Friday, June 27, 2008

Mid-Summer Review

What have I been up to this Summer?

Thanks. I’m glad you asked. Summer is roughly half over for me. I’m trying to avoid the panic of feeling like time is slipping through my fingers by considering all the good thus far. Would it be an overstatement if I were to say that if all I had done in May and June is get my hands on three CD, that half the summer has been worth it? I guess that is more for me to qualify. Its up to you to decide if it is silly or not. What you might initially find silly is that I spent some $150 on used CDs at my favorite record store, Zulu Records, while I was at Regent studying in May. I don’t usually have time to listen to music. I haven’t been keeping up with some of my favorite aritsts/bands. My livelihood is music, and so I thought I needed a good shot in the arm of musical inspiration. Some times you’ve got to wade through a bunch of music to find what you are looking for. I also just bought a used 30 GB ipod from a student for $75 and have more convenience to listen in the car or while flying. So far this has been a summer saturated by great music.

I’ll add that after all the money and time I’ve spent, I still come back to my friend David Stith’s music and find it to still be fresh and interesting. A plug: he is finishing recording his first major release with Asthmatic Kitty as I write this. He is working with Rafter, a label mate, in San Diego. It will have contributions from the Osso, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond as well as Sufjan Stevens (AK is his label for those of you who don’t know). David has removed most of his demos from his website, but you can still download a few tracks for free at

Here are three discs that rise to the top of my new pile:

Boards of Canada The Campfire Headphase
Again, I’m prone to overstatement when it comes to music, so here goes: I’ve been waiting my whole life for Boards of Canada and I didn’t know it. Not only does they have the name of a country I deeply love, they create emotional movements that suit me well. It’s not fair to judge music based on its capacity to fit one’s emotions. That makes the music all about me and that makes me seem selfish. I turn again to the way that I describe my affection for Radiohead and other types of music that incorporate strangeness and noise. BOC manages to form emotional landscapes with various beats and noises that aspire to make sense of our noisy, digital, industrial world. They helps us remember beauty in the midst of what seems so painful in our highly artificial, pre-fabricated existence. I was first drawn to BOC by a re-mix they did of Beck’s “Broken Drum” on Guerolito. That song is my favorite of the re-mixes. It compares to Four Tet’s remix of Bloc Party’s “So Here We Are.” I’m a sucker to good beat overlaid with ambient synths and noise artifacts. I thought Album Leaf was a master at this, but Album Leaf has been usurped.

Wolf Parade At Mount Zoomer
I picked up a used copy of their previous disc, Apologies to the Queen Mary, at Zulu Records when we were in Vancouver. I’m pretty sure I bought that record mostly because of its drum sounds and secondly because it sounded like a rough and raw rougher version of Modest Mouse—if you can actually get any more rough and raw. It was mostly the sound of the WP record that was interesting, but once I got it on my ipod and listened to it, I realized it was not going to be an easy listen. Hopefully its intensity will grow on me in time, but when Steve down at Full Circle records here in Holland said this new WP record is more chill, I knew it would be interesting even before I read any reviews or listened to any snippets on the itunes store. This is one monstrous record. It gets low marks by Pitchfork because the reviewer didn’t think the album holds together. I guess there are two different song writers who contribute songs independently from each other. In my opinion these different writing personalities do not work against each other, instead they form a record that will get lots of listening time out of me because I can’t imagine it wearing thin any time soon. Oh, and it was recorded at Arcade Fire’s church studio and the drum sounds are as interesting on this record as they were on Apologies to the Queen Mary. And Steve was partly right. This record is a chill version of WP, but I’d add that it is a much more creative effort in terms of thoughtful arrangement. Not only does the whole disc have a lot to explore, but so does each song. Lots of great guitars moving all over the place and did I mention the drums are amazing. The vocals keep swelling in at just the perfect places too—not over sung, pushy vocals—easy and modest.

Sigur Ros Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
I can’t really talk about this record yet except to say, Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thanks to the kind, gentle Icelandic souls who make this music. Oh, and there is a track that is recorded live with a full orchestra and choir. Thank you!

Other than rabidly listening to music I have been working on a few courses to finish my Masters degree, helping Susanna with some landscaping projects, traveling to Montana to participate in a faculty workshop on Senior Seminars, going out of my mind with two puppies that can’t seem to avoid chewing on pens and pooping indoors, and studying the trajectory of Barack Obama. Vancouver with Sam and Andy was a highlight for sure. Susanna joined us for our last week there and we ate gelato almost every night.

My trip to Montana was also significant (photos here). I did some fly-fishing with author David James Duncan. I’m not a very good fly fisherman because it requires the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree to practice with all that you need to know about bugs and weather and fish. David gave me some pointers and I actually caught some fish—in the pond that is stocked on the ranch, not in the river while wearing my fancy waders and standing in the water. It was kinda like the bunny slope of fishing. In David’s words, it was so easy to catch fish in the ponds that it was “stupid.” I watched him spot a 24-inch, four-pound trout, sling out his fly line and hook that fish like he was shooting it with a bow and arrow. This is now my best fishing tale. To fish with a favorite author is one thing. To share a moment like this, the kind that he has written about so well, makes me ridiculously fortunate. Later that night I was working on my cast as the sun was disappearing. David walked down to the pond in order to get away after having hosted a reading and discussion. He generously offered me his time and we had an important conversation. I’m going to send him a copy of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet because I think it explores some of the same themes and utilizes some of the same style as the novel he described to me he is presently working on. Susanna made sure we ordered a used copy off the internet, so I doubt that it won’t show up for another month. Ack! It is good to have a thrifty wife.

Susanna is in Austin for the week to catch up with friends and attend a wedding. Sam and Andy have been over to the house several times to study. It is an incredible help to work with others. I can stay on task better. It’s like there is better energy in the room if that doesn’t sound too New Agey-ish. We’ve been reading the New Testament together starting with our time at Regent. Last night we worked through Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon. I wish I spent more time reading the Scriptures out loud like this with others. Honestly it is hard to enjoy the summer because I need the structure of the workweek to get my butt in gear and so I wallow in frustration with my poor work ethic. Reading the NT aloud with Andy and Sam ranks right up there as the best parts of my summer.

I’ve actually been working quite a bit. I’m just not working on what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve been distracted by a manuscript on arts ministry. It is the fleshing out of my notes from the seminar I did with David Taylor at the Arts Symposium in Austin back in April. My working title is While in This House We Groan: Nurturing the Arts in the Local Church. Let me know what you think. It is a reference to a passage in 2 Corinthians.

“The Discipline of Healthy Discourse: A Possible Gift of the Presidential Races”

June 26, 2008

Within the last few months I’ve had a slow steady stream of classmates from high school pop up with “friend requests” on my Facebook page. This is all rather surreal. On the newsfeed section I can see the Facebook activities of students from Hope College, students from Casady School in Oklahoma where I taught middle division, students from OCS where I first taught high school, friends from grad school who now live in the UK, Colorado, California and some who remain in Canada, friends from church back at Bridgeway in OKC...all these people lumped together with people who sat next to me in Speech class and Algebra, competed with me in PE, football and basketball and played in band and sang in Chorus. It is not that I don’t want to connect with these long-lost friends, it is that in trying to come to terms with who they are now almost fifteen years later, I find myself pondering who I am now fifteen years later. If anything, these people pop up in our lives in a way that brings continuity to our stories. They help us bracket ourselves, to step outside ourselves and see ourselves better as if from their perspective. Isn’t this why so many of us are afraid of school reunions? In some way the gathering of people from long ago acts as a kind of milestone or bench mark and we find ourselves wondering if our stories are getting more interesting and heading in a bright and shiny direction or if we are digressing and falling into a slump.

They were good people, for the most part. I don’t want to sound bitter about high school. It is not so much who those classmates were that I’m concerned about. It is who I thought they were, how I interpreted them in light of who I was at that point in my own growth, and how that reflects back on me. “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” (Hamlet). And we can follow this reasoning with, “to the pure in heart everything seems pure,” (The Apostle Paul). If that is true, then the antithesis must be true as well: to the dark in heart everything seems dark or to the shy and insecure everything seems intimidating. The lens through which we view the world often says more about us than it does about the world.

Memories of these classmates invoke memories of the 14-18 year old version of myself. I am now three or four stages removed from that young idealistic, teenaged Joshua Banner. I am sure that he would be both encouraged and discouraged by who I am today. I don’t want to be too hard on myself though. Memories are strange. We have very little control of them. We unconsciously edit our memory and we tend to hang on to the best and the worst. The ordinary humdrum of our past fades away; thus memory is mostly an exaggeration. If history is written by kings, perhaps we might say that the extremes of our past—the best and the worst—are our own personal tyrants.

There is one main capacity that I hope I’ve grown in: love, of course. Specifically, my hope is to have grown in an ability to love others in healthy dialogue. One of these high school friends has been sparring with me on the 2008 elections. He began with a question about my support for Senator Barack Obama. “What are you thinking?” he asked me in a wall post on my facebook page. And thus we were off to the races. I confess a bit of a hesitation about some of the strong language I used in confronting his frustration with my preferred candidate. In the course of a couple exchanges, it seems that very little of our ideas and convictions translated. At this point in our dialogue I feel a bit lost and confused in our own little gridlock.

So here we have two people, estranged from each other by close to fifteen years who are also further estranged from each other by their own political biases. I guess it is too much to expect that we might actually have a healthy dialogue. There is too much water still left to go under the bridge.

As I continue to ponder this failing exchange with an old high school friend, I continue to experience a deep sense of bewilderment and I continue to wonder why? Why am I surprised at my bewilderment? What is at stake here? I didn’t make it to my last high school reunion. I’m not sure if I’ll make my next one either. Will I ever see this guy again? Does it matter? Something seems to matter to me here, but what?

During the last presidential race I wrote and e-published an essay I titled, “Teaching Sixth Graders in a Time of War.” Something I heard on my way to school one morning on NPR set me off into the swill of despair. I wanted to do something tangible. I wanted to talk with others. I wanted participate in our democracy prior to the voting booths. I wanted healthy dialogue. So, during my prep periods I wrote out my thoughts on why my vote for John Kerry was a protest vote against the handling of the war in Iraq. I felt so strongly about the use of my time that I showed it to my boss at the end of the day.

The reaction to my essay from others: one friend told me I was “full of shit;” another questioned my faith. I ended up writing three more essays in response to these and other responses. That whole experience was bewildering too, but it was good for me. I learned more about my own positions. I was able to listen to others. Our exchanges got heated at times, but overall the discussions leant themselves to more trust and more understanding. Democracy worked.

I found myself rehearsing the words of the prayer attributed to St. Francis after the election—especially in light of the election’s results:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

I worked this notion of giving and receiving into my graduate studies. I worked it into my curriculum with the sixth graders. It changed the way I think about the creative process especially when writing music or recording; It has come to affect my understanding of prayer, friendship and sex, how to be a neighbor and a citizen. Dialogue is a deep practice of listening that forces one to surrender her agenda, to allow for awkwardness in a conversation rather than rushing in with the next, most insightful adage. We give up the fight for the last word. We defer; we consider others better than ourselves; we serve by listening. If we all joined together with the intent to give rather than to receive, there would always be abundance. No one would be needy. This all fits nicely with the Sermon on the Mount. It gives us a better grasp of what Jesus meant by “meekness.”

However, there are many times when the Apostle Paul and even Jesus himself do not come off as wilting lilies. “You brood of vipers!” (Jesus) and “I will not spare one of you!” (Paul).  Jesus rarely defended his authority, and when he did, his defense was cloaked in difficult allusions to the Father. Much of what he presented about his authority was difficult to understand. Paul, on the other hand, was traipsing around Asia Minor visiting churches, getting himself imprisoned and writing numerous letters working to maintain his authority. He lost many of his key leaders during his ministry. It all must have been exhausting and the result is some stern language in his epistles that reveals his frustration. Yet, Jesus was still very firm. He was unflinchingly firm in the face of Pontius Pilate’s interrogation and in the face of angry mobs trying to trick him into blaspheming. These two men are at the core of the New Testament writings and they continually tell their followers to obey the first command, to love your neighbor, and yet that love is not passive or weak. It is the definition of a more true kind of masculinity, a kind of strength that our chauvinist society can’t understand. So, how does that kind of strength play itself out through the practice of healthy dialogue? How do we love by listening well and do this with strong convictions?

In the context of our post 9/11 public discourse, “fundamentalist” seems to be synonymous with “terrorist.” We are quick to disregard any religious fervor if it smacks of dogmatism or rigid idealism. This is a label that progressive Evangelicals are trying to shake like the plague. At one recent faculty meeting I heard a professor rant, “Fundamentalism is wrong!” Later he admitted that by making such blanket statements he is susceptible to his own brand of fundamentalism, but nevertheless his call was for us to stop being too nice and for us to speak out our convictions--what we believe to be right and wrong.

So, we find ourselves in the same kind of gridlock I’m now in with my old friend from high school. How can any of us believe an idea and offer it in dialogue in a way that does not alienate the others who disagree? In short, we seem to have cornered ourselves into believing that any conviction equals fundamentalism. This is definitely the reason why there is such a push to remove religion from public policy and discourse, but isn’t such a sweeping elimination of religious language and thought its own kind of secular fundamentalism then?

Dialogue can only be nurtured in the context of love. Love is the only way that we can avoid the gridlock of our respective ideologies. Love is the difference between the tyrant and the prophet. Love shows us how to lower our guard and to look past our fears of each other. Love restrains us from bombast. Love is heuristic. Without it we will be left with strife, jealousy, backbiting, gossip, slander, dissention, hate…all those things that keep a democracy from working.

Much of what is postured as rhetoric and wit in our society mostly amounts to scoffing. It doesn’t even amount to good, healthy satire. Satire at its best enables the foolish to see themselves as they are. At its best, satire intends to see the righting of what is wrong. Scoffing, instead, is a cutting off--a death wish. G.K. Chesterton was an expert at this. “How can angels fly?” He asked. “Because they don’t take themselves too seriously.” We all need to laugh at ourselves from time to time, but we Americans have trouble with this. God bless John Stewart and Stephen Colbert and even perhaps Al Franken (maybe Al Franken).

In his book God Laughs and Plays, David James Duncan defines fundamentalism as a closed conversation. Fundamentalism is white knuckled and it can’t get outside of itself. It doesn’t look into mirrors; it doesn’t engage in the revision process. It is not that we revise the Scriptures or our creedal confessions; it is that we revise our understandings of them. All of us hold fundamental beliefs even if we aren’t fundamentalists. We live and breathe and exist because each of us holds to certain fundamental presuppositions about the universe. With out these fundamental beliefs we would not be able to wake up in the morning and attend to our work nor would we be able to sleep at the end of the day. We assume that the sun will rise and that it will provide us with sufficient warmth, that gravity will never fail, that we will always have access to water and that people will understand us when we use language. All of these are faith assumptions that neither of us can completely explain, but we still function according to their truths. These assumptions help us get on with our lives and work.

When we white knuckle our convictions, we close ourselves off and we become fundamentalists. We reduce ourselves to the mentally absurd by white knuckling ideas that we can neither explain or control. We confuse faith for empirical certainty. We then unnecessarily distance ourselves from our neighbors. We become suspicious. We expect the worst of others. We police their beliefs; we are quick to publicly censor and condemn. There is then no need for dialogue—only lecture or monologue. The Christian faith has survived two millennia because it is deeply rooted in its convictions yet is still able to endure scrutiny. Wherever it thrives, it does so by its dynamism not by its pogroms, inquisitions and witch hunts. Christianity is not static, dead doctrine. Ours is a living, breathing, life giving faith community that seems to flourish best not when it is linked to political powers but when it is instead suffering under persecution. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

If the lens that we see the world through can say more about ourselves than the world, then the same applies to the way we hold onto our convictions whether they are agnostic or Christian. In a dialogue the first order of business is how we hold our convictions and not just those convictions themselves. Dr. James Dobson is a case in point with his recent comments about Barack Obama. At one point in our not so distant past, such public fencing by a leader in the Moral Majority might have led to disaster for a democratic candidate. My optimistic hope is that most evangelicals can see Dobson’s comments for the caricature that they are. I’m not even concerned that evangelicals vote for Obama. Most won’t and Obama won’t need many of them in order to win the election either. I’m concerned about our public discourse; I’m concerned with healthy dialogue.

What disturbs me so much about my exchange with my friend from high school? I’m disturbed by the same thing that disturbs me about Dobson’s reduction of Obama’s faith: a lack of understanding, an inability to listen, a stand off, zero exchange, zero democracy. Dobson accuses Obama of distorting the bible in order to serve his own purposes and adds, “What [Obama is] trying to say here is unless everybody agrees, we have no right to fight for what we believe.” Obama is not trying to make an argument from Scripture at all. That is the difference. He is saying that if we are to legislate policy informed by our faith, it needs to be translated into a context that the various constituents of our country can share. At the same time Obama adamantly defends the need to retain religious vocabulary in our public discourse. “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.” Obama is not reducing Christianity to universal appeal. He is calling Christians to fully be Christians and to carry their faith into the public discourse in way that extends itself to our neighbors. This is a very different public posture than Dobson's. Obama is calling us to open ourselves to dialogue and understanding. Dobson, instead, would rather strong arm government and have it surrender public discourse to his version of Judeo-Christian faith. One is charitable and open; the other is fundamentalist, closed and white knuckled. Fortunately, it seems that the latter is losing traction.

I’m not naive about the work ahead of Obama once he is elected—and I am pretty confident he will be. My Dad is pessimistic about Obama’s ability to affect the change that everyone is so enthusiastic about. I can understand this. In the wake of his “Yes We Can” campaign, I’m not optimistic about quick fixes to our economy, health care, social security, education or our dealings in Iraq and Iran for that matter (or North Korea or China….). Obama represents a shift in politics that I hope will be a watershed for public discourse and the political process. His speech in reaction to the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright demonstrates that he has a sophisticated and generous ability to enter into the complexities of our society. In such a bifurcated nation as ours with its many culture wars and with such poor international relations, we need this kind of leadership and mediation. We can’t function much longer without it. In Obama’s self-written speech that has been compared to both King and Lincoln, he put himself in the shoes of Rev. Wright and saw issues of racism from the Reverend’s generation. He put himself in the shoes of others who don’t understand Rev. Wright’s world. He explained for us the subtle nuances that make up the confusion about the Reverend’s words and he accurately described the limitations of our media coverage. These nuances can’t be appreciated or considered through the medium of sound bytes and the squabbles of talking heads paid to conjecture in a way that keeps television ratings high. We need more than 15 second blips and bleeps about what he said and what she said. We need healthy dialogue. We need political leaders who do not underestimate the American people, who respect our ability to listen and think well.

It is this kind of generous dialogue that I was hoping to engage with my high school friend. It’s the kind of dialogue I hope you and I are able to engage between now and November. Perhaps this is one of the great gifts that these awkward and agonizing presidential races offer us every four years: a chance to relearn the discipline of healthy dialogue that we can then carry into every other area of our lives after January 2009.