31 January 2009

E Street vs. Main Street?

A bit of a dust-up going on over in Jungleland: Columbia Records produced a Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band "Greatest Hits" album that is being sold exclusively at Wal-Mart. Naturally, some fans have questioned the move, given the apparent differences of opinion between Bruce and Wal-Mart on issues such as manufacturing and labor. In fact, it seems like Wal-Mart fits the bill for the anonymous evil force in a lot of Bruce's songs, especially on an album like Darkness on the Edge of Town. Come to think of it, where does Wal-Mart usually build? Not in the center of town, but...

I looked at the track listing, and frankly it looks like they let Wal-Mart pick the songs, too. Rosalita, Born to Run, Thunder Road, Badlands, Born in the USA - those are probably essential. The Rising and Lonesome Day are pretty good, too, though it's questionable whether they both belong on a twelve-track Greatest Hits collection. I was pleasantly surprised to see Darkness on the Edge of Town (the song), because it is one of my favorites and was left off the 1995 Greatest Hits album. But Glory Days and Dancing in the Dark aren't even in the top five on the album they were released on (Born in the U.S.A.), and I like to pretend that Hungry Heart never existed.

They might as well have put Secret Garden on there, just to top it off. It's kind of a lowest common-denominator approach, which I guess is how mass-marketing works, and that's the business Wal-Mart and Columbia are in. To an extent, so is Springsteen; who are we kidding? I can be okay with that. For what it's worth, Springsteen called the deal a 'mistake' in a recent interview.

If it were up to me, and I had to choose a 12-song album, here it is (and I hope you can appreciate how difficult this is, and how long it took me):
  1. Spirit in the Night
  2. Racing in the Street
  3. Darkness on the Edge of Town
  4. Backstreets
  5. Thunder Road
  6. The River
  7. Atlantic City
  8. Highway Patrolman
  9. I'm on Fire
  10. This Hard Land
  11. Youngstown
  12. The Rising
I left off two biggies: Born to Run, and Badlands. They're really two of my favorite songs. I guess this list is more of an effort to pick the greatest songs, without picking all the songs that have been on his other compilations, and without feeling obligated to put something that he released between 1985 and 1995. We all have slumps. It's important to be able to acknowledge them, and move on.

30 January 2009


-Excerpt from UMC's Inventory of Religious Activities and Interests form for ministry candidates

I found myself wishing for an 'other' category, a free-response box, anything other than a mandatory, choose-one pulldown menu. Which got me to thinking, what would I actually write if given the opportunity? I'm not sure I have a canned "theological position". Maybe I would just write the Shema or something.

In case you're wondering, I put "conservative," because I think the Bible is binding, Church authority and hierarchy is valid, and the Creed is true. I might've put radical, but the pulldown menu made it look like radical just means "super-liberal".


29 January 2009


I've only encountered John Updike on the pages of the New Yorker, having never actually read one of his books. But I have enjoyed reading some of the reflections on his life and work since he died on Tuesday. I thought this exploration of his theology was well worth reading.

19 January 2009

Love this.

Lincoln Memorial, January 18, 2009.

12 January 2009

Bono's gonna be there, just have him say the prayer.

You probably recall the uproar from the gay rights community over Barack Obama's inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. In a transparent move, Obama has now also invited Gene Robinson to give the invocation at his January 18 inaugural celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Robinson, who promises "not to be especially Christian in my prayer", will kick off one of the most impressive entertainment events in recent memory. From the Inauguration Committee's press release:
Musical performers scheduled for the event include Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Bono, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Renee Fleming, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, Heather Headley, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, John Mellencamp, Usher Raymond IV, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, will.i.am, and Stevie Wonder. Among those reading historical passages will be Jamie Foxx, Martin Luther King III, Queen Latifah and Denzel Washington. The Rt. Reverend V. Gene Robinson will give the invocation. Rob Mathes will be the music director and arranger for the backing band, which will support all of the artists. Additional performers will be announced as they are confirmed.

07 January 2009

Nobody believes in hell anymore.

In recent weeks, the topic of universalism has come up with enough frequency to jar me out of my erstwhile glazed ham-induced haze of Christmas cheer. Though there may be a technical distinction that I'm missing, I assume Christian universalism to mean the belief that through/in Christ, all people are saved and will go to heaven; if there is a hell at all, it is empty.

A couple years ago, a good friend told me that he'd come to believe that hell is not real, but rather has been fabricated in literature and in church tradition. For my money, I tend not to dwell on the afterlife very much, because it is so thoroughly unknowable. That being said, I had (and have) a difficult time conceiving of the purpose of church or the life of faith if we are not judged for our actions and rewarded accordingly. On top of that, I'm inherently rather conservative when it comes to the church, and I viewed universalism as a jarring departure from orthodox theology.

This summer, someone gave me a copy of If Grace is True, by James Mulholland and Philip Gulley. This 2003 book is subtitled "Why God Will Save Every Person." Pretty straightforward, pretty bold. I have only read the introduction and the first two chapters, so I can't really engage with the text. When I find the time to finish it, I will, because I'm interested to see how the authors make their case. It looks like it will dive into Scripture, but it regards Scripture and church tradition as derivative of particular people's particular experiences with God; what we need to do is begin "trusting our experience with God." And while the church told these authors that God condemns people to hell, they have experienced a God who is loving.

Then, I was listening to a December episode of This American Life entitled "Heretics". It tells the story of Rev. Carlton Pearson, a prominent Pentecostal megachurch leader in Tulsa who lost most of his church, his friends, and his prestige when he began to consider the doctrine of hell, and found it incompatible with the God he knew and loved. His turning point, he says, came when he was watching televised coverage of the Rwandan genocide, and God told him that even though they did not know Christ (actually, Rwanda is overwhelmingly Christian), they would not go to hell: God would not condemn those who suffer on earth to suffer also in the afterlife.

So, the prevalence of Christian universalism in America has kind of crept up on me. It came into sharp relief with two Pew Forum surveys in 2008. It turns out that 52 percent of American Christians believe at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to heaven. To be clear, this is not universalism per se: they are just saying that they believe a "good" Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, might show up in heaven. A New York Times opinion piece gave a decent overview of the later, more specific study. Over half of white mainliners and white Catholics (plus more than a quarter of white evangelicals) even believe that people with no religious faith can get into heaven. There are even hints in this theological direction in William P. Young's wildly popular The Shack

The reason I'm suspicious about this trend is that we shouldn't draw conclusions about what God must do based on who we think God is. In other words, we know God to be purely good and unfailingly loving. We know that in Jesus's incarnation and atoning sacrifice, redemption has been realized for both Jew and Gentile. We know that the magnitude of God's grace exceeds the magnitude of our rejection of God. But none of that leads necessarily to the conclusion that God wills for all to be saved, or that God needs all of us to be saved in order for God to be complete, or happy, or something like that. On the balance, I think the Bible discourages us from making that kind of leap.

The real challenge for our faith is to imagine that some people, and possibly we ourselves, will go to hell, and yet to maintain the confession that God is good, and just, and righteous, and loving.

To reiterate, I take this kind of stuff pretty lightly. We can't even say that we see through a glass darkly on this one. And I know, a lot of what we believe about hell today comes not from the early church, but from men like Milton, Dante, and Jonathan Edwards. Furthermore, some people I really respect, including Karl Barth and Sam Wells, could (arguably) be described as "hopeful universalists". But even they would acknowledge: when we talk about the afterlife, we're engaging in extreme speculation. It will always be a mystery, and I'm pretty glad for that.