Monday, December 26, 2011

Done and Perfect

Writers often stagnate in the "finishing" phase; they have done good work, but they just can't bring it to completion. In such times, it's wise to remember:
I have several friends that are incredibly talented. They will start on projects but rarely follow through. They get bored or distracted or discouraged that it's not "perfect" and give up. Following through and finishing things is one of the most important things you can learn.
One of my favorite quotes is "Done is better than perfect." That doesn't mean making crap – I believe you should always strive for the highest quality you can – but you have to finish. I think a lot of my friends in this situation don't realize how in-demand their skills are. I think if you follow through on projects and just put the tiniest little effort into promoting yourself and have the tiniest bit of self-confidence, you can get the job you want.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Answering Charles P. Pierce's Tebow Rant and Merril Hoge's Tebow Cant

by CWK

In Response to Charles P. Pierce's muddled criticism of Tebow...

First, a quote from Tim Keller:

...the minute one says, ‘All religions only see part of the truth,’ you are claiming the very knowledge you say no one else has. And they are demonstrating the same spiritual arrogance they so often accuse Christians of. In other words, to say all is relative, is itself a truth statement but dangerous because it uses smoke and mirrors to make itself sound more tolerant than the rest. Most folks who hold this view think they are more enlightened than those who hold to absolutes when in fact they are really just as strong in their belief system as everyone else. I do not think most of these folks are purposefully using trickery or bad motives. This is because they seem to have even convinced themselves of the “truth” of their position, even though they claim “truth” does not exist or at least can’t be known. Ironic isn’t it? The position is intellectually inconsistent...Ultimately, if you judge your doubts the same way you judge other peoples' religion, then you find yourself hoisted on your own petard. Right? Yes. It's just as arrogant to claim relativism, as it is to claim religious truth.

Second, a quote from Samuel Johnson:

The original and predominant error of (Mr. Charles P. Pierce’s) commentary is acquiescence in his first thoughts; that precipitation which is produced by consciousness of quick discernment; and that confidence which presumes to do, by surveying the surface, what labor only can perform, by penetrating the bottom.
I. Charles P. Pierce: the Missionary

Charles PP's article was so full of ignorant ideology that I can only say, to quote him, "This is childish. It is silly. And it also makes my head hurt." PP makes all the predictable errors of a man enslaved to postmodern thinking:  he condemns exclusive claims, but rather exclusively; he is critical, but not self-critical.

First, he condemns Tebow's allegiance to "(an) only true message," and fails to realize that he is also postulating an "only true message" of his own. He's just as much a bigot as he thinks Tebow is. After all, if we shouldn't condemn other's religious expression -- then why should he take the time to condemn Tebow's? If he really believed that we should just let other's espouse their religion openly, and without criticism -- well then, he'd take no notice of Tebow, and defer criticism. PP is arguing that Tebow is WRONG for arguing that others are WRONG, i.e. his own argument defeats his position: it is self-contradictory. It seems humble; it is the height of arrogance. It seems inclusive; it is the height of exclusivity. 

PP pretends to be against religious exclusivism, and he argues as much with the old song, "religious exclusivism starts wars." He fails to note that his own position is rather, umm, exclusive. In truth, it's not so much that PP is against espousing an exclusive religious perspective in public (he blatantly does this in his article). Rather, he is against Tebow espousing his exclusive religious perspective in public. 

PP pictures Tebow in the religious fray, and himself standing above it all: like a cool god, condemning 'poor' Tebow who just doesn't get it — but, actually, it is Pierce who doesn't get it. He's blind to his own presuppositions. He's right down in the fray with ‘poor’ Tebow clinging to his own little god, and preaching just as vehemently as Tebow preaches. He's miffed that Tebow publicly trumpets his views on religion. Yet PP does exactly the same thing; he isn't minding his own religious business; he publicly trumpets his views on religion at The difference? Tebow trumpets his views with grace, humor, and true humility; PP trumpets his with bitterness, sarcasm, and false humility. Both men have a trumpet. PP is trying to blow his more loudly while, at the same time, complaining that Tebow has a trumpet at all.

PP has a gospel; it is a sad one, and it's not really good news, but he has a perspective, and he is trying to evangelize the masses with his light. He’s every bit as much a missionary as Tebow. He is a secular missionary who condemns missionaries outside his ilk, and preachers outside his faith. At least Tebow embraces his calling as a preacher; in that, he is surely more sincere than PP. 

Now, if PP should happen to read this, let me be clear: Christianity, as set forth in the scripture, is TRUE: the true path to the true God. All other religions are, to one degree or another, FALSE: false and misleading paths away from the true God. If I could think of a more exclusivist way to put this, I would. Jesus did: I am THE way, THE truth, and THE life. So, I’m trying, as hard as I can, to say that Christianity is truly the truth: the one and only all-inclusive, exclusive, genuine, honest-to-goodness TRUTH. Yep, I said it. I wonder if PP would dare to contradict my statement. He can't win if he does. If he actually believes that no one should dare make exclusive statements about what is true/false in religion then he'll have to sit silently, and bite his tongue. If, on the other hand, he believes that HIS PERSPECTIVE is true... you guessed it: he's just like me, and he’s just like Tim Tebow. 

II. Search the Scriptures

If you read PP’s article carefully, you'll also see that he makes a curious misapplication of scripture. He refers to Mk. 1.35-38 as proof that "everyone gets tired of their own hype." For reals? That's what he thinks that passage means? I wonder how he'd feel if I freely interpreted his article -- as he does scripture -- to score a trite point. 

If he read Mk. 1.35-38 carefully, or even half-awake, he'd see that it actually commends the importance of PREACHING. Preaching. That is, the public proclamation of the word of Christ. 

35  there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out. 

Hmmm. Pierce's reference to scripture would be ironic if it weren't sooooo ironic as to belie the bounds of simple irony. Nah. Something more than irony is at work. Justice has come down on PP from his own hand. He thoughtlessly quotes a passage of scripture, as a proof-text, to buffer his argument, and maybe show that he also knows a thing or two about the Bible. Yet, that very passage contradicts the major premise of his article, and shows he knows nothing about the Bible. 

PP tries to use scripture (as an authority?) to deride Tebow's public preaching; meanwhile, that very passage of scripture extols the importance of public preaching. Yikes. PP does this interpretive slight of hand assuming, apparently, that the Holy Bible agrees with his bitterly skeptical perspective. His assumption is the fruit of prejudice. His prejudice is such that the world must agree with him. The whole world must bow to his perspective. In Pierce's cosmology, the cosmos sees things as he sees the cosmos; even God, in holy scripture, sees the cosmos as he sees the cosmos. Thus, it is fitting that he quotes a passage of scripture that so profoundly disagrees with him. How fitting. He calls God as his witness; God arrives as his Judge.

 III. Football and Theology

"We're all too smart for God these days, and to believe in Tim Tebow is to believe in God in a world that tells us that both are an impossibility. Well, screw the world. We need some new heroes. "

It shouldn't surprise us that Nate Jackson comes to theology. It shouldn't surprise us: everything is theological. Everything is theological: reading, writing, politics, wars, culture, music, AND SPORTS. Pierce is miffed because he believes religion causes some wars; he doesn't understand that religion causes all wars. Pierce is miffed that Tebow introduces Christian theology into the sports arena; he doesn't know that theology resides in every arena.

What you believe about God will shape everything that you do; what a culture believes about God influences every aspect of that culture, including sports: including football. PP has hit on the "main thing" about Tebow's place in the arena of Football, and the arena American culture: his beliefs about God. However, we shouldn't take this to mean that PP's approach is novel, or even surprising. By addressing Tebow's faith he is taking on what has been, all along, the main thing.

In addressing Tebow's theology, PP fancies himself bold, and innovative. He finds theology shocking because he generally sees God nowhere, and then — suddenly — sees God somewhere. Meanwhile, the Christian yawns; they see God everywhere. It’s not bold to proclaim, "God is somewhere"—  not bold at all when, in fact, God is everywhere.

Pierce's blindness to divine realities is well summarized in his opening creed. Note, he does have a creed: a standard he adheres to. His creed? "(Nothing) is sacred." He cites this creed to prove that Tebow's religious views are not sacred; they are, like everything else in his purview, open to questioning, and even mockery. Thus, nothing is sacred. Gotcha. Well, it stands to reason then, if nothing is sacred, that everything is profane. If so, then such a pronouncement says too much. If nothing is sacred, what's the point of saying, "Nothing is sacred?" Why even have a concept of "the sacred?" PP tears up his own creed even as he writes it. Some creed.

IV. The Great Divide

It's worth contemplating: why do critics like Charles P. Pierce and Merril Hodge have such an emotional response to Tebow? Read the Tebow critics and you'll note among many — not just objective critiques — but an undercurrent of bitterness. Among such critics, Merril Hoge leads the way with a passive-aggressive style of irritable irrationality and veiled vitriol.

Mr. Hoge has pulled narry a punch (including low-blows) in attacking Tebow. Hoge is a man who makes small things big. He sports gigantic tie loops on ESPN's Sports Center. He also sports gigantic verbage to condemn Tim Tebow, the sportsman. Every small mistake of Tebow is a fatal flaw: every interception, the worst in history; every stumble, an irrevocable fall. For Hoge, every pass — even a touchdown pass — is proof that Tebow can't throw a touchdown pass. For Hoge, every win is proof that Tebow can't win. Hoge is an examplar of how prejudice can cloud analysis. He is similar to Pierce in this regard. Both men have blinding prejudice which disables them from correctly seeing Tim Tebow.

Before the start of the 2011 season, Hoge proclaimed to the world via Twitter: "Sitting watching tape off bronco offense from last year! Orton or Tebow? It's embarrassing to think the broncos could win with tebow!!" 

Recently, Hoge was faced with the daunting reality of Tebow's impressive first full season as a starter. No longer able to plausibly attack Tebow's arm, he turned to Tebow's mind. 

Hoge asserted: “The more I studied him in an NFL setting, the more disturbed I was that he has no clue what he’s looking at... His IQ as a football player is not very good. That is why they have to come down and make it some of a college-form system that he’s comfortable with in Florida. He can’t execute, from a cerebral aspect, a pro-style system.” 

Wow. Is it possible to say anything more personal, more bitter, or more vicious than this? And what’s with the dramatics? “I was disturbed.” Make no mistake. Meril Hoge is labeling Tim Tebow, in the immortal words of pop-psychologist Charlie Murphy, "a functioning retard." How can Hoge speak like this of another human being? Even if Tebow were the worst possible football player in history, it would still be detestable to say this. If Hoge said this about any other athlete, he'd be in hot water with ESPN. What if he'd said this about a respected coach? Or, a commissioner? Good grief. ESPN suspended Scott Van Pelt for questioning Bud Selig's pay check. 

Admit it, Mr. Hoge. You. Just. Don't. Like. Tim. Tebow. Ya kinda despise him, dontcha? If attacking his mind doesn't work -- what next? I guess you will have to address his soul. Fear not, for I am about to address yours. The reason you don't care for Tebow has nothing to do with mechanics, or mental abilities, or skill. It is a spiritual issue. 

To Mr. Hoge, and Mr. Pierce, and to all the irrational and bitter critiques of Tebow, this I say.

Methinks the critics protest too much. Methinks they despise — not just Tebow — but the God he serves. It’s no good to say, as some critics do, “I am separating the man from the athlete.” You can’t do that. You can't separate Tebow the Christian from Tebow the athlete. He doesn't morph into a separate person when he puts on, or takes off, a football uniform. You can't splice a man apart like that. Tebow is many different things in one man; he is not one thing in many men. 

For my part, I admit it: I pull for Tim Tebow especially because he is a Christian. So what? Does this mean I can't evaluate his play on the field with impartiality? Maybe. Maybe not. At least I'm aware of my prior commitment, and such an admission enables me to more fairly evaluate his play: much more fairly than a supposed objective commentator who conceives of himself as a an impartial judge floating coldly through the world.

I'm tempted to go even a step further and say that "belief" in Tebow is connected to belief in God. I'm not just tempted; I will go a step further and say that, in the end, your disposition toward Tebow is inextricably related to your disposition toward the God he serves. Or, we might say, "If you believe in the true God, then you will likely to be favorable to Tebow." I know this won't be a popular position, but by now I have listened to hours and hours of commentary on Tebow, and I always walk away feeling like those who approach him positively are more friendly to Christianity. And — as for those who approach him the most negatively — to a man, they also slight his Christian profession. This trend surprised me. 

I was once naive enough to believe that sports commentators only cared about sports; they distance their religious personality from their profession, and then their profession from persons. Merill Hoge, for example, has vehemently professed it's nothing personal with Tebow. One blogger examined Hoge's Tweets on Tebow, and observed

Also, it needs to be said that the air of condescension is heavy within what Hoge said above. By capitalizing "FOOTBALL"  has he did, Hoge was trying to stress (perhaps hide behind) the assumption that his criticisms are football related. It's one thing to say it, but to unwaveringly cling to his position - relish it - as he did, that's when it becomes personal and not just about football. Even in text form, his tweets were sopping with that "passion" (remember all those exclamation points?).

I once believed sports commentators had nothing personal against Tebow because, in a myriad different ways, these men vowed thus. Then, I came to believe they did have something personal against Tebow. Now, I'm convinced that their perspective is even more personal — not so much with Tebow, as with his (and my) God. You can't separate a man from his God. In short, if you love Jesus, you will love his followers, and Tim Tebow is one of his followers (John 13.34-35; John 15:18). I don't mean "love" in the sense of, a) You will become a football fan, b) You will become a Denver Broncos fan, c) You will be convinced that Tim Tebow is the best quarterback in the NFL. Rather, by "love," I mean you will be favorably disposed toward — and long for the well-being of — Tim Tebow (and all other Christians). 

Yep, I said it. I said that The Sport’s World’s (and this culture's) disposition toward Tim Tebow is, in reality, a divide between Christians and Pagans. That's why Tebow has inspired, on the one hand, such affection, and on the other hand, such irrational bitterness. I know this will be among the most unpopular things I've ever written. I know, and I don't care. 

Nate Jackson put it well:

"We're all too smart for God these days, and to believe in Tim Tebow is to believe in God in a world that tells us that both are an impossibility. Well, (forget) the world. We need some new heroes."

Note to reader in the interest of blog integrity: I appropriated sections of this post in a longer post dealing specifically with Merril Hoge's disposition toward Tebow.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Face Like Flint

January 2004

Behind: sorrow, shattered promises,
fasting lasting 40 days and nights:
shadows casting doubt on light of very light
and promising kingdoms, glory,
glorious kingdoms and might.  
Behind, betrayal from family and disciples,
and loaded tongues rifled to undermine a mission.
Yes, but it is written. It is written.

Ahead, Judas slinking slowly from the table;
and a trusted rock shattering into pebbles,
a viscious mob laying down
palm branches and taking up derisive chants.
Lonely lovelessness behind,
great enough to frustrate a decision.
But still, no doubts, and no revisions.

Ahead, Jerasulem defiant, and tears;
like a mother hen he will weep
and see broken mothers in the streets,
and broken children at their feet.

Ahead, the darkest night, an innocent
unjustly seized and abducted.
Ahead, accusations on lies conducted.
Ahead, two trees cruelly constucted
into the shape of a cross;
Ahead, a price to pay for a bride.
Ahead, no greater debt, no greater cost.
Ahead, blood and despair
and an absence echoing throughout eternity:
the broken bond of Father and Son
the dirth of affection from eternity begun.
Ahead, death and sheol.
Ahead, enough to drive any man to derision.
But not one drop of indecision.

“Not my will,” he murmured, “not my will,”
but Yours be done:
“I came here, I walked upon these dusty hills,
I drank from dirty glasses.
I sailed in weary ships;
I braved forbidden passes,
and reprooved the stubborn masses.
But I came here with a dying vision.
I came here with a mission,
there will be no indecision.
I came for a bride,
and through these tired eyes
I can see her now.
Joy fills my heart to think of wedding vows.
I came to see the door of sin in rubbles
and a bride bursting free
clothed in raiment white
and dancing, dancing toward me.”

Jesus looked behind and ahead,
and paused to wipe the sweat from his brow.
He saw bloody Jerusalem through the mist...but now,
past Jerusalem, joy and ressurection!
His eyes sharpened, and his face hardened.
He clinched his fist and took one step
toward pain and joy and suffering and grace.
He was on a mission and he would not relent.
Then, he set his face like a flint.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Re: Repentance

by CK

Nagging constant doubt without, and within,
no peace, only a thirst unceased
since this all began, since my hand
made a decision my mind could not condone,
and tossed aside the sacred stone
in one moment, with one decision
which was the fruit of a million seeds sown
over a thousand days, in the smallest ways,
but I can't locate with any precision
when my life began to speed
past me, like a runaway train,
baffling my resolutions and best solutions,
and turning a quiet mind insane.

I turned.
At first, because I was hungry and tired,
and wearied by my own insanity,
and then, because I thought I heard
a voice; it was urgent, but opaque, at first,
and then it suddenly grew clear
and exact, like a scientific fact.
Then, I heard the words
I never thought would grace my graceless ears.
"My son, come back."

I’m sorry.
I hurt me, you, and us.
I regret so much:
more than I remember.
I regret the need;
I regret the deed,
and accept the consequence.

I regret the path that led off from innocence,
and left our whole world dismembered.
I'm sorry.

And, now, I will change direction;
I will turn and walk this path of lonesome resurrection.
It may take years, weeks, even days,
but I will travel, though weary and unwell.
I will travel and refuse to stay
one night in a one night cheap hotel.

I feel new:
like a tiny child in an unfamiliar town.
People I know seem relocated;
New faces. New clothes. New places, debated.
I knew a person once that reminds me
of me; but he is passed, and all I see
is a brave new world: strange and free. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Pride: Always Bad?

by CWK

Pride -- is it always bad? Is it, as Lewis argues in Mere Christianity, the great and quintessential sin? Or, is it sometimes good? Sometimes even healthy? Get ready -- cause I'm going to argue that what we sometimes consider pride can be healthy.

First, we need to get some idea of what pride actually is. Pride is a plastic term in our culture: much used, but mostly undefined. Pride is sometimes used in a positive sense. This version of pride refers to proper self-confidence, and even self-congratulation. It is a state of mind wherein we can, with reason, hold our heads high. Leaders as diverse as Margaret Thatcher and Bear Bryant have spoken positively of pride in this sense as a kind of informed and proper dignity which flows from virtuous action. This kind of pride comes from and leads to self-respect. This kind of pride is not a vice, and not really a virtue. It is our thoughts about ourselves which result from virtue.

Now, let's turn to the negative versions of pride: those version of pride which are certainly vices.

First, pride sometimes means: overly lofty thoughts about ourselves. This is a wrong opinion about ourselves --- wrong, in that it is too high.  Mary from Pride and Prejudice puts it well:

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.

Pride often concerns my opinion about me. This is the tendency to think too highly of ourselves, and our strengths, and thus, be overconfident. The word over is very important. Thus, pride comes before a fall. Thus, every season on American Idol, a slew of people arrive who cannot sing, and yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, think they can sing. This version of pride leads people to go where they should not go, and attempt things they should not attempt. This is bad, and this is a vice.

We can see now why it is so difficult to talk about pride. The same word sometimes refers to proper confidence, and sometimes overconfidence.

Moving on to second negative connotation with respect to pride -- pride sometimes means: preoccupation with ourselves. This version of pride is evidenced by a steady nauseating stream of "I." We've all been confronted with individuals who had only one subject of every sentence, "I." This is also bad.

The third negative connotation of pride involves irrational autonomy -- an overly independent mindset, "I'll do it on my own, without any help." This version of pride seeks independence from God and friend. This version of pride is the opposite of prayer, and a preview of Hell, "Away from me..." This is very bad.

Now, due to the three negative connotations of pride, some define pride as any confidence in ourselves, any thought about ourselves, or any concern about ourselves, or any autonomy. C.S. Lewis does -- or at least comes close -- in Mere Christianity, "It's best not to think about ourselves at all."

An aside -- Lewis' discussion of pride is one of the weaker sections of Mere Christianity. I hate to say it, because I love Lewis, and he saved my life as a college student -- but, that's not even the weakest section of that book. The section on the atonement is weaker. The approach to apologetics at the beginning of the book is also weak.

Back to pride -- it is important to remember that virtue consists in walking the fine line between extremes. In general, I agree with Aristotle's approach to virtue: virtue is the golden mean. Virtue is steering in the middle of the extremism of vice on either side. So, when it comes to pride, it's best not to think of it as an evil floating in space, i.e. an evil extreme on one side without an opposite evil on the other.

For example -- it's possible for a person to think too highly of themselves; it's also possible for a person to think too lowly of themselves. It's possible for a person to think too much about themselves; it's also possible of a person to think too little about themselves and their own health, future, and so on. It's possible to be so wary of pride that we rush to the other extreme of total self-renunciation. Pride is an evil, but it's not the only evil. Jesus called us to deny ourselves, but he also called us to take care of ourselves, "I send you out as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as serpent and innocent as doves."

So, the Christian antidote to overconfidence is not "no confidence." The Christian antidote to overconfidence (all those overly lofty opinions of ourselves) is "right estimation" of ourselves (Romans 12.3). This includes a sober, honest, sincere evaluation of ourselves: our strengths, weaknesses, gifts, and so on. There is a right and good confidence in our genuine -- not imaginary -- gifts and strengths. It's not virtuous for Lebron James to go around saying he stinks at basketball. Nor would it have been virtuous for Mozart to conceive of himself as a second rate musician. When pride appears as overconfidence, it must be resisted by seeking the golden mean of "right estimation."

We could say similar things about occupation with self and autonomy. Yes, these things can become vices, if followed to the extreme. Yet, they are not vices in themselves. There is a right and good occupation with our selves, "Keep close watch on yourselves and all the flock (Acts 20.28)." There is a right and good autonomy from, for instance, one's parents: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife (Genesis 2.24)."

So, is pride always bad? When it appears as extreme vices (and vices always appear as extremes) -- yes, indeed. However, these extremes are forms of things which are, in themselves, not bad. So, confidence, estimating our gifts, thinking about ourselves, and autonomy can be good. These things, kept in the golden mean, are right and healthy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

By An Ocean

by CK

Sometimes I drive just to drive,
and clear my heart of foolish notions.
I'm there -- barely there -- when I arrive,
but in my mind’s eye,
I’m still somewhere by an ocean.

And I remember what you said
about what I had to offer,
about being my own doctor,
and trying to get ahead,
and becoming my own man.
But I don't know if I can,
and even when I do my best --
I'm a mess -- still a mess.
I'm barely alive, barely coping,
but thank God: I know where I’m going.  I’m going.

My body’s getting older; my mind’s getting slower.
I wish I could start all over again.
Are you sure that I’m still family? Sure that I’m still in?
Is it me – or are the standards getting lower?
Are you sure after knowing
I was broke when I was broken?
And actually I don’t know – still don’t know -- where I’m going.

Yeah, I heard about her; she's bad news
in New York. Nevermind – in my mind,
I still adore her.
I remember her in '09
back before she had the blues,
and where she’s going – I’ve been there before her.
Yeah, I heard the whispers
about her fall from grace -- 
but how can you fall if you fall to the same place?
Seems to me she fell to -- not from -- grace;
and is it grace if you choose it?
Is it grace if, when you're lost, you can lose it?
I still believe in her,
and the grace that holds her.
She can start all over
all over again.
I know she’s still family, and will be to the end.
Is it her – or is mercy getting colder?

And I think of all my friends: where they’ve been,
and where they’re going.
Sometimes in my sleep, I swear,
I can feel them growing.
Did they get back together?
Did they have another child?
Did he ever write that letter?
Did she go – was it worthwhile?
Did he get married after all?
Will they ever take his calls?
Like I miss them -- do they miss me?
Did they miss the trees for the woods?
Can they see -- like they should --
everything is working for their good?

Sometimes I ride out to Hartwell,
and run beside the blue lake.
I run to the tune of Tillman's bell.
I run all by myself;
I run till my legs ache.
I run from the future, more or less to cope --
then the wind whips the water wide awake,
and I hold on. I hold on to a little hope.

Sometimes I drive just to drive.
In my mind’s eye, I’m somewhere by an ocean.
And I remember what else you said,
like the words had just been spoken.
You talked about being alive,
about breathing; about hoping.
And thank God: I know where I'm going. I’m going.

And the truth is that I'm faking
just to keep my heart from breaking.
I'm barely here; hear and barely coping.
Is it showing?
Actually, you know, I don't know --
I still don't know where I'm going.

So, I guess I'll start all over, all over again.
At least I’m still family. At least I'm still in.
How can I fall from grace --
when I land in the same place,
back in the same embrace? 
I was broke when I got here,
and I'm still broken.
And the truth is, that's where I've been,
and that's where I'm going. I'm going.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cedar Rapids and Seinfeld: Morality and Media

Cedar Rapids is a movie no one is talking about. Yet, as a cultural marker, I believe it has special significance.  It's Ed Helms attempt to reprise Steve Carrell's innocent everyman from 40 Year Old Virgin. It's writer Phil Johnston's attempt to rehash the themes in The Big Kahuna. It fails on both accounts.

Cedar Rapids is a poor man's version of The Big Kahuna. It's also a morality tale about the immorality of morality. Sound confusing? It is. As morality plays go, The Big Kahuna had the advantage of a sharper and more serious script -- it was easier to take it seriously. Cedar Rapids, on the other hand, is from the Judd Apatow school of comedy: slapstick raunchiness with a moral. At least, it tries to capitalize on the style Apatow made famous; it gets the raunchiness part pretty well. If you saw 40 Year Old Virgin and The Big Kahuna then you've already seen Cedar Rapids. Yet, where Cedar Rapids fails, 40 Year Old Virgin succeeds, and it all comes down to the moral of the story. The former is an immoral comedy which condemns morality; the latter is an immoral comedy which commends morality. The former stumbles, and stumbles, out into the darkness. The latter stumbles, and stumbles, out into the light.

The central problem with Cedar Rapids is that it's a morality tale about the immorality of morality. It calls out hypocrites, and takes numerous shots at Christians and their (supposedly) strict morality. There are a couple of scenes where even prayer is the butt of the joke. Never mind that true Christianity is not represented in the film. Remember the uproar over The Book Of Eli because it, maybe, almost, kinda was seen as a Christian fable? And, maybe, almost, kinda, cast Christianity as a good guy. Well, there wasn't an uproar over Cedar Rapids, even though it is definitely a Christian fable. Only, this time, Christians are the bad guys. Interesting. Methinks some critics protest too much, and then, don't protest at all.

As a morality tale, Cedar Rapids commends immorality. It does this by, first of all, pointing out that everyone -- even the uptight Christian leaders -- have traces of immorality. This vice is become a virtue in entertainment. Yawn. Why not try something really challenging? -- instead of showing that moral people are immoral, try demonstrating that immoral people are moral. That's way more challenging, and much more surprising.

So, moral people -- even the most moral -- are immoral: are hypocrites at points. That's an old song. Not very surprising. With every new fall of a politician, or global icon, or religious leader, we get this message anew. What no one points out, and what is much more startling, is the opposite truth: immoral people are moral. Cedar Rapids, for example, is chock full of morality.

Yes, Cedar Rapids has morals. It has a certain view of morality. It has its own morality. It commends virtues like friendship, integrity, and loyalty, and excuses vices like drug use, drunkenness, and adultery. It certainly has a morality; it may be the wrong one; it certainly is. As moralities go, it may offer a weaker, sicker, and paler morality than Christianity, but its morality is written in every scene. It's no good calling Christians hypocrites because they have a morality. Everyone has a morality. Even the most immoral person has a take on morality, and a code of ethics. This movie comes to the boring conclusion that moral people are immoral; it proves the startling conclusion that immoral people are moral. Cedar Rapids has a righteous indignation which rivals any Pharisee. All the while, it mocks righteousness: the righteousness of others. Thus, it ends up being an oddly self-righteous movie aimed against self-righteous people.

Seinfeld deserves honorable mention in any pantheon of "morality plays." For my money, it does a more honest days work than Cedar Rapids on the morality question. At least, it commends amorality instead of immorality. Seinfeld attempted to be a non-morality play: "No hugging. No learning." It attempted to offer no morals, no lessons, and no epigrams. It tried real hard to offer up laughs, and only laughs. Seinfeld was to entertainment what Nietzsche was to philosophy; what Skinner was to Sociology; what Freakonomics was to Economics. However, Seinfeld also failed. Seinfeld had a morality; it had a moral take on the universe. Even if it protested, "I have no take" -- it had a take. It moralized all the time. Maybe the moral is harder to find, but that's only because it's morality is weaker and translucent. The fact is, everyone possesses a morality and lives this out every day. You can't talk about life without morals just like you can't breathe without oxygen. It's nonsense. It's irrational.

by L.S.S

Monday, August 08, 2011

Boys To Men

Once upon a time, I lived in a magical trailer park kingdom beside a cursed pond, went on adventures with Huck Finn, was betrayed by a double-headed silver dragon, battled Moby Dick on the high seas, flew like Superman, met the real Superman, came face to face with a merciless bird of prey, feasted on ants and rotted pine, and dreamed of being a preacher like Jimmy Swaggart.

In those days, I was 5 years old. In those days, at least in my eyes, Jimmy Swaggart surpassed all orators. I much preferred him to Billy Graham, who was my father's favorite. According to my dad, in the course of religious education, watching Graham was mandatory: a core course. Swaggart was optional: an elective. Swaggart adorned our TV on occasion, but everything stopped for Graham. We watched Graham, religiously, every time he came on. This was, outside holidays, the number one tradition in our family. Still, I gravitated toward Swaggart. He was more fiery and passionate. His zealous emotional charisma enchanted me. I have a hunch that I wasn't alone and that, at least in 1979, every little boy liked Swaggart more than Graham. Swaggart was a flurry of sound and fury. One moment, crying; the next, pleading; the next; exhorting. Graham was decidedly more pedestrian in 1979. I preferred Swaggart for the same reason I liked fireworks more than fire.

In those days, I'd already made up my mind that I wanted to be a preacher. Maybe Swaggart had something to do with this, but I doubt it. I wanted to be a preacher because it felt like what I was, and what I was created to be. In the succeeding years, I changed my mind pretty often about calling and career. At one point, I flirted with making a career of out of superhero-ism. Then, for about 5 years, I wanted to be an Air Force pilot. When I got to college, my first major was Early Childhood Education. Then, I majored in a slew of other things: Criminal Justice, English, and finally Communications. After college, I thought about being a Lawyer, a Doctor, a Policeman, A Public Relations Specialist, a Real Estate Agent, an Ebay Sensation, and even a Writer. However, in the end, I opted to go to Seminary, and I ended up as a PCA teaching elder. It turns out, my first instinct was right. I wanted to be a preacher before I wanted to be anything. I wanted to be a preacher when most boys wanted to be firemen, and here is where Swaggart comes back in: not so much as my inspiration, but as my model. I wanted to be a preacher, and Swaggart was, in my 5 year old mind, the best preacher ever, ever, pinky swear.

Of course, it wasn't long before Swaggart had a tragic public downfall, and my model was broken to pieces. Graham, ever a tradition in our house, marched on in a blameless life and marked the passing years with various TV specials. My dad had been right all along. I never told him, but he certainly would have approved, when I switched my model to Graham. This was my first lesson in discernment.

In those days, my little brother Billy and I got in some death defying adventures. Mainly, it was my brother who got into the adventures. He was a 4 year old incarnation of Huck Finn: playfully rebellious, uncannily street smart, prone to befriend interesting strangers, and prone to get in innocent trouble that left my mom in tears, and my dad without a belt. My brother was smaller of stature than most other boys. He wore glasses. This didn't seem odd to me then. It didn't seem that important. It wasn't until a year later, when he was ridiculed as 4 eyes, I took note of his struggles. This little difference, being born with bad vision, cast him as an outsider when he got to school the next year, and he endured the fate of "Piggy" in Lord of the Flies.

A few years ago, I asked him what the single most important fact of his life was, and he responded, "Being born with bad vision. That has affected me every day." Yet, in 1979, he didn't seem to care that he had bad vision, and I never noticed. He had good enough vision for me. He stalked the earth fearlessly, restlessly, looking ardently for innocent mischief. I stalked the earth after him, trying to keep him out of mischief.

Billy and I looked like twins in those days -- but if he was Huck, then I was anti-Huck: responsible, cautious, and pensive. Looking back, I gravitated toward being anti-Huck because I was the older brother. I felt in my bones that I was my brother's keeper. It was my job to look out for him. This was my first lesson in responsibility.

In those days, Billy and I often played with two brothers in our neighborhood. They also looked like twins. They were age 5 and 7, but they seemed older, much older. They both had silvery blond hair, and -- at least in my memory -- perpetually wore sarcastic smirks. They were t-r-o-u-b-l-e. They were educated beyond their years in dastardly deeds, and they were intent on instructing me and Billy in all the forbidden knowledge they had acquired.

For example, they hatched a plot to sneak away for an all day fishing trip without telling our parents. Who ever heard of 4 kids under 7 going on an all day fishing trip by themselves without notifying any adults? Apparently, the evil twins had. I don't remember much about the fishing. I have a vague sense that it was a delightful boyous romp. I know for sure that we caught one fish -- the equivalent of Moby Dick to our little fishing crew.

After the fishing trip, the evils twins secreted Billy and I away to a tree house to teach us cuss words. The older kid revealed each word as if it was a profound secret, patiently explained its etymology and range of meaning, and then sat silent for a moment while my brother and I stared on in awe. Then, when each word had its effect, he'd burst into wicked giggles.

At last -- after an 8 hour excursion that left my parents thinking we were kidnapped -- we ventured home proudly, a posse of foulmouthed sailors who'd conquered the seas. That one day is littered with some of my strongest boyhood memories. I remember the joy of catching a fish. I remember the feel of the tree house: close, and cramped, like a hideout. I remember the smirk of the evil twins. As I marched over a hill and saw my father in the distance, I remember a sense of expectation: a certain expectation that we would be rewarded as expert fishermen. I even remember one of the cuss words. However, above every memory -- above all the fishing and all the cussing -- what I most remember from that day is the spanking I received. This was my first lesson on the need to choose friends wisely.

In those days, my greatest fear in the world was the pond which lay seductively close to our little trailer. This pond became a makeshift ice rink during the winter. The neighborhood kids played on it with abandon. Then, in 1979, tragedy struck. A boy fell through the ice and drowned. This legend dominated the trailer park kingdom; it was our Fall of Troy. I say it was a legend. It did really happen. It was in the newspapers, and everyone talked about it. Yet, as my parents told me the story, it never seemed to me strictly true. It was more than true. More than factual. It was a fable. It was a cautionary tale like something out of The Brothers Grimm. As my parents relayed the story of this tragedy, it spoke of bigger, greater truths.

"Life is frail." "There are dangerous spots in this world. Places you can fall through." "Children are not invulnerable." "Take every step with care."

I got all that, though my parents never said any of it. They just told the story. I got all that, and the real practical application for me was clear, "Don't go out on the pond when it's icy." This was my first lesson in wisdom.

In those days, my mom dressed my brother and I in the same clothes, and we didn't mind one bit. Her favorite outfit for us was brown slacks and a grey shirt. The grey shirt had a red V pattern around the collar. I loved that shirt. It looked like something a super hero would wear. My earliest memory from that time -- maybe the earliest memory of my life -- is running around our front yard in that shirt, pretending it was a super hero costume, and believing I was Superman. I jumped on, then off, then on, then off my dad's truck bed in a heroic -- and not entirely futile -- attempt to ascend in flight. I could do this for hours. And, I swear to you, this adventure was more satisfying and more fun than any video game you've ever played. This was my first lesson in masculine identity.

In those days, my 4 year old brother snuck into my dad's truck while we were all out in the front yard. Who knows what he planned to do? Was he planning on going somewhere? Probably. This was just the kind of thing I'd never do -- just the kind of thing my brother always did. Anyway, the truck slipped -- or he maneuvered it -- into drive. He swears it slipped. Then, the truck headed down the yard, past me, my mom, and my dad, and toward a small cliff. My dad sprung to action as I looked on in horror. He ran alongside the truck like some kind of stuntman -- like the real Superman -- opened the door, jumped into the driver's seat, and hit the brakes in the nick of time. For the rest of the day, we talked of what-ifs and whys. What if my dad hadn't been there? Why did the truck start rolling on its own? After many years of reflection, I don't know the answers to those questions -- but this I know; set this down: my dad is a hero. He jumped into a speeding truck to save his son. Funny, in 1979, I didn't think about it like that. I assumed he was just doing his job. I assumed that's what any father could and would do. This was my first lesson in fatherhood.

In those days, I had a mean kindergarten teacher. Her name escapes me, but I like to think of her as Ms. Eaglebeak. The one thing I remember about her is that she had a sharp, angular, face -- like an eagle. It may not have even been geometrically sharp, but that was the impression of her bearing: sharpness, uptightness, and even cruelty. Charles Spurgeon said children are a good judge of character because they know innately who their friend is. In 1979, I hadn't thought much about character, but I knew Ms. Eaglebeak was not my friend.

We had a kid in our class who always showed up late, dirty, and without lunch money. So, when the day of our big field trip came, it was no surprise that he didn't have the requisite $1.50 to pay his way. Ms. Eaglebeak decided to make this an object lesson. She refused to let him go on the field trip. It just so happened that I was standing nearby when her TA -- I remember her as being short with blond hair -- pleaded on behalf of my penniless classmate. I remember feeling terrible for my classmate, and hoping with all my might that the TA would save the day. Well, the TA did save the day with pity filled reasoning I still remember -- "It's only $1.50. This will crush him. It's not worth it." That made sense to me then. It makes sense to me now. No one knew that I was standing close by, overhearing everything said, silently pleading for my kindergarten colleague. I'm sure that TA has no idea how much she taught me that day. I doubt she remembers that day. Come to to think of it, I don't even remember where we went on our big field trip. No matter; that conversation was the big field trip for me, and that episode is one of the most powerful memories of my childhood. This was my first lesson in compassion.

In those days, I sang the ABC song on the way to school -- loudly, repeatedly, every morning, for 6 months. Mastering the ABC's was my soul educational goal in 1979. In the end, I learned my ABC's, but that's not why I was singing. Singing, and showing off as a good student, were my means of getting dad's attention, and making him proud of me.  Learning the ABC's was secondary: the result, and not the cause, of my singing. I was singing for my father. I sang every day, without fail. I know my dad got annoyed with this ritual on occasion, but he never said so. He always listened. This was my first lesson in pedagogy.

In those days, my favorite meal was "ants on a log." This 5 star boy's meal consisted of celery stalks coated with peanut butter and topped with raisins. The final product really did look like black ants marching across a brown log. It's genius -- just the kind of thing that appeals to a little boy. If I'd been served, "Non-fat, high-protein vegetable fruit medley," I would've protested, and perhaps forced my lunch down. Instead, I was served "ants on a log," and I devoured ants, log and all like a famished barbarian. Who can top this meal? I was making variations on this meal into college. It's simple, imaginative, healthy, and fun. I've always heard, "You eat with your eyes first." Well, in 1979, I ate with my imagination first. This was my first lesson in creativity.

These are my strongest memories from the fifth year of my life. In the year of our Lord, 1979, I learned some of the most important lessons a boy can learn. Yet, what impresses me now is reflecting on what I hadn't learned. I hadn't learned that, sans Nikes, I "didn't fit in" with the other kids. I learned that in 1982. I hadn't learned that my brother, also sans Nikes, plus poor vision, "didn't fit in" either. I learned that in 1986. I hadn't learned anything about the dog eat social structure of a public school. It took me a long time to learn that. I finally got the point in 1994 when, as a Senior in High School, I shamefully ignored a girl who was outside "our group."

1979 seems distant now -- almost a different lifetime. I look on the boy I was then as a different person. Yet, that's not an accurate perception. For one, I find that many of the lessons he learned, I need to learn again. I need to learn with him about discernment, friendship, wisdom, fatherhood, and creativity. This time, hopefully, with more depth. There's also a sense in which I need to learn from him. In his youthful naivete, there were many things he hadn't learned. I may be wiser than him, and I've surely learned a lot more since my fifth year: many more first lessons, with a few diplomas on the wall to prove it. I may be much wiser than him, and older, but I will never be younger. And there's one advantage the young always have: there are some things they haven't learned:

"The tender age of little children is distinguished by simplicity to such an extent that they are unacquainted with the degrees of honor, and with all the incentives to pride; so that they are properly and justly held out by Christ as an example (John Calvin)."

by CK

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Allergic, Emotionally Allergic

Onions and I have a long history. In my youth, I thought little of them. They were not an enemy, or friend. They were just a part of the world in which I existed. I bore no particular feeling toward onions except mild notice. I encountered them in many guises -- carmelized, dehydrated, freshly picked, even pickled -- but only nodded in passing. I was unmoved when I heard that ancient Egyptians worshiped onions. They worshiped a lot of things. I was impressed, but not surprised, by the many medicinal uses of onions. In brief, onions to me were like the neighbor who lives 3 doors down: too far away to be concerned about having over; too close not to wave at when you drive by. Once upon a time onions and I lived at peace, as casual acquaintances. Peace, I say.

Then, one day, when I was about 4, I got a load of slimy onions on a McDonald's cheeseburger. A sour crunchy slime filled my mouth, and poisoned my palate. Even now, in the space long years, I get queasy thinking about that sensation of crunchy slime. It was clear, in that moment, that onions and I would no longer be casual acquaintances. Onions had become the neighbor who lives 3 doors down and mows his lawn in a bathrobe with an extremely loud speaker system on his front porch blasting obnoxious x-rated rap music. From thenceforth, I'd peaceably -- but militantly -- avoid all onions. Onions and I developed a sort of truce of avoidance. At least, that was my understanding at the time. A frail peace, no more, existed between me and allium cepa, aka Mr. Vidalia, aka the onion. Frail peace, I say.

The next time I went to McDonald's (about a week later) I ordered a cheeseburger, and distinctly said, "No onions." In my innocence, I prognosticated an onion free cheeseburger in my future. I bit down into my cheeseburger, expecting only to be sated with ketchup, mustard, imitation pickles, soy-beef, and bun. How wrong I was. Overpowering everything, once again, was that slimy onion taste. Since that day, I have been "allergic" to onions. I can't stand the taste of onions, not even a little. I can't stand the thought, especially, of cooked onions. I had been, till then, resigned to co-exist peaceably in a world where onions lived 3 doors down. Onions and I had called a truce. The truce was now in jeopardy.

This truce ended once and for all when my mom joined the fray, as a spy, on the side of onions. My dad loves onions, and wanted them on everything. My mom, caught betwixt my hatred, and my dad's love, of onions decided to take the middle road. She would slyly chop up onions into very small, almost imperceptible, pieces, and "hide" them in dinner. This way, my dad got onions, and I -- seemingly --didn't. I lived in fear of onions from 5-15.

Of course, I caught onto my mom's ruse quickly, and developed an even stronger dislike of onions. I became the FBI of onion detectors. If my mom served me ice cream, I was scraping through it, sure an onion was in there somewhere. Onions became the neighbor who lives 3 doors down, sneaks into your house when your not there, bribes your own mom, and steals all your electronic equipment.

I've struggled over the years to describe my aversion to onions. I find myself explaining my aversion in restaurants, to friends, and to anyone who is having me for dinner. For a long while, I felt it was appropriate to say, simply, "I'm allergic to onions." It is true that the moment an onion touches my tongue I become nauseous. Lately, though, I've decided this in not entirely accurate. Thus, I now say, "I am allergic to onions, emotionally allergic."

I'm allergic to onions, emotionally. Yet, onions won't leave me alone. Even though I carefully read ingredient labels, onions still show up -- unannounced and uninvited -- in my frozen dinners when I take them from the microwave. I now have a roommate. Guess what? He keeps a fresh onion on top of the refrigerator at all times, "just in case." In case, what? In case a vampire comes over? In case the swine flu breaks out again? I was surfing the internet last week and came across this: a popular news site has emerged the last few years. Its name? "The Onion." Is all this coincidence? I don't think so.

Onions are now to me like the neighbor who lived 3 doors down, mowed his lawn with a flourish of obscenity, and then bribed my own mom to conspire against me, and then broke into my house and stole my stuff, and then got kicked out of his onion house, and then moved in with me uninvited, and hacked into my computer.

Yeah, you could say I'm allergic to onions, emotionally allergic.

-by CK

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Amy Winehouse: Let Her Sing Her Song

by L.S. Schaeffer

From Amy Winehouse's Stronger Than Me:

“You should be stronger than me -- you been here 7 years longer than me... don't you know you supposed to be the man... why do you always put me in control? All I need is for my man to live up to his role.”

So sang Amy Winehouse in clumsy, evocative poetry. This, her, in a sassy and demanding, but vulnerable, voice. This, her, a very 21st century girl, and not much of a traditionalist, singing about the failure of men to "live up to (their) role." This, her, back before she was a supernova Grammy starlet, just before she was a real big world-wide star, and long before she stumbled around, forgot lyrics, and was booed off stage. In recent public memory, she's known most for being booed of stage, and dying too young. Yet, I'm not thinking about any of that right now. I'm too busy remembering the way she lamented, "You should be stronger than me..." This is what I most remember about Amy Winehouse: what she sang, and the way she sang.

She might have been booed off stage at her last big performance, but she won’t be booed off the world stage. No. She’ll always turn up on juke boxes. Her music will appear now and then in Rolling Stone’s great-whatever catalogues. She will be on everyone’s iPod 20 years from now. Actually, given the current trends in technology, they won’t be making iPods in 20 years.  But they’ll still be making Winehouse’s CD’s. Scratch that. They won’t be making CD’s in 5 years. Regardless, in whatever medium music is delivered, Winehouse’s music will be there. She’ll keep selling records, and she’ll keep singing. And, we’ll keep listening.

She is one more in a line of legends who stumbled drunk or high through greatness: Hank, Hank Jr. (truly, “a family tradition”), Hendrix, Joplin, Waylon Jennings, Morrison, Cobain, and that fictional character from Crazy (Bad Blake receives honorable mention as the archetype of the drunk genius). These legends had two things in common: talent, and self-destructive addiction. They have one more thing in common, too: legions of admiring, often disappointed, fans. Like Winehouse, they drove fans crazy with uneven lifestyles, and more uneven performances. Like Winehouse, they were late for shows, and often no shows, which just goes to show: there’s nothing is new under the sun. Winehouse isn’t the first musician to show up high for a concert. She’s not the first to cancel a tour. She’s not the first to alienate fans by trashing her gifts. If anything, she stands last in a long line.

Yet, even when Hank et al. didn’t show, the fans did. The fans were always there, waiting patiently. These drunken geniuses had an inconstancy only matched by the constancy of their fans. They kept their fan base despite the no shows, despite lack of production, and despite spite. They “couldn’t make it,” but the fans always could. The fans were there, always there: waiting, hoping, and wishing for another album, or another stunning performance. And the fans were there for Whinehouse, too.

The last 4 years have been grueling for Winehouse fans. She kept them on edge in anticipation of – maybe, just maybe – a return to form. Maybe, just maybe, another record. Sure, some of these same fans booed her off stage. Other fans trashed her for wasting her talent. Yet, I’d be willing to wager that the fans who booed her off stage still listened to her music. They probably listened to it in the car on the way home, just after booing her in person. Their probably listening to it right now, and relishing the fact that they got to see her, actually see her, in concert. Again, nothing new:

Hank Williams was the king of country soul
My dad took me to see him in Lubbock, but he didn't show.
Now the people got mad and they all went home.
The first thing we did was put his records on.
I guess we should have left him alone and let him sing his song.

"Why?" You ask. Why do the fans keep showing up even when the performers don’t? No doubt, there is some element of devotion. No doubt, some people show up just to see the fireworks. Yet, none of this explains the real reason why – why fans remained till the end, and why they will remain past the end. The real reason is simple: talent. Whinehouse, Hank, Cobain et. al. possessed God-given talent. To see them at their best was to witness a breathtaking thing of beauty, and a work of art. To see them at their second best was still mesmerizing. To see them at their worst just reminded you of that one time you saw them at their best.

Such individuals, though personally devastated, still produce masterpieces. This is another way of stating something we learn in Genesis 2-4. Man is made in God’s image, and entrusted with divine gifts. God, in an almost reckless way, has showered humanity with dignity, gifts, and responsibility. He’s like the doting father who just can’t help but give another gift, and then another, at his kid's birthday party. Yet, sin has crashed this party, and vandalized these gifts. Sin has wrecked humanity and marred, but not destroyed, God's image, or God's gifts. So, at present, we live in a world where depravity and divine gifts stand side by side, often in the same person. Rather, always in the same person.

It is hard to keep both these truths -- divine gifts and human depravity – in view at the same time, in the same person. Orwell at least tried when he said, "One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that DalĂ­ is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.”

Dennis Lehane’s character Chuck in Shutter Island tried to come to grips with the coexistence of gifts and depravity when he first meets a woman broken gifted with bracing beauty, but devastated by insanity: 

Cawley (said), “Are you reacting to her apparent beauty, or her apparent madness?”
“Both,” Chuck said.

“Both” – both a surfeit of gifts, and a sewer of depravity. Looking at either in isolation is stunning. The gifts of some are so great that man is tempted to worship other men, as gods. The evil of man is so frightening that man is tempted to flee all men, as demons.

 Looking at either is stunning; looking at both, together, in the same creature, or creatures, makes your head spin.

“Both.” Both remarkable gifts, and heartbreaking depravity. This sums up the human condition. Just look at Cain; he had atrocious personal ethics – we usually only remember him as the original murderer – but he was also the original architect, and the first denizen city-zen (Genesis 4.17). If you asked anyone, "Who was the first man to found a city?" -- Cain doesn't come to mind. Yet, this man, he with a brother's blood on his hands, apparently had dreams in his head of bringing men together in community. Huh?

It is a testimony to the abiding image of God that, no matter how destitute an individual becomes, their gifts still shine through. In depravity, dignity remains. Mozart was no church pianist, ethically speaking, and yet he is the church pianist, technically speaking. Mozart, like Winehouse, and like Waylon, was known to get out of his mind. Then, a minute later, produce a work of art out of this world.

Oh, Waylon has been known to play half time
He been known to get out of his mind
Don't know whether he's right or wrong
He's got a string of hits about two miles long
Why don't you leave that boy alone, let him sing his song?

Yeah, Winehouse got out of her mind. We all remember that. We should also remember that she’s got a string of hits about two miles long, and a string of Grammys about two feet long. Much of the attention paid to her of late has highlighted her decline. Let’s not forget the height from which she declined. Let's not forget that she was abnormally, divinely, gifted. Russell Brand described her vocal gifts life this:

I arrived late and as I made my way to the audience through the plastic smiles and plastic cups I heard the rolling, wondrous resonance of a female vocal. Entering the space I saw Amy on stage with Weller and his band; and then the awe. The awe that envelops when witnessing a genius. From her oddly dainty presence that voice, a voice that seemed not to come from her but from somewhere beyond even Billie [Holiday] and Ella [Fitzgerald], from the font of all greatness. A voice that was filled with such power and pain that it was at once entirely human yet laced with the divine. My ears, my mouth, my heart and mind all instantly opened...

Well, then, her gifts are undeniable. But how do her gifts relate to her struggle with addiction? Some will say that great creativity is fueled by destructive behavior. Thus, they imply, the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Hank, and Whinehouse are a fait accompli. No way around it. It was the price of greatness. Such a line of argument even glorifies the destructive lifestyles of these talented individuals. As if, dying young of a drug overdose is your best life now.

I’d argue the opposite. Destruction is not the backdrop to great creativity. Rather, great creativity is the back drop to destruction. Whinehouse was a gift despite her self-destruction. That shows how great her gifts were. The fact that her gifts shined through is a testimony, not to her destruction, but to her gifts. Had her gifts been less, we’d never have known about her self-destruction. Her self-destruction being what it was, it is a miracle that we know about her gifts. This is grace. Uncommon grace.

I imagine someone will point out the song Rehab as a foil to this argument. Didn’t Winehouse become a sensation because she refused to go to rehab? 

They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, "No. No. No."
Yes, I've been black, but when I come back you'll know, know, know.
I ain't got the time, and if my daddy thinks I'm fine –
He's tried to make me go to rehab, I won't go, go, go.

Doesn’t this show that her greatness came because of self-destruction? No. No. No.

If you listen to Rehab closely, you’ll hear a childish girl refusing to do what she is told to do, yes. You’ll hear a petulant girl who thinks she knows it all, yes. Then, if you keep listening, you will hear a young woman struggling to come to grips with the pain of a broken relationship:

The man said, “Why do you think you’re here?”
I said, “I got no idea.
I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby.
So I always keep a bottle near.”

Her drunkenness was a salve for her pain – it was a pain killer. That’s the real point of this song, and that’s the real point of Whinehouse’s troubled career. She felt deeply, and sang authentically, about human pain. I’d even argue that the more she false medicated that pain, the more she diminished. The pain made her great. The pain colored her voice in deeper tones. If you want to test this theory, read the comments about her on YouTube. You’ll find lots of comments to the effect, “I was going through a hard time, and I listened to her music.”

As Catrinia Molitor recently noted, "Her pain combined with God-given talent brought about her genius, poignant, soulful music... Do you think God blessed her with pain? I bet! And (He) worked through her to bring comfort to others!"

Now, when you combine pain and artistic genius, you get Hank, Cobain, and Winehouse, et al. If you add drugs and drunkenness to that equation, you don’t get more genius. You get something else, something too sad to speak about just now.

You’ll be reading lots of pieces like this one about Amy Whinehouse’s troubled end. You'll also read lots of pieces prodding mercilessly into her failings. I’d rather not speak of her troubled life. I'd rather leave that alone, and let her sing her song. I’d rather speak of her voice, her lyrics, and her gifts.

We should speak about the gift of Amy Winehouse. We should speak of how the gifts of God remain, by grace, in a world racked with sin and destruction. We should give thanks that God has given some of us lovely voices, artistic genius, and a way with words. We should give thanks, and sing. We should, when we think of Amy Whinehouse, remember her voice, and her lyrics. We should let her sing her song.

Why don't you leave that girl alone let 'er sing her song
You know she’s gonna do whatever she wants.
If you don't like the way she sings – who's gonna cast the first stone?
Why don't you leave that girl alone, let 'er sing her song?