He’s Not a Republican: John Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus”

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The diverse and manifold strains of contemporary Christian theology seem to all be bent on convincing you of one thing in particular: Jesus is not who you think he is. Saints and denominations of many places and times all have their takes on who Jesus is or was, and that’s not counting the rival viewpoints offered up by Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, etc. So whenever a scholar tries their best to get to what Jesus must’ve meant to his immediate contemporaries, first-century Jews and Gentiles, it comes as a welcome repose from the endless barrage of revisionism. John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is an eye-opening look at what Jesus and the other New Testament writers meant socially and politically to their initial audience.

Jesus, even more so than Moses, Muhammad or Gautama Buddha, is an historical figure regularly invested with timelessness, sometimes at the expense of losing his identity as a first-century Jewish historical figure. No one’s at fault for perpetuating this way of thinking about Jesus; the Christian doctrine of Christ’s preexisting eternality can find its root in the early letters of Paul and his compatriots. It remains ironic though that we lose the historical Jesus so easy when the Four Gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke, are so hung up on certain space-time details of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. Their theological points are made through their historical storytelling and analysis.

Jesus

What Yoder brings to the table seems obvious once stated but stays hidden in plain sight for so many. The theologically charged, historically rooted stories and letters of the New Testament were meant to bring about change in this world, which is to say at least a significant part of Jesus’ message could be considered social and political. His life and teachings were revolutionary for their era and remain revolutionary now. And surprise: Jesus isn’t a Republican! Or a Democrat. Or (sigh) a Libertarian. His sociopolitical message is, instead, something far more radical and inspiring than anything you’re likely to see on Capitol Hill.

While Yoder is most known for his appeals for Christian pacifism, I found them a bit underwhelming here. It wasn’t to say he did a poor job defending a “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus-was-anti-war position. You’ll find ample support for them in the book but his thoughts on the issue are drowned out by some more poignant statements on the nature of both power and servitude, as redefined by Jesus’ life, death and teachings.

Chapter Eight, “Christ and Power,” is one of the most succinctly and simply put explanations of the Christian idea of “principalities and powers” I’ve ever read. Yoder suggests that the “principalities and powers” Christ is now ruling over, as we are told by Paul the Apostle, shouldn’t defined so medievally as angels and demons. Instead, the text and context are speaking about the powers which drive reality, the wholes that are more than the sum of their parts.

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In other words, the “powers” referred to by Paul are the social constructs which surround us that end up taking on a life of their own. Are humans responsible for the creation of politics, economics, religious life, sexual norms, etc.? Contemporary sociology would say so and Yoder agrees, in part. We created money, for instance, but in some unknowable way, money has taken on a life of its own. Even the atheist Karl Marx conceded to this sort of ideology. There were intangible forces behind the tangible ones. It’s refreshing to hear such a clear thinker make a case for a world beyond materialism that can still be rooted in a pragmatic and empirical view of reality.

His chapter on “revolutionary subordination” is even more intriguing. Long have there been arguments about Christianity’s supposed pro-slavery, anti-women stance. Yoder highlights Paul the Apostle’s stance on women and slaves in the light of his cultural context. The Roman stoics weren’t even paying attention to women and slaves. Paul makes claims which, out of context, seem to be subjugating to women unless you realize Jesus’ main political message was “strength to servitude.”

Christian Fish

Were slaves and women encouraged to be “subordinate” then? Yes, but so were men and masters. The only reason Paul encourages slaves and women to remain in their position was because he was also encouraging an ethic by which everyone would serve each other. Women and slaves had a head start. The playing field would become level and, if Jesus is right in saying “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” then Paul’s admonitions to women and slaves are actually very respectful and even empowering. Unlike the pervasive Greco-Roman culture, Paul and Jesus respected women and slaves as actual people worthy of admonition, encouragement and dignity.

The Politics of Jesus is a breath of fresh air, even forty years after its publication. Why most of Yoder’s ideas haven’t gained traction in the Christian church are beyond me. He makes a pretty compelling case for his views being the very same as those which belonged to the early church, the apostles and Christ himself. One would think Christians would like to align themselves with such a worldview.

New Song from Stephen Malkmus

The best. “Wig Out At Jagbags” for best album name.  Malkmus 4evahhhhhhh!!!

Mack’s Mixtape Mondays 11/11

Last night, I started a college radio show, Mack’s Mixtape Mondays, on http://radio.biola.edu. Tune in next week on Monday, 8-9 PM. Here’s the playlist and Maybe Musts from this week!

Love's Crushing Diamond

The Maybe Must Album of the Week is Love’s Crushing Diamond by Mutual Benefit. Mutual Benefit is making me hopeful for the folk genre again. It’s just nostalgic enough and just new enough to feel just right. If you like early Sufjan or any Fleet Foxes, these are your guys!

12 Years a Slave

The Maybe Must Movie of the Week is 12 Years a Slave. If you like your cinema light and frivolous, maybe stay in and watch Grown Ups 2 this weekend, but if you occasionally like it deep, depressing and honest, you’re not going to find anything better in theaters right now. People are saying this is the best depiction of slavery ever committed to film and I’m not going to disagree.

Runaway

The Maybe Must Book of the Week is Runaway by Alice Munro. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, she’s Canadian and she is just the best woman writer I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. She has this way of encapsulating the most human and morally complex experiences in the most everyday circumstances that it’s just enlivening the way I see my existence from day to day. And guys, we’re talking a lady who knows the female psyche and, from what I’ve read, the male one too. So if you want to figure out why you can’t get girls to go out with you or something or what’s the deal with girls to begin with, start with Alice Munro and you’ll end up learning a lot about yourself.

House of Cards

And the Maybe Must TV Show is House of Cards. It’s been out for a while now but it’s the first of its kind. Netflix’s first series, all of its episodes were released on the same day. David Fincher, the Fight Club guy, directs it and Kevin Spacey stars in it. That should be enough right there. But what if you’re like “Mack, you know me so well, but I don’t like politics! How’d you forget that? I thought our relationship meant more to you then that!” Well, luckily, Kevin Spacey turns to the camera and explains all the political stuff along the way. And it sounds cheesy but it’s great and hilarious. If you’ve got Netflix, you need to watch this show.

Green Turns 25: Track-By-Track on One of R.E.M.’s Best Albums

Green

Today, Green is 25. Bands need their landmarks and Green fulfills the same role of The Unforgettable Fire by U2, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths and Remain in Light by Talking Heads. It’s a release bookended by the animated and mumbly angst of youth on one hand and a meaningful settlement into maturity on the other.

“Pop Song 89” starts things off more clearly than Michael Stipe usually tends to. His aim before was a lyrical vocabulary inviting questions and open interpretation. But now, he’s got his heart on his sleeve and he’s the one confused.

“Hello, I saw you, I know you, I knew you / I think I can remember your name / Hello, I’m sorry, I lost myself / I think I thought you were somebody else / Should we talk about the weather? / Should we talk about the government?”

In Stipe’s voice and Peter Buck’s jangly guitar tones, the song sounds like a party favor going off. But imagine those lyrics and sounds in the hands of Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood or perhaps in the darkest David Byrne discotheque. In such hands, it’s an ode to disconnection.

“Get Up” takes its guitars and pumps them up with an intensity and wailing conjuring up thoughts of the soon-to-be released Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. There’s a sprightliness these Georgians bring to even that ominous guitar sound and it’s wedded perfectly to their repeated refrain here: “Dreams, they complicate my life / Dreams, they complement my life.” Their genius on Green and future classics like “Everybody Hurts” was to never forget the second half of that adage while holding fast to the first as well.

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“You Are The Everything” is where they ushered in the sound they’d be most remembered for. As soon as Peter Buck committed this mandolin-strummed ditty to recording, he and his bandmates had the prototype for Automatic for the People and Out of Time. Here they established a bayou sounding sense of Southern hospitality, a Flannery O’Connor kind of honest and gothic aesthetic. It’s the sound expanded upon in the darkness of Automatic’s “Drive” or its most haunting ballad “Sweetness Follows.” Stipe has rarely been as poetic and softspokenly profound as he is here. “I look at her and I see the beauty / Of the light of music.” Listen to this and you will too.

“Stand” is perhaps most notable for its ability to make its listeners sway their arms in an absurd, circular motion, as per its music video. And I’ll come right out and say it: this is just a stupid, pointless song! It has the philosophical weight of Happy Gilmore. But who doesn’t like Happy Gilmore? Maybe some people. But they are, objectively speaking, godless fascists. It sounds like Disney’s California Adventure so don’t take yourself so seriously and spin your arms in a circle too, dammit!

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“World Leader Pretend” is Stipe at his metaphorical best and his most introspective. It’s the story of a man at war with himself, humble enough to know he has no control over others but hubristic enough to think he can be the “World Leader Pretend” over himself. Given Green’s appearance at the tail end of the Cold War, Stipe made the most of his ability to latch on to the quiet clash of world powers for its ideas of stalemate and built-up barricades.

“This is my world, and I am the World Leader Pretend / This is my life, and this is my time / I have been given the freedom to do as I see fit / It’s high time I razed the walls that I’ve constructed.”

Eighties America was rife with messages of the triumph of American freedom and individualism, especially in the face of socialistic tyranny. Stipe’s words are wise. Even if we’re allowed to run ourselves, be our own World Leader Pretends, we’ll muck it up just as badly as a tyrannical government. The freedom to do as we see fit is often as much a burden as it is a blessing.

And soak in that piano and lap steel.

“The Wrong Child” channels the same spirit as “You Are The Everything.” Present again are the mandolins and downtime warbles. For anyone who remembers their misfit youth, this song should bring a tear to their eye. It’s a perfectly captured Polaroid of an isolated childhood won over by a defiant acceptance. When Stipe sings “It’s okaaaaaaaayyy!” as this lonely child, the power is palpable. “Come play with me, I whispered to my newfound friend / Tell me what it’s like to go outside / I’ve never been / And I never will.”

It’s a potent picture of the album as a whole. Stipe’s sense of creeping isolation and childhood insecurity made sure their first albums were colored by mumbles and misunderstandings. Brilliant ones, at that. But now, on Green and “The Wrong Child” in particular, he’s ready to say what he means loud and proud

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“Orange Crush” is so badass. Need more be said?

“Turn You Inside Out” doesn’t really have as much to recommend it lyrically as other tracks on the album. Other than the shouted, enigmatic chant, “I believe in what you do, I believe in watching you,” the real strength here lies in the power of the guitar’s onslaughts and battle cries.

“Hairshirt” brings back those mandolins yet again and it should be no surprise how sentimental the result is. Funnily enough, this is the song which most possesses R.E.M.’s upcoming, trademark nineties sound and also the song whose lyrical style most conjures up the abstract mutterings of Murmur, Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant. If you’re looking for the bridge between the two sounds, here it is!

“I Remember California” is the most post-punk I’ve ever heard these guys and the second most apocalyptic (after “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”). As someone born and bred in California, I’ve got to give Stipe credit for creating such a nightmarishly accurate picture of the state. The premise seems to be an old one: what if California just off and tumbled into the sea? Outside all the perfectly descriptive and evocative language about remembering the state itself, the most entrancing mantra is: “I recall that you were there / Golden smile and shining hair / I recall it wasn’t fair / Recollect it wasn’t fair / Remembering it wasn’t fair outside.” Maybe we Californians deserve submergence after all.

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“Untitled” fits as well as an album closer as it would as an ‘80s movie end credits song.   It’s more a postscript than an ending. The organ rolls accentuate each statement of Stipean kum-bay-ah. “I’ve seen the world,” he sings. And once you get to the end of Green, you’d be a fool to think he hadn’t.

R.E.M.‘s lyrics got less and less cryptic, their music more and more pronouncedly accessible, as time trod on. Green has the appeal of the girlfriend or boyfriend you date right before you meet your wife or husband: a fond memory, an underdeveloped but necessary stepping stone for the both of you, so close to full potential you sometimes wonder on your worst days of marriage if they were the best after all. Green is the fine line between what you used to want and what you’d eventually settle down with, the middle state between Murmur and Automatic for the People, a wedding of innocence and experience.

Hitchslapped: A Review of “God is Not Great”

God Is Not Great

A couple weeks ago, I finished a book which is a few years old but makes a point which is far older. The book is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens and its point is that God’s almost certainly not there and is a real jerk if he somehow is. According to the famed atheist, the idea of a real God or gods is capable of stifling human development, oppressing human desire and robbing human joy. Though Hitchens would’ve vehemently disagreed with the historical veracity of the account, this assertion is as old at least as the serpent’s words in Eden.

I’ve always loved Hitch. In my most devout days, he was and still is my favorite of the recent atheist Rottweilers.  Admittedly, the man was caustic in his approach, but his words bit so hard because he’d sharpened them on a constant feast of illustrious experience and widespread, passionate reading. With his death, we lost one of our  wittiest, clearest and sincerest writers. Insulting or not, Hitchens believed his every word about disbelief right to the end.

Christopher Hitchens

God is Not Great shows he understood an argument can never be won by pure logical deconstruction. We are narrative creatures and need a story to ground our facts in. I’ve yet to read Dennett’s Breaking the Spell or Dawkins’ notorious The God Delusion but, from what I know about both those men, their antitheistic literature would tend to the more scientific and philosophical side of things. Hitchens was a journalist first so most of his arguments are by anecdote, either personal or historical.

Far from the caricatured atheist stereotype a number of theistic apologists perpetuate, Hitchens is a humanist through and through. His arguments against religion are deft because of their earnest desire for human flourishing and dignity. Maligning him as someone who wants to see the decay of human morality and social mores is to utterly misunderstand his message. He may, at times, be too vitriolic for his own good but he should be commended for his dedication to human rights even if he’s a bit rough around the edges for the more puritanical.

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When it comes to the injustices perpetuated by religious influence, Hitchens is as strong as they come. For someone who holds to an occasionally fragile form of religious belief myself, I was often left shaking my head or even sickened at the evils which have transpired in the name of God and proselytization. But perhaps most interesting of all were his stories about religion forming so quickly around shams and charlatans.

There is a set of indigenous people who, when visited by some cargo ships, built a religion around the coming and eventual return of the gods who visited them on these cargo ships. They’ve built docks and they’re still waiting for the cargo ships but they ships are not coming back. Also, there’s a story of a medieval Jewish candidate for the long-awaited Messiah position, with dedicated followers aplenty, who converts to Islam once certain death is hung above his head by the powers that be.

But when it comes to biblical analysis, I was surprised by the blunted blade of his exegesis. He interprets scripture like a fundamentalist which isn’t surprising given his book seems to largely be a polemic against fundamentalism. But, prior to reading Hitchens’ book, I’d inhaled quite a few sophisticated theological and exegetical tomes, both liberal and conservative. It disappointed me to see Hitchens had apparently done no such thing.

Christopher Hitchens 2

This lowest common denominator interpretation of the Old and New Testaments left me wanting more as I could see plenty of the biblical “evils” he discusses explained away by a simple look at larger ancient societal, linguistic and literary contexts. I’m not of the “nothing barbaric happens in the Bible” camp; there are definitely quite a few incidents in the Old and New Testaments which raise my eyebrows and turn my stomach. But if your argument hinges on the misinformation and vaguely illiterate judgmentalism propagated by belief, it would help to not be so misinformed and vaguely illiterate when it comes to the topics you’re attacking.

Luckily, the terms “misinformed” and “vaguely illiterate” aren’t even close to applicable to Hitchens as a whole. I enjoyed his research and beautifully brutal prose. Upon finishing the book, I felt I’d finished the work of a learned and enigmatic person but certainly not a prophet. His arguments went in hills and valleys and I think Hitch would be glad I didn’t take his word wholesale. After all, doing so would be to feed into the same devoted impulse which, according to the author, poisons everything.

So Long, Lou

Velvet Underground

I can still remember the first time I heard “Sunday Morning” off of The Velvet Underground & Nico and knew it wasn’t going to be the same from here on out. Lou Reed is associated with my freshman year in high school when I discovered Tom Waits, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I’d known the power of music before them all but never in such a centralized, lyrical and innovative way.

Reed once told New York Rock Magazine that “My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” It’s safe to say he lived in almost perfect relation to his self-defined religious outlook. His was a life from cradle to grave spent in adoration and service to the furthest limits of leather-jacket clad and urbane rock and roll music.

His barely-in-key bass vocals were often more spoken than sung. As early as The Velvet Underground & Nico, Reed seemed more preoccupied with documentation than celebration. In a sea of sixties songs about lovey-dovey peace and understanding, Reed observed a culture entrenched in confused sexuality and self-destructive drug abuse. For their time and even for today, songs like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” were startling for their accurate and unrelenting depictions of darkness.

Lou Reed

“Heroin” in particular is almost psalmic in its appeal to the dangerous drug for release and healing. There’s never any doubt the drug is more bad than it is good, that it’ll be the death of the song’s narrator, but Reed gave listeners the poetry needed to understand why such a killer opiate would be taken in the first place.

“Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore / About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town /And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds / And everybody puttin’ everybody else down / And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.”

The song is a great litmus test for what made Reed such a respectable and unique lyricist throughout his tenure with The Velvet Underground as well as his illustrious solo career. He scribbled on topics the more conservative among us would hope to ignore and deny. If you lend him an ear though, it becomes apparent he’s not in the glamorization business. Does he spend a lot of time discussing sex, drugs and rock & roll? Certainly. But unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he calls a spade a spade. That unholy trifecta offered false comfort, would destroy his and many lives, but the same could be said of the more traditional forms of coddling offered by society. He was a poet of painful realities and the things people hurt and deceived themselves with to try and escape their presence.

Lou Reed 3

This sort of darkened, gritty realism made up a significant amount of Reed’s songwriting. But by no means was it all there was. Take a song like “Perfect Day” off his second solo release, Transformer, wherein the lyrics double as a literal explication of a day spent with a romantic interest and his own struggle with substance abuse. “Satellite of Love” is a sad-eyed, simple ballad about watching a satellite in space on TV while reflecting on an unfaithful girlfriend. The more easygoing rock music subjects were in him too but always in a different way than was common.

It’s dangerous to claim anyone for a particular viewpoint when there hasn’t been an explicit statement of belief on their part. Reed was Jewish by descent and the closest he got to religious statement in his more mature years was to admit “I think that everything happens for a reason, everything happens when it’s going to happen.” Nonetheless, Reed was no doubt a humanist. His songs were penned about the people he saw and the life he experienced, both so far from ideal and both so rife with potential and desire. Redemption always looms on the horizon in even his darkest moments because he never loses the pulse of his or anyone’s heartbeat.

Lou Reed 2

His rock bottom sagas propelled him to turn to drugs, love and the occasional bout with faith to save him. On “Heroin,” he sings “When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son / And I guess I just don’t know / And I guess that I just don’t know.” In the wake of the iconic musician’s death, one wonders if this lack of knowledge in the presence of suffering and artful inquiry is the same which led him to sing, “Jesus / Help me find my proper place / Help me in my weakness / Cause I’m falling out of grace / Jesus, Jesus.”

His beautiful words and innovative music gave me the wake-up call of a prophet and the helping hand of an honest friend. If the beauty of “Pale Blue Eyes” didn’t make you bleary-eyed before, it really should now. We may never know if Reed ended up feeling he found his proper place but he can happily lay claim to a life which helped many of us in our weakness.

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