Sunday, December 28, 2014

David Bowie, Bing Crosby, and the Curious Case of Popular Artists Recording Christmas Music

In recent years I have truly come to appreciate the strange effect that Christmas has on people of all stripes. Yes, I know some folks take this idea too far, and frankly it annoys me too (i.e. playing Christmas music in October). Nevertheless, this still begs the question: what is it about the Christmas season that inspires so many people to take it "too far"? No doubt nostalgia plays a powerful role in all this, not to mention rank commercialism, but why are so many people nostalgic (and thus commercial) about it in the first place? To put it another way, there really is no cultural equivalent to Christmas Day; no annual festival capable of inspiring so much collective merry-making, so many glad traditions the world over.

If you are looking for clear evidence of the fact that Christmas is a truly a universal cause for celebration, simply consider the curious phenomenon whereby largely secular pop artists declare (without a hint of irony) that "Christ our savior is born…" Indeed, when St. Paul proclaimed that "at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend", who could have known that this might be the strange manner in which it would come about? Yet there you have it- some of the most unexpected heralds of all; a bunch of secular troubadours, belting out the praises of Jesus with unadulterated enthusiasm.

From proud punk artists, to those of hair metal and glam rock, to just of about every genre imaginable, we receive this surprising testimony; this temporary (if brief) conversion of Faith, this "George Bailey" of popular music who miraculously decides to make a "joyful noise", only to return just as quickly to his former ways. Take, for instance, the Sarah McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies rendition of  We Three Kings. I have no clue what the Barenaked Ladies think about the Christian Faith, but I do know that Ms. McLachlan, who was one of the co-foundresses of Lilith Fair (the "├╝ber" feminist concert tour based on an apocryphal Biblical figure who is anything but obedient to God), is perhaps one of the last people to espouse the Christian worldview. Hence, when she sings any lyrics like the following; "King forever, ceasing never, worship him God most high", it may strike us as a little odd, especially when you consider this alongside her disturbing rendition of XTC's, "Dear God", which is anything but an endorsement of the King of Kings. And this could be dismissed as some kind of artistic flourish, were it not repeated by various artists of all genres time and time again.

There are obviously many more examples of this odd relationship between secular musicians and Christmas carols, but there is one example in particular that I think sums up this unusual courtship. Back in the heyday of MTV, when they used to actually devote a day (on Christmas) to artists performing Christmas songs, there was one specific performance that remains with me to this day.

In 1977,  Bing Crosby and David Bowie performed a duet of the "Little Drummer Boy" for a Christmas special that later became a Christmas classic on MTV. Not since I discovered that Neil Young and Rick James were in a band together back in the 1960's have I been so taken aback by such an odd couple. Yet I think in some strange way this atypical duet speaks volumes about the remarkable power that Christmas has to unite. The fact that you could inspire such polar personalities to get into the same room together based on the mutual appreciation of some idea tells you, not simply about the universality of music (for music alone may not have accomplished this), but about the universality of music in the context of Christmas.

Some may cynically point out that this little get together was a calculated effort on the part of both to remain relevant and reach a broader audience. But whatever their motivation for being there, what makes this gathering even remotely possible (some at the time described it as "surreal") is the universality of Christmas.

Not since Matthew the tax collector (i.e. a Roman collaborator) and Simon the Zealot (i.e. a Jewish nationalist) put their differences aside have we seen such strange bedfellows working together for such beneficent ends. And once again- it bears mentioning- Christmas was at the root of this get together.

So what is it about Christmas (or Christ) that is capable of accomplishing this remarkable feat? What is it about this great feast day that inspires even soldiers in the grip of war to lay down their firearms and sing carols from their trenches with their enemy? (This actually happened, and was beautifully depicted in the stirring WWI drama Joyeux Noel).

Perhaps Bing, Bowie, and "the little drummer boy" can help provide further insight on these matters. The traditional lyrics of the song describe a poor little boy who travels far and wide to adore this "New Born King", but apparently has nothing to give him when he arrives, save his ability to play his drums with all his might. Paradoxically, this "great king", according to the narrative, has even less than he to give.

Adding to the traditional lyrics, Bowie chimes in with these words; "Peace on earth/ Can it be/ Years from now, perhaps we'll see/ See the day of glory/ the day when men of good will/ Live in peace again… live in peace again"

Along with the obvious attraction of the song's melody- is its equally poignant message (i.e. the notion that "Peace on Earth" might some day be attainable). Yet a desire for peace alone is not the fundamental power of this song. As appealing as such a dream might be, it is just that- a dream. What has the potential to change humanity (and thus unite him) is the reality of the Incarnation; the stupefying notion that while this "little drummer boy" may be poor in many respects, he is apparently not the poorest boy in this room. In this strange ballad of awe and wonder, it is actually the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords who finds himself experiencing the greatest amount of abject squalor, a detail that in some respects inspires an even greater degree of gratitude and devotion on the part of the little boy, as well as us.

Yes, this idea of the omnipotent God becoming impotent is quite literally "disarming". For in this extraordinary tale, God has become both helpless and homeless, both tiny and dependent, or as Jesus so  heart-wrenchingly describes it; "Foxes have dens, birds have the air, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head". Thus, if even God "disarms" himself and his justice for our sake, then how much more should I do it for others?

As another Christmas classic describes it; "Chains will he break, for the slave is our brother/ And in his name all oppression shall cease". How could such words even begin to become a reality were it not for the dumbfounding notion (and reality) that not only is the slave "our brother", which would be stunning enough, but that the "slave", in this instance, is in fact our God? "For though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God a thing to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…" (Philippians 2:6:7)

This is the only idea that is really capable of breaking the chains of oppression (both literal and figurative). This is the only idea that is really capable of crushing pride and making people weep at songs like O Holy Night, even when they claim to deny the main premise of the song (i.e. that Jesus Christ is the Lord).          

Twisted Sister, Josh Groban, Billy Idol, and Nat King Cole walk into a bar, and Josh Groban turns to Billy Idol and says; "This has gotta be a joke… but since we're all here we may as well make a Christmas album" (insert laugh track). And that is in the end the real "joke" of the Gospel. No one expects any of these folks from all walks of life, and all ideological persuasions, to be anywhere near one another... at least not on purpose. And yet there you have it, this zany "barroom" of unconventional characters coming together to celebrate the same ideal, an extraordinary sign (if ever there was one) that Christmas is really what it claims to be; a bright morning star of hope, a unifying message delivered on behalf of men of "good will"; a prophecy strongly suggested in that Bing and Bowie classic; "I pray my wish will come true/ for my child and your child too/ He'll see the day of glory/ The day when men of good will live in peace again, live in peace again."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Real Question for Christians: WWMD (What Would Mary Do?)

I am not a huge fan of theology that reduces the Christian Faith to an acronym (unless you are talking about teaching children that are very young). Now compound that with a bracelet that attempts to propagate this handy dandy formula and turn it into a kind of approach for life, and what you get is a whole industry for it. The push back is not unlike that annoying "Got Milk?" ad campaign, where everybody under the sun has their own take on it. Other examples of this include anything from "What Would Darwin Do" to "What Would Buddha Do" to my personal favorite, "What Would Scooby Do". Ironically, these somewhat mocking substitutes actually make more sense than the former.

If you are a Christian, you might be shocked at this suggestion because, while you do not think a bracelet or a catch phrase is the be all end all, it is certainly far from being a bad thing. Here's why I think the idea is misguided, and here's the type of bracelet I would wear if did seek to propound a formula of this sort.

The truth is I do not have a sweet clue what Jesus/God would do in any given situation ("'Your ways are not my ways', says the Lord"). As a human being, it is far easier to discern what a Buddha or a Darwin might do (especially if I read about their life and philosophy). On the other hand, while I do know, to some extent, what Jesus did (as perplexing as that might be), I am at a loss for just what he "would do" in any given situation.

WWBD? Chances are… this. 

I do not deny that we should meditate on the life of Jesus- however, I am a little reticent when it comes to drawing any hard and fast conclusions about his present/future plans. The apostles couldn't figure out what Jesus was doing, those closest to him didn't know what he was going to do, and even when he told them, they nevertheless seemed utterly unequipped for that reality. Why else would their responses have followed this subsequent pattern: try to talk him out of it, rebuke him for it, or abandon him entirely when he carried out what he said he was going to do? What would Jesus do? Are you kidding me? God is buck wild and if you think I can even begin to have the courage or imagination to "do", much less figure out, what he has in store for us- then you are either arrogant, naive, or haven't considered the matter sufficiently.

I know I am being a bit harsh here, but my point is that it is a bit shallow and superficial (like Christmas in the mall) to present such a daunting task in such a simplistic manner. Or as Jesus once said when James and John demanded to sit at Jesus' right and left hand in the kingdom; "Do you know what you are asking me to do?" The Bible is filled with people (like me) pretending to be up to the task of WWJD, and those who, more often than not, wind up falling embarrassingly "short of the glory of God"; whether through confusion, cowardice, or simply as a consequence of a limited imagination (see below). Thankfully, I have yet to see any "Yahweh or Bust" t-shirts out there, but I suspect it will not be long before there is serious demand.

It is true that after Pentecost the followers of Jesus were endowed with far greater knowledge and understanding. However, we should remember that in spite of our increased awareness, we are still talking about the same God who shocked the entire world (and every other imaginable religious sensibility) by coming into the world as a homeless man- and thus it is reasonable to presume that he is not done surprising us on this front.

Therefore, instead of the usual WWJD bracelet, I highly recommend one that is more Marian in nature, one that is sky blue and reads (or at least signifies) WWMD. I can almost envision it being worn in a maternity ward, as a new mother awaits with excitement and trepidation the moment when her child is placed in her arms for the first time. This is Advent, after all, so rather than thinking metaphysically, perhaps it is best to think biologically. In other words, imagine with what fear and trepidation an expectant mother (and father) experience as they anticipate the birth of a new child; a child that promises to change everything under the sun for them, not to mention over it as well.

This is why Catholics devote so much attention to Mary- not because we love her more than Jesus, but because- at least in the life- we are so much more like her than He. When Mary first heard the angel's greeting; "Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with You", who could have known, including herself, "what this greeting could mean"? So what did it mean in essence? "Hold on tight, because you are in for the ride of your life!"

We cannot save the world as Jesus did, but we can learn from Mary just how to remain faithful and constant even when it seems most challenging to do so.

"What would Mary do?" Shall I run down the list of human emotions that capture the nature of a mother's love for her child? So many ups and downs, ins and outs, highs and lows, from that sacred stall in Bethlehem, to the abyss on mount Calvary; from his ministry of miracles, to that unimaginable triumph over death, when, against all odds, her God and baby boy came back from the grave!

I cannot say what this God of surprises might require in any given situation. And I can barely imagine how I might carry out the daunting commands that he imposes on us in Scripture. What I can imagine, however, and attempt to imitate, is what a pious loving mother might do when confronted with life's challenges. I can imagine what a woman who loves her Son with every fiber of her being (actually her fibers are really part of His being) might do in order to comfort and console him in his darkest hour; a woman who's very vocation it was to magnify Him with her entire soul.

There is something tremendously comforting about a mother's predictability, especially as it concerns the genuine unpredictability of this life. Perhaps this is why our Lord gave her to us at the cross; "Women, behold your son!" I cannot save the world as Jesus did, nor can I begin to imagine where his divine "wild goose chase" will take me next, but what I can do is "stand" with that magnificently predictable Woman, that fiercely faithful Lady who stood with Him throughout His life. Indeed, I can, as she did, allow myself to be yanked around all of God's creation, by that umbilical cord of love that binds every heart in the grace of Baptism; "Here I am, Lord!" This is not a passive love, in fact it requires tremendous spiritual dexterity, a generous heart ready to give of itself at a moments notice. I recognize that this is not an easy assignment, but on the bright side, at least when we subscribe to this Marian disposition, it doesn't require us to be diviners of the Mind of God.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The First Feminist Martyrs and How They Paved the Way for Female Autonomy

One of the big problems with language over time is its tendency to decay (I call it linguistic entropy). And what is the greatest sign of that? The phenomenon whereby even the most noble words become degraded and conflated with ideas that are the furthest thing from noble. For example, when the word "icon" is used today, the last thing that most people associate it with is that exquisite and mystical art that comes to us out of Eastern Christendom. Instead, what frequently comes to mind is a film star, or perhaps some useful application on the desktop of our computer. I suppose on some level it makes perfect sense that we might go about divinizing "pop divas", or "canonizing" rock legends. My problem is not that we use these terms in a diminished capacity (though that can certainly be problematic), my problem is that we never seem to use them in the right fashion any more. What this indicates is not so much the immediate death of a word (because we do still use these terms), but rather the death of the virtue behind the language itself (which I suppose ultimately amounts to the same thing).

Another prime example of our culture emptying words of their meaning comes to us in the form of a word like "martyr". Originally the Greek word meant "witness" (or one who gives testimony). Then, in the early centuries of the Church, it was upgraded to mean one who actually "testifies" to the Christian Faith by laying down their life. However, over time it has been thrown around so much that it has pretty much come to mean to anyone who has met with resistance based on their subsequent views of the world, especially if those views happened to be culturally fashionable.

Two pop songs in particular come to mind when I think of this false idealization of individuals. The song Candle in the Wind, for example, attempts to turn Norma Jean Mortensen (the woman behind the Marilyn Monroe character) into a kind of martyr to the entertainment industry; a "legend" who did not deserve to be objectified in the manner in which she was. Well, I agree that she was objectified and victimized, but unfortunately, in order to be a true victim, you actually cannot be the main one responsible for your own victimization.

And then there's the song Dear Vincent, a tender ballad written by Don McLean, which details the suicide of Vincent van-Gogh. However, as pretty as the song may be, it just so happens to be a "pretty" lie. In McLean's interpretation, depression wasn't what did him in, nor was it mental illness, rather, what sealed van-Gogh's fate, was a world that "wasn't good enough for someone so beautiful as he". Tragic figures and interesting human beings, yes; icons, legends, and martyrs, in the truest sense? No.      

Obviously words can have a whole variety of connotations, and I do not wish to suggest that they should only be used for the highest ideal (unless that word is God). However, I do have a problem with the fact we are losing the most important connotation in a bid to use it as loosely as possible. Consequently, the goal of this post is not merely to point out that we are losing the significance of a word like "martyr", but to argue that it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to go back and retrieve the original meaning of words like these, lest we lose them completely.

At its most meaningful, the word "martyr" does not simply refer to one who suffers on account of some culturally relevant cause, but rather one who literally loses their life, standing, and good name for something that really does promise to further the dignity and equality of the whole human race.

For this reason in particular, I thought it more than a little apropos to celebrate the life of a woman whose feast day we celebrated only a few weeks ago (November 24th). St. Cecilia did, as a matter of fact, further the cause and dignity of women; she really was in the most genuine sense a courageous modelicon, and legend for women across the ages, especially by virtue of the fact that she gave her own life in order to witness to a women's right to determine her own destiny.

So what was it about St. Cecilia and so many other female martyrs in the early Church that made them so special? And how might one compare them to those who quite often take up that banner today? First, no one gave them a bull horn from which to espouse their position; no one gave them a giant platform from which they could demand respect. To the contrary, the only platform that they received was a scaffold, and the only bull horn... an actual bull's horn. These were the original feminine heroines, these were the brave women who fearlessly asserted their right to be heard, not in empty declarations about sexual license- but in their refusal to be given away at the age of 12 to some creepy, greying, hairy-knuckled old man. No matter how much they were threatened, and no matter what the circumstances, they exercised their right to say "no" to this kind of male oppression, and they clearly meant it. And what was their reward? There were no magazine covers to celebrate them, no parade to reward their efforts. No, their "reward", more often than not, was a giant knife sawing at the back of their neck.

This is the truth behind the lives of most martyrs; this is the unglamorous reality that all of them have faced. Some may be celebrated during their lifetimes, but the majority are not (which would seem to me a powerful remedy against any ego trips). And so you may want to ask what was the impetus for this first "feminist movement"? What was the inspiration for women to break out of their hermeneutical "doll house" and demand respect from the powers that be. The answer is quite simple and clear: Jesus Christ. Yes, in spite of what many feminists believe today, the Christian Faith has been undeniably instrumental in paving the way for feminine progress.

The first female Christian martyrs asserted their autonomy over men by declaring unflinchingly that they could not be compelled to enter into any marriage and/or sexual relationship to which they did not consent. What was the key to them thinking that a man could not (and should) impose himself upon them? Hint: it did not come from that glad pagan patriarchy that so pervaded the ancient world. As a matter of fact, only in very select cases do we see the rights of women under consideration in the ancient world, and even when such "rights" were considered, those same rights would never have been applied to any woman who was "low born".

This power shift has its roots (primarily) in the notion that God Himself (who also happened to be "low born"), took flesh, and as a consequence, lent equal dignity to every human being great and small. Indeed, by elevating all human beings to his status, he subsequently exalted all men; but he especially exalted women, for they had a much longer distance to travel in order to enjoy equality.

Secondly, we can also trace this feminine progress to the manner in which Christ interacted with women. Unlike the way many patronize women today (either by talking down to them or "talking up" to them), Christ demonstrated a profound regard for women by praising what was praiseworthy in them, and critiquing what was worthy of critique. Showing respect for someone involves taking their ideas seriously enough to challenge what is worthy of being challenged, and praising what is worthy of praiseworthy. A dictator, dismisses any ideas that aren't his, and a doormat, dismisses any ideas that are. Christ was a true democrat in that he was equally willing to praise and criticize both sexes (though it seemed he spent more time praising women and criticizing men).

And lastly, there's the teachings of St. Paul, which offers us an even clearer basis for assuming the equal dignity of women. For those who may naturally doubt this assertion (and I know there are some), simply consider Galatians 3:28, as well as Colossians 3:11. This is not to suggest that such radical social change happens overnight (it doesn't), however the seed of a revolution is undeniably sown in the doctrines and statements that are set forth above. Of course these essential dogmas must also be believed in order to fully take affect, but clearly they were, for how else does one explain this new found "female obstinacy" in the face of such horrible male brutality. Yet this new way of valuing each human life could not have arisen from mere fancy, nor from a helpful insight. No, a revolution like this must derive its force from a new order of ideas.

Today (sadly), this "freedom" has come to include the "freedom" to be able to exploit one's self sexually. It also includes the "liberty" to do violence to the child inside your womb (another vulnerable and consistently oppressed class of people). Yet in the early Church this was precisely the type of exploitation from which women longed to be delivered. Indeed, Christian dignity meant the right not to be raped, the right not to be sexually exploited, the right not to be forced into a marriage, and not to be coerced into killing your child simply because they happened to be a girl. However, today radical feminism practically means the right to choose all of these abuses without even being coerced.

"Know that I am still in Alexandria.... I ask and beg of you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I will send it up to you. If you deliver of a child (before I get home), if it is a boy, keep it, if it is a girl discard it. You have sent word. Don't forget me! How can I forget you!" -Biblical Archaeology Review-July/August 1991

This is a two thousand year-old letter from a Roman soldier to his wife. Observe how matter-of-factly he tells her to "discard" the girl. And most shocking of all, this all takes place in the context of an otherwise romantic letter! As for the "letters" of St. Paul, they are far more romantic (both historically and socially), for not only does he lay out a program for female autonomy (by declaring their equality in Baptism), but just as importantly he points out what this new relationship must entail. God has proposed marriage to humanity, and now man must freely decide whether or not to accept His proposal. What other religion would be so bold as to suggest that not only does our decision in this regard matter, but that if we refuse Him, we are effectively leaving God waiting at the altar! (Ephesians 5:29-32Revelation 19:6-9).

If the ancient world was built upon the "furies" and the "fates", then whatever Christ has introduced into the world is something radically different. The idea that a man is not simply a rag doll to be tossed about by the winds of fate, nor is he a slave simply to be crushed by his master, is a way of seeing the world not so easily reversed (think, the Israelites in the desert). And yet that is precisely what the Christian worldview seeks to interrupt and change. Every man, no matter who he is, is potentially a free born citizen of the City of God!

However, not surprisingly, such radical conclusions about our high dignity run contrary to plans of those who possess worldly power. Such "delusions of grandeur" naturally seem threatening to those who have so much invested in this world. Indeed, the idea that every individual has the right to rise up against injustice, demand a proper hearing, and shake the very foundation of history (with God's express permission), is an idea that is understandably met with tremendous suspicion and fear. Christians were not martyred because Jesus was nice, they were martyred because dictators couldn't have women, slaves, or others of low caste, thinking that they were worthy of respect and dignity. You cannot be a god in this world if everyone is.

Notice that this is not the type of revolution that murders others in an attempt attain rights, rather these figures are so brave that that they are willing to lay down their life in order to blaze a trail for others  

Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church is His Bride. And it is only as a consequence of this purported espousal, that any of these brave women could ever have conceived that they had every right in the world to refuse the advances of men who had no intention of "proposing" anything to them at all. In light of this new found liberty- women like Agatha, Lucy, Cecilia, and Agnes (just to name a few) refused to submit to that old pagan patriarchy. Instead they preferred a new kind of genuflection, the kind of prostration that was more of an elevation. Indeed, they saw no contradiction in humbling themselves before a man who's very life it was to liberate them from the yoke of unscrupulous men. He was the type of Man that most women don't mind serving, the type of man before whom it is easy to kneel, not because one is particularly inclined to look at an exquisitely symmetrical pair of knee caps, but because in doing so one suspects that they will find themselves looking directly into his eyes.    

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Magical Musical Mystery Tour

1. Across the Universe - Fiona Apple

2. John Lennon - Imagine

3. Trevor Hall - Unity

4. Peter Gabriel - The Feeling Begins

4a. Desert Rose - Sting

5. Alleluia - Jeff Buckley

5a. Audioslave - Show Me How To Live

6. Smashing Pumpkins - Bullet with Butterfly Wings

7. In Your Eyes - Peter Gabriel

7a. Pride (in the name of love) - U2

7b. Carry On My Wayward Son - Kansas

8. Music from the Karate Kid

Saturday, November 1, 2014

What I Learned from a Consecrated Nun About Sexuality...

About a week ago I gave my seniors an assignment. I asked them to watch a video from the now famous religious sister, Cristina, who won the Italian version of The Voice. The video I had them watch was a cover of the Madonna song "Like a Virgin". Obviously, right off the bat, there are any number of things which one might find objectionable about a nun performing this song. Indeed, I can hear the complaints right now. "So what you're telling me is that a Catholic nun covered a song by the pop star Madonna, a woman who has- for decades- summarily pooped on everything associated with Catholicism, notwithstanding her use of the name Madonna, which is of course one of the reverential titles for the Blessed Virgin Mary? Making matters worse, the song selected by the sister is the same one which is most famous for turning the concept of "virginity" into a kind of provocative come-hither. Does this really seem like a good idea? Is it not a terrible scandal for a consecrated religious to go public with something like this? Or even worse, is this not yet another bizarre and pitiful attempt on the part of a religious person to appear 'relevant'?"

So this was the assignment I gave my students. They were simply to watch the video and tell me if they found it "sacred or profane". I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, but I have to admit I was a bit surprised by the result. Indeed, the majority of the ones who spoke up (both male and female) regarded the final product as over the line, claiming that they understood what she was trying to accomplish, but felt somehow that she shouldn't do it. All the same, these students were certainly not alone in their discomfort. As a matter of fact, any number of people on social media expressed a similar displeasure.

The general criticism goes something like this: not only should the song never have been covered by a consecrated woman, but the singer, some complained, didn't even have a great voice. They pointed out that were she not a nun, she would not have even been noticed (similar arguments could be launched against Madonna and what she brings to the table, but I digress). I wanted to begin with this particular criticism simply because, while it may be true on one level, it is irrelevant to the most important question this discussion raises. Is it possible to take something which borders on pornography and attempt to repurpose it for something holy? And secondly (and perhaps more poignantly), is a religious sister really the right person to attempt this, especially when the song she performs seems to be dealing with subject matter that threatens to undermine the integrity and purity of a vocation that generally steers clear of such controversy?

The answer (in my humble opinion) is yes. Let me begin by saying that I am just as surprised by this conclusion as some of my students were. After all, the idea as it is presented sounds preposterous (not to mention potentially blasphemous). For this reason, some have understandably concluded that it is wise to avoid the controversy altogether. Indeed, how easy is it to have your reputation sullied by associating yourself with such a person, let alone singing her music? But here is where I would offer a little push back. Is it always the case that the devil should be the victor in this life? If someone like Madonna comes along and abuses a beautiful thing like virginal purity, should one simply stand aside while another systematically defiles it? In a similar vein, if Madonna seeks to use her own name as a means to create a perverse association with that of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is our only alternative to stomp and shout?

Some time ago I watched a movie called The Gift. It was not what I would call the greatest movie in the world, but there was one particularly profound scene. Early on in the film, a child asks his mother; “What does the word f—— mean?” His mother responds; “It is an ugly word for something beautiful.” And that is precisely the point here. What is profanity but an empty show? Indeed, the term pornographic would have no meaning at all unless there was an original good to corrupt (viz. sex). Hence, without the sacred there would be nothing to profane.

When people claim (and complain) that Madonna, through songs like this, has turned something beautiful into something ugly, I am right with them. But what good does such anger accomplish on its own? Yes, it is important to express outrage, but would it not be far more effective to use the same medium in order to turn "swords back into plowshares and spears back into pruning hooks"? They are, after all, made from the same material.

However, some might contend that because the original intent of the artist was so despicable, the piece is therefore irredeemable. In response to this concern I would like to offer the Christian cross as an interesting counterpoint. The intention of the demonic "artist" at Calvary (i.e. Satan) was not all that different than Madonna's, for he likewise sought to creatively and effectively undermine purity and goodness in the name of his own wretched form of pornography. But God also had a plan of his own, a plan which involved taking this profanity of profanities and transforming it into the most exquisite work of art in the history of the world (remember- the cross itself was considered "a scandal"). Yet the question remains: how could something so ugly and wicked be transformed into something so beautiful?

There is nothing in Creation however twisted and/or distorted that does not ultimately find its origin in God. Thus God, in his providence, seeks to reclaim everything (including sex) and bring it under his dominion. Consequently, the only thing left in the world (profane or not) that ultimately cannot be re-claimed/redeemed by God is the will of one who refuses reclamation.

The best argument in my opinion against the sister performing this piece is the question of prudence. Yes, theologically it may be fine, but what about how it looks to the audience? I do not dispute that her decision to perform this was provocative and risky. However, here is why I think that she made the right, and dare I say it, prophetic choice. As a simple consequence of listening to her version of the song, I found myself converted to her vision of it- not only because she presented a purer way of interpreting it, but also a purer way of seeing Madonna herself. Moreover, what the nun's version reminded me was that the words of the original song do in fact have a redemptive quality to them, and that the majority of Madonna's musical catalogue is not filled with vile euphemisms. What has made Madonna infamous all of these years is not her song lyrics, but rather her twisted use of the music video genre. Indeed, if you listen to the majority of her songs, you quickly come to realize that they consist primarily of innocuous and catchy love ballads- as well as some more serious ones (e.g. "Live to Tell", and "Papa Don't Preach").          

Look how remarkably clothed Madonna is in the "Live to Tell" video!

Perhaps the greatest irony of all, though, is that Sister Cristina's rendition of the song actually winds up redeeming a song which was really about redemption in the first place; "I made it through the wilderness… somehow I made it through. Didn't know how lost I was until I found you…" This version even made it possible for me to imagine redemption and purity for Madonna herself, as if Sr. Cristina herself were showing Madonna the true way out of the wilderness. Yet in spite of all this, what has, in all likelihood, turned so many people off to the idea of this performance is the picture of seeing a nun in habit singing a song which has obvious sexual overtones. Nuns aren't supposed to talk or think like that!

Nevertheless, just because a nun (or a monk) takes a vow of virginity/celibacy does not mean that they are asexual. Yes, they shouldn't speak of such things flippantly, of course, but neither should they pretend that their vow is a repudiation of the beauty of human sexuality. Their devotion to God does not make them sexless- rather it means that they are in a sense, "saving themselves" for the True Wedding Feast of Heaven. Hence, when a sister sings about "love until the end of time", or "saving it (love) all for you" it actually prevents it from being the same old pop platitude, and restores it something that is actually true. And what brings this point home so powerfully in the video is that you can see that Sr. Cristina not only means the words, but her habit is a most profound testimony to that reality. Clearly the same cannot be said of the original video, which is little more than a four minute long "selfie".

Nevertheless, if you still find yourself immensely uncomfortable with the idea of a habited nun releasing a music video that possesses sexual connotations, simply consider just how tame all of this is in comparison to the testimony of St. Teresa of Avila, a female doctor of the Church who once rather candidly (and provocatively) described her own spiritual encounter with God in this way:

"Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form.... He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire.... In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share."  

Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa"

Puts things into perspective, doesn't it?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The 15 Rudest Things Ever Said To Me As a Teacher...

In marking my ten-year anniversary as a teacher, I'd like to offer this somewhat humorous post in celebration of this occasion. I truly love teaching, and I am grateful for the fact that I get paid for doing what I love to do. But as you can imagine, not every day is a triumph, not every day leaves me with the feeling that I have made a positive difference in the life of my students. However, you might be wondering why I would focus on something so negative in order to honor this occasion. Aren't there stories of triumph that I've experienced, you know, like the ones you might witness in a movie like "Stand and Deliver" or "Dead Poets Society"? Of course there have been many of those occasions (though tragically, I have never been hoisted on the back of my students, like Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society). Yet if I were to write a post like that one I think it would feel a little bit too self-serving. And besides, one thing that my fellow colleagues and I can tell you is that listening to teachers talk about how great they are is not really what we want to hear. As teachers, we need to know that we are not alone in feeling that occasional sense of dejection and failure. The question as a teacher is not whether you've ever felt like Charlie Brown on the football field, but whether or not you can take your lumps and still have the passion to give everything you have. The good news is once you've experienced your own personal "Lucy fail" (whoever she/he may be in any given year), the next time around you can make possible provisions for her potential shenanigans. This whole thing may involve some kind of schadenfreude, it may be a "misery loves company thing", or it may just be a good old-fashioned form of pedagogical commiseration, but in this particular post I would like to offer up a personal sacrifice to my fellow teachers (and anyone else who would like to listen). Below are a list of "lowlights" in my first ten years as a teacher, just a little helpful reminder to teachers everywhere who are struggling to give their best; "you are not alone!"

1. "I hate Mr. Chapman"

OK, technically this wasn't actually said directly to me, however, I was within listening distance, so I'm going to count it. I will not lie, these words sting quite a bit. I suppose the only thing you can compare them to is seeing the contorted face of an angry driver in the car next to you, whom you've never met before, but nevertheless seems to possess a mysterious amount of rage for you in particular. I can still remember vividly the moment when this happened to me. Most of the time you obviously don't hear it said about you (which I am truly grateful for), but the truth is this word (viz. hate) gets tossed about in high school more than it does in the LGBTQ community. I had recently given this girl a detention for chewing gum in my study hall, and since that time she had harbored a grudge against me. Unfortunately, one day, I happened to look in her general direction, right after she looked in mine, and I saw her mouth those infamous words to her friend. I thought, how strange the world of high school, that even while a student disdains you, they reserve a reverential title like Mr. or Mrs. for you. Whatever her motivation, this incident for me was a powerful reminder of just how fleeting and superficial such feelings of anger and disdain can be in high school. Indeed, the next year when I actually taught her as a student (as opposed to having her in a study hall), we had an excellent relationship. Go figure!

2. -"On a scale of 1-10, how beneficial has this class been for you?" -"Negative infinity."

No, this wasn't a middle schooler who wrote that- it's what a senior put on their end of the year evaluation. I'll be honest, my first year teaching high school was a bit of a mess. The first thing that a teacher has to learn to do is figure out where the students are academically, and then work up from there. Well, the first year I tended to teach more from where I was rather than they. Hence, some people liked the challenge and novelty of the class, while others… not so much. One individual in particular really did not buy in, thus leaving me this little treat on the end of the year survey. Although I recognized the need to amend the class and the syllabus, I was half-tempted to approach this individual and instruct them on how to be taken seriously in their critique. I mean if you really want to take me out as a teacher, this is probably not the best way to go about it. In fact, such words are more reminiscent of a toddler stomping their feet and declaring with displeasure; "I hate you… Well, I hate you infinity… Well, I hate you infinity infinity!!!"

3. -"What's you're favorite part about this class?" -"When the bell rings!"

Another evaluation gem! To be fair, I have had students say this to me in the positive sense as well (i.e. I look forward to this class every day). However, this individual, I believe, meant it in the purely negative sense. And all I can say to them is this; "If you found my class to be a purgative experience, and if you found yourself feeling a greater sense of relief and freedom afterwards, then I guess (in a sense) I have kind of done my job as a theology teacher. You're welcome."

4. "My son wanted to be a priest before taking your class..."

Back when I taught middle school, on the first day of class I would begin the year by giving the students some crayons and a picture [of Jesus holding children] to color. After the students colored in silence for a little while, I would ask them what they thought about the exercise? Most would reply with a sort of general nod of acceptance. I would then go on to say in a gentle voice; "Good, I'm glad you enjoyed that, because that's the last time we'll be doing that all year." The look of shock on their faces was priceless. I would then go on to explain that this was not a child's Sunday school class, but rather a real academic subject. After all, God was the one who invented the mind, and it was more than a little insulting (I would argue) to treat his subject as if it were finger painting (no offense to finger painting, under water basket weaving, or any other activity that I might use as a scapegoat in order to make my point). Needless to say, there are real objective answers to the questions that I pose in my class, and it might surprise some parents to know that the answer isn't always "Jesus". According to some in the field of education, academic rigor is perfectly acceptable for most "core" subjects, just not for the ones involving God. To tell a student that there is a right answer involving God, is tantamount to telling them what their favorite color should be, or informing them that Crunch n' Munch should not be their favorite snack. The nerve of that "religion" teacher. As a result, I was informed in the middle of one parent/teacher conference that I was (in essence) crushing their child's vocation by not giving him an "A". As a matter of fact, I was told in a relatively pointed fashion that their son had wanted to be a priest, but now his desire was waning precisely because he was struggling in my class. The moral of the story is this: if you have a natural affection for God, you should automatically receive an "A" in religion class. Why? Because when you do math, apparently you need a brain, but when you do theology, a pleasant smile and a generous heart is all you need.

5. (Me) "Are you done talking yet?" (Student) "Nope."  (Student commences talking again.)

The old wait in silence trick is generally an effective method for a middle school teacher when- for whatever reason- students seem to be ignoring your call for silence. However, on one particular occasion for me, it clearly didn't work. Imagine everyone is ignoring your call for silence, so you employ the old "stare at them with displeasure", until, one by one, they realize, much to their horror, that you have been staring at them angrily the whole time. And then imagine that this works with every student except one. Incredibly, that student continues to talk even while no one else is. Eventually the other students gesture to this student to turn around. Said student finally turns around, prompting the teacher to say; "Are you done talking yet?". To which the student replies; "Nope", and amazingly continues the conversation where he left off. I have heard that teachers have an extra set of eyes in the back of their head, but I never knew, until that moment, that they also had another mythical gift, the capacity to shoot fire out of their eyes. Thus ended the conversation.

6. What would make this class better? "A different teacher."

Let me just take this opportunity to personally thank "end of the year surveys," especially for the opportunity it provides students to engage in drive-by insults, insults that have provided tremendous fodder for this blog post. Sadly, our students do not seem quite as concerned about their teacher's "self-esteem", as they do their own. I understand the need to get the student's perspective, and that there is plenty of occasions where what is said by students is both valuable and encouraging. But even one ad hominem attack, can honestly blot out ten compliments. Sad but true. I do like to occasionally comfort myself by reminding myself that the class I teach is inevitably combustible. In other words, no matter how agreeable the student is to Church teaching (or to the teacher himself), at some point the class is bound to step on your toes. So not only does the student receive a grade for their work, not only is there a specific teacher with a specific personality that you must listen to, but the class is designed to challenge your moral and religious outlook. Any one of those factors can sour a student to the process (if they aren't already sour to it). Indeed, chemistry class may involve juggling explosive compounds, but the compounds of a theology class may threaten to detonate a student's entire cosmos. Students (understandably) do not take this fact lightly. And as for myself, there are certainly times where- in a moment of weakness and frustration- I too might be inclined to recite the above phrase… while naturally substituting the word "teacher" for "student".  

7. I love your class Mr. Chapman, I don't understand why no one else does?!

When is a compliment not a compliment? When the following events occur. First of all, one of my favorite expression in the English language is this one: "to damn with faint praise". In the world of compliments this is not only the worst kind of compliment, but it is practically the worst kind of insult. Here you are calmly talking to a student about their day, when all of a sudden they tell you how much they love your class. But oh how quickly victory turns into a defeat, especially in the hands of one who wants to separate themselves from the "chaff" of the other students. For not only are they capable of turning their compliments into an insult in the twinkling of an eye, but, given the chance, they can even manage to compliment themselves- all while insulting you in the process. Indeed, no sooner had this student finished patting themselves on the back for being substantive enough to appreciate my class, they were informing me, unsolicited, that while they themselves were a huge fan, apparently, no one else was. Thank you, favorite student, for making my day!

8. Are you sure that the Holy Spirit is calling you to be a teacher?

Perhaps if I watched a little more Benny Hinn (see above), I would be better suited to be a theology teacher. In psychology, there is an interesting terms known as the "presenting problem". Here, instead of individuals telling you precisely what is bothering them, they begin with some secondary concern. Sometimes this behavior is a subconscious attempt to avoid the real issue. However, in the world of the parent/teacher conference, it tends to be more about what the parent feels that they can complain to you about. Hence, if a child receives a B in theology, and a parent wants all A's for their kid, they can't simply meet with the teacher and say what they want to say, which might go something like this; "If you think that your worthless religion class is going to keep my son/daughter from getting on the "A" honor roll, then you've got another think coming!" It is a Catholic school after all, and perhaps they feel a little limited in their ability to criticize this fact (especially if they are not Catholic themselves). But perhaps there are other methods to achieve this same end. My personal favorite was the time that I was told, as the above suggests, that maybe I chose the wrong career path, and that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't attentive enough to the promptings of the Holy Spirit when I chose my particular career, and maybe I wasn't attentive enough to God's Spirit when I chose to give this child one point less than was required for them to make the all-A honor roll. Nothing like worldly ambition wrapped up in one gigantic ball of phony religious piety.

9. Our child really wanted to take the other theology class, but finally we had to bite the bullet and buy the books for yours.

Sometimes people say things to you that if you didn't hear them yourself you wouldn't believe that came out of someone's mouth. Interestingly, when these words were uttered to me, I had just finished complimenting this parent on how happy I was to have their child in my class. And strangely enough, this was the delightful pleasantry that followed. I prefer to think that it was the most careless non sequitur in the history of mankind, a verbal fumble, if you will, rather than the only other possibility, namely that this parent despised me. But in either case, the truth was laid out for me in a way that really can't be taken back.

10. I have traveled around the world and this is not how you notify a parent of a child's misbehavior!

I know this statement was supposed to somehow put me in my place as a lowly teacher, but all I could think about when I heard it was Will Ferrell and his (once upon a time) reoccurring character on SNL; "I drive a Ford Taurus! I am a district manager! And you will not talk to me this way!" Back in my early days as a teacher, we used to have to write progress reports. Well, on this one particular report, you would have thought I had given this student an "F", and then went on to comment that "they wouldn't amount to anything." In reality, the student had a good grade, I simply explained that they were a bit chatty in class, and that there was room for improvement behavior-wise. Apparently, no criticism had ever been lodged against this child in their entire life, and so as a result this parent brought out the big guns. Indeed, I never knew how impressive business travel was until it was invoked in this particular meeting. Furthermore, I was instructed that if such behavior had been previously observed, then, professionally speaking, I should have informed them immediately. I meekly noted that this was the precise point of the progress report, and that if it had been more of a serious infraction I would certainly have notified them. Even years later the parents of this student could hardly look at me. Sadly, this kind of grudge holding over something so small is not altogether uncommon.

11. After taking your class, I believe even less in God than I did before

Teaching theology to seniors in high school is a little bit like investing in the stock market. One day the investment seems to be paying tremendous dividends, and the next it would almost seem wiser to get out of the market completely. However, the most challenging/important to remember as a teacher (especially a theology teacher) is that you should not be concerned by the fact that students are challenging you, are doubting you, or even are pushing the limits. This is precisely who they must be in order to figure out their identity. Because they tell you you are wrong, crazy, evil, does not necessarily mean that you are doing something wrong. In fact, it is for this very reason that they get scandalized when you yourself (for example) use the very same bad language that they throw around likes it's nothing. Their life is characterized by instability, and thus it is my/your job, come hell or high-water, to provide a sense of stability, certainty, and immutability for them. Indeed, when I went astray in my own youth, it was a priest whom I remembered from back in grade school that appeared in my memory like a rock of certainty, offering me hope amidst the shifting sands of relativism. Thus, it is my pleasure (most of the time), to give the students a venue to safely challenge, and further consider, the eternal values with which they are presented in class. Otherwise such beliefs would serve as little more than flotsam on the surface of their lives. Consequently, when a student once said this to me at the end of the school year, I did not regard it as an insult, but rather responded in this way; "Good, for if your faith was dismantled by the mere act of questioning it, it must not have run terribly deep." I went on to suggest that if in the future he/she were able to establish any real kind of faith, its sturdiness would be far more sure, especially since it would have endured the blight of skepticism.    

12. Isn't it ironic that this was supposed to be a class about God, but it felt more like Hell?

There is so much potential for humor when you teach a class about such things as Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. In all seriousness, though, if you are truly willing to grow at all as a teacher, you must be willing to take criticism from those who are most inclined to give it. That doesn't mean that everything that they say is of value, true, or even beneficial. Yet in spite of all the unpleasantness, they may sometimes reveal (even while lacking charity) what you really do need to improve in yourself. It is a waste of time resenting students for disliking you, or simply patting yourself on the back for those that love you. The fact is some students will not like you no matter what you do, but if you are sufficiently observant, you can become progressively savvy when it comes to handling challenging classroom environments. In other words, students are not simply irritated with you because you are a saint, or the greatest teacher that ever walked the earth. Rather, consider instead that their displeasure with you may actually involve some particular shortcoming in your personality. But there is an even more practical application to this than becoming a better person. By recognizing how your personality has chaffed certain students in the past, it may be possible to avoid, at least in part, some of the negativity that gets stored up during the year, especially when that negativity expands to the rest of the class. Maybe it's how you approach difficult topics. Or maybe it's just a matter of toning down certain bad habits of yours that are the result of your personality type. For me the challenge comes down to avoiding excessive sarcasm (my friends used to call me Sarcastro). Consequently, if a joke falls in the forest, and the students don't get it, is it still a joke? No, especially when it is directed at a student who is clearly not amused.  

13. "You're an a** h***"

I am happy to say that it was during that first painful year as a high school teacher that I was for the first time (and hopefully the last) called an expletive (aloud) in class. I remember responding to that student with these ineffectual words; "You can call me what you want in your own time, Miss/Mr. WhatHaveYou, but when you're in my class you will not speak to me in that way!" Talk about a soft approach. Gheesh! I think I thought at that point it was better to cut my losses than create a giant scene that might devolve into something worse. I must admit at the end of that first year I really did wonder aloud whether the Holy Spirit was in fact calling me to teach. However, in the end I knew that the problems arose more from my inexperience as a teacher rather than an incapacity to teach. And that's the point- there were many more successes that year than failures, but for me that particular section of kids (I had five in all), colored my entire view of the year. Teaching is never a one-size fits all approach. To be a good teacher, you must constantly be "in school" yourself. If there is a communication breakdown, you can blame everyone on earth, but that approach will never make you a better teacher. Yes, some students are rotten, some dislike you without cause, some disagree with your teaching method... take your pick. But a good teacher has to be magnanimous more than anything else, he has to be more interested in reaching students rather than blaming them.            

14. "Mr. Chapman, would you write a college recommendation for me? I don't actually intend to go there, but the guidance office told me I needed to submit at least one more application."

From the land of backhanded compliments, here comes one more. If you cannot read between the lines, here- let me help you. "I've already asked every other teacher on staff to write a recommendation for me to the colleges that I actually want to attend. But the guidance office told me that I needed to apply to one more, and even though this is a complete waste of your time, I would like to honor you with this request. Here, would you please hold this hoop up for me while I jump through it?" No, actually, I will not.

15. "I was going to vote for you as "teacher of the year", but my mom told me that I had to vote for someone who taught a real class"

This example is actually on loan from another teacher. No, this one didn't actually happen to me, but I could hear a parent saying something similar about theology class. At any rate, it is an invitation to other teachers to share their own "rudest moments" if they choose. Like I said before, there may be an element of schadenfreude here, or maybe its just amusing to hear all of the outrageous things that can happen when kids are held captive in a room for 45 minutes a day. Who's to say exactly? But whether or not you you are willing to share your own personal "fails" as a teacher, I hope that at least a few of these have brought a smile to your face, and even if you're not a teacher, perhaps it gives you a better appreciation of the kind of adolescent minefield that each teacher must face as they enter the classroom everyday.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Day Billy Joel Met God in the Shower...

Billy Joel met God in the shower- I'm absolutely sure of it. So then how is it that the man who himself readily admits that the whole experience of writing the "River of Dreams" was a "spiritual" epiphany, claim, as he has in interviews, that he is definitively an atheist? This is a great question. However, before I get into all of that, I would first like to consider the substance of the following interview (of which there is a lot).

According to Mr. Joel, he wrote the song "Lullabye" and "River of Dreams" at the same time as a kind of way of satisfying his daughter's philosophical curiosity, a daughter who was naturally inclined to ask these type of questions around bedtime. Joel doesn't go into detail concerning the precise nature of these questions, but one can easily surmise that they involve death and what comes afterwards. And this makes perfect sense, especially considering the fact that sleep is a kind of human foreshadowing of that fearful event. Therefore, the song Lullabye seeks to allay, in a most poetic way, his daughter's fears and anxieties about sleep, death, etc., promising her that he will "never leave her", and assuring her, implicitly, that they will both live on together even after death.

But this is, ironically, where Joel's atheism, as well as his artistic talent, meet up in an extremely powerful way. After all, art is at its best when it maintains an element of mystery (it's good to leave a little to the imagination). Thus, paradoxically by not promising her heaven literally, he says something that one could argue is even more heavenly; "Some day we'll all be gone, but lullabies go on and on. They never die, that's how you and I will be…" Now if there is no heaven, then this statement is obviously a bunch of pious nonsense, but if there is something beyond the veil, then a lullaby is an incredibly exquisite metaphor for a father seeking to deliver his precious daughter [peacefully] into the arms of the Great Hereafter.

The song "River of Dreams", which follows Lullabye, seems to be a kind of conclusion to the former narrative. It is an attempt, if you will, to describe that boundless realm that lies beyond the sleep of death (or at least sleep in general). In the interview one gets the keen sense of just how disturbed Mr. Joel is by the manner in which these two pieces of music fell into his lap- not simply because their content was "spiritual" in nature- but because he realizes that he was little more than a stenographer in the process of creating them. In fact, he seems downright annoyed by the fact- as he explains- that he felt the need to translate them into Latin and Greek, as if this were some kind of sacred work (sarcasm emphasized); "Get the f*** out of here," he says, "Is this not the most pretentious crap you've ever heard". And yet... the music continues to woo him and draw him in, in spite of all his skeptical misgivings.

The next thing you know he finds himself writing the lyrics of what would eventually become the incredibly popular "River of Dreams", a song about someone losing their faith, and ultimately finding it again. The song itself is so self-explanatory that it feels painfully redundant to even examine what the lyrics mean. Suffice to say, the song is a metaphor for life, a description of this strange pilgrimage we are all on, with all of its unconquerable mysteries, not to mention the many questions we have about our eternal destiny; "We all end in the ocean, we all start in the streams…". But what's most fascinating to me about the lyrics is the metaphor he uses surrounding his propensity for "sleep walking." In spite of his professed atheism, Mr. Joel keeps "sleep walking" back to the land of vision and faith- that mysterious reservoir from which, throughout his career, he has managed to obtain all of his inexplicable creative energy. He then goes on to comment about how "tired" he is of this inevitable nighttime excursion; "I hope it doesn't take until the end of my life to find what it is that I'm looking for." Oh my goodness, Billy! You are answering your own question! You lay out the whole thing, then you say "I don't know about life after this, God knows I've never been a spiritual man". And then you leave us with this doozy; "Baptized by fire, I wade into the river that is running to the Promised Land." I mean really? Do you hear yourself?

"I know I'm searching for something, something so undefined, that it can only be seen, by the eyes of the blind." Actually, I think you've got the "blind" part pretty well down, a pair of eyes to see what is right in front of your face might really be what is warranted here! And by the way, the whole thing seems to be pretty well defined to me. Indeed, he kind of reminds me of me looking unsuccessfully in the refrigerator for the milk when it is all too frequently right in front of me.

And as if to conclude the interview in the most ironical fashion possible, he talks about how he really did not want to write the song at first. Why? Because essentially he knew that it would become a religious song! I am reminded of Einstein rejecting the "Big Bang" theory because he feared it's religious implications. Nevertheless, in this whole process, Mr. Joel makes one tragic error. Instead of hiding under his bed, he goes straight to the shower to get it out of his system. Note to self: if you want to get rid of God, avoid water at all costs (says the entire host of hell).

Apparently, upon reaching the shower, the music becomes totally infectious. And so standing there amidst that sacred tiled cathedral, he found himself singing some combination of Gospel, Doo-Wop, the Lion Sleeps Tonight, and sacred polyphony; "I got religion in the shower… it was a spiritual thing". In another interview, he actually says he went there to "wash it away," only to discover that it had gained further momentum (see previous paragraph for avoidance of said problem). Indeed, the state of affairs is so hilarious that it practically calls to mind some combination of the 70s film "Oh God" (yes, there was a shower scene in that one as well), and the prophet Jeremiah angrily promising to never speak of God again.

"But if I say "I will not remember him, or speak in his name anymore," his word is like a fire, shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (Jeremiah 20:9). The song even fades out with the words "gloria...". It's almost as if Mr. Joel is experiencing some form of spiritual Tourrette's, praising God in spite of himself. The point is anyone listening to this interview, coupled with the music, cannot help seeing what Mr. Joel himself apparently cannot (or will not). Billy Joel met God in the shower that day (as awkward as that may sound), and from the sound of it, it seems he has met Him there on any number of occasions. Yet on this particular one, it seems he not only met God there, but God answered the burning question that had haunted him for so many years (viz. why do I go walking in the land of the spirit, when I am not spiritual at all).

But all of this begs the most important question of all. If God is real, then how can a man "meet God", as Joel apparently has, and not acknowledge His existence? I think the interview, once again, lends tremendous insight into this mystery. While God is clearly "wooing" Mr. Joel (using the very thing he loves the most), he is not forcing Himself on him. And while Joel seems to suspect this, he nevertheless appears to have an aversion to the whole idea. One might even say that he finds God irresistible, but would prefer in reality not to. Yet how can this be? It's simple. Religion is a bunch of "pretentious crap" (remember "Only the Good Die Young"). Joel has spent the majority of his adult life being too cool for religion, and now he's supposed to fall prostrate before a God that propagates this nonsense? That would totally kill his cool guy persona! Equally challenging, is the inevitable lifestyle change that would have to follow. Hence, in some ways it is perfectly understandable that one might be tempted to rationalize these events, as opposed to allowing one's self to be changed by them.

In fairness to Mr. Joel, he would not be the first musician to do this. John Lennon (yes it is true), briefly flirted with conversion to Christianity, but YOKO quickly put a stop to that (much like she did with the Beatles). Apparently, she even told John Lennon that if he converted people would laugh at him. And she was probably right! Some like to complain that if God would simply make the truth more evident then people would believe more (i.e. if God would do his "job", then we might do our own). However, the truth is more complicated than that. The fact is not everyone wants to believe the truth even when it is presented to them. In the Old Testament, God on the mountain of Moriah gives us a prime example of human ambivalence to divine power. The people of Israel perceive that God is on the mountain, and they actually tell Moses that they don't want God speaking to them because they are utterly afraid of Him (Exodus 20: 18-19). That's the point, we "can't handle the Truth" all at once, so what does God do, he approaches us as gently and meekly as possible through our own personal affections and experience (as he did in the case of Joel). We are like untamed animals that get scared off by even the most gentle. Thus, if we will not even permit God to approach us through the things that we love the most, how can He even begin to approach us at all?    

And while the story need not end in this way, for the moment (at least) it appears to have the contours of a tragedy. For it is very clear from these events that God loves Billy Joel dearly. What is equally clear is that Billy Joel loves the gift of music which has been bestowed upon him by God. The missing piece appears to be Mr. Joel's willingness to acknowledge the source of that gift. However, the problem isn't that God is waiting with arms crossed for Billy Joel to thank him (as if God were that petty), but rather that God is gently trying to give Billy the answers, through his preferred medium, but Mr. Joel will not accept them. Indeed, Joel seems stuck in the river of dreams, unwilling to get into that indomitable ark of Reality, and now the flood waters seem to be rising up to his neck. Hence, there is only one question that remains: will he let the river overtake him, or will he reach out to the One who in times past has been described as a Fisher of Men? I would submit to Mr. Joel that he shouldn't be too snobbish about the hand that is extended to him, simply because, if it were left up to him, he would have chosen an entirely different one.