I came across a comment from Julia Child on Twitter the other day (@rorysutherland). She was asked what kind of wine she liked, to which she replied, "Gin!" Don't always allow the question to define the answer was Sutherland's takeaway from her comment. I couldn't agree more. All too often questions are way too loaded, so loaded that the answer is anticipated, expected even--questions like this are something of a trap. I think about the encounters that Jesus had with his detractors whose questions were often front-loaded with assumptions, expectancies and agendas--to answer the question as anticipated would have done no-one any good, I doubt that it would have even satisfied the questioners--because they probably weren't looking for the answers anyway, they just wanted to hear their own opinions spoken back to them.
I was watching a video of Rob Bell in a bit of an intense conversation with another bloke in England, where he was being pressed to answer a specific question--which he did well to not answer--he actually kept trying to re-direct the conversation, not, it seemed to me anyway, to avoid it, so much as try to take the conversation into less predictable, cul-de-sac territory. This got him nowhere, except to a place of frustration. I found it sad to watch (even though I felt rather proud of him for being willing to take hits), mostly because, as he rightly declared--this kind of bullshit is what keeps people away from churches.
I realize I am probably a long way from Julia Child's original comment, and a fair distance away from Sutherland's interpretation in talking about this in theological contexts, but that is where I live and it is where the comment resonates. Certain questions comes with certain answers. For instance, in Rob's conversation, which, if you haven't heard, was essentially about homosexuality, the other guy, Andrew somebody, I forget right now, seemed to reduce his sense of all things gender down to genital activity--that is what he kept coming back to again and again--and of course, the issue isn't as simple as genitalia and bedroom activity--except of course, it is, if you live with a certain set of questions and answers.
I would go as far as to say I think we need to lay some questions aside completely--they aren't the right ones to be asking anymore, they were borne of a different time, a different set of criteria, and yes, I do think many questions are contextual and that they become burdensome when the context shifts. I don't say that because I want to avoid certain questions or am afraid to answer things in a forthright manner, its just that I think its time to move past some of them.
Julia Child's reply was a reminder that the world is bigger than one kind of beverage, there is, if you will (with all apologies to the French), more than wine to be drunk--and when it comes to theology, there isn't just one easy, prescribed and expected answer to every set of issues--that's why perhaps Jesus constantly answered a certain question with another question--they were looking for wine, he was drinking gin!!
Twenty-four years ago, this image flashed on tv screens around the world. it immediately became in iconic image--one brave man staring down a row of tanks--an image that many Chinese have yet to see aparently, even though it happened in Tiananmen square in the heart of Bijing. Student occupation of the square, heading a populist protest against the government, which had continued for seven weeks, turned deadly when martial law was declared and the military moved in--estimates of the death run anywhere from hundreds to thousands. It was termed a 'counter-revolutionary riot' by the powers that be, and the dis-information machinery kicked in. It continues to haunt the the Chinese government so much so that according to the radio today, they apparently blocked any internet search that included the words, six or four and any other references that might lead a citizen to information about an event that the government would like to keep quiet.
Fax machines were used to send information out and spread the word during the protests--thats how long ago it was--a different communication age--before cell phones, before the web, before facebook, instagram, twitter, and all the other modes of communication that would be employed today. Twenty-four years and it seems like a century ago, the world has changed so much in so many ways, and yet remains the same in others. 1989 was one of those years--a few months later citizens of East and West Berlin were allowed to cross into separated parts of the city for the first time in decades and within a year the wall came tumbling down--the protests were stifled, many were imprisoned and sent to re-education camps, but the effects remain today.
A six-story plastic duck has been floating in Hong Kong harbour for weeks now--the work of a dutch artists who created it as a symbol of fun and peace--it is another of the search engine blockages the chinese government has enacted--mainly because of images like the one below. In the Internet age, you just can't keep tabs on everything, and this image still threatens.
I've been hanging out with some frequency with my friends, Tripp Fuller and Bo Saunders, participating in live podcasts of their woldly successful Homebrewed Christianity podcasts. We usually so them at Monkish Brewery, or some other, establishment purveying the brewed nectar which is the lifeblood of Mr. Fuller, but this past Memorial Day, we did a somewhat impromptu podcast in Tripp's backyard. Musical guest was Bill Mallonnee, whose songs about America and insightful repartee are a great combo. I talked with Tripp and Bo about music woirth knowing about this year, and we got into a fairly intense and broad conversation about music in general. The show is slated to go online in the next week or so and I think we may have another larger, live event in a couple of weeks--check in one the site to stay informed.
Every year for the past five or six years I have eagerly awaited the arrival, in the post, of the latest Feltron Report. Nick Felton, the man behind the project, publishes an 'annual report of his life.' It's essentially an info-graphic of everything that he has done in the past year. Useless information really, but it is presented so creatively that I find myself enthralled by the information contained in the report.
Ottmar Horl makes subversive little statues--garden gnomes, birds, all kinds of things. and for a recent project, hundreds of Karl marx statues in vrious shades of red. Fun, I want one, they are not that expensive, so maybe I'll save up and get one. He also makes statues of Martin Luther,
Music has always been my church. I might go to buildings and participate in rituals and even make a living by involvement and engagement with more traditionally understood examples of church/religion, but in my heart music is my religion, my church, my heart. it was in music that I found a space to voice and hear voiced my desire, my melancholy, my sexuality, everything. I remember with a fondness not reserved for many other things in my heart, when I bought my first record player, a Dansette, very similar, if not identical to the one in the image. It wasn't the machine itself, it was what it represented--liberation from the family 'sound system', the radio choices of my parents, the tyranny of a world shaped by ideas, values and aesthetics that meant very little to me as I tried to give voice to my own. That record player became a shrine upon which I sacrificed faithfully the artifacts of my faith--the blues, gospel, r+b, soul, reggae--with a fervour and zeal that was a visceral response to the thing that offered me freedom and a path to knowing and finding myself.
I've just started reading a book about Nick Cave called The Art of Nick Cave: New Critical Essays--its edited by John H. Baker. Its a collection of essays about Nick Cave, his music, his writing, his persona etc., divided into five sections: songwriter, murder ballads, film and theatre, influences and sacred vs. profane. It might just be that those five categorizations of Cave's life and work sum up in some way the way music functions as church or religion for me--if nothing else they highlight the issues and challenges which inform and affirm aspects of my life as I journey through it.
I haven't got too far into the book yet, but so far, it is rich with things about Cave, but perhaps more importantly, about music and about life, which I am finding helpful and hinting at things I might want to revisit, redress and rethink in terms of my own life vis-a-vis, what I do, why I do it, and how I broker some obvious disconnects which I am finding very troubling and difficult at the moment.
I think it is fair to say that I am in something of a vocational, if not life, crisis at the moment. Crisis seems a harsh word when I write it, there might be other words that could capture my present state, but I'll let it stand.
In his introduction to the book, John Baker explores the role that Cave, as actor and musician, plays in Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire. He also links Cave's dichotomy of desire and the emotional, psychological and existential cost to human existence to the central characters in that film. In naming Cave a version of Damiel, the central angel in Wender's story, Baker likens Cave's songwriting to a fallen angel, whose fall if you like, allows him to explore empathy and catharsis and invite insight and release to himself and the listener to his work. There is a line the author writes that grabbed me,
'He (Damiel) recognizes that the only way in which this desire can be fulfilled is through a kind of radical reinacarnation: his transformation from angel into human. In that sense he risks, like Lucifer, a form of fall from the spiritual into the material world.' This is beautiful imagery, I am sure to some who hold a different view of things religious, where the idea of 'fall' is endowed with ideas of disconnection with the sacred, the act might seem disastrous, but to me the fall is the only way Damiel can realize his desire, the only way he can discover love. The path to 'salvation' to reincarnation-re-birth-lies in this kind of provocative and dangerous act of counter-move. Richard Rohr's book of last year, Falling Upwards puts a safer spin on it, but that sheen of positivism is the essential thing I am trying to overcome in terms of my own relation to the sacred.. I keep having these images of falling to the ground, they have been inhabiting my dream world for a while. At first I was a bit worried, it seemed somewhat final, destructive, but lately I am beginning to see it in a different light, as pathway to my own radical reincarnation--I have been falling dramatically into the material world over the past few years, it often seems to be viewed as the 'wrong direction' by peers and by religion in general, but for me, this 'form of fall' heralds a way to realize a certain desired transformation.
Having spoken of coming to terms with a certain redirection, at least internally, I must also speak of my continuing belief that satisfaction will remain elusive for me, and again, perhaps I am coming to terms with some things about myself, but perhaps also about life in general. In a chapter of Cave's music, not just the lyrical preoccupation through which most address him, there is a quote from Giorgio Agamben that meant something to me the moment I read it. The author of the chapter, Carl Lavery makes a distinction in his offering between Cave the person and Cave the singer,
"To use Giorgio Agambens' vocabulary, the name, 'Cave,' in this chapter, is posited as an authorial 'gesture,' a proper noun that 'marks the point at which a life is offered up and played out in the work. Offered up and played out, not expressed or fulfilled. For this reason the author can only remain unsatisfied and unsaid in the work.'
Two things, one is that I think this is why my favourite songs/artists and those whose work expresses dichotomy, tension, paradox and melancholy--whether it is the plaintive joy of blues and gospel or the apocalyptic musings of Radiohead, it is more often not, the ache in popular music that most speaks to me when it all comes right down to it. It is not that I need to be continually reminded of what is missing or lost (I love 'happy music' too, but there is always that 'thing' lurking beneath the surface) but that inherent tension and release mechanism in some music is what drives my love for it-- I just don't always need sheen and veneer to make everything pretty and ok.
That melancholy, rooted at the heart of music that emerges from dislocation, disorientation, despair, desire, is what keeps music church for me and it might just be why I struggle with the institutional expressions of church/religion. It lacks melancholy and therefore, for me, it lacks the one ingredient that makes it vital, necessary. As Richard Kearney has written, melancholy brings us to the limits of reason--which for me is ultimately the place where communion with the sacred truly begins. Guardini declares that melancholy issues from 'the very ruptured depths of human nature whose disquietude is a sign of the eternal.' So there's that.
The other thing with regard to this statement is that I too have a name (much lesser of course), a voice, a role, that is public, that is performance--in academia and establishment--and both are difficult. I have spent a long time attempting to merge both public and private voice, and that hasn't proven easy--there are some serious obstacles in both environments that have to do with assumptions, perceptions etc. and I think I have spent way too much time trying to be 'heard' rather than judged or analyzed or critiqued--and I don't mean that in a 'victimy' way, I just mean that the liberation of a musical voice is that it is 'otherness,' the melancholic preoccupation, is almost a given,whereas in the church/theological worlds I inhabit it tends to be viewed as something peripheral, again, at least in my own experience which is the only perspective I can hold with deep conviction. Part of this is the need to find one's audience--not something that I have been too good at, I seem to have been capable of putting myself in environments, that, for want of a better word, are more conservative in both perspective and practice than I, which then heralds tensions and troubles, both great and small. The 'gesture' voice, the public voice for the performance of theology and religion, is one that I have spent many years working on. I came across a quote from John Wesley that every (man) should strive to be a voice and not an echo, which is lifework and maturity, but once the process of discovery has begun that voice then has to find it's hearing and that I'm still working on--not that people don't listen, or that I even need them to, I need to hear my voice in its right place in both inside and outside.
System to the Sacred
"Cave's sacred is part prophetic Jesus, part Father in the Christian tradition, part Old testament force of retribution, part metonym for human love and sexual energy, part violent power with unknown capabilities, part absence, part extension of the Cave ego. Is there a system to Cave's sacred?" Lyn McCredden.
Does my 'system of the sacred' fit? Fit in the containers I attempt to put it in? Fit in the worlds I seek to express it in? Yes and no, that's probably true of all systems I imagine, but before that perhaps I have to ask if I even have a system? Or if I even know what it is. Increasingly I do--it is not the same as Cave's but there are crossovers for sure. What I cherish particularly about Cave's work is that it is both church in and of itself and it often addresses the other church in my existence--the institutional religion of Christianity--and I sense affinity between he and I on many things not least of which is his conviction that institutional religion is more often than not an unhelpful container. But he is out of it, and I am in it. Am I better or worse for that positioning? Lately, I have been feeling that I am completely fucked by it--it has been my working life--which raises complex issues of material need versus vocational practice-desire, sublimation, games without frontiers in some ways--but it is a continual source of concern, worry, a beast that refuses to be tamed and wants to eat my heart out at times, or at least that's how it feels. And of course, it could just be that it is not a suitable container for me, for my system of the sacred, as I realize that it is still viable for many people--and I don't mean this to be a broadside moan about church etc. I am speaking purely of myself. I am not sure it is necessary to state fully, or as fully as I able, my system, but I can say that after many years I find that much of it is not the system others around me are working from, and that's fine, but ...
"how can inspiration or for that matter God be moral?" Cave's question resonates deeply. I am sick of moralizing religioisity, sorry just am, I find it completely unhelpful, unimaginative, constricting, inadequate, shallow, easy--do I believe in morality? Of course, but morality that has been rooted essentially in reason doesn't work for me and that is what I encounter much of the time.
I remember musical moments perhaps more than any other, they are inscribed on my heart in a way that other encounters are not, it has always been that way for me--they are the ritual experiences personal and public that have shaped me in deep and abiding ways--I find myself in music, I find others, I sometimes find god-although 'finding god' has never been my primary preoccupation, maybe when it comes down to it, as Jack Caputo says, God doesn't exist, God insists, and music might just be the principal insistence conveyor for me.
(musical accompaniment to this post: trouble will find me, the national-on repeat--gorgeous)
There was a brilliant response to David Bowie's latest music video, The Next Day, from the Catholic league. Bill Donohue, president of said organization declared it the work of a "switch-hitting, bisexual senior citizen from London" that "is strewn with characteristic excess." A little dose of the pot calling the kettle black in terms of excess I think, but whenever religious or catholic images and ideas are addressed in these ways we shouldn't be surprised. On one level this video is predictable and trite--transfer sacred imagery into profane space and you have enough controversy to generate comments like those from the Catholic League.
Mieke Bal, the Dutch cultural theorist makes some key insights about Western society. She declares that there are three important considerations that must be taken into account when examining what is happening within western society. Christianity is there, meaning that it is impossible to begin to think about cultural analysis without acknowledging the theological underpinning of the western world. Secondly, Christianity is a cultural structure that informs the cultural imaginary whether one believes it or not, and finally, that Christianity is just one of the structures, it is not the only cultural structure, nor the only religious structure that underpins who we are or have come to be.
I think her theory helps to explain the ongoing appropriation of Christian imagery in contemporary culture, be it via the work of Damien Hirst or Bowie, Christianity was one of the interlocking structures that formed our world and it remains, even as a ghost in the machine if you will.
So Bowie creates a critique of religion and presents himself as a sort of 'prophet,' which is echoed by Gary Oldman in the video, and eventually 'ascends'--technically disappearing from their midst, but if we take the imagery to logical extensions that's what we are seeing realized. There are the usual madonnas, stigmatas, bishops and clergy, all of them inhabiting, perhaps running a brothel of sorts. On the one hand it is a classic and almost tired stereotypical critique of religion's hypocrisy, unfortunately it remains a prescient critique because of on-going scandals and revelations about sexual activities amongst relgious communities that claim the moral high ground with regard to sexuality and other issues in life. The video enacts a sort of battle between the sacred and the profane and perhaps raising questions as to whether or not the truly sacred is the profane.
The treatment for the video apparently came from Bowie himself but was realized with the help of photogrpaher and director Floria Sigismondi, who has worked with a lot of edgy musicians--Marilyn Manson, Bjork, The Cure, as well as more mainstream artists like Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry. She has a signature style, developed out of her art and sculptural interests which she defines as "entropic underworlds inhabited by tortured souls and omnipotent beings," much of which could be seen in this video. The collapse of sacred and prfoane boundaries can be provocative stuff by itself, when it gets charged erotically, as in the case of this video, you can see why people might get incensed.
Like much of the rest of America I am a fan of Thrift Shop, the catchy song about wearing other people's clothes by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Talk about a catchy hook and when you combine that with a funny video..well you have a massive hit. I've read a couple of interviews with Macklemore and he seems to be an interesitng man on a very wild ride, attempting to deal with addictions in the midst of a wild ride on the fame train. This song is another from their debut album and has managed to garner over 30 million plays on You Tube--I think it is really beautiful and poignant--particularly so as it addresses an issue that is just beginning to be re-addressed in the world of rap and hip-hop which is well known for its rampant homophobia. The song essentially addresses two groups--certain christians who interpret scripture in a way that castigates and condemns people based on gender orientation, and the hip-hop community that does the same.
Mary Lambert, the Seattle-based song-writer who has worked with M+RL on their songs and videos, wrote the beautiful hook for Same Love in a couple of hours. What is interesting is that she used to attend Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Mark Driscolls neo-conservative mega-church, widely known for its' leaders extreme views on gender roles and pretty much everything else. The echoing line at the end of the song, "not crying on Sundays" and Lambert said that it came from here experiences at the church. She has said that she didnt think the church was hateful, just that they clearly thought being gay was a sin, and because she was, Lambert would find herself returning home from church upset and constantly apologizing to God for being who she was. Liberation came when she realized that a loving God wouldn't condemn her for being herself.
Laura Mvula--you should buy this album its beautiful.
"Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds," declares William Shakespseare in Sonnet 94. I was going to use this as the starting place for some of my thinking at the Idolatry of God event in Belfast. Pete had written to me and outlined some ideas for conversations around the idea of death and decay. Well, who would you turn to first for thoughts on death and particualrly decay but WS? He can be a starting place for many issues pertaining to material existence and death is one he handles well. The idea of rotting lilies in this sonnet, one of the 'fair youth' series, which explores his love for a young man, is aimed at the thought that the fairest things are meant to remain fair always, but the surprise is often that those things which seem so fair and beautiful can, when they begin to decay, smell far worse than the things we expect to stink--if you've ever let flower water go unchanged for a while, you'll understand the reference.
I was going to stretch this thought and use it to encompass a conversation about church/religion/belief, and the surprise to many, that our experience of it can, and actually must, undergo a decay, if there is to be any hope of something other in terms of the sacred experience. This is a necessary part of the death process--as Pete himself says, decay is a must--the structure is enacting the death, or words to that effect. The rotting, the festering is the post-death move--its where things really start to smell, to challenge the senses. For me it represents a key theological move, one in which the death is only the beginning of a new process. I think that often the death of god/radical theology movement is viewed as a completely nihilisitc affair--it may be for some but as Dylan declares, for me, death is not the end. More on all this later, just finding moments here and there in the meantime, Here's a very decayed version of Dylans song featuring Cave, McGowan and Minogue:).