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.

The Ascension

Today marks the Ascension, the 40th day after the resurrection of Christ. N.T. Wright, in his new book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, reminds us that “to embrace the Ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.”


Festival of Faith and Writing – Wendell Berry

There were two sessions on Wendell Berry during the festival, Wendell Berry and the Life of the Church and Wendell Berry and the Life of the Academy. They were both moderated by Jason Peters, editor of the recently published Wendell Berry – Life and Work, a collection of essays about Berry’s work by a wide variety of writers. At the one I was able to attend, three guys, Jack Leax, David Crowe, and Darryl Hart, read papers they had written about Berry’s work and how it relates to the life of the church, all peppered with quotes from his different books and essays.

Jack Leax started things off, and a couple minutes into his paper read this quote: “To remember the past is not to remember how it was, but how it is.” And, “‘To hope’ is not ‘to expect’. ‘To expect’ is probably to get disappointment.” He mentioned that Berry frequently describes himself as a “bewildered reader of the Bible.”

David Crowe went next, describing his experience of introducing Berry to a church book club that he leads. The title of his paper was Annoying Faithful Readers. He said, “In my book group, they are always charmed by Berry’s fiction and upset and bewildered by his non-fiction.” “I think people like Berry’s fiction because they can ignore the practical implications they can’t get away from in his non-fiction.”

Explaining why he goes to the trouble of hosting a book club, David said, “We read to enter new worlds and be confronted by new ideas, perhaps even to have our lives changed.”

Darryl Hart, reading the last paper of the session, Berry’s argument for conservative religion, said, “Berry’s criticism of the institutionalized church cannot be missed.” He talked about how Eugene Peterson, author of The Message translation and many other books, says that when reading Berry’s essays, every time Berry writes “farm”, he substitutes “parish”, and it works every time. Darryl address what he thinks are the strengths and weaknesses of that particular reading of Berry, and went on to address other ways he sees Berry arguing for conservative religion.

Another thing I have written in my notes, and I can’t remember if Darryl Hart said it or if he was quoting Berry, is, “We get religion not in bulk but little by little.”

The last fifteen minutes of the session were reserved for a Q&A. After a question coming up as to whether it would be a good idea to start a church book club using one of Berry’s books (the answer an immediate and resounding ‘no’), one person asked what books they would recommend people start with, if they had never read Berry. A Place on Earth and A World Lost were both recommended. My favorite prose that I read last year, period, came from Berry’s book Remembering, so I was surprised to hear Jason Peters say, “I think Remembering may be his most difficult.” Remembering contains the best description I’ve ever read of first attraction, of the beginnings of a relationship – I think I memorized a page and a half of that chapter – so I do recommend it. You can buy it in a collection, along with Nathan Coulter and A World Lost, here.

Reading Berry, you constantly stumble across little gems like this one: “To trust is simply to give oneself; the giving is for the future, for which there is no evidence. And once given, the self cannot be taken back, whatever the evidence.”