2009 will see my attention generally and here on this blog, as well, turn to U2 as their long-awaited 12th studio album release approaches (March 3 in the USA). The UK music magazine Q (think Rolling Stone) is releasing a cover article on the band, including a song-by-song breakdown of the Album similar to what Blender did for 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Here's the link to a Q article teaser if you can't wait to read more (or can't find the magazine).
"Q initially heard previews of seven tracks at various stages of completion as the band were winding up. First impressions were that, while the two most recent U2 albums (2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb) marked a return to basics, No Line On The Horizon is more in keeping with the spirit of 1991's Achtung Baby: which is to say, a bolder, more testing collection."
"Within the U2 camp, this is the general consensus around the album as a whole. A clearly excited Eno told Q No Line On The Horizon could be the band's greatest album, a view also echoed by the Edge. 'We've learnt a few things over the years,' said the guitarist. 'So I think (the album) could be a bringing-to-bear of all those eureka moments from the past.'
From the song breakdown, it looks like war and peace is again a prominent feature of the lyrics. Someone ought to do a study of the overall peace work the band has done, both on records and beyond. It is getting to be quite substantial, and as with poets and artists generally, the band have some very insightful and imaginative--not to mention activist-inducing--things to say about it.
Last summer I re-read Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger's coming of age novel, after reading that it is the favorite novel of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. In fact their huge selling album American Idiot is in some ways based on the novel and its profane main character--Holden Caulfield. It was influential on many young disaffected punks like Green Day, and now it seems that young Muslims have their own version. Titled The Taqwacores, written by Michael Muhammad Knight, the book chronicles the life of a group of young Muslim-Americans living in a house in Buffalo NY who form a punk band. The novel’s title combines “taqwa,” the Arabic word for “piety,” with “hardcore,” used to describe second-generation punk that emerged out of Washington DC (think Minor Threat) and California (think Operation Ivy). According to a great article in the NYT, the novel was passed around in photocopy format, growing in renown, influencing a generation of young Muslims. Now it has a publisher, is coming out in paperback and a film is in production based on the novel. According to Rolling Stone, bands--like Vote Hezbollah--have been formed in response to the book's influence, as well.
On their MySpace page, Vote Hezbollah writes that they "were formed in 2004 shortly after reading Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight. The band name comes from the book and in no way represents terrorism. Vote Hezbollah does not promote violence or support any violent organizations. Peace, unity, and truth are our only strengths."
I believe God might be working to bring peace on earth through The Taqwacores and the subculture it has created. I'm getting it and reading it in 2009. And I'm praying for peace, unity, and truth along with Vote Hezbollah.
This past summer I lamented the disparity between huge interest in angels in the culture of North Atlantic nations (at least) and the deafening silence from scholars, including most lamentably the theologians. We of all people ought to have something coherent to say. Yet we're too often afraid of being called irrational or silly so we too often shy away from books on angels and write instead on hot topics in other disciplines like climate change (in the natural sciences) or forgiveness (in the social sciences). Now I of course think climate change and forgiveness are incredibly important topics for living through to the other side of the 21st century. We should be writing theology on exactly such matters.
Still, I say: people are fascinated by angels and almost always have been. It comes especially to the fore this time of year, in pop culture and in the hymns and scriptures of the Christian church especially. Yet no serious books have taken this up, especially at the level of good theology written at a popular level and with solid historical and contemporary research as a foundation. We need a good book on angels. It could be beautiful and hilarious, given how wide-spread the fascination actually is. So imagine my surprise and delight to arrive at my in-laws' home for Christmas and find an article on angels in the Holiday issue of the usually staid weekly The Economist. The cover photo is fantastic, combining the article on angels with another very good article on why we love music. The article would be a great starting place for further work, noting the presence of angels in literature, art, religion and (of course) in the experience--especially near-death--of ordinary people. Almost as fun as the article, I read through the growing list of comments on the article with interest in how a fairly non-religious audience was coping with a fairly risky cover story. My favorite comment includes a quote from the article, followed by the opinion:
"Anyone who supposes that the potential of the human mind is scarcely yet tapped or appreciated, and that its operations may extend to levels far subtler and higher than the senses can grasp, is leaving space for an angelic realm."
Well said. I am a materialist; but wrestling, like Jacob, with quantum physics reveals that "material" is as mysterious as any concept humans have ever imagined. A learned fool is proud of his knowledge. Wisdom teaches that none of us, nor all of us together, knows very much.
Merry Christmas, all! Sing along with the angelic chorus, "Gloria, in excelsis deo"
Those interested in the intersection of religion and faith will know about the current uproar over President Elect Barack Obama inviting Saddleback Church Pastor and bestselling author of The Purpose-Driving Live Rick Warren to offer the invocation at his inaguration. Progressives and gay rights advocates responded with anger and contempt at the news given Warren's alignment with more conservative evangelical traditions in Christianity (Warren's background is Baptist) and some social commitments to match. Top on the complaint list is Warren's support for California's Prop. 8 that ammended the state constitution mandateing marriage as between one man and one woman and banning gay marriage. Huffington Post columnist Bob Geiger said, "People in the Religious Right will never support Barack Obama or his agenda, so giving a homophobic bigot like Warren such a prominent place on such a special day for our country will do absolutely nothing to gain Obama support from that lot. Meanwhile, he will piss off a lot of his supporters before he even takes office . . ." Many progressive voices are loudly caling for a withdrawal of this invitation to give the invocation.
Part of the irony here is that this is not the first Obama-Warren flap. On World AIDS Day in 2006, Obama particpated in a conference at Warren's church in California. The focus was on AIDS, but conservatives reacted with anger and contempt (sound familar?) that Warren would sully his pulpit by allowing Obama to speak, particularly because of his pro-choice views. Conservative talk radio host Kevin McCullough wrote on his blog, "Why would Warren marry the moral equivalency of his pulpit — a sacred piece of honor in evangelical traditions — to the inhumane, sick and sinister evil that Obama has worked for as a legislator?" However, Warren--who publicly admitted disagreeing with Obama on abortion, said they needed each other to make a powerful difference on HIV/AIDS. Introducing Senators Obama and Brownback (the other guest speaker that day), Warren said ""I've got two friends here, a Republican and a Democrat. Why? Because you've got to have two wings to fly." As he began his speech that day, Obama said this: "I want to start by saying how blessed I feel to be a part of today and how grateful I am for your church and your pastor, my friend Rick Warren. Ever since Rick and Kay visited Africa to see the pain and suffering wrought by AIDS, the Warrens and this church have proved each day that faith is not just something you have, it's something you do. Their decision to devote their time, their money, and their purpose-driven lives to the greatest health crisis in human history is not one that's always reported on the news or splashed across the front pages, but it is quietly becoming one of the most influential forces in the struggle against HIV and AIDS." People threw a fit when Bono reached out to Jesse Helms in his work on HIV/AIDS in Africa, but Helms' transformation actually meant thousands of saved lives. Bono's partially responsible for pushing Warren in a more activist direction, too, and models a way of doing politics that aims at something more, something deeper that political ideology. It is complex and confusing to those used to black and white politics.
And that complexity rather than black and white (or red and blue) politics leads me to poin to a second irony. Obama's said he would do this sort of thing ALL ALONG! Think of his magnificant speech to the 2004 Democratic convention, a speech that brought him into the lives of me and so many others who support him, voted for him and hope with him for a renewed American and better world. In that speech, he said, among other similar things, "
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America." His candidacy was consistant with this, and in defending his choice of Waren (whom Time called the most legitimate successor to Billy Graham as "America's Preacher"), Obama said,
"A couple of years ago I was invited to Rick Warren's church to speak despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion," he said. "Nevertheless I had an opportunity to speak, and that dialogue I think is part of what my campaign's been all about, that we're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans."
We ought to rejoice that both Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery, a pastor and Civil Rights hero, will offer prayers at Obama's Inaguaration. To quote one of them, "it takes two wings to fly." The reaction shows in part shows that we'd rather entrench, fight, and stall progress on the pressing challenges that face us, that we'd rather dismiss the 'other side' (whichever it is, depending on our personal ideology), rather than seeking to reach out for the sake of actually changing the world. A wise theologian once said that whenever we draw a line between us and them, Jesus is found with them. Hard words, and challenging, for those of us who really want something else. We, with President-elect Obama, believe "it's possible to overcome the politics of division and distraction; that it's possible to overcome the same old negative attacks that are always about scoring points and never about solving our problems."
Okay folks, big news! You all know I'm a U2 fan in a big way. So how exciting to have official information on the release date for their latest studio album begun in Fez, Morocco last year. Here's the official word from their website. And a press picture that looks like Morocco, to my eyes.
Authors are generally a pretty nervous bunch when it comes to reviews. I suppose any writer or artist is that way about works they've poured themselves into and then let them go out into the public. What will people say, I wonder? Will they get what I hoped to communicate? Will people hate it? The first thing for a book is the publisher-procured blurbs from fellow writers. I had a tremendous blessing with my last book to be the recipient of lovely and strong endorsements from Rick Bliese, our president at Luther, Dorothy Bass, and Robert Bellah. Bellah was special as he is an academic mentor to be sure but also a major intellectual of the 20th century and one of the most important sociologists of his generation.
So having strong endorsements is a gift, but the truth is you tend to ask people who are likely to say good things, and if they don't the comments don't make it on the back of the book! It is, after all, about marketing as much as anything. Things are a bit more dicey out in the democracy of critics, esp. on Amazon.com where savage reviews can be posted with impunity. What a relief then to see a couple reviews appear on my new book, Faith as a Way of Life, written over the fall by (I think) students in various places who've had my book assigned for their seminary courses.
Here they are:
A Good Primer on Practical Theology,
|By||Christopher L. Dart "cultural ponderer" (Los Angeles, CA USA) - See all my reviews|
Inspired by the Yale Center for Faith & Culture's "Faith as a Way of Life Project" of 2003-07, this book is an attempt to summarize its findings; its main gist is to encourage Christian pastors with ways to help develop holistic faith and practice in their congregations. Scharen's biggest cultural critique falls upon the common compartmentalization of our lives, since people tend to place "religion" or "faith" into one of those many compartments, rather than letting it act as the overarching meta-narrative that guides one's life.
Challenging both the results-oriented "managerial" model and the felt-needs/highly individualistic "therapeutic" approach adopted by many American churches, Scharen builds his case for a faith that is trans-compartmental utilizing both established social theory (Weber, Bellah) and theology (predominately Lutheran/Reformed) to show how Christians can engage one another and the broader society in faithful and transformative ways. This isn't a how-to book in the classical sense, but Scharen does a good job at balancing theory and real-life examples to suggest how one can work towards his paradigm. I also appreciate the relative balance of his views; where many similar social-engagement books seem to be as captive to Leftist politics as others are to the Religious Right, Scharen's work seems to be more Christ-centered, allowing more room for alternate views and acknowledging "grey areas," and is thus more applicable to a broader audience, allowing for greater impact, especially among his diverse pastoral audience.
Gathering and Scattering as Pastoral Leadership,
The above editorial review gives a good overview of the topics covered however it misses the one thing that sets Scharen's book apart from others of its kind. What Scharen accomplishes that others do not is to display the "interconnection and coherence of the whole". By approaching the topic from an admittedly generalist viewpoint he is able to take the reader through a hermeneutical circle of 1) observing the obstacles that prevent faith from impacting daily lives in various spheres, 2) reflecting on these situations theologically and 3) sharing stories of Christian leaders who have tried out ideas with varying degrees of success. The image that Scharen uses to pull these activities together is that of gathering and scattering. Like the process of breathing, collecting inward in community and then expanding outward in daily life are not two separate activities that we do but rather God's life giving rhythm for our lives.
In a surprise visit to Iraq yesterday, President Bush held a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. During the press conference near Maliki's office in the Green Zone, 29 year old Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi stood in the center aisle and with great speed and accuracy, hucked his shoe at President Bush's head. Read the story here. A correspondent for Al Baghdadia, an independent Iraqi television station, Mr. al-Zaidi stood up about 12 feet from Mr. Bush and shouted in Arabic: “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” Bush deftly dodged to one side and then dodged to the side again as a second shoe was hurtled at him with the shout, "“This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” It is sobering to see how strongly positive the response was to this act in the Middle East--an considered a supreme insult in the Arab world.
I have hope for President-Elect Obama's ability to repair our standing in the world, and our capacity to be viewed as a partner in facing global crises. Yet President Bush has led us in such a way that this act and its wide praise across the arab world speak the truth of things as they stand. Read the report of the brother of Mr. al-Zaidi. President Bush, trying to brush off the incident, said, "“All I can report is it is a size 10,” as he continued to take questions and aknowledge the apologies. He also called the incident a sign of democracy, saying, “That’s what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves.” I would say that how the man is treated now is just as or more important as a sign of democracy. Mr. al-Zaidi's screaming could be heard outside the room throughout the rest of the news conference.
Here's the clip from YouTube.
The irony of this greeting of peace at the Bethlehem gate in the wall built between Israel and Palestinian territory usually called the West Bank erected to limit mobility of Palestinians into and out of Israel forms a picture worthy of reflection this year as we remember the story of Jesus' parents finding no welcome as they knocked on doors looking for a place to stay the night before Jesus' birth. What does peace look like? How might this image be transformed? I read a book recently by a Jew, Yossi K. Haveli, who tries to find reconciliation with Christians and Muslims in Israel/Palestine. It is an amazing book. It is called At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
I've been giving talks on the fate of religious belief and practice in a secular age based on my reading of Charles Taylor's fantastic book A Secular Age. Among the factors I describe that exposes how we are so different that 500 years ago either in America or back in the Old Country, one stands out as particularly relevant for congregations to understand. And the New York Times yesterday offered me a fantastic example. Let me have a go at it briefly, though there is lots more to say here.
In another time, even a century ago but for sure if you go back five, the coherence of faith, institutions and their religious practices were of a piece. One was born, say, into a Christian family, brought to the church, baptized, and through daily life that included participation in the church one learned the practices of faith--prayer, singing, Eucharist, bible reading, confession, home devotions, whatever. As a result of the dramatic changes in our social imaginary ( a complex way to speak of all that makes up our assumptions about what life is, our unacknowledged understanding of how to get around) we are faced with a society in which these are unconnected. Faith, institutions, and practices are disconnected. People have no faith, are suspicious of institutions, and practices are free floating. But the longing for community and meaning are huge, perhaps more pressing, and so people find practices that act to help ground them and give them meaning yet they are often incoherent practices, severed in dramatic ways from the tradition and its institutions that have giving them deeper meaning.
So enter Dharma Punx. In New York City just a block from the former site of the revered punk venue CBGB, people gather for a session of Buddhism-influenced mediation and reflection. Let by Josh Korda, the group began three years ago and offers open gatherings focused on "dissatisfaction with the way things are, a desire to live in the present, and a thirst for peace of mind." Says one attender, "I can't stand meditation classes where they charge you $10 to walk in the door--plus, I don't like candles." Says another, "There is this allergy to anything that is religious or culty out there in my demographic and age group. This is a nice antidote to that." The sessions begin with guided meditation, a talk, and then questions and answers. Korda keeps his pierced and tattooed style in his talk, including references to his favorite bands "Suicidal Tendencies" and "Cro-Mags" as well as freely using four letter words. Regular attenders like (and represent) the combination of git and Zen. "The trouble with organized religion is that I felt like I could never live up to it. I can live up to this," said an attender named Doug who works as a carpenter in New Jersey.
So the open practice of mediation, done in and for a micro-community in a style that fits them, is open to these people quite profoundly disconnected from institutional religion in general and traditional Christian faith in particular. Through the practice they seek meaning, grounding, a sense of peace. Korda emphasizes that happiness comes from within. Yet this is not a Buddhist community in the strict sense. It is disconnected and reconfigured around accessible bits--mediation, some beliefs, statues--and out of it comes, perhaps, community and a way of life. The hidden gift of congregations is that they already have practices that are embedded in a coherent and deep understanding of a way of life but they don't know how to offer them in accessible enough ways. Sarah Miles' book Take This Bread makes the case about how St. Gregory's in San Francisco made the Eucharist as a practice accessible in this way. It is a beautiful and haunting challenge how we in 'traditional religious communities' can break ourselves open enough to let our practices be accessible to the margins of spiritual seeking but then also provide a route through that practice into a coherent and deep way of life we might in insider language call discipleship.
Jesus often met people on the road. We too often expect to meet them in the temple. Oops.