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

eastofeden

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

zen_motorcycle

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

denialofdeathcover

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

this_side_of_paradise_dust_jacket

“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

autobiographyofmalcolmx

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.

Advertisements

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.

Ulysses and the Paradox of Freedom

Last year the band Switchfoot released an EP of songs they recorded for a documentary tour/surf film. One of the songs is called “Liberty.” As the title suggests, it is about freedom, but it begins with a metaphor that challenges our conventional understanding of what freedom actually is:

I tie myself up to the mast

Give up the semblance of control

The sirens sing, but I let them pass

‘cause only you can free my soul

The reference, of course, is from the classic Greek epic The Odyssey. At one point in his journey home, the hero Ulysses is warned about the irresistible song of the sirens, which entices men to chase after it to their destruction. Because he wants to hear the song, Odysseus has his crew tie him to the mast so that he can hear the song without pursuing its seductive beauty.

The songwriter Josh Garrels makes a similar reference in a song called Ulysses, in which he asks to be tied to the mast of the ship on which he is sailing.

But look at those first two lines from Switchfoot’s song: I tie myself up and give up control. What kind of freedom is this?

I had a professor in college who used to point out in his philosophy classes that anytime you are freed from something, you become enslaved to something else. In other words, you always freed into a new place of slavery. Any realistic talk of freedom must include this nuance because freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. The song gets this in the reference to giving up the semblance of control. To deny our “creatureliness,” as the late anthropologist Ernest Becker might say, is to live in an illusion.

“We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives,” he writes in The Denial of Death. “We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us.”

Odysseus-003Becker is saying that our meaning and motives are contingent on forces outside of us; we simply must give ourselves away to something or somebody. If we don’t, we will despair, go insane, and generally cease to live in any meaningful sense. It is our nature to latch onto something bigger and better than the self because we are weak and live in the constant shadow of death. This greater object can be a lot of different things – an abstract ideal of virtue or heroism, a lover, a god, or even something as debased as a number in a bank account.

The pastor Tim Keller gives a practical example to explain how freedom must coexist with slavery. If you want the freedom to play the piano, he says, you must put in long hours of practice, forfeiting the freedom to do many other things with those hours. But it is only after you’ve enslaved yourself to the practice of the piano that you can sit down and play stunning pieces of music.

When I was in college, I saw this firsthand as I roomed with a number of music majors. Many days they would leave for the practice rooms early in the morning and not return until midnight. Sometimes they looked weary and miserable from the grind, other times elated because of a breakthrough in mastering a new technique or portion of a piece. Their spirit changed according to how the work seemed to be going in the moment, but at the recital at the end of the semester I saw the fruit of their labor. It was always wondrous to behold – both the magnificence of the piece they played and the raw elation they displayed from performing it.

As finite beings that can only exist at a single place and time, any meaningful sense of freedom must therefore mean a sort of enslavement, because as the example of practicing music implies, saying yes to one thing means saying no to everything else.

Now extrapolate that freedom-enslavement paradigm to the soul – the self, the seat of our core identity and deepest desires. What would it look like to free that? What would it take to free the part of us that has the longings of eternity written on it? Is there any one thing, any one person, to which we can subsume all of the lesser pursuits of freedom?

The philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard thought so. Becker summarizes Kierkegaard’s view thusly: “Once the person begins to look to his relationship to the Ultimate Power, to infinitude, and to refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens up to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, real freedom.” In other words, real freedom comes when one grounds his identity and purpose fundamentally in the almighty God.

Both of the aforementioned songs have two additional components to their understanding of liberty that shows us why nothing short of this infinite God will do. The first is an implicit understanding that our impulses and desires are fundamentally flawed.  Ulysses understood that even though he had been warned that pursuing the siren song would kill him, he still had to lash himself to the mast. He knew his own self-control would not be enough to stop him from throwing himself to his doom, and so he gave up control. He sacrificed his own volition, but he preserved his life.

This is profoundly instructive for us today in a world where similarly destructive comforts and pleasures are ever before us, singing a siren song that sounds damn good. When one embraces his own self-centered passions under the guise of authentic self-expression or self-actualization, he will inevitably find himself thrashing after the siren song to an end of bitterness, despair, and (perhaps literally) death. Individual stories of these self-destructive pursuits abound – just read some history or great literature, or look at the lessons of your past.

Thomas_Cole,_The_Voyage_of_Life croppedWe’re bent out of shape, but how can we be set straight? What’s the solution to disordered desires? You can lash yourself to the mast, but that won’t help in the long run unless that mast is on a ship and unless the ship has a destination. Therefore, the final component to this theology of freedom we see in these songs is the idea of the present journey and the hope of home.

Here’s another line from Switchfoot’s Liberty:

Mine is the story headed home.

And Garrels:

I’m sailing home to you and I won’t be long…

So tie me to the mast of this old ship and point me home

Before I lose the one I love

Before my chance is gone

Here we see the faith that our lives have a destination, an ideal home that this world only gives us a small foretaste of. These songs understand that the experience of lashing yourself to the mast is not the end goal of freedom, but a means of self preservation until you make it to your true home – the final resting place.

But how can we reconcile that hope with the siren song in the here and now? How can you be free at your current home when so many of our impulses and desires are misguided? I believe Kierkegaard rightly found the resolution in Christianity, a faith that holds forth a paradoxical freedom by proclaiming both our liberty and our enslavement. One moment, Jesus Christ is saying “come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” And the next he says “if you would follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross.” The Apostle Paul says that “where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty,” but then he says “you are not your own, because you were bought with a price,” and it is therefore incumbent upon you to live for God’s glory.

And so the Christian, looking beyond the limited possibilities of this present life, submits to a temporal, liberating enslavement. He entrusts himself to Jesus Christ, the freest man to ever live who, in his freedom as God-incarnate, submitted himself to the will of his Father. In being united to Christ, the Christian has hope that one day we will experience true freedom from our selfish, damning impulses in a new home – the Father’s house.

But for now we live in the tension of our depravity. In matters of the self and the soul, we only find freedom by denying our baser nature, fencing ourselves sin, cutting off hands and putting out eyes, tying ourselves to the mast and giving up the semblance of control. The sires sing, but we can let them pass, because only You can free my soul.

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.

The heresy of Noah, and why it’s still a good movie

What happens when you take the Messiah out of the creation story.

Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam by critics and bloggers in Christian circles. I suppose given its biblical source material, everyone felt a need to weigh in. Normally I wouldn’t presume to try to add another voice to a subject so thoroughly flogged (and now approaching ancient history, in internet terms). But there’s a simple way of framing Noah that I have yet to see presented.

It is this:

The film tells the story of Noah without Jesus.

Of course Noah takes minor liberties and debatable interpretations from a handful of verses to fill in a two-hour story, but it gets the major thrust of the biblical narrative correct. It places all the blame for death, evil, and abuse squarely on the shoulders of mankind. We are all depraved, Noah recognizes. He sees that the seeds of evil in the sons of Cain outside the ark dwell within him and his family too.

One critical omission, however, stands out most – the promise of a Deliverer. Notice that when Noah tells his family the creation story, he ends it before God expounds on the specific ramifications of the curse – man must work by the sweat of his brow, enmity is placed between man and woman, and God promises that Eve’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head. Noah leaves out God’s Messianic promise to undo and conquer the wrong that the serpent and mankind have done. He leaves out Jesus Christ.

This has profound ramifications for the philosophical trajectory of the film. Aronofsky’s Noah shows us that when you strip the Messiah out of the biblical narrative, only two options remain: despair (read: suicide) and humanism. If humanity is hopelessly depraved and fundamentally bent toward evil, as Crowe’s Noah understands, there’s nothing for it but to let the human race die out. Life has no point – better to cut it off now and avoid the future suffering that we will inevitably cause. So that is what he intends to do. As horrific as this plan is, part of me empathizes with him. Even in the ark we see how Ham nearly murders his father out of resentment, and it seems that Noah might actually be right in his bleak projection of the future should humanity continue.

In true Hollywood blockbuster fashion, the film is not cynical enough to leave us with the demise of the human race according to Noah’s plan. Sans the idea of a Savior capable of both forgiving and removing a person’s sin, it turns to humanism. Noah cannot strike down his daughters in the end because all he feels in his heart is love. He cannot help giving in to this righteous impulse. He concludes that God is giving humanity a new chance to rebuild and do better. And so we end in the hope that through love and cooperation and a renewed dedication to the Creator and creation, humanity will do better this time – we will do better this time.

It’s a rather ironic conclusion, because if you keep reading Noah’s source material, the tower of Babel is just a chapter away.  Even in the film itself, the way Cain and Able are portrayed in Noah’s story – flashing to silhouettes of soldiers with increasingly sophisticated weapons – suggests that the same impulse that drove Cain to murder his brother continues in the hearts of humanity until this day.

All of this makes for a heretical retelling of Noah, but the heresy occurs in an emotionally powerful and theologically instructive fashion. We should expect nothing less from Aronofsky, who knows how to craft a good story and understands a thing or two about human nature. Stripped of the promise of a Deliverer who will save mankind from its sins, he strings us out to the existential extremes. He shows us how without Christ, not much remains of the hopeful, positive themes of any Bible story.

Consider the biblical stories within the context of human literature. Out of all the stories ever told, the Bible’s depiction of humanity, from Genesis to Revelation, stands as one of the bleakest. It paints a sick, brutally realistic picture of mankind – even of many “heroes of the faith” – which Aronofsky’s Noah captures well. The problem in this world is us, and Noah presents us with the only human solutions.

If we’re honest with ourselves, neither of them is satisfactory.

Music Review: Fading West by Switchfoot

Switchfoot frontman and main songwriter Jon Foreman has said that he only writes songs when he is sad, even though he tends to be a happy person overall. This practice, I believe, accounts for a great deal of the band’s genius. Artists often produce their best work when driven by a wound, creating out of a moment of angst. However, Switchfoot’s latest release, Fading West, makes me wonder if Foreman’s statement isn’t quite as true anymore. The new album rings with a joy and a confidence surpassing anything the band has put out to date, and the evolution is not unwelcome. The rock quintet from San Diego has always made music infused with hope, but something is different this time. It feels more alive in the moment.

This is true musically because Fading West brings an unabashed pop element. Instead of the dominant guitar riffs that typically mark Switchfoot’s “rock n’ roll” songs (i.e. “Dark Horses” and “The Original” from their previous album), this time soaring vocal “ohs” and “woahs” buoy the energy. In a strange way, and contrary to what I suspect many critics will say, this shows how the band is maturing. Last year they released a surf film of the same name about their travels around the world over the past several years. It begins and ends with scenes of fatherhood – the guys are growing up. Fading West is their ninth full-length record. All are in their 30s and 40s. They have kids now. In light of this, the new album carries with it a sense that the band members are coming to experience a fresh, present joy and move past some (but certainly not all) of the youthful angst that inspired their earlier work. “We know who we are,” “We are fire,” “My heart is yours.”

We see this immediately in the opening track, “Love Alone is Worth the Fight,” which Foreman describes as the “thesis of the album.” This soaring anthem begins with a familiar Switchfoot sentiment, “I’m trying to find where my place is / I’m looking for my own oasis.” It soon moves, however, to a confident, mature declaration of the primacy of love: “So I’m back to the basics / I figure it’s time to face this / Time to take my own advice / Love alone is worth the fight.” After writing so many songs about love, we sense that Foreman is learning to make love wholly unconditional, at any cost, for without it, we gain nothing.

The next track, “Who We Are,” infuses every stage of life with hope, as the children’s chorus of background vocals in the refrain presumably express the guys’ experience of fleeting youth as well as their experience with their own children. “We were just kids,” Foreman sings in arguably the most Switchfoot-esque line of the album, “just limited, misfit, itinerant outcasts singing ‘bout the dissonance.” Again, tension is here, but the song culminates in optimism and confidence: “There’s still time enough to choose who we are,” and “We become what we believe in.” Here we find happiness built on the profound theological promise that those who trust in God will someday be like Him, for they will see Him as He is.

This happiness becomes downright giddy in “Let It Out.” It’s one of the most surprising tracks on the album musically, because I can only describe it as a Switchfoot-One Direction mashup – the most shamelessly joyful song they’ve ever written. Like every song on the album, it acknowledges the brokenness: “from the day we’re born, we are scarred and torn.” However, it immediately jumps to a gleeful “but we don’t care who hears us now / breathe it in and let it out!” Note that unlike the pop music of One Direction, the glee is only possible because of the existential realization that our lives are a vapor. Why base our own value on the temporal opinions of others or personal accomplishments? Those things keep us from experiencing freedom. “But we don’t care no more / cuz we know life is short / and we don’t care who hears us now / so breathe it in and let it out!”

Of course, dark moments appear, as they will no doubt continue to as long as Switchfoot makes music. “The World You Want” is a haunting reincarnation of “This is Your Life,” but instead of asking “Are you who you want to be?” it expands the question to the individual’s world around him. “Is this the world you want?” Foreman asks repeatedly, “You’re making it every day you’re alive.” The other somber track is “BA55,” a brooding, bass-driven tune so full of distortion that Foreman’s voice functions almost like an instrument. It’s the type of song someone would write during a sleepless night at 3am – one of those grooves best savored while driving down an empty highway at midnight and pondering the meaning of life.

The most common critique of Switchfoot I hear is that they only have a few basic ideas that keep appearing over and over again, so each new album doesn’t bring much new or interesting to the table. This complaint has some basis – they do tend to return to the same ideas – but who cares? The subjects and the struggles of Switchfoot’s songs are timeless – brokenness and depravity, cultural numbness and consumerism, time and morality, hope and restoration. Rightly grappled with, those never get old. They probe the vast depths of our humanity with questions worthy of song.  In Fading West, Switchfoot found a way to skirt the clichés by returning to the same eternal questions in a fresh musical context, reminding us that true hope is “anchored on the other side / with the colors that live outside of the lines.”

Andrew’s Top Ten Songs from 2013

Now that Christmas season has closed out the year, I’ve found it a good time to reflect on the past year and the music I’ve discovered.

Having moving from California to Washington, DC last January, 2013 has seen more transition in my life than any other year. Amid the transition into a new job, building new friendships, and generally learning how to adapt to a more urban lifestyle, I’ve found myself often turning to music as a source of entertainment, preserved memories, and emotional salve.

So without further ado, here are my (utterly subjective) top ten tracks for the year, and what they mean to me. Just as I’ve been doing with friends all year, I hope you’ll find at least one or two enjoyable new tracks yourself.

1. Spark – Fitz and the Tantrums

This great jam will always take me back to a weekend camping on the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I hasn’t taken long to fall in love with the Atlantic, and this was probably the most helpful getaway I was able to make all year. On the 8-hour drive there and back, we played this song every hour on the hour, and it never got old.

2. Show Me What I’m Looking For – Carolina Liar

Since I settled into life in DC over the summer, I’ve been perpetually confronting the “So now what?” question. With admittedly vague – but quite relatable – lyrics, the refrain of this song has given voice to this millennial’s angst: “Save me, I’m lost. Oh Lord I’ve been waiting for you. I’ll pay any cost. Save me from being confused. Show me what I’m looking for.”

Also, even though my musical tastes have evolved, I still enjoy a good rock song like this one.

3. Anna Sun – Walk the Moon

I first heard this song through a good friend from California at the end of 2012. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when I happened across it again early in 2013, something about it grabbed me. A fantastic road trip tune, it takes me back to late nights driving through Los Angeles with the guys. I’ve kept it in regular rotation all year.

4. Carry On – Fun.

It would take a lot of hands to count the number of times I listened to this song right before going to bed. The peak of the bridge fuels optimism and hope like nothing else in music. I also saw Fun. in concert this year. Out of all the shows I went to in 2013, their’s was probably the best.

5. Sleepwalker (Up All Night) – Owl City

I went through a pretty lengthy phase at work a while back listening to a lot of obscure Owl City tracks on YouTube. This is one of those songs, and it’s a straight-up jam. It consistently revved me up in the mornings and provided a great pick-me-up to get me through DC’s muggy summer afternoons. It also ensured that Owl City continues to be my definitive “happy music.”

6. The Sophomore – Ben Rector

Some of the best friends I’ve made in DC over the past year introduced me to Ben Rector. This song captures the youthful uncertainty that I’ve felt since moving to DC (see #2 on this list). It helped me break out of city’s hustle and bustle to slow life down for a few minutes and simple reflect. The chorus says it simply: “There’s so much I don’t know.” I don’t know much about Ben Rector as a music artist or a person, but whatever sentiment drove him to write this song, I’m pretty sure I feel it too.

7. Hear Me – Imagine Dragons

After Fun., Imagine Dragons probably put on the best show I went to in 2013, and even though I already liked them, I started binging on them after seeing them live. As such, I couldn’t deny them a spot on this list, and right now, Hear Me is my favorite song they play. Like Show Me What I’m Looking For, the refrain gives voice to the questions: “Can nobody hear me? I got a lot that’s on my mind. I cannot breathe. Can you hear it too?”

8. We Get Along – Infadels

I think this is the least cliché love song I’ve ever heard. It dwells on the everyday that makes relationships so powerful. “We get along,” simple as that, and it’s a delightful thing. It also uses a wonderfully creative analogy: “I was standing the middle of the crossfire aim / You’ve been standing there for centuries with your cover fire.” I can’t wait to ask a girl someday: Will you give me some cover fire? (I’m only half-joking about this)

On a personal note, this song will forever conjure very fond memories of my first spring in Washington, DC.

9. Who We Are – Switchfoot

Switchfoot is my all-time favorite band, so I devoured their Fading West EP when it came out this fall. I also saw them live in October for the third year in a row. With an opening line like “we were just kids,” Who We Are reminds me the past and where I’ve come from. It then takes me to the struggle of the present with my second-favorite lyric of the year: “just limited, misfit, itinerant, outcasts singing ‘bout the dissonance.” And most importantly, it gives me hope for the future: “we become what we believe in.”

In short, the boys from San Diego still got it.

10. Above and Below – The Bravery

Hands down the best song I’ve discovered this year. By capturing the meaninglessness of life in a post-fall world apart from God, this rant by The Bravery keeps one on the edge of despair and clinging to faith. Switchfoot had my second favorite lyric in Who We Are; this one has my favorite: “I must believe, stranded with this bitch called hope.”

That line captures the essence of human striving. Apart from Jesus, hope is indeed a bitch. And if there’s nothing to hope for, then why not fade away, turn your back, and disappear?