Saturday, January 07, 2012

Which Story Is True?

I started yesterday's post complaining that the morning had been pretty awful. And it was. God-awful. There are days it just seems the whole effort of trying to make clear what it means to be a Christian, to live that life faithfully and in full knowledge that I shall always fail at it - all that isn't worth it. You see, there are people out there who, trash the name of Jesus whenever they speak it. Am I "questioning" their faith? Not at all. I am saying, right out loud for all the world to hear, that whatever they're talking about, it isn't the faith in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, their blathering and carrying on, full of hate and division, rage-gasms of bigotry and belittlement make a mockery of the cross of Christ because they are serving the one thing the crucified Son of God tossed aside as he carried that cross up the Place of the Skull - power. Whether it's political power or social power, economic power or cultural power, these folks and the myriad like them who prance around mouthing the words "Lord, Lord" should remind us that the devil, most assuredly, believes who Jesus is, what Jesus does.

If that sounds kind of harsh, well, I'm not apologizing for it. Reading through today's Daily Office readings we get the real story, the whole story, the only story, from the banks of the Jordan as Moses prepares for his own end, and the new beginning for the people he has led through the desert for so long; we hear Jesus recall this event as he tells listeners that the Bread of Life, the true gift that gives life in the wilderness of this world in which we are to wander together, is nothing more or less than Himself, his body; we hear the Psalmist declare the greatness of God, the wonder and power and grace of God toward those who fear God; we read St. Paul praise the tiny group of folks in Colossae who have heard, and in whom the Spirit has moved, offering them hope in the midst of confusion, strength to face the trials that come from being citizens of the Kingdom Christ offers to us, a kingdom of light and redemption and forgiveness.

So which story is true? Is the bullshit we read from people like Mike Adams and Rick Santorum and all the rest of the phony "Christians" who want our eyes closed while we pray to the god they made up so they can reach in our pockets and go through our purses for money - is that what the Bible is talking about? Is the craptastic nonsense from self-appointed religious leaders, whose lust and greed and gluttony and pride are on display for all the world to see the faith of the One who offers us His own flesh as the True Bread of Life? Are we renewed by the constant badgering about how gays and Muslims and atheists are going to destroy our world? Does any of this have anything to do with the peace and light we have as people bought at the price of the blood and life of the Son of God?

Do you understand now why I might be upset? There are the lies the people pursuing power tell the world, and there's the simple truth of the Gospel, a story that stretches from Moses through Jesus to our own day, a story of simplicity, of Divine presence and the promise of light and life to come. The world, which the Fourth Gospel reminds us, did not know or receive the Word that came lighten its darkness, can perhaps be forgiven for being confused. Which message is which? Who are the followers of this Jesus, the heirs of the promise of Moses, the descendants of the humble community in Colossae facing persecution?

We who are claimed by the blood of the risen Christ are heirs to a simple message. We are to bear witness to the unfathomable love of a God whose ways are not our ways, whose love for us is as great as the distance between our creaturely realm and the heavens where God sits enthroned. We are to celebrate a forgiveness of the breach between ourselves and God, and between one another, offering the Bread of Life as strength for the journey. The world is a place of hatred and lies, a place of violence and depravity, and yet God loves us, right here in the midst of all this demonic debauchery, coming down in the carpenter of Nazareth to tell us that this creation is far too precious to let go. Each of us, and all of us - all of it, from supernovae to mosquitoes - is the product of a prodigal love to which our lives are to bear witness.

Any other message, any other claim, any other words are lies. It's that simple, really.

Of course, God loves Mike Adams and Rick Santorum. They, too, are the precious children for whom the Christ suffered and died, and in whose resurrection we believe and hope we have a share. When they call upon the name of god, however, it isn't the God who is known as love. When they seek to divide us, they are not appealing in the name of the Son, whose body is the Bread of Life that creates community. When they dehumanize and deride others, their words are not inspired by the Spirit of Life, the Spirit that reaches down to lift us all out of the sinkhole of violence and death that is the world that doesn't want to believe there's a way out.

Which story is true? The only answer to this question, I guess, depends on what you wish the world to be. Do you look around and, like Jesus as he stood gazing down on Jerusalem, weep because of the boundless love that is repeatedly scorned, yet tread onward because that love is not one born in fear, but is the very essence of the power of God, revealed in the powerless, despised, spat-upon criminal hanging on the cross? For me, this is the test: Do you look upon the horror and hatred and violence and weep from a love that knows no end? Do you still carry a tiny flame of hope in your heart because you still believe these things do not define the world that is God's, and that God refuses to let go? Do you hear the cries of those whom the world despises and call them brother and sister?

There is only one Way, one Truth, one Life - it is the scorned and beaten, crucified and risen Jesus, the Messiah. We who bear the marks of the crucifixion in our own lives must do a better job of making clear that our story, a story of boundless forgiveness, of unrelenting hounding by a God who refuses to take our "No!" as final, is the only real story. All the rest is just crap, lies told by those who would take this glorious treasure for their own ends.

Friday, January 06, 2012

A Different Perspective

This morning has been a wreck. I usually take some time to peruse the news, and I can't help but feel outraged and enraged by what I read. I detest reacting to things like this. I had even planned to write something from the class I lead on Thursday evenings at church, Christian Believer. Then, it got all muddled and fuzzled in my head, and I became even angrier at the way people keep stomping the name of Jesus in the dirt.

So, why not talk about what I did yesterday morning?

At nine a.m. I arrived at Cornerstone UMC, and met with Dave, a retired USAF pilot. He drove me out to a little airport outside Huntley and introduced me to his plane, a Cessna 170A built in 1951, which he keeps in immaculate condition.

He walked me through his usual pre-flight routine and checks, then we hopped in and soon we were 1500 feet above sea level, which means about 600 feet above the suburbs.

About fifteen minutes later, we were out over Lake Michigan, flying south.

We flew by Chicago. From 1500 feet up and a couple miles out over the lake, this is what Soldier Field, the Observatory, and the Shedd Aquarium look like.

We flew as far south as the Museum of Science and Industry, then Dave banked left and climbed a thousand feet for the trip back north. From that height the plane was finally above the tops of the tallest buildings in Chicago. The skyline from that vantage point is . . . well, it's nothing short of breathtaking.

We headed back west, then somehow, flying by the seat of his pants and with a little help from some landmarks, we found, first, our house:

And the church:

I was given a rare treat yesterday, an hour and a half of my life that offered beauty, a unique perspective on the world, a chance to see and experience a kind of freedom and joy that not everyone gets in this life. I remain humbled by the thought that I, even I, had this opportunity. I am a very blessed man.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Frayed Ends Of Sanity

The only gift I asked for Christmas is Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind. Ever since I read this review several years ago, I thought it would be a worthy volume for the small but important musical section of my library. Well written, thoroughly researched, with an attention to the extra-musical milieu and activities that makes clear this was as much social/political movement as music scene, I would recommend it to anyone interested in the intersection of music, social issues, politics, and culture. All the same, my reaction to the book is very different than Mark Ames.

He writes:
The rise of the Black Metal movement in Norway is a case of humorless dirtheads taking a joke way too seriously. The joke was Satanic rock, which Lords of Chaos skillfully traces from its early origins in Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Coven (who transformed from performing black masses on stage to perpetrating the weepy hippie hit "One Tin Soldier") to metal’s second big wave in the early 80s and the rise of kitsch Satan-rockers Venom. To our modern eyes, Venom looks the spitting image of Spinal Tap during their Smell the Glove phase, but to dirtheads who didn’t know any better, Venom was the long-sought embodiment of evil. It was from the Venom branch of evil-metal that all of metal’s more violent, "evil" forms descended, including Black Metal.
The point of Satanic rock was to scare the Normals while fucking with the minds of its pimple-faced, predominantly male (nerdoid) audience, who needed to create a counter-world, with counter-morals and counter-aesthetics, to empower the nerdoids against the cooler, more successful jocks. But metal had its rivals for the hopelessly angry nerdoid: punk, hardcore and metal’s own competing mutations. The competition forced metal’s leading edge to metamorphose into harder, faster and more violent forms, reaching its apex with the rise of Death Metal in the mid-80s. Death Metal was as violent, Satanic and musically inaccessible as metal could go, or so it seemed.
And here is where Norway, the comic straight-man character in this dumb, bloody saga, comes in. Norway is not only a completely humorless society (it banned Monty Python’s The Life of Brian for being too offensive, leading to ads in rival Sweden boasting that the movie was "so funny it was banned in Norway!"), but worse, a deeply oppressive society, in a recognizably bland, caring, pious, Social Democratic way. Which raises an interesting question: Do boredom and blandness "count" as real suffering, and if so, do they justify murder the way other forms of oppression make murder seem a likely, even understandable response? The Black Metalists of Norway think so.
The humor and empty boasts inherent in Death Metal were lost on Norway’s youth. They took Death Metal literally, and quickly discovered that it wasn’t "evil" or "authentic" enough. There were too many "poseurs." And more important, too few genuine corpses for a scene that claimed to be so obsessed with death and violence.
To be honest, I, too, considered the "Satanic Metal" of bands like Venom and Slayer to be a ridiculous pose, a marketing scheme designed to ensure press and sales among the target market, teenage boys who are unsure of all sorts of things, and find both reassurance of a certain understanding of "maleness" as well as the catharsis that comes from listening to very loud, aggressive music. I used to think that the Black Metalers were too stupid to get the joke. I used to think the fans who started reading Anton LaVey's Satanic Bible or dabbling in fascist politics might be better off in a community theater troupe.

I don't think that way anymore. On the contrary. While it is true enough that Venom were, indeed, Spinal Tap in the flesh - the authors provide a snippet of lyrics from a Venom track that includes the line "We eat the vomit of the priests"; excuse me if I do not take this seriously - and that Slayer's toying with dark imagery was just that, and careful attention to some of their lyrics betrays a defiance against violence, against war, against senseless, meaningless death. While the death metal genre certainly toyed with certain aspects of dark imagery, and their songs are hard, fast, and obsessed with, as the genre's name implies, death, that in and of itself isn't "evil". While there are comic elements, and self-conscious seriousness and a desire for authenticity that drove some over the edge in to criminal behavior, it is difficult to come away from this work without understanding that there is, at its heart, something evil not only about the music itself, but the whole scene.

In an interview included in the book, the lead singer of the Black Metal band Emperor, Ihsahn (for some reason, members of black metal bands, at least in Europe, adopt stage names, a way of faking it to prove authenticity; or something) said this about life in Norway, on page 219:
Black Metal wanted to be in opposition to society, a confrontation to all the normal stuff. Everybody needs some excitement, and if you look at youth today, they're all very boring.

In my town all they do is have their cars and they drive up and down the one main street. They have nothing else to do - it's a kind of competition for who the finest car and the loudest stereo. They basically live in their cars. Those who are younger, who don't have a car - they sit at the side d the road and look at the cars. Their lives are extremely boring, and I can see that some people want more out of existence, they want to have theor own personality and expression which makes it impossible to be associated with all those meaningless humans who walk around everywhere.
In essence, Black Metal was Norway's Punk, it's Grunge, a musical expression of youth frustration with a stifling status quo. Like some branches of punk, and unlike the far more apolitical American grunge, Black Metal had a political component that veered far to the right. Some Black Metalers moved away from the anti-Christianity of vulgar Satanism, through the more sophisticated Satanism expressed by LaVey and embodied by someone like Ihsahn, to the anti-Christianity of a kind of heathenism dedicated to a revival of ancient Nordic religion that includes, most definitely, more than a flirtation with National Socialism in its Norwegian varieties (the book includes a sketch of Norway's wartime leader Vidkun Quisling who espoused an ideology he called Universism, a pantheism that befits most well-read mental patients).

At the beginning, Black Metal was a tiny movement, if the word fits, of a few bands that could attract, at best a few hundred fans to rare shows. The shows were rare because the fan base wasn't there to sustain performance. The early bands like Mayhem and Burzum - the latter wasn't really a band, but a one-man project by the above-mentioned Varg Vilkernes - released self-recorded and produced records that have managed to survive, somehow. The original lead singer of Mayhem, a Swedish youth given to extreme lapses in to depression and self-mutilation, ended up blowing his brains out with a shotgun; the authors helpfully provide a photo. Mayhem's leader, and the leader of the scene in general, was a pampered youth whose real name Oystein Aarseth wasn't boss enough. He adopted the stage name Euronymous. Along with leading a band and starting a record label - it included the two aforementioned bands as well as Emperor, Dark Throne, and Immortal - he also opened a Black Metal record shop in a rundown section of Oslo. Called Helvete - Hell in Norwegian - the shop was atmospheric, although from the outside the authors point out it was little different from the massage parlors that were its neighbors. The walls were painted black, there were skulls liberally placed about, it was lit by candles, and it soon became the focal point of the Black Metal scene. Ames is quite right that there was a certain humorlessness about it all, with the corpse-painted band members and fans walking around in black.

It would be easier to laugh, as Ames did, if it weren't for the dead bodies associated with the musicians, the burnt churches in Norway first, then Sweden, Germany, and France, and the generally depressive haze that hangs over both the musicians and the fans. The book is as much a true-crime book as a chronicle of a musical form and its social milieu, due not least to the prevalence of criminal activity, from burning churches in Norway to the murder of an anonymous gay man in Lillehammer in the summer of 1992 by the drummer of the band Emperor to a band of confused teenagers in Fort Myers, FL who called themselves "Lords of Chaos", going on a crime spree that included arson, robbery, assault, and finally murder. Led by a charismatic young sociopath, their ultimate goal was to sneak weapons in to Disney World on their senior trip and murder African-American guests who also happened to be in the park.

I would be willing to grant even to the more intelligent and thoughtful purveyors of this music - and Ihsahn of Emperor, a band that is still around and whose music has a majestic, almost operatic quality to it, comes across in his interview as intelligent, thoughtful, serious but never earnest - a bit more leeway were it not for the prevalence of dead bodies. Removed from its original context in Norway as a form of social and political protest against a stifling mediocrity imposed for national benefit, Black Metal becomes less political, less intelligent, and more simple-mindedly nihilistic. In America, bands like Buffalo's Cannibal Corpse, Tampa's Deicide, and Britain's Cradle of Filth seem to revel in shocking dress, behavior, and a kind of youthful overindulgence in the whole Sturm und Drang of anti-Christianity. This disgust is only slightly lessened in the case of Cannibal Corpse, whose lyrics are indecipherable. Even reading them while listening it becomes impossible to make any correlation due to the lead vocalist's hoarse grunting.

While an expression of youthful discontent at the benign oppression in a wealthy, indulgent society, Black Metal's seamy underside of arson, violence, and murder as well as its indulgence in racialist, fascist politics* makes it far less attractive despite its occasional forays in to musical territory that one can only describe as beautiful.

*The book includes a rare interview with Anton LaVey of San Francisco's Church of Satan. While certainly intelligent, thoughtful, and insightful, LaVey also comes across, pretty clearly, as a far-right political and social personality. His remarks against consumerism, for example, make me almost wish I had never said anything about American consumerism. Knowing his background, I always figured LaVey wasn't very serious about the whole Satan schtick; he started off as a carnival barker, and was a small time hustler as well. I assumed he indulged in Satanic fantasies as a way of making money a la L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. It seems, sad to say, he is quite comfortable with his mix of Nietzschean philosophy, human potential group dynamics, and what he calls an aesthetic that is similar to National Socialism with its enjoyment of drama and dynamic expression. In short, he seems to have been the real deal.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

A Prayer For A New Year

It is so easy to surrender to despair. It is so easy to grow blind to the evil around us. It is so easy to stop our ears from hearing the cries from the billions around the planet who suffer. It takes no effort to throw up one's hands, insisting that we cannot change the world, that we are helpless, powerless, nothing.

My prayer for the New Year is that we see in the eyes of our fellow men and women precious children of a loving God. Every single one of us has been bought at a great price. The greatest gift we can give them is the understanding they are of infinite worth because of what God in Jesus Christ has done for them. Weep with those who mourn. Bind up those broken. Visit the lonely, the prisoners, those most despised in a world that finds it easy enough to dehumanize. Give your time, your energy, your resources, as much as you can give for those the world has said are irredeemable.

My prayer is that we are no longer afraid to hope. My prayer is that we are no longer too aggrieved to believe. My prayer is that we have eyes and ears and lives open to love those around us who are called unlovable. They, too, just as we, are children of a loving God, for whom Jesus came to sacrifice so that all of us, and each of us, could have life, and that more abundantly. We must endeavor to do this in our actions, in our lives. Not just in words.

That is my prayer for 2012. All of us, and each of us, can give to the world that which is greater than the pearl of great price, that which is more wonderful than a treasure buried on a plot of land. Let us, all of us and each of us, be the widow who searches for the lost coin, the shepherd who travels through the bramble and rocks and thorns for the lost sheep.

This is my prayer. That we live as God in Christ through the Spirit would have us live - for this world for which God gave everything. This world, and each person in it, is the most precious thing there is. We should live so that the world comes to believe this is true.

Virtual Tin Cup

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