Wednesday, April 23, 2014

God in the Odd: 13 Unusual Details About the Resurrection That Incline Me To Believe It

If the Devil is in the details, then it may well be said that God is in the odd. What makes me inclined to believe the story of the resurrection is not merely the fact that the story happens to be a resolution of all the hopes and dreams of a dying humanity (though that would seem to be reason enough), but rather in the story's unpredictability. Interestingly, when I grade tests as a teacher, the easiest way to detect a cheater is not by comparing correct answers, but rather by comparing the wrong ones. After all, people that are making things up tend merely to mimic what has already been written. They are unimaginative because the one thing that the liar cannot predict is how unpredictable reality can be. Therefore, his or her guesses tend to be rigid and oversimplified in a way that does not account for the variability of life. On the other hand, because the truth is in a certain sense unscripted, there are often variables that cannot be anticipated by those who are attempting to render their best guess. So it is that the story of the resurrection rings true to me, not only because I want to believe in everlasting life, or even because I am attracted to a person named Jesus Christ, but because of all of the unusual details that attend the event. To be clear, I am not saying that any of these examples cannot be dismissed off-hand for good reason, what I am saying is that for me collectively they make an incredibly compelling case.

1. No one recognizes him

Occasionally in soap operas when the writers inexplicably insert a new actor into a part formerly played by someone else, they may offer some convoluted explanation, or they may simply pretend that nothing has changed at all. All the same, no one is in doubt that this is a different person, and so we just have to play along until hopefully time makes us forget. Perhaps we even like the new actor enough that we even come to prefer them. Nevertheless, history in this sense is nothing like a soap opera. For who in their right mind would attempt a similar kind of switch with an historical figure without offering some kind of explanation? Thus, if you were trying to convince someone of something as incredible as the resurrection, would you not try to downplay/edit out this extremely odd detail; "Jesus came back from the dead, but no one recognized him…" Perhaps this inability to recognize Jesus could be justified if it only happened on one occasion, but my goodness, it happens practically every time they encounter him post resurrection. My point is if this didn't actually happen in the way it is described, to what end would anyone recount it? Equally perplexing is the fact that none of the Gospel writers felt the need to explain this discrepancy. It seems that everyone agrees that Jesus in his glorified body looks different, but they also seem quite comfortable with the idea that it is still the same person. And while we may want more of an explanation, they ultimately didn't feel the need to offer one. Strange.

2. Christ's resurrected body is nothing like what anyone would have expected    

One of the things that points to the truth of the resurrection is the nature and substance of Jesus' resurrected body. Whether you're talking about the people of the ancient Near East, or skeptics and believers today, few seem to comprehend the precise nature of this transformation. In Scripture we can see how this confusion played out. On one occasion, for example, we see Jesus tell the disciples rather directly that he is "not a ghost", for apparently some may have suspected that he was. On the other hand, he is also quick to point out that he has not merely returning as he was before, for, as the Gospels inform us, he "appears in their midst" even when the doors are locked. Thus, in the simplest of terms, his resurrected body is still a physical body, but one which is apparently not bound by space and time. Even today people quite often conflate the resurrection of the body with what may more accurately be described as "resuscitation" (as was the case with Lazarus). Others imagine that the resurrection had to have been more of a kind of "spiritual" appearance rather than one that was bodily (by "spiritual" I mean the spirit of his ministry remained with them). However, what was far from their minds at the time, and still is very little understood, is the fact that Jesus is a marriage (in his own body) of heaven and earth- of spirit and matter. He has not simply "come back from the dead", rather he has, in some mysterious way, passed through death, mastered it, and is now capable of transforming it. This may in the end explain why his wounds are still visible, even while they no longer "wound" him (another odd detail which will be dealt with later).                      

3. He still eats

I am not sure why this is so comic to me, but it is worth noting that just about every time Jesus appears in his resurrected body, there's some eatin' goin' on. On one particular occasion, he arrives in the upper room unannounced, and after inviting "doubting" Thomas to stick his hand in his wounds, Jesus inquires as to whether anyone's "got something to eat". Now it might just be my imagination, but I always imagine him saying it in a very down to earth sort of way, like a friend coming over to your house who feels extremely comfortable to the point of checking out what kind of food you have in your refrigerator. But whatever your view of the incident, who would feel the need to insert this in the story were it not the case? Presumably if you were making this story up whole cloth, you would want him to be as ethereal and beyond human grasp as possible, but these appearances often combine both human and divine elements (which is consistent with the fact that he is both). Apparently this "superman", in spite of his heavenly origins/destination, still enjoys a nice meal, which frequently includes bread and fish, not to mention more frequently than not, some good wine.

4. What's up with the burial cloths?

One mistake that some liars make when attempting to convince you of their story is their tendency to explain too much. What is beautiful about the Gospels is how they avoid this exaggerated need to explain everything (though in some instances we may wish there was more). So why is it that the Gospel writers on many occasions undersell some of these details that would be so easy to "oversell"? This is hard to say, but perhaps they were not thinking of us when they wrote it, but rather a community who knew exactly what they meant by what they meant. In other words, they weren't writing a novel, or a biography, they were leaving their memories with a community who knew how to flesh them out. Various details are left out because the evidence (in whatever form it still took) was before them already, so there was less need to explain everything. For example, the burial cloths of Jesus seem to be part of this unexplained evidence that is strangely clear to the first generation, but perhaps a little odd to us. Who cares that Jesus' burial cloths were lying in the cave? If I see burial cloths and no body, the only thing that I'm thinking is "I wonder what happened to the body?" It certainly says nothing about the resurrection. The first thing I would assume is that it meant, well, somebody probably took him… but where (as Mary Magdalene concluded)? Yet all four Gospels mention these burial cloths as if they are suggestive of something more. Now you might assume that maybe the Gospels mention this detail simply by way of observation that there was no body there (which is significant in itself), but the emphasis, especially in the Gospel of John, suggests something more. In fact, the language that is used implies some evidence of the resurrection. Now I am not saying that this incident in itself lends credence to the so-called Shroud of Turin, but I cannot help assuming that if such an image existed on the burial cloths (like a photographic memento), they would preserve it rather than throw it in the garbage. The Gospel of John is the most explicit in this regard, for it all but testifies to the the fact that the disciples see something on the shroud, and as a consequence believe in the resurrection:

"So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead."      

What is interesting about the language employed in this passage is the fact that the Greek word for "saw" implies more of a sense of deep contemplation in relation to the burial cloths (and their arrangement in the tomb), rather than some ocular observation about the vacancy of the tomb. And thus whatever they saw on/with the cloth, it was apparently sufficient enough to bring them both to faith… even though, as the passage suggests, they did not know that he must "rise again from the dead".

5. No one suspected that Jesus would rise from the dead in spite of the fact that he told everyone that he would... repeatedly

Speaking of not knowing that Jesus was to rise from the dead… File this under the category of things impossible to fathom if you know anything about the Christian story. Ask any Christian to tell you the central theme of the Christian story, and you will likely hear something about the resurrection (I hope). Therefore, it is difficult to overlook the strange fact that in the Gospels, though Jesus told them over and over again, few understood that he was soon to die, and even fewer understood that he would rise again on the third day. Indeed, not one person in the story, in spite of this being the whole point of his ministry, seems to believe and/or expect that he would come back. To call this a kind of strange comedy routine would not precisely capture it, but how do you explain the fact that the writers of the Gospel seem aware that this was a part of his plan all along, while simultaneously admitting that no one had a clue about it... even after encountering the resurrected Christ? Who would tell the story this way? It's one thing to describe yourself (meaning the disciples) as grateful and in awe for all that has happened, and quite another to depict yourself as someone about as clueless as Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. Yet when you consider just how utterly unique and solitary such an event would be in the history of the world, it is perhaps not so difficult to understand their incredulity.

6. Even when they were looking straight at him they "doubted"

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the apostle recounts the fact that the disciples worshiped the risen Christ on a mountain in Galilee, but "some doubted". In this particular passage Jesus is sending his disciples into the whole world in order to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. So much for "seeing means believing," right? At this point one has to wonder how it is even possible to stand (or kneel) looking straight at this man named Jesus, and still wonder if what you are looking at is in fact what you are looking at. This certainly lends credence to Jesus' parable about the rich man that wants to return from the dead in order to warn his family about the potential for future calamity in the next life. Jesus responds to him by saying that "if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, then neither will they believe it should someone rise from the dead." Whatever you want to say about this mysterious passage, it certainly demonstrates the limits of the five senses, and ultimately begs for a "sixth one," namely the kind that requires faith to "believe one's own eyes."

7. St. Paul goes from killing Christians to converting the entire Mediterranean

Dismiss the followers of Jesus as ignorant fishermen if you will, but how does one explain the figure of St. Paul? Indeed, St. Paul didn't just want to destroy Christians, he was the ring leader for accomplishing it (Exhibit A: the stoning of St. Stephen). This was a man who was as well connected and established as anyone in Jerusalem. Not only was he a learned doctor of Jewish Law, but he was also a Roman citizen. He had everything to lose and nothing to gain by embracing this new sect. And yet, inexplicably on the road to continuing his systematic persecution of Christians, something unbelievable happened, something so life altering and historically significant, that one cannot even envision the Mediterranean world today without first mentioning it. To put it into perspective, it would be as if someone like Osama Bin Laden had had a mystical vision, and as a result chose to travel about the Middle East, peacefully attempting to convert everyone from Islam to Christianity, and ultimately succeeding, only to lay down his own life in order to save the same Christians he formerly attempted to murder. Such a turnabout requires some sort of satisfactory explanation, it certainly cannot (at least it should not) be easily dismissed as an accident of history.

8. The angel at the tomb tells the women to inform the disciples that Jesus Christ is risen and in response the women "tell no one"

The conclusion of the Gospel of Mark is a bit of cliff-hanger (according to most scholars a longer version was added later). In essence, the holy women (Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome) bring spices to the tomb, and upon arrival they see that the stone has been rolled away. Sitting inside the tomb, according to the text, is some sort of angelic being. This messenger tells the women that Jesus is risen and that he will eventually meet them in Galilee. Their instructions are simple; "Go and inform Peter and the disciples of these events." It is hard to say exactly what one would do under these circumstances, but what the Gospel suggests is a bit surprising; "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid." Indeed, if you were expecting the kind of reaction of an individual looking to report any kind of superstition that comes their way, these are not the kind of "ignorant peasants" you would be looking for. After all, they see what they believe to be an angel, he tells the best news that anyone has ever heard in the history of the world, and they chose to keep it to themselves? Yet when you put it all together, their response is remarkably consistent with everyone else's reaction to these events. The adjectives that describe their behavior upon encountering the risen Christ (or at least the news about it) says it all; "bewildered", "afraid", "trembling", "unbelieving",  "perplexed", "weeping", "ecstatic", and "skeptical". Seems like a reasonable cross-section of responses. What this reveals is not (as some might suppose) a people given uncritically to believing any kind of wishful outcome. The truth is superstition is easy to believe- what is challenging to believe is the miracle right in front of your face; the historical reality that imposes itself on your own preconceptions. In this case, the resurrection, it seems, is literally stretching what is even in their capacity to believe, much less comprehend.

9. Why does Jesus still have wounds after the resurrection?          

Another unusual detail concerning the risen body of Christ is the fact that he apparently still bears the wounds of the crucifixion. We discover this during at least two of his appearances to the disciples in the upper room. In John, he singles out Thomas in particular for not "believing without seeing." Some have complained that by criticizing Thomas in this instance Jesus is promoting a kind of uncritical faith. However, clearly there is more to his unbelief than that. After all, it should seem obvious by now that others "doubted" the resurrection as well. At any rate, the problem with the doubts of Thomas seem to go well beyond a struggle to accept something otherwise unbelievable. Indeed, a far more likely scenario seems to be that Thomas not only "doubted" the resurrection, but was utterly unwilling to even be open to the possibility of it. We see this lack of openness when the other disciples tell him about their encounter with the risen Christ. He responds by telling them that he will not believe unless he puts his own fingers into the wounds of Christ. He says this (it seems) not in the spirit of rational inquiry, but rather as a form of mockery, for presumably he cannot even imagine a resurrection, much less one that would involve what, to all appearances, seem like the wounds of defeat. Hence, what Thomas is using here is a bit of dark sarcasm concerning the dead body of Christ. Yet, once again, how strange. If Jesus is truly resurrected, and victorious over death, then why is he still walking around with the marks of a "loser" on his body? One would think that you would want to put that part of the story behind you as quickly as possible. Yet whatever the case, clearly the scandal of the cross is not a negligible part of the story; it is, as G.K. Chesterton once put it, quite literally the "crux" of the issue. Indeed, not only are the wounds of Christ not something he sought to hide from everyone, they are in fact strangely emblematic of the type of victory he won. He is not running from the infamy of the cross. To the contrary, he is actually using his wounds as a means to verify and identify himself as the Risen Savior:

"Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them; "Peace be with you." And when he had said this he showed them both his hands and his side." John 20:19-20

10. Post-resurrection encounter at the lake of Tiberias is spectacular for being unspectacular   

After Jesus' death and resurrection, some of the apostles return to their former way of life, which is to say, they go back to their fishing business (or at least the business of fishing). While out fishing on the lake of Tiberias, they see the resurrected Christ on the shoreline (but they do not recognize him again). He tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and after they do so their nets are immediately filled with fish. Consequently, like a young boy filled with enthusiasm, the oldest, Peter, jumps out of the boat and into the water and swims/runs the rest of the way to the shore (about 100 yards). After everyone else arrives, Jesus invites them all to breakfast around a charcoal fire. Then the scene concludes with this remarkable statement; "None of the disciples dared ask him 'Who are you?' For they knew it was the Lord". I have already harped on the strangeness of such statements, so I will not repeat myself. What I will point out is just how unique this encounter is for the simple fact that it is not. It reads in many ways like a purely mundane and boringly believable encounter. Here is the resurrected Christ in front of a number of his apostles, and so what litany of miracles does he perform (beyond the catch of fish)? None. He invites them to a morning meal, cooks for them, and then takes Peter aside for a little post meal walk and talk (a little come to Jesus, if you will). Hence, what rings true here is just how incredibly down to earth and unsensational this heavenly encounter appears to be. With Jesus there is apparently very little interest in "showing off". What strikes me as "sensational" is fact that the writer of the Gospel is not attempting to embellish the story at all (which it would be understandable to do), rather he seems more interested than anything else in recounting the events dutifully and accurately.                  

11. The change after Pentecost

What is thoroughly striking to me about the Gospel writers is just how willing they are to depict themselves as clueless buffoons and cowards during Christ's ministry, even up until the time of Pentecost. They say that the victors get to write history, and that may well be true, but who has ever heard of the "victors" depicting themselves as a bunch of treasonous clods? I do not say this by way of insult, but rather as a way of pointing out the believability of their claim. For it is not I who depicted them this way, but rather they themselves. My larger point is this- if we were trying to make a convincing case about something most extraordinary, depicting the story tellers themselves as Laurel and Hardy, might not be the best route to take. It certainly wouldn't get you hired for any good job. Throw in there the dismal way in which the story appears to conclude, and it really does not bode well for their larger cause. But hold on, you say, Jesus rose from the dead, so no worries about all that previous confusion. Regardless, to somebody who has never heard the story before, the confusion on the part of the apostles makes the narrative feel more than a little uneven and odd. If the "victors" were really going to ingratiate themselves (and their Lord) to their audience, why would they include with so many negative details? Yet what if this was the only story they had to work with? I do not disagree that this is the story they had to work with, what perplexes me is that they worked with it at all... and it worked! Even more inexplicable, is the fact that these figures/disciples, who clearly understood nothing before the day of Pentecost, and who subsequently spent a good deal of time hiding in the Upper Room for fear of persecution, emerged from that same Upper Room on the day of Pentecost completely transformed with an understanding and courage that was plainly absent before. I suppose you could argue that this was their only alternative. They were backed into a corner, and they decided to fight and die instead of continuing to cower. However, such a characterization would be facile and incomplete. What the disciples experienced that day (and everyone that encountered them) was far more transformational than some Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid moment. Such an immediate transformation would be about as inexplicable as someone who is borderline illiterate composing the entire works of Shakespeare out of the blue, or someone who was formerly tone deaf and who inexplicably starting singing like Andrea Bocelli. It is one thing to find the courage and bravery to say what needs to be said to a hostile audience, and quite another to travel to the four winds, with knowledge, confidence, courage, and the capacity to convert the known world- as well as the grace to die a gruesome death in the name of said message. I'm sorry- there are just some things which require too much faith for me to believe in, and in this case it simply requires less faith to believe that there were special little tongues of fire/grace that did appear over their heads which ultimately did fill them and propel them on that day and beyond. This, in my opinion, is far easier to accept than the idea that a whole community of formerly ignorant disciples, rallied around a failure who didn't really rise from the dead, and then subsequently managed to convince all future generations of this story uptimes until this day… even though it is a dumb vacuous lie. Incidentally, there have been many "editors" in history who have tried to clean up this story and make it "more neat and tidy" (and therefore less down to earth), but these sanitized accounts were always rejected by the so-called "victors".                

12. All other explanations for the empty tomb just strike me as silly by comparison

Few people, including the religious leaders of Jesus' day, ever doubted the fact that the tomb was empty. This seems to be the historically accepted view, for no one in the subsequent generations really questioned this aspect of the story. Over the centuries, what skeptics have proposed are a variety of alternatives to the notion that Jesus rose from the dead. Some have argued that Jesus wasn't really dead when he was taken down from the cross, others have suggested (as did the Jewish authorities), that Jesus' disciples stole the body (though this latter explanation offers nothing to account for how they got past the guards and/or stealthily moved the tremendous weighty stone that  would have presumably sealed the tomb). Another hypothesis suggests that the mourners visited the wrong tomb, and thus concocted an entire narrative from that misunderstanding. A similar explanation has it that Joseph of Arimathea moved the body from his family's tomb after a short period of time, ultimately placing it in a criminals graveyard. Other religions, like Islam, suggest that another man died in Jesus' place, while God took Jesus up to heaven. Buddhists and Gnostics believe that whatever seemed to have happened to Jesus was an illusion, for Jesus never really appeared in the flesh, and so was never really crucified. What these alternatives reveal (at least to me) is that people in general have such a huge problem with the heart of the Christian story, that they are willing to invent an even more outrageous and incongruent story, if only to obfuscate the unbelievable possibility that the resurrection actually occurred. And while I certainly understand doubts that people have regarding these miraculous events, I do not think it wise to invent multiple miraculous events and impossibilities in order to overturn the central one. Taken in isolation, these alternatives may work on some level, but considering all the events that follow, such explanations seem flimsy. To put it another way, in order for me to really entertain the possibility that Jesus didn't rise from the dead, I would first need a better alternative than the idea of mass hysteria and delusion in Jerusalem and/or the idea that "zombie Jesus" inspired the spread of the Gospel to all people and generations up to our time.      

13. I'm sorry- the claim that the resurrection is a plagiarism of other mythological tales just doesn't hold water for me

Before the time of Christ (and after) there were others stories and legends of gods/creatures who rose from the ashes of oblivion. But never before was there a story so firmly rooted in real historical events, with real human reactions, too strange to be scripted, and too counter-intuitive to be the invention of some fraud who probably would have been inclined to edit out all of the human foibles. Should it really seem so bizarre that men in ages past might have "daydreams" and/or "fantasies" about overcoming death and rising from the grave? Of all the predictable myths/stories, this would seem to be the most obvious one. Frankly, I am surprised that there are not more stories of this kind. What sets the Gospels apart is not that it involves a story of a divine figure who beats death, but rather how genuinely historical and down to earth these accounts are (as I have spent this entire blog post pointing out). In fact, who would even begin to claim that Mithras, Osiris, or Ishtar, whatever their similarities, were even historical figures with which to be compared? Please, if you can, share with me the Oprah-like details from the life of Ishtar. Regale me with particular accounts of individuals who had a "personal relationship" with Mithras. And what of the lineage and family stock of that fabulous Firebird which sometimes goes by the name Phoenix. Obviously these stories are not meant to be history in the way new think of it, and that's the point! More than anything else, they represent man's vague hope of some real event that cannot be wholly explained or properly imagined, but which is nevertheless meant to be a kind of artful prophecy. On the other hand, the Gospels do have an earthy (if extraordinary) feel, they do claim to report the real personal history of a real human being, who really was born, walked the earth, had friends enjoyed meals with him, and according to accounts from over five hundred people, really did die and rise again from the dead.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Isn't It Ironic: The 10 Most Ironic Songs of All Time... Not Called "Ironic"

Irony is much easier to point out when we stumble across it than it is to define in the larger sense. In fact, so difficult is it to explain that oftentimes we wind up worrying out a response to the question, without ever coming up with a satisfactory conclusion. The best example of this (in my opinion) is Alanis Morissette's more than a little bold attempt to write an entire song about irony. Indeed, what could possibly be better than writing a song about paradox wherein you provide countless examples which are not actually paradoxical at all? I want to believe that this is a stroke of genius, and that Ms. Morissette really thought to herself; "It is too difficult to come up with a bunch of genuine examples, so instead I'm going to create a masterpiece of humor and irony by creating a song without any irony at all." Probably not what she intended, but you never know. The point is irony is a little bit bi-polar and thus very difficult to pin down. It usually involves two truths that don't ordinarily hang out much together, but for one brief moment do. Sounds like the beginning of a good barroom joke.

1. Alanis Morissette - Thank You

In this hall of ironic mirrors, I thought I would begin with an Alanis Morissette song not called Ironic. Once again, she must be a genius, because clearly she is capable of putting ironic things in a song, but she chose to do it in a song which doesn't go by that name. It figures. Anyhow, this particular piece appeared on Ms. Morissette's second album, and seems to be a kind of ode to personal and spiritual liberation (though in the video I think she liberated herself a little too much). In an interview, she discussed the popularity of her first album, and how she feared what life would be like when she stopped touring. Would she be able to endure the silence? Would she be able to write any more music? However, instead of finding misery once she got off the road, she actually discovered that facing her personal demons was ultimately the key to true peace; "Thank you India/ Thank you terror/ Thank you disillusionment/ Thank you frailty/ thank you consequence/ Thank you thank you silence… The moment I let go of it, was the moment I got more than I could handle/ The moment I jumped off it was the the moment I touched down". I remember the first time hearing this song and thinking how weird that she begins the chorus by thanking "India." What an odd non sequitur, and yet not only is the rest of the chorus the same, but all of the examples she uses seem to be rather odd things to "thank." Thank you "nothingness", "disillusionment", and "terror?" What's she going to thank next... Burundi, 9/11, and Charles Manson? By itself, what she is suggesting either seems to be a contradiction, or something flat out depressing, and yet observed against the larger context of what she is getting at, there is a profound wisdom here, a recognition that while she was able to gain the world through pop success, she felt as if she herself were losing her soul. And conversely, when she "let go of it", she actually "got more than she could handle" pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing in her lap.

2. John Waite - Missing You

File this under the "Me thinks the lady/dude protesteth to much" category of songs. This theme appears quite often in love songs, but I chose John Waite's song because I think it is the most emotionally compelling of the bunch. Anyone who has ever felt the pain of unrequited love can relate to the opening line; "Every time I think of you, I always catch my breath…" There is a very distinct pain that comes with feeling intense emotion for another, and knowing that, for whatever reason, that same emotion and commitment is not reciprocated. Indeed, the mere mention of that person's name can cause heartache in you. What Mr. Waite (and others) are trying to communicate here is a desire to put all of the pain behind them; to accept the cold reality that no matter what they do they cannot "bridge this distance". The relationship is never going to work and that's all there is to it! "I ain't missin' you at all, since you've been gone away. I ain't missin' you, no matter what my friends say." There's something of the Tell-Tale Heart in this common narrative, the idea of the buoyancy of the truth. No matter how deep the secret is buried, and no matter how much we can "lie to ourselves", the reality will eventually bubble to the surface. Hence, Mr. Waite seems very aware of the fact that this "message that he's sending out" is not only ironic, but tragically so, one in which he spends the entire time trying to convince everyone how insignificant this person is to him, while simultaneously talking about her incessantly and obsessively… "you don't know just how desperate I've become." We do now.

3. Howard Jones - No One is to Blame

If the song "Hotel California" had a sequel about what life has been like since the guests arrived, this song would be it. Ironically, when Howard Jones wrote this song, he too was in California; "You can look at the menu, but you just can't eat. You can feel the cushions, but you can't have a seat. You get a view by the pool, but you can't have a swim. You can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin." Part Twilight Zone, part Dante's Inferno, what you have here is something straight out of the hell of ironic punishments. It is not uncommon (unfortunately) for one married man to say to another; "I can still look at the menu…" However, in this Howard Jones piece that particular sentiment is given a sulfurous undertone, for who, when hungry, would want to exacerbate their appetite by looking at a menu, especially one from which it is impossible to order. At the Hotel California, the prisoners want to be prisoners, and "checking out" is permitted, but "leaving" is not. Well, if that is the overall condition of the souls in hell, then this song must be  a description of what their day to day life looks like; "You can build a mansion, but you just can't live in it. You're the fastest runner, but you're not allowed to win… You've got the last piece of the puzzle but you just can't make it fit. Doctor says you're cured, but you still feel the pain. Aspirations in the clouds, but your hopes go down the drain." This ironic punishment, in classic Dantean style, consists of the basic failure to see the paradox in life itself. Our desires clamor for something, but because of our fallenness, they can lead us the wrong way down a one way street. Subsequently, as we pursue these misguided impulses, we run into one of the greatest conundrums of all, which includes being filled with desires that either cannot be satisfied, or more perplexing still, are satisfied, but still only serve to make us more unsatisfied.

4. Passenger - Let Her Go

Confession: I dislike this song… intensely. That said, it is very popular, and more importantly, it employs irony. It is easier to describe health when you can contrast it with sickness. And as St. Thomas Aquinas once pointed out, you cannot in any positive sense ultimately describe God. In other words, it is easier to say what God is not, rather than what He is. Thus, the song "Let Her Go" is an apt example of this intellectual, as well metaphysical, difficulty. We learn about goodness from encountering it, yes, but we also learn about it from its absence; "Well you only need the light when it's burning low/ Only miss the sun when it starts to snow/ only know you love her when you let her go…" One particular paradox that also happens to be a platitude is the expression "you don't know what you've got until it's gone." We've come to accept this saying as commonplace, but what it suggests is quite arresting. How can it make sense to say that we can recognize something better when it's gone, but not at all when it's right in front of us. This would seem to be a contradiction, but for one small matter… it just so happens to be a fact. The only thing that can explain this in a satisfactory fashion is the doctrine of original sin. When we possess something for a period of time, no matter how great it might be, presumption informs us that it can never be taken away, and so it is taken for granted. Only when the thing is taken away from us are we once again able to appreciate how necessary it is. For example, when you live in a culture that guzzles gallons of water a day it is easy to view this magical substance as negligible, but when you are dying of thirst in the desert, you realize that it is in fact everything. Thus, it is oftentimes a tragic, if necessary, element of redemption that these things must first be taken from us so that we, like the prodigal son (or any son for that matter), may one day receive them back again for the first time; "Only know you've been high when you're feeling low/ Only hate the road when you're missin' home/ Only know you love her when you let her go… and you let her go."

5. Rupert Holmes - The Piña Colada Song (Escape)           

This song is the epitome of the kind of romantic schlock that came out of the 1970's. A guy living with his lady for far too long (according to him) decides he's bored and wants a little adventure. So where does he look? In the personal ads of a newspaper of course! Are you seeing rainbows and unicorns yet? If you do, be forewarned, these are the type of unicorns that will murder you with velvet pillows; "I was tired of my lady, we'd been together too long. Like a worn out recording of a favorite song. So while she lay there sleeping, I read the paper in bed. And in the personals column, there was a letter that read…" Familiarity has bred contempt, and so as Mr. Holmes puts it, he and his "old lady" have fallen into the same old pattern of dullness. However, in the process of reaching out to another woman in infidelity, he actually discovers the secret to fidelity. You see, they both had placed an ad in the newspaper for the same reason; "So I waited with high hopes, then she walked in the place. I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curve of her face. It was my own lovely lady, and she said; "Oh it's you"(sounds like a ringing endorsement). And we laughed for a moment, and I said "I never knew… that you like Piña Coladas/ And getting' caught in the rain/ And the feel of the ocean and the taste of champagne/ If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape/ Then you're the lady I've longed for, come with me and escape." One of the great threats to any enduring relationship is the challenge to stay both interested and interesting. In other words, you have to both care about the thoughts and dreams of your "old lady," while simultaneously seeking to grow as a human being yourself, otherwise you become that painfully awkward silent old couple, staring at each other across the gaping abyss with absolutely nothing to say.

6. XTC - Dear God

If you are looking for a little atheist irony, the song "Dear God" certainly provides it. I have often wondered whether atheists- like Sasquatch or the Missing Link- actually exist. "Dear God" certainly lends credence to this sneaking suspicion to the fact that they don't. For it is a song which essentially both denies the existence of God, while simultaneously repudiating that non-existent Creator for all of His supposed failings; "I won't believe in heaven and hell/ No saints, no sinners, no devil as well/ No pearly gates, no thorny crown/ You're always letting us humans down/ The wars you wage, the babes you drown/ Those lost at sea and never found/ It's all the same the world around/ And if you're up there you'd perceive/ that my heart's here upon my sleeve/ If there's one thing I don't believe in it's you!" Apparently only God is responsible for bad things- we of course are completely innocent of it. The truth is the angry atheist does believe in God, but he is a lot like the child who is infuriated at his parents, and so will only allude to them as if they were some inanimate object unworthy of their gaze. And yet for something so unimportant as they intimate that God is, it is incredible the level of passion and derision they bring to the table on account of this non-existent being. I may dislike some individuals more than others, but I have no feeling whatsoever about a vacuum. A blank canvas only mildly displeases me. In fact, there is probably nothing that anyone could do to get me to invest my rage against the open air (though the wind annoys me at times). Even the thought of Thor or Zeus provokes very little emotion in me. Consequently, the the truth is, the writer of this song does believe in God, he just so happens to not "believe in him". In the same way that there are some people who I do not trust, or "believe in", so also the lead singer of XTC believes that God exists, but nevertheless does not believe that he is worthy of his admiration and respect.

7. Carly Simon - You're So Vain

Apparently Carly Simon wrote this song about Warren Beatty (though some have disputed this claim). At any rate, one thing is certain, Ms. Simon wrote it about someone who she believed lacked humility. The irony here is very simple. Ms. Simon is calling out someone for their arrogance, and declaring that they "probably think this song is about them". The obvious point to be made is if this individual is aware that the song is about him, then it stands to reason that he knows it is about them. By using the word "think", the implication is that there is still some mystery as to the identity of the person who she is writing about (even to the individual himself), but clearly there isn't because the guy "probably" thinks it's about him! There is a weird kind of "who's on first" humor here. Even though she doesn't come directly out and name the person, we know that it is about the person either way because she is indirectly referring to him. Which begs the question: why does the song pretend that there is any question about the identity of this guy at all? This is a classic case where irony actually hurts your brain.

8. Garbage - I'm Only Happy When it Rains                   

Ah, 90's grunge/alternative/metal spares nothing as it relates to self-loathing. From a Christian perspective, humanity is made for immortal gladness... not immortal sadness. However, according to the lead singer of Garbage, what brings her true happiness is when you "pour your misery down". Certainly this is meant on some level to be sardonic, but there is nevertheless truth to the suggestion that artists often make a living on the sorrow they have experienced (or are experiencing) in their lives. From Sting to Alanis Morissette (I have heard them both say it), many artists actually fear unmitigated happiness, for indeed many of their best songs arise out of that aforementioned misery. Of course, depending on how one looks at it, this can either be a positive or a negative form of irony. If one looks at it in the right sense, they recognize that there is something potentially redemptive about their suffering, something which may ultimately lead to true wisdom and happiness. On the other hand, if they seek out misery, that's is an entirely different story altogether. Strangely enough, some individuals (including myself at one time) create an idolatry out of misery, and instead of making true happiness their aim, they worship, and actually come to prefer melancholia.

9. Maroon 5 - Misery

One of the greatest mysteries about suffering is just how often people sing about it. Now when I say they sing about it, I am not referring to what may be referred to as "misanthropic death metal", which is really not a form of singing at all, but rather the sound of music choking on itself. What I am referring to is the type of singing which is the mark of hope even amidst the most adverse of conditions. For example, why did the African slaves sing despite being put in chains, and how did St. Maximilian Kolbe turn a starvation bunker in Auschwitz into a church replete with song? This is a mystery that the soul and heart understand even while the mind cannot completely comprehend it. Yet we see such displays all the time, and think nothing of the irony that attends such behavior. One of my favorite examples of this is Maroon 5's song Misery. There are any number of songs I could have selected to express this idea, but the upbeat nature of the song is so at odds with the title that it epitomizes this idea in a way that few others could. Adam Levine may have been in "misery" when he wrote this song, but if his misery in any way reflects the spirit of the song it is an incredibly appealing form of poverty. When I am in misery, I generally want to nap and/or curl up in the corner in fetal position, but his Misery apparently makes him want to cut a rug, and in the meantime inspire everyone else to do the same. Hence, it is one thing to sing a sappy self-pitying ballad, and quite another to declare that no one can comfort you, all while comforting everyone else in the process.

10. Michael Bublé - I Just Haven't Met You Yet

If Howard Jones teaches us about the type of irony that one finds in Hell (the place where "no one ever is to blame"), then Michael Bublé introduces us to a more heavenly brand. Most human beings spend their entire lives attempting to accrue as much material wealth as possible. Therefore, it might strike us as a little bit odd when someone declares that they want to "give so much more than they get", as Michael Bublé does in this song. It is one thing to give because you feel it is your duty, and quite another to do so because it is your absolute joy and pleasure to do so. Indeed, so pleased is Mr. Bublé to toil on behalf of his beloved, that he behaves, not as one who is being burdened with some task, but as one who has won the lottery. Interestingly, recent studies have shown that there is a definite correlation between happiness and giving. In fact, according to these findings, the more sacrificially one gives the happier they tend to be, lending scientific credence to that old "quaint" Biblical saying; "it is better to give then to receive."