If gymnastics is coming from your soul, then you will be an unforgettable gymnast…
~ Natalia Yurchenko
During this past summer’s Rio Olympics there was discussion on Facebook about the women’s gymnastics competition. The stature and physical strength of the gold medalist American women was noted in contrast to the skinny, underaged appearance of their opponents. And their powerful tumbling skills wowed everyone.
While I laud the American victory, I wasn’t wowed. I found the competition aesthetically displeasing. While men’s gymnastics continues to evolve with riskier acrobatic skill, the women’s side of the sport, placing the same emphasis on acrobatics, has lost something. Twitchy, bouncy, bounding, it’s hardly women’s gymnastics anymore. Given the general drift of Western dominated culture this is probably unsurprising. But I don’t like it, and I didn’t withhold my two cents from my teens while watching the events on television. As a kid who watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports religiousl, I’ve followed the sport since the mid ‘70s. In my opinion women’s gymnastics reached its efflorescence at the 1989 World Championships when the Soviet Union — two years from disappearing from the map — fielded the greatest team in the sport’s history. From artistic standpoint it’s been mostly downhill from there.
I’ve been listening to the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it struck me that ambient bits and pieces of Jonny Greenwood’s incidental arrangements have the tone and texture of old Soviet documentary soundtracks. Some YouTubers have loaded training footage of the classic Soviet gymnasts onto their channels, so I was prompted to take a look.
The Soviet team trained at a secret facility outside Moscow called Ozero Krugloye, “Round Lake” (a moon-shaped lake, if you will). In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s cameras went inside this gym which, like everything in the old Soviet Union, looked well-worn with faded panels and browned, oily ballet bars. The footage is unsparing, hardly the stuff of propaganda. With a training regimen as strict as Marine PT, some of the girls have a look of panic as they repeat attempts at mastering moves. There are fun moments: a toga party, practical jokes, and laughter. But mostly clouds of chalk, wrist tape, t-shirts in English over leotards, disheveled hair held back with ribbons of red and white yarn, and facial expressions serious beyond their years.
Those faces are familiar from Saturdays in front of the TV: Maria Filatova, Natalia Shaposhnikova, Stella Zakharova, Elena Mukhina, Natalia Yurchenko…names as obscure to most Americans as a list of cosmonauts.
If the name Yurchenko rings a bell it’s because this gal, born above the Arctic circle, reinvented vaulting in the early ‘80s with a round-off back handspring onto the springboard. Three decades later both male and female gymnasts are doing variations of the Yurchenko. The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame described Yurchenko’s performances as, “hypnotic for their unhurried beauty” and “paradoxical.” In the documentaries “Natasha” is captured mentoring younger gymnasts, playing a somber piece on the gym’s old upright piano, and exchanging icey stares across the tumbling floor with her gruff and burly coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, her eyes cold and blue as the Arctic sea.
Like all coaches under the Soviet regime Rastorotsky was under the gun to produce champions. The girls felt the “form and pressure” of the time: between 1952 and 1992 Soviet women won all but one of the Olympic team titles in gymnastics. Medals aside, there was an overarching commitment to doing the sport the right way, and they produced routines through strain and sorrow that solved the problem most worth solving: how to express beauty. Theirs was a synthesis of daring acrobatics and sublime artistry. The toe point, the subtle hand gesture, the extension of the limbs into space, the balletic expression — all exuded what Cathy Rigby called amplitude.
In one of the documentaries, choreographer Emilia Sakalova exhorts Stella Zakharova, “Your hands are your language. You speak about life with them…You protest against death and it won’t overcome you. It won’t!”
Years ago my two oldest girls and I attended minor league hockey games with a pair of Russian-Ukrainian friends, a father and son. One evening after a game Sergei (the son) needed to stop by the hospital where he worked to check his schedule. The kids and I waited outside with his dad, Viktor. At length Viktor stood on the concrete parking stop block and began balancing, leaping, pirouetting — as if he were on the balance beam, laughing and smiling and challenging my girls to give it a try. Maybe balancing the human form on the precipice is perhaps a deep-seated Russian thing, as natural to them as picking up a ball and glove to us.
Regardless of how hard the Soviet coaches were, the girls wanted to be at Round Lake. They had expressive aspirations as most people do. The system aside, they were hardly hardened communists (not a few of them have since come to the United States). When I watched them on Wide World of Sports years ago I began to apprehend a humanity “over there” capable of things noble, lovely, admirable and praiseworthy. These girls lead me to think about “other” people in terms beyond the geopolitical narrative.
In Moscow, an orphaned girl was taken to the CSKA sports club, “Central Red Army,” known for its soccer and ice hockey teams. The girl wanted to be a figure skater, but jumped at the chance to do gymnastics. Years later, in 1978, Elena Mukhina destroyed a filled-out and less focused Nadia Comaneci at the world championships in Strasbourg, France. If there was one Soviet gymnast who exemplified the ideal, it was Mukhina: tumbling runs on the floor and death-defying moves on the bars and balance beam previously unseen, without compromising a single detail of the graceful line of the studied dancer.
A broken leg kept Mukhina out of the ‘79 championships. In the run-up to the Moscow Games her coaches pushed too hard. At practice, running on a leg not properly healed, she under-rotated a dangerous Thomas salto and snapped her spine.
Lena Mukhina spent the first half her life extending the range of human motion and floating through space; the latter half she spent paralyzed. Bitterness gave way to acceptance and faith. “Everything good in my life comes from God,” she told a magazine. She added that she would do even greater things, and “the world will see.” I can’t be sure, but my guess is that she was referring to resurrection and the age to come. Her body stilled, her large eyes were as alive and contemplative as those of the saints whose icons lined the bookshelves and walls of her apartment.
So as the Rio games fade from view; as the tenth anniversary of Lena’s passing from this present world approaches; as this world seems destined to rekindle a Cold War…here’s to beauty.
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.
Rapt fans at a Queen concert, 1973
Four decades ago this summer I attended a pool party for our eighth grade class – our last splash together before becoming lowly high school freshmen. We were invited to bring our favorite records to play on the sound system. I brought along Queen’s latest LP, A Night at the Opera, featuring the iconic finale, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was a hit. Of the records brought to the party mine got played through a couple of times. My cool factor rose several notches. Cool enough to have an actual girl sit on my shoulders for a round of “chicken fight” with another boy-girl pair.
The first time I heard Queen on the radio (’75) I was drawn to their dense and unique sound. I went to the drug store and bought the single “Killer Queen,” with its scintillating B-side, “Flick of the Wrist” featuring some exotically Middle Eastern guitar leads. A rocking band with some tight female harmonies – or so I thought. Turns out those high-pitched vocals belonged to Freddie Mercury and drummer Roger Taylor.
When “Bohemian Rhapsody” became the definitive rock anthem of the spring of ’76 I scraped together seven bucks to buy A Night at the Opera. After immersing myself in it for weeks I turned to collecting their older albums – a good exercise, because in my evaluation everything Queen did after Opera was marked by steady decline. By the ’80s they would become unlistenable to my ears.
Side 1 of Sheer Heart Attack (’75) is Queen’s high water mark. Book-ended by two sizzling rockers by guitarist Brian May (“Brighton Rock” and “Now I’m Here”), the middle section is comprised of “Killer Queen” and a three-track suite: Taylor’s proto-grunge “Tenement Funster,” featuring a guitar break that nods to David Gilmour on “Time”; the frenetic “Flick of the Wrist,” and the classically infused “Lily of the Valley.”
To say Queen II (’74) is excessive is an understatement. The tracks are so busy and overwrought there’s hardly one I can nowadays listen all the way through, though each has its moments. “Ogre Battle,” for example, opens with shredding, Hendrix-like backwards riff that preludes speed metal.
But the self-titled Queen (’73) has some real jewels. Best known for the single “Keep Yourself Alive” and the AOR favorite “Liar,” the album has lyrical depth to match a musical range that keeps the listener guessing. It includes a dark and obscure track buried at the end of side one. The more I hear it the more convinced I am that “Bohemian Rhapsody” is its counterpart, or aftermath.
“A band is a like a sausage factory”
In a 1985 interview with Los Angeles DJ Mary Turner, Freddie Mercury cautioned listeners not to read anything into Queen’s music. There are no hidden messages, no political stances; they were not out to change the world. For Mercury, pop music is a business aimed at satisfying consumers. He categorized Queen’s music as “escapist.” Moreover, the songs were like sausages to be eaten and then, well, you know. He especially didn’t see the need for people go prowling around the band’s old material, or cling to it. They should move on to enjoy new things. For Mercury, exploring other genres and making different kinds of music prevented boredom. Anything and everything was possible, acceptable.
Well, perhaps that aesthetic had been at play all along. So much so that Mercury left space for rather looming figure to make three appearances on Queen.
“Great King Rat” (side 1, track 3) is about a “dirty old man” who leads people into destruction. After a tempo change the voice become first person; he beckons people not to believe their Bibles, and reminds them that when “the great Lord when he died, sinners knelt at his side.”
“Jesus” (side 2, track 5) is highly visual, depicting crowds “going down to see the Lord Jesus,” in search of healing. It’s impossible to determine the slant of this song: curious historical sketch or mocking satire: an “unclean” leper kneeling at Jesus’ feet “rang his bell.”
But the innermost track — the one an impatient listener might skip while flipping the vinyl to get to “Liar” — is no joke.
Bismillah, no! We will not let you go…
“My Fairy King” is Queen at their theatrical best, encapsulating the ground they would cover over their first four albums in four minutes and four seconds. Lyrically, it depicts a land brimming with childhood imagination. Its king “can see things that are not there for you and me.” Lions lie down down with deer; dragons fly like sparrows through the air. In this world the king “can do right and nothing wrong.”
Then came men to savage in the night
To run like thieves and to kill like knives
To take away the power from the magic hand
To bring about the ruin to the promised land
The scene turns to “burning hell with screaming pain,” and a voice calls out in the cacophony, “Son of heaven set me free and let me go.”
A plaintive section follows with a piano line and lyric that anticipate the theme of “Bohemian Rhapsody”:
Someone, someone…has drained the colour from my wings
Broken my fairy circle ring
And shamed the king in all his pride
Changed the winds and wronged the tides
O Mother Mercury
Look what they’ve done to me (yeah)
I cannot run I cannot hide
The denouement of guitar and piano builds in intensity before subsiding in a pool of dying notes, like the light fading from a Maxfield Parrish painting.
As if to say, nothing really matters.
The maddening thing about being a Christian parent is driving home from church and asking your younger children, “So what did you learn today?”
After that startled I wasn’t paying attention look in the rearview mirror, they answer with quivering voices, “Ummm…to love Jesus and God?”
Which prompts an unsuccessful attempt to explain the Godhead. The sun analogy doesn’t quite work. Nor the water molecule. The challenge is complicated by the fact implicit in their answer: that the second person of the Trinity became man.
Don’t worry — other religious traditions don’t get it. Honestly, a lot of faithful Christians don’t, either.
If you are a Christian (and unless you’ve been asleep) you’ve probably heard about the ruckus that has erupted in evangelical/reformed circles in the past month over the nature of the Trinity. Specifically, a group of scholars, led chiefly by Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem, posit that within the Godhead the Son is eternally, functionally subordinate to the Father. Equal in essence to the Father, but as Son having a subordinate role. This in turn is used to argue for the subordination of wives (women) to husbands (men). One text used to support this is 1 Corinthians 11:3, where Paul writes,
But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
The theological issue at hand involves the last clause: “God is the head of Christ.” Pulling out my ESV Study Bible I noticed that Frank Thielman’s footnote for 1 Cor 11:3 suggests something akin to functional subordination in the Trinity. But, as Andrew Moody points out, “there is a difference between Jesus’ eternal and human life…” This passage points to the relationship resulting from the second person of the Trinity having become man — the Jesus who, as our little ones tell us from the back seat, is to be loved with God.
The manhood of Christ is part of the reason the Antiochian-schooled archbishop Nestorius (431) struggled to accept the title theotokos (God-bearer, or in the Western Catholic tradition, “mother of God”) for Mary the mother of Jesus. In his mind this title overlooked the incarnation: God had become man, and it was his human nature to which the virgin had given birth. In his view Christotokos was a more appropriate title for Mary. But Nestorius’ critics, among them his Alexandrian political rival Cyril, accused him of splitting Christ into two persons, God and a man, instead of one person with two united natures. Nestorius denied this charge [I can’t pursue it here, but I suspect part of the controversy was linguistic, with Nestorius relying on Persian rather than Greek terminology to describe Christ’s person and natures].
I share this to further illustrate how complicated and delicate the job of describing the Godhead can be. An opportunity to pull over and ditch this conversation at the nearest restaurant open on Sunday can’t happen soon enough (with apology to Chick fil A).
In the case of the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father, passages like 1 Cor 11:3 don’t help. It isn’t the Trinity in view but Christ in the economy of redemption, i.e. the ministry of God’s Son after incarnation. Michael Bird (whose excellent blog is linked in the column to the right) expresses concern that subordination — even if qualified as “functional” — leads to a “Triarchy” instead of Tri-unity. And as Liam Goligher points out, the attempt to use examples of Christ’s subordination to God during his earthly ministry is anachronistic, reading the redemptive economy played out in time and space back into the ontology of the Godhead.
I’ve read a couple of things Goligher has written on this matter. While unrelenting in defending Nicene orthodoxy (and suggesting that those who don’t hold it shouldn’t teach) it’s clear that his aim is to bring those holding the subordination view back to a proper understanding of the Godhead.
The same can’t be said of a recent post at First Things by Carl Trueman, a church historian of first-rank and scholar I admire. Expressing his disappointment with the eternal subordination position (perhaps “horror” is a better word), he makes several statements that leave me cold:
It seems clear now that the evangelical wing of conservative Protestantism has been built on a theological mirage. Typically, evangelicalism focuses on Biblicism and salvation as two of its major foundations and regards these as cutting across denominational boundaries, pointing to a deeper unity. But now it is obvious that, whatever agreement there might be on these issues, a more fundamental breach exists over the very identity of God…
…Maybe it is time for those Protestants who disagree on this most fundamental and distinctive of Christian doctrines to face the implications and amicably to go their separate ways. Evangelicalism as currently constructed should be dismantled, as there is little of theological substance that holds it together…
…[W]hat does seem clear to me is that confessional Protestants need to think long and hard about their connections to evangelicalism, broadly conceived. There are other, better options out there…
In light of the last few weeks, the American conservative evangelical movement as a whole has been exposed as theologically thin in its doctrine and historically eccentric in its priorities…
Some pretty sweeping pronouncements. Why you want to be like that, Carl?
To be clear: I believe exactly what Trueman believes about the Trinity, which is exactly what the Nicene Creed sets forth. I realize it’s anecdotal, but everything I know about historical orthodoxy I learned first by reading evangelical scholars. To give one example, an article by Craig Blaising on the Council of Chalcedon for Bibliotheca Sacra, the Dallas Theological Seminary quarterly, ignited my interest in exploring the Church Fathers and the theology of the ancient church (which set me on a path that ultimately led to the Anglican communion).
Trueman is correct about the evangelical emphasis on the Bible and salvation for cutting across boundaries. In that process some novel and eccentric ideas crop up that require confronting and correcting. But calls for separation don’t simply clean up the theological work space; they result in the separation of whole groups of people from the conversation. People who need to hear what folks like Carl Trueman have to say.
Well, I would like to say something about the second person of the Trinity, prompted by an excellent podcast discussion at Mere Orthodoxy. While discussing the subordination controversy Derek Rishmawy used a word I really like: sonliness. For me, “sonliness” gets at something that can help us better understand the Son within the Trinity.
He is, after all, the Son — not the “Child.” The New Testament borrows from the Roman idea of sonship to illustrate rights and privilege of adoption into God’s family. Sonship involves being the adult heir to a father’s estate. He’s the heir because he is a responsible person, sharing his father’s interests with the intent to sustain if not expand the estate.
A child, by contrast, is subordinate to its father, being too young, too unaware, and needing to be told what to do. A son knows and shares his father’s purposes and desires; a child needs training and correction to understand what those desires and purposes are.
I remember hurrying home from work one day because a storm was coming, and I wanted to get the yard mowed before it hit. As I pulled up in front of the house I saw the grass had already been cut. My son came out on the porch and said, “I knew you would want that done before it started raining, dad.”
That is sonship. It says I can be at peace because he has taken over things exactly as I would want them. And may I add: you can be 40 or 50 or 60 years old and still be but a child to your own father, breaking his heart.
In the same podcast Andrew Wilson speaks of the “fittingness” of the Son to be the one sent into the world on the Father’s errand — not as a matter of functional subordination, but because it is what a son does. What is that errand? To seek true worshipers who will worship God in Spirit and in truth. This is what Jesus told the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well.
Later, that “babbler” Paul faced the learned Stoics and Epicureans on the Aeropagus in Athens. His message?
“…[W]e should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31)
Neither at Jacob’s well nor the Aeropagus do we find an explication of the Trinity. We get, rather, a call: a call to repent, a call to become true worshipers of the true God. God reveals himself as we are drawn by the Son through the Holy Spirit into fellowship. The medieval iconographer Andrei Rublev depicts this in The Trinity (ca. 1410). The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seated at a table — and a place is open for you, viewer, on Sundays and other days, to join them. The Son gestures with two fingers toward the cup of salvation — the blood of the New Covenant he shed on the cross for the remission of our sins. This beautiful and theologically rich image shores up our understanding of the Trinity in whose name we are baptized. It unfolds something of the glory of the God we worship in the church.
But the church needs the prophetic edge of evangelism that goes into the byways and hedges, as well as the academies and offices, to seek and compel people to come in.
In doing those things that please the Father, in going out to win treasures for his household, the Good Son isn’t about tripping up those who can’t pass a pop quiz on the nature of the Trinity. Whether it was through crying out to him, “Son of David!” or just nagging persistence, Jesus honored faith wherever he found it.
There’s plenty of time (i.e., eternity) to learn and grow in our understanding and appreciation of the Trinity. The time to repent is now.
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.
Syria symbolizes quite a shift in my understanding of a number of things.
In 2003 I reluctantly supported the Iraq invasion. For most of the ’90s I had been an apolitical pietist. Then 9/11 happened, and we were all red-blooded Americans now. Having studied economics in college and despite being registered an unaffiliated voter I tended to support Republican candidates, assuming (wrongly) they were pro-market and agreeing with their hawkish policy prescriptions, especially with the U.S. under a seemingly existential threat.
But in 2006 I became aware of Ron Paul. His speeches and writings sent me back to the ideas I had embraced as a student: free markets instead of crony capitalism, free trade and diplomacy instead of managed trade enforced by aircraft carriers, sound money instead of inflation and debt, and respect for the sovereignty of individuals, states, and foreign countries.
When war broke out in Syria over the spring and summer of 2011 it marked the first time in my life I would resolutely oppose a U.S. intervention. I was a youngster during Vietnam and heard only the side of the story one could hear in Southern Appalachia. In my home and community there was as much contempt for draft-card burners and student peace protests as the North Vietnamese communists themselves. But by the time the Syrian conflict erupted I had a new-found skepticism, especially when talk of supporting the “rebels” began to circulate in the media.
Ah, the media. In 1968 Walter Cronkite went to Vietnam after the Tet offensive. He returned with a sobering assessment: we had done the best we could, but only a negotiated settlement could end the war. In other words, Uncle Sam wasn’t going to win this one. He should settle for a draw.
Fast-forward to our day. We have no correspondents on the ground in Syria. Rather, Wolf Blitzer faithfully reminds us that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has murdered 250,000 of his own people.* And barrel bombs: a primitive instrument of death used by an army that, until the late fall of 2015, had no access to precision weapons, fighting an insurgency swarming apartment buildings in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, and Darayya like cockroaches. But Western news services, including Reuters, are relying on a dissident living in a London suburb calling himself the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” A generation removed from the Vietnam era, American media seems to have become adjuncts of the State Department.
Alternative media, as well as the U.S. Defense Department’s own declassified documents, present a different backstory. Wikileaks revealed that in 2006 political counselor William Roebuck sent a cable from the U.S. embassy in Damascus outlining a strategy to destabilize the Assad regime, to prod it into over-reacting. Western sanctions have inflicted misery on ordinary people, and the Syrian pound has lost purchasing power at an alarming rate. Charles Glass, a journalist who is no apologist for Assad, has spent ample time on the ground in the country and wrote in his 2015 book Syria Burning that from the early days of the conflict the CIA was escorting “armed men” across the border from Turkey. The Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in 2012 that conditions along the Syrian-Iraqi border had ripened for the emergence of a salafist “Islamic state,” and that such an entity, while unsavory, could be useful to the West and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar) in pressuring the Assad regime to fold.
It amounts to what political economist Tim Anderson calls a “dirty war on Syria.” One doesn’t have to be an Assad fanboy — as I am not — to detect the gross impropriety of the interventions in that country.
What do Americans in general think? As Cronkite would later point out, the U.S. government realized the impact the media had on shaping opinion about foreign interventions and after Vietnam restricted access to the field. Americans relying on the major networks and new channels don’t have enough even-handed information to hold informed opinions on Syria. My perception is that many of them are in a 1972 mindset. They don’t really want American boots on the ground to establish democracy there; but given what they’ve been shown about ISIS they would be content for B-52’s to bomb Syria into oblivion and “let God sort ’em out.”
In the winter of 2015 I visited a Bible study at a small, rural Reformed church in my community. The topic of ISIS came up during prayer requests, and one visibly agitated older gentleman said, “I think we ought to do to them what we done to Japan.” Of course, it was civilians who died in overwhelming numbers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I think his sentiment betrays the American public’s deep inability to differentiate the people of the Middle East. We are, after all, in a post-9/11 America where Muslims are viewed with more suspicion than during the Iran-hostage affair of 1979.
Aye, there’s the rub. Not all Syrians are Muslims, and most Syrian Muslims aren’t Islamists. Syria is home to over two million Christians: Orthodox, Catholic, and Assyrian, with sprinklings of Anglicans and evangelical Presbyterians. These folks stand by the regime and the Syrian Army in spades — not so much out of love for the regime as for their country, and because for now their very survival depends on it. I knew this much when the uprising first began, and for this alone I couldn’t support the armed opposition, whatever its shape or color.
Syrian Muslims, apart from the Islamists, present an interesting challenge to the fairly us-and-them world of American conservative Christianity. As they say, knowing people makes a difference. I taught Syrian Muslim students in community college. I have befriended several more, including Christians, through social media.
What I’ve learned? That being Syrian is the thing.
Religious identity, while important, takes a backseat in their society — the hallmarks of which are lavish hospitality (tears if you don’t accept an invitation to their house for tea and snacks), healthy and delicious food, and good music and dancing (dabkeh, anyone? Dabo Swinney could never keep up).
Don’t take my word for it. Brad Hoff, who served as a U.S. Marines intelligence officer, spent time traveling and mingling in Syria and gives perhaps the best ground-level perspective on what Syrians are really like in “A Marine in Syria.”
Of more import for Americans is the attitude toward Christianity among Syria’s majority moderate Muslims. While probably less the case in rural areas, in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo it is not uncommon for Muslims to join Christian celebrations and parades, especially at Christmas and Easter. Muslims have been spotted praying or meditating at ancient, historic Christian shrines like the chapel beneath the site of Ananias’ house in the Old City of Damascus (where Paul was baptized) or the enclave at Ma’loula.
In an interview with RT a Kurdish girl serving in the YPJ was asked what gave her strength in the fight against ISIS. On her list was “the mercy of Jesus Christ.” What to make of this? Based on my conversations with Syrian friends I can’t help but believe that the two millennia presence of Christianity has left a greater mark on Syria than we might imagine.
I’m not advocating syncretism or universalism here. But God will sort us all out, for sure.
Regardless, I have fallen in love with these people and pray for them.
As for Bashar al-Assad, a soft-spoken ophthalmologist by profession, he’s certainly not the uniformed buffoon of a Saddam or Gaddafi. Historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in 2007 that Bashar was pursuing a secret peace deal with Israel — a deal the latter was pressed to abandon by the Bush administration (indeed, where have you gone, Ron Paul?). But Bashar also inherited from his eagle-eyed father a regime ruthless in suppressing dissent (especially if you belong to the Muslim Brotherhood) and rigidly inert to the kinds of reforms many Syrians would like to see. The Ba’athists seem out of step with the new realities thrust upon the Middle East by neoconservatives and “humanitarian” interventionists. Other parties, representing a kind of loyal opposition, have alternative ideas for a renewed Syria, and having served alongside the government forces during this conflict they wait in the wings. Yet, if independent poll results from July 2015 are accurate, Bashar would still likely win an open and fair election.
In the meantime I throw my moral support to the Syrian Army — a force routinely demonized or, perhaps worse, flat-out ignored by Western media. Lacking the manpower and resources to achieve all of the objectives, their country’s fate will be dictated by negotiations between Russia, the U.S., and their respective allies. But the army still seems the only state institution capable of pushing back the Islamists on the ground (evidence their recent victory over ISIS at Palmyra) and restoring a semblance of order to their country.
It is, after all, their country.
*Latest casualty estimates in round numbers: 110,000 Syrian troops, 98,000 opposition fighters, and 95,000 civilians.