In 1993 Contemporary Christian music artist Rich Mullins released his magnum opus, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. The flagship song from that album was “Creed,” a hammered dulcimer-driven recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, punctuated by Mullins’ own affirmation: I did not make it / no, it is making me / it is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man.
As a hardcore evangelical (which I still am) and an amateur student of theology (still that, too) I was, at the time, wary of words like “liturgy” and “creed.” My, uh, credo was,
My faith has found a resting place / Not in device or creed / I trust the ever living One / His wounds for me shall plead…
Turns out the late Ragamuffin was onto something a decade or so before the rest of a restless band of evangelicals, exhausted from the culture wars and endless schism, caught up with the value of a liturgy and a common creedal legacy.
Enter a man for the moment. Michael Bird is lecturer in theology at Ridley College, an evangelical Anglican theological school near Melbourne, Australia. Bird’s own life has followed a trajectory that resonates with many a Western evangelical: an unbeliever as a youth, a machine-gun toting paratrooper in the Australian military (the Aussie version of Bear Grylls), converted in a Baptist church, then discovering the Anglican tradition. With a Ph.D. in New Testament studies Bird is a prolific author of scholarly articles and books, and maintains the popular blog Euangelion (link in the right column). Writing from a “post-post-modern” perspective, Bird is keen to speak to an audience of believers and skeptics alike trying to figure out which end is up.
His latest book, What Christians Ought to Believe, serves to help the scattered ragamuffins get on the same page as their world becomes increasingly post-Christian:
Know this: the world of our parents and grandparents is no more. We have to realize that the Western world has changed; it either already is or else is very quickly becoming decidedly post-Christian and radically secular. The church is no longer the chaplain for Christendom; it is now a recalcitrant resistance to a secularizing agenda. The church is no longer the moral majority; it is now the immoral minority with offensive views on everything from family to religious pluralism and sexuality. The church is no longer the first estate but more like an enemy of the state through its unflinching devotion to God and its uncompromising refusal to bow the knee to cultural and political lords of the land. [p. 203]
Written like an Ignatius of Antioch — or a soldier who’s slept in some trenches and eaten a few bugs.
His book explains why the Apostles’ Creed is indispensable to shoring up the faith of the faithful, and shoring the faithful together.
As Bird shows in his helpful appendix, the creed was developed from a series of catechetical questions attributed to Hippolytus of Rome around 215 A.D. Each line reads almost identically to the “Do you believe…?” questions from the catechism. As a Western document the Apostles’ Creed never caught on in the Christian East, though it predates the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed by more than a century. But as a compact statement it marks the key signposts of the faith identified by the early church.
Bird expounds on the significance of each line of the creed. For example, only three humans are mentioned: Jesus, Mary, and Pontius Pilate. Why the latter? Because Pilate’s inclusion places the central event of the Christian story within recorded human history, as if the creed dares the reader to look into the writings of Philo and Flavius Josephus to ponder whether the events of Christ’s life were historical or fictional.
Bird gives four reasons why the Apostles’ Creed invigorates believers’ faith:
1) In a liturgical context, its recitation marks a logical transition from the ministry of the Word to the Lord’s Supper. “We recite the creed after sermons to remember that we weigh all teachings against the fabric of Scripture as it has been taught in the churches.”
2) The creed promotes unity and fellowship among believers, “a faith that transcends denominational divisions.”
3) The creed places us within the story of God’s plan to usher in the new creation. We are situated with other believers of the past, present, and future.
4) The creed helps strengthen one’s devotional life. Quoting Thomas Oden, “‘I believe’…is to speak from the heart, to reveal who one is by confessing one’s essential belief, the faith that makes life worth living.”
Or, as the Ragamuffin sang, I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am…
In his first letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul reminded his readers that, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth… God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” This was in keeping with Jesus’ dictum that the least in the kingdom of God is the greatest: the last shall be first.
In that same letter Paul also cautioned his readers to be careful with their bodies, viz. sexual immorality, because these are temples of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, these bodies will be raised again. The body — the physical creation — matters greatly; in keeping with the Creator’s righteousness it will be restored and renewed.
Heaven knows I love sports, and over my life I’ve tried my best in football, basketball, baseball, cross country, tennis, golf. But I sucked as an athlete. It made no difference how hard I practiced. I wasn’t endowed with speed or agility or finely-tuned motor skills. So my empathy and sympathy have always been with the underdogs, the losers, those brave enough to participate despite the inevitable fact that they will be destroyed and humiliated on the playing field, the court, or the pool.
Yet, there comes those times when an athlete appears whose abilities are so off the charts, so devastatingly marvelous that you cannot help but sit in awe, as if God were giving us a sneak peak of the physical perfection that will adorn the age to come.
Washington Post writer David Sheinin has taken a beating in comment threads for having compared Olympic and World Champion swimmer Katie Ledecky to a Lamborghini. I won’t be surprised if I “trigger” somebody (such is the state of American culture is these days) by drawing a comparison between this incredible young athlete and the greatest racehorse that ever lived. Frankly, I can come up with no other. What Katie Ledecky did in the recent Olympic 800 meter freestyle event is perfectly reminiscent of Secretariat’s mastery of the field at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. It still tingles the skin to her CBS announcer Chic Anderson’s call as Secretariat put on the after-burners in the back stretch, leaving Sham and the other now forgotten horses in the dust:
“Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine! Secretariat by twellllllve…Secretariat by fourteen lengths on the turn…”
Maybe the social justice keyboard warriors should take a chill pill. Sheinin wasn’t intending to “objectify” Katie Ledecky with the Lamborghini comparison. The speed, the elegance, the precision and power of Ledecky’s performance — it all evokes something beyond the reach of humans.
Reflecting on Secretariat’s Belmont run, Pat Lynch said,
It was like the Lord was holding the reins…Secretariat was one of his creatures, and he maybe whispered to him, “Go.” And that horse really went. It was really almost a supernatural experience. It really was.”
Secretariat sailed down the home stretch before a crowd 70,000 spectators, whose collective panic over his breakneck pace gave way to delirium as he crossed the finish line 31 lengths in front. He destroyed the track record by 2 and 3/5’s seconds — an achievement that will likely never be topped.
George Plimpton recalled that teenage girls leaning against the rail wept as “Big Red” blew by.
Steve Crist summed it up: “You’re not supposed to win majors by a dozen strokes; you’re not supposed to score a hundred points — and you’re not supposed to win the Belmont by thirty-one lengths.”
We can now add: You’re not supposed to shatter a world record (your own) while swimming a qualifying heat. You’re not supposed to beat the next closest swimmer by eleven seconds — a distance in the pool as eternal as 31 lengths.
Katie Ledecky is the greatest swimmer in the world. Perhaps the greatest ever. But in an Olympics where the media buzz was focused on Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, Ledecky wasn’t granted the singular attention Secretariat commanded in the summer of ’73 when nothing else was going on besides baseball and Watergate.
Secretariat never had to do post-event press conferences, grant interviews, sign autographs, or pose for selfies with giddy fans. But you could tell he was a proud horse. Somewhere in that equine mind he knew he was a bad ass, and he wore it regally.
Ledecky has done several interviews during and after her Olympic feats. She is impossibly unassuming, taken aback somewhat by the accolades yet taking it all in stride. In an interview CBS’ Nora O’Donnell, coach Bruce Gemmell said that Ledecky’s success is a mix of training, technique, and genetics (ah, don’t I know it) that makes her a “rare breed.”
O’Donnell asked Ledecky, “What do you eat?”
“Ah, um,” [laughing] “whatever my mom makes me.”
So modest, so ordinary, so human, it brought tears to my eyes.
It’s all I want honey, in this creation is a…spoonful
I go to bed, get up and wanna fight ’bout a…spoonful…
~ Charley Patton, “Spoonful Blues” (1929)
Last fall I took up Middle Eastern cooking, specifically dishes from the Levant region. In addition to preparing kabobs and salads with my wife I also got into making homemade booza, a sticky Arabic ice cream made famous at the Bakdash parlor in Al-Hamidiyah souq, Damascus, Syria. While visiting a nearby halal market to buy ingredients I noticed on the shelf a stack of boxes of Lipton Dust tea. This is the cheap brand Unilever ships to Cairo and Damascus. I decided to give it a spin.
Back at the house I put a spoonful of Dust into a coffee filter and ran boiling water through it. The tea that filled my mug was dark. Opaque. I stirred in some sugar and poured it over ice (we’re in the South where iced tea rules). The color in the glass was a dark burgundy. The flavor took me right back to sultry summers in the Carolina Piedmont, when my mom made pitchers of bold, refreshing tea unlike anything I’ve tasted since.
The caffeine kick was exhilarating. I was hooked.
Lipton? Really? This reminded me of that golden moment at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival when bluesman Mississippi John Hurt leaned into the microphone and told a crowd of hipsters, “Just one spoonful of Maxwell House is better than a whole cup of that other [trendy] coffee.” It also underscored the fact that the Lipton sold in U.S. grocery stores is substantially weaker, not what mom used to make.
Wouldn’t you know it. A couple of weeks ago my wife went by the halal market and reported that Dust was no longer in stock. In disbelief I went back last week. Still not there. The worried man behind the counter begged me to try a bag of Çaykur black tea from Turkey. I would have none of it (among other things Dust is cheaper).
I was edgy. Twitchy. I walked out.
I can’t buy Dust online. I’ve looked everywhere. Amazon? No. Ebay? No. There’s an Egyptian site for it but NO FREAKING ORDER FORM.
Hey. Unilever. Customer here in North Carolina who would like to buy mass quantities of your junk. COME ON, MAN!!!
Can anybody, please, help a brother out? Just a spoonful…
The cool thing growing up the son of a disc jockey was connecting with him through the radio as he spun the great tunes from the seminal period 1967-76. By the time I came of age my musical sensibilities were set in stone — hence, the ’80s were a downer for me while the ’90s marked something of a return to form.
In the summer of ’96 I bought a copy of Speak by Dogs of Peace, what was thought to be a one-off from a foursome of Nashville session players: Gordon Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Jimmie Lee Sloas (bass, vocals), Blair Masters (keyboards, bgv’s), and John Hammond on drums. I won’t take the space here list the luminaries these guys have played with or for, or produced. They’re musicians’ musicians, so unsurprisingly Speak was easily among the highlights of the decade.
My best buddy and former workmate is himself a guitarist with gigging and recording experience. I would bring my cassette copy of Speak and we would blast it in the car while working. We analyzed it. We argued its technical details. We caught its reference points: Wings, Pink Floyd, James Gang, Hendrix, among others. He was able to break down Kennedy’s guitar leads and explain how he achieved certain tones, as on “Do You Know,” whose twin solos match the aching grandeur of Gilmour on “Comfortably Numb.”
Unwinding from the day I’d go down to the basement and play it again, having sent my daughters (13 and 11 at the time) to bed. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were listening, too. Especially to “Thrown Away” — they loved that track. It spoke to them at those transitional ages. Proud of those gals for their good musical tastes. Chips off the old block.
But things change over twenty years. I confess I’m lost when it comes to today’s hipster music. No offense, but I don’t get what’s so enthralling about ukuleles, glockenspiels, dead-pan lead vocals and wordless choruses that go,
oohhhh-wayyy-oohhh, oh-oh way-ay, oh-oh-whoah….
[probably the generation that grew up watching Arthur and caught that episode about the Finnish hologram band, BINKY]
Anyway, it’s a relief that Dogs of Peace weren’t an one-off after all. After twenty years of doing myriad other things the group reformed and released Heel in April of this year. The cover art and title allude to the proto-evangel in Genesis 3:15: God curses the serpent for his deceit and promises that the “seed of the woman,” i.e. the virgin-born son, would crush the serpent’s head (check out the bonus track, “Crush”) — though the serpent would manage to inflict a deadly wound to his heel.
The title also plays on the “dog” metaphor.
Heel is arranged in three sets of three songs, with a closing medley/postlude. The opening tracks come out of the blocks big and bold: detonating drums, swirling strings, muscular riffs. They combine a snarling guitar tone a la Jimmy Page with an expanding, boiling thunderhead of a sound reminiscent of Kerry Livgren’s arrangements. While the most bombastic of the album, these songs establish a more chiseled, classic rock sound than the alt edge of the first record. They also introduce recurring themes: intercession (“One Flight Away”), interposition (“Sacrifice”), and light/darkness:
Looking at the painting of Van Gogh’s Starry Night / with a brush he paints a riddle / a church in the middle, but somebody’s turned out the light… (“Dark Without”)
The second trio of songs finds the band broadening the scope, shifting between moods while infusing the music with their characteristic humor. “All This For a Piece of Fruit” winsomely plays on the fall of human nature — with more than a enough cowbell to fill Bruce Dickinson’s prescription. And a few of those previously unnamed luminaries begin to show up: Ricky Skaggs showcases his mandolin on “Only the Gold,” but this isn’t a salute to Dr. Ralph Stanley (deserving as he is). Rather, Steely Dan-tight harmonies punch through an Alan Parsons “I Robot” soundscape at breakneck pace. Skagg’s mandolin solo is sublime beyond words.
Speaking of Steely Dan, piano ace Michael Omartian makes his cameo as the album transitions into the third section, opening with one of the its best tracks, “Friend of the Groom.” A jocose nod to John 3:29, this is straight-up Southern rock more stout than a pot of black coffee. Fat guitar, funky bass, and Omartian’s boogie piano create conditions for a heavy foot on the gas pedal. You can tell the band is into it: at the intro to the second verse one voice says “Yep” while another answers “Right.”
Shifting gears, the elegant “Healed” is graced with a poignant guitar solo from guest Peter Frampton. It’s a meditation on what mortality has been transformed into for believers: we might not leave this present cosmos cured, but we can assuredly leave it healed. More on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, another confession: I’m not into praise and worship music. Visiting churches that use this style I’m the guy hands-in-pockets staring at the screen while everyone else is enraptured, eyes closed, singing the lines from memory. But if the songs were more like “He’s the Light of the Word” I might get into it. No congregation could sing at this level, but I could envision a tastefully scaled-down version making the rounds in churches. Whiteheart’s Rick Florian, PFR’s Joel Hanson, and the McCrary Sisters join in to create a gospel choir for a rousing outro. Following a change of key one of the McCrary’s begins to sing and Sloas hits a booming note on his bass that makes the hair on the back of my neck tingle.
The final verse declares:
Jesus, he is matchless / see the wounds of God’s wrath / Brilliant in the chaos / illuminating my path…
A deeply held evangelical conviction is that Christ’s death deflects God’s wrath for sin away from those who believe in him, i.e. substitutionary atonement. This idea, based on passages like Isaiah 53:4-8 and the reflections of St. Anselm and John Calvin, has in more recent times fallen out of favor, giving way to Christus Victor and other plausible theories of the efficacy of his death. But we’re talking about Christ’s death, a matter of cosmic weight. I agree with most of these models — including the sinner’s substitute idea.
I was recently queried about this by some hipsters.
“Why, yes,” I responded. “I do happen to believe in it.”
Their smiles faded. I could see the look in their eyes: Old guy holding to a 15th century heresy. Everybody keep cool, keep smiling, and wave your hands…
oohhhh-wayyy-oohhh, oh-oh way-ay, oh-oh-whoah….
Yeah, whatever. Like I said, some things change over twenty years.
In the time that’s passed since 1996 I’ve added three more children to my quiver. A job change in 2012 separated me from my guitar-playing sidekick and the daily camaraderie we enjoyed. My dad developed Alzheimer’s. Two winters ago his condition took a decisive turn for the worse. Around that time one of my daughters — the one who was 11 when Speak came out — gave birth to a second grandchild, a baby girl, via c-section. A couple of days later my gal started hemorrhaging. The bleeding was out of control; she faded in and out as doctor’s struggled to stabilize her condition.
It’s a drama played out thousands of times a day in hospitals, nursing homes, accident scenes, battlefields and other scenes across the globe. We who stand by and watch and pray ask ourselves: Did I say and do all the right things?
Helplessness isn’t the right word. Irrelevance is probably closer. Because whether loved ones pass through the dark valley or come back out of it, only the Shepherd can go with them, lighting the way.
Against all instinct and understanding, this is the point where the dog must heel. And stay. And wait as the Master does his inscrutable work.
Turns out my daughter was raised up from her sickbed. Dad we later laid to rest — until the resurrection. One cured, the other healed. But the same Shepherd over both…
So how do the Dogs bring this gem of an album home? The finale is a dramatic, Abbey Road-like medley expanding the “light of the world” motif.
“Light into the Darkness,” which Kennedy and Masters built around a Sloas bass line, reminds us that having engaged his seemingly chaotic creation the Artist will not abandon it. This, incidentally, is at the very heart of God’s righteousness. “He can work with this,” we are assured.
Our response, our vocation is to shine (“Shine Dog”), not hiding this light under our bowls. But lest we get carried away in our endeavors, we’re drawn back to a be still moment: “3:16,” from John’s gospel, the most recognized and quoted verse in the Bible, brought to remembrance.
Heel closes with a slide guitar instrumental of “Amazing Grace.”
Hmm. Nothing I can add to that besides, “listen to the record.” Maybe they’ll do another — maybe Fetch, or something like that (though, at this rate of output I’m not sure I’ll be around for it). Either way, Dogs of Peace have left us with a pair of brilliantly conceived and finely crafted artifacts that point restive hearts toward home.
I’ve been enraptured by birds since I was a youngster. My favorites have always been corvids — crows and especially blue jays — because of their myriad vocalizations, playful (and crafty) antics, and obvious intelligence. But in the summer of ’69, when we lived between Drexel and Valdese, NC, there was a family of Carolina wrens dwelling in a detached, concrete block garage on our property. They would allow me to get tantalizingly close before fluttering away — impressive, given the fidgity nature of an 8 year old kid.
In May of this year I noticed a male blue jay stopping regularly at our chain-link fence in the back yard. Having read some recent articles about corvid theory of mind, I thought I would engage in an experiment (for the sake of personal amusement) to test his ability to read my motives. I would toss him a peanut, at different times, wearing different attire, to observe his reactions. After accepting the first couple of tosses, he suddenly turned the tables on me by appearing to refuse them. He would sit as I tossed one, then two, then three nuts his way — then fly away as if entirely disinterested. But on one occasion I went inside and, looking through the shutters, saw him return to collect all three of the nuts.
It was all about him, clever rascal.
So I proved something about his intelligence, I guess; but blue jays are also extremely social, community-oriented creatures. By the last week of May he was getting called away to regular “mob duty” a couple of blocks away — presumably to help chase away a hawk or owl — and his visits to our fence became infrequent. About that same time I noticed a pair of Carolina wrens in our back yard. Now, this species has been nesting on our property for nearly all of the past 16 years we’ve lived here, usually in our detached garage. But while I would wait for the jay this pair would zoom right past me, close enough that I could almost reach out to intercept one, as they rounded the corner for the driveway side of the house.
This species of wren is the state bird of South Carolina, but they’re thick here in the North Carolina, at my parents’ in Tennessee, and elsewhere in the eastern U.S. (maybe they’re trying to get away from Lindsey Graham). They don’t migrate and tend to stay close to one particular place. This pair may be descendants of some of the first wrens we saw on our property years ago.
It took a few sour-smelling loads of laundry to make the connection: these guys had built their globular nest inside the outlet for our dryer vent. Fortunately (for them), by the time we realized this the chicks were ready to leave the nest.
Now, on one occasion in late May I half-seriously tossed half a peanut to the male wren as he sat on a pole in my wife’s salsa garden. To my surprise he swooped down to collect it, took it over to our patio and banged it into little pieces. I didn’t know that Carolina wrens would eat peanuts.
I didn’t record the exact day this happened; but by June 5 I had noted that, “the male wren is coming to me on the patio morning and evening, ‘begging’ for a peanut.” I also noted that he was approaching so closely as I sat eating and chatting with my wife that, “I might be able to get him to take from my hand.” Sure enough, on June 9, with the video recorder in my phone running, the little joker flew up to the armrest on my Adirondack and snatched a peanut from my outstretched fingers.
The first few times he took a nut from my hand he did so with wary quickness. But within a couple of days his comfort level rose extraordinarily. After receiving a nut he would sit calmly by my hand for several seconds before dropping to the patio by my feet, where he would proceed to break it into tiny pieces to feed the five chicks now out of the nest and learning to forage.
When I come home from work the standard ritual is for our dog, an eleven year-old mutt named Aggie, to bark and wag and literally push open the glass door in the front for me to enter. On June 16 as I came up the walkway I saw the wren, sitting on the back of the Adirondack by the front door, waiting for me. The chicks were in the maple tree in our front yard and he was looking for an energy snack to give them. Our 30 pound dog, preempted by this 0.7 ounce interloper, sulked the rest of the evening.
I started to feel a bit manipulative in requiring this little guy to take from my hand. So I’ve reverted to tossing or “handing” him a nut when he approaches.
I’ve watched the chicks that were born in my dryer vent grow over the past couple of weeks. They and their mama are skittish toward me, but at lunch today (6/25/14) I succeeded in getting one to emerge from under our gas grill (wrens love to check under these for earwigs and spiders) to accept a small piece of nut I’d tossed there.
As the chicks prepare to cut the apron strings I know this could likely alter my interactions with the dad. He and his more reserved mate may start a new clutch — and not necessarily in our yard. His territory, which he claims with a bright and ear-splitting putta-wee putta-wee putta-wee chuck! consists of a two-by-seven lot block (other wrens claim adjacent blocks). In the past week I’ve noticed ‘our’ family spending more time at the other end of the block. He comes to see me around 6:00 a.m. for what is probably his own energy breakfast, but the evening visits have tapered off.
I’m hoping, perhaps against hope, to maintain contact with him (or that he’ll come back if he leaves) in the fall and winter, when my peanut snacks will be especially helpful. He has been a delight to my family, and we’ve talked about at his example of faithfulness and selflessness to his family.
He’s not a pet, but over the past month I’ve grown attached to him (I replaced the dryer vent, so I don’t hold that against him). At a minimum I’m going to enjoy whatever interactions time allows. As a Christian these little visits make me look forward to the Day of Christ and the age to come, when the restoration of harmony between mankind and beast is realized; when the sons of God are revealed to all creatures, great and small (Romans 8:18-21).