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Barth, Hell and the Kings of Leon

17 Oct

The other week in my first year Introduction to Theology class I was taking about Barth’s understanding of election. Jesus Christ is the elect One and all humanity is elect in him. This understanding of election leads many people to accuse Barth of “universalism” – the idea that, in the end, everyone will be “saved”.

My own understanding is that that Barth wasn’t a universalist. Yes, everyone IS reconciled in Jesus Christ, but that does not necessarily mean that everyone will know and experience that reconciliation. It would seem that it is somehow possible to choose to reject this reconciliation. It remains possible to disbelieve this reconciliation in Jesus Christ and to believe the ultimate lie.

In class, to back up this view I offered a quote (From “Memories of Karl Barth” by Eberhard Busch, in How Karl Barth Changed my Mind, ed. By Donald   McKim, pp.13-14) about Barth’s thoughts about hell:

“(Barth saw hell as)… an immense desert… (that was) unbearably cold, not hot. In this cold, forsaken desert there was sitting one person, very isolated and very lonely; so much so that Barth became depressed just observing the loneliness. Ending the narration of his dream, Barth said to his friend, ‘There are people who say I forgotten this region [hell]. I have not forgotten. I know more about it than others do. But because I know of this, therefore I must speak about Christ. I cannot speak enough about the Gospel of Christ.

For Barth hell is ultimately the loss of what makes us human… our relationality. It is the ultimate loneliness. It is the ultimate isolation. Hell is not merely some sort of legal punishment. It is the “natural” outworking of sin which is a deeply relational thing.

kings of leon shot for nme magazine, location elms lester painting roomsAfter the lecture one of my student’s sent me a link to a video of an interview of Caleb Followill, the lead singer of Kings of Leon, talking about how their song “Cold Dessert” was written. It’s pretty incredible how both Caleb’s experience and words parallel Barth’s vision of hell.

Caleb was so drunk he didn’t even remember recording the song. All was free-flow apart from the first verse. In his “drunken stupor”, however, he did remember saying “Jesus don’t love me” and he remembered it as the saddest thing he ever said. This line is sung in the third verse.

I’m on the corner waiting for a light to come on,
That’s when I know that you’re alone.
It’s cold in the desert, water never sees the ground,
Special unspoken without sound.
Told me you loved me, that I’d never die alone
Hand over your heart let’s go home.
Everyone noticed, everyone had seen the signs,
I’ve always been known to cross lines.
I never ever, cried when I was feeling down,
I’ve always been scared of the sound.
Jesus don’t love me, no-one ever carried my load,
I’m too young to feel this old.
Here’s to you, here’s to me, oh to us,
Nobody knows
Nobody sees
Nobody but me.

As Celeb mentions, when he listened to the recording of the song for the first time he was floored. It was spine-tingling – and not in a good way. At the time producer Jacquire King said “That verse – I felt that way my whole life.” Even though Caleb didn’t remember recording it, he knew that every bit of it was truth and so, even though the production is not great, it is a song that he will not re-record – a pure, natural, honest moment that could never be recaptured.

And then there is the story of his experience one night of the cold lonely desert. He admits that the desert has always had a hold of him. For him the cold of the desert not only means that it gets cold, it means that this is what he has chosen.

Here is the interview…

Hope, Disruption and Bruce Springsteen

19 Jun

A version of the following post appeared in the February Edition of The Garden magazine (now The Gardens)…

Hope is a dangerous thing. So says Red, the character played by Morgan Freeman in the movie Shawshank Redemption, to his friend Andy Dufresne who is serving a life-sentence. But Andy is determined to his life propelled by hope. Hope is a subversive power that even the prison authorities cannot control.

Wrecking BallOne of my favourite gifts that I received this last Christmas was Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springteen’s 2012 release. Rolling Stone magazine, which named it album of the year, describes it as “the most despairing, confrontational and musically turbulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made.” It is an angry, challenging, accusatory collection of songs which rages against corporate greed, economic injustice, long term unemployment and broken promises – all against the backdrop of the global financial crisis.

When listening, it feels like an onslaught. What has happened to all the promises? Springsteen rails. The road of good intensions has gone dry as boneWe needed help but the cavalry stayed home (track #1 – We Take Care of Our Own). In modern America the gambling man rolls the dice, but working man pays the bill. The result is that we’re trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong (track #3 – Shackled and Drawn). It has all happened before and it will happen againWe stood the drought now we’ll stand the flood… Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong (track #4 – Jack of All Trades). Instead of prosperity there is death. They destroyed our families, factories and they took our homes. They left our bodies on the plains. The vultures picked our bones (track #5 – Death to My Hometown). At times it does feel all too depressing. Baby, I’ve been down but never this down. I’ve been lost but never this lost (track #6 – This Depression).

BruceBut in amongst all this there is, as is to be expected with Springsteen, a strong resounding note of defiance. The call is to Listen up Sonny Boy, be ready when they come (track #5 – Death to My Hometown). Lines such as, If I had a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight (track #4 – Jack of All Trades), caused someone to ask Springsteen at a Paris press conference whether he was advocating an armed uprising. This defiance is most clear in the title track (track #7 – Wrecking Ball) which can be seen as the turning point in the album. So if you got the guts mister, yeah if you’ve got the balls. If you think it’s your time, then step to the line, and bring on your wrecking ball.

But what surprises me most about this album, especially given the bombardment of wrathful indignation, is the pervasiveness of hope – a hope which seems to be built on some kind of faith in a future redemption of the world (and most likely shaped by what has been called Springsteen’s “catholic imagination”). It’s as if Springsteen has a sense that this future will one day invade the present. There will be a reckoning. And it’s this future hope that gives a basis for present defiance.

So, even though we now stand in the flood, there’s a new world coming, I can see the light (track #4 – Jack of All Trades). And even though we’ve been travelling over rocky ground, there’s a new day coming (track #9 – Rocky Ground). This hope is most clearly expressed in Land of Hope and Dreams (track #10) built around lines from the classic Curtis Mayfield song People Get Ready. There’s a train a-comin’. And this train carries saints sinners… losers and winners… whores and gamblersdreams will not be thwarted… faith will be rewarded.

Morgan Freeman was right – hope is a dangerous thing. In the hands of Bruce Springsteen it is disruptive, leading to a radical dissatisfaction with the status quo and a bold call to action.

Here is Track #9 – “Rocky Ground”…

Christmas, Worship and the Reality of World

23 Dec

In the lead up to Christmas I have been feeling a bit uneasy about the whole Christmas celebration thing. Perhaps it’s because we are so far away from family; or perhaps it’s because we are in the middle of summer here in New Zealand; or perhaps it’s because it’s the end of what has felt like a long heard year. But perhaps it’s something more.

In the news we have recently been confronted with the harsh reality of our world. A few weeks back we had the situation in Gaza which just reminded us of the complexity of that situation – the state of Israel against the Palestinian people; one side seeking security and the other side seeking justice. But neither side experiencing peace. And then, over the past week or so, the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut – 20 school children and 6 school staff.


Last weekend my family and I gathered with nearly 10,000 people at the Vector Arena to participate in the Glow carol service put on by St. Paul’s Anglican Church for the people of Auckland. It was an incredible event: an amazing colourful event (each person had a glow stick with different colours) with great music, adult and children’s choirs, and carols. All of this to celebrate the coming of “the new born King”. And I was this, twirling my glow stick as enthusiastic as anyone.

Glow2012But what moved me most was a video. A film crew from St Paul’s went to Bethlehem to do some interviewing in the town of Bethlehem itself. This was not the romantic version of Bethlehem we find of Christmas cards. This was the reality of people’s lives; a hard realty, not unlike the realty that Jesus entered into 2000 years ago.

It was the video that brought home to me the need to bring together the reality of Incarnation and the realities of our world. So much of our Christian celebrating seems to disconnect the two. It’s like we use these Christmas celebrations to escape the sometimes difficult realities of life – the tinsel, the colours, the romantic  images of the stable with the mystical light shining on it, the carols we love so well, allow us to escape the stuff that we don’t want to face up to – globally and in our own lives.

But the Christmas story is about a God who enters in to our reality. The Word becomes flesh and moves into our neighbourhood (as Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14). In this story, this central truth of the Christian faith, we have the coming together of God’s reality and ours. Jesus, the one who brings salvation, submits himself to our reality, born into the ordinariness of his day – violence, military oppression and becoming a refugee.

Here’s the video…


The good news of Jesus Christ cannot allow us to escape the realities of our world and even our own lives. If it does, then all we will be left with inauthenticity – a shallow faith and shallow lives. But yet, I often feel that this is what we do at church on a Sunday in our search for some kind of “worship high”. We don’t like living in the tension.

waitingAnd we don’t like waiting, which is why most of our evangelical churches are uncomfortable with practising “Advent” – the 4 week period of “waiting” before Christmas itself. We rush too quickly to celebration. I don’t want to sing “Yeah Lord we greet thee born this happy morning” too soon. But this practice of Advent waiting allows us to stop and name the sin which in our own lives and in the world – whether the realities of current day Bethlehem or the realities of our lives. And then we are able to voice our cry, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel”. It is here that the connection takes place. It is here we need our imaginations renewed.

A few days ago I stumbled across a video on youtube – images from the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut set alongside images of the nativity set Rosie Thomas’ amazing rendition “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The video captures the connection I’m taking about and portrays this sense of waiting in the midst of human pain and tragedy for God’s salvation and redemption.

In the Incarnation we meet a God who enters in to our reality. Christianity therefore, does not offer an escape from reality of this world. It doesn’t allow us to ignore. It doesn’t allow us to whitewash over. Instead, as Christians, we enter in to our world with Jesus Christ who has gone before us – without fear and with a sense of hope. But not a fairy tale hope. Instead, a hope that yearns for God’s kingdom to come, and his will to be done on earth as its is in heaven. And a hope that ultimately takes us to the cross.

Here is the Rosie Thomas video…

Top Ten Free Noise Trade Downloads

8 Jun

I have been downloading free albums, EPs and samples from Noise Trade since about September 2011. There is some good stuff amongst the not so good. Often its older albums that have just being “sitting there” for years are “re-released”. Often it is a live album, the production quality of which doesn’t justify a full release. Other times it is a sampler before the release of a new album. It’s all by donation. All you have to do if give your email and postcode. So… it’s just a great way to publicize music that wouldn’t normally be publicized.

So… the following would constitute my top ten currently on my media player…

1. Fort Atlantic Sampler

A sweet blend of acoustic anthemic folkish rock. The fifth song, “We May Swim” is a classic.

2. Denison Witmer Are You a Dreamer

Mainly acoustic, but somehow a few melodic grades above the normal… and featuring guest performances by Sufjan Stevens.

3. Welcome Wagon Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing

Classic Sufjan Stevens produced EP by the Reverend Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique. Gospel music like you have never heard it before. “I am not Skilled to Understand” is such an amazing rendering of an old classic.

4. Josh Garells Love & War & The Sea In Between

Such an amazing creative and robust alternative to the usual bland Contemporary Christian Music.

5. Rosie Thomas These Friends of Mine

Cute female acoustic sound with the help of appearances by friends Sufjan Stevens, Damien Jurado, David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), and Denison Witmer.

6. Jars of Clay A Collection

These guys always surprise me with their breadth of musical skill and ability and the depth of their wisdom and muturity contained in their lyrics.

7. The Vespers 3 Brand New Ones, 2 Older Ones, 1 Like ‘Un

Young and talented, often quirky foot-tapping sweet harmonies mixed with banjo but yet with a touch of melancholy.

8. On Joyful Wings Seven Swans Reimagined Sampler

For fans of Sufjan Stevens – some interesting re-imagining going on.

9. The Civil Wars Live at Eddies Attic

Grammie winning dou with a great intimate live album.

10. Andrew Rose Gregory The Song of Songs

A fantastic musical tour through one of the most amazingly poetic books of the Hebrew Bible.

Follow-Up to Bon Iver Post: Justin Vernon talks about Grammys and artistic integrity

2 May

As a follow up to the last post here is an interview with Justin Vernon (front man of Bon Iver) talking about: the song Holocene, his nomination for four Grammys; his views on what’s important; selling out; artistic integrity; why he can be considered a honourary Canadian; drawing the line at aesthetic; Kathleen Edwards; and his collaborative relationship with Kanye West.

I love his insights, humour and perhaps especially… his humility.

So why did he agree to let his his music be used for a whiskey commercial? Answer: because his dad likes whiskey.

Holocene: The Significance of Insignificance

30 Apr

The following post was published in a column in the first issue of “The Garden” – a new monthly news magazine distributed to +20,000 homes in the Mt Eden area of Auckland….

Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, in one of her acclaimed TED talks, makes the point that we live in a culture that tells us there is never enough: that we are not good enough, safe enough, perfect enough or extraordinary enough. And so, much of our lives are lived striving to have “enough”. The result of this striving is that an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life. We miss out on what is truly important because we are on a quest for what is extraordinary; failing to realize that joy is to be found in the ordinary moments of life. It is these same themes that contribute to the power and beauty of Bon Iver’s Grammy nominated song Holocene.

Bon Iver is the band/project of indie master-craftsman Justin Vernon and if you haven’t listened to his latest album, Bon Iver Bon Iver, you should. (Yes, the weird self-titled repetition is intentional). And if there is just one track to listen to on this incredible album it is Holocene. However, be warned. Holocene, like the rest of the album, is meant to be felt rather than simply listened to. Both the music and language is textured, haunting and evocative; poetry rather than prose; expression rather than idea. It is music that hits you in the gut – calling for an emotional rather than simply a cognitive response.

With Holocene the focus of such response is the repeated line from the chorus, “…and at once I knew I was not magnificent”. Just look at some of the online discussion sites and you will find repeated testimony to listeners being reduced to tears. And this too has been my experience when in the midst of the pressures of my ordinary life, feeling overwhelmed, I have turned to this piece of music for some kind of release. Confessing the inevitable failure of my quest for extraordinariness somehow allows me, like Vernon, to “see for miles, miles, miles”. And in doing so, the joy of the ordinary comes back into view.

And this is exactly what we find in the verses of Holocene which surround this confession. Three verses, each highlighting particular moments in time: the aftermath of drinking too much in Milwaukee; a house at third and Lake burning down; and Christmas with his brother during an ice-storm. The term “Holocene” actually refers to the current geological epoch which began around 12,000 years ago. But it is also a bar in Portland, Oregon. It is in the context of a greater reality that these ordinary moments now take on their real significance. As Vernon states in an interview, “Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance…

For Vernon this is where redemption is to be found – realizing in our lack of extraordinariness that we, and the moments of our lives, are nevertheless worth something; that we are both special and not special at the same time. Rather than run from this sense of vulnerability, it is here according to Brené Brown that we not only find joy, but the birthplace of love, belonging, creativity and faith.

And here is the song… (Note: there is one instance of strong language)…


10 Aug

Just got back from a super quick tour of the North Island of New Zealand, as well as chatting with the fine people at Laidlaw College.

One of my chats was with Dave Wells who teaches courses on youth ministry. Later that day he was teaching and class and sent me a link to video he was going to play at the beginning of the class ” for no reason other than I just found it and I think it is genius.”

I think it’s genius as well!!! It’s by John Bulter.

The Gospel According to Alanis Part 2

26 May

Okay… another song from Alanis’ new(ish) album, Flavors of Entanglement, which, to me, has echoes of “the Gospel”.

In Incomplete Alanis expresses a yearning for “completion” (to be at peace… to be enlightened… to be healed… to know God… to be secure… to be faith-filled… to be trusting and spacious… etc). These aspects of “completion” are very similar to what the follower of Jesus yearns for. But we do not simply yearn. We also wait, with hope and expectation for these things. We wait for the new creation (including our new resurrected bodies) to be fully revealed when Jesus returns.

However, in the song Alanis seems aware that we can easily stop living in the present because of our yearning for the future. She wants to experience life now – even though she is still incomplete. In the video below she introduces the songs by saying…

This next song speaks to my feeling that I was going to work my fingers to the bone… and that one day I would arrive whether it was when I was turning 30 or twhen I turned 70… and there would be a finish line, and I would be happy and calm and everything would be easy. So, knowing that might not be the case… I’d actually like to start enjoy myself now. So what this song asked of me, or begged of me really, was to start applying what I think I’ll feel at that finish line – which is ease, joy, fun, recreaction – start experiencing that now, along with some of the forshadowings and looking into the future (that’s fine once in a while), but for me to be a lot more present. So that’s what’s spawned or gave birth to this song.

To me there are close parallels between what Alanis is singing about and what it means to be a Christian living in the light of the reality of what God as done in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. In the New Testament the basic message is that “in Christ” completion (salvation) has been achieved. “In Christ”  we are “complete”. But yet our experience is that we are not “complete”. We still live in world of sin, failure, death, incompletion, etc. Neverthless, we are called to live in the “completion” that Jesus Christ has achieved. Most theologians talk about this in terms of living in the “already, but-not-yet”.

It seems to me that Alanis is kind of talking about this “already, but-not-yet” kind of living of when she says, “So what this song asked of me, or begged of me really, was to start applying what I think I’ll feel at that finish line.” That’s it – we are to start applying NOW the “new reality” which has been achieved in Jesus Christ.

Okay… here is the song with the lyrics below…

One day I’ll find relief
I’ll be arrived and I’ll be a friend to my friends who know how to be friends

One day I’ll be at peace
I’ll be enlightened and I’ll be married with children and maybe adopt

One day I will be healed
I will gather my wounds forge the end of tragic comedy

I have been running so sweaty my whole life
Urgent for a finish line
And I have been missing the rapture this whole time
Of being forever incomplete

One day, my mind will retreat, and I’ll know god and I’ll be constantly one with her night dusk and day
One day I’ll be secure, like the women I see on their 30th anniversaries

I have been running so sweaty my whole life
Urgent for a finish line
And I have been missing the rapture this whole time
Of being forever incomplete

Ever unfolding
Ever expanding
Ever adventurous and torturous
But never done

One day, I will speak freely
I’ll be less afraid
And measured outside of my poems and lyrics and art
One day I will be faith-filled
I’ll be trusting and spacious authentic and grounded and whole

I have been running so sweaty my whole life
Urgent for a finish line
And I have been missing the rapture this whole time
Of being forever incomplete

The Gospel According to Alanis

12 May

For Ruth’s birthday I bought her two fairly recent albums by two highly talented Canadian female singers: Diana Krall’s samba influenced “Quite Nights” and Alanis Morissette’s  “Flavors of Entaglement”.

Okay… I must admit… the Alanis Morissette buy was a bit selfish. I actually wanted to listen to it myself, but knew that Ruth would probably like as well.

I’ve used Alanis Morissette songs when teaching adult Sunday classes. Yes, she’s a bit “new agey” (as they say) and her theological views can’t exactly be described as “orthodox”… at least from a Christian point of view. But I (and some of my friends) have found deep truths in her songs – truths which point to our need of God’s unconditional love which is to be found in Jesus.

Flavors of Entanglement” is a flavorfull album with a rich variety of songs. Yes… it does seem in many ways that she is singing lines from her personal journals (but what’s new) especially with regard to her split with fiance Ryan Reynolds.  But it is well worth the listen. The main theme that hits me is yearning (for heaven?)…  in the light of the reality of human existence (aka sin).

When we reflect on the state of the world – especially in relation to how human beings treat other human beings for the sake of power, or in midst of war and other acts of violence, we can easily point our finger and condemn (especially those of us in our nice western middle-class contexts). But for Alanis what happens “out there” is very similar to what happens in the “underneath” reality of our everyday existance  – in our kitchens, our bedrooms, our sandboxes, and our livingrooms.

Alanis sings on “Underneath“…

There is no difference in what we’re doing here – That doesn’t show up as bigger symptoms out there.

The Apostle Paul says in Romans 2 and 3…

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things…. For have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Here is the song from youtube with the full lyrics below…

Look at us break our bonds in this kitchen
Look at us rallying all our defenses
Look at us waging war in our bedroom
Look at us jumping ship in our dialogues

There is no difference in what we’re doing in here
That doesn’t show up as big as it does out there
So why spend all our time undressing our bandages
When we’ve the ultimate key to the cause
right here all underneath.

Look at us form our cliques in our sandbox
Look at us being cruel kids with both our hearts blocked
Look at us turn away from all the rough spots
Look at dictatorship on my own block

There is no difference in what we’re doing in here
That doesn’t show up as big as it does out there
So why spend all our time undressing our bandages
When we’ve the ultimate key to the cause
right here all underneath.

How I’ve spun my wheels with carts before my horse
And shine on the outside springs from gloom
Spotlight on these seeds of simpler reasons
And score bourne into corn, stretching my limit

There is no difference in what we’re doing in here
That doesn’t show up as big as it does out there
So why spend all our time undressing our bandages
When we’ve the ultimate key to the cause
right here all underneath

Jesus is for Losers

13 Apr

… the self-made need not apply!

I just came across an amazing album by Scottish artist Calamateur called Jesus is for Losers. You can download the album for free here, plus give a donation if you wish (for which you will get an extra 5 song EP download).

The album is made up of 11 songs about Jesus. Some are his own, but he also covers songs from U2, The Velvet Underground, Jesus Christ Superstar, Zwan and American Music Club. What makes the album really interesting is that the songs are sung from a variety of perspectives.

You can read about each song, including writting process and background, here.

The album has had some great reviews. For example, here’s one from The List

The world needs mavericks like Calamateur. Holed up somewhere outside Inverness, Andrew Howie has been making a find blend of folk, rock and electronica for almost a decade, with this latest offering typically brimming with invention and considerable skill.

A concept album of sorts featuring covers of songs about Jesus and a handful of original tunes, it’s utterly engaging and heartfelt, from the bluesy stomp of ‘Lonely Boy’ to the heartbreaking cover of ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ from the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. Yes, really.

My favourite at the moment is the title track “Jesus is for Losers” which is a cover of the song by Steve Taylor. I’ve found it totally haunting and it’s been my song of the Easter weekend. Here are the words…

if i was driven
driven ahead by some noble ideal
who took the wheel?
if i was given
given a glimpse of some glorious road
when was it sold?
so caught up in the chase
i keep forgetting my place

just as i am
i am stiff-necked and proud
Jesus is for losers
why do i still play to the crowd?
just as i am
pass the compass, please
Jesus is for losers
i’m off about a hundred degrees

if i was groping
groping around for some ladder to fame
i am ashamed
if i was hoping
hoping respect would make a sturdy footstool
i am a fool
bone weary every climb
blindsided every time

just as i am
i am needy and dry
Jesus is for losers
the self-made need not apply
just as i am
in a desert crawl
Jesus is for losers
Lord, i’m so thirsty
take me to the waterfall

and if you’re certain
certain your life is some cosmic mistake
why do you shake?
and if you’re certain
certain that faith is some know-nothing mask
why do you still ask?
they don’t grade here on the curve
we both know what we deserve

just as you are
just a wretch like me
Jesus is for losers
grace from the blood of a tree
just as we are
at a total loss
Jesus is for losers
broken at the foot of the Cross

just as i am
pass the compass, please
Jesus is for losers
i’m off about a hundred degrees
just as i am
in a desert crawl
Lord, i’m so thirsty
take me to the waterfall

If you don’t want to download (or can’t or don’t have the capicity) you can check out his myspace site here (which includes the song listed above).


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