Friday, September 25, 2015

Liturgical Lessons from Ryan Adams' 1989

Taylor Swift's 1989 is often the soundtrack for my morning run. Its pop energy is just what my middle-aged body needs to keep pace. And "Shake It Off" queues up just as I'm starting to flag and I'm energized to shake off the doldrums, and all the haters.

This morning I bumped Ryan Adams' cover of 1989 into the run rotation.  It was a revelation.

First lesson: his is not a soundtrack for vigorous exercise. More like the score for a dark, lonely Friday night corkscrewing yourself into a bottle of bourbon.

But the second lesson is more important: Adams' version taught me something about worship.

When you listen to Adams' cover of Swift's album, you finally realize how incredibly sad it is--that buried down beneath the perky melodies and auto-tuned precision of a pristine sound is a lyrical world of heartbreak, disappointment, and despair.

Not until you hear Adams' mournful rendition, in the gravelly timbre of his voice, does the truth of 1989 disclose itself.  It's like, up to now, the melodic tenor and sonic grammar of Tswift's album was lying about what it said. The sound isn't true. There is a kind of disclosure and revelation and truth that is viscerally carried in the sonic environment of the album, and it took the heartbroken musical genius of Ryan Adams to unveil this--to point out the cognitive (and pre-cognitive!) dissonance at work in Taylor Swift's original.  Adams' cover tells the truth about the music, and thus tells the truth about a sad, broken world by redeploying Swift's lyrical honesty in a sonic environment that fits.

(Jeremy Begbie could explain this much better than I ever could, but I can't imagine convincing him to listen to either version of 1989!)

What does this have to do with worship?  We live, you might say, in a major chord culture.  We live in a society that wants even its heartbreaking lyrics delivered in pop medleys that keep us upbeat, tunes we can dance to. We live for the "hook," that turn that makes it all OK, that lets us shake it off and distract ourselves to death.  And this cultural penchant for a certain sonic grammar seeps into the church and the church's worship, so that we want songs and hymns and spiritual songs that do the same.  But as a result we often create a (pre)cognitive dissonance between the Bible's honesty, carried in our hymns and psalms, and our pop retunings.  Or we embed them in a sonic liturgical environment that endeavors to be, above all, "upbeat" and positive--a weekly pick-up encouraging you to just "shake it off."

But then a Ryan Adams comes along and takes you back to lament, and reminds you of all the minor chord moments of the biblical narrative, and invites you into a sonic environment that actually tells the truth about the broken world you live in, and that your neighbors live in, and that refugees from Syria live in.  Worship should be a proclamation that tells the truth, not just lyrically, but sonically.  And that means music that resonates with broken hearts.  Even though the Gospel exhorts us to "lift up our hearts," sometimes that only happens because God in Christ comes down to meet us in our brokenheartedness.  That will sometimes happen in song.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Do not be intimidated by the torrent of impiety"

In the early reconnaissance stages of a new book on St. Augustine, I've been reading his Expositions of the Psalms and came across this striking passage, given the time in which we find ourselves.  In some ways, it reminded me of my Cardus colleague Ray Pennings' recent op-ed in the National Post.

Augustine, preaching on (Vulgate) Psalm 57:8 ("They will be scorned like water that flows away"):
You should not be intimidated by rivers that are reputed to be powerful torrents, my brothers and sisters. They are full of winter rain, but don't worry; after a short time their force abates. The water rushes down and roars for a while, but it will soon subside; it cannot continue its spate for long. There have been plenty of heresies that have died away.  They flowed between their bands as long as any force remained in them; but then the water level dropped, the river-beds dried, and their memory scarcely survives today. People do not recall they they ever existed.  They will be scorned like water that runs away.  But the same is true of the whole world. It does on in its noisy course for a while and tries to drag along anyone it can catch. All the unbelievers, all the proud folk, crash against the rocks of their pride with a din like that of water rushing toward a confluence, but they must not frighten you. They are only swollen winter rivers that cannot flow all the year round; they will inevitably dwindle toward their proper place, which means the end of them. 
Yet the Lord himself drank from this torrent of the world. Here it was that he suffered, from this same torrent he drank, but he drank by the wayside, as he passed it, for he did not stand in the way of sinners.  What does scripture say of him? He will drink from the torrent beside the way, and therefore he will raise his head (Ps. 109 [110]:7).  This means: because he died, he was glorified; because he suffered, he rose again. Had he been unwilling to drink from the torrent on the way, he would not have died; if he had not died, he would not have risen from the aded, and would not have been glorified. But in fact he will drink from the torrent beside the way, and therefore he will raise his head.  Our Head is raised up already; let his members follow him.

~Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 57.16

Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Fatherless Days

In memory of Franz Wright.

Father's Day is easy for me: I have none.  They all left.

So I don't have to find an awkward card amidst the cloying selection on offer.  I don't have to make the clich├ęd choice between necktie or power tool.  I don't have to endure the awkwardness of a largely wordless afternoon in the presence of my progenitor, or remember to call and then try to wrangle a conversation out of the receiver.  ("I don't have to," of course, is it's own sort of spin, papering over the "I don't get to" buried beneath it.)

So Father's Day is easy for me.

It's the rest of the fatherless days that are difficult.

When I was 12 years old, my father divulged his affair with my mother's best friend.  He promptly kicked me, my brother, and my mother out of the house and moved in his mistress, her children taking over our bedrooms.  We moved to a different town and saw him only a handful of times after that.  The encounters I remember were abusive and terrifying.  The last time I laid eyes on him was when our oldest son was born.  That was almost twenty-three years ago.

My mother remarried.  Her husband was the male presence in my life during my teen years, a mostly spiteful, antagonistic father-substitute.  But I'd take what I could get.

He left too.

In many ways, I've been a father longer than I've been a son.  While I make no claims of being either good or exemplary, the most sacred call I'm trying to answer in my life is to be a faithful husband and father.  I've spent every ounce of psychic energy I have to try and make sure that Father's Day is never "easy" for my kids by simply showing, on every other day: "I'm still here."

I'm still here and I'm not going anywhere because I don't want to miss a thing.  I don't want to miss you wearing a cape and rubber boots to the grocery store, or the first time you got an earring (which we did together!), or watching you meander toward finding who you're called to be, or seeing you blossom into the very image of your mother.  I don't even want to miss the disappointments and darkest moments because I can't imagine how difficult it must be to endure those without a father.  Or rather, I can, which is why I can't imagine how my own father could let that happen and why I promise I'll still be here.

I'm still here even on the days that I blow it and exasperate you.  I'm still here on the days I have to tell you, "I'm sorry."  I'm still here even on those days when it seems like I'm a million miles away, distant and detached and aloof because I'm haunted by the overwhelming absence of my father who has torn a hole in my life. Like Keats' "negative capability," this is the sort of absence that is a presence, a hole that takes up space and eats you alive.  It's an absence that makes it difficult to sometimes be present to others, even when you're in the same room.  It's this distance that Franz Wright finally named for me years ago, in a poem about the destructive presence of his own father who left.  As Wright puts it,

If I’m walking the streets of a citycovering every square inch of the continentall its lights outand empty of people,even thenyou are there 
If I’m walking the streetsoverwhelmed with this love for the living 
I will still be a blizzard at sea 
Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely 
star-far from the person right next to me, but 
closer to me than my bones you 
you are there

I'll always be in the room and will ask you to forgive me.  It's just that I'm fathering without a father, working without a net, trying my damndest to pull off this acrobatic trick of not leaving. That's how I love you.

Thankfully, despite all these absences and departures, I have found a model and exemplar.  Or rather, I have been found by a model Father.  So there are no fatherless days because I have been found and adopted by a heavenly Father who promises to never leave me nor forsake me.  Indeed, I've been invited into the life of the triune God who embodies everything this deeply human heart of a son is longing for.  The God I worship is a Father who loves his Son, and who says what any and every son longs to hear:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17 ESV).
And I know that I am in his Son, I am his son.  I have spent a lifetime hoping to hear these words from my earthly fathers.  God only knows how much my frenetic, driven energies are still subconscious cries to be recognized by a father who left, who never asks, who has never come looking for me.  But the grace of the Gospel is to know that I am a son who is beloved.  It may be heretical, it may be indulgent, but one of my deepest eschatological longings is to be welcomed into the kingdom by the Son who shows me the Father (John 14:9), who will tousle my hair like a boy and simply say, "Good job. I'm proud of you."

All of this was stirred up for me this week by another poem, by Seamus Heaney, a masterful meditator on the relationship between fathers and sons.  His poem, "The Follower," stopped me in my tracks:

My father worked with a horse-plough,                             1
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing                                     5
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye                                        10
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back                                  15
Dipping and rising to his plod.


I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.                              20

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.


I never want Father's Day to be as "easy" for my kids as it has been for me.  Which is just a way of saying I don't want them to have to endure fatherless days.  I'm not going away.  But I'm not haunting them.  I don't want to burden them.  I'm cheering them on, ready to pick them up when they stumble. I want to be that net I never had, so they can acrobatically launch into their lives, confident in the love of a father loved by the Father that loves them, too.