Saturday, October 21, 2017

Uncovering Jesus's Radical Message, Part 2: Love for Enemies

Consider this teaching from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5:43-44 and Luke 6:27: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' but I tell you, 'Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.'"

Let's plug that into modern America: 
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love America and hate terrorists,' but I tell you, 'Love terrorists and pray for ISIS and al-Qaeda.'"

Or how about this:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your country and hate North Korea,' but I tell you, 'Love Kim Jong Un and pray for North Korea.'"

Or plug in your own best friend together with that person at work who you can't stand. Or that guy from high school who was cruel to you. Or that old boss who treated you badly. Or that politician or celebrity you just despise.

I saw a post on Twitter recently that I really liked. It went something like this:

Jesus says there are two kinds of people:

Our neighbors, whom we are to love.
Our enemies, whom we are to love.

It's pretty simple, but radical and even subversive.

And hard to do.

How many Americans, after all, feel love for Kim Jong Un? How many victims feel love for their oppressors?

Being a follower of Christ isn't easy. If it is, I'd argue you're not following Christ. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Some Random Commentary on Beatles Songs

I've been listening, for the first time in a while, to my Beatles collection, and since my brain never stops running, I've thought of numerous things I want to say about some of these songs, but have no one to say them to. So they're going here, on my blog.

Basically, my blog is my only friend.

Please Please Me (1963)

1. I Saw Her Standing There: This is one of my favorite "early" Beatles songs, a great rock n' roll number sung by Paul that holds up well over time. In addition to the original Beatles recording, Elton John did a live duet of this song at Madison Square Garden with John Lennon in 1974 which is pretty good too. (Listen to the Elton John/John Lennon version here.)

2. Boys: Ringo generally sang one song per album, but they're almost always among the best tunes on the record. Like "I Saw Her Standing There," "Boys" is a rollicking, upbeat rock n' roll song that also still holds up really well. Ringo's vocals are perfect.

3. Love Me Do: This was the Beatles' first single (recorded and released several months before the album) and it's only okay, but it's noteworthy because Ringo doesn't play drums on it. When they went into the studio to record this song and "P.S. I Love You," the record company wanted to use one of their session drummers, a guy named Andy White. So Ringo just plays tambourine on the song.

4. Twist and Shout: This is my favorite early Beatles song, edging out several others. I've liked this song since it was featured in its entirety in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. John's famously scratchy vocal track was apparently unplanned, as it was the last song they recorded on the album, and after a week of nonstop rehearsing and recording, he was losing his voice.

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

1. If I Fell: About halfway through this song, there is a noticeable spot where Paul is singing background vocals, and his voice breaks and he cuts off mid-note. I'm not sure if it was always noticeable and they just left it in, or if maybe it only became apparent after the original song was remastered and digitized, thus removing tape hiss and other stuff that may have masked the sound. But if you listen for it, it's pretty funny. It's at about the 1:45 mark on the phrase "was in vain."

Beatles For Sale (1964)

1. No Reply: This song is basically about a guy whose girlfriend has dumped him and made it clear she's not interested, so now he's stalking her.

Help (1965)

1. You've Got to Hide Your Love Away: John Lennon is clearly attempting to channel Bob Dylan in this one. He even sounds like Dylan in the vocals.

Rubber Soul (1965)

1. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown): So let me get this straight: the singer goes home with a girl expecting to get laid. She leads him on and then refuses to put out. After she leaves for work the next morning, he burns her house down. Gotcha.

2. Nowhere Man: One of my all-time favorite Beatles songs. It's also the first song written by the Beatles that did NOT have anything to do with girls or romantic relationships in some way, shape, or form.

3. In My Life: Another song in my top 10. This is a great little tune where Ringo's drumming is just perfect and really fills out the song well.

4. Run for Your Life: Literally a song where the narrator threatens to kill his girlfriend if she cheats on him.

Revolver (1966)

1. Doctor Robert: On the surface, this song appears to be about the singer's favorite doctor. Apparently it's actually about a drug dealer. In any case, it's literally one of the dumbest songs in the Beatles' catalogue.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

1. Within You Without You: This is one of several songs written by George Harrison with heavy Indian influence, and I've always thought it stuck out like a sore thumb on this otherwise masterpiece of an album. It's not that the song isn't good - it's fine, although a bit boring, in my opinion - but it just doesn't fit on this album. It would have made better thematic sense on either Revolver or the White Album.

2. A Day in the Life: The Best Beatles' Song of All Time. In my opinion. In the remastered version, you can hear one of the engineers counting off measures at the end during the big orchestral finale.

The Beatles (the White Album) (1968)

1. Wild Honey Pie: This double album has several songs on it that qualify as "dumb bullshit" and this is one of them.

2. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill: Yoko Ono has a solo on this song, and her voice sounds like the voice of a little girl who can't sing.

3. Happiness is a Warm Gun: So much greatness and awfulness side by side on this album. Absolutely love this song.

4. Piggies: George Harrison at his worst, by far.

5. Rocky Raccoon: Paul McCartney at his worst.

6. Julia: John Lennon at the top of his game. This is a beautiful ballad to John's mother, who died when he was a teenager. I love the vulnerability of the opening line: "Half of what I say is meaningless. But I say it just to reach you, Julia."

7. Yer Blues: Another of my absolute favorites. The Beatles were so diverse in the styles they could play. This song is straight-up hard rock blues and for a band that did very little of this style of music, they pull it off amazingly.

8. Savoy Truffle: Another really bad George Harrison effort. How does the guy who wrote "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" - on the SAME ALBUM, no less - also write and record "Savoy Truffle" and "Piggies"? I just don't get it.

9. Revolution 9: This isn't a song. It's 8 minutes of noise and recorded nonsense. The worst "song" in the Beatles' catalogue. By far.

Abbey Road (1969)

1. Maxwell's Silver Hammer: I really wish I could've been a fly on the wall when Paul brought this one in for the band to hear. It's literally about a serial killer who murders people (including the judge who's sentencing him to prison) by bashing them over the head with a silver hammer. It comes complete with hammer-on-nail sound effects during the chorus. They were definitely straining for material by this point. Still a fun little song.

2. Octopus's Garden: Oh Ringo. The only song he wrote that the Beatles' recorded and it sounds like a Wiggles song. Still, like all songs Ringo sings, it's a good one.

3. I Want You (She's So Heavy): Like a lot of the songs on this album, this is only half a song. But because they needed to fill the space on the A side of the record, they extended it out by repeating the coda over and over and over again. It would be a great song at 3:45. At 7:47 it's a bit much.

4. Mean Mr. Mustard: At one point, the lyrics of this song reference the Queen of England. Isn't it weird to think the same exact monarch referenced in this song is STILL on the throne? It always gives me a strange sense of continuity with the past. Queen Elizabeth is the constant.

5. Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End: The Beatles at their best. This medley runs a close second to "A Day in the Life" for best Beatles' tune.

Past Masters (a compilation of all Beatles' songs released as singles and not found on albums)

1. Long Tall Sally: This is another in the same group with "Twist and Shout" and "I Saw Her Standing There." Just a great classic rock n' roll tune.

2. Don't Let Me Down: I love this song. It's the best one from their "Let It Be" sessions, but was left off the album and released only as a single. It was one of the songs they performed during their famous "roof top" performance in 1969 - their last public performance together.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Uncovering Jesus's Radical Message: The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector

It's been a while since I've written about Christianity, but I'm reading a book right now by a Jewish scholar about understanding the Jewish context in which Jesus lived and worked, and I've been inspired. This might be the first in a series of posts about uncovering the radical message of Jesus, or it may be a one-off thing. We'll see. 

The Gospel of Luke preserves a parable of Jesus known as the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. It goes like this: 
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.
To modern Christian ears, this parable is both familiar and totally not radical. We know pharisees, after all, were self-righteous hypocrites that Jesus was constantly bickering with, while tax collectors were common symbols of "sinners" who received the gift of forgiveness from Jesus (in addition to this parable, recall the story of the tax collector Zaccheus [the "wee little man" of children's song] and the tax collector Levi who became the disciple Matthew). So it comes as no surprise that the pharisee in this story is a hypocrite who extols his own virtues while the humble tax collector admits his sin and receives Jesus's grace.

The 21st century moral of the story is this: don't be a condescending hypocrite; humble yourself, confess your sins, and be forgiven. Full stop.

That was the 1st century moral of the story too, except for the "full stop" part. We've lost today the radical and even potentially offensive edge of the story that would have been fully appreciated by 1st century Jewish listeners.

In Jesus's day, pharisees weren't bad guys. They weren't regarded as self-righteous hypocrites. They were, in fact, well-respected and highly regarded religious leaders and scholars who represented the largest and most mainstream Jewish religious group. Think of them today like Roman Catholics in the northeast or Southern Baptists in the south.

But even that analogy isn't good enough, because today we are so accustomed to religious leaders who are corrupt or evil or perverts or whatever. We've all heard numerous accounts of pastors and priests and televangelists getting caught with strippers or prostitutes, putting hits out on people, laundering money, or molesting children. A bad priest? Big deal. A corrupt televangelist? Duh.

But in the 1st century, Jews wouldn't have had that sort of cynical view of their religious leaders. They didn't, after all, have 24-hour news stations, social media, whistle-blowers, or investigative reporters. Like Americans of an earlier, more innocent generation, Jews of the 1st century would have put their religious leaders on a special, almost untouchable pedestal at the pinnacle of society.

So in this parable, think of the pharisee not so much as an average religious leader, but think of him as someone like Mother Theresa or Billy Graham - a virtually universally-respected religious leader that no one would dream of criticizing. 

As for tax collectors, they weren't just guys who collected taxes and so therefore were looked down upon by society - they weren't, in other words, just agents of the IRS doing their unpleasant, but necessary, jobs. And they weren't looked down upon because they sometimes stole from people by taking more taxes than they should have, as is commonly assumed (I have an old "study Bible" which makes this argument in the accompanying commentary). Instead, they were looked down on because they were local Jews collaborating with a foreign power (Rome) that occupied and oppressed the Jews, taking hard-earned Jewish money and sending it to support the Roman emperor and his regime - and getting rich in the process, while everyone else suffered.

In 21st century America, it's hard to find a modern parallel for this. We aren't occupied by a foreign power, after all. Instead, imagine that Germany won World War II and took over and occupied the United States. In that scenario, imagine an English-speaking American - perhaps your neighbor - born and raised under Old Glory, now working with the Nazis collecting a huge war reparation tax from people, taking a cut of it, then sending the rest to Berlin to support Hitler and his regime of world domination.

You'd probably hate the guy, right? He's not only robbing you for the benefit of the Nazis - which is bad enough - but he's also a traitor and a betrayer and a collaborator with an evil foreign oppressor. Screw that guy!

Now you may be a little closer to understanding how Jesus's 1st century listeners would have responded to a story about a native Jewish tax collector working for Rome.

So let's plug our two analogies into the parable and read it again:
Two people went up to the church to pray, one was Mother Theresa and the other an American-born tax collector for the Nazi overlords. Mother Theresa, standing in front of the cross, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, drunks, cheaters, or even like this tax collector. I've won thousands of souls to Christ; I give millions of dollars to the poor.’ But the tax collector, standing at the back of the church, would not even look up at the cross, but fell to his knees with his face in his hands, crying ‘God, please forgive me for the terrible things I've done!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than Mother Theresa.
How does the parable strike you now? There may be a number of reactions. You might think it's preposterous to describe Mother Theresa this way. You might even find it offensive. Mother Theresa wasn't a self-righteous jerk! She was a humble servant of Christ who brought people together and served the poor with humility! How dare you! Further, while you might grudgingly appreciate the tax collector's apology, you won't soon forget the thousands of dollars he took from you, which helped him build that huge house in the fancy neighborhood, bought him that Ferrari, and otherwise went to Hitler's treasury in Berlin so that the Nazis could continue their conquest of the civilized world. Meanwhile, you couldn't pay your bills because of the heavy tax burden, the bank subsequently foreclosed on your house, and you're now living with your family of 5 in a 1-bedroom apartment. Maybe if he sells everything he owns and personally repays you, THEN you might feel a little better. Otherwise, screw him!

This is how that parable would have sounded to and struck a 1st century Jewish listener. Preposterous. Offensive. Outrageous. But also challenging in the extreme. Challenging because it asks you to take a totally different perspective, to completely change your way of thinking. In the kingdom of heaven, well-respected religious leaders are not necessarily the winners, and people like Nazi collaborators are not necessarily the losers. Instead, it's the humble and repentant that inherit the kingdom of God, regardless of their past or their background or what good they think they've done.

Jesus's rural and largely uneducated Galilean listeners would have likely found the parable preposterous because it turned the world on its head, but they would also have undoubtedly liked it's message. Many Galileans, after all, tended to look down on the urban Jerusalem ruling elite - represented by the pharisee in the parable. Think of how many people in modern rural America look down on suburbanites and "the big city."

Still, it's not hard to see why Jesus made enemies and pissed people off - especially in Jerusalem, which is where he was eventually arrested and executed. A lot of people loved his subversive message, but some - especially those who stood to lose by his vision of the world - didn't care for it at all. It's no wonder they thought he was a rabble-rouser and wanted to get rid of him. He threatened the status quo by giving the oppressed Jewish people hope and by undermining the powers that be - both the political and religious powers that be, represented by Rome, its governors, and its legions, and by Jewish religious leaders who were seen as traitorous collaborators with those Roman overlords.

And before you condemn all those "Jews" who rejected Jesus, it's important to keep in mind that if Jesus were to come around today, preaching a challenging and subversive message like the one above, most Christians would reject him too. (I would argue most Christians HAVE rejected him, accepting in his place a watered-down, domesticated shadow that they find comforting and not at all subversive... but that's for another blog.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Notes from the Cave - Current Events Edition

In this edition of Notes from the Cave, I'm going to be expressing strong opinions on current events. I'm also going to be using some cuss words and doing some name-calling. Read on at your own peril. 

The NFL:

I hate football. I particularly despise the NFL. I think it is a bloated, money-ruined organization that appeals to the lowest common denominator in humanity. That doesn't mean I think every NFL fan is a scumbag - my Mom is a huge NFL fan, after all, and I think my Mom is pretty awesome. But I still hate the NFL. 

I don't give a damn whether an NFL player kneels during the National Anthem. I don't give a damn what anyone does during the National Anthem, whether they stand, sit, kneel, or fall to the floor and convulse. I also don't care what their reason is for whatever they choose to do - whether they are sitting because they're too butt-ass lazy to get up, or because they hate America, or because they're deaf and don't realize the National Anthem is playing. I can't for the life of me understand why so many people DO, in fact, care what other people do during the National Anthem. 

A co-worker this week roped me into a conversation about this, expressing the opinion that if NFL players can't be bothered to stand, they should move to another country. I told her I thought that was a stupid opinion and she didn't like that very much. It's stupid because you're suggesting someone should literally immigrate to another country if they won't stand at attention in front of a colorful piece of cloth while a song is played. Honestly, that's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

Whether you approve of kneeling during the anthem or not, and whether you agree that there is racial injustice in this country or not, these guys believe their IS racial injustice in this country, and they are using their platform in the NFL to highlight that injustice by not standing during the National Anthem. Maybe you think they should do it a different way. What way would be appropriate, I wonder? When they march in the streets, you call them thugs and gangs of hoodlums, after all. The reality is, you'd rather they just shut right up.  

History shows that mainstream society virtually never supports protests, regardless of subject or form. Majority opinion is always that protesters are basically in the wrong. In time, however, majority opinion frequently changes. A Gallup poll in 1966 showed that something like 63% of Americans had a negative view of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his protests. Today, that number is now 4%.  A majority of Americans in the '60s also disapproved of sit-ins and freedom riders. Now those people are regarded as heroes. 

I'm not saying Colin Kaepernick (sp?) or anyone else in the NFL is going to be regarded as a hero in the future. I'm just saying that protests are always unpopular ... until they aren't. And yes, BLACK protests are typically even more unpopular than most. White society doesn't like being reminded that black people don't have the same opportunities or advantages as white people.

The Pledge of Allegiance:

This isn't, specifically, in the news right now, but I did see a report that KISS recently stopped their concert to lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance - which is clearly intended to be a political statement about patriotism and whatever. 

I think the Pledge of Allegiance is sinister in the extreme. It's straight out of some Orwellian nightmare: the sort of thing they'd do in North Korea. I realize most Americans don't think much of it and consider it no more than an act of benign patriotism. But if you actually think about what the Pledge of Allegiance is, and what it stands for, it's pretty disturbing. 

In the past, there has been controversy over the pledge because of the words "under God." I couldn't care less about that part of it - although it's worth noting that "under God" wasn't even IN the pledge until added by presidential proclamation in the 1950s, during the Red Scare over atheistic communism. 

In any case, I think standing at attention before a colorful piece of cloth, with your hand over your heart, chanting a pledge of allegiance to a government and a nation state, is positively ridiculous. Again, it's like something out of an Orwell novel. Whatever happened to rugged American individualism? I don't know about you, but I believe in being a good citizen of the world and of my country, being a good steward of the earth, and treating others with love and respect, but I don't pledge loyalty to anything but my family and myself. I certainly don't pledge loyalty to a broken country that does more things wrong than it does right. Even if it did EVERYTHING right, I wouldn't be comfortable standing and ritually chanting a pledge of allegiance to it. Most adults aren't often in situations where they are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but anytime I do find myself in such a situation, I don't participate.


I believe that this whole controversy over the NFL and the National Anthem is an example of widespread American idolatry.

Idolatry is typically a term we expect to hear at church when reading the Old Testament. The Hebrews building a golden calf and worshipping it and all that crap. 

In this country, the way we treat the flag is nothing short of idolatry, in every sense of the Biblical term. The earliest generations of Christians, in fact, would be HORRIFIED at our traditions in regards to the flag. They literally went to their deaths rather than do the equivalent of pledging allegiance to the flag or standing with their hats off and hands over their heart during the National Anthem. 

In their society, it consisted of showing proper respect for the emperor, who, like the flag, was the embodiment of the state, its laws, and its ideals. They refused to do that and were subsequently persecuted, tortured, and sometimes executed. Why did they refuse to do it? Because it represented idolatry. To them, no one and nothing deserved that sort of obedience other than God. 

Today's equivalent is the flag and the National Anthem - representing the state, its laws, and its ideals. Standing at attention before the flag and chanting a pledge of allegiance to the state, or listening to the National Anthem, is literally like a religious ritual - a secular rite that everyone is expected to take part in. 

You may not agree that there is anything idolatrous in showing respect for the flag or chanting a pledge of allegiance to the state with your hand over your heart. But the earliest Christians would disagree with you. You, in fact, are on the side of the people who persecuted the early Christians for being "bad Romans." I'm sure those people also wondered aloud why Christians "didn't just leave if they hate it so much." 

Gun Control:

Every few years, the record for the largest mass shooting in U.S. history is broken. Previously, it was Virginia Tech, in 2007. Then it was Orlando, in 2016. Now it's Las Vegas, in 2017. The record has literally been broken 3 times in 10 years. 6 of the 10 largest mass shooting in U.S. history have occurred in that same time frame. 

If you think we don't need more laws to address this, you are an asshole. In fact, you're not just an asshole, you are a 10 out of 10 on the asshole range. Yes, I mean you. 

Las Vegas is not going to change anything. And the reason why is because so many people - assholes - are profoundly emotionally connected to their belief in the "right to bear arms." They have gulped down the NRA kool-aid and they have been suckered into believing the gun lobby's interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. And they've elected leaders who agree with them. 

I read a report saying that a country music guitarist, who performed shortly before the shooting in Las Vegas, has come out saying that while he used to be a big 2nd Amendment guy, Las Vegas has changed his mind. You know what? Glad you changed your mind, but you're still an asshole. Know why? Because if it takes experiencing a mass shooting in real life before you have enough empathy and basic human decency to support sensible gun control legislation, you might be an asshole! 

I'm glad he's changed his mind, and I'm glad he's using his platform to advertise his change of mind, but he's still an asshole. Instead of being a 10 on the asshole scale, he's maybe moved up to an 8. Short of becoming a full-fledged gun control advocate, however, he will remain an asshole in my book. 

As far as I'm concerned, you had a free pass on your views on gun control ... right up until Sandy Hook in 2012. That was the mass shooting where 20 school children were slaughtered at school by a previously law-abiding citizen with legally-obtained guns. If 20 dead school children didn't change your mind, guess what? You're a fucking asshole

Skyline Chili:

The black bean and rice 3-way at Skyline is significantly better than the original Skyline 3-way. The reason why is because the original Skyline 3-way is just spaghetti with cheese and a funny-tasting, cinnamon-flavored, diarrhea-colored and -textured meat sauce that Skyline mistakenly believes is "chili."