Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Divine Commodity - A Review

It almost feels weird reviewing a book on the commodification of spirituality (as if I am treating it like some kind of consumer product). Perhaps this very feeling is what makes a book like this so difficult.

I love the way Jethani takes illustrations from the spiritual life and art of Vincent Van Gogh and uses it to help point the reader in a more vibrant and spiritually rich direction that seeks to bypass the rampant consumerism of our age. Yet as clever and impacting (and creative) his idea for this book was, it seems like a hard premise to base an entire book around. It kind of reminds me of a great Saturday Night Live skit that is then turned into a movie and inevitably lacks the punch to sustain a feature length film.

While the first few chapters were indeed intriguing and convicting the argument of consumerism got a bit tired. I couldn't help but get a feeling of how cynical Jethani was sounding as the book progressed. In fact had it not been for the epilogue section, I would have been left with that feeling. Skye Jethani does conclude the book with a few pages on how he sees this rampant consumerism in his own heart and how he hates in others what he despises in himself. That said, the statement came too late in the book for me and almost seemed like a recommendation from the publisher to soften the blow a bit from his railing against the problems of consumerism in the church (perhaps this is my own cynicism rearing its head).

While I certainly agree with his thesis that the church is way too mired in consumerism to truly be a light to the world, I found his approach to this problem not very constructive in the end which is a shame because the premise of this book is very creative.

Wiley Pitman and Five Notes that Changed the World

Several years ago I watched the movie “Ray”, a biopic on the life of Ray Charles. There was one scene from the movie that really struck me as a musician. Ray Charles as a child of about three-years-old lived next door to a cafĂ© and general store owned by Wiley Pittman who happened to be a great boogie-woogie piano player. In those earliest years of Ray’s life, before he had become totally blind he would drop by Pittman’s not just to listen to him practice but because he wanted to learn how to play the piano himself. The scene from the movie that really got me was how Wiley Pittman was able to teach Ray to begin playing the blues by introducing him to the pentatonic scale – five notes which provide the foundation for many styles of music from around the world from Chinese to Celtic to Blues to Country. The scene really connected with me because it reminded me of how those same 5 basic notes of the Blues scale changed my musical life as well.

I started taking piano lessons when I was around eight years old, but for the most part the first five years of piano lessons failed to really engage my heart. But one day, when I was probably about fourteen years old, I walked into a local music store to look at keyboards. That keyboard salesman will never know how, in trying to sell me a keyboard, he changed my life by introducing me to the very same pentatonic scale which got Ray Charles going as a child. Up to that day I had known how to play the piano a bit and I was even beginning to write some of my own songs but the simplicity of pentatonic scale brought it all together in a way that piano lessons never did. It connected the dots to what I had been stumbling on intuitively. All of the sudden a whole new world of musical possibilities opened up for me.

Within weeks I was writing blues songs and beginning to figure out some blues licks. Over the next four years that followed, my musicianship grew exponentially in all kinds of ways. It wasn’t that I had learned nothing in those few years of piano lessons. It’s just that I got more out of that few minutes with a keyboard salesman because it connected with my heart and my mind in a way that my lessons never could—in a way that changed the course of my life. Had I not had that encounter at that point in my life I might not have pursued music the way that I had and my life would have certainly taken a different path.

The Word Became Flesh
John 1:14 (The Message) says,
14The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.

This is a scripture that is no doubt familiar to many Christians but one which doesn’t seem to inform how many Christians practice their faith much. In this simple verse John kicks his gospel off with the revolutionary truth of the incarnation—God loved us not from a distance as Bette Midler once sang but by entering our neighborhood, our world, the place where we live, as one of us... as a human, with everything that goes with being a human—hunger, physical limitations, morning breath, and so on.

Throughout the gospels the Pharisees seem mainly concerned with the trivialities of following the law, with how to be righteous, with who’s in and who’s out, with religious rituals, and with the fine points of doctrine. But Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t waste time on long theological statements or religious platitudes, rather he related the realities of the kingdom to things that people encountered in everyday life: “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed”… “There once was a guy who owned a vineyard”… “A shepherd lost a sheep”… “A son asked for his dad’s inheritance”. It wasn’t that Jesus was incapable of debating religion with the most intellectual minds of his day but to do that would have missed the point of why he came. The reality is that he loved us enough to not only enter our world as a human but to engage us on human terms, in familiar language and in the everyday places where everyday people live whether at a wedding feast or on a fishing boat or at a party with tax collectors. While the Pharisees were busy avoiding people and making it hard for others to be a part of their “club”, Jesus was busy meeting people right where they were with the good news that no matter their background, social status, race, or moral state they could enter into the kingdom of God.

What might it look like for us to enter into the world of others and to relate to them on their terms?

I read something by Henri Nouwen once that I think gives us a great starting point:
“From experience you know those who care for you become present to you. When they listen, they listen to you. When they speak they speak to you. Their presence is a healing presence because they accept you on your terms, and they encourage you on your terms, and they encourage you to take your own life seriously.”

Have you ever known someone that embodied the above quote? I think we all have at one time or another. When you feel like someone is genuinely interested in you, and sincerely listening to you, and right there with you (as opposed to somewhere else in their mind) you feel like they care. Why? Because in a very simple way they are entering into your world and meeting you right where you are.

Let’s look back at Ray Charles for a moment. Wiley Pittman provides us with a good analogy of what it looks like to enter into the world of another and help them understand something in a very simple way. Had Wiley Pittman not tried to show little Ray music in a way that he could get it, or had he just been too bothered by the pestering of that little kid wanting to bang on his piano and interrupt his practice, our world would have missed out on the amazing treasure of Ray Charles’ music. But Wiley Pittman instead met him right where he was with a simple idea… simple enough for a three-year-old… five notes that changed his life.

As Christians we are faced with a couple of options: Like the Pharisees we can make it harder for people to grasp what God is about with confusing language, customs, and traditions, or we can go the way of Jesus and connect with people right where they are—listening more than speaking, meeting folks on their terms, being present when we are with them, and being deliberately simple when talking about God.

Perhaps our biggest enemy is our own experience. Sometimes we think because of our experience with God that we have somehow become experts and like the Pharisees we can so easily begin talking like experts and alienating the very folks we want to encounter God. Jesus once encouraged his disciples to become like children for “such is the kingdom of Heaven”. While Wiley Pittman was a seasoned piano player of many years he had not lost the ability in his experience on the piano to connect with a child. Perhaps this is a bit of the childlike quality Jesus is calling us to.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review of Piety Street by John Scofield

I have been a John Scofield fan since I pulled a stint of community service in high school for setting fire to a trash can in front of the local mall. (completely by accident, I promise!) But the good news is that I was able to serve my few hours of community service by helping out building sets at the local community theater where the head carpenter turned me on to John Scofield. I must have only been about fourteen or fifteen at the time and didn’t have a huge appreciation for Jazz music, but there was something pretty cool about Scofield even then to my unrefined teenage ears.

So I have followed Scofield these last 22 years through all sorts of turns in his musical journey from fusion to classic jazz to groovy sixties soul jazz to his more recent explorations of electronic music. I have to say that though there have been some albums from Scofield over the years that stuck out to me as amazing such as his collaboration with Medeski, Martin, and Wood on A Go Go or even more recently his very modern / techno-twinged Uberjam, but wherever he goes on his musical journey, I usually find Scofield’s work very good.

I recently came across Scofield’s latest album Piety Street that marks yet another turn in his exploration of styles and genres. I admit that I found the concept of this new album very exciting—old gospel songs played with a band made up predominately of funky New Orleans musicians, recorded in one of New Orleans’ premier studios and fronted by Scofield. Well, after a few days of listening to Piety Street I am not in the least disappointed.

On Piety Street Scofield and company connect Gospel, Blues, Jazz, and R&B effortlessly and naturally. The line-up is simple with iconic New Orleans bass player George Porter and drummer Ricky Fataar as the rhythm section and Jon Cleary on keys and vocals and John Scofield on guitar. The simplicity of this four-piece approach to gospel give the songs an understated quality that seems so lost in modern Gospel and R&B music but which allows plenty of room for the songs to move and groove, which they do quite well.

While Scofield’s playing is great as usual the one who really shines for me on this record is John Cleary. His vocals are just, well right—soulful without being piercing, gritty without being grimy and his keyboard playing whether organs or piano provide the perfect backing to allow Scofield’s guitar to sing.

There is something about the understanding of roots music by New Orleans musicians that just works with these old gospel songs. Listening to these songs is like hearing them the way they were meant to be played and then realizing that you have never quite heard gospel songs played like this with a touch of New Orleans Backbeat Funk, Delta Blues, Old Spirituals, a sprinkle of Country Blues, and topping it off with a generous helping Jazz guitar. Anyone else could have made an absolute train wreck of this idea but Scofield, Cleary, Porter, and Fataar (with speacial guests John Boutte and Shannon Powell) have done something really worthwhile here. I hope this is not their last collaboration because I find myself wanting more already.

Bear Grylls Did Alpha… So How’s that Supposed to Make Me Want To?

While I am a big fan of the Alpha Course (Northshore Vineyard is gearing up to run the course in Covington in October) and have certainly seen how it has been a powerful tool for introducing people to Jesus I am a bit puzzled by the newest Alpha promotional video released by Alpha USA—“Bear Grylls Did Alpha”.

The obvious idea behind this marketing campaign is to appeal to public interest in celebrity to make people want to take the Alpha Course. This is quite problematic to me though in light of the evidence that emerged back in 2007 of how many segments of the show Man vs. Wild were not as authentic as the audience was led to believe. In fact if you type in the name “Bear Grylls” on www.youtube.com the first and most played clips which will come up are either about how fake certain aspects of Grylls’ Man vs. Wild show were or of Grylls trying to defend himself against accusations of being a phony, though not very convincingly, in an interview with Dave Letterman. Grylls has what might commonly be referred to as a credibility problem. People don’t trust him. So if people don’t trust him in his regular gig (his field of expertise) then why would they trust him with the weightier issues of faith?

While I am happy that Grylls has gone through the Alpha Course is now a Christ-follower, I can’t see how using his life as a testimony for those seeking answers to faith is going to yield very good results with those outside the faith. It may be exciting for a Christian to know that a celebrity is now a Christian but I don’t think that any of my friends who are not Christians would be encouraged to investigate faith further because a celebrity who is very much linked to faking a whole lot of his show is now a person of faith.

If you’re going to get a testimony from a Christian who is a celebrity why not try someone like Mel Gibson?… oh wait there’s a credibility issue there too… Wait, there's Heidi and Spencer Pratt who claim to be Christians… oh yeah there's the same problem there too… hmmm surely there’s some celebrity out there who is a Christ-follower who still has credibility. Or maybe celebrity and credibility are just not as synonymous as we would like to think. Or maybe, as the Apostle Paul made the case in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, if we are looking to celebrities, to the wealthy and the powerful for examples of faith then perhaps we are looking in the wrong place and should not be too discouraged when examples are few and far between. Perhaps the best examples of changed lives from the Alpha Course are just from regular everyday folks.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Iphone Upgrade?

So I checked online a few days ago to see if I was available for any upgrades on my cell phone (I’ve had it a while and it’s starting to act up a bit). Normally when I have done this in the past, AT&T Wireless has offered all kind of phone upgrades, many free (with another 2 year contract). So I was a little perplexed when I saw that I was only eligible for one upgrade—an Iphone. Don’t get me wrong, I think Iphones are cool and would really like to have one, but I found it odd that that was the only phone they were offering me.

So I decided to go down to the local AT&T wireless store and see if things would work out differently for me there. Well, I quickly realized that there is no such thing as a “free” phone anymore, forget that I have been a loyal customer since 1997 (through all of its incarnations – Bellsouth Mobility which was bought out by AT&T which was bought out by Cingular which was then bought by AT&T – I’m not quite sure how all of that works but I’ve been a consistent customer the whole time!)

So I mention to the salesperson that I am eligible for an Iphone upgrade. She looks up my account on her computer and say, “Yes you are”. So I reply, “Wow a free Iphone?” She then proceeds to tell me that it wouldn’t be a free Iphone, in fact it could cost me a few hundred dollars depending on the Iphone I choose. So, still liking the idea of having an Iphone I asked here how much it would affect my monthly plan. She then told me that it would go up by thirty dollars a month but that it would include unlimited internet use on the phone. So I then ask her, “So that means text messaging too right?” She then proceeds to tell me that Text messaging packages would further increase the cost of my monthly plan.

So in summary my Iphone upgrade would cost me at least One Hundred dollars for the bottom of the line Iphone, plus 30 reconnect fee plus an extra 30 dollars a month to a plan that already costs me 80$ a month right now and that would be without a text messaging package for a grand total of extra expenses of $850 (for my 2-year contract).

So, I’m having a hard time understanding what the benefits of being eligible for a new phone really are.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Meditation on Tiger Truck Stop

Where else but Louisiana might one find the rather unique blending of live tigers and a truck stop? Such is the case with the Tiger Truck Stop or Grosse Tete, Louisiana. Being that the Tiger Truck Stop is located on I-10 between Baton Rouge and Laffayette I have travelled by this wonder of the modern world on more than a few occasions over the years. I have even succumbed to the urge to visit said truck stop once or twice (perhaps because of just how bizarre the thought of tigers in the swamps of south Louisiana seems to be).

I didn’t realize until doing a little research for this blog that the Tiger Truck Stop is actually at the center of a debate between animal rights groups wanting to see Tony the Tiger (the name of the tiger at the truck-stop) set free and the owners of the truck-stop who say they have cared for the tiger since it was just a cub and feel that he would be better suited with the love and care of his owners and his humble existence at the truck-stop (besides, they say, it’s all he’s ever known and to throw him out in the wild would be much more cruel).

While this blog is not about animal rights I do have to say that each time I drive by the Tiger Truck Stop I can’t help but feel a little bit sad for old Tony. Why? Well because a truck stop is not where a tiger belongs; a cage on the edge of a parking lot of a second-rate truck stop in the swamps of Louisiana is a pretty pathetic existence for such a majestic creature as a tiger.

Why is it that we frequently feel sorry for animals such as these tigers in a truck stop (or a lion in a zoo for that matter)? It’s not like they are sickly or even being abused or tortured (though some animal rights groups might disagree with that statement). We feel bad for these tigers because there is a sense that they were made for something much greater. It’s the sadness of failed potential, of purpose thwarted, of a life that will not be fully lived. There is a sense of sorrow that these giant cats are alienated from what life as a “big cat” should be—namely running around in the wild stalking prey. Though these tigers of the Tiger Truck-Stop are alive they certainly are not thriving in any sense of the word. They technically have everything they need for life—food, water, shelter, but there is something big that they are missing—namely their natural habitat (encountering one of these big cats in the wild, their natural habitat, would be a completely different and possibly even quite terrifying story).

Too often we have a tendency to look at the spiritual life as just a matter of working moral principles or formulas without any regard to context and we wonder sometimes why we are not thriving. Just like those tigers in the Tiger Truck Stop we may have food, water and shelter (technically alive) but we aren’t thriving because something or should I say somewhere is missing. We are living our lives out of context!

In John chapter 15:1-17 Jesus talks about the nature and the goal of the spiritual life. To make his point Jesus uses the analogy of a Vineyard: a famer (representing God the Father), a vine (representing Jesus), and fruit (representing our maturity as Christ-followers). What is interesting in these verses is how they speak more of our connection to God than our activity for God. Jesus makes the point that if we get the context right then fruit will be the natural product. And what is the context of which he speaks? It is our connection to Jesus and to one another. Jesus tells us to live in his love the way he lives in the love of the Father and in the same way to be conduits of that love to others. Too often we miss this aspect of the spiritual life and think that Christianity is simply about following rules, going through rituals, and staying busy with Christian activities. Yet, without a connection to Jesus and others we simply cannot thrive (or bear fruit) in our Christian walk. Principles (even Godly principles) divorced from context will never produce fruit and never bring forth life that is thriving.

Spiritual Fruit
In these verses it is quite evident that the goal of our connection to God is fruit. Why fruit? Because fruit is not only the part of the plant that frequently nourishes others but it is also the reproductive mechanism of the plant. In nature it is fruit that attracts animals because of its scent and taste and it is also fruit that contains the seeds of the plant that will cause more plants to spring up wherever the seeds are deposited. The metaphor of fruit speaks of the purposes of God in us and through us. As we live our lives connected to Jesus we will produce fruit (Paul writes about spiritual fruit in Galatians 5:22-23). This spiritual fruit won’t come with stress or anxiety but will be the byproduct of getting the context right. It is this spiritual fruit that will attract others to Christ and which contains at its core the DNA of the Kingdom of God. This is one of the ways that the Kingdom of God comes on earth. As Jesus said just two chapters earlier, “They will know your are my disciples by your love for one another” (John 13:35 )
I truly believe one of the greatest forms of evangelism is not the words of Christ-followers but the fruit of their lives—the fruit of peace when everything is chaotic, the fruit of joy in the midst of trials, the fruit of love in the very face of hatred and contempt. This kind of fruit doesn’t come from willpower, self-help books, or positive thinking but is the manifestation of a life connected to God. It is spiritual fruit that will help people to taste what God’s kingdom is like and cause them to want to be a part of it themselves.

Is the Context All That Matters?
Does this mean that the Christian life is just passive; that it is just a matter of believing God loves us? No, it's much bigger than that, because Jesus does not simply tell us to live in his love but to love other people as well (John 15:9-13). There is an inflow of his love and an outflow of love to others (in fact as we receive God’s love and love others we begin to realize his love for and through others). I know sometimes it seems as if the Christian life would be a whole lot easier if it didn’t involve being in relationship with other people, but the reality is that this is part of our natural habitat and thus the only place in which we will truly thrive. We were created to be in relationship with God and others and any attempts at the Christian life apart from these fundamental connections will be futile. The context anchors the activity of the Christian life. Think of it this way: A tiger in it’s natural habitat will get busy doing what tigers were created to do—hunting, eating, and running around (as well as a few cat naps) and in the same way when we get the context right we are freed up to live as we were created—to be a part of God’s restorative and reconciling work in the world—and that’s good news indeed!