Some Nights With Fun. – A Reflection

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunchboxstudios/7550586384/

Source: Flickr

There are some nights I wait for someone to save us

But I never look inward, try not to look upward

And some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me

But usually, I’m just trying to get some sleep…

Perhaps it’s just my angst-ridden, directionless millennial self, but I believe no band captures the spirit of my generation better than Fun.

When We Are Young and Some Nights ruled the charts last year with their anthemic celebration of youth and the uncertainty of life, it was clear the band had struck a chord. All of my friends loved them. I heard them on the radio. Glee covered We Are Young. In short, they became a staple of pop culture, and rightfully so. Unlike any song I’d ever heard, Some Nights made me feel. It still does.

So when Fun. Came to the Merriweather Post Pavilion on tour with Tegan and Sara, I knew I had to go. If I passed up the opportunity to see them at this point in life – a year out of college, still chock-full of anxiety, optimism, happiness, doubt, and hope – I would regret it the rest of my life.

Concerts have a unique value in that they take the audience to a new level of reality. In the age of the internet, much of my experience of the world comes and goes through a screen and speakers. This leaves a certain gloss of unreality over almost everything I watch and read about. When I see a band live that I had only previously experience through album covers and music videos, it feels alien, yet wonderful, because it brings a fresh sense of reality and vitality to the music.

Fun.’s show was no exception. Lead singer Nate Ruess brought the same animating tension to his live performance that made Some Nights a chart-topping album. He looked exhilarated, high not so much on the adoration of thousands of fans as on the raw rush of performing, that sensation of making music and experiencing life with people. When a performer does this well, playing and singing out of sheer delight in the opportunity to share his creation with the world, it justifies the cost of time and money to experience it. And when the audience reciprocates that love, it creates moments together in the here and now because that’s all we have, and we’re young and crazy and probably in love. We agree it’s a great time to be alive, so why the hell not light the world on fire?

But I think there’s something else there too. Several years ago, 60 minutes interviewed Tom Brady, the multi-superbowl-winning quarterback of the New England Patriots. As the segment showcased what appeared to be the pinnacle of his life both on and off the field—he just signed a $60 million contract and was dating a Victoria’s Secret model—Brady said this:

“Why do I have three super-bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say ‘Hey man this is what it is, I reached my goal, my dream, my life is…’ Me? I think god, it’s gotta be more than this.”

“What’s the answer?” The interviewer asked.

“I wish I knew…I wish I knew.”

Like Brady to football, I have no doubt Ruess loves getting up on stage with a vigor that even few professional performers have, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he would like nothing better than to do that for the rest of his life.

However, I suspect deeper, darker sentiments underneath his elation – perhaps a rage born out of a longing to be complete and whole and to find purpose. If Ruess throws as much of himself as he can into his shows, then surely he expects the world out of them, and I can’t help but wonder if they don’t quite satisfy the longing.

If they don’t, surely he feels cheated by life.

And if cheated, where else does one go? In Fun.’s universe, where one lives in the passion of moment, neglecting to look inward or upward for salvation, music in the moment becomes the pinnacle of life. Everything has to be about the song we’re singing right now with those around us (and especially the lover with us). How could it be otherwise?

Fun. concert pic

This desperate passion for the moment fuels the creative process, and hearing Fun. live impressed on me the beautiful artistry of their music. Guitarist Jack Antonoff’s guitar riffs and solos and melodies gave the sense that each song is its own unique creation, not the product of some cookie-cutter pop producer but a terrible labor – stories and feelings wrought out of unrequited love, nostalgia, disillusionment, escapism, and dark nights of soul searching. All are then packaged in a conceptually abstract but fiercely present hope. How else could one start the song Carry On with a quiet piano and a lyric like “We are not shining stars” and then build up to a rousing exhortation: “If you’re lost and alone, and you’re sinking like a stone, carry on. May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground, and carry on.”

Indeed, the music takes you places with its abrupt shifts in style, timbre, and sentiment mid-song and refusal to consistently adhere to the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus formula. To my untrained ear, it often sounds almost as if they embrace asymmetry at times without compromising the overall composition and unity of their art. Regardless of the explanation or phenomenon, it takes talent (and probably a good bit of angst, alcohol, and/or drugs), and it is delightful.

I’m amazed at the ruthless optimism in music these days, rampant in everything from obscure, self-conscious indie bands to overproduced, sentimentalized mainstream pop. Live music – even that of the stereotypical “band you probably haven’t heard of,” brings people together in a bond of hope almost impossible to replicate or surpass. If we have each other, everything is going to be okay, right? Or as music artist Kyle Andrews sums it up: “It’s not a sad song if everybody sings along.”

Mr. Andrews, meet exhibit A.

Ruess has his own paradoxical term for this phenomenon in his lyrics: “pessimistic optimism.”

“The We Are Young thing is puzzling to me,” he said in an interview, “That’s not a happy song. That’s not how it was intended. There’s a hole in my heart when I think about it.”

I have a guess why. I love singing We Are Young as much as anyone, but one unspoken question haunts it: What happens when you wake up and you’re old? Of course we can celebrate youth—it’s a wonderful season of life—but it cannot be the pinnacle of life itself because it will not last. Tonight you are young, but you might not be tomorrow, and what will life mean to you then?

Fun. ended the show with the last track on their newest record, Stars: a long, rambling song which in substance tragically embraces the ultimate hopelessness of life yet somehow manages to feel comforting. Much like Some Nights confesses to a vast void of purpose while lifting the hearer up in a rousing anthem, the tension between an absurd reality and feelings of hope stretched my heart as only art can.

You’re always holding onto stars, cause no one’s gonna save us.

But we need saving, don’t we?

When Fun. came back on the stage for the two-song encore to belt out Some Nights, I sang it out with everything my horse voice could handle, but inside my heart pulled away from the tension:

No…no this can’t be it, I thought. I do stand for something. Yes, sometimes I don’t know, and on some nights I’m less convinced than on others, but there is a hill out there that I’m ready to die on.

I expected the live performance of Some Nights to carry me into its existential moment. To a point it did, but I also believe it showed me a glimpse of my true self. I’d like to think it revealed that underneath all the questions and doubts about life and truth that have plagued me over the past several years and continue to haunt me, my soul is grounded on something steadfast and resolute because someone has saved it. And if that salvation comes from beyond this broken and temporal world, I no longer have to worry about dying alone, all dried up in the desert sun.

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Book Review: A Rumor of Angels

We live in an age in which beliefs about religion and the supernatural–especially in the public square–seem to be growing increasingly polarized and antagonistic toward each other. The religious seem to be growing more religious, and the secular more secular. Modernity has engulfed the world over the last two centuries, and genuine, deep-set religious faith seems to be growing more and more untenable.

What are we to make of this? How should church leaders and secularists alike respond when faced with decisions about how to engage with the culture and those with differing beliefs? Or more important still, how ought we to go about finding answers to questions of faith and the supernatural?

Enter “A Rumor of Angels” by Boston University sociologist Peter Berger. Berger is one of those delightful intellectuals who refuses to be easily categorized. He does not subscribe to the typical thinking and well-known rhetoric of either side and offers his criticism to traditional Christians and the secularizing left alike. Berger himself probably put it best in a 1980 article in The Christian Century in which he described “A Rumor of Angels” as “an attempt to overcome secularity from within.”

I was first introduced to Peter Berger through a pastor. In this video about the question of certainty in biblical interpretation, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York city referenced “A Rumor of Angels”, noting that the decision to remain skeptical and avoid taking a position on something is itself a decision about what the text is saying. In other words, you can choose from the various interpretations, come up with your own, or claim some sort of “enlightened uncertainty”, but all three are concrete statements about the nature of what you are interpreting. Any belief you choose takes a stance about the nature of reality. If one of the first two positions is correct, then the third one isn’t going to do you much good.

Indeed, the most valuable insight of “A Rumor of Angels”, I found, was Berger’s insistence that the cultural forces that condition our beliefs really have little to no bearing on whether or not something is true. At one point in the book he recounts a visit to India where he encountered a street funeral and afterwards spoke with a Hindu who shared a passage from the Bhagavad Gita. It spoke of life, death and reincarnation. Berger found that his western, Judeo-Christian sense of life sharply rejected the eastern view. He admits why: worldviews are relative and his beliefs had been largely conditioned by his background and society.

This fact in itself, however, does not present any “new” problems to the question of belief; it is merely a sociological observation. “The matter becomes interesting in a very different way,” Berger writes, “the moment one passes from, broadly speaking, the sociology of knowledge to questions of truth.” For all of our observations and analysis about how religious belief comes about, it does not help much when it comes to answering the one big question: Who is right? Continue reading →

Highlights from Orthodoxy, Part Two

Be sure you’ve read Part One of this post first.

All of my favorite quotes from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy were too long for one post. Here are the highlights from the last three chapters.

From Chapter VII, The Eternal Revolution

Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities, but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals. On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane, or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.

The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.

From Chapter VIII, The Romance of Orthodoxy

Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.” Continue reading →

Thinking About Science

Nothing huge this week. But one of my professors recommended a while back that I watch this interview with philosopher-mathematician David Berlinski.

Berlinski is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle and well-known as a critic of evolution. People can be quite dogmatic about evolution these days, but I think it’s pretty funny when a stuffy old philosopher like Berlinski comes out of academia and starts tearing apart the scientific establishment.

Whether or not you agree with what he has to say, I think it should at least give us pause. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to be a little more skeptical towards the claims of science.

With that, I give the floor to Mr. Berlinski himself. The following are a few quotes that stood out to me. Be sure to watch the interview to understand them in their full context.

In regards to evolutionary theory and the big bang:

It is a creation myth without a Creator.

The game must be fixed, or I must be inordinately favored to win it like this.

In regards to morality and the meaning of life:

The idea that the world of matter is the world that matters is simple not true.

All the laws of heaven and earth are unable to prevent man from his crimes. Surely relaxing the laws of heaven and earth shall not dispose man to better behavior.’ That seems to me self-evident.

In regards to the nature of science:

In order to advance scientifically, there’s an enormous body of assumptions that have to be in place, and those assumptions can’t be defended. No science, Aristotle said, ever defends it’s own first principles. And we can’t either.

In regards to the Bible:

The Old Testament is the greatest repository of human knowledge and wisdom in the history of civilization–any culture, any time, any place–and that really should be the first point of discussion because every attitude current today in the discussion, from Richard Dawkins to me to Christopher Hitchens to lonely pastors in the Bible belt on Sunday morning ranting from a particular text, is discussed in the Bible and there’s a character in the Bible who expresses that point of view and there’s sympathy expressed for that point of view and there are reservations expressed by the sympathy.

I think that last quote in particularly significant, as Berlinski is an agnostic and describes his relationship to the intelligent design movement as “warm but distant.” Yet he has a point. For anyone seeking answers to the big questions of life, or anyone who simply wants to engage with western civilization, you must read and study the Bible. If nothing else, it’s a matter of intellectual honesty.

Summer Musings

First off, my apologies for the drought in posts. That’s a sin in blogging I hope to rarely commit. I’ve been busy the past week helping out with the student leadership retreat and Week of Welcome at The Master’s College, and though I had some free time, I confess I made the hotel’s spa a higher priority than my blog.

Being back at school for senior year makes one think, though. It has a different feel to it than other years. This is it–the last time for anything and everything in college, the closing of a four year chapter that has challenged and changed me more than I ever expected.

A sobering wisdom comes with time and experiences. I tasted one flavor of the “real world” at the Washington Journalism Center last fall and sampled another at my internship at ABC23 this summer. I also followed the news more closely than I have any other summer. All of these turned my eyes toward the future, and I soon found that when you start asking big questions–like what happens after all the exams, cafeteria lunches, and trips to the beach–life gets kind of scary.

Most of these questions go something like this: What does a well-lived life look like? How do you live with no regrets? What sort of habits, patterns of thinking, and self-discipline should I be forming right now?

I talked about these questions with a friend once over dinner last spring. One thing he said stood out: “Life isn’t worth living just for memories.”

It didn’t take me long to realize how chilling that statement is. Memories are great, but imagine them elevated to the ultimate position in your heart. You’d be forever trapped in nostalgia–warm, fuzzy, sentimental longings that can never be fulfilled. Waiting for some future thing with eager expectations is tough, but looking back on it after it has come and gone like a flash in the pan has got to be tougher. Continue reading →

Which Came First, God or Man?

Last week, the LA Times ran this little op-ed by J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer, authors of “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.” The title of their piece is “Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods.” I couldn’t resist taking a look.

Articles like these always catch my attention. I think part of it is curiosity to see what new “anti-god” rhetoric atheists have come up with this time, but on a more serious note, the question of God, morality and origins is pretty fundamental to how we look at the world, and it has huge implications for how we live our lives. One of the compelling things about Christianity, I find, is that it is awfully hard to explain away.

Thomson and Aukofer claim to be able to do just that, and it therefore deserves a great deal of both fear and fearlessness as we approach it. I mean a sort of “fear and trembling” in the sense that it speaks to a high-stakes personal decision, and “fearlessness” in that we must be willing to listen to both sides. If they are right, we have nothing to fear about the claims of religious believers, and if a certain religious belief is true, then it should be able to withstand scrutiny.

(that said, thankfully I never thought to start reading the 2000+ comments. . . rarely a good idea, especially on YouTube)

I admit that on one level they have a compelling case. A lot of it does make sense. . . given certain presuppositions. However, the interesting thing about some of the claims of the article is that one can argue in the opposite direction. In fact, some Christian apologetics does exactly that.

Continue reading →

“Shut it Again on Something Solid”

Out of all the sessions at the American Enterprise Institute‘s recent Purpose and Prosperity conference in Washington, DC, I identified personally the most with the Politics and the Millennials discussion panel. In their talk about the voting habits and political positions of today’s young evangelicals, the four speakers described me perfectly: confused and uncertain, unwilling to fully embrace a full conservative or liberal ideology, hesitant to identify with a political party, yet still leaning conservative at the end of the day.

Since spending a semester in Washington DC last fall at the Washington Journalism Center, I’ve felt the weight of my own ignorance more and more. Almost all of the black and white views that I brought in to the program last fall turned to gray. For the most part, I’ve considered this a liberating experience. It opened my mind to accept new ideas and freed me from any sort of allegiances or need to defend a person or policy.

Amy Black, a professor at Wheaton and one of the Politics and the Millennials panel members, said that one of her goals is to introduce a little gray–a few new, valid, perspectives–when teaching students. In principle, that’s a good thing. A good education should shake and challenge students’ views.

However, she said, the point is not to leave students in political limbo, unable to find their way out of a maze of muddled opinions and sound bites, yet that is where I was at prior to the Purpose and Prosperity Conference. My study of journalism had turned me, for all points and purposes, into a political agnostic.

 

Another one of the discussion panel members, Matthew Anderson, said that these young, confused evangelicals need to develop some sort of concrete framework through which to view and interpret politics. Political engagement and understanding, he said, starts with having a lens of coherent beliefs and values. It reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton said: “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

That captures the essence of what I learned from the Purpose and Prosperity conference. Each session set up a clear framework through which to view matters of public policy and faith. Arthur Brooks redefined the way I look at the debate over capitalism. Alex Brill and Andrew Biggs described tax policy and social security in concrete numbers. Steven Hayward spoke on environmentalism with a balanced presentation of facts. Every speaker, in fact, clearly sketched out the present political situation in their respective fields.

The beauty of this is that once you have a framework in place–a reference point through which to view today’s political debates–then you can start asking good, informed questions. For an aspiring journalist like myself, this is huge, because now I know better how to categorize and study all these areas of public policy. I’ve learned what it means when Republicans talk about reforming Social Security, or when Democrats talk about renewable energy.

Better yet, I have taken a few more steps toward the one thing that hopefully all of us are looking for: the good old truth. Truth with clarity, fairness, and faith.