wilco

The end of the year is a few months away but I always start ordering my top 10 albums, movies and the like about this time each year. I try to place everything in the spot it stands as of now and wait to see what upsets the list will have based on end of the year releases.

This year while starting on that, I’ve decided to also do a top 50 albums and top 50 singles for the entire decade of the 2000s, seeing as it’s over come January. In doing so I’ve noticed a lot of older, established artists from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s made seminal, career-worthy work over the past ten years across all genres and many of those will factor into the list. There are also plenty of great albums that popped up unexpectedly from bands who had never before and haven’t since managed to recreate the magic.

But thinking about artists who’ve come to the forefront during the 2000s, releasing all of their work in the new millennium or just the bulk of it, a few come to mind that simply define the decade in terms of consistently excellent album, songs and live performances.

Wilco- Wilco released three very entertaining alt-country albums in the ‘90s and then got extensively creative and genre abandoning in the 2000s. The best example of the bands melding of experimental and approachably warm is their decade defining “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” in 2002. From there they got weirder – “A Ghost is Born,” then scaled way down with “Sky Blue Sky” and followed that with this year’s “Wilco: (the album) the most straightforward folksy album they’ve released this decade.

Drive by Truckers–  Although DBT released a few independent, small press albums in the late ‘90s, they really didn’t emerge notably until 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera.” Released on Universal (and then dropped by Universal and left labeless until New West signed the band), SRO was a critically acclaimed yet initially low selling work but a masterpiece nonetheless.  They haven’t released a bad album since – ““Decoration Day,” The Dirty South,”  “A Blessing and a Curse” and “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark”  are all tremendous records and DBT was one of the best live shows you could catch this decade, which it was usually possible to do up close in a relatively small venue. If you’ve never been able to make a show, “Live at the 40 Watt Club” and “Live from Austin TX” are two wonderful rock concert DVDs you can catch.

Ryan Adams– Adams was an alt-country pioneer with Whiskeytown in the ‘90s. His first solo record, “Heartbreaker” from 2000 remains his best work. He’s a consummate songwriter, with the potential to be one of the greatest but despite his surplus of recordings his personal quirks and indulgences dampen that potential sometimes. But, with the exception of “29,” any of Adam’s 10 albums is a great listen.

Neko Case – From 2000s “Furnace Room Lullaby” to 2009s “Middle Cyclone,” Neko has put on record the decades best voice. A perfect singer capable of traditional country, blues, power-pop or gothic, none of her work is to be missed. The record on which her best lyrics and her best singing match up is “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” from 2006, but arguably her best single song is from “Deep Red Bells” from 2002’s “Blacklisted.”

Lupe Fiasco – So far we only have two official Lupe albums, 2006s “Food and Liquor” and 2007s “The Cool,” but one more is due by the end of the year. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Lupe’s not released a weak track yet, or a weak verse for that matter. He touches on every imaginable social issue in his songs and could very well be the best and brightest political commentator rap has had since Chuck D–and not nearly as suspect as some of D’s propositions. Lupe’s ethical intelligence is never suspect in his songs.

The Hold Steady – With 4 studio albums and 1 live album over the past 5 years and tremendous live shows to boot, The Hold Steady are the best bar band in America. The lyrics are consumed with parties, scripture, drugs, God, sex, death, Mass, angels, love, chill out tents and interesting characters. Like a punk Rock-Springsteen-Tom Waits milkshake, The Hold Steady get better every year.

Death Cab for Cutie – Sure, they’re a bit pretentious and a lot of those emo kids dug them a bit too much for comfort. Yet they’ve captured a lot of this entire decade in their sound. The use of the title track of “Transatlanticism” in Six Feet Under with the characters stonily singing along was a generational signifier. Every album they’ve released in the 2000s has been good, but their last three have been  classic – “Transatlanticism,” “Plans” and “Narrow Stairs.” Even on years without an album they’ve stayed present- this year with a great EP and nice singles.

Ghostface Killah – Okay, in the context of Wu Tang Clan, Ghost is very much a 90s rapper. But aside from his solo debut “Iron Man” in 1996, every solo albums he’s released has been in the 2000s, starting with “Supreme Clientele” in 2000. He’s been pumping out an album a year almost, and you won’t get any Lupe worthy socially conscious moments on any of it. Check all that at the door–there’s nothing morally redeeming in the lyrics, there’s just insanely killer flow. Ghost constructs rhymes that are so hilarious, sad, exciting, repulsive, and sensory observing that it’s a little miraculous. He can make a good agreeable point from time to time, but mostly you’re going to get urban poetry steeped in vivid detail– crime narratives more cinematic than any movie as well as jokes, double entendres and metaphors with a lot of tongue in cheek.

Sufjan Stevens – Stevens may be the decade’s best songwriter if only people could fully understand him without looking up the lyrics. That’s a turn off for many, but for the rest of us his hushed, frail and almost whisper like melodies backed by a slew of sounds uncommon in pop music (he’s a wildly talented multi-instrumentalist) are engaging, addicting and reveal just a bit more each time you hear them. Then there’s his ambitious project to make a concept album depicting the history and culture of every American State. “Greetings From Michigan” is his best overall work, followed by the close second “(Come on Feel the) Illinoise.” The “Illinois” track “Casimir Pulaski Day” may be the most heartbreaking yet beautiful song of the decade with lyrics about God, love and teenage loss by death and disease.

Kanye West– Hate him love him, or simply be sick of him due to his latest string of rude shenanigans, but some of the 2000s best hit singles were from ‘Ye. Three Grammy winning albums that actually deserved a grammy and one flop of an album that can’t be criticized in terms of ambition at least. Here’s hoping he takes a break and comes back down to earth a bit.
So, that’s the big ones. Some of the albums by these folks will rank high on the top 50 list when I post it toward the end of the year. Others by artists who managed just one great album, and albums by already established artists will all intermix with them.

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scripture

So I recently read two vastly different books that both extensively referenced Christian and Hebrew scripture to espouse two completely antithetical viewpoints. Of course, this is nothing new. Theologians, religious commentators, preachers, teachers, rabbi’s, clergy and laypersons alike all quote scripture to back up their respective viewpoints on a regular basis.

Yet the stark difference in the two books made me step back and reaffirm for myself what many others have: that in any religion or philosophy in which scriptures are held to be canononical, inspired, important, revered, foundational or simply useful, there comes a point when you have to choose which overall thematic consistency you wish to stick with and affirm. That is, if you wish to stay with the scriptures in the first place. Saying that you do wish to keep some grounding with them, you have to decide and I think (like John Dominic Crossan mentioned in “God and Empire”) that it comes down to peace or war; love or judgment; common ground or divide and conquer.

The two books I’m writing about are drastically different in every sense of the word: they were written in different decades, by different personalities, in different styles, from different worldviews, from different religious doctrines and perspectives yet both claim absolute Christianity. One is “The Sovereignty of God” by Arthur Pink. It was written in 1918 as a treatise. It’s writer is very confrontational throughout, claiming most of the religious folks of his day have completely lost their way and turned to a fake, watered down and irrelevant God. His convictions lie in an absolute controlling, all powerful, intimately involved God who selected a few certain souls to save from hell before creation was even formed and who has laid out every breath of every person and every turn of every event before it occurs. For Pink, this is the only possible interpretation of God in light of scripture as he reads it. For Pink, the utmost important thing to realize is that God is mighty, powerful and deserving of deep reverence, fear and awe. Every thing that happens to an individual is for a reason known only to God; humankind is base, vile and created from the “polluted” ground and deserves nothing but punishment and hell–which most of them will get since only a small “elect” are destined for “salvation.” For Pink, the entire purpose of life is to preach this truth and await judgment hoping to be one of those elect knowing that no man truly knows who is among that number. Pink’s treatise is early 20th century hyper-Calvinism; he acknowledges that term with a scoff but never denies it and never delivers anything but it. He’s not crafted anything new, nor does he claim to. He claims it’s the original message of scripture that has been watered down, but more accurately it hearkens back to John Calvin and further back to Augustine. “The Sovereignty. of God” isn’t my typical reading, but it was recommended to me by someone who espouses the same view with full compassion and sincerity today. It’s also a popular theology for many young Christians now, folks influenced by writers like John Piper.
The other book is “The Irresistible Revolution.” It’s not a treatise, more of a memoir in the making. The writer, Shane Claiborne, is a young evangelical yet also a very “radical’ person in the sense of modern Christianity. He is uncomfortable with the term without amending it with the term “ordinary”– thus “ordinary radical,” because he doesn’t wish to puff himself up. He writes of working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, assisting in leprosy care there near the end of her life. He writes of flying to Iraq to spend time with children and be an “advocate for peace” when the US was bombing them heavily. He writes of the lawsuits he’s been forced to defend himself in for sleeping on the streets, communal sharing, giving free food away to his neighborhood, etc. Claiborne takes the idea of Jesus to “give up all and follow me” literally and tries to do that as much as possible with the hope that he and all around him will have enough to get by.

Although written 80 years apart, both of these styles of thinking have been present for hundreds of years. One sees the thematic thrust of scripture to be that of radical compassion and social justice: protect the stranger and the outsider; love your neighbor; honor God. Turn the other cheek; go the extra mile, if you have two coats give one away, advocate for a world in which the last become first, the wine never runs out at the wedding banquet and everyone is welcome at the table. This type of theology has been present for a long time; it was called “the Social Gospel” in the 1920s and “Progressive Christianity” in our own day (among other more deriding terms in both cases). The other theology is one of judgment, vengeance and damnation. We are vile; we deserve punishment; Jesus paid the debt for some of us; the rest will burn in hell. Care for the world in this theology is relegated to getting folks into church and that’s it–for extreme opinions in this theology even that is suspect since God can call strangers to church so we wait for them and if they come then we care for them–but not before, because the world turned its back on Christ so we must do the same to the world.
Well, you can thoroughly back up either view with scripture…maybe not correctly, but you can throw out and string together verses, phrases and doctrinal interpretations to support either view, and although folks on the other side can refute those verses with carefully selected verses of their own, it can become a circular argument and never stop. If it could be decisively argued, it wouldn’t keep coming back into popularity in certain circles.

Obviously, whether you like to admit it or not, eventually your opinion and worldview within a faith tradition must incorporate things outside of just the scriptures themselves; after all, all the books in scripture were written by different authors with different historical and cultural perspectives, at different times, in different styles, in different languages. They were assembled later, far after the fact. They were translated through multiple languages. If you want to grasp your head around what you believe in their regards, you have to consult historical criticism, personal revelation, faith history, denominational and religious context, modern discovery and ultimately your own intuition, intelligence and heart.

You ultimately have a choice…does your heart tell you the thrust of Religion should be forgiveness, love, compassion, mercy and work that leads toward justice for fellow humankind and honor of God? Or does your heart tell you Religion is about following the rules to the T, discerning that you are indeed correct in a multitude of issues and ensuring you are part of the one “real” in-group rather than part of the out-group? Only one of these viewpoints is compatible to involving all and working with all for the betterment of the world and all people, all religions. The other is very exclusive and has room for but a few. Of course, one view is highly concerned with making this world better while the other is best suited for closing your eyes and waiting for eternity, hoping hell doesn’t await. That’s psychologically difficult on a multitude of levels…

With Religion, there is much we take only as seriously as we are comfortable with.

 I argue that the heart of the gospel in a modern Christian sense is simply: love God, love your neighbor. I further argue this by saying that the ideal modern church can be thought of as a “social justice hub.”

 Recently I began struggling with the real heart of the gospel and the major aspects a life, career or calling in regards to it plays out. How do we love God best? By loving our neighbors, our fellow humans. How do we best love our neighbors? By acting. The “Kingdom of God” is what Jesus stressed—if we follow him, we are called to break it into present-day existence. “It is at hand.” It was then, it is now.

The Kingdom is an idealized life in which there’s always more wine at the wedding party, always a spot at the table for the “least of these,” always forgiveness, always compassion, always truth. We bring this kingdom about by doing work that seeks to set things “how they ought to be.” Work that encourages the depressed, inspires the despised, builds up the weak, makes the last become first.

Okay. Flowery language. But to get to the heart of what I’m really getting at here, I’ll say that most of us don’t really heed the call. I’m not talking about doctrine. We can argue about historicity, literality and metaphor. Whether the scriptures, the doctrines, the creeds or the church history of the gospel is factual, metaphorical, mythical or actual is pretty much irrelevant to actually “heeding the call.” We can also argue about sin: what qualifies as sin, what qualifies as lifestyle, what is ingrained, what is chosen, what is dependant on context, place, time and situation. We can argue about universality and inclusion; whether our mission is THE mission or merely a shade of the mission.

 I’ve written at length and probably will continue to do as such regarding much of these issues, but for what I’m talking about here, yet again, these things are pretty much irrelevant to “heeding the call.” What brings me to “the call,” that I stress we all seem to ignore is admission of my repetitive action of the same.

See, to digress for a minute, I tend to think of 3 aspects of a religious life, career or calling. 1) Worship 2) Action 3) Education Taking myself for example, I’m most comfortable with the “education” aspect. I can read, write, talk, debate, consider and think about religion and spirituality ad infinitum. After all, my planned profession is that of a teacher. I hope to someday teach world religion, theology and philosophy in a collegiate setting. I enjoy classes and subjects on these topics from a student perspective. I like books that discuss these things, I write about these things in various hackneyed ways. As far as the worship sector goes, it’s where I was first introduced to these concepts and ideas years ago as a child. It’s a sector I detracted from, only to find myself coming back to years later from a slightly different angle. It’s the sector with which I am growing in and struggling with to find the right meaning, balance and use of. Then, there’s Action. The more I read and learn in the Education sector, the more I worship in the worship sector, the more the already obvious becomes even more so. The real area for Christ- following is Spiritual Action and Engagement.

The “work of the kingdom” plays out in the real world. If we aren’t doing our part there we’re really just puffing ourselves up purposelessly. So, I try to devote time to that sector. From choosing student-work that I feel ties into social engagement to writing and working for needed social change, to volunteering time and money (in my case very little_) to appropriate organizations. The extent I do these things to is never the extent I should actually do though. I can even tie it in with the other aspects. For example, a book I’m slowly piecing together deals with calling on the worship sector to do more in the action sector (broadly speaking). So I use the area I’m comfortable in (education) to call on one sector to increase efforts in the other.

 Hmmm. Really though, I have to admit I only take it all as seriously as I’m comfortable with. All it takes is to read about people like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, MLK Jr., and even folks like Claiborne (who wrote “The Irresistible Revolution”) who worked in and sought to do the full deal for me to realize how little I actually do or feel capable of doing.

Reading the gospel, we can argue about the same old historicity and debate how much we really know of the historical Jesus and what he really said. We really only have the gospel text themselves to go on. But I feel that Jesus’ call to “Sell all you have and follow me,” stands out. His words to “turn the other cheek, go the extra mile” do as well. Paul’s writing of dying to self so that Christ can be all that lives through us is really clear. For if we died to self in all actuality and let Christ alone live through us we’d sell everything, go to work for peace through sacrifice and justice through non-violence.

We’d risk everything we had to make the kingdom present now. I’ve heard friends in recent days argue that:

(1) we can’t all do that and weren’t really all called to do that. After all, Paul wrote that if you are married don’t get divorced but if you aren’t married don’t get married. So you can’t be a light to the community if there is not community and we’re all wandering around seeking to help.” To that, I answer that no, we can’t all do that and yet we are all called to do that. Working single or as a couple we can do that, but Christ realized we wouldn’t all do it. We’ve always had the choice to not listen or to walk away. Since my concept of salvation and damnation is pretty far left, my concern is not that of hell but that of not really doing what we’re called to do.

 (2) “You have to meet people where they are.” Maybe. But are we not called to lead and go where we’re called and if the people follow, great, if not, that’s okay too? Christ knew not everyone would follow. Now, if my friends recognize themselves as being the ones who said these things, please don’t feel like I’m calling you out! I see clear cut examples of how to fully marry to the spirit and work for real change, real justice, real love and the real ever present Kingdom of God. Yet I don’t abandon what I’m doing and do likewise. I have family ties; my wife wouldn’t be too keen on trekking through central America (or even East LA) on a mission of peace with me. I like my time off; I want to read a book, go to a movie, watch a baseball game, go for a swim. I like good food and drink- could I live forever eating just enough to get by? I love music—I collect records, go to concerts, argue about the greatest albums of all time. Surely that money and time could be devoted to social justice causes. I own more than one coat, more than a few pairs of shoes. I waste my share of things, from time to food. I could go on, but I won’t. The point is despite student loan and various other debt I’m blessed enough to not fear where my next meal is coming from and I’m mulling over these issues from the safety of a graduate school when a huge chunk of the world gets slim to no education. I plan to teach in a university myself where I’ll continue to address justice issues that affect the world while I myself in all hopefulness will be relatively comfortable enough to be deemed “middle class.” It seems just a shade hypocritical to me in the light of “reality.”

So what do I do? I take it as seriously as I am comfortable with. I rationalize. I think that with grace I’ll be able to call attention to the real issues in the writing that I do, that I can donate money to valuable causes, that I can volunteer a few hours a week or month and ultimately that wherever I teach I can spark a mind or two to take the plunge and do the work I was too scared to.I was talking with another friend about all of this and I said that maybe we all rationalize our religious thought as a survival mechanism. Maybe it’s not wrong to do so. Maybe it’s a vocal way of acting on an inner calling that points us in the direction we are most fit for. Perhaps our skills and the needs we can address come together in certain areas and our rationalization leads us there. Maybe it’s a survival skill. Then again, maybe it’s a cosmic hi-liter we use so that we can avoid doing what we’d really be doing if we were more devout! The call for transformative justice isn’t an easy call and it’s not one we can all take