DMB

It’s not yet August and I’ve already begun thinking about some of what will make my year end best of 2009 music list. The reason? There has been a surprisingly large amount of great new music this year already. If there is as much great material in the last half of the year it’s going to be hard to narrow and rank ten singles and ten albums. As for films, there’s plenty of room on my list for those since the greats usually hold out until the year’s almost up. But music? I’ve raved over Patterson Hoods “Murdering Oscar and Other Love Songs” as well as the new albums by Phoenix, Passion Pit and Morrissey.  Earlier in the year, two of my all-time favorite bands released albums that were okay for me then but have steadily grown better and better the more I hear them – U2’s “No Line on the Horizon” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Working on a Dream.” Two of my favorite ‘00 bands have released live album DVD combos– The Hold Steady and The Drive By Truckers. Green Day put out another great rock opera album. Neko Case released her second flawless album in a row. Steve Earle released a hauntingly good Townes Van Zandt covers record and his son Justin Townes Earl released a great county music album himself. The lead singer of My Morning Jacket, Yim Yames, took time from recording his first solo album to release a George Harrison covers album that is sheer beauty (not to mention the first ever George Harrison single disc career overview, “Let it Roll,” came out this year as well). Mos Def made his return to pure, low-key but high-talent hip hop with “The Ecstatic.” Jay Z and Lupe Fiasco released great hip hop singles to tease their up-coming fall and winter albums. I discovered the indie band “Grizzly Bear” through a performance they gave on David Letterman and found their pop-collage art rock album “Veckameist” to echo Steely Dan and Paul McCartney just enough to bring the listener in through familiarity to discover the most creative and original pop album in years. I’m still digging those Passion Pit and Phoenix albums as well.

You like James Brown? No one really makes jam-heavy, funked out R&B anymore, right? Wrong. “Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears” left Nashville and went national with their tight, funk rhythms’ and hardcore R&B in “Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is.”  On tour with my favorite current rock band The Gaslight Anthem is British folk rock and singer-songwriter Frank Turner, formerly of the punk band The Milkmen now his own solo act trying to prove modern male singer-songwriter acoustic music doesn’t have to suck. Death Cab for Cutie released “The Open Door”  EP with 4 new songs as good as anything that was on last years “Narrow Stairs.” Wilco, who have never make a bad album, made their most accessible and enjoyable album in ten years with “Wilco (The Album).” A columnist for Paste magazine said not voting for a Wilco album in a top ten list in the 00’s is like passing on a Stones or Beatles album in the late ‘60 and early ‘70s and she may be right.

Then, biggest of all for me so far this year has to be “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King” by the Dave Matthews Band. Now, I’m not a DMB fanatic. I don’t swap bootlegs and jam to 11 minute alternate takes of “Rapunzel” or anything. In fact, although I’ve always recognized them as good I’ve sometimes thought maybe they were a bit over-rated as to how hardcore of a following they seem to have, like Phish or something. I take it back. I loved “Broken Stuff” back in 2001 because the lyrics and songwriting were so fantastic and the religious observations are always a sell for me. I love some of their live albums for the great multi-layered band Matthews has to show off. But I love every thing about “GrooGrux.” Every song. From the sad sax notes that lead in on the intro (sad in that great DMB sax player LeRoi Moore died in an ATV accident before this album came out) to the sax outro at the end of the very last song.  “Shake Me Like a Monkey” is the best pure, energetic rock song DMB has ever released. “Funny the Way it Is,” and “Dive In” (among others) offer biting, relevant social commentary. The religious observations are back and poignant in “Lying in the Hands of God,” and “Time Bomb.” “Alligator Pie” is pure funk and fun. Every single song is good. I actually had a stack of coupons (I know, I’m cheap) while I was on vacation at a record store and stocked up on a few physical CDs (instead of free or discount downloads per usual) and I’m glad this was one of those because I love the artwork and the booklet/liner notes. I stared at the art and listened to the entire thing through at least twice and it’s been years since I’ve done that with any album. Get this album. There’s not a single wasted moment on it. It’s currently my front runner, but who knows what can happen musically in 5 months.

That’s all for now.

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Okay. I’ve put off this article for awhile. I’ve touched on it several times in other pieces on my site and I’ve spoken of it countless times with friends but I’ve never put it all into one concise article before. But here goes, I’ll try.

“I want some of that old hellfire and brimstone stuff,” a 20-something woman I used to work with once said. She was visiting different churches and when I asked her what she was looking for, that’s what she told me. I thought she was joking. “That’s what you really want?” I asked.
“Well, not for me personally, like I don’t want hellfire and brimstone! I want to hear it in the sermons at church though!”

So, she was saying she didn’t want to experience it herself, but she wanted to hear about it in the sermons preachers gave on Sunday morning when she went to church. She certainly didn’t want to go to hell, but she wanted to hear about how others were going to go there, she wanted to hear about the fire, the gnashing of teeth, the wailing, the violence that would be inflicted on those that don’t believe what she believes. Well, at least she was honest, I’ll give her that. Many people subscribe to a belief in a literal, violent, flaming hell in which everyone who isn’t  a factual-literalist conservative Christian will go to. These people may believe in such a place for a multitude of reasons, many quite innocently. They may think that to be a true Christian you have to believe in such a thing. They may be Biblical literalists that ignore the near absence of a literal hell in the Hebrew Old/First Testament and focus on every parable, reference to Sheol and seemingly actual reference to an eternal pit of fire from the New Testament and apply it to their current lives with fervor. The church has grown significantly in historical periods in which the fear of hell was invoked with the most fervor. The early tent-revival explosion of the early 20th Century owes a large debt to hellfire and brimstone (as well as Rapture theology). For many, it’s fear of hell that initially “converts them” and it’s fear of hell that leads them to evangelize to others to seek their conversion—honestly, if you truly feel that your best friend will writhe in eternal torment if he doesn’t pray the same prayer to Jesus that you did, you’ll spend every waking moment trying to convince him to say that prayer, right? If you truly, deeply believe that you will.

I don’t buy it. Many other Christians don’t buy it either. Let’s take a look at some other ways of looking at this for awhile.

In two recent articles, “Why Church? Why Christianity? + ‘The Heart of Christianity’  by Marcus Borg” and “Salvation,” I tackled other ways of viewing Salvation, the Christian mission and why church and Christianity are and can still be relevant. I mentioned arguments that attempt to deflate Christian exclusivism. So if I believe other Religions have a valid tie to salvation even though I myself hold to Christianity, do I believe that anyone goes to hell? People always throw Hitler out to get hell deniers to concede a point. Yes, what Hitler did was atrocious. But, could anyone who was truly whole, full and complete have believed as he did and done as he did? Something was missing from him at his very core, for whatever reasons and contributing factors. Does that mean he will forever suffer as a result of that, when (and I’m not saying this as a certainty, just a suggestion) what drove him to be so monstrous may have been at least somewhat out of his own hands, in some way? Some Muslims believe that many of us go to hell and “burn off” our sins and transgressions and then proceed to paradise. I can see that more than I can an eternal hell. If God “punishes” humans, isn’t the point of the punishment to cause the person to modify their behavior, change their viewpoint or to grow as a person? If the person is eternally in hell there can be no modification, change or growth. Of course, many Christians don’t believe God chooses to literally “punish” people, yet that’s another issue altogether. But for those many who do believe God may sometimes choose to punish humans in order to grow them, where does that leave hell? I imagine most would say that hell is a last resort, a place for all of those who refused to accept Christ despite their many chances in life to do so. Well, what about all of the millions of folks born, raised and rooted in Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism or Sikhism?  Sure, they can hear about Christ through missionaries. Yet will they be prone to accept him? How prone are we as natively born Christians in America to adopt Buddhism or Islam? We can say that we aren’t very likely to do so because we have the “right” God and doctrines. Yet we have the luxury to say that by feeling so comfortable in our scriptures and traditions, and we would most likely be as such in one of the other enduring world religions had we been born elsewhere or at a different time in history. Marcus Borg once wrote that if we believe that only one religion is right and that there is only one true way to get to heaven, it’s awfully convenient that it’s the tradition we ourselves are born in.

That’s the thing. We as humans love to sort everyone  out into “the saved and the damned.” We desire to classify huge numbers of people as an out-group so that we ourselves can be part of an in-group. Humans do this in grade schools, church groups, workplaces and prisons alike. If we can convince ourselves with utter certainty that our way is right, many of us feel we must identify all other ways as wrong. After all, what’s so special about heaven if everyone gets to go?
That belief makes heaven a prize we have earned through proper beliefs. Heck, if it’s all about proper belief proper action becomes irrelevant. Many that hold this belief do begin to emphasize proper action with the concern that it shows the believer to be authentic, but usually in the personal morality sense. We must act right if we’re truly believe right, but righteous social concerns are often still irrelevant for this group.

It’s important to stress that there are many different ways of looking at the concept of hell and that more than one of these viewpoints are valid within the Christian tradition. Christ himself rarely mentioned the afterlife at all, heaven or hell. He was most concerned about the world here and now: how we treat each other, how we act, live and interact in groups, how we honor God, ourselves and our neighbors. His primary message was concerned with the Kingdom of God, a system very much rooted in present, real life. Often when Jesus mentioned Hell the actual Hebrew term was Sheol. Sheol can be modernly translated as “abode of the dead,” “death” or “the grave.” It often meant simply physical death, the end. It other times was used to imply a “second death,” an ultimate and final end. In the books of Ecclesiastes and Job, Sheol referred to the final destination of both the just and righteous as well as the unjust and unrighteous alike. Jesus used Sheol in parables that linked it to the pits outside of the cities in the Roman empire where trash was hauled and burnt, completely evaporated until nothing was left. This and the concept of a second death both point more to “oblivion” than “eternal punishment.” One major way of looking at hell is this idea of a second death. In this view, those that live, believe and cultivate a spiritual life and core continue on after death, growing and becoming whole. Those that have no spiritual side in life don’t suddenly gain one in death. Those that reject all eternal belief thus will themselves to this “second death,” this eternal oblivion. When Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, many such uses of “Sheol” were substituted with “Hades,” and from there it later became Hell, and once Hell caught on as such a fear tactic and conversion inspiration, it stayed. It was the bread and butter of an entire evangelical movement of Christianity within the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

Also of note is that the majority of popular perceptions of hell come from admittedly fictional works. Dante’s “Inferno” most famously. Christian scriptures don’t literally describe hell, what most people assume comes from scripture on this subject really come from Dante and sermons of early Puritan and traveling evangelist sermons.
Which is not to say that there isn’t any basis for the most persistent views of hell within scriptures. Of course there’s basis for such a viewpoint, it’s been a predominant Christian viewpoint for hundreds of years. But it really boils down to what most other modern theological debates boil down to: how you view scripture interpretation. You either find it to be literal/factual or historical/metaphorical, which affects almost every other issue coming forth from it.

It’s really not of the utmost importance that progressive Christianity goes on a battle to dispel and remove all concepts of hell from modern Christianity. That’s not necessary. But it is important that we step back and take stock of the different views out there. Most importantly we need to think before we ever consign entire groups of people to hell. God is compassionate, forgiving, loving, all-encompassing and divine. He’s not petty, cruel or joyous over inflicting pain. The arguments for inclusivity are numerous, there are so many common-sense approaches that leave room for those of all religious stripes to find a seat at the table and do the earthly work of God’s kingdom in their own way, in their own culture and with their own scriptures. Yes, there are some people that seem to reject all forms of love, compassion and forgiveness. There are people that do horribly heinous things with clear minds and no discernible defects. Are such people still privy to a continuing life after death or any type of “paradise?” It seems odd to think so. For that reason I myself still find room in my theology for some type of what many would call hell, but I don’t perceive a loving compassionate God as making it a place of agony, or making it a place at all for that matter. I think the earliest perceptions of Sheol are the most fitting. Those that reject peace in life and form no spiritual core are apt to “wink out,” to fade away. Then again, there’s no clear teaching from Jesus what heaven is like either. The main point this should show those of us that call ourselves Christians is that far more important than the afterlife is the here and now. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus is said to have stated in Matthew’s gospel. What matters is now, the afterlife however it may be and whatever form it may take will take care of itself someday. Christianity is based around the person of Jesus and Jesus’ concern was ushering in the Kingdom of God through charity and peaceful, nonviolent justice on earth. “A new heaven and a new earth,” isn’t some other dimension but rather a transformed world that we are to work towards. Hell shouldn’t be a threat to scare others into saying a certain prayer and then relaxing at home no longer afraid. What good does that lend the Kingdom of God? Why would God instill a system that’s all about humanity believing proper doctrine without bothering to do righteous action?

This issue isn’t fully encapsulated here, I realize. It’s a weighty issue, and there are many great ways of looking at it from Islam, Buddhist and Jewish world views that help shed some light on what it universally is. I think it’s safe to say that most point to it being almost something we make for ourselves by not allowing ourselves to reach our full potential and purpose in creation, working within and living inside of God itself. So really, if anyone is truly concerned with hell they’re already on the path to overcoming it if they haven’t fully done so yet.

A few weeks ago, I posted an article titled “Salvation” on my blog. Someone I know commented that they liked what I had to say on most of the points, but being agnostic they asked me to answer for them two significant “whys.” Following and agreeing on the call to social justice, compassion, education, spirituality why must “church,” “Christianity,” and “hell” be invoked and used as relevant concepts as part of the deal? First off, “hell” in the traditional sense is pretty irrelevant to the point but I’ll deal with that in another article sometime.

While thinking about the other two terms, which I do find to be relevant and important parts of this ideal, I happened to read “The Heart of Christianity” by Marcus Borg. I can’t recommend it highly enough, he succinctly and efficiently makes all of the best points I tried to make in my “Salvation” article as well as all the points I hope to make here. He does it clearly, understandably and compassionately. So if you’re interested in progressive Christianity, what Borg terms “the emerging paradigm,” seek out that book. Heck, if you’re a happy traditional Christian read it as well, Borg does his best to find common ground for all Christians and aims to build a bridge between both camps (one point he makes is that we should all quit arguing on literality, if something “actually happened“ and focus instead on what each thing really means). At least you’ll get a good overview of some of the other ways of looking at things you may never have considered before from someone with the work experience and scholarly credentials to support his positions.

Okay. So to start with, why is “Christianity” important. After all, if you feel called to work for the cause of peace, justice and compassion you can do so as a member of any religion or of no religion whatsoever. Many times throughout history organized religion has even worked intensely against peace, justice and compassion. Borg focuses on deflating Christian exclusivism at several points in “Heart…” He even takes the few (for there are really only a few passages in which Christianity is stated as being the exclusively right and only way) and approaches them in a new light. In John’s gospel the famous verse that conservative Christians use to defend Christian exclusivism has Jesus saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Borg points out that John’s gospel is one of incarnational theology. Jesus is “Word made flesh,” and so he is “‘the way made flesh.’ the path embodied in a life…what is ‘the way’ that Jesus is?” Borg writes, “For John ‘the way’ embodied in Jesus is the path of death and resurrection. Dying and rising is the only way to God. Christian exclusivism understands this verse to mean that you must know Jesus in order to be saved. But ‘the way’ that John speaks of is not about believing doctrines about Jesus. Rather, it is what we see incarnate in Jesus: the path of death and resurrection as the way to rebirth in God. According to John this is the only way…it is ‘the way’ spoken of by all major religions of the world. Dying and rising is the way. Thus Jesus is “the Way”–the way became flesh…his life and death are the incarnation of a universal way known in all of the enduring religions.”

Borg attempts to deflate exclusivism in many other ways in his book yet also emphasizes the importance and his personal love of and practice in Christianity. So if Christianity isn’t believed to only be about getting to heaven and avoiding hell and it is no longer believed to the only absolute way of reaching our potential and our “salvation,” does that make those of us who feel strongly that it is what is right for us as individuals and good for the world when practiced compassionately foolish or does that make us more sincere since the decision to participate in it doesn’t come from fear or compulsion? Furthermore, why do we find it the right way at this point? I like the anecdote Borg recounts concerning an American meeting the Dali Lama and asking him if he should convert to Buddhism. The Dali Lama told him no and advised him to “stick where your roots are the deepest.” It’s better to have one well dug 50 feet deep than 50 wells dug a foot deep each.

For Progressive Christians in the US, our roots are deepest in the Christian tradition. We are familiar and comfortable in its creeds, hymns, iconography, scriptures, prayers and base. We probably would have been more comfortable with Islam or Judaism if we were born with a faithful base in such, but we weren’t. Yet we recognize the truth at the heart of this tradition, in the person of Jesus and in the scriptures and traditions that emerged from those who were inspired by him. In the church as a force for social justice and compassion in the world if only it can live up to its full potential. Why Christianity? Because as my priest once said, “for me it’s simply where the points line up most fully,” where I can feel myself most in line with God and what I can be and should do.

Why Church? Because although I may not always agree with every person in a pew beside me on every theological and social issue I can still be inspired by the music, prayers, creeds, sacraments and sermons. I prefer a broad, open liberal faith in which I am free to read, think, ponder, doubt and question anything set before me but also that provides me with a link to history and tradition that makes those practices become less about the specific words and doctrines and more about opening the heart to possibility and the mind to inspiration. If the church strives to live up to its potential, as I outlined in an article on this site a few months back, it will be a place of great things. Brian McClaren writes in his book “The Secret Message of Jesus” that a local church should be a place that where at any given time you stumble into it there may be people praying silently in the chapel, students debating philosophy in the classroom, workers serving hot meals to the homeless in the kitchen, adult professionals on their time off planning local and foreign aid to necessary social concerns, people hearing a sermon that both inspires and edifies them while also challenging them to more that they expect. It should be and can be all of these things. Why church? Because as much as we as individuals may feel strongly about, think about and say we plan to do something about important social and community issues we may not stay on ourselves to follow through on them and we may find it difficult to act on such plans without proper resources. A community of like-minded individuals can support, challenge and work side by side to accomplish these types of things as well as have the resources to back them. Of course charitable organizations and clubs can do these things to, so church isn’t the only way for that side of it. Yet equally important is personal edification, inspiration and challenge. We can get a lot of this through personal study and mediation, yet hearing from other perspectives opens our minds to ways we on our own might not have considered. That tie to history and community can open doors and link us to a place outside of ourselves as well. By pointedly leaving our own daily lives to visit a place that aims for a more vertical than lateral approach that is rich in iconography and ritual can help us elevate our hearts. Now I know it takes commitment, which draws many away. Let’s face it, if we work all week and Sunday is our only day off we aren’t always going to want to devote a portion of it to the church for whatever reason. That’s why it should never be viewed as a place where an attendance record is kept like a grade school or a place where we feel pressured to go to every week whether we feel like it or not. No, it should be a place where we feel comfortable to go to once a week or once a month, establishing our own regularity as we feel comfortable to it. Sometimes people want to spend that time with family, in nature or in private study and personal reflection…and that’s good. Yet it should always be there for us, and the deeper some of us get into it the more facets of it we may find ourselves utilizing.

Yes, people in groups can be just as misguided as individuals if not more so. Yes, organized religion in all countries has historical periods of guilt and persecution. Yet the terms “Christian’ and “Church” are still relevant to the modern world and to the works of justice and compassion. The more progressive, thoughtful and varied people that can enter into them can only cause these systems to be more as they truly should be.