The Rolling Stones: My Recipe for Goat Head Soup

I had every intention of writing about the new Monkees album, Good Times!, currently sailing up the summer pop chart fueled by songs penned by Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Noel Gallagher (Oasis)/Paul Weller (The Jam), Andy Partridge (XTC), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie). Perfect for the earbuds while watching the kids at the splashpad. But so much is being said and written about it that adding my own two cents seems pointless.

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      Classic Stones: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones

Moreover, I got side-tracked. While very much in a ’60s frame of mind I noticed that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I mentioned this on Facebook, noting how I admired Watts for eschewing the hedonistic rock n’ roll lifestyle while adding, “I can count on one hand the number of Rolling Stones songs I really like.” Which got me wondering: is that really the case?

So for fun I got on Spotify and scoured the billions of tracks the Stones recorded over a 43 year span to see if I could find enough material to comprise a playlist — an album’s worth of “greatest hits” for a band I really don’t like. I wanted a baker’s dozen, 13 seeming an appropriate number for the Stones. I couldn’t even find 12. But throwing in a couple for purely sentimental reasons I came up with eleven. Nigel Tufnel’s cardinal number.

Here they are in the order I would listen to them:

  1. “Mother’s Little Helper.” I gave this song to my youngest daughter as a guitar exercise for working on chord changes — and to watch her expression when she heard Keith Richards’ cackling crow call slide on the electric 12-string. She was unfazed. “I like it. But unless I capo it I won’t be able to sing it.” You go, girl.
  2. “Honky Tonk Women.” This one reminds me of a tall blonde babysitter my brother and I had over the summer of 1969. My bro and I were four and eight, respectively, and she was 14, but very much grown-up to me. When she came over to watch us she would play football with me in the vacant lot next to our property. I remember tackling her once — actually, she ran over me. My face collided with her collar bone and, after a flash of light, the sensation of her frame raking over me: hip, knee, ankle. I opened my eyes to a bouquet of mown grass, perfume, and girl-sweat. Toward the end of that summer our families met at a lakeside park for an outing. She and her sisters sat around me at the picnic table in their swimsuits like sea nymphs, and “Honky Tonk Women” came bursting over the park’s PA speakers. Not that she was ever that kind of girl, mind you. But these memories from summers ago are summoned whenever I hear that cowbell and drum intro.
  3. “Factory Girl.” Tracks from side two of Beggars Banquet (1968) make up over a third of my list. Both waggish and wistful, this acoustic work finds the band handling the old-time country idiom with a reverence that would win Ralph Peer’s approval. It ranks with Zeppelin’s “Going to California” among tracks you’d least expect from a British rock band. Mumford can’t touch this.
  4. “Lady Jane.” Keeping it acoustic we go flipside of “Mother’s Little Helper,” from a song redolent of Appalachia to one featuring Brian Jones on Appalachian dulcimer. I read somewhere of Mick Jagger (I think) saying this instrument was used in the olden days of England. But the lap dulcimer is actually German in origin. Regardless, this stately yet fragile piece, done in a modal Renaissance form, stirs like dawn light through stained glass.
  5. “Stray Cat Blues.” This is an instance where Richards’ maxim on “weaving” guitars actually works. Later in the ’70s some of his and Ronnie Woods’ live duos sounded to my ears like cats fighting; here, the coordination, the energy between the guitars and piano is scintillating. The extended, hi hat-driven outro anticipates Led Zeppelin II.
  6. “Dandelion.” No apologies to Stones purists here. As a Syd Barrett fan I’m a sucker for a musical childhood frolic with hints of darkness crouching in the willows. The Stones could never write like Barrett, but this comes close. I remember hearing this song as a youth late at night on an AOR station and thinking, “Hmm. So the Stones did some spacey, psychedelic stuff? I need to check out more of them sometime…”
  7. “Street Fighting Man.” This. Not only is this unequivocally the best Rolling Stones song, it’s one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Period. It came out the summer of ’68 on the heels of the MLK and RFK assassinations and the donnybrook of a riot at the Democratic National Convention. What amazes in this song is that the only electric instrument present is the bass. The rest is a tour de force of compressed acoustic guitar thrashing, Watts pounding on a toy drum kit, Jones’ sitar hanging over the mayhem like clouds of detonated white phosphorous, and Nicky Hopkins’ reverb-drenched piano galloping off in the left channel. Add to this Jagger’s best vocals of his career: “Heeeeeyyyyyy! Said my name is called Disturrrrbaaance…”
  8. “Ruby Tuesday.” A song so lovely even Jagger liked it. “Who could hang a name on you?” Well, a Maryville, TN-based restaurant chain liked it enough to hang its name above their doors. As on “Dandelion,” this features Watts’ jack-hammer drumming blasting its way through one side of a dream pop soundscape framed by Jones’ classically-inspired recorder.
  9. “Under My Thumb.” The most conventional pop song of this lot, it sounds like the sort of thing Major Nelson’s square friends would get up twisting and contorting to during an after-dinner shindig on I Dream of Jeannie. I’m not a Brian Jones groupie, but something I like in common with these other tracks is his incorporation of unconventional rock instruments — in this case, the marimba. I’m convinced that after his tragic departure the group could only move in a garage band direction.
  10. “Gimme Shelter.” This is the song that launched my search through the Stones catalog. I was familiar Richards’ minacious intro — that spooky, foreboding 40-second annunciation of the end of the ’60s era — but I couldn’t remember the name of the dang song. Apocalyptic is an apt description. This song points not only to the violence that marred the Altamont Free Concert (Dec ’69) but to our age of neoconservative and “humanitarian” interventionism and perpetual war.
  11. “Prodigal Son.” The final track finds the Stones paying homage to their blues roots. Jagger sounds remarkably like a wayfaring Charley Patton — who always ended his sets with a gospel number — with the ill-starred Jones slashing on slide guitar (he wouldn’t live a year past this recording). Listening to this familiar biblical story we hope that by the end these boys have found their way back home.

So that’s my Stones playlist. It seems to touch all the stylistic bases they covered between ’65-69 — the years I regard as their true golden period. The more I listen to these tracks the more I discover and appreciate about the band. And that’s something coming from a hater.





Dogs of Peace Still Guide You Home

DogsOfPeace_Heel_cover (1)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.


                                     Can’t sleep without the light on…

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.


                                                                                                  Shine. Let it shine. Keep it on…….

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.






How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Syria


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. 

Christian Zionism Left Behind

Back in 1998, I think it was, I told a buddy of mine, “You wait. Once Y2K passes without incident you’ll see dispensationalism go into steep decline.”

I’m a dang prophet.

Dispensational theology has indeed lost ground since the turn of the century, but this owes to factors beyond the lack of fulfilled apocalyptic expectation. There’s been a shift of allegiances in the American evangelical world. “Reformed” is the thing these days. “Left Behind” theology, as dispensationalism is often called, is now laughed off as the provenance of literalistic, sensationalistic rubes. Others seeking connection with the ancient and historic church have moved toward liturgical expressions (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) where amillennial eschatology rules and rapture-talk is eschewed.

But dispensationalism entered a new phase of complimentary hermeneutics and dialogue with Reformed camps starting in the late ’80s, and has undergone noteworthy development and change.

First, we should note that dispensational concepts weren’t “invented” in the early 19th century. Many of the early church fathers like Methodius, for example, drew up rudimentary “charts” to trace obvious changes in God’s dealings with humankind over the ages. As the joke goes, any Christian who worships on Sunday instead of Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) is dispensational, recognizing that something fundamentally changed after Christ’s resurrection.

In the early 19th century J.N. Darby, a Trinity College classical gold medal scholar turned Anglican deacon, got fed up with the rampant corruption in the Church of Ireland and decided to meet with a small group who felt similarly disenfranchised by the denominations in Dublin. While recuperating from a riding accident Darby began ruminating on the nature, calling, and destiny of the church. As his ecclesiology developed he detected a break between the New Testament church and Old Testament Israel (a century and a half later progressive dispensationalists would recognize that this break wasn’t so clean). This distinction became the basis of the first truly systematic, dispensational theology.


                                            “Can I be post-trib now?”

Applying — perhaps subconsciously — a neo-Platonist dualism to his scriptural observations, Darby believed the church to be God’s “heavenly” people, with Israel as the “earthly” people of both the past and the future.

It’s important to understand that ecclesiology, not eschatology, was the basis for Darby’s system. The latter was an implication of the former. That he saw a future, earthly millennium ruled by Christ was nothing new or novel. Many of the ante-Nicene fathers, most notably St. Irenaeus, saw the same thing. But Darby placed a renewed Israel at the center of that kingdom; a nation that would at last inherit all the unique and specific promises prophesied in the Old Testament. The church, meanwhile, would oversee this phase of salvation history from on high, until the final consummation of all things.

Most people have either not heard of Darby or seen only disparaging (and often inaccurate) statements about him in “Left Behind”-bashing articles. The dispensationalism most widely known today was influenced by the Scofield Reference Bible. The system found in C.I. Scofield’s footnotes is similar to Darby’s, but differs in certain respects. Being more of an interdenominational missions guy, Scofield was less concerned with the details of ecclesiology than with prophecy. Through him and his protege Lewis Sperry Chafer (co-founder of Dallas Theological Seminary with Anglican theologian W.H. Griffith Thomas), the idea of a pretribulational rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) spread through American evangelical circles.

In the pre-trib rapture scheme the “heavenly” people are caught up to meet their Bridegroom in the air, leaving the rest of the world to endure a period of unique tribulation, a.k.a. the “time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7). This particular tribulation will have the effect of shaking Israel from unbelief, causing her to repent and believe in Jesus, preparing her to meet him as king.

But notice: consonant with Paul’s anguish over his kinsmen in Romans 9, Israel in its present state is seen as lost, in need of repentance and faith toward Christ (Acts 3:20-21). Israel was a kingdom before God in the past age and will be so again in the age to come. But for now? More than a few Jews around the globe reject the modern Zionist project because, according to their understanding, “Israel” cannot exist in blessing and peace until Messiah comes. As the Zionist movement was gaining traction in the early 20th century one prominent dispensationalist, Arno C. Gaebelein, cautioned,

Zionism is not the divinely promised restoration of Israel… Zionism is not the fulfillment of the large number of predictions found in the Old Testament Scriptures, which relates to Israel’s return to the land… It is rather a political and philanthropic undertaking… The great movement is one of unbelief and confidence in themselves instead of God’s eternal purposes.

Which brings us to Christian Zionism — and my thesis: that dispensationalism and Christian Zionism, though easily conflated, are not the same thing.

Granted, it’s an easy step for a dispensationalist to become a Christian Zionist, and many (perhaps most) are. But there are many people that can be categorized as Christian Zionists who aren’t dispensational in the least.

What exactly is Christian Zionism? It’s an attitude of support among Christians for the modern state of Israel. Its best-known exemplar is pastor and televangelist John Hagee. It’s based not so much on a distinction between the church and Israel as the promise and warning of Genesis 12:1-3. Speaking to Abraham, God said,

“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

“Nation” here is held as a political entity, Israel as kingdom in the Old Testament and the modern state of our time. Regardless of denominational or theological persuasion, a Christian Zionist is one who, a) believes God has given Israel the land of Palestine, b) believes that Israel enjoys unique blessings — regardless of Jewish unbelief in Jesus as Messiah, c) believes that individuals and nations who support the modern state of Israel will be blessed for doing so, and d) believes that those who don’t support Israel will be cursed.

A bit snarkier, we could add, e) believes that Israel is America’s strategic ally and “best friend” in the Middle East, f) despises the Muslim world, and g) doesn’t get that Middle Eastern Christians have quite a different opinion of the Israeli government from American Christians (anyone recall what happened when Ted Cruz told a group of Middle Eastern Christians that they should support him in supporting Israel?).

Christian Zionist convictions are held with an extraordinary ardor. Israel is supported in all she does because all that she does is God’s will, without qualification. Its slogan on social media is, “Stand with Israel!” (while more than a few Israelis are unhappy with their government’s policies). I was recently unfriended by a Catholic acquaintance on Facebook for making a critical comment about certain aspects of Israeli government policy. Yet, that same gentleman loathes dispensationalism as a damnable heresy.

Dispensationalism is not the same thing as Christian Zionism. That it looks for a future restoration of Israel (a topic to explore further at another time) does not necessarily infer that the present political state of Israel fulfills specific Old Testament promises or unconditional blessings. If anything, dispensationalism admits that modern Israel could be in for some tough sledding during “Jacob’s trouble” (cf. Mark 13:14-26).

I close with these thoughts from Craig Blaising, provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, patristics scholar, and dispensational theologian:

In their enthusiasm for the political resurrection of Israel, some [Christians] seem to have lost sight of the particular activity of [Jesus] the Son of David in this dispensation — which is bringing about reconciliation and peace between peoples. Some have publicly advocated carte blanche support for any policy enacted by the state of Israel. But if political policies uphold injustice, how can Christians support it? How can Jewish or Gentile Christians today support Israeli injustices when Jewish prophets in the Old Testament condemned the authorities in Jerusalem for similar injustices, often to the prophets’ own peril? There were no greater supporters of the Jewish people and the future of Israel under God than Moses, Samuel, Amos, Elijah, Habbakuk, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And yet not one of them confused their commitment and desire for the blessing of Israel with support for or toleration of injustice (Progressive Dispensationalism, 1993, pp. 296-97).

Wren Friend

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.

wren 2

My rambunctious buddy, a split second after taking half a peanut from my hand.

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).

In A Beautiful (and Scary) Place With Boards of Canada

Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin have made music that fits their public image: mysterious, introverted, forlorn and nostalgic (NPR)

In the ‘60s when I was a youngster my family lived out in the country, in a development called the Plott Farm, halfway between Canton, NC and the Bethel Community. It’s near Cold Mountain, namesake of Charles Frazier’s celebrated novel. I played with army figures in the ditch in front of our house, watching archeology students from UNC Chapel Hill walk by in their cut-offs and sandals, en route to a dig at a Native American mound at the end of our road.

bocIn those days my dad was a disc jockey at the local radio station, WPTL. I listened to him spin wax while playing outside, the crackling music coming through a single earpiece from a transistor radio.

The days before I reached double digits were both exuberantly carefree and numblingly anxiety-ridden. The summertide bliss of “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers was jarred to a halt by the words, THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM, and the blaring signal that followed. Every hair on my body stood on end. This beautiful place could be drastically altered in a moment.

Fast-forward to 1995. For personal interest I enrolled in a couple of evening courses at UNC Charlotte taught by James Tabor, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert and scholar of the biblical apocalyptic idiom. Tabor took time from lecturing to elaborate on his experience as a negotiator with David Koresh during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in April, 1993.

Five years later the dot com bubble burst…then 9/11, then domestic spying, then the real estate meltdown…wars and rumors of wars…and more spying…

Being the son of a deejay brought me to love all kinds of music, ranging from old-time and bluegrass to prog rock, bebop, and classical (especially the totalitarian paranoia seeping through Shostakovich). But I’ve never been much of a “beats” guy. I did get into “Crossover” by EPMD, and the spell-binding “6 Underground” by Sneaker Pimps remains a guilty pleasure; but scratches and cross-fading were never my thing. I didn’t go looking for what came to be called “intelligent dance music” (IDM).

So it was by pure accident that I stumbled upon a YouTube video of Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger’s 102,800 foot jump from the edge of space (1960), set to the song “Dayvan Cowboy” by Boards of Canada. A little while later I found a fan video for “Everything You Do is a Balloon,” paired with a scared and grainy bicycle safety classroom film from them ‘60s. I didn’t know exactly what I was hearing, but it had a distinct texture and feel that was both whimsical and ominous.

I was hooked.  The more I looked the more I discovered remarkably creative fan videos, grabbing old documentaries from the ‘50s and ‘60s (public service announcements, nuclear test footage), or avant-garde art, synced up with the beats and soundscapes. I had unearthed a mysterious community with its own rhetoric and rituals.


The Boards (Bards?): Mike and Marcus, under a hexagon sun

Their knit hats aside, Boards of Canada  — Scottish brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, whose band handle was inspired by documentaries from the Film Board of Canada they watched as school kids — aren’t DJ’s in the standard scratch and spin mode (though there’s a bit of that in places). From their Hexagon Sun studio in rural Scotland come whistles, flutes, guitars, organs, drums, and analog synths, blended and mashed through old reel-to-reel decks, with hailstorms of static and hiss and (deliberate) warps and wobbles in tape speed.

With a recurring theme of childhood innocence interrupted by adult-size contingencies, augmented by eerie loops and samples – particularly of children’s voices – BOC’s music creates a time-elastic soundtrack for a kid raised in the unrealized Age of Aquarius.

In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country (2000) is a four-track EP inspired by the Branch Davidian tragedy. The title track features a doleful organ, jazzy synth, children laughing, and the distorted voice of Davidian member Amo Bishop Roden repeating, “Come out, and live with a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country.” Marcus Eoin told URB Magazine,

The Davidians thing was about the shock of seeing the way the U.S. authorities handled it all.

The pathos intensifies on the 2002 follow-up LP, Geogaddi. The track “Sunshine Recorder” includes a disembodied child’s solemn voice repeating, “…a beautiful place…” like an answer to Roden from heaven.  A sunshine recorder is a glass sphere that measures sunlight by focusing the light and burning a pattern across an inserted card. The dark irony of the government’s assault on the Davidians’ Mount Carmel Center (named for the place where the prophet Elijah called down fire on his sopping-wet sacrifice) is that the facility went up in flames with 20 children inside. In the classroom back in ’96, professor Tabor maintained that the government was ultimately responsible for the inferno — a view held by many today. “Sunshine Recorder” ends with children’s voices saying, “Bye…”


Last year (2013), the Boards released Tomorrow’s Harvest, a stylistic detour punctuated by arpeggio synths and string arrangements reminiscent of ‘80s horror and sci-fi films. “White Cyclosa” features the rumbling rotors of search helicopters; “Telepath” has an electronically-altered counting voice that appears to be under hypnotic suggestion or mind control (“Gyroscope” from Geogaddi also features a counting voice, transmitted from a short-wave “numbers station”).  “Palace Posy,” with its jerking time signature, is an anagram for “apocalypse.”

“Split Your Infinities” (grammar geeks, take note) includes this highly-distorted monologue:

The FEMA plans to imprison American citizens have generated a lot of interest around the country, in locating the potential prison camps throughout the country. These may be facilities currently being used as prisons such as those you saw earlier, or prisons that are being built supposedly in the name of the war on drugs. Or, facilities that have other uses but could quickly be used to detain large numbers of people…

“Semena Mertvykh” (seeds for the dead) is the parting coda, rumbling like a distant, approaching storm. BOC denies the album is “apocalyptic” per se, but rather looks ahead to a world after a major correction — or collapse; a time when society is reduced to “many small camps.” It’s music about childhood lost and unsustainable progress in the hands of mortally flawed adults animated by unseen spirits.

That’s not to ignore the more carefree and buoyant moments in the BOC catalog; they exist on every recording. They furthermore suggest that innocence, goodness, and beauty will outlive the downfall of edifices. Even Tomorrow’s Harvest features “Nothing is Real,” the most popular track on the album as voted by visitors to the BOCPages wiki site.

When I was a kid I listened to numbers stations on my dad’s short-wave. In grade school I watched scratched up Coronet films with snap, crackle, and pop soundtracks. That world was magical, mysterious, and sometimes scary.

This music would have fit as well then as now – as it no doubt will in a future out of our hands.

N.T. Wright vs. the Piano Man

Without a doubt, N.T. Wright is a rock star.

There’s no other way to describe an Anglican bishop who commands an interview from Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. Wright has written dozens of books, many of which resonate with Catholics on one hand and bearded, bespectacled bobos (and their ladies) on the other — especially where Wright appeals to sundry social justice issues. In the fall of 2013 he published his latest tome, the 1,600 page Paul and The Faithfulness of God, a work that sets forth a unified metanarrative of God’s covenant righteousness and the apostle’s place in bringing that narrative to Gentiles.  

Interesting, then, that at roughly the same time Wright’s magnum opus appears another, much slimmer volume arises to take him on godzillalike a diminutive fighter jet scrambled to buzz Godzilla. I’m referring to Justification Reconsidered by Stephen Westerholm, professor of biblical studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Westerholm, incidentally, earned an Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) in piano performance. He apparently has some wicked keyboard chops to go along with his formidable scholarship in scripture.

Justification Reconsidered clocks in at a compendious 99 pages. Westerholm lines up the heavy hitters of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, aiming to throw nothing but K’s — retiring Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders, Heikki Räisänen, Wright (batting clean-up), James D.G. Dunn, and Douglas Campbell in order. While his defense of a traditional, Augustinian-Lutheran view of justification is developed over the course of the book, our focus here is on his engagement with the household name, Wright, that spans 23 pages.

Westerholm’s tone is irenic. He lauds N.T. Wright for his great insights and recognizes common ground where it exists. He acknowledges, too, that Wright takes Paul seriously (rather than finding him incoherent, as some modern Pauline scholars are prone to do), and traces the cohesive thrust of Wright’s narrative:

In Wright’s version of the story, the covenant God made with Abraham assigned the people [Israel] itself, as a nation, with the task of undoing Adam’s sin. Israel was to play ‘the crucial, linchpin role’ in God’s plan to save the world…

But, of course, so understood, the divine plan was doomed from the start. Wright duly notes that Israel shared in the effects of Adam’s sin and was thus in no position to undo it by obeying God’s commands…

Wright is as insistent as any that the cross and resurrection of Christ represent the climax of God’s redemptive plan, but something of his distinctive account of Israel’s story is carried over into Christ’s redemptive work.  Whereas Christ is traditionally believed to be the representative human being in his sacrificial death (cf. 2 Cor 5:14-15), in Wright’s retelling he is, in the first place, the representative Israelite: as Israel’s representative, not only does he fulfill the task that the nation was unable to perform…but he also takes upon himself the curse of their failure to perform it.

So the key to Wright’s narrative is the idea of covenant — from Abraham through Israel to the true Israelite, Jesus — and the inclusion of all into that covenant who believe in Jesus. God’s covenant faithfulness (= righteousness) is borne out by his gracious reception of Gentiles who believe in Christ.

Which brings us to the issue at hand: justification. With N.T. Wright we might say that justification involves 1) law court, and 2) lunch counter (okay, I’m being cute with the latter). Legally speaking, those who believe in Jesus are declared righteous. This does not mean they are actually righteous, but reckoned so on account of their inclusion within the covenant people. Moreover, since they now participate in the covenant they cannot be excluded from the “lunch counter,” i.e. table fellowship. This is Wright’s understanding of justification in Galatians 2:11-16a (excluding, as Westerholm notes, 16b). It underpins views on social justice that enamor him to Millennials and others of like mind: at God’s lunch counter there is no discrimination. In his own words,

We are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted forgiveness of your sins’…but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.’

Now, N.T. Wright isn’t saying that people do not have to be forgiven their sins, or don’t receive the same; scripture plainly declares this to be so (e.g. Eph 1:7). But for Wright, “justification” is a legal verdict that declares who can sit at God’s table.

So, what’s the big deal?


Few would argue with the implications of table fellowship. It is quite true that in the new dispensation God receives all, circumcised and uncircumcised, those who eat kosher and those that don’t, those that celebrate certain days and those that don’t. The basis of reception is faith in Christ. But are covenant inclusion and reception equivalent to justification?

Stephen Westerholm traces the word righteous (“just”) throughout the Hebrew scriptures and finds a different emphasis. People are righteous, not by declaration, but by what they do.

The ‘righteous’ are thus those who do what they ought to do (i.e. righteousness). One is reminded of the words of 1 John: ‘Don’t let anyone fool you: It is the one who does righteousness who is righteous’ (1 John 3:7; cf. Rev 22:11). The truth of this seemingly self-evident observation is confirmed by Ezekiel 3:20 as well: ‘When a righteous person turns away from their righteousness and commits iniquity…that person shall die for their sin; the righteous deeds that they have done [on the basis of which, they were once ‘righteous’] shall not be remembered.’ Interestingly enough, even things — scales (when accurate), a (figurative) ‘path’ or commands (when morally appropriate) — can be said to be ‘righteous’: when, that is, they are what they ought (or purport) to be.

He goes on to quote Leviticus 19:35-36 (and others passages) to illustrate the point about righteous “things” — and here I fight the urge to go on a tangent about free vs. rigged markets, monetary inflation and related topics that, as a student of economics, I find important in regard to social justice. But the point is well-taken: you can’t simply say a set of scales is “just” when it is in fact unbalanced (and no set of scales can “sign up” for the covenant). We cannot say a wicked person is justified when her conduct is manifestly wicked; in fact, Deuteronomy 25:1 requires judges to judge on the basis of the person’s character — the covenant notwithstanding.

The Ezekiel passage cited above ought to give us pause. It’s pretty self-evident that we have good days and bad, times when we do the right thing and times we don’t. If unrighteous deeds negate righteous ones, we have a problem — one that Paul sums up when he writes, “As it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10, cf. Psalm 14:1; 143:2). But if scripture admonishes a judge to judge on the basis of a person’s deeds, how can God himself be just and allow imperfect people into his kingdom?

“Paul delights in the paradoxes of the gospel,” writes Westerholm, who takes Paul as seriously as Wright. God can regard an unrighteous person as just — not on the basis of covenant inclusion (and certainly not because of what she has done, or failed to do) — but because of a divine transaction on the cross:

The compact language of 2 Corinthians 5:21 seems to mean that, on the cross, God worked a dramatic exchange: the sinfulness of human beings was made Christ’s, so that his righteousness might be made theirs.

Righteousness, the state of being “justified,” is a gift given by God in exchange for our sinfulness, which was borne on the cross by Jesus. We are righteous (justified), not because we belong to the right people, but because we’ve been made right with God through the death of his Son.

“I get that,” you may reply; “but how is this distinguishable from Wright, who says that those who believe in Jesus get the benefits of justification?”  It’s important to underscore, again and again, the personal and existential nature of faith meeting the faith. In dialogue with Krister Stendahl (chapter 1), Westerholm points out that Greco-Roman pagans were neither 1) acutely exercised about specific sins, nor 2) beating the doors down to enter God’s covenant through the Jews (i.e. Abraham). But Paul’s preaching to both Jew and Gentile followed the imperative nature of passages like 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and Ephesians 5:3-6. God’s wrath is coming upon the whole world for its unrighteousness; the only escape is through Christ. The Jews had a long-standing apocalyptic tradition; the Greeks, anxiety over how the gods might reckon with their lapses in virtue. A gospel that proclaims the end of the old, unrighteous order, the inauguration of a new, righteous one, and safe transfer for the believer from the former to the latter found resonance in many (though not all, or even most) of Paul’s hearers.

The goal, according to Paul, is to be “found” on the day of God’s visitation, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law [which amounts to no righteousness, but that’s a topic for another day], but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9).

“What is your name?” was not only the first question Monty Python’s King Arthur had to answer before crossing the bridge of death; it’s the first question in the Anglican catechism. The gospel calls for a response from each of us individually. The faith community, which expresses itself at God’s lunch counter, is composed of such creatures. While covenant faithfulness is certainly an important aspect of God’s righteousness — and we can thank Wright for highlighting it — Westerholm shows us that God’s faithfulness is more cosmic in scope: faithfulness to creation, which means expelling unrighteousness while saving those who obey the gospel. The center-right scholar Westerholm succeeds in reiterating justification in terms that are recognizable in a traditional, Augustinian-reformed-evangelical framework.

N.T. Wright may be the rock star. But on this score Stephen Westerholm plays a better tune.