Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Album Countdown: 8-7

#8. Our Endless Numbered Days - Iron and Wine (2004)

Fact about the album

Our Endless Numbered Days is the second Iron & Wine album. Hey, nobody promised these facts would be interesting.

Why it makes the list

I discovered Iron & Wine during my first raid for “similar artists” to Red House Painters. There are websites that will tell you “If you like X then you’ll love Y”. I’ve gone through a lot of Y’s. Some have stuck, others have disappeared. Iron & Wine clearly falls into the former category, thanks in no small part to this delightful album.

While more polished than its predecessor, The Creek Drank the Cradle, it retains the dark charm of Beam’s full debut, and also the simplicity. A couple of guitars and a couple of vocalists make up much of the album. Speaking of the vocals, Sam Beam basically whispers his way through the album, but in a good way.

The songs themselves are the best of their kind. If you like good singer-songwriters, you can’t not like Our Endless Numbered Days. It’s an album that works as background music, but it’s also an album you can cry over as you think about what Beam sings about. Think of it like you’re grandmother. She can either be a pleasant piece of the furniture at a family gathering, or the woman you listen to intently as she tells stories from the good ol’ days.

Memories it evokes

Watching In Good Company at one of Galway City Baptist Church’s famous dvd nights. Two of my favourite tracks from Our Endless Numbered Days feature during the film, which is perhaps why I think it’s not too bad a movie. Well, that and the presence of Scarlett Johansson.

Speaking of Scarlett Johansson, I once read a nice comment on the way she divides opinion: To some, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world; to others, she’s a Pete Burns lookalike.

Favourite tracks

Naked As We Came, Sodom South Georgia, Sunset Soon Forgotten

#7. And Now That I’m In Your Shadow - Damien Jurado (2006)

Fact about the album

Damien Jurado once wrote a song about asking god to kill his schizophrenic brother. This album makes that song sound like something by Hannah Montana.

Why it makes the list

An almost relentlessly downbeat album shouldn’t be this enjoyable, but Jurado pulled off the impossible. There’s barely a drum beat of note, but the guitar/piano/cello combination does more than enough to keep things interesting, as of course do the lyrics.

How much of what Jurado sings is true is akin to wondering how much of Albert Finney’s stories in Big Fish were true. I mean there must be some truth to them, but if everything is factual then surely Damien Jurado would have killed himself by now. Alas, he hasn’t, and he continues to make good music, with his latest offering to come out last year up there with the best of his work.

This album isn’t for the light-hearted, but its deep songs provide a rich source of nourishment if that’s what you’re into. And in ‘Denton, TX’ it contains one of my favourite songs of the noughties.

Memories it evokes

Sitting in a dark, dirty bar with a shot of whiskey in one hand and a revolver in the other, contemplating what I’m gonna’ do ‘bout that no good cheatin’ hussy of a wife who left me for another man.

Favourite songs

Denton TX, Shannon Rhodes, I Had No Intentions

Monday, December 28, 2009

Album Countdown: 10-9

#10. These Friends of Mine - Rosie Thomas (2006)

Fact about the album

When Rosie Thomas talks during this album -- something she does quite a bit -- she sounds like what a pixie might sound like.

Why it makes the list

I’d be lying if I said I think this album is better than most, or indeed any, of the ones that are lower down the list. Its presence at the tail end of my top 10 is more as a representative album for all the ladies in the house - that is, all of the female-led groups that I’ve come to enjoy in the latter part of this decade. Ida, Hem, Trespassers William, Over the Rhine to name a few.

But Rosie Thomas was the original, and this album broke what might be considered my musical sexism. There is a distinct formula to her songs, but instead of making things monotonous, it gives the album a sense of familiarity. As renowned music critic Johnny Giles says, simplicity is beautiful. These Friends of Mine is simple, and for that reason it is beautiful.

Memories it evokes

Playing in the snow.

Favourite tracks

Much Farther To Go, Say Hello, Kite Song

#9. A Rush of Blood To the Head - Coldplay (2002)

Fact about the album

Coldplay stole the riff for ‘Clocks’ from Kelly Roland.

Why it makes the list

As I said already, Parachutes isn’t my favourite Coldplay album. In A Rush of Blood… Chris Martin lays down his guitar for many of the songs and sits behind a piano instead, with a great degree of success. Everyone knows the singles, but it’s the other tracks on this album that propel it to a top 10 place on my list. ‘Green Eyes’ is a pleasant acoustic ballad, ‘Warning Sign’ is yearning ode to love which finishes with the line “And I fall back into your open arms” repeated in falsetto, and ‘Amsterdam’ is one of my favourite tracks of the decade, and as fitting an end to an album as there ever was. (By the way, if you want to tell if an album is good, listen to the last song. A bad last song doesn’t exactly tell you much, but if the last song is good then you can be almost certain that the rest of the album is good too.)

There is one caveat though, and it comes in the form of ‘God Put a Smile Upon Your Face’. I really despise that song, and it prevents the album from being a couple of place higher on the list. Bad Coldplay. (And bad Coldplay for releasing subsequent albums that have failed to enchant me.)

Memories it evokes

Smallville. Back in days of yore when people used to actually watch television shows on television, A Rush of Blood to the Head was my personal soundtrack to Smallville on Friday nights at 7 on Network 2. Whenever there was an ad break in my then favourite show, I’d stick on a song from the album to pass the time and dream about eloping with Kristin Kreuk to a far away island where we would spend our time converting the indigenous population to our Western ways.

Favourite tracks

Amsterdam, Warning Sign, Clocks

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The True Exodus

“Out of Egypt I called My son”.

These are words familiar to many of us from Matthew’s gospel (clinging on as they do to the coattails of the nativity scenes), but their significance is often missed.

After informing us of Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ flight to Egypt to escape the wrath of a jealous and threatened King Herod the Great, Matthew says this getaway occurred in order to fulfill what was written by the prophet Hosea, or, more accurately, what Yahweh has spoken through the prophet Hosea. That is, the phrase “Out of Egypt I called My son” was, in some shape or form, fulfilled in Jesus’ exile to Egypt and return to the Holy Land.

The rather shallow (and unfortunately quite common) way of reading this is as a sort of Nostradamus-esque prediction which miraculously comes true in the life of Jesus. In this case, Hosea made the prediction, and Jesus’ flight to Egypt made it come to pass. Then we’re supposed to go, “Look! See! He is the Son of God! He made an 800 year old prediction come true!”

But, as appropriate as that way of reading certain prophetic passages might be, I don’t that is what Matthew intended. After all, the text in Hosea speaks not of what god will do, but what he has already done.

Therefore instead of being a mere prediction about some event in the early life of Jesus, by drawing on the prophecy of Hosea Matthew is making an important identification; an identification between Jesus and Israel, who, collectively, is the original “my son” of Hosea 11. Through this identification Israel’s history is becoming Jesus’ story in a symbolic way, which is really Matthew’s gospel in a nutshell. And though of course there are similarities between the two stories -- or the two sons -- it is the differences that make all the difference.

Israel was called out of Egypt to be Yahweh’s kingdom of priests. The god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob delivered the nation as part of his plan to deliver the world and thus uphold his promises of universal blessing to Abraham. Israel, however, failed to live up to the vocation of Yahweh’s chosen son.

But god did not give up, neither on Israel nor the world. In Jesus of Nazareth, he was once again calling his son out of a foreign land -- out of exile -- and setting him up to be a light to the world. Jesus would be Israel’s representative, and play to perfection its role as manifestation and herald of the kingdom of god. And so Matthew, through his quotation of Hosea 11:1, is in effect saying, “This is the deliverance out of Egypt, take two. Lights, camera, action!” The remainder of the gospel fleshes out this plotline - in familiar ways but also in fresh, surprising ways.

It is notable where Matthew stops his quotation (remember, he wasn’t reading Hosea 11:1; he was simply reading Hosea). The next part of Hosea goes on to describe Israel’s idolatry, and their unfaithfulness to the call. This is where Jesus’ story parts ways with Israel’s tainted history. Or perhaps, it is where Jesus’ story rights the wrongs of Israel’s history. At his baptism Jesus is affirmed as Yahweh’s chosen son, the one he is well pleased with. During the 40 days of wilderness trials he -- unlike Israel during their 40 years of wandering -- stays faithful to his sonship, and refuses to bow down to another for his own selfish ends.

There is one other interesting thing to take from the subsequent passage in Hosea that Matthew perhaps intended to echo, if only faintly. That Jesus is to be identified with Israel is quite clear, given their respective roles as Yahweh’s chosen son. But if we read the rest of Hosea in the light of Matthew’s gospel, there is also an identification between Jesus and the god of that passage.

In Hosea 11 Yahweh speaks of teaching Israel to walk, taking him by the arms, and healing him - all parental activities. Though Jesus doesn’t echo the words exactly, he certainly echoes the sentiment in Matthew 23, where he speaks longingly about wanting to gather the children of Israel as a mother-hen gathers her brood under her wing. But like the Israel of Hosea’s time, the children “would not return” to their father. Repentance -- a significant theme in Hosea as well as the ministry of Jesus -- was not forthcoming.

Another particularly striking catch word is “yoke”. In Hosea 11:4 Yahweh says he “came to them [i.e. Israel] as one who eases the yoke on their jaws”. In Matthew 11:29-30 Jesus bids all who would come to him to take his yoke which is easy, and so once again the “chosen son” is actually assuming the role of “father”.

But as with his identification with the Israel of Hosea, Jesus’ identification with the god of Hosea also diverges away from perfect similarity. As Yahweh struggles within himself between compassion and judgement (a struggle embodied by Jesus throughout his own ministry), he finally gives in to his compassion, affirming that “I am god and not man”. Here is where something new has occurred, for Jesus is both.

This is the wonder of Christmas - the fullest revelation of god is found in the form of a man. Jesus came not simply to make questionable predictions come true, but (in the inimitable words of my former teacher) to “reveal deity and heal humanity”. To reveal deity he had to identify with god; to heal humanity he had to identify with us. He did so from the very beginning, and took this identification right to the depths of human depravity as he hung on a cross, giving his life as a ransom for many.

God called his son Jesus out of Egypt so that the true exodus could come to pass; the deliverance from a life of sin and the deliverance to a life of Christlikeness, where god and neighbour become truly loved. The message of Christmas is that god’s son Jesus is the suffering servant, and this suffering servant is the Israel’s messiah and lord of the world. This is the good news that Matthew wanted his original readers to know, and it is the good news that continues to be made known to this day, with profound effects on all who receive it freely and obediently.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Album Countdown: 12-11

#12. April - Sun Kil Moon (2008)

Fact about the album

You can buy it on marble vinyl, whatever the heck that is.

Why it makes the list

If nothing else, this album represents great value for money (if you’re still into that whole paying for music thing). There is roughly 75 minutes of original material packed into one disc, and what fine material it is too. The opener is classic Kozelek, with its alternatively tuned guitars, haunting vocals, and absurd lengthiness. In fact those are three charges that could be levelled against almost all of the songs on April. But in between the epics are some beautiful(ly) short numbers like my personal favourite, ‘Moorestown’, and Americana tinged ditties such as ‘Unlit Hallway’ and ‘Like the River’.

And then there’s ‘Tonight the Sky’, which is nothing short of an ode to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then the opening riff of ‘Tonight the Sky’ is one of the most flattering things never said. However, it certainly doesn’t flatter to deceive. (And with that, ‘flatter’ and its cognates have lost all meaning). Repetitive solo aside, it is a brilliant anthem, which I also had the pleasure of hearing live.

2008 was a good year for the album, and April deserves to be right up there with the best of what that year offered to us.

Memories it evokes

The gig I alluded to. I’m going to go ahead and say it was the best I’ve been at.

Favourite tracks

Moorestown, Tonight the Sky, Lost Verses

#11. Gold - Ryan Adams (2001)

Fact about the album

Gold peaked at no. 45 in New Zealand’s album charts. If that’s not prestige then I don’t know what is.

Why it makes the list

It was never going to be easy to follow Heartbreaker. Sequels are rarely if ever better than the original. Of course it’s a matter of opinion whether Adams has achieved the almost impossible, but whatever your opinion, Gold is anything but disappointing. In fact it’s astounding.

I could wax lyrical about the many excellent tracks, but I’ll simply say this: When it comes to artists plying their trade today that posterity will deem worth listening to in a few decades time, Ryan Adams will surely be near the top of that list. Forget about Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters, or whoever else is the flavour of the month. Ryan Adams has made music that will last well beyond his prime.

Pity he’s such a plonker.

Memories it evokes

Lengthy debates with a college friend over which is better - Heartbreaker or Gold.

Favourite tracks

La Cienaga Just Smiled, Firecracker, When the Stars Go Blue

Friday, December 18, 2009

Worth Less

Every single moment on this planet from here on out, human beings are worth less. Not more; less.

Perhaps it's his deep religious heritage, perhaps it's because he's simply a very angry man, but whatever the reason, David Simon is a great embodiment of the prophetic imagination that is sketched in Walter Brueggemann's excellent book. Or at least a great embodiment of one half of that imagination - the criticism half. He goes on to pronounce that

At every given moment where this country [The U.S.] has had a exalt the value of individuals over the value of the share price, we have chosen raw, unencumbered capitalism. Capitalism has become our god.

Listen to the rest of what Simon has to say here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

People Falling Over

The Apprentice 2009 featured so many brilliant moments that if were to write about all of them I would fill up all the books in the world. Here, then, is perhaps the funniest of them all. It happened in the last episode, and after a dozen times of watching it, it still makes me laugh. What is about people falling over that makes it so wonderful to behold?

Album Countdown: 14-13

#14. At Home With Owen - Owen (2006)

Fact about the album

The Pietro Crespi referenced in the title of track 2 is a character from the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Why it makes the list

Mike Kinsella -- aka Owen -- recorded (and perhaps still records) his music in the basement of his mother’s house. To say he has been an inspiration for me would be a gross understatement.

Though some of the songs on this album have enough overdubbing to rival Paul Simon’s finest, they all revolve around a simple guitar riff and honest lyrics. In the opening track, Owen tells a friend of his, “You’re a has been that never was”. In track two he asks his fiancé (now wife) “Could you love someone who does whatever he wants to do, whenever I want to? I’m only asking ‘cos I don’t wanna die alone.” In track 5 he lets his fiancé/wife in on a few home truths - “When I put my arms around you, I mean it. When I’m too drunk to stay up with you, I mean it. When I slam doors ‘cos I’m pissed at you, I mean it. And when I put on a suit and say ‘I do’, I mean it.”

As a singer-songwriter Owen is quite unique, in that his songs don’t sound like the product of one man’s imagination. That they don’t is a testament to Kinsella’s musical prowess, capable as he is on multiple instruments. But at the heart of it all is a man, a guitar, and a few stories to tell about friendship and love.

Memories it evokes

I saw Owen play live, and after ‘A Bird In Hand’ he successfully managed to make a funny joke about beating his wife. His wife was at the gig too. Ah, happy memories.

Favourite tracks

Bad News, A Bird in Hand, One of These Days

#13. O - Damien Rice (2002)

Fact about the album

Songs from O have featured on 679,453 episodes of television shows all across the world.

Why it makes the list

You know you’ve got a good album on your hands when you’re favourite track from it keeps changing. About seven tracks from O have been my favourite at one time or another.

As per usual, it was one particular song that reeled me in - 'The Blower’s Daughter'. My cousin was listening to it on our computer, and as he was doing so I took up my guitar and attempted to play along with it. The open chords I was hearing were -- quite literally -- music to my ears, and perhaps for the first time in my life I embraced a singer-songwriter. Big moment, that.

The album went on to get a lot of air time on my gigantic mp3 player. Though some songs have lost their initial appeal -- e.g. 'Amie' -- others have emerged as classics, none more so than 'Older Chests'.

I’ve owned Rice’s second album since it first came out. Two weeks ago I couldn’t have told you its name. O may be the only Damien Rice album I’ll ever listen to, but I for one am okay with that. Say what you like about the man who was once a farmer in France, this is a great record and I’ll stand by it, no matter how pretentious the album art may be.

Memories it evokes

It’s all about ‘The Blower’s Daughter’, really. I played this song at a talent show with two other people (one singing, the other on violin), and it sounded surprisingly good. When we got to the final “I can’t take my eyes off of you”’s, someone in the crowd rang the singer’s (then) fiancé and he started crooning the words into the phone. Tremendously cheesy, but it was done with tongue firmly in cheek, which is said singer’s wonderful disposition to almost everything in life. A classic moment.

Favourite tracks

The Blower’s Daughter, Older Chests, I Remember

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Seek Professional Help

This might just be the silliest, most absurd question I've ever asked -- and I've asked a few in my time -- but here it goes anyway:

Is there a moral difference between killing someone in self-defense and raping someone in self-defense?

The notion of raping someone in self-defense is horriffic, of course, if not a downright impossibility. I won't pretent that such an action can actually exist. But then what of killing someone? How is that more morally justified than raping them? How can killing someone in self-defense justifiably exist?
In the words of William Munny,

It's a hell of a thing killin' a man. You take away all he's got, and all
he's ever gonna have.

Killing a man is the last straw. There's nothing you can do to him after that, or at least nothing he'll care about anyway. So why is it tolerated under certain conditions, either by law or our own consciences? Any suggestions, apart from urging me to seek professional help?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Album Countdown: 17-15

#17. The Swell Season - The Swell Season (2006)

Fact about the album

Marketa Irglova was 18 when this album was released. 18! Glen you ol’ dog, you.

Why it makes the list

I encountered The Swell Season rather fortuitously, although I guess that charge could be leveled against most on this list. I was flicking through a friend’s mp3 player one day in college (something I usually do to make rapid judgments on someone's character), and inquired about Glen Hansard and how good he was and so forth. Knowing my penchant for melancholy music, The Swell Season was recommended to me with confidence, and it proved to confidence well-founded.

I instantly fell in love with ‘Falling Slowly’, and so after overdosing on that track I delved into the rest of what the album had to offer. Most of the songs didn’t depart from what made ‘Falling Slowly’ such a success on me, and I for one was okay with that. There was a chemistry to this album -- no doubt owing itself to the two lead performers -- that you can’t buy or manufacture at will. Sometimes it is there, sometimes it isn’t. It was in this album in abundance, and it found its full expression on the wonderfully simple film Once, which featured Hansard and Irglova as something like musical soul mates. The songs on The Swell Season took on a whole new life when accompanied by moving pictures, but the album alone stands as one of the finest duets of the past decade, and certainly my favourite.

Memories it evokes

Marketa Irglova walking a hoover down a busy Dublin street as if it were a dog.

Favourite tracks

Falling Slowly, Lies, When Your Mind’s Made Up

#16. Parachutes - Coldplay (2000)

Fact about the album

Parachutes was banned in China because the government detected anti-Communist vibes from the song ‘Spies’.

Why it makes the list

I was originally dismissive of Coldplay. ‘Trouble’ and ‘Yellow’ came on the scene in the midst of my “If a song doesn’t have a good guitar solo then it’s rubbish” phase, so I retreated back to the confines of Dire Straits, Thin Lizzy, and all the rest of those artists with a propensity for guitar solos, safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t missing out on much.

The opening track, 'Don’t Panic', proved I was wrong. Enchanted with that little number, I was forced to give the rest of the album a fair cop, and I was not disappointed. Aside from brilliant tracks like 'Shiver', 'Everything’s Not Lost', and 'Sparks', this album also provided me with a new lens with which to view the guitar. I discovered for the first time an alternate tuning, and the value of the simple and economical as opposed to the complex and prodigal; a riff like that found in 'Everything’s Not Lost' can be just as effective as something by Jimmy Page, and is much more listenable than the show-boating of virtuosos like Al di Meola or Steve Morse.

Parachutes was nothing short of a catalyst for my musical tastes throughout the decade (for better or worse), and so while clearly not my favourite album of “the noughties” (nor even my favourite Coldplay album), it is perhaps the most significant.

Memories it evokes

This album always bring me back to Christmas ’02, when I listened to it -- and especially 'Don’t Panic' -- incessantly. I also remember there being this weird adaptation of Snow White (starring the peerless Kristen Kreuk) on Channel 4 at the time, and so while taking in the soothing Fmaj7’s of ‘Don’t Panic’ with my ears I was looking at one of the most beautiful women of the decade. Delightful.

Finally, I can’t listen to ‘Yellow’ without recalling our band’s second and final gig. It was a top, top night and I think we did a bang up job of the song. If only people weren’t too drunk to remember any of it.

Favourite tracks

Don’t Panic, Shiver, Everything’s Not Lost

#15. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (2008)

Fact about the album

The cover art is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder called ‘Netherlandish Proverbs’, which features -- amongst other things -- the carving of a live sheep.

Why it makes the list

Fleet Foxes’ eponymous effort needs no justification to be on this list, given that it’s basically on every similar list you’re likely to read. It’s like some kind of modern day Jefferson Airplane album, full of surrealism, reverberation, and soaring melodies. Every time I listen to Fleet Foxes I get sucked into their world, and what a peaceful world it is.

Memories it evokes

I first listened to this album during one of my cleaning binges. There I was, up in the attic sorting though all the clothes I had flung carelessly on the ground, but enjoying the experience solely because of what my ears where hearing.

Favourite songs

Oliver James, Quiet Houses, Tiger Mountain Peasant Song

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Heretical Nonsense

When it comes to authority -- or authorization -- does the spirit of god (ever) supersede Scripture? At the least, a vaguely positive answer to this question sounds like a terribly messy conclusion to come to; at most, I should be burned at the stake for even daring to ask such heretical nonsense. But what does Scripture say? Or more to the point, how does Scripture itself behave, and how was it treated by those who read it long before we did?

We fins one of the most significant pivots in Scripture -- Old and New Testament included -- in the Book of Acts, chapter 10. Here we read of a Gentile joining god’s covenant community, but in a surprising way. Cornelius didn’t need to go under the knife and have a part of his manhood snipped. He didn’t need to demarcate himself by keeping the food laws. In short, he didn’t need to become a Jew. The spirit of god resting upon this centurian was enough to convince Peter that YHWH was doing a new thing. Circumcision, a fundamental law found throughout the Old Testament, was superseded by a new law -- the law of Christ -- which was radically inclusive of Jews, Gentiles, males, females, free men and slaves.

Paul took this to the nth degree, summarising in 1 Corinthians 7 that what matters is not circumcision or uncircumcision, but keeping god’s commandments…except the one about circumcision, evidently.

What Peter and Paul appear to be doing here is allowing the empowering presence of god’s spirit to shape their ministries in uncomfortable ways; ways that would have once been inconceivable to them as Jews. And what’s more, Peter and Paul are allowing the spirit to shape their reading and understanding of Scripture; it is a hermeneutic of the spirit, which sounds like a reasonable framework of interpretation given the spirit’s unique hand in the Bible’s authorship. These two apostles could never have come to the conclusion that circumcision is meaningless by merely reading and interpreting Israel’s scriptures themselves. They needed a higher authority -- the present experience of the spirit in their lives and in the lives of others -- to guide them towards uncomfortable truths.

The question remains - does the spirit supersede Scripture? Would the disciples have come to different conclusions about Gentile inclusion in the church had they let Scripture be their supreme authority? Or are the spirit and Scripture always and forever in perfect harmony? After all, in Acts 15 James quotes Amos as a witness to what Peter and Paul experienced first hand, and Paul is relentless in his use of Scripture to validate this new work of god spreading throughout the Roman empire.

I think there is an inherent harmony between spirit and Scripture, but I don’t think that implies utter consistency from start to finish, where both are absolutely immutable. For example, we affirm that the spirit of god worked with Moses as he formulated his divorce laws for Israel. But, we also affirm that the spirit of god worked with Jesus as he critiqued those laws by saying that divorce was never actually god’s original intention; rather, adjustments were made in the time of Moses to accommodate for Israel’s hardness of heart (Matt. 19).

What then of some modern day application, such as female teachers in church? Can we appeal to the promptings or gifts of god’s spirit in the lives of women over and against some texts like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2? Has the spirit once again acted in a surprising way, a way only glimpsed by Paul (Galatians 3, for example) but not fully worked out yet? Might the spirit have said something to Paul in his day, but be saying something different to us? Something perhaps contrary to certain passages in Scripture, but resonant with the overall picture? I wouldn’t put it past him, but my word wouldn’t that open a can of worms.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Stop Pretending

I was given the task of writing a short opinion piece with a contrary viewpoint in my journalism night class yesterday. Here's what I came up with, the topic roughly being that materialism at Christmas should be welcomed.


contains words and concepts that I don't fully understand

**end warning**

The sooner it is admitted that Christmas nowadays is all about materialism the better. What matters to us in the Western world, is, well, matter, and the more we have of it the happier we will be.

This, and not the Christian worldview, is what dominates society’s thinking and decision making in general. It is high time this is consciously admitted by the masses and people -- both inside the church and out -- stop pretending that we can juggle both Christ and our version of Christmas. We have laid our secular bed; we must be prepared to sleep in it.

In our hypermodern world, one should not be embarrassed by the materialism surrounding Christmas. In such a world, materialism is, for lack of a better word, good; the only good, in fact. It permeates every other day of the year, so why not the 25th of December? The only embarrassment should be the mention of Jesus at this time of year. We have relegated him to irrelevance in our day to day lives; therefore his presence in the midst of rampant consumerism is at best confusing and at worst blatant hypocrisy, for as Charlie Brooker so graphically puts it, Jesus “would have doubtless vomited up his own ribcage in disgust at the mere sight of the hollow, anaesthetising capitalist moonbase” that is our take on Christmas.

Strange as it may sound, Christ and Christmas do not mix. Not today. The Christian Church will protest at this, and well it might, for we have betrayed the sacred traditions of Christmas – the celebration of the birth of a man who lived and died for the sake of others, for the sake things unseen, for the sake of true love. What was once a thanksgiving for the god who made himself nothing has now become a spending spree for people who want everything. But given our collective worldview, materialism can no longer be considered a distracting sideshow to the event of Christmas; rather, materialism finds its full expression at this time of year. Shops are the new churches, where people flock to for their most urgent needs. It is little wonder that they are planning for Christmas long before actual churches are.

The Church must concede that we live, for all intents and purposes, in a post-Christian world. No doubt the Church is largely to blame for this, as recent scandals within its Catholic expression lamentably testify to. Therefore until we as a society are willing to stand for that which Jesus stands for -- until the Christian Church is once again willing to stand for that which Jesus stands for -- materialism should be what Christmas is all about. Ironically, this will actually serve to benefit the Church, for only then will its shocking counter-cultural message begin to be understood by both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Album Countdown: 20-18

I've decided to unveil my favourite 20 albums of the decade incrementally, perhaps three or four at a time. Before I begin, a few things to note:

- There are no albums from 2009 on the list. Am I missing out something brilliant recorded in the last 12 months?

- I'm a fan of slow, melodic, and some might say depressing music. This list will reflect that for the most part.

- Feel free to offer your own suggestions as to what would be on your list, or comment on what you can't believe is on mine.

- The album is a dying specimen. Flick through a random person's Ipod and you'll see scores of artists, but many of which with only a couple of songs to their name. This is a great shame, because a good song should be like a good chapter or television episode. You can't just rip out a chapter here or an episode there and expect the same experience. It has to have a larger context in which to appreciate it fully. For the musician, albums are that context, and so we ignore them to the detriment of our musical sensibilities. Curse you, I-tunes!

And on that note...

#20. Old Ramon - Red House Painters (2001)

Fact about the album

It was actually recorded in the late 90’s, but due to various issues with recording companies it wasn’t actually unleashed to the masses until 2001. I wonder if anyone cared at the time?

Why it makes the list

This was the last album recorded by Mark Kozelek’s first solo act disguised as a band. Red House Painters were somewhat pioneers of a movement called “slowcore” during the 90’s, which basically consist of really long, mopey songs. Thing is, I happen to love really long, mopey songs, so Mark Kozelek and co. quickly became a favourite of mine.

Old Ramon is certainly not my favourite Red House Painters album, but it’s the only one recorded in the last decade, which gives it an eligibility factor that the others lack. But is it any good? In a word, yes. It’s brilliant, really, which tells you how good the other stuff is in RHP’s locker. There are a couple of sketchy songs on it to be sure (for example, the opening track is a love song about Mark Kozelek’s cat) but even the not-so-good numbers kind of grow on you. And when it is good, it is very good indeed, with the 11 minute epic River being a particular standout.

For anyone unfamiliar with Red House Painters I probably wouldn’t recommend jumping straight into Old Ramon, but it is nonetheless a fitting end to a seminal band’s career; an end which prompted the beginnings of a band that will take this list by storm.

Memories it evokes

Romania. I listened to this album (along with Ocean Beach and Songs for a Blue Guitar) while volunteering for a couple of weeks in Romania. The long bus journeys, car journeys and plane journeys were filled with the soothing sounds of Kavita, Cruiser et al. Every time I hear these tracks I’m always transported back to Count Dracula’s home country, which is really quite nice.

Favourite tracks

River, Smokey, Void

#19. Post-War - M. Ward (2006)

Why it makes the list

I don’t know very much about M. Ward. I don’t even know what the ‘M’ stands for. But I do know that this is a terrific album, and quite unlike most on this list. It has that clichéd “old school” vibe to it that would convince you it was recorded in the 60’s or 70’s if you didn’t know any better. The songs move swiftly along, and never fail to put a little smile on my face in the process. It certainly makes for a nice change of pace from the previous entry, and many of the subsequent ones.

Memories it evokes

I’ve never seen Dead Man’s Shoes, but I know M. Ward has at least one song featured in the film. So now when I listen to Post-War I usually think of the fact that I’ve yet to see Dead Man’s Shoes, even though I had it in my possession for a couple of weeks. How crazy is that!?

Favourite tracks

Requiem, Chinese Translation, Rollercoaster

(Delayed) Fact about the album

The ‘M’ stands for ‘Matt’. I think we all learned something important today.

#18. Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place - Explosions in the Sky (2003)

Fact about the album

It has been described by one of the band members as “Explosions in the Sky’s version of love songs”. Love songs without words - there’s an interesting concept.

Why it makes the list

One esteemed musician and social commentator likened Explosions in the Sky to Mozart. Far be it from me to disagree with this sage. Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place is the album I use to lift my spirit. If I were a professional sportsman, this is what I’d listen to in order to get psyched before a big game. It really does give me goose bumps when I hear those chiming guitars creating sweeping landscapes, but such is the power of music when it is carefully crafted. I’ve waxed lyrical about Explosions in the Sky before so I won’t do it again. Suffice to say that this is the best album of its kind that I’ve ever heard, and one which successfully turns electric guitars into works of art.

Memories it evokes

It always makes me recall Friday Night Light’s (for obvious reasons), especially Billy Bob’s ridiculously cheesy “Love in your heart” speech. But it also brings back memories from my two weeks at The Anchorage, since Your Hand In Mine was the song playing during our slideshow presentation. Ah, good times.

Favourite Tracks

First Breath After Coma, Your Hand In Mine, Six Days At the Bottom of the Ocean

Thursday, December 3, 2009

In The Process of Formulating

Posts have been scarce for the past week, but there will be some blogging goodness coming your way very soon. I'm in the process of formulating my Favourite 20 albums from 2000-2009. This will of course be an unashamedly subjective list, but I reckon I can make a good case for most of the albums that will be included. Some will be popular, some will be more obscure, but all of them have had a role to play in my life over the past 10 years. I've lumped them all onto a big playlist and am very much enjoying the result.

So, yeah, expect the fruits of my labour to be available some time before Christmas. In the mean time, I'll keep doing what I've always been doing - stealing the thoughts of others and selling them as my own.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Philosophy of Eating

As a consequence of unemployment, I've had to make a few adjustments in life in order to keep my bank balance a feint shade of black. In what may be the first of a new series, here is one of those adjustments:

My eating habits have had to be completely reworked. I used to eat mostly for pleasure; a biscuit here, a chocolate bar there, a yogurt somewhere else. I liked to keep things ticking over, because when I get hungry I can be nothing short a huge tool.

Such perpetuity of consumption costs money, however. Money that I simply can't afford to spend. My philosophy of eating had to change. The economics demanded it. Here, then, is my cost-saver solution to the problem.

Instead of keeping things ticking over, I now do the exact opposite. I starve myself until I pass out from the hunger, and when I (hopefully) wake up again, I eat something. Those of you interested in my financial situation will be pleased to know that I've only eaten three meals in the last two weeks at a combined cost of 7 Euro. Those of you worried about my health, rest assured that I didn't cook the meals myself.

God bless you Marks and Spencer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Cultural Consciousness

A society without a cultural consciousness of the absolute, such as we are in the process of creating, is like a lawn laid on top of a concrete yard: it may briefly give the impression of health, but eventually, for obvious reasons, it withers away. What is called secularism, therefore, strikes not merely at specific religions, or even religions in general, but at the very capacity of humans to be human.

So says Irish Times columnist John Waters. Read the full piece here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Terrible Films

The Agony Booth is a website dedicated to recapping terrible, terrible films. The writers wade through a movie scene by scene, picking it apart one appalling piece of direction/screenwriting/acting at a time. It may sound a tad excruciating, but based on the two recaps that I've read, it results in pieces that are really quite funny.

Consider this excerpt from the recap for Batman Forever, which I must admit had me chuckling for a good two minutes. (You had to be there):

Gordon introduces Batman to Dr. Chase Meridian, and it turns out Batman is already familiar with her work, because he cites it as naïve, but insightful. Some dreadful banter ensues between Batman and Chase that's too insipid to recount. The highlight, however, is when she calls Batman's own sanity into question by referring to him as "a grown man who dresses like a flying rodent."

BatVal gets a bit irritated by this. He responds by doing his very best scary eyes, and invading Chase's personal space, and offering the following reply.

Batman: Bats aren't rodents, Dr. Meridian!

Chase says she didn't know that. Honestly? Where did she get her PhD? I'm no zoologist, but even I could have told you that. Then Chase delivers the verbal coup de grace, and the most ridiculous line in the whole film.

Chase: By the way, do you have a first name, or do I just call you "Bats"?
What? Exactly what kind of response was she expecting there? "Oh, yeah, sure. I'm Melvyn. Melvyn Batman."

Monday, November 23, 2009

All Powerful and All Loving?

In a world not without its fill of pain and suffering, how can god be both all powerful and all loving?

This is the question that dominates a particular branch of theology known as Theodicy, which literally means “the justification of god” or something like that.

But more than that, it is a question most, if not all, of us grapple with it, be it often or be it when some kind of tragedy inevitably invades our small corner of the world.

Before I briefly share my thoughts on this question, let me say this: It is never wrong to cry out with a “How?” or a “Why?” The Psalms (and plenty of other books in the Bible) are filled with the outcries of anguished souls questioning their god. The reality of painful human experience is not glossed over in Scripture in favour of glib theological musings and formulae.

And on that note, allow me to present you with some glib theological musings and formulae.

First things first - the question in question once more: In a world with so much evil, how can god be both all powerful and all loving?

There are a number of presuppositions brought to the table when this question is raised, which I think I’m right to be dubious about.

1 - That there is a contradiction between an omnipotent, all loving god and a world where bad things happen. Why can’t the two co-exist? The question is often asked in the same way that someone might ask “How can a room with no windows have one of its windows wide open?” but clearly it is not in that category of obvious contradiction. So from where is the contradiction derived? From how we think such a god ought to operate within his world?

2 - That we know who the word “god” is referring to. Which god are we talking about when we ask this question? Where did we get our ideas about what he is like? Talk to Richard Dawkins, and he is a fictional character, and a really horrible one at that. Talk to N.T. Wright, and he is the world’s loving creator who is intimately involved in putting his creation to rights. Talk to a deist, and god is some being who created the world and then left it to run by itself as he resides in a far away place. In short, the unknown in this question is not simply the answer to the paradox it poses; the unknown is perhaps god himself.

3 - That we know what godly power and godly love would look like if we saw it. We come to this question with our own definitions of power and love, and we perhaps remain unwilling for those definitions to be altered.

There are I’m sure other presuppositions that we all have, but those are some of the main ones I can think of.

I approach this question as a Christian, which means that I think the unknown god in the paradox is known through Jesus of Nazareth. This, for me, is highly significant when it comes to wrestling with the tension posed by the question. If we look at the question through the three lenses Richard Hays uses in his book on New Testament Ethics -- community, cross, and new creation -- the significance of Jesus becomes clearer.


Jesus did not come and eradicate all of the evil in the world through powerful love. He began something transformative, but he then left the power (so to speak) into the hands of his disciples. They were to be his community which would be a light to the world, empowered by the spirit of god to manifest the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. God -- in what might be considered foolishness -- has chosen this community to continue on from where Jesus left off. Perhaps if the church of today was more willing to be god’s healing agent in a broken world, the apparent contradiction between god and his creation would be rather hollow.


If I have made Jesus sound like simply the founder of some new human movement, then the cross will surely correct this. Christians see this as -- amongst many things -- god’s definitive solution to the problem of evil. It is the place where “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”.

Moreover, the cross also redefines what we mean when we talk of power and love. It is the ultimate revelation of both. As Paul says in Corinthians, god’s power looks like weakness. Actually, it is weakness; it is power in weakness. When we talk of an all powerful god, this usually triggers images in our mind of some glorious being floating around on a cloud and zapping things in order to fix them (or perhaps smite them); rarely does it trigger the image of a man dying on a Roman cross.

Love also gets a make-over, seen now not to be a pain-free, happy-clappy thing, but something costly, something which feels hurt as well as joy. God’s love revealed on the cross is a love that runs deeper than him wishing us well, with his power then the power to make us well. It is a love that enters into the depths of human need and suffering; a love which can cry out “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” The real paradox is that god has experienced the feeling of god-forsakenness.

New Creation

Finally, the Christian knows that what we see now is not the way things will always be. There is hope. God has raised Jesus from the dead, and so though we suffer now, we can be confident that it does not and will not have the last word over our lives. This does not mean that suffering is to be ignored or trivialised. It is real and tragic. New creation has burst into life, but the old order of being lingers on, and we continue to feel its harrowing effects, and we continue to cry out to god “Why?” and “How long?” The tension of the question “how god can co-exist with evil?” is felt by the Christian, and is not supposed to be explained away. I hope I haven’t done that.

I only hope to have shown that god has not remained silent on the issue. As the Psalm which begins with “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” goes on to say,

You have answered me

Indeed, god has not hidden his face from us. He has heard our cries. Through Jesus of Nazareth he has dealt a devastating blow to evil, triumphing over it through the cross. Through his community of believers he intends to point back to what Jesus has accomplished, and to point forward to the consummation of his new creation. The present remains a time of tension and toil, but there also remains faith, hope, and love in the midst of it all, and the greatest of these is love. We are to re-enact in the present the powerful love of god that was made known on the cross, doing so by faith in Jesus, and in the hope that one day all wrongs will be made right.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The X-Factor

I’ve yet to watch an entire episode of The X-Factor. Tonight I intend to change that, and to walk you -- the misfortunate reader -- through my experience into uncharted waters.

The acts have to perform a song by George Michael (either during his days with Wham! or as a solo artist). If this isn’t a set-up for Jedward then I don’t know what is.

By the way, how many George Michael songs can you name? Once you get past “Wake Me Up” and “Last Christmas”, I’m very much struggling.

Here we go…

It starts with the most over-the-top introduction in televisual history. It is a flashy recap of what happened last week, with a voice-over by the guy who does those second-chance Sunday adverts for E4 [!?] This makes even the opening credits for Batman & Robin look understated. No easy task.

The Judges have just been presented before us in a fashion not unfamiliar to Triple H or The Rock. Cheryl is wearing, er, something. That’s a start anyway. We’re only five minutes into proceedings, and I’m already overwhelmed to the point of epilepsy. Not good.

As an aside, Cheryl Cole: the most beautiful woman in the world, or a decent looking girl with loads of make-up and hair extensions? You decide.

Lloyd is getting ready to kick things off, with what Cheryl calls George Michael’s most “recognisable” song. If this isn’t either “Last Christmas” or “Wake Me Up” then I’ll be extremely disappointed. Simon muses that if Lloyd was a cat, he’d have used up 8 of his lives by now. (Lloyd is not a cat, incidentally). In other words, Lloyd needs to produce the goods tonight. Will he?

His performance is short and, well, average. Louis compliments Lloyd on his new hair cut, which is a classic case of damning with faint praise, given that Lloyd probably didn’t even cut his own hair. In other words, having just heard someone sing a tune in order to be judged, Louis decides to give some kudos to Lloyd's barber. Non sequitur much? Simon is much more positive, but you know he’s probably just being so merely to disagree with Louis (oh those two!). Cheryl says that Lloyd is turning into a man right before her eyes, and then undoes all of that by calling him “adorable”. Adorable!? Babies and cats are adorable, Cheryl, and as has been made perfectly clear already, Lloyd is not a baby, nor a cat. He’s a man, and men are not adorable. Cheryl couldn’t have been more patronising if she walked up to Lloyd on stage, spat on a tissue, and started cleaning around his mouth so that he’d “look nice for all the girls”. Danni said things before anyone else did, but she (like Cheryl earlier) doesn’t seem to understand that when the audience is screaming, the judges can’t be heard.

I wish the audience screamed more.

My verdict? If Lloyd was a cat, he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the X-Factor, which I think is grossly unfair. I say all felines rise as one and put the producers of this anti-cat show in their place! As Jedward are proving week by week, it is not a singing competition, so I’m sure there’s something the cat community can do to win over the public. May I suggest getting milked?

Dermot O’Leary welcomes us back, and next up is the only girl left - Stacey. Danni simply calls her “the voice”, which might be a ploy to take the attention away from Stacey’s face. I’m sorry. That was mean and uncalled for.

Stacey seems like a nice girl. Down to earth and all that. Seriously. She’s just not very attractive, but since when has that mattered when it comes to being a huge popstar [?].

The performance starts shakily, and continues on in that manner. Oh dear. “The voice” isn’t working tonight. She seems to be okay on the big notes, but there is a notable lack of consistency. Over to the judges.

Louis doesn’t mention anything about tonight’s performance, and neither does Cheryl. Criticism by omission? Simon finally talks about stuff that actually happened tonight, and says much the same things as I did. I’m not sure how that makes me feel. Not good, is my gut reaction. Danni finishes things off this time, but she fails to mention anything relevant. If I were to turn the tables and judge the judges right now, Danni would be gone. She serves no discernible purpose.

Stacey is obviously liked by all, which seems to be clouding the judgement of at least the judges, and probably the voters. She is a good singer, but nothing special. In a sort of backwards way, her not-very attractiveness seems to be working in her favour. Because she doesn’t have “the look”, people are almost assuming that she has “the voice”. On the evidence of tonight, she doesn’t. She is better than that cat Lloyd, though.

So far, the performances are as underwhelming as the production is overwhelming. Let’s see if John and Edward can change that. Shock horror, they will be doing a Wham! song.

They’re dancing on top of a table with a couple of girls. Good start. They’re also singing in tune, which is more than what can be said for some of Stacey’s performance. It is all very circus-ish, however, with a man at the front of the stage just spinning on his head…for no particular reason. I’m not sure who this campness appeals to, but clearly people are being won over. What is it with these two? What do they have that others don't? They seem to have this special gift, almost a factor, that is mysterious and undefinable. But whatever it is, they have no business on a show like The X-Factor. None at all.

Once again, Danni talks while the audience is screaming. Simon says that Jedward are like Louis’s own little action men dolls, but not in a creepy way (I think, though I hesitate to jump to a definite conclusion). More in a “using them to make millions of pounds” kind of way, I imagine.

Next up is Arsenal’s Eduardo. I was thinking that he wasn’t all there against Sunderland this afternoon.

Actually, it’s DanYl, and he is singing one of George Michael’s most famous songs. If this isn’t either “Last Christmas” or “Wake Me Up”…

After a verse of it, I still don’t know what song it is, but he’s doing okay. Probably the best singing performance yet, which really isn’t saying much. But you can only beat what’s put in front of you, right?

Danni talks while the audience...ah, you know the drill at this stage. Louis sticks the knife into Simon, and Cheryl goes after Danyl by dubbing the performance "flat". After judging which has mostly consisted of ignoring everything about the performances on the night, these comments are a little out of the blue. Sure Danyl wasn’t fantastic, but he was certainly better than the rest. Perhaps he’s just not very likable? Or perhaps, unlike David Brent, Louis and Cheryl don’t like people of mixed race. What about the melting pot, guys? Simon says Danyl exhibited what is known in the business as “respecting the song”, which is something Simon can’t quite define, which makes you wonder if he just made that term up there and then in order to appear knowledgeable and clever. If I know Simon Cowell like I think I do, however, that clearly isn't the case.

Next up is Olly. “Late” by Ben Folds plays in the background as he hugs his parents during a video montage, which finally gives me something musical to enjoy. By the way, Olly looks like Gary Barlow’s love child. Also, Olly plans on being more “sexy, and modern, and current” tonight. Has he been performing as a medieval minstrel thus far, or something?

Well if wearing black and sitting down is considered sexy and modern, then Ollie is on fire tonight! It also doesn’t hurt that he has half a dozen female dancers wearing catsuits gyrating around him. He could be wearing a Brian Cowen mask while singing a Richie Kavanagh song right now and it would still be sexy, thanks to his environs.

Ignoring Danni, Louis says that he likes how “not fake” Olly is. That’s probably as much a dig at some other contestant, more than likely Danyl (I say that purely because of the ‘y’ in his name. How fake is that!?). Much like Stacey, Olly is well liked. Niceness seems to be taking ordinary people a long way in this competition, which is no bad thing. I missed Simon and Cheryl’s comments, but if their previous is anything to go by, they talked about anything but the stuff happening right in front of us.

Finally, we have Joe. Not Jo. Not Joh. Not Joye. Just Joe. I like him already. Let’s see if he can sing.

Simon nods during the performance as if to say “Yes, he can”. I agree. Allow me to indulge in some hyperbole before the judges do - “Best singing performance in the history of music”. “You will not only win this competition, Joe, but you may well become president of world”. “You make me want to be a better man, Joe”.

To the judges, then.

Danni lauds Joe for his honesty of voice. Louis calls it the best performance of the night, but points out that the song was penned by Elton John, which is slightly bending the rules. Simon and Louis engage in some light-hearted banter over Louis’ throwing of the rule book, which is of course hilarious. You just know those two are sleeping with each other outside of the show, don’t you?

Well, as the adage goes, the show must come to an end sooner or later, and so we close with a quick recap of the performances. All pretty average, with Joe just about rising above the rest. If any of these people hit the big time, then I promise to buy Michelle McManus’ latest album, which, rumour has it, is simply a recording of her eating different types of food. Track number four -- tentatively entitled “Apple” -- is supposed to be a classic in the making by all accounts.

I can’t say I enjoyed my X-Factor experience, but I’d be lying if I said I’ll never watch it again. Is it necessary that I watch it? Well, is it necessary that I drink my own urine? No, but I do it anyway, because it’s sterile and I like the taste.

Did I just liken watching The X-Factor to drinking your own urine? Yeah, that sounds about right. Oh the wisdom of Patches O’Houlihan. It knows no bounds.

Take A Look

Mildly interesting piece of information: Jeremiah is the second longest book in the Bible, surpassed only by the book of Psalms (which has sort of cheated its way to the top if you ask me).

A related piece of information: I know very little about the book of Jeremiah.

Finally: Jesus was likened to Jeremiah by his public.

I know there's some sort of conclusion to be drawn from all of this, but I just can't find it. Anyway, back to the Pauline epistles I go. All those other books are too "strawy" for my taste.

Speaking of books, I've just finished reading one of those that in years to come you mark down as being "formative" or "life-changing" or what have you. If you only read one book before year's end, make it The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. It was written in 1978, but its message is oh so timely. It's a little over 100 pages, and so not a jot of ink is wasted.

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets...

- Paul

Prophecy -- that much misunderstood vocation -- is a vital (in the literal sense of the word) part of the church. We who desperately need to hear the perspective of God ignore it at our peril. Brueggemann's book helps us to see this ministry with fresh eyes and restores it to its rightful place. I strongly encourage you to take a look.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Everlasting Trousers

The other day a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words 'They wore no clothes.' Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet. It was evidently anticipated that we might discover an everlasting pair of trousers of the same substance as the everlasting rock. But to persons of a less sanguine temperament it will be immediately apparent that people might wear simple garments, or even highly ornamental garments, without leaving any more traces of them than these people have left. The plaiting of rushes and grasses, for instance, might have become more and more elaborate without in the least becoming more eternal. One civilisation might specialise in things that happened to be perishable, like weaving and embroidery, and not in things that happen to be more permanent, like architecture and sculpture. There have been plenty of examples of such specialist societies. A man of the future finding the ruins of our factory machinery might as fairly say that we were acquainted with iron and with no other substance; and announce the discovery that the proprietor and manager of the factory undoubtedly walked about naked-- or possibly wore iron hats and trousers.

- G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Job Will Not Save You

If the status updates of my Facebook friends is representative of Ireland’s collective psyche, then we were a nation in mourning last night. The word “gutted” was used by not a few, as the general air of gloom and doom loomed large. My initial -- and rather cynical -- reaction to all of this was, “These people obviously haven’t seen Ireland’s other qualification games, otherwise they’d be used to the post-match depression that inevitably follows”. The away fixture against Cyprus springs to mind. There’s an old saying in football - When Cyprus have more possession than you, then WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THAT!?

But I digress. Last night’s match was no Nicosian nightmare. For large swathes of the game, Ireland were the better football team. Our goal was one of real quality; and one of the utmost rarity, with Zinedine Kilbane providing the penetrating through-ball which unlocked the French defense. It was a pass that the onlooking (and let’s face it, cool looking) Zinedine Zidane would have been proud of.

And there were chances after that. Oh there were chances. Damien Duff managed to make a horlicks of a one-on-one. You could argue that he is not a right-footer, but that is no excuse. You’re a professional football player who gets paid thousands of pounds per week to kick a ball. The least you can do is be able to kick it with both of your feet. Robbie Keane managed to out-do Duff by missing an even more glorious opportunity to bury the French once and for all. With only the keeper to beat, he decided the best way to do so was to take it around him. What he didn’t seem to factor in was that he had almost no space in which to accomplish said task, and he simply ran the ball over the end line. What Robbie attempted -- taking it ‘round the keeper -- was indeed possible, but he needed to shift the ball onto his left foot quickly rather then merely let the ball run and hope to catch up with it. If you want to see how it should have been done, click here.

With those two chances spurned, you couldn’t help but feel that it “wasn’t our night”. The circumstances surrounding France’s winner confirmed as much. It could have been disallowed on roughly three accounts, but it wasn’t. Our sense of injustice was tingled. We became the righteous sufferers who bore the wrath of FIFA. We were its sacrificial lamb, who took the punishment of no World Cup trip upon itself. We were the scape-goat the was banished to the wilderness of a quiet summer outside of South Africa. And we were not one bit happy about it.

Thierry Henry has been branded a cheat. Go 6 minutes 41 seconds into this clip, and you’ll hear the sentiments of a million Irish people. I’ve never been a fan of the former Gooner, and so as with Rawls and McNulty, if Henry was a big cheat then I’d be the first to say it. But what he did was simply act human. It was instinctive, and something I wouldn’t put past any of the Irish players.

Cast your mind back to Ireland’s ridiculous penalty to equalise against Georgia. Nobody knew what it was for, and yet Kevin Doyle had his hand up appealing for it. Why? Because he’s a big cheat? Maybe, but there’s also the possibility that he was so desperate for Ireland to score that he would instinctively brand something legitimate “illegitimate” in order to influence the referee. There was no handball, or whatever, by any Georgian player, and yet Ireland got a penalty and secured a much needed result.

Henry handled the ball, but it was not deemed a foul. A Georgian player didn’t handle the ball, and yet Kevin Doyle got the penalty he so badly craved. I wonder what the Georgian reaction to that was on Facebook. Something about FIFA favouring the more established nations, perhaps.

Of course it’s perfectly okay to be upset about this injustice (we wouldn't be human if we weren't), but I think that taking our anger out on Henry for his handball is misguided, as is branding him a “cheat”. There are plenty of other reasons to dislike the Barcelona forward -- he’s arrogant, he’s French (there’s two to get the ball rolling) -- but to call him a cheat is to go too far. It is to misunderstand the game of football. Think of Eduardo of Arsenal getting booed for his dive against Celtic. Is he a big cheat? Not exactly. He simply did what almost most all footballers do in that situation. If you want to boo him then you are free to do so, but on that principle you had better be prepared to boo almost every football player that walks out onto a pitch. And while you’re at it, remember to boo those people who surf the internet during work hours, or who take an extra fifteen minutes for their lunch break.

Ireland lost, and we can all be upset about the way it happened. We can even be “gutted”, because our group of hard-working players deserved to be rewarded for their noble efforts. But right after the game, my brother put all of our collective misery into perspective. Four young women died in a car on their way to do some Christmas shopping a couple of days ago. There are greater injustices in the world than Henry’s illegal use of his left arm. Think also of Robert Enke, the German goalkeeper who recently took his own life after a long battle with depression. How did we let this happen? Could anything have been done to prevent it?

Football is not a matter of life and death, but it tells us a lot about ourselves that we often act like it -- or something similar to it -- is. Life goes on, people. Listen to the wise words of Lester Freamon and pay heed to what he says: the job will not save you.

[Dismounts from high horse.]

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. The Premier League starts back on Saturday, with Liverpool playing Man City in what could be a pivotal fixture for both clubs. International football was always just a nuisance anyway, wasn’t it?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Killing In The Name Of - #6

“You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

- Jesus of Nazareth

Recall the six ways to interpret the above passage which aim at diminishing its countercultural, counterintuitive, and counter-Christendom claim on our lives today:

- It doesn’t apply yet.
- It only applied for a limited amount of time.
- It only deals with self-defense.
- It’s only for the select few.
- It’s a moral diagnosis to expose our sinfulness.
- It’s highly contextualised.

The argument of Professor Richard Hays is that the setting of this passage within the context of the entire Sermon and within the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel taken as a whole (both of which are outlined in the previous post) lays to rest five of the six interpretative strategies listed above. (I won’t go into Hays’s laying to rest of the sixth, which is too long-winded and complicated for present purposes.)

It doesn’t apply yet

It actually does. Through his own suffering in the face of enemy hostility, Jesus practiced what he preached. It was on an unknown hill that he spoke these words, and it was on the hill of Calvary that he definitively brought them to life. Moreover, his final message to his disciples is a call to teach all nations to obey his commandments, which includes the command to enemy-love. They (and we) are to continue on from where he left off, acting in the knowledge that he is with us always, empowering us to embody his sacrificial love.

It only applied for a limited amount of time

Matthew’s vision for radical discipleship is not short-term. Jesus is present with the church “until the end of the age”, and so the call to nonviolent enemy-love has not been revoked. As long as Jesus is alive, it still stands.

It only deals with self-defense

There is nothing in Matthew’s Gospel which limits the words of Jesus at the end of Matthew 5 to self-defense alone. Consider the events in Gethsemane, when Peter acts out of violence in defense not of himself, but of Jesus - the most righteous of sufferers. Jesus does not condone Peter’s “violence in defense of justice”, but warns him that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

It’s only for the select few

The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) discredits this claim. As Hays notes, “All baptized believers are to be taught to observe all that Jesus commanded.”

It’s a moral diagnosis to expose our sinfulness

That it does this is beyond doubt, but that this is its primary function is refuted by the concluding words of the discourse. Jesus intends not only for us to hear these words and be convicted by them, but to hear these words and do them. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.” (Matt. 7:24)


With these hermeneutical escape hatches closed shut, we’re back to where we usually are when we first read the passage plainly: left scratching our heads at the impossible idealism of Jesus’ words, and despairing at the thought of having to take him seriously.

We can concede that he meant exactly what he said, but doing so leaves us hopeless…until we remember who said these things, and what happened next in Matthew’s story. Jesus is one who not simply has the authority to command, but the authority to bring into being what he commands. His words come with power - power to heal, power to restore, power to transform.

If relentless enemy-love is idealism, it is an idealism that was really realised in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. His actions have re-defined reality, and he really intends for his disciples to enter into that new reality, where suffering for righteousness’ sake is not a tragic end, but the beginning of something beautiful that will last forever.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Out of Context

A concrete example of what it means to take something out of context:

Skinner and Baddiel

Poor Pele. He really was rubbish, wasn't he?

Killing In The Name Of - #5

The Sermon on the Mount is considered by Hays to be “Jesus’ basic training on the life of discipleship”. It is a disclosure of kingdom life. In light of Jesus teaching from a mountain a la Moses in the book of Exodus, Hays calls the contents of the Sermon a “new Torah” or “a definitive charter for the life of the new covenant community”. New Law? I don’t think so, but Hays’s basic point remains.

The sermon is addressed specifically to disciples of Jesus (Matt. 5:1-2) but within earshot of the crowds, who, we are told at the end of the discourse, “were astounded at his teaching” (7:28-9). As Hays perceptively notes,

The instruction for the disciples takes place openly before the crowd, emphasizing Matthew’s conviction that the community of disciples is called to be a light for the world (5:14-16). The disciples are called to live in accordance with the stringent standards articulated in the six antitheses precisely because of a concern to exemplify the reality of the kingdom of God in a pluralistic and sinful world.

Life in this kingdom is upside-down, or more accurately, rightside-up, with the meek, the poor in spirit, the persecuted all considered “blessed”. It is, in sum, a kingdom “full of surprises”, with perhaps the biggest surprise of all being the kingdom call to enemy love. Hays goes on to say,

Instead of wielding the power of violence, the community of Jesus’ disciples is to be meek, merciful, pure, devoted to peacemaking, and willing to suffer persecution -- and blessed precisely in its faithfulness to this paradoxical vision.

That, rather briefly, is the immediate context of our passage in question (Matthew 5:38-48).

What of the wider context - Matthew’s Gospel?

Hays cites some events in the life of Jesus which can be seen to embody his ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 4 -- the temptation narrative -- Jesus renounces Satan’s view of a power-wielding messiahship, and instead dedicates himself to the humble service of God. There are also the three “passion predictions” (16:21-3; 17:22-3; 20:17-19) in which Jesus foretells of his being “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, and bids any would-be disciples to follow in his footsteps (16:24-6). Most significantly, there is the passion narrative itself. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus aligns himself completely to the will of the Father, which is the way of the cross. As Hays remarks, “the death of Jesus exemplifies the same character qualities that are taught as normative for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 5”.

The end of Matthew’s gospel -- while pointing forwards to the spread of the gospel into all nations -- also points backwards to the teachings of Jesus. The Great Commission involves, fundamentally, “teaching [all nations] to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20, my emphasis). As I said recently in another blog post, the resurrection of Jesus not only vindicated him as a person, but also vindicated his way of life, specifically his sacrificial love. Disciples of Jesus are now called to embody and re-enact that love, and to teach others what was taught by Jesus in word and deed. According to Hays,

This conclusion to the story makes it abundantly clear that Matthew does not regard the discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount as an impossible ideal. It is, rather, the way of life directly commanded by Jesus, who possesses “all authority in heaven and on earth.” The calling of discipleship is not impossible, for the powerful risen Lord is present in and with the community: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20b).

That is not to say that there will be perfection, for correction and forgiveness are to be hallmarks of the community of faith. If the life of discipleship admits to anything, it admits to failure and thus the need for forgiveness from God and from others.

Where does all of this leave the list of Sermon interpretations from a previous post? We’ll return to that (in light of the above) in the next installment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Echoes of Psalms in the Sermon

YHWH, who shall dwell in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell on Your holy hill?

He who walks uprightly,
And works righteousness,
And speaks the truth in his heart;
He who does not backbite with his tongue,
Nor does evil to his neighbour,
Nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour;
In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But he honours those who fear Jehovah;
He who swears to his hurt, and does not change;
He who has not put out his money at interest,
Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

- Psalm 15

Having read this Psalm of David in the midst of re-reading Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and Richard Hays’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, a wonderful convergence seemed to appear right before my eyes: Is this Psalm not echoed in Jesus’ teaching on that now famous mount?

I won’t profess to be the first to draw such a parallel, but allow me to act as if I am.

First of all, it shouldn’t surprise us if this is the case. Jesus was well versed in Scripture, and we know of him both quizzing the Pharisees on an interpretation of Psalm 110, and also uttering those haunting opening words of the 22nd Psalm from the cross - “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

What then of the relationship between Psalm 15 and the Sermon on the Mount? I think there are two important things to be said about this: There are striking similarities of thought, but also striking differences.

The question being dealt with in Psalm 15 is the following:

YHWH, who shall dwell in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell in Your holy hill?

Allow me to phrase the question like this: Who is at home in God’s house? This, I think, is a markedly similar question to the one Jesus addresses in his discourse, which might be worded as follows: Who is at home in the kingdom of God, and what does life in that kingdom look like?

The differences between these questions lie in the respective meanings of “tabernacle” and “holy hill”. For the Psalmist, these were specific places, geographic locations. Jesus, however, redefines what it means for God to dwell with man. He is the Word who became flesh and “tabernacled” amongst us, as a literal translation of John 1:14 might put it. Abiding in God’s tabernacle is no longer to abide in this temple or that temple, nor is worshiping God something done on this hill or that hill. At the centre of God’s kingdom is not a place or a building, but a person, and all who dwell in that kingdom must first abide in Jesus.

Moving onto the character and behaviour of the one who lives life in the presence of God, the similarities between psalm and sermon are obvious. Both speak of “righteousness” (Psa. 15:2; Matt. 5:6, 10, 20; 6:33) as foundational to kingdom life. Where the psalmist talks of not “backbiting with the tongue”, Jesus warns against insulting a brother/calling him a “fool”. Both also speak about what can generally be called “neighbourly love”.

But it is the differences that are most telling. For the psalmist, the person who dwells with God is one “in whose eyes a vile person is despised”. Compare this with the following words of Jesus:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your friends, hate your enemies.'
But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…"

Surely there can be no getting away from these contradictory descriptions of one who is at home in God’s kingdom. In the psalm, the enemy is despised; in the sermon, the enemy is loved. Jesus has exposed the shortcomings of the psalmist’s ethic, just as he exposed the divorce laws as being short of God’s true intentions for his people (Matt. 19:3-9). God’s children are shown to be those whose actions are permeated with love for friend and foe alike, for this is the kind of all-encompassing love that the Father has shown by sending His Son to die for the sake of the whole world.

There are also modifications of the psalmist’s “oath taking” and “lending” ethics, but I won’t go into those.

One final comparison. The last line of Psalm 15 is as follows:

He who does these things shall never be moved.

Now listen to the closing words of Jesus in Matthew 7:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them…”

Anyone who "does these things", Jesus (in effect) says, will be like a house built on a rock - unmovable, unshakable.

I don’t pretend to have answered the “So what?” question in terms of the relationship between Psalm 15 and the Sermon on the Mount, but that one exists seems very likely to me. There are a few things worth noting, though:

- Jesus was not a decontextualised moral teacher. He was a Jew, grappling with and interpreting Israel’s Scriptures.

- Jesus was not afraid to contradict Israel’s Scriptures. Where the psalmist praises those who despise a vile person, Jesus turns this ethic on its head by claiming that children of YHWH must learn to love not only neighbours, but enemies especially. This is the true fulfilment of God’s law, His way of life.

- Kingdom ethics cannot be divorced from God’s presence, but there is a specific order to things. Abiding in Christ is not a consequence of living righteously; living righteously is a consequence of abiding in Christ, who came not to call the righteous, but sinners.