Thursday, January 30, 2014

Meet the Beatles

So, a couple of weeks ago I slogged through the 808 page (with very small type) volume one of Mark Lewisohn's three volume Beatles history: Tune In. Slogged makes it sound worse than it is. It's a great book; I was enthralled. There's a level of detail in this book likely never applied to any person, place, or event in the history of time (and this is not at all an exaggeration; I firmly believe this to be true).

The slogging comes from the first couple hundred pages or so. It's a little rough and I could see why people might abandon the effort. There's an in depth look at the life histories of three or four generations of Beatles ancestors, recounting the family narrative into which each is born. You get specific dates and duration for each of Ringo's childhood hospitalizations (did you even know he was a sickly child?), but around page 350 or so, it really gets humming. When it does, it's tough to put down.

The book ends at the end of 1962, right before "Please, Please Me" comes out and they rocket to stardom. Yeah, you don't even get the payoff you've been looking for - but I loved it anyway.

Before this book, I knew the names Brian Epstein and George Martin were somehow connected to the Beatles. I knew Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe had been former members (although I thought them both prior drummers). I knew the Beatles played in Germany (and I learned more about this through Malcolm Gladwell's book - I think it was Outliers). I'd heard most of the hits and once owned the Beatles 1 album.

I didn't consider this a huge wealth of knowledge, especially with how many superfans exist in the world; still it was likely more than 99% of the population knows about the Beatles.

I now know much more.

Highly recommended for any really, really serious music fans or, like me, those people with a pathological need for mundane and trivial information of any kind. The original publication schedule for the volumes was supposed to be 2008, 2012, 2016. Assuming Lewisohn planned four years for each volume and the first actually took nine, it could be a long wait for volume two. The good news? If you start now, you might be done with the first by the time it comes out.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Art of Silence

As you may have noticed if you read the blog regularly, I like the Grammys. I like to be up on what pop culture is doing. I think it's important as a pastor and I just generally like to know what's going on in the world. Plus, the Grammys is usually a great show (this year being a huge exception; if that were the Hunger Games, the producer's head would have been publicly displayed on a pike the next morning).

Daft Punk stole the show, by the way. They won almost every relevant category - and rightly so. If you're unaware, Daft Punk is a French electronica duo who, in those rare instances they appear or perform in public, wear elaborate robot masks that make them look like a Storm Trooper's cool older brother.

Since they're essentially producers, most of their album was collaboration with other artists. They didn't win any award just the two of them. As I was suffering through a second acceptance speech made impromptu on their behalf by the colossally awkward Pharrell, I began to wonder why they remained so silent.

It's not as though their faces are a mystery. They give interviews. They even did a photo spread for GQ, partly without the masks. They're not mystery men. It's a public image thing. While I wouldn't have expected them to perform without the helmets, I was surprised to see them wearing them the rest of the show (maybe it's just easier to recognize them that way?).

When they won Best Album, the Grammys' biggest award, Paul Williams took to the mic. Paul Williams has an interesting back story. He's no stranger to the Grammy stage, winning numerous times in the 1970's. He wrote Rainbow Connection. He was on Johnny Carson. He was a big deal. Then he disappeared until a year or two ago when a filmmaker did a documentary about just where he went. It's a story of addiction, loss, devastation, and redemption. If he'd only known, the film might have ended Sunday night.

It was touching that Williams got to speak on the Grammy stage one more time. That moment alone was worth the atrocious production they put together and I (willingly, I guess) sat through for four hours. It was a profoundly beautiful moment.

It wouldn't have been possible if Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter hadn't decided to remain silent.

In a way it is the ultimate artistic expression. When people make public art, it ceases to belong entirely to the artist. People begin to interpret and take some measure of ownership. When you enter a partnership, if it is a true partnership, you give up your rights to power and control - some part of your life is now no longer entirely within your grasp.

Daft Punk had to stand there while Pharrell riffed and stumbled over two odd acceptance speeches. They seemed to do so happily, I suspect, because they were grateful for his collaboration. His part in the music made possible something they could not have done on their own.

Their silence also led to profound beauty.

I thought a little about God and creation. I am coming more and more to believe God created this world in partnership with creation. Not that God had to do things this way, but the overflow of God's love allowed us - and allows us - to participate in our ongoing creation.

For good or for ill.

There may be times of embarrassment or awkward moments, times when that decision for partnership looks like a poor one. There are also moments of pure beauty. In the end, though, neither moment is a bad moment. Neither moment is a mistake. Both are indicative of true creative partnership. They are the embodiment of public art.

What is the world other than a work of art? What are our lives other than a public statement of some core belief resonating out from inside us?

I need this lesson, perhaps more than most. I hate to give up control of anything. I'm that guy who always has to correct some factual error in an otherwise unrelated story. I pass it off sometimes as a mild neurodevelopmental disorder, and I'm only half kidding (I certainly have lots of Asperger symptoms). I have this ingrained compulsion to "make things right," a difficulty discerning the difference between fact and opinion.

It gets me into trouble.

So I am glad for these moments. These expressions of silence that allow for collaboration. So many artists and musicians hold tightly to their work and struggle for it to be seen the ways in which they intended. Daft Punk made their art and released it to the wild.

Perhaps creative partnership is the key. Perhaps becoming accustomed to outside influence births the capacity for letting go. Or perhaps they're just super-evolved, futuristic, French robots who have a lot of complex things figured out.

Either way, there's something to be said about the openness in which we live life and the ways we allow the genuine contributions of others to impact who we are.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Daft Punk

With the Grammys airing tonight, I had to get my last Best Album review in today - so you get a special Sunday post on the blog.

Random Access Memories is the only nominated album I'd listened to before the nominations were announced. I spent a good deal of time with it over the summer. Mostly I liked the fun, dance groves and appreciated the homage to 70's dance music with all the modern twists. I haven't heard it (besides the odd radio play of "Get Lucky") in probably four or five months.

When the nominations came out, I figured this was the preordained winner. There was so much critical buzz, it's a long-suffering, oft forgotten group in a genre that hasn't quite come of age, who actually put out a complex album, layered with deep musical knowledge and loads of production experience, it seems fun, tough, serious, light, deep, and easy all at the same time.

Despite the hit single, this album most reminded me of Herbie Hancock's a few years back - an album that won because it's pure genius was impossible for voters to ignore, despite its more popular and commercial rivals. Grammy usually gets these things right, somehow.* Random Access Memories seems like the next in line.

It provides everything you could have ever hoped for from Daft Punk and then all manner of different, more imaginative, unpredictable things - from the piano-based, introspective ballad-of-sorts "Within" to the collaboration with forgotten 70's iconic songwriter, Paul Williams - "Touch."

I really enjoy the opening track, "Give Life Back to Music," which combines a lot of the best qualities of the album in one place, especially the ability to entertain. Where Daft Punk is weak is their tendency to focus so much of production and invention they can miss the sweet spot and overproduce. A song like, "Lose Yourself to Dance" might have been even better with a little less Pharrell input.

If I'm picking a favorite track, it has to be "Giorgio by Moroder," the nine minute, mostly spoken/instrumental tribute to the German producer who essentially invented electronica. It features the man himself describing his musical vision of encapsulating the past, present, and future of music in the early 70's. It's a wonderful celebration of innovative creativity and a helpful concept summary for Random Access Memories itself.

It checks all the boxes: depth, variety, creativity, musicality, style, innovation. It's just a plain good album. I think it will win. I think it should win. It's a landmark album of the highest quality, by a group that's been working in near-obscurity for the better part of a decade to legitimize a genre of music that's been otherwise snubbed and ignored by the general public.** This is the kind of thing the voters reward.

At the same time, when I come back to it, some of the songs fade into the background. A number of them go on too long, take mis-steps, or are otherwise forgettable (in parts). That doesn't happen on any of the other albums. There are duds all around, but you know it right away and they don't hang around forever.

I've not stopped thinking about (and appreciating) the Sara Bareilles album, even as it was understated upon first listen. Random Access Memories is good, great even, but it may ultimately be forgettable once others build upon the foundation provided here. If they don't win, you might see a song on an album forty years from now paying tribute to some long-forgotten French electronica outfit that only true diehards remember as revolutionaries of the sound. They could be going out on tour with the next big thing, a la Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones.

I just don't know how to handicap this race. Macklemore is the frontrunner, I guess. Daft Punk has the critical acclaim and the benefit of most voters probably hearing each album once (if at all). Taylor Swift is the darling and Bareilles probably falls closest to my personal style preference - thus making her impossible to judge accurately.

I can see why any of them might win. They all make their case in their own way. I don't think Kendrick Lamar has a shot. Only his win would be a surprise to me. A Swfit win would be disappointing, just because of the "been there, done that" aspect. I'll be happy for any of the others.***

Thanks for reading and enjoy the show!

*But not always. But sometimes. (Now I just feel like Malcolm McDowell.)

**"Around the World" was big when I was in high school and college - it's a great track, a really great one that holds up over time - the guys who did that song were entirely capable of the layered, sophisticated performance you see on Random Access Memories, but they were a mysterious french electronica group, no one actually expected them to do it.

***Gun to my head? It's still Daft Punk. There's a larger narrative here; Macklemore will be happy with the Best Song award.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Mad, mAAd World

I didn't expect much from Kendrick Lamar's album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I've been hearing rumblings about "the next big thing" in reference to Lamar for at least eighteen months now. What few snippets I'd heard were less than impressive.

To get this straight off the top, I've got a pretty high bar for rap. It might be cretinous, but I expect inventive lyrics and some understanding of rhythm, if not full on meter. Most rappers, even the popular ones, seem content to scream vitriol over top of beats someone else constructed for them. TI is prototypical. My favorite rapper alive right now is Lupe Fiasco.

Kendrick Lama is something different. He's interesting, though - seeming to mix the gritty reality of Tupac with the expressive, emotional, and inventive production of someone like Frank Ocean. I'm not a huge fan of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but I respect the parts of it done well.

This will sound insulting, but it reminds me a lot of the Miley Cyrus record - with a major caveat. Both Cyrus and Lamar put together strong albums with some excellent tracks, well tailored for their respective genres. Both included a few too many duds for these to be fully realized albums. The caveat being: Miley's bad tracks are almost exclusively those she wrote herself, whereas Kendrick's are simply too immature, both technically and in terms of subject matter, likely to brings some connection from his younger, mix-tape days into a more produced and (hopefully) advanced burgeoning studio career.

Those weak tracks discuss mostly the kind of things you'd expect a young rapper to talk about, but in my mind, sex and the anomie of urban poverty have been more than overdone in hip-hop. However, when Lamar ventures into new territory, he does with a sense of depth and appeal that show why his record was nominated in the first place. There's a refreshing diversity of style, voice, tempo, and solid hooks which make people take notice.

There is some real promise evident, at times, on "The Art of Peer Pressure," which, partly, expresses Lamar's own exasperation about the undue attention he's getting so early in his career with some measure of humility not often seen in the rap game.

One of the better tracks is "Money Trees," the highlight of which is Jay Rock's guest appearance, which is better done than anything Lamar does himself (MC Eiht is fantastic on "m.A.A.d. city," as well). Lamar's upside is obviously sky high, he just doesn't fully realize what he might become - it's covered some by the production value, which are incredible - but the truth should be apparent to most. It's a first record (yeah, I know there was another one, but this is the first one the same way The Heist is Macklemore's first album), which, like a first novel, doesn't speak for itself so much as it speaks for the author's future.

We can't forget, though, Kendrick Lamar is not young. He'll be 27 this year, which is a bit late to be breaking big in hip-hop, especially if he's going to find enough audience and attention to help him develop fully. He's going to have to come out with his best work in the next two albums.

That being said, the title track, "good kid," showcases all his best qualities - socially conscious, complex lyrics; solid rhythm; great beat; and a tag line that gets stuck in your head. He's fully formed here, but it doesn't show up as often as you'd like.

One exception is "Sing About Me," a track with great emotional depth that takes risks hip hop hasn't been into lately. There's some real introspection and contemplation inherent in Lamar's work - he, along with a few others, are forging the next wave of what was once gangsta rap. The movement from NWA's "I came from nothing and I'll do anything to make it," to Tupac's "I came from nothing and it's broken me somehow" to the current investigation into why urban life produces what it does.

As a pastor I'm interested in the juxtaposition of a classic "sinner's prayer" with the tales of violence, sin, and urban woe. Clearly Lamar is trying to communicate the tension between the popular notion that Jesus can solve all your problems and the reality that screams otherwise. It doesn't come off mocking, but confused. I'd say this album, in a way, speaks to the theological problem of seeking the goals of the world through Christian means. There's some gospel conversation here around sacrifice, success and the purpose of life. For that alone it's worth a listen.

I'm not saying it isn't a great representation of a particular subgroup of the genre, but to call good kid m.A.A.d. city a best album winner is perhaps premature. I haven't heard all of Yeezus, but I have a hard time thinking the nominations shouldn't be the other way around, with Kanye up for Best Album and Lamar holding down Best Rap Album.

I've got my own biases and preferences, so this would have to be pretty exceptional to get high praise from me. Still, given it's individual merits, the competition, and the demographics of Grammy voters, there's almost no way this album ends up anywhere higher than fifth (last) in the voting. There might be years where an album like this has a chance, but this is not it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Theatre and the Reality

There's an old saying in England: "Rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen and football [soccer] is a gentleman's game played by hooligans." I'm not sure how we'd classify american football on the spectrum, but I've often been troubled by it's disheartening resemblance to Roman gladiators in the Arena.

We've been through all sorts of medical controversy withe football and it's only going to get worse. The level of mental and physical toll these guys put themselves through for our entertainment is downright irresponsible. We can go back and forth about whether something should be done to stop or limit this damage or if the money and the knowledge of consequences are enough to allow grown men to make such a dangerous choice. There's a lot of merit on both sides and it's an important ongoing conversation.

At the same time, there's another conversation to be had - an individual conversation within each of us - do we continue to support such a venture. Can we justify standing by and watching, enjoying, cheering the mutilation and degradation of our fellow human beings? Is the barbarism of the act itself unweighted by the knowing and willing participation of it's players?

This is more than just a question of steroids and concussions. There is a mental aspect to such violence, analogous, albeit on a lesser plane, to that of soldiers in battle (something else we don't often like to talk about in stark reality). People are not made, designed, evolved, to willfully give and receive the kind of physical punishment doled out on an NFL field. Everything about us is geared towards self-preservation. It takes real feats of training, condition, and often tricks, to make our minds and bodies do such things they were never meant to do.

This was on evidence in stark display after the NFC Championship Game in Seattle Sunday. Seahawks Cornerback Richard Sherman blew up social media and sports talk radio with his honest comments about San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree:

The guy's not an idiot. Arrogant? Sure. Intense? Definitely. But he's got a Stanford degree (and was salutatorian of his High School class) and he writes a weekly column for Peter King's website. In fact, he had time to go home after the game and write his regular column explaining his perspective on what happened.

I wouldn't want to react the way he did. I wouldn't want to defend it. I agree with those people who say this incident, take on its own, is bad sportsmanship, is less than ideal. The problem is, it can't be taken on its own. This is a professional football player (and one apparently guarding a receiver he's already had personal, off-field beefs anyway) at the end of an emotional, high-stakes game.

These guys have to become superhuman on the field and it often requires them to be subhuman in other ways.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady can get away with being friends and being "professional." Their job is mostly cerebral and they're never on the field opposing one another. Defensive linemen and offensive linemen; linebackers and running backs; cornerbacks and receivers have to, if not literally do battle, at least adopt the battlefield mindset to do the jobs we pay them to do.

We can point to the mass of players who say the right thing after the game, talk about the thrill of playing high quality competition, the respect they have for each other, and whatever else makes us happy. But that's not what they're saying to each other for sixty minutes on the field during the game. That's not how they speak to each other in the locker room. It's for our benefit, partly so we can avoid the disconcerting nature of the mental transformation necessary to play professional football.

Richard Sherman embraces the reality of what he's doing. He doesn't try to mask the difference between acting properly in polite society and doing what he has to do to perform on the field. It's an anomaly, but it's also a reality.

The fact that Crabtree and various media types are responding to him as if football should be just another part of normal life feeds the mirage. It plays up the storyline of good, clean fun that the league has been peddling forever.

Competition and physical dominance are not pretty. The things an athlete has to do to bring out the absolute best in their own performance isn't pretty. It's not political correct and it's not sanitary. It's not just football, either. Larry Bird spent his whole career spouting devastating, alarming levels of really mean trash at whoever stood in his way (and often at teammates in practice). Michael Jordan was the same way. The physically violent nature of football just ups the stakes.

It's fine for us to say, "I wish Richard Sherman would act like everyone else." It's much nicer to be coddled and allow the difficult realities of what's happening in front of us fade to the back of our minds. I just think we have to recognize our own complicity and our own hypocrisy in the midst of it all.

I continue to watch. Every year I'm troubled by the brain injuries and the 50 year old men who can no longer walk with joints so messed up there's no reason to even bother with replacements. The violence and damage inflicted on the field in troubling. I almost gave up a few years back, but like many I was lured into a false sense of righteousness by the league's efforts to make the game safer. I'm not so sure the real difficult elements can ever be removed. What's more, I don't think the public wants it that way. We like our gladiators - our heroes - giving their own bodies for our entertainment.

I'm not trying to take a "holier than thou" tact here, I'd just like to counter the notion that Sherman is the outlier rather than the reality. I just don't believe that's true. Not every player hypes himself up by yapping, but enough do - and they all have to talk themselves into the kind of unrealistic focus necessary to play the game. The end result is the same, even if we don't always see it.

It's the same kind of theatre you see in pro wrestling - just the inverse. Big, hulking guys who talk crap to each other in public, but are good friends in private. The NFL does it the opposite way - these guys make nice for the cameras and kill each other on the field. They may manage normal relationships off the field (although Sherman and Crabtree prove this isn't always the case), but the actual spectacle itself is a different kind of world.

In the end, we want to think the NFL is a bunch of guys like us who just happen to be gifted with immense physical gifts. It's more than that and we need to give credit where credit is due. These guys kill themselves for our entertainment. They may not get it right all the time (and lots of time they don't), I'm just not sure any of us has any standing to criticize. We don't exactly occupy the moral high ground ourselves.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Heist!

My first introduction to Macklemore was a youtube posting of the video for "Wing$", a song about a friend being killed for his Jordans and a damning evisceration of conspicuous consumption (more serious, but not unlike the far more popular "Thrift Shop"). It was a powerful message told in adequate (good not great) rhymes.

It was a while before I found out about the "real" name of the group, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. This is a key and profoundly interesting distinction. Macklemore is the rapper. He writes the lyrics and helps compose the music. He could (and by all standard practices, should) be a solo act. He chose to include Lewis, his producer, as an integral part of the group.

The Macklemore story is feel-good. I suspect that's part of the reason this album was nominated (the others being the novelty of his skin color and his socially conscious lyrics). An independent rapper, rising from the oddly mean streets of Seattle and finding an internet audience completely outside the traditional music industry (explained and pilloried on "Jimmy Iovine"). But it is Lewis's inspired production decisions that make this album great (and probably made Macklemore's career).

It's not super original - you could say a number of the beats, combinations, and innovations are derivative of Kanye's best (early) stuff. But hip-hop has always been a genre of homage (if not blatant theft). If The Heist takes home the big award, it will be a combination of the story, the lyrics, the popularity, and the production - but it wouldn't happen without the production (there's even an instrumental! on a rap album!).

I just finished reading volume 1 of Mark Lewisohn's Beatles history and I can help but appreciate how much production and management can mean to even the most talented artists. Macklemore is not the most talented, but he's a voice me may not have heard of without an amazing conglomeration of happenstance.

Everyone loves the big hits - "Can't Hold Us" is among the best fun-dance songs in recent years (and my one and half year old daughter still raises her hands for every chorus with a smile on her face). The real gems are the REAL gems - those tracks dealing with real problems and real issues. It seems even more care was put into the production and writing of songs they knew would never be widely popular.

Songs like "Wing$" and "Neon Cathedral" are just deep, fantastic - and infused with overt religious influence, which appeals to the pastor in me. I've often shouted that Christianity isn't at all about religion, but about living life well; Macklemore gets this in profound ways; I'd call them prophetic. I have no idea what his relationship to fame is, but there's clearly something at work there tapping into a larger conflict between the reality of life and the idealism of what should be that underscores religion.

Finally, I knew about "Same Love" and had heard a few clips, but not until today had I heard the whole track. I knew it was THE track from the album, even though I hadn't heard it on the radio at all, it was the nominee for all the individual song awards. I suspected some of that was the cultural hype over it's subject matter: homophobia and equality. It's a massive track. I suspect it will win a lot of awards. Grounded by a great hook (calling it a hook is probably an insult) by Mary Lambert, there is a depth of connection and importance to this track beyond even the other well done numbers. Macklemore's lyrics are as tight as anywhere, well written and, you can tell, edited with sweat and late nights.

There are some lesser tracks ("White Walls", for one). Nothing throw-away like a typical pop album, probably because Macklemore had plenty of time to put together good songs with no pressure from a label to produce. Still, it's not hit after hit and that should be emphasized (since I so greatly enthused over the parts which are so very good).

Just when you're realizing that maybe it's just a bunch of well produced but otherwise unexciting tracks, with some phenomenal bits mixed in, then Macklemore throws something like "Starting Over" at you - a deep, profoundly personal exploration of relapsing from his sobriety.

This is the first album I've reviewed that I think has a legit shot to win. They all have a shot and are all deserving in their own way, of course, but you can listen and tell who the frontrunners are going to be. I've heard Daft Punk's Random Access Memories before, several times, which is why I'm saving it for last in the review (due the day of the Grammy's) but The Heist is the first album that's making me rethink my initial position: that this award is Daft Punk's to lose. I still suspect Random Access Memories is a more fully-formed album, as it should be given Daft Punk's experience, but they've got to be worried about The Heist - and that's pretty downright amazing for an opening act.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why We'll Choose Public School

This isn't going to be a diatribe against home schooling. We all know some people do that well and others do it poorly. It's not really against private education or charter schools or online school or any other alternative form of education. My wife was home schooled for half her education; I went to a private high school. I am all for people choosing the best course of action for their kids. I know a lot of people who have special circumstances or needs and make decisions accordingly. I don't want to disparage the choices other have made, but I wanted to lay down why we're committed to public education for our daughter.

First off, it's not because public education is great. It's not. The reason private schools and home schools and charter schools, even unschool, are so popular is because there are a often a lot better ways to educate the next generation than the way it's done in public school. That's just fact.

It's also not because my wife is a public school teacher. Although, having and supporting public schools is what keeps our family in food and clothing. My wife, while certainly not paid what she deserves for the time she puts in, is well compensated. The salary and benefits provided by the State of Delaware allow us to live comfortably. For that I'm really grateful.

For the most part, when it all comes down, we choose public schools because some kids don't have the option.

I spent some time in Kansas City, volunteering at a youth center that worked with what might be called "at risk" kids. More than anything, it gave a little peek into what had been (and maybe still is?) one of the more dysfunctional public school systems in this country. Oddly, though, their chosen method of redress, lots of charter schools, didn't seem to solve any problems. In fact, things kept getting worse.

I noticed that most every kid whose parents were in any way on the ball, were able to apply for and be admitted to a charter school of some kind. Yes, some are better than others and some are downright awful. But, over time, given the system, we could assume that the best schools would emerge and, if given enough space, could accommodate any kids whose family wanted them there.

One of the big reasons for such charter success, however, is the ability to turn kids down. Whether because of learning difficulties beyond the scope of the school, parents unwilling to be involved, or the downright lack of proper decorum from the student themselves, the really "tough" kids got funneled back into public school. Public schools that were then comprised almost entirely of students with no parental support.

I guess what it boils down to is our belief that we're (and this is the proverbial we, not just my wife and I) - we're not just responsible for the education of our own children, but for the education of all children. As unfair as it seems, we're not isolated individuals; we are necessarily interconnected.

The average cost of keeping someone in prison, even at its most favorable ratio*, is a little more than twice the cost of educating them. We pay for other people's kids one way or another.

Any large, public institution is going to have problems - and change is going to be difficult to come by. That's the nature of the beast. Public education has its own unique and often outrageous series of challenges. There are lots of good, honest, caring people who work tirelessly to improve our public education system, while also providing an alternative education for their own kids. That's an important choice and one I won't disparage in any way.

For us, though, we value having that skin in the game. I think it provides a bit more credibility to speak where speaking is needed. There's real value in true solidarity. It's easier to combat poverty if you live in the midst of it. It's more painful, for sure, but its a shared pain. And, not to bring theology into this (although I am a preacher), but if there's one thing that makes God truly worthy of worship it's God's decision to enter into our pain and suffer with us.

My daughter may not get the same depth and rigor in public school that she could get other places, but with active and involved parents, we're not really worried about her learning what she needs to learn to get into college. I'm even more excited about her being part of a flawed community that works together, for good and for ill, to try and live life well.

Our best efforts will not keep our daughter from pain and suffering - neither her's, nor others' - but we would like to instill in her the notion that there are no hopeless causes.

I recognize this post can sound like I view public schools as a terrible place in need of redemption. All things (and people) need redemption, of course. But for all its faults, there are a lot of dedicated people who give their lives to making public education the best it can be. My wife is one of those people - and she works with a lot of others.

There are lots of great public schools with great students who provide the kind of high class education that most alternatives can only dream of providing. It can be and is done well in a lot of places.

In the end, though, most people would be supportive of successful schools, those that provide a great education to everyone. In the end, though, there are kids who fall through the cracks - sometimes willfully, sometimes through no fault of their own - and we're committed to following them down those cracks and being present in any way we can.

Public education is where that happens and so it's where we need to be. We'll bring our daughter along because we want to be sure every child knows they are as important to us as she is.

*The highest average per pupil spending average I could find is around $11,500; the lowest average per inmate spending average I could find is around $25,000. Most estimates places the cost of incarceration between 7 and 10 times higher than the cost of education, but I want to be as fair as possible.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Let There Be Light by Desmond Tutu

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

This is a children's book with the text taken from Desmond Tutu's Children of God Storybook Bible and the illustration done by Nancy Tillman, who's also done On the Night You Were Born and the favorite of my household, Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You (I try to read it to my daughter every day).

The text is quite recognizable to anyone familiar with modern Bible translations, but is infused with the depth and whimsy of Archbishop Tutu's many years loving and struggling with and alongside the beloved people of his native South Africa. You won't find attempts to bring this children's work into the fights over evolution; Tutu's words focus on the purpose and beauty of God's creation in ways that illumine the mind and bring joy to the heart.

Tillman's illustrations are possibly her best work to date. Using her typical style and variety of mixed media, she brings out the vastness of the simple text, while also supplying art of pronounced subtlety, captivating the adult and child alike.

My daughter is only one and a half, but she enjoys the vivid pictures and will certainly only grow more fond of this book as she matures.

I really like this book and I hope these authors continue to collaborate on future projects.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Love the Sinner...

There's that old saying that gets thrown around whenever people have trouble understanding each other. Love the Sinner; Hate the Sin. Theologically, I'd say that's how God interacts with Creation. It's not as though the saying itself is wrong in some way. I think people get the gist of it.

The real problem, as I see it, is the way we embody it.

Often it becomes intertwined with the scriptural pronouncement to "speak the truth in love." Many have argued that it's unloving to avoid pointing out sin in someone's life if you see it. The reasoning behind this is that such sin will inevitably lead to problems in the person's life and perhaps affect their eternal destiny. The other analogy is "if I saw someone walking towards the edge of a cliff, I'd let them know they were in danger."

Again, in theory, all of this makes sense. If you really feel like someone's life choices are going to hurt them, you shouldn't keep quiet about it. You also shouldn't make those objections the primary basis of communicative interaction between the two of you. I've seen plenty of people who make loving truth-telling their only means of "loving the sinner."

Sometimes we forget that there needs to be a relationship before we can speak into someone's life that way. You can't just walk up to strangers and tell them what they're doing is wrong - at least you can't do that if you also expect them to respect your opinion. Those drive by condemnations, while, I guess, morally upstanding, are (literally) practically useless.

The reason is, for there to be any real consideration, any dialog, any hope for people to change their behavior (if that's even necessary), is for people to have an understanding of how the other person thinks and what they believe.

I hear, "hate the sin; love the sinner" all the time in situations where the parties do not agree on the definition of sin.

That's sort of a key ingredient. If you're going to tell someone they should stop "sinning," it might be helpful to first check and see if they believe what they're doing is somehow sinful. For this to be a productive engagement, we have to have the same understanding of sin, the same rule of life. Is killing in war a sin? Lots of people read the same passages and come to different conclusions. It's not so easy as pointing things out. We don't always agree.

Now it's a different story if you both know something is wrong, of course. Then you're on the same team - you're both hating the sin even as one of you (and maybe both) are doing it. There's a relationship there and a real benefit to loving someone struggling to stop something they don't want to do.

That doesn't help when there's no agreement. It just makes people mad and defensive. Any chance you have of actually convincing someone of your point of view goes out the window when you call theirs wrong out of hand. Even if it is wrong. It's just bad form to say so.

I've found things are much more helpful when you speak only for yourself. "I couldn't justify doing that and here's why." Then you invite the "other" into a conversation about beliefs and perspectives and you can walk together through the thought processes that bring you to your respective conclusions.

It's a sign of respect. Not presuming to know more than someone else, especially when it's an action or belief they have.

Here's where we make the digression to post-modern conceptions of truth. The obvious retort is that truth is truth, sin is sin and there's no reason beating around the bush. You can't allow people to believe in something that's wrong. It's unloving.

I make no bones about it. I believe Truth is a person, Jesus Christ. After that, I'd say truth can be pretty relative, given the situation, since we're all just trying to figure out what to do based on our perspective on truth. Truth isn't a concept or a proposition. It's a relationship you can only approach gradually (or, in scriptural language, something you see as through a glass, dimly).

It certainly can be unloving to avoid speaking of sin in someone's life, but it's just as unloving trying to force someone to accept your definition of sin at the point of a gun, an argument, or through guilt.

Most of the time, if you've got a relationship with someone, they know where you stand on things. If they don't, it's not inappropriate to tell them. But I'm just saying, if you want to really love someone, sinner or not, let them make their own deductions about what constitutes good and bad behavior.

Speak for yourself, be open about your reasons and thought processes, genuinely seek to understand the other. And, perhaps, enter into conversations with a real commitment to change your mind, should it all of sudden make sense to do so. That's what you're asking of the other person.

And, hey, I might be totally wrong about this, but in the end, I'm quite thankful for those who've loved me despite my arrogance and uncharitable disposition. They've really shown me what it means to love the sinner.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Taylor Swift - Red

I was all set to dig into Kendrick Lamar this morning, but I just wasn't up for it - so I went with Taylor Swift. And while that could likely seem an insult, I think it exemplifies exactly why she's so popular. Pop music, at it's core, is music that's fun to listen to with lyrics that don't make you think too much.

Red is a great pop album (not a pop album that is also great music - like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, but a great pop album that doesn't try to be more than it is). I was a vocal critic of Swift winning Album of the Year for her second record, an over-the-top, too soon, out of place award if there ever was one. However, the nomination, and potential win, in that category of this album, is certainly deserved.

It's likely apocryphal, but I heard tell that Swedish pop music guru Max Martin made only one note on Swift's first single, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," adding an additional "ever" to the chorus - and for that he was rewarded with co-writer and producer credits. He may have had more to do with production than just that, but it's such attention to seemingly trivial details that make the four Martin influenced singles (the first four released from the album) so popular and omnipresent.

Swift writes her own music and she does it exceptionally well. We know Taylor Swift because she's got a preternatural gift for songwriting and has from a very early age. Most people with her talents would be cooped up in some Nashville cubicle for the rest of their lives pumping out hit after hit for others people, but Swift also happens to be a tall, leggy blond. I suspect that detracts some from the credit she deserves.

On Red, Swift's songwriting has fully matured. That's not to say she can't get even better, but her understanding of rhythm and word choice is top notch. Yes, her subject matter is pretty much what you'd expect a 22 year old rich white American girl to write about, but again, that shouldn't detract from her ability to do it very, very well.

I expect to go into these records not liking what I hear. I already had positive notions about the singles (my favorite is "I Knew You Were Trouble"), but you just don't expect to like a whole album of that kind of thing. I liked it.

There is enough pseudo country flair on the "lesser" tracks to justify at least continuing to pretend she's a pop-country artist. Credit the producers with including the right instrumentation to remind you of her roots, but not enough to pigeon hole any of the tracks.

The production and versatility (within a defined spectrum) is impressive on the album. There are some really good songs - even a catchy little love song, "Stay, Stay, Stay" that breaks the monotony of break-up tunes and sounds like something you could imagine Johnny and June doing without a lot of alterations.

There's a bone thrown to self-awareness and the fleeting nature of celebrity in "The Lucky One" that gives glimpse of perhaps a greater depth yet to come from Swift. And only one real clunker - the final track, "Begin Again" isn't at all bad, it's just so reminiscent of her past work that it seems completely out of place.

There's no real thread uniting the album, other than all the songs are Taylor Swift songs, which could be a problem for Grammy voters. That being said, this is a very good album. She may not win the award because the competition is pretty strong and they gave it to her before, but certainly Red is more deserving than Fearless ever was.