Friday, September 21, 2007

An Introduction to the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is a fascinating work of early non-canonical Christian writing. It was most likely not composed by Thomas himself (in fact, it does not even directly make that claim), but – like the Gospels of Matthew and John – it was most likely composed by a group of his followers. It may or may not have been based on an earlier, authentic Thomas work.

Despite its name, the text is not a “gospel” in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a collection of teachings attributed to Jesus, in random order, without any sense of chronology. But, as such, it gives an intriguing insight into the collective memory of the wisdom teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, much as a book today written about the teachings of an early 20th century rabbi might give modern Jews.

The dating of the Gospel of Thomas is a difficult one, although most every scholar agrees that it is one of the earliest non-canonical sources. There are generally two camps on the dating issue. One camp argues for an early date – as early as 40 or 50 C.E., making it contemporary with the Pauline letters and potentially the earliest Christian writing in existence – but certainly written before 100 C.E. and the Gospel of John. The second camp argues for a later date, placing it sometime in the early to mid-2nd century.

The later camp puts forth some strong arguments, though I think, in general, their position is not as strongly supported by the evidence. Among the evidence they point to is the fact that Thomas’s gospel seems to abide by a concept that the coming of the kingdom of God is not imminent, and, in fact, comes from within one’s own self, rather than being an event to look forward to. If you’ve read several of my more recent blogs, you’ll know this was an idea that was not common in early Christianity. Indeed, during the time of Paul and Mark – the earliest New Testament writers – most Christians believed Jesus was returning in their own lifetimes to usher in the kingdom of God. It is not until you get into later Christian texts, such as 2 Peter and the pseudo-Pauline epistles (that is, New Testament letters written in Paul’s name, but written by other people long after Paul’s death), that you begin to see a shift from assuming Jesus is coming soon, to grudgingly facing the fact that you’ll probably grow old and die before Jesus ever returns. Many notable scholars believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic wisdom teacher, making him one of countless dozens in Palestine in his era. These teachers preached that God’s kingdom was coming soon and that they had special knowledge from God that would ensure that their followers were part of that kingdom. This idea about Jesus seems to be attested by many early sources. Since Thomas does not portray Jesus this way, the late camp argues that Thomas must be a 2nd century text.

Late camp proponents also point to what they believe is evidence that Thomas’s writer used Matthew and Luke as a source. Since Matthew and Luke are widely believed to have been written in the 80’s and 90’s C.E., this would mean Thomas had to be later. The reason they believe Thomas used Matthew and Luke is because Matthew and Luke both used Mark, but sometimes they changed Mark’s stories slightly. The changes Matthew and Luke made are sometimes found in similar form in Thomas. This is a highly precarious position, however, as it is difficult to know whether these Thomas similarities were original or were added by later scribes, or whether, in fact, Matthew and Luke were using Thomas or a related source, not the other way around. More on that later.

The early camp, I believe, provides stronger evidence to support their case. Among the compelling factors put forth by this camp is the idea that Thomas’s gospel must certainly have been written before John’s gospel, because there are theologies and stories in John’s gospel that seem orchestrated specifically in response to ideas set forth in Thomas’s gospel. Elaine Pagels – a Harvard biblical scholar and one of the world’s foremost authorities on non-canonical Christian writing – argues that John’s famous story of “Doubting Thomas” was created specifically to discredit the Christian communities who used the Gospel of Thomas and followed the teachings of Thomas. In this Johannine story, Jesus appears in the flesh after his resurrection to a gathering of the disciples, but Thomas is absent, for whatever reason. Later, when the disciples tell Thomas that Jesus is resurrected and they have seen him, Thomas doubts, making his infamous declaration that until he sees the nail holes in Jesus’s hands and touches the wound in his side, he won’t believe. Jesus then appears, and Thomas sees and subsequently believes. The writer of John then has Jesus make the famous statement that has damned Thomas in the eyes of mainline Christianity for the last 2,000 years: “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are those who have believed but have not seen.”

I think Pagels’ argument is a solid one – because the story has, in fact, done exactly what she proposes it was designed to do – discredit Thomas and, thereby, his teachings. The story doesn’t appear in any other Christian writings, canonical or non-canonical, and, as such, it stands out as highly suspicious in terms of its historical reliability (in fact, this is true for a large portion of John’s gospel – but again, more on this later). Pagels makes several other compelling arguments as well, showing how a good portion of John’s gospel is actually a refutation of Thomas’s gospel and teachings. Indeed, she argues that John and Thomas, and, more specifically, their followers, had competing views on just what Jesus’s life was all about, and thus John’s followers wrote John’s gospel as a response to the Thomas view.

All this, of course, leads to the conclusion that the Gospel of Thomas is a 1st century work, written prior to the canonical Gospel of John, which most scholars date around 100 C.E.

Other strong arguments abound for placing Thomas in the 1st century. First is the fact that Thomas appears to be based on oral traditions, as it is not a gospel in the true sense of the word, but rather a collection of sayings. Christian oral traditions died out in the decades after Jesus’s death, because things started getting written down, and oral traditions were no longer considered reliable by initiates into the Christian religion. It is unlikely, then, that a text based on oral traditions would have been composed, or given any credence by Christians, in the 2nd century.

Additionally, despite differing on the issue of the imminence of Jesus’s return, Thomas and the authentic letters of Paul have a lot in common. It is believed by most scholars that Paul drew information on Jesus’s life primarily from oral tradition (as there were very few Christian writings during his life), and many of the oral traditions that Paul draws on are paralleled quite accurately in the Gospel of Thomas, implying that both were written from the same early oral sources.

In addition, the Gospel of Thomas does not have a lot of the elements and language usage found in authentic 2nd century Gnostic texts. I won’t bore you with a discussion of Gnostic semantics, but there are a number of common words and images used in Gnostic texts which are not present in the Gospel of Thomas. For instance, there is no concept of a “higher” and “lower” level godhead in Thomas, as is almost universal in Gnostic writings. Additionally, Thomas does not parallel any of the Gnostic-style language found in the New Testament. John’s gospel, for instance, has a distinctly Gnostic tone throughout much of it, particularly the well-known “I AM” statements that Jesus makes: “Before Abraham was born, I AM,” etc. The early camp argues that if Thomas was written in the 2nd century, it would have used language similar to the Gnostic ideas found in earlier works – and yet, those ideas are conspicuously absent from Thomas.

The only weakness in the early camp’s argument, in my opinion, is the issue of apocryphal teachings. As stated above, many scholars categorize Jesus along with the countless apocalyptic wisdom teachers in 1st century Palestine – teaching that God’s kingdom was imminent, and that he had special insight into how to gain God’s favor. However, Thomas, as alluded to earlier, does not have much in the way of apocryphal language. If Thomas were a very early work, one would expect to see a lot of apocalyptic teachings from Jesus – but that isn’t the case. This could mean that Thomas was a later document after all, or it could be the result of 2nd century edits to the original text by scribes and/or followers, editing the document to fit the changing mindset of the times.

The final factor that must be considered when dating this text is that the Gospel of Thomas has an interesting resemblance to the “missing” text used by both Matthew and Luke in composing their gospels. As I said earlier, it is widely understood and accepted that Matthew and Luke used the earlier Gospel of Mark as a source. Both Matthew and Luke repeat many of Mark’s stories, sometimes verbatim, other times adding or taking away details as they saw fit. As much as 91% of Mark’s material is found in Matthew, and over 50% is found in Luke. However, Matthew and Luke also share a certain amount of their material in common that is not from Mark. This has led most scholars to assume that Matthew and Luke had a second, unknown, source in common. (It has lead to a lot of other theories too; for instance, the Farrer Hypothesis claims that Matthew used Mark and Luke used Matthew, thus dispensing with the idea of a second common source – but this hypothesis, as well as several others, are not supported by even remotely as much evidence as the “second source” hypothesis).

Interestingly, Matthew and Luke’s non-Marcan common material consists entirely of sayings and teachings of Jesus. For this reason, some Jesus scholars have put forth a theory that Matthew and Luke’s second source was a text made up of sayings of Jesus, perhaps earlier than any other New Testament text. They call this source “Q,” for the German word quelle, which simply means “source.” This idea is as much as 200 years old, first postulated by biblical scholars in the first decade of the 19th century. It came into much wider use in the 1830’s when a prominent scholar and theologian named Frederich Schleiermacher latched onto it and connected it with an enigmatic statement by an early Christian leader and Catholic saint named Papias. Around 125 C.E., Papias – who was a bishop in Turkey – wrote that “Matthew compiled the words of the Lord [that is, Jesus] in a Hebrew manner of speech.” This was long thought to simply imply that Matthew had written his gospel in Hebrew. Of course, we know now that this was not the case – Matthew, like all the texts of the New Testament, was written in Greek. Matthew, however, is definitely a gospel that was written for a Jewish audience. Either way, Schleiermacher, arguing for a second source for Matthew and Luke, pointed out that this statement by Papias in the early 2nd century implied that Matthew wrote his gospel based on an oral tradition of Jesus, which would have been written down in a source that was known to Papias and his contemporaries.

Since the time of Schleiermacher, the idea of a second source for Matthew and Luke, made up of sayings of Jesus, has been a popular one, and is the most widely accepted solution by scholars to the issue of Matthew and Luke’s common, non-Marcan material.

Another interesting fact is that of this common, non-Marcan material, none of it includes anything that would support a view that Jesus ever discussed demons, Satan, the second coming, his resurrection, or ever made any claims to divinity. The material consists entirely of wisdom teachings of Jesus. This, as well as the fact that it no longer exists, leads many scholars to assume that Q was a very early source, written before layers and layers of mythology had built up around Jesus – and, therefore, very reliable.

From this, you can probably already see where I am going. The theory of the Q document draws an intriguing parallel to the Gospel of Thomas, because that is precisely what the Gospel of Thomas consists of – wisdom teachings of Jesus, without the later layers of miraculous and divine language. When the Gospel of Thomas was first discovered and translated in the 1940’s and 50’s, it made quite a few ripples in the scholarly world, because it provided evidence that, in fact, early Christianity had texts that consisted of teachings and sayings of Jesus – just as the Q Hypothesis had theorized for over 100 years.

Most scholars do not believe that the Gospel of Thomas is, in fact, the missing source Q, but it is interesting to speculate about whether, perhaps, our Gospel of Thomas was drawn from this earlier collection of Jesus’s teachings and sayings, or if it might even have been a contemporary of the Q source. If this were true, of course, it would imply that the material in the Gospel of Thomas is very early and highly reliable.

Nevertheless, as we all know, the Gospel of Thomas was not included in the New Testament canon. Apparently, it was not even seriously considered by the ecumenical councils of the 4th century. This poses some interesting questions – primarily, “Why not?” Early orthodox Christian leaders like Iranaeus and Hippolytus – the former writing in the 2nd century and the latter writing in the early 3rd century – both denounced Thomas’s gospel as heretical, primarily because of its lack of divine language, it’s lack of a resurrection account, and its implication that salvation is found inside of one’s self, through Jesus’s teachings, and not through the atonement of Jesus’s death on the cross. It would appear that by the time the official canon was being set in place, Thomas was either forgotten, or was widely thought to be Gnostic and, therefore, heretical.

The early Church’s canonical decision aside, Thomas’s gospel, as alluded to above, is believed by most experts to contain early and reliable oral traditions of Jesus’s sayings and teachings. It starts off by claiming to be a collection of “secret teachings” given by the “living Jesus” and which were written down by Didymus Judas Thomas. The very name here presents an intriguing conundrum. “Didymus” is a Greek word, and “Thomas” is a Hebrew word, but they both mean “twin.” The apostle Thomas was actually named Judas, but is nicknamed Thomas in the New Testament to differentiate him from Judas Iscariot – it has long been assumed that “Thomas” was used because this apostle must have been one of a pair of twins. But why did the writer of this text use both the Greek and Hebrew forms of Thomas’s nickname? Some scholars suggest this was a literary device used simply to ensure that Greek readers didn’t assume the Hebrew “Thomas” was a surname. Others have suggested, instead, that Thomas was being addressed as Jesus’s actual twin. This could be a spiritual connection – in the text, Jesus tells Thomas that he (Jesus) is no longer Thomas’s teacher because Thomas has “drunk from the very same spring from which I draw” – or it could be a physical connection, although only fringe scholars and novelists would ever draw the conclusion that Jesus and Thomas were literally twin brothers. It could also, however, be a reference to Jesus himself. The name “Judas” is derived from the name of the Jewish Nation – Judah. It would be like naming a child “Americus,” “Britannia,” or “Germanicus.” Thus, the “twin” of the Jewish Nation could be the earthly Jesus himself, communicating universal truths as the Christ (or, the “anointed one”).

The content of the Gospel of Thomas is very mystical and spiritual. Jesus teaches that salvation is found within – “The Kingdom of God is within you,” and “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you.”

Some of Thomas is downright beautiful and poetic:

“I am the light that shines over all things. I am everywhere. From me all came forth, and to me all return. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”

But, as noted in a different context earlier, there is also quite a bit in Thomas’s gospel that parallels stories and teachings from the New Testament, specifically Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul. These overlapping stories account for “multiple attestations,” which is one of the primary factors scholars look toward when evaluating the historical reliability of a text or a teaching. This is one of the reasons why so many scholars believe much of Thomas’s material is early and reliable.

Compare Thomas’s reliability and multiple attestations to the canonical Gospel of John, which is made up of material that has almost no multiple attestations – in fact, the majority of this widely-read and widely-accepted gospel cannot be attested by any other source. Ironic, then, that John, and not Thomas, was included in the New Testament canon, and even more ironic, and perhaps even a bit tragic, that John, with its unattested and therefore unreliable narratives, has had such a profound impact on Christian theology – more so than any other gospel.

That’s not to say that no spiritual relevance can be found for a Christian in the Gospel of John (one of my favorite quotes of Jesus is found in this text), but it is certainly cause for pause the next time you open your bible to read from this very popular gospel.

Given a choice between the two, I would pick Thomas over John for reliability and spiritual Christian relevance. If you haven’t ever read Thomas, I highly encourage you to do so. It has been a vital component of my growth as a Christian and my continued spiritual walk.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why I Am Not a Disciple of Vapor Trails

For those of you not familiar with Rush (which probably encompasses the majority of my readers), Vapor Trails was Rush’s “Resurrection Album” from 2002. I call it their Resurrection Album because it was their first studio album in six years – by far the longest off period of their career – and because it came after a series of unimaginable personal tragedies in the life of their drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart (his only child was killed in a 1-car accident on her way back to college for the Fall 1997 semester, and 6 months later, his wife/partner of 20+ years died of cancer).

After four years without writing, recording, or touring, Rush finally got back into the studio in 2001. By their own later admission, it took them longer to write and arrange the music for Vapor Trails than any other album they had ever done. 14 months, I believe, is how long they spent writing, arranging, and recording the music for this long-awaited album. It was finally released in 2002, and they hit the road again, and have been touring and recording regularly ever since.

Vapor Trails, however, has proven to be their slowest selling album ever. To date, five years since its release, it still has only sold 300,000 copies or thereabouts – not even Gold yet. The primary complaint from die-hard Rush fans about this album centers on its production quality. The Rush Internet message boards have had literally hundreds of threads, with thousands and thousands of replies, discussing this issue over the years. The album displays what is known in the industry as “clipping,” which is a reference to the waveforms created by the amplifiers. It basically happens by turning an amplifier up beyond its capacity, which causes the signal to cut and clip at its peak. It results in a sound that is distorted and blaring. And distorted and blaring is a perfect way to describe the general production of this album. When listening to it, you get the distinct impression that the microphones and amplifiers were turned up as loud as they could go, and it sort of gives you the feeling that you are listening to a radio station that is not quite on the right dial and is turned up too loud. If your favorite radio station is 100.1, imagine tuning it to 100.2 and then turning it up really loud. That’s sort of what listening to Vapor Trails is like.

Like most people, the production is probably the first thing that turns me off about this album. It is simply difficult to listen to. One of the regular members on the message board I frequent has done a “re-master” of the album, and offers to burn it for free for anyone who has purchased an authentic copy of the album. I have a copy of this “re-mastered” Vapor Trails, and while it is better than the original, there is only so much you can do to an album that was recorded poorly to start with. In general, the album has the feeling of one produced by a garage band with their brother’s recording equipment, rather than by a major band on a major record label. The production simply doesn’t sound professional.

For many people, the production issue is where it stops. I know a lot of Rush fans who think Vapor Trails is a great album, displaying great songs with meaningful lyrics, despite the production woes. For me, however, the production issue – while probably the most important – is simply the beginning.

Aside from the poor production, I get the impression that the band simply didn’t have its chemistry back yet when they recorded this album. I think that is evidenced not only by the fact that it took them so long to get it written, arranged, and recorded, but also by a number of pitfalls in the music itself. It’s sort of like a baseball team who has great chemistry, then enters the off-season and doesn’t play together for 4 months, and then requires 2 or 3 months in the spring to get their chemistry back. Rush is known for its incredible chemistry and synergy, but I think the 4-year lay-off following Neil’s personal tragedies had a very strong impact on the band’s chemistry. “H to O, no flow without the other,” as the lyrics say to Rush’s 1982 song “Chemistry,” and I think the “flow” was definitely off during the recording of Vapor Trails. Perhaps it would have served them better to have had a reunion tour first, then recorded a new album. But that’s neither here nor there – they chose to enter the studio first, and I think their atrophying chemistry is evident in the album they produced.

Evidence of this lack of chemistry abounds throughout the album. The first problem is a tendency toward repetition that you don’t see on other albums. The songs “One Little Victory,” “Secret Touch,” and “Freeze,” are all good songs, but are simply too long. Now, if you know anything about Rush’s music, you know they have written a lot of long songs (“2112,” which is one of their signature songs, is over 20 minutes long). So when I say these songs are “too long,” I’m not suggesting that I can’t enjoy a long song or even an “epic” song. However, in the past, when Rush recorded long songs, they were always fresh and exciting for the duration of the song. “Jacob’s Ladder,” for instance, from 1980, is about 10 minutes long, and only has about two stanzas’ worth of lyrics, but the music is constantly changing throughout the song. It’s what would have been called in the 19th century a durchkomponiert song – meaning that it doesn’t have repetitive refrains, but rather new riffs and new melodies throughout. In the case of “One Little Victory,” “Secret Touch,” and “Freeze,” however, there is no durchkomponiert aspect. Instead, they repeat the same riffs and phrases over and over and over again. “Freeze” and “Secret Touch” are both over 6 minutes long, but really only have about 2 minutes’ worth of original music. The rest is just repetition of the main riff and chorus. If they weren’t going to add in new bridges and new lyrics, then these songs would have worked much better at about 4 minutes apiece, instead of in excess of 6 minutes. Same goes for “One Little Victory,” which is over 5 minutes long and just repeats the same phrase and riff endlessly.

There is also an issue surrounding guitar solos. Inexplicably, Alex Lifeson – despite being one of the most talented and innovative lead guitarists in rock n’ roll – intentionally chose not to play many guitar solos on this album. And the very few solos that he does play sound distorted and watered down. I don’t know of many Rush fans that don’t find this curious and at least slightly annoying.

Another piece of evidence that points toward lack of chemistry is an apparent need by the band and/or their producer to “thicken” the songs with layer upon layer of voiceovers and instrumental sounds. The result is a very burdensome sound that causes all the detail to be washed out. Part of this, of course, goes back to the production quality as well. The song “Peaceable Kingdom,” for instance, is a great song, but I can hardly tell what any of the lyrics are, because Geddy’s voice is drowned out by the layers of voiceovers singing “Ooooh” and “Aaaaah” and all the layers of guitars. Same is true of “How It Is.” Geddy’s voice – which should be the most prominent sound – is instead the least prominent, and these two songs in particular just sound washed out and like they were recorded under water.

Yet another negative aspect of the album is an infuriating tendency to have all the wrongs sounds at the wrong times. To explain what I mean, I point to the song “Secret Touch,” already referenced above. This song is very much a hard rocker, and it has a driving, heavy guitar sound throughout. However, the guitar is almost too growling and too distorted, and it causes the song to come off with a throbbing sound instead of a crisp, hard rock sound. Tie this back to production as well. The problem is, there is a very nice bridge near the end where Alex plays a riff all by himself, and the drums and bass guitar cut out. In concert, this is a great moment, and Alex’s guitar sounds just right, and it just flat out rocks. However, the exact opposite is true on the album. Instead of continuing that heavy, growling guitar sound that characterizes the rest of the song, it’s like Alex’s guitar suddenly becomes watered down and wimpy, right at the moment when it should be at its strongest. It turns an otherwise exciting bridge into a let down. The recorded version just doesn’t pull it off.

Another song that has this same infuriating quality is “Sweet Miracle.” The opening riff of this song is one of the best moments on the album. It’s a driving riff that really has a good, rocking sound. It’s also one of the few spots on the album where the production sounds pretty decent. As you listen to the intro, you think it’s going to be a really great song. Unfortunately, after the introductory riff, the song changes and simply folds on top of itself like a sprinter who has just been hamstrung. After that, it just drags on and on with a whiney, slow-paced gait. The lyrics discuss the new love flame that entered Neil’s life in the wake of his wife’s death, and how this flame became a “sweet miracle of life” for him. I’m sure the lyrics are deeply relevant and meaningful for Neil, but they don’t really do anything for me. Geddy whines them out against a painfully dragging chorus, and the song simply ends up being one of my least favorite in Rush’s entire catalogue of albums. And this coming despite an intro that is one of the best moments on the whole album! Infuriating!

In the end, I suppose, it comes back to the garage band production quality. No less than five songs on the album – “Ghost Rider,” “Peaceable Kingdom,” “How It Is,” “Earthshine,” and “Nocturne” – would all be fantastic songs, worthy of high acclaim within Rush’s catalogue of music. But the layered voiceovers, muddy guitar sound, and amateur production quality simply ruin them. Of course I can still listen to and enjoy these songs. But when I listen to them, I can’t help but think of how much more excellent they could be if they didn’t sound like they were recorded by My Older Brother Jimbo. Then when you add in “One Little Victory,” “Secret Touch,” and “Freeze,” which are all good songs, but suffer both from production woes and repetition, you have at least 8 out of 13 songs that are very good, Rush-quality songs. In fact, “Vapor Trail,” and “Sweet Miracle” are really the only two songs on the album that annoy me more than excite me, but that’s really nothing to complain about – even as a diehard fan, there are going to be some songs on every album that don’t grab you.

So why am I not an ardent fan of Vapor Trails?

1. The production is amateurish and causes you to feel like you’re listening to a radio station not quite on the right tuning, and turned up way too loud;

2. Alex inexplicably chooses to play almost no guitar solos, and those that he does play sound wimpy and watered down;

3. The thick overdubs and layering give the songs a muddy, distorted sound and drown out Geddy’s voice such that it is frequently difficult to even tell what he’s saying;

4. Several of the songs are otherwise good, but are ruined by being too long due to a lack of original material and an influx of burdensome and pointless repetition;

5. Several of the songs are simply infuriating because the tone quality of Alex’s guitar seems to turn wimpy at just the moment when it needs to be strongest;

6. “Sweet Miracle” is a dragging, boring, whiney song that is made even more maddening by having an intro that is one of the best moments on the album and belies the drudgery that is to come; and

7. A good number of songs would be excellent additions to the Rush catalogue, but are simply ruined due to sound quality and amateurish production.

As such, if I were to rank Rush’s 19 studio albums, I would probably place Vapor Trails in my bottom three. I hate to do that, because I am not one of those who only appreciates Rush’s old stuff (their most recent album, Snakes & Arrows, may very well top my list of Rush albums), but Vapor Trails simply does not grab me the way that most Rush albums grab me. I might even go so far as to say that Vapor Trails is in spot 18 on my list, above only 2004’s Feedback album, which was not an album of original material, but merely a short, 8-track EP covering 1960’s songs that had originally inspired the band. That means that Vapor Trails, due to all the things listed above, may be my least favorite Rush album of original material. Even if they completely re-recorded the album with professional-style production, I’m not sure that my opinion would change much. There are some great songs on the album, but repetition, lack of chemistry, too many voiceovers and layers, lack of guitar solos, frequently weak lyrics, and an unusually large number of songs that are just “so-so” – all these things would still probably put Vapor Trails at or near the bottom for me. I have tried to really “get” this album, and see past the poor production. But even when I discount production issues, this album just doesn’t do it for me the way that other Rush albums do.

Now, having said all this, I want to make an important point: even a “poor” Rush album is a great album. I’m comparing Vapor Trails not to the record industry as a whole, but to the remainder of Rush’s body of work. Against albums like Snakes & Arrows, Permanent Waves, 2112, and Hold Your Fire, Vapor Trails simply doesn’t compare, musically or lyrically – and certainly not production-wise. As a modern rock n’ roll album, however, I think it’s a great album. In my opinion, Rush doesn’t have any actual “bad albums.” They simply have some that are not as good or captivating as the others.

So what caused it? A bad producer? Lack of chemistry due to a 4-year hiatus? A desire to get involved in the “loudness wars” and make an album that was louder and more blaring than the competitors? It might have been a little bit of all those things. But whatever the reason, this is why I can not call myself a disciple of Vapor Trails.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Kentucky Boy in Minnesota

About 1,510 miles, 27 hours and 40 minutes in the car, 37 hours and 30 minutes at the destination, and 65 hours and 10 minutes total round trip – that was my 3-day mini-vacation to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, to see my favorite band, Rush.

Nervously excited about the trip, I was unable to get to bed Friday night, and did not end up falling asleep until after 1:00 a.m. My alarm was set for 5:00 a.m., but I turned it off when it rang, and didn’t even really wake up. I finally roused myself right at 7:00, hurriedly took a shower and gathered my things together, and managed to pull out of the driveway at 7:30. I exited my neighborhood right after dawn on a cloudy late summer morning in Kentucky.

With the exception of Wisconsin, I have visited every state east of the Mississippi River, and most of the states of the southwest, as well as California. The one area of the country I have not visited, however, is the swath of states stretching from Kansas, north through the heartland, and west to Washington. About 20 years ago, in the late 1980’s, when I was about 13, I made a couple of trips to Chicago, but had never been north past that point. As I would be visiting two states I had never seen before (Wisconsin and Minnesota), and as I love solitary travel, I was really excited about this trip.

With my CD case lying open to the first page of Rush albums, I headed west down Interstate 64, toward Louisville. It was already warm, and by the time I hit Louisville, the thermometer was reading in the low 80’s, despite not even being 9:00 yet. This would prove to be the high water mark for temperature for my weekend. It was still cloudy, and continued to be so as I crossed Louisville and entered Indiana.

As a Kentuckian by birth, having spent 27 of my 32 years in this state, I have a healthy and deeply-bred derision of Indiana. It’s flat, empty, not particularly pretty, and, inexplicably, it stinks. Now, I’ve been in other states that seem to smell funny – northern Louisiana reeks of sulfur, and East Texas has a curious burnt wood smell – but Indiana just simply smells like shit. Literally. During the 300 or so miles from New Albany to Gary, I got distinct whiffs of cattle excrement at least five or six random times. In my experience, this is generally par for the course when traveling through rural Indiana. And here I thought that Indiana farmers only grew corn.

This was a Chinese place somewhere in Indiana. The sign reads
"You a carry out a Chinese fast food." Nice.

The most amusing part of the trip through Indiana was a bit of graffiti I saw on a highway sign. In addition to the other irritating things about Indiana, they love to clutter their Interstates with signs. And I don’t mean billboards – every state has those – I’m talking about street signs: “Wrong Way” signs on the opposite side of the Interstate, No Parking signs all along the entrance and exit ramps into rest areas, countless signs telling you it’s now three miles closer than the last sign to the city ahead, and on and on and on. One of these repetitive signs is about drunk driving. It says something like “Report impaired drivers – Call 911.” On one of these signs, underneath the “Report impaired drivers” phrase, someone had spray painted: “No one likes a snitch.” I got a good laugh out of that one.

I passed through Indianapolis in a blur, never leaving Interstate 65, and finally arrived just after lunchtime in Chicago, Illinois. Right about the time I was entering the Chicago metro area, the clouds parted as though by the Hand of Providence, and the remainder of the trip was sunny and clear. It took me about an hour or so to get across Chicago, but I took a bunch of pictures of the skyline on the way.

The Sears Tower, as seen from my car.

The road I was on – Interstate 90 – is a toll road all the way to the Wisconsin border, so it was nice to put away my wallet after a couple of hours of toll booths and traffic jams.

Entering Wisconsin, I immediately discovered that it looked sort of like Indiana, except not ugly or smelly. It seemed to be a beautiful state, with wide sweeping corn fields interlocked with plains of rolling, emerald green, and silos by the dozen. All the barns were painted the same rich, brick red, with white trim – just like you see in the pictures. I guess it was that emerald green that surprised me most. It was almost reminiscent of Ireland.

Residents of Wisconsin, evidently, love their water parks. I saw no less than five or six different water parks along Interstates 90 and 94 as I wound my way northward, past Madison and Eau Claire. There literally seemed to be a water park at every exit. One rather large place, advertised for miles and miles on billboards, is called Wisconsin Dells, but it was only one of many that I saw.

Hi, my name is Scott and I love Rush.

As you get farther into Wisconsin, the cornfields and emerald green grass is replaced by hilly terrain, rocky outcrops, and groves of pine trees. It reminded me a lot of Arkansas.

And, of course, there was the cheese. Signs advertising various styles of cheese abounded all along the Interstate, and one sign in particular caught my attention because of the incongruity of the advertisement: “FIREWORKS and CHEESE!” Still another sign stood at an Interstate off ramp, towering high into the sky, with a huge brown sign proclaiming “CHEESE” in big block letters, and then, farther down on the post, a much smaller sign saying, almost as an afterthought: “sandwiches.” I couldn’t tell if that was supposed to mean they were selling cheese sandwiches, or if they were merely pointing out that they’d sell you cheese, and, if you want it, a sandwich too.

I entered St. Paul around dusk. The sun cast an orange glow across the bellies of the clouds that hung in the sky, and it was a nice touch for my first entrance into the Twin Cities. The area reminded me a lot of Houston, sans palm trees – very flat and very clean and pretty. I took Interstate 494 south toward Bloomington, passing the Mall of America and finally arriving at my friend Mike’s house almost exactly thirteen hours after leaving Lexington. I found the turnoff for his house by looking for the ski jump that stands on one of the few legitimate hills in the Twin Cities.

Mike’s house was a beautiful 2-story home in a quiet area of the Twin Cities. He and has wife gave me my own bedroom and bathroom in the finished basement, and Mike had enchiladas and margaritas ready for my arrival. We ended the evening, naturally, by talking about Rush and watching a documentary on the making of their latest album, Snakes & Arrows.

On Sunday morning, Mike took me to see the sites. We went first into downtown Minneapolis, where we looked at and went inside the Basilica of St. Mary, billed as the oldest basilica in the United States (apparently there aren’t a lot of old basilicas in the U.S. – this one was completed in 1914). It was a beautiful gray building with two large turrets overshadowed by a stained copper dome.

A mass was in progress when we went inside, so we did not get to see the sanctuary, but the foyer was very pretty with arched ceilings and a large crucifix adorning the wall inside a spiral staircase.

I considered dipping my hand into the holy water, but decided it would be sacrilegious.

After our spiritual renewal inside St. Mary’s, we walked across a pedestrian bridge spanning one of the city’s Interstates. This led directly into the Sculpture Garden – claimed by Minnesotans to be the largest urban sculpture garden in the country. The centerpiece is an unusual fountain sculpture of an enormous spoon holding a bright red cherry. If you stand in just the right spot, you can see St. Mary’s towering in the distance beyond the cherry. A Catholic friend of mind commented wryly on the incongruity of a huge cherry sculpture situated in a park next door to a basilica named for the Perpetual Virgin. Well, the cherry is intact, after all.

After walking around Sculpture Garden, we headed over to St. Paul to pick up our friend Becca. Becca is a devout Jew of the Conservative tradition, and she was decked out in a Rush T-shirt with a watermelon-styled kippah perched on the crown of her head (a kippah is otherwise known to us Adam Sandler fans as a “yarmulke”). In the center of the kippah she had a button with the arrow image from the Snakes & Arrows album. A Rush fan to the end, she is.

We took a walk into downtown St. Paul and saw Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. This church is apparently the oldest continuously used church building in the Twin Cities, and it is in a building that was originally built in 1854 by the Universalist Society.

We got there in between masses, so we were able to go inside the sanctuary. It was very beautiful, smelled of incense, and had the customary confession closets in the back.

On the front was a sculpture of the Blessed Virgin appearing to Saint Bernadette in Lourdes, and the doors were painted in a royal blue, decked out with fleur-de-lis, which – as I pointed out to Mike – is the city symbol of Louisville, Kentucky.

After Our Lady of Lourdes, we went a few blocks down to St. Anthony Falls, which is the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River. Problem is, it’s no longer natural. Sometime in the late 19th century, the water was diverted with dams, and now the waterfall goes over a concrete basin.

It’s really pretty down there, and the river at this spot is flanked on either side by Pillsbury and Gold Medal grain mills – apparently the Twin Cities are a major producer of flour.

After seeing St. Anthony Falls, we walked over near Lake Calhoun – one of the touted “10,000” lakes of Minnesota. As we walked past, the sun shimmered off the dark blue surface, and sailboats dotted the expanse of waters, making for a really beautiful late summer scene.

We stopped and ate at a nearby restaurant called Little Tel Aviv, which served authentic kosher Israeli food. Becca ordered for us, and we shared four appetizers, made up of foods I couldn’t pronounce, but which tasted really good.

After we left the restaurant, the only bad moment of the weekend occurred. As we were pulling out of a 2-way street onto a 1-way street, we were all looking right to make sure the road was clear, and as Mike turned out, we ran into another car coming from the opposite direction. It was a very low-impact accident – none of the airbags in either car went off. Despite that, the girls in the other car were rather rude and irritated, and one of them was pretending to be hurt. She even called an ambulance. With two years working in a law firm that specializes in insurance defense for car accidents, I was able to give Mike some good advice – I don’t think he had anything to worry about. There is no way that girl was hurt.

While Mike waited for the police to arrive, Becca and I went up to a used bookstore nearby. I sat and read from Sam Harris’s atheist manifesto The End of Faith, while Becca perused the poetry section. She ended up buying four books, including one for me called After the Lost War, which is a modern epic poem written from the Southern perspective in the aftermath of the Civil War.

We finally got home following the fender bender, and Mike’s family and I headed over to the concert venue (Becca had been picked up by her friend, with whom she was going to the concert). We stopped and ate at a snazzy Italian place called Cossetta’s Italian Market & Pizzeria. While we were there, we took a bunch of pictures with other Rush fans we know through the message boards, and got word of a rumor that Neil Peart had been at the cigar store a few doors down about an hour earlier, buying cigarettes. This came, apparently, from someone who worked there. We were all rather bummed out that we hadn’t gotten a chance to meet him and become lifelong best friends.

At 6:30, we headed over to the venue and found our seats. Mike and his son were in the front row, at the far edge of the stage, stage right, in front of where Alex Lifeson stands. I was in row 14, but after running into a mutual friend from the message board who also had first row seats, I was able to upgrade to row 10, as he had an extra ticket he hadn’t been able to sell.

The show was fantastic. I won’t bore those of you who aren’t Rush fans with intimate details, but this was the third show I had seen in 8 days, and it was the best of the three. The acoustics in the indoor venue were excellent, and I felt that The Holy Trinity was in prime form. Geddy Lee’s voice sounded great, especially considering this show was at the end of the American leg of the tour. I was especially animated at this show (probably because I knew it was my last of the year), and by the end I was soaked in sweat and had a cracking, hoarse voice.

Geddy Lee is fuckin' awesome!

The Holy Trinity.

As I did at the Cincinnati show, I wore my Caress of Steel Tour 1975-76 replica T-shirt. I bought this shirt a few years ago online, and it is a replica of the shirts sold during the actual tour of the mid-1970’s. In Cincinnati, I had a number of people ask me if the shirt was authentic, and I always told them the truth. This time around, however, I was in a Vegas mood, so I decided to tell everyone who asked that it was the real deal. I must have told this lie to 10 different people. The general response was, “Awesome, dude! That’s incredible! I wish I had taken care of my old tour shirts! Geddy Lee is fuckin’ awesome!” I even came up with a story about how it was my Dad’s shirt, and he had kept good care of it over the years, and now I wear it to all the shows. My Dad saw them in Louisville, so the story went, but Louisville doesn’t appear on the list of cities on the back of the shirt, so I figure he must have been too high to remember exactly where he saw them (at this point in the story, I would add in a nice chuckle). For anyone who knows my straight-laced, chemistry professor Dad, who was a conservative evangelical Christian in the 1970’s who once berated my Mom for listening to (gasp!) Billy Joel, you’ll know what an amusing fabrication this is. Making up total lies and telling them to strangers is oddly entertaining.

During the intermission, I was able to have a moment of kindness to a fellow Rush fan. I got to talking with a guy who was standing outside smoking, and after the obligatory discussion about my authentic 1975-76 tour shirt, I asked him where he was sitting. Section 109 or thereabouts, I think he told me. So I offered to give him my 14th row ticket, which I was now not using. He was shocked and offered to give me money, but I told him he could have it. I did let him buy me a beer, though. He had told me his favorite song was 2112 – which was the song and album by the same title that really launched Rush into the limelight back in 1976 – but I didn’t have the heart to tell him they weren’t going to play it.

Well, after the concert was over, of course, the Big Let Down set in. That’s the only bad thing about waiting all summer to see a concert. With so much build up and excitement, you bottom out when it’s all over. It wasn’t quite so bad after Minnesota, however, as it was the week before after Cincinnati and Columbus.

I got up about 7:30 on Monday morning, ate breakfast, said my good-byes to Mike, and headed home. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it out of the driveway. My car, which has never given me any sort of trouble whatsoever, magically refused to start when I tried to turn it on. I turned the key over and over, but the engine just kept whining without catching. I started getting that panicky “This can’t be happening” feeling. Here I was, 750 miles from home on a Monday morning in Minnesota, a credit card maxed out, very little in my checking account, no family any closer than Indianapolis, and my car wouldn’t start. I really started to freak out, but I kept on turning the key and finally the mother started. Mike came back outside and I turned it off and started it again to see if it would do the same thing, and it fired right up the second time. I finally headed out about 10:00.

On the way home, I decided to take a little extra time and see a few sites. I drove past the Mall of America (which Mike said is sort of an over-hyped disappointment), and took a few pictures for my wife. Later, a few miles into Wisconsin, I got off at an exit that had a sign for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Highway. I wasn’t sure what this was, but I’ve always been a Little House on the Prairie fan, so I figured I’d see what it was all about. Unfortunately, I never found it. However, the town there, called Menomonie, was pretty, and I took a few pictures. It’s apparently a college town, with a school there called Stout University or something similar.

A building in Menomonie, Wisconsin.

Not long outside of Menomonie, it started raining, and it didn’t stop until I got to Chicago. That was a real pain in the ass, and made for a slow and stressful trip. It also ensured that I entered Chicago right about rush hour, and it took me nearly three hours to get from Elgin, on the western side of Chicago, to Gary, Indiana, on the eastern side of Chicago. I coasted into my driveway at about 12:40 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and was about ready to collapse by that point.

I miss Rush.

All in all, it was a great trip. I got to see states and sites I had never seen before, and I had quite a bit of “me” time alone in the car with just my music and the countryside. Add on top of that the excellent Rush concert, and it made for a well-deserved and timely weekend getaway.

Checking In

This might be the longest period I've had without blogging. Just too much going on in life. I've got too blog posts under construction, however -- one is a travelog of my recent trip to Minnesota, and the other is an essay about the Gospel of Thomas. Be sure to stay tuned for those :)

Other than that, I am looking for jobs and trying not to have panic attacks due to stress and worry. Saw Mom and Dad this weekend and that was nice, although the kids were a nightmare as usual.