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If you made an album, what would it sound like?

Funny how something as insignificant as Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” coming on my Pandora is enough to spark a blog post, but it reminded me of a conversation Drea and I had yesterday, so here goes.

Also, this takes place as I’m inhaling a double cheeseburger and 25¢ Frosty at Wendy’s in Upper Marlboro…

Her question: If you wrote/produced an album, what would it sound like?

I think it’d be fun to make a really avant-garde, genre-eluding album — a mosaic of bluegrass, hip-hop, jazz, and styles from the global East and South, all thrown together. But I feel like that’s almost a cop-out answer. (“My album? It would sound like everything.”)

For the sake of my imaginary album being tied together with at least a dental floss-sized strand of musical cohesion, I think I’d pick the folk genre. As far as artist comparisons, my ideal “feel” would be a Bob Dylan/Billy Joel/Elton John/James Taylor/Derek Webb/Andrew Osenga smorgasbord. Simple but robust melodies, lyrics that tell stories and invite reflection. (This of course postulates that I could write half as good as song as these guys — a ridiculous assumption.)

What about you? If you made an album, what would it sound like?

Filed under: Music

“Fluffya”

That is the way many native Philadelphians pronounce their city’s name. Add that to “Warshintun” and “Ballmer” and you’ve completed the trifecta of metropolises whose names we Mid-Atlantic-ers love to massacre.

Inexplicable diction aside, Philly seemed like a cool place, and Drea and I decided on whim to go there this weekend to celebrate my birthday. We drove up Friday night, and while an epic traffic jam in Baltimore added an hour to our trip, I was able to appreciate a small glory — the “stick-it-to-the-man” thrill of bypassing the Delaware Turnpike toll plaza. (Here’s how to do it.) Take that, Delaware!

I had never been to Philadelphia, and quickly realized that I’d been missing out. The I-95 approach affords some beautiful skyline views, with the Ben Franklin Bridge’s enormous blue span towering just behind it. (Architecture nerd that I am, I do enjoy a good suspension bridge.) We stayed at the charming Conwell Inn, a 19th-century row of townhouses converted into a boutique hotel on Temple University’s campus. We polished off our hotel breakfast on Saturday morning and caught the subway downtown.

(A quick word about subways. It seems that every time I use a different city’s subway, I appreciate our Metro in DC all the more. After we rode Boston’s “T” last year, I appreciated the fact that the Metro goes faster than 15 mph and doesn’t mysteriously stop and shut itself off between stations. After now having used the Philadelphia subway, I can now add another entry to my list of praises for the Metro: it doesn’t smell like urine.)

In between the Philly must-see’s (the fascinating Independence Hall, the surprisingly small Liberty Bell, etc.) we visited a house where Edgar Allan Poe lived, strolled through Franklin Square (man, I love a good city park), grabbed a gloriously chaotic lunch at Reading Terminal Market, and toured the creepy castle-like Eastern State Penitentiary.

The one low point of the day for me was being packed like sardines on the downtown shuttle — directly adjacent to a very loud, large, and foul-smelling woman who evidently didn’t realize that her robust posterior was colliding with everything and everyone in its vicinity, myself included, whenever she moved. Yuck.

Some would say we missed an essential Philadelphia experience by not getting Philly cheesesteaks, but we didn’t feel bad passing them up after learning that they make them with Cheez Whiz.

I pieced together some video from our trip. Enjoy!

Filed under: Travel

Book review: “Religion Saves”

I first heard of Mark Driscoll in Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. (Miller playfully referred to him as “Mark the Cussing Pastor”.) While I hear he’s toned his language down a bit, Driscoll is still a famously outspoken and controversial pastor and author. His church, Mars Hill, is a “theologically conservative and culturally liberal” congregation in Seattle. Driscoll also co-founded the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting group.

When I heard through our blog friend Kate McDonald that LitFuse Publicity Group was doing a “blog tour” of Driscoll’s new book Religion Saves: And Nine Other Misconceptions, I decided to hop on board. I love reading and exchanging thoughts on books, and I figured this would be a fun way to share my thoughts, and to find out a little more about Driscoll.

Religion Saves is essentially a series of loosely related sermons in written format. Driscoll tackles nine of the most frequent questions asked by Christians today — ranging from predestination to birth control to the emerging church — and devotes one chapter of the book to answering (or at least providing insights to) each question. While he ties the nine questions together with the theme of the misconception that “religion saves”, the chapters obviously cover a wide range of topics and could easily be read independently of one another.

Before we dig in, I have to say that I had a hard time writing this review. To begin with, the book’s configuration as a series of mini-expositions on various topics makes it difficult to discuss as a whole. (As such, I’ll attempt to reflect briefly on each chapter.) Secondly, I have mixed opinions of Driscoll and his views; I found much to heartily agree with and much to humbly disagree with in this book. And thirdly, I don’t claim expertise on any of these topics, so I share my thoughts with that disclaimer.

•••

Question 9: Birth control. Extremely helpful as an introduction to the different kinds of birth control, and their implications for the Christian belief in human life’s sanctity. I think Driscoll employs unflinching directness and gracious tolerance where each is appropriate.

Question 8: Humor. Easily (and fittingly) the funniest chapter in the book. Driscoll is a master of understatement and witty sarcasm, as evidenced by his indiscriminate jabs. (Nobody is exempt; he makes fun of liberal environmentalists, redneck NASCAR fans, goody two-shoed homeschoolers, and guys with bad breath.) He also draws interesting insights on humor in the Bible, and its place in the Christian life and even the pulpit. I agree with Driscoll in that given our common state as sinners, we all need to take ourselves less seriously and learn to laugh at each other’s (and our own) shortcomings.

Question 7: Predestination. Essentially a defense of Calvinist/Reformed theology, with surprising generosity toward Arminians. A useful introduction, but I still remain unconvinced of either “side” of this issue as an essential Christian doctrine. I believe both in God’s foreknowledge of who will be saved, and in our free will in either accepting or rejecting Him. I only consider this a contradiction in the sense that the coexistence of predestination and free will is too large and complex an idea for me to get my mind around. The presence of both entities in Scripture and in my personal experience makes possible my faith that God’s design is cosmically perfect in its inclusion of both, however imperfect my understanding of it makes it seem.

Question 6: Grace. Driscoll presents this as the most difficult Christian doctrine for him to accept. (I’m the same way; the idea of a perfect God extending grace to a people who are chronically ungrateful for it is beyond me.) It’s a beautiful discussion of the word “grace” itself, as Driscoll highlights the multitude of different types of grace that God sends our way. If we ever erroneously perceive grace only as God’s initial forgiveness of our sin, Driscoll helps us to see that this is only one of many heaps of undeserved blessings for every stage of life and faith.

Question 5: Sexual Sin. A hard look at the perversion of sex that characterizes our culture. While he doesn’t mince words about the sinfulness of some of our practices, Driscoll spends considerable time on the psychology, and even spirituality, of sex. He sheds light on the root problem of sin that causes sexaul perversion, as opposed to reverting to the near-hysterical rebuking and callous judgement typical of many Christian leaders when discussing sexual sin. There are worthwhile insights to be found here, ones I hadn’t previously considered.

Question 4: Faith and Works. In addressing the delicate interplay of faith, works, and salvation, Driscoll echoes J. I. Packer’s discussion of the doctrine of regeneration — that is, we are saved not by good works, but for good works. In this light, it makes even more sense that you can’t have one without the other.

Question 3: Dating. I’m married, so pshh, I don’t need to read this. (Teachable heart fail.) I actually learned a lot from this chapter. The history Driscoll provides on dating/courtship over the last hundred years is helpful. When we hear grievances against the dating practices of “these young people nowadays”, it’s usually from older folks who wish things could be like they uesd to. Driscoll’s relative youth might remove suspicion of generational arrogance as he implores his fellow young people to date wisely. He’s old-fashioned on this topic, and I’m with him. (Yes, the male should pursue the female. Yes, he should be clear in stating his intentions to her.) He also mentions the opposite dangers of legalism and free license in the context of dating, which is helpful as well.

Question 2: The Emerging Church. This was the chapter I was most intrigued to read. Turns out it’s one of the most helpful conservative perspectives on the emerging church I’ve come across. Namely, it’s even-handed and fair — dispensing praise and deep concern where each is due. Because of Driscoll’s previous involvement with emergent leaders like Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren in the 1990’s, we can infer that he has enough personal experience to draw informed conclusions. His commentary is well-researched and organized, and especially helpful in its differentiation between missional/house churches and emerging churches.

Question 1: The Regulative Principle. I had no idea what the regulative principle was until I read this chapter. Turns out its about worship — specifically, Driscoll says, about “how we should worship the God of the Bible”. He introduces us to two prevailing schools of thought regarding Christian worship: the “green light” normative principle (“worship services must include all the elements that Scripture commands and may include others so long as Scripture does not prohibit them”) and the “red light” regulative principle (“worship services must include all the elements that Scripture commands or that are a good and necessary implication of a biblical text, but nothing more”), and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each. He tells us a little about how his church, Mars Hill, worships — specifically their urban location, missional philosophy, inclusion of technology and social media in their services, and value placed on faithfulness to Scripture. He closes the chapter with a plea for unity in this area, recognizing that whichever of the camps you’re in is less important than doing what the Bible says, and not doing what it prohibits.

•••

Driscoll’s style and general point of view are unique, hard to categorize, and will probably offend just about everybody at some point or another. Conservative evangelicals won’t like his cynical jabs at Christian subculture; progressives and emergents won’t like his traditional Calvinist leanings or inerrant view of Scripture. He writes provocatively and to-the-point, which is refreshing in a sense; there are no trite, churchy clichés to be found here. His tone could be percieved as flippant or self-righteous if not for his frequent admission of his own sin. This is also refreshing, and lends legitimacy-bolstering sincerity to many of his arguments.

My main gripe about this book is its general ambience. We’re all familiar with the comparison of human brain types: left vs. right, objective vs. subjective, rational vs. creative. I would assert that engaging both types is useful and beneficial to Christian faith, and particularly Christian instruction. After all, what good is knowing doctrine without allowing yourself to be moved by it? Conversely, what good is the emotional awareness of a Higher Being without knowing anything about Him? Thinking about Religion Saves in this context makes me realize it is a very left-brained book. It’s full of propositions and assertions to be accepted or rejected. The goal seems to be to educate and persuade, not necessarily to stir or inspire. If both left- and right-brained approaches are worthwhile, the latter is noticeably and regrettably absent. While I think Driscoll makes some good points, I can’t say that this book was a particularly enjoyable read. I just didn’t find his writing style particularly engaging; at times it felt a bit like reading a textbook.

Admittedly, I may be asking the unreasonable; I’m not exactly sure what a right-brained approach to this book would look like, given its stated intent to address specific questions in an organized and systematic way. It is what it is. Your satisfaction with the things you learn or experience in this book will depend on your expectations. If you’re looking for a page-turner or something to appreciate for its literary value, this wouldn’t be my first choice. But I think anyone wishing simply to learn more about these specific topics will find this book helpful.

* Be sure to read other people’s reactions to Religion Saves on the blog tour at LitFuse!

Filed under: Books, Current issues, Faith, Funny, ,

Hilton Head

We just returned from a fantastic trip to Hilton Head with my family. It was the first larger-scale vacation I’ve taken with my family in three years, and the first one with Drea along, and I had a great time. The seven of us (the whole gang minus Rich) piled into my parents’ minivan and headed south. I-95 is equally boring through VA, NC, and SC, bankrupt of any natural landmarks or points of interest besides South of the Border, that southern interstate Mecca of sophistication and cultured refinement.

South of the Border

South of the Border

Each of us made road trip mix CD’s that helped alleviate the monotony of the drive. If I may be so bold, I will say I make a dang good mix CD, and it was fun introducing my family to some of my recent music favorites (Ben Folds, Jon Foreman, Chris Thile, and of course Coldplay).

Drea, my parents, and me in the front seats...

Allison, Adrienne, and Abby in the back! (We did switch around after a while.)

Hilton Head proved worthy of the 12-hour trip; we loved its palm trees, great restaurants, absence of mosquitoes, and warm ocean breezes. We rode bikes around town, lounged on the beach, played games, and generally had a humdinger of a time.

We'd never seen sand hard enough to ride bikes on!

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I'd also never lifted eagle-like from the ground before, so that was pretty cool.

We visited nearby Savannah, GA for an historic/ghost walking tour. Our guide was incredible, and even showed us the street where Tom Hanks sat on the bench in Forrest Gump (the bench is now gone). Savannah is a great city — beautiful and brimming with history; if you ever go, you won’t regret booking this guy to show you around.

Preaching like John Wesley in Savannah

Paying tribute to John Wesley's statue in Savannah

On the drive home we spent most of the North Carolina leg of I-95 listening to my dad read his travel journal to us. He’s chronicled just about every trip he’s taken since he was a kid, and it was especially fun hearing recountings of previous family vacations out west. I spent some time reflecting on the robust and unmerited blessings I’ve enjoyed in life so far– great childhood memories, great vacations, parents who are still crazy about each other, and a wife who fits like a glove with my family. I’ve got it better than I deserve, for sure.

* Special thanks to Abby, as I stole these pictures off her Facebook without asking. 🙂

Filed under: Travel, ,

God shed His grace on thee

On this day 233 years ago, we told England we’d had enough. I think it’s cool that we’re generally friends with the British now, but I like thinking about how back in the day, we pretty much told them to take their colonial governance and shove it.

I can imagine Thomas Jefferson and his homeboys drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence, surely anticipating the reaction when they FedEx’d it over to England. (“Dude, King George is gonna be pissed.”) The document’s title alone — “Declaration of Independence” — is so brazenly audacious that it’s almost kind of funny. Like, it’s not as if they asked permission to be independent. They just declared it — like it was already a known fact. Like, “Hey England, the sky is blue, cows make milk, dogs bark, and also, you’re not in charge of us anymore.”

Independence Day — such a fitting name. The idea of being on our own, answering to no absolute human authority, but deciding how we will govern ourselves, or if we will govern ourselves at all. Barack Obama is our leader, not because his daddy handed him the reins, or because he took authority by force, but because we chose him to be our leader. If in four years we decide we don’t like him anymore, we can choose somebody else. How incredible is that?

I’m not very patriotic; I don’t think the United States is “the greatest nation on earth”, nor do I believe we have some special VIP deal with God where He’s on America’s side no matter what we get ourselves into. I can’t stand those “JesUSAves” bumper stickers. And I don’t believe America is some irrefutable beacon of truth and democracy that will never be extinguished.

But I will say I think ours is a great country, and I am dang grateful to have been born here. Yes, I’ll protest where I think our country is doing wrong, but it’s actually in my protest that I testify to just one of it’s brilliant virtues — free speech. And that’s just one virtue. My ability to fight a traffic ticket, travel freely across state and international borders, protest our elected officials and vote for new ones, earn a decent living, drive on orderly and safe roads (except of course the Capital Beltway), worship Jesus and talk openly about him to others — these are things I take for granted on a daily basis, and I forget too often that many people in our world (most, in fact) don’t enjoy these liberties.

So here’s to all those intrepid souls who founded this country and had the foresight to form a governing system that serves the people, not controlls or smothers them. We’re far from perfect, and we’ll never be perfect, but we have much — much — to be thankful for.

Happy Fourth!

Filed under: Current issues,