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Archive for April, 2010

John the Revelator

It’s a joy to see how different musicians can take the same song and render entirely different interpretations. Take the classic blues/spiritual, “John the Revelator.” If you do a search on YouTube you’ll find all sorts of performances. Two of my favorites are by Phil Keaggy and Gov’t Mule.

Keaggy styled his interpretation after Cream — listen to his electric versions on “Crimson and Blue” or the EP “Revelator” and you can hear echos of Cream’s “Strange Brew,” (for classic ’60s video with a bad lip sync, see here). When Keaggy yells “Everybody’s talkin’ about it,” it’s also a tip of the cap to Cream’s cover of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful.” I couldn’t find a good electric version on YouTube, but here is a wonderful acoustic performance that retains some of that Cream vibe. You’ll also see Keaggy use loops to great effect, and longtime fans will recognize when he tosses in some licks from his song “Happy” for good measure.

Gov’t Mule takes an entirely different but equally satisfying approach with a slower version that’s soaked in the blues, starting with Warren Haynes’ earthy, growling vocals before soaring with some great slide guitar. Their live recording of the song, on the fabulous live CD/DVD set “The Deepest End,” adds an extra twist when members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band join Mule on stage. Though the video below is a bit fuzzy, the sound is good enough. Enjoy.

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Philip Yancey visited my campus in November 2002, and the biggest memory I have is the student response: BIG. A huge crowd attended a daytime speech at the campus gym (our largest gathering place). Then that night so many students filled the nearby Free Methodist Church that they sat in the isles, the choir loft and all around the lectern.

When Yancey spoke, he made clear his target audience: those students at the fringes of campus life, those who didn’t fit the mold of being “Christian” enough, who possessed some skepticism toward the campus culture. And how did the students respond? They were attentive as he spoke, they applauded loudly when he finished, and they crowded around him for questions and discussion afterward.

Yancey has reason to sympathize with the doubters; if anyone had good cause to turn away from the faith he did. He explores why he didn’t in his book “Soul Survivor,” which is my favorite among his books.  Yancey tells of growing up in a racist fundamentalist church and seeing the very worst Christians had to offer. In the end, however, he couldn’t stay away from God — even if he did leave his childhood church far behind. And as a journalist he has continued to witness both the best and worst believers have to offer. If yesterday’s post on William Lobdell’s loss of belief represents one response to the failings of believers, then Philip Yancey’s continuing grip on faith is another.

In “Soul Survivor” Yancey writes of people who have inspired him and helped sustain his faith. But they are not the “usual suspects”; he does not turn to saintly models of perfection. Instead he profiles people who are all too fallible but still reflect the enduring handiwork of God. Each of these characters helps Yancey in his recovery from the toxic faith of his youth. Rather than lose heart he finds a gradual transformation, assisted in part because of his emerging understanding of grace. This is particularly evident when he examines the very messy lives of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky:

 There is only one way for any of us to resolve the tension between the high ideals of the gospel and the grim reality of ourselves: to accept that we will never measure up, but that we do not have to. Tolstoy got it halfway right: anything that makes me feel comfort with God’s moral standard, anything that makes me feel “At last I have arrived,” is a cruel deception.

Dostoevsky got the other half right: anything that makes me feel discomfort with God’s forgiving love is also a cruel deception. “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul insisted: that message, Leo Tolstoy never fully grasped.

Absolute ideals and absolute grace: after learning that contrapuntal message from Russian novelists, I returned to Jesus and found that it suffuses his teaching.

I don’t imagine that this kind of analysis would answer Lobdell’s doubts, but these two authors do share important traits: humility, openness, a healthy skepticism, and a willingness to write the truth regardless of where it leads. It would be interesting to see Yancey and Lobdell sit down and compare notes. Though they’d likely not agree, I have no doubt that grace would abound.

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The story begins like a testimony: A young journalist’s life is a mess, his career is going nowhere, and he can barely stand to look at himself in the mirror. Then he gives his life to Jesus, becomes a responsible husband and father, leaves destructive habits behind, and finds professional success. It all looked great for William Lobdell, who began to rise through the ranks of reporters at the Los Angeles Times, eventually landing position as a religion reporter. Lobdell was determined to make amends for the poor coverage of religion in the news media, writing stories about would paint a complete picture of the lives of believers.

Then the scandals started, accentuating doubts that already tugged at him, and his faith slipped away. 

Finally, one night in July 2007 Lobdell published the story of his fall from grace in a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times. I remember spotting it late in the evening while doing my usual web surfing. A classic “Column One” Times story, it ran long but read fast. In fact, I re-read it several times to absorb the story. Many others did the same; within hours hundreds of readers had posted comments. The overwhelming majority boiled down to this message: Thank you for telling the truth.

While some comments came from atheists from Christopher Hitchens/Richard Dawkins camp, far more came from believers who had experienced hurt at the hands of other believers. Many still believed, but still reacted with gratitude to Lobdell’s honesty. The story just rang true. Within a day or so, the comments totaled over 1,000, and their tone remained the same.

Lobdell has since left the Times, one of the papers that suffered most from the news business’ downturn, and in 2009 he published a book-length account of his journey. His honesty is bracing and refreshing; his book should be required reading for everyone holds leadership in a church or ministry organization. One could critique his theological reasoning, I suppose, and suggest ways in which his doubts could’ve been satisfied. But in the end it was actions, not ideas, that first undid Lobdell’s faith, and then his desire to report about religion:

It was discouragingly easy — though incredibly surprising — to find out that Christians, as a group, acted no differently than anyone else, including atheists. Sometimes they performed a little better; other times a little worse. But the Body of Christ didn’t stand out as morally superior.  

Lobdell’s book brings to mind friends of mine who have suffered intense hurt at the hands of other believers and have hung on to their faith, though it’s not the same as before. In the end, no words I offer can fully assuage the hurt, even though I wish they could. I hope and pray that they will hold on to their faith, that they know that God is bigger than human frailty. But in the end it is not frailty alone that proves fatal for faith; it’s when institutional duplicity compounds human frailty that faith dies. This is what you see in example after example in Lobdell’s book.

And that’s why so many readers thanked him for telling the truth — even when it hurt.

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I can’t say that I have a good read on the exact shape of Ben Harper’s faith, but it is a thread that runs through much of his recorded work. His music also takes on many textures, and he appears to be in a hard-rock phase right now with his new band Relentless Seven. But one work that continues to intrigue me is his 2004 collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama, “There Will be a Light.” It’s a mix of original songs by Harper and several covers and traditional songs. The song “Well, Well, Well” (above) is one of those covers, and this video captures a wonderful performance. Below is a more recent video from a recording session, “I Shall Not Walk Alone.” It’s just a beautiful song.  

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When the news web site Politico made its debut several years ago, I was underwhelmed: Too much inside-the-beltway, consumed with the inner drama of D.C. while revealing little that seemed to relate to life outside the Washington’s political life.

Sunday’s New York Times magazine profiles Mike Allen, Politico’s star journalist, but the article only tends to confirm my initial reaction and more — that Politico is symptomatic of the flaws in much of our national press, which operates more as a facilitator of D.C.’s political theater rather than a source of independent journalism.

Mike Allen is portrayed as a workaholic, networked-with-everyone D.C. insider who produces a daily e-mail, the Playbook, which has become a must-read among both politicians and the press — he refers to his readership of 30,000 as the “Playbook community.” Stories that Allen highlights often become the topics of TV and Cable news, not to mention numerous hyperlinks from bloggers and news sites. He is an agenda-setter. 

Allen also is cast as the nicest of gentlemen, though he’s mystery when it comes to his personal life. Mark Leibovich, the article’s author, also describes “Mikey” as an “observant” Christian who attends a nondenominational Protestant church. One source says of Allen: “Philippians 2:3 said, ‘In humility, consider others better than yourselves,’ and I think Mike exemplifies that better than anyone.”

I’m all for more humility in the press, and it would be interesting to hear from Allen on how he works out the relationship between his faith and journalistic practice. Beyond being nice to everyone he meets, in a mix of genuine kindness and journalistic self-interest, it’s hard to discern how Allen’s faith may shape his work. He says: “I get that what I do is a little elusive, ambiguous. I try to be a force for good. And I try to be everywhere.”

However, here’s how Leibovich sums up Allen’s and Politico’s role in D.C.:

Political operatives I speak to tend to deploy the word “use” a lot in connection with Politico; as in, they “use” the publication to traffic certain stories they know they could not or would not get published elsewhere. I was struck by how freely (Politico co-founder Jim) VandeHei threw out the word in connection with how newsmakers and sources interacted with Politico.

“If you want to move data or shape opinion,” VandeHei wrote to me by e-mail, “you market it through Mikey and Playbook, because those tens of thousands that matter most all read it and most feed it. Or you market it through someone else at Politico, which will make damn sure its audience of insiders and compulsives read it and blog about it; and that it gets linked around and talked about on TV programs.”

Doesn’t sound much like a watchdog within this model of journalism. But then Poltico’s reply might be that the D.C. insiders political junkies are their audience; there’s no pretense of serving the larger public. While the article notes that Politico and Allen strive assiduously to remain nonpartisan in their work, this only goes to show how limited the concept of bias becomes when framed as liberal-vs.-conservative or Democrat-vs.-Republican. News is skewed in an entirely different manner when the journalists ingratiate themselves in D.C.’s insular culture; it shapes story selection and framing, and it poses questions about what is left out of coverage. Politico editors argued, for example, that Politico gave health care considerable coverage, but Leibovich noted in reply that the coverage was dominated by “horse-race” frames: Who’s winning, losing, up, down and out. 

Allen, in turn, is a “master aggregator” rather than an investigative reporter; while he worked at the Washington Post he “struggled to write the front-page analytical stories that were the traditional preserve of newspaper ‘stars’ ” Yet, Leibovich says, Allen has broken “some of Politico’s biggest stories”:

He reported that The Post was planning to hold paid salons for lobbyists at the home of its publisher, Katharine Weymouth, setting off a firestorm. During the 2008 campaign he asked John McCain how may homes he owned (eight properties, and it proved a major embarrassment to McCain when he could not immediately answer).

That’s it? Those are the big scoops? Who, in time, will really remember these stories as having any real public consequence? The Playbook community, that’s who.

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Faith tells us that we do not exist simply to live our three score and ten years without pain, with ease and enjoyment, to accumulate possessions, power, or knowledge, to receive accolades and enlarge our egos. How empty such a life would be!

Faith is an expression of the fact that we exist so that the infinite God can dwell in us and work through us for the well-being of the whole creation. If faith denies anything, it denies that we are tiny, self-obsessed specks of matter who are reaching for the stars but remain hopelessly nailed to the earth stuck in our own self-absorption.

Faith is the first part of the bridge from self-centeredness to generosity.

— Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge

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Someday …

I’ll eat breakfast.

I’ll keep a job for more than 3 weeks.

I’ll have a boyfriend for more than 10 days.

I’ll love someone.

I’ll travel wherever I want.

I’ll make my family proud.

I’ll make a movie that changes lives.

These are words of Melissa Arvin, who died in 2009 from a heart attack brought on by an eating disorder. Her mother, Judy, is expressing her grief in a manner that befits the internet era. She is making a documentary about Melissa, and there’s already a web site devoted to sharing her story. The New York Times profiled Judy Arvin this past week, and her story reminds of the ways in our new communication age empowers people to express themselves in constructive ways.

As someone who works with college students, this story and video hits me because of the power eating disorders hold over so many young people. A few students have shared with me of their experience, and even if they only shared in the briefest of terms I am grateful for their openness and trust. There are others I see on campus and they look like they are wasting away before my eyes. Those who endure this affliction need love and support that go beyond words. As Judy Arvin says:

I want it to come out of the shadows. I want people to talk about it, for people to get treatment faster, to reach doctors on the front lines. I want parents to open their eyes and not be swayed by being glad that their kid fits into size 4 jeans — to stop focusing on looks.

Someday …

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