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I don’t know if Derek Webb reads the early Church Fathers, but his brilliant new album Ctrl sounds like he took their advice. If you spend time in the monastic writings of the early centuries of the Church, sooner or later you’ll come across a sentence like this: “Whenever possible, we should always remember death, for this displaces all cares and vanities, allowing us to guard our intellect and giving us unceasing prayer, detachment from our body and hatred of sin” (St. Hesychios the Priest, no. 155 “On Watchfulness and Holiness” in The Philokalia vol 1. p. 190). It may sound shocking to us, but for the monks of the early church, remembrance of death was an exercise in remembering what’s really real

I wonder what the monks would think of Ctrl. The music is a hauntingly beautiful mixture of classical guitar, electronic beats, and sacred harp choral singing.  But I’m less concerned here with music than with meaning. Mortality seems to be one of the themes of Ctrl. The Charles Wesley hymn quoted in the first track, “And See the Flaming Skies,” echoes the monastic meditation on impending judgment: “Soon as from earth I go, / What will become of me? / Eternal happiness or woe / Must then my portion be.”  The rest of the album narrates a life in virtual world as a way of asking, “What is real?” I’m drawing this interpretation from Ryan Smyth‘s tweets from August 30th, in which he outlines the album in terms of a narrative portraying a character’s journey through virtual and real worlds. In songs like “Blocks” and “Pressing on the Bruise”,  the character expresses insatiable longings for his fictional reality. When the longings are met (songs: “Attonitos Gloria” and “I Feel Everything”) the character is left numb and dying. (At this point I can’t help but wonder, could this be a commentary on pornography?) In the end (songs: “Reanimate,” “Real Ghost” and “Every Corner”), the character is resurrected into reality and commits to live in true reality rather than false versions of reality.

I’ve only read a few reviews of the album (see NoiseTrade and Relevant), and it’s intentionally mysterious, so I’m not pretending to have an authoritative interpretation of Ctrl. But I’ll hazard a simple guess: I think the point of “Ctrl” is that when we seek control – as we all do with whatever virtual worlds we create for ourselves – we unintentionally separate ourselves from reality. Separation from reality ultimately leads to death. Life comes from dedication to reality. And living in the truth means yielding our control, recognizing that we are not sovereign, and repenting of our attempts to manipulate that which we cannot control.

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Two weekends ago, I was on vacation in Colorado. More specifically, I was at the Planet Bluegrass Folks Festival. It was a beautiful end to a restful week in my home state. Good food, good beer, good music, good friends and family. And, during the lazy afternoons at the music festival, time to read a good book.

One of the two books I brought along on vacation was Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World. David Carlson, the author, shares throughout the book stories of visits he made to Christian monasteries in America, interviewing monks and nuns and see how they responded to September 11th. Carlson was searching for, and found, examples of more Christlike responses to 9/11 than were ever heard in the American media in the wake of the attack. I’ll save the message on loving our enemies for later. For now I’m concerned about one particular quote from one of the visits (which, incidentally, was with an artist, and not a monk).

Sitting in the afternoon sun at the Folks Festival, I read about Carlson’s encounter with Richard Bresnahan, a potter who was then working in a studio at the Benedictine affiliated St. John’s College in Minnesota.  Recalling Bresnahan’s comments on the American lifestyle, Carlson wrote:

As evidence of our falsity, he cited the modern preoccupation of being “true to one’s self,” a goal far different from the traditional understanding of integrity.  “If you’re going to be ‘true to yourself.’ that’s that hollow voice yelling in a soundless cave. If you’re going to be true to others, your self is understood.” For Bresnahan, integrity is not being loyal to one’s own narcissistic whims, but being loyal to that which brings balance to human community life. (pp. 192-193)

I was struck by Bresnahan’s insight that integrity is about being faithful to others, not being “true to one’s self.” Though the book doesn’t portrays his religious views as explicitly Christian, Bresnahan was articulating a fundamental Christian truth. Our selves are frankly deceitful. As the Biblical prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB). Because we’re naturally given to self-interest and self-preservation, being “true to ourselves” may just be a euphemism for “being selfish.” If this deceitful heart is the “self” to which we should be true, how will we ever survive the fickleness of our emotions?

How should our “self” is defined: in an individualistic way, or in terms of social relationships?  Should I, as Chris, seek to be “true to Chris”? That sounds vague because it is vague.  It gives no way to determine what integrity looks like apart from a general appeal to my own feelings. A better way of defining who I am is through my commitments to others: I should be true to who I am as a husband, a (soon-to-be) father, a pastor, a writer, a friend, a son, etc. That gives concrete meaning to what integrity should look like in my life. And it means that a faithful search for integrity should include a healthy measure of self-doubt, humility, and willingness to submit to those to whom I’m committed. When our vision of integrity is about being true to our own subjective definitions of our selves, we’re little more than slaves to our own desires. But if our “self” is defined by virtue of our real relationships to others, and the gifts we’ve been given for the sake of loving and serving others, then being true to our selves is the same as being true to others.

But too often in our culture, being true to one’s self is reduced to obedience to one’s own emotions or desires. Back at the Folks Festival, later that night, I heard a different message through the loudspeakers at the festival.  Lyle Lovett was singing “Isn’t That So”, a song whose chorus goes, “Isn’t that so / Tell me, isn’t that so / You got to go when your heart says go / Isn’t that so.”  I enjoy listening to Lyle, but I get sad when the song says “Let that line of least resistance lead me on.”  The line of least resistance is usually the line which tells us to follow our own fleshly desires. And those desires are exactly what the song calls us to indulge: “Well, he [God] knew what he was doin’ / When he put eyes into my head / If he didn’t want me to lookin’ at them pretty little women / He’d’a left my ol’ eyeballs dead.”

Yes, God gave us the gifts of beauty and the sight to apprehend beauty. But to turn recognition of such gifts into a theological justification of lust is the sort of demonic distortion of the good which lies behind all sin. Jesus, who knew what He was doing in giving sight to the blind, had different words to say about the promiscuity of our eyes: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28-29). I do not hear Jesus calling us to “go when our hearts say go.” But I do hear Jesus calling us to a radical commitment to integrity, defined not by our own whims, but by submission to His Lordship and fidelity to the relationships in which He’s placed us.  “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

kyle-rictor-church-pew-photoOn the first Friday of September (the 3rd), Upper Room will be hosting Kyle Rictor in concert. This will be our 3rd concert at the Upper Room, and we’re finding that our space is a great, intimate place to listen to good music. After Kyle finishes his set, the concert moves next door to PD’s Pub, where The Cowboy Relics (featuring Upper Room’s own Jordan Otto on bass) will be playing. For more information, check out the Facebook Event page. Come out and bring your friends to have some fun and hear some good music!

(Note: This is re-posted from Upper Room’s website.)

 We’re having another concert at Upper Room tomorrow night: PW Gopal.  PW is an amazingly gifted musician, and we’re lucky to have him playing here.  In addition to his sharing his music with us, he’ll be serving as an artist representative for Not For Sale, raising awareness about human trafficking.  The show is at 8pm at 5828 Forward Ave. in Squirrel Hill, next to PD’s Pub.  If you need more information, send us an email or visit the Facebook event page.

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Come join us this afternoon for “Converge: A Picnic in the Park Celebrating Diversity Through Music and Dance”!  It runs from 12:00-4:00 up at Frick Park.  Go in the Blue Slide entrance (Beechwood & Nicholson) and walk along the path toward the dog park.  We’ll have live music from Kim Faught, the Guinea West African Drum and Dance Ensemble, and Joy Ike.   Bring some food and a blanket and prepare for a fun afternoon of music in the park.  For more, go here.

Charlie Hall’s new cd The Bright Sadness was released today, and I’m impressed.  I’ve enjoyed Charlie Hall’s music for a long time because of his ability to blend theologically sound lyrics with creative music, and this new cd continues the same tradition.  The theological themes in The Bright Sadness are suffering, mortality, and the hope of new life and resurrection which carries us through darkness.  Christ’s victory over death is lifted up in songs like “Chainbreaker” and “Bloom Again”.  The sacraments also show up a lot: “Walk the World” has the following chorus: “Let my life shine, come let my heart shine / We’re going to walk the world and lift the bread and wine / Like the stars shine, come and let our hearts shine / In a dark world, we lift the bread and wine.” A little later, in the song “Hookers and Robbers” – in which Hall speaks the words so quickly he’s practically rapping – the pinnacle of the song comes with a reference to the Eucharist: “So wipe off your tears and laugh just a little / Come break the Bread, celebrate the Forgiver / Raise up a glass, a time to remember / Come break this Bread, celebrate the Forgiver”.

Not all the songs are not as user-friendly for corporate worship as others from earlier in Hall’s career, but that’s because the emphasis is on the art of the music.  Rather than sounding like baptized pop songs, The Bright Sadness is an artistic portrait of praise in the midst of struggle, one which points to the hope of new life to come after the cross.