26 October 2015

Five things that should be felonies

I think the depth of human depravity is most often revealed in the smallest inconsiderate and selfish acts.  Which is, of course, not to imply that I am not inconsiderate and selfish at times (read: often).  Praise God that He chooses to place His Spirit in common, clay jars and not in rare Ming Dynasty vases.  I'd be in serious trouble.

However, if the following things came to be considered criminal felonies punishable by law, let's just say my very human, very selfish, and very skewed lust for "justice" might possibly be sated.

In an era of human history where we have an unfortunate tendency to be easily offended, I'd probably be remiss not to mention that what I "rant" about below is done more out of fun, not legitimate frustration or a desire to ruffle feathers.

That said, can I get an "Amen!" for any of these?

One: Extreme coffee snobbery

I do not own a French press.

I do not own an espresso machine.

I do not buy only organic, fair trade beans in bulk from Whole Foods.

Why?  Because none of these is the Way the Truth and the Life to true coffee salvation.

I do, however, love dark, earthy coffees.  I make it a point to try lots of different brands, roasts, and countries of origin.  I buy whole bean coffee, grind it each morning, and drink it black.  While I will readily admit that I gag to even think about cream and sugar in coffee, I keep both in the house for guests (even if I joke that I will convert everyone to black-only).  I prefer the pour-over to making a pot, but I typically use a sixty-dollar Cuisinart 10-cup percolator.  I do not use cold, filtered water to make coffee no matter how much the side of the bag might insist it's an important step in brewing the "perfect cup" -- the tap is just fine.

However, if the "extreme left" of pretentious coffee snobbery drives me crazy, the "extreme right" of half-caf-Maxwell-House-grounds-stored-in-the-freezer drinkers can also give me palpitations.  At that far end are those who insist that Dunkin' Donuts (or Wawa if you live in the Tri-State area) makes the best coffee, that they would drink Starbucks if it weren't so expensive (the people who hold this opinion own small, yappy dogs and only buy over-priced "dessert drinks" -- mochas, lattes, frappuccinos, etc, none of which are actually coffee), or that strong coffee is just as good as bold coffee (it isn't).

Oh, and if you are of the opinion that K-Cups are "just as good" and would go on record stating that the Keurig is the one of the greatest inventions known to man...

No, no -- no one out there who likes coffee really thinks that.

Do they?

Two: Choosing to pull out in front of an oncoming driver when there is no one behind that car for miles.

I'll grant a person who's sneaking into non-stop traffic his choice to jet in front of me.  If he doesn't, he'll sit at that intersection for ten more minutes and miss that important work presentation.

I'm talking about the occasion when someone opts to cut you off when there is no one behind you, when he has clear visibility, and when he forces you to slow down for a quarter mile before he finally gets up to speed -- all when he could have waited literally five more seconds for you to pass.

This is infuriating.  It is rude.  That is all.

Three: Insisting the movie is better than the book

Seriously, it isn't possible.

At best, you are getting a particular director/screenwriter's vision of a novel -- that is, their opinion of it.  They shoehorn their perception of characters, themes, and settings into your brain via visual, 2-dimensional representations of a deeply multi-dimensional work.  In so doing, they remove the possibility for you to read or think about the novel in question without seeing particular actors as particular characters and altogether impact the unique, cooperative creativity that exists within reading a novel: the ability to fill in the gaps an author intentionally leaves for his/her reader to supply his/her own thoughts, expectations, and imaginations.

At worst, a bad film adaptation takes so many creative liberties that the credits actually have to note that the move is "inspired by" instead of "based on."  At that point, no matter how good it is by itself, the film is no longer an accurate representation of the book.

Not all film adaptations are bad.  Some are good -- impressive and perhaps even inspiring.  But they're never as good as the book or better.  Because they're not the same as the book.  Apples and oranges.  Even a good film adaptation is merely an impression of a novel -- the way a painting or photograph of a person is not the actual person.  And just like brushes and cameras can only capture so much detail, film too falls short of the real thing.

It might be a great movie.  But it's not "better" than the book.

Four: Following celebrity gossip

However you do it and for whatever reason, it's annoying.  Nick Offerman might read celebrity tweets on Conan O'Brien as a way to mock the very public and very inane comments individuals in the limelight might make (and it might in fact be hilarious), but the fact of the matter is that he is still reading them and also bringing countless other people's attention to them.

Whatever you do -- whether it's reading athletes' Tweets, celebrity tabloids, Facebook news, nonsensical crap on Buzzfeed, whatever -- it's still part of the problem.

Because when it comes to Hollywood, any attention is good attention.

I don't want to discuss who's married to Robert Downey Jr. while I'm watching The Avengers.  I don't care that Tom Cruise is a Scientologist, nor do I care what absurd things go down between him and his family as a result.  When I'm waiting in line to check out in the grocery store, I don't want to look across my pile of Ramen, organic fair trade coffee, and assorted canned goods on the conveyer belt and see grossly unflattering photos of celebrities and the corresponding columns of pulp detailing their train-wrecked relationships and impossibly poor personal decisions.  Frankly, I don't care what athletes are up to when they're not on the field, and even if I might read biographies of musicians I happen like and maybe even follow their tour schedules, I don't care to view pictures of them cliff-diving in Aruba.

Crazy idea.  What if we all stopped paying attention to what Hollywood was doing?  What if we all spontaneously stopped clicking on ads for stuff endorsed by celebrities, turned off late-night talk shows, ignored everything that came on "reality" TV, and deleted any app that provides a slanderous buffet of worthless banter and explicit photos of those people who are willing to sacrifice their integrity and their privacy to a media-crazed, incurably consumerist society?  Sure, the crazy coming out of LA might intensify for the lack of attention, and several thousand bloggers might lose their jobs, but it would put the entertainment industry back where it belongs: making movies, TV, games, music, and playing sports -- not invading my life through everything I consume.

Impossible?  Maybe.  Almost definitely in America.

But it's still nice to dream.

This last one's for my fellow musicians.

Five: Venues a). expecting local bands to play for free (in the name of "exposure") AND also draw a crowd of 30+ AND supply all the equipment, or b). canceling a gig mere days before the show because "due, to low attendance, we don't do live shows anymore."

I'm a spare-time musician.  In fact, I don't even know if I can really call myself a "musician" per se.  God's given me the ability to lead worship and play a little guitar & keys.  So I get to do that with a bunch of guys who are more like brothers than friends (one of them actually is my brother) and are far more talented than I am.  However, even though I do it for fun, I also put in lots of practice time as well as money for gas, travel, and equipment.  And what I put in is nothing compared to what full-time musicians (such as XXCMTE's own Geoff Langley!) devote to their craft.

For that reason, it is insulting to be told that our cut of the door is a fifteen-fifteen-seventy split among us, the other band on the bill, and the venue... IF we bring more than thirty people, share all of our gear, and provide our own sound guy.

Lots of local venues treat local bands terribly.  Lots of local venues are amazing and get taken advantage of.  I get that both of these places need to make money.  But they don't need to extort other struggling local "businesses" -- that is, the bands themselves -- to do it.  They also need to recognize that, while their establishment might have a Facebook page with a couple hundred likes, and even though they might occasionally feature a big-name band on their stage, the opportunity to play on their stage is not the make-it-or-break-it favor they presume it to be.

The reality is that we should be helping each other out.  Bands can't be obnoxious, self-absorbed partiers and expect venues to cater to their every whim; venues can't nickel-and-dime young acts and expect to keep both a solid calendar and quality relationship with local groups.

Partnership is so much better than sparring matches.

19 October 2015

Sweet Sleep

In preparing this week's lesson for my teens, I happened to re-visit Ecclesiastes 5.10-12:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

I was struck by the reminder that the proverbial love and pursuit of money isn't just something rich people struggle with.  Perhaps a weary catchall for do-it-yourself ambition, the "American Dream" it still something for which I believe all humanity has a taste.  Those in any culture who push their nose to the corporate grindstone to the detriment of personal lives and family, those who swallow hook-line-and-sinker promises of future wealth, and those who constantly chase after more and better all fit the Preacher's description of the man who won't be satisfied with his income.

The reality is that, no matter how much wealth we accrue, there will always be more to have, more to achieve, more to possess.  Once we have some, we can't be satisfied with that -- we need to keep going!  Acquire more!  Reach the next level!

Not only rich people succumb to this tendency.  Those of us who gaze longingly out the window at the mansions our commutes take us past fall into the category of "money lovers" also.

The truth is ironic and counter-intuitive: the only way to truly enjoy physical things is to put them in their proper place.

My career and the wealth, status, or security that it promises simply cannot be the most important things in my life.  In and of themselves, none will satisfy.  If, however, I value Christ the way I should and pursue him first and earnestly, suddenly my wealth is something I can enjoy, or my poverty something that is no longer a consuming frustration.  Easier said than done, certainly.  But Paul asserted that "godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim 6.6).  In other words, while the world sees gain purely in terms of dollar signs, status symbols, and otherwise tangible increments, true gain and true satisfaction come only through my deepening relationship with Jesus Christ.

If my life is a ladder of trying to achieve career-based ambitions, no amount of "stop to smell the flowers," "dance in the rain," or other enjoy-the-journey-in-process memes are going to make a difference.

We all know the Biblical adage: "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil."  I think it's relevant to note that, in other terms, the love of money is the absence of contentment.  Some see ambition as healthy forward-thinking, but when we speak specifically of financial ambition, the thin line between prospective planning and greed becomes incredibly narrow.  To be ambitious is most often to make a pursuit of wealth -- and, therefore, to think of what I currently own as not enough.

This is the very definition discontentment.  The love of money = the absence of contentment.

Furthermore, as mathematicians know, when we make comparative statements such as these, the equation works backwards and forwards:

The absence of contentment = the love of money.

Do you feel discontented with your current financial state in life?  Do you self-identify as a broke graduate student before you identify as a follower of Christ?  Do you look at the greener grass on the other side of the fence and wonder, longingly, if one day you might own that little patch of grass?  Do you tell yourself that it's not wrong to crave a little peace, and maybe one day all your financial stress will be a thing of the past?

I know these thoughts apply to me.  Therefore, I am a lover of money.  Therefore, I am not far from all kinds of evil.

Discontentment is a bigger and more pervasive problem than we as Christians like to note.  Living with discontentment doesn't mean we are simply American dreamers waiting for our due.  It means we are functional, practicing idolaters: we have placed value on something other than Jesus Christ and erroneously -- if indirectly -- believe the lie that something besides God Himself will bring satisfaction.  It means we have a shallow perspective -- certainly not an eternal perspective.  It means we have no real capacity for gratitude -- not for the blessings God liberally bestows, not for the ultimate blessing of His unfailing grace.

We desperately need to guard ourselves against this line of thinking!  To crave the sweet, secure sleep of the dedicated worker is not necessarily wrong; however, we can't make it our chief pursuit.  Instead, we must recognize that such rest is the byproduct of finding our solace, substance, and satisfaction in its only Source -- not in the careers, degrees, or possessions we pursue, but in the welcoming arms of the Savior Himself.

Financial stress got ya down?  Be patient and wait on the Lord.  He is a compassionate and understanding God who knows how to give good gifts to His children (Luke 11.13).  He cares even for the birds and the flowers (Matt 6.26, 28).  He does not abandon us in our troubles (Heb 13.5).

Just because life is hard does not invalidate these promises.  Sometimes God chooses to allow us to feel the tension of our situation so that we cling desperately to Him instead of our own wallets.

Our inability is His ability; our inadequacy His all-sufficiency.

Full belly keeping you awake at night?  Let go of your dependence on your wealth.  Give it away if you have to.  Seriously.  Jesus said that if our eyes or hands tempt us to sin, we should amputate them rather than risk the worse alternative of sinfulness (Mark 9.43).  The same principle applies to money and possessions.  Lighten the burden you're carrying or abandon it altogether: Jesus promised a far lighter load if we carry nothing but His cross (Matt 11.29).

We can truly rest only when we recognize that He is sovereign and we are not.  Whichever camp you find yourself in -- poor and craving financial stability or a wealthy insomniac or somewhere in between -- stop trying to take control back from the Almighty, either with your anxiety or your checkbook.  Stop being distracted by the world's trinkets.

We can be satisfied only when He alone is our treasure and our pursuit.

07 October 2015

Reviews, Part 7

Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 8 -- Part 9

Next on the playlist!

Here are the album reviews I've written since July.  As usual, clicking on the album covers will take you to the band's music where you can listen to and/or download the album in full.  The hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

In other now-belated news, I have officially joined Jason Spencer as a contributor to his website, The PROG Mind, a site devoted specifically to a more thematic discussion of music (not simply cursory reviews).  I'm excited to devote my attention specifically to progressive rock (which I've always tended to do anyway) and also focus on the deeper nuances of what I'm listening to (which I've, uh, always tended to do anyway).  I'll still be posting to The Phantom Tollbooth, but The PROG Mind will be a better venue for writing about the obscure music I'm passionate about and actually have the content reach other fans.


Corvus Stone - Unscrewed (Finland)

Unscrewed maintains the quirky, self-aware, musical satire that characterizes the band’s previous material, and is a collection of radically transformed tracks from Corvus Stone I and II.
Maddison's Thread - Maddison's Thread (UK)

Maddison’s Thread is a strong, mature debut: an old soul wrapped in deceptively modern packaging.

Barock Project - Skyline (Italy)

The stellar, 70's-progressive-style fourth album from Barock Project.

Andrew Peterson - The Burning Edge of Dawn (USA)

Andrew Peterson’s 11th studio release is yet another solid record – a lush and reverent celebration of the work that God is still doing.