When evil seems to win – a Good Friday reflection

Smoldering Wick

When it comes to participating in religious traditions, I often struggle to “feel the right things.”  I’m not much of a feeler by nature.  My faith is a solid framework through which to view the world as much as anything else.  It’s how reality makes sense to me, and it may or may not always invoke strong emotions, for better or worse.  Yet, I still seek to appreciate the liturgical traditions which have been celebrated by my brothers and sisters through the ages.  If countless others have found the practices valuable, I would feel like somewhat of a fool to dismiss them wholesale.

It is from this frame of reference that I went to a Good Friday service tonight.  It wasn’t liturgical in the exact sense of the word, but it was an observance of the Christian calendar nonetheless.  While sitting in the audience, attempting to focus my thoughts and feel the appropriate response to the sacrifice of Jesus, something the leader said struck me.  He asked us to reflect on how we had given up hope.  That was when it hit me.

This Good Friday in particular found me in a place where I honestly had begun to give up hope that the Kingdom of God would come on earth as it is in Heaven.  Events of the week had left me feeling as if evil had prevailed, that it would have the last word.  I had a small taste of what Jesus’s followers must have felt that night after seeing him brutally killed and buried.  The principalities and powers had won.  Humanity had seen the beauty of Jesus yet rejected his lordship, abhorred his teachings, and despised his perfection.  His flawless nature so enraged them that they not only plotted his murder, but ensured a torturous and humiliating death.  Is this not the story of our world today?  Is this not only the story of those who vocally hate Christ, but also all of us who throw him to the mob so we can do as we please?  As soon as I see the glaring brokenness in the world which seeks to extinguish the True Light, I am reminded of my own contributions to the fallen state in which we live.  It seems hopeless.  How can the Kingdom ever come and redeem it all?

If this truly were the end, there would be no reason to hope.  Evil would have triumphed and guaranteed the downward spiral of man into destruction.  But we have the benefit of knowing that it’s not the end of the story.  The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.  Though darkness may gain ground in cultures, governments, and nations, the Kingdom of Heaven is forcefully advancing.  Though some led astray by the enemy may seethe with hatred at what is pure, we need not fear those who can destroy the body.  One day all things will be made right, all things will be made new, and we are to bear witness to this coming truth.

So this Good Friday I’m reminded that no matter what victories evil may claim in a week, or a year, or a lifetime, the redemption of all things is assured.  The price is paid, Sunday is coming, and that changes everything.

Throwback Thursday – “Sleep Well When You Get There” by Monument Monument

Sleep Well When You Get There by Monument Monument

Hardly anyone has heard of this band, but that’s fine.  I honestly don’t know much about them myself except for this free EP I heard about in August 2008.  I remember it well.  I was staying at my sister’s house, applying for jobs after college and making good use of their high-speed Internet.  I saw a MySpace bulletin (yep) advertising a free download of a six-song EP from an emo outfit in Michigan.  I was skeptical, but I had the time to burn, so I gave it a shot.  I was pleasantly surprised.

Monument Monument creates a mellow mix of keys, melodious guitar parts, falsetto vocals, and tasteful-yet-not-boring percussion.  The lyrics are unabashedly romantic and a bit over-the-top at times, but don’t we all need that occasionally?  The six songs on Sleep Well When You Get There speak almost exclusively to the object of the writer’s affection.  Sometimes he tries to woo her, others he tries to reassure her, and yet others he pines for her, but almost always it is a purely amorous endeavor.  I must admit that, at the time I encountered this album, I had mixed feelings about a female acquaintance of mine.  When I was feeling more optimistic about the direction of our relationship, I would listen to this album, even while acknowledging its unsteady and foolish qualities.

The EP was independently produced and released, which is impressive considering the quality of the recordings.  The sound has a depth that is almost always lacking on small-budget efforts, and the talent the members exhibit makes me wonder why they never did much more.  They even add the touch of choral arrangements on a couple of songs, which gives them a slightly cinematic feel.  From what I can tell, they remained mostly a regional act, fading slowly as the members moved on with their lives, as is the tale of many good bands.  These songs don’t really break any new ground, but they are well done and heartfelt tunes for those not acquainted with the mainstream, even if the music itself is unusually pop-friendly for my tastes.

The end of the story is that the situation confusing my heart during that tumultuous summer shortly resolved itself.  I can’t help but wonder if the music the band wrote was also for a particular season in their lives and the need for such an outlet also waned with time.

Forget the things that we can’t change
And sleep well when you get there, babe

You can find the smooth sounds of Sleep Well When You Get There at monumentmonument.com where it is still available for a free download.

Thoughts on “More Than Dates and Dead People” by Stephen Mansfield

More Than Dates and Dead People by Stephen Mansfield

Though I’ve had the opportunity to hear him speak a couple of times, I had only read one Stephen Mansfield book before this one.  I enjoyed the historical perspective of The Search for God and Guinness, so I picked up this short work on one of my trips to McKay used books in Nashville.  It quickly became apparent that this book was written for students, but I still gleaned some interesting insights.

It begins by talking about what history is and why it is relevant.  In an early section explaining the importance of studying history, Mansfield points out an inconsistency in the worldview of most public education in the West.   “If evolution provides the philosophy we use to understand the past (and it does, because evolution is the official public school explanation for what exists), then it only makes sense that history is going to seem like a silly thing to learn” (8).  The validity of such curriculum aside (seriously, please don’t hone in on this one point), he raises an interesting observation.  There is often hubris in modern man, believing that we are much smarter and more advanced than those who came before us simply because we have technology.  What, then, could we possibly have to learn from the dumb people who lived long ago?  If we are their more fit descendants who have survived, nothing.  No wonder many kids educated in our public schools have no interest in history.  They are being taught conflicting principles.  When taken in the context of the biblical story, however, history has an intentional beginning and an end toward which all things flow.  From this perspective, it has great value.

Mansfield then looks at several key periods in Western history through the lens of Christianity.  He examines the stories of the Mayflower, the Titanic, Pocahontas, the nanny of Winston Churchill, the Logan County Revivals, and the 1960s in the United States.  I was hoping to glean some little-known facts about the times he covers, though I didn’t come away with anything significant for the most part.  Also, while I have great respect for Mansfield, I was concerned at his view of some historical events.  In one passage, he alludes to Christopher Columbus, giving quite a flattering account of how he brought the Gospel to America.  While that’s technically true, I believe most historians also acknowledge that he slaughtered many of the native peoples he encountered.  It’s because Mansfield usually has his facts straight that such one-sided views concern me.  Perhaps there wasn’t enough space in the pages of this short work to expound on the whole story.

By the end, the greatest take-away for me was the idea “Every generation is living in the wake of the generation that precedes it” (33).  This didn’t quite strike me until the section of the book covering the 1960s.  It’s no secret that the decade spawned several cultural revolutions in the United States, some more constructive than others.  Mansfield details the downward spiral of culture initiated by a backlash against authority.  The message of popular music (yes, including the Beatles) became one of hedonism.  Drug use and promiscuity increased with each passing year, buoyed by clever catch-phrases.  Protest against any and all authority, justified or not, became vogue.  Altogether these movements together comprised the “counterculture.”

Surprising to me were the connections to the occult and demonic woven through so many of the events of the day.  In 1966 Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan which aligned perfectly with the zeitgeist of self-absorption.  Many became swept up in his and other such movements, perhaps more for the rebellious shock value than anything else.  They may not have known the evil with which they dabbled.  The book notes how LaVey became an icon who had access to many of the culture-makers of the day including Sammy Davis, Jr., Jane Mansfield, The Rolling Stones, and later The Eagles.  While it is questionable whether such celebrities took the spiritual power of LaVey seriously, Mansfield believes it opened a door to the demonic in popular culture which has yet to be shut.  Still, the fruits of the counterculture quickly bore witness to its dark influences.  Charles Manson and his followers were members of the movement, and many of its front-runners died of drug overdoses or other excesses.  The “anything goes” attitude led to unbridled debauchery, manipulation, and violence, truly a picture of what happens when mankind forsakes all authority, particularly God’s.  This is the wake in which my generation is living..

Overall, I’m glad it was a short book, and I consider it worth reading for the brief analysis on historical study and the insights into the culture of the 1960s.  You can find More Than Dates and Dead People – Recovering a Christian View of History on Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “Define the Great Line” by UnderOath

Define the Great Line by UnderOath

The summer of 2006 was, undoubtedly, one of the best times of my life.  I worked part-time for Sandy’s Pool Service, Begin Again was playing shows around Central Ohio, and UnderOath released the masterpiece Define the Great Line.

From the grungy opening riff, I knew this wasn’t quite the same band that tread pop-core territory with They’re Only Chasing Safety, and I loved it.  This wasn’t much of a surprise, however.  UnderOath was the band that first drew me across the line from hard rock into hardcore territory with regards to heavy music.  I pre-ordered the album well in advance, intrigued by the artwork of desolation.  When my special edition finally arrived in the mail one June day after work, I immediately took it upstairs and listened to it from beginning to end, leafing through the liner notes.

That collection of passionate and original songs became the soundtrack to that near-perfect summer.  The inventive drumming kept me hooked.  I blared the singable parts as I drove through warm, humid nights, straining with all my might to belt out the high notes as powerfully as Aaron Gillespie.  I was enthralled by the complex song structures weaving technical guitar parts, jarring dissonance, brutal vocals, and electronic atmosphere.  In short, these were songs I knew I could never write, and that is what kept me mesmerized well into the autumn.  What’s more, the flow of music provided one of the most cohesive albums I had ever heard.  There’s a fine line between songs that sound too similar and those that can transition seamlessly.  Appropriately, UnderOath finds the near-perfect balance.

When it comes to lyrics, they are somewhat vague, as is the norm for the band.  This would be a con for me without knowing the worldview of the members, but because it’s public knowledge that they profess faith in Jesus, deeper meaning can be drawn from the cryptic phrases.  Themes from personal struggle and doubt to mourning the choices of a friend permeate the soundscape, as ominous as the scenes in the album art.

The sounds of Define the Great Line still transport me back to road trips, an ideal summer, and a more youthful version of myself.  What’s more, many consider it the crowning achievement of UnderOath’s career.  I tend to agree.  It signifies an era of creative and unpredictable music which seems to have faded lately, and because of that, it has a place in my top ten albums.

You can find the innovative, genre-essential screamo of Define the Great Line on Spotify or Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “Sometimes” by City and Colour

Sometimes by City and Colour

As I write these posts, I’m focusing more on hitting different scenes in my life than evenly covering the genres I enjoy.  This particular album just happens to kill two birds with one stone.  I first heard Dallas Green when a friend sent me a link to a Purevolume page with a couple of acoustic demos he had done.  Despite my hesitation about artists who release music under their own name, I gave it a listen.  I was enamored.

Dallas Green, who later began releasing music under the moniker City and Colour, painted exactly the kind of acoustic music I had been searching for, though I didn’t know it.  Yes, I appreciated the sometimes-mellow, sometimes-raucous emo of Dashboard Confessional, but this was incredibly deeper, even while addressing the same topic.  I kept those two poignant demos in my music library for years, not knowing Dallas had released a full-length album.  Fast forward to the early spring of 2010 when I finally got my hands on Sometimes.  As life had begun to peek out of the frozen world around me, relationship troubles had left a wake in my recent past. I came across this collection of songs that, to me, are the epitome of acoustic songwriting.

Over the course of ten tracks, Dallas reflects on many issues surrounding relationships from many perspectives, all while staying firmly planted in mature composition and lyricism.  His clear and powerful voice wanders then soars amid complex acoustic guitar parts which never rely on bland, over-used chords.  Unlike the early demos, the album has a bit of polish and production, though not enough to distract from the personal, singer-songwriter feel.  I admit that the lyrics don’t tread into weighty or eternal matters on this release, but considering the subject, the diction and focus of the songs leave the average work of this type in the dust.  For example, in the title track he questions his beloved while simultaneously exploring the nature of true love:

If I was a simple man
Would we still walk hand-in-hand?
If I suddenly went blind
Would you still look in my eyes?
What happens when I grow old
And all my stories have been told?
Will your heart still race for me
Or will it march to a new beat?
If I was a simple man

The rest of the songs similarly balance the emotions of romance with somber introspection.  They are mostly slow, deliberate, and crafted as they reveal the writer’s heart in some of the most intimate sonic settings I’ve ever heard.  I cherish this album in particular since City and Colour took a turn toward more of a folk sound in later efforts. This one is stored safely in time, a snapshot of what melancholy music should be.

You can find the soulful perfection of Sometimes on Spotify or Amazon.

Throwback Thursday – “How the Lonely Keep” by Terminal

How the Lonely Keep by Terminal

The frigid January of 2006 had me discover the somber, breathy emo rock of Terminal.  By this time, I was very much a fan of the genre, but the darker bent of this album blended perfectly with the short, frozen days of that month.  As with so many other bands, I had heard a single on RadioU in Columbus, but I waited some time to buy the album.  When I finally did, the unique vocals of Travis Bryant sucked me in.

I’ve mentioned in another post how I’m often drawn to music that I know I could never produce or perform myself.  Attempts to sing along quickly proved that I couldn’t match the range or dynamics.  Bryant often teetered the edge between emotional singing and raw yelling without ever nearing the territory of a hardcore scream.  The songwriting was interesting enough to keep me engaged, particularly the drumming.  While the tempo and feel throughout the album vary from peaceful to rocking, the completely vulnerable lyrics are the constant.  Travis doesn’t shy away from the most personal of subjects, even penning lines from a place of depression.

Somewhere in between
Here and the window pane
Life is gray
I stay
Hoping things will change

It’s been weeks
Since I’ve seen the sun
And we become
Colder in the valley
Nothing is real to me

To one with a nihilistic worldview, these could be lines of final despair, but to any believer, they become a lamentation, a cry to God not unlike those found in Psalms.  It’s easy to feel down in the most dismal days of winter.  The month I got the album was a particularly difficult and lonely one for me, bringing girl troubles, overwhelming classes, and failing dreams, among other things.  While many would have chosen more cheery music to distract from the sadness, I cherished the depth and connection with these songs, some of which perfectly expressed my heart.  So not only was this music I would not be able to perform, but in many ways it was music I could not write – not because of complexity, but because I was too afraid to do so.

Terminal was a one-and-done band with How the Lonely Keep being their only album, but that does little to diminish the work in my eyes.  To me it symbolizes a drab January in college and the power of music to express the deepest of emotions.  You can find the brutally honest emo rock of Terminal on Spotify or Amazon.

We Live In the Present

Clocks

I’ve been attempting to learn Spanish off and on the past couple of years with varied success.  One of the things I’ve done is to participate in a Spanish lunch group at work.  A colleague with a passion for the language generously teaches from a beginner book on Mondays, and we slowly make our way through the material.  The other day we were discussing upcoming curriculum, and it was decided that we would wait to learn future and past tenses of verbs.  “We live in the present,” our instructor explained, so it’s most useful to learn that tense extensively before moving on to others.

That statement struck me.  We live in the present.  While there is a lot of practical truth to what he said, I thought back to experiences getting to know native Spanish speakers.  After a few factual exchanges of “I live in the United States” and “I am twenty-six,” conversations almost always turned toward the past.  Where were you born?  Where have you traveled?  What did you study in school?  Our past experiences are such a key component to who we are that they naturally creep into conversations about the present.  Furthermore, when you get to know someone on a deeper level, the language almost always turns toward the future.  What are your dreams?  Where do you want to be in ten years?  We live in the present, but the past and future are perhaps even bigger parts of who we are.  This is true, of course, not only when speaking in foreign languages, but any time two people are getting to know each other.

These thoughts reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Blaise Pascal in his book, Pensées:

We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.

Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus, we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

While Pascal takes it to the extreme, he has a point; the past forms us into who we are today and our futures pull us toward what we will become.  It’s a double-edged sword, and we must live on the blade, in the present.  It’s difficult, but the truth is that the present is the only thing we can change.  I challenge you to take note of your conversations and thoughts the next couple of days and see just how much “we live in the present.”