The Weekly Hit List: October 5, 2012

Living into Focus by Arthur Boers was reviewed in the September/October 2012 issue of Faith Today.

“The book finds its own pleasant balance between theory and practical realities, offering tips for managing technology as basic and important as the use of email to resolve conflict. . .; reclaiming Sabbath; questioning how busy, busy, busy we are and what we can do about it.

“This is a significant and readable book for any person of faith wanting to at least consider we might actually be servants of technology, instead of the other way around.”

To read the rest of this review, click here.

 

 

Quick Hits:

James K. A. Smith, author of Letters to a Young Calvinist, had an article in the September 2012 issue of Christianity Today: “What Galileo’s Telescope Can’t See.”

Eric O. Jacobsen, author of Sidewalks in the Kingdom, was interviewed on Christianity Today‘s blog This Is Our City: “Why Suburbia Really Is Affecting Your Spiritual Life.”

God and Charles Dickens by Gary Colledge was reviewed on by Glynn Young on his blog, Faith, Fiction, Friends.

The Huffington Post shared The Work Of the People video of Miroslav Volf, author of A Public Faith, on “the moralizing framework and the blissful innocence that is puzzling to many about America.”

The October issue of Border Crossings, our monthly e-newsletter, is now available.

 

Ebook Specials and Other Offers:

October ebook specials are currently running for multiple Brazos Press and Baker Academic titles. All of these are at least 75% off.

Deconstructing Theodicy by David B. Burrell
Song of Songs (BTCB series) by Paul J. Griffiths
Under the Influence by Monica Ganas
The Mind and the Machine by Matthew Dickerson
John (Paideia series) by Jo-Ann A. Brant
The Fall of Interpretation by James K. A. Smith
Killing Enmity by Thomas R. Yoder Neufield
Finding Your Plot in a Plotless World by Daniel de Roulet
Second Corinthians (CCSS series) by Thomas D. Stegman, SJ
A Liturgy of Grief by Leslie C. Allen

 

Video: Peter Enns on Reading the Bible Well

Here is the last of three clips with Peter Enns, author of the just released The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins!

Video: Peter Enns on Bringing False Expectations to the Text

Here is the second of three clips with Peter Enns, author of the just released The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins!

Blessed and Broken: Lady Gaga and Lucinda Williams (Reflections on Grammy Nominees, Part 3)

We asked Christian Scharen, author of Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God, to write a few blog entries reflecting on the Grammy nominations.

This is the third of three posts.

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In this last post anticipating this weekend’s 54th Grammy Awards, I am pulling together an unlikely combination. Lady Gaga, the 26-year-old flamboyant pop juggernaut, set side by side with Lucinda Williams, the 59-year-old gritty Americana icon. What do they have in common? I’ve met the Gospel in their work, for starters. Blessed and broken, you might catch, has Eucharistic echoes. A loaf, taken, blessed, broken, given, as the very body of God, for you. Before you write me off by spraining your eyes from rolling them too high in their sockets, give me a chance to say more.

These two women have, of course, received Grammy nominations. Gaga, already a two-time winner with her first album, has received nods for “Album of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Album” (2011‘s Born This Way), as well as “Best Solo Pop Performance” for the song, “Yoü And I”. Williams, also a previous Grammy award winner, has been nominated for “Best Americana Album” for her 10th studio release, Blessed. Neither are, to my knowledge, performing on the Grammy Awards broadcast Sunday evening, but you can see Gaga perform her nominated song, “Yoü and I” with hit country duo Sugarland on the Grammy Award Nomination Concert.

My argument in my book Broken Hallelujahs, in part, is against what I call “checklist Christianity” which holds up a checklist to pop culture with a skeptical eye and rejects anything that contains an offending item (profanity, for example, or references to drugs or sex). I argue, with C.S. Lewis, for a richer Christian imagination informing our engagement with culture. If we begin at the cross of Christ, who was rejected by the religious leaders and crucified “outside the gate” with criminals on his left and right, we know something about the shocking and surprising ways God is at work in the mist of human life for the sake of bringing new life. So I’m not that interested in saying if Gaga or Williams are “Christian” enough or even “safe” enough to be important for Christians or anyone else to pay attention to. I want people to learn and listen so that they can see with a pop song, seeing what can be seen from there.

In a way, “Yoü and I” is song about brokenness and blessing, as is the whole album Born This Way. The song is about love and loss, and the desire for commitment. It is about losing a boy from Nebraska, and then reconnecting with the hope of having it stick. “This time, I’m not leaving without you.” But it is also about deeper claims of allegiance, and how few things really deserve our devotion. Gaga sings, “There’s only three men that I’mma serve my whole life; that’s my daddy, Nebraska, and Jesus Christ.” The song has echoes of Gaga’s namesake band, Queen (It is their song, “Radio Gaga,” that gave her the stage name). The song begins with an echo of the marching drumbeat of Queen’s famous song, “We will Rock You,” and featuring Queen guitarist Brian May. Former Brazos editor, Rodney Clapp, has written a lovely piece arguing something similar to what I’ve said here but in relation to the song, “Born this Way.” One reason for her enormous popularity, I think, is her ability to work the territory between brokenness and blessing, something that drives her huge fan base to find meaning in her performance.

In Lucinda Williams’ new album, Blessed, one finds a remarkably different sonic palate but some resonant themes of blessing in the mist of brokenness. Williams is a Texas country blues singer at heart, and she’s never strayed far from those roots. This album shines in the title song, a poem almost chanted instead of sung. Its gritty couplets echo the paradox at the heart of Christianity, that God should redeem the world by rejection, suffering and death. Some of the incredible lines in the song, starting with the first that steps on my own toes:

“We were blessed by the preacher, who practiced what he preached.”
“We were blessed by the blind man, who could see for miles and miles.”
“We were blessed by the warror, who didn’t need to win.”
“We were blessed by the neglected child, who knew how to forgive.”

The couplets don’t all work for me with the same power, but the overall beauty of the song is that in brokenness, blessing is possible, redemption is possible, life can come from death. Importantly, the refrain is not that the individual receives healing and is personally blessed, but that by living in particular ways within their circumstances, “we were blessed.” The song is a sketch of how we live together, beyond the limits of our pain and sorrow, but without being at all Pollyanna about it. In a moving, but subtle turn, at the heart of the lyric, she turns to the deepest place of this paradoxical logic of blessing:

“We were blessed by the mystic, who turned water into wine.”
“We were blessed by the watchmaker, who gave up his time.”

These, and the following lyrics through the end of the song, seem to be entirely about Jesus. (The famous watchmaker analogy for God, distant and logical, is at play in the second couplet.) The lyric continues with “the wayfaring stranger who knew our names” and “the innocent baby who taught us the truth.” We could have a more powerful pop song about the theology of the cross but I’d be hard pressed to name it. Here’s Williams singing the song in concert.

Another stand-out song on the album, “Seeing Black,” is a lament for Vic Chesnutt, the powerful Athens Georgia singer-songwriter who took his own life in 2009. The song is full of unanswered questions, “was it too much weight riding on your back? When did you start seeing black?” Yet, in keeping with her broken blessing mode, her last verse asks, “When did you start seeing white, tell me what was it like, was it when you received your last rites, when did you start seeing white?” Williams surely knew that Chesnutt was an atheist. And she pronounces her blessing upon him even so. 

Thanks for reading the series, and enjoy the show!

-Christian Scharen

Find out more about Broken Hallelujahs in these videos with Christian Scharen:

http://youtu.be/V25aM_7O3TQ

http://youtu.be/dQfZP8CUYII

http://youtu.be/unZ81EubvRw

http://youtu.be/2Vp60D_zsT8

 

Penitential Hymns: Kanye West at the Grammy Awards (Reflections on Grammy Nominees, Part 2)

We asked Christian Scharen, author of Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God, to write a few blog entries reflecting on the Grammy nominations.

This is the second of three posts.

———————————————————————————

I love Kanye West. There. I’ve said it. You should know that up front as I begin this second of a three-part series of posts anticipating the 2012 Grammy Awards this coming Sunday. Kanye West is something of a Grammy award magnet, collecting 14 awards in a career that only began in earnest a decade ago. West’s seven Grammy nominations are the most received for any artist this year. Despite this success, West is a polarizing figure, not least because of his own controversial behavior. During a live telecast after Hurricane Katrina, he famously went off-script to say: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. His public outbursts at awards shows have also hurt him, including most troubling when a drunken West upstaged Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Swift had just won her first award, and in the midst of her acceptance speech, West charged on stage, took the mic, and said, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.” West was removed and reaction was loud and negative. Many apologies followed, including a person letter and phone call to Swift, but the damage was done. West retreated from the public eye for nearly a year. I’ll come back to this and connect it to his Grammy-nominated song, “All of the Lights,” below but first a brief gesture to the reasons I have for loving West despite his obvious flaws. (I use West as a case study in my new book Broken Hallelujahs, if you’d like to see more of how I engage with his work.)

As a musician and artist, he has great vision and depth. He is—critics regularly admit—an amazingly talented guy. And I would add to that, his vision and depth regularly include moral and spiritual depth. An example: West made the most moving and powerful pop song rooted in Christian faith in the last decade—“Jesus Walks,” from 2004’s The College Dropout. The videos West made for “Jesus Walks” increase my admiration for what he is capable of musically, artistically and spiritually. Of the three, I think the version directed by Chris Milk is most complex and compelling, offering a video parable of baptismal dying and rebirth. (Warning: this video is hosted on West’s VEVO channel on YouTube and opens with a 30-second advertisement which when I checked was a very violent promo for a new Denzel Washington film)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYF7H_fpc-g

This year, West gained Grammy nominations both for his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as well as a single from that album, “All of the Lights,” and for a duo album with fellow Roc-a-Fella recording star Jay-Z titled, Watch the Throne, as well as a single from that album, “Otis.” While this is too much here to discuss in a short blog post, “All of the Lights” provides another example, alongside “Jesus Walks,” to show what is so compelling about West. While I think highly of this song, that doesn’t mean I think highly of all the songs on the album, some of which are much more troubling, but that has been true on all his albums.

(In what follows, I learned, as I usually do, from the remarkable insights of fans writing on Songmeanings.net, this time particularly from “Tsuppi” who posted about “All of the Lights” on 3-5-2011.)

“All of the Lights” (music only) on Vimeo

“All of the Lights” begins with a one-minute interlude with soft, sad violin and piano, very classical in style (in fact, the song includes trumpets, French horn, trombone, flute, viola, and cello as well, adding up to a lush and complex arrangement). The song begins with a shout of “All of the lights.” Rihanna then comes in, singing the hook, “Turn up the lights in here, baby. Extra bright, I want ya’ll to see this. Turn up the lights in here, baby. You know what I need, I want you to see everything.” This theme, to me, is confessional. It could be a pop version of Jesus in John’s gospel, chapter 3:20-21: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

It is a song written, I think, in the aftermath of the Taylor Swift incident and his self-imposed exile. In order to find forgiveness and rebirth, he needs to have “all of the lights” illumining the mess he’s made of his life. The song, mostly rapped by West in the verses, is written as a parable. It is a moving lament about “all the lights” shining on the brokenness of a man whose abuse causes him to lose his wife, daughter and life. Through a stint in jail and its aftermath finds himself at the brink of despair, yet trying to reach out, to reconcile, to be a father to his daughter so she doesn’t “grow up on that ghetto university.” The production includes no less than 14 guest vocals including, of course, Rihanna, but also Kid Cudi, Fergie, Alicia Keys, Elton John, and more. It might have been a mess of hubris, but under West’s wise production, it works brilliantly. Fergie sings a final verse full of despair, after which the song nearly ends, musically echoing the lyric. But then, slowly, the flow of the song preaches new birth, salvation through living in the light. Here, Rihanna comes in again with the hook, and the song runs out from there.

West is a brilliant artist, a man of paradoxical passions that seem to both run towards and away from God. In this song, we see his remarkable gifts working towards God. It seems like the kind of pop song Leonard Cohen calls, on his recent album “Old Ideas,” a “penitential hymn.” In writing such a powerful and meaningful song, West’s already won respect, but I still hope he takes home a Grammy as well.  

Next up: Broken and Blessed: Lady Gaga and Lucinda Williams

-Christian Scharen

Find out more about Broken Hallelujahs in these videos with Christian Scharen:

http://youtu.be/V25aM_7O3TQ

http://youtu.be/dQfZP8CUYII

http://youtu.be/unZ81EubvRw

http://youtu.be/2Vp60D_zsT8

 

Video: Introducing “The Evolution of Adam”

Here is the first of three clips with Peter Enns, author of the just released The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins!

Video: God in Pop Culture and Pop Culture in God

Here is the last in our series of videos with Christian Scharen. This clip addresses God in pop culture and pop culture in God, two lenses Scharen uses is his new book Broken Hallelujahs.

Video: “Broken Hallelujahs” as a Theology of Culture

Continuing our series of videos with Christian Scharen, this clip addresses the idea of brokenness and suffering, central themes in Scharen’s new book Broken Hallelujahs. Also, be sure to enter for a chance to win a copy of this book in our current giveaway (details in the post below)!

Video: The Dangers of a Constricted Imagination

 In this new clip, Christian Scharen discusses the dangers of a constricted imagination.

Video: Hop-Hop Theology!

Ralph Basui Watkins has recently added seven new videos on Hip-Hop Redemption: Finding God in the Rhythm and the Rhyme, corresponding to the chapters of the book, at his website and blog. Two are embedded below, check out the rest at: http://www.hiphopredemption.org/hiphopredemption.org/Chapter_Overviews.html.