Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast, which features, among other […]

CJ Green / 2.19.16

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast, which features, among other things, Jacob Smith discussing “A Lenten Theology of the Cross”. 

1. Following the release of Kanye’s new album, The Life of Pablo, which dropped on Valentine’s Day, but which is only available on Tidal, many of us find ourselves once again captivated by Yeezus, one of modernity’s greatest cultural antinomians: In his life, Kanye West has broken so many cultural little-l laws (from portraying himself as Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone to making such a public spectacle as to get name-called by the POTUS) that his life experience resembles something that few other human beings have ever known.

Law breaking, to be clear, isn’t the Gospel. Law breaking instead lends to a skewed perception of freedom—Joplin’s kind of sad, “nothing left to lose” perception. True freedom, as Ethan points out in his Mockingbird at the Movies essay, has more to do with “being led” than leading oneself. So it’s not necessarily in Kanye’s spectacle-making but rather in his more earnest, reflective moments that he reminds us of the Christian message, especially in contrast to his intense, glamorous exterior. In the “Lost in the World” moments of dissatisfaction with himself and his surroundings, we find Yeezus admitting a need for Jesus.

We do, however, love his cultural transgression because it brings to life a piece of ourselves we like, with which we identify. Pitchfork puts it this way:

Even when he was being loathsome, Kanye’s behavior always felt rooted in something messy and relatable… Once upon a time, he was The Asshole Incarnate, the self-described ‘douchebag’ that we couldn’t look away from. But there are moments here [on The Life of Pablo] where he just sounds like another asshole. And yet, as it always does in Kanye’s essentially crowd-pleasing, deeply Christian music, the light wins out over the darkness.

I’m a little hesitant to call Kanye’s music, overall, “deeply Christian”—but he does have a knack for provoking some gritty questions about human need and the divine.

Pitchfork’s review argues that both The Life of Pablo and its release seem sloppier than Kanye’s previous work and that this might just be because, as a young father, he doesn’t actually have time to micromanage his image. In a similar way, he seems to have gained a sense of humor about himself.

tumblr_lsij39HRu61r21vqfo1_500“Father Stretch My Hands” … [is] the least-finished-sounding piece of music to ever feature on a Kanye album. This is the logical endpoint to the sort of obsessive perfectionism that led West to make 75 near-identical mix downs of  “Stronger,” and in the song’s lyrics, Kanye admits that the same workaholism that made his father a distant figure in his childhood now keeps him from his family…The life of a creative visionary has dark undercurrents (“name me one genius who ain’t crazy,” Kanye demands on “Feedback”) and it’s possible that The Life of Pablo title serves as much private warning as boastful declaration.

While I haven’t had the chance to hear the full album yet, the first song, “Ultralight Beam” is a must-listen! Its refrain of “This is a God dream” refers to, in my interpretation, the dream for God’s protection and love—not, as Pitchfork insists, that “the universe is a trick of the light.” To me, the song is a prayer. I’ve pulled some of the best lyrics for you below, but definitely check out the full SNL video, in which Kanye happily gives copious amounts of stage time to other voices, including a gospel choir and the recording of a 4-year-old named Natalie praising the Lord (who is also remarkably the first voice heard on the album).

I’m tryna keep my faith…
This is a God dream
This is everything…
Deliver us serenity

Deliver us peace

Deliver us loving

Lord knows we need it
You know we need it
That’s why we need you now, oh, I
Pray for Paris, but pray for the parents
This is a God dream…

I’m tryna keep my faith
But I’m looking for more
Somewhere I can feel safe
And end my holy war

I’m tryna keep my faith…

Head up high, I look to the light
Hey, ’cause I know that you’ll make everything alright

And I know that you’ll take good care of your child
Oh, no longer am afraid of the night
Cause I, I look to the light…

The outro is preached by Kirk Franklin:

Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough. This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up. For everyone that feels they’ve said “I’m sorry” too many times. Jesus, that’s why I’m glad you came to give us eternal life. I’m so glad about it.

2. Ok, ok, enough Yeezus. More music with Mavis Staples’ highly-anticipated album Livin’ on a High Note, which is out today. USA Today remembers Mavis’ early work and her complicated history with the church and civil rights.

When [“I’ll Take You There”] came out, Staples recalls, “The church people wanted to take us out of church. They said we were singing the devil’s music, because that’s the first time we were singing with a rhythm section behind us. When we did interviews, I said, ‘You have to listen to the lyrics.'”

Here Staples begins singing softly, her husky voice shimmering with emotion: “‘I know a place/Ain’t nobody cryin’/Ain’t nobody worried.’ Now where else would that place be that we’re taking you, other than heaven? That’s a gospel song! Well, not long after that, we were invited back to church.”

I can’t say I’m as familiar with Mavis as I am Kanye, but it is pretty obvious that she has released what will surely be one of Mockingbird’s favorite songs of the year (penned by our muse, Nick Cave), entitled, “Jesus, Lay Down Beside Me.” This song asks us one of the most important questions, especially for our culture of self-reliance, “Are you in need?”

The song begins with an unexpected reversal: Weary Jesus is invited to lay down his head. This reminds me of his humanity, that Jesus himself (who our culture by-and-large still respects as a figure (see: Jesus According to Pop Culture)) was at one point in great need, weeping and spending a very late night, without coffee, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mavis sings: “Jesus, lay down and rest your troubled mind, lay down your worries. Well, you wept a million tears, Lord.” She reminds us that Christ dies with all of our sins, that he suffers with us. “Are you in need?”

3. In humor: The Lent Madness bracket is in full swing. This is one of the most fun ways to learn about great figures in Christian history as they face off every day in a battle of saintly accomplishments. One of the more nail-biter face-offs occurred this past Monday, when Julian of Norwich smacked down with William Wilberforce. Check out their website for the full bracket.

Also, from The Onion: “Vatican City Residents Rally to Save St. Peter’s Basilica.” One of my favorite bits is excerpted here:

francis_collageAccording to critics, the proposed design—consisting of several seven-story, steel-and-glass condominium buildings each with ground-floor premium-brand retailers and terrace cafés, as well as a winding promenade featuring numerous green spaces and a bike path—was hastily approved by Vatican City officials without any formal input from the community. Drawing more ire from those opposed to the project, developers recently confirmed that J.Crew, Regal Cinemas, and restaurant chain Johnny Rockets have already committed to leasing space in the complex that is to be erected on the plot of land where St. Peter was said to be crucified during the reign of Roman emperor Nero.

4. This week, a letter from the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been getting quite a bit of attention. The letter was written in 1998 after the funeral of retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell at a Presbyterian Church, written to the presiding minister (ht Bryan Jarrell).

In my aging years, I have attended so many funerals of prominent people that I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre. When the deceased and his family are nonbelievers, of course, there is not much to be said except praise for the departed who is no more. But even in Christian services conducted for deceased Christians , I am surprised at how often eulogy is the centerpiece of the service, rather than (as it was in your church) the Resurrection of Christ, and the eternal life which follows from that…Even when the deceased was an admirable person—indeed, especially when the deceased was an admirable person—praise for his virtues can cause us to forget that we are praying for, and giving thanks for, God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner….

Perhaps the clergymen who conduct relatively secular services are moved by a desire not to offend the nonbelievers in attendance—whose numbers tend to increase in proportion to the prominence of the deceased. What a great mistake. Weddings and funerals (but especially funerals) are the principal occasions left in modern America when you can preach the Good News not just to the faithful, but to those who have never really heard it.

5. An op-ed appeared in The NY Times this week entitled, “Narcissism is Increasing. So You’re Not So Special.” According to a 2010 study, the number of college students exhibiting narcissistic personality traits has doubled since the 80s.

30401210f4508be16d4505920227cf93Philosophy helps us [understand this issue] every bit as well as psychology. The 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about “amour-propre,” a kind of self-love based on the opinions of others. He considered it unnatural and unhealthy, and believed that arbitrary social comparison led to people wasting their lives trying to look and sound attractive to others.

This would seem to describe our current epidemic. Indeed, in the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love not with himself, but with his reflection. In the modern version, Narcissus would fall in love with his own Instagram feed, and starve himself to death while compulsively counting his followers.

If our egos are obese with amour-propre, social media can indeed serve up the empty emotional carbs we crave. Instagram and the like doesn’t create a narcissist, but studies suggest it acts as an accelerant — a near ideal platform to facilitate what psychologists call “grandiose exhibitionism.” No doubt you have seen this in others, and maybe even a little of it in yourself as you posted a flattering selfie — and then checked back 20 times for “likes.

Instagram doesn’t create a narcissist, but the narcissist is certainly attracted to things like Instagram, and a platform designed for self-promotion would only intensify narcissistic expressions. Self-promotion is in a lot of ways a stride off the same foot as self-justification. As humans, we are constantly seeking affirmation for our existence; we crave a reason to live.

MjAxMy1hOGJjNmI5YmUyNjUyZTI4Fasting social media during Lent may very well cut out the “emotional junk food that is feeding an unhealthy self-obsession,” but it will not cut out the unhealthy self-obsession, to which we are all inclined, altogether. Such an obsession only serves to point us towards the fact that we long to be loved and towards a God who promises to do just that.

6. The blog A New Name featured a beautiful piece on That Dragon, Cancer, the profound video game designed to help players understand the grieving process and the grace of God. In the game, the player is trying to help Joel fight “that dragon, cancer,” but ultimately, no matter what the player does, Joel dies. In the article, the writer Glen explains:

We have no choices – not about the things that really matter. We can’t decide our way out of our mortality. We have no choices, we have only grace. And what does that grace look like? Not the avoidance of death but the certain journey through it…

At last you find yourself in the final scene [of the game]. You cross a lake to find Joel happily on the other side of this vale of tears. You blow bubbles and he giggles. He shows you his dog and his favourite food – pancakes. Through the devastation of death, there is hope. Through our helplessness, God shows up in mercy. But there’s no other way to glory.

This beautiful reflection is a perfect image of the theology of the cross, the heart and essence of Christianity. Christ doesn’t run away from death, but runs through it, for us.