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.

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Suburbia and the stock backdrop

washington-dc-architecture

Since moving to Washington, D.C. almost two years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why I can no longer stand suburbia. Every time I go back out to the suburbs, I want to leave after 24 hours – if that.

At the end of last summer, I was driving back from a camping trip in West Virginia with a few friends, and we stopped at a Chick-fil-A in the suburbs on the way back. One of them made a comment about how the shopping center we were in comforted her because it made her feel like she was at home, with its plaza full of nice chain restaurants like Pei Wei and Chipotle and stores like Office Max and Best Buy.

I agreed. It reminded me of my own home in California. You can find plenty of shopping centers like that in Bakersfield or Santa Clarita.

My friend was from Texas, though. And we were in Virginia. You could have swapped out one for the other and no one would know any better.

A week or two later, while listening to an obscure Switchfoot song called C’mon C’mon, it hit me. The first verse goes like this:

You’ve been living life like it’s a sequel

And you’re already bored with the plot

As if the cast and the score

Are more money than before

But the script and the backdrops are stock

The backdrops are stock.

suburbs-tract-housing

That’s it. Songwriter Jon Foreman is speaking about life in a much more holistic, poetic sense than the place you happen to live, but in the chain-restaurant-stocked malls of America, gleaming with affluence, we see the “real life” embodiment of the stock backdrop. It’s like those internet stock photos that make blog posts look like a dime a dozen. The pictures are framed correctly and well-lit, the models are attractive, the scenarios they communicate are clear, but my goodness they’re boring. They’re so ubiquitous these days that we can spot a stock photo in a second. They’re better than no image at all, of course, but they carry the stale whiff of banality.

It’s colorful and pretty, but excessively pastiche, the suburban scene. How can Virginia, Texas, and California all look the same? Why the hundred-store-chains?

More money than before.

There’s something remarkable about how a person can drive 2,500 miles from coast to coast of the United States and eat at the same restaurant every stop of the way. It’s one of those unprecedented facets of our era of late-capitalism. I can understand why postmodern thinkers and urban hipsters feel like the wealth of the suburbs is just a façade of marketing tricks obscuring reality. I can understand how people worry that the suburbs turns our experience of community into a series of isolated dots on a map rather than warm circles of neighbors.

At this point I suppose some readers will conclude I’m saying corporate chains are dehumanizing. Maybe I am. “Dehumanizing” is probably a little too strong though.

As a middle-class consumer, I’m glad that Walmart exists and appreciate how it frees up my budget, but it doesn’t make the world a more interesting place. There are better sights to take in than shopping malls full of Foot Lockers and American Eagles and Forever 21s. There’s more to savor than Starbucks and TGI Fridays. There’s more to do on the weekends than catching a flick at your local AMC Theater.

I love how Switchfoot’s song ends:

So C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s abandon this darkness

Oh C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s follow this through

Yeah so C’mon C’mon C’mon

Everything’s waiting

We will live like fire and gold

When everything’s new

When everything’s new.

washington-dc-sunset

“Variety is the spice of life,” goes the old cliche, but it speaks to something intrinsic in human nature: the drive to find newness. I have found the true wealth of cities to lie not in dollars or possessions, but in their trove of experiences: the bars and coffee shops; the parks and museums; the neighborhoods and architecture; the surrounding rivers, beaches, and forests; the people from so many tongues, tribes, and nations. Yes, there lies the city, living, pulsating, breathing all around you, an inexhaustible well of newness – flawed and wretched of course – but still a taste of life as it was meant to be.

ADDENDUM: Tyler Castle has a wonderful piece at Values & Capitalism entitled “How the Hipster Ethic Is Revitalizing the American Economy.” It takes a much less subjective and much more clearly articulated angle on the idea I’m trying to get across here.

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?

Music Review: Vice Verses

It’s easy to choose one word to describe Switchfoot’s new album, Vice Versestension. Musically, this new work from San Diego natives bring the same rocking signature-guitar-riff-songs that fans have come to know and love, balanced, of course, by softer, but powerful, heartfelt ballads. Lyrically, it deals with many of the main themes from Switchfoot’s past albums. Vice Verses takes the band’s best qualities and strings them tight between the great hurts that confront us every day and the great hope we can have despite them.

This tension comes out as the songs bounce between an Ecclesiastes-type mourning of the vanity of life and a yearning for hope in the eternal life to come. As you listen to Vice Verses, this comes in transitions: it opens with a powerful upbeat trio of songs and then drops abruptly to “Restless”, one of the softest tracks on the album. Shortly after this comes the most cynical song on the album, “Selling the News”, followed by the much more tender “Thrive.” We don’t even get to the hardest song on the album until track eight.

Throughout the album, front man Jon Foreman’s lyrics paint a dark and gritty world in which we are strung between the evil and the good–the “in-between,” as he calls it several times.

It’s a world full of rampant deception, manipulation and confusion. “Selling the News” delivers a poignant critique of the American media and the masses who listen to it: “Begging the question/mongering fears/the truth just seldom as it appears/We’re selling the news.”

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