Nothing like being inadvertently outed . . .

If you are nerdy, and you haven’t read today’s xkcd, go now.

Back? Good. So, before heading to class this morning, I read that, and naturally I had to go listen to the song. However, I was already running late for class, so I had to shut my laptop halfway through the song and head off. I’ve done this many times before, as my computer generally takes the “sleep” command to include a “pause” command, and doesn’t restart songs or movies automatically when I open up the computer.

I went to class. I arrived late, as the professor was already talking. I opened my computer. And the song started to play. I quickly slammed shut the laptop to get it back to sleep, but it wouldn’t stop playing. With the computer completely closed and supposedly shut down, it still kept playing, all the way to the end of the song, and I couldn’t do anything except blush profusely and apologize.

Afterwards, a guy from the class walked up to me. “Portal, right?” I blushed again and nodded, then asked if he’d read xkcd. “Yeah, I just did,” he said. “There aren’t that many xkcd fans here.”

I smiled, then. “It’s true.”

Transience and permanence

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.

But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mark 14:3-9, NRSV)

Spring Break’s over; today was Passion Sunday. It’s been a good day. I went to the 5 PM Passion Vespers, which were . . . moving and exquisite and powerful. They alternated readings by Christian writers from patristic and medieval times with hymns, prayers, and choir-sung motets. Each piece had been well-chosen and well-performed. The music at Christ Church may truly be the most beautiful church music I’ve ever heard performed; it’s a quality of music I’d feel privileged to pay to witness.

In a cathedral that seats hundreds, there were perhaps thirty or forty people in attendance, a fifth of them Yale Divinity students.

I spent a while thinking about the passage above, about the woman with the alabaster jar. Singing and cooking are both, at their heart, ephemeral arts. Hours of preparation go into something that vanishes in minutes; in the end, all those hours are simply lost, disappearing like perfumed ointment. In a world where so many go unfed and uneducated and unloved, the cost and labor of a performance like tonight’s seems exorbitant, even unjustifiable, by any calculation.

It’s a reminder that love surpasses and transfigures calculation. “Think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,” one hymn pled, “not my deserving.” Another reading wondered why God would “put on clouds instead of light,” concluding, “Sure it was love, my Lord! For love is only stronger far than death.” Christ didn’t die because He was obligated to do so; He didn’t die because it was the right thing to do. He died for pure, boundless, irrational, unfathomable, tender love.

He died for the kind of love that Kierkegaard found beyond comprehension, the kind that transcends ethics and duties, lest it be cheapened into duty itself.

That’s a love that’s easy to forget. Too often, I think, socially activist Christians tend to remember Christ’s second commandment, loving our neighbors as ourselves, instead of the first one: love God. Period. That’s the first commandment; that’s the chief end of humanity, in the words of the catechism. And if tonight’s service wasn’t a love song to God, I don’t know what is.

I spontaneously invited some of my friends over for dinner, after the service. I thawed frozen gumbo, made rice and chopped salad, and baked a poppy seed cake for dessert; we talked for hours, discussing theology and religion with the fond, teasing familiarity that seminarians seem to develop. I need days like today to remind me that all the work I do may be the means to an end, but this is the end itself: a time when all people can glorify God and enjoy God’s creations, in the world and in each other.

Love is like a bottle of gin

It makes you blind, it does you in;
     it makes you think you’re pretty tough.
It makes you prone to crime and sin;
     it makes you say things off the cuff.
It’s very small and made of glass,
     and grossly over-advertised.
It turns a genius to an ass,
     and makes a fool think he is wise.
It could make you regret your birth,
     or turn cartwheels in your best suit.
It costs a lot more than it’s worth –
     and yet there is no substitute.
They keep it on a higher shelf,
     the older and more pure it grows.
It has no color in itself,
     but it can make you see rainbows.
You can find it on the Bowery,
     or you can find it at Elaine’s.
It makes your words more flowery.
     It makes the sun shine, makes it rain.
You just get out what they put in,
     and they never put in enough.
Love is like a bottle of gin,
     but a bottle of gin is not like love.

– Magnetic Fields, “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin”

Also, the best Valentine’s Day comic ever.

Waking from eternal sleep: ThouShaltNot

Brad introduced me to ThouShaltNot several months ago. I found myself very much enjoying their musical style – a gorgeous variant of goth music, with influences from EBM, industrial, classical, and more – but I hadn’t listened closely to the lyrics. So when, a few weeks ago, he mentioned “You know they’re Christian, right?”, I was . . . surprised, to say the least. I started reading their lyrics and listening more closely, and with lines like “At the bottom of the sea, I was bathed in your forgiveness” and “Is it better to reign in a world of pain than to serve a cause divine?“, I have to wonder how I hadn’t noticed.

Granted, they don’t have the explicit references to Christianity that Sufjan Stevens has, let alone the “I love Jesus! Jesus is awesome!” of a lot of Christian contemporary music. But it’s everywhere implicitly, and I can only assume that the careful lack of self-identification as Christian is a result of the fact that the goth music market, already small, includes many people frustrated with or embittered to religion. By letting their beliefs permeate their songs but remain superficially unspoken, ThouShaltNot can reach far more people with their powerful lyrics. I’m impressed. And I still think their music is gorgeous. ::grins::


Embrace the Sun (mp3 download here)

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And I know, I know there is joy endowed.

Disclaimer: As they say in Israel, “al ta’am v’al reach, eyn l’hitvakeach” – “on taste and on smell, there is no argument.” The music you enjoy may be vastly different from my tastes, and that’s okay.

I ordered Redemption Songs from Amazon for a friend, and when the post office apparently lost it in the mail, they quickly shipped me another copy, which I gave him. A few days ago, the original finally managed to make its way into my mailbox. I debated whether I should feel morally obligated to go through the hassle (on my part and Amazon’s) of returning it, given that they didn’t even ask me to do so.

Pragmatically, I decided that I’d listen through Amazon’s clips from the CD to see whether I even wanted it. The first Jars of Clay album was and is incredible, especially for its time, but I have a deep-seated cynicism about the quality of self-identified Christian music. It’s not that none of it’s good – Starflyer 59 or Pedro the Lion are great counterexamples – it’s that, by and large, it’s at least as shallow and superficial as secular top-40 music, with a smaller initial pool of talent. At any rate, I pulled up the page and started to listen.

Well. It’s not that I found the album bad, per se. And I’m not even sure if it’s a good thing to be such a musical snob. Nevertheless, in the last year or two, I’ve been introduced to a lot of really excellent music, songs that are musically inventive and lyrically insightful and exquisitely performed, music so powerful you want to just put on the best headphones you can afford and listen with your eyes closed. While, from the segments I heard, this would be a nice, above-average worship album, I decided that, even aside from the guilt of quasi-stealing, I’d rather read the lyrics for my worship, and buy Seven Swans for my acoustic theology.

(Speaking of which, if anyone wants to get me a birthday present, it’s on my wish list . . . )

A further addendum: this article has a much more eloquent version of what I’m trying to say. “By implying that the sole value of Christian music is God-centered lyrics and reducing the music to a mere delivery system, the Christian recording industry simultaneously dismisses the aesthetic value of the music and undercuts the authenticity of the message. To sing about the glory of God and his creation while neglecting to fully express our capacity for beauty is a disservice to the very message being proclaimed.

I do think that Jars of Clay has a considerably higher respect for aesthetics than many of their peers, but . . . that’s really not saying much. And I wonder sometimes if it’s even possible to revive yet respect the old songs. When we brightly sing “And all three hours His silence cried / for mercy on the souls of men. / Jesus our Lord is crucified,” with a pleasant guitar rhythm, to what degree are we wrestling with the ideas of sorrow and mercy and death? Better to spend a pensive song, as Sufjan Stevens does, meditating on the implications of the line “Take instead the ram / until Jesus comes.”