Saturday, August 18, 2012

Furr, or "How My Fur Turned to Skin"

After writing the previous post about "When My Time Comes," I starting thinking about a few other songs I love that seem to have a lot of deep significance and how they relate to the human condition.  I specifically love songs that tell elaborate stories--as narratives are, in my opinion, the greatest way to learn something about the world and reality.  Thus, I turn to one of my favorite songs, by Blitzen Trapper, called "Furr."  If you haven't heard it, click here and read along with the lyrics below:

Yeah, when I was only seventeen
I could hear the angels whispering
So I drove into the woods
And wandered aimlessly about
Until I heard my mother shouting through the fog
It turned out to be the howling of a dog
Or a wolf, to be exact
The sound sent shivers down my back
But I was drawn into the pack and before long
They allowed me to join in and sing their song
So from the cliffs and highest hills
Yeah, we would gladly get our fill
Howling endlessly and shrilly at the dawn
And I lost the taste for judging right from wrong
For my flesh had turned to fur
Yeah, and my thoughts they surely were
Turned to instinct and obedience to God

You can wear your fur
Like a river on fire
But you'd better be sure
If you're making God a liar
I'm a rattlesnake, babe,
I'm like fuel on fire
So if you're get made
Don't be afraid of what you've learned

On the day that I turned 23
I was curled up underneath a dogwood tree
When suddenly a girl
Her skin the color of a pearl
She wandered aimlessly, but she didn't seem to see
She was listening for the angels just like me
So I stood and looked about
I brushed the leaves off of my snout
And then I heard my mother shouting through the trees
You should have seen that girl go shaky at the knees
So I took her by the arm
We settled down upon a farm
And raised our children up as gently as you please

And now my fur has turned to skin
And I've been quickly ushered in
To a world that, I confess, I do not know
But I still dream of running careless through the snow
Through the howling that blow
Across the ancient distant flow
To fill our bodies up like water till we know

You can wear your fur
Like a river on fire
But you'd better be sure
If you're making God a liar
I'm a rattlesnake, babe,
I'm like fuel on fire
So if you're get made
Don't be afraid of what you've learned

The song uses some incredible imagery and metaphors to describe the process of a young man growing up.  When he was only seventeen years old, he began to hear the call of the wild, of living a life drastically different from the one he's been in growing up (I could hear the angels whispering / So I drove into the woods).  His life has probably been pretty sheltered up until this point, and once entering the wild, he heard his mother shouting through the fog, a sound he thinks is a desperate plea from his parents to come back to the world of safety that he's known.  But it wasn't his mother he heard calling,  it turned out to be the howling of a dog / or a wolf, to be exact.  It was the call of the wild, urging him to come into its fold.  And it's a thought that scares and excites him at the same time (the sound sent shivers down my back).  A world he's never known, possibly a world filled with drugs, sex, hedonistic pleasures, and it's calling him to join, and before long he was drawn into the pack, and they allowed me to join in and sing their song.

So now, he's living a life doing whatever he pleases, a world where they would gladly get our fill / howling endlessly and shrilly at dawn (suggesting even further that this world is a world lived in darkness, hating the sight of the dawn each morning).  And in this life, he's lost the taste for judging right from wrong.  He's become like an animal, like a wolf who's flesh had turned to fur.

At this point in the story, however, it seems he's gotten to a point where living his life is about survival. The point of living like a wolf where his thoughts they surely were / turned to instinct and obedience to God indicates that he no longer has control over his life, that he's simply submitting to instinct to survive in the wild, and relying on some instinct and blind obedience to what he thinks is God.

But now, a dissonance arises in his perceived nature of living as a wolf does entirely and simply wearing the fur of a wolf.  The narrator says You can wear your fur / like a river on fire / but you'd better be sure / if you're making God a liar.  The narrator seems to be suggesting that he isn't truly living like a wolf does in the wild, for the wolf lives off of instinct and the need for survival, but he has twisted that instinct and obedience to God, wearing the fur like a river on fire.  He's taken something good and set in on fire, and in the process made God a liar.  The true nature of a wolf relies on this instinct and obedience to God, but he has instead taken on the likeness of a wolf to live a life of recklessness.  He has instead turned into a rattlesnake, and is like fuel on a fire.  He's out of control.  The narrator then offers a piece of advice/wisdom:  If you're going to choose this path and become like a wolf, don't be afraid of what you learn along the way.  Because inevitably, he will make choices, under the guise of instinct and obedience, that will change his life for the worse.  But in all those choices, he should learn from them.

The second half of the song is a redemption for him.  He's lived in this life for five years, until the age of twenty-three, and he's worn out, curled underneath a dogwood tree.  Suddenly, a girl comes that shakes him out of his funk.  A girl who was is standing at the very same starting point he was five years previous.  A girl who wandered aimlessly and was listening for the angels just like me.  He sees her, and perhaps through an act of compassion for her, he stands up in his stupor, and brushed the leaves off of my snout, and they both hear that familiar call that sounds like his mother, but is probably that same call of the wolves he previously heard.  Her response to that call was to go shaky at the knees.

His compassion for her causes him to take her by the arm, and settle down upon a farm / and raise our children up as gently as you please.  She has helped him to see, perhaps by her own fear, the same fear that turned into curiosity and led him to the wolves, that life didn't have to be lived in such a way, and that they could both escape it and live a gentle life.

With that, his fur has turned to skin, and he's ushered into the world of adulthood, one that he's terrified of and doesn't know or understand.  And throughout that confusing world, he often still dreams of running careless through the snow, to a life without responsibility, a selfish life, one that requires no thought of anyone else.  And while it is appealing, it's a life he cannot go back to.  But it's not a life he regrets.  No, in fact, while it was reckless, it's still a life in which he learned from.  A life full of mistakes that has shaped the life he lives in the real world.

Who among us hasn't felt like this young man did during some point in his life?  I imagine many of us have also walked the same path he did, through rebellion from what we have known our entire lives because we weren't ready to accept that this is how one should live.  And the way of the world is appealing.  It seems easy, it seems fun, the recklessness of it is appetizing.  And we often take it too far because adulthood seems too difficult, and this way seems far easier.

From my Christian worldview, I can't help but be reminded of Luke 15 and the Prodigal Son.  He too left a life of security and stability under his Father and heeded the call of the wild, entering a world of recklessness that felt right.  And eventually, when the fun ran out, he began to rely on "instinct and obedience to God."  Because he was trying to survive a world full of pain.  He was trying to survive the abyss.  He was wearing fur when he wasn't meant to.  And his way of life was making God a liar.  But while the Son didn't have a girl to bring him out of the abyss, he still came back and was welcomed with open arms back to his Father.

It's so clear from the story told by Jesus in Luke 15 that each has their own struggle, and they are often drastically different.  The Younger Son, wanting to live the lifestyle of the world, had to find out the hard way that a life of hedonistic pleasures leads to utter desolation and depression.  The Elder Son thought he had the world figured out and attempted to live a righteous lifestyle that couldn't be rejected from the Father, but it in the end, it was the Elder Son who was rejected by the Father for thinking he had all the answers and feeling he deserved to be blessed by him.

May we never believe that we have all the answers.  Because we quite simply do not.  Unlike the Elder Son, we need to have doubt.  We need to have questions.  Because a faith without those things isn't faith.  Faith isn't the blind acceptance of something that has been passed on to us.  It's the careful consideration of what we know mixed with the questions we have that represent our faith as a whole.  If faith was entirely known it wouldn't be faith, it would be absolute certainty.  And while I certainly don't condone the dangerous lifestyle the Younger Son embarked upon, he ultimately was able to see his need for redemption and forgiveness from his father.  The Elder Son, who was convinced he had it figured out, and never considered that there was a world outside his own worldview, was ultimately condemned for his house-of-cards faith.  A faith that was insecure and untested, and was easily shaken. Blessed be the ones who have seen the world and made mistakes but recognized their dependence on the father for their redemption.  Because we are all broken, whether we choose to recognize it or not.

This song clearly depicts the story of the Younger Son in Luke 15.  And I believe so many of us today fall into the same issues and problems that he did.  But what's important is that we learn from those things, and not regret them--because all those mistakes we've made in the past, if we've returned to the kingdom, have ultimately lead us back to the Father.  It's so important for us to learn from our past failings, otherwise, how would we grow as a person?  How do we make that transition from childhood to adulthood?  We must recognize our shortcomings and failings and rely on the grace of God to make our lives worth living now.   Otherwise, we will be just like the young man in this song, except we won't recognize the girl that has come to save us.  Or more importantly, we won't recognize the God that has come to save us.  And how tragic that would be, to continue in a life full of despair and recklessness, when hope is waiting at the door of our hearts, if only we would open that door and accept it.

"While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion.  His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him.  Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son.'  But the father said to his servants, 'Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him!  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!  Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it.  We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate."
--Luke 15: 20-24 (CEB)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Demosthenes & Locke?? What Does That Mean???

If you've taken the time to read through this blog and then happened to wonder, "Why, oh why, is the title of this blog Demosthenes & Locke?"  Well, I have an answer for you.

The title comes from the novel Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card.  It refers to Ender Wiggin's sister, Valentine Wiggin, and brother, Peter Wiggin, both children, disguising themselves as political figures on "the Nets" in order to wield influence and shape the worldview into a radically different form, with the ultimate purpose of Locke, aka Peter Wiggin, governing over the future Earth when world unity no longer exists.  A war is looming in the future, a war for the Earth, to be fought between humans and an alien species, and led by Ender Wiggin, a 12 year old boy.  But Peter fears what he considers the greater threat to humanity--war between the nations once that unity is lost, in a grasp for absolute power.

Valentine and Peter become political figures by the power of written word through forums on "the Nets"--what we today call social media via the Internet. (Interestingly enough, this book was written in 1985, long before the Internet was widely used or even acknowledged--a book way ahead of its time).  The purpose was to create two completely polarizing but incredibly well-thought out and brilliant political ideologies in order to stir up public opinion.  The result was massive influence within their own respective spheres--behind the mobs of the general public for Demosthenes and the intelligentsia for Locke--paving the way for Locke to propose a world treaty forestalling a world war and Demosthenes throwing her support behind it (and thus the general public's support).

Children did this.  Extremely intelligent children, yes, but children nonetheless.  Shows just how powerful words can be, and more importantly, how powerful social media can be.

But don't worry, if and when I decide to write posts, my aim won't be to polarize public opinion and then take over the world, probably.

Enjoy.  That is all.

[Note:  I highly highly highly recommend reading Ender's Game if you haven't already.  It is most certainly my favorite novel of all time.  Even though it's science fiction, every person I've ever recommended it to, even those who were skeptical about science fiction, loved it.  I promise it will be one of the best novels you ever read.]

When My Time Comes

[Note:  In retrospect, this post turned a radically different direction than what I originally set out to do, so if you've already taken the step to click this link and see that it's long, I encourage you to give it a chance and offer your thoughts about it if you so choose...]

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Gentlemen of the Road Bristol TN/VA Stopover headlined by Mumford & Sons with a number of other bands.  It was a fantastic spirit-lifting experience getting to indulge in such incredible musical talent twenty minutes away from my hometown of Kingsport, TN.  My favorite band by far outside of Mumford & Sons was Dawes.  As you probably know, I'm very much a music snob in sooo so many ways (go ahead and commence judgment) and I can't believe it has taken me so long to jump on the Dawes bandwagon.  But during this concert a song, When My Time Comes, caught my attention and after a lot of thought knocked me over both intellectually and spiritually.  Before you go on, I encourage you to listen to the song here and follow along with lyrics below:

There were moments of dreams 
I was offered to save
I live less like a workhouse,
more like a slave
I thought that one quick moment 
that was noble or brave
Would be worth the most of my life

So I pointed my fingers
and shout a few quotes I knew
As if something that's written 
should be taken as true
But every path I had taken 
and conclusion I drew
Would put truth back under the knife

And now the only piece of advice that continues to help
Is anyone that's making anything new only breaks something else

When my time comes
Ohhhhhh ohhh oh oh
When my time comes
Ohhhhhh ohhh oh oh

So I took what I wanted 
and put it out of my reach
I wanted to pay for my successes
with all my defeats
And if heaven was all
that was promised to me
Why don't I pray for death?

Well now it seems like the unraveling 
has started too soon
Now I'm sleeping in hallways 
and I'm drinking perfume
And I'm speaking to mirrors 
and I'm howling at moons
While the worse and the worse that it gets

Oh you can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks
Yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it's starin' right back

When my time comes
Ohhhhhh ohhh oh oh
When my time comes
Ohhhhhh ohhh oh oh

Well you can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks
Yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it's starin' right back

When my time comes
Ohhhhhh ohhh oh oh
When my time comes
Ohhhhhh ohhh oh oh

When my time comes
Ohhhhhh ohhh oh oh

A casual listen of the melody and catchy, harmonious chorus suggests this to be at least a somewhat positive, if not downright happy song.  Despite the happiness exuded in the melody, the thoughts portrayed in the words are rather disconcerting--yet expresses how I (and I'm guessing many of you reading this) have felt growing up in a world dominated by the assumed certainty of objective efforts to explain reality.  It speaks to those of us living in a modernist society slowly shifting to a postmodern worldview as we grow up and begin to discern the reality of the world--but more about that later.

Right from the beginning, the narrator imagines a future event, a quick moment, that will bring meaning and fulfillment to his life (I thought that one quick moment / that was noble or brave / Would be worth the most of my life).  Yet he quickly realizes (or perhaps realizes as the result of many long failures) that this future moment is enslaving his mind, his body, his soul.

To cope with his enslavement, he turns to the common mechanism of modern Enlightenment thought--knowledge.  But his knowledge is lacking, insufficient (So I pointed my fingers / and shouted a few quotes I knew). He concludes that truth (as if something that's written) isn't something that can be proven (should be taken as true).   Every path towards understanding, every conclusion and truth drawn is eventually tested and ultimately knocked down (But every path I had taken / and conclusion I drew / would be put back under the knife).

However, through all the testing of his faith about some future moment of greatness--a test that constantly destroys everything he thinks he understands--securing his current enslavement, he concludes that there is one piece of advice given to him that he understands: anything that he "discovers" as a new thought, a new philosophy, a new understanding, a new truth, is really just a replacement for an old thought, philosophy, understanding, truth (anyone that's making anything new only breaks something else).  He chooses to look at this particular advice with hopelessness and despair.  He proclaims When my time comes / Ohhhh ohh oh oh.  The long ohhhhhs seem to express some deeper despair about how his new/replacement understanding is inadequate in his view of reality--he hasn't even come close to figuring out what that understanding is or if it even exists. When his time comes...oh doesn't seem like that time of future meaning and fulfillment is ever actually going to come, and if it does come, he might not be ready for it or even care about it anymore.

The last half of the song deals with his thought process and response to this deep despair.  That future moment off in the distance that he can see and almost taste is just out of his reach, and it seems like he wants to push it further away so as not to entice him any further (So I took what I wanted / and put it out of my reach).  He identifies with his suffering and seems to embrace it, or perhaps just wallow in it,  or perhaps longing to reach some kind of happiness and contentment with it (I wanted to pay for my successes with all my defeats).

But here he cries out and begs for an answer to perhaps the most significant question he's contemplated in all his pursuits of knowledge and truth, happiness and contentment, and some future great moment giving his life meaning.  If heaven was all that was promised to me / Why don't I pray for death?  If heaven is that future moment giving his life meaning and fulfillment, why doesn't he give up and welcome death?  Why continue to live within the confines of a life defined by despair and suffering and hopelessness if heaven is that great moment giving his pathetic life meaning?

That monumental and perhaps unanswerable question begins to take hold in his life and manifests itself very quickly, fueled by his despair (Now it seems like the unraveling started too soon).  Now his life is spent sleeping in hallways, chasing some shallow fading beauty (and I'm drinking perfume) and leaving him utterly alone with only himself to talk to (and I'm speaking to mirrors).  He is reduced to the lone wolf crying in the night (and I'm howling at moons) while his life spirals out of control (while the worse and the worse that it gets).

In this deep and dark pit of despair lies a broken and lonely man.  What does he have left?  Contempt and judgment for the world (oh you can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks).  His despair turns to frustration as he envisions some bright moment the world should offer but doesn't, some sparkle the future should offer to give meaning and fulfillment to his life but doesn't.  All that frustration and judgment with the world, with the abyss, only offers back a blank stare of apathy (Yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it's starin' right back).

His response to the abyss?

When my time comes
Ohhhh ohh oh oh

The narrator in this song so perfectly shows the movement from Modernist worldview to Postmodernist worldview.  What I mean (albeit, in my own simplified terms and understanding of the worldviews) is the shift from the Modernist Enlightenment worldview in which everything is understood from an intellectual (and thus scientific) viewpoint and can theoretically be empirically known and measured through logic and reason, to the Postmodern worldview stemming from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality.  Postmodernism is characteristically highly suspicious (remember that great My Morning Jacket song?) of concrete truths about reality and instead focuses on the relative truths of each individual.  In other words, my interpretation of reality is going to be vastly different from yours, so it's impossible for us to agree on some truth unless we both possess it, and even then isn't universally true since someone else may not discern truth the same way you and I do.  Within the song, the positive, almost downright happy melody of the song even intensifies this viewpoint, providing a great irony--I can't know any truth really, so I live my life for some future moment that probably doesn't exist, and end up staring into the abyss--all the while exuding a sense of apathy about that reality expressed by some melodic and catchy facade.

I think many of us who truly take the time to discern our own particular worldview realize that it's possible, probable even, that we were spoon fed our particular worldview by our parents, our churches, our educators, our society (not maliciously, of course, but out of each's desire to raise us up in the way they saw fit), and that we follow this same shifting worldview path as we grow up (but perhaps not as extreme as the narrator), eventually leading us to look towards some future moment where meaning and fulfillment can be found making life worth all the suffering and pain.  Along that path, we ask the same questions the narrator does, searching for truth among the ideologies and religious notions we've been taught and despairing when that truth gets constantly challenged.  We then become so obsessed with that future moment that we fail to live in the present.  We focus on some unattainable future, a moment we've put out of reach, while our lives pass us by.

This song portrays one of two outcomes a person can reach through this journey.  All the questioning, the doubt, the suspicion that comes from searching for truth in our past understanding can ultimately, and quite easily I think, lead to great despair and hopelessness, a great stare-down with the abyss.

But that search for truth can also go in another radical direction.  When we find that our past understanding (the Modernist worldview) was insufficient in discerning reality, instead of longing for some great future moment that will give our own individual life meaning and fulfillment (the Postmodern worldview), we can choose instead to search for truth about our present reality, and find meaning and fulfillment in our lives now.

The narrator in this song comes to the conclusion that all we have to look forward to in this life is darkness and futility.  And quite honestly, he's right in many ways--and this conclusion isn't confined to 21st century thought.  Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 1:2, "Perfectly pointless [...] perfectly pointless.  Everything is pointless."  The world is a vast, pointless abyss.  But why live your life for the promise of heaven?  Why not pray for death now if the world is pointless?

For many of us, our lives until now has been loosely centered on a faith in God, and a shaky one at that.  A faith that promised a future moment giving our life meaning and fulfillment.  And one thing I can say without a doubt, much like the narrator of this song, is that that kind of faith and understanding of reality only leads to despair and hopelessness.  Our faith was, as C.S. Lewis so perfectly describes it, built out of a house of cards, just waiting to be tipped over at the slightest movement (A Grief Observed, p. 38).  

Our house of cards faith in that future moment has been knocked down time and time again.  And we should thank God for that.  Lewis, writing about his grief following the death of his wife, wrote "I must surely admit [...] that, if my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better.  And only suffering could do it (p. 38).  God knows our faith, and he knows that our lives cannot be a constant longing for some future moment, a moment past death of our physical bodies, that enslaves us in deep despair.  So he allows our faith to be knocked down--perhaps He even knocks it down Himself. "God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality.  He knew it already.  It was I who didn't [...] His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down" (p. 52).

So even though this path--from spoon fed certainty about reality and some future great moment giving our lives meaning, to doubt and questioning the truth about reality--can so easily end up depositing us in a pit of despair staring into the abyss, it doesn't have to be that way.  God doesn't call us to blindly accept his words as concrete truth that can be easily known.  He encourages us to take that path from concrete certainty to uncertainty.  He encourages us to scrutinize our past understandings of truth and constantly admit that we may not and probably don't know everything there is to know about the truth of reality.  He encourages us to make ourselves vulnerable and acknowledge our weakness.  He encourages us to put away some grandiose idea of a great future moment defining our lives.  He encourages us to take that path with the utmost humility.

And why is that?  Because we can't know concrete certainty.  We can't see everything there is to be seen about the truth of reality.  The nature of God's power is made perfect through weakness. And that grandiose moment defining our lives?  It's already happened.  It happened when Jesus lived and walked the earth in the 1st century.  In a world littered with insufficient ideologies and religions, each claiming to know the truth about reality.  Amongst a people who were living their lives for some great future moment that would define themselves and give their lives meaning and fulfillment.  A people who longed to be made great by the establishment of the perfect physical kingdom, governed by the Messiah.

But it didn't happen the way they thought it would.  That grandiose moment happened in the utter humiliation and degradation on the most shameful symbol reserved for the worst criminals.  It happened in the extreme suffering, extreme physical pain, unbearable mental anguish of the Messiah, the God who is made perfect in weakness.

It's a sobering thought.

When my time comes....

Well... time has already come.  That great defining moment has passed, and is begging for us to discover it.  Not to view it with apathy or resentment, but with grace and humility.  It can't be discovered through judgment of the world, staring into that abyss, on that sparkle that you think it lacks.

It all comes down to this:  Don't spend your life living for some future moment that will define your life and give it meaning and fulfillment, because it doesn't exist.  Spend your life living for that moment that's already passed--that humiliating moment that brought that future promise of heaven, the promise that caused us to ask why we shouldn't just pray for death, that moment that brought the kingdom of God into the abyss, offering forgiveness and healing of its brokenness, offering mercy to the unloved, the poor, the marginalized, the depressed, the doubter, and the hopeless--and allow it to give you meaning and fulfillment, serving the world instead of staring it down. 

Ohhhhh ohh oh oh.......

"God's riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep!  They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths! Who has known the Lord's mind? Or who has been his mentor? Or who has given him a gift and has been paid back by him?  All things are from him and through him and for him.  May the glory be to him forever.  Amen."     
Romans 11:33-36 (CEB)