All posts by Stephen

The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen

The Art House America blog just published an essay I wrote on The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen, my attempt to treat Walter Brueggemann and Wendell Berry as conversation partners with Bruce Springsteen’s newest album.

The first time I heard Wrecking Ball, the new record from Bruce Springsteen, I was driving through the middle of Kentucky on winding country roads, windows down, stereo cranked all the way up, wind whistling through my hair. I was on my way to the Abbey of Gethsemani — where Thomas Merton lived for most of his life — two days after my 30th birthday, looking forward to the time away to read, write, and reflect. With books by Merton (a first-edition copy of his memoir, Seven Storey Mountain, loaned to me by my friend Ian), Walter Brueggemann, and Wendell Berry in my bag as companions for the weekend, I found myself listening to Springsteen’s lyrics through the lens of Brueggemann’s and Berry’s words.

Read the rest here.

And here are a couple of additional comments, my footnotes to the essay, if you will. Continue reading The Prophetic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen

God as deus ex machina

(This was first posted in October of last year on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog. I’m reposting it here as I try to consolidate most of my writing in one place)

Reading the first chapter of Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection – which comes out this week; read the first chapter here – and his exploration of the way the church often uses the idea of God as nothing more than a deus ex machina, I was reminded of news I heard recently about the current pastor of the church I grew up in.

This church, in its heyday, was one of the biggest churches in the fundamentalist Baptist world. There’s a university associated with it, past its prime, like the church, and in recent years the pastor of the church and the president of the school have been one and the same. When it came to the attention of the school’s board of directors earlier this year that a chapter of his master’s thesis, a book some students were required to buy for their classes, had ben plagiarized – his excuse that he thought the pastor whose book he “borrowed” from was dead or the book was out of print and so it was okay to use it without giving credit, did not, funnily enough, prove to be a satisfactory explanation to everyone, even after he published an updated version – he resigned from his position at the university, claiming it was something he had already planned on doing. God wanted him to focus on his work as the pastor of the church, he said, and he’d decided it was too much responsibility to do both.

A couple of months after this pastor’s big announcement, God changed his mind (you know how fickle he can be). Continue reading God as deus ex machina

Jeremiah Wright and Bad Religion

In “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” an essay collected in Marilynne Robinson’s new book from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, When I Was a Child I Read Books, she critiques a number of popular writers on religion, particularly the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong. Citing one argument he makes regarding the reasons behind the writing of the New Testament letters, she writes, “Not surprisingly, his hypothesis-which is all in the world it is or can be-makes his interpretation of these texts seem downright inevitable. To offer hypothesis as fact is not fair to the nonspecialist readership for which his book is clearly intended. In doing so he is typical rather than exceptional among popular writers.”

Those lines kept coming to mind as I read different reviews and excerpts of the new book from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. I first heard about the book via a column from Douthat summarizing his thesis and sketching out his arguments, where a couple of things caught my eye. Anyone familiar with the history of American religion will raise an eyebrow at several of the claims and reductions Douthat relies on for his arguments, but there’s one in particular that I want to focus on.

Continue reading Jeremiah Wright and Bad Religion

Growing Old: Hope, Samuel Beckett, and Krapp’s Last Tape

On a trip to New York City this past December, a trip that had as its genesis a desire to see Rob Mathes’ annual Christmas concert in person (after being introduced to Rob’s music via a DVD of the Christmas show on Mike Card’s bus eight or so years ago), I spent some time with my friends Alissa and Tom. When I first let them know I would be in town, Alissa told me they had tickets one night I would be there to see John Hurt perform Samuel Beckett’s one-man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, at a small theater in Brooklyn. When I found there were still tickets available I quickly purchased one, and set about doing some research on the play, including reading the script after I found it online, having decided to do the same kind of prep work I normally do before going to the symphony every other week.

According to one synopsis: “In Krapp’s Last Tape, which was written in English in 1958, an old man reviews his life and assesses his predicament. We learn about him not from the 69-year-old man on stage, but from his 39-year-old self on the tape he chooses to listen to. On the ‘awful occasion’ of his birthday, Krapp was then and is now in the habit of reviewing the past year and ‘separating the grain from the husks’. He isolates memories of value, fertility and nourishment to set against creeping death ‘when all my dust has settled’.” Continue reading Growing Old: Hope, Samuel Beckett, and Krapp’s Last Tape

Some thoughts on Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers

I admit it: I’m tired. Tired of the perennial discussions about the things women aren’t allowed to do, or what a “real man” or “real woman” looks like, discussions that often invoke the descriptor “Biblical” as a way of trying to sanctify the speaker’s opinion. Listening to claims from John Piper’s Desiring God Pastor’s Conference that God gave Christianity “a masculine feel,” or that the music in a church should be led almost exclusively by a male – echoing concerns I heard raised several years ago by members of the PCA denomination after Keith and Kristyn Getty led the music for their annual meeting, and were criticized by some for the fact that a woman was allowed to hold a microphone and lead men in singing – I quickly realize that I no longer have any energy to debate those who hold to that position. Let them argue until the end of time. I have no doubt they will, convinced as they are that they represent God.

These conversations, of course, are not new. Most of the rhetoric I hear today is indistinguishable from the way my great grandfather, the Fundamentalist evangelist and author John R. Rice, talked about these issues. His book Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers, written in 1941 and perhaps his best-known title, carried this subtitle: Significant questions for honest Christian women settled by the Word of God – making it clear that anyone who disagreed with him wasn’t honest and certainly didn’t care about the Bible, allegations that are very much a part of the rhetoric today.

“The pulpit is a place for the strongest men that we have,” he wrote, building his argument. “The preacher in the pulpit should speak with an authority that is absolutely forbidden a woman to exercise.” In a sermon Rice preached on the 7th of December, 1964, he claimed that “man is in God’s image in a sense that women are not,” and so, “a man is nearer like God than a woman.” Continue reading Some thoughts on Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers

lit

marykarr_litWhen asked my favorite book of 2010, I’m tempted to say, the first 10 pages of Mary Karr’s Lit. The introduction. Nothing more. That’s all I’d read, until a few nights ago.

In the beginning of December, after I’d driven through the snow-covered mountains of North Carolina to attend a concert – a tribute to the 70‘s Memphis band Big Star, for which I’d done the music prep and a bit of orchestrating – I was waiting to meet my cousin, a Seminary student, for lunch one afternoon at a greasy pizza place when I wandered into the nearby Barnes and Noble. I noticed Lit prominently displayed near the front of the store, and, remembering my friend Jeffrey Overstreet’s enthusiastic endorsement, picked it up to find out what all the fuss was about. Continue reading lit

“…we grapple with redemption’s fable.”

I’ll break my unintentional blog silence here, as 2012 appears on the horizon, to share a poem from the Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, someone whose words have been a comfort and challenge to me over the last year, a poet who helps remind me of both the worth and the power of words. What I love, perhaps most of all, about Micheal’s poetry, is the way he explores the various stages of a life, whether it is falling in love for the first time, or growing old, or searching for home. This poem comes from his book The Chosen Garden (1990), section IV, Turns and Returns – a section which also includes one of my favorites (and most quoted) of his, Those We Follow, a poem I quoted in an article I wrote for the Art House America blog back in August about Image Journal’s Glen Workshop. History is the first poem in this grouping, following this epigraph from Edwin Muir: Continue reading “…we grapple with redemption’s fable.”

Why I Didn’t Attend Falwell’s Liberty University (it was too liberal)

This post first appeared over at Jesus Needs New PR a couple weeks ago.

In January of 2007, Kevin Roose walked on to the campus of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, ready to join 25,000 other students for the start of the spring semester. But there was one thing that set Kevin apart from his classmates, something his new friends wouldn’t know about until after he left Liberty at the end of the semester. Kevin was a transfer student from Brown University, a school every bit as secular as Liberty was religious, and had decided to spend his “semester abroad” in Lynchburg, VA, instead of England or Italy. After spending a couple days on the campus of Liberty several months earlier, on a research trip with an author he was working for, he had realized he didn’t know anything, really, about evangelical Christians, and found that trying to carry on a conversations with “them,” even with his peers, was like trying to communicate with someone from a completely different culture, someone who didn’t even speak the same language. He wanted to get past the stereotypes, beyond what the culture wars tell us about who our enemies are, and so decided to spend a semester at an Evangelical university, with plans to write a book about his experience. The decision to attend Liberty, then, was an easy one: he couldn’t imagine a more conservative institution, and he wanted to get the full immersion experience.

When I read The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, Kevin’s story of his time at Liberty, just after it was published a couple years ago, the first thing that struck me was how different our stories were. While Kevin chose Liberty because of how conservative and extreme he thought it was, I chose not to attend Liberty for the exact opposite reason. Continue reading Why I Didn’t Attend Falwell’s Liberty University (it was too liberal)

Send Andrew Osenga to Space

For at least the last five years or so, whenever I think to check the “most-played” list in my iTunes, I’m never surprised to see that at least half the songs on the list are by Andy Osenga, many of them listed there because of the late nights where I hit repeat over and over again on a song, needing to hear it just one more time.

From his work with his first band, The Normals, through the years he was with Caedmon’s Call – as Derek Webb’s replacement – to his five solo albums (and counting), I find something in Andy’s music that I need, lyrics that provide comfort and encouragement, words that give voice to unspoken yearnings, disappointments, and desires, confessions and promises. Lines that remind me of the kind of person I want to be, and how I might get there. Continue reading Send Andrew Osenga to Space

The Sword of the Lord

This was also posted at Jesus Needs New PR

It is difficult, if not impossible, to know who you are without knowing where you came from, without knowing the history of your people, your place. For me, that story revolves around my great grandfather.

My mother’s grandfather, John R. Rice, was an Independent Baptist preacher and evangelist. Although he died fifteen months before I was born, his shadow loomed large over my childhood. My identity came from him, and he was, first and foremost, a Fundamentalist. From a sermon preached in 1928, early in his ministry, “Why I Am a Big F Fundamentalist,” to one of his last books, published in 1975, just five years before his death, “I Am a Fundamentalist,” that remained his most important identifier. With two hundred books and pamphlets to his credit (more than sixty million copies in print) and a biweekly newspaper he edited, the Sword of the Lord, that had a circulation topping out at over three hundred thousand, he was sometimes called “America’s Mightiest Pen.” His role as a principle player in two of the defining moments of 20th century American Fundamentalism – the 1957 split with Billy Graham over his ecumenical New York crusade, the end of a long friendship between the two, and the very public disagreement with Bob Jones, Jr., over the issue of secondary separation in the mid 70’s – cemented his role as an elder statesman of Fundamentalism. At his funeral service, one mentoree of his, Jerry Falwell, called his death the “passing of an era…He was God’s man for the hour. I looked on him as the guardian of fundamentalist truth for this generation. More than any other person, he was the most trusted man in fundamentalism…” Continue reading The Sword of the Lord