Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Theology of Death to Unsuspecting Toddlers, or What Sufjan Stevens Has Been Up To Lately

It’s been a long time since Come Feel the Illinoise!, or even The Avalanche for that matter, so I imagine Sufjan fans are slavering for something new. I’m not personally slavering, but I’ve pretty much sucked any freshness out of his existing oeuvre. I don’t know of any new albums in the works, but I did come across this little tidbit the other day, which reveals that what Sufjan has been up to lately, among other things, is rooting around through boxes of old recordings.

But he’s also been producing albums for his label, notably “Welcome to the Welcome Wagon,” in which, according to the album cover, “pastor and wife join voices in sacred folks songs for all ages.” Welcome Wagon is composed of Vito Aiuto and his wife, Monique (the same Vito of “Vito’s Ordination Song” at the end of Sufjan’s Michigan album, if you’re wondering). If you’re slavering for new a new Sufjan Stevens album, this is the closest thing you’ll get right now. His influence is everywhere on the record; aside from the vocals, he might as well have written and performed all the music. And what’s more, he’s done a little explicative write-up for each song on the label’s blog, The Sidebar.

What I’m most interested in here though is sharing the beautiful first song of the album with you, “Up on a Mountain.” You can listen to it and read Sufjan’s write-up here.

Here are a few passages from Sufjan’s description:

First things first: this is not complicated music. But church music—the kind that invites public participation—shouldn’t be. The opening track—one of the few “originals” on the album—appears as a Christian primer best suited for Vacation Bible School. “Up On A Mountain” works as a prelude in which cascading melodies and naturalist theology simulate the salvation of the soul and the soothing of human loneliness, all evoked in the metaphor of “heights.”

And more, describing the role of the mountain in Christian spirituality and its context in this song:

There is Mt. Sinai, Golgotha, and, in the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, the holiest of homilies. The “mountain” of this song is less substantial in size, but no less vast in meaning: the mount of Olives, which happens to be the unfortunate setting where Jesus was abandoned by his closest allies, the 12 disciples. Monique’s un-ambitious Sunday school recital here best suits the magnitude of the situation, as if she were instructing, in rueful, plaintive melodies, the theology of death to unsuspecting toddlers.


My Scale Model of the Sears Tower (With Pictures!)


Ever since I went up the Sears Tower two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by the architectural design of the thing. It’s built with what is called a bundled-tube structure, and consequently it usually appears asymmetrical when you look at it from the side. But it’s built in a series of phases that are all perfectly symmetrical, except for the very top and narrowest phase (which, I learned on the Wikipedia page, causes it to lean 10 cm from vertical).

So ever since we got Charlie some Duplo Lego blocks for his birthday, I’ve often tried to hurriedly make a model of the Sears Tower before he can knock it over or start adding blocks that made it look like abstract art. But it never looked quite right, and I wasn’t sure why. It bothered me more and more; I would even think about it lying in bed at night. How did all those bundled tubes fit together? How many were there? Which ones went how high? Finally I’d had enough and resolved one afternoon to do it right. A quick Google search quickly turned up this extremely helpful schematic.


As you can see from the A-A, B-B, C-C, and D-D grids down the left-hand side, it turns out to be somewhat simple to build with Duplo Lego building blocks, each of the nine squares being composed of one two-by-two Duplo block. But then I was sure we wouldn’t have enough blocks to finish a three-dimensional scale model, so after supper Jess and I took Charlie for a surprise visit to Toys R Us to buy “him” some new Legos. Then we got home and put Charlie to bed so I could commence playing with his toys for the rest of the evening.

I decided to build each phase with a different color, which solved the problem of not having enough of one color to make it look uniform, and it highlighted the four phases, making it easier to see how the tower is actually built. So what follows is a stage-by-stage pictorial, with my comments along the way.

Phase 1 (A-A in the schematic above):


Not very exciting, I know, but there you go. Even with the extra Legos, I didn’t have enough regular greens. All the middle pieces (not visible) are orange and black, and as you can see there are some blocks mixed in that we call “puke green.” (Charlie has picked up on this, calling them “poo gee”).

Phases 1 & 2 (A-A + B-B):img_0014 Phases two and three (B-B and C-C) are actually a little more complicated to build than it looks, but I’m not going to bother explaining why.

Phases 1, 2, & 3 (A-A + B-B + C-C):


Then it’s just a matter of plunking on four blue bricks, and voila! Sears Tower.

Phases 1, 2, 3, & 4 (A-A + B-B + C-C + D-D):


The colors in the final product are a little misleading in terms of design, because each of the nine squares is built as a single tube that goes all the way to the ground, but this at least highlights the various shapes that emerge out of the whole and makes clear why its shape is somewhat disorienting when looked at from the ground. The proportions of each stage (i.e., the “number of floors”) are also a little off because of block shortages and the fact that Duplo blocks are so large. But hey, Sears Tower.

It lasted three days before Charlie destroyed it.

Two (Kind of Three) Books: David Bentley Hart and Mendelsohn’s Cavafy

Forget one-dollar copies of used Richard Ford novels. This is when the book-buying moratorium really gets difficult.

First, coming out on April 21 from Yale University Press is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart. This will surely be the most eloquent and fiery rebuttal to the new atheists. But don’t let that dissuade you, should you be a skeptic; Hart is sure to respond with historical and theological rigor, not with empty rhetoric. Rusty Reno gives a kind of off-the-cuff pseudo-review here, which provides a good overview.

Second (and third), out today from Knopf is Daniel Mendelsohn’s much-anticipated two-volume translation of the Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems of the Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. Never heard of Cavafy? Well now you have. And consider this an invitation to initiate yourself. Below is Mendelsohn’s translation, reproduced from Knopf’s website, of Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca.” (And here is an essay on Cavafy that Mendelsohn wrote for the New York Review of Books last November, which is a good introduction to Cavafy’s work; the same issue also published Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy’s wonderful poem, also available online, “Myres: Alexandria in 340 AD,” which I would also reproduce if it didn’t make this already-too-long post way longer.)


As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you won’t find such things on your way
so long as your thoughts remain lofty, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you won’t encounter them
unless you stow them away inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire the finest wares:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
Many Egyptian cities may you visit
that you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always in your mind keep Ithaca.
To arrive there is your destiny.
But do not hurry your trip in any way.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey;
without her you wouldn’t have set upon the road.
But now she has nothing left to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca didn’t deceive you.
As wise as you will have become, with so much experience,
you will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.

[1910; 1911]

Roman Criticisms of Early Christianity: More Right Than They Ever Would Have Wanted To Be

I’m reading Robert Louis Wilken’s book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them right now. It’s a fascinating account of “secular” criticisms of Christianity in the first four to five centuries of its development. You often hear  about how Romans thought the Christians were “atheists” or “cannibals”; well Wilken actually delivers the goods. He explores the assumptions and cultural mores that were behind these sorts of accusations, giving them the background and perspective that made them rational criticisms from a Roman perspective. Wilken develops his narrative by focusing on individual personalities such as Pliny, Celsus, and Porphyry who mentioned Christianity in their correspondences and writings. This gives the narrative a concrete focus, and Wilken’s writing is concise, vivid, and nontechnical. An excellent and fascinating read.

It’s interesting and illuminating to get a picture of Christianity from the perspective of its observers, and Wilken does an excellent job of remaining sympathetic to the  Greeks and Romans he is describing. The following quotation is from the chapter on Celsus’s criticism of Christianity. What makes it so intriguing is that the passage is describing—from Celsus’s perspective—the Christian beliefs and practices that Celsus (who Wilken describes as a “conservative intellectual”) found threatening to Roman society. It was, in a way, a prescient observation; despite his fears, he was right. Christian belief and practice would, in the end, undermine the pagan beliefs and connected cultural infrastructure that the Romans held so dear. (It’s also a good example, for the most part, of what an ideal picture of the church might be today.)

The Christian movement was revolutionary [this word, from Celsus’s perspective, is pejorative] not because it had the men and resources to mount a war against the laws of the Roman Empire, but because it created a social group that promoted its own laws and its on patterns of behavior. The life and teachings of Jesus led to the formation of a new community of people called “the church.” Christianity had begun to look like a separate people or nation, but without its own land or traditions to legitimate its unusual customs. Like the Jews, Christians held profane what the Romans held sacred, and permitted what others thought reprehensible. But in contrast to the Jews, Christians had introduced a new feature into their cult—namely, the worship of a man, Jesus—and in giving adoration to Jesus, they had turned men and women away from true devotion to God.

Where the Wild Things Are

I recently came across the new trailer for Where the Wild Things Are. There’s a lot of buzz about this movie, and it has kind of reached a fever-pitch status with the twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with the book. The book is marvelous, and I grew up with it like everybody else, but I never had any particular fervor for it. So when I heard a year or two ago that there was a movie being made I took notice but did not commence full-fledged surveillance mode to keep track of the status of the film’s production (like I have with the film version of The Road, which stttttiiiiiillllll doesn’t have a release date). I did hear early on, however, that Dave Eggers was writing the script, which gave me hope and piqued my interest a little more. Nevertheless, all this is to say that when I clicked on the play button for the trailer it was not with a heightened sense of glee and anticipation.


The movie looks spectacular. The cinematography and effects look incredible. I had chills throughout the entire preview, and I usually approach movie previews with a bit of cynicism and heightened sensitivity for emotional manipulation (much like when I watch Olympic broadcasts, where the emotional manipulation washes over you with all the subtlety of a tsunami). I think my new fervor has to do with a couple things. One, throughout the past year I have been reading the book to Charlie at night at least once a week, and he is at the point now where he has a strong grasp of the language and the images; he often even finishes the sentences for us. Although I think his strongest connection with the themes of the story are still far ahead of him, reading the story with him gives me a heady sense of the pathos of the story—the power of imagination, the true nature of familial love, the relationship between the two, and how imagination helps you cope with the harshness of reality and then to grow up and become an adult. The movie, at least from what I can tell of the trailer, picks up on these themes and develops them into a longer, fuller story. Consequently I get all weepy when I just watch the trailer. Yes. I have been manipulated. On top of this, the images of the trailer are overdubbed with the song “Wake Up” by the Arcade Fire, which perfectly and poignantly encapsulates these same themes.

A Book I Slaved Over Has Won an Award

The Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings has won the ECPA Christian Book Award in the category of Bible Reference and Study.

Of course this book wasn’t by brainchild or anything, but I did spend many hours with my nose hovering over the nine-hundred-some pages, so it’s at least gratifying to know it wasn’t disqualified on account of an egregiously large amount of typos!

One other point of cynical observation, which I hope doesn’t make me sound ungrateful: I always give a wry smile at what these awards reveal about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the Christian-evangelical publishing industry. There is a category, as noted above, for “Bible Reference and Study,” another for “Christian Life” (a John Piper book won this year), another for “Inspiration and Gift,” another for “Fiction,” even a category simply called “Bible.” There is, however, no category for theology. What does this say about us? That we don’t publish enough theology to warrant a category for it? Or, more likely, do we think that if we have  categories for “Bible” and “Bible Reference and Study” then a category for theology is intrinsically unnecessary? In other words, do we simply conflate the categories of theology and Bible reference? That is, to read and understand the Bible is ipso facto to do theology? That would be nice, but if it were that simple we surely wouldn’t have the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, or even of the Trinity. Not that these aren’t scriptural doctines, but it takes (or at least, in the historical development of doctrine,  it took) an alarmingly large amount of philosophical reasoning and speculation, and huge amounts of controversy, to get from the earliest Christian confessions of Jesus as Lord to the Nicene Creed, for example. I’m just sayin’.