request to share the same 4-foot-by-9-foot cell, only to discover that they don’t make very good roommates. “Living with someone in an apartment is difficult,” one of them explains, “but living with someone in a box—you have to be compatible in a lot of different ways.” At the end of the segment, Poor jokes about how finding a compatible cellmate at San Quentin seems—to an outsider—a lot like dating in the free world. You have to “court” each other and, if things seem to work out, eventually you have to “pop the question” and see if the other person wants to move in with you. Things aren’t always so upbeat, though. In the more serious second episode, we hear from a former gangster named Shakur who has worked hard to distance himself from his old gang moniker “Joker.” His new Muslim identity enables him to embrace rather than retaliate against the brother of a rival gang member who murdered his mother and brother decades earlier. Woods ends the segment by commenting on how some in prison will forever see Shakur as “Joker” and expect him to live up to that image. But, he says, “if you’re going to change, the story you tell about yourself has to change—and that’s true if you’re inside or outside of prison.” Such important gleanings make Ear Hustle more than just a novelty. It’s upbeat and positive, but it’s also honest and gritty. Contrary to what some might expect, it neither glamorizes prison culture nor unnecessarily complains about the miseries of doing time. Each episode is a deeply ethnographic encounter that gently challenges the easy stereotypes we apply to the people we incarcerate. Christians willing to listen to [...]