The Afflicter of the Comfortable

Last December, a woman at church used Jedi mind tricks, or something very much like them, to persuade me to participate in our house of worship’s Christmas play.

“Okay, I can do that,” I said, the words leaping from my lips without my consent.

“I can’t act,” I added quickly, hoping she would set me free and turn her powers upon someone else. “I can’t even act like I can act.”

The following week, when she handed me a script as thick as a phonebook, I begrudgingly accepted my fate: I would play a servant at the final inn Mary and Joseph would visit in their search for lodging. With eyes as big as milk saucers, I would point at the star in the sky, which was hovering above the stable out back, and shout, “It’s huge!”

I lamented my lack of backbone for at least a week after agreeing to appear in this play. When I found out my friend Tim had been enlisted to direct it, however, I felt less alone. Like me, he had probably been bamboozled into accepting his role, as he is hardly the sort to direct—let alone attend—a church play.

The sole bohemian fifty-something who attends my church, Tim is a jazz-loving, Zappa-worshipping, cigar-smoking, beer-swilling, swearing scoundrel who reminds me of Han Solo, but with less hair than Harrison Ford. His glasses sit atop his shaved scalp as if he doesn’t actually need them to see, which kind of kills me. Best of all though, Tim does not suffer fools, even though he kind of is one (and even though he suffers me just fine).

What I like best about Tim, though, is his gift for afflicting the comfortable. Churchgoers tend to be a pretty comfortable lot, too. We do not like to be afflicted. Even the slightest change threatens to undo us. We are deathly afraid of new hymns, for example, and prefer to sing songs that predate the invention of the cotton gin.

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Daniel Amos’s “Dig Here Said the Angel”

Dedicated to Billy Corgan, who challenged Christians to “make better music” and branch out beyond U2’s musical blueprints in an interview with CNN in September. I challenge you to buy and bury yourself in this album, Billy; it sounds nothing like U2—in fact, Daniel Amos influenced U2!

Just as the films Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty are narrated by dead men, so too is the Daniel Amos song “Now That I’ve Died.” Unlike these undead narrators, however, the protagonist of the song is literally better off dead.

“I lost my stiff, stiff neck and my hard, hard heart / my self-respect is off the charts,” he sings. “Just hanging out here on the Other Side / dead to my pride, now that I’ve died.”

The song simmers for most of its duration and ultimately reaches a boil. In five minutes, the band reimagines the resurrection life, and succeeds in clearing the clouds of harpists who spend all of eternity bored out of their God-fearing gourds.

“Now That I’ve Died” is one of many highlights on Dig Here Said the Angel, Daniel Amos’s fourteenth proper studio recording in a career that spans almost forty years. To fund the record, the band launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, hoping to raise $14,000; fans donated over $32,000.

The result is my favorite album of 2013 thus far.

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Why Should Darkness Seem Truer Than Light?

In her memoir, Pieces of Someday, my friend and periodic “Good Letters” guest writer Jan Vallone shares the story of the time her writing instructor—“an aging Clint Eastwood” named Professor Véreux—questioned the integrity of her writing. After class one day, he pulled Jan aside to discuss her most recent assignment one-on-one.

“I’m returning your memoir,” he said. “The ending is dishonest.”

Of course, since the piece Jan had submitted was a work of non-fiction—a memoir—I found Professor Véreux’s conclusion questionable at best. How could he possibly know whether Jan was telling the truth or not?

Jan found herself at the receiving end of this criticism when she enrolled in a summer writing program at the Bread Loaf School of English in Ripton, Vermont. The assignment that drew Professor Véreux’s fire focused on Jan’s time as an English teacher at a Jewish high school—a yeshiva—and her interactions with a troubled student named Kalindah.

In the end of the story, Jan succeeds in reaching this unreachable student, and shines much-needed light into Kalindah’s darkness. More than a mere writing instructor in this story, Jan becomes a channel for the flow of God’s grace.

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The Choir: Children of Krakatoa

Parker & Coward, Krakatoa Eruption (1888)

On August 26, 1883, the people of Perth, Western Australia, paused to register what historians have referred to as “the loudest sound ever heard.” Almost 2,000 miles away, a volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa rocked the world, obliterating two-thirds of the island, and causing tsunamis that killed over 36,000 people.

In 2012, atmospheric alternative rockers The Choir titled their fourteenth record The Loudest Sound Ever Heard, too—a decidedly ironic move for the Nashville, Tennessee-based outfit. The band has made unassuming, understated alternative-rock for almost thirty years, after all, relying more often on restraint than bombast.

It was for this reason, in fact, that I dismissed the band’s music as a teenager in the early nineties. When compared to the heaviness of sludgy Seattle grunge—a sound that stole my heart and never returned it—The Choir felt like a featherweight act to me. Frontman Derri Daugherty’s vocals had all the innocence of a songbird’s, and I preferred Kurt Cobain’s world-weary wail.

A classmate insisted on introducing me to Nirvana’s Nevermind album on his Walkman on a youth group ski trip, and I had obliged him, albeit reluctantly. For my teenage mind, the sacred and the profane existed in compartmentalized, cordoned-off spaces—seldom overlapping and, more often than not, existing at odds with one another. [Read more...]

Fast-Food Funeral Procession

The line lurched forward one vehicle at a time, halogen halos radiating from headlights. Although it was eleven o’clock at night, I could not help but think of the funeral processions I saw as a boy, cars coursing through town in the daytime with lights aglow.

As I sat in the drive-thru lane at Taco Bell that night in 2008, I began to think of that line of cars as a fast-food funeral procession. But who—or what—were all of us in that line mourning?

I had seen Morgan Spurlock’s film, Super Size Me, so I had come to think of all fast food restaurants as merchants of death. In denial, I frequented them anyway. Surely I would not be the one for whom the Taco Bell would toll, I reasoned.

The headlights of the car behind me glared in my rearview mirror, stabbing my retinas. I tilted the mirror, dimming the light, and soon found myself able to make out the backlit, black silhouette of the driver behind me.

That week at work had been blinding, too. I entered data all day, and although my errors always seemed insubstantial to me, my employer maintained spreadsheets listing them all—a practice that applied to my coworkers, too. By the time the spreadsheet made the rounds that week, reaching everyone in my department, I could see nothing but my blunders. [Read more...]


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