Tag Archives: Music

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Hunting paradise in a haunted wild western world (or playing Red Dead Redemption 2, listening to Mumford and Sons, and watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)

But what if I need you in my darkest hour?
What if it turns out there is no other?
We had it all
If this is our time now
We wanna see a sign, oh
We would see a sign

So give us a sign
I need some guiding light
Children of darkness, oh — ’42’, Mumford and Sons

I heard someone recently say that the history of art in the west can be described as a thousand years of religious art and then stripes — the idea being that once the transcendent or sacred disappears from our cultural narrative we’re left with trying to make meaning from the very mundane. It’s an interesting thesis, but I don’t think it bears scrutiny, at least not when it comes to art that is worth one’s time and attention (whether high or pop culture). While stripes abound as a certain sort of artistic response to a reality that is flattened and turned in on itself, modern art is more complicated, more haunted, and less monolithic than such a reduction allows — and good modern art confronts this haunting sense front on, and asks us to consider what we might have lost in our culture that means we produce less overtly religious art.

I heard this idea while my imagination was consumed by the wild west, at least as modern secular artists render the wild west in order to tell stories. I’d watched the Coen brothers’ new Netflix special The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and was playing Rockstar Games’ western epic (in every sense of the word) Red Dead Redemption 2. I’ve also had Mumford and Sons’ Delta on high rotation since its release — and all three of these cultural texts, these works of reasonably good popular art, push back against the idea that modern art is hollowed because it is no longer hallowed… in this movie, this video game, and this album, all of which, to some extent, explore the wild untamed land of life and death with or without God, there’s a truth that modern art that is worth our attention is not hollow, but rather, haunted.

Two of these texts deliberately and directly interact with an older piece of art, from the ‘religious’ era — John Milton’s Paradise Lost, asking questions about where paradise might be found in this new, wild, western world. The other, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs confronts us with the truth that humans destroy paradise by nature, because facing death without hope destroys us all.

One popular version of the theory of secular, modern life, the ‘stripes’ theory of art, is that religious themes don’t make sense, and that they’re not worthy of being celebrated artistically — there’s certainly lots of ‘art’ and lots of stories that are ‘stripey’ in this sense, but that’s not the ‘secular age’ theory put forward by philosopher Charles Taylor, or unpacked by James K.A Smith in his commentary on A Secular Age titled How (Not) To Be Secular. Smith’s analysis of Taylor’s work was bouncing around my head as I watched, played, and listened to these texts. Here’s Smith:

“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.”

Mumford and Sons have always been overtly secular in this sense — the haunted sense — frontman Marcus Mumford’s parents are pastors, and right from their debut album Sigh No More there’ve been religious undertones to their lyrics. The lyrics of their songs are often ambiguous such that Mumford could be singing to a woman he loves, or to God. In this sense the band’s back catalogue, and this current album, function like a welcome reversal of contemporary Christian music, which seems to take the lyrical sensibility of modern songs celebrating sexual love only to replace the ‘you’ — the human other — with ‘God’ (as lampooned by South Park). So much Christian art is, thus, haunted — or colonised — by a modernist ‘stripey’ aesthetic. It adopts the content and form of this ‘secular’ immanent art, rather than pushing us towards the transcendent.

Mumford and Sons’ religious oeuvre continues in Delta where themes of darkness and light play out against the backdrop of songs about finding love and satisfaction through being a ‘beloved’ ‘forever’, while also navigating ‘the wild’ as mortals. In Guiding Light, Mumford expresses a certain sort of monotheistic faith in this awe inspiring one who’ll ‘always be my only guiding light’…

Well I know I had it all on the line
But don’t just sit with folded hands and become blind’
Cause even when there is no star in sight
You’ll always be my only guiding light  — ‘Guiding Light’, Mumford and Sons

It’s not smooth sailing and light. There are some pretty dark places the album’s “I”— and I say this because it’s not just Mumford, the band write together, and we as listeners who participate in the album by listening are caught up in the story — explores through the musical journey. It’s a journey from the ‘wild’ that “puts the fear of God in me” (The Wild), through a crippling ‘fear of what’s to come’ that is replaced by ‘hope once more’ when the “silhouette” of this loved other, who had been obscured by “blinding light” is “branded on his mind” so as to shine brighter on his “wondering eyes” (October Skies, I’d love it if that was ‘wandering eyes’ but the online lyrics sites are divided) … through to the ‘Delta‘, where the river meets the sea.

The album gets more overtly religious — whether or not its God or a lover in view — when Mumford quotes Song of Songs chapter 2:1 to describe his beloved, in this ‘cursed world,’ as his ‘rose of Sharon’.

And I will surround you
With a love too deep for words
Hold you from the world and its curse
So long as I have breath in my lungs
Long as there’s a song to be sung
I will be yours and you will be mine
Ever our lives entwined
My rose of Sharon
My rose of Sharon
With a love too deep for words
I’m yours forever — ‘Rose of Sharon’, Mumford and Sons

Song of Songs is, if nothing else, an exploration of the place that sexual love occupies in a cursed, fallen, world; a world where we’re inclined to scratch an itch in our hearts with as much sex and love as possible — where it appears the itch is actually caused by our haunting sense of ‘paradise lost’. Song of Songs grapples with the ‘cursed world,’ and uses Edenic imagery — pictures of paradise — to describe sexual love. Asking if it rediscovering human passion is the way back to Eden; the way to recover ‘Paradise Lost.’ The Song invites us to ponder whether the two lovers are a new Adam and Eve; restorers of our fortunes. Ultimately it asks if sex can save us if we don’t first returning to God (such that our approach to romantic love is re-ordered by his love for us). It’s this question, more than any other that subtly haunts Delta. The catch is, that the Song, with its connection to Solomon in the Bible’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. Solomon’s loves — his pursuit of sex — don’t restore Eden, but repeat the Fall, carrying God’s people into exile. We’re left waiting for one greater than Solomon to restore us to paradise and re-order our loves.

And lest you think I’m making this undertone, this subtle note, up — Mumford and Sons then quote Milton’s Paradise Lost to make the subtle overt. In Picture You, possibly my favourite track on the album, there’s a darker note underpinning what until this point has sounded like a satisfying and deep love — a relationship that fills this void.

If I could tell you “no”
I thought it best you didn’t know
Don’t see it coming
The darkness visible
But when its eyes fix mine
The silver in its stone
I feel it rising, oh
The gathering storm

And when I feel a darkness is a heartbeat away
And I don’t know how to fight it
It’s a heartbeat away
And now
You don’t know me like this
It’s a heartbeat away
And I don’t know how to hide it
It’s a heartbeat away

And I picture you
Soaked in light
I picture you
And in you I had no doubt
When the chaos calls me out
And it feels like there is nothing I can do
I picture you — ‘Picture You,’ Mumford and Sons

Light and love is the answer to chaos and darkness. But here, more than ever, the question is — is Mumford singing to his beloved woman, and can she save him — or to God? And who can save him from this darkness? Truly?

What was a foreshadowing, or passing reference to Paradise Lost in the phrase ‘Darkness Visible’ — Milton’s description of Satan’s experience of Hell in Book 1 of his famous poem, is unpacked in the next track as this section of the poem is performed as a haunting spoken word.

“Nine times the space that measures day and night
Rolling in the fiery gulf
Confounded though immortal: but his doom
Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witnessed huge affliction and dismay
Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate
At once as far as angels ken he views
The dismal situation waste and wild
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end still urges
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible” — ‘Darkness Visible,’ Mumford and Sons

If this is the future — if death, and ‘darkness visible’ await — is sexual love worth it? Is replacing God with the best of human love a wise gamble? Can it provide the meaning and satisfaction required for a flourishing life? And even if it can, is it worth it? While the album asks plenty of big questions, it’s interesting that the quote stops there… here’s the next little bit, about what that ‘darkness visible’ does.

Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed:
Such place eternal justice had prepared
For those rebellious, here their prison ordained
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far removed from God and light of heaven
As from the center thrice to th’utmost pole. — John Milton, Paradise Lost

It’s a high stakes game — this pursuit of life without God, because if God is light and life and love, then the reality of being ‘as far removed from God and the light of heaven as from the center thrice to the utmost pole’ is about being removed from all that this album finds worth celebrating in a temporary reality. Which is where the album now turns, unpacking more of this existential crisis, and the question of where (or whether) paradise — or the good life — can be found in this world. It gives no easy answers, from If I Say I Love You and the lyrics “If you were given one more chance, would you bring me back to life? Bring me back into the light?” to Wild Heart and the line “mortal once again,” questions of life and light and meaning and love are threaded through this album — right up to the final two songs Forever and Delta. Forever is fascinating in that the tension seems to have resolved itself — or at least the choice has apparently been made, though doubt remains — and the answer to this ‘doubt’ is apparently to focus on the here and now so that these days ‘turn to gold’, and yet, the chorus is “love with your eyes, love with your mind, love with you – dare I say — forever.” If these days are all there is, this idea of forever is a nonsense. A platitude. And yet it feels like there’s a resolution to avoid the bigger questions about the way faith, or piety, might reshape our lives and priority — to choose to ‘not be saved’ in order to live quite happily… ‘forever’…

And I’ve known pious women
Who have lead such secret lives
Shameless in the dark, so shameful in the light
And you may not be pious and I may not be saved
But we could live quite happily and quietly unfazed — Forever, Mumford and Sons

In Smith’s, or Taylor’s, terms, this seems a resolution to say ‘secular’ — to remain haunted and simply make the best of it, rather than jumping to nothingness or to resolute faith. It’s like the “I” of this album resolves to not resolve anything, but to live in the here and now with these questions still pressing against reality. At this point the album feels lots like the book of Ecclesiastes — a companion piece in the Bible to the Song of Songs, that asks questions about the good life and what that might look like without God (“under the sun”) or with God. But Delta, like Ecclesiastes, has something like an epilogue. A final note exploring just how meaningless that previous resolution to pursue the good life without God, haunted by the absence of that which addresses the ‘eternity written on our hearts’ looks. In an interview I read, Marcus Mumford says he agonises over and overthinks every word he uses, the track ’42’ is the 42nd original song the band has released, it’s also a play on Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDelta, the final track of the album is also the title track — the delta is the place where ‘the river meets the sea,’ a movement from the safety of a river to the wilds of the ocean, it’s also, they say the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet and an appropriate title for their fourth album — but there’s another thing the Greek letter signifies. Change. And one wonders if the placing of the song as the last of the album represents something of a denouement after the stormy, doubt-filled, journey through darkness and towards light, maybe ‘Forever’ isn’t the landing place of the album’s “I” — maybe this life isn’t all there is. Maybe the comfort of the Thames and the Liffey rivers — or the arms of one’s lover — aren’t the place to find ultimate meaning and security… the album ends with a staring out into the unknown, a search for a new way, and an acknowledgment that ‘what’s behind I can clearly see, but beyond that’s beyond me’. Delta is, to the album, what the epilogue of Ecclesiastes is to Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes concludes with the wise teacher having searched for meaning ‘under the sun’, but with death looming large, it concludes an exploration of the pursuit of paradise, or the good life, apart from the creator with a call to ‘remember the creator’ in order to enjoy the good life.

 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,

    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.

    “Everything is meaningless!” — Ecclesiastes 12:6-8

A better translation for ‘meaningless’ is ‘breath’ — the idea that this is life, and its good things, are fleeting and temporary and gone in a moment, when we long for ‘forever’. Delta the album, thanks to Delta, the song, asks the questions Ecclesiastes asks about the meaning of pleasure — including love and sex — if this is all there is, when it’s all just ‘dust to dust’. Maybe that sort of life — the ‘dust to dust’ life of Ecclesiastes without the epilogue is meaningless, maybe there is more, and the haunted nature of reality pushes us somewhere beyond ourselves.

“When it’s all just dust to dust
And it’s how it will be
When it’s all just nothing else
That means nothing to me
When it’s all just dust to dust
And how it will be
When it’s all just nothing else
That means nothing to me

Does my love prefer the others
Or does my love just make me feel good
Does my love prefer the others
Or does my love just make me feel good” — Delta, Mumford and Sons

Looking for the paradise and love lost in Eden in the arms of a woman, rather than God, is a folly as old as Solomon’s… and one that leads to death, rather than away from it. Something Delta acknowledges as a problem not yet overcome — and not overcome by a ‘love that just makes me feel good.’ The whole album, from the opening song, through to the conclusion asks the question: do you want to be a child of darkness, or light. It posits love — love that is not self-interested, and love directed to some other — as the way out of darkness, but the question is whether it escapes the haunted ‘immanent frame’ to be connected to something transcendent — to the creator of light and light and love.

This question of life in the wild, life in the cursed world, life and love in the face of death, and where a long-lost paradise can be found also occupies Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs too — which is what made Delta such an apt soundtrack for the former, the latter had its own soundtrack of sorts, opening with gunslinging troubadour Buster Scruggs aka ‘The Misanthrope’.

The Coen Brothers’ western anthology is a collection of six short stories seemingly linked by nothing but the bleak message that death comes to us all. This means that comedy can only be black — funny tragedies — because our laughter is always in the face of the harsh reality of death… unless there’s some glimmer of hope — a place where poker is played fair in the “place up ahead”… Which is an idea that at least the concluding song from the first story, the eponymous ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs‘ explores…

Yippee-ki-yi-yay
I’m glory bound
No more jingle jangle
I lay my guns down
Yippee-ki-yi-yay
He shalt be saved
When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings —When a cowboy trades His spurs for wings, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The last story is even bleaker — a carriage full of western citizens travel with a dead body on the roof of a stage coach — death looming large over all of them — and this little song  The Unfortunate Lad:

Get six pretty maidens to carry my coffin
And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall
And give to each of them, bunches of roses
That they may not smell me as they go along — The Unfortunate Lad, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Death hovers over us, and we’re left finding ways to pretend it doesn’t. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t let us do that; not for a second. It scoffs at the idea, because death is omnipresent in the movie’s six stories. Its characters, the ones who bring and taste death, are almost exclusively “children of darkness” — and even those who aren’t, those who bring some light, end up dead, and this often at the hands of embodied darkness, never quite as starkly depicted as the black clad gunslinger who takes down Buster Scruggs in the first act.

There’s one exception, perhaps — the old prospector played by Tom Waits, whose story All Gold Canyon takes place in something very much like a wild western Eden. A paradise. His story is rudely interrupted by violence — but this violence does not have the final say. And yet, paradise in Buster Scruggs is only restored to the canyon, that pocket of Eden, when all its human inhabitants depart. The thing about good art created in this haunted bubble is that it’s not so much ‘religious art then stripes’, it’s more like Tasmania’s MONA, it ends up just being art that has to grapple with the good life in the face of death and then the haunting ‘maybe’… maybe there’s more… the hope of the first ballad does seem to give way to the darkness of The Mortal Remains (which, when you squint at it, bears a testimony to a certain outlook in its title, only those who are still alive remain.

Buster Scruggs was a particularly interesting experience for me because its stories were played out against almost identical backdrop to Red Dead Redemption 2, with a startlingly similar aesthetic. Asking similar questions (depending on how much you played the protaganist, Arthur Morgan, in parallel with ‘The Misanthrope’)… Video games are an immersive form of storytelling, and the world building in Red Dead Redemption 2 is just incredible. The game takes place in a vast, carefully rendered ‘wild west’ as carefully crafted as the shots in Buster Scruggs, and if you’re going to explore that sort of virtual world on the back of a virtual horse I can highly recommend Delta as a soundtrack. The story is a prequel to the first instalment of the game (the second if you count a much earlier game in the same world); it’d be almost impossible for a game set in this period to be true to its setting without some nod to religion and the part it played in the fabric of American life; but this isn’t just a story set in the wild west — it’s a commentary on what has gone wrong with the western dream; our grand story of bravely inventing and taming wild frontiers, and the hopes that we could overcome some the ‘cursed world’ — nature and our human hearts — through adventure and technology. Like Buster Scruggs, and Delta, it tackles the reality of death and love and life in a haunted world where belief in God is simply one option amongst many that might deliver the ‘good life’. Like Delta the story is cleverly laced with references to Milton’s Paradise Lost — the levels often have religious names, including ‘Paradise Mercifully Departed’ and references to Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

The leader of your gang — the man you’re hunting down in the original (albeit as John Marston), is idealist and visionary Dutch Van Der Lynde. His ideal of a wild, untamed, west where there’s ‘no king, so everybody does what is right in their own eyes’ is falling to pieces, and as it becomes increasingly improbable, his fervent, fanatical, behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. While riding towards one of the new cities in the brave new world of progress, Dutch says to Arthur:

“For a long time, I truly believed a paradise lay somewhere in the west for us but I just… don’t know any more.” — Dutch Van Der Lynde, Red Dead Redemption 2

Dutch is looking for paradise — and he’s certainly not finding it in the modern vision of civilisation. Here’s a dialogue with the carefully named ‘Agent Milton’:

Dutch: “This place ain’t no such thing as civilised. It’s man so in love with greed he has forgotten himself and found only appetites.”

Agent Milton: “And as a consequence that lets you take what you please, kill whom you please, and hang the rest of us? Who made you the messiah to these lost souls you’ve led so horribly astray”

Dutch: “I’m nothing but a seeker, Mister Milton…”

Dutch is willing to do whatever he can to keep the west wild in order to find a paradise untainted by greed and the appetites it creates in us for whatever it is we lust after. The problem is Dutch’s own heart is every bit as corrupt; every bit as fixated on his own vision of paradise. If you’ve played the first game to its end, you’ll know there’s no redemption for Dutch — the question is whether those ‘lost souls’ he led could find redemption for themselves. While you control Arthur Morgan, and then John Marston, in this story it’s not just their stories you encounter — and its not just their worlds haunted by these questions of ultimate meaning in the face of death. A friend described this game as “the most profoundly Christ-haunted videogame ever made,” and if you’re looking for the Jesus shaped hole in the world you’ll find it in the questions it asks about meaning, sin, redemption, and repentance.

Dutch’s favourite in-game author (such is the world building) is a character named Evelyn Miller. He makes a cameo in the main storyline, his books are available to read in the outlaw camp, and he’s a substantial character in the playable epilogue where, upon meeting him atop a mountain, he declares that ‘this is God’ — that the splendid beauty of creation is part of the divine, and the hope of humanity; there are echoes of the Coens’ All Gold Canyon here; but these ideas were also developed in the books that shaped Dutch’s eschatology — ‘An American Eden’ and ‘An American Inferno’. These are quite profound little reads offering a diagnosis of the western disease, if not a genuine solution.

“…The delusions that we can compete with God. That our built environments can transcend his. That our factories and the squalid conditions that arise in the towns in which they are built will somehow allow us to be happy. We are fools, for fools cannot see their idiocy…

… By attempting to transform it into a poor impersonation of Europe, we are as Adam, eating once more of the apple, only this time knowing full well of the consequences. To free the American soul, this new world soul, we must free the American spirit from the prison in which we have placed it, we must seek our solace, our comfort, our very heaven in the perfection and splendour of this place.” — An American Eden

You can subsequently pick up An American Inferno lying around the Outlaw camp (and if the first owed something to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the second is a nod to Dante), which describes a trip to New York, the “grand human inferno, the fiery and mediocre hell that is Manhattan.” If we are pinning our hopes of restoration, or a return to Eden, on human ingenuity and city building, Red Dead Redemption 2 wants us to think twice, even if we think a third and fourth time about the alternatives as well…

“A place that shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that when left to his own devices, when removing God entirely from his creation, man will induce not heaven, but hell. The gilded inferno. The marbled purgatory. This American churning sea of desire, the place where see we man for what he truly is, and recoil in horror. He is the destroyer of all. Of nature, of course, of his brothers, seemingly as sport, and finally of himself.

Men are fixated on greed, on desire, and on the acquisition not of experiences or pleasures but on the ability to acquire. People are fixated on wealth. Man is reduced to the desire for desire. Wanting is all that matters. No loving, not being, not having, but wanting. We are killers for desire. Even sport would be preferable. This is the grand sickness, the eternal sickness of this land – it is, man unleashed. Man unleashed and turned into, he knows what not?”

… I came to appreciate a hideous truth; the system that allows poverty and degradation such as i saw is wrong, and the impacts of the degradation on humanity are profound, but far worse is the impact of wealth upon those who possess it, who are possessed by it… Manhattan at once depraves the poor and dehumanizes the rich. Its purpose is unhappiness. The nurturing and blooming of suffering. — An American Inferno, in-game book in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Paradise lost, indeed… and a diagnosis of the sort of western disease that produces a President known for building ‘gilded’ towers in the inferno. When you cross paths once more with Miller in the epilogue he has been cast out from civilisation, rejected by the church and his family as a heretic, to live out his days in a cabin seeking hope for humanity. Miller ultimately feels defeated, he can’t escape that haunted sense of having had and lost some infinite thing (thanks David Foster Wallace). In his final manuscript, he writes:

“I am almost entirely consumed by my doubts, yet there is within me still a tiny spark that tells me it is possible, this land makes possible, the chance of absolution. Absolution from the European hell of thought and back to the Eden in which man can live as a sentient, yes, but above all as sensate. As a creature of God, alive in his world.

This world. Pure. Not clouded by idiocy. Not imagining himself as God as so many of us are forced to do, but happy as a child of God. But still my thoughts come upon me like wolves. My needs swamp me. My desires overwhelm me. It is not mortality I now fear but its opposite. That idiots part of me that attempts to convince me I am above mortal concerns. The foolish part of man that tells him he is immortal. That tells him, that whispers like the serpent, that seduces like the apple, that charms like Eve, that tells him he is God. I am not God. In this truth, I will find my absolution.”

This vision can’t animate anybody beyond Dutch (or Dutch himself), progress is inexorable, the landscape of the wild — like the Gold Canyon — will ultimately fall foul to human greed. Paradise is lost. The untainted ‘wild’ is destined to be replaced by our ‘infernal’ cities, hell on earth constructed as monuments to our greed; modern towers of Babel. Paradise is lost, if paradise is a beautiful unspoilt wilderness…

Depending on the choices you make in the game — whether to embrace a life of crime, bringing death and destruction in pursuit of a quick buck, or a life of seeking righteousness, your character, Arthur, is offered different advice on his path to redemption. A chance to trade his spurs for wings, perhaps.

In the penultimate moment in the story Arthur has the chance to give a last confession of sorts, either to the gang’s erstwhile, though ultimately redeemed confessor, Reverend Swanson, or to a nun you may help on your journey.

Reverend Swanson is an interesting character — your first interaction is rescuing him from a drunken binge, and if you find his Bible in camp and open it up, you see that it, like him, has been hollowed out to accommodate his addictions (in the form of drug paraphernalia). But if it’s him who hears this confession of yours, it’s as he boards a train, departing to a new life you can later read about in the in-game newspaper. He ends up in the belly of the inferno; the ordained minister of the ‘First Congregational Church of New York’, where he “delivered an impassioned and heartfelt sermon about acknowledging sin and seeking redemption. He spoke about his own break from faith, a dark period when he could no attend church, falling into sin, depravity, and wanton gluttony.” Swanson finds some sort of redemption in the belly of the beast.

If you’re met by the nun you’ve helped earlier, the dialogue includes her responding to Arthur’s confession that he’s “lived a bad life” by saying “we all sin…” she says “Life is full of pain but there is also love and beauty,” and then she offers this path to redemption.

Sister: “Be grateful that for the first time you see your life clearly… perhaps you could help somebody. Helping makes you really happy.

Arthur: But. I still don’t believe in nothing.

Sister: Often neither do I. But then, I meet someone like you and everything makes sense.

Arthur: You’re too smart for me sister. I guess I, I’m afraid.

Sister: There is nothing to be afraid of Mr Morgan. Take a gamble that love exists and do a loving act.”

Arthur is haunted, belief in something beyond death terrifies him. He’s asking how to live in the face of death, and gets this “moral therapeutic deism” so often served up by the modern west — the idea that redemption, the return to paradise, would be found by people resisting the temptation towards greed and its appetites, to instead act in love… that we’re to grapple with the mix of beauty and pain by maximising love, and that this will restore us. But I’m not sure the story, Christ-haunted as it is, lets us just sit with that. To truly redeem, or help, those around him, Arthur can’t just ‘help,’ he has to sacrifice. His redemption is bound up in the end of his story.

It’s not just the name of the agent chasing down Dutch to protect a state-sanctioned vision of paradise or civilisation that tips the hat to Paradise Lost, and that alone might just be a coincidence… but later in the story, when John Marston is travelling incognito he gives his name as “John…er… Jim Milton.”  He’s the last hope Red Dead Redemption 2 puts forward. In the unholy inner sanctum of the gang — Arthur, Dutch, Hosea, Micah, and John — he’s the only one who ‘makes it’ (according to Arthur). His new life was won through Arthur’s sacrifice (though those who’ve played Red Dead Redemption 1 know this hope is temporary). It seems that, almost despite himself, he too has been caught up by Evelyn Miller’s visions of a new, natural, Eden — paradise rediscovered by pursuing goodness and beauty of this world. Here’s a conversation he has with his son about his new life — on the land, farming — his sense of paradise.

John Marston: Pretty countryside ain’t it…
Jack: I guess?
John: The grass and the light. There’s a lot of ugly in this world, but there sure as hell is a lot of beauty.
Jack: Yes.
John: You’ll see it better when you get older. It’s tough at your age. Just, land and light. But to me  it’s, it’s, life. I can’t explain it.”

His assumed name isn’t the only connection to John Milton. Jack is obsessed with heroic tales from King Arthur’s court. Milton contemplated penning an epic Arthurian tale, before writing Paradise Lost, which contains references to the legendary British king who ruled his own, briefly realised, paradise from Camelot. Milton was a fierce political voice, an English republican, whose works also included titles like ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,‘ which argued for the freedom and dignity of all humans — that “All men naturally were born free.” This text was hugely influential in the founding of the American political vision, and these ideas seem to permeate the political outlook of Evelyn Miller and Dutch Van Der Lynde when it comes to ‘progress’ under those ruled by desires and passions rather than God. Milton, in Paradise Lost, suggests that the fall — Adam’s ‘original lapse’ in the following quote, damaged true freedom — he sees freedom and paradise being closely linked in both his theology and politics. The damage was done by a departure from reason and the raising up of passions, or inordinate desires — appetites — in the place of reason.

Since thy original lapse, true Liberty
Is lost, which always with right Reason dwells
Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being:
Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,
Immediately inordinate desires
And upstart Passions catch the Government
From Reason, and to servitude reduce
Man till then free.” — Paradise Lost

He saw the resulting loss of freedom corresponding with a rise in tyranny and violence.

Therefore since he permits
Within himself unworthy Powers to reign
Over free Reason, God in Judgment just
Subjects him from without to violent Lords;
Who oft as undeservedly enthrall
His outward freedom: Tyranny must be,
Though to the Tyrant thereby no excuse.

A world of death. A world of greed, and human appetites bringing hell on earth. Paradise so lost that there’s no man-made path back. Not love, not proper passionate enjoyment of the things of this world, not a commitment to nature — none of these things will restore the good life, though we might taste it temporarily. Fleetingly. As breath…

What do these stories have in common? A western aesthetic? A sense that the answer to our modern ills might be found in the untainted wilds, away from human greed and consumption? In sacrificial love? A use of the western genre and the frontier, foundational, moments in American (and so western) cultural narratives to critique the modern account of flourishing human life? A playing off of ‘light’ against ‘darkness’ as metaphors for life and death? A haunting sense of loss of something eternal in the face of the death and destruction we bring as we fixate on amassing temporary things to satiate our appetites (that might actually be eternal or infinite longings)… And in two out of three, quotes or allusions to Paradise Lost, and the Bible.

Paradise Lost wasn’t Milton’s only religious poem… It had a sequel. One that specifically dealt with the question of how to rediscover paradise — one that answers the fears of ‘darkness visible’ and our mortality with a commensurate hope of paradise restored, and being returned to the presence of “light from above, from the fountain of light” and life — the presence of God — Paradise Regained. A new Eden being ‘raised in the vast wilderness’. The path to this satisfaction — this restoration, this paradise, was not our getting life right. It was not our redemption or repentance; it was through the obedience of a new Adam. Jesus.

The problem with Christ-haunted art — even if it is more interesting than stripes — is that it might point you towards Jesus, but it doesn’t throw you into his story. Milton sees this paradise regained in Jesus forgoing the worldly temptations that capture our hearts and pull us from God; though this happens ultimately at the Cross, he builds his poetic account of the restoration of all things in Jesus going head to head with Satan at his temptation; where Jesus, in the wilderness — the wild west — is offered all the good things of this world to turn his back on God, and he refuses. Thwarting the plans of Satan. Resisting the lure of those dark voices. Keeping his eyes fixed on the light.

Not all modern art is stripes — but perhaps all great art is religious in some sense. Great art gets us confronting darkness. It asks questions about what haunts our collective imaginations. These texts — an album, a film, and a video game — do that… but it’d be nice to have some great art that throws us into the light and gives us some answers every once in a while though too.

I who e’re while the happy Garden sung,
By one mans disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind,
By one mans firm obedience fully tri’d
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d 
In all his wiles, defeated and repuls’t,
And Eden rais’d in the wast Wilderness. — Paradise Regained, Book I

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Is marriage a created thing like math, or like music?

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” — C.S Lewis

math-music

We should stop speaking to our world as though the definition of marriage is a truth they should know like mathematical laws and start speaking as though it is a good and beautiful thing like music.

That C.S Lewis quote up the top of this post is profound. My Christianity actually shapes both the way I see and understand math and the way I see and understand music, because it shapes the way I see and understand everything. But how I see and use math and how a non-Christian sees and uses math is relatively similar; how I see music and how I use it is much more closely aligned to my faith. I sing in church, I do not do math in church (no matter how boring the sermon). There’s something different about the truth math contains and conveys and the truth music contains and conveys, and the way our faith or religious framework shapes the way we see and use them. No matter what we believe.

Christians who love natural law or revelation (and rightly) believe that creation points to God had much less to argue with when people held that nature and reason were good guides to truth. The problem is that everyone thinks nature points to their God; idolatry in its basest form is turning something from nature into God and understanding the rest of nature through the grid that creates. Just as C.S Lewis said he saw the world through the lens of his Christianity; secular Aussies do the same with their ‘religion’ or their sense of what the good human life looks like. Our worship frames how we see nature and created things like marriage. Secular worship (which expresses itself in diverse human cultures and sub-cultures built on common objects that people love like music, a sports team, an activity, or a shared sense of what a ‘good life is’) doesn’t present much of a challenge to how we see math; math doesn’t really challenge anyone’s view of the good or flourishing human life… but what we worship does shape the way we see other created things (objects and human relationships or realities) like marriage.

So here’s a question. Is marriage like math — an objectively true created thing that describes how the world works in a way that can be universally understood, or like music — a good created thing that cultures produce and enjoy subjectively based on their values? Should we expect everyone to think the same as us about marriage; is it an objectively knowable created thing, like math, or is it like music?

There are certain natural or created laws that from our finite and limited ability to observe how stuff works, seem universal. These laws — things we believe we’ve proven —are observations about nature; objective statements about how things are. We can express them as axioms or equations. These are universal.

2+2=4

When it comes to marriage many observers of nature who hold a belief that nature reveals something of God want to suggest a similar equation:

Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman

Often the natural argument here is that:

1 man + 1 woman + sex = a potential child.

That is natural. It is a biological equation; it seems axiomatic for those who think about the world like created things are like math not music. The only way we can change that is by artificially intervening with what is natural. That’s also long been the argument for defining marriage the way human cultures have defined it. It seems a natural fit for this objective truth. But it’s not necessarily axiomatic that marriage means that relationship; that is what is contested at the moment in our world. Because there is an alternative equation, more in the realm of music, where:

Marriage = 1 person + 1 person + love

Love is clearly a subjective thing, and much music is written trying to evoke and express that feeling. And this isn’t so much a question of how marriage should ultimately be viewed; but how it is in societies where people worship more than one god or different created things. It might have been enough to argue for marriage as though it is like math in the world operating in the age of reason — the enlightenment era when nature and our ability to know things about nature, and we viewed the world through that grid; but now we’re in the age of feelings, and arguments from reason are largely starting to sound like nonsense to people when it comes to how we should live or what should become cultural axioms and definitions.

So do people see marriage as being like math or music?

The position we come to on whether marriage is a universal truth or law that people will definitively see in the same universal way regardless of what they choose to worship (like math), or a thing we shape meaning for in our cultures (like music), will shape how we speak about marriage in our world. Do we speak of it like math, or like music?

Lots of Christian arguments I read in favour of the secular state defining marriage the way God defines it are built on the basis that it is a universal created good; a moral law written into the fabric of our humanity, much like math is written into the fabric of the cosmos.

But I don’t think it’s that simple, I think it is more like music: an imaginative shared act of creation where we act in concert with God’s design in a way that reflects who we are and what we believe about the world we live in.

We all — everyone, not just Christians — approach marriage as a ‘created’ thing; a part of nature, and we all approach created things through the ever-changing grid created by our worship. When we worship in such a way that we, or our cultures, become creators of meaning, and we create that meaning as we interact with created things. So modern secular Aussies believe we can even redefine the nature or purpose of created things (like marriage, or family, or human life) to fit our view of how the world works, or how we work best in the world. That’s why the definition of marriage is now contested; our culture keeps changing its common objects of worship and so re-ordering our loves and re-examining the way we interact with ‘nature’…

Mathematical truths operate at the objective level. We argue for them using proofs and logic and reason. The aim of discussions about these laws is to ‘prove’ something using a way of viewing and understanding the world that all people who know about math seem to share. The implications from our proving of things are clear axiomatic description of nature; the way things are. Natural law (for the ‘enlightened’ rationalist). Natural revelation (for the Christian).

Math is a pure way to get to the heart of how stuff works. To do math we employ logic and reason to describe the relationships underpinning everything in the cosmos; from the relationship between atoms to the relationship between planets. We can, using numbers, express, model, and predict the way these parts of creation will interact. Math describes the world. It has been described by some as the language of God; and there is something about the intricate order and design of the cosmos that it reveals; and its unchanging nature too; that says something about the nature and character of God… But not everyone sees math in these ways, and you don’t have to in order to believe true things about math or about the way different bodies interact in the world.

What we do with math, or the truths about the universe we extrapolate from math will vary based on what we worship, we may choose to worship math itself (or our own logic and reason), because of its explanatory power, and a very strange form of unnatural worship may even convince us that 2+2=5. But mathematical truths are natural and we can establish them, and see them in operation across human cultures towards good ends like commerce, agriculture and engineering. We harness math, but we don’t make it. It originates in nature itself and in the nature of God.

Music, at its heart, is the application of mathematical principles to sound. It is the ordering of mathematical truths to create beauty and is, by the nature of our different ears and cultural practices a subjective thing that has the potential to mean (and so reveal) different things to different people in a profoundly different way to math. Unless we’re recording the sounds of nature — like birdsongs or running a record needle over the cross section of a tree so that its rings form some sort of melody — music is something that we create in and for a culture. Music will still reveal what we worship — and human cultures across time and space testify to its place in forming us as people and representing how we view the world through the lens of our worship. It is totally ‘natural’ but in a way that works in harmony with who we are and what we worship, not in a way that directly demonstrates who God is via ‘nature’… Its origins are both divine and human. I’m fairly sure God is a musician who sings and makes beautiful noises (because of the birdsong and the picture of the throne room and what we’re called to do with music as his worshippers), but not all music points to God and not all musicians are expressing divine truth as they play — beyond the sounds themselves that arise as a product of cause and effect; when you bang stuff together, according to the laws of math, noise happens and travels through different mediums depending on what they are (physics is just math really). It is a natural phenomena but taken and shaped, subjectively, by people based on what we worship. You can’t really reasonably argue that Bach is better than Kanye, no matter how reasonable your argument is. You make that decision based on a values system you bring to the data; their music.

Problems with seeing marriage as math (a natural law)

One of the problems I observe in the way the western church, and its leaders, argue for our vision of a good natural human life is that we argue about issues that are like music as though they are like math; and expect reason and logic to win the day. This is perhaps truest in the arguments the leaders of the institutional churches in Australia are mounting in favour of the secular government maintaining a traditional definition of marriage. The problem with natural law arguments is that once an enlightened and liberated individual knows something is a ‘natural law’ they still feel totally free to break it; it’s not an argument that convinces anyone anymore once they’ve decided that real goodness lies apart from nature.

We modern Christians are so profoundly indebted to the enlightenment and the ‘age of reason’ and the natural theology tradition championed by Aquinas and his followers, and so excited about the way natural and special revelation sing in harmony to those of us attuned to hear both, that we treat moral arguments on issues that we see as derived from creation or nature as though they are mathematical truths for us to prove. An example of this way of thinking of marriage would be to insist on the axiomatic equation for marriage described above (1 man + 1 woman) and to point out that almost all cultures everywhere have recognised that as truth. The modern secular response is ‘so what’? And we don’t answer that objection by simply restating the proof, we need to demonstrate the proof in action the way music gives life to mathematical proofs.

We Christians want to keep riding the enlightenment pony in a post-enlightenment world. We settle for mounting reasonable arguments (that are reasonable and logical and tightly line up with ‘nature’); but these arguments are implausible because the good life now is much more about music than math. Our sense of what is good is much more derived from our ‘worship,’ our different stories of the good life, and our feelings than it is from some sort of natural law that we can simply choose to walk away from. Math might be true, as true as music… but it feels cold and emotionless. It takes a certain sort of rare soul to find math beautiful in the same way we find music beautiful. You might make avant-garde music celebrating obscure mathematical equations composed by algorithms rather than humans, but that is a particular taste that not everyone will share, and because it ignores the experiential nature of music; it won’t seem beautiful to anyone who doesn’t get the math.

We’re so used to operating in a culture where the ‘music’ sounded enough like ours that we could see its goodness. We’re like a bunch of Beatniks surrounded by Beatles tribute bands, that we didn’t really feel the need to keep pointing people to the Beatles, but now we live in the age of One Direction and Autotune and Pitbull and Kanye and Bieber… suddenly the music our world is making sounds very different and it’s like we’ve turned back to the math underpinning music to point out why the people around us have got music wrong.

Even though the Beatles are objectively and subjectively better and more beautiful than Bieber (and Bach is better than the Beatles), arguing for that with a bunch of numbers won’t shift anyone, you probably can’t actually argue someone out of their love for Bieber at all (and by analogy, I’m not sure you can argue someone out of or into a particular view of marriage without inviting them to first change the lens they use to see the world).

Math makes us understand music better — there’s a reason a lot of musicians do musical theory; which ends up being a bit about math. The answer for those who like Bieber rather than the Beatles, or Bach, isn’t pure math; it’s not to outlaw all other forms of music, it’s to make better music. Perhaps we also need to realise that part of the reason people like bad music and don’t see math as important — or rather the reason people are walking away from a ‘natural law’ in favour of what appears to be a position built entirely on feelings and personal preference, is that after we walked away from God’s design he gives us the consequences of that decision; which is to believe that bad stuff is good and math only important for making stuff we can use to do stuff we want to do.

Marriage is actually like music

There’s actually a bunch of objectively real and true things underpinning the making of music. How sound works; how our ears work; the physics involved with making, and recording, noises. But it also involves humans and human creativity. And that’s true in marriage too. God might have created and defined a fundamental relationship called marriage, but marriage is always experienced as a living breathing thing involving humans and human creativity. It’s always experienced subjectively, which is part of why how marriage works changes from culture to culture even if the fundamental axiom of what marriage is largely does not and has not. Marriage as God created it is music, not math.

Marriage is a good thing God made — but like music it’s a thing created when people take up a good thing design from God and approach it with love and imagination and the desire to make something beautiful (again, why Bach is better than Bieber); and ideally it’s something that reflects the relational, loving, life-giving, sacrificial nature of God (which is perhaps why the Bible speaks of our marriages as both a reflection of the ‘us’ who make men and women as people who bear the image of God, and as a reflection of the relationship between Jesus and the church, and about our oneness with God secured by our union with Christ as the ultimate marriage that our lives as Christians should anticipate).

Marriage and how we do it and speak about it in our world — a world full of knock-off Gods with cheap knock-off versions of marriage — is an opportunity for us to make something beautiful that glorifies God. To make a joyful and compelling noise that says something to the people around us about what is good for them and to call them to something better.  Talking about marriage in our public square is not just something we can reduce to a simple ‘natural’ or ‘reasonable’ equation. Even if 2+2=4; the world is convincing itself that 5 feels like a better answer. Understanding math or the created goodness of marriage will help our marriages be better and more beautifully musical; but that doesn’t mean we should speak to the world as though marriage is math when they don’t and can’t see it the way we do because their paradigm for approaching nature is different.

The reality is that just as knowing math helps make better music; knowing that there’s a created reality to marriage helps us make better marriages; but also, people don’t really want to hear about the math underpinning the music they’re listening to, they want to experience the beauty of the music, we show the goodness of our view of marriage by having and promoting beautiful marriages within our communities, and by helping other people have more beautiful marriages when they ask. We need both the objective truth that marriage between one man and one woman is created by the real God for a good purpose, and the subjective reality that we’re able to make something beautiful in our marriages using our imaginations.

But we also need to be empathetic listeners who try to understand why people make music that looks very different to the kind we like, and the kind we know is good, because that music reflects who they are. People are going to like different music, and make different music, and when we listen to that ‘music’ carefully — when we pay attention to how people speak of the created thing they call marriage (or what they want to call marriage) — we should pretty quickly be able to see that natural (math-like) arguments aren’t going to convince anyone who doesn’t first share our assumptions about the world and the place of reason. We talk like we’re talking about math while they’re talking like they’re talking about music; and it’s actually ok to talk about feelings and what beauty and the ‘good life’ looks like.

Listening to others in our world, and also knowing the deep truth math expresses (and even marriage as math in as much as the axiom is actually an expression of how God designed things) allows us to make music that resonates with people and with creation, and so might actually change the way the people around us see the world; the real way to change how they see the world is via Jesus and the ‘new eyes’ the Spirit brings; eyes that help us see the world through ‘by our Christianity’ in the C.S Lewis way… but when it comes to marriage and how to see truth about a created thing, repeating axioms isn’t going to cut it. We need symphonies that are remarkably more compelling than Bieber or whatever mass produced music people are pumping into their ears to hypnotise themselves to the truth of whatever view of the world is hot today; not cold laws. 

The way to prove that God’s vision for marriage is better isn’t to walk up to a bunch of people listening to music to shout numbers at them, it’s to play better music. It isn’t to insist on a natural proof, but to sing a supernaturally more beautiful song and then point to the amazing and intricate natural order behind the beauty, and the real relationship that marriage testifies to.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” — Ephesians 5:31-32

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Incredible // Three minute music video, shot in 5 seconds

“This is a real video performance, a slow motion video, a sequence map with a traveling in front of 80 extras placed on 80 meters along a little road, lost in an industrial area. Filmed at 1000 frames/second with a Phantom flex 4k from a car driven at 50km/h, the shooting took 5 seconds for a 3’30 video: a living and dreamlike mural.”

Here’s the incredibly short making of video…

Amazing music mashups

I love a good YouTube mashup. These are quite incredible – songs from dissonant genres blended together almost perfectly.

Like Miley Cyrus and Mumford and Sons…

Korn and Taylor Swift…

And this slightly disturbing Slipknot and Justin Bieber song…

Corporate singing. One heartbeat.

You know how sound waves, when they’re in sync, amplify – making the sound louder. It turns out that not only are our voices working in concert when we sing together in church, but our hearts beat together too (the study).

“Using pulse monitors attached to the singers’ ears, the researchers measured the changes in the choir members’ heart rates as they navigated the intricate harmonies of a Swedish hymn. When the choir began to sing, their heart rates slowed down.

“When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing,” says musicologist Bjorn Vickhoff of the Sahlgrenska Academy who led the project. “You exhale on the phrases and breathe in between the phrases. When you exhale, the heart slows down.”

But what really struck him was that it took almost no time at all for the singers’ heart rates to become synchronized. The readout from the pulse monitors starts as a jumble of jagged lines, but quickly becomes a series of uniform peaks. The heart rates fall into a shared rhythm guided by the song’s tempo.”

Cool hey. Coming soon to a video script near you…

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Same Love: the pathos power of music, and what love truly is

Heard this?

It’ll probably hit somewhere near the top of the Hottest 100 today (UPDATE – it got number 15, but it is number 1 on the ARIA charts at the moment).

It’s pretty powerful. It’s catchy. Its mix of perspectives works as a stand alone song, and is intensified in video form, where you get the additional benefit of seeing a young man, presumably the singer’s uncle, find happiness in his gay relationship.

That’s the fundamental premise of the song. Happiness is the ultimate end, and how can we deny someone the warmth and fulfilment a relationship offers.

It’s fairly convincing. Sort of. It’s just a shame it gets so much wrong. At the very least it’s persuasive, in the technical sense, and it got me questioning why I’m more persuaded by a song like this, than by the same premise put forward in dry argument.

For those getting ready to throw stones at me for being bigoted, or a heretic, let me remind you of my position – I am willing to cede the point that so far as our legislation is concerned this is the “same love” – in that it is voluntary, between two free individuals, and because I’m not huge on letting the government dictate what morality is and isn’t, I am not opposed to changes to the marriage act that reflect the wishes of the population – we live in a democracy, after all. But I’m also not willing to budge on the theological question – God says proper sexual expression that is in line with the order he established at creation (before the fall), and is good for the flourishing of humanity, is the kind of expression found in a loving, heterosexual union, for life, where man and woman become one… though neither, as individuals, were “less than one” beforehand – and it’s absolutely ok to be single without feeling like you’re missing out on an aspect of humanity – which this Same Love thing kind of glosses over in its bid for sameness. Pushing same sex attracted people towards heterosexuality isn’t really the answer, showing all people that the ultimate form of love and identity is found in a relationship with Jesus, and the community of the church (and being a community that people want to be part of) is ultimately far more valuable for everyone.

Anyway. Back to why I felt my head moving as my heartstrings were tugged by this song…

Part of the power of music is that as a song is catchy, and as it bounces around in your head, and as the lyrics start to resonate with your experiences and observations of the world, suddenly you find yourself giving assent to whatever conclusions the songwriter offers.

Old Testament theologian Gordon Wenham has some great things to say about the power of music in shaping our ethics, perhaps especially if we sing along to something, via the power of a little speech-act connection where the words we say become the words we think, a little bit of reader-response theory being applied through something called democratisation, where use of the first person can make something feel like it’s about us, and via this reality regarding the value of some sort of performance in shaping our thinking, which he describes in a piece on the teaching value of ritual:

Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do”

Anyway, in a piece called “Reflections on Singing the Psalms,” Wenham makes the following points about how music is perfectly geared to shape our thinking on moral and ethical issues…

“But even mere recitation is a more powerful instructor than listening to stories, commands or wisdom sayings. Listening is passive, indeed the message can be ignored by the listener, but recitation and especially singing is an activity which involves the whole person and cannot be honestly undertaken without real commitment to what is being said or sung…”

Here’s a little on the power of first person – which the song Same Love uses extensively. We become part of the story and identify with the protaganist.

“Another device inviting the worshipper to identify with the sentiments of the Psalm is the use of the first person. The psalmist often speaks in the first person ‘I will bless the LORD at all times’ (34:1). Someone singing or praying this Psalm later is thus invited to do the same… This switch between first and third person encourages the user of the Psalm to identify with the viewpoint of the psalmist. But particularly the use of the first person encourages such identification: ‘The experience of the I of the psalm embodies a religious ideal, whose reality is open to the reader to experience…

And here’s a little more on why music is more powerful than other mediums.

I have already observed that the Psalms differ from other parts of the Bible in that they are meant to be recited or sung as prayers… This involvement of the worshipper in expressing assent to these sentiments makes the Psalms quite different from the other modes of teaching ethics in the OT. The OT narratives were presumably recited by storytellers within the family or in the tribes, but they rarely make explicit their judgments on the actions that are recited, so the moral of the story might have been missed and certainly did not have to be endorsed by the listeners. They could have just ignored the point, as I suspect many listening to worthy sermons often do… When you pray a Psalm, you are describing the actions you will take and what you will avoid. It is more like taking an oath or making a vow… Promises for example change the situation and impose obligations on the speaker and create expectations in the listener. A promise is an example of a speech act.”

It’s powerful stuff – and I reckon Same Love will form a pretty powerful part of the case for gay marriage in Australia, it makes me think we need to do heaps better at writing music that is artistically good for a bigger portion of the world than our congregations on a Sunday. It worked for Luther.

But as powerful as it is – it makes some pretty interesting assumptions about what Christians believe about homosexuality, and about the motives of Christians in shutting down love.

Here’s a little bit from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis themselves…

The right wing conservatives think it’s a decision
And you can be cured with some treatment and religion
Man made rewiring of a predisposition
Playing god, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And god loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don’t know

Look – I’m sure reparative therapy (the cure with treatment and religion) has been harmful when people have been forced to undertake it against their wishes by bigoted parents or something… but the only real research I’ve seen that does something like a longitudinal study, by Jones and Yarhouse (it’s a fairly controversial study – as is anything Christians write on this issue), on the effectiveness and effects of such therapy found that it doesn’t actually cause harm, even if it doesn’t always work. And it doesn’t always work – contented celibacy is a statistically more probably result. I’m not sure that this is a “right wing conservative” issue either…

I’m also not sure that for a Christian the idea that something is a predisposition means that it shouldn’t be changed – or at least not acted upon. We call constantly try to challenge ourselves to leave predispositions behind. I’m lazy, I’d say all the evidence suggests this is my predisposition. That’s bad for my ability to be productive. We do this all over the aspects of our person, identity, and personality – without being accused of “playing God” – and the notion that “predisposition makes right” is patently impossible to demonstrate as soon as you throw in an example of someone who is predisposed to doing something heinous. The Christian account of human nature which sees us as simultaneously “children of God” made in his image, and broken by sin, such that the child-God relationship needs restoring through Jesus, the true child of God, means we can simultaneously say God loves all his children, while he punishes some for the broken relationship, and the broken acts that result. You don’t need to paraphrase the Bible to find this either. It’s right there. Especially in Genesis and Romans, but also in Psalms – the Bible’s biggest insight into what it means to be human but want a relationship with God.

There are some great bits about the song – it really nails why we need to be careful in how we speak of those who are homosexual in orientation, and who identify according to that orientation. There’s not much to disagree with here – except to say there’s a tragedy that you could easily replace hip-hop with “church”…

If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me
Have you read the YouTube comments lately
“Man, that’s gay” gets dropped on the daily
We become so numb to what we’re saying
A culture founded from oppression
Yet we don’t have acceptance for ‘em
Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board
A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it
Gay is synonymous with the lesser
It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color, the complexion of your pigment
The same fight that led people to walk outs and sit ins
It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!
Live on and be yourself

That is a powerful reminder – even if it’s feeling the hate somewhat vicariously – that we’ve got to be sensitive and clear when we talk about issues that surround the areas people choose to identify themselves by… The song doesn’t really seem to be all that interested in letting one or two categories of humans be themselves though – Christians who want to disagree with the stance it takes, and perhaps more importantly, those who are same sex attracted who do want to make the choice, free of coercion, to not pursue a relationship with a member of the same sex. That is an ultimate act of “being yourself” – but it’s implicitly, and somewhat explicitly denigrated by this song.

The chorus, where we hear from Mary Lambert, singing in the first person, about her love, who keeps her warm, is where the real thrust of the song’s argument is – we’re talking about denying somebody this love. This happiness. How could we?

And I can’t change
Even if I tried
Even if I wanted to
I can’t change
Even if I try
Even if I wanted to
My love
My love
My love
She keeps me warm
She keeps me warm

The same sentiment is repeated in the final verse…

“Whatever god you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up”

Again – he attributes opposition to gay marriage or “equal love” to “fear”… I don’t doubt that some of the negative aspects of the way  those in the GLBTI community are treated is the result of fear, but I’m not sure that’s always true.

Sometimes it’s love.

The love that counts.

Sometimes we do actually disagree with somebody, and say something is wrong, because we love them. It’s not just possible to disagree with somebody and do it with love, it’s possible to disagree with somebody out of a greater love. Sooner or later, to be really loving – we’ve got to stop saying it and keep loving people despite this disagreement. But it is never loving to stay silent.

Not all love is the same. That’s why there are five Greek words for love. The song ends with a few little snippets of the famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage about love (love is patient, love is kind), but there’s a better passage about love in the Bible – one that shows that not all love is the same, and where real love is found.

It’s from 1 John 4… and while Macklemore, Lambert, and Lewis would like you to think that because we’re all God’s children this means everything we do naturally is good – John, who wrote this following passage, also wrote that famous bit of the Bible that describes the manner of God’s love as tied up in the death and resurrection of Jesus – which had to happen precisely because everything we do is naturally bad… anyway that’s there in verse 10 of this passage too.

Here’s 1 John 4 on real love, the kind of love that makes singleness a possibility if we do community well (we need to be much, much, better at this – we need to be very noticeably different from the comments section on YouTube), and makes giving up eros or epithumia (greek words for lust and desire) worthwhile in the pursuit of the true happiness that comes from knowing God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

How my wife hears Radiohead

A couple of weeks ago I spent $130 really well, and wasted another $130 at the same time. Robyn and I went to see Radiohead.

This video has some language in it. But it’s pretty much how what she experienced one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. It’s amazing what sitting next to somebody who is experiencing the same event you’re enjoying in this manner does to you…

Meanwhile, I was watching something more like this… (skip to 1:44:08, I can’t get the timed embed code thing to work…)

Mumford and Sons cover Simon and Garfunkel

The three albums I grew up with, based on frequency, were Simon and Garfunkel’s The Definitive, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. Call Me Al and The Boxer were my two favourite songs. Here’s Mumford and Sons doing a live version of The Boxer, which they have also recorded with Jerry Douglas (you can listen to the recorded track here).

I like it. Al hates it. Though he likes this version with Alison Krauss.

I much prefer the Mumford and Sons version.

Though I think we all agree that the originals do it best – even when they’re old…

Bon Joviver

When I flick over to iTunes these days it takes huge self control not to just play Bon Iver over and over again.

Check this out if you’re not already a fan.

So finally I can appreciate this Bon Jovi song Bon Iver style, which has been sitting in my bookmarks for millenia.

Five reasons you should read Grantland…

Grantland is firmly established as my favourite blog. Even if 90% of its content covers American sport, it’s just filled with the kind of writing I aspire to.

Here are some recent samples of Grantland writing that you should most definitely flick through. This seems as good an opportunity as any to put a new tweet-a-pull-quote plugin I’m trying.

1. Chuck Klosterman – he recently went to a Creed concert and a Nickelback concert on the same night to figure out why it’s ok to hate both bands (also this piece on indie music, well, one particular indie band).

“Over the past 20 years, there have been five bands totally acceptable to hate reflexively (and by “totally acceptable,” I mean that the casual hater wouldn’t even have to provide a justification — he or she could just openly hate them and no one would question why). The first of these five acts was Bush (who, bizarrely and predictably, was opening for Nickelback that very night). The second was Hootie and the Blowfish, perhaps the only group ever marginalized by an episode of Friends. The third was Limp Bizkit, who kind of got off on it. Obviously, the last two were Creed and Nickelback. The collective animosity toward these five artists far outweighs their multiplatinum success; if you anthologized the three best songs from each of these respective groups, you’d have an outstanding 15-track album that people would bury in their backyards.”

“The day before the New York show, Kroeger appeared on a Philadelphia radio station and was asked (of course) why people hate Nickelback so vehemently. “Because we’re not hipsters,” he replied. It’s a reasonable answer, but not really accurate — the only thing hipsters unilaterally loathe is other hipsters, so Nickelback’s shorthaired unhipness should theoretically play to their advantage.[pq]A better answer as to why people dislike Nickelback is tautological: They hate them because they hate them[/pq]. Sometimes it’s fun to hate things arbitrarily “

2. This piece on horse racing, and the murky world of gambling.

“I boarded the Jockey Club elevator with a group of filthy-shoed men I assumed were from California; they headed to the Winner’s Circle, I headed back to the proletariat. They were staid and dignified. One of them shot his cuffs and adjusted his tie, ready for his picture. Just another day at the office.

The elevator opened and dumped us out into the throng. People were lining up at the windows to cash their tickets and collect the $1.20 in winnings that Secret Circle paid on a $2 bet. It was nowhere near the six figures that Secret Circle’s connections had won, but these fans were high-fiving and back-slapping like their ship had come in. Perhaps my dad was right. Having a winner was fun, even if everyone else in the track had it, too. I pulled my tip sheet from my jacket pocket and unfolded it. Disgusted, I read the words Secret Circle — BEST BET!”

3. This review of the Avengers.

“The insane advertising and development costs of the Harry Potter–style franchises we consistently reward at the box office have turned studio heads into marketers trying to find audiences big enough — i.e., young enough and male enough — to justify the cost of movies whose budgets routinely exceed $200 million. At that kind of rarified airspace, in which the marketing budget amounts to as much as half or more of whatever is spent on the actual film, you need a sure thing,like a toy, or a preexisting brand; [pq]auteur types and people with new, unproven ideas are dangerous and threaten the bottom line.[/pq] Better to just make a movie called Candy Land starring Adam Sandler and pray that people remember that a board game of the same name once existed.”

4. This tribute to Pep Guardiola (and pretty much everything they write about football, like this piece about Pele, and this one about Messi)…

“Throughout his early life he’d been consumed, Valdés had, by the fear of failure and compulsive perfectionism that tend to haunt top goalkeepers.”The mere thought of next Sunday’s game horrified me,” he has said. And: “[pq]Playing in goal was, to put it mildly, a special kind of suffering…[/pq]

For Guardiola, joy was also instrumental. He had realized that, in order to play the game the way he wanted, his players would need to be tuned in a certain way, that it would require a kind of psychic generosity for them to read one another well enough to move in the perfect tandem he envisioned, and that even the goalkeeper had to be part of that, which, odds were, would be impossible if the goalkeeper were sealed in a self-created hell. “Have fun,” the way Guardiola said it, was a cliché, and a profound statement about the nature of the game, and a tactical manipulation as fussily meticulous as the kind that used to torment Victor Valdés.”

5. The Masked Man – overthinking the WWE. This piece on a recent Pay Per View, which travels back to the 1920s to resolve a modern wrestling dilemma, is really something.

“Back in the 1920s, there was a wrestling stable called the Gold Dust Trio. They were the most powerful group in pro wrestling’s fist heyday, and they helped mold the sport into its modern form. The Trio’s members were Ed “Strangler” Lewis, the champion; Billy Sandow, the businessman; and Toots Mondt, the enforcer and, more important, the wrestling visionary.

Prior to the Trio’s ascendance, wrestling mostly took place on fairgrounds and in vaudeville halls. It was, more or less, real. According to legend, grapplers would travel from territory to territory, taking on local tough guys, and if the wrestler began to feel overmatched, he would wrangle his opponent back against the curtain at the rear of the stage, where an accomplice would clock the local with a blackjack, unbeknownst to the audience.

The subsequent era of higher-profile, “championship” matches had its share of fixed bouts, but they contributed to a more fascinating reality. The Gold Dust Trio would change everything. Sandow hired Mondt to be Lewis’s sparring partner and enforcer; Mondt would take on opponents before they got in the ring with Lewis to make sure they were “worthy” foes, but in reality, he would soften them up for his colleague. Then, when wrestling audiences started to dwindle, Mondt conceived of a new style that combined Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling with brawling and boxing.”

There you go. If you’re not persuaded now, you never will be…