Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The 25 Best Albums of 2009

Merriweather Post Pavilion1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion

Animal Collective release more quality music in a year than most groups put out in a decade. And in 2009 they produced some of their most compelling, mature, and artistically sophisticated music yet. Merriweather Post Pavilion is an album without peer, a truly remarkable achievement. In a year of singles, this proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the art of the album is alive and well. While full of great tracks, the real star is the single, “My Girls,” which is my pick for song of the year. Merriweather Post Pavilion is an instant classic.

Bromst2. Dan Deacon, Bromst

Dan Deacon’s first major release, 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings, revealed a new force in indie electronic music—a true mad genius. But it wasn’t until he produced Bromst that the world saw the magnitude of his talent and the beauty of his madness. Deacon is a conservatory-trained musician, and in his new album he reveals his training in all its grandeur, producing some of the most compelling tracks of the year. The opening song, “Build Voice,” immediately demonstrates what a gift this album is. As great as Merriweather Post Pavilion is, Bromst was my personal favorite of the year.

Veckatimest3. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear have steadily become one of the hottest young bands making music today—and for good reason. Their 2004 debut, Horn of Plenty, instantly put them on the map; with 2006’s Yellow House, they catapulted to stardom, even touring with Radiohead (Jonny Greenwood actually said Grizzly Bear was his favorite band). With Veckatimest, named after a small island in Massachusetts, they have topped themselves once again, producing one of the most mature and refined albums of the year. Songs like “Two Weeks” and “Ready, Able” are proof that these are some of the best songwriters in the business today.

4. jj, jj nº 2

Very little is known about this new Swedish pop group, except that their debut album is one of the most beautiful and enchanting releases in recent memory. A truly infectious album, jj nº 2 is arguably the biggest crowd-pleaser of 2009.

Fever Ray5. Fever Ray, Fever Ray

Fever Ray is the solo project of Karin Dreijer-Andersson, who is the other half of The Knife, which she co-leads with her brother, Olof Dreijer. Fever Ray’s self-titled debut release this year is a dark, moody, atmospheric album which, in my opinion, even surpasses The Knife’s superb 2006 album, Silent Shout. As great as the songs themselves are, Fever Ray is best enjoyed through the magnificent music videos.

XX6. The xx, xx

Yet another remarkable debut album! The xx are a three-piece British band who produce super-chill dream pop. They don’t bowl you over with bombast; instead they envelop you in a subtle atmosphere of lush vocals and rich harmonies. While still a very young group, their self-titled debut reveals great promise. This is a group to follow closely in the future.

Embryonic7. Flaming Lips, Embryonic

In a year of debuts, it is especially welcome to see an old favorite return to classic form. And that is precisely what the Flaming Lips accomplished with their two-disc Embryonic. The psychedelic space rock of the Lips is well-known, and albums like The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) are widely (and rightly) considered some of the best albums of the last few decades. However, the group took an awful detour with 2006’s At War with the Mystics. It is thus truly welcome to see them produce their best music in a decade with Embryonic. The real stand-out track is the now-famous epic closer, “Watching the Planets.”

8. Girls, Album

The story of Christopher Owens—specifically his being raised in the Children of God cult, known today as The Family International—is now legend and will not be repeated here. What will be repeated is the extensive praise for the debut album of his band, Girls, based in San Francisco. The album, entitled Album, is clearly the product of a man with serious emotional baggage, and in this debut Owens pours his heart out. The result is a refreshingly honest and naked artistic achievement. But it’s also musically compelling in every way. While I have doubts about the possibility of any follow-up living up to the quality of this debut—what a debut!

9. Röyksopp, Junior

Röyksopp has been making some of the best dance music anywhere, and 2009’s Junior might be their definitive statement—a grand album that overwhelms the listener with the its sonic depth and sheer exuberance. While “The Girl and the Robot” is the superb sing-it-in-the-shower single, another stand-out track is “This Must Be It,” featuring Karin Dreijer-Andersson of Fever Ray and The Knife (see above). In truth, the whole album is dance-pop perfection.

10. Bat for Lashes, Two Suns

Bat for Lashes is the stage name of British synch-rock artist, Natasha Khan, who first appeared on the scene with Fur and Gold in 2006. Her latest is a concept album focusing on Khan’s alter ego, Pearl. The sound of the album bears some similarities to Fever Ray, though not as creepy and with a broader musical palette.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!

12. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca

13. Wild Beasts, Two Dancers

14. Blue Roses, Blue Roses

15. Florence and the Machine, Lungs

16. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

17. Memory Tapes, Seek Magic

18. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

19. Antony and the Johnsons, The Crying Light

20. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches

21. The Big Pink, A Brief History of Love

22. Megafaun, Gather, Form and Fly

23. A Camp, Colonia

24. St. Vincent, Actor

25. Drummer, Feel Good Together

Honorable Mentions (not necessarily the next on the list, but albums that I enjoyed and feel deserve some recognition):

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Considering Oral Roberts

Ted Olsen has an article in today’s Christianity Today which seeks to correct the obituaries regarding Oral Roberts and his connection with the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” He cites Mark Silk and The New York Times as bad examples, and then writes the following:
But Silk and the Times may be confusing Roberts and another Tulsa resident, Kenneth Hagin, who is far more widely recognized as the man who joined Pentecostalism with the Faith Movement (also called "Word-Faith," or derogatively, the Prosperity Gospel or "Health and Wealth" gospel). Many scholars would credit Baptist E. W. Kenyon as the father of the teaching, and many other names would be more closely associated with it than Roberts (Kenneth Copeland, for example). The Dictionary of Christianity in America explicitly states that Roberts is "not fully identified with the movement [but] has close doctrinal and personal ties with many faith teachers." And in fact one of the first major critics of the Word-Faith movement was an Oral Roberts University theology professor, Charles Farah. (ORU's Howard Ervin was another vocal critic.)

Olsen is certainly right to complicate the overly simplistic connection between Roberts and the Word-Faith movement that prevails in mainstream media. And yet, a closer look at Olsen’s article complicates his thesis. Olsen himself goes on to complicate matters, and by the end, one is left wondering how exactly we should view Roberts vis-à-vis the Prosperity Gospel. This post is an attempt to clarify these matters. I should mention up front that I am not associated with Pentecostalism in any way, nor do I have any real knowledge of Roberts and his writings. I am simply offering some reflections on Olsen’s article.

To begin, we must note that Olsen only cites two obituaries. That hardly warrants the bold title: “Why the Oral Roberts Obituaries Are Wrong.” Maybe there are other obits which make this connection in an overly simplistic way; I don’t know. But based on the headline alone one gets the impression that everyone has misunderstood Roberts, and Olsen is here to set the world straight.

Second, Olsen’s article goes on to show that Roberts had a complicated relationship with the Word-Faith camp. While there is no direct causal relationship, there is certainly affinity. Citing David Edwin Harrell, Olsen writes that “Oral's beliefs ‘were not far from those of the moderate faith teachers,’ but argues that his identification with them was more in ‘a return to his cultural roots’ and had little to do with theology.” In pursuing mainstream respectability and legitimation, he later moved away from his Pentecostal roots and affiliated himself with the United Methodist Church. Later in life, however, he returned to Pentecostalism—and in full force. In the 1980s and beyond, Roberts was often indistinguishable from the Word-Faith televangelists, as his infamous “emotional blackmailing” in 1987 attests. (Olsen says that tying Roberts to the televangelism scandals is “somewhat inaccurate,” but isn’t this just another way of saying that Roberts is indirectly rather than directly connected to them?) This is where Olsen’s narrative begins to unravel. Essentially, he wants to make the last 30 years of Roberts’s life irrelevant for evaluating his legacy. Maybe there’s some basis for that, but any life-narrative which all-too-conveniently excludes the last third of a person’s existence is deeply suspect.

Third, and most importantly, Olsen fails to interrogate the theological relationship between Roberts and the Prosperity Gospel. While Harrell differentiates between their theologies, we need to look more carefully at this. I’ll admit again that I have not read Roberts’s theology, so I’ll stick to what I do know: that Roberts advocated the position that faith can and often does bring miraculous healing of the body, and that we should expect such healings within the church. While it may be true that Roberts did not personally preach that faith can also lead to monetary “healing,” are we supposed to buy in to the claim that the two are unrelated? Even if one does not necessarily lead to the other, can there be any doubt that the faith-healing position of Roberts opened the door to the Prosperity Gospel and made such a position viable within modern Pentecostalism?

A further historical point is worth making: both Roberts and the Word-Faith movement are modern derivations of the “new measures” movement inaugurated by Charles Finney in the Second Great Awakening. For the best account of this, see Ted Smith’s remarkable book, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice. Smith shows how Finney’s preaching was rooted in issues of respectability, novelty, individual autonomy, and cults of personality—all elements on full display in the life of Oral Roberts and the entire Word-Faith movement.

The deepest bond between them, however, is not historical or causal but rather theological. Both believe that the rewards of faith are to be experienced here and now within this present life. That is, both believe in a radically realized (or perhaps realizing) eschatology, and both believe that eschatological beatitude consists in temporal blessings and bodily perfection. To put it differently, both advocate a “theology of glory,” rather than a “theology of the cross.” Both seem to find their inspiration more in King Solomon than in Jesus of Nazareth.

At the end of the day, Olsen’s attempt to distance Roberts from the Prosperity Gospel feels forced. By contrast, the statement by the New York Times that Roberts was the “patriarch” of the Prosperity Gospel seems about right. He may not have directly brought the Word-Faith movement into existence, but he clearly laid the historical and theological foundation for its prosperity (no pun intended) within American Pentecostalism. And isn’t that what being a patriarch is all about?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

“Jesus and Faith”: a new article

I have a new article in the latest issue of the Journal of Reformed Theology. The essay is titled, “Jesus and Faith: The Doctrine of Faith in Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.” I begin by looking at the Catholic-Protestant conflict over the nature of faith. I then summarize the New Testament witness to faith, examine whether the Reformed confessions do justice to this witness, and conclude by suggesting some theological possibilities for a contemporary pisteology within the context of a confessional Reformed theology.

There isn’t anything really special about it, but it raises some soteriological—including christological and pisteological—issues that must be addressed in contemporary Reformed theology. Overall, the paper falls in that category of essays that offer a close analysis followed by suggestive reflections. Hopefully, others will find its treatment of this topic helpful and informative.

Here is my concluding paragraph:
To conclude, the Reformed confessions present a doctrine of faith as a divine gift that includes a necessary human response. The doctrine is historically situated in the context of a dispute with Roman Catholicism about the very nature of faith. Against the Catholics, the Reformers emphasize the nature of faith as a heartfelt trust in Christ and the gospel of justification. Their employment of Scripture toward this particular end results in a heavy emphasis upon the Pauline epistles to the neglect of the Synoptics, Hebrews, and James, in addition to other texts. In particular, the confessions fail to provide a satisfactory understanding of the relation between the person of Jesus and the nature of faith; christology and pisteology are not mutually implicated in that while faith is directed to Jesus, Jesus is not similarly “directed” toward faith, so to speak. The problem is represented by the relationship between Son and Spirit, which seems to involve a bifurcation between objective and subjective, past and present. Recent exegetical work, as well as the theological resources of Calvin, Barth, and Agamben, to name just a few, offer fruitful and creative ways of integrating Jesus and faith today.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Case for a Christocentric-Missional Universalism

This will be old news for many, but I figure it is worth pointing out for those who might be interested. I wrote an essay for Testamentum Imperium on election and universalism, and in it I offer my most mature argument for universalism. The first half is a critique of double predestination, which I view as the only other viable alternative to universalism, and the second half is an exegetically-based argument that focuses primarily on Romans 5 and the Pauline distinction between reconciliation and salvation.

The key difference between this essay and my blog series on universalism is the emphasis on mission. To get a sense of my argument, here is a passage from my conclusion:
The form of Christian universalism offered here is certainly not pluralistic (“all religions lead to God”). It is rather strictly christocentric in nature: Jesus Christ alone is “the way, the truth, and the life.” No one may come to God except through him. The difference from traditional evangelicalism is that everyone will come to God through him, because everyone has come to God in him. At the same time, I am proposing a universalism that does not diminish the importance of the church’s mission of proclamation in the least. In fact, it seeks to make such activity truly meaningful within the Reformational emphasis on sola gratia. Here there is no compulsion to “get as many saved as possible,” as if we have the responsibility to “get people into heaven.” There is no need to scare people into salvation. Instead, when our reconciliation to God is our starting-point, we are able to go forth in joy and gratitude for what God has done for us already. We are able to preach truly “good news.” We are able to say with a straight-face, “God loves you precisely as you are”—not “God loves you” insofar as you repent of your sins or say this prayer or join this church. There is no soteriological instrumentalization, either of Jesus or of the church’s mission. Instead, we are able to proclaim the glorious news that sin and evil will not and cannot have the last word, because the powers and principalities have already been conquered by Jesus Christ. Death has been defeated, evil destroyed, and hell emptied. There is nothing left to do but acknowledge this fact with grateful hearts, giving thanks to God by going forth with this word on our lips as we proclaim what God has done.

[Download the .pdf here.]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christopher Morse on God’s eternal rejection of hell

“By identifying the coming judgment as the coming of Jesus Christ, Christian confession entails the refusal to believe that what is ultimately defeated and rejected is ever other than the opposition, in whatever personal and corporate form of denial, betrayal, and crucifixion it takes, to being loved into freedom. . . . The eternally ‘rejected,’ the ‘unsaved,’ and the ‘lost’ is all that is within us and within the world which denies, betrays, and crucifies the love that comes to set us free. . . . Christian faith refuses to believe that the grace of being loved into freedom ultimately stops coming or ceases to be. . . . When such grace is confessed to have ‘descended into hell,’ then hell is acknowledged to have no dominion that can prevail. There is in the proclamation of the gospel no basileia of hell that is at hand, but only a basileia of heaven. Hell has no eternal dominion. If what God eternally rejects throughout all creation, with the fire of a love that remains unquenchable, is every opposition to our being loved into freedom, including our own, then the hellfire and damnation of Judgment Day is precisely the one true hope of all the earth. The old question of whether or not grace is ‘irresistible’ only becomes a problem when theology forgets Who it is whose judgment is confessed to be coming. What else is the Crucifixion if not the resistance to grace? What finally does a Resurrection faith refuse to believe, if not that the resistance to grace is ever its cessation?”

—Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1994; 2nd ed., 2008), 340-41.