Thursday, June 28, 2012

I know...

This post has been a couple of days in the making, and it’s still just an unfocused ramble... Thought I’d put it out there anyway... stop ruminating on it. My apologies in advance for what comes next...!

Axl Rose – inexplicably
sexy back in the day
I’ve been thinking about my last post (yeh, I know it’s been a while) – specifically about that girl who said Patti Smith is a prophet. It makes me think that we are pretty quick to inflate our cultural heroes beyond their actual “value.” And of course, no person is more important than other people, it’s just how we regard them.  Maybe it’s just the way people tend to hyperbolize nowadays. We say something is “awesome,” or someone is “a genius,” when in actuality, the thing might be pretty good, and the person might be insightful on occasion.

Or maybe it’s just ME rather than people in general. Maybe I’m easily impressed. I mean, my husband isn’t likely to use the word “awesome,” or “genius.” On the rare occasion when I cook something decent, Tom will say in a nonchalant sort of way, “it’s good”... but only if asked. Then he may eat three helpings. So either he was exceptionally hungry, or it was maybe a litte better than good. In terms of music or movies, he is extremely hard to please. A movie that earns an Oscar nomination may be described by my husband as, “Okay.” And not because his tastes aren't sophisticated... but because he is even MORE picky that the Oscar pickers! On second thought, I think Tom does use hyperbole too, but just less freely. He reserves it for his special favorites like Orson Welles and Bob Dylan. 
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young –
just good with words?

Not me... I have a long list of people I put on probably undeserved pedestals. Mostly musicians. If you don’t believe me, read this. I am not sure why these guys capture my heart – and it IS just the guys. Sure, I admire Chrissy Hynde, but she doesn’t fascinate me the way some musicians of the opposite gender do. I guess, since I am pretty firmly in the heterosexual camp, it’s a matter of attraction and/or romance. I once read a book about the Laurel Canyon scene in the 1970s that included Neil Young, Crosby Stills & Nash, James Taylor, etc. One woman interviewed said something like, “I used to think those [songwriters] were super deep and wise and had beautiful minds, but then I realized that they were just guys who had a way with words.” 

I know exactly what that lady is talking about... this tendency to venerate guys like that. And I love how rockers are, on one hand, gritty and wild and (can be) super masculine. AND on the other hand, they can be super sensitive and poetic and vulnerable... Like Axl Rose singing Sweet Child Of Mine, which is, by the way, a killer song. Or grunge-licious Eddie Vedder growling out his pain. Or homely farmer-looking poet Neil Young looking for a Heart of Gold. I am not sure why, but even when some of those guys sport makeup and poofy hair, they exude masculine sexuality to me. 

Tom Petty – born to rock
But I am really digressing here. What I was really trying to talk about is our tendency to over-love pop culture and its icons. I do it, so if I’m pointing fingers, I’m pointing first and foremost to myself. Is it idolatry? Is that why they call pop culture stars “idols” sometimes? I think in my own case, it’s more of a fascination. I’m not really worshipping them... I’m just a consumer of their awesomeness. I mean... their special gifts. 

It’s more silly than anything – this veneration of a TV show or a musician. They are just people with gifts that lie in my area of interest. Take Tom Petty... He’s a good songwriter, and a decent musician, but not a virtuoso or anything... but whenever I have the great privilege of seeing him on stage I am struck by the idea that he was born to do exactly what he’s doing. Which is a little funny because it implies that God makes some people to be rock and rollers. I kind of hope He does. Anyway, some of these people I tend to overlove are just charismatic and and maybe even merely in the right place at the right time. 
Bob Dylan – an actual genius

That said, Bob Dylan is an actual genius. You may think he’s strange; his voice may grate on your last nerve. But go here and read some of these lyrics. If you have any fondness for the English language, you’ll see what I’m talking about. I am not exaggerating. Not even a little bit. The overused word “awesome” also applies. I think even my husband would agree. Or maybe he’d just say that Bob is pretty good.” No, I think he’d agree with my assessment of Bob's genius status.

But for the most part, these people on my pedestals - they’re just people with particular gifts. Are they awesome? Geniuses? Most likely not. And I know this. I know... it’s only rock and roll, but I DO like it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Thus says the Lord..."

Patti Smith – I don't think she's a
prophet, but I really like her shirt!

My husband has a singular sense of humor. He has a phenomenal memory, and obscure references and repetition figure pretty heavily into it. Not everybody gets it, but I really do. We laugh and laugh at our house. This is the reason that if you bring up Patti Smith, there is a 99% chance he’ll say, “prophet.” Because back in college he once found himself in one of those “deep” late-night discussions with a theatre major, in which she declared that artist/songwriter Patti Smith was a “prophet.” Obviously, he thought it was funny, since it pops out again and again... and I can’t say for sure that Patti Smith ISN’T a prophet, but according to what I have gathered from my studies, she seems to be a bit too cool to be a prophet... in the historical / Biblical sense. 

Granted, Ms. Smith is quite the writer. If I’m not mistaken, she’s been churning out rhyme and reason since she was a zygote. And some of it’s quite nice. That’s like the prophets, right? They certainly scratched out some beautiful verses... So beautiful that Handel set them to music. If you’ve ever sat through the butt-numbing entirety of Handel’s Messiah, and thought, “Who was his lyricist? This is fantastic!”... Well, a lot of it was lifted straight out of the scrolls of locust-eaters like Isaiah, Zechariah and Haggai.

Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith
Because the Night together.
Maybe the girl who called Ms. Patti a prophet was speaking of her writing... or maybe the girl thought Patti has some super insight into life and the human heart. But... as prophets tend to address society’s ills and make predictions on where we’re all headed, I’d be more likely to lay the prophet label on someone like Woody Guthrie, who wrote many a protest song... or Bob Dylan whose outrage scalded vinyl back in the early sixties.

Yes, I’d say Patti’s more poet than prophet in this case. She did write Because the Night with Bruce Springsteen (who is higher rank – a prophet or a boss?), but she’s never actually professed to speak for God, I don’t think. The Biblical prophets were always prefacing their speeches with stuff like, “This is what the Lord says concerning...” or “Thus says the Lord...” 

Woody and Bob never said they were speaking for the Almighty either, although I heard Bob say in an interview once that he believed some of those early songs were a gift - poured into him from an external source (or Source, as the case may be!) Now, if you think about this too hard, it could lead to the logical conclusion that God was indeed speaking through him... and racism and senseless war may well have been things that God wanted to come out against at that time. I mean, that IS the kind of thing God hates, right? But I don’t know. I can’t draw a firm conclusion about this. 
Bob Dylan, back when
his songs sounded 

a bit prophetic.

Bob – and Woody and Patti – also never attempted to predict the future, which is another thing prophets do. Not like a fortune teller with a crystal ball, or Johnny Carson with a turban on... or Nostradamus or Edgar Cayce or Sparks. But from God’s mouth. In my view, the absolute peaches and cream of being a prophet would be knowing the mind of God. One of my huge frustrations is always wondering, “What does God think about this? What does He want me to do?” That’s why I love the Bible – being words that He had put down on paper and preserved for us to read, it’s the closest thing I’m going to get to being addressed directly by Him - on an average day, anyway.

Johnny Carson – also
not a prophet.
Other than that, though, those prophet guys had terrible lives, as we rate lives today. Even as they rated lives back then! They were always doing stuff like living in deserts and eating bugs, marrying unfaithful prostitutes and speaking out against bloodthirsty rulers – who would subsequently try to have them killed. Lots of other people hated them them, too. And as much as I hate discomfort, I’m thinking this would be MY least favorite thing about being a prophet.... because you know how I want everybody to like me. I know it’s not possible or necessary, but as the chubby girl with glasses, I’ve always got that little thing in the back of my head. So, I’m thinking that calling Patti Smith a prophet is a stretch. She’s way too admired and probably lives in some funky but pricey brownstone in New York City that she owns outright.

Sparks sang, "I Predict."
Since we’ve just been finishing up the Old Testament in our reading of The Story, I was just wondering what it would look like if a prophet were to emerge today. Not a person with a prophetic temperament, but a real predicting-the-future-from-the-mind of God prophet. And, weirdly, I stumbled across a couple of things... 

The first was a book called Hometown Prophet by Jeff Fulmer... It’s a story set in Nashville about a down and out character – out of a job, living with his mother, sour at life and at God... who starts having prophetic dreams... a flood, an economic crisis, an industrial disaster... as well as a few more personal ones. Once it becomes clear that they are actually coming true, he tries to get the warnings out to those concerned. And while a few close associates rally around, Peter, the main character, experiences a fair share of abuse from acquaintances, some local churches and the secular media. While not a great work of literature, it is a fast, absorbing read, and I thought it gave a pretty good picture of how a prophet might fare in today’s power-, money- and media-driven society.

Just a few days after I finished reading that book, I saw the movie, Take Shelter, about a man who starts having nightmares of storms and disasters. In a low-level panic, he starts building up and outfitting the disused storm shelter on his property, while his wife and friends look on, mystified... worried. He fears he may have inherited his mother’s schizophrenia, so he seeks medical and psychiatric help. He also continues to act on his fears. He loses his job, spends all his money and alienates his friends and family. I couldn’t help thinking about Noah building that huge crazy ark while everyone looked on a laughed. I’m not going to tell you what happened in Take Shelter – I’ve already shared too much of the plot, if you were thinking about watching it – but this story, too, was an absorbing, scary look at how people (including the prophet himself) might react to a prophet these days.

I remember when 911 happened – Pat Robertson said it was because of gay people. While I found that kind of hilarious and way off base, I also thought, “That’s the kind of stuff the prophets said.” Now I think I was wrong about that. Maybe if Pat had called to account our systematic abuse of capitalism and our neglect of the poor, we could have likened him to the guys in the Bible... because that’s the kind of thing the prophets REALLY said... 

Anyway, as with most posts, I’m not sure where I’m going with this... Here are a couple of concluding thoughts:  1. Being a prophet was –  and still would be – a veeeery hard life. 2. In that sense, Patti Smith is most likely not a prophet.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

18 Months of Creams and Lotions...!?

Oh Jack White...
why can't I be you?

As I mentioned earlier, May was a wild ride for our family... In fact, we’re just now coming down from it. I’ve veered wildly between too busy / preoccupied to think about anything to swamped with insights and reflections... few of which I actually remember. 

Sooo... as I jump back into the blogosphere, I was at first tempted to give comment on EVERYTHING that has happened... well, not everything, just some of the standouts... like my GREAT trip to Tennessee for my awesome niece’s high school graduation... or our trip to Asheville to see Jack White. (Jack White - men want to be him, women want to be WITH him. Wait, I think women want to be him, too! Sometimes I do, anyway!)

But then, I just decided to jump in with something that I’ve been thinking about lately... And that is the story of Esther. As we progress through our reading of The Story, we come to this sort of crazy story. It’s full of reeeally nutty things... an a-hole of a king, an a-hole of a henchman, a would-be harem and couple of Jewish people who are just trying to stay alive. 

Kids be graduatin'!
There are a lot of details to the story, so it will be hard to sum it up in a few words, as I would prefer to do... but here goes: The queen Persia of makes the king of Persia mad, so he decides to pick a new queen. He hauls all the attractive young women into the palace, where they live and are given beauty treatments for a year and a half, and paraded before him. Esther, a Jewish woman who has been raised by her uncle Mordecai, is one of these women. And while she’s in the palace, Uncle M hangs out by the city gate to check up on her. While he’s there he overhears some guys plotting against the king. He rats them out – crisis averted. 

So, another guy is Haman, the “henchman” I referred to earlier. Seems he can’t feel good about himself unless every single person in the city bows down to him... and Mordecai isn’t having any of this. This, of course, makes Haman REALLY mad. To top it off, there’s this incident where the king asks Haman, “What should I do to celebrate a guy who has been big help to me?” Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king’s royal robes and led around on the king’s royal horse, while a herald calls: “See how the king honours a man he wishes to reward!” Now, Haman assumes the king is talking about HIM! Imagine his surprise and disgust when he finds himself leading Mordecai around the city and heralding him!

Now Haman is spitting mad! So he gets the stupid king to say that the Jews need to be exterminated. And Haman himself builds a humongous gallows in front of his house with Moredecai’s name on it. 

Next, Mordecai tells Esther, who is queen by now, that it’s her job to get the king to help the Jews... Thing is, though, nobody’s allowed to even go up to the king unless he invites them. So she has to sort of ease into asking him by standing near him until he notices, then inviting him to a banquet night after night. And she invites Haman too... I guess because it’s his evil plot to begin with. 

And the King freaks out when he finds out Esther’s people are about to be annihilated, but there’s not a lot he can do about it. See, with kings, there are no take-backs. The king can’t just negate his own decrees. The only thing he can do is make a second decree that the Jews are allowed to defend themselves. He does this, AND is so mad at Haman that he has him hoisted with his own petard.... that is to say, impaled on the pole he erected for Mordecai. So, with all the people obeying all of the king’s decrees, trying to kill the Jews, then the Jews defending themselves... the body count is horrendous: five hundred attackers and Haman’s ten sons are killed in the capital city, plus seventy-five thousand more Persians in the rest of the country. The yearly commemoration of this insane event is the Jewish holiday, “Purim.”

See? It’s a long story... and full of things that make me go, “Hmmmmm....” and “Huh?” For instance...

The King... what an a-hole!
1. The King. What an a-hole, right?  I know “a-hole” and what it signifies is a gross word, but I do feel it is an accurate descriptive in this – and Haman’s – case.  a) His queen refuses to be paraded as a possession in front of his dinner guests and, boom! time for a new queen!  b) What is it about liking to have women paraded in front of him? Misogynistic much?  c) What kind of wishy-washy jerk agrees to kill a whole people on the word of one advisor?  d) A person can’t even go up to him without being invited? On pain of death? Touchy.  e) How powerful is he if he can’t just rescind his own decree? This king is obviously so powerful that his decrees can’t be broken, even by himself! But if he’s so powerful, why can’t he break it? It reminds me of that age-old question, “If God can do anything, can He make a rock that’s too heavy for Him to lift?” This weird quirk in their law produced a huge, sad waste... 75,500+ dead? Smart. Very smart. 

Haman... the a-hole
behind door number 2!
2. A harem of would-be queens? Nice. What if they didn’t want to go? On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind being subjected to some beauty treatments. I would love to know what those treatments involved, exactly. Nowadays they call that a “spa weekend.” Only for these ladies it was much longer than a weekend: “Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.” What’s crazy to me about this is... that the king won’t even look at a gal unless she had been through 18 months of creams and lotions...!? 

3. Haman. An even bigger a-hole! What kind of guy expects people to bow down to him? Can’t rest until they do? Orders a whole race to be extinguished just to get the one guy who won’t do it? Wants to kill the guy right in front of his house? Assumes that if the king wants to honor a guy it’s naturally himself? I’m sorry, but I’m tempted to give him the Nelson laugh when he gets it in the end. HAH-ha!

Esther... not sure what that
look on her face is all about!
4. Esther and Mordecai... just a couple of Jews trying to stay alive. Mordecai is obviously more of an action-taker than Esther... trying to avert a plot against the king, getting Esther to use her pull with the king to avert a large-scale disaster for the Jews... But Esther? She just wants to lay low.  It’s Mordecai who convinces her to step up and help ALL the Jews.  “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” That is to say, we are urged to use the positions we are in to do what we can for God. This speech is often used to inspire activism.

Despite her “royal position,” I think it’s a miracle that Esther was game to try... She may have been queen, but it looks like to me that Esther’s only power was her actual “position”... her location. Her proximity to the king. I mean, to that guy, women were obviously supposed to stay pretty and polished, come when called, and stay away when ignored. Oh – and be available for parades at the whim of the king.  

There's a movie of this crazy story,
but I don't know if it's any good...
That said, she did it. She devised this elaborate plan of humility and hospitality, and the king changed his mind. Because she was brave and she was willing. And because she used all the gifts God gave her to further His kingdom – even those things that you would think would not be terribly helpful, like her submissiveness and her beauty and feminine wiles. It kind of stretches the imagination regarding what qualities are useful to God and his people, doesn’t it? It's clear that He uses what we consider our failures – or at least, not helpful, as well as what we regard as our advantages – wealth, power, popularity, talent... 

I think God PREFERS to use our weaknesses, in fact. What better way to show HIS strength, right?  Like God told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In my case, I have to hope this is true. Sure, I have a lot of advantages... but I also experience a copious amount of failure and weakness. It’s good to know that God can get the job done in spite of my great slackitude!