Category Archives: Eschatology

2012 Music Review: Twelve Favorites

Over the past several years I’ve gotten in the December habit of compiling lists of my favorite music releases.  While I was in seminary taking preaching classes, I sought out an exercise that would help me enjoy, evaluate, and communicate texts in a creative way to an audience.  Since, at the time, all I was doing was reading and reading and writing and writing about biblical and theological content, I used music reviews as a way to hone my skills.  For about two years I wrote reviews for a small indie music blog out of Macon, GA called the Blue Indian (here is 2010 and 2011).  It was in this time that I realized if you could charitably and critically evaluate content that you sometimes did care deeply for, and some that you just didn’t “get,” and still make a compelling presentation to an audience, you had done most of the logistical tasks of preaching (which is what I wanted to work on).

So I present to you my list of twelve (a cheap way to continue to expand my list and delay decisiveness once more each year) favorite records that came out in 2012.  A brief disclaimer: these are my favorite records of this year, not necessarily the “best.”[1]  They might not be your favorites and for that I don’t apologize.  I may be skewed or inconsistent.  For instance, I’m well aware that half of these selections are from the South (including VA).  I’m also aware that I’m a sucker for M. Ward and the Avetts and unlike the Mumford boys (who came up big last year), they’re near locks on any favorite list I’ll likely write.  Again, I don’t apologize for this, everyone needs these kinds of go-tos.

I don’t have a fixed criteria for this evaluation.  Some of these albums and artists operate within a decisively Christian confession and view of the world, others quite the opposite, and many wrestle somewhere in the middle.  Some tilt towards the traditional, some towards the experimental, most hold both in some sort of tension.  Some are household names, while others share the fate of prophets in their respective hometowns.  I’ve included a Spotify playlist of this list in its entirety as well as a playlist featuring a single song from more than 40 (just wait until the year 2040!) notable releases.  I’d also love to hear, in the comments, some that I may have missed.  Cheers on a great year of music to have enjoyed and blessings on what I hope shapes up to be another.  -CEB

Band of Horses // Mirage Rock
Band of Horses // Mirage Rock

12: Mirage Rock (Columbia)

Band of Horses

These bearded bards have smoothed out some of their previous rolickers into a milder but really interesting album.  They’ve dusted off the legendary Glynn Johns (father of Ethan) for his first production gig in nearly three decades and it really pays off.  You can really hear the Carolina hills amidst the Wilsonian harmonies.

Bowerbirds // The Clearing
Bowerbirds // The Clearing

11: The Clearing (Dead Oceans)


The earthy duo from Upper Air has expanded in number and so has their sound.  This record, grouped with the most recent offerings from Bon Iver, the Rosebuds, and Megafaun, would make for a really oddly cohesive April Base box set: ranging from ambitious and bombastic to charming and homespun.  Between the recurrent wildlife vagabonding and Phil Moore’s strangely entrancing songwriting meter, you are bound to get sucked in by the bare beauty and precious vulnerability of this music.

The Welcome Wagon // Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices
The Welcome Wagon // Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices

10: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Asthmatic Kitty)

The Welcome Wagon

This time around Pastor Vito Aiuto and wife Monique cobble together a less-overtly Sufjan Stevens-infused collection of hymns and spiritual songs.  Again, the covers are outstanding, ranging from Crowder to the Cure.  The hymns are imaginative appropriations of some lesser-known texts, and Vito has continued to prove himself a worthy auteur and purveyor of surprisingly sacred music in the vein of a Brooklyn-hipster-Reverend Gary Davis.

The Avett Bros // The Carpenter
The Avett Bros // The Carpenter

9: The Carpenter (Universal Republic)

Avett Brothers 

The Avetts were in a pickle on this one.  After working with Rick Rubin on I and Love and You and simultaneously getting flack from longtime fans longing for the mountain-punk of their beginnings and getting lauded by a much much larger audience, this album, their seventh full-length studio record (and 14th total release!) bore many of the pressures of a sophomore album.  Somehow they managed to do it.  In the midst of immense scrutiny and personal and familial trial, they produced a record with genuine warmth of sound and lyrical depth.  In my mind, The Carpenter resists conflation with the Mumford phenomenon (though similarities abound and some might disagree), due in part to the band’s willingness to explore (and fall flat in some cases) while frequently tipping their caps to unabashed influences like Townes Van Zandt and Doc Watson.  These influences lie very near the surface but don’t seem as forced or forceful as the literary and biblical allusioneering of their comrades.

Bill Fay // Life Is People
Bill Fay // Life Is People

8: Life Is People (Dead Oceans)

Bill Fay

This record came out of nowhere for me.  I had heard both Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) and Damien Jurado cover “Be Not So Fearful.”  But Bill Fay was as obscure to me as he actually is.  Tweedy, himself, makes an appearance on Fay’s first album of new material in 41 years. Fay returns the favor with a cover (almost in latter year Johnny Cash fashion) of Tweedy’s “Jesus, Etc” in one of the finer moments of the record.  “The Healing Day”  offers a cathartic, eschatological anthem for fans of Cash, Billy Prince Billy, Wilco, and Nick Cave.

M. Ward // A Wasteland Companion
M. Ward // A Wasteland Companion

7: A Wasteland Companion (Merge)

M. Ward

For being a spliced-together collection of songs from the road, Companion sure doesn’t sound like it.  While decidedly less lo-fi than his earlier records, and conspicuously featuring indie sweetheart, Zooey Deschanel (the “She” from his other notable project), “Clean Slate” and “Pure Joy” could fit in on an anthology of his best and most characteristic.

Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur
Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur

6: Voyageur (Zoe Records)

Kathleen Edwards

This past fall, I’ve countlessly heard, from both sides of the aisle, the bemoaned, “if so-and-so wins the election, I’m moving to Canada.”  Canadian Kathleen Edwards diffuses this by threatening the inverse on the lead track of Voyageur and then shows her hand on this “empty threat.”  Voyageur succeeds through heartbreaking lyrics and vocals, and daring and skilled arrangements.  Even in some of her less poignant moments, she manages to pull off sounding sincere singing about sidecars and pink champagne in a way rivals Kim Kierkergaardashian‘s ability to combine crass and contemplative.

Father John Misty // Fear Fun
Father John Misty // Fear Fun

5: Fear Fun (Sub Pop)

Father John Misty

Best described as a trip, Fear Fun, is part Josh Tillman travelogue and part apocalyptic fantasy.  Woven strands of reality and fiction are incarnated in hazy Laurel Canyon fare.  The result is remarkably more interesting than either the lush harmonies of Tillman’s former gig as drumming Fleet Fox or his intense but often monotonous singing-ax solo fare.  With the album, he chopped off his hair, and was seemingly and suddenly imbued with newfound frontman swagger.  I’ve wondered on more than one occasion if this could this be a neo-Robert Johnston scenario?  While confusing at times, hilarious at others, and shrouded in darkness even in its sunnier moments, FF has to be considered one of the oddest and most enjoyable albums of 2012.

Floating Action // Fake Blood
Floating Action // Fake Blood

4: Fake Blood  (Removador/Harvest)

Floating Action

Black Mountain experimenteur Seth Kauffman teamed with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and toned down some of the sitar from last year’s wonderful but difficult Desert Etiquette to arrive at his most complete work since his solo album Research.  This “conservatism” suits him well, as a little restraint helps the supreme nuance come out in fewer and less labored listens.  The title of the record stems from his observation and frustration at the pervasive ability of “fake blood” (art that doesn’t hurt to make, but safely appears so) to sell records and make fans.  This epitomizes Seth’s ability to surprisingly craft and juxtapose.  After all, when asked about surprising interests and influences, he once listed Saabs, Paula Abdul and Karl Barth in the same sentence.

Alabama Shakes // Boys & Girls
Alabama Shakes // Boys & Girls

3: Boys & Girls (ATO)

Alabama Shakes 

“I feel so homesick.  Where’s my home?  Where I belong or where I was born?” questions Brittany Howard on “Rise to the Sun.”  Her ability to repeatedly package such existential wonderings in, to borrow a buddy’s descriptor, such “gronky” (here think something akin to Led Zep, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner… a funky sonic patina) containers shines.  Throughout this sparkling debut, the Shakes prove that while there is nothing new under the sun, its revolution around the earth and its faithful reemergence can endlessly illumine what we already know in surprising and quite enjoyable ways.

Matthew E. White // Big Inner
Matthew E. White // Big Inner

2: Big Inner   (Hometapes/Spacebomb)

Matthew E. White

Not since Illinois has it been so cool and engrossing to listen to an album that sounds, at times, like a glorified high school marching band jam session.  Like Sufjan’s masterpiece, Matthew E. White (who’s arranged for the Mountain Goats, the Sounds of the South tour and whose backing band has richly ornamented the huge sounding and hugely successful eponymous Bon Iver record) has proven that once you dive in you find the brass and fanfare is actually secondary.  Listen and you’ll be rewarded with a rich lyrical tapestry.  The sacred and the profane touch at times, their threads crawling over each other, combined though not indistinguishable.  At times you wonder if White is miming Randy Newman or Qoheleth as he muses about the sun’s hiding place on “Steady Pace.”  Or when he takes up the slave-song meme of crossing the “Brazos” and explodes into a more than 5 minute long, album-ending chorus of “Jesus Christ, he is our Lord!  Jesus Christ, he is your friend!”

Damien Jurado // Maraqopa
Damien Jurado // Maraqopa

1: Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)

Damien Jurado 

After warming up with a handful of cover songs and Jurado’s previous release, Saint Bartlett, the Jurado/Richard Swift production tandem has hit full-stride with Maraqopa.  Sometimes enigmatic and others jangly and humorous, the amount of texture, attention, and the nuance kept me listening to this record throughout the whole year.  While his sound has evolved, his writing has remained constant.  He pens “I heard you call my name.  You were outside the door.  How did I not hear you before?” on “This Time Next Year” a parousia anthem whose opening doo-wop chimes are broken up by surf-guitar distortion.  Lines like these are sneaky.  In some ways they underwhelm, but Jurado has developed a penchant for writing such startlingly simple lyrics that lack any semblance dullness or pretension, but manage to strike the hearer as stark and unalloyed.


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, upon receiving the honor of “Best American Theologian” in 2001 by TIME Magazine responded, “Best is not a theological category.”  Likewise, I’m not sure “best” is always a great or suitable category for artistic works.

Disillusionment, Cynicism, & Christian Eschatology

More and more I am recognizing that my book on cynicism (see the icon in to the right)  is ultimately a pastoral exercise in applying Christian eschatology to our daily reality.

Cynicism arises from disillusionment.  When the rug gets jerked form beneath our feet and we find ourselves breathless staring up at the ceiling, wondering what hit us, only to remember, oh yeah, it was REALITY that hit.  Idealism cannot thrive in an ex-Eden world. But cynicism is just as untenable in a world into which Christ has come, from which He has ascended, and to which He will return.

Eschatology is why cynicism is not valid… at least not for Christians.

If there is an open hole in the ground of this earth—the empty tomb of Jesus—then something cataclysmic has taken place.  The resurrection of the dead, implied in a few places in the OT (Isa 25, Dan 12, Ezek 37) and discussed more openly in the literature of Early Judaism, has been jump-started into our present sphere by the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15) of Christ’s own resurrection.  The New Age to Come (this is language found in Early Judaism and throughout the NT) has lurched backward from the future into our current time, overlapping with the Present Evil Age.

In Faith Without Illusions, I cite George Eldon Ladd near the end. Here is a wonderful quote I just reread this afternoon:

Christ’s resurrection is not an isolated event; it is in fact an eschatological occurrence which has been transplanted into the midst of history. We are living already on the heavenward side of the first stage of the resurrection. This puts a whole new light on the whole human predicament. [1]

You can click on the About the Blog section for more on “hopeful realism,” the perspective alternative to cynicism and idealism I am calling for in the book. Ultimately, hopeful realism is both eschatological (“hopeful”—appreciating the work of God in the overlap of the Ages and anticipating Christ’s return) and cosmological (“realism”—recognizing the full brunt of fallenness that has plagued our world and our own hearts so disastrously).

The Kingdom is in our midst… and still yet to come.


George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959) 44.

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 2)

When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me.  We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly.  I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities.  It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

Preaching FoolsWhen Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness.  Preaching is folly.  Preachers are fools.”  This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor.  An odd line in our job descriptions.  The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”

In Friday’s post, Chuck spoke about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception.  At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.

This second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts.  We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.


Hopeful Realism:  So as preachers, it is an interesting position we’re in.  Most people don’t want to hear that settling is a bad thing.  In fact, most of the time becoming settled, is “arriving.”

I think there’s a good analogy with pop music.  Is there any chance for pop music?  To hatch a message that counters the dominant culture and ideology in a form that is so dictated by tastes and wants.  We know what we want to hear and we know when we hear it.  It’s a closed loop.  How do you break in to that loop to speak in a language that is acceptable and interesting but say things that are potentially inflammatory or unsettling.

Chuck Campbell:  Unsettling doesn’t necessarily mean inflammatory.

HR:  Well, not necessarily inflammatory, but unsafe.  Pop music is the safest of genres.  It doesn’t change fast or much.  It doesn’t cut very hard against what is dominant.  How do you feed people the Bread of Life when they love a steady diet of junk food?

CC:  Love?  Well they’re used to it.  We think we know what we want to hear.

That’s a huge question, let me try to throw a few things at it: We try to say fairly clearly in the book that this is not the only image of the preacher.  We don’t want to claim that.  There are clearly times in people’s lives where a different kind of word may be necessary.  Though, I’m even wondering if in a situation of grief or loss, where life is quite liminal, if being unsettled is not a totally negative thing there.  But I haven’t sorted that out pastorally.

The other side is, I think we have the tendency to automatically assume this kind of preaching is troubling; whereas I would like to think of it as inviting into a kind of adventure.  Something that is much more interesting than simply being secure.  I’d like to frame it in a positive, graceful way.  Sure, there is going to have to be interruption, but a lot of times that is  similar to the kind of interruption to our captivity to the powers; which is killing us!  And a lot of people know it’s killing them.  I think there are a lot of Christians out there ready for the Christian faith to be something a little more interesting than we make it sometimes.  Maybe people might be more open to a vision of the faith that is a little more unsettled, that is moving, that is on the way…

And this is also a way to counteract the sort of Christianity today that lives in a sort of reactionary fear.  We talk in the book about “circling the wagons” and “iron theologies.”  There’s a lot of that going on in places and not just Fundamentalist places.  Liberals can be just as rigid and draw those lines just as hard.  It’s where these kind of ideologies happen that it does call for a sort of disturbing interruption.  I don’t think those [ideologies] are what we’re about as Christians.

HR:  I began to wonder about art as a medium, not just “high art” like Picasso, in the book there are political cartoons…

CC:  …Banksy…

Image courtesy of Banksy.

HR:  How did he not show up at the Olympics? [CORRECTION: He did!]

CC:  Or in the book?!  How did that slip by us?

HR:  It’s really interesting that you mentioned reading Dostoyevsky as a fuel for this sort of imagination.  Rowan Williams, who talks wonderfully about Dostoyevsky, writes about the “gratuity of fiction,” which I think applies to art more generally, in ways like the unsettling effects of foolishness and parody. 

“The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over.”[1] 

There’s so much in the book about the form of the fool.  I think there’s a great analogy for the arts’ ability to incarnate, in some sense, the form of something while injecting surprise and challenge, especially alongside the sermon.

CC:  When I was inaugurated into a chair at my former school, one of my very first lectures was on this material.  That was ten years ago that I began work on this stuff.  I did this thing on naked street preachers and for that occasion Brian Wren, who is a hymn writer, wrote a hymn on the fool for that.  It is quite playful and very interesting in that regard.

Some other times we’ve tried to do services with jazz musicians, the perfect art form for this kind of liminality and movement and improvisation.  I love to work with musicians that can come up with the kind of art that can unsettle things.  For instance, just playing very different music while you’re celebrating Communion can completely change the expectations that we sometimes have at that table.

HR:  There’s a Christian musician, Derek Webb, who seems like a particularly apt contemporary example of this.  He has this song titled “Freddie, Please.”  I’ve heard him describe his process as trying to write what he might say if he had an encounter with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps.  After he realized that that wouldn’t be a very good song, he changed courses and wrote it as an encounter between Jesus and Phelps.  What’s most interesting and surprising is that he sets it to a 50’s Doo-wop love song.

CC:  The thing I really like about that and the thing that I’m really wrestling with, one of the dangers that can happen with the powers themselves, is that you can become so reactionary to them.  Your life can become a kind of resistance that begins to be shaped by them, because you are always only reacting to them.  So they’re setting the agenda.  Even if you resist, you can inadvertently be caught up in them.

The thing that a song like this does, and what humor more generally does, is it breaks down the binary.  It does something so creative and surprising that it opens up a very different kind of space than just “me against you.”  And it’s interesting that Jesus is the one who’s singing.  Jesus is the one who does that.

One of the books that we refer to over and over in the book, Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde, actually says that contemporary artists, musicians, and visual artists are the tricksters of our time that do this sort of interrupting.  It seems to me, that while our book is a book about preaching, it is definitely applicable to people doing liturgy, music, and art.

HR:  Speaking of contemporary jesters, I’d love your take on Stephen Colbert.

CC:  We mentioned him in a footnote in the book.

What he did with Congress, that’s what fools do…they wind up speaking the truth.  They have people off-balance and unsettled in a way that they can be heard.  One of the things I like about him on his show is that he’s an amazing example of “bivocal rhetoric.”  Everything he says has two meanings.  It’s all basically irony in a sense.  While he’s saying one thing, he wants you to hear something else.  In that way, he’s much more complex than John Stewart.  Stewart, in his humor comes at it directly, whereas Colbert has this double-voiced piece going on.  This is why the book has a long chapter on carnivals, saying that we need to learn from these characters and how they work.  These characters are here.  They are around.  We need to pay attention.

In terms of Christians, Will Campbell is one of the real interesting people doing this.  And actually, I just got this article on P_ssy Riot in the Chronicle for Higher Education as “holy fools.”  These women’s closing statements are brilliant and incredibly theological.  I was shocked at how theologically engaged they were and how they knew pretty much exactly what they were trying to do.  Even though the dance itself is silly, there really is a lot going on.  Characters like that are all around.

HR:  A last bit of encouragement and advice for us foolish preachers in the thick of a highly contentious American election season?

CC:  You talk about an environment where we have two walled-off sides, how do you disrupt that?

As I usually say, the Powers are never just individuals.  I think that the best preaching we do on these political things is not endorsing a particular candidate, but rather speaking to the powers that are holding us all captive.   That might be deeper than even an issue.  It’s going to be difficult, because there are economic powers, there are environmental powers, all related to these really huge issues.  Pastors are going to have to be the fools to help congregations perceive things in some wholly new ways, because right now nothing’s happening.

[1] Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. 46.

Preaching Fools: A Conversation with Chuck Campbell on Preaching, Folly, and the Arts (Part 1)

When I took a preaching class in seminary, I never expected it to be such a creative launching pad for me.  We listened and watched all kinds of preaching and preachers and focused on different, and sometimes novel, ways of communicating both clearly and compellingly.  I went on to take another course, with professor Chuck Campbell, on Preaching, the Powers, and Principalities.  It was here that my imagination was further sparked to see and speak to the captivities and spiritual powers at play in our daily lives and in our congregations.  One thing I particularly enjoyed was Chuck’s playfulness; in the midst of incredibly serious material he never seemed to take himself too seriously. 

Preaching FoolsWhen Baylor University Press sent me a copy of Chuck’s (along with co-author Johan Cilliers) newest preaching book, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, I took the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss. Throughout the book there is a notable chorus, “The gospel is foolishness.  Preaching is folly.  Preachers are fools.”  This is a fairly unusual, possibly threatening, but certainly scriptural, statement for the average pastor.  An odd line in our job descriptions.  The book certainly struck a chord in regards to preparing and delivering sermons, but also, because of its surprisingly multimedia nature, it struck a chord in regards to the arts and their ability to embody and communicate this “gospel foolishness.”

In today’s post, Chuck speaks about preaching’s ability to unsettle us, put us in a middle ground, and change our perception.  At one point he mentioned the book’s very title changing before his eyes: from a noun to a verb, being the fool to being fooled.

The second post explores some of the similarities and engagements the book has with the arts.  We wind up talking about everything from the music of Derek Webb to Stephen Colbert to the upcoming American presidential election.

Hopeful Realism: Some of your interest and expertise lies in what Scripture calls the “principalities and powers.”  How have those interests developed in your work over the years?

Chuck Campbell:  The work with the powers began when I was doing a lot of ministry with homeless people in Atlanta.  I heard them use this language.  I was, a full day to a day-and-a-half, overnight sometimes, on the streets with homeless people.  I got to know some of the people and they would use this language.  This material began to make sense of what I was seeing…nobody wants there to be homelessness, but it just kept getting worse.

Secondly, it started making sense “of me,” in addition to “to me.”  It helped me understand my own sinfulness in a different way, in a kind of complicity and captivity rather than just getting up in the morning and saying, “I’m gonna go do something evil.”  People in our churches don’t say that.  They never leave and say, “Thanks for the sermon, now I’m gonna go do something evil.”

So it pushed me to explore that material as a way of thinking both theologically and ethically about my own understanding of sin, what I was seeing in my work with homeless people, and to a little lesser extent in ministry on Death Row.  It was never theoretical to start with.  As I kept reading and working it really became a focus in my preaching work.  The new book is still dealing with it, but in some different ways.

HR: Where did this new angle, foolishness and folly, come from?

CC:  Even in the Word Before the Powers there is a section on lampooning.  Someone mentioned that I should look at jesters because that’s really what I was talking about in many ways.  Then three things happened.  I had a sabbatical and I read Dostoyevsky, who does a whole lot with “holy fools” in his novels.  I started reading material on the history of jesters, tricksters, and holy fools.  And I came across some material on the famous First Corinthians text on the foolishness of preaching [1 Corinthians 1:18-31].  These things started to come together.  So this really did grow out of the powers material, one way of dealing with the powers being a sort of jester-like, lampooning fashion.  And also there was a sense that potentially that was what Paul was doing when he was interrupting the work of the powers in First Corinthians.

HR: I was surprised how multimedia and especially how visual this book felt considering it is a preaching book.  Right out of the gates, the beautiful cover, Picasso’s Crucifixion featuring Don Quixote, seems to set a sort of vision for the book.  Then we’re introduced to a phrase like “bifocal vision.”

CC:  I need to give credit to my co-author Johan, who is responsible for much of the visual arts in the book.  He is an extraordinary artist himself.  He always writes with some sort of visual art.  I contributed some of the political cartoons.  I’m excited it turned out this way.  We wanted it to be a very interdisciplinary book with visual art, literature, cartoons and everything else in it, because that’s what preaching is.  That’s what we have to do.  We are always drawing on all these different pieces, even when we’re not Shakespeare scholars or experts.

The “bifocal vision” is a term from New Testament scholar J. Louis Martyn.  It’s been a very helpful term for me and as you see in the book, it begins to shape the way that we look at the rhetoric of preaching as a kind of “bivocal” rhetoric that is trying to do orally what this bifocal vision does visually.  Martyn uses it as an apocalyptic understanding of the gospel, especially in Paul, where the New Age breaks in, interrupts, invades, the old age.  And yet of course the Old Age has not died and the New Age has not yet fully come.  So the challenge is to be able to see both things at once.

Sometimes people might use the bifocal vision to be like glasses where you see close up and then you look with a longer vision for the fulfillment.  As you may or may not have noticed in the book, we don’t take that route.  We’re looking at both at once, here and now.  In my mind, this is a more apocalyptic way, where the New Creation is already here; you can’t always see it but you can’t ignore it in the Old Age when you are seeing the pieces of it already here.

It is certainly a growing edge in the book: the rhetoric of preaching being “bivocal.”  Having to say two things at once, both the Old Age and the New, without letting go of either one in a real sense.  As I’ve thought about the sorts of stories and example that have been most powerful to me, they tend to be those kind.  Another aspect of the bivocal rhetoric is simply to keep things from being settled.  Where things are clear, rigid, and tied down.  Some of the forms like metaphor keep things open, which is characteristic of this life between the Ages.  This space between the Ages.

HR: Space seems to be another major motif of the book; this middle ground of “liminality.”

I underlined while reading, “there is no separating the folly from the wisdom or the scandal from the gospel.  Jesus too keeps us unsettled; he invites us on the Way, he calls us to discipleship at the threshold between the ages and bids us to follow -and preach – one whom we can never master or control, but who ever remains elusive and disruptive.”[1]

CC: This is a huge growing edge for me.  And I’m still trying to live into it and figure out what it means for preaching.  I preached on Tuesday in chapel and these sermons are still sweating blood trying to figure out how to do it.  One of the things that has happened as a result of this book and might be an important word for a lot of us in the church today, is beginning to think of the gospel not as something that gives us a solid security or clarity or ties things down, but really as the gospel itself keeping us unsettled and “on the way.”

We live in a culture and a time where things are quite unsettled.  So many cultures, and the church itself, is going through a kind of liminal phase.  We’re not sure where things are headed.  The danger there is to really want to assert and reassert a kind of reactionary clarity that grows out of fear.  So I think one of the subtexts that surfaces is that Christians don’t have to be afraid of these times.  We can live into them.  It’s really our space, this sort of unsettled space.  And we’re following the One who we can trust and we can see even in this tumult, the New Age breaking in.

This may not be new to anyone else.  It strikes me that it’s often assumed that Christianity provides the security, clarity, finality, solidity…but I’m beginning to think it may be something different.  Which might be some of the best, good news to free us from our fears that we can have as a Church.

HR: Along these lines, fragmentation is another dominant theme in the book.  There’s a sense that our view of fragmentation should not just lie in something being broken, but as some sort of artifact of the future.  That “faith means not to be in tact.”[2]  This is really challenging to me, but also sort of threatening.

CC:  It’s unsettling.  Another facet to fragmentation is being part of the Church where we’re not ever whole apart from these other fragments.  That’s where some of my colleague’s writing in the book on ubuntu keeps that kind of dynamic between the individual and community going in some interesting ways.

[1] Campbell, Charles L., and Johan Cilliers. Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2012.  104.

[2] Ibid 46.

An Interview With Jonathan Green of JG Hymns

To just say Jonathan Green plays hymns is a bit deceptive.  Posted up in Edinburgh, Scotland, this native Bostonian, weaves the stories of the past with the realities of the present, glancing towards the future.  His “hymns” blend the ethereal thump and fuzz of his electronic equipment with the warm strums of obviously human instrumentation.  He lives with one foot in a local congregation (Free Church of Scotland) that until recently hasn’t used instruments in its Psalm-heavy worship.  And one firmly planted in the realm of indie-rock experimentation.  JG Hymns’s newest release, Lots, delves deeply both into the stories of Scripture, plumbing some of the nuance and texture of familiar stories that even a good reader glosses over or dismisses due to familiarity, and then launches from these stories, trampolining these ancient (and less than ancient) encounters with God into relevant parables and challenges for here and now.

I sat down to chat with Jonathan about Lots, congregational music, hope, grief, and experimentation,

Hopeful Realism: Tell me about your newest work, Lots.  You’ve described it has the telling of nine different ways in which people from past and present times have responded to significant events in their lives.  You’ve appropriated scripture stories (Deborah, Leah, Samuel) but also H.G. Spafford (writer of It is Well With My Soul).  What was it about these people, these stories, that particularly piqued your imagination?

Jonathan Green: There’s a couple of ways that works.  One is from hearing sermons.  When I first heard Tim Keller preach from Old Testament stories, I feel like I was hearing them for the first time, in the ways that he moved Old Testament stories from a moral lesson into a shadow of the story of Jesus.  I found that incredibly profound.  Part of me was just responding to this new way of looking at those old stories.  So on Hymns Vol. III there’s this story of Joseph, that is basically a Keller sermon in three minutes.  Part of it is me interacting with Old Testament characters afresh.  Taking potentially flat characters and bringing them to life.  It’s kind of like the HBO series about John Adams.  Before I saw that, early American history was just weird guys with wigs in a history book.  There’s no connection whatsoever, they were just a funny painting.  And after I saw the series, they’re flesh and blood.  And the situations which they find themselves in come to life.  So I started looking at Old Testament characters as real people, in real situations and had newfound sensitivity towards them.

I think also my wife [who’s a native Palestinian] being from where the bible happens, and now spending some time over there, I look at these stories in a new way.  Connecting with Near Eastern culture, I look at these situations differently.  So a story like Leah’s connected with some of the things I was thinking about for this record.  Namely that there is this woman who tries so hard to get the attention of a man.  In the first part of the story, she has several children, and after each one she thinks, with this child, my husband’s going to love me.  And it just doesn’t happen.  And then finally, there is this moment where she recognizes that her relationship with God is paramount and when she gets that settled her identity is no longer in the man that she’s trying to win but is fulfilled.

And it’s this nice story, but the whole cycle happens again and it seems like there’s no resolve to this desire that the two women have, both Leah and Rachel.  I feel like, with Lots, and thinking about stories in the bible, I don’t know that there’s always necessarily a resolution to the story that we want to put on it.  It’s more often open-ended, almost like a question asking the reader, what they want to do about it.  Like the way Mark ends.  Like the way Jonah ends.  It really asks the listener to be drawn in.  Sometimes as a songwriter you provide the beginning, middle, and ending for the people.  And they end up having that movie theatre experience, where it is all provided for you.  You go and you are passive, rather than engaging with the situation and the person. 

HR: You talk about this idea of the listener participating with the story, narrative, and music.  It’s interesting though; the first and last tracks are hymns, usually understood as highly participatory, congregational music.  But in some ways you’ve completely “de-congregationalized” these hymns.  They’re no longer sing-able.  And that’s okay.  What I find interesting is that they do beckon the listener to participate, but in a much different way.  It seems that approaching hymns in this way is closer to the kind of apparently passive participation that happens while contemplating art at a gallery, rather than the effusive participation that happens via traditional congregational singing and interaction.  If you “get it,” you are engrossed in perhaps a more complete way than unison singing can even afford.

JG: I feel like the world doesn’t need many more congregational songs.  There are so many people, past and present, with this new hymns movement, how have a great vision, there are plenty of people “on the job.”  Writing local songs, for local congregations is great, but I feel like there is a lack of music that isn’t just stuck in the pews and can work in other crevices of life.  Music that you can have a personal, private relationship to, a different one than just on Sunday.  I’m really wrestling with the extent to which Christian music can go on a Sunday.  Can it really work in a rock club, both textually and texturally?

HR: Some of the focus of this site is the dialectic of hopeful realism.  That our Christian faith has something integral to say to “the way things are” in its imperfect beauty and brokenness but also witnessing to the fact that because of Christ we live in an overlap with our hopeful future, anticipating and being pulled into that reality.  Tell me about how that sort of Christian eschatology might play in the aesthetic of your recording projects.

JG: It’s always a constant fight to be super concerned with both the present and the future.  And it is always a fight.  You can fall in love with what you’re making and forget about the future.  You can think about the future and forget your community and the needs of people around you.  And for an artist, some of those needs are aesthetic needs.  Handing people arena rock again and again and again is kind of like pulling the wool over people’s eyes.  When you look at the bible, it is the most incredibly diverse book.  The stories and styles, even the responses it warrants: confusion, frustration, incredible excitement, it changes your life, embarrassment.  It is an amazing range and yet for some reason it is not always fully represented in Christian art.  So when I feel like I’m most human and most spiritual, when those two really fuse together, I have to explore places I don’t really want to go or have been before, because I know they’re good for me.  And I know that I’m going to have the same dumb tendency to find a hit song and repeat it twenty times.  The people I most look up to, both on a human and spiritual level, are the ones where those two facets are tied together.  Where they have an authentic response to the situations of life, like Jesus did.  Where they don’t recycle things, live through the quotes of other people, the anecdotes of other things, they can be fully engaged in the present while fully confident and aware of what Christ has done.

HR: Tell me in particular about Funeral Song.  Though nearly wordless, this song struck me as able to carry this weight, to epitomize this kind of bifocal vision.  The title already betrays a grim reality at hand.  Then there are nearly five minutes of instrumental before haunting and hopeful chorus.  What did you experience that went into the making of this song?

JG: We had a crazy couple of years.  There was a couple in our church who’s sister had a child born with cancer who lived for a couple of months and died on Christmas day.  What are you going to say to that?  About a year later, another couple in our church she had a miracle baby, born three and a half months early.  He could fit in your hand and had like a ten percent chance of survival and is now a laughing, crawling, walking toddler.  But got pregnant again and went into labor early again had twins, and they lived for twenty minutes.  What are you going to say to that?

Meanwhile, my grandmother passed away this last year.  She lived to be 101 and was set to turn 102 in a couple of weeks.  So you have the most extreme lengths of life imaginable.  And I found myself thinking about the way God sustains and takes people.  Sometimes it is absolutely inexplicable.  So the natural Reformed response is to read books on it and come up with a really smart answer and feel good about yourself because you did your homework.  But I’m not sure that that’s always the best way to go about things.  So this song was my attempt to be still and trust in the truths of Lord.  And that’s where I think that music can step in, where words and books can’t.

I tried to tie it with the track before it, the Horatio Spafford track.  Here’s a guy who wrote a hymn after his four kids drowned on a boat, the least likely response you’d imagine.  I quoted his hymn in Funeral Song, but I didn’t want to do a big treaty on life and death, I just wanted to give an offering for people that would hopefully encourage them.

HR: You alluded to the things that music can do that text and typical ways in which we process cannot.  When I listened to Funeral Song, I was reminded of something Bonhoeffer notes in his Letters and Papers from Prison.  The repetition, but also the horn flourishes off of the baseline and standard movement, feels like how Bonhoeffer talks about Christ as the cantus firmus [1], which we hold to and, by the Holy Spirit, improvise off of.  He offers that this baseline holds together the polyphony of life, the fragmentation on the verge of disorder that we experience around us.  This song seems to make sense of the wordlessness we may feel at those times.

JG: I suppose you can get that in the Taize tradition, where you repeat a chorus.  When you’re not used to it, you feel like you’re going nowhere.  I had a funny experience visiting a local Greek Orthodox Church.  We went to a day service, the guy leading the prayers repeated the “Christ have mercy on us sinners” portion a hundred times in a row.  It was like a road trip: exciting, miserable, exciting…  Musically, aesthetically, there is a time and place to repeat and just sit in it.  And it’s not a stagnant thing, there are subtle changes.  There is movement within the meditation.  It is definitely something that was important to that track.  But I thought a hundred times might have been too much.

HR: This record seems to have much more electronically manipulated vocals and instrumentation than your previous works.  It’s interesting considering the content of the record, the ways you’ve taken “synthetic” music and managed to communicate the earthiness of these stories.  Listening to some of the recent music that does this, Bon Iver, James Blake, or Animal Collective, they use manipulated sounds to communicate disintegration, confusion, alienation.  It makes sense though; it’s rooted and earthy.  In some sense, those songs and sounds can only happen now, describing the way things are.  Right now most of us live virtually and realistically.  So it would make total sense that real voices are run through Autotune over a real piano.  We have a hard time discerning between “manual” and “automatic”, but at the same time emotion that results seems no less organic or real even though the ingredients have been manipulated and are obviously not completely “real.”

JG:  People might not know the technical details of why that’s successful.  But I do think they come into play.  If you have a drum machine and you hit the play button and let it loop, there’s no fluctuation in what’s happening.  There’s just a drone.  But when you take that same loop and cut it up and manually paste it in, so that it’s slightly off.  It immediately becomes that much more human.  The way those guys produce their music, they treat the electronic elements in a way that a violinist approaches her instrument, so that it still breathes.

[1] Bonhoeffer Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone, 1997), 303.

Interview with Wesley Hill (Part 1)

In Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, he calls his activity as an author “heuristic writing.”  That is, he writes to think, to sort, to wrestle… not necessarily to explain tidily or to make authoritarian decrees.  “Heuristic writing” captures well what we are trying to do with this blog.  Our writing is a discipline of straining to understand, a discipline of lunging forward into the fog.  Every now and then, you grab hold of something in the murk that seems quite solid, beautiful and true.

Oftentimes, you have to call out in the fog to others who may be up ahead of you a spell, hoping to pick up some response and sound out a communal path.  To close this series on “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars,” I am letting one of those voices speak, the voice of my friend Wesley Hill.

This series began when I started trying to evaluate the response to a vote against the legal possibility of same-sex marriage in North Carolina, a state in which I lived and ministered for six years.  The previous posts are exercises in slogging through some of the complexities behind the reaction of younger Christians to the church’s public discourse on moral issues (see below for the links).  Wes has just written a theological memoir about his own journey as a gay Christian (Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality).  Whether gay or straight, when it comes to discerning how the church is to engage our culture with a vision for an alternative sexual ethic, there are few voices we should prefer to hear calling back to our own from up ahead in the dark fog than Wesley Hill’s.  Dear readers: share this interview with folks—it is worth many ears….


Hopeful Realism: In Washed and Waiting, you recount the difficult stages of gradually confiding your sexual orientation to friends.  Not only did you “come out” as gay before your friends, but you did so in what is often understood as the most inhospitable subculture for gays, that of evangelical Christianity.  And now, you have produced a public account of your struggles in the form of a book!  How difficult has it been to “own” your sexual orientation personally, and then to share it so openly with others?

Wesley Hill: I don’t want to make it sound as though everything has been happily-ever-after since I came out, but I certainly have experienced a measure of rest and relief that comes from being truthful with myself and others. Eve Tushnet, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer, talks about how coming out can be a step towards freer, truer love of others, inasmuch as it lifts the burden of having to hide and the self-protective fear that goes along with hiding. When we’re trying to hide ourselves from others, we’re not able to love them well. In fact, we may be more prone to hurt others in our efforts to try to preserve our hiding place. And so, even as coming out can be a harrowing experience for many people, it can also lead to blessings.

HR: Horror stories circulate about the hostile reaction of Christians to someone struggling with homosexuality who has decided to come out before the church.  In your own experience, how has the church received you in your gradual openness about your own personal struggles as a gay believer?

WH: My experience in this regard has been mostly positive, with only a few exceptions. I’ve been asked to speak and lead discussions in a variety of church settings, and the most frequently asked question I get, probably, is something along the lines of, “How can we do a better job of loving gay people, whether they’re Christian or not?” I take that as a sign that many Christians, by and large, have an instinct for compassion. Having said that, I talk with a lot of gay Christians who have experienced significant rejection, in one form or another, from their churches. One person told me recently that when he came out to his pastor, the pastor’s initial response was, “Don’t tell anyone else in the congregation.” I’m not sure leaders realize how much an exhortation like that can reinforce the sense of shame and guilt that many gay Christians feel simply for experiencing an unchosen same-sex attraction, regardless of what they choose to do with that attraction. Another friend shared with me his experience of being at an informal church event recently — at a mainstream evangelical church — and hearing multiple “gay jokes.” “That showed me that I still can’t come out to my friends,” he said ruefully. And sadly, I’m not sure how uncommon my friend’s experience is in the evangelical church.

HR: Heterosexual Christians are often at a loss to know how to relate to gay brothers and sisters in the faith.  What are the most common myths straight Christians maintain, even if unwittingly, about homosexuality?

WH: I remember giving a talk about loneliness once and a youth minister came up to me afterwards and said, “Can you help me understand the sense of lack that you feel? Why is it that you feel a deficit in your masculinity, and how can we help fill that?” This puzzled me, because I hadn’t said anything in my talk about feeling a lack of male affection. But this pastor had probably heard the common origins story for male homosexuality that describes same-sex attraction as an attempt to “make up for” the distance a boy feels from his father when he’s growing up. Once the boy hits puberty, that hunger for father-intimacy becomes eroticized, and that’s why (many) men are gay (or so the story goes).  My concern here is that we are so quick to impose one narrative that may, indeed, be helpful for some people on others for whom it isn’t helpful. Among other helpful changes we could make, perhaps one of the primary things the church could do is stop pretending as if one of its favorite “origin stories” were true for all gay men, period. That story doesn’t seem to illumine much of my experience, and I’ve heard other gay friends of mine say the same thing. We need to become better listeners and stop assuming that we can know ahead of time what counsel we need to give. We need to be willing to admit that we don’t know why some people are gay, and therefore we don’t know — apart from the hard work of actually cultivating genuine friendship — how we can best support and encourage and love them on their various pathways.

HR: This seems to be the testimony of some gay Christians: “Once I embraced my sexual identity and began practicing it, I then drew closer to Christ.”  You have chosen a different route, operating with an entirely different logic.  It seems to me as though your testimony could be expressed in this way: “Once I embraced my sexual identity and surrendered any hope of practicing it, I then drew closer to Christ.”  Is this an accurate assessment?  How would you account for the disparity in these two testimonies?  Are both equally valid options?

WH: One of the things we have to face up to honestly as Christians is the fact that behaviors and choices that, on a traditional Christian account of things, are “sinful” are also, nonetheless, liberating and peace-giving for some people. Remember Psalm 73: righteousness doesn’t always lead to observable flourishing! Sometimes when we seek to communicate the gospel, we feel that we need to “unmask” the peace and happiness that unbelievers say they experience before we can talk to them about Christ. “Your life is really miserable,” we say, “so you need to come to Jesus.” But is that right? What if the person replies, “But my life isn’t miserable! On the contrary!” I wonder if Bonhoeffer’s reflections on “religious blackmail” could help us here as we ponder how to speak to gay people about the historic Christian teaching on sexual ethics without attacking their own gay partnerships as just obviously “bad” for them. To someone who is in a loving partnership, that attack will either ring hollow or be profoundly hurtful or offensive. I think of a passage from Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology in which he says that we Christians ought to be able to recognize that some people who are rejecting Christian truth often live quite “healthy” lives, when you judge them by the standard of, say, the mental health profession. “Conversions to other religions or yogas or therapies may,” Jenson writes, “in their own ways be describable as ‘forgiveness’ or ‘liberation’ and so on. To such possibilities the gospel’s messengers can only say: ‘We are not here to entice you into our religion by benefits allegedly found only in it. We are here to introduce you to the true God, for whatever he can do for you — which may well be suffering and oppression.” Applying this kind of perspective to homosexuality, I’d like to say that gay partnerships may provide a measure of “liberation” for some and that following the historic Scriptural teaching on either marriage between one man and one woman or celibacy may be quite difficult and not obviously or empirically “good” for us, even though we trust that, in the long run, obeying God does enable true flourishing — and celibacy can indeed be joyful and life-enhancing, even in the meantime.

[to be continued…. Part 2 will be up on Wednesday]


Other posts on Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:

At War with the Culture Wars:  When it comes to high-profile moral issues, younger evangelicals seem more at odds with older evangelicals than with secular culture.

“Not Your Aunt Gertrude’s Church”:  Are younger believers too hip to worship with “Aunt Gertrude”? (What about in heaven?).

Preview and Review of “Younger Evangelicals & the Culture Wars:  What the younger generations’ reactions to older generations’ approaches to society/culture may be doing to our ecclesiology. Plus, what is ahead…

Sex in the City on a Hill: The most fundamental means of promoting an alternative sexual ethic is to practice one.  So how are evangelicals doing when it comes to the issues of abstinence, celibacy, and sexual purity?  How are Christians doing with the sacred model of heterosexual marriage?

The Heartbeat of “Hopeful Realism”: Already… but not yet / Coming… and now is

The namesake of this blog is taken from a phrase my wife supplied as she carefully read through drafts for Faith Without Illusions.  Hopeful Realism is a perspective that holds rosy idealism and shallow optimism as incompatible in an ex-Eden world (hence, “Realism”).  But the perspective is “hopeful” because it holds that cynicism is incompatible with a pre-Parousia world.  That Jesus will make all things new drains cynicism of its legitimacy.

The Resurrection is the premise for a hopeful realist.  That Christ punctured a hole in Death’s impenetrable ramparts and then walked through it signals that something freakishly amazing is underway—the system (of evil) has a virus.  Not only is our world ex-Eden and pre-Parousia, but invaded by the powers of New Creation.  The hopeful realist has ground for hope not only because of Jesus’ forthcoming return, but because mysterious Resurrection powers at work even now, enlivening (cynic-)saints for divine service and seeping into darkened souls whose eyes are on the verge of opening wide.

So eschatology is critical for understanding idealism, realism and cynicism as perspectives in the life of faith.  If the idealists’ eschatological shout can be reduced to “now,” and the cynics’ eschatological cry reduced to “never,” the hopeful realists can claim “already… and not yet.”  I was reading the Greek text of John’s Gospel the other day and realized that the Johannine take on this can be rendered, “coming… and now is” (see Jn 4:23, 5:25).

The great challenge of the hopeful realist is to conjoin mourning with rejoicing.  We groan with creation (Romans 8:18-25) in longing for the day (the Day) when all things are made new.  We also rejoice that glimpses persist hinting that the newness is already underway.  Groaning and celebrating simultaneously—these are the honest joint disciplines for the hopeful realist in a world out of kilter, yet assured a new life.