The five best books I read in 2015

In 2015 I set what I thought was a modest – but not insignificant – personal goal for reading: one book every two weeks – or 26 over the entire year (by comparison, Mark Zuckerberg set a similar goal for himself, and Bill Gates reads about a book a week; so I figured if those guys can carve out time then surely I can too). By the end of December I had finished 31 books, which I was pretty satisfied with. From those books, here are the five that made the biggest impression on me and were most worth my while.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed there is something elemental about this masterful work. It aims for the moon and soars to the stars. Through the multi-generational story of several families who all cross paths in California’s Salinas Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century, it captures both a thousand stories of an era and that singular, timeless, origin story of human nature. At a time when many people still felt bound by fate, especially their own heritage, East of Eden proclaims the great freedom of human choice in a fallen world to break the moral trajectory of one’s lineage. The book finds its mythic roots for this in the Old Testament: Genesis 4. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, to which Cain responded with jealousy and anger. God asked Cain why he was angry and challenged him to overcome his temptation to sin. Per the King James Version: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The key word here, one character insists, is timshel – the Hebrew verb that means “thou mayest.” The “thou shalt” from the passage, he says, should be rendered “thou mayest.” The message for young Cal Trask, who poetically revives the part of Cain in the book’s retelling of the story, is that evil is crouching at his door, but he is not destined to repeat Cain’s sin (or the sins of his parents).

Steinbeck’s prose – his ability to portray characters, to delve into the great perversities and nobilities of human motives, and to craft scenes that deeply engage the reader – is some of the best I’ve ever read. East of Eden is a tome, weighing in at more than 600 pages, but it is well-worth the toil of reading it.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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Before reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’m not sure I had much of a propensity to connect road trips and motorcycle mechanics with philosophy, but I do now. Robert Pirsig’s account of a former college professor’s motorcycle road trip to the American northwest with his son alternates between the physical, concrete, and calculable to the realm of values and meaning. It moves to and fro from the task of keeping a motorcycle in top shape to abstract musings that probe all the way back to The Phaedrus, the ancient dialogue penned by Plato between Socrates and Phaedrus. These musings, conducted over long hours spent traversing America’s backroads, revolve around a deceptively simple question: what is quality? It eludes simple definition, but put two papers of decidedly differing quality in front of an undergraduate English composition class and nine out of ten of them will pick the same one as being of better quality. So quality is real, it shapes how we live and perceive and engage with the world, but is there any way to put a finger of what, exactly, it is – to capture its essence in words?

The book grows more and more philosophical as the narrator delves deeper into the troubled intellectual toils of his past, but as it grows in abstraction it also grows in tension and suspense as it is revealed that the narrator’s inquiry into values ultimately drove him mad. Will he return to the madness of the pursuit? Is there any other conscionable thing to do – any other way to stay committed to the truth? The book was published in 1974, but its subject remains timeless and profound.

3. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

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In The Denial of Death, the late Berkeley anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker works his way through the inherent tension of man’s nature, delving farther into the Nietzschean abyss than most modern, secular people have gone. As the title indicates, this book is about man’s struggle to reach the eternal and find meaning as a mortal creature – the result of this impulse being that we obsessively deny the impending reality of our own death. Sure, we have the head knowledge and pay lip service to the idea that we will die eventually (YOLO!), but most people go about their days without a deep existential realization of the dagger hanging over their heads by a thread. We long for greatness and transcendence and try to find it by investing all of our purpose in the nation state or existential act or romance or faith. We are gods, so to speak, yet we all end up as worm food. As Becker memorably put it, men are “gods who s***.”

The Denial of Death’s diagnostic of the human condition is spot on and much more honest about the secular worldview, I think, than most intellectuals are willing to be. It is bleak and concludes without any hope beyond some abstract notion of throwing oneself into the life-force of the universe. Reading it shook me up pretty bad and deeply disturbed me at times, but in a good way. It’s not beach reading, but for those courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) souls who can’t get past the most basic questions of what it means to be alive and who value delving into the ideas of guys like Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, I commend this book to you.

4. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads…” This conclusion to the despairing rant of Amory Blaine, the young protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s freshman novel, captures the angst of the young, talented writer. It’s a conundrum I often run up against myself. How does one justify his own participation in a world constantly in flux, in which public opinion shifts with the winds of the media’s ideology, true love feels eternally elusive, and matters of life and death seem to be dictated by cold, impersonal happenstances of car accidents and stray bullets?

Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23, delivering a quintessential coming of age tale as America entered the Roaring Twenties. It is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, drawing heavily from his own crash-and-burn experiences with women, attending Princeton University, serving in World War One, and moving to New York City as a young man. I don’t have an answer for all of his frustrations, but it’s nice to encounter a youthful, zealous personality whose ambition and optimism crashes on the rocks of vanity. It’s also refreshing to encounter someone who is aware of his own self-absorption enough to refer to himself repeatedly as “the egotist.” Millennials may be the self-absorbed generation, with our Instagram and smartphones, but This Side of Paradise shows that adolescence hasn’t really changed much since it first came into being a century ago.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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I don’t read many autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), but maybe I should. Back when I was in college a writing professor once referenced the Autobiography of Malcolm X, so when I saw it sitting in a box of free stuff on the sidewalk I picked it up. My professor had recommended the book because of its account of the turning point that steered Malcolm X’s life away from a vicious cycle of crime and prison to standing as a ideological and political leader among African Americans in the tumultuous lead up to the civil rights era. Everything changed in prison, as Malcolm himself recollects. When he first went to jail he estimated he had a vocabulary of just a few hundred words. He got religion through a Black Muslim, and then he decided to teach himself English – proper English. His method was simple. He opened a dictionary and started meticulously memorizing it one word at a time, starting with “aardvark.” By the time he was out of prison, he had read a vast swath of literature, history, and philosophy, and his education rivaled that of any college graduate. He became an eloquent speaker and powerful societal voice. As my professor would have said, he “mastered the civilization in which he lived.”

The literary and intellectual prowess of Malcolm X is evident in this book. It thoroughly transported me into his shoes. Given the great disparity between our life experiences – me, a college-educated middle-class white Christian from California, and Malcolm, a black hoodlum who cut his teeth on all manner of unlawful dealings in Boston and then Harlem – that’s really saying something. Even though much of his career was marked by decidedly extreme, violent rhetoric, reading his autobiography gave me a fresh empathy for the African American experience that has expanded how I think about racial issues today.

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My Top Five Music Albums from 2015

Like last year, here is my annual, obviously subjective, list of the best music albums of 2015. If I could only listen to five records from 2015 for the rest of my life, it would be these. Give them a spin.

1. The Wonderlands – Jon Foreman

Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman released his second quartet of solo EP last year. Like his Seasons Eps, in which each album was named for one of the four seasons, respectively, The Wonderlands revolve around a cycle. Each track represents an hour in the 24-hour cycle of a day, and each album draws its name from the appropriate part of the day: Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn. Together, the Wonderlands capture much of the remarkable breadth of the human experience, including Foreman’s signature reflections on mortality (“Terminal”), his compassion for the broken and downcast (“You Don’t Know How Beautiful You Are”), his personal vices (“Ghost Machine”) and doubts (“Inner Peace”), and above all his desperate faith in the saving work and person of Jesus (“Mercy’s War”).

These aren’t the wonderlands of the fantastic imaginings of a Lewis Carroll type, but the wonderlands of life in this world – a place of tension between the beautiful and the oppressive, between eternal truths and damnable lies, between paradoxes and facts and leaps of faith. They’re part of that rare breed of music that I can listen to no matter what mood I’m in, though more often than not I’ve found myself seeking solace in the Wonderlands in the hard times of despair, doubt, and fear. Indeed, Foreman may be the most empathic music artist in the business these days.

2. Blurryface – Twenty One Pilots

If last year was the year my eyes were finally opened to the wonders of Needtobreathe, this was the year of discovering Twenty One Pilots. This duo out of Columbus refuses to be pinned down by genre conventions. They serve up elements of hip-hop, pop, rock, electronica and more, not so much blended together as implemented at different stages of their songs. Frontman Tyler Joseph has said he didn’t realize there were rules to songwriting when he first started creating music, and it shows. Their songs don’t follow an expected progression, but somehow they work.

What truly makes them the cream of the crop of today’s music scene, however, is their lyrics. Twenty One Pilots songs are full of angst, but the not the sort of angst we laugh about when we think about listening to Paramore and Linkin Park in high school. It’s the post-youth angst found in coming to grips with one’s eternal responsibility. The stakes are higher. As we realize we cannot retreat to the petty problems of childhood (“Stressed Out”), we see more and more clearly the struggles and insufficiencies embedded deep in our “heavydirtysouls.” So put away all the gods your fathers served today. Put away your traditions. Believe me when I say we don’t know how to put back the power in our souls. We don’t know how to find what once was in our bones (“Hometown”).

3. Dear Wormwood – The Oh Hellos

My music tastes heavily evolved in another way this past autumn: I fell in love with folk music. I’ve know of The Oh Hellos for years, but they didn’t show up strong on my radar until I saw them open for Needtobreathe last year. It was an opening act that I’ve rarely seen matched, so when they went on a headlining tour for their new album, Dear Wormwood, I made sure to catch a show. These guys are one of those bands whose live show markedly changes how you hear their music, infusing it with vivacity. How many times has a banjo player snuck up behind you during a concert? Probably never, but thanks to the Oh Hellos, it happened to me. That’s not a show you forget in a hurry.

Their second full-length album, Dear Wormwood, draws its name from C.S. Lewis’ classic work, The Screwtape Letters. The book follows an imaginative situation in which a senior demon named Screwtape writes letters to his nephew, Wormwood, instructing him in the art of tempting human souls. The title track of the album speaks to that scenario from the human perspective, perceiving with clear eyes the purposes of the tempter and declaring opposition: “I know who I am now, and all that you’ve made of me. I know who you are now, and I name you my enemy.

4. Home – Josh Garrels

I had the privilege of interviewing Josh Garrels this year shortly after this album dropped. Garrels is one of those artists who (it seems to me) has succeeded through the sheer force of raw talent rather than stage presence or marketing. He first caught my attention with his breakout album, Love and War and Sea In Between. As the title suggests, it is an album full of conflict, spiritual warfare, taking a stand, and persevering on the journey home. On his latest album, Home, Garrels makes a shift in style and tone toward the soulful and contemplative, seeking that deep, intractable, divine rest and comfort available to the believer in the here and now.

Like Jon Foreman, I go to Garrels’ music for therapy and for encouragement. He captures the difficulties and joys of the Christian experience without sounding cliché or effusive. Here’s what he had to say about the new album: “In Home, there is the sense that I needed to know that things could be ok. I can tend towards being melancholy, wearing the weight of things on my shoulders. That can be a good thing, but I think on this album I really was searching. Where is the place where it’s going to be all right? Where is the place that we can find rest and joy and peace?”

5. Strange Trails – Lord Huron

This last slot was a tough choice, but ultimately I have to give the nod to Lord Huron, if for no other reason than that it is autumn incarnate. In the months after I saw them at DC’s Landmark Music Festival at the end of September, Lord Huron was the only band I wanted to listen to. Their music evokes recollections of long, formative journeys and stirs fond memories of foolish romances. I would describe it as ethereal and detached if it didn’t conjure such concrete images of the Virginia countryside descending into winter – cloudy days, damp paths, cool air, old forests and falling leaves.

If I were to sit down to write poetry or literary fiction, this is the album I’d put on in the background.

 

Honorable Mentions

Kids in Love – The Mowglis: This band takes the millennial ideal of love to its most extreme. Sometimes it’s fun to let my worries go and feel like I’m not alone, and even if I show up late, my friends will love me anyway.

Every Open Eye – CHVRCHES: The track “Clearest Blue” might have the sickest build and drop of any song I’ve ever heard, and the album as a whole represents a solid sophomore effort from the Scottish electronic trio. Also, I might be in love with lead singer Lauren Mayberry.

LOVETAP! – Smallpools: If I were to rank this list by songs I listened to the most, this album would have cracked the top five. These guys are like Walk the Moon’s cool little brother.

Mobile Orchestra – Owl City: While I think this is Adam Young’s weakest album as Owl City to date, I still has a lot to enjoy. He takes his faith to new levels of explicit spiritual expression in My Everything and You’re Not Alone, yet also collaborates with mainstream artists across a variety of genres – namely Jake Owen, Aloe Blacc, and Hanson (yeah, apparently Hanson’s still around). The juxtaposition doesn’t always work, and it lacks the innocence and charm – but not the sentimentality – of his earlier albums. Even so, I still count myself a dedicated fan.

California Nights – Best Coast: I’ve lived in DC for three years now, but I had a friend tell me recently that I still exude a decidedly Californian aura. I’d like to think this album by Best Coast (meaning the west coast, of course!) helps keep the Californian alive in me – sunny, beach-bum, alt-rock. The opening track makes me want to roll down the windows and drive through Los Angeles in the summer. And if you want a way to sonically capture the experience of going up to the Hollywood Bowl overlook at night, fire up the title track and drift into the psychedelic night.

Thaumatrope – Marah in the Mainsail: Rather than feeding off of petty breakups and navel-gazing emotion, this self-described “cinematic indie” outfit out of Minneapolis strives to tell stories fit for the movies, and I think they succeed. Their aggressive, boot-stomping folk is the perfect soundtrack for any post-Christmas winter adventure, yet Thaumatrope also has enough deep tracks to undergird those long, cold nights spent around the hearth, gazing into the fire.

Autumn’s death and the whisper of resurrection

It’d be a damnable shame to dwell on morality, as in my previous post here, without a subsequent meditation on the prospect of immortality. Namely, the hope of resurrection.

Autumn is like dying. There’s a reason we use the seasons as metaphors for the trajectory of life. We have the glowing, invigorating spring of childhood, the glorious summer years of adulthood and family life, the ripening of autumn and decay of old age (not without its own beauty of peaceful, resigned contentment) and finally the cold death of winter, the lifeless chill from which the fauna retreats into hibernation and the flora goes dormant.

Here we are in the heart of autumn. October is over, but November and December feel full of promise. The holidays bring with them the prospect of rest – most of us aren’t farmers these days, but even those working in today’s information economy need rest from the digital harvest of their labors. And so winter seems to me to offer a gateway to restoration, through time to retreat and reflect, to spend long hours in reflection and conversation under blankets and around fires with hot mugs of tea and coffee. Winter is a time to take stock of my soul, to descend into dark places so as to correct the awry trajectories of my heart, and to refresh my zeal for another year of adventure in a world of stories.

What I’m getting at here is that whispers of restoration and resurrection run everywhere through the fibers of the natural world. “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime,” said Martin Luther. From the falling of the leaves to the eclipse of the moon, we live in and among these divinely orchestrated cycles, mighty and mysterious. The rain falls down, waters the land, fills the rivers, and runs to the sea. What brings it back? Evaporation, changing from liquid to gas… you can describe the scientific process, sure. We might as well call it a miracle.

Marilynne Robinson has some wonderful reflections on this question in her book “Housekeeping.” At one point the narrator, a young girl named Ruthie living in her deceased grandmother’s house, looks out and sees that two of the apple trees in her grandmother’s orchard have died:

“One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as if expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost.” (emphasis mine)

shutterstock_343082936Things perish. That is their nature in a universe of entropy. And even though they have a tendency to come back in new incarnations, what about when those cycles cease, as surely someday they must? Will they perish forever at the end of all things? Robinson doesn’t think so, for it would contradict our nature, our great expectations, our pesky, tenacious human impulse to cling to hope in the most wretched circumstances – especially, in fact, in the most wretched circumstances.

Indeed, for Robinson, desire and longing are a type of prophecy. As C.S. Lewis might say, we have cravings only because something exists to satisfy them. Here’s Robinson again (emphasis once again mine):

“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when does our sense know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

The darker life gets, the greater our craving for the light. Where evil and oppression proliferates, our cries and prayers for justice go up all the louder. Where the world is salt, there is greater need of slaking. In the valley of the shadow of death, the soul yearns for life abundant beyond the grave.

I’m at a loss to explain why, but the plain fact is that struggle, destruction, and lack are built in to the universe – often as a necessary precursors to some good end. Craftsmen labor for decades to hone their handiwork. Scholars study books without end in order to master a subject. The athlete trains with weights that make his motions more difficult and becomes strong. Salmon swim upstream against nature’s currents. Irritation turns grains of sand into pearls. Forest fires till fertile ground. Grapes are smashed, left to ferment, and become wine.

Back to the question. Does the autumn of life, the waning years, represent the final descent into vanity and death, or is it the path to new life? That’s the rub. Like Robinson, I can’t bring myself to accept and end of nothingness, of trees that never return with spring leaves. If autumn were followed by a never-ending winter (a la “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”), it would be a depressing time indeed – the last gasp of life’s pleasantries and warmth and joy. The sentimentality we experience during this season – harvest festivals and joviality, pumpkins and spices, flannel and friendship, bronzed foliage and wood fires burning through the nights – would become impossible. It would be the season of deepest despair and futility.

For those with a limited view of reality, it is a season of despair. Death is the last enemy, the one fate that we cannot defeat. We all fall to winter’s chill in the end, completing the cycle from dust to dust, and we cannot see past it, at least not with our physical faculties.

“Is there someone buried beneath this skin?” sings Jon Foreman. “Is he free when I am locked in my coffin?” Foreman finds a grounded answer first by looking back to the Maker, the one from whom all births spring, who ordained the seasons, turns the rain back into clouds, tells the trees to put out new green leaves, and who has himself passed through the great death of winter. From that old story we look forward, with the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.

“Resurrection comes, but death comes first. All of our entitlements and rights drive the hearse. In the Maker’s death, death is unmade. And when I lose myself I’m saved – in my coffin.”

Memento Mori: My Signposts of Mortality

In normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality. We are intent on mastering death…. A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.

– Gregory Zilboorg, “Fear of Death”

I think most people understand there’s a difference between intellectual assent and genuinely believing something. It’s the difference between mentally affirming that something is true, and experiencing it existentially so that it is felt and understood from the heart – as Mark Twain might say, the difference between a lightning bug and actually lightning. We all know, as a factual matter, as head knowledge, that we are mortal. Everyone dies. One day we will too, and yet, as Zilboorg says, we suppress that knowledge, we fill our lives and our thoughts with other things to escape contemplating the fate that awaits us – that one day we will cease to exist in this world.

As a 25-year-old, in the peak of vitality and strength, this is especially true for me and my age demographic. I know I’ll die, but I can type that sentence without a shudder. Death is likely still decades off, after all, why should I be so preoccupied with it? Statistically I still have a good 50 years or so, and sure, maybe I’ll suffer a premature death, but the odds are slim, and I don’t want to be controlled by the minuscule odds and irrational fears of plane crashes and shark attacks.

But the years are starting to go by faster, and still I suppress the thought of death. Well, perhaps not so much the thought as the belief in my own mortality. I can be a pretty cynical person. The news reports make me aware of death – again, as a matter of head knowledge. As a Christian, almost every Sunday when I step into church I’m driven to consider the ancient wisdom of the Psalmist: “Teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” But still, odds are I am relatively distant from the Reaper, and so I remain emotionally estranged from that most obvious, grim, and terrify fact.

Sometimes, however, reality breaks through, terrifying and exhilarating, and we confront our mortality head on. In these experiences, the tenuous nature of existence comes into sharp focus: I could die tomorrow, tonight, so soon; my God, it’ll happen so soon.

As best I can remember, I have had three of these moments over the past three years. Each only lasted a few minutes, perhaps just seconds. They were outside of my control, impossible to generate, unpredictable, but awfully real.

The first occurred in my apartment in Santa Clarita, CA about three years ago. I was home alone at night reading the Bible. I don’t remember which passage exactly, but it was somewhere in Job or Ecclesiastes, when suddenly I felt the sharp, stabbing sense of my own morality. The temporal concerns of my first job, unrequited romance, food, chores, what-have-you – those all vanished. I felt the nearness of judgment day and the immanent prospect of heaven. The spiritual waverings that kept me in a state of lukewarmness steadied and became grave. The stakes beamed bright and clear and eternally high. I shuddered, resolved to continue seeking God, sat in place, fearful.

The second happened in Washington, DC, in 2013. I was going for a walk at dusk on a warm summer day around the parking lot at RFK stadium. I had earbuds in and was listening to a song called “The Setting Sun” by Switchfoot. The vibrant hope of the music and the poetry triggered an eternal rush: “It won’t be long, I belong somewhere past this setting sun. Finally free, finally strong, somewhere back where I belong.”

shutterstock_329406311It’s a great song; I’ve listened to it dozens of times, maybe even hundreds. Many of them were during sunset, in more idyllic settings, but only once has it struck me quite this deeply. Something lifted the fog of digital distractions and musical escape and city noise. I’ve never had an actual vision, but the sky looked ripe for one, like a conduit of final redemption and restoration. The Savior and Judge is coming back in the skies. Good Lord they could rip open any moment. And soon I’ll be past them, past this world with its burning-out sun and universe of entropy and chaos. I’m so close, I thought, so close. If my hope is true, paradise is but a sky away. The sun of my years will set, and I’ll awaken to a dawn that makes the first 25 years of sunrises look like a tiny lantern in the dark. I’ll run with no pain in my side, glorified, invigorated, and whole.

The third was probably the least intense of the three, and the most perplexing given the context. It took place just a few months ago – again in DC. I was at a friend’s house watching the film District Nine for the first time. It is full of action and swearing, nothing too atypical for Hollywood fare, but it has a realism that few alien films achieve. The story is dark and hectic, but designed to evoke pity and empathy. The main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, contracts alien genetics somehow and begins to turn into an alien. He is taken into a secretive lab, forced to fire guns and blast aliens to jelly, and soon doomed to be harvested so that human researchers can unlock the genetic secrets of the alien race they are oppressing (I promise I’m going somewhere with this, stick with me). The South African setting makes the apartheid undertones of the film clear. Wikus is a rather unassuming chap, just trying to do a little humanitarian field work (except not, technically, humans; “alienatarian”?), and suddenly he finds himself about to be harvested – doomed to a lab death behind closed doors. I don’t know why but that sense of “that could be me” enveloped me – a tiny taste of the fear and shock experienced by those who lose loved ones in freak car crashes, a microcosm of the soldier whose buddy is shot, inches away, while he lives unscathed. It’s that sense that we really do live on a precipice of comfort and normalcy, and the next moment could snatch it all away and drop you in some secret, merciless underground lab. That poor guy with the alien hand, friendly little Wikus, he’s going to die right after celebrating his birthday. That’s horrifying, I thought. Because I will too.

I had a fourth episode just a few months ago that didn’t quite reach the intensity of the prior three, but I want to point it out because while all of aforementioned experiences drove me to hope, this one ended on a much darker note. That’s what’s scary about these moments; they push the soul to the extremes – either a radical, desperate leap of faith, or the deepest despair on the brink of the abyss. I was reading a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the metro on the way home from work. It’s a long, meandering philosophical reflection woven into a motorcycle road trip through the Pacific Northwest. The narrator is a father traveling with his young son. As he tries to piece together his past as a philosopher, looking back at all the havoc and angst it wracked in him as he sparred mentally with human history’s greatest thinkers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all the way down to today’s academics, he looks into the future and sees the same relentless, endless drive for truth in his son:

“(He’s) being driven by forces he doesn’t understand. The questions… the same questions… He’s got to know everything. And if he doesn’t get the answer he just drives and drives until he gets one and that leads to another question and he drives and drives for the answer to that… endlessly pursing questions, never seeing, never understanding that the questions will never end. Something is missing and he knows it and will kill himself trying to find it.”

At that moment on the yellow line train to Fort Totten, I saw my life splay out before me as an endless string of questions, with answers I have no choice to embrace but cannot help but doubt. I saw myself driving on, floundering, in an endless sea of knowledge, data, ideas, and theories for the rest of my earthly days. It was nauseating.

The late anthropologist and philosopher Ernest Becker uses that opening quote from Zilboorg in the opening for a chapter in his book, The Denial of Death. In that book Becker says: “I believe that those who speculate that a full apprehension of man’s condition would drive him insane are right, quite literally right.”

I’m inclined to agree.

It’s a funny exercise, writing about these moments. I can’t re-experience them, and even if I could I couldn’t find the words to do them justice. But they’re worth remembering and treasuring. They remind me of the truth of my condition. They prove that the ruminations of philosophers like Becker, bands like Switchfoot, filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp, and Moses aren’t some dry intellectual exercise. Rather, they cut to the core of who I am and the fate I am destined for, which is death: to perish, to cease to exist in the face I look at in the mirror every morning. These moments are markers, mementos mori left by the Teacher to teach me to number my days. They remind me that I’m too weak to handle the ultimate reality of death; that I must suppress it and go about my business of eating, sleeping, talking, walking, and all the passing things that make up my life, or else go insane. By causing my awareness of my suppression, however, they affirm and ultimately validate my hope that in the end I will escape the black of the void. And not only the black of the void, but the much more terrifying and disturbing prospect of the horrors of damnation.

From whence comes that hope? It comes from a Man who came from beyond the setting sun, a place of true freedom and eternal strength, somewhere back where I belong.

Dyin’ to Live: Smallpools’ millenial anthem

A good friend of mine once remarked that our generation is the first that isn’t willing to die for anything. I think he was on to something – not to say that we don’t care about anything (quite the contrary), but rather that confidence and conviction in something outside of self is hard to come by these days.

If Fun.’s “Some Nights” is the anthem of my generation, unsure of what we stand for, then the band Smallpools has written something of a secondary anthem with their new song “Dyin’ to Live.” It probably won’t make the same cultural waves, but it captures the digital ethos of the new millennium. Consider the opening verse:

I wonder, Have I lost my mind?

I was having a meltdown, but I don’t know why

‘Cause I sleep alright, and I eat just fine

I’m not scared of being a lonely man, or even dying, just missing out

That’s a remarkable statement. It is weighty with a sense of its own irony. Who isn’t afraid of loneliness or death? Those are the quintessential human fears. But it is pithy in substance. In the modern age, all of our immediate material needs have been met. We sleep safe and sound with a roof over our heads; we can afford to eat healthy. And so “FOMO” – Fear of Missing Out – is the not-so-deep and dark terror that haunts us. What could be worse than missing out – blowing a chance for greatness or love, not being there with your friends in the most “epic” moments, lingering in your own unfulfilled potential while everyone else goes out and lives awesome lives?

Image from WikipediaWhen you consider the current human condition in the broader perspective of history, it’s not hard to see that FOMO is trite. It is caught up in the present era, decidedly narcissistic, and arises from a skewed view of our friends and acquaintances. But trite or not, the lyric is still an accurate diagnosis. If you were to somehow chart my mind’s activity, a fear of missing out would come up much more frequently than a fear of loneliness or death. And I suspect I’m the rule among my peers, not the exception.

So what is the answer? The song issues no grand aspirations to heroism, honor, or immortality; instead it cries out for an elusive, simple contentment:

It’s not much to ask for

We’re only trying to just feel alright

We’re only trying just to find that steady love

We’re only trying just to buy some time

We’re all just dyin’, we’re all just dyin’ to live

What an anthem. I can imagine this one in a live concert, all of the kids belting it out, voices raised in a unified cry. We wonder why we’re so sad, and feel a rush of fleeting camaraderie with the strangers around us. We think of the love we’re still looking for, and feel just a little more optimistic. We remember the times we wish we could have back and consider the ever-shrinking future. The very act of expressing the longing washes us in a wave of catharsis, which reaches its peak in the bridge:

I know there’s something better

I cannot fight what’s falling apart

I’ll get myself together, together, together

My shield of rusted metal can’t keep this world from falling apart

So let’s tear this down together, together, together

It’s not much to ask for

It’s easy to dismiss the young person’s angst in the midst of raging emotions and a life with hardly any meaningful responsibility. But as C.S. Lewis might suggest, this guttural sense that the life we have right now isn’t good enough is a clue about the deeper appetites of the soul. It’s pretty self-evident, after all, that the world is falling apart. We also know that our lives could be better. And we fear (rightly so) that there’s nothing we can do to stop it or fix it. We don’t think we want much, just to feel alright and find that steady love and not feel pressed for time.

Time, love, and a clear conscience, however, are a tall order. Should we really expect life to deliver them?

The older voices in our lives tell us to suppress these questions. They tell us to suck it up and realize the world doesn’t revolve around us. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this. Most of us won’t amount to something “special” – whatever “special” means. We may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in casting aside some of our insatiable ambitions, making a decision, and sticking to it even if it doesn’t fulfill all our expectations. Planting ourselves in one place with a steady job, a spouse and a family may feel like settling, but there’s a lot to be said for stability – and for choosing contentment (which is a choice, after all). Here in the routine of selflessly sustaining others, perhaps, is something of that steady love. Maybe by letting go of our obsession over all the things that we potentially could be doing with our time, and enjoying on the present moment, we can buy a little more time.

Maybe. There’s a scene near the end of the film Boyhood where the main character Mason’s mother is about to send him off to college. At this point we’ve spent about two hours watching him grow from grade school nearly to adulthood. He decides not take a certain picture of himself to college. Why would he want to take a piece of his past with him like that, he reasons. His mother sees it, and for some reason the act of leaving the past behind, forgotten, triggers an existential breakdown. She begins to weep.

“You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f***ing funeral!”

I haven’t been through the generational process of marriage and children, but that scene scares me. It sounds like even the more traditional steady life, pursued as an end in itself, will leave us like Saito in the film Inception: lost in unreality, “filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”

Where, then, can you go for the life Smallpools is singing about here? I think they’re asking the right questions. They’re right to feel dissatisfied. Most nights we don’t know what we stand for, but we’re pretty darn sure it’s something better than what we’ve got right now. We’re all just dyin’ to live.

Calvary and the weight of the World

There’s a powerful scene at the end of the film Calvary, where the town butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) confronts his priest Father James (Bredan Gleeson) on a beach in Ireland. He has a gun that he’s prepared to use.

For five years, Jack was sexually abused by a priest, raped “anally and orally, as they say.” A week earlier, at the beginning of the film, he had come to Father James during confession and said he was going to kill him because of the abuse he suffered.

Midway through the film, someone burns down the church where Father James ministers. And shortly after that, someone slashes the throat of his dog. In both incidents, he weeps.

As Jack stands here with his gun pointed at Father James, he asks him if he cried when his dog died. Father James says he did. Then Jack asks him how he reacted when he heard the news of the sexual abuse scandal among the Catholic clergy.

“Did you cry then?”

Father James’ hesitation condemns him. He didn’t weep over it. It was like reading something in the papers, he stammers. Jack can’t take it, and so he puts a bullet through Father James’ head.

That damning question is one for us all: Did you cry then? How can you weep over the death of a pet yet skim over stories of sexual abuse and hardly bat an eye? What a powerful indictment – the notion that we could live life like everything’s fine, detached from such great scandal and pain. But don’t we all do it every day, every time we read a newspaper or surf the web?

It’s almost cliché to lob this critique at middle-upper class America, Christian or otherwise. We slam politicians for not addressing or speaking to certain problems, or we slam them for focusing too much on relatively trivial matters when there are bigger fish to fry. We lament our affluent, entertainment-laced culture, where people watch hours of TV a day and fool around on the internet laughing at memes and trolling on YouTube while elsewhere in the world terrorist groups shoot children and tear women in two.

And maybe all those criticisms have a point – they undoubtedly do – but Jack had a point about Father James’ lack of tears too. That didn’t make Father James a heartless monster. He spent his days faithfully, though not perfectly, ministering to the people under his spiritual care. The problem is that Jack’s brand of moralizing – heaping guilt on people (implicitly or explicitly) for not caring about huge evils in the world – inevitably condemns us in our finiteness.

Suppose I give up a few hours of TV each week to volunteer at a homeless shelter. And then a bit later I decide to see one less movie a month and cut back on a latte or two to support aid to a poverty-ridden country. Guess what? There’s still human trafficking in Asia and drug violence in Central America and abortion here in America, and war in the Middle East. And what kind of person am I to stand by with my unprecedented American wealth and safety and comfort and do nothing about it? Here we are going about our comfortable, middle-class lives, maybe paying lip-service to a few of these horrors with a hashtag or dumping a bucket of ice on ourselves if we feel especially moved. What heartless wretches we are.

Source: Pixabay.com

The intent is not to downplay any of these things. They are tragic and real and, for all practical purposes, without number. And yet because of that, our hearts can’t bear the weight of the world’s problems. We really can’t. Not the emotional weight, nor the physical poverty, nor the pain. If we came to a full existential grip with all of it – every rape, beheading, bombing, starvation, theft, suicide, abuse – well, it would crush us.

Once in high school, I remember talking with a few of my more intellectually-savvy friends about the concept of equality. One of them was arguing there’s a certain absurdity or lie to the notion that we can treat people equally by loving every last one of our neighbors the same. We claim we stand for equal treatment, but we practice favoritism, he said, because when we give money to, say, some sort of cause, it benefits a few people, but leaves countless others who need help completely untouched. You can’t split a dollar a million ways, so how can you ever claim to treat everyone equally?

I don’t remember the exact point he was going for, probably trying to show me the absurdity of Christian ethics or something like that, but it shows what can happen when you abuse the James 4:17 card: “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” There is almost always something more obviously virtuous you could be doing. Like Father James and Jack, even the most righteous men among us cannot stand before every victim’s accusations. Sooner rather than later, we’re bound to appear callous. As this College Humor video illustrates, you can find a way to make it socially unacceptable to do just about anything. Some evils we have to choose not to care about.

So what do we do, then?

One extreme is denial, which I suspect we choose far more frequently than we’d like to think. Ignore it. As the band Dragonette sings:

“We don’t need a cure for the weight of the world, cuz it’s floating ‘round in the universe / Just swing it like it’s tied by a string that you hold, and let it go.”

We can adopt this carefree ethic of radical individualism and self-autonomy, choosing the bliss of ignorance by distracting ourselves. We can tell ourselves it’s not our problem because we didn’t do anything to directly cause it. It’s out there, thousands of miles away, in a different world, and we need not worry about it because others are more capable of helping and hence more responsible.

Such extreme apathy, of course, is despicable – perhaps downright sinful. But again, we can’t be a crusader against every evil. And who is to say where you draw the line and decide which ones?

The only answer that is both practical and principled, I’m convinced, is to turn everything over to a Being whose moral capacity and ability to act infinitely exceeds ours.

Christian means “little Christ,” but a Christ-figure is no substitute for the real Thing. In Calvary, Father James faces an inverse martyrdom – a vengeance that he bears as a public servant of God yet also because of the sins of those who outwardly claimed to be God’s servants. As a “little Christ”, he may be an agent of grace, but he is only one of many. As a finite, fallen man, he can’t dispense enough sympathy and counsel and prayers to support his community by himself. The world’s problems are as numerous as the stars in the sky. Who can bear it?

Weep with those who weep. Visit orphans and widows in their affliction. That’s true religion, sure. But Jesus tells us that sufficient for the day is its own trouble. And the Apostle Paul says to aspire to live quietly and mind your own affairs. We do not need to right every wrong, mourn every sin, and carry every burden, because we have a God who has already done it. And soon he will do so once and for all.

Spiting Winter: The Cold Is A Stage

Deep Creek Lake, MD – I’ve been here two days now. The weather app says it is zero degrees Fahrenheit outside. You can see the wind gusting as it picks up the fine powdery snow. That probably brings it down to a wind chill of negative ten or fifteen. I’ve hardly left the house, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking out the big glass door windows at Deep Creek Lake, a snowy plain for the sport of snowmobilers, with other cabins and hibernating trees surrounding it.

I decided last Thanksgiving that Winter has a beauty to its barrenness. I spent the weekend in a cabin in Virginia, much like the one I’m in now. In the morning I would go out to the big living room windows and look out over the gently hilled farmlands that precede Shenandoah. The unkempt grass still had traces of golden green. I could see bright red barns and silos and cows through the rising mist. A few small streams crisscrossed with aged barbed wire fencing to make little dividers in the hills. It was delightful, Psalmic even – streams and pastures and sheep and sublime divinity and all that. Seasons change as surely as God’s faithfulness. The days may grow colder and darker, but there’s a fire in the hearth, and I have a full belly and a heart of good cheer. Life outside may retreat, but it is replaced by a stunning stillness and peace that is wondrous to behold.

Being from California, the reality of Winter, as in Winter as a distinct season, is a new phenomenon to me. I can probably still count on two hands the number of good snows I’ve experienced. Now that I’m in a climate where temperatures regularly dip below freezing, I’ve determined that there are two different kinds of cold when temperatures reach such nether regions. There’s a gentle, welcoming cold that is pleasant to be out in; it wraps around you like a soft blanket without penetrating and sapping the vitality out of your body (I suspect humidity may affect this). Oftentimes this is the cold that accompanies a snowfall. But then there’s the hard, soul-sucking cold; it starts at your extremities – hands, feet, nose and ears – then travels right to your heart. Whenever you’re so unfortunate as to spend any length of time in it, it keeps you walking as quickly as possible for your warmer destination, and makes you stiff as a cold piece of plastic that would snap in half from a strong thwap.

This is undoubtedly the cruel sort of cold.

It occurred to me, as I was staring out at the pure, empty meat locker of a world stirring just a few inches away from me, that I was spiting Winter. Here I stood, oh so close to a world that could kill me in hours, if not minutes, calmly enjoying a cookie in my sweatpants and slippers. Someone had just flipped the switch to turn on the fireplace. Thank you, modern comforts. I’d been at leisure all day, and yet the elements raged and flew. The cold and ice used to constrain man as it pressed in, making us still and slow and impotent. Now it just makes us irritable.

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With this thought subconsciously in mind, I went outside on the lake for a few minutes this afternoon (pictured). The sun illuminated the world in white – beautiful clean light. Winter may command us to be still, may narrow our lives to this sharp focus of a single time and place, but she herself does not sit still. Not today, at least. The wind commands my attention and my senses, whisking up the powder as with a paintbrush, a ghostly, ethereal artist. We often use the wind as a metaphor for the spiritual, to show how it is unseen yet still real and felt. But I can see it right now as it catches up the snow, at least a little, like a current or perhaps a song around me. Yes, maybe that starts to get at the essence of it. What is the wind, or the Spirit, if not a melody?

Before the cold has seeped in to my extremities and nips crisply at my nose and lips with dry teeth, I feel a sense of grandeur on the lake, as if I am suddenly a great character in a great story bent upon a great mission. James Bond in some arctic locale, or maybe the dogged remnant of Shackleton’s crew. I follow the packed path of a snowmobile toward a bridge a few hundred yards away. It spans the lake, allowing automobiles to traverse the snowy hills. The wind whips at my back. I raise my hood to defect it. As I walk underneath the bridge the wind narrows between the pillars. Currents of frost dash around and between my feet. I can see through the ice more clearly under the bridge where the snows hasn’t fallen. It looks thick – at least six inches or so. I start to feel cold, like actually chilled, and I suddenly understand why that epic feeling swept over me.

This world of snowdrifts and flat white ice is beautiful; it has a sense of uncharted purity, and I must explore it, must chart the icy wonder. But more than that it is alien to me, and invites action. I must make it across the lake before my arch nemesis escapes, or find a way to stay alive among the ice floes until help can arrive. It fills me with awe and wonder, so why wouldn’t it be a stage on which I play out the adventure?

It also compels me for its hostility. The very act of existing in these conditions, putting one foot in front of another, slipping along the ice when the wind persists in its bitter course, is a feat. No sane person should be living out here, and yet here we are, conquerors against the elements. Life below freezing showcases man’s resolute will to survive, adapt, and take dominion, despite and against the hostility. But his boots, gloves, hood, and sunglasses give away his weakness – my weakness. I concede that this ten-minute adventure has been nice, but soon I am sprinting into the wind, letting the ice cut my eyes and face, so that I can get back indoors to the warm. I run as if a blizzard is behind me, to feel the cold in my lungs, to be chased by Winter, to admit that without the cabin and the road so close there is mortal danger. I can’t stay out here much longer. And so I flee, exhilarated, leaving a trail of heavy footprints behind me, and taste the first drops of exhaustion.

I recently heard a story through a friend of a friend about two snowboarders in Colorado who tried to make it down a run in a whiteout, much like one that came through and smothered the lake yesterday evening. I could barely see the trees 30 feet away. These two guys couldn’t see the run and mistakenly strayed onto a closed trail. By the time they realized their mistake, they couldn’t make it back. One of them huddled against a tree to wait it out. The other struck off for help, but only made it 500 yards in the wrong direction. The blizzard lasted two days. They were found six months later.

And so my looking out the window in serenity at the white plain and the gray trees and windy rivulets singing their song really is spiting Winter. My sense of adventure is not misplaced. The snow doesn’t exist solely for our enjoyment, but to stiffen the business of life, slow our routines, and make us wonder. That’s why I’m growing to love Winter, learning to give thanks for it, because when the whiteout storms through I don’t have the last word. My existence is subject to forces far beyond my control, and sometimes they demand humility. At best I can mitigate it, but my freedom doesn’t extend much beyond the glass doors through which I gaze. Instead, I must contemplate, blow the knee, and be still.