The Beard of Wisdom and Other Miscellany

1. I’m a fan of David Bowie in a Greatest Hits sort of way. I couldn’t tell you my favorite deep track but “Space Oddity” and “Heroes” are some of the best songs ever written. I’ve not seen The Man Who Fell to Earth but I enjoyed Bowie in The Prestige and The Labyrinth. All that to say I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing earlier this week. I’m not the one to eulogize him but as an artist, regardless of my skill level, when a great artist dies (as is the case with Ray Bradbury in 2012 and Robin Williams in 2015) it feels like a personal loss.

One comment I read on one of the many articles about Bowie this week described it like there’s a great, cavernous, gothic hall with an ornate ceiling that reaches to the sky being held up by unmovable pillars. Those pillars are the great artists – your Bowies, Bradburys, Williamses – and when one of them passes us small artists, like children playing in the great hall during mass, look up with worry that the sky might crash around us.

David Bowie released an album last week, unbeknownst to his fans, as a way to say goodbye. I’ve listened to it fully twice. Not enough to digest it lyrically and thematically but, musically, it has the hallmarks of a great album. And it has the kind of drumwork that just makes me so happy.

2. Another pillar, Alan Rickman, always.

3. On a less sad note and further away from the mainstream of pop culture was the GQ article about Hillsong that was making the rounds last month on social media.

Worship. January 31, 2012. Aikawa Ke. Some Rights Reserved.

Depending on your taste in music and your views on how Christianity is best expressed will likely determine your response to the GQ profile, What Would Cool Jesus Do? I found the article to be generous and forgiving. I finished reading the article with a greater appreciation for what Hillsong does even though I have a similar response to the author with the production of what Hillsong and other like Contemporary Worship Music outfits,

The music of Hillsong is a catalog of Selena Gomez-grade ballads, with melodies that all resemble one another, pleasingly, like spa music. They call to mind deeply sincere love songs, if it were appropriate to put phrases like my savior on that cursed tree and furious love laid waste to my sin and suffered violence healed my blindness and facedown where mercy finds me first in a love song. Tonally and tunefully, it’s a Jonas Brothers song. Lyrically, it’s a hymn, and yet the singing is hot-breathed and sexy-close into microphones. It made my body feel confused.

I happily use the music of Hillsong at Inland Hills because I find much of it to be increasingly orthodox, theologically rich, and musically accessible for the congregation. Though the high production value is off putting to me so I have a hard time listening to their albums and have little interest in worshipping at one of their venues. That all is an issue of subjective taste which the two New York Hillsong pastors address in the profile,

Like everyone else at Hillsong, Pastor Joel is unwilling to acknowledge that there’s something going on here, vis-à-vis the hat, vis-à-vis the entire fashion-forward, Disney Channel teen, aggressively accessorized aesthetic of the place. It is a non-issue to him. Yes, he tells me, sure, he likes clothes. But that’s the end of it. What he means to say is that lots of people like clothes…and anyway, why am I asking him? I should ask Pastor Carl about the clothes, he tells me. What Pastor Carl does, he says—that’s intentional, and then he laughs. So I did, I asked Pastor Carl, and he said he really doesn’t think about it, okay maybe he does sometimes, but hey, he asked, turning it around, what about me? Aren’t I thinking about it when I show up to an interview in my whole head-to-toe Gap thing? My whole neutrally attired thing? That was a decision, too, Carl pointed out, wasn’t it?

I find that hipster Christianity, emotionally earnest “worship” experiences, and quality production don’t legitimize the Gospel in culture the way we’d be led to believe. The Light of Christ doesn’t need lazers and smoke machines to overcome the Darkness. In some sense the search for Cool, Relevance, Excellence, and other buzzwords obfuscates the message of the cross. In fact, I think the ascendant pursuit of cultural dominance is antithetical to the downwards trajectory of the Biblical narrative. The life of a faithful Christian should be perplexing and strange, not neccesarily hip. One should wonder at the love and grace demonstrated and then be curious about counter-cultural doctrinal positions. The Christian confesses that everybody, including themself, is a dirty rotten scoundrel and then loves that dirty rotten scoundrel. Who loves the bad guy? Christ does. And so should his followers.

Despite my obvious misgivings that could be projected on Hillsong the author experiences the weird and practical reality of a Christianity that is in opposition to popular thought,

While [Pastor Carl] and Laura spoke, I tried to reconcile the man with genuine love for humanity with the man who believed that it would be dangerous for a faithful Christian to head the choir he loved because he also happened to love another man.

And here I have to say out loud how much I like Carl. I say it here because I still felt it after this conversation. I like him even though he is ideologically opposed to things that are important to me. I somehow could not fault Carl for his beliefs, because they torment him. I couldn’t fault him for them even though his influence is so vast and all it would take was a word from him to heal the suffering of so many people who feel like they’re without a tether. I couldn’t dislike Carl because in the end his belief is an organism outside reason. It’s Carl who will take my jokes about how Christianity seems so much easier than Judaism and follow them up with 200-word texts in which he tries to use this toehold to tell me his Good News. He is so worried for my soul, and this should annoy me, but instead it touches me, because maybe I’m worried about my soul, too, and Carl wants so badly for me to enjoy heaven with him. How can I fault someone who is more sincere about this one thing than I have ever been about anything in my life? But on the other hand, if there’s one thing that’s true about Christianity, it’s that no matter what couture it’s wearing, no matter what Selena Gomez hymnal it’s singing, it’s still afraid for your soul, it still thinks you’re in for a reckoning. It’s still Christianity. Christianity’s whole jam is remaining Christian.

Again, depending on your disposition is how you’ll likely respond to the article. Though at first blush, in a shallow way, I would seem opposed to the ministry at Hillsong and despite our differences I left the article further appreciating the work they do for the Kingdom of God. We’re going to sing some Hillsong this coming weekend.

4. Over the holiday while visiting family I read this wonderful article about Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, at Image Journal: Kurt Vonnegut: Christ-Loving Atheist” I’ll share some quote but do yourself a favor and read the article and if you’ve never read a Vonnegut novel go ahead and cancel your weekend plans and read Slaughter-House Five or Cat’s Cradle.


On the stark difference between Christ and easy, self-help religiosity

After hearing the [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars] give a talk on Transcendental Meditation in a Cambridge hotel ballroom, Vonnegut wrote:

“I went outside the hotel, liking Jesus better than I had ever liked Him before. I wanted to see a crucifix, so I could say to it, ‘You know why you’re up there? It’s Your own fault. You should have practiced Transcendental Meditation, which is easy as pie. You would also have been a better carpenter.'”

Vonnegut regarding the Sermon on the Mount

I am enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount. Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by—and then we will have two good ideas.

Vonnegut’s, an atheist, thoughts on the loss of faith

“My great war buddy Bernard V. O’Hare, now dead, lost his faith as a Roman Catholic in World War Two,” Vonnegut wrote in Timequake. “I didn’t like that. I thought that was too much to lose…. I knew Bernie had lost something important and honorable.”

Vonnegut reconciling his humanist belief system with his great admiration of Jesus of Nazareth

Some of you may know that I am a humanist or freethinker as were my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors—and so not a Christian. By being a humanist, I am honoring my mother and father, which the Bible tells us is a good thing to do.

But I say with all my American ancestors, “If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not? If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

Vonnegut’s personal theology, of sorts

Hello, Babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

A letter and a Christmas Carol

Dear Lukas—

I am not a Christian either, but you have to admit it’s one hell of a story. So:

Angels said come to this stable rude,
Where deep in the hay, which is cattle’s food,
Lies a baby who sleeps full of milk so sweet,
More precious than rubies from head to feet.
Here is my guide, sang the Angels, to Paradise. 
Am I foolish to come here, or am I wise?
This is the place,
He is here, he is here.
Those who would kill him
Are near, are near.
So keep him our secret,
So dear, so dear
And the mother’s name is May-ree.
Starlight did wake me from deathlike sleep
So filled me with joy I did laugh and weep.
I did follow the star to this rustic shed, That my starving soul might at last be fed.
Here is my guide, said the starlight, to Paradise.
Am I foolish to come here, or am I wise?
This is the place,
He is here, he is here.
Those who would kill him
Are near, are near.
So keep him our secret,
So dear, so dear.
And the mother’s name is May-ree.

Season’s Greetings,
Kurt Vonnegut

5. One of my favorite Christian writers, Eugene Peterson, wrote in his autobiography (The Pastor) that when he was a young man just joining the pastorate an elder clergyman told him to grow a beard. It would make him seem more pastorly. As a pastor and a beard wearer I say, Yes! I like to think a beard – beyond the current trend – suggests an austere, homegrown sort of wisdom. Proof:

And when I dream, I don’t just dream any old dream. No, sir. I dream about being three-time Golden Globe–winning actor Jim Carrey. Because then I would be enough. It would finally be true, and I could stop this terrible search, for what I know ultimately won’t fulfill me. But these are important, these awards.

Mr. Carrey in this short clip far acceded the appearence of wisdom. But, the beard didn’t hurt.


The Beard of Wisdom and Other Miscellany