Monday, September 6, 2010


It’s Labour Day! The day the nation acknowledges the contribution of waged workers, who are, by the way, the vast majority of us.
I was asked this weekend to be a guest preacher for Labour Day Sunday, with a congregation new to me. As much as I relished an opportunity to be explicit in the pulpit about my political affiliations, there’s always a significant uncertainty about how partisan language might be received in a mixed gathering. The term “Labour” alone is a red flag to some folks! To everyone’s credit – even those who disagree politically – we had a stimulating, respectful, and educational morning together.

Organized Labour – with the big L – is a significant part of my life, politically and spiritually.
But there’s also a conversation to be had about labour – the work we all do in the world – and our relationship with God. The notion of the dignity of labour begins within each individual, and in the ordinariness of the tasks we face every morning when we wake up. Is it chasing a toddler around the house for the next 12 hours?
Is it standing in a checkstand and keeping a smile on your face for 8 hours solid? Is it sitting at a desk, making enough phone calls and sending enough emails until something actually happens?

Yet all of these labours take place in the context of our relationship with the world. With the other people who live here. The meaning of everything we do derives from the effect it has on people around us. Think about it. Our labour, however “private” we may feel about it, has an impact on our community.
I’m a big believer in the “it takes a village” idea. From my perspective, society is not complicated: It’s a big village, and people chop wood and carry water to stay warm and fed. Everybody’s playing a part in this movie, with their own notions of feeling warm and fed. The most menial-seeming job, the most trivial-seeming turns the wheels of our social and family life. All our labours serve what society needs and wants; playing basketball on TV, for our entertainment (or raising 8 kids on TV); fixing elevators; or slinging groceries, which helps put dinner on our neighbours’ tables, and gives us an opportunity to smile and honour what is beautiful and holy in each other.


Well, it isn’t explicitly in that contract. But I can look it up ... Love one another, as I have loved you. As you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me. From the Christian point of view, to serve God is to serve God’s Creation. So in our labour we may find our opportunity to serve each other in love, as Christ commands us. Love is an ethical commandment, for action. Love is not how you feel, it’s a relationship you live. And you know what? That message is easy in church, probably common.

But Labour Day … is not really about that. This national holiday is named for something that doesn’t get talked about in church! Wait: Labour Day is about the dignity of our labour, but particularly the collective – can I say “class?” – of people who labour in a capitalist economy. Labour, with a big L, is an economic, even political word. Why should we talk about that in church?
If the Prophet Amos is any example – because economics and politics and classes of people are important themes in the Bible. Especially in the Hebrew Bible, which tells us the story of how Israel became a community that was defined by a covenant with God. Throughout Israel’s story, we see how they, with God, worked out a new social arrangement. What to do, what not to do if they love God, and what they did that really really ticked God off.
We can hear the human side of that relationship, the love, the anger, in some of the Psalms … but to hear God’s side of things, we have the Hebrew Prophets. Jesus too stands in that line of prophecy – calls in God’s name to Israel as a people, to change their ways and get right with God.

But we in this century have a problem, before we even start: We’re not good at thinking like a community! It’s our greatest problem, our greatest blindness, that we have been schooled to think we function only as individuals, and that “participation” in community life is a choice we can make. It is not! We are all in this movie, as I said; we all affect the shape of the community, and it affects the shape of us. That’s normal, and natural, and profoundly human. To forget that, is to leave a great hole in what we can be as a society.
What’s worse is, many of us tend to read the Bible as if it’s written for us as individuals. As if the lessons in it somehow apply only to our own personal conduct and “choices.” And that … is to leave a great gap in our relationship with God. So much of what’s in the Bible is speaking to us as a society. How might we be God’s people? Do we even know how to answer that call?

When we talk about economics and politics, at least in the labour movement, we are talking about restraints on power and temptation -- justice. We are talking about relationships – ultimately, about respect. How shall we, as collectives of people – decision-makers and workers – how shall we engage each other in relationship? How might we serve each other, in love? Can we talk about that in church? Yes, because our Scriptures do.

Over and over we hear about the widow and the orphan – do they mean we just have to find the old ladies and fatherless children and give them food or money? No, the biblical words mean, as a community – look out for those who don’t participate in the mainstream of economic life. Look out for those who don’t have the normal means of livelihood (which in those days, meant an able-bodied husband or son).
We also hear about the poor and the needy … well, we don’t need a translation for that. In our time, as in Amos’s time, those people may well be able-bodied working people. So the problem is not ability, it’s oppression, it’s suppression, it’s exclusion. That’s pretty political.

Look at Amos 5, where the prophet is addressing the changing economic currents in the 8th century BCE.
Amos’s job is tell Samaria’s rich and powerful that they are betraying God. To Amos, we love God in JUSTICE. AND RIGHTEOUSNESS. He doesn’t care who you are or who writes your paycheque, he speaks for God and God says JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS. He tries to soften it up a bit when he says “Seek the Lord and live,” which really means – justice or death. If we are true to God’s love, we will act justly. Or we will really really try. Or be damned.

you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground! …

He’s talking here to the “strong” and the influential in the cities. The problem is not simply that these people are wealthy. The problem is that they are exploiting the peasant farmers in order to live in luxury. So Amos has a few choice words for that group of people who tweaked the economy, not only to work in their own favour, but to actually do harm to the poorer folks.

[you] hate the one who reproves in the gate [the courts], and … abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.

Here’s a quote from a Hebrew Bible scholar, Robert Coote:
The elite often own not only the land but also the peasants, in varying degrees of serfdom and slavery. …There is too little margin for the difficulties that the single cultivator faces in the course of a few years of harvests. If there is a crop failure, for example, the peasant may be forced to borrow money, often at excessively high interest rates. The chances are that such a peasant may never get out of debt.

So I’m reading this little slice of biblical economic life, and I’m thinking … isn’t this what I’ve been reading in my research all summer? This is like 1934 on the Prairies!– This is Tommy Douglas’s Saskatchewan! Are we still trying to get this right?

Now, there are still folks in Saskatchewan who refer to Tommy Douglas, the man who brought electricity out to the country folk, turned the province’s economy around and got elected five times – and oh yeah, gave the nation MEDICARE … some folks in that province still call him “that socialist.”

Maybe they’re some of the people who don’t know how to think like a community, or who can’t imagine a “social vision” is something that matters. But isn’t the kin-dom of God a social vision? Isn’t love and the prevention of war a social vision?

Tommy had a big idea for how Canadian society should be: poor people who get sick or injured should have the security of knowing that can get well. People too elderly to work should be allowed to live in dignity and some independence.
Widows and orphans. The poor and the needy. Where did he learn crazy ethics like that? Well, in the Depression on the Prairies… and in his study of Christ’s great commandment. Not everybody knows that Tommy Douglas’ lifelong vocation was as an ordained minister – and he took his first church in 1930, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
He ministered there for 5 hard years, before he finally determined that he couldn’t do enough from the pulpit. In 1933, Tommy accepted his first nomination to run for Parliament with these words:
“I am conscious of the fact that it is not customary for ministers to take an active part in the affairs of the nation; but I also remember that there was One who went about doing good so the common people heard him gladly. And I would not be worthy of His name if I did not take up the sword on behalf of the underpaid and underprivileged.”
A young opposition member one night in the Legislature [said]…it was too bad that you once had been a Baptist minister and you had turned into a Socialist premier. [Tommy] replied,
It’s true that 18 years ago I dedicated myself to serve the Kingdom of God, and if I didn’t believe I was still doing that I would not be standing here today.’

Are we dedicated to serving the Kindom of God? Then how shall we serve, for our part? We are called to love, as Christ has loved us; that’s love with a big L. We are called not just to mercy and kindness but to justice. It’s complicated, I know – we’re no longer trying to get laws passed … we’re trying to get them enforced! That’s a much harder pitch. I have no illusions.

I’m not a Labour activist because I think Jesus was a Socialist, or because the Bible says collective bargaining is the answer. I work for Labour, because in God’s name we must work for justice. In God’s name we must stand against exploitation – including economic exploitation, as the prophets warn us.
Labour as a social movement is dedicated to precisely those things. With all its flaws, it lets me do what I pray is God’s work.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I’m struggling with making the connection between love and politics. Strange bedfellows, you may say! But it is precisely the question God has called me to live inside. It is the question that burns in my belly. Love, according to the Jesus tradition, is an ethic; and ethics means social relations, and social relations means politics.
I write about performing artists in this “political” blog, I’ve realized, because their vocation calls them to proclaim love in the public square. Their role is to express a vision, a new or higher imagining of what we might be together. To inspire us forward, or chastise us when we stray. As an artist, it is a different task, a different sort of calling, from that of a social activist, who must deal in realities on the ground, in relationships and the logistics of change. Both are crucial.

The term “politics” in the broad sense I’m using it here means negotiation among competing interests in a community. In other words, in its generic, necessary sense.

Real social change entails a process that goes beyond what the people “want.” The mechanics of change move upon what people expect, or better perhaps, what they assume is possible, and what they’re comfortable with. Essentially, what social convention [experience, history, opinion-makers] tells them to expect, usually unconsciously.

Thus the history of social change tells us that “convention” changes, no matter what the conservatives would prefer. There is some comfort in that knowledge, but it doesn’t always make living in the sloooow transition easier. While I personally prefer to dwell in the rare creative air of social harmony and world peace, I am daily confronted, alas, with the failings of what we are together, at work and on the street. Yet this is exactly where we all learn the conventional “wisdom” society teaches.

So if we are going to change what society expects… we must first wrestle love and politics at work and in our daily lives, before the world will change. Rosa Parks, after all, simply got on a bus after work.

Politics Needs Love

What is a loving mediation between conflicting interests? As Sister Rosa and the civil rights movement proved, it is not being a doormat. And as a follower of Christ myself and a preacher of the Word, how shall I respond within a confrontational system, say, at work?
What if I don’t want to be confrontational, I just insist on being treated with respect… and that respect is not forthcoming? Where do I look for the lever of change? Some may suggest, another job! But there are thousands of people in the same position. What if we want respect for them and their work?

It strikes me that the “problem” is not the jobs per se, but the degenerating relationships between decision-makers and the people who implement the decisions.

The employment relationship is a political relationship, to the extent that the interests of workers and employers (and their designates) are distinct. “Love” is a meaningless concept if it is not tested against conflict. Jesus said, Anyone can love their friends – or those who agree with us. But Jesus recognized that life is much more diverse and uncooperative than that. We duck the issue if we apply his teaching merely to “enemies,” and not to those stubborn or unreasonable or unpleasant people we must tolerate each day. Can we even imagine a loving mediation of such differences?
We must -- because I suspect that’s where changing the world begins, in how each of us imagines an alternative to our own social strife. How we imagine a new possibility.

I confess, in my experience as a Union steward with a corporate employer, it’s tempting to make The Suits the “bad guys.” The situation at my workplace has become very tense, as we are methodically understaffed and overworked. Resentment builds as we watch managers (who work a salaried, unclocked day) do our jobs in addition to their own, while our coworkers sit at home with no shifts to work. In physical work like ours, the combination of increased speed and stress is not simply unpleasant, it can also be dangerous. It further saddens me that I am no longer able to find in my work an opportunity to be kind and helpful to people, but instead we as a team can only serve them shabbily and apologize all day. I am no longer proud to be working there. I know I am not alone.

All right then: what if I do move into a different job, in a completely different setting: not corporate retail, but advocacy, say, in a small private organization that pursues political action? What if I move to an enterprise that understands the costs of degenerating social relationships, and seeks a more equitable social structure?

So I make the leap – and what I find there, sadly, is an office culture not so different from the failures of respect in the corporate machine -- in a building literally full of people who want to make the world a better place! How does that come to be? I stayed there as long as I could, sure that the knots in my stomach and the constant, small slights and subtle accusations are all in my head, certain that I just need to work on my own attitude. But at last, I conceded that a place that does not demonstrate trust and creative optimism about its own people is not a place where I can follow God’s call. So I boycotted that bus.

I’ve been reflecting on that experience for a long time now. I have no doubt that virtually everyone there has good intentions. What they lack (like their corporate counterparts) is a grasp of the creative power of mutual affirmation. Having never worked in the crucible of an office environment before that one, I started to connect emotionally with the theories I’ve read about the need for new kinds of leadership [take a look, for example, at Leadership Can Be Taught, by Sharon Daloz Parks; or a small book close to my heart, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, by Rosamund Stone Zander, a family therapist, and Benjamin Zander, a musician and educator]. The urgency of the discussion became apparent as I experienced directly the crying failures of old-style, top-down organizational thinking.
It simply does not occur to some leaders (at any level), that collaboration is not a sign of weakness.

Love Needs Politics
I share this lengthy discussion here, because I know that many – most? – workplace cultures are very similar. And I argue that it’s because many of us, the frustrated workers, resign ourselves to “the way things are done.” We cannot imagine a different order of being a “society” of workers (or taxpayers). But there exist among us, around the world, organizations big and small that do things differently and successfully by more than one measure, by more than numbers or profits. They love people, they honour the planet, and treat relationships with respect.

BULLETIN: Good relationships are productive. Participation is a measure; moral investment is a measure. That is, good relationships are good for the whole system we live in – financially, morally, materially.

Of course, the workplace microcosm can and should be extrapolated to the social and political macrocosm: how do we decide how to treat people? How and what do we punish, how and whom do we support collectively? Put another way: in a democracy, where the job of elected servants is to implement our social values in the law of the land, how do we articulate those values? What measures do we take first of all, to clarify them?
What kind of society would make us proud to belong?

Just as new parents need to be clear with each other about the value system in which they will raise their children, so do we as participants in a democracy need to reflect on what we each want our society to stand for. Equally, just as many new parents don’t have that conversation and end up needlessly squabbling with the children or with each other through the years … so do many voters neglect to clarify their own values, privately or among friends, which they want to see on government’s agenda. Instead, they vote on emotion, not reflection; they respond to media-bytes rather than to convictions (as do many candidates, unfortunately). Or they don’t vote at all, which is its own corrosive kind of contribution.

But perhaps such an awareness of responsible participation begins in the dailiness of the workplace. For many of us, our jobs constitute the majority of our “participation” in society: how do those relationships work? How might they improve? Is your contribution at work respected? Are you respectful of and grateful for the interaction of others? Are you – or your staff – proud to represent your organization every day at work? Proud to engage the community in the name of your company?

Or, alternatively, do you and your coworkers simply assume that bosses are supposed to consider staff their lackeys (or their competition), or that certain positions are less honourable than others, and treat each other accordingly?

Leaders (and future leaders) out there, you may want to check in on that particular “measure of productivity”… We all want to belong to something good. It’s that simple. Whether our sense of belonging is to our work in the world, or to our family of faith or our extended family, if we feel we belong to something we’re proud of, it means we are happy in the social part we’re playing. And the more people who are happy playing a social part, the more alive and humane is the society they create together.

I want to contribute to the Good Society. But let’s start with a boss who won’t break agreements, and a group of long-time coworkers who are kind to the new hires.
Is that naïve? No. There are still buses worth boycotting, and love will still walk all the way home with politics.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

MAKING MOVIES to GET LUCKY: Notes on 30 Years

for Mark Knopfler

You present me with a problem I never had before: I don't have the words. Is it because you don't speak for yourself, because your life and political opinions -- "ego" perhaps? -- are hidden from me? But I have to try.

The tenderness in your voice moves me doubly, because you telegraph no emotion. Your growl excites me beyond all proportion, because you headline no "passion."
Your music is poetry and gaelic romance such as I can hardly bear. And yet you unfurl it, fling it into the sky as anonymous - and as glorious - as aurora borealis.

I have seen the Northern Lights, myself ... in its sheath of crackling green; it took over the sky, took over the callow city ... like whiskey in a wineglass. Like a choir, stilling a tavern. Like a carpenter cleared a temple.

Such is your guitar in my heart. It pulses and glows throughout my exile's life, a gregorian prayer in a language I don't speak. Yet God responds. Your words bring me to history (sometimes my own), your music brings God to me.

Understand, this is no small thing. I am one called to God's work, I strive to be true to the task. I hunger for the words, I join the rock and roll chorus in the tent of revival, get drunk with prayers, obsess with the numberless names for the sacred. Still in the end ... I cannot preach like Peter, I'm not meant to preach like Paul.
Yet, as the old song says, there is a balm for my despair. My Gilead is your guitar.

Yours is not to pronounce the holy invocations, never has been. But all this time, instead, you've been the whisper in my ear, you play the holy response! You sing, from deep in the the hum of Home I once felt through my feet, landing across the globe on the quiet Irish earth. No words, just contact. No persuasion, only Reunion. You are that sound humming through me, through my body into my heart, the song of my solid ground.
Forgive me, companion of so many years. While I was lost you were right beside me, walking me home.

I learn from you the song of the world, the whole hungering, sorrowing, comforting, carousing world -- in you so big and ancient -- so cyclical and human. Be not afraid, says your guitar; this too has passed and will pass again. We too have cried, and shall cry again. Be not afraid, says your guitar: There is always a lullabye, such as this. There is always a love, such as mine.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Sisters and brothers, children of God, gathered in the Spirit ...
where do we find our kinship? How do we name ourselves in the world? Do we have a choice? Am I forever bound by nature, or completely free in nurture? The answer is ... yes.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches about the inheritance of Abraham, found in the Jewish Scriptures: the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith… it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us…)
So Paul makes the argument that God’s promise is not merely for the genetic descendants of Abraham … but for the spiritual descendants.
Paul actually uses the word “adopted” in several places, to describe what happens for someone who responds to God’s invitation, someone who turns their heart and their life over to God. In Romans 8, Paul says,
For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as offspring by which we cry out, " Abba! Father!" … this is what makes us new, isn’t it? No longer mine, but thine, Lord. And we are made new, every day, every moment, by this grace of God. Not only our hearts but our very flesh we turn over to God, to be used. We are the same as we always were, but we are also transformed.

As a Christian, I particularly like this word, “adopted.” It isn’t a word we use much in the church, or in prayer. We say we are “children of God,” most often in the recognition of a birthright, or in the cosmic sense of our origins. Normally, when the word “adopted” comes up in daily life, it means something different, something very specific in our society. But that more ordinary meaning should cast some light on our relationship with God.

When we are born – again – in the Spirit, we are, as Paul says, adopted in love. I’m not going to talk about the legal process of adoption, since that’s only a small part of what adoption really is. And I’m not using it as a mere metaphor: it’s a real experience. We have it on a human scale, and therefore it may help us grasp the scope of God’s givingness, and the truth of our birthright.
I’ve done some work over the years with adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents, and it speaks to me of the kind of love that Jesus is trying to teach us. The adoption triangle, as it is called, is also a great illustration for everyone, of the depths – and the limits – of heredity. And also a great illustration of the possibilities of transformation, in love.
An adoption experience is more common than you think. Mention an adoption, or a birth family reunion, and people will pop out of the woodwork with their own adoption stories. I’ve seen it plenty of times. A couple of years ago, I was sent on a business trip with 4 colleagues I’d never met before. … and two of them were, like me, adoptees, and a third was married to one.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the adoptive experience is invisible, and all around us, but we rarely talk about it, and what it means for those who grew up with their genetic kin.

I’ll be the first to admit, that the old ways of considering adoption weren’t always very helpful. The authorities used to try and pretend that an adopted baby ceased to have any connection to the birth family, and instead replaced their own genetic information with that of the adopting family. Well, that’s just denial, right? We know better now: we try to connect adoptees with the genetic promptings within them, and incorporate that truth into the truth of family life at home. Because both are real, both are formative, both are expressions of God’s creativity in our lives.
When Jesus distinguishes between being born of the flesh, and being born of the spirit, he isn’t saying that one is true and one is false. Neither is he saying that the flesh and the spirit must by definition do battle. He is saying, however, that being born of the flesh is not enough to enter the kingdom of God. You must be born again …after being born into the flesh, we may then also come to God by being re-born in God.
We are asked to make a choice, to which will we claim belonging? Merely to the flesh? Or will we belong to something bigger than that, something transcendent and holy, the Holy Spirit? Shall we define ourselves by the limits of our genes, or our emotions? Or is our true self to be found in Spirit, in the constant refreshment of God?

Here I have to mention The Da Vinci Code. It’s worth bringing it up for a minute, because everything that was supposedly scandalous about that book (which I liked very much) has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian life.
BULLETIN: Christians don’t care about the bloodline of Jesus! … Next time the book or movie comes up in conversation, feel free to tell your friends about the bad theology in it. Feel free to tell them that the bloodline of Jesus is utterly irrelevant to any who practice what Jesus preached. Or Amos, or Isaiah, or Paul.

The question about bloodlines, and about belonging to God, is very close to my own heart. I was adopted… by a very Christian family – conservative, working-class evangelicals from the Prairies who made their home in Vancouver. My birth family, I’ve since learned, is more bookish, college types who write and teach – and scarcely religious at all. Anyway, growing up, my spiritual life was very active, grounded in the church, but restless … I was no evangelist, and I’m certainly not conservative. Early on I rejected the evangelical church and wandered off into New Age wisdom and Buddhism and a bit of Gnosticism, anything but the mainline churches, right? But remained in my heart a Christian… even though I seldom used the term out loud.
Well, life happens, doesn’t it? Approaching my 40s, I came to a turning point and found myself called to ministry, and – here I am.
I call that kind of grace, amazing.

I met my birth family 10 years ago. I’ve learned so much about “nature” and “nurture”. Learned so much about the many forces of love. It was obvious right away, I inherited my love of words through my biological family. But it’s also clear that I “inherited” my love of God from Mom and Dad.

Last year, I attended a family funeral – that’s my adoptive family – deep in the Bible Belt. My aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins had only recently heard about my new calling. My older cousin grabbed my hand when she saw me and told me a story –
“You know, when you were still really little, and my Mom and Dad used to babysit you all the time, I remember we’d put you on the bed and tuck you in and then pray over you – that God would keep and carry you, and that he would always be in your life and look out for you.” Then she had to stop and say, “Oh no, I’m going to cry!”

But I said “I think it took.”

What we are made of is not limited by our history, or even by our genetic makeup. What we are made of, is God’s desire, moving in us. We are brothers and sisters … in faith! Use your history, use your family strengths – God gave us those for a reason, too. But we all belong to something bigger than our genetic family tree, bigger than our church history. St Paul said it: we are all adoptees – in Christ. We are all changed by the One who loves us.

Friday, December 25, 2009


I get broadcast emails from some American friends about keeping the “Christ” in “Christmas,” as the argument goes. And I’m reminded constantly as I watch seasonal television every time somebody says oh-so-sincerely “Happy Holidays!”
That’s an appropriate greeting, of course, to a mixed audience … but it’s certainly rather forced when they are talking about “holiday” presents, and “holiday” decorations of wreaths and garlanded trees, which are part of the Christmas tradition, not Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or whatever else our neighbours may celebrate at winter Solstice time. However, I appreciate the bizarre legal world of the public square [broadcast version], and I’ll just grimace a little every time the semantic requirements stretch my patience too far.
I should hasten to add, I am not of the party compelled to lobby to “keep the Christ in Christmas.” Rather, I echo the conviction of Teilhard de Chardin who found “Christ in all things,” and I don't fear he's in danger of getting lost. As a writer, I simply prefer that things be called plainly what they are. The time of year is a season of several “Holidays,” and a suitably open greeting is appropriate; but a decorated tree comes to us from a Christmas tradition, and it’s just fine to call it a Christmas tree, thank you. As a citizen and a theologian, however, I see something much larger and more universal unfolding, and the world is a better place for it… There is no need for the defensive or proprietary tone struck by some Christians at this time of year.

“Christmas” in its popular festive guise has become a secular celebration. By that I do NOT mean it has been de-spiritualized. Rather, it is a celebration that has become a tradition of our society, it’s a Canadian [speaking of my own context; transpose as you see fit for yours] cultural event that the vast majority of us participate in to some extent, whether or not we identify as Christians. The tree; the cards (although far fewer than even 10 years ago); the presents; the feast – some on Christmas Day, others on Christmas Eve; the Santa Claus legend; the exterior lights on malls and offices and homes… we all know the cultural cues.
People – communities – need occasions of shared festival. Public celebrations are as important to our social health as yearly vacations or daily baths are to our personal health. In the West, I’d argue that the broadest and most familiar such festival is Christmas. It is a Season of Light(s)… overlaid on solstice ceremonies, we celebrate the Light at the turning of the year, the longest night signaling the start of the lengthening days.

Early Christians used that ancient festival time to celebrate the birth of their resurrected Christ. Of course we don’t know the birthdate of Jesus … he was a nobody, born to a peasant. Nonetheless, a commemoration of his birth was in order. Therefore, just as the early community “Christianized” much of pagan Rome’s traditions and social roles to conform to their own ethics and values, blending in just enough to avoid persecution -- so they later made the winter festival an opportunity for celebration and thanksgiving.
A lot of history has elapsed since then, for good and ill, as far as “Christianizing” impulses go. It’s mighty hard for us to imagine that impulse as a private, countercultural compromise among believers, an effort by a tiny minority to be faithful and still be citizens and participants in mainstream life. Christianity’s imperialistic history has infused Christian traditions into the most religion-less corners of life; there was a time when whole communities and traditions were buried and suffocated under a universalizing presumption of “the Christian society.” I’m glad, personally, that such a time is passing now.
Those who argue to keep the Christ in Christmas are arguing, I think, from a similar universalizing presumption: celebrating Christmas is an expression of Christian faith and belief, and this belief in Christ the Risen Saviour must not be separated from our public Christmas celebrations. Respectfully, I disagree.

While active practice and public confession of Christian religion is much less visible now than a couple of generations ago, it is still safe to say a majority of people accept that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical figure. Whether or not he was the Messiah, or whether he was resurrected to reign in glory at God’s right hand, these are questions of theology and faith commitments. On the other hand, the teachings that we read about in the Bible stories of his life and ministry do not require a faith commitment to absorb and accept. Jesus as the popular “Prince of Peace” can be accepted as such as a teacher and an “evolved” spiritual being. His teachings, his example according to the Gospels, his “love ethic” as it is known, has become part of the Jesus lore even for those who are not religious. This love ethic has been absorbed into the fabric of our winter festival, into the traditions of Christmas – the public holiday, apart from the religious observance.

As an active Christian and public theologian in a post-Christian world, I’m completely okay with the notion that peace and grace and the eternal Light of Love -- the message and mission of Christ … are the “reason for the season.” For me, that is embodied in the holy messenger Jesus Christ, whose birth we acknowledge in the word “Christmas.” But if the secular world wants to pause in its dispassionate frenzies for a couple of weeks and actually practise goodwill and generosity in the name of self-emptying love … then God is indeed alive in the world, and the Holy Spirit is moving, touching, and changing people by other names.

To that I sing, Hosanna in the highest.
Merry Christmas to all, and may grace and peace abound in 2010.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Adam Lambert: DID YOU SEE THAT??

Okay: The Voice was a little rough but that was TOTALLY NOT THE POINT.

25 yrs ago Motown celebrated its 25th anniversary on TV (pretty novel at the time) and Michael Jackson blew everybody's mind with his moonwalk. This weekend Motown celebrated its 50th anniversary, and coincidentally everybody’s mind got blown again– but not by Motown. That happened on the American Music Awards, of all places.

America, meet Adam Lambert. Again.

Wow. Wow wow wow. ABC Television did its best to “bleep” some of those visuals but Adam was operating waaaay over their heads. The producers gave him the finale – maybe because they figured the kiddies would be in bed by that time? – which comes with the weight of its own expectations, on top of the promise of the boy’s sheer talent. The pressure on Adam was significant. But he is a pro – seizing the moment, recovering a slip seamlessly, layering shock on top of surprise.

Do I like s&m as a subject of art? Not especially. And yes, there’s an unapologetic s&m theme, both in the lyrics and unsurprisingly in the choreography, but Adam Lambert’s message to his audience is not just about sexplay. Imagine all those people who haven't seen him since he "lost" Idol? The next message they get from him is the unequivocal “For Your Entertainment” (pardon the paraphrase, I'm going from memory) -- you thought I was so soft and sweet ... it's gonna get rough for you ...
If that song isn't a shot across the bow of everything everybody thinks of American Idols, nothing ever could be. I DID NOT GET ON TV TO BE AN AMERICAN IDOL, I GOT ON AMERICAN IDOL TO BE ME.

I applaud him for every career-risking (career-making) step of it, and damn you I WON'T even stumble, I'll roll with every hazard you throw at me... That was breathtaking. In part because it was on the typically bland and pandering American Music Awards. If his much-celebrated vocal technique was a little ragged last night, well, we can forgive him: his vocal performance was quite secondary to his arrival as a significant cultural force.

Bono's had rough vocal nights that made people cry. (Hell, he's had laryngitis!) Springsteen has had rocky technical nights that he carried on sheer passion. And that's what Adam did, on adrenaline and voracious creativity. And you know what? that kind of go-for-broke, to-hell-with-pretty attitude onstage is where his rock'n'roll lives... there’s a little bit of punk in that brand of audacity. It proves his cred, for all the clubby buzz about the album.

The guy’s got ****ing stones, man...

The queer community's gonna be, Yay, Adam, standing up for us! and the artsy community's gonna be WHOA, Adam, what a throwdown! and the AI tweenies are gonna be too embarrassed to say they don't really get it to each other, but they might just ask their moms why Adam's got those boys on a leash ... and the rest of us rock'n'roll grown-ups are just gonna say, okay, the boy's got more balls than I was willing to give him credit for. AND THEY WILL ALL BUY HIS RECORD. Even if some of them have to smuggle it into the house (like my dad wouldn't let me go see Rod Stewart only after he saw him on Midnight Special in pink spandex. I guess a lot of little girls won't get tickets to Adam's first tour. LMAO)

Wow, again. That was insane. That was the "insanely good" his fans wanted it to be, but even they couldn’t have expected this. He didn't have to prove he could sing pretty. The whole world already knows that. What he needed was to break through every last box that people thought they could put him in. The enemy of the Artist is the very idea of "nice." People now know ... or at least, suspect ... that as gentlemanly as he may be, his art has no intention of being nice.

Watching him sing made it clear for me that he wasn't after all singing about S&M, he was singing about his art, about creative freedom, and the imagery was his symbol for the rough and dangerous ride ahead (and okay, yeah, he also likes naughty sex). I am so thrilled for him, and proud of him, and a little protective of him -- because he was naked out there, man -- that was 110% of him.

This morning I caught his little post-show interview with Access Hollywood. Completely calm, assured, a little cheeky, and utterly unconcerned about any viewers he might have alienated. “If you were offended … then maybe I’m not for you.” Shrug.

I think we are witnessing the making of a superstar. Done and done.

The legend begins…

Friday, November 13, 2009

IT MIGHT GET LOUD; or, a Note of Contrition to Edge from a Rock'n'Roll Penitent

File under: ZooTV Confessional.

I think I’ve been taking Edge for granted all these years. Not his art, or his virtuosity, or his unmistakeable personal style … we all know Edge is as much “the sound of U2” as Bono’s vocals. But I think – well, this is Confession, so I know – that I have failed to connect Edge the man (read: his heart) with the interplanetary fire, rage, and tenderness that come out of his guitar. It's as if the guitars were playing the man. I’ve failed to feel the soul of Edge as I have so painfully and gratefully felt the soul of his literate bandmate, Bono.

Until I saw this movie. If you’re a guitar freak; if you’re a rock’n’roll fiend; if you’re a fan of White Stripes OR Raconteurs OR U2 OR Zeppelin, you will love It Might Get Loud. It’s built on a High Concept: find 3 rock guitar icons of 3 distinct generations; let each of them talk about The Guitar; and then put them together in a room, with a bunch of their favourite instruments and amps. It’s a little bit precious, a little bit self-conscious… but the 3 musicians are young Jack White, Renaissance man and demographic representative of a generation that knows not the liberating magic of the electric guitar; Jimmy Page, snowy-haired Lord of the Sex-Drugs’n’rock’n’roll Manor; and our beloved soft-spoken guitar geek, Edge.

Purely from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven angle? Jimmy Page picking a mandolin while sitting at the blustery gates of Headley Grange nearly 40 years later? Crikey. You tell me what happens to you, but I got chills and hot flashes and little starbursts behind my eyes watching him. Not only for the surreal flashbacks to Going to California and Battle of Evermore, but for the new appreciation of the depth of his mastery and the breadth of his musical voice. What a thrill.
Similarly, Edge gives us typically understated commentary on his visit back to Mount Temple Comprehensive School ... after so many years of reading about the place, I confess it was a total fan-thrill to actually see the ordinariness of the linoleum hallways, the lockers and the little classroom that he and Paul (soon to be "Bono Vox"), Larry and Adam, used to learn how to play their instruments. Edge takes us to THE bulletin board, where Larry put up the notice ... and he kind of smirks at the anti-climactic banality of the thing. Very Edge. Very Irish. Delicious.

Jack White was a bit of an unknown quantity to me, going in. I knew a couple of White Stripes songs, and liked them a lot for their unapologetic guitar-rock thrust. There isn’t a lot of that in hit music these days … not that I listen to radio much anymore, except by accident. However, my movie companion is a fan of Jack, and set me up to expect to like what I saw. I did. Having spent some valuable time on my own spiritual journey with Robert Johnson and the hellhound myths of the Delta, I instantly wanted Jack White to succeed at whatever he next attempts. I liked getting to know him.

But our dear Edge: who is every bit the cultural icon and innovator that Jimmy Page is, but with a much LONGER Top 40 resume! – our dear Edge … the zen guy. The techie guy. For all that Jack is an upstart (just 10 years in the game), he and Jimmy were clearly guitar kin, both reincarnations of Delta bluesmen handed Marshall stacks and MTV. U2 has never been a “roots” rock’n’roll band, Rattle & Hum notwithstanding. Their basis was never the blues and 3 chords, a sex-thrust and a bent blue note. No, the evolution of U2 was a military punk tattoo out of the clouds, a swirl of sensation resolved into a growing-up boom-cha! Edge is not historical kin to Jack or Jimmy. But he is like them, channeled through his guitar music.
In this movie we learn a lot about Edge the U2 member, and a little about Edge the wealthy rock star (yoga accessorized with a Blackberry?), but he talks relatively little about his “feelings” about things. The most heat you will hear in his voice is nearer the beginning of the film, when he is trying to explain that the guitar “… is my voice.” As compared, we should infer, to the ubiquitous Bono’s verbal and theatrical arsenal, i.e. Himself.

And so, taking him at face value, I endeavoured with the film’s considerable help to hear Edge at the centre of U2’s songs – to hear not merely “the guitar sound,” but Edge’s song within the collective that is U2. (After all, it’s just as important to sift out Bono’s own “songs,” his poetic impulse, to better appreciate the collaboration that is a U2 recording.) My favourite scene is the source of the film’s title, when Edge is standing in a small room, guitar strapped on and encircled by electronic boards and cords and switches and pedals. He explains that most of what people hear is his experimentation with the effects of amplification. Magically from his fingers comes that rubbery pogo-spring riff that opens Elevation … until he turns off everything electric, and picks the same strings on the guitar. *pinggggg?…. pinggggggg* Chuckling, he enacts a mock meeting with the band: “Hey, guys, listen to this great new riff!” *pinggggg?…. pinggggg*
Immediately I was reminded of the many live versions of Bullet the Blue Sky we’ve heard and seen – Edge’s solos like an apocalyptic judgement of rage and death, which never fails to chill my viscera, from a shadowy source that sometimes scares me. But the chasm between that sound and the gentle demeanour of the guy in the toque breaks off the emotional connection that should be made between me and that artist. And that does an injustice to him.

Not that one ever forgets that Edge’s sound is front and centre … but since seeing this documentary, I’ve consciously listened to those sounds in the same way I listen to the lyric-less Beethoven or Mozart. My weakness is for words, so I readily default to sympathies with the lyricist. But we already know that often, Bono’s words come after the music has started to take shape; that Bono finds words that reflect the essence in the band’s musical sketches. So now I’m listening for Edge’s voice, within the orchestra of U2 sounds. How does Edge feel about, for example, the Spirit’s Mysterious Ways? How does he feel about information overload – in the graceless squawk of Numb, or the breathless seduction of (Even Better Than) The Real Thing? In every song there’s a man in dialogue with his world, musically; a man who is clearly a reservoir of deep connection to pain – hear in the patient chick-a-chick of Bad, the unconditional love of the friend who lets you cry; a man whose read of the world’s senseless waste aims his machine-gun guitar at the people who can make it stop, in Sunday Bloody Sunday.
And Mofo – I can’t even.
Edge’s book of poetry is in many ways more graphic and profane than Bono’s, even as they serve the same sacred Muse in musical praise and prayer. Against Edge’s characteristic personal restraint, his creative voice is a gift I never properly received, until now. (Forgive me, Mother Muse, for I have sinned…) Thanks to Davis Guggenheim, the director of It Might Get Loud, I have repented. And thanks truly to a humble man who lays his heart out in a global spotlight, without strutting, posing, embarrassing himself or imploding, an artist of conspicuous audacity who draws no attention to himself …
Edge, you are an enigma and a master I haven’t properly honoured, not really. But that’s changed now. Thanks for letting us in.

Okay, everybody, we all get to do penance: Turn it up.