I Do Not Want to Fight the Culture Wars

The issue of how the church interacts with culture has perennially energized and dogged Jesus’ church throughout the centuries.  While most Christians, and Christian movements, would seek to positively influence culture, we’ll disagree about how best to achieve that goal.  Many of us will also cringe as we see some Christians doing (hopefully well intentioned but) dumb things in the name of Christ, and we’ll agree with many skeptical and secular approbations of them.  Still, to paraphrase an old phrase from church history, What hath Jerusalem to do with Washington and Hollywood, Main Street and Wal-Mart?

A recent and helpful book that provides needed critique to much of the church’s forays into Christ-and-culture territory and points a way forward is James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World.  For starters, the volume amounts to a massive critique of Christians’ efforts to do what the title suggests.

Hunter is a Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia.  One of the real strengths of To Change the World is that it takes a historical-sociological perspective on how cultures actually transform over time.  In other words, while we may talk a lot about culture change, how does, and has, that really happened?  Are churches seeking to transform culture for Christ employing means that will achieve that end?  Hunter contends that many Christian efforts to change the world for Christ not only fail to hit the mark but may also do more harm than good.

Marshaling a vast array of voices from Christendom, Hunter observes that the contemporary church employs three primary strategies in order to alter culture—converting hearts through evangelism, populist civil/social movements, and political activism.  While he would allow that Christians should seek to share their faith with others and peacefully to engage in the socio-political process, Hunter demonstrates from every period in Western Civilization since the Roman Empire that cultures have never changed through those means.  Hunter writes:
The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates that this theory of culture and cultural change is simply wrong and for this reason, every initiative based on this perspective will fail to achieve the goals it hopes to meet. . . The hearts and minds of ordinary people are. . . relatively insignificant to change cultures at their deepest level.
As an alternative view of how cultures shift, Hunter claims,
Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production.  In light of this, the cultural economy of contemporary Christianity has been strongest, in the main, where cultural leverage is weakest—on the social periphery rather than the cultural center and in tastes that run to the lower-middle and middle brow rather than to the high brow. . . Thus, for all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.
These are heady words from Hunter, and the case he builds is persuasive to me.

There’s one other aspect to his critique of the church that bears repeating.  He notes that while many typical Christian causes may have some limited merit (although not always), the means by which these causes are put forward are never neutral.  In fact, Hunter argues, the occasional vehemence of Christian advocacy, which he documents exhaustively, can be interpreted as simply another will to power that seeks to establish its own claims by vilification of the “other” and by aspiration to dominance:
The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians. . . unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry.  By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through the discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.
Yowzers!  This certainly isn’t liberti’s way.  Thankfully, I don’t know any Christians personally that are “corrosive” by any stretch, but are they out there somewhere?  What would youtube, or our skeptical friends and neighbors, observe?  (And don’t forget: Mr. T says, “I pity the fool that pursues functional Nietzscheanism under the guise of Christian witness.”)

So how, on the other hand, ought our people and churches to engage with culture?  There are more questions here than there is space to answer, but we begin with the cross, where Jesus turned the very idea of power on its head and demonstrated by his crucifixion and resurrection a way of victory through service, weakness, sacrifice, and faithful presence.  As ones freed to be truly human through the grace of Jesus, we dream of a better world and seek it by the Spirit of Jesus.

In a short story collection by Edna O’Brien called Saints and Sinners, a sexually abused woman wonders, “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for the others. What a firmament of love ours would be.” There was this man named Jesus; he was also God himself. Jesus possessed memory, courage, and love for us, bringing good news of a new city and for cities full of broken people. Jesus for the joy set before him recognized the dream of a city as a promise, and for the cross set upon him recognized the promise of a city as a dream. As our warrior-deliverer, Jesus brings peace, a peace that recalls God’s original intention for creation and witnesses to God’s good future that has already begun. Now God’s shalom—his kingdom peace of beauty, forgiveness, healing, and harmony—has been unleashed upon the world, as surely as the last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St. John, tells us of a garden city yet to come that will envelop the world.

Jesus beckons that people follow him, and his followers that they seek the peace of the city.  This is culture change at its most audacious.  The Lord Christ gives his people every resource for his mission, and we receive the courage to remember, the audacity to dream, and the resolve to serve. Jesus’ grace operates in our world to repeal the fall, overturning the broken spiritual, psychological, relational, and social dimensions of our world. Including where are congregations have been planted: as the kingdom comes to bear upon our region, what a firmament of love ours would be.

The mission of all of the liberti churches is to live, speak, and serve as the very presence of Jesus in our areas.  To that end, lives of worship, community, and mercy are the are the sine qua non of what Jesus calls us to do, and by God’s grace the heartbeat of the liberti churches. We believe that this type of life is the one that truly fulfills the longings of the human soul, brings flourishing to a broken world, and unites people as no other message can. We do not pursue a different world, but a freer one.

(FYI: this article will have appeared as a post in liberti’s new app.  I’ve cross posted here, and I hope that you enjoyed my savvy deployment of the future perfect tense in the previous sentence.)


Filed under Christianity, Culture

Why Plant Churches?

liberti began as a single congregation in Fairmount ten years ago.  it soon added Northern Liberties as its second worship location.  That additional church is now liberti east in Fishtown.  Currently in the liberti network are these two churches plus liberti center city/main line, liberti harrisburg, and liberti collingswood.  Planting churches is central to who we are.  We’re always looking, praying, and striving to start more.

Why?  Because starting churches was crucial to the development of early Christianity, and the church since has always been at its healthiest when multiplying.  It was Jesus’ primary call, and we read the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles—the account of the first Christians—as a story of churches planting churches.

We need more churches even in a context like North America, where you’ll find the proverbial church on every corner.   For various reasons, newer congregations are consistently better able to engage with religious skeptics and new residents in any given area.  New churches don’t always have all the bells and whistles of more established congregations, but they’re often lighter on their feet and can quickly adapt and connect with changing ministry contexts.

This has certainly been true of my year (and counting) in Collingswood, New Jersey.  The very novelty of starting a new church has opened to me many conversations with folks that normally wouldn’t want to talk about church at all.  I’m regularly asked by people who wouldn’t consider themselves religious, “Jim, you’re starting a church?  Do people still do that?”  (My favorite response so far to hearing that I’m planting a church has been, “A new church?  Did you find a new messiah?”)  I’ll then probably explain that pastors haven’t yet gone the way of the wagonmaker, the milkman, and the travel agent, and that we wish to be a fresh expression of the historic Christian faith.  We want to be a church that is a safe place for people to explore spiritual realities, a community that is welcoming to everyone and serves the common good.  I’ll add, “And in the process of trying to do good things in our area, perhaps some people along the way will begin to follow Jesus and know the freedom of being written into God’s story of redemption and rescue for our world.”  Often the conversation will conclude with my conversation partner saying, “Huh.  I’ve thought that I’m way past doing anything with church, but maybe I’ll check you out.”

(FYI: the liberti network of churches is preparing an app that will include blog articles from different liberti pastors and staff.  I wrote this short piece for the app but figured I’d cross-post here.  Content is king!)

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“The End of Your Life Book Club”

The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe

I get annoyed at people who complain about e-readers in favor of “real” books.  The inner eyes roll whenever someone opines to me, “I just can’t let go of the feel of a real book in my hands,” or, “Words on a printed page are just sturdier,” or, “If there’s no physical heft, it’s not a book.”  In response, I offer you my Gob Bluthiest, “Come on!”  Do we thoughtfully abstain from movies because the actors aren’t really on stage in front of us?  Should we harumph out of a party because the host has the temerity to play digitized music for us, in lieu of live band members getting sweaty?  Next time you move, I’ll help with everything but the book boxes.


(Disclaimer: I apologize to all of you who over the years have told me that you’re a non e-book person and have met only with my approving grunts and gazes.  Chalk one up to politesse.  Sorry about that.)


Sadly, however, I’m not the codger I aspire to be.  Behind me as I type are bookshelves filled with books that tell stories, but not only the ones contained inside them.  Every volume I’ve read is linked to when I read it and, just as importantly, with whom.  Consider:

— It isn’t simply that ten years ago I found Robert Stone’s Bay of Souls to be his weakest novel, it’s that my brother and I discussed the novel over Leffes at a tiny bar in the 4th arrondissement during an aureate afternoon the likes of which are always found in Paris but only rumored elsewhere.

— Cormac McCarthy novels recall a dusty back porch in Texas where I explored his “Border Trilogy” with a dear friend.

— Ditto Graham Greene: there’s Graham, but there’s also Jeff and the gin-and-tonics we poured in an effort to recreate the existential crisis stared down by befuddled, 20th century British diplomats.

— A new friend gave me some Italo Calvino last fall, so I consider Six Memos for the New Millenium with him in mind.

— My wife Emily and I have books that are ours, together; I don’t mention them here.  — Whenever I’m back with old comrades from high school, an insertion of an undulating “kill the pig, cut her throat, spill the blood” enlivens any dull stretch of conversation.

Without books on shelves, I lose much of these stories.  Memories are tactile.  Maybe I should ditch my Kindle.  (So you see, my approving grunts and gazes at you who are book luddites really aren’t disingenuous, after all.)


Books are totems to lives shared together, ciphers marking our place in a greater fabric that must mean something before the dying of the day.  They’re stories that are already written but nevertheless write new ones for us, and ours into others’.  The tragedy of Crooks in Of Mice and Men (“S’pose you didn’t have nobody.  S’pose you had to sit out here an’ read books.  A guy needs somebody—to be near him.”), or at least one of them, is that he was forced to read alone.


The End of Your Life Book Club, a featured book at Collingswood’s Book Festival this year, is a book about books, plus all the big stuff like people and family, life and death.  It’s a memoir written by Will Schwalbe that that centers upon the conversations about books shared between himself and Mary Anne, his mother dying of cancer.  Both lifetime readers, Will and Mary Anne sit together in hospital waiting rooms, beaches, and homes while commiserating about what they’d just read.  It was shortly before the end of Mary Anne’s illness that Will decided (with his mother’s permission) to collect their exchanges into a novel.  The books they share are touchstones of communion, remembrance, celebration, and construction.  “[The novels] reminded us that no matter where Mom and I were on our individual journeys, we could still share books,” Will writes, “and while reading those books, we wouldn’t be the sick person and the well person; we would simply be a mother and a son entering new worlds together. What’s more, books provided much-needed ballast—something we both craved, amid the chaos and upheaval of Mom’s illness.”  The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful story.


Mary Anne Schwalbe lived from 1934 to 2009, and roughly two years before her death she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.  Many of us, if we were writing of our mothers, would present them to the world as extraordinary, but truly Mary Anne fit the label.  In addition to having served as admissions director for Harvard and Radcliffe and having held other positions at different universities and schools, she was a tireless advocate for women’s and refugees’ rights around the world, visiting countless distressed regions and later founding the Women’s Refugee Committee.  Will portrays his mother as a person of deep compassion and energy.  I wish that I could have known her.


The End of Your Life Book Club focuses on the months in which Mary Anne struggles with cancer.  Through the good days and bad, the latter of which eventually outnumber the former, Mary Anne maintains an honest outlook that acknowledges death and yet holds to a gratefulness and optimism that anchors herself and those around her.  She had lived well, and so does she die.  (If I could give any critique to Book Club, it would be that the grace with which Mary Anne bears her declining health is at times difficult to believe—I occasionally found myself waiting for her to say, “Soon return to Dagobah, I must.”  I would have been just as interested to grapple with a narrative about dying from someone that was less sanguine about one’s own demise.  However, since this is a memoir and if Mary Anne genuinely was this saintly, I can’t fault an accurate accounting of her.)


Still, Book Club isn’t only about dying, or even chiefly so.  Mary Anne and Will read and talk about so many different books (Joan Didion, Marilynne Robinson, Herman Melville, Alice Munro, et. al.) that to take them all in is thrilling and dizzying.  Through showing (but not telling), Will details how all of the different texts in the book club add to his and Mary Anne’s sense of humanity, whether by way of confirmation, inspiration, or challenge.  Will also notices that books they share allow him to grow in his knowledge of Mary Anne; he learned more of her through the book discussions (and the time together that the conversations engendered).  At one of her last doctor’s visits as Mary Anne fills out a “Do Not Resuscitate” form, Will is surprised to see that legally, his mother is “Mary Ann,” lacking the final “e” that she and everyone had always used: “And her middle name was Ann. Without an e. I’d never known Mom’s real name.”  Will then knew.  We likewise are given a window into the life of someone remarkable.


Will also affords us a view from which we’re able to appreciate why books are so important to us in the first place.  Gorillas, dolphins, unicorns, and Shetland ponies may communicate with one another, but none of them read.  We do, and we should.  An effect of my reading Book Club was that I resolved to read more books and waste less time on facebook, espn.com, and backstreets.com.  (Well, maybe not that last one.)  Isn’t it strange that if using the internet and social media tend to dehumanize us, reading books does the opposite?  Facebook has words and is about people—and nothing against facebook, I’m jus’ saying’—but if I veg for an hour or two there, I’m ready to be an extra for Walking Dead.  On the other hand, pushing through Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the same amount of time gives me courage to persist in the human experiment.  Through books, we know better, and are better known.  Will and Mary Anne’s joint consideration of scores of novels draw each closer to the other.  He observes towards the end of his mother’s life,

When I looked at Mom in that moment, I saw not a sick person, but not quite the same Mom I’d known all my life. After reading so much together, and after so many hours together in doctor’s offices, I felt I’d met a slightly different person, a new person, someone quirkier and funnier. I was going to miss my mother dreadfully but also miss this new person, too—miss getting to know her better.

Reading is a fundamentally relational activity.  We relate to text, to author, and to each other through the mediation of words.


Book Club succeeded as well in making me want to choose better and more challenging books to read.  I’ll keep a few of my sweet tooth, literary peccadilloes, but I need to cut out some narrative junk food.  Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t read silly things; we only need to find the right kind of silly.  Will at one point in his novel assumes that Mary Anne would sneer at the works of Lewis Carroll, but she retorts,

Lewis Carroll is definitely not silly. It has silliness, but it’s a wonderful, fascinating, complicated book. I’m talking about those novels where the characters aren’t really interesting and you don’t care about them or anything they care about. It’s those I won’t read anymore. There’s too much else to read—books about people and things that matter, books about life and death.

I want to read about people and things that matter and wrestle with life and death.  It would make me a better person.


What’s on your bookshelf?  Will may sound a bit portentous when he observes, “We’re all in the end-of-our-life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one,” but he’s not wrong.


Make no mistake, however: The End of Your Life Book Club is often crushingly sad.  We know from the beginning that we’ll not reach a happy ending.  Mary Anne dies, and that impending event shadows on every page.  I assume I’m not alone among Schwalbe’s readers in that it was impossible for me not to read Book Club without considering my own aging parents, after which an already impossibly heavy subject became so much sadder.  When Will comments, “Mom almost always smiled—but when she was happier than usual she beamed. Her cheeks, just under her eyes, would crinkle, and her smile would encompass her whole being,” I think not only of Mary Anne’s smile, but those of my mom and dad, and at the singularity of each.  I think of the countless other details that only one’s children will remember about a parent, and that many of those once exacerbating markers of identity are becoming forlorn warnings of what’s soon to be no more.  Very near to her last day, Mary Anne attends a gathering for which “she’d put on one of her favorite blouses and a turquoise scarf and her pearls.”  Any author can write a detail like that about any person, but it’s different when you’re describing your dying mother.  The blouse that you may have considered fussy, the scarf outdated, and the pearls overdone suddenly transform into the most beautiful objects in the world.


And can I say this, that death sucks?  It really, really does.  Schwalbe is correct to observe that “more than anything, we are a pretty awkward society when it comes to talking about dying. It’s supposed to happen offstage, in hospitals, and no one wants to dwell on it too much.”  At the same time, the very reason that we prefer to sweep death aside is that it’s so horrible.  You can’t Botox the Grim Reaper.  As a pastor, I’m occasionally asked if I’ve ever officiated a “bad” funeral.  I understand what the question indicates: a bad funeral is one where the death is particularly tragic, early, sudden, or horrific.  My response to this question begins with my allowing that the churches that I’ve pastored have all skewed fairly young in age, so I’ve done far more weddings than funerals.  So I’m lucky, I guess.  Moreover, on the surface I’ve never had to speak at a “bad” funeral, but here’s the thing: all funerals are bad funerals.  There’s always a despondent child, or spouse, or parent, or friends, always lament, always heartbreak, always confusion, always anger.  Not for nothing does St. Paul call death “the last enemy.”  Book Club does well not to ameliorate the abyss that death simply is.


I’ll wrap up by offering a few thoughts on Book Club from a Christian perspective, which hopefully doesn’t seem strange for a Christian pastor to do.  You may be familiar with the Gospel according to St. John.  It’s the last of the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, written towards the end of the first century.  Most scholars would agree that the other three gospels were written while many eyewitnesses to Jesus would still have been alive.  John’s gospel is later and in some ways more deeply reflective.  John famously starts his gospel with the declaration, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”


What’s up with that?  In the centuries before Jesus, Jewish and Greek theologians and philosophers had developed the idea of the divine “logos” (or “word”) that serves as a kind of metaphysical blueprint for the entire cosmos.  It’s the foundational principle or rationale for life, the universe, and everything.  In a daring gambit, John appropriates this concept of logos and applies it directly to Jesus, the “he” of John’s gospel prologue.  Christians have often taken the beginning of this fourth gospel as a statement of Christ’s divinity—which, as a Christian, I hold as an article of faith—but I believe that there’s more going on here than that.  John could have found any number of ways to stress the divine nature of Jesus, but he specifically chose word.  To me, we can glean from John’s gospel that behind all of our words stands a Word from which all of ours flows.  Our words and stories, therefore, are not merely an exercise in our painting language games upon an ultimately mute interstellar canvas.  Instead, because there is a deeper, sturdier Word, our words gain anchor, value, permanence, and even nobility.  Soon after the opening of Book Club, Schwalbe writes, “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”  I believe this to be true (and bracing) at many levels, but the reality of the Word causes this statement to be true, completely.


What’s more, what if this Word—and remember, words at their most pure are also the most ephemeral—was in human history married to the material and contended with the last enemy, the brute physicality of which would seem to render even the most powerful words silent?  What if that Word was defeated by death but in that act conquered the conqueror and gave new songs, new words to a hobbled creation?


Will and Mary Anne in The End of Your Life Book Club together read John Updike’s Tears of our Fathers, a passage of which reads,

The list of our deceased classmates on the back of the program grows longer; the class beauties have gone to fat or bony-cronehood; the sports stars and non-athletes alike move about with the aid of pacemakers and plastic knees, retired and taking up space at an age when most of our fathers were considerately dead. It continued: But we don’t see ourselves that way, as lame and old. We see kindergarten children—the same round fresh faces, the same cup ears and long-lashed eyes. We hear the gleeful shrieking during elementary-school recess and the seductive saxophones and muted trumpets of the locally bred swing bands that serenaded the blue-lit gymnasium during high-school dances.

Updike here evocatively describes both the ravages of age and the buoyancy of the human spirit.  Through the Word, a loving God knows us not as our brokenness deforms us but as new, if not as we once were yet as we will be.  There will be new words.



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“Tree of Smoke”

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

With the newest adaption of The Great Gatsby soon arriving at a silver screen near you, I’ve been interested to see various opinions of the novel appearing across the internet: it seems we agree that Gatsby is a great novel, but many of us didn’t enjoy it very much.

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke—the 2007 National Book Award winner for fiction—may have given me a similar, Gatsby-esque experience.  Before Tree of Smoke, I’d read a tragicomic book called The Imperfectionists; I enjoyed reading it but regretted that I had.  Tree of Smoke is the opposite.

Could it be, however, that I’m only succumbing to the hubris inherent in wanting to enjoy important fiction?  Johnson’s tome has all of those telltale signs.  It won prestigious awards, ran on very long (700+ pages), lacked a coherent plot, jumped wildly between major characters and time periods, and ended with an irresolute sense of ennui.  Send in the clowns!

But not so fast.  There’s a difference between books that ridicule who we are (read: The Imperfectionists) and others that grieve over it.  The former type dehumanizes us, but the latter yields a quiet sobriety that brings us back to our better angels.  One of the characters in Tree of Smoke observes, “I know from experience that life is suffering, and that suffering comes from clinging to things that won’t stay.”  I find that to be a bitter axiom, but probably a true one.  Realistically, if our world is broken, what alternative do we have to clinging to things that won’t stay?  Better to cling and then lament than not to need at all.  Watching sports will only take us so far.

The Vietnam War provides the backdrop for the entirety of Tree of Smoke, although the novel is not really about the war.  Instead, Vietnam becomes a projection of our conflicted psychology that removes us farther and farther from our unified selves.  One soldier in the book wonders out loud, “It’s just stupid, man. Have you looked around yourself lately? This isn’t a war. It’s a disease. A plague.”  The late 20th century’s allegorical cave.

The main character of the book, to the extent that there is one, is Skip Sands, a CIA psy-ops agent whose role in the conflict becomes increasingly unclear.  Skip’s uncle, simply referred to as the “Colonel,” is a semi-rogue operative in the area; the novel begins with Skip serving his country by aiding him.  Soon after, Skip merely helps his uncle as the U.S.’s interests (whatever they might have been in Vietnam) recede from view, after which Skip finally serves no larger interests than his own.  (The “Tree of Smoke” itself is the Colonel’s master plan for spying against the Vietcong; however, although the Colonel calls the Tree of Smoke his “guiding light of a sincere goal for the function of intelligence,” the Tree of Smoke comes to represent the wisps of everything ambiguous about the war.)  The fascinating aspect of the arc of Skip’s moral decline is that he ends up crossing the line specifically because it doesn’t look like there is one.  None of us simply decides one day to be a monster; it grows on us.

Skip eventually is executed years following the Vietnam War for running guns throughout the far east.  Days before he faces his firing squad, he writes to an ex-girlfriend, “After I left Vietnam I quit working for the giant-size criminals I worked for when I knew you and started working for the medium size. Lousy hours and no fringe benefits, but the ethics are clearer. And the stakes are plain. You prosper until you’re caught. Then you lose everything.”  The author has already shown us, however, that Skip had lost everything long before he lost everything, even if (scarily) we’re not sure just when that first loss occurred.  Still, we cling to what won’t stay, and therefore we suffer for Skip while we avoid the mirror.

We encounter other people in Tree of Smoke, most notably two brothers who grew up in poverty in the Southwestern United States and are turned into savages by Vietnam, but the reality of death so thoroughly pervades the novel that it becomes a character in its own right.  (Remember how I said that this wasn’t a fun read?)  Often in Tree of Smoke’s jungles, death merges with the mud, the puddles, the humidity, the tangles.  “When death was around,” one grunt recalls, “you got right down to your soul.  These others felt it too.”  Maybe as a pastor I have to deal with death more frequently than most, but don’t we all feel death crowd in, at least sometimes?  We want to disagree with the Colonel who at one point warns his crew, “I tell you this sincerely: there’d better not be a man at this table who in any way fears death.  It’s all death anyway.”  But we’re listening to him.

The problem is not only that we can’t escape the seriousness of the question, but that somehow we know we shouldn’t.  The heaviness of the darkness is lost on most creatures, but not to us.  One person in Tree of Smoke stares out into evening and writes in his journal, “Night again, the insects are loud, the moths are killing themselves on the lamp.  Two hours ago I sat on the veranda looking out at the dusk, filled with envy for each living entity—bird, bug, blossom, reptile, tree, and vine—that doesn’t bear the burden of good and evil.”  We can try to drown out the tolling bells and the burden of good and evil, but it would be a less than human existence.  Hello, bug zapper.

Tree of Smoke ends strangely: it closes with Skip’s ex-girlfriend, who is just a minor character, stepping into center stage for the first time (after 700 pages!).  Perhaps Johnson’s focus straightforwardly shifts to her because she outlives all of the other actors in the novel.  The final sentences of the book portray a sense of desperation along with a concept previously unexplored in Tree of Smoke yet often conspicuous by the emphasis upon death as its photo-negative.  As the curtain falls, Johnson writes, “She sat in [a large group of people] thinking—someone here has cancer, someone has a broken heart, someone’s soul is lost, someone feels naked and foreign, thinks they once knew the way but can’t remember the way, feels stripped of armor and alone, there are people in this audience with broken bones, others whose bones will break sooner or later, people who’ve ruined their health, worshipped their own lies, spat on their dreams, turned their backs on their true beliefs, yes, yes, and all will be saved. All will be saved. All will be saved.”  Before these last words, who in Tree of Smoke said anything about being rescued?  But it’s another human question.

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“The Imperfectionists”

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

It’s not often that reading a novel makes me angry—who gets mad at books?—but Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists made me angry.  While working through the book, I occasionally greatly enjoyed it, but it all curdled in the end.  The Imperfectionists caused me to wonder why I read fiction in the first place.  I watch movies, TV, and sports to escape, but those media plasticize me if I overdo it.  I swim in books to remember how to feel deeply, and The Imperfectionists only stirred me up like a bad Phillies game.

Set in the latter part of last decade, Rachman details the decline and fall of an English-speaking, International Herald Tribune-style newspaper (albeit without the New York Times backing) in Rome.  Various and mostly American expats shuffle around the deck in an effort to rescue some dignity while the vessel sinks, and Rachman relates the story of the paper through interlocking chapters that each focus on a different person from the news office.  (For this kind of structure, think Olive Kitteridge, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, etc.)  The characters in The Imperfectionists tend to be well articulated, and you’ll find nothing unpleasant about Rachman’s writing style.  However, most of the actors are quite petty and distasteful, which wouldn’t bother me, except that it doesn’t seem to bother Rachman, either.

Let’s read books about people’s lives falling apart—I prefer sad books to happy ones because they feel more real—but let’s agree that the disintegration of souls is something to lament, or else why note it in the first place.  From the publisher whose star falls with the demise of the paper to a foreign correspondent that writes increasingly empty pieces, The Imperfectionists depicts characters burning down their own wicks.  All well and good, but as I read through every person’s perfectly fitting collapse, an overall archness pervaded the novel in such a way the volume finally came across as an ironic tease.  (In order to keep readers from any lingering questions as to how completely these characters break down, a convenient summary list of the dramatis personae at the book’s conclusion supplies us with the disagreeable, off-camera denouements for each one.)  If too-perfect happy endings are trite, so are the immaculate sad ones.  Tragic novels, or even tragicomic ones like The Imperfectionists, require a measure of warmth and compassion for its characters or else it all just seems mean.  We appreciate the lovable drunks, but not the nasty boozers.

Case in point is a chapter in which the newspaper’s CFO fires one of her editors but believes that the fired editor doesn’t know that she herself gave the order.  The CFO then finds herself next to her ex-editor on a transatlantic flight in which his gentle manner and optimism about future job prospects attract her.  A naturally withdrawn divorcee, she over the course of the flight begins to imagine yielding herself to another in love for the first time in years.  After the flight, the two eventually drift to a hotel room stateside, and the former editor seduces the CFO until she sits naked on the side of the bed, beckoning for him.  Only then does his voice harden and he asks, “Why did you go and get me fired?  Explain me that.”  Chapter’s end.

I don’t dispute that we can be that bad, but only that we’re actually that good at being bad.  For the chapter about the CFO and the editor, if Rachman wants to demonstrate that a human being can’t fire another without consequences, I’d be interested to read that story, but not one where the comeuppance isn’t nearly as believable as the “crime.”  As the novel progresses and more lives dissipate—we read how crazy a crazy hoarder really is, about a man who can’t relate to people but whose canine best friend dog dies suddenly, and so on—I felt less and less sorry about what was lost, but more cheated: I prefer my nihilism less facile and tidy than The Imperfectionists.   Maybe the joke’s on me, but I get mad when I feel like I as a reader care more about the characters than the author.  I’m the one on the edge of the bed.

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Somewhere, Tuesday is Fat

Mardi Gras made me hate New Orleans.

I was born in the Crescent City, and growing up there, the holiday got worse every year.

As a young boy, I didn’t understand the allure when, on Mardi Gras morning, my parents would wake me up before dawn, pile us into the van, drive to a parade route, curse about the lack of parking, finally park miles away from the parade, walk miles to the parade with folding chairs and full ice chests, set up, and then sit there.

My brother and I perched, freezing, at the top of a sitting ladder—do they make those any more?—and halfheartedly shouted, “Throw me something mister!” for beads and trinkets that I didn’t care to take home.

We’d wrap up after lunch, pack everything away, and fight traffic back to the suburbs. I always received my folks’ postgame “wasn’t that fun?” as an ironic taunt.

Elementary school opened my eyes to how thoroughly parents could embarrass their children on Mardi Gras. Most of them (not mine, thankfully) treated Fat Tuesday as the one day where they could do everything they told us not to. The phonies.

News broke one year that the city was forcing Mardi Gras krewes—the year-round clubs that build floats and put on the parades—to integrate. What dismayed me most is that I hadn’t realized until then that the krewes had been segregated! Which century did this town live in?

Natives always spoke of the Old World flavor of New Orleans, and apparently they meant it. The greens, golds and purples of the season couldn’t mix, and a city with many horribly ugly racist moments in its past had continued to institutionalize what it disavowed. The hypocrites.

Skipping town

In middle school and high school, Mardi Gras moderately reined in my hostility toward my parents annually humiliating their children; now it was our turn. At best, though, Mardi Gras ran like an ongoing loop of Adam Sandler’s “I’m So Wasted” sketch; crossing lines just to say that you did is empty calories.

The Mardi Gras of my senior year in high school sealed it. Up before dawn and gearing up—not with parents, but partners in crime—we rushed uptown to the three blocks where all the kids from a handful of high schools came together.

It was a grey morning in which the windows of heaven were cracked open so that a cold, slow drip fused the skies and the streets into roughly the same substance. For warmth I clung to a girl that I genuinely liked but didn’t love, which made me sad every time I was with her. I wanted to go home, except that I was already there.

Within the next four hours, the roads had turned into a communal vomitorium. Most of us had scuffled with police (either they were harassing us, or we were harassing them). One friend’s car was impounded for drug possession, and another bud, drunk, got into a fistfight with his own dad, drunk. A win for humanity.

I felt like I hadn’t slept in days, but I got back to the house at 3 p.m. I napped angrily but was awakened by a friend asking if I wanted to go out that night. (This was the guy whose car was impounded earlier in the day; he of course needed a ride for the evening.)

I shouted into the receiver, “I’m getting the hell out of here!” hung up, and went to college in New Hampshire.

But here I am in 2013 hosting a Mardi Gras party (which, by the way anyone in the community is welcome to attend; just lemme know).

I love Mardi Gras, and I love New Orleans. Why the change?

Say Anything with confetti

I told myself while living in New Orleans that it’s so hard to be a saint in the city, but I was really a Pharisee. If I make myself feel superior by judging people doing supposedly bad things, that’s just as bad a thing, no? Even if I wouldn’t want my kids to do everything that’s ever been done at Mardi Gras, Carnival isn’t really a bad thing.

Through no one’s fault, and because of my parents’ hard work and care, I enjoyed a very comfortable childhood. If Mardi Gras was about blowing off steam and resting well, I didn’t feel the need. I do now.

While I’m sure that by most standards my life is still incredibly privileged, I’ve faced enough struggles—and in pastoral ministry and walked alongside many more—that seeking rest and relief from cares are valuable.

(Here’s a fun and potentially weird-seeming Christian fact about Ol’ Jim: I consider myself to be a “sabbatarian,” i.e., one who practices keeping regular periods of rest. For various theological reasons, I don’t do the stores-closed-on-Sunday thing, but I believe that it is pleasing to God when we rest gratefully from our labors. It’s a gracious command for us.)

So, a city that builds an annual party season into the calendar and shuts down everything for a week in the clog days of February? Unbelievably awesome. That I’m given the time to spend hours upon hours standing around, drinking something frosty, talking to people, and catching worthless beads? Sure beats working in the mill. And I can dress up? Sign me up.

At liberti Collingswood church services last Sunday, I talked about how we ought not to treat one another from a functional perspective. We aren’t created to be consumers of other people, using friends, family, and co-workers to gain social capital, fun, pleasure, money, sex, and so on. Relating to people as people re-humanizes us.

Mardi Gras serves no practical, productive function. It’s John Cusack in Say Anything, with confetti. Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is also subversive in a healthy way. It will never be Mardi Gras: Brought To You By Microsoft. You can commoditize Mardi Gras but not control it; it can’t be centrally sponsored and controlled. How many fun things can you say that about?

Not only that, but Mardi Gras is strikingly egalitarian. Thankfully, racism is not the only note in the Fat Tuesday brass band. Everyone in the city does Mardi Gras, and it’s open to all.

I recall Bruce Springsteen saying he loved the Jersey shore because it’s for everyone. It’s not the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard; if you’re a teacher or a police officer, you can still take a week or two there in the summer, and maybe someday get a little place not too far from the sand.

It’s the same with Mardi Gras; we’re in this party together—which is why Mardi Gras always looks kind of bizarre. Last month, I was back in New Orleans for a weekend and grabbed a table at the Carousel Bar in the French Quarter, a nouveau cocktail type of establishment where they fart in the general direction of “mixed drinks.”

Sipping something with my dad, I marveled at the people at the bar as they glided by. (The Carousel Bar actually has a rotating, carousel bar in the center of the lounge. You should take the plunge and do a similar D.I.Y. at home.) There, old people, young people, costumed people, fat people, skinny people, dark people, light people all bellied up together.

By contrast, when I went with Emily a couple weeks ago to the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company (cocktail bar) in Center City, I left resolving to hit the gym and make sure that the cucumber slices I put on my eyes at night were organic.

Fat Tuesday takes that diversity and cranks it up to 11. Exclusion comes in different guises, but Mardi Gras has junk in the trunk with a bumper sticker that says, “We’re all people, after all.”

In its best expressions, Mardi Gras doesn’t serve as simple escapism, either. Traditionally, New Orleanians party on Fat Tuesday, knowing that right around the corner is Ash Wednesday mass, and the beginning of Lent, which commemorates the suffering of the world as reckoned through the suffering of the Son.

It’s an all-out party that persists not in the forgetfulness of death but rather in lament and defiance of it. It’s also a foretaste of heaven: sinners coming together and having a party.

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Thoughts on the Sandy Hook Shooting

It was horrible.  The shooting of those children at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, was horrible.  In many ways, that is the most important thing, almost the only thing, to say about Sandy Hook.  We’ve seen the newscasts and read the articles, all of which only add to the anguish and anger we feel.  With an event as malignant as this, little that is truly constructive can be added to the ongoing conversation, certainly nothing that will bring back those children and those adults.

Still, we as human beings are unique among creatures in our wish to reflect upon and explore tragedy.  Wrestling with what’s unfathomable helps us to come to grips with what has been lost.  For whatever they might be worth, here are a couple of thoughts related to this recent massacre.

Simply and chiefly, we grieve with those that grieve.  Not that I’m alone in this regard, but as a pastor, I’ve sat with scores of people just after they’ve experienced great loss.  The older I get, the less I say in those situations.  It’s better just to sit there, be with them, and weep with them.  (The biblical book of Job gives us an object lesson in “right truth, wrong time.”)  If anything, in tragic situations I affirm to fellow sufferers how bad things are; we can free each other to recognize that terribly hard things really are terribly hard.

And we grieve together, not alone.  For all of the miles that separate us from Connecticut, on December 14 we gathered friends and loved ones around us more closely, whether in person or via talking, email, text, or facebook.  I believe that in grieving together we discover our better selves.  On a larger scale, although the sense of unity and commonality was all too brief, the aftermath of 9/11 over ten years ago recalled to us that we can and should transcend our differences and disagreements.  (The good folks at Westboro Baptist Church have missed this truth is a crucial way; they’ll be surprised that they themselves will receive the God they’re asking for.)  So, I don’t consider tweets and posts on 12/14 about holding your kids a little tighter and telling your friends you love them as digital ephemera akin to something like the e-emoting about Michael Jackson’s death.  Sandy Hook was heavy stuff, and it reminds us that we’re all in this together.  We may die alone, but we shouldn’t stare into that abyss apart.

At the same time, we’re also alone on the earth in asking the why and how questions.  Ants don’t shake a fist toward the sky when a neighboring colony gets stomped on, but when we lose our own, we do.  For Newtown, we wonder, Why do we allow so many guns in our culture?  Was the school lax in its security?  How could Adam Lanza have done it, and could we have stopped him?  On one level, though, I think these how’s and why’s may be a little misguided, even though I can understand their necessity.  To use a trivial analogy that I don’t in any way intend to trivialize Sandy Hook, three years ago I made the mistake of impersonating an athlete in a city basketball league, and I blew out my knee.  After the successful installation of my spiffy new ACL—thank you, Mr. Cadaver!—the surgeon gave me some “before” photos from the inside of my damaged joint.  I could clearly see one on one side of the inner knee cavity the severed end of my ligament, and miles away on the opposite knee shore was the other stump of my ex-ACL, with nary a gristly thread between.  Those pictures showed me exactly why and how my knee became so badly injured, but what they didn’t do was take away the pain or lessen the grueling months of recovery.  In the same way, if we scour Lanza’s life for clues, identify exactly how the school could have been made safer, or finger the gun control law that was too wide, we would at best gain information (and much of it valuable) but not real understanding or comprehension.  Everything would still hurt just as much.

It might be better to view these how’s and why’s as what they may truly be: as laments.  We don’t need to know the why, but the why.  How could our world be this way?  What kind of an existence is this, where shootings can occur and first graders one minute are smiling, and then are not?  This is unavoidably theological territory.

I’m a Christian Protestant pastor, so let me offer some Christian reflections at this point.  By doing so, however, I don’t want to imply that these are the only positions a thoughtful person can hold, or that those that don’t agree with me are worthless or dumb.  I have plenty of friends that would take different views of these things, and I honor those opinions as well as seek dialogue.  Nevertheless, here goes one Springsteen fan’s take on some hopefully pertinent issues.

We could very easily say, as many do, that something like Sandy Hook proves that there can’t be any God, classic “problem of evil” stuff.  I can of course see why one would believe this, and I feel it often myself, even as a pastor.  But what makes me a theist is that I believe our laments tell us something profound about who we are.  When tragedy strikes us, either individually or collectively, doesn’t our anger register as focused and not diffuse?  Don’t we direct our anguish to a higher being?  I recognize that this reasoning isn’t strictly “logical”—although I’d submit that none of us are strictly logical beings anyway—but in an ironic way, that we want to blame God when bad things happen may actually be a confirmation that we naturally intuit a God to be there in the first place.

More than that, our outrage at Sandy Hook affirms that our broken world is worth lamenting.  To me, our laments beg the question, “Why do we lament?  What story forms the substructure of our tears?”  The biblical narrative suggests that we lament because we, as made in the image of a good creator, inhabit a good world marred by evil.  In that same connection, I suspect that modernism (not to mention its post-y successors) in its ongoing quest to find “deeper” causes and roots to our personhood (psychological, developmental, economic, social, genetic, etc.), for all of the genuine fruits of its inquiries, has also done us a disservice in its assertion that we are no more than the sum of our biological parts.  Our laments, we might say, are merely the tips of imbedded icebergs of larger, impersonal forces.  For example, I might learn that my deep desire not to go gently into that good night is merely genetic programming to further the survival of my species; but it doesn’t feel that way.  That’s not what my mind and spirit are telling me.  Author Marilynne Robinson has recently written, “Even as our capacity to describe the fabric of reality and the dimensions of it has undergone an astonishing deepening and expansion, we have turned away from the ancient intuition that we are a part of it all.”  We are part of it all, which whispers to us that there must be an author to all of it.

As I go into the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it is striking that so many laments are included within the sacred texts.  This tells me that a) God’s story at the very least accounts for the occurrence of horrible things, yet b) we’re nevertheless encouraged to complain to God about them.  I find each of these propositions more comforting and more likely to be true than either of their contraries.  Furthermore, one can’t be real without the other.

It’s not unusual for me to field questions from people asking what the Christian “answer” to suffering, injustice, evil, and natural disaster is.  I don’t think there is one, per se, but I actually find that reality satisfying.  Do we really need the answer, after all?  In fact, I’d hold any “answers” to a tragedy like Sandy Hook suspect.  Surely it is an inhumane (and likewise unbiblical) prescription that we should just suck it up in the face of horrible things because that’s just the way of the world.  Stoic-types, both ancient and modern, believe this, but they aren’t much fun at parties.  Similarly, can it really be the case that evil is just an illusion?  To say that the Connecticut shooting is merely a material reality to be transcended by the more mature belittles human dignity and loss.

Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t offer a divine answer to human suffering, but it does narrate a divine action in response to it.  I’m not sure that the typical formulation of the problem of evil deeply wrestles with the Christian story.  It isn’t only that God is good and powerful; the church’s Scriptures also contend that God himself has entered into his own story and suffered on our behalf.  There are of course many that would reject this narrative, but I’d hope that we all could recognize that if God has personally entered into our bitter world in order to experience it and ultimately make it better, we’re not dealing simply with a bare, God-up-there kind of theism.  We may think that this story is true or untrue, but wouldn’t we agree that it’s unique and possibly intriguing?

Years after the Holocaust, a German writer named Guenter Rutenborn wrote a play that sought to plumb the horrors of what Hitler had done.  In it, God is put on trial.  How could such evil and injustice be allowed to occur upon the earth?  By the end of the drama, God is found guilty of crimes against humanity, and his sentence is death.  God would have to live the in the world as a Jew, to know what it is to lose a son, to suffer in great agony, and to die.  The essence of that play rescues for me my belief in God, because I believe this is precisely what God has done.  I would be an atheist if it weren’t for this part of the Christian story.  The cross satisfies our need for justice, shows that the divine being himself is angered by the things that we are angered by, and suffered himself to birth a world of forgiveness, joy, life and peace that has only just begun.

I have a first grade son, and he is the most sensitive of all of my children.  Emily and I knew that within our family, he would be the most shaken and terrified by the news of Newtown.  We weren’t wrong in our assessment.  That children the same age as he were killed made his fear even more visceral.  Over that weekend in December, he asked me, “Dad, is it safe for me to go to school on Monday?”  I paused, took a breath, said a silent prayer, and replied, “My son, we love you, your teachers love you, your police officers love you, this borough loves you, and God loves you.  You are surrounded by love.  I’m sure that you’ll be safe on Monday.”  My boy: “But do you know for sure for sure?”  I: “I’m sorry, but I don’t know for sure, for sure.”  He: “Then why do we trust in God at all?”  As I kissed goodnight my child whom I love beyond any measure or rationality, I told him, “Because Jesus shows us that even though the world isn’t safe today, one day it will be.”


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Bruce Springsteen, “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle”

Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle

Humanity is ultimately summarized by two themes: life and death.  The rest is just drapery.  What else is there?  Even heavy metals like Eros and Ploutos eventually melt into Zoe and Thanatos.  What is it that we fear if not death, the fear behind other fears, and what fuels our deepest hopes and laments besides, irreducibly, life?  Nothing against Eros, Ploutos, or drapery, but art that doesn’t get around to grappling with death and life is sooner or later unsatisfying.  That’s why I love Bruce Springsteen music.  It’s death and life, all the time.

Which is also why some people hate the Boss.  The Bruce haters, even ones that agree with his politics, will cite his grim determination to continually address Big Themes, give a state-of-the-union address with every album, and play working man blues despite his millions as reasons to respect Springsteen (at best) more than enjoy him.  Case in point was the 12.12.12. Sandy benefit last week; aside from a closing “Born to Run” singalong with a Bon Jovi lookalike, Bruce’s setlist consisted of topically appropriate but less well known tunes all drawn from the past ten years.  Surely casual fans were yelling for “Freebird” instead, but the Boss had work to do.  “Heavy lies the crown on Bruce Springsteen’s head,” a music critic has recently opined.

My 20 gigs of Bruce on my iPad notwithstanding, I’ll grant the premise that sometimes the Boss can turn unenjoyably dour.  Springsteen’s six studio albums of the last decade have brilliant moments—and at least Magic and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions stand nearly side by side with “classic” Bruce albums—but they also have their share of clunky moments.  For example, on the Rising, the 2002 meditation upon 9/11, it’s fine for Springsteen to commemorate the sacrifices of NYFD firefighters, but when he sings about their going up the stairs “into their smokey graves,” one wishes for less literalism and more metaphor.  It’s life and death, sure, but the song doesn’t need to scream, “This is about life and death!”  (And the less one says about Working on a Dream, the better.  I’m still waiting for Bruce to fess up and tell a reporter, “That song was the centerpiece of a nursery rhyme project that went horribly, horribly wrong.  I trashed the album and told Columbia that it was ‘in the can,’ but the label thought I was telling them to release the thing.  Then Obama started asking me to play the song at his rallies, and I knew I was screwed.”)

Those that may be interested in hearing a Bruce Springsteen whose crown weighs less heavy should check out his second album, 1972’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.  It’s all life and death, but all of it obliquely.

It’s impossible for a pop singer to be totally unselfconscious—the ego thing—but there’s still a difference in musical writing and execution when an artist believes she’s making a record that will be heard by hundreds of people versus by millions.  With the former, you’ll hear an unvarnished earnestness (despite however much irony may stick to the ribs) that sales success will erase.  The Wild, the Innocent is the audience’s last chance to hear Bruce Springsteen before he became BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.  His next record, Born to Run, drove him to the top of the charts, as he knew it would.  But what Born to Run gains in breadth of vision, it loses in intimacy.  Nick Hornby once remarked about “Thunder Road,” the lead track to Born to Run, that redemption songs shouldn’t include the word “redemption” in them.   He’s probably right. The Wild, the Innocent, on the other hand, finds a young artist swinging for the fences without thinking anyone was taking notice.  The result is a record at once looser and more ruminative than anything Springsteen has released subsequently, save perhaps Nebraska, which not coincidentally was recorded as a set of demos not intended for public release.  I think of how Greil Marcus described The Basement Tapes, and how his words apply here: “So much of the basement tapes are the purest form of speech: simple free speech, ordinary free speech, nonsensical free speech, not heroic free speech.  Cryptic free speech, a voice that can say almost anything while seeming to say almost nothing, in secret, with music that as it was made presumed no audience but its players and perhaps its ancestors, a secret public.”  Such is The Wild, the Innocent, as we hear free speech about boardwalks, alley fights, street urchins, hustling musicians, and circuses.  It’s an album that’s found its secret public who happens to hear Zoe and Thanatos whisper through its grooves.  Big themes are always best left buried in the details.

Personal aside: I discovered The Wild, the Innocent in high school and loved it without quite knowing why.  While my friends were going whole hog into grunge—not that there’s anything wrong with that—I was checking out older music.  My brother-in-law went to college in the 1970’s and had Bruce’s first four albums on vinyl.  I liked The Wild, the Innocent’s LP cover the best, so I asked him to dub that record onto cassette.  For the first half of 10th grade, I listened to two thirds of The Wild, the Innocent every day driving to and from school, picking up where I’d left off each morning.  I memorized not only the songs but also the from-vinyl skips and pops on my taped copy; my clean CD version doesn’t sound the same without them.  You only listen to music in high school once, kids.

The two best known songs on The Wild, the Innocent are “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).”  They may also be the two least resonant tracks on the album for me.  That’s not to argue the party anthem par excellence, “Rosalita,” is a bad song, however.  It’s an “Only the Good Die Young”-style plea for the girl to come out of the house and go out with the guy, complete with enough guitars, horns, fist pumps, and interesting turns that it’s 7:05 running time feels too short.  Bruce used it for years as a set closer for good reason.  Then again, party anthems will only ever be party anthems.  “Sandy” is “Rosalita’s” quiet counterpart, all acoustic guitars, tremolo leads, droopy accordions, and strings.  Thematically, it slows down “Born to Run” to 33 r.p.m.  The guy wants the girl to cut her losses, quit the local scene, and hop in the car toward something better.  (Later on into The Wild, the Innocent, the elegiac “Incident on 57th Street” strikes a similar pose.)  What makes Sandy strange and compelling, though, is that Springsteen is far more romantically inclined toward the beach town he’s leaving behind than the girl he’s taking with him.  Listeners learn very little about Sandy but lots about Asbury Park—fireworks over “little Eden,” fast “switchblade lovers,” boys “from the casino dancing with their shirts open,” fortune tellers, a waitress “bopping down the beach with the radio,” and so on.  Ostensibly a love song, the more deeply one listens to “Sandy,” the less clear it is that the singer is pulling out of town to win.  Born to run bleeds into born to lose, and things start to get interesting.

“Kitty’s Back” is all Van Morrison via the Jersey Shore.  The early 1970’s were possibly the best time to listen to the radio, when stations would play rock back to back with funk, then soul, then pop, then back again.  Individual songs were also elastic enough to capture various genres without sounding contrived, and “Kitty’s Back” is one of the best style-benders.  Anyone whining that all Bruce Springsteen songs sound alike should listen to this track.  It begins with a bluesy, languid guitar line with some lazy horns that sound like they’d protest if pressed to played any faster.  The first verse begins with Bruce painting an alley rat street scene against funk organ before the music breaks into an uptown shuffle.  The song stays all over the map for the duration, including a long instrumental break that owes more than a little debt to “Moondance.”  “Kitty’s” lyrics are also worth more than a glance; the titular character has burned out on her hometown and instead hooked up with a “city dude,” only to come back again.  The song finishes with a slow build as Springsteen keeps looking down the alley, wondering if Kitty will come back to town.  The high point musically is when she does, while the singer sits back and sighs, “What can I do?”  The horns lift up one last time before “Kitty’s Back” comes to a climax with a concert ending.

It would be easy enough to write off “Kitty’s Back” as an early ‘70’s pastiche with its influences too overt and the story off Broadway, but such a criticism misunderstands why we listen to pop music in the first place, namely that the small stuff matters and is even beautiful.  (Greil Marcus once located the power of Otis Redding’s “Respect”—the original version, equaled by Aretha’s stratospheric interpretation but not necessarily bettered—in its earthiness.  Otis isn’t asking for the stars, just a little respect when he gets home.)  The fact that Kitty’s come back isn’t really anything in itself and not a story worth telling, but the fact that someone is singing triumphally  about it makes it so, and it becomes beautiful.  Kitty’s departure was Thanatos, and her return Zoe.

The end of side one of The Wild, the Innocent supplies the album’s weirdest track, and the one that had left me cold for years, “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”  If the calliope organ of a Mississippi steamer were divided into three equal parts and moved to Jersey, it would be the acoustic guitar, tuba, and accordion of this song.  The title isn’t a lark, either: this really is a song about a kid named Billy joining the circus.  His “Circus Story” is stuffed with characters; in five minutes, the listener meets the machinist, the fire eater, the sword swallower, the fat lady Missy Bimbo, and many others.  Billy enters this self-contained world with a sense of haunted wonder, and as he’s finally asked by the circus manager if he wants to “try the big top,” it’s a question full of love and fear.  Billy becomes an Ichabod Gatsby.

It’s taken a long time, but “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” strikes me now as the truest song on the album, as the crazy carnival characters become somehow more recognizable to me as my friends, neighbors, and myself.  Long before Springsteen’s populist commitments became explicit in his songs, “Wild Billy’s Circus Song” is populist and American in the best but most terrifying sense.  Springsteen confronts us with the notion that our community is irreducibly strange but for that same reason altogether lovely.  (I nominate “Kitty’s Back” to be the official song of Collingswood.)  A line in the middle of the song gives both the contradiction and the promise of the American (and human) endeavor: “The highway’s haunted by carnival sounds.”  It’s not a poetic statement, but it’s profound in its fusing of our desire to ramble off alone (the highway) and the conviction that we can never be alone, nor should we be (the carnival).  The road leads us into the circus, even if the last line, “All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop,” suggests that the circus leads us back to the road.  Properly living out the script of this song means not that we resolve this tension but find joy and discover beauty in its dialectic.

The bookends to The Wild, the Innocent tie all of this life and death together.  The album kicks off with “The E Street Shuffle,” which Springsteen wrote as a semi-autobiography of his band.  (Yes, Bruce’s group takes its name from the location of an old garage where they rehearsed: E St. in Belmar.)   After a discordant horn-tuning that attempts to show that Springsteen isn’t taking himself too seriously, the musicians snap into an uptempo funk groove, and Bruce is all swagger up through the soul freakout coda.  If lifted from the context of the entire record, though, “The E Street Shuffle” is little more than six (or a hundred) characters in search of an author; Power Thirteen, Little Angel, Easy Joe are only the beginning of an endless stream of street people to come and go, aimlessly gravitating to a party.  But the first half of the first line sets up the drama of everything to follow, as Springsteen exclaims, “Sparks fly on E Street.”  That’s life, but it’s not just that there’s some kind of light on E Street; sparks are light that come from friction or collision.  Sparks are both life and death.  Same with the song’s conclusion, when melancholy intrudes on the party as we’re told that “sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams.”  You can’t have the dreams without the details to seed and ground them, but the dreams themselves gain both beauty and fragility in their transformation.  Summer’s over before you know it.

“New York City Serenade” ends everything.  In an album of long songs, it’s the longest at 10 minutes, in part due to David Sancious’ piano introduction that’s reflective but also much more sad and less romantic than the previous songs.  That extended opening lends a depth to the two young lovers that promenade around the Big Apple.  Clarence Clemons’ saxophone imparts some jaunt to their journey, and strings sweetness, although in oblique language the pair separates, and the guy remarks, “Sometimes you just gotta walk on.”  After all of the strange community encountered in The Wild, the Innocent, that particular line would at best be a false victory.  The urban cowboy may ride into the sunset, but he’s alone.  Midway through “New York City Serenade,” it sounds as if this couple were dancing on graves, but then it seems that at least one of them is going there.  We’ve heard sound and fury, it may have signified something, but in the end death wins.

Original versions of “New York City Serenade” halted there, but deep into the recording process for The Wild, the Innocent Springsteen appended another song to it, a slightly obtuse piece about a jazz crooner busking on the corner.  All the character does is sing, over and over again.  However, when placed at the end of “Serenade” (and the album as a whole), the singing jazz man is the counter to the broken community just before (i.e., the lover just walking on).  Unlike just about everyone else in The Wild, the Innocent, this jazz singer isn’t named.  As the album’s camera pans across the city one last time, it’s the one completely at the edge of the frame who receives the final close up and gets in the last word.  The music lulls one last time, and then Springsteen proclaims that his final protagonist is “singing, singing,” and he repeats the line countless times as the music swells.

Why does he sing?  Because as humans we want life to win, and that’s part of the victory.  (This is also why I’m a Christian: Jesus, eternally whole yet broken for us, sings our broken songs to life.)  “New York City Serenade” (and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle with it) fittingly and finally closes, after the singer keeps singing, with a gentle violin and piano coda that properly gathers the album into rest.  By some inspiration, over the fading strains Springsteen does something remarkable: he whispers.  There are a handful of notions that I’d defend at great cost, and one of them is that the last two minutes of “New York City Serenade” are the best 120 seconds of recorded music in the history of the world.  Aside from a couple of phrases, you won’t be able to make out what Bruce is saying (and believe me, I’ve tried).  I think that the secret of the universe is in those raspings, but the key wouldn’t be to decipher the words.  It’s instead that through the whispers comes the intimation that after all that there is, there is still something worth saying, and it’s a song.  That it’s indecipherable also makes sense, if you think about it, and that’s about as far as we can go.   Although indecipherable doesn’t mean the same thing as unknowable: what if there is an author to the song, and a singer who will one day make the secret known?  What if the song has already begun?

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“Can’t Buy Me Love”

Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America

Periodically, there are bands I avoid simply because everyone else loves them.  For example, Mumford & Sons (and before them Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Coldplay, etc.) may make great music, but can they really be that good?  I imagine their catalog to include such titles as“Sheep Off a Cliff,” “Lemmings,” “Kool Aid,” and “We’re Big in Europe!”, but I wouldn’t really know for sure.  I’ll hear Mumford’s hits in a doctor’s office soon enough.  “Moon river!”

(When I was in tenth grade world religions class, Mrs. Robertson explained that there were four kinds of people in the world—builders, traditionalists, idealists, and individualists—and subsequently asked each of us to signify which we were.  No one raised their hand for builder, no one for traditionalist, I was the only idealist, but then everyone else said they were individualists.  My attempt to remark upon the irony of the whole situation failed to gain traction, as all the individualists resented my nonconformity.   I consoled myself with the knowledge that there’s a difference between pridefulness and simple realism.)

The ur-band of my popularity aversion has been the Beatles.  (But Jim, why the love for Elvis, you might ask?  Answer: because he was so popular that everyone ended up hating him.  This never happened with the Fab Four.)  I’ve known some stone cold music lovers who worship the Beatles, but also plenty of buy-CD’s-at-Starbucks types too.  50,000,000 Beatles fans can’t be right, can they?

Add to all this that I grew up listening to “classic rock” radio in the 1990’s, where all the Beatles stations ever played was the soft stuff—“Let It Be,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Yellow Submarine,” and so on.  Worst of all, “Hey Jude” seemed to taunt me harder with every false fade out, while my anti-Beatle desultory philippics became less and less brief.  These guys were many things, but they weren’t rock and roll.  And hey, there’s no “me” in “iconoclastic.”

Years later, I got pregnant with my fourth child.  Rather, my wife got pregnant, but I was involved, and therefore I deserved a pick-me-up present to self.  Looking around for something suitable, I realized that the Beatles mono boxed set, released a couple of years earlier, was just beginning to come down in price.  I remembered the respect that I had for certain music afficionado friends who revered the Beatles, and I decided to sink my bid with them.

This fourth pregnancy was particularly difficult physically, however, and it included some particularly grueling backrubs I had to administer to others.  My fingers were aching so badly that I bought an Amazon Kindle.  Armed with one-click purchasing power, one of the first e-books I bought was Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America.  Amazon reviews ushered me towards this one as the best of (a large) bunch.  Thus I began to listen to every Beatles song one by one, with Gould’s book as a guide to each.

First the Beatles, then the book.

(I like Mumford & Sons, by the way.  It would have ruined my intro to have admitted it earlier, though.)

For the band: they’re actually rock and roll.  How could a secret this big have been kept underground for so long?  For years I’ve amassed 1960’s garage rock collections (Nuggets, Nuggets II, Pebbles, Back from the Grave, band comps, label comps, regional comps), and about each one I’d say, “These guys blow the Beatles away!”  The Beatles are better.  Don’t you hate it when you’ve been wrong about something for years?  Some groups may have rocked harder, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo rocked smarter, more melodically, and more consistently than any of them.  (I could blame myself for making such an egregiously wrong call for so many years, but instead I’ll blame ‘90’s classic rock radio for mindlessly gravitating toward the flaccid.)  One of the garage compilations I enjoy is called Garage Beat ‘66; all fine and good, except that the Beatles were garage beating as early as 1963, and earlier if you count Hamburg.  Even their later albums contain tracks that need to be played loud.  I’m a convert.  Shuffling through songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” John’s “Twist and Shout,” “Tell Me Why,” “Ticket to Ride,” “The Word” would keep me happy for a long time.  I’m still not ready to nuzzle up to some of the later, slower Beatles tunes, but at least I now understand them better—the Beatles went to schmaltz by the end because they were bored and had already exhausted the rock and roll idiom.  (Alternatively, you might listen to “Hey Jude” not as an exercise in anthem but in exhaustion; it plays much better that way.)

Which leads me to say, I’m sure that for many Beatles fans that are roughly the same age as the band itself, listening to these albums brings a sad nostalgia that recalls an era that’s lost forever.  I myself feel sadness in listening to the Beatles, but for a different reason.  They were great fans of rock and roll but also synthesizers of the nascent tradition.  None of the 1950’s American rockers really knew what they were doing, except maybe for Buddy Holly (who was, not coincidentally, the Beatles foremost ‘50’s influence).  Bands contemporary to the Beatles tended to see themselves as carrying on the cause, whether the Stones or Kinks in Britain or garage bands stateside, but somehow the Beatles achieved a balance between a deep appreciation for rock and roll and also a certain critical distance that allowed them like no other to improve upon the form.  50’s Elvis was mannered but unknowing; the Beatles were mannered but the opposite, and the difference palpably registers.  Consequently, the meat of the Beatles’ catalog play as songs of innocence and as songs of experience at the same time—the earlier sides more the former, and the later, the latter—the beauty and toughness of which together add a depth of melancholy to their recordings.  (Dylan’s joke upon the world was that he was rarely serious, while the Beatles’ curse was that they were rarely joking, even when they were very seriously trying.)

Not surprisingly, their center could not hold.  The Beatles gave us rock and roll’s apotheosis, and also (necessarily) its last will and testament.  There were plenty of intra- and extra-band factors that caused the Beatles to crumble, and Gould catalogs them well in Can’t Buy Me Love, but what made their albums wonderful also sealed their demise.  Even without the pressures and stresses, the Beatles would have fallen; the fruit itself would have weighed the bough to breaking eventually.

All of this makes me think of Jesus, but not because the Beatles are him (nor John the anti-Christ, for that matter, despite fundamentalist screeds to the contrary).  Jesus was the only one whose experience didn’t taint his innocence, and that’s an innocence that he shares with us, the all-too-experienced.  In him, innocence and experience no longer stand in tension anymore; the one enhances and deepens the other.  With this in mind, I’m then able to listen to the Beatles not only with melancholy but with hope that the bough will become unbroken once more.

Now to Can’t Buy Me Love, the book.  It’s my first Beatles tome, but hopefully I’ve read enough volumes about other artists to be able to identify the poser writers.  Gould isn’t one of them.  In fact, he writes the best kind of pop music history, which combines facts, bio, musical analysis, and cultural reflection into one.  By and large, the worst offenders here skip the analysis and cultural significance and just go for the juicy personal bits.  Gould instead takes the higher road.  (Although if you wade into Can’t Buy Me Love seeking ammo against Paul on behalf of John, you’ll find it.  But you’ll also find ammo against John, not to mention scads of unflattering stories about Yoko.  Yoko, it’s hard to be a sympathetic character when you come across as completely the contrary.  Perhaps she and Colonel Tom will share a hotel room in Dante’s inferno?)

Not only does Gould tell you exactly what power chord George Harrison strikes at the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night”—plus oodles of other geek-out music factoids from the Beatles’ catalog—but he communicates why any of this mattered to us, and still does.  When the Beatles’ broke in the States with “Please Please Me,” they didn’t sin into a vacuum: the previous fall, JFK had been killed, and TV enabled a generation of young people to mourn communally in a way never before possible.  Against that shared anomie, the Beatles brought sunshine.  One could do what-ifs forever, but Gould makes a plausible case that had not the knoll become grassy, the Beatles may not have been the Beatles.  Fascinating stuff, and a music- or bio-only approach wouldn’t have turned it up.

Intriguing as well to me is Gould’s recounting of the cultural context of 1960’s hipsterism in Britain.  It’s striking to me that even back then, the Mods, the Teds, and so on were already aping previous trends in ironic fashion.  I don’t intend that statement as a knee-jerk “nothing new under the sun” type of thing; it’s only that between the older generation in England that wrote off the Beatles as pandering and/or prefabricated, younger Brits that went in for the Beatles nevertheless listened to them with some detachment and were mesmerized by their celebrity as much as their craft.  Gould remarks,
“Even as significant numbers of readers, viewers, and listeners found themselves drawn to unexpectedly appealing qualities in the Beatles’ music and their public personalities, they assumed that somewhere, somehow, the group’s fame was being expertly manufactured, and that their principal talent lay not in their ability as musicians and performers, but rather in their ability as celebrities to command the attention of the press and the public. This explains why, from the moment it began, the question that dogged the Beatles and their phenomenon was the question that applies to all hoaxes, spells, and popular delusions: How long will it last?”
The tragic thing about living in a fallen world is that to ask the question, “How long will it last?”, is also to know the answer.  Most of the Beatles’ audience was never able to listen to their music as John, Paul, George, and Ringo did to their heroes: as new.  Something has made it bad.

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“Feelin’ Bluesy”

Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”
Greil Marcus, “Robert Johnson,” in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music
Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
People joke about Elvis still being alive.  I believe so strongly that the King is still around that I make jokes about his death.

That’s not true, the part about me thinking Elvis never kicked the can.  Anyone and everyone around Elvis the couple years before he died would tell you that it was a wonder he didn’t pass away sooner.  And besides, if Elvis were alive, it wouldn’t fit his story: an idiot savant who does one thing well (sing) walks into the right man’s studio at the right time in 1954, records “That’s All Right,” and unleashes a power upon the world that he only vaguely grasps—if he had grasped it, he wouldn’t and couldn’t have sung it.  Year after year later, the more Elvis tries to sing, a) the more poorly he does so, b) the more remote or forgotten his brilliance seems, and c) the more he becomes his own grotesque caricature.   Elvis’ downfall was that he couldn’t escape the conviction that he was his own morality play, all the while blind to the fact that his was actually a tragedy.   His decline was too perfect not to be consumed by it.  Elvis had to die, so of course he’s still dead.

The old, dead bluesman Robert Johnson is the one that may yet be around.  He died in 1938 at 27 years old, but he was a man of mystery even before his death; since then, he’s become the largest enigma in 20th century popular music.

Consider: Robert Johnson released only eleven records (78 singles) in his lifetime, and they didn’t sell very well.  Still, many considered him the greatest blues performer of his generation, although others were skeptical of his talents.  Robert Johnson was murdered by poisoning, but there are differing accounts as to the murderer and motive; was it a juke joint owner whose wife Johnson preyed upon, a jealous husband, or an accident?  Johnson is buried in three different places, each claiming it’s the one.  We do have his birth certificate, except that it was found 30 years after he died.  He was never interviewed during his life, and contemporaries that spoke of him decades later gave widely varying accounts of him: he was boisterous, he was withdrawn, he performed with bands, he preferred playing solo, he’d stay in one city for a long time, he was always train hopping somewhere else, he was underrated, he was overrated, he was a best friend, he was a rascal.  (All of Johnson’s contemporaries are dead now, too.)  As white college students rediscovered blues music in general and Johnson 78’s specifically in the 1960’s, Columbia issued an LP of his sides; Johnson was then declared “King of the Delta Blues Singers.”  But why did some blues singers that actually performed in the old Delta barely remember him, even if others lionized him?

Is Robert Johnson simply a product of revisionist history?  Were his singles themselves mastered at the wrong speed, so that we really have no idea what he sounded like?  Why was a major and supposedly authoritative biography of Robert Johnson, in the making since the 1970’s, never published?  How is it that the liner notes that accompanied Columbia’s 1990 CD box set of Johnson’s recordings are considered full of falsities by many other blues scholars?   Are the two known photographs of Johnson really him, and what to make of the new one that surfaced in 2008, which may or may not be authentic?

Oh, and the only thing that Robert Johnson’s friends could agree upon about him is that he made a deal with the Devil at the crossroads.  At least no one questions whether he sold his soul in order to learn guitar.

If anyone would fake his death just to laugh at the decades of reflection upon him to follow, it would be Robert Johnson.  Who was this guy?   It’s fitting that such a mysterious presence lingers on so long in our collective, musical unconscious: only a person that never lived can never die.

In truth, so little can be established about Robert Johnson that scholars’ opinions about him reveal more about the latter than the former.  Nevertheless, we still have these 20-odd songs recorded (and presumably written by) a man named “Robert Johnson,” and those tracks are chilling.  Songs like his “Me and the Devil Blues” leave little to the imagination but much for us to fear.  On the other hand, a lyric such as “I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing / I’ve got a woman I’m loving, but she don’t mean a thing” (“Stones in My Passway”) combines pathos with an exquisite delicacy and lightness of feeling that serves to highlight the heartbreak that creaks through the melody.

My two favorite resources for learning more about Robert Johnson are Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” and Johnson’s eponymous chapter in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.  Guralnick offers a brief account of Johnson with a whiff of romance and mystery, while Marcus majors on the romance and mystery while sprinkling in a little fact.  Take both of them and call me in the morning.

If you spend some time with Johnson’s songs, two aspects immediately grab you: alienation and space.  The two go together.  No one has ever communicated the sense of being alone and yet made it so personal and singular like Robert Johnson.  Marcus comments, “The power of [Robert Johnson’s] music comes in part from Johnson’s ability to shape the loneliness and chaos of his betrayal, or ours.  Listening to Johnson’s songs, one almost feels at home in [a] desolate America; one feels able to take some strength from it, right along with the promises we could not give up if we wanted to.”  At the same time, it’s the very isolation of his songs that opens the vistas to larger questions; Marcus again: “Robert Johnson lived with. . . intensity, and he asked old questions: What is our place in the world?  Why are we cursed with the power to want more than we can have?  What separates men and women from each other?  Why must we suffer guilt not only for our sins, but for the failure of our best hopes?”  These are good questions, ones which Johnson doesn’t attempt to answer, although he’s either crazy or brilliant (or both) to raise them.

Many scholars, including some religious ones, have attempted to frame Robert Johnson’s blues in some type of spiritual, or even Christian, system.  I believe these endeavors to be highly misguided.  I have no idea what Johnson the man believed, and it’s not my place to guess, but his music only shows Christianity in a photo-negative; with his lyrics and music, Johnson paints a picture of nothing more than a vacuum, albeit a vacuum well suited to be filled by Christ.  Marcus is correct in writing that “Johnson’s vision was of a world without salvation, redemption, or rest; it was a vision he resisted, laughed at, to which he gave himself over, but most of all it was a vision he pursued.  He walked his road like a failed, orphaned Puritan, looking for women and a good night, but never convinced, whether he found such things or not, that they really were what he wanted, and so framing his tales with old echoes of sin and damnation.”  The blues of Robert Johnson create a world that God has left behind and which the Devil now owns.

Well, if this is true of Robert Johnson, what should I say about it?  Ought I to proclaim, “Don’t listen to him, he’s tetched!”?  Not at all; I’d have trouble completely disavowing any art as resonant as Johnson’s.  Instead, I’d suggest that few have excelled like Robert Johnson at portraying the Fall.   What’s more, he never exults in a broken world for long; even at his most bawdy, Johnson’s songs of release are filled with regret.  Greil Marcus understands this when he writes, “All the beauty of the world and all the terror of losing it is there. . . Robert Johnson’s music is proof that beauty can be wrung from the terror itself.  When Johnson sang his darkest songs, terror was a fact, beauty only a glimmer; but that glimmer, and its dying away, lie beneath everything else, beneath all the images that hit home and make a home.”  I’d want to follow up with Marcus, however, or Johnson, and ask, “If our world is only darkness, why are we terrified of losing beauty?”  Or Marcus again, “The moments of perfect pleasure in Johnson’s songs, and the beauty of those songs, remind one that it is not the simple presence of evil that is unbearable; what is unbearable is the impossibility of reconciling the facts of evil with the beauty of the world.”  But I’d wonder, “But why then does beauty exist at all?  Doesn’t Robert Johnson’s darkness only make sense in the context of a world that God created as good and beautiful?”

Which brings us to the cross of Jesus.  The cross tells us many things: Our good world is worth sacrificing for.  Suffering, pain, sorrow, and sin are not illusions but realities that demand a reckoning.  God finally deals with evil in such way that he absorbs its pain and price in himself (Jesus crucified) and yet triumphs over it (Jesus resurrected).  A new world of beauty is coming, and has already begun.

Robert Johnson gives us a world without Jesus, but still a world that cries out for him.

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