Monday, December 28, 2015

A Reflection on Sufjan's Carrie & Lowell, My Favorite Album of 2015

At the end of the year, I rank my favorite albums of the year. However, this was a year where I drifted towards individual songs more than any other year and didn't listen to many albums over and over. However, there was one clear front runner in this category, Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens.

I've been a Sufjan fan for a number of years. With that comes not always knowing what he's going to do with his next album. After a few great albums in the early to mid-2000s (Michigan, Seven Swans, Illinois), he took three years off and then came out with a couple of instrumental albums that I was not that interested in (The BQE and Run Rabbit Run). In 2010, he came out with Age of Adz, an album that was wildly different than anything before it, and one that took me a while to appreciate.

After a five year hiatus, Sufjan finally comes back with a simple, beautiful, yet haunting album, Carrie and Lowell. Carrie is Sufjan's mother, who left the family when Sufjan was very young and later died. The album is mostly about dealing with her death, and all kinds of feelings he had during the grieving process. Near the end of the opening track, Death with Dignity, he sings, "I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end."

After describing how his mother left in the second track, Should Have Known Better, he grieves, "I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / A bridge to nowhere / I should have wrote a letter / Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling". Eugene continues the sad reflection as Sufjan remembers his mother after her death and wonders how he'll go on ("What's left is only bittersweet...Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away").

One of the most haunting songs on the album is Fourth of July, where Sufjan and his mother converse as she dies. She asks multiple times, "Why do you cry?" and "What did you learn from the Tillamook burn or the Fourth of July?" The answer, that is repeated softly eight times at the end: "We're all gonna die."

Sufjan continues his grief on "The Only Thing" as he sings, "Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow." However, in the next track, "John the Beloved", after admitting his brokenness ("I am a man with a heart that offends / With it's lonely and greedy demands"), Sufjan is able to cry out to One who can help ("Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me").

In the second to last track, he seems to go back to losing hope again as he talks about his various ways of coping with his mother's death ("search of the capsule I lost", "get drunk to get laid", "blood on that blade"), finishing by saying, "There's no Shade in the Shadow of the Cross."

Sufjan closes the album beautifully with "Blue Bucket of Gold". In a radio interview, earlier this year, he spoke about this song: "I didn't know (my mom) well in a lot of ways and I didn't know how to say goodbye on the last track with articulation. So, I quit playing piano and vocals and just stopped. I wanted to surrender her to the beyond with noises that sound bigger than just me."

As I reflect on the words of this album, I'm struck again with how honest and despondent they are. While I haven't lost anyone super close at this point in my life, leading me to grieve in this way, I know that this level of grief is likely to hit me at some point. I'm thankful to have an album that doesn't shy away from the sting of death or try to explain it away.

This album reminds me of an incredible book on the pain of death, Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff. After losing his son tragically in a climbing accident, Dr. Wolterstorff wrestles through his own bereavement and feels the isolation that Sufjan expresses above. However, near the end of the book, he sees purpose and redemption in his great loss:
“God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God… and great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness, the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power, but sent his beloved Son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it.
In many ways, I like that Sufjan's album doesn't end with some great triumph of hope. In this way, I believe it normalizes those long seasons of grief where hope and comfort might be out of reach. However, I do agree with Dr. Wolterstorff that our grief can and should point us to the great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who shares in our suffering. To put it another way, there is shade in the shadow of the cross.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Favorite Books I Read in 2015

It's a little disheartening to look back and see a once flourishing blog only being updated at the end of each year for the past few years with end of the year lists. However, I'm still happy to least have this space to compile these lists, both for my own love of organization and the opportunity to reflect back on what I've enjoyed and also to encourage any of you who happen to come across these posts to read, watch, and listen to meaningful and interesting things.

Below are my favorite books that I read this year:

1. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

This was my third biography of the year and my favorite because of how deeply intriguing Steve Jobs is to me. As told in the book, Isaacson was the one writer that Jobs wanted to write his biography. With that, Jobs gave Isaacson permission to be honest, even about his many faults and the ways he poorly treated the people around him. Jobs' perfectionism and lack of concern about what others thought certainly made him very hard to be around at times, but these same qualities were driving forces that lead to his being one of the most creative minds of our time, revolutionizing six industries: personal computers, animated movies (Pixar), music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. 

Quote: "Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

2. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

This was my first Erik Larson book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a fascinating tale of how (spoiler alert) the sinking of the British-owned Lusitania, by a German U-boat, helped launch the United States into World War I. Larson does a great job weaving in stories of the Lusitania passengers, the German navy, Woodrow Wilson's love interest, and a secret British war room. 

Quote: “Families learned of the deaths of kin mostly by telegram, but some knew or sensed their loss even when no telegram brought the news. Husbands and wives had promised to write letters or send cables to announce their safe arrival, but these were never sent. Passengers who had arranged to stay with friends in England and Ireland never showed up. The worst were those situations where a passenger was expected to be on a different ship but for one reason or another had ended up on the Lusitania.”

3. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller (2014)

I really appreciated this unique book on prayer. Devoting time to prayer has been a growing struggle for me, especially over the last year or two. I loved how Keller spent the first several chapters getting to the heart of why prayer is good and beneficial, which is a motivating introduction to everything that comes afterwards. He then takes the reader through biblical and historical examples of prayer and gives plenty of practical suggestions for growing in one's prayer life. This will be a book I will probably revisit again and again throughout my life.

Quote: Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change--the reordering of our loves...Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.”

4. John Adams by David McCullough (2001)

This was my first McCullough book, and I'll definitely be reading more. He does a great job leaning heavily on primary sources, such as journals and letters, and pulling them all together for an engaging and interesting read. I definitely came away from this book with much more appreciation for our 2nd president. McCullough shows how foundational Adams was to the founding of our country, more so than I ever knew. He was contrasted a lot with his on-again, off-again friend Thomas Jefferson. I preferred Adams' rich inner thought life, his ability to live simply within his means, and the way he seemed not to be as power hungry as Jefferson, Hamilton, and many others who surrounded him. 

Quote: "An honest, sensible, humane man, above all the littleness of vanity and extravagances of imagination, laboring to do good rather than be rich, to be useful rather than make a show, living in modest simplicity clearly within his means and free from debts and obligations, is really the most respectable man in society, makes himself and all about him most happy."

5. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (2010)

I've been wanting to read this book ever since it came out and finally got around to it. I've read a couple of Bonhoeffer's books (Life Together is one of my favorites, and The Cost of Discipleship was an inspirational read in college) and vaguely knew of his story. It was encouraging to read about someone who stood up with such conviction and courage to a tyrannous regime, Nazi Germany, that brutally punished those who opposed its mission.  Bonhoeffer was a brilliant mind who loved God and loved to help others do the same. 

Quote: "Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will."

6. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003)

After flying through Dead Wake (see above), I went right into this one. In this fascinating story, Larson looks at everything involved in planning and building The Chicago World's Fair of 1893, while simultaneously telling the story of a serial killer who takes advantage of the popularity and excitement that bring many women into his city. I would recommend reading this one before the movie comes out. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are already working on it.

Quote: "Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black."

7. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010)

Before this year, I didn't know what the term "mass incarceration" meant. Through various resources this year, including this book, I now understand it to be a huge problem that African Americans have understood and dealt with for years. In this book, Alexander argues that the War on Drugs, famously implemented by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, was the impetus for the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States. While I didn't always agree with her perspective or her solutions, this was a deeply helpful book for understanding how certain laws and systems contribute to racial injustices and mindsets.

Quote: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” 

8. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith (2013)

Smith's first book in this series, Desiring the Kingdomreshaped how I think about everything I do. In this series, Smith is showing how everything we do is a type of liturgy and is constantly shaping what we worship. In this book, Smith continues this argument by focusing on how our practices shape our imaginations for the Kingdom.

Quote: "Whereas the technological rituals we just considered reinforce a social imaginary in which I am the center of the universe, only related to others as an audience for my display, Christian worship is an intentionally de-centering practice, calling us out of ourselves into the very life of God. That worship begins with a call is already a first displacement that is at the same time an invitation: to find ourselves in Christ."

9. Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore (2015)

I appreciated what Dr. Moore had to say here, especially in the early chapters as he discusses the decline of the Moral Majority and how that's actually a good thing because it allows Christians to love people as a "prophetic minority" with the real gospel, instead of fearfully marking territory with an "almost-gospel." This is definitely a good read for anyone wanting a biblical response to the shifting of today's American culture.

Quote: "The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself."

10. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1994)

This is a novel about Ignatius Reilly, a lazy, yet brilliant man living with his mom in New Orleans. It's a bizarre and fun read. Henry Kisor of the Chicago Sun Times says, "Ignatius J. Reilly is huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans' lower depths, incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures."

Quote: “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”