Making Sense of Sufjan

Silver and GoldWhen I heard that Sufjan Stevens had a new Christmas album, the obvious question was “Why?”  It was just 2008 when he put out Songs for Christmas, a collection of 42 songs.  And ok, sure, Songs for Christmas was put together over a few years, but still, who does two Christmas albums?  And who would do two so close together?  Well, Silver and Gold has a whopping 58 tracks, some serious, some a little quirky, and some entirely bizarre.  There are traditional Christmas carols, some Advent hymns, at least one Lenten hymn, some playful electro-folk, and a bit of plain noise.

As I began listening to Silver and Gold, I had a few more questions.  First, while I love the hymn Ah Holy Jesus, it isn’t a Christmas song at all.  Rather, it’s about the death of Christ.  What was it doing on this Christmas album, and in three versions at that?  Also, there are a lot of Advent themes– “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates” and “How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee” are traditional Advent hymns.  It even seems that Sufjan has written at least two specifically Advent-aimed songs, “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way” and “Justice Delivers Its Death.”  For those who are not familiar with the distinction between Advent and Christmas, Advent is the penitential season in the Church calendar just prior to Christmas.  Rather than being jolly, it stresses the judgment associated with Christ’s coming, both his first and second coming.  And so Advent songs are often about the end of the world, the final judgment, and Jesus returning cosmic order and righteousness to the universe.  What’s striking is that Advent and its music are typically somber, a stark contrast to what most people think of as “Christmas music.”  Obviously Sufjan is doing all this on purpose, and so the question is, “What’s he up to?” Continue reading

Partisan Anxiety, Extremism, and Fight Club

It really isn’t the case that social and political phenomena, particularly in non-establishment forms, can be explained fully by pointing out basic religious and philosophical principles. Those are important, but they never tell the whole story. We have to look at a bit of psychology, as well as noting wider trends among similar groups of people. I tried to do this in my first lecture on religious converts at the Bucer Institute (mp3s here). I found that I got two primary reactions.  One said that it was totally unscientific and therefore of no use, and the other said my description was precisely what had occurred in their own experience and was among the most valuable insights in the whole lecture series. So I suppose I will confess to being unscientific in this regard while continuing to insist that certain psychological and personal issues are real. Pastors and politicians especially need to understand this.

This definitely applies to certain personalities that are attracted to religious extremism. It really isn’t even correct to call it religious extremism, because, as we saw in the case of Breivik, they can routinely admit to not being very religious at all. So let’s call it cultural extremism. Continue reading

Culture War, Faith, and Terror

As a young pastor and writer who has often defended the notion of “Christendom” and even advocated for something of a recovery of it in our current day, I was particularly alarmed when the ideology of Anders Behring Breivik came out.  The murders in Norway were a tragedy in their own right and we shouldn’t fail to mourn them before rushing to “the big picture” significance, but it is still the case that Breivik is now a symbol for the right wing and perhaps even “Christian” equivalent of Islamic terror.  Correctly or not, he will always play that role in the public discourse and his use of “Christendom” will have to be accounted for before anyone can speak positively of that term again. Continue reading

On the Use of “Gnostic”

I don’t want to always be a schoolmarm, correcting the misuse of this or that term, but there are a few that cry out for attention.  “Gnostic” is one such word.  It has recently come to be a shorthand to describe a variety of concepts, typically those which prioritize the spirit or the mind to the body.  Anyone who believes in the priority of the intellect could be called a “Gnostic” under this usage, as well as anyone who thinks that the soul is on a different plane of being than the body.  “Gnostic” is also employed to critique those who hold to idealism over materialism.  Strangely, not a few of the modern “anti-Gnostics” have gone so far as to deny the soul’s ability to exist apart from the body, thus creating a heresy of their own in the opposite direction.

But according to folks like Kurt Rudolph, we don’t actually know much about the original Gnostics. Continue reading

“Sacramentalizing” and “r2k” are Two Sides to the Same Coin

I’ve managed to come to this odd position where I could be construed as critiquing both certain strands of neo-Calvinism and Radical Orthodoxy (a more left-wing variant of the same concepts) on the one hand and the so-called “two kingdoms” school (called “radical 2k” by their critics) on the other hand.  A surface approach would think that one should line up with one of these groups to attack the other.  This is not the case, however, because both share the same basic problem of not being able to allow nature and grace to dwell together happily. Continue reading

Why is “Catholic” a Gloss for “Creation”? (or why “sacramental” needs a moratorium)

This is from a comment response to a post here (with slight editing so as to make my writing look better than it is).

The divide is not between some generic “catholic” Church (which oddly includes magisterial Protestants) versus the more modern “Baptist”, but rather the older one of nature and grace. Modern evangelicalism looks a lot more like medieval Romanism in this regard than many would care to admit. The classic Protestant position admits that nature is already a reflection of the divine and possesses its own integrity. This is also why it is no surprise to find great works of techne among even the non-believers and pagans (see for instance, the sons of Cain in Gen. 4:20-22). Continue reading

On Supposed-Hebrew Culture

The problem with “worldview” is that it is all in the head.  It is an intellectualist assumption that once we tally up all of the ideas that a certain person or group holds to, organizing them according to causal force and foundational significance, the end result will be “system.”  Once this system is identified, we can then explain how certain ideas will invariably lead to one system or another, and from that point on we can make our respective curricula which will effectively teach the worldview we are looking for.

The major weakness here is that such systems rarely ever exist.  Even if they do exist enough to name, they never- ever- *do* anything on their own.  Ideas don’t really have consequences.  People have consequences.  And people typically borrow, bend, compromise, and even work contrary to their ideas and commitments.  Wars, technology, political marriages, dance-trends: these all have as much “impact” on a culture as any particular philosopher.

The same weakness shows up when theologians speak of a Hebrew “culture.”  What they are talking about has never actually existed.  The Hebrews in the Bible were always Continue reading