Good Music I Heard this Year

A brief post on my favorite albums of 2013. Heavily weighted towards folk/Americana:

Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils : Those who miss the gothic Crooked Still will be happy to see the debut solo album of lead singer Aoife O’Donovan. While her album Fossils takes more after singers like Neko Case, it still exhibits the same song-writing and evocative themes that made Crooked Still such a gem.

Sarah Jarosz – Build Me Up From Bones : Pretty much every Sarah Jarosz album makes my top list each year. This one is no different. Heartfelt, rhythmic, and dark. Build Me Up From Bones expresses the kind of sound I wish more bands in the modern folk community would embrace.

Patty Griffin – American Kid  : Coming more from the country scene than bluegrass/Americana, Patty Griffin’s lyrics have a haunting quality that is entirely unique. I think this album makes an excellent addition to her discography though the best introduction might still be Impossible Dream

Elephant Revival – These Changing Skies : It’s more low key than most albums in the genre, nevertheless I found myself really liking Elephant Revival’s These Changing Skies. It’s one of the few acts I have yet to hear live but based on what this album offers I’m really looking forward to the experience.

Of course, I heard some good music this year that was not strictly folk. It might be worth it to check out the following albums

Chris Thile – Bach Sonatas and Partitas

Lucius – Wildewoman

Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob

Laura Mvula – Sing to the Moon

Dominican Sisters of Mary –  Mater Eucharistiae

As always leave any suggestions and links for new music in the comments!

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Blogging Orthodoxy 5: Why do the Heathen Rage?

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with:

Chapter 6: The Paradoxes of Christianity

There are chapters of Orthodoxy that require a certain amount of self-examination, especially for Christians. So it’s ironic (and a bit relieving) that The Paradoxes of Christianity has very little to do with Christianity itself. More its opponents. Though one can learn quite a bit about a creed from its enemies, there are problems with this approach. It is often easy to set up straw men that ultimately illuminate nothing. Here, I think Chesterton avoids the pitfall by making the examination of atheism autobiographical. Like many in the church (myself included), Chesterton knows the opponents of Christianity since he had for so long been among them.

The Paradoxes of Christianity documents how Chesterton’s own disillusionment with atheism was achieved through many of the inconsistencies of its adherents. Certainly all creeds, including Christianity have their fair share of hypocrisy. But in the attack on Christianity, Chesterton notices a particular frenzy of critiques whose inconsistencies are not so easily explained. The critics seem less interested in damming the faith for a particular vice than using any given vice as a reason for objecting to the faith’s very existence.  As Gilbert writes: It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.

Of course the disorganization of the opposition does not make Christianity necessarily right. But the nature of the atheist objections suggest a quality in Western anti-theism that cannot easily be explained by the skeptic narrative. There seems to be a strong desire to replace Christianity with a brand of secular humanism. Atheists, by in large, seem to have less a problem with Christianity’s qualities than Christianity’s place at the heart of Western ethics. A place atheism itself would like to occupy. In fact, there seems an underlying conspiratorial quality in the endeavor of  modern anti-theism. It is less a argument for the abolition of the monarchy and more a battle to replace the sitting king with a rival claimant.kindown

But strangely enough, as Chesterton is quick to notice, even in victory, atheism seems unable to make use of the crown it has pried off the head of the Christian Church. It is, as if, once the king had be dethroned, his detractors remained orbiting the empty throne each unwilling to take the seat themselves and yet unable to continue as they had done before. Once again, the situation would not immediately support the original claimant, but it would make any onlooker ask himself some very particular questions about the rightness of the original conspiracy to unseat the monarch.

I know many cradle Catholics in the reading group who have never left the faith; whose Catholicism comes handed down in an unbroken chain since the 6th century. Needless to say, they got very little from The Paradoxes of Christianity. Still, I have long had a difficult time in general communicating to people with no experience of apostasy. Just as for Chesterton, the experience of non-belief was so central my journey that it remains very hard to discuss without a similar frame of reference. But I digress, while I can’t speak for others in the group, The Paradoxes of Christianity seemed to perfectly encapsulate my own experience with unbelief. It certainly wasn’t clear to myself why faith had a place in modern life without an involved experience with atheism.

I have often wondered how anyone could get through their adolescents without questioning faith. I certainly couldn’t. Even setting aside the numerous rules and miracles that my adolescent-self so detested, I remember rebelling against religion’s sonorous and self-righteous tone. The stiff wording of “thou”, “sin” and “heathens” seemed antithetical to critical thought and I was certain that, regardless of any incidental wisdom contained in Christian doctrine, no original ideas could be communicated in the laborious language of the Bible.

For seven years I remained an agnostic. However, as the years of the second Bush administration drew to a close, I found it more comfortable to identify with a kind of atheistic-skepticism popular to students of the sciences. I liked the cool attitude of de-bunkers like Penn Gillette and the increasing insatiable violence displayed by Islamic radicals in the wake of the Danish cartoon scandal solidified my opinion that faith was either soft-headed, violent or, very likely, both. I felt, more than ever, that what was needed was a strong skeptic movement that could confront the sloppy thinking of Christianity and the violent indifference of Islamism.

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It was in late 2006 that my hopes were answered by the emergence what would soon be called the New Atheist movement. Richard Dawkins published the God Delusion and this book was followed swiftly by similar fare by Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Naturally, I devoured these tomes, but, in spite of my hopes, I was deeply disappointed. In place of a reasoned skepticism I found the most simplistic arguments against faith I had heard since my years in Catholic middle school. Perennially fascinated by every misdeed of the Catholic Church, the atheists had blinders over any atheist massacre from Mao to Robespierre; all the while failing to elucidate any positive principle that could separate them from past atheist failures. Even from my anti-theistic perspective at the time, the objections from Dawkins and Hitchens seemed tainted with a kind of poisonous vain glory only found in tirades against rival religious groups.

But, despite being negative, it was, quite ironically, hard to determine what the New Atheists were against in principle. Fundamentalism to be sure, but beyond flogging the specter of Intelligent Design (which had been dead for years) or the Religious Right (which had been in decline for decades) the atheists, with possible exception of Christopher Hitchens, made only mumbled objections to the Islamic violence that had gripped the world between 2005 and 2006. The silence was made even more ironic in the wake of Pope Benedict’s address at Regensburg where a pontifical call for religious peace was criminally mangled by Islamic Clerics to sponsor an anti-Christian pogrom in the Middle East. Eagerly I awaited push back from the skeptic leaders. However, despite being the news regularly, Dawkins had no words against Islam, only condemnation for the Pontiff who at the time was making every effort to procure a reasonable end to the violence.

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Here I found myself in much the same place as G.K. Chesterton a century earlier. The atheist hypocrisy was so glaring it could not easily be explained by skepticism. If Dawkins were upset with religious violence generally, why the focus on the crimes of Christianity? I had to ask myself whether the atheist objections were in fact more political than principled. The relative silence of progressive atheists towards Islam had the same cynical undertone of the infamous non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany. It seemed Atheism was less a new idea than old rival faith seizing an opportunity to displace the ruling creed. For both radical Islam and radical atheism, eliminating Christianity was the first step in securing their dominance. Their rival in this endeavor, however detestable, could be ignored.

The problem only reemerged later when, attending a debate on God, I was able to talk to some of the new atheists converted in the wake of Dawkins book. I must confess that the interaction only confirmed my worst suspicions. In addition to voicing only the most juvenile stereotypes of believers (a group I was not yet associated with), the atheists seemed enthralled by a sort of magical thinking all their own. I met a group who sincerely believed that if religion were abolished (and here they meant Christianity) a new golden age of science would immediately erupt; a sort of atheist messianic age. I even met an atheist who, upon hearing a discussion of death, un-ironically commented “By the time I’m eighty death will likely be cured. I expect to live forever”. Atheism, it would seem, had its own millenarian afterlife. Once again none of these absurdities led to my reconversion, but I could feel many of my distastes for the old traditions creaking in their foundation.

One night, having these very frustrations much on my mind, I retired with a book of short stories. Clumsily thumbing through the volume, I chanced on a preface citing Psalm number two and written in the long archaic tone of the King James Bible. This time however the language, instead of offending, gave voice to my frustration. The old speech made the words ageless and carried with it the brevity of an avenging prophecy. The Psalm reads :

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

At that point no answer was forthcoming, though, like Chesterton, I was following quickly down the path of something greater.

Why I’m Praying for More Judicial Activism against Online Privacy

We all knew this was coming. Yesterday, the courts pushed back against earlier rulings on privacy and the NSA’s data-collection schemes. From the New York Times :

“A federal judge on Friday ruled that a National Security Agency program that collects enormous troves of phone records is legal, making the latest contribution to an extraordinary debate among courts and a presidential review group about how to balance security and privacy in the era of big data

In just 11 days, the two judges and the presidential panel reached the opposite of consensus on every significant question before them, including the intelligence value of the program, the privacy interests at stake and how the Constitution figures in the analysis.”

I do hope that the US Supreme Court picks this case up. Not that I’m expecting the court to rule in favor of privacy, I just want some definitive status-quo so that an honest discussion of the issue can take place. I get the sense reading the news that no one really understands what’s at stake or the relevant precedence in law for online privacy. The technology is changing fast and, consequently, no one feels like its worth developing a strong opinion. At this time, a large judicial decision might help people wake up and become involved with the issue of digital privacy.

I think this is more or less the role that Roe vs. Wade had on the issue of abortion. Before the landmark ruling, the anti-abortion movement was a disorganized coalition of church groups shell-shocked by the sexual revolution and unable to put forward any argument beyond dogma. Forty years later, with the specter of Roe vs.Wade still looming, the Pro-Life community had formed itself into a cohesive and burgeoning movement dwarfing its opposition on the national stage.

I would hope something similar might be possible for the advocates of online privacy. A setback wrought through judicial activism would be bad; but could anything be worse than the slow deterioration of privacy through apathy and public ignorance?

Yes Ralphie, there is Social Utility in Christmas Materialism

As predictable as Christmas TV-specials, Black Friday sales, and candy cane-themed mall directions, one can expect the perennial gripes from the chattering class over the increasing materialism in the holiday season. Over the years I’ve gown a bit tired of this complaint so it was refreshing to hear an intelligent push back from the ever-sharp Megan McArdle at the Bloomberg view. It turns out there is utility in giving gifts rather than purchasing things for yourselves. The holiday season is economically vindicated.

“…buying gifts for someone else actually makes you happier than spending it on yourself. They gave people money, and told them either to get something for someone else, or spend it on themselves. The people who spent it on someone else reported being much happier with the experience than the folks who bought themselves something. It seems it really is better to give than to receive.”

ralphieRead the whole thing. Personally, I feel this makes absolute sense (and should for any one who has ever shopped on the holidays).  Leaving aside the obvious sentimentality of giving and receiving gifts with friends and family, the entire endeavor has the combined fun of solving a mystery and being part of a conspiracy. Moreover, it’s nice to be forced to figure out the various things members of our families might want. As someone who lives far away from my hometown, I know much more about my family and old friends than I would otherwise.

I know, I know, buying things for people isn’t what Christmas is about. But we live in a culture that is defined by material things. Saying that people should spend quality time instead of giving is well and good. But making such gestures the norm will involve a fundamental reform of a culture where people line up for hours to get the newest phone upgrade. So for the time being being at least, we can enjoy our materialist Christmas, in spirit at least.

Is Fairness Overrated ?

One of my favorite bloggers, Leah Libresco, has a review of a new book Against Fairness that questions one of American’s favorite virtues:

Any normative description of our duties of love will sometimes feel burdensome, but Asma argues that elevating particularity shields us from feeling an unnatural obligation to everyone. In his view, we must have some way to choose whom to love most, to avoid falling into “the familiar Western hypocrisy—the pretense of believing we can be saints, but all the while acting like mere mortals.” If we refuse to choose, we might constrain our love to the smallest, abstracted type that we can offer to humanity in general.

It’s an interesting concept. I think Leah is right to point out the strangeness of “critiquing fairness” as such when the authors are really critiquing a sort of egalitarianism most Americans already reject. Nevertheless, the most interesting observation is the implicit unfairness all Christians must believe in (namely the salvation of their own soul). It might be interesting to look further into this of fairness as it applies to different religions. I am sure the concept of the “fairness” of God would be a major source of disagreement between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Blogging Orthodoxy 4 : The Tattered Flag

Chapter 5: The Flag of the World 

I have been called a pessimist many times. I dislike the label, not because it’s untrue, but because the formulation itself seems too blunt a way characterize anyone’s worldview. I know that I’m not the first person to balk at the commonly asked question: “Is life good?”, but it’s probably worthwhile to reiterate that the question doesn’t have a meaningful answer. Life is neither all-together good nor bad. As such, the very Manichean labels of optimism and pessimism fall flat.

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Nevertheless, as each lives his or her life, we express an attitude towards the goodness (or badness) of existence. Despite our best intentions, we slide into a habitual perspective of optimism or pessimism. It is this attitude, not our more subtle philosophical beliefs, that is most obvious in our interactions with other people. It is almost as if optimism and pessimism are psychological groves arrived at through a slow course of entropy. Without realizing it, we naturally become one or the other.

Orthodoxy’s fifth chapter The Flag of the World starts at the divide between optimism and pessimism, and, in typical form, attempts to cut a fiery swath across its center. As Gilbert would have it, both the optimistic and pessimistic attitudes are destructive. If life is a battle (and to Chesterton, almost everything was a battle) both optimism and pessimism are terrible detractions from the effectiveness of life’s platoons. To Chesterton a pessimist is not simply a curmudgeon, but a dangerous pseudo-traitor who may demoralize the front line with the repetition of bad news. Moreover, the optimist is not simply a harmless Pollyanna but a fool-hardy jingo who might, with utmost patriotism, send the soldiers charging to a hopeless and inglorious death. crusade_dore

What Chesterton feels is needed is not a compromise but a combination and enhancement of both opposing parties. The darkest pessimism must be set against the most opalescent optimism and both instincts must shine through with their full strength. To this effect, all Pagan philosophies have failed either by being dominated by the pessimistic (Buddhism and Stoicism), dominated by the optimistic (Shintoism and Pagan nature-worship), or watered down by compromise (Confucianism and Platonism). Here Christianity has provided the solution. By envisioning God, not as an underlying spiritual force, but as a creator, Christianity formed a metaphysics which allowed both optimism and pessimism to combine and strengthen one another. With a God apart from the universe, a Christian can recognize a world beset by evil and still understand the fundamental purpose of life to be good. Again, extending the initial military analogy, Chesterton says:

The optimist could pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle. But he must not call the fight needless. The pessimist might draw as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds. But he must not call the fight hopeless.”

With a righteous God looking over a flawed world, the Christian can fight the hopeless battle with all the spirit of someone certain of victory.

I think the military analogies pervading the chapter were somewhat lost on our local reading group. Developing a “fanatical patriotism” for existence seemed a little too jingoistic and I could tell the group was searching for a slightly more modern analogy. The best the group could come up with was the tried and true “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater”. Though effective at conveying the need to preserve two opposite instincts, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, had Chesterton been present, he would have strongly taken offense at such a milquetoast analogy

Strangely, but perhaps not too strangely for a Newman group, the discussion of loyalty towards existence digressed into a discussion concerning the loyalty of Catholics to the Catholic Church. Perhaps a little off topic, but, as the conversation progressed, I could see the connection. The Church itself has its optimists and pessimists. The pessimists use any malfeasance in the Church’s governance to damn its entire enterprise; while the optimists apologize for any Church misdeed regardless of its implicit evil. Here the manifest wrongness of both perspectives fell into sharp relief. Moreover, compromise between the two seemed quite ridiculous. I have had my fill of those trying to present the Catholic Church as entirely innocent or entirely evil, but I think would feel even more offended at the suggestion that the Church of Christ had license to commit a little, but not too much evil.

Here, I should first confess my own optimism towards the Church. The Church is the chief critic of the of the world and the self as they are;  for a pessimist like myself (lucidly aware of the short comings in both)  the Church’s message offers an opportunity replace cynicism towards the world with enthusiasm for its critic. The opportunity to re-imagine my own pessimistic nature may be fun, but I admit it does little to enhance my own spiritual relationship with either life or faith. I can’t say I have never offered a flawed optimistic arguments for the Church only  to push back against (what I saw as)  more flawed pessimistic arguments against the Church. Moreover, I know that shouldn’t be using the Church’s doctrine on the fallen nature of man to justify my own hopelessness about the state of the world. Just as Chesterton describes, some furious combination and enhancement of these optimistic and pessimistic instincts is needed. It is the only way forward towards true spiritual progress.

But perhaps my dilemma might be understood by looking through the lens of love, not loyalty. I am reminded of an answer given by Flannery O’Connor in one of her letters concerning loving the Catholic Church in spite of its historical crimes.

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 “…the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. ”

I always found her response quite odd since it started addressing the problems of the Church and ended addressing the problems of the world. Still, I have since come to understand O’Connors statement as the only satisfactory answer to the flawed nature of the world and the Church that seeks to heal it.

In the Church, as in the world, we see before us something that is tainted by evil, ragged with age and imperfection. The only question remaining is whether we embrace it or cast it out. Of course, if we feel love, the question is already answered. This is the love Christians see in the body of Christ crucified, and as such each Christian must endeavor to bring the same to the sinners of world even if those sinners are ourselves or our own church. Though it might sound ridiculously romantic to suggest that we should continuously strive to save the things we pessimistically see as hopeless or detect the hidden imperfections of that which we optimistically embrace; we must attempt such things in order to overcome our own pessimistic or optimistic limitations. This may be why the crucifix has universally come to symbolize Christian love. As difficult as it may be to see compassion in the tortured form of a dying man, we must still come before it to see our own imperfections. Performing this act of love is as difficult as any battle, but it is necessary, for the image of Christ crucified is the only thing that we might rightfully call the Flag of the World.