Monday, December 31, 2007

God's Promise

The first Biblical book I read start to finish was Revelation. It was during a time when I was curious about Christianity and was considering using Biblical resonance to spice up my novels. At the time, I was told that it was the only book in the Bible that offers a blessing for merely reading it. Of course, all attempts to know God are blessed, and the same could be said for every verse in the Bible, but the point was that Revelation was different, that its blessing was so clearly contained in the text itself:

Revelation 1:3
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

No point in disputing those words.

However, I might contest the suggestion that the Bible doesn't make other such promises. This passage, for instance, strikes the very same chord with me:

Isaiah 49:7
This is what the LORD says—
the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—
to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation,
to the servant of rulers:
"Kings will see you and rise up,
princes will see and bow down,
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."

Why do I think that was written to non-Israelites? Many reasons. First, the word nation is not pluralized here. If you've read the book of Isaiah, that's a rare, rare thing. Most uses of that word are pluralized and used in the context of God's wrath. Here's the back story: Isaiah is a prophet who served under King Hezekiah. Most of the book of Isaiah speaks of things to come, not records of what has already been. As such, much of the text deals with the judgment God will exercise on Israel for having worshipped idol gods and committed atrocious sins. God will deliver the Israelites into the hands of many oppressors. However, because of God's covenant with Jacob/Israel, God will eventually free His people from captivity. He will be especially scornful to those who dealt unfairly with the Israelite slaves. Depending on the verse, the word nations could be used in reference to countries like Edom and Babylon, but there are times when it is used in a much wider, global context. I might be wrong, but I don't recall Isaiah using it in singular form until 49:7, and I must believe that it refers to Israel.

In verse 6, Isaiah talks about how God's Servant (presumably Christ) will also save the Gentiles. As you might know, they were long despised and abhorred by the Jews, because of political conflicts and the fact that God instructed the Jews not to intermarry or contract with them. Because God is just, He can neither abandon His chosen people nor toss away Gentiles whose hearts wish to serve Him. I believe God knew this from the beginning, that no people on earth would be perfect in His eyes. He originally chose Israel because they were descended from Noah, the man who singlehandedly saved human existence by finding God's grace amidst an entire world of evildoers.

As far as I'm concerned, for God to say such strong things to the Gentiles--that because they believe they will be greater than unjust kings and princes--there is just as much blessing in that promise as there is in Revelation. No doubt, there are some more scholarly than I who would interpret this citation differently, but Isaiah is a weird book to me. Something about it seems to have echoed through the generations, as if he saw more than just one vision and prophesied things would be relevent until the end. Such is the way God writes: timelessly.

Happy New Year!

EDIT: After reading on, I believe the him in the passage refers to Christ. Call me an egomanic, but I think all believers AKA the redeemed are contained in Christ. Refer to this:

Isaiah 53: 12
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Not to sound unappreciative or unhumble, but I must here acknowledge the living Christ inside me. I believe that God chooses all of us to be His servants. I believe God wants us all to accept the charge. This is the comfort of inviting Christ into our hearts and allowing Him to guide our lives: to accept all inherent responsibilities of living a Christian life, to make daily sacrifices and avoid temptation, but to be comforted by the fact that in so doing we liberate ourselves from within. None of us can steal this peace from God. It is offered first and accepted second. Because Christ is God, God is the Redeemer. Those chosen for redemption, i.e. those who wisely accept redemption, are the you in the first citation.

I believe that contained in Isaiah's prophecy is a promise and a blessing, just as I believe it is a commitment to honour it properly. While none of us can sacrifice on the same magnitude as Christ, we MUST commit our earthly lives to Him in exchange for heavenly ones. As I said before, it is the greatest most profitable transaction in existence, akin to trading a penny for a million mints, mints from which gold may be constantly gleaned and never emptied. To me, the greatest fools in this world are the people who look at mortal existence and refer to it as "life". This planet is a stepping stone. Those who cling to it, those who don't leap to the solid land ahead, will sink into the stream with the world that wants to destroy us.

That's why I feel like I must spread God's joyous message: Because our fate is not a sentence, not an unjust or haphazard outcome; our fate is our choice and hinges on our will. God's choice for each is for each to follow Him into His glory. But as a caring Father, He will respect the volition of each, even it leads to ruin. He will not force your hand, won't force you to serve in His kingdom.

Here's a goal for 2008: I once looked at servitude as captivity. I used to think that serving God was akin to serving man. I know better now. I know that being a vessel for Jesus Christ is the most liberating, joyous existence. That is what I must clarify in the minds of those who think like I once did. Not because I want to be aggressive in my ministry, not because I have a right to tell anyone what to do, but because God has an earnest and genuine love for every person He created. If I think any less of any one of those people, I will be locked out of His kingdom. And that, my friends, is justice unwavering. I respect it.

There is nothing I find more alluring than integrity. For all the confidence I lack in myself, for all the things I need healed and mended within my spirit, I believe in the integrity of the LORD Almighty and that a determined effort to be the person God sees in me will lead me into fearlessness. Let 2008 be the first of many years that I decide nothing for myself. May God's guiding hand type every word I write, speak every word I voice, and perform every gesture and action that graces my body. This is what I ask for in front of all who read this. Let 2007, the year that almost destroyed me, end as the year that inspired me. Let me be a living example of true restoration and healing. Let me be a lamb of God, forever and ever.

Monday, December 24, 2007

There's Nothing Partial About Christianity

Gonna keep this one short and sweet.

Too often, life for the sake of life leaves us unsatisfied. To be satisfied is to be whole, to be complete. This world is ill-suited for completeness. Everything about it comes to ruin, the tangible and the esoteric. Everything in existence but God.

God is possessed of all virtues. God is the source of all virtues. God has endless amounts of these virtues. Of His mercy, Isaiah says this:

Isaiah 9: 6-7
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, [a] Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

God's only son, sent to Earth to pay our sinful debts, that we might someday stand before God and be judged. To die so we may live. If the superlative nature of this premise is lost on you, if you can't see how these acts touch both extremes of sacrifice and forgiveness, accept my humble pity.

However, understand that all the following words, too, are maxed out. They have only on or off switches. There are no degrees of these. If you're like me, you're darned glad that's the case.


If you have a distorted image of any of those, blame this world, not God.

Merry eternal Christmas, everyone. Keep Christ in Christmas, and keep Christmas forever.

The Fine Print

This has been a year of intense discoveries about the world and myself. Some good, some bad--all needed. I genuinely believe that the course I was on in September would have led me into ruin, that this would have been the year to destroy me. But God intervened. And even though I've generally identified myself as a Christian for as long as I understood the term, I think it fair to say, in hindsight, that this is my first Christmas as a genuine believer. To call a spade a spade, Christmas had become for me a time of grief, of emphasized wrongs and vacancies in my life.

On paper, I look pretty good now. For the first Christmas ever, I don't believe the Bible is a hodgepodge of God's Word and a bunch of oppressive jargon written by clergymen. I believe it is the true Word of God, authentic and complete, a faultless canon. I haven't read it all, but I've read over half the book in less than two months. I will finish it within the next. Trust me. For the first Christmas ever, I don't believe in degrees of sin. I believe that all sin separates us from the LORD Almighty, that each sin is like a dart that pierced Christ on the cross, and that through His forgiveness we might stand before God and be judged, instead of hurled directly into the depths of hell. For the first Christmas ever, I will attend a Christmas Eve service as a man who has chosen Wesleyan principles above all identifiable vices. If you stalked me with a camera à la reality TV, you would see that I have cut illicit substances, all forms of gambling, cursing, and so on from my life. I've had opportunities to indulge in private, but it's my prerogative to look at myself in the mirror with a clear conscience, that God's lens is the one most feared, not the one with the red flashing light. On paper, I've done okay.

And yet, I wouldn't make the same assertions Job does in the Bible. My failures have been subtle, if not utterly invisible. But they've been big. In many instances, I've tried to pool from my own strength. I've tried to search for the perfect words or the perfect gestures, and my search for perfection--scratch that, my insistance of perfection--is a standard long-engrained in my self-image. My approach couldn't be more destructive, and this is where I need to be healed. This is the greatest discovery, aside from God's grace, that I've made this year. And here's how Solomon phrased it:

Ecclesiastes 7: 16
Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?

So. I guess I'd better interpret that, lest I be thought conceited. For starters, I'm neither overrighteous nor overwise. I have an Israeli friend who doesn't seem to identify himself as being very faithful, but he's assured me that English translations fall a little flat. Perhaps even modern ones, but who can say for certain? What I do believe, however, is that this is certainly a passage that means close to what it actually says. At face value, it's ludicrous. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm not identifying myself as either of those standards because they simply don't exist in humans. Solomon boasts about the virtues and advantages of righteousness and wisdom throughout Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. In other words, you can't have too much of them. What you can do is commit your life to the pursuit of knowledge, the endless pursuit thereof, and never be satisfied with it. If you set your heart at discovering the mysteries that aren't to be known to you, you will surely fail:

Proverbs 2: 6
For the LORD gives wisdom,
and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

I don't know why my mind vainly pursues answers, whether it's my own volition or a result of sheer habit, but this part of me has not yet been healed. Now, we could debate the semantics, but I'm going to share something about myself that you wouldn't so much detect in my actions unless you knew precisely what God had placed in my heart. I habitually commit what I consider to be the greatest sin as ever existed: doubt.

In doubt, we find the absence of virtues. All of them. If I were to make a chart of sin and virtue, all the ones we've come to know would be sandwiched between doubt and faith. I know it says in the New Testament that love is the greatest virtue, and perhaps that's because love can transcend Christianity. It is entirely possible to love someone with or without a knowledge of God. I would argue that God's grace is at the heart of all love, that we are so complex that we might act out things we don't intrinsically understand, but for anyone to exhibit or embody any Christian principle, one must walk the path of faith. I believe this is utterly irrefutable.

As for me, I doubt in myself all the time. Over the last two days, more than one person has said to me that the image I have of myself is very unlike what others see in me. Not only do I seek perfection, I also impose on myself what I should trust God to do on my behalf. But in many ways, knowledge is still a god to me. Observations and vicarious experience, viewed from a distance, define my life. Fear governs my life. I am clinging to invisible things that now camera could detect, and this is why I have some deeply embedded components that must change. It sounds pretty bleak, but it's certainly not as bleak as I was before I knew these things. Before I identified this about myself, I constantly waited for signs. For me to place myself in a potentially vulnerable position, I needed a more than a tangible invitation. The more impatient I grow, the more I was embittered, and the more left to my own devices. Everyone's own devices could destroy them.

Have you ever wondered why Satan is so powerful? In pop culture he's depicted as a guy that appears through a puff of smoke and makes you sign a document before handing you an artificial solution. If that was accurate to real life, I'd like to think that most of us would be able to see this as proof of God's existence and thereby take the higher road based solely on logical consideration. Instead, Satan is much stronger. He has nothing on you but doubt and your own insecurities, which he will mercilessly pit against you. That's what I've been describing here.

So I can't play the mercenary anymore; I need to be part of a body of believers. I need to understand that I'm only as weak as my doubt is strong. I'm not as unworthy as Satan has whispered in my ears. Heh, understand. No. Understanding is nothing. Living it is a much stronger declaration of faith. About a half hour ago, I thought that I needed my mind destroyed. What I really need is for someone to come along and tame it. So, if God will accept this post as my evening prayer, I need that kind of blessing. I want to be a genuine example for people. And that's why I've aired all these things about myself.

If you should find yourself reading this, and if you've accepted Christ as your personal Saviour, don't question the thoroughness or legitimacy of His sacrifice. Once your debts have been erased, don't ask where you can make a payment. Don't act as if your strength has to carry you. There is nothing made of flesh that Satan can't destroy. Just as there's no one in God's salvation that Satan could even blemish.

Forget all your logic, take the leap, and embrace the Hands that catch you. A lot of this easier said than done, though.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Context is Everything (Part 2)

There are many things I love about the Yarmouth Wesleyan church. Every one of the pastors has a unique style that injects vitality into what they preach. They also believe in being accountable to the scriptures, which is most important. These aren't just gifts; they're commitments. I've set foot in many churches that preach from the gospel, but there's a point that some of them lose with time and complacency: scripture is God's Word, not a god itself. To be complacent in one's faith is to demotivate a body of believers. The nature of this world is constantly urgent; there will never be a moment when evil relents. Them's the breaks. This is something that hasn't been lost at my church, and it's something that was readily apparent to me when I attended the Thanksgiving service a few months ago, the first time I sat through a sermon there. Not surprisingly, I walked away with a sense of fear. It would be another four days of soul-searching before I finally submitted to God, but after glimpsing His influence through the midst of the Sunday morning crowd, I felt like the guy who was about 27 years making a payment to the mafia don. Scary stuff. [Note to self: Dedicate a blog post to recounting all my near death experiences, all of which could have knocked me into an eternal grave but for God's mercy in keeping me here.]

Mayhaps you've heard someone mention that it would be nice if life came with an instruction manual. Well, it does. However, if you spend too much time with your nose pressed to the groove, you probably won't live much of what you're reading. Always remember that. Since I started reading Genesis, a day hasn't passed that I didn't read at least a few chapters in the Bible. Since I started reading the Bible, a day hasn't passed that I didn't learn something new about God and life. Not only is it just that simple, but I've noticed an increase sense of security and comfort, as well as the blessings I once would have ignored. But that all hinged on me approaching God with an open mind. It required me to understand and respect His timetable. I had to read passages and offer honest consideration to what they said before I really started to reap the benefits of a wholesome life. (And they are many, let me tell you.)

As I noted in yesterday's post, that's a stark contrast to my former attempts. Don't get me wrong; everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. As Pastor Jim would say, it's not important to agree on theology at the end of the day as long as you can say that you've sincerely prayed over the scriptures and are right with God. That understood, let's take a huge step back and remind ourselves that the Bible is a massively complex book expressed in universally relatable terms. That itself is a miracle, innit? Even the most mature and devout believers would tell you that verses only increase in relevence with time, and that they continually learn new things about passages they've read days, weeks, or years ago. (And months, sure!)

But a word of caution to the well-intended but less enlightened among us: when sharing any message from the Book, be utterly careful. A lot of us, myself included, have tried to affirm our beliefs with scripture, when in fact the proper thing to do is work the other way: base your beliefs on those passages. Otherwise, you've got yourself a recipe for corruption, if not disaster. It's widely understood that people hate hypocrisy and that churches can serve as potential dens of hypocrites. Earlier today, I was listening to a recorded Fusion service my friend Matt recently lent me. There's an interview with U2's Bono in which Bono references many instances when churches were very ungentle with regards to the public. He specifically mentioned the African AIDS crisis, that so many churches and churchgoers drove wedges between themselves and the infected. They considered all those who contracted the HIV virus as sexual deviants who were unworthy of their fellowship.

Well, my friends, let me tell you a few things about God: God hates suffering. He will call these ministers to account when they stand before Him. God has a soft spot for the poor. Even King David started his life in poverty (1 Samuel 18: 23). Hehe, I can tell I'm going to use a lot of proverbs to support my ideas, because they can't really be pigeon-holed:

Proverbs 14: 31
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

Thank you, King Solomon. That's a complete idea, and it's taken in context. There are many parts of the Bible, however, that say one thing but mean another. Some are positive and some negative. I do feel, though, that it's important to consider the real meaning behind what you cite. The thing is, there are many people who misrepresent the Word and the Christian ethic. Unfortunately, not only do they bring harm upon God's children, but they also influence a lot of people who ultimately decide that God is not for them. God will judge them accordingly.

Take the following, for instance:

Job 6: 14
A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

You know what? I encourage you to live by that principle. To borrow another line from Pastor Jim, Christians should be concerned with the restoration of friends who stray from God. As he'd say, we want to be careful not to fall into the same snares that snag our friends, but we should certainly prioritize their return to God's path. We should help to build them up, not kick them when their faces are in the dirt. Don't think for one second that this world is a sanctuary; it's a giant battlefield. Left to our own devices, we'd all be doomed to failure (and subsequently to death). On the contrary, God bestows His presence to those who love Him; He is always present when people congregate to worship Him sincerely. What that means is that fellowship is the true nature of churches, not buildings or rituals or doctrines. The reason we convene is to unify our voices into one resounding praise machine, not because God wants an hour of weekly lip service. (If this idea doesn't sit well with you, feel free to send me a line from the canon that suggests otherwise.)

Now, why wouldn't suggest using that line from the book of Job to reinforce these sentiments? Well, for one thing, Job is being ironic. He has, to his own awareness, lived what he calls a blameless life. After he lost all he had in the world and was stricken with a devastating skin disease, three of his friends came to his side. Most verses in Job are conversational and written as couplets. The line above (Job 6: 14) is not meant to serve as a pseudo proverb; it's a lament. Job feels that his entire life was pure and that God has treated him unjustly. He wants to be brought before a neutral judge, one that presumably would rule more fairly than God (were that possible). Job challenges God to bring forth one credible witness against him. Job's friends refuse to support his cause, and that's what inspires him to speak the above line. It has nothing to do with friendship; he's asking in blindness to be led by other blind men. Here's what he really thinks of his friends, which he says after they repeatedly fail to strike fear into him:

Job 6: 21
Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.

Let me offer a secular example that seems equally deceptive when considered on a tunnel-visioned level. As a teen, I idolized the rock band R.E.M. In 1987, they had a fairly popular single entitled "The One I Love". Altogether, the lyrics were a four-line stanza that was repeated throughout the song. Here are the first two lines:

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I left behind

Imagine some fairly tense music behind that, and it almost sounds like the protagonist wants to make amends with someone loved and lost. I used to frequent a fan site that had a pretty active messageboard, and I've read dozens of examples of people who've dedicated this song to girlfriends or boyfriends or spouses, and none of them had any appreciation for the bitter irony of this song. Some even had it played at their weddings. Lines three and four, which convey the protagonist's true intent, are thus:

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I left behind
A simple prop to occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love

You'll note I've rewritten the first two lines for the sake of sheer clarity. Now, this is just a silly song. In the grand scheme, it doesn't really matter whether you love, hate, or misunderstand it. No one preaches from it (I would hope). But how many people try to twist scripture into supporting their views? How many false prophets and false preachers are out there? Believe me, I've met my share. I've heard about some very disturbing rituals that certain sects and churches have practiced, and, without trying to sound too austere, I can assure you they were not endorsed by God.

I'm not saying we shouldn't support our friends. I'm not saying that Job didn't inadvertently speak great (but cautionary) wisdom. But there are hundreds of passages that might better support these ideals. Don't lean on the quotes that can come back to bite you.

I don't know why this is such a touchy subject for me. Having experienced such a drastic transformation, I just feel really compelled to defend the scriptures, as I said in the posts entitled "My New Purpose". The book of Job is very, very ironic. It was kind of refreshing for me to read it, the way it contrasts most other books. It kind of hearkened back to my university days when I would hermit myself in my tiny apartment with an extra large coffee and burn through Tennyson or Milton. There's so much wisdom in the book of Job that I'm hesitant to use outside this post because of the underhanded way it's presented. I mean, look at how eloquent this is:

Job 28: 12-3, 23-4, 27-8
12 "But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? 13 Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living. 23 God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells, 24 for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. 27 then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it. 28 And he said to man, 'The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.' "

And yet all of that was said facetiously. As I said, be careful.

Let's end with another proverb. Solomon reminds me of my situation. I wouldn't say I have very many friends, but the ones I've kept are priceless.

Proverbs 18: 24
A man of many companions may come to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

(I think he's referring to God, but I'll extend that a little beyond the LORD for the sake of practicality.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Context is Everything (Part 1)

If there's one thing I understand, it's the hesitation of those who don't understand God. All too recently, that was me. The thing is, it makes sense to want to understand God before you submit to Him, just as you'd want to understand the benefits of a health club membership before joining. But life's journey is not a small matter. Since few of us ever acknowledge the importance of salvation, the fate of our souls after death, it makes sense that most people won't likely study it or ever make an effort to gain the understanding that might lead to a satisfying life. Heck, a lot of us even have an aversion to it. Again, I know what that's like. Believe me.

However, things are what they are, and the Bible remains one of the greatest insights into God's nature. That too has been greatly misrepresented in mainstream culture. I've said this before, and I will surely repeat it to many curious folks, but if we approach scripture with an agenda--other than learning about God's teachings--we're not likely to walk away with an honest impression. A few months ago, when the scale was tipping, when I felt the ground giving way beneath me, when I was so disgustingly unsatisfied with my "independant life", I tried something dangerous. I wanted to strike a compromise in life. I wanted to continue as I had been; I wanted to incorporate God into my life without accepting all His gospel. I was mildly familiar with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and I certainly understood the principles of fellowship and good will, but I was complacent in my sin and wanted to coalesce it with a spiritual avenue I was about to pursue. I opened my Bible randomly to this passage:

Deuteronomy 17: 2-5
2 If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the LORD gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant, 3 and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky, 4 and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.

"Aha!" thought I. "Surely, those passages were written by evil hands with ulterior motives." My logic was that, where Jesus Christ would have ministered to those who wandered from the straight path, this law was suggesting that they should be ushered into death. Instead of restoring these people into a good place with God, they were being thrust into the grave. Not only that, the only one who would stand to benefit would have been Satan. If the nature of existence is a dichotomy of good and evil, and if we ultimately find ourselves serving a righteous master or an evil one, then those who had transgressed and were killed prematurely (i.e. before making reparation) would ultimately serve under Satan. I told myself that these harsh sentences were very convenient for Satan, because all he had to do was lead people astray in front of their peers, and that the law would seal their fates. Ergo, the law was wrong.

Ditto Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. How could entire cities be put to ruin? What I didn't know about them was the atrocious acts the people committed. Not the way we look at extreme crime like murder or rape, but these people made it their standards. God wasn't into gratuitous death; He was into annihilating corruption. He even said that He wouldn't destroy those cities if as few as 10 good people could be found within their walls. That's just how bad it was, and that's precisely the half of the story that seldom got told among my God-reproaching peers.

Why am I telling you this? Many reasons. You might say I have a false sense of bravado in my faith, but having read the events that lead up to these laws, I would defend the above logic with every ounce of my intellectual prowess. Personally, I don't see any value in pussyfooting around the hard stuff. These kinds of judgments are surely a stumbling block for newcomers, and all I can honestly tell you with a perfectly clear conscience is to read these books, in their entirety, for yourselves. There is so much that happens in Genesis and Exodus that can be done justice except for the text itself. There are so many examples of God's blessing that I couldn't possible repeat them all for you. There was a time when I thought Old Testament God and the person of Jesus Christ were nothing alike, and, as surely as I am alive and typing this, I am utterly horrified to have ever thought those things.

Let's consider some human examples before I try to settle the above severity in your mind.

First, how do you vote? Do you vote at all? Have the media and your situation dulled your sense of initiative to the point where you think all politicians are corrupt, therefore your vote means nothing? If you do vote, on what do you base your decision? Do you read the party platforms? Do you watch televised debates? Do you read one or two articles in the paper? Have you determined that you generally share the socialist views of liberalism or conservativism, and, as such, are willing to accept the rest of what they stand for? Did you know that both camps have an utterly deplorable record when it comes to many social issues, such as the environment?

These are big, big questions, but if you cast a ballot without understanding the extent of its meaning, you're no different than me a few months ago when I approached that passage from Deuteronomy. This may sound infantile, but why would you vote alongside your friends or by a journalist's view if you wouldn't follow these people off a cliff? You shouldn't submit to anyone else's opinion, especially if it's formed on a weak foundation. But don't you think you owe it to yourself to be accountable to yourself, not them? Don't you think that handing over all your tax dollars and the management of your country is a very big deal, one worthy of extra time and conscientious consideration? And yet, it's a pittance when held against the only thing you will ever truly possess: your immortal soul. The one thing that is you. I don't know about you, but when I didn't nurture my soul, I felt terrible. I remember feelings of intense longing and depression, even when my situation was pretty decent.

One more point before I return to scripture: Suppose you planted a garden. Let's say you planted row upon row of seeds that sprouted to life, and let's say you cared for them day in, day out. You'd water them religiously, cast protective nets on top of them. Let's say that you were seriously dedicated to their survival. I mean seriously. You weren't the gardener that pitches scarecrows at the corners of your garden; you're the gardener that sits beneath a blistering sun to manually chase scavengers away from your babies. Suppose, after all these efforts, that one of your plants becomes ill. Suppose it sprouts, for whatever reason, a spore that latches onto nearby plants and corrupts them, so that none of the infected specimens bears fruit anymore. What would you do? Would you make the intellectual argument, as I did above, that something in existence has an inherent right to live out its life, that it should be free to express itself, even if that means acting out in a way that is so unlike its creator? Would you stand back and let it destroy the rest of the civilization? Would you? Would you watch it all fall into ruin for the sake of not intervening?

Here's just a fraction of what I didn't read or know about when I decided certain passages and arcane laws were evil:

Deuteronomy 4: 9-14
9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. 10 Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, "Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children." 11 You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. 12 Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. 13 He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets. 14 And the LORD directed me at that time to teach you the decrees and laws you are to follow in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.

That's Moses speaking to the tribes of Israel on behalf of God. He's telling them about God's law. See, God is a holy God. We sometimes forget just how different we are from Him, how none of us are worthy of His grace, and, in spite of that, He always tries to teach us how to live well. Not only that, I'm reading the book of Proverbs right now in which King Solomon describes just how satisfying it is to live well. You may think earthly things are to be revered, just as I used to, but if you haven't made a sincere attempt to live a wholesome life, then you aren't really in a position to make a fair assessment of the differences. It's a fact. Having tried both, I can speak to the benefits of God's teachings. I feel wonderful all the time. My life has meaning, and I appreciate just how blessed I really am. Ask me about it sometimes.

Back to the matter at hand: God always makes the first effort, just as He did on behalf of the Israelites. As I said above, you need to read it all for yourself, but here's a snapshot: when His people were enslaved in Egypt, He sent 10 plagues against the Egyptians to establish His authority and to convince them to emancipate the Jews; He led His people through the desert en route to freedom, concealing them in a cloud by day and appearing as a fiery light by night; He parted the sea so they might cross it as if on dry land; He provided food for all those who embarked on the pilgrimage, including the bread of Heaven and quail for people to eat when they griped about the lack of variety; He spilled water from a rock at Meribah so His people could drink; He defeated all the other races that tried to impede the Israelites' progress, etc.

Now, I don't know about you, but I really am baffled by some of that stuff. Don't get me wrong, I believe every word of it, but here's what gets me: how could anyone witness those things and not completely submit to God? This is just how compelling temptation is. This is just how stiff-necked human nature is. Even those people dissented. In case it's unclear, in case I seem a lot more holier-than-thou than I'm intending, let me spell it out: I ain't perfect. Not even close. I struggle every day with things that try to ensnare me. And I haven't forgotten just how demoralized I used to be. Television programs did a great job illustrating why. They used to have little angels and demons appear on characters' shoulders. You must have seen that image at some point. There was one thing about those scenes that was misrepresentative, though. They showed those little guys appearing in a puff of smoke, then disappearing after they pleaded their cases. In truth, they're ALWAYS there. They're always speaking suggestions to your subconscious. It's a never-ending battle. In many ways, you can't ever win it. But you can keep from dying. The rewards for being a good solider, however, are so blissfully amazing that none of us could ever do them justice in words. That's all I knows about 'em.

Funny thing is, God may have created the world; He may have set limits to physicality, but He doesn't have to abide by them. Here's a passage that probably seems negligible to people (though I don't really know for sure). Anyway, the writer in my loves this one:

Deuteronomy 8: 4
4 Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years.

Big deal, right? I don't know. To me, that seems physically impossible, but the fact is these people wandered for that length of time, and I know they didn't pass by any shops on the way. There were no malls or kiosks, and they certainly wouldn't have been welcome at any, should they have actually met anyone who might have helped them. They were a hated people, and, because they were God's people, they survived absurdly impossible circumstances. It happened.

And yet, if you feel the way I once did, you'd rather live out a meaningless life that doesn't call you to account. You'd rather die a permanent death and not have to answer for your deeds. But, if you've ever believed a word I've told you, you have to make it this: the spirit inside me has animated my life. God's Spirit has forever replaced any drug, any artificial pleasure in flesh that once brought me momentary distraction. I feel invigorated by this stuff, and I am not afraid of the harder questions. That's why I'm writing about the more extreme things today: I am so utterly confident that if you sat down and read the first five books of the Bible, in their entirety, you would see that God's punishment is minor when held against the behaviour that incites it. You would see that, when people failed to live good lives, God handed them a means to visibly demonstrate their faith. Some of them are very ritualistic, and God doesn't need any offering or any covenant with us, but we do. We need to have ways to purify ourselves and to be made right with Him because we are so utterly fickle. That's why He added this disclaimer to the first passage, which appears immediately following it:

Deuteronomy 17: 6-7
6 On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you.

Next time, I'll explain why you shouldn't do the reverse of what I did. Believe it or not, there are some passages that are seemingly friendly that are, in fact, quite ironic.

Okay, fine, here's an example:

Job 6: 14
14 "A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends,
even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Remember, it's not what Job is saying, but the context in which he means it. More to come.

Disclaimer: I have discussed some of the laws God handed to Moses that aren't modern Christian practices. All arguments presented are meant as intellectual debate and not necessarily a direct endorsement. It is my sincere goal to validate the scriptures, as I know them to be the true Word of God (inspired by Him and written through His servants). I further attest to their authenticity through His works in my heart. Having said that, I want to make it utterly clear that Jesus Christ is every person's Judge and that no human will decide your ultimate fate. A few of the passages I cited above reflect a time when humans were offered different commands than we enforce now, and there are many reasons for that. I hope I have explained some of those differences, but it would certainly benefit the reader to study all aspects of the Christian faith before formulating an opinion (myself included). This blog continues to serve as an evolving log of my journey with God. Feel free to consider my ideas, but understand that I make no pretense to suggest they serve as a substitute for the actual gospel.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Top 30 Albums of 2007

(That I heard.)

Yes, these lists are bogus and self-indulgent. But the longer I hold off on posting this, the more I'll vainly continue to refine these rankings--and try to force reviews about sounds I can't describe.

30. Pelican: City of Echoes
You might say I've generally drifted from straight-up rock music, but this is just a solid batch of songs with an edge.

29. The Fiery Furnaces: Widow City
O Matthew Friedberger! How is it that you entered my life when you did? I had just moved back home after a collapsed relationship, and I might have sworn you composed your sophomore album, Blueberry Boat, exclusively for me, that I might lose myself in your imagination. You offered such rich narratives and 3-dimensional characters, squeezing conflict and tension into every song, unfolding the whole like a collection of Mother Goose stories for college dropouts: magnifique!

On follow-up Rehearsing My Choir, when the world thought you faltered, I understood. It was exactly the album I'd hoped it would be. Instead of ushering us from place to place and character to character, you followed an overarching story arc, always complementing your bombastic verses with such insightful rhythms and real-time tempo shifts that I often wondered if you could strip away the lyrics and still envision the very same outcomes. It didn't matter that you lacked some of the cryptic relatability of other artists; your stories were of their own realm and league. I didn't need to find parallels between my life and that of Olga Sarantos; I understood her plight through the same human empathy that stalls me at the threshold of a coffee shop to hold the door for an elderly woman. Even when I'm in a rush. I was even willing to pardon your one faux-pas, rhyming the words "Kevin", "seven", and "heaven". No one's perfect. (Seriously, though, never do this again!)

Bitter Tea
was harder to swallow. It lacked a sonic unity that seemed to gel the other releases, but I eventually formulated my own interpretation, and I would attest that it's perfectly sequenced. Ahead of its time, to boot.

The solo double album was something of a hodgepodge, but I do like Holy Ghost Language School for the same reasons mentioned re: Choir. It tells the story of the world's greatest acid dream. The other album, Winter Women, felt like a cop out, as if you had examined your work to that point, devised some kind of blueprint, and were merely pulling from your bag of tricks to keep fans interested. I did read that interview in which you noted how important it is for bands to feed their audiences, just like the Who had done for you as a teen. You know, how those classic bands weren't governed by marketability and single momentum to further their bodies of work. Eventually, this double album, sans that vixen sister of yours and her oddly alluring pipes, settled in my mind as something worth re-visiting for years to come, even if I didn't feel any sense of immediacy with it.

Sigh. Widow City. First nine songs: a beautiful coalescence of tale and soundtrack. By now, it would bludgeon a dead horse to describe your sound to people. Either they get it or they don't. Some like their tea bitter, some like it sweet, and, in the case of tracks one through nine, I like it zombified. So why amp up and write monstrous anthems to describe subtle moments, and, conversely, musical whispers to describe cataclysms? It's not that I dislike the lyrics, and it's not that I dislike the music (some of your most immediately likeable ever), but forcing together such antithetic sentiments absolutely destroys the charm you've always embodied. When did you forsake your storytelling sensibilities? Why did you forsake your storytelling sensibilities? What went so horribly wrong?

28. M.I.A.: Kala
For what it's worth, I think Maya Arulpragasam is a nut. What I don't know is how much of it hinges on her Sri Lankan upbringing or the circumstances thereof. It's hard for me to think of her without reflecting on her confrontational Pitchfork interview during which she, very unprompted, launched into a schpeel about how Diplo hadn't contributed much to Kala and that she was looking to marry into the United States to further her career. Perhaps the former is a result of the tunnel-visioned media, but the latter is definitely kind of extremist in my view. Of course, I'm assuming that she didn't care whom she married, so long as it would circumvent future issues with work VISAs and border crossings. Whatever.

As to the music, that should be judged purely on its own merits, and Kala is definitely a step forward from 2005's Arular. The biggest leap? The arrangements. Tracks like "Bamboo Banga" have a cumulative build that just didn't seem as present on her first releases. It's not that they lacked rhythmic prowess, but they did find their own patterns and stick to the formula. Here she explores more intuitive compositions, which can't save an album, but they can make it more appealing. What's nice is the exotic feel, too, as there are more perceptively Middle Eastern flourishes and less London club scene. That's not to suggest her adopted UK heritage has been cleansed, but the instrumentation is slightly more varied to coincide with the other changes. Her delivery is veritably the same, and the lyrical content ranges from insightful to critical to downright inane, and even the best moments can be ignored to the non-detriment of the experience. It's not terribly often that I crave alternative dance arrangements, but Kala definitely scratches the itch when the mood is right.

27. Marissa Nadler: Songs III: Bird on the Water
"Holidays are the hardest hours of the year." So sings Nadler on opening track, "Diamond Heart", with such emotional disconnect that it absolutely shatters me. Bird on the Water is not for weak stomachs; it's as cold as the isolation that permeates the whole of the album. Sometimes I can listen to music and feel such an intense chill pass through me, as if my soul has been awoken from a slothful sojourn, but this almost borders on shaking hands with Death. It's desolate, longing, and empty. Oddly, it's a beautiful experience, just not for moments of fragility: it will knock you down a peg. I've often maintained that music is not inherently valuable, but it's the experience of listening to it. It's funny how my mind thinks of the island of lost toys on the classic animated film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Yes, they would understand Marissa Nadler. Surely.

26. Mirah and Spectratone International: Share This Place: Stories and Observations
If you ask me, concept albums that start to wear thin toward the end are much more appealing than rehashed staples that lack the cojones to bloat the envelope. I genuinely respect Mirah for her sheer audacity, adopting the persona of creepy crawlies to write the quintessential insect soundtrack. Even the song titles wear her authorial intent: "Gestation of the Sacred Beetle"; "Emergence of the Primary Larva"; "Love Song of the Fly". Mirah explores some very human themes, as expressed through the politics of the crumb snatchers and plant pollinators that populate ye olde backyarde and vegetable patches. Share This Place has an eerie baroque vibe, which does become sonically repetitious toward the 47th minute, but taken metaphorically the instrumentation almost hums along like a symphony of critters. And there's ample substance to reward repeat listens. Just as she describes her subjects, Mirah's delivery is instinctually smart, and I would think that anyone who doesn't need to barrage his or her mind with relationship fodder could really glean some fun from this experiment.

25. Alina Simone: Placelessness
Alina Simone is a girl with a guitar and a penchant for belting out her feelings. She never hides behind her voice; instead, she sends it into the trenches like the trumpets of war that command awe in front of insurgents. Stand and be counted. Boss!

24. Panda Bear: Person Pitch
Lemme guess: you've never heard the term acid folk? I'm not a huge Beach Boys fan, even though the indie crowd have canonized the likes of Brian Wilson. In other words, I can't say beyond doubt that he's never written a druggy album about going to war or urging a lover to drop a pill habit, and, if not, Noah Lennox AKA Panda Bear has forever filled that gap in your collection. The results are shockingly compelling, as this is such a sun-drenched musical experience. Sadly, a lot of these songs overstay their welcome, which makes it all kind of mesh together toward the end, much like the beach bum afternoon I envision when I listen to this stuff. It's a great way to escape the winter chill, if your imagination isn't anchored by disbelief.

23. Animal Collective: Strawberry Jam
Experimental Rock visionaries offer a comparatively consistent follow-up to 2005's Feels, but the myth is starting to wear thin. Perhaps I didn't give this one enough chance to settle in my mind. Definitely worthy of mention on this list, however.

22. Caribou: Andorra
This year's most hummable album.

21. Liars: Liars
No, rock is not dead. It's just needed an injection of whatever these guys stuck it with.

20. Battles: Mirrored
If you follow the indie press at all, you've read ample praise for this Math Rock album. In terms of composition, this is quite a masterful behemoth. While it's certainly not a sentimental favourite of mine, this is quite a sonic experience. Some seriously ambitious rhythms.

19. Grand National: A Drink & A Quick Decision
Le catchy Britpop.

18. Gui Boratto: Chromophobia
One of the many brilliant electronic releases this year. It's all about sonic interplay.

17. Sage Francis: Human the Death Dance
This is Sage's safest album to date, but a weak offering from this master poet is still better than most artists' best work, bar none.

16. Radiohead: In Rainbows
It's not that I wanted Radiohead to drop the ball, but I really didn't expect them to release this. When I think of all the bands I retroactively fell in love with, it almost turns my stomach to know that I missed the chance to experience the height of their careers. Sonic Youth, especially. This point is only exacerbated by the fact I live in a rural area that gets few decent concerts, so I didn't even see most of the bands that actually defined my teenage years, let alone the kind I fantasize about now. Still, the fact remains these British lads scored the soundtrack for some of my most fragile, impulsive, piss-and-vinegar moments. Quite adeptly, in fact. Truth be told, Radiohead had waned substantially in relevence to my life. When I listen to albums like The Bends I feel really...old. And I certainly don't care to revisit the angst and depression and confusion that is adolescence, be it via memory or nostalgic plastic discs. (Wink.)

So, what's so great about In Rainbows? For starters, it's not really a Radiohead album but for its sound. That seems like a gratuitously oblique comment to make, but I don't think they've ever explored such honest arrangements. Here they find a strange compromise between the sonic landscapes of Kid A and concise execution of Ok Computer, evidenced by the fact that In Rainbows is, at its core, a guitar album. Where the predecessors were adequately layered, this really doesn't feel like avantgarde gluttony. Like or lump it, Radiohead have certainly pulled a lot of knee-jerk stunts during their career, and they did so to spite the Recording Industry and its fickle musical trends. I can't help but feel this was equally spiteful to the creative process. It's great to explore new sounds--don't get me wrong--but it strikes me as rather insincere to pen songs from random lines drawn from shards of paper in a hat. Some of the greats have done it, but it deprives the music from any real glue. Yorke's vocals can make it compelling, even insightful, but there was more in his enunciation than his message. That's precisely what they started to amend on Hail To The Thief. They seemed to have a motivation in songs like "Sit Down. Stand Up", whereas "Optimistic" was pieced together by Dr. Frankenhead. In Rainbows is very simply an album. It's about time.

15. Deerhoof: Friend Opportunity
The little band that could AKA the world's smallest big band AKA Deerhoof. I've gotten quite accustomed to how polarizing these guys are, and I'd be very impressed if one percent of my entourage actually likes them. Of course, it doesn't really matter. The same could be said for the rest of my listening interests. That notwithstanding, you can call me biased, but I just don't see why Deerhoof doesn't have people swooning. I'm talkin' broken jaw lawsuits. They might be raucous, but their rhythmic prowess and ballsy conviction wins me over every time. They seem like they're always rediscovering their own music, as if it formed of sheer human honesty and manifested itself through their instruments, not their creativity. Much like natural feelings, they ebb and flow with every new moment, constantly upping the sonic ante as if their compositions live and breathe. This time around, things are little more constrained, a little tighter, a little more--dare I say it; here I go--pop. It would be futile to describe Friend Opportunity beyond the fact that it is what it is: expressive. You can decide for yourself whether it's gold or feces, but I tend to lean toward the former.

14. Yesterday's New Quintet: Yesterday's Universe
Motley assortment of Jazz/Fusion tracks under Madlib's many monikers. This album seriously kills, but it can be a little straining on the noggin to ingest in one sitting.

13. Chromatics: IV: Night Drive
It's funny, I received this album in the mail on Halloween, and it couldn't have arrived at a better time. Much like the Knife, Chromatics has a very macabre feel to it, like the film noir of music. It's catchy yet ominous. This is fantastic mood music and great for inspiring other forms of art, be it writing or painting or tribal living room dances.

12. Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Ritter is a deep brotha, and he writes from the heart. I might have cut about four songs from this disc, but the ones that hit home are very important to me. "Right Moves" could be the soundtrack of the last few months of my life, and "Empty Hearts" very adeptly describes the state of mind that preceded my new Christian life. As I've said in conversation, this was the year that almost destroyed me, and as melodramatic as that might sound, I wholeheartedly believe that God lifted me from ruin right at the brink of it. Ritter understands.

11. Cornelius: Sensuous
If you're unfamiliar with the Shibuya-Kei genre, it's hard for me to explain to you why it completely transcends my ability to describe it. Hopefully the name itself will tickle your curiosity, because this is one seriously exploratively fun album.

10. The Field: From Here We Go Sublime
Progressive trance. One of the best electronic albums I've ever heard. If you like the genre at all, you must hear this stuff. Again, I would struggle to describe its pulse and execution, but it's such an amazing journey to embark on.

9. Strategy: Future Rock
Once again, my inability to describe sound fails me, but I can't sufficiently stress what an experience this album is. Over the course of nine songs, each of which could score a short film, I'm treated to sonic journeys through jungles, wild and urban, barren and lush, and it's as if, as the title implies, future societies are birthed and destroyed in 57 minutes. If you're familiar with groups like Talk Talk, imagine how they'd sound if they dropped some of the organic noises in favour of ambient or dub, remove Mark Hollis's voice (bear with me, okay?), and you'd get Strategy. This is really trippy at times, and I've already compared it in discussions to something akin to a robot porn soundtrack. On paper it sounds a lot more static than it is, and it really comes down to a listener's willingness to bathe in the music and allow mental images to form. The song titles often do more justice to the sonic properties than I could with my limited vocab, as songs like "Windswept (Interlude)" really encapsulate the mostly instrumental Future Rock. One of these days I'm definitely going to have this playing in the background when I work on my novels. Art begets art, as I like to think. Highly recommended.

8. The New Pornographers: Challengers
Carl Newman has a pretty impressive streak going, at least where it concerns my taste. He somehow manages to write about cataclysmic life changes as if they were carnivals, and, dang it all, it works. By all rights, he should probably rank higher on all my lists, but he keeps permitting Dan Bejar, the Christine McVie of the New Pornographers, to contribute songs to the albums. Now, I'm not the type who would encourage people to download music. I don't have any P2P applications installed on my PC. What I can't find through blogs or official sites, I hear after having forked out for the record. Anyway, everyone who reads this must hear "My Rights Versus Yours", "All The Old Showstoppers", "Challengers", "Failsafe", "Unguided", and "Go Places". There are other tracks that rock more, but these penetrate deeper. So let it be known that, as it was in the past, this one ranks higher than it ought to on the strength of just a handful of songs. But the impact they've had on me can't be overstated. Oh you Canadian romantics, you.

7. Dan Deacon: Spiderman of the Rings
I recently saw a Canadian (propaganda/pride/same thing?) commercial with a brief Mike Myers interview. Myers (AKA Austin Powers/Dr. Evil/same person?) quoted his father as saying that nothing in life is so serious it can't be laughed at.

What did your mind first think of when you read the gist of that statement? Did you ponder green skulls, the kind that might adorn Dan Deacon's soundboard? Or did you think of funerals and the nasty letter your ex wrote you in a moment of incensed passion? While I haven't reached a verdict on Myers's hypothesis, I do think Dan Deacon's Spiderman of the Rings is one heck of a fun album. I might even argue that whimsy is precisely what makes indie music so fantastic.

When I was a teen, I had so many chips on my shoulders they must have looked like abused antique furniture. I was the kind of guy who would spend hours trying to decipher Michael Stipe or Thom Yorke lyrics. I guess there's nothing wrong with that, except for the eventual burnout from incessantly trying to glean significance from music; I half wonder if I wasn't in fact imposing meaning on my teenage soundtrack instead of merely discovering authorial intent in those verses. Then you have Dan Deacon. He's the guy who doesn't need to get drunk at the party to don the lampshade. He's the artist whose compositions inspire happy-go-lucky fools to volunteer Dr. Evil impersonations on the street, regardless of how many strangers roll their eyes. Take "Wham City", the album's standout track, which is an 11-minute opus about, well, nothing. Sonically, it starts off as a handclappy twee sing-along, evolving into a veritable Huck Finn raft ride before it coasts to the shore in a fun but deranged outro. The rest of the album promises just as much kaleidoscopic fun without making you OD on sonic cotton candy.

I'm not saying life is explicitly funny or maudlin, but I'm glad I've grown to appreciate the simple bursts of humanity that radio seldom embraces. It might be easy to shrug it off when singers like Avey Tare meow, or when Björk feels such a jolt of emotion that she launches into an excited shriek, but we've all felt that way before, and I see no need to censor these emotive deliverances. I guess we are subject to second childhoods, after all.

6. Menomena: Friend and Foe
This album confuses me. My inner critic is quick to note that it encapsulates virtually every indie stereotype that emerged over the past few years, and yet it manages to hold my interest start to finish. Strange as it might sound, the vocals are the most enigmatic component. Depending on the track, I hear traces of Roger Waters, Wayne Coyne, and even group chants that approach an Animal Collective kind of aesthetic. If there's one thing I can't fault musically it's the tempo; there's a seductive property at work, as if the whole album were some kind of sonic foreplay that churns along with such conviction that you expect a climax that never comes. And yet, it's in this longing experience that I don't feel disappointed. To actually describe the music would be an exercise in futility, and I can't say whether time will solidify Friend and Foe as a fluke or an ascending star.

5. Joanna Newsom: Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band
I don't want to suggest that everything she touches turns to gold, but it's getting to the point where I might shift the burden of proof onto dissenters instead of fans. Not only does Newsom tickle a harp with the conviction of an old soul, but she sings as one. Her verses are akin to experimental Tennyson, heavy on imagery but a little less indulgent. There's only one new song on this EP, "Colleen", whose namesake protagonist is cursed to forget everything, and it's quite heartbreaking to see the challenges she faces, almost like the ordeal Pete Townshend expresses via Tommy's amazing journey on the Who's 1969 rock opera. Newsom invites a backing band to rework one song from each of her full-lengths, and there's a certain off-the-cuff organism that manifests in these new takes. Not much material time-wise, but Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band is thick in substance.

By the way, Ys is not a pluralized letter but a city name that rhymes with the Springsteen comparison. Kind of like the middle portion of the word yeast. (Admit it, you were curious.)

4. Björk: Volta
There's a history here that bears mention, as those who've talked music with me over the past, well, decade, will likely remember how vehemently I spoke out against Björk, previously declaring her a no-talent hack whose voice could induce glass to shatter of its own volition, if not for the sake of sonic resonance. I should probably add that, to my recollection (and shame), I had largely based that assessment on one song I saw on MTV in the mid-1990s. In short, I thought she was arrogant to the point of being offensive. Chalk it up to maturity, but when I stumbled across the Volta artwork, my disgust for Björk was reignited. The problem was, it was now 2007 and I couldn't remember a single track of hers, including the one that had curdled my stomach before. (Anticipating your question: "It's Oh So Quiet" from the Post album.) This being the age of the Internet, I had blogs and search engines at my disposal, so I saw little harm in treating myself to a reminder, as I felt a strange urge to rekindle for myself why I disliked her, and, surely, with another 10 years of intellectualism and experiences, I could do more justice to my original sentiment. This is where I met a humble-pie-binge of a dilemma.

I thought time would have festered her catalogue, that her hodgepodge collection of albums would have only decayed further over years of maggot feasting. What I found instead was an artist who embodied the very principle and personification of conviction. In her old videos, as representative of her first batch of solo releases, I discovered a groundbreaking blend of conflicting genres into such a beautiful hybrid of soul and Electronica. Even worse, I loved her voice, the driving force behind her intuitively honest lyrics, which had previously been the most identifiable stumbling block, the thing that must have acted as proof positive that her fans were tasteless saps. From your vantage, you probably couldn't have heard my Adam's apple recoiling into my oesophagus as I choked on my own pride, but there was no way I could further allow myself to not invest in her music. It would define 2007 for me, just as Sonic Youth had done the previous year.

So what's so wonderful about Volta? Very simply, Volta is. The production and arrangements are self-contained, as evidenced in the opener, "Earth Intruders". With sweeping synths and jungle beats, the song could score a wordless alien invasion, as the frequencies find a strange way of mimicking the gravity of realizing we aren't alone in the universe. To describe it in words is to do injustice to the song, and the same might be said of the album's remainder.

I can certainly understand why most of my entourage still couldn't sit through this album, but if you were to understand the way my listening mind works, the pieces all fit. I find in Björk the same guttural, downright ballsy approach that bands like Animal Collective and Deerhoof express in place of self-revealing lyrics. These other bands rely on the primal urges within their loins, expressing their base and complex feelings through the conviction of every note their play. Björk does just this, except with the occasional cute mispronunciation and heck of a lot more zeal for the ideas she tries to convey. In case it's unclear, I've also fallen in love with "It's Oh So Quiet". Funny what an honest approach and an open mind can unlock.

3. Various Artists (Italians Do It Better): After Dark
Like certain drugs, it's easy to OD on Electroclash. It seems high flutin' to cast an entire genre in such light, but a rudimentary dissection of its sonic properties just seems like a blueprint for smarminess. Percussive beats, vague lyrics, synths; it's faux-disco, really. And yet, there's something magical that emerges when a composer's sensibilities transcend the groundwork, which is precisely the type of roster the keeners at Italians Do It Better have culled together. Take Glass Candy's "Computer Love", a thematically amateur song that paints the scene you'd expect: a lonely recluse bathing in radiation on a Saturday night, while the rest of humanity has a life. The mood is anxious, a nervous anticipation for acknowledgement from a name on the screen that never indulges. The whole album sounds like the soundtrack of an acid film noir, and it's strikingly compelling. Even the instrumental tracks manage to convey a sense of character, such as Professor Genius's "La Grotta". There's a 3-d world to explore amidst the synths that creep up, explode, and vanish behind city blocks, just as sirens or drive-by shootings leave a sonic retina burn in the mind's speakers.

After Dark
is a great debut for up and comers like Farah, who've yet to release anything substantial. But it's the A-list that shines brightest. Veterans like Chromatics and Glass Candy offer up some of their most nail-biting songs to date, "In the City" and 'Miss Broadway", respectively. The former could score the life of a serial killer; the latter sounds like an illegitimate lovechild spawned by Joy Division and ABBA. "Miss Broadway" teems with life, venturing into the disco-punk scene of 70s New York before emerging more cynical than before.

This compilation wasn't supposed to succeed the way it does--heck, some of the tracks are demos--but, by the time the final beat settles in your mind, there's a certain residual perversion that will take more than a few showers to cleanse, a certain cloud that seems to linger beyond its welcome. As much as you might want it to vanish beneath the horizon, you just can't help looking skyward and wondering how something as pure as water (or something as malleable as the human spirit) was made so dark through existence. Whether it's empathy or fear, it's a gripping fascination that just keeps me revisiting.

2. Au Revoir Simone: The Bird of Music
Put simply, The Bird of Music is a collection of diary entries we've all been too cynical to write.

1. Jesca Hoop: Kismet
When reviewing music, there are a few inescapable truths. For starters, there's no way to interpret any art form objectively. Let's immediately cross that off the list of requisites. Also, it seems inherent on the writer to describe the sonic properties to readers, so they might infer whether this album or that could find a suitable place on their CD racks. I will sadly fall flat in this area, too, because Kismet is an instrumental kaleidoscope. Much like Björk, Jesca Hoop adeptly christens a multitude of hybrid genres, and I simply don't have the time or gusto to decipher them all. Am I dynamic enough to invent even one? Hmm... Ouija Rock. Anyway, the sheer intricacy of this collection is in and of itself a wonderful experience, but the glue is the songwriting. Very simply, it's kismet, occasionally striking some resonant groove that comprises equal parts Cardigans, dancehall, lounge, and Keith Richards's swagger. Not to sound sexist, but I've never associated the term swagger with women. I used to interpret women who were possessed of swagger as being seductive, because semantics are funny like that. Jesca very simply has swagger. It's like the confidence of a fortune teller who actually sees images at the crystal's centre. That's the kind of magic that permeates these songs.

Album opener "Summertime" rises with the dawn, as a lush guitar riff that flirts note after note over distant cawing. It gradually gains momentum, describing scenes of corn field daydreaming and water conservation. From there she reinvents a song from her 2004 demo disc, which was previously available for something like $4 through her website. "Seed of Wonder" is not only a lyrical masterpiece, perfectly strung like a web Charlotte might spin, but it has one of the most groovy, unstoppable rhythms I've heard in a long time. It's almost worthy of classic R&B comparisons, but I probably shouldn't venture into that territory. I was a little sceptic when I heard a 30-second clip, as this was the song that propelled her star into a state of ascension when she was a budding artist in Los Angeles under Tom Waits's wing. (He would eventually describe her music as swimming in a pool at night. I would eventually agree, once I heard it.)

Jesca then slows the pace with "Enemy", a bittersweet vocal gem that describes the torn relationship between antagonists, only instead of dwelling on the opposing forces, she beautifully touches on how antitheses inherently need one another for their own, self-motivated purposes. Other album highlights include the dark, faux-dancehall "Money", which is as catchy as it is cynical. Still, in spite of its tone, she can't keep her cuteness from seeping into every second. "Havoc In Heaven" is particularly compelling, and I didn't even notice it claim the top spot in my profile, likely due to its regularity during her live sets and the fact that it's graced all her official releases but the "Summertime" single. There's also a Hurricane Katrina-inspired ballad that reads like a sappy number, but the way she sings it is oddly sea shanty, and it really paints a new face on what might otherwise be her weakest lyrical outing.

Truthfully, I thought it kind of boisterous to name an album Kismet, but then I listened to it in context and understood why I had spent so much time waiting for Jesca Hoop's first proper release: It fills the shoes it promises.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Virtues Part 2: Compassion

I can't believe it's only been 22 days since I switched from the King James Bible to the New International Version. Not to dwell on sheer numbers, but I've been reading at a staggering pace ever since. In the month leading up the switch, I read the book of Genesis, approximately 50 pages, which I understandably crawled through. The first chapter of that book presents some very grandiose truths, and I balanced those studies with other books that I read concurrently and completed quite aggressively. I had previously struggled with many of those concepts as a scientifically-inclined student, and I've no doubt that my acceptance of Creation was probably a bigger revelation for me than any of the historical data contained in the books I've read since: Exodus through Ezra (approx. 350 pages). In three weeks. Strangely, I took most of last week off from scripture; last week was brutal on my spirit.

That notwithstanding, it's quite clear that a modern English version has enabled me to bypass some of the Middle English hurdles that were stunting my progress, but there are advantages to both editions. For one thing, reading the Bible at a slower pace enables more time to reflect on individual passages, which I surely did for the book of Genesis. The problem was, of course, that I was spending just as much time on the language itself as I was on the message, and there are some words that are so easily misinterpreted. I guess I've gotten rusty since I left university, as my Milton and Shakespeare days are long behind me in practice. Conversely, the NIV is easily understood, which enables me to read much faster, and I might second guess just how conscientiously I'm considering the subtler points. Either way, here's something that struck me about a day after I first read it:

Ezra 1: 1-4
1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:

2 "This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
" 'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.' "

I've read so much so quickly that the significance of these lines might have almost been lost to me. Another thing is that I've become so accepting of the gospel that I seldom wrestle with it anymore, and that has always been my biggest motivator in terms of posting here. As I sat down to read a few moments ago, God poked me on the shoulder and stopped me. So here I am, and these verses are quite special indeed. But let's get you non-believers caught up on the goings on in Israel.

Remember how I said my heart had been softened to God's judgment in the Old Testament? How I used to only focus on how God unleashed wrath onto those who sinned gratuitously and figuratively spat in His face? Well, it happened for many generations in Israel, following the death of King Solomon. (Incidentally, he too turned away from the LORD and worshipped some of the pagan gods of his wives.) It reached a point where the Hebrews had committed so many atrocious crimes against God that He delivered them into the hands of the Babylonians. They were held captive away from their promised land for several decades, and that's why they needed to be emancipated. Now then, what's so important about that stuff? Well, before I get to that, let's first consider the atheistic or agnostic argument.

Suppose for a moment you don't believe in any of the miracles described in Genesis, Exodus, or any other book of the Bible. Suppose also you don't believe in the God that performed them through chosen people. I trust that you do believe that our world has a history and that the kingdoms of Israel and Babylon did exist in antiquity, just as you would pick up last week's newspaper and believe that there were snow storms in parts of the country you don't inhabit. Fair statement? I thought so.

So then, why does history record any king of any nation that suddenly decides to release his slaves, the people who till his fields and perform any number of duties, so that they might return to their promised land and build a temple in the name of the God of heaven? Why would he also be compelled to fund this expedition, including the cost of reconstruction? What logic is there in that? Absolutely none, my friend. None at all. Actually, sound judgment was well represented by the governors of Judah, those who served the king in the respective province of Israel to which the Israelites were returning.

Ezra 4: 8-16
8 Rehum the commanding officer and Shimshai the secretary wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king as follows:

9 Rehum the commanding officer and Shimshai the secretary, together with the rest of their associates—the judges and officials over the men from Tripolis, Persia, [e] Erech and Babylon, the Elamites of Susa, 10 and the other people whom the great and honorable Ashurbanipal [f] deported and settled in the city of Samaria and elsewhere in Trans-Euphrates.

11 (This is a copy of the letter they sent him.)
To King Artaxerxes,
From your servants, the men of Trans-Euphrates:

12 The king should know that the Jews who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are restoring the walls and repairing the foundations.

13 Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and the royal revenues will suffer. 14 Now since we are under obligation to the palace and it is not proper for us to see the king dishonored, we are sending this message to inform the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place of rebellion from ancient times. That is why this city was destroyed. 16 We inform the king that if this city is built and its walls are restored, you will be left with nothing in Trans-Euphrates.

Now, as you know, I'm not one to refute God's will, but I can't dispute the logic presented in that letter. Neither could that king, in fact. Cyrus had passed away, and King Artaxerxes replied in accordance with their advice. He halted production of the temple, and it wasn't until Darius became king of Babylon that the Israelites resumed work on the temple. Again the governors of that region protested, but there was nothing they could do until they had heard a response from the king. But this time, instead of merely consulting his advisers, the king found a scroll in the archives of Babylon that recorded Cyrus's earlier decree. The Israelites were permitted to finish work on the Temple of the LORD.

So, aside from God's grace, why would the Babylonians show compassion to the Israelites when Babylon stood only to lose commodities, taxes, and slaves? In terms of sheer logic, this is a much more significant statement than when Israelites heed God's will; they were raised in the belief that God delivered them from slavery in the first place. They were freed from Egypt, as history also records, and survived in awful conditions for 40 years, which is in itself miraculous. Not to dwell so much on the mystical side, but how else could any of these events be described?

As I further my studies on this subject, I discover just how quickly and dramatically the evidence piles up to support the authenticity of the Christian faith. Of course, the transformation inside me and my personal experiences are what compel me the most, but how silly would you have to be to contend none of this is true? Why, you'd need to refute, if not entirely shatter, world history, logic, etc. And, honestly, if you're out to destroy logic, why should I listen to you in the first place? (Hint: Because of God's compassion, once again. Just don't misconstrue it as doubt.)

Monday, December 10, 2007


Ye olde video evidence:

Hehe, you can almost see the salt on my face. Hard to believe it's only been 10 days.

Thanks again to Scott Muise for editing and sending me the video so that it might be shared with you. Testimonies aren't worth much if you bottle them.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Peeling Back the Layers

Yesterday I gave my mind a rest and barely read any scripture. It feels weird to do that, especially after all the momentum I had gathered over the past couple weeks. For a while, I was averaging almost a book of the Old Testament every one to two days. I even recall two Saturdays ago when I dedicated most of the day to reading my Bible. I paused to watch a hockey game and felt guilty for doing so. Surely, I thought, after wasting 27 years ignoring the LORD, it was time to focus. And so I did for the next eight days. Aside from work, I barely passed any miscellaneous time on non-scriptural pursuits, this blog and sleep notwithstanding. But then I realized a few things over the last couple days.

First, it occurred to me that while I have shared the joy of knowing Christ with many people, I haven't really volunteered it. I have spoken to several non-Christians about my faith, how I do have a peace of mind about me, how I do sense God's presence with me. I've spoken to people about how I've eliminated vices from my life, how easy it was to cut a lot of foolish, vain pursuits from my life. Honestly, the fact that I haven't lost interest in updating this blog is something that speaks volumes to me. You might not appreciate it, but I am utterly terrible at maintaining things like this. I just lose interest.

I'm the guy who always bought a shiny new day planner at the beginning of every school year, the guy who never sauntered to class without first digging my nose in that thing. For about a month or so. At the end of the year, I'd find it buried beneath a pile of scrap papers or junk mail somewhere in my apartment. To flip through it, you'd see a lot of blue ink for the first several pages, and then nothing but white. No entries. Nothing.

I treated relationships the same way. It seemed like every year, I found intellectual companions in my classes. I made some profound connections with people. But, just as it is with my work, I never endeavoured to know them outside the class environment. I never had the courage to approach them as me the person, even though me the classmate could relate to the very same people. Even worse, the ones who failed to challenge my intellect were the ones that were the easiest to leave at the curb. I treat everything that way. I've never been able to maintain interest in any job I've ever had--even the creative ones. At some point, it becomes mechanical, just like scripture was starting to feel yesterday.

I caught myself being my old self: locked in a room with four walls and a mind that feels like a jittery firefighter's hose. That's how my mind has always worked. It's non-stop. Without something to channel it, my mind is no different than those exaggerated little jokes in animated sitcoms. It's like I'm attached to a hydrant with no guiding hands to channel me, and I just flail about mentally. When I have a mentor who understands me, these things can be controlled. In the past, substances have served to cut the water and allow me to just coast on any idea I would choose. Of course, now that those forms of sabotage are gone, I'm having to actually heal these issues. And so I realized yesterday that, for the most part, my Christian experience has been very solitary to this point. Just me in a room with a book. Alone. Stuck with my thoughts again. It even occurred to me that I act the same way in God's house, not just mine. I've made friendships there. Even volunteered for a few things. But I have yet to actually approach someone or speak to another member that didn't approach me first. I'm still an observer, just like I was as a child.

I was sick a lot as a child. I didn't even realize at the time how strange I seemed to some people. I missed a lot of classes for a variety of treatments. The big ones were asthma and epilepsy, but I also had eczema, which left pretty severe rashes on my hands and face. It was only after I had outgrown these things that my then best friend dared tell me just how digusting I appeared to the other kids. Funny thing was I hadn't noticed. I always knew I was different; heck, I was a foot taller than most of my earliest classmates at one point. But even back then, I existed in my head. I was scatterbrained and something of a dreamer. Most of my life was vicarious, and that hasn't changed.

I don't mean to knock those who struggle with things like alcohol, but for me to give up anything physical for the sake of becoming a church member, pfft. That stuff's all minor to me. The real battleground is invisible. All in my head. And you know what? I could probably get away with not addressing that for the rest of my life. What I can't do is allow it. And what I don't know is how to change any of this stuff. I've always understood the notion that ignorance is bliss, but since all I've ever had were the things I observed, I've been deathly afraid of ignorance. I'm utterly incapable of deciding something without considering every outcome I've observed in other people. Ironically, I have it on good authority that others have misinterpreted my intensely unflappable hesitation as being a strong foundation. I've been told by people who I really thought understood me that I'm the "grounded one" in their entourage. If I weren't stuck on integrity and perfection, I'd be thrilled to accept that kind of compliment. Sadly, I can't.

I don't know if my desire to be perfect stems from an early and subtle understanding of how imperfect I was. But that's how I approach everything I take seriously. I need to be perfect at it, and I need to make it as perfect as I can. Little wonder I've got such a rabid streak of missed opportunities to my credit. But this is what I need God to heal in me, and whether I accomplish anything at all by typing it here, I felt inclined to share it. Maybe someone will read this and want to serve as some kind of accountability partner for me. What did I do this week to spread the gospel, kind of thing, instead of just leeching it all for myself. The funny thing is, I actually reached a point where I thought I was being the good soldier by sheltering myself from others. If I have it in me to leech the life out of a situation, then let me project it inward and not consume anyone's energies. Makes me wish Satan had something visible like alcohol to leverage over me. That, to my own ignorance, would seem like a much easier hurdle to jump.

I'll end this with a few passages that were written after me own heart. I read these before I fell asleep Sunday night (wee Monday, to be fair). I still think knowledge is power, but I no longer think knowledge is everything. It certainly hasn't rendered my life perfect, at least not the kind of knowledge I've gathered to this point. But, as people will sometimes ask you, if you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would it be. For now, I have a new human hero, King Solomon. He asked God for precisely what I would have. The question of the hour: could I even have handled it?

1 Kings 3: 5-9 "At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you."

Solomon answered, "You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.

7 "Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. 8 Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. 9 So give your servant a discerning heart..."