Throwback Thursday – “Constellations” by August Burns Red

Constellations by August Burns Red

Raw energy.  Pure passion.  Uncompromising philosophy.  These are the things that filled my ears when I first heard Constellations by August Burns Red.  I was a tepid fan by this point in 2009, having heard a little of their earlier work, but this album blew me away.  Seldom had I heard such technicality married with such delivery.  Most importantly, this album came at a time that I and some of my friends were struggling with questions of ultimate meaning.

It was at this point in my life that I was exposed to many of the voices of the “new Atheist” community.  Though I was sure of my convictions and certain of my faith, their largely-scientific attacks tested my worldview.  Being the logical person I am, things have to make sense to me.  I have no choice but to admit if a view I espouse doesn’t hold water.  Tracks like “Rationalist” and “Thirty and Seven” reminded me that a worldview not anchored in something outside itself is futile.  I don’t know if vocalist Jake Luhrs was going through similar struggles at the time, but his words emboldened and solidified me during that period.  In “Rationalist” he proclaims to the militant scoffer that everyone puts their faith in something:

All that is real is blurred by your notion of reality
Nothing is real
Color is black, is white, is color blind
Tucking away what’s true, what’s tangible

You skeptic, you. You believe in unbelief
You skeptic, you. Now you’re the hypocrite

In “Meddler” he opines:

If everything’s relative
Then why the emptiness in our souls?

Profound lyrics aside, this album is a masterpiece.  This was the work that vaulted August Burns Red into my top five favorite bands.  The drumming is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  The guitars, while not overly complex, battle in each song, taking unexpected turns and jerking the listener through interesting sonic rides.  There are just enough quiet passages amid the aggression to stave off monotony, and I can’t help but headbang when the powerful breakdowns thunder.  In short, it is the kind of album that defines the metalcore genre for me, and it has garnered dozens of listens for me over the years.

I acknowledge that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Constellations addresses deep questions with unwavering commitment to truth and incredible musicianship along the way.  You can find the roaring tracks and intriguing artwork of Constellations on Spotify and Amazon.

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Thoughts on “The Ethics of Paul” by Morton Scott Enslin

The Ethics of Paul by Morton Scott Enslin

I can tell a book is somewhat obscure when there aren’t any publisher photos on Google image search.  I can tell a book is over my head when there is a Greek, Hebrew, or Latin word on almost every page.  Both were the case with this book, yet I really enjoyed it.

Enslin was a relatively unknown biblical scholar and author in the twentieth century.  That said, this book itself is quite old compared to what I normally read, but that’s part of its charm.  Because the author is writing about the first century, the content is more or less timeless.  He goes to great lengths to compare the writings of Paul with contemporary teachers from various philosophical schools such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, and also with Eastern mystical cults which were prevalent at the time.  I actually found this intriguing. From a certain perspective, some may feel this undermines the writings of Paul and early Christian thought in general, but Enslin is quick to point out that co-existence of ideas or expressions does not imply dependence.

Truthfully, I learned as much about the competing ethical systems and their writers as I did about the views of Saint Paul.  Many Stoic themes, such as “standing firm” in values, find parallels in the Pauline epistles of the New Testament, but they fall short of the glorious, eternal view brought by the Gospel.  To the Stoic, pursuing virtue in this life was the reward in itself, challenging though it was.  To the Christian, it is a testimony to usher in the perfect age to come.  Similarities with mystic cults were not as striking to me.  Many stress the apprehension of some “secret knowledge” as the means of initiation and salvation, though I found it a little more difficult to draw out these facets of early Christianity in what Paul wrote.  Regardless, the modern reader with access to the full cannon of scripture can easily see that, while Christianity does involve pondering some mysterious truths such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, it did not borrow these ideas wholesale from contemporary religions.

One of the most striking points for me was the emphasis on the Jewish background of Paul in his ethical system.  Hailing from Tarsus, he would have likely been familiar with many aspects of Greek thought, but he was a Jew from birth until death.  For him, religion and ethics were inseparable.  For the Greek, this was not the case.  For sons of Abraham, God was the basis for all virtue.  Again, this stands in contrast to the Stoic for whom reason was the ultimate basis for that which was considered virtuous.

It can be seen in some passages that Paul borrowed literary devices and catch phrases from his contemporary settings.  While some point to this as evidence that he patterned his ethics after those already in place, the subtleties indicate otherwise.  Often he would use an expression found in Stoic writing, but twist it ever-so-slightly.  Other times he employed lists of vices to be shunned (e.g. hatred, malice, jealousy) or virtues to pursue (e.g. love, joy, peace), only partially overlapping with sets commonly known in Greek culture.  It was the differences that set Christianity apart from every other.

Enslin goes into great detail covering many facets unique to Paul’s ethics, including his emphasis on unity of believers, motivation by love, and paradoxical expectation of joy in the face of hardship.  The contrasts drawn out in each chapter served to further distance the apostle’s thought from the other systems until the uniqueness of Christianity stood apparent.  It was a rather long book for me, and definitely one intended for the scholar, based on the copious footnotes and usage of in-line Greek and Hebrew.  I’m certain I missed some of the richness of the text by lacking knowledge of those languages, but the overall message of each section was easily comprehensible.

I would recommend this book to anyone desiring a deeper understanding of the world in which Paul lived and wrote.  I learned much about the competing ethical systems in the first century, including parts that I admire and agree with, even if they fall short of the truth of the Gospel.  You can find The Ethics of Paul at a used book store or borrow it from me, because apparently it’s not even on Amazon.

Stages of Grief in The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead

My roommate and I are seriously hooked on the series The Walking Dead.  Personally, I have more of a connection to it than any show since 24, which is strange because I don’t often enjoy television enough to become invested.  This show, however, is different.  On top of the action and drama, the writers do an incredible job of drawing out the complex psychological and sociological implications of living in a zombie apocalypse.  It sounds like a joke, but let me explain.

Early on in the series, my roommate pointed out how strange it was that people didn’t want to kill their loved ones who had become zombies, even if the act were self-defense.  Many of them had seen their family members die, only to reanimate as a mindless, bloodthirsty creature. Then he realized that the stages of grief could not apply in such a dissonant world.  When someone dies, but they sort of come back, at least bodily, what do we do with that?

Psychologists generally accept that when we lose someone we care about, we go through certain stages, at least if we are to get over the tragedy.  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance mark the path often taken to process the situation.  With this in mind, it’s intriguing to see how the characters in the show respond to loss.

Many times, we meet someone who is stuck in denial.  They refuse to believe that their loved one is gone, that they do not inhabit the shell their body has become, lively though it is.  Some of the most disturbing scenes arise from this mental block.  Characters go to extreme lengths to preserve their now-zombie kin and friends, even in the face of evidence that the one they love no longer exists.  Woven through the story are subtle questions about what constitutes life, what defines an individual, and whether the spirit lives on apart from the body.  I love when anyone encourages reflection on these issues in today’s culture.

Interestingly, some characters progress beyond denial when confronted with evidence, but in a world so fraught with danger, they often jump straight to depression or acceptance.  The former have every reason to despair given the bleak state of the world, particularly after a personal loss.  The latter hurdle the middle steps almost as if an adaptation to the new mode of life, survival at all costs.  Even in scenarios where acquaintances die in a manner where they don’t become zombies themselves, the best case is that those grieving can catch their breath long enough to quickly process before the next threat to their safety arises.  Over and over again, the groups we follow have to cope with grief of both kinds.

A select few so far have remained in the anger stage, lashing out at anything and anyone in an attempt to regain power in a landscape where all are largely powerless.  This almost always becomes their demise, as their rage leads them to take more and more risks.  Aggression is a means of control, and as control slips away, the cycle generates even more anger.  From that perspective, it may seem that these characters regress to more primitive ways of thinking, not even operating on a level which has to process the emotions involved in loss.  In that case, do they begin to lose their humanity altogether?

The excellent writing causes the viewer to wonder, “Why do some go one way and some another?  And what would I do if I were in that situation?”  To me, that is what makes each episode worth watching.  It’s a show about zombies, yes, but it’s even more a show about people, what differentiates us, and how we would respond to such incredible stress, both as individuals and as groups.

You can catch The Walking Dead on AMC, Amazon, or Netflix.

Throwback Thursday – “Vheissu” by Thrice

Vheissu by Thrice

 I have a confession to make.  For a long time, I was probably too closed-minded about the music I listened to.  From some time in high school until about 2008, I would only listen to music if it was labeled as “Christian.”  While there are certainly pluses to this approach, and I still have no desire to listen to filth, I undoubtedly passed by a few bands which were well worth my time.  Thrice is one of those bands.  Being a fan of alternative rock as I was, I had heard their name for a while.  I assumed they were like any other post-hardcore band and sung about the same types of things.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the beginning of my senior year of college, I joined a band with some friends who had moved to Nashville in order to focus on their music.  All of these guys were fans of this band, Thrice.  We even covered a Thrice song at a show or two.  It wasn’t until the following spring that I took a serious look at the band.  What I discovered blew my mind.

I will note that the album featured in this Throwback Thursday was actually released in 2005.  (I was a little behind the times.)  Inspired by the song “Red Sky,” which was one of the songs we covered, I ordered Vheissu used from half.com.  Upon the first listen, I was enthralled as track after track delved into deep philosophical and spiritual topics.  Was that a… did he just quote the Bible?  This song sounds like it’s about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  This song is definitely about the betrayal of Christ.  What on earth?  Who are these guys?  How is this not labeled a Christian band?

Turns out avoiding that label was a decision the band consciously made.  The focus of the songs just happened to be what was close to the heart of front-man Dustin Kensrue.  And the dude just happened to hold the same world view and intellectual struggles I did.  So for that spring, Vheissu was in heavy rotation in my music library.  The styles range from heavy and passionate to somber and longing.  Each track is painstakingly crafted with a level of detail and complexity which I admire, and the lyrics are nothing short of amazing.  One of my favorites is “Of Dust and Nations.”

So put your faith
In more than steel
Don’t store your treasures up
With moth and rust
Where thieves break in and steal

Pull the fangs
From out your heel
Oh we live in but a shadow of the real

Furthemore, the cohesion of the album is among the best I’ve ever heard as the band addresses the question, “Who are you?”, a true analysis of the human condition and why we are here.  Even today this album is in my top ten.  Every once in a while, I will be listening and suddenly be taken back to that fresh Nashville spring before I was launched into adulthood, the words of Thrice echoing in my ears.  You can find this deep, post-hardcore masterpiece on Spotify or Amazon
.

Throwback Thursday – “Celebrate Mistakes” by Number One Gun

Celebrate Mistakes by Number One Gun

It’s not that the music I listened to before was simple, but when I first heard the song “On & On,” I couldn’t wrap my head around what was going on.  There was some kind of weird timing thing in the verse.  The song had several dynamic shifts from beginning to end.  It didn’t end with a big chorus and a power chord ringing out, but a build up which suddenly stops.  I was enthralled, listening to the radio as I vacuumed the pool at Worthington Crossing condominiums for my summer job.  This was my first exposure to Number One Gun, an emo-rock band from Chico, CA.

As with most albums in this stage of my life, I had to wait for the actual CD.  (Nostalgic side note: I kind of miss that.)  I felt a certain degree of indie cool points because not even Best Buy would carry this release from the small label Floodgate Records; I had to order it from a small Christian music site.  At last, the envelope appeared in my mailbox in mid-August. I sat and listened to it all the way through, following along in the liner notes.

While the music I enjoyed up to this point was not bland or boring, there was emotion in the vocals I was not familiar with.  Jeff Schneeweis sung of the typical fare, but also of deeper life questions while dueling guitars carried complimentary melodies underneath.  The drumming wasn’t always straight-forward, unlike most of the pop-punk I held so dear.  In short, the music felt just as youthful and passionate, but somehow more mature than what I was used to.  There was a pensive and reflective side in the midst of the energy, as is evident in the title track.

One of these days I’ll find a way
To celebrate all my mistakes
Falling over just to show You I’m alive

Could it be so bad
To follow all these dreams I’ve had
And use them for Your glory
And turn around my face
So what’s that fear to fall away

I remember many drives home from school that fall in my ’96 Jetta, soaking in my new-found favorite band.  While still youthful by most standards, I believe Number One Gun opened the door for me to enjoy more complex and mature music, both in composition and theme.  The epic bridge of the lead single still holds a special place in my heart after all these years.

Because it was released on such a small label, you can find the now-classic emo-rock of Celebrate Mistakes only on Amazon.

Review of the To Write Love On Her Arms Heavy and Light Tour in Nashville

To Write Love on Her Arms Heavy and Light Tour

Last night, a couple of friends and I headed out to see the Heavy and Light tour, sponsored by To Write Love On Her Arms.  The 16-city tour is spanning the states featuring a slew of well-known acoustic acts which vary throughout its duration.

We saw the stop in Nashville at the sold-out Cannery Ballroom, a medium-sized venue.  When we arrived a little after the show began, an acoustic duo was on the stage.  While I truthfully never figured out who they were, I believe it was Noah Gunderson.  They performed well for their style, somewhat upbeat acoustic diddys.  As their set continued, I quickly noticed how dead the room was.  Though packed to capacity, there wasn’t much energy.  I don’t believe this was the artist’s fault, however.  A crowd of 1,000 may be too large for the stripped-down acoustic sound the tour features.  More on that later.

Next up was Bryce Avary of The Rocket Summer fame.  I wasn’t familiar with any of his music except for a couple of singles I heard on Radio U years ago.  He practically did his entire set solo, which was, at times, quite impressive.  Utilizing a sound looper, he constructed layered renditions of his own songs and some covers, even beat-boxing at times to add percussion.  It was interesting and entertaining, but again it felt like it wasn’t quite enough to get the crowd going.  By the end of his set, I remembered how much I enjoyed his voice, and I’d really like to see him again, either in a smaller setting or with a full-band.

Something unique I failed to mention is that during set changes, a variety of speakers addressed the audience.  This may have been one of my favorite aspects of the show.  To Write Love On Her Arms is an organization which encourages people who are struggling to seek help with their problems, whether it’s depression, addiction, anxiety, or any number of issues modern man seems to face.  Throughout the evening, a former addict shared his story of redemption, a poet spun hopeful words, and one of the founders of To Write Love On Her Arms told the story behind their work.  Because I believe music and meaning are closely related, I really enjoyed how the message and the music entwined, even if they stopped short of endorsing a Christ-centered community.

Aaron Gillespie, formerly of UnderOath, took the stage third.  I was quite excited to see him live, as I loved the acoustic-based songs from “Southern Weather” by The Almost, his then side project.  He played a solid set of originals and covers, punctuated by his strong, passionate voice.  My personal favorite had to be “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape” from UnderOath circa 2004.  He sort of lost me with his Bruce Springsteen and U2 covers toward the end, but overall it was great to see him on stage again, even if he wasn’t behind the drums.  Closing with “Amazing Because It Is,” an original borrowing lines from a classic hymn, Gillespie brought a certain reverence to the room.  It was one of the best moments of the evening, in my opinion.

Lastly, the headliner Jon Foreman took the stage.  While he gained notoriety as the front-man of Switchfoot, I think he is just as well-known for his solo releases and Fiction Family, a collaboration with Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek.  There’s no question that Foreman is a gifted songwriter and musician.  Even performing solo, he got the room to come alive.  Shortly into the set, the Fiction Family band joined him for the remainder of the show.  I wasn’t personally familiar with the group or their songs, but simply having a full band on stage kept the energy high until the end.  Watkins exhibited some impressive guitar leads, and Foreman’s sister, apparently a Nashville resident, joined him for a couple of tunes.  For the final song, every artist from the tour came on stage, swaying back and forth, singing about love.  It felt a little more hippie than I’m used to, but it was a nice touch.  In case there was any question how much peace and love was in the room, the encore included “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young, a true classic.

Overall, it was a great tour with a solid lineup, hindered only by the large size of the venue.  With a more intimate setting, I believe it could be an unforgettable evening.  If you get a chance to see the Heavy and Light Tour in a smaller venue in your city, check it out and support a great cause in the process.

Throwback Thursday – “Tonight the Stars Speak” by The Glorious Unseen

Tonight the Stars Speak by The Glorious Unseen

It was spring of 2007.  I was hanging out at the Frothy Monkey coffee shop, working on some thing or another.  I had seen some chatter on MySpace (yep) about this band called The Glorious Unseen.  I assumed they played heavy music since some of my favorite hardcore bands were the ones touting them.  When I finally visited their page, I was not expecting the wave of ambient worship which washed through my headphones.

As I sat and listened to the three or four songs available for streaming, it instantly grew on me.  Before this, the only types of worship I knew were acapella hymns or upbeat, pop-rock anthems.  But this was different.  It was pensive and honest, not glossing over the realities of life.  While the music was not overly technical, it had incredible depth which bore the weight of the lyrics.  By the time I reached  “Close to Your Heart,” the final track, I knew I would order the album when it was released.

You look down from Heaven
And melt me with Your gaze
Then You down from Heaven
And wrap me in Your wings

And it makes me feel loved again
So close in Your arms
And it makes me feel home again
So close to Your heart

When I finally got the full album in the fall of 2007, it landed squarely in the midst of my fear and uncertainty about the future.  I knew that in less than a year I would be bidding farewell to my favorite phase of life as I finished college.  I let this fact keep me from connecting with anything or anyone at a deep level.  What was the point when it would quickly come to an end?  The songs from Tonight the Stars Speak carried me through that season, the longing and lamenting melodies lifting my prayers from so many late-night walks and coffee shop journaling sessions.  Though many have copied their style over the years, The Glorious Unseen will always have a special place in my heart, particularly the title track from this release.

How long
Til Your voice speaks clearly
How long
Til Your arms envelop me
I cry
Be my strength when I am weak
O Lord
Have mercy on me please

You can find the ambient, vulnerable worship of  Tonight the Stars Speak on Amazon
or Spotify.