* J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story

J. Cole built a following with the current standard of a slow-burn schedule of free mixtape releases for close to two years before his official full-length debut arrived this week. The best moment of that mixtape hype-building phase was the fantastic single “Lights Please,” which is included here in its studio version. “Lights Please” is a showcase of what Cole does best–a delicate mixture of rough-voiced, streetwise sexuality and thoughtful social contemplation. Its lyric, “I know you want to change the world but for the night please, just reach over and hit the lights please?” put into the words of a hotel-room lover to him displays a wise and winking acknowledgment of aiming for great and noble things but finding yourself succumbing to less than noble actions. Cole name-checks Dr. King at several points on Cole World as a kindred spirit in the seeking spiritual and political revolution while falling to the flesh and though it pushes the metaphor to a point of tension when one tries to compare the commercial hip-hop game to the civil rights and nonviolence struggle, Cole’s delicate balance of disparate tendencies and acknowledgement to noble heroes does indeed stand him apart from many of his contemporaries.

The album opens with “Dollar and a Dream III” after the mandatory and superfluous intro track, and “Dollar” is an excellent culmination of his mixtape starter tracks from the past year or two. He follows that with a sexcapade themed romp through “Can’t Get Enough” featuring the perennially mind-in-the-gutter crooner Trey Songz and they nearly waste a great chopped-soul sampling beat but Cole’s talent as a rhymer and deft use of metaphor saves it somewhat from its dirty self. Cole is much better when he steps back from the grime to poignantly comment on it with street-sense yet thoughtful, articulate, artistic consideration that transforms sex and money songs into Michael Eric Dyson style social commentary. He does this wonderfully on “Never Told” which graphically depicts the events and wrongs of sexual wandering and cheating, acknowledging a participation in ignoble acts as well as the repercussions such acts have on he and those like him perpetrating them as well as the one-night stands caught in the way and the emotional affect they will likely have from such encounters. He traces the root-of-cheating back to following bad parental examples in a dubbed in acted-out conversation between a father and son in which the father tells the son that to be a man he has to keep some things to himself so as not to tell his mother he saw his father cheating. “Never Told” is what J. Cole is capable of–straight-faced, tell-it-like-it-is yet consider the ramifications in a down-to-earth rather than erudite manner. He’s not a Dead Prez or Talib Kweli style ruminator on social conditions–his method of social commentary emerges forcefully yet almost as a byproduct in his consideration of people and their real-life experiences rather than in social theory. Another great example of this on Cole World is “Lost Ones” in which he narrates the conversations between different poor couples considering abortion or carrying a child to term–he doesn’t preach a pro-choice or pro-life doctrine so much as give voice to the men and women working through that decision on their own, even committing a hip hop “sin” in admitting to crying over the decision as a man.

Of course, J. Cole is still a streetwise rapper who knows many of his intended fans don’t only want serious conversation. So he delivers trunk-rattling infectious earworms like “Mr. Nice Watch” which pairs him with his signer and mentor Jay Z on a blitz computer-from-the-dancefloor-future beat and a great hook. It sums up another persistent feature of Cole as a rapper– “let’s ball like there’s no tomorrow, no next year,” a celebration of life in the moment because a return to poverty and hard times may wait around the next corner. Later the track “God’s Gift” gives us a lift from old Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony beat  filtered through some serious soul and emo-ish rock which he rides to perfection with some of his best bars on the entire album. “Nobody’s Perfect” features a welcome return from Missy Elliot–oddly she doesn’t deliver a rhyme but she sings the chorus, silly as it may be, beautifully.

There are some clunkers–10 percent of this album could have been trimmed to refine it into a spectacular debut. And there are also squandered opportunities in which J. Cole in his early twenties doesn’t think to push past some of the restrictive boundaries and prejudices modern mainstream hip hop forces on itself. He also has the Kanye West tendency of intertwining brilliant lines with inadvertent corny ones. Yet, if we are to compare this to the rest of his upstart class of back-pack meets street rap that is emerging, he stands head and shoulders above them. He’s less quirky than Wale, is a better rhymer with a much better flow than Drake, and less clunky than Lil B. Since it’s always been rumored that Cole is Jay’s answer to Young Money’s Drake a comparison to that debut shows that although there were many undeniable hooky pop hop tracks that still hold up relatively well from Thank Me Later a year-plus later, the best moments of Cole World: The Sideline Story will likely outlast and stand up longer. J.Cole shows remarkable potential, so let’s see what he does with it from here on out.

r- 7/10

 

*Mastodon- The Hunter

Mastodon albums perpetually sound like they could be the soundtrack to the battles, hunts, and worship of the lands depicted in “Conan the Barbarian.” It’s like spiritual music from the really old-time religion, that of cave men. That’s not an insult. Mastodon, for all their bluster, noise, abrasiveness and straight-faced delivery of lyrics about crystals, diamonds, killer whales, oracles, blood feuds, and all other manner of such things, are not unintelligent. Mastodon have earned a deserved seat of respect in modern metal (a genre of surprisingly continued evolution in variety and depth just under the radar of most mainstream music critics and fans). Mastodon’s arguably best work was 2006s Blood Mountain which added enough hook, melody, and accessibility that previous intense efforts had lacked causing the music to better showcase its inherent songcraft and (although grimy) beauty. I found 2009s follow-up Crack the Skye moving too much in that direction, it pushed the sound more toward Soundgarden styled heavy-grunge than the artistic yet noisy prog-metal they were best at making. Good news–The Hunter gives us the best of both worlds, stepping back from the cleanness found on Skye enough to deliver pure metal but with a murky pop garnish to give access to a potentially larger audience. Mastodon eschewed the intricate (and often incomprehensible) concept records of their past with this one, focusing on a series of strong individual songs. So we get the first half of the record as powerful metal rippers, almost all single-worthy; clean vocals, heavy guitars, fast riffs, noisy excellence. They gradually work in their murky, stoner-metal sludge towards the back-end but hopefully those unaccustomed to such sounds will coast off the energy given to them at the front end of the record so they can appreciate the latter half. At times this record sounds like it could have been recorded by Sabbath in their 1970s prime, at other times it’s obvious that today’s learned and evolved metal technical skills and production qualities were necessary to present this type of Metal.

r- 8/10

 

* Wilco: The Whole Love

Wilco have consistently been one of the best artistic rock bands for around two decades now. Though they may not be as culturally important or as revolutionary and significant as The Beatles, a respectable argument can be made that their catalog of music is as solid and as excellent as that lauded institution of classic pop music. Wilco is a solid band, unafraid to stretch themselves, seemingly incapable of making a bad album, and they’ve developed a large batch of timeless and classic songs. They’re also an excellent live act. A.M. was a solid Americana record when they debuted with it and rather than stay there they’ve made sprawling alt-country pop (Being There), artistic tapestries of post-rock experimentation laden with pop hooks (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born) and recently they returned to simple yet solid rock music with the occasional southern twang and the ever-present pop hook (Sky Blue Sky, Wilco: The Album). It takes awhile to fully digest a Wilco record so my rating could go up or down a point, but for this moment I find this record to be their best since Yankee. Maybe I’m just excited to hear real, unapologetic music presented by a band comfortable enough in their own skin to try what they want with complete unconcern for what critics or the mainstream want to hear. The Whole Love mixes their Americana song-writing skill with their flirtation with technical experimentation, evinced strongly by album opening track “Art of Almost” with its twitch knob-twisting squeals, clear hooks, and break-down jam session at its close; those clashing cymbals are worth the price of admission alone. The keyboard-organ sounding pop beats on songs like “I Might” are ridiculously infectious; they’re stick-in-your-head pop melodies done right, they repeat themselves in your mind without annoying you or making you ignorant. “Born Alone” is a moment of pure brilliance and beauty, softly wrapping you into its fold. “Capitol City” is a depression-era jam drug through jazz and a 1980s arcade until it finds some of modern indie rock’s highlights. Every song has its charm and the whole thing closes with Wilco at their simplistic, stripped-down best with the acoustic ballad “One Sunday Morning (Song for Janey Smiley’s Boyfriend).” The Whole Love is easily a front-runner for record of the year, though it faces a few tough competitors.

r- 9/10

Note: A lot of excellent releases seemed to emerge out of nowhere in mid to late September after a rather long lull; some of these I’ve really dug but not heard enough to properly review, others I look forward to listening to soon. Notable examples are: Tori Amos- Night of Hunters; Machine Head- Unto the Locusts; Opeth- Heritage; Rwake – Rest; Thrice- Major/Minor; and several others.

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“Drive” (Movie Review)

September 20, 2011

“Drive” arrives like a breath of fresh air after a thoroughly underwhelming summer movie season. “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Thor” showed tentative promise of a good summer season back in late spring, but mostly the summer failed to deliver on that promise in terms of quality films. “The Help” reminded viewers of what great acting and emotional connectivity could do for a film and now “Drive” packages almost everything about harder-edged great movies in one: an excellent cast, complex characters, masterfully edited action sequences, subtle narrative flourishes, thematic brilliance, a great score and soundtrack, and a strong story overall.

“Drive” is an excellent mixture of art-house film and noir crime thriller. After a brilliant opening car chase in which a perfect combination of visual editing and sound place the viewer directly in the car to where we feel every twist, turn, and moment of tension, the movie eases back for the rest of the first half into its art-house aspect, making select use of action until the final arc which incessantly pulls the strings razor taut. “Drive” is not an easy picture–it’s tense, violent and ugly, yet it refuses to become soulless which is what makes it such a nice arrival this early in the fall movie season. When violence comes, it comes brutally and shocking–I’ve seen a number of horror films in my life and even of the gore-heavy ’80s slasher films, few ever made me jump or punched me in the gut the way key scenes in this film did. By the time we arrive at the vengeance sequences, director Nicolas Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini (adapting a novel by James Sallis) deliver us classic crime pulp ala Westlake or Chandler by way of visceral horror writers Clive Barker or Jack Ketchum.

Did I mention the terrific cast? Carey Mulligan as the female lead is adorable, and graceful yet tragic and heartbreaking as she is so capable of being in almost any role she fills. “Breaking Bad”s Bryan Cranston is a nice touch as is “Mad Men”s Christina Hendricks. Albert Brooks eschews comedy (which I’ve never found him good in) for an intense, dark, villainous role. And of course, Ryan Gosling gives us a slow-burn portrayal of the stoic protagonist who displays increasingly bizarre flashes of rage and violence–Gosling’s performance and role gave many viewers grief in that many of his motivations and thoughts–even his name–are withheld. Gosling’s “Driver” character is a European and Asian film archetype like any good classic first-wave noir or Japanese samurai character in which much is left open, unrevealed, and up for guesses. “Drive” doesn’t offer full answers and boring extrapolation on every nuance and meaning–the filmmakers assume we are smart enough to ponder that ourselves and if not, to strap in for a roller-coaster ride. In a winking bit of meta-fiction, Albert Brooks’ character Bernie Rose talks about how in the ’80s he financed many sexy, violent, artistic action pictures critics labeled “European”–nodding to what the filmmakers likely preemptively assumed critics would say about their own work as well as the ’80s aesthetic which was oddly yet intriguingly added to “Drive,” in its score, soundtrack, title art, and often its overall feel. That ’80s aesthetic added a great extra layer to the film yet since the setting and technology were kept current it didn’t devolve into a vapid nostalgia action piece.

Anyway, go see “Drive” in the theater if you want to see a complex, artistic, thrilling, shocking, original homage to all things great about global noir filmmaking that makes no concessions–easily the greatest American crime picture since “The Departed.”

rating: 10/10

Having considered the diagnosis of a God-shaped Hole in our society, we now ponder some of the symptoms of that diagnosis. If there is something palpable, anxious, angry, and uncertain underneath our current religious, political, and social context in modern American society and that something is that God is felt to be (but not in actuality) absent even if this perception is not always recognized or admitted, what are the manifestations we are now seeing and experiencing that support such a diagnosis?

First up is the rampant persistence of “Politics Without Principle.” Gandhi once identified his own version of the Seven Deadly Sins, and for him they were “social sins” committed collectively to the detriment and sickness of society as a whole. All of his identified social sins are still relevant warnings today (you can read the list here and at many other places) but “Politics Without Principle” is particularly relevant to our present discussion. Here we will also expand it to include “politics without purpose,” since that is how we seem to be experiencing it today in American political hostilities. In the (felt) absence of God, partisan politics have become the religion, often even the God, of a great number of people. We witness this every time a politician in office claims as a stated goal the defeat of another politician in office. If a person’s primary and often only goal as a politician is to impede the efforts of another politician so that their opponent fails to return for an additional term, that person is living “politics without principle” par excellence. This becomes politics for the sake of politics–the goal of defeating the “opponent” at any cost to the country transforms civic political engagement into an unprincipled cold civil war. Yet if politics were really the public and civic manifestation of a person’s spiritual identity–if a politician sought to use the public office to physically live out their most sacred inner ideals in the outer world, to engage in the political realm in an effort to actually aid society, then the ultimate goal would not simply be to do work now in preparation to defeat an opponent in the future; the ultimate goal would be to make society better for all people. If a politician really entered the public square out of a physical manifestation of a sense of duty to her community and people as a whole, the immediate goal would never be to simply sabotage any and every effort made by the “other” side so that they would look bad but instead to work cooperatively with the other side to reach a deal that both sides can live with, to use cooperation to refine a policy that to the best of both parties knowledge would be good for the country and the world. Certainly this conception of politics is idealistic and has likely never been lived out in reality on a widespread scale, but if the average voter saw such ideals as at least being the ideal then perhaps voters wouldn’t engage in such vitriolic politics-without-principle that transform politics from a vehicle for reaching an end through means into the end itself.

I know that what I have stated thus far likely will lead any conservative or Republican friends and readers to conclude that I am throwing the stones at the GOP alone–for figures like senate minority-leader Mitch McConnell (R) have stated since the day President Obama was elected that their primary goal was to ensure he did not get a second term. To that end McConnell and company have sought to ensure that every major effort the President has made is a failure and for whatever lofty or noble goals they may think or pretend to aspire to, what this has resulted in is a complete refusal to actively work, compromise, or strive for any successful communal or societal results. Furthermore, this conservative rancor has birthed the “Tea Party” which pushes refusal-to- compromise and political hostilities to an an almost hitherto unseen level of bile. So yes, I most certainly am labeling most of what the GOP and especially the Tea Party are doing as “politics without principle” and most often “politics without purpose”–politics for the sake of politics. Even if their perceived goals are some highly limited form of small-government and a new wave of libertarian principles and hyper-capitalism which they believe will lead to the best possible society for the largest number of people, those goals are ones which they seek to usher in at a future term and thus in the meantime they are playing politics only to see current failure which hurts all of us who live in this country and those in the rest of the world who are so often affected by our actions. But I do not blame the GOP and Tea Party alone–in our hostile political divide we see many on the Left daily playing politics for its own sake as well. In a way that isn’t as hostile but is just as detrimental to progress we have seen the President himself concede on his principles, stated goals, and even the ideas which earned him the election in the first place in an effort to appease the other side of the political spectrum. Often what the President has sought to pass through or do has been a watered down and ineffectual version of a noble goal or plan and in the game of playing politics he has missed the purpose itself. Certainly he and the democratic party itself have been justifiably on the defensive at many times and any objective viewer likely can empathize that if seeking active compromise has worked as poorly as it has then striving boldly for an unwavering goal would perhaps have done even worse. Regardless, what we are left with at the level of the general populace are two parties who control the entire political spectrum in this country both playing at a game of politics that is proving itself to any with the eyes to see as broken.  As this political game trickles down to the masses we see the rancor and hostility exacerbate, as the lack of political education and knowledge in too many voters becomes manifested as the active seeking of policies by people which violate their best interest and the best interests of society as a whole. Sadly as Dr. King once noted about events in his own time, prejudice is passed on to those who inadvertently support their oppressors out of the blindness caused by their own prejudice; we see the poor work against themselves at the delight of the extremely wealthy.

We’ve seen so many moments in which the moral barrel has been scraped in recent political situations–when the crowd cheered at the prospect of someone in a hospital dying because they didn’t have insurance in a proposed question to Ron Paul, we saw what it looks like when political ideals are held up as more important than human life. Politics without Principle holds up systems–be it Libertarianism, Capitalism, or Communism–as more important than people. Winning the election becomes more important than providing a stable, caring society. Winning a war becomes more important in preserving approval ratings than curbing the violence such wars inflict. Now, certainly there are “purposes” at stake for many up the line and we are all jaded enough to realize the role money (and the great wealth it can provide a select few) plays in influencing political causes, decisions, and opinions. What we see manifest in modern American politics is “politics without principle’ in the form of the never-ending quest to secure vast wealth at the top of many corners of America trickle down as  “politics without purpose” in a great mass of people who argue for the best interests of those seeking that wealth, sometimes without realizing it and sometimes with the vain hope to one day be in that number of elect wealthy. What we too often do not see though, are candidates who seek to implement policies and plans that will help not only the majority of people but especially those with much less–those without the bootstraps to pull themselves up by. What we don’t see too often are the candidates who denounce war and violence as the best option to resolve diplomatic disputes or politicians who make the equality of all citizens their primary concern. When we do see such candidates we do not see a large enough section of the public giving them a proper chance or consideration whether it be because of prejudice, greed, fear, or the misperceptions formed in them through over-exposure to distorted media.

The God-shaped Hole felt in many Americans is one which they seek to fill through various, usually pernicious, means. One large means through which they seek to fill this hole is through Politics. By making the political struggle, the civic debate, the social divide, the water-cooler arguments, and the rancorous political hostilities the liturgy they participate in to walk a path of religiosity, many have transformed partisan politics into their own personal god. This god is not any true God of the sort though, and what inner life it can create for the “politics are God” crowd is a hollow and unsatisfying one and thus it is highly understandable when this god does not “work.”

I realize the web really does not need the presence of yet one more opinion about or reflection on 9/11 as it approaches its ten-year anniversary. I also realize that a personal blog offers even less appeal to the general public when there are massive amounts of coverage from “experts,” talking heads, the mainstream media, the alternative press, the religious world, and even from survivors or the family of survivors themselves that you can read and gain insight from if you feel the need. So in all likelihood if you’re reading (or skimming) this, you do so for whatever I post for whatever reason, or a tag or link brought you here and you’ve stumbled onto yet one more personal opinion. So, if you’re reading this (for whatever reason), I hope it causes you to think about the issue in a new way that can lead to positive change, however that might occur.

As we look back on the tragedy that occurred ten years ago I hope that we can continue to find ways to honor the memories of all the victims and their families who lost life and potential in such needless bloodshed.

This long after the event, many still question why it occurred and what the factors were that caused such an act of terrorism. The fact is that the event itself, the factors that led to it, and the fallout that has occurred as a result of it are a web of geopolitical details that offer no easy answers. What the United States experienced was an act of violence and terrorism that we were unaccustomed to seeing in our own country and thus it shook us deeply. We have been lucky enough to not personally experience such an event on our own soil since, but we must all by now realize that such senseless tragedies occur daily throughout the world and have done so since long before our comfort was shaken and have repeatedly occurred far too often since. What we experienced had roots in economic despair, social upheaval, ignorance and illiteracy, the long aftershocks of anger sparked by centuries of colonialism, religious and political fundamentalism, and the leadership of charismatic figures who felt used and discarded by larger powers and who then struck out at those perceived enemies through human beings they manipulated and used as pawns. What occurred on that day almost ten years ago was an act of violence that violated not only international laws but even the religious laws of the texts and traditions of the perpetrators who were sadly led to believe otherwise.

What occurred on 9/11 was terrorism. We call violence committed by one country to another country “war,” violence committed by a country to a group of civilians in the process of a war “collateral damage,” and violence directed at a group of private citizens  “terrorism.” The targeting of innocent civilians, women, children, and people of all faith groups by the perpetrators of 9/11 as an act to mistakenly make a statement, prove a point, or control through fear was most assuredly an act of terrorism. It killed many people and the pain experienced by those they left behind continues as fallout from that fateful act. It also killed the perpetrators–their act of violence immediately affected them. It sparked a series of wars which have led to many more deaths on all sides. What we have seen in the event itself and the ten years since is the same thing we sadly see far too often and seem to stubbornly refuse to learn from–that violence is cyclical. That hurting others to prove a point, to get even, or to get what we want is always wrong and always creates more violence, more bloodshed, more loss of life. That much of what we pass off as “necessary” far exceeds self-defense and instead amps up the turmoil in the world around us. We teach our children not to hit one another at school out of anger or to get their way yet we ourselves in our larger bodies act out in violence constantly to the same sad, tired results.

We have the voices and examples of many people who have taught us that love can be just as active and much more effective in promoting transformation and progressive, positive change than violence and hate. These role models come from all walks of life and can be found as shining testaments to every enduring world religion and tradition from which they emerge and represent. May we now, ten years after the tragedy begin to seriously consider peace. May we consider active and engaged love. May we consider practical alternatives to cyclical violence and aggression. May we seek to understand the “other,” even those we don’t like or those that don’t like us. May we seek to communicate and interact to promote unity and tolerance and may we more fully consider what the ramifications our every action–privately or publicly, individually or communally– will have on ourselves, our communities, our countries, and our world.

Peace.

 

Judging by the state of the nightly news, it seems that many feel we in America are living in unprecedented times. With economic worries, ongoing wars, a tense and volatile political divide, and apocalyptic scientific forecasts, such an assumption is understandable. Yet, aside from the threats posed by climate change, it would be difficult to argue that anything we now tangibly face is new and unheard of in the history of humankind or even in American history. Yet (as one particular example) what to make of the studies that now report more parents than ever are direly responding to pollsters that they fear their children will have tougher circumstances to face than they have had in their own lives?  In our political climate, our social environment, even in our religious context in the US there seems to be something palpable, something underlying the cultural and emotional concerns that is anxious, doubtful, and often angry.

The late, great Harvard Chaplain, theologian and preacher Peter J. Gomes wrote that, “As a historian, I am often asked to what great period in history I would care to return, and I can think of none, for every age has fallen short of what the good news promised, and no past age has achieved an instance of grace for which I would sacrifice one second of the future (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 55).” Gomes, in the years following September 11, 2001, was criticizing the false nostalgia that leads religious figures in American churches to hearken back to a mythical golden age when “we” had “it.” Gomes claimed that a “revival” to a time that never was–for no time has ever captured the peace, justice, equality, and righteousness to which the “good news” (gospel) points to and calls believers to work toward–that instead a personal and communal “renewal” to begin to strive towards the future in earnest is by far preferable. As a believer and a witness to that good news, Gomes insisted that a false nostalgia can only be an enemy to a true response to striving for the realization of the gospel, because it entails a belief that “our best days are ahead of us (p. 55).”

As a Christian, Gomes insisted that a certain level of optimism is essential to one’s spiritual identity. However fearful, however angry, however doubtful one may be, an optimistic hope in one’s individual and  societal temporal and eschatololgical fulfillment is integral to the identity of a Christian. The hope that the “kingdom” will be “on earth, as it is in heaven,” is to both comfort and assuage a believer’s pain and fear but also to invoke and inspire a believer to work for justice and peace here and now.

Where is that optimism in the religious landscape of America today? Where is it in the political and social landscape? It is, for the most part, absent. This is not a call for a merged Church-State but a recognition that a person’s spiritual essence, and a place’s spiritual landscape, informs a person and a place’s social and political identity. I have quoted Gomes and his argument at length, focusing on a Christian perspective because traditionally this country has had a Christian majority, not because I believe returning to a “Christian” perspective will “fix” this country–I am trying to avoid the false nostalgia Gomes warned of with the full realization that we have never been a “Christian” nation even if perhaps we have had more “committed” Christians at other points in time (which is a very debatable point). The points I seek to make here can be argued from Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist perspectives as well, give or take some vocabulary terms and philosophical tensions, and later articles in this series will touch on those voices as they offer a much-needed balance to some of what I seek to put out and in other instances compliment what I am saying in their own unique ways. Also, as we grow inter-religiously in the US it is imperative that we bring the inter-religious voice to the public forum vis-a-vis multiple issues. But for now, dealing with the optimism Gomes identified as essential to the Christian identity, where is that optimism in the Christian Church in America? If it is in the Church, where does it go when the people of the Church enter society? When they cast their vote or take a political position of their own? Where is the desire to work toward something hitherto unknown, to help break into being a “kingdom” amongst one’s neighbors and community? I propose that it is largely lacking, because amongst both the “secular” and the “religious,” God is felt largely absent and as a result there is a “God-shaped Hole.”

When I diagnose the problem as being a “God-shaped hole,” I am not saying God is in fact absent; my personal conception of God is God as the ground of all being, God as Fear and Love, God as the totality of existence, God as the expanding process of the universe, God as within and without, God in the relationship that occurs between You and I. Such a God cannot be “absent.” What I am saying though, is that God is felt to be absent by even those who identify as religous or spiritual persons. I truly believe that God is felt to be absent by a large number of Americans today, even by those huge percentages of people who claim to have been to church in the last month. God is felt to be absent when God is something addressed in a church on a particular day of the week and forgotten on the other days. God is felt to be absent when God’s existence (or lack thereof) makes no difference in our daily lives. God is felt absent when our theism is too narrow or our deity too much like ourselves. God is felt absent when our ethical systems are too legalistic or to relativistic. God is felt absent when we do not have the religious vocabulary to push toward glimpsing God or we do not have the religious literacy to understand that even our best vocabulary falls far short of “God.” I am far from the first to wonder if the faltering of the idea of God or a society’s perception of God is resulting in anxiety and political turmoil. Karen Armstrong has written extensively about the evolution of theism and how it’s changes have affected societies and she accurately points out (in A History of God)that Nietzsche’s belief that the death of the idea of God failed to result in the freedom he anticipated and instead gave fear and anxiety, even to himself. The Christian “Death of God” theologians of the 1960s attempted to build a new theology out of the dying of old concepts of theism in a hopeful manner but their attempts appealed largely to the educated liberal Christian elite alone. Any work such as what I am doing here is largely a synthesis of that which has come before it, but I felt like making my much more learned predecessors clearly known less someone think I’ve stumbled on some completely new concept!

The fall-out from the existence of this God-shaped hole is various and widespread. There is the above-mentioned absence of optimism even among the “religious.” There is the dwindling of churches that rigidly clasp onto concepts and prejudices the public find hard to assent to these days; there is the angry and disruptive splitting of churches over social issues and the fights that every sort of progress or reevaluation spurs. There looms large in the society as a whole an odd paradox–that we as a nation are both more religious than we are led to believe yet also less spiritual than we claim to be. A recent post I made on this site commented on a few recent news-items that reported that contrary to belief more, not less, college-educated folks have recently attended church. Later that week I stumbled on an article in Paste magazine concerning secular fans of artists who are religious; the author sought to analyze how the deeply secular and non-religious could appreciate work that displays the faith of the artist. The author noted that is was of particular interest to him in that he felt to be in the extreme minority in a “young, urban environment” in a “social democracy” where atheism flourishes. As a minor point, it is hard to see how a fan of artistic, literate music, of the kind Paste seeks by self-deceleration (“searching for signs of life in popular culture” is their tagline) can find something fulfilling if they are vehemently angry at the spiritual or religious or just so ambivalent they do not want to hear reference to it when music continues to be so deeply religious, creeping into everything from Lady Gaga’s pop to the darkest of heavy metal. But more importantly, the author of the piece follows the traditional wisdom that it is hard to be educated, urban, and religious these days despite what any Gallop poll may report. Many in the professional corner of young America simply believe we are less religious than we actually are in this country (though the author, Shane Ryan, dealt with that tension more head-on in his piece than most). The other half of the paradox as I stated though, is that we are less spiritual than we believe. It might be easier to believe we are a nation of “spiritual but not religious,” as often as we hear that exclamation from people these days. I believe it is the other way around; but I do not want to hold up the religious-spiritual divide as the “merely” spiritual wish to, for spiritual-religious separation is a false dichotomy. Religion is the path one walks, the way that one is Spiritual. It gives ritual, vocabulary and concrete experiences to people so that they can experience their spirituality to the point of inner transformation and renewal and then (optimally and in its purest essence) provides the community, methods, and means by which to live out that spirituality in a socially transformative way. Certainly one can find all of this with a personal spirituality divorced of any religious affiliation much in the same way that one can find their way out of a massive, dangerous jungle without a map or survival skills but it is very difficult to do so. So I’m not trying to reinforce this spiritual-religious division that I believe to be a false dichotomy when I state the paradox that we are more religious and less spiritual than we believe. I simply mean that more of us in this country long for spiritual contentment and peace and seek it in religious channels than we are led to believe yet that even amongst the regularly seeking religious service attendees far fewer of us are finding that which we seek. The God (or Divine) that we build in our own image and argue as being prejudicial on our side or the God that we cultivate in our interior and then leave behind when we enter the public square are both failing to give us a justice-fueled yet optimistic outlook. Many factors are to blame for this and I hope to address them in upcoming installments of this series.