Saturday, December 31, 2011

So 2011 wraps up

It was by now more than two years ago I got laid off from my job working for the Salvation Army.  I miss having a normal day job, and I miss having a normal day job in which I got to help keep track of funds raised for helping people.  Believe it or not I still kind of miss audit compliance.  I got used to a high level of personal responsibility and attention to detail for how other people's gifts got used.  I also had fun researching giving patterns so fundraisers could know who to approach for help on giving to particular programs.  Well, that was by now more than two years ago and though there are things about that job I miss I did realize along the way that the recession has been rough.  One of my old coworkers at the Salvation Army was a guy who was born shortly after the Crash of `29 and grew up during the Depression. When he told me in `08 that the last time he saw a downturn this bad was during the Depression years I'm willing to defer to the assessment of an old Salvationist who has worked in the realm of helping people longer than I've been alive.

I could have done without getting the onset of migraines at the same point in my life that I got a nasty growing cataract!  That's a great way to horrify a doctor into thinking you've had an aeneurysm.   I got sent to get a few tests and got some bills for those tests that scared the daylights out of me.  Fortunately after nine years of working with financial institutions and government offices at a major on-profit I was able to call on years of experience in researching foundations and non-profits to consult about charitable assistance.  I realize a LOT of other people who are severely wanting money are not nearly so fortunate as I have been.  I can see with both eyes and read because of the generosity of a foundation and some generous eye surgeons.  I have not really officially resolved to do this but I have informally resolved that for as long as I can see well enough to read and write I would like what I write to in some way be helpful to people or entertaining, whether it's prose or music or whatever.  Whether or not I have succeeded is not mine to guess at. 

I have been grateful for the kindness of family and friends during a time of my life that has often been miserable.  But even though the prospect of a steady job still seems remote I can start 2012 doing more writing and continuing the work of preparing some pieces for performance and a piece for publication.  Now that family visits and the holidays are wrapped up I'll be able to throw myself back into writing projects.  I can't thank everyone who has helped me and encouraged me over the last two years because, in all honesty, I haven't always known who some of these folks have been, but I am thankful for them. 

It's no fun having a cataract in one eye and a macular detachment in the other over the course of one's life and at length I could lose both eyes and can't know for sure what the future holds, but I can be grateful for the present.  I've had some rough times but I don't live in Japan near the reactor disaster, I don't live in Uganda, I just so happen to live in a city where some of the best medical specialists around for my case history (that happens to scare the daylights out of a few people when it comes to vision) have been willing to go to bat for me.  I wish I still had my old job but at least in that job I learned things I needed to know and skills I needed to refine so that I could ask for the help I needed and make a case.  I'm finally at a point where my eyes have stabilized enough that I can go on the quest for a new prescription and new lens.  I certainly need them by now!

I think I may just end 2011 on a light note with a haiku I wrote years ago that pretty much explains itself.  If this has ever happened to you I hope you'll appreciate the dry humor.

Today I got a
fortuneless fortune cookie.
Have I no future?

Happy 2012 to any and all readers of Wenatchee The Hatchet. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Link: J. S. Bang--Honkies Revisited

I keep stumbling on things that make me revise my decision that I was done blogging for 2011 already.  My esteemed associate J. S. Bangs wrote this funny expression of ambivalence about the "What this story needs is a Honky" trope in sci-fi and fantasy.  I don't happen to share that ambivalence myself because while I appreciate his appreciation of the contrast between technocratic "white" culture and more spiritually attuned non-white culture in Western narrative as a shorthand for the contrast within predominantly white culture I still can't give films like Avatar or Windtalkers a pass in the patronizing story line.  If you get Adam Beach and have John Woo directing the movie yet still make the film about Nicholas Cage's character you're going the most pedestrian route possible.  It's only explicable in terms of Hollywood.  You get an Asian directing a film about American Indians playing a role in World War II and it's still about the white dude.  Lame. 

With respect to minorities in Hollywood blacks have made some substantial gains in the last fifty years.  You don't have to actually like Will Smith movies to recognize he's a big box office draw.  I don't always enjoy the movies Denzel Washington is in but he's a reliable actor.  Spike Lee may not be as big a name as Spielberg but he's a name at all.  There may be too few blacks having such prominent places in Hollywood but as tokens go there are more of them than, say, American Indians.  The older I get the more I begin to notice that different racial groups have very different ways of understanding themselves in relationship to white culture.  Blacks "tend" to lean toward Democrats for the reasons that are not that hard to explain. 

American Indian author Sherman Alexie once said, somewhat as a complaint, that American Indians tend to be politically conservative.  If you look at how government activism regarding Indians looks compared to government activism regarding blacks in the last hundred years it's not going to be HUGELY shocking that American Indians might think the better solution is keeping the government further away from them.  Not all racial groups have the same incentive to go with Democrats or with liberal policies and not all racial groups have equally benefited from the progressive gestures.  At the risk of putting it this way, if Hollywood is any measure of the role of non-whites in mainstream society blacks may feel they have more progress to make but they have substantially measurable progress in the form of bankable leading men, directors, and networks.  BET may be offensive to some blacks and some people may think Univision is a bit daft but those networks are here for the long haul.  Asian cinema has completely saturated American film-making in ways that Americans may not even be capable of parsing any moer. 

By contrast, American Indians have got ... what, exactly?  Casinos and a corresponding opprobrium from certain branches of evangelicalism about the badness thereof.  One of the unfortunate side effects of a lot of American discussion about "race" is that it fixates in many settings on white and black, or white and Latino, or white and Asian.  Black and Asian racial strife, let alone animosity between American Indians and Mexicans.  As American Indians can see it EVERYONE else constitutes an illegal immigrant who came and stole their land, stole their jobs, and attempted to wipe them out in the process. 

Of course many of these tribes were also spending time trying to wipe each other out.  Part of the reason the magic Indian trope and the mystical society that accepts the honky outcast is so silly and annoying is because it is so steadily built into an imaginary past.  As a friend of my brother put it, a Hopi man who found Dances with Wolves insulting and tedious, the "heroic" tribe the white man joins spent generations attempting to wipe out the Hopi and take their land.  Even when Hollywood tries to somehow dignify Indians as being nobler than "us" in the "This Story Needs a Honky" trope, it turns out the circumstances of history make it inevitable that something goes off the rails. 

And the end result in the trope is that the magic white boy ends up being the hero. No disrespect to blacks in Hollywood or the struggles they face but if we can have critics complaining about Will Smith as a leading man then there has been measurable progress!  Jackie Chan may be a cinematic one trick pony but the world recognize his one trick has been pretty awesome for decades.  Bollywood has made some inroads.  The more homegrown Indians ... not so much.  They are still only good in Hollywood terms for the magic white boy, "This Story Needs a Honky" approach, it seems.  I'm afraid that the problem as it is will never get fixed by movies at the level of, say, The Business of Fancy Dancing.  Alexie has been an entertaining author but a film director he is not.  But in the end if no one risks in the arts no one can succeed.  A certain amount of trial and error is necessary in the arts.

Meanwhile, lest it seem that I'm only discussing American film and the entrenchment of racial or ethnic concerns, every culture has its own jingoistic expressions.  It's not like Ulysses doesn't come across as a smug, duplicitious creep to anyone who doesn't happen to share Hellenistic values and clan affiliations.  It's not like China hasn't been rolling out action films constantly revisiting the Japanese invasion of China and depicting the Japanese as bloodthirsty rape-happy cretins in the last twenty years.  There are compelling historical reasons for that depiction but it can still be seen as jingoistic in the way that American films about World War II can come off as unflinchingly self-congratulatory. 

But then in a way this all comes down to a more basic narrative trope in humanity, the need to conclude that we chose the 'right' policy in a situation in which the only options were varying degrees of horrific.  The touchstone here from the 20th century is Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb.  That the bomb constituted an unmitigatingly horrifying power to destroy human life cannot be avoided, but it cannot be avoided what the Japanese imperial forces did at Nanking and how far gone the destruction of non-combatants had already gone in the war. 

At the level of national and international policy the lesser of two to five evils can still be nothing less than horrifying to a degree that defies comprehension.  A teacher once put it to me this way, that Americans mistakenly think that the President of the United States has to decide "if" people will die because of a policy decision when the reality is closer to this, the President has to decide how many people dying from a policy decision is the most tolerable option.  This is not jaded cynicism but the miserable reality of politics.  We are constantly caught between wanting to have our cake and eat it, too.  We want to affirm how different we are from our dominant group even as our affirmation affirms our dominance.  We want, even in the midst of our privilege, to be able to embrace the status of outcast.  Evidently in some settings the easiest way to express this emotional and cultural moment is ...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

an overview of structural concerns in the sonata forms of Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli

I know, I know, I mentioned earlier that I was basically done for 2011 in terms of blogging but I'm not, really.  I still have a lot of writing I want to do but as yet incomplete holiday family plans have sidelined my original writerly plans and I've been gearing up for more composing work.  The sonata for double bass and guitar I finished this month was a start; the movement for my sonata for tuba and guitar was getting some momentum going; but I still want to finish my entire cycle of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  That won't happen until 2012 by now.

But I did finish 12 studies in harmonics earlier this year and I have finished a sonatina for guitar in D major inspired by one of my nephews.  Along the way I have spent some time immersing myself in the sonata forms of the early masters of the instrument in the Western tradition.  Thus Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, and Anton Diabelli (yep, the Diabelli associated with the famous Diabelli Variations). 

A few general remarks about my impressions of these masters.  Angelo Gilardino has written that not even Sor and Giuliani were able to fully balance musical values and an idiomatic command of the guitar.  While many guitarists play the etudes and shorter works the actual longer-form works by Sor and Giuliani only seem to get tackled by a few and classical guitarists seem to generally lack interest in these works as performance pieces or as pieces to listen to.  I could be completely wrong here but in my experience, such as it is, specialists and completists tend to be the ones who dig into the Grand Sonatas of Sor or Giuliani.  it takes even more specialization and interest to go dig up the guitar sonatas of Diabelli!  

I don't wish here to recycle the debunking of folklore about Beethoven disliking Diabelli's music when the reality was Diabelli had good connections and was a trustworthy engraver and all that.  Instead I'd like to tackle a subject I have been giving thought to since I read Gilardino's remark years ago about Sor and Giuliani not quite balancing musical value and idiomatic command of the guitar.  By "musical value" I go on a limb and say that Gilardino is referring to musical form and thematic economy of development.  This is something that has been a hobby of mine for some fifteen years and having compared the sonata forms of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuliani to those of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven I think I can explain why non-guitarists have had so few reasons to pay attention to the sonata forms of guitarists.

But first a digression into Charles Rosen's famous book on sonata forms.  He remarks on the wide variety of structural components and approaches that can be taken in sonata form at some length. He also establishes that it was not even normative to always recapitulate the first group from the exposition but that it was normative for the recapitulation to stabilize the harmonic trajectory of the first movement form as a whole.  It is true that many of the best sonata forms recapitulate group 1 and then group 2 but we construe this from the examples of the best of the best, not the average.

Without wishing to completely diminish the sonata forms of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuiliani I would venture to say that they represent the average against which Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven can be understood to be the best of the best the Classic era formal innovators had to offer.  At the risk of providing no examples and trusting you know the literature extensively I could pick any quartet from Haydn's Op. 76 and tell you that it displays a higher and deeper and more varied thematic economy and structural integrity than Sor's best sonata forms.  I am about to tell you why I think this.

Having amassed scores for the sonata forms of the early guitar greats Sor's sonata forms come closest to approaching the archetypal sonata form but they differ from the sonata forms of the Viennese masters in some basic ways. The first and most important difference is that Sor's sonatas lack the contrasting thematic and textural character changes in the exposition that are normal in Haydn or Mozart quartets or piano sonatas.  Even when Haydn employs monothematic sonata forms he retains a higher level of contrast.  It could be suggested, in all fairness, that the guitar is not even close to reaching the variety possible in homophonic or polyphonic textures available to the string quartet or keyboard.  This would be true, but it would also be true that Gilardino was on to something in pointing out that Sor and Giuliani did not balance musical form with idiomatic command.

The Sor Grand Sonatas have, compared to Haydn or Mozart forms, very short development periods.  Though Sor recapitulates his thematic groups in the C major sonata in a normal way the ideas are not particularly well-developed within the development section proper.  The C minor sonata form leads attaca into a dance movement in C major.  The second group is recapitulated in the sonata form while the first group is not quite ever brought back.  Here I confess that Sor seems to have made the mistake of trying to drag out a "grand" form for as long as possible to mimic the bigness of Beethoven.  It would have been better to have aimed for Beethoven's economical development of thematic material, which is why I believe Sor's Op. 14 and Op. 15b experiments in sonata form are more compelling.  They are also, fittingly, closer in mood and scale to lighter works by Haydn or Mozart.

Giuliani's Op. 15 is his most satisfying sonata form because he has his first and second group recapitulating in a "normal" way.  He also developes his ideas more thoroughly in his development section than Sor does in his Grand Sonatas.  But Giuliani in his Grand Overture and his Op. 150 sonata displays a habit that Charles Rosen has described, that of recapitulating group 2 and 3 but omitting 1 in a recapitulation.  This can be done for sensible reasons and even Diabelli drops group 1 from the recapitulation of his first movement in his Sonata in F major for guitar.  But this is where I think the guitar composers become average rather than ingenius like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  It's true that you "can" drop the first theme and merely transpose group 2 and 3 from the exposition down into the tonic key but by doing this what Giuliani and Diabelli lose is the non-modulating transition.

The non-modulating transition is what allows the recapitulation to take on its structural and emotional force.  Diabelli and Giuliani particularly create expositions in which group 1 is in the tonic key while group 2 and 3 are in the dominant key.  To recapitulate only groups 2 and 3 without group 1 in the tonic key is a perfect example of placing idiomatic command of the instrument over a concern about musical values in sonata allegro forms.  To put this rather crudely, recapitulating group 2 and 3 in the tonic key in a recapitulation for the guitar just means you play as open chords the stuff you were probably playing as barre chords in the exposition.  You just knock it down X number of frets and there you go.  Bingo bango.  It makes the piece easier to play but at the expense of completely ignoring the conceptual and artistic point of the recapitulation in Classic era sonata form!

Giuliani does at least have pretty tunes and flash going for him.  He sounds very pretty.  He's easily the flashiest of the trio and while this can make his solo works exciting he can, as listeners discover, lean on the technique a wee bit too much.  On the other hand, what I like about Giuliani was his interest in composing chamber works in which the guitar would be joined to a flute, a violin, or violin and cello.  Each of the "big three" from the early period of the classical guitar has great strengths that offset what I personally consider to be some weaknesses, but the strengths are not always going to be evident if you only search through the solo guitar literature written by Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli respectively.

Sor gets the epic scale of lower-end Beethoven or ambitious Haydn, which is fun, but his epic gesture tends to be sheer scale.  For contrapuntal ingenuity and beauty of material his etudes consistently outstrip his sonata forms (particularly if we're talking about the Op. 6 and Op. 29 etudes compared to the Op. 22 and Op. 25 sonatas).  For what it's worth I think Sor displayed the greatest command of counterpoint when he bothered to write counterpoint. The Op. 14 and Op. 15b sonatas are pretty satisfying, though, as I was writing earlier. 

Diabelli, of the three, displays the most concern about musical form as a goal unto itself and this is why though his sonatas are not as immediately appealing in the ways that a sonata by Giuliani or Sor might be they reward more repeated listenings and study.  To put it in a rather starkly unfair way of the three guitarists and given what I've been able to study about their respective approachs to thematice development and musical form it does not surprise me Beethoven gave us a Diabelli Variations rather than a Sor Variations or Giuliani Variations.  Diabelli's ideas are not always the most inspired but they have the advantage of inviting expansion and development!  If you don't believe me it doesn't matter, Beethoven has already proven the point beyond all doubt!

As a guitarist I would like to say that non-guitarists have all sorts of compelling reasons to listen to the sonatas of Sor, Diabelli, and Giuliani.  I'm afraid I can't really say that if the argument is to listen to the best music of that time period.  But I will take up an idea forwarded by Robert Craft about Vivaldi in the context of Bach, the first rate composers are first rate because they show the greater invention and mastery they attained in contrast to second rate composers, but that does NOT mean we shouldn't appreciate and find value in the second rate. That sounds elitist and, well, Robert Craft was friends with Stravinsky so perhaps there's no point in sugar-coating elitism in the arts.  What I mean to say here is that if Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven represent the apotheosis of sonata form as art and as intellectual/spiritual exploration Sor, Giuliani, and Diabelli represent the average.  It is still valuable to study the average to come not only to a fuller appreciation of the great but to also appreciate the reality that most people are average yet unique. 

Now if you have been inspired by this essay to go find the scores and listen to the music I want to make sure I don't disappoint you.  Anthony Glise has recorded all of the Diabelli guitar sonatas.  The recording is no longer in print but if you go to Anthony Glise's website you may be able to purchase both his CD (what's left of the production run) and his wonderful compilation of the complete sonatas of Sor, Giuliani and Diabelli.  Mel Bay printed the book several years ago and it was one of those books to grab while it was in print because if you try to go buy it now you're in for a surprise at how expensive it often is! As comic book nerds might say, there's a time to go buy the latest issue now and not assume it will just get collected into trade paperback format! 

Fortunately, however, the majority of works by Sor and Giuliani have been in the public domain for so long finding facsimiles of the scores is not difficult.  For Diabelli you are not going to be nearly that fortunate. You WILL at some point have to part with your money to get those scores.
The Glise recordings may also be found in places like this if you dig around a bit.

And because all this music is centuries old finding performances of the works on YouTube will be pretty easy.  The works from Sor are Op. 14, Op. 15b, Op. 22, Op. 25
The works from Giuliani are Op. 15, Op. 61 and Op. 150
Diabelli, Op. 29, 1-3

Armed with these opus numbers and a few visits to Naxos and other labels and you should be able to compile a decent set of recordings and scores once you dig up the free facsimiles or can, say, get ahold of Glise's formidable Mel Bay collection.

So this probably "will" be my last entry for the year of 2011.  I had thought about saving it for 2012 but in the end my eagerness to write about these things just got the better of me.  I hope someone out there in internet land finds the essay interesting or perhaps even useful.

Friday, December 23, 2011

writing progress, writing year in review

I'm happy to report that part 4 of Batman: the Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire, a series I've been working on for Mockingbird about Batman: the animated series, has picked up a lot of steam.

Just in time for Christmas.

Which means that, once again, I'm tabling it to start spending time with family and to tackle another project that has come up.  I was stoked to have made so much progress this week, finally!  I have some fun stuff about Batman villains that piggy-backs on what I wrote about Mr. Freeze in part 3, "Heart of Ice, Heart of Wrath" but there's nothing like needing eye surgery during a holiday season to set you back!  Still, I'm doing what I can but at the rate I'm going (with another follow up on eye surgery I need to do and some other work)

So part 4 probably has to wait for the New Year but in the mean time, here's a review of what I've written for Mockingbird this year.  Instead of publication order I'm going with the original intended reading order.

The first series to be read describes the historic setting of American cartoons into which Batman: the Animated series began and kicked off what eventually became the DC animated universe or Timm-verse.  So "Chapter 1" is called Cartoon Nostalgia, Cartoon Revolutions

"Chapter Two" is in progress, Batman: the Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire

Part 4 is pending, "The Wounds of Discovery".  Parts 5 and 6 will also take time.

"Chapter Three" was the first to get published, Superman: An American Icon at War with (and for) His Own Legacies

Chapter One lays out the groundwork of what Reagan era cartoons were like and what some authors have called the "Cold War moral clarity" of cartoons that were often shills for toys.

Chapter Two, of course, lays out themes and storys from Batman: the animated series as an example of one of the first uniquely post-Cold War cartoons that blew up the moral simplification common in Reagan-era cartoons. That's where I'm going with the Batman essays if that wasn't clear to earlier readers and in case you're stumbling on this page having never read the earlier work.

Chapter Three moves on to look at how Bruce Timm and Paul Dini revamped an American pop culture icon.  After dispensing with the viability of Superman-as-Jesus I focus on Superman as an icon of what we want America to be and how Lex Luthor represents the corruption of what American so often is.  I explore how Luthor and Brainiac represent the worst of human and Kryptonian legacies and how Superman can be seen as an American pop icon because he represents a citizen of multiple cultures and a participant in the legacies of more than one race.  The challenges that keep Superman interesting aren't the big monsters he fights or the loss of friends who will generally get raised from the dead in a few issues, the challenges that make Superman interesting are the challenges to warp his moral compass. 

The dangers of "good guys" having their moral compasses corrupted is something I plan to revisit in the Justice League essays in 2012, particularly when I eventually get to the Cadmus arc. "Chapter Four" is intended to be about Justice League/Justice League Unlimited.  I'll leave that at that for now.

"Chapter Five" is going to include, among other things, a polemic against Joseph Campbell's monomyth and particularly how Christians lazily appropriate it in apolegetic or "cultural engagement" settings.  I'm going to take some time to tackle that and along the way I hope to distinguish between what I consider to be actual pop mythology and what I consider to be the merchandizing of the monomyth.  But all that is, you may have suspected by now, going to have to wait until no earlier than some time in 2012. 

Meanwhile, as an end-of-year review of what I've written for Mockingbird I figure this post will provide a summary and suggested reading order for what I've managed to publish so far. 

In completely unrelated news I am also still tackling the project of getting my first guitar sonata published.  I hope to publish a few more compositions in the future but the main thing is finalizing the steps to getting the Guitar Sonata in F minor published.  I'm slowly making preparations to film/record excerpts from my nearly complete 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar. 

Some of the other things I've written this year may be of interest, such as a series I began over at From Bitter Waters to Sweet and then expanded slightly over on The Wartburg Watch, where I discuss my concerns about Mark Driscoll's handling of Song of Songs

It took me months of study, background research, and laying out my thoughts but I did also finally blog this month about the "I see things" video clip of Driscoll that made the rounds on the blogosphere earlier this year.

Keep in mind I undertook both of these writing projects intending to provide some constructive criticism and information, not to embark on some blanket slash and burn projects. I trust I've been pretty clear about this already but it never hurts to keep being clear. Just because I raise the subject here of how Driscoll's "I see things" video follows the script of recovered memory therapy methods that have been debunked as of decades ago doesn't mean I'm interested in demonizing people. I'm more interested in discussing difficulties in statements and positions when I believe they are important rather than attacking people as people.

As I attempted to show at some length both cessationists and charismatics are too beholden to battles about ecclesiology and custom in 20th and 21st century church practice to pay attention to what OT and NT passages actually describe about the nature of prophets and prophetic activity, particularly with respect to Deuteronomy 16-18 as a prescriptive legal and judicial framework within the prescribed Israelite theocratic monarchy. Even a reference to Hellenistic literature can establish that prophets were frequently understood to play the role of policy advisor and established critic when necessary.  Prophets could be considered, at times, to be the equivalent of the "fourth estate".  But I've rambled enough about that already.

A few more pingbacks while I'm at it, though long-time readers will probably have seen this stuff already.  This link below was a lengthy writing session in which I built up to an essay about evangelicals that proposed "We have the same ethics because we worship the same idols".  In light of the article in Relevant Fearsome Tycoon recently linked to that stated 80% of American evangelicals ages 18-29 have admitted to premarital sex while evangelicals debate whether or not pastors should be unmarried I'm not sure I could have picked a better year to write this series tagged below.

That evangelicals can't imagine being fully human without some active sex life means they're not really "that" different from the world.  And why would they?  They either invent more rules to imagine they have better ethics than "worldly" people or they just follow their impulses and bone whomever and justify it. 

Which sort of naturally leads thematically to this post:

Where I note that if you're a virgin and past 30 both believers and non-believers tend to think you're some loser who is not really fully human. There are a variety of ways in which single guys past 30 can react to this and many of those ways are, to put it mildly, less than healthy. I'm not discounting myself from that group for that matter.

Thanks to a certain megachurch pastor posting a wildly ill-advised request on Facebook I ended up writing these posts:

They are dubbed parts 267 and 268 respectively of Mark Driscoll's William Wallace II days.  I want to make sure to note, though, that I did appreciate Driscoll using his celebrity pastor status to ask Mars Hill to donate food to the Salvation Army Port Angeles corps food pantry.

I'm in a position to know enough about Mars Hill and the Salvation Army Northwest division to confirm that this was a legit story.  If times weren't so rough for the Sallie during the recession as a whole I'd still have my old job.  My year in review may include a variety of critical reactions to junk Driscoll says but I'm making it clear here that there's stuff Mars Hill does and has done that I am willing to get behind.  I hope Mars Hillians continue to give to places like the Salvation Army and Union Gospel Mission and other organizations. 

Obviously this is a wind-up for 2011 and I'm not sure I'm likely to blog here until 2012. I've taken stock of all this writing in 2011 because writing has been one of the things that's kept me going while I hunt for normal, steady employment.  If I have written things that have inspired people to think about some things or entertain them I have accomplished my goal.  If not, well, I kept myself busy and had some fun!  I hope you enjoy the stuff I've written if you haven't been reading it and if you don't read it, well, hey, thanks for visiting anyway.

Happy holidays until I end up back here. 

HT Wartburg: Whither YRR?

DeYoung mentions three challenges he believes face the young, restless and Reformed.  Ecclesiology, missiology, and sanctification.

YRR ecclesiology may be thin because since so many of them are evangelical they retain the committment to pragmatism that they think they have shaken off because they don't see themselves as seeker-sensitive.  Those that actually have roots in Baptist or Presbyterian ecclesiology have the advantage of not having to reinvent the wheel, which is not something the non-denominational or parachurch institutions have.  It's easy for a pastor who is in his twenties to dismiss denominations as old hat but a multi-site church that has ten campuses in three states is still functionally a denomination even if it's just one pastor whose sermon is preached live at one campus and then shipped out via DVD to video venues where everyone else in the church gets the same sermon a week later. By the time that pastor is in his forties and more than ten thousand people attend the campuses he's basically got a denomination on his hands if the church doesn't die a slow or quick miserable death after he passes on. 

Missiology would seem like something YRR's should have slam-dunked but this would only be true of what YRR's were pretty sure they'd have slam-dunked by now.  Now it's something like a decade later.  No slam dunk.  Surprise.  Two kingdom theology and transformational models are never likely to agree. 

The old cliche from the Mars Hill days would be these two things are in "tension" and need to be held together without letting go of either.  But, to borrow yet another Mars Hill cliche, the three pound fallen brain can't keep these things together indefinitely and so one of the two will at length (and not much length!) become more appealing than the other.  Despite Mars Hill's formal repudiation of theonomistic ideals the whole "redeeming culture" meme runs straight along a path in which it is proposed that eventually enough Christians can get "upstream" to "influence culture".  It's no wonder liberal Seattle secularists see this as nothing more than a more covert or guerrila version of culture war.  That's because that's what it essentially is.   They're not nearly as dumb as you may think they are, guys.  :)

And then there's sanctification. I have written at length about my suspicion that the real appeal of the young, restless Reformed camp is that they promise young men something, specifically young men.  For people with a more conventional "evangelical" or fundamentalist or Wesleyan background the promise in the neo-Calvinist movement takes on a particular sales pitch.  Drinking with Luther and Calvin, for instance. Mark Driscoll's Peasant Princess series.  Smoking cigars and talking about theology and stuff like that.  Young men have gotten a kind of meta-textual promise through the neo-Calvinist movement that they can drink, smoke, and seek to get laid (in holy matrimony of course) and it's all good.  In fact it's God's design for them. 

The neo-Calvinists think the sales pitch is how solid they are on doctrine but after ten years and witnessing how incoherent things can actually be amongst the YRR's, as even Kevin DeYoung has noted by now, I would suggest the time has been more than ripe to point out that the strongest appeal the YRR movement has had, now that it's advocates are probably closer to middle-age, is a cultural or social sales pitch more than some kind of doctrinal or ecclesiological coherence.  Living as I have in Seattle I think that Driscoll probably exemplifies this best in my neck of the woods.  Driscoll can attempt to split the difference between definite atonement and unlimited atonement by saying that the atonement covers the entirety of creation yet has salvific effects only for the elect and Reformed folks will say he's trying to cheat his way out of committing to the L in the TULIP.  I don't see it as being that cut and dried because in a case where I may surprise a handful of people, I think Driscoll has been right to say that we can't pin down the atonement to having a single function. 

But the sales pitch Driscoll has explicitly tied himself to in the last fifteen years is "get the young men" and that whole "sex with the wife once a day" line from the "banned" video can be seen as  merely a single case in a long sequence of sales pitches.  The idea is to make Christianity relevant to young men and what better way to make it relevant to young men than to make an appeal that being a Christian doesn't mean you have to stop being a dude.  You don't have to be some chickafied evanjellyfish, you can drink, smoke, and get laid once you find the right girl and seal the deal and lead her like you're supposed to.  Along the way several wheels will get reinvented but that's okay because this is about a new movement that is getting to the real deal. 

Having once more firmly identified myself as YRR and now being more vanilla Presbyterian I would suggest that one of the core questions YRR's need to ask themselves now that they're closer to forty than thiry is what the real sales pitch has been all these years.  I'm not so sure the sales pitch has really been "Reformed" at all.  I'm not sure the sales pitch has even been Calvinist soteriology.  It might be something else and to the extent that people like MacArthur have identified that sales pitch as having a certain cultural cache rather than a coherent approach to doctrine MacArthur may continue to do these guys a favor by not taking them as seriously as they take themselves.  Not that I'm a MacArthur fan at all (see the rest of this blog) but MacArthur's stance against some of the poster boys of the YRR team and some of their stunts can still be appreciated.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

HT: D. G. Hart on the death of Hitchens

Atheists work like there's no tomorrow because for them, of course, the understanding is that there is no tomorrow.  If time destroys all legacies you'd best work as hard, as long, and as fast as you can to shore up whatever you can, not just for the sake of having what you made last a little bit longer but also because your work is what you have.  There is nothing better than to enjoy one's work one finds to do. 

All work and all skill in work spring from man's envy of his neighbor per Ecclesiastes 4:4.  Ecclesiastes lays out succinctly what can drive an atheist to keep working, but not just an atheist.  It's not "just" an atheist who does all his or her work and skill acquisition out of envy of one's neighbor.  So it's not a huge surprise atheists have a great incentive to work both for work as a pleasure in itself and as a testament to the work.  John Lennon used to say that the goal was to beat Elvis and then after the Beatles bested Elvis in charts a new goal had to be found.  For people who are into the Beatles envy is a major reason the Beatles did what they did.  Of course it might be useful to distinguish between envy that is purely covetous and an envy that has some genuine admiration in it.  But I feel too lazy, heh, to bother with such distinctions in this post. I have places to be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bad art and the tortured beauty of the cross? How "tortured" now?

Bad art encourages escapism among Christians. Good art, epitomized by the Psalms, helps us long for the new creation even as we learn to love all God's creatures.

Preliminary thought, I cannot shake Greg Thornberry's visual and vocal resemblance to Andy Dick.

As I listen to this discussion .... I think the word these guys are looking for is "twee". A great deal of "Christian" creative output that is self-consciously described as such is utterly twee. 

Perhaps atheists could ask what the difference between "escapism" and "long for the new creation even as we learn to love all God's creatures" is. Wouldn't it seem that an atheist or any non-Christian could see that as the ultimate distinction without a difference?

Here's the thing that has me cautious about Gospel Coalition guys talking about "the tortured beauty of the cross"--how can we know this isn't just a rhetorical flourish?  I mean, talking about the sense of lostness conveyed by Radiohead songs?  This is a band that been around for more than two decades.  They're sort of Pinkfloyd rebooted with a few more touches from Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra and maybe a bit from, I dunno, the Ramones.  The thing is that, as others have pointed out more succinctly than I could, hipster Christianity is still usually two decades off from whatever all other hipsters are doing.  I haven't exactly set out to be a hipster and I don't know if it's a goal or anti-goal, but it just seems to me that if you're shooting for music that somehow portrays some "tortured beauty of the cross" and wondering why evangelicals haven't gotten that ...

It's one thing to diagnose the problem, it's another thing to provide an alternative, let alone a viable solution.  Saying people should read Flannery O'Connor is neither an alternative nor a solution for the same reason that reading Dostoevsky is neither an alternative nor a solution so far as evangelicalism goes.  A Catholic author and an Orthodox author are not necessarily indicative of what an "evangelical" would write.  C. S. Lewis can't really count, either, because he was a lay Anglican with some ideas that no American evangelicals would necessarily get behind on closer inspection.  It'e easy for evangelicals to complain about the lack of artistic viability, let alone greatness, evangelicals have. 

But perhaps that is the real problem, that there are sets of evangelicals who think the problem is that evangelicals aren't making great art.  It's still what we're against rather than what we're for. Well, if we grant that because it's true, what's the solution?  Merely to have evangelicals aspire to make "great" art?  What constitutes great art?  Furthermore, even if we agreed on what that was within evangelicalism, what's the incentive?  Let me be awfully blunt, particularly since I'm a job-seeker, who would dish out the money that would make that great, properly evangelical art, music, or literature?  It's not there.  People will spend money on Thomas Kinkad paintings and movies like Fireproof among evangelicals becasue that is, apparently, what they want to bankroll. Evangelicals pretend they want to capture the tortured beauty of the cross but a lot of what constitutes meditating on the tortured beauty of the cross are sermons that jump from the cross to the third use of the law, or the second use (I guess) to point out how impossible it is to please God which is why Jesus had to. 

Bear in mind I'm not making some beef with the third use of the law.  I'm Presbyterian, not Lutheran. The Torah was, when we take it at face value, given AFTER THE EXODUS.  The trite Lutheran distinction of Law coming before Gospel stumbles at the most obvious point in Israelite narrative.  Yes, the Torah came before Christ, we'll all agree on that, but I'm Presbyterian so, uh, I'm not going to say that Law/Gospel distinction makes any sense except across covenants.  Within the Torah the situation is reversed, grace is given by creating anything at all, then a simple law is given.  That simple law is disobeyed and off we go.  So it's not necessarily wrong to preach a biblical text that says "This is how you should behave."  We want to keep touching on those.  The problem may be the temptation to transform narratives into exercises in the third use of the law.  Thus some preacher will transform Nehemiah into some shill for a building project even in cases where Nehemiah pretty well explains to us that he botched something or displays some character flaws.

And in the young, restless Reformed group I was part of for a while it was common to dismiss David is essentially coming off like a whiny, self-centered emo boy.  If the psalms as a whole and the psalms of lament in particular are dismissed by, say, the worship pastor at Mars Hill church as whiny emo-boy (and if you don't believe me go download his sermons covering psalms where he explains what his view was) then how sure could I be that evangelicals are going to go all the way to a whole sermon on, say, Psalm 88.  That'll preach.  Or Psalm 137?  Blessed be  the one who kills your babies by dashing them against a stone.  That text is so difficult and unappealing to modern sensibilities it is why I made myself set it to music. 

But let me get back to the tortured beauty of the cross.  It's interesting that Orthodox and Catholics have come up with stuff that deals with this.  In the case of the Polish Catholic composer Penderecki he very bluntly and literally used every avant garde technique at his disposal to create a 70-80 minute long musical depiction of Christ on the Cross, the passion according to St. Luke.  He also did it to flip a great big old unidigital salute to the Soviets, which just makes the Lukaspassion five times more awesome than it already would have been!  There's nothing like making a masterpiece of avante garde music and making it a massive expression of Christian faith to galvanize fellow Poles and stick to the Russians, eh?  No, seriously, if you can handle the Lukaspassion it's worth listening to.  There is music that really explores the tortured beauty of the cross. 

I know some folks get into Good Friday and try to cram all their meditation on the cross in there but there are other services and opportunities.  Any one amongst evangelicals want to try anything connected to Maundy Thursday?  Holy Saturday?  No?  You'd think that just with Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the Night ... "we Protestants could lay claim to a truly amazing piece of folk art reflecting on Christ in the tomb.  This sort of art and music and song and literature is already out there ... but at the risk of being deliberately polemical I'm not entirely sure a bunch of white guys at the Gospel Coalition may know about it if the talking points are how bad Thomas Kinkad is or how Radiohead expresses lostness.  Not all of us got on the Radiohead bandwagon. 

In summary (as if I'd been clearly articulating these points before), if evangelicals make so much junk there are probably two basic reasons for this.  The first is simply that the big money in evangelicalism has decided, with its money, what kind of art, music, and literature it wants to back up. 

And even if the big money were going to other stuff this leads naturally to the second point, evangelicals seem to have lost a context for having any use for this "great art" even if they were interested in funding it.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that evangelicals will never sanction art for the sake of art.  It's true that in earlier epochs art for the sake of art was not necessary but art for the sake of established convention still worked within the parameters of expectations in patronage.  The blunt form of this is that you work for the resources you have, not the ones you wish you had.  Stuff like Crystal Cathedral sinking in the whole putting on Christmas paegants could have been avoided if that relatively simple precept was kept in mind ... or maybe not.

The second reason there's frequently a lack of a context for evangelicals to dump good money into good art (as opposed to expecting brilliant artists, musicians, and writers to just do everything for free as a part of their membership agreement) is liturgical context.  J. S. Bach could write all those amazing cantatas not just because someone was paying him good money to write that stuff but because there was an actual context for which the stuff could be performed.  If you want more variety in evangelical productivity try, I don't know, paying attention to the liturgical year?  Don't just fixate on Good Friday where you can shoe-gaze about your sin.  There's also Pentecost.  Some churches tackle Advent but that may just be trendy now. It's not like Epiphany isn't an option either. 

If megachurches grow in anything like an idiom and axiom of "if you build it they will come" then perhaps merely competent evangelical creative production can return if evangelicals provide a liturgical context and a financial incentive for competent artists, writers, and musicians to actually do something.  The problem of bad evangelical art is never going to be solved merely by preachers comparing notes on how bad this or that thing is.  Some of those preachers and their church boards will have to actually drum up some money and then go pay actual artists, writers, and musicians to come up with what they consider to be great art.  Then they will have to see who would be willing to work within the constraints they impose for the money they offer.  They might begin to rethink how certain they are about what they know about great verses bad art in evangelicalism.   They might end up funding something wonderful ... or it may become a new variation on the observations of Eric Cartman in "Christian Rock Hard".

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I'll throw in a link to First Things' review of D. G. Hart's latest book

Thanks to city library systems being what they are I'm reading the book now but have not collected my thoughts on it sufficiently enough to blog about it.  I find the basic premise of the book, that evangelicals in American have never actually been conservative to be oddly intriguing and plausible.  The most interesting chapter by far for me has been the one called "The Search for a Usable Past". 

Slate: Posner on Gingrich's critique of judicial supremacy

Not a ton of comments at this point, except to say that in some discussions out in blog-land I've expressed some reservations about a judicial basis for reversing Roe v. Wade because it seems the initial problem was judicial supremacy.  Not everyone agrees with that and I don't expect everyone to agree with that, but it's interesting to note that there are liberals as well as conservatives who have somehow managed to agree that the judicial branch constitutes a court that is, at the risk of a silly pun, just a little too supreme.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hey, who doesn't yearn for an Alvin & the Chipmunks trilogy?,66562/

This one was flying under the radard for a while but, lo and behold, here we get another chipmunk movie.  The sqweakquel was not the final sqweak. 

another link to Mockingbird: American Nones and a new way of being religious

Just a link will suffice here for this post today.

Celebrity deaths, Hitchens and Havel

I have no need to note in any detail the passing of polemicist and atheist Christopher Hitchens.  There is nothing of significance to add to what has been said and will be said about the journalist.  I do, however, wish to link to Anne Applebaum's remarks on the passing of Vaclav Havel

It might be an utterly rhetorical question to ask whether Hitchens or Havel did more to articulate a foundation from which to defy totalitarianism in the last forty years.  It might also be unfair but a polemicist has no need to consider what is, strictly speaking, fair.  Applebaum spells out at the end of her essay what distinguished Havel from others who took a stance against totalitarianism.  Anyone can adopt the stance of a dissident who wants to tear down the old.  Toppling an old regime is not the same as establishing institutions and symbols to replace it.  What you are for and how you work toward it is ultimately more important than what you're against and how you work against that. 

It may well be that a decade from now Hitchens will be a name remembered only by journalists and Havel's name will be almost entirely unknown.  I most clearly remember, at this point, that Hitchens went out of his way to write against the Salvation Army and his piece about why women aren't funny.  I know, as a former journalism student I should probably remember other, more salient polemics from Hitchens after all these years but those are the ones that stick.  I'm willing to guess that there are more than a few women who are funny enough to prove Hitchens wrong.  I'm also willing to guess that the Salvation Army, whatever Hitchens found wrong with them, have still probably done more to help people than Hitchens did.  A food pantry is still a food pantry even if it was run by religious people. 

Hitchens has enough people remembering him now that he's dead.  Consider Havel for a while instead. Besides, Hitchens was just contrarian enough that were he alive now he might have said that the passing of Havel might be more important to consider than his own passing. 

Michael Card on Job as interrupted lament; Jerram Barrs on Paul's despair of life itself

Michael Card's presentation discusses Job as a narrative in which Job attempts to offer a lament to God and is interrupted by his friends who correct what they are sure are his bad theology and sinful motives. The more earnestly and adamantly Job attempts to make his lament the more his friends intervene and declare his theology and character to be displeasing to God.  Eventually the argument devolves completely and Job stops lamenting and takes a stand about his case.  God shows up and Job retracts his case, then God declares that Job was in the right over against his friends.  I simplify quite a bit, I admit, but that's a thumbnail sketch of what is really quite a long book and a long presentation on the book.

Card's observation about the interrupted lament has stuck with me and I have wanted to write about it for some time.  Christians are enjoined to rejuice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep and how does a Christian discern when those times appear?  To put it more directly, if less obviously, who can know how long one should weep with those who weep?  There is a temptation or a testing in which one may want to discern whether or not one's weeping is a sign of either godly or ungodly sorrow, which was the test that Job's friends completely failed.  I cannot possibly improve upon an observation a friend of mine made about Job, that the book's message for believers is a warning that the right theology applied at the wrong time to the wrong person for the wrong reason is still bad theology.  My friend didn't put right theology in scare quotes.  We should be careful to avoid belittling the suffering of others simply because they do not express their grief or anger or despair in a way that we believe fails to adequately express proper theology. It's not that we have no concern at all about proper theology but that we recognize there are moments in which a person is only able to pray in terms of Psalm 88.

The lament Job raised which his friends interrupted was to curse the day of his birth.  Job had lost his children, his possessions, and his physical health.  His wife urged him to "bless God" and die.  Job refused to do this but he was willing to curse the day of his birth and it was in response to this his friends began to correct him.  Job had not descended to the point of being willing to end his life himself but it would not be a huge intuitive leap to say he had, nonetheless, despaired of life itself. 

Paul was not unfamiliar with what it was like to despair of life itself, as he explained to the Christians in Corinth in 2 Corinthians. If no less a believer than Paul could despair of life itself we should not imagine that we are weak Christians if we, too, face moments when we despair of life itself.  We should not consider ourselves giants of the faith, strong in our perserverance, if we have never despaired of life itself.  The apostle warned that if we think we stand we should take heed lest we fall. 

So if you haven't despaired of life itself yet, well, give it time, it will probably happen at some point.  It is not coincidental that Paul, in 2 Corinthians, opens with a thanks to the God of all comfort who comforts us in our distress so that we may comfort each other with the comfort with which we ourselves our comforted.  Christ Himself cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" from the cross.  Christ Himself asked that the suffering of the cross be taken from Him, if possible. 

I thought I had more to write about these things than I have actually written about.  Well, such is life.  At least I can link to the two presentations again.

Give $25 or more and get a free copy of the Driscoll's book Real Marriage ...

I admit the first thought that sprung to mind was that this brought back memories of relatives watching TBN and seeing those ads.

With a love-gift of X or more you get this wonderful gift free!

With a gift of the retail purchase price of the book or more you get the book ... free.  Actually the listed retail price is a bit closer to $22 but throw in sales tax (which Washington and many other states have) and you get closer to $25. 

Of course there's more than one megachurch pastor around with a book about marriage and sex coming out at the top of 2012

There's even some comparable celebrity pastor endorsements.  Steven Furtick's endorsement catches my eye for its strangely imaginative take that most teaching and preaching on marriage and sex is somehow not getting the job done.  We've got more than one book out there that tells us we'll get the truth about marriage and sex.  That's true.  It's also not the first time evangelicals will have fielded these topics.  The Furtick endorsement would seem to imagine that American Christians have not actually had James Dobson or Focus on the Family available as a resource for, oh, the last three decades or more.  Married Christians in America have arguably had no shortage of resources to consult.  I'm not suggesting they should have less resources, either, by the way. 

It's just weird seeing this promotional campaign in light of what we used to hear from Mark a decade ago.  There weren't supposed to be things like a website named after Pastor Mark, let alone a domain name like Pastor Mark TV.  There wasn't supposed to be this institutional thing where the odds of you ever seeing the pastor through any medium other than a huge screen were about the same as bumping into a local politician.  I can still remember when the plan was to break off churches into assemblies no greater than 120 per group because above that size things would be too impersonal. 

Well, if Mars Hill is planning all this expansion maybe they could throw in a little by way of funds to revive Zack Hubert's re:Greek website, too?  That was a pretty cool website. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

and writing continues

It's been a long time since part 3 of Batman: the Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire got published over on Mockingbird, hasn't it? Yep.  "Heart of Ice, Heart of Wrath" took months to put together.  I only managed to finish the essay after a few sleep-deprived nights revisiting C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton after watching every Mr. Freeze episode in the DCAU.

I was certain that after all the work it took to complete that essay that part 4, "The Wounds of Discovery" was going to be a cakewalk by comparison. What a fool I was for thinking that!  Well, at least I have chosen a essay title that ironically mocks me for having so much trouble finishing this essay!

Well, at least you can go read parts 1 through 3 if you want to while I keep working on part 4:

My goal is to have part 4 complete before the new year.  I wanted to have part 5 and 6 finished by then and to have already begun work on the Justice League essays but life happens, in my case, eye surgery happened.

appropos of movies

I've never been much of a Tom Cruise fan yet the fact that Brad Bird has directed the new Mission Impossible movie means I do want to see it.  If the director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille is helming a Mission Impossible film and Simon Pegg is in the film to boot then, well, I can just overlook that it's a Tom Cruise vehicle.  Don't necessarily expect a review if I see it.  I don't know if or when I will. 

yep, still a comic book nerd

I recently saw some of the promotional photos and teaser for the next Spiderman film.  Any number of things could go wildly wrong with the film but at this point I would guess that Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy couldn't be one of them.  She looks like a John Romita Jr. drawing come to life and I know from Zombieland she has the chops to transcend Stan Lee's odiously binary depiction of women.  I'm going to state this in some very blunt terms, Stan Lee only seems to know how to write women as weepy clingers or party skanks if he's not writing old biddies.  Sue Storm possibly excepted, my brother tells me.  Don't get me wrong, I still love the old Spiderman comic books up through about issue 137 or so but I'm not going to soft pedal my unhappiness with how Stan Lee has tended to write women.  Emma Stone may have a chance to play Gwen Stacy the way she could have been if Lee had stuck with his earliest characterization of Gwen rather than what happened later.

I never cared for Bane but Christopher Nolan got me to like the Scarecrow and Ra's al Ghul.  He also came up with the most compelling version of Two-Face/Harvey Dent on film so far.  So if Nolan decides to use Bane and hadn't been familiar with the character before that's okay.  Better that than Sony strong-arming Raimi into using Venom.  The reveal that Bane is the main listed bad guy for The Dark Knight Rises conveniently lets me keep mentioning the use of Bane in Batman: the animated series for my Mockingbird project.

Of course everyone by now must already have heard, for those of us into comics, that Jerry Robinson died.  Co-creator of the greatest Batman villain ever made Robinson would be famous within the medium just for that.  I didn't blog about that because I know that there's nothing I could add that others wouldn't have said better.  Since I'm on a post about comics and comic books in film, though, I'll at least mention Robinson's passing in, well, passing.

Tim Challies, slightly late to the Driscoll party about sex and marriage

It's understandable Tim Challies would only discover certain things about Mark Driscoll a whole decade after someone in Seattle discovered these things about him.  Such is life, such is the internet, and such is living in the real world without paying attention to a nobody who's trying to tell everybody about somebody when he was actually more of a nobody. If his first contact with the Driscoll's discussing sex is this book and not Peasant Princess or the 2002 sermon on sex (which, I know, you can't even find anymore since it got pulled, last I checked) or the 2007 stuff, then it's understandable that Challies is very late to what might be described as the Driscoll party about sex and marriage.

That's the thing about the speed of the internet, on some things it can be swift as lightning but on other things some things don't come to the attention of bloggers until somewhere between five to ten years have passed. 

Justin Barnard articulated what seems to be Tim Challies driving point of concern way back in 2009.  So props to Barnard for articulating his concern with a systemic problem in Driscoll's theology of sex almost a year after Peasant Princess began.  That may seem like a long time, especially given the proverbial speed of the internet, but it's faster than others. 

Of course the Driscoll's aren't the only ones selling a book about "real marriage".  Check it out

Looks like megachurch pastors are thinking the same things here.  The Driscolls have their book on marriage and so the Youngs also have one.  But according to Driscoll in that Rhoades interview preachers are talking too much about sex lately?  Can we  _______? 

Why, of course we can, as long as it's lawful, helpful, and not enslaving.  So I have permission to blog about this topic and note that some folks who are genuinely (and in some cases legitimately) concerned about Driscoll's weaknesses as a teacher are about a decade late.  Way, way back on the Babblerash days there were a couple of folks who said the bluntest way possible they saw how Driscoll's approach to Song of Songs worked itself out with reference to chapter 2, verse 3 and said they had concerns that the guy might be some kind of sex addict or pervert to so persistently see only the sexual side of the book from a pastoral perspective.  Now I know that it's popular to only see that side of the book these days.  It is, quite literally, sexier to do so.   Carl Trueman has noticed.

It seems to be the latest thing: middle aged pastors writing books about sex and/or talking about it in the pulpit all the time. Don't get me wrong: if you and your wife being "on the job" seven days in a row has revitalised your marriage and your spiritual life, nobody could be happier than yours truly. I am absolutely delighted for you. Really, I am. But I do wonder if the rest of us need to know about it. I especially wonder if your children and your parents-in-law and your congregation need to know about it.
Indeed.  The answer from the Driscoll and Young camps seems to be, "Why, yes!  You absolutely must know.  Let's make sure we've spent anywhere between 7 to 12 weeks telling you!  Be sure to buy the book and DVD series, too, and generously support our ministry so we can print a second edition. Don't forget to go to our websites named after ourselves and post comments thanking us for going to the trouble, if possible."

Trueman also touches on the recent rhetoric of envy.  A person who thinks maybe celebrity pastors are going to far or have problems could only be writing out of a sinful envy of the success of the megachurch pastor.  Not only is this not a particularly viable argument simply on its face it ignores the reality that not everyone who is critical of a megachurch/celebrity pastors is 1) even a pastor 2) ever wants to be a pastor.  Of course for that sort of person there's always the canard of "God appointed authority".  The thing about God appointed authorities, in case people hadn't bothered to read two paragraphs in OT narrative literature, is that not all people given authority by God are always in formal positions of leadership or power ,and not all of them are inside the beltway.  Not all God-appointed gifts and roles and offices are always at the center of power.

Of course it still leaves me befuddled that people have come to notice the obsession with sex and the branding of sex as the thing evangelicals are better at than the world, particularly in the case of the Driscolls, roughly a decade after this became part of the shtick.  I guess it's the nature of the press cycle and book deals and megachurches doing their thing with video clips.  It's the nature of book deals with attendent DVD study guides.  Such details as that letter at the end of "real" being tilted off to the right which just proves that it's all about keeping things real and talking about stuff that no other Christian authors have talked about. 

Steven Furtick plugs the Young book by saying most preaching and teaching on marriage isn't getting the job done.  What's the job? Why isn't it getting done?  Didn't Furtick listen to all of Peasant Princess?  After all, that was three months of hitting all the important topics about marriage and sex, right?  Or was Furtick just saying what would make for a good book endorsement blurb because Ed's closer to home and that book endorsement was easier to make for a shorter sermon series?  I don't know.

Let's consider some of these other authors or teachers who haven't been getting the job done all these years, shall we?  If Furtick thinks most teaching/preaching hasn't gotten the job done what's he referring to?. Song of Songs?  Paul? The Reformers?  Church fathers?  The Puritans?  Am I supposed to believe that James Dobson has never fielded any of these subjects in the last forty years? Tim LaHaye never published a book dealing with marriage or sex?  We only just got two millenia away from the resurrection of Jesus and NOW we have pastors and their wives making it all real for people about marriage, whether it's Ed Young or Mark Driscoll? 

Maybe I could throw these guys a bone and say that no one has written a book for post-internet limitations in attention spans in American evangelicals.  There have been books written on the subject of sex and marriage but they were published before the Google search destroyed our capacity to go to a library and actually research something for longer than 85 seconds.  Besides, I've gone through eye surgery recently so,honestly, I can actually understand why reading for long periods of time can be challenging.  I'm serious about that.

Now having written at some length on what I consider to be problems in Driscoll's approach to Song of Songs within the context of broader Christian interpretation I'm the last person to say that Challies' concerns have no merit.  But it is too bad that people, whether they're John MacArthur or Challies, articulate their concerns years after Driscoll has already transformed Song of Songs into odes to wifely stripteases and oral sex.  And, really, how could they have headed something like that off at the pass when this has been Driscoll's approach to the text for the last decade? 

Then again, if Driscoll had actually submitted himself to someone's discipleship and teaching, some pastor who could keep him accountable for anything, this might have been avoidable.  The overtures of humility or repentance withstanding, this is precisely what Driscoll has not been interested in at any practical level over the last fourteen years.  True, he loves Jesus and all that, but when the rubber met the road and he had his wife in a position to be the bread winner when he believed that was wrong he didn't resign his pastoral job because he failed to manage his household well; was worse than an unbeliever; and therefore by his own metric was certainly unfit to be a pastor.  No, he just kept on keeping on until Mars Hill could pay him a salary.  Then he repented, just in time.

Now since I don't think a pastor must necessarily always ever be the breadwinner, and the passage Driscoll famously warped to refer to stay-at-home dads is about the care of widows and anyone who won't take care of family anyway,  I don't actually think Driscoll was in a position to have to step down.  I am, however, saying that if Driscoll took his own overheated rhetoric seriously on its own terms he should have resigned his pastoral role rather than continue.  Driscoll's not a hypocrite on the basis of what Jesus and the apostles taught, he was a hypocrite for laying out a set of rules he didn't bother to keep himself that he has since insisted others keep.  If a person repents in time to be paid a salary that's repenting in time to have one's cake and eat it, too, to keep being a pastor despite being unfit for it by the measure of one's own conscience.  Or, perhaps, Driscoll's conscience wasn't that stung by the realization that he was letting his wife be the breadwinner.  He stayed on the job, after all.

That Driscoll has become a lightning rod about sex and marriage now is because he exonerated himself from the sternest application of his personal convictions about husbands as bread-winners in the context of being a pastor a decade ago.  Who was it that said, "They sit in the seat of Moses"? And "You should do everything they tell you to but don't follow their example"? Here's the thing, the Pharisees were certainly zealous for the keeping of the Law, getting back to the Bible, and promoting good things.  They just did this at the expense of justice and mercy. 

Well, at least the Youngs have a book out in January 2012, too.  And I suppose, in all fairness, Driscoll spent three years in Luke after Peasant Princess wrapped up.  So if he's recycling material for the Real Marriage sermons and the book tour I guess he at least waited three years.  One could suppose that with the new thousands of members who weren't around since the record attendence levels Peasant Princess got that it could be time for a fourth time around.  1999, 2002, 2008, why not 2012?  Once more, and toned down a little more?  Maybe by the time the Driscolls are in their sixties they will have reached James Dobson family friendly levels. 

Meanwhile, maybe someone can keep track of which book sells better, the Driscoll's Real Marriage of the Youngs Sexperiment.  I'll leave it to other people to actually read megachurch pastors' books on marriage and sex.  I've still got that Adolph Schlatter commentary on Romans to keep reading through.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Evangelicals and arguments for chastity

The article Fearsome posted on the BHT has gotten me thinking about evangelical arguments for chastity.  Basically they suck.  How do I know this?  Well, if 80 percent of evangelicals ages 18-29 admit they're all fornicating animals that's one measure of failure.  Now the biblical prohibitions against gay sex and adultery are easily located but it seems the big failure in evangelicalism is the fornicating/pre-marital sex part. What has been the argument for avoiding premarital sex?

Lauren Winner has been saying for a few years that the whole case evangelicals build for chastity is this: you need to save it for the wedding night.  You want that wedding night to be super special.  You don't want to go into marriage with the shame of knowing you've been with other people.  Well, she has said, that argument may actually work for teenagers but if you're 28 instead of 18 and you're not sure you're ever going to get married what arguments can you marshall for chastity?  The answers evangelicals have come up with, if the fornicating rate of younger evangelicals is any indication is, nothing. Everything hangs on getting evangelical youth to marry as fast as possible so as to solemnize the sex drive.

I've written about this at length already but I've seen an inconsistent appeal to the biology of sex in evangelicalism.  If you're gay then whatever is biochemically applicable about your sexuality is something you need to repent of.  Turn to Jesus and repent of your biochemistry and sexuality.  If you're straight?  Well, get on the horse as fast as possible and get married because that biological thing called sexuality is proof that you need to be married.  Preferably last week, if you really love Jesus. 

Yet Paul wrote that the one who marries does well and the one who does not marry does better.  Paul famously lays out an eschatological argument that the present time is difficult and the time is short.  Life isn't THAT long in the eternal scope of things and you won't be married in the age to come.  Therefore if you can keep yourself from sexual immorality don't be in a rush to marry. I know this seems like a silly and impossible argument if you're 18 and beset by hormones but when you're 37 and have seen your friends lose wives and husbands to cancer or war or you've read newspaper headlines in which old college associates have been murdered you begin to realize how short life is.  When you've seen how married life has its joys that come at the cost of, say, finishing a book or song you wanted to write, you realize that there are opportunity costs to marriage.  More on this thing about opportunity costs later.

The second argument is that sexual sin is a sin against one's own body.  Tim Keller fleshed this one out a bit by pointing out that there are bonding processes in intercourse that knit two people together the more they have sex and that sexual immorality divorces the sexual act from this process.  As my brother-in-law put it, in a very different way, he noticed that once people started actually having sex they often couldn't stop.  So it made sense to not start unless you were starting with someone you're married to.

An application of the second argument is that the subject of "sexual compatibility" shouldn't even have to come up.  If you've kept your pants on and avoided fornication then if you and your spouse are not masters of bedroom sex positions then it doesn't matter, because you have no reference point from which to negatively assess your performance. As Luther is said to have said (and Lutherans, correct me if I'm wrong) if the husband and wife love each other they will love each other enough to not sweat how awesome or bad the sex is and the love outside the marital bed will be the incentive to get better. 

Now the third argument is one I don't think I've heard any evangelicals make in the last fifteen years for avoiding premarital sex.  I've seen it trotted out at rare intervals against adultery but the argument is from Proverbs 5.  Sexual immorality is financially catastrophic.  She may look hot, son, but when she gives birth to that out-of-wedlock baby three states away it's going to cost you!  You won't get custody of the kid, but you'll have to spend the next twenty years paying child support for a kid who will be raised, in all practical matters, as someone who isn't your kid. You'll get all the financial burdens and responsibilities of that child without the joys of playing with the kid or watching cartoons with the kid or teaching the child the things you know and the things you believe.  Oh, well, you might, but that'll be once a week or once a month depending on har far away the mother moved after things went south.

Proverbs 5 and 7 warn that while the opportunity for sexual gratification may be tempting it should not be forgotten that the cost is immense.  Back when I was a teen my parents were hard up for work and funds.  I ended up getting a job where I paid for my portion of the food bill.  Teenage boys eat a lot, in case anyone needs reminding of that.  Getting a grasp of how much I had to pay into the food budget just for my own food gave me some dim insight into the expense of kids.  I concluded that if I wasn't ready to raise one of my own it was not a great idea to sentimentally seek out the girl who would "complete me". 

I've had friends who are fellow evangelicals tell me that my remarks on the enormous expense of married life seems like an anti-romantic buzzkill.  I don't mean it to be that way.  It's just that I've seen marriages fall apart and what can happen to the kids in the wake of those divorces, those affairs, and those serial daters.  I've had a chance to observe the significance of divorce both first hand and second hand, and sometimes third hand.  I have come to the grim conclusion that most American evangelicals are sold, and sell themselves, a bill of goods about marriage that emphasizes the benefits and pleasures without adequately considering the expenses and responsibilities.  Now I grant up front that I have probably weighed the burdens and responsibilities too heavily but I haven't exactly been on dates so my observations are based on observation. 

It doesn't help that in many cases marriage is seen as the +10 category friendship, as Driscoll so eagerly put it.  A friend of mine has told me he wants to be married because there will be emotional intimacy.  I have told him that if he hasn't obtained that sort of emotional intimacy with family and friends already why should he think he'll obtain that kind of intimacy in a marriage? Marriage as the  +10 friendship over and above close friends and family (+7?) helps to perpetuate marriage as a holier-than-normal kind of relationship.  And, of course, marriage mirrors the Trinity so that makes it even more holy than any other kind of human relationship!  Who wouldn't want to be married then, ,eh? 
All those fornicating unmarried Christians are just seeking to model the love within the Trinity I guess, because there's no other kind of relationship that models Christian love that evangelicals want to talk about, is there? There are other kinds of relationship that model Christian love ... but we don't stamp them with "God's design" and move from there to the "epidemic of singleness", do we?

If evangelicals persist in arguing against premarital sex on the basis of the idealized wedding night then it won't be any wonder that 80 percent of American evangelicals in successive generations will tire of waiting.  We're in an economic slump that has been comparable to other recessions.  Some have even compared to to the Depression in terms of where it might still go.  This means the median age of first marriage is going to keep going up, not down.  Now if the best argument against premarital sex evangelicals come up with is still "save it for the wedding night" then evangelicals are idiots.  There is no place where the biblical authors ever make that case!

I've outlined the three basic arguments for avoiding premarital sex and other sexual dalliances that I've noticed in scripture over the years.  It would seem as though all three arguments must be kept in mind at various stages in life.  Let's face it, if there were only ONE case for keeping your pants on it's possible to exempt yourself from that one argument.  But if there are three arguments then if you might exempt yourself from warning 1 then warnings 2 and 3 are still relevant.  Your success rate may not reach 100%, you might still stumble with temptation, but if you have three biblically derived arguments for resisting temptation that's better than hanging everything on "I'm saving it for the wedding night."  We've had a chance to see over the last tweny years how THAT line of argument has been working out in evangelicalism.

There is a fourth argument, for the already married, that what you have is better than what you want.  Proverbs 5 discusses this a bit.  Be happy with the spouse you have because what you have is better than what you want.  The eye never has enough of seeing nor the ear of hearing.  There is always something newer and better, someone younger and hotter, or someone more "emotionally available" that you may be tempted to want.  Resist that temptation.  He or she will get old and fat, become emotionally distant, and die at some point.  As I have told some of my friends remember that time and gravity will inevitably defeat us all.  Some of my prettiest friends have appreciated this observation as more than a simple joke.  They don't mind being appreciated for being beautiful now but they want to be appreciated for more than that, and know that one day physical beauty will fade.  Your character remains when you no longer have the slamming body you had in your early twenties ... if you had one that is. 

If this seems like a recipe for going decades without getting any and sometimes being miserable about that, well, it is, but the practice of being a Christian means living your whole life with a desire that won't be realized in this life.  Why do you think we hope in the resurrection of Christ and sharing in the life to come?  Because it means getting all the tail we want now in Jesus' name, if we're adequately obedient?  Who sold you that prosperity gospel, anyway? Who says that if you just get all your ducks in a row that things will fall into place and then you can crank out a brood for Jesus' fame?  If that happens, well, be grateful, especially if the children are born without any genetic problems that led to allergies to common foods or neurological disorders or liver conditions.  Now I probably do seem like a buzzkill about marriage and parenting, huh? 

I don't think my mother has regretted giving birth to me even though I've spent my whole life with a vision history so bad eye doctors and surgeons remark on how crazy it is.  Has she stopped praying that my eyes would get better?  Nope.  Have my eyes gotten better?  Well, not exactly, but as I've been writing about in my essays on Batman: the animated series Batman lives in the place where he is reminded of what has been irrevocably lost and living with a desire that is impossible to have met in this life.  In other words, the Fall is the Fall and the new heaven and earth are not yet with us. Batman villains can be seen as those who deny any Fall took place or that death will touch us all, or who believe they can usher in the new heaven and earth with their plan.  Batman calls bullcrap on both impulses, which is why he's a hero.

But it also means Batman lives between the agony of loss and impossible desire, all the time.  This is actually the normal way of living as a Christian. I keep driving this point home as I work on essays about Batman: the animated series for Mockingbird because I like Batman, but also because the cartoon does a good job of illustrating an unresolvable tension that can be seen as characteristic of Christian living.  We live between an awareness of the Fall and and a new heaven and earth that isn't with us, and a resurrection body we do not have and anticipate. 

Meanwhile, the whole process of offering one's body as a living sacrifice suggests that the sacrifice is not your best life now, and it's not fulfilling "God's design" by letting biological impulses be taken as prima facie evidence that what you want must be what God wants for you.  There are going to be times of miserable loneliness compounded by evangelicals saying that you're not being married means you're a loser who has failed to live out "God's design".  You might even hear some pastor say something like that having sex with a condom is like trying to eat a stake with a latex glove on your tongue.  You might end up having a pastor go on a weeks-long or months-long series on marriage and sex and hear friends say, "Oh, it's cool because it gives us something to look forward to."  Reread that as new ways to be tempted, too.  If evangelicals think their best argument for chastity and fidelity is "save it for the wedding night" then the 80 percent of evangelicals ages 18-29 who are boning each other like there's no tomorrow may well prove how compelling that argument has been.  We've made the bed as evangelicals, and we've found out a little too clearly what we've done while in it.