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.