Revival: A Monologue

How I Got Saved, Got Lost, and Failed to Overthrow the Imperialist Bourgeoisie is the subtitle of the monologue my uncle has been performing in Seattle the last couple of weekends, based on his upcoming book, Revival: A Memoir. This weekend is his last performance in this run, at the Capital Hill Arts Center in Seattle.

The flyer he sent me about it had this teaser: Andrew Himes traveled a postmodern trajectory through fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Maoism, and fundamentalist Microsoft. Along the way, he assaulted an army of Nazi cows, rebelled against a granddad who helped invent the Religious Right, got himself arrested for illegal use of a bullhorn, and had a near-death experience aboard a bright green Kawasaki. He lived to tell the tale in this extemporaneous live performance.

For a small taste of what you’ll experience if you can make one of the performances, check out this recording from a panel he was on with Rob Bell during the Seeds of Compasssion event, “Andy Himes – Missionary to Evangelicals”.

The Seattle Times had a write up of his performance last week, “Revival!”: a fundamentalist upbringing shapes a seeker of truth. Here are a couple excerpts:

Andrew Himes is the brother, nephew, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist preachers.

That Himes did not grow up to be a Baptist preacher himself may or may not be surprising. Same goes for the fact that as a young man, he rejected the fundamentalism of his grandfather, John R. Rice, a prominent evangelist and co-founder of the Religious Right in America.

What is surprising is that Himes found a way to embrace his upbringing while rejecting its dogmatism and forging his own identity.

Now, as a Seattleite of deep social conscience (he’s the executive director of the Voices in Wartime Education Project), Himes is sharing his journey of spiritual rebirth in the form of “Revival!,” a memoir-as-monologue that bridges the gaps between his youthful Christianity, his young-adult passion for Maoist revolution and his maturity as a freethinking seeker of truth.

With subtle humor and a keen sense of irony, Himes relates a compelling chronology — accompanied by family photos, heirlooms and cheesy clips from an early-’70s fundamentalist film — that includes close encounters with Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones University and a genuinely terrifying concept of eternity.

The website for the Capital Hill Arts Center includes an interview with Andy where he is asked, “In composing Revival!, and addressing racism and social ills in America, what have been your greatest challenges?” He answered, “To tell the truth, as far as I am able, no matter where it takes me, and even when the truth reveals what a total and incomprehensible idiot I am. To express compassion and generosity of spirit toward people who terrify, annoy, offend, and crazify me. To learn how to stop preaching at others and just try to tell a damn good story.”

I love the excerpts I’ve heard so far from his monologue, and the different drafts of his memoir that I’ve read, so if you’re anywhere near where he will be performing I highly recommend checking it out. His blog is at andrewhimes.net if you want to find out more about it.

Frederick Buechner on Sunsets and Silence

As evidenced by some of my recent posts, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that we make ourselves known to each other and the ways that we try to hide who we really are, sometimes without even realizing it. Discussing with a friend this week the pitfalls and advantages of different methods of communication (e-mail, face-to-face, etc.), I thought of a story Frederick Buechner tells about a sunset. Found in Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner, this was one of the first things I read by Buechner and it was what turned me into a fan.

Late one winter afternoon as I was walking to a class that I had to teach, I noticed the beginnings of what promised to be one of the great local sunsets. There was just the right kind of clouds and the sky was starting to burn and the bare trees were black as soot against it. When I got to the classroom, the lights were all on, of course, and the students were chattering, and I was just about to start things off when I thought of the sunset going on out there in the winter dusk, and on impulse, without warning, I snapped off the classroom lights. I am not sure that I ever had a happier impulse. The room faced west so as soon as it went dark, everything disappeared except what we could see through the windows, and there it was – the entire sky on fire by then, like the end of the world or the beginning of the world. You might think that somebody would have said something. Teachers do not usually plunged their students into that kind of darkness, and you might have expected a wisecrack or two or at least the creaking of chairs as people turned around to see if the old bird had finally lost his mind. But the astonishing thing was that the silence was as complete as you can get it in a room full of people, and we all sat there unmoving for as long as it took the extraordinary spectacle to fade slowly away.

For over twenty minutes nobody spoke a word. Nobody did anything. We just sat there in the near-dark and watched one day of our lives come to an end, and it is no immodesty to say that it was a great class because my only contribution was to snap off the lights and then hold my tongue. And I am not being sentimental about sunsets when I say that it was a great class because in a way the sunset was the least of it. What was great was the unbusy-ness of it. It was taking unlabeled, unallotted time just to look with maybe more than our eyes at what was wonderfully there to be looked at without any obligation to think any constructive thoughts about it or turn it to any useful purpose later, without any weapon at hand in the dark to kill the time it took. It was the sense too that we were not just ourselves individually looking out at the winter sky but that we were in some way also each other looking out at it. We were bound together there simply by the fact of our being human, by our splendid insignificance in face of what was going on out there through the window, and by our curious significance in face of what was going on in there in that classroom. The way this world works, people are very apt to use the words they speak not so much as a way of revealing but, rather, as a way of concealing who they really are and what they really think, and that is why more than a few moments of silence with people we do not know well are apt to make us so tense and uneasy. Stripped of our verbal camouflage, we feel unarmed against the world and vulnerable, so we start babbling about anything just to keep the silence at bay. But if we can bear to let it be, silence, of course, can be communion at a very deep level indeed, and that half hour of silence was precisely that, and perhaps that was the greatest part of it all. (emphasis added)

How to write good satire

Okay, I’ve said before that it is hard for me to write satire because I read stuff in papers like The Sword of the Lord and The Biblical Evangelist that are exactly what I would write, except they go even farther than I would go. Oh yeah, and they’re not satire.

A friend of mine, Matthew, just sent me a link to an article that includes the kind of quote they would print, the kind of thing I wouldn’t believe if he made it up. He blogged about it here. And as a side note, if you do want to read good satire, pick up Matthew’s book The Christian Culture Survival Guide (on sale right now from Relevant Books for only $4!). Hilarious.

David Dark’s “The Sacredness of Questioning Everything”

You know how you have a list of books and authors you want to read that friends keep telling you about? David Dark, author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons and The Gospel According To America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea has been near the top of my list for a while. A friend of mine is a fan of David’s wife, singer/songwriter Sarah Mason, read his books a couple years ago, and mentions them every once in a while. Back in March, when I was placing an order on Amazon for the score to Stravinsky’s The Firebird, I decided to go ahead and get both of his books and make some time to read them. So I was happy to find out that the featured speaker for April at the monthly Nashville Cohort meeting that I attend, sponsored by Emergent Village, was David Dark. David is in the process of writing his third book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, and he read us a couple excerpts and led a discussion about it.

As is par for the course for those meetings, the discussion was great, as was the company. I’d told a couple of friends about it who I thought would enjoy it, Paul Jones and Andrew Peterson, and others there included Tyler Wigg Stevenson, who spoke about his new book a couple months ago, Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age, that I’m reading now, and Gareth Higgins, author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films which I read a couple of years ago. Matthew Paul Turner, author of The Christian Culture Survival Guide and a number of other books, was also there. Matthew and I have been e-mailing each other for a couple years, but things hadn’t come together when we’d tried to hang out before, so I enjoyed finally meeting him in person.

One of the primary purposes of David’s new book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, according to him, is to get us to ask better questions. One of the underlying threads are his thoughts on redemptive skepticism. At one point, he said, “Skepticism, like faith, cannot be a virtue by itself.”

One point he kept returning to is “who’s really evangelical?” As I’ve mentioned before, I stay away from that label because of the negative connotations. But I’m hearing more and more people, like David, trying to reclaim the label. (Donald Miller is even identifying himself now as a Fundamentalist, trying to take back that label.) David said that too often, the vibe we get from the church is “I’m Christian, because I’m offended.” But we are called to something different, “we are called to better imagining,” not for ways to be offended and cry foul.

In David’s upcoming book, each chapter will be devoted to questioning a different thing. He mentioned questioning The Future, Being Offended, Religion, Government, and the Media; I think he said there will be ten or eleven chapters in all. He read an excerpt to us from one chapter on what he learned while watching Michael Scott on an episode of NBC’s The Office. He mentioned that, “what we call comedy is the space where everything can be talked about.”

A quote that has meant a lot to him recently is from John Howard Yoder – “Jesus has the power to unendingly meet new worlds.” And because of that, if we believe it is true, we don’t have to be afraid of things changing, of post-modernism or other shifts in our culture and in our lives.

After David talked about his book for a while, we asked a couple questions. Someone raised the issue of people using questions to avoid community, to avoid actually facing anything. David agreed that can be a problem, saying, “There is a lot of questioning, of skepticism, that is always on the run from community.” What we need instead is to be able to ask questions in community, which is a part of what David is hoping to accomplish with his book, I think. In what became my favorite quote from his talk, David said, “We need community that is always destabilizing our sense of copyright on Jesus”. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this past week, realizing how diametrically opposed it is to my background in Fundamentalism where one of our main tent-poles was the constant reassertion of our exclusive copyright on Jesus.

In the asking of questions, there are also pitfalls that demand caution, ways that we can make The Answer more important than anything else. “There is a fetishizing of answers that gets away from loving others,” David warned us. “The Bible has answers, but also questions to which we don’t know the answer.” He mentioned the scene from The Simpson’s movie where Homer’s dad is in church and starts speaking in tongues. While everyone is trying to figure out what he’s saying, Homer grabs a Bible, flips through it, and exclaims, “There are no answers in here!” We often try to use the Bible in the same way, David said, and when we do, Homer’s right. There are no answers if that’s all we’re trying to get out of it, if we rape the text for our own purposes, as Don Miller points out.

David told us a story about a panel discussion that took place between a Baptist minister and a Jewish Rabbi. The minister spent a lot of time trying to convince the Rabbi why he had to accept Jesus, trying to point out what he thought was overwhelming evidence of proof of Jesus as the Coming Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish faith. At the end of the discussion, when it seemed like both sides were talking past each other, the Rabbi attempted to sum up their differences, saying, “Your Jesus is the answer to questions I’ve never asked.” I feel that way often, skimming over the current batch of popular Christian writing or finding out what the hot speakers on the Christian circuit are selling. So I’m glad David is writing this book, thankful that I’ve found people who are asking some of the same questions I’ve asked and am asking, people who are on a similar journey.

Here’s a link to David and Sarah’s blog, Peer Pressure is Forever, where I’m sure David will let us know more about the book and when it will be published.

Cranking up the stereo

Driving over to Chattanooga this afternoon for the weekend, the weather was perfect – sunny and clear, 75 degrees, and a nice breeze. Before I left my house, I grabbed a stack of CDs for the trip. Every once in a while I hear a track that is so damn good I can’t help but listen to it over and over, usually best experienced with the windows down and the car stereo cranked all the way up. Today, that included Joe Cocker singing Just to Keep from Drowning and One Night of Sin, Michael McDonald’s cover of For Once in My Life from his new album, Jars of Clay’s Work and Dead Man (Carry Me), Jesus He Knows Me and I Can’t Dance from Genesis, and a couple tracks from The Midtown Project, the soon to be released CD from my church, Kingdom Days and My Only Rock (which has a killer B3 organ solo I could listen to all day).

What about you? When you have a chance to crank up your favorite tunes in your car on a beautiful day, what do you turn on first?

Matthew Perryman Jones – “Swallow the Sea”

Don’t let go / don’t let go / we can crawl / out of the shadows /
don’t let go /don’t let go / we can find our way / back home //

At Matthew Perryman Jones’ concert last Thursday evening, he played several songs from his upcoming CD, Swallow the Sea, including this one, Out of the Shadows, that I heard him play a couple weeks ago for the first time. The mixing of the new album, with Neilson Hubbard returning as producer, was finished last Friday, and it was sent out for mastering the beginning of the week. It is supposed to release sometime in early August, so keep an eye on Matthew’s MySpace page for more details as well as song samples and video footage from the studio.

About this time last year, at a benefit show put together by a friend of mine, Matthew was one of four musical acts. He had a great band with him that night, including Andy Osenga on guitars and Will Sayles on drums. But he started his set by walking out to the microphone in the middle of the stage by himself, plugging in his black electric guitar, and singing the old spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child while strumming a simple accompaniment pattern. To this day, that remains my favorite vocal I’ve ever heard from him. With the longing of a weary traveler, with pain and loneliness and hope all mixed together, Matthew sang, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / sometimes I feel like a motherless child / sometimes I feel like a motherless child / a long way from home // Why do I wander, why do I run, why do I wander, why do I run / why do I wander so far from home // Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / a long way from home,” ending in a crescendo of emotion. At his show Thursday, he played the version that has ended up on the album, what he said is his favorite track. It starts the same way as he did it a year ago, except strumming on an acoustic guitar instead of an electric, and by the second verse the band kicks in and builds and builds and builds, until by the end it is a wall of sound, enveloping you and echoing its message in your soul. (here’s a link to a video of another performance of it.)

I’ll post more details about the album as I hear them from Matthew.

“Making ourselves known to each other”

Saturday night, after hearing Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken play through their new EP, Ampersand, in an early concert, as well as a solo set from both of them, I headed over to F. Scott’s for a nightcap to catch what I could of Pat Coil’s set with his band. While savoring a bowl of chocolate espresso pot de crème with a glass of red wine, letting the jazz wash over me, I scribbled down these thoughts:

We are strongest when we admit our need for each other. When we stop trying to pretend we have it all together, when we aren’t afraid to show our loose ends and frayed edges, in that moment we are closest to becoming the person we want to be. We try to protect ourselves by projecting a false image of who we are, fearful that if those around us see us as we really are, they won’t like us and we will end up even lonelier than we are now. Never realizing that by doing so we only ensure that we will remain isolated, alone and unknown, which, if we are honest, is our greatest fear. Only when we decide that it is worth the risk, when we decide to “make ourselves known to each other,” as Wendell Berry writes, will we truly find what we’ve desperately been longing for.

Arriving at church yesterday morning, the first thing I noticed was that the kneelers we use for communion weren’t in place at the front of the building, as they usually are for the first Sunday of each month. Then I noticed there were just two tables, one on each side of the stage, holding the bread and wine. When it came time to take communion, Randy, our pastor, explained the change. Because we are the body of Christ, because we have been redeemed and made new, both individually and corporately, as a way of reminding ourselves of that, we were going to serve communion to each other. Over the forty-five minutes it took, in groups of about twenty or thirty, we gathered around the tables, took the bread and wine, and gave it to our neighbor, reminding each other that “this is the body of Christ, broken for you,” and “this is His blood, shed for you.”

When Randy started telling us about what was going to happen, my first thought was, “I don’t want to do that. It will be awkward!” My second thought was to pause and remember a story Scott Cairns told at the Festival of Faith and Writing, of the Baptist minister who interrupted a conversation between he and Father Iákovos to ask the monk if he “had Jesus Christ as his Personal Savior.” I love Father Iákovos’ reply, “No, I like to share him with others,” because for a moment it takes me out of the me-centered culture I’m immersed in, reminds me that I am a part of something bigger, just one member of the Body of Christ. I remembered Kathleen Norris’ story at the festival about the value of communal prayer, of how “when you can’t say the Lord’s Prayer or pray the Psalms, there are others who can carry you along.” And I was thankful for those standing around me, for the friend on my left and someone I hadn’t met before on my right, all of us reminding each other through our words and our presence that we have a new way, a better way, to live. That we are not alone. That we have the responsibility, the privilege, of being the hands and feet of Christ for those around us, and them for us.