The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

Three for the holiday that teach us to embody faith, from the annals of public radio:

01. An Immigrant's First American Christmas - Congolese Diary. Heard this as I was driving from Michigan to Connecticut on Wednesday morning. Crushingly beautiful.

02. Couple Gives the Gift of Electricity to Town Residents. A couple in Iowa paid the December electric bill for every home, business and public building in their city. Come on now. If that ain't what Christmas is all about!

03. Short story: "A Fool For Christmas," by Allan Gurganus. One of the best works of fiction I've ever heard on public radio, possibly even anywhere. My phone started playing its irritating little Latin loop immediately after it finished, and it was Nathan calling to make sure I'd heard the story of Vernon and his pregnant mallrat.

And two simply to make you laugh:

04. Vanquishing 'The Frozen Thing' from the Holiday Table. Commentator Laura Lorson exorcises the culinary demons of Christmases past in a hokey Southern accent.

05. David Sedaris's immortal Santaland Diaries, rebroadcast this morning on Morning Edition.

Addendum! A piece on the New York City Ballet's production of the Nutcracker.

Merry Christmas! Wishing you and yours peace and joy and comfort...


All I ever get for Christmas is blue.

I ripped myself off for my catapult magazine column this month, using one of my previous blog entries ("Haul out the holly") as a springboard to talk about the grossly inappropriate music we North Americans tend to listen to in the weeks (sometimes months) preceding December 25. I also make some recommendations--of which you people got a sneak preview--for tunes that better suit Advent season. (I didn't mention that Mariah Carey song, but after hearing it in a store again yesterday, I think I could make a pretty good argument about the virtues of its longing and exuberance. And its awesome jingle bell beat.)

You can read the column here. It looks like it still needs some tweaking as far as the format goes, but thar she blows!

ETA (12/20/04): BW, who was hosting the Sufjan songs on his website, has taken them down because they require too much of his bandwidth. If anyone would like to host the songs on her or his own site and has the bandwidth to do so, please contact me and I will put you in touch with BW.


Let she who has ears to hear...

I promise not to make it a big hairy deal every time I add someone to my blogroll, but Jeshua Erickson deserves such a mention. And it's not just because he's my friend and former housemate.

Well, okay, it is.

But he also stands on his own merit. Jeshua is a great musician who recently put out an album called Swords Into Plowshares, which includes songs he wrote while we were both interns at Sojourners/Call to Renewal in Washington, DC. Stanley Effing Hauerwas likes this man's tunes, people. That should be reason to check him out right there.

Jeshua is also blogging, and that's the link I added to the Expat resources on the right.

Finally, I give you a snapshot of life as a Sojourners intern:

I think Jeshua and I were imitating the Holy Family (minus le petit bebe) at a Christmas party, but it's also quite likely that we were simply trying to keep warm. Notice we are wearing bulky coats indoors. That's because when you work for a non-profit organization whose office building features a 96-year-old furnace, you can't always expect to have heat in the dead of winter. It's just one of those trade-offs: funky digs that used to be an embassy = freezing your ass off in December and trying to type with two pairs of gloves on. Worth it, if you ask me.


Haul out the holly.

I have a number of friends who start listening to Christmas music right around Halloween, which, I'm sorry, I've just never understood. Growing up, we were allowed to put on Handel's Messiah (which doesn't even count as a Christmas composition, really) the day after Thanksgiving, and I just never saw the need to get started any sooner, if at all. Call me a scrooge, call me a grinch, but I actually have very little innate holiday spirit, particularly when it comes to the seasonal soundtrack.

Traditionally, I make a limited number of exceptions to tide me over when I do holiday-related activities, such as making cookies and wrapping presents:

One, the Carnegie Hall Christmas Concert album of my youth, featuring Kathleen Battle, Wynton Marsalis, and a token boychoir.

Two, Over the Rhine's brooding, sad-sack Darkest Night of the Year, which evidently caused an acquaintance to wonder, "So, do they actually like Christmas?" A valid question, but clearly this person had not heard Karin and Linford's recent, more lighthearted "Martini Jingle" (complete with "bell solo" and Karin purring lyrics like "you look dashing in the snow...").

Three, the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas album (and lo, the accompanying movie).

Four, that one ubiquitous, jingly song by Mariah Carey, which inexplicably fills me with girlish glee. (In a similar vein--Exception Four-point-five, if you will--I stumbled upon the Most Annoying and Yet Best Christmas Song Ever this weekend, also known as "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.")

And five, a compilation of depressing Christmas songs mixed by my dear friend Joanna. I can't remember what's on it--some Aimee Mann, I think, some Bing Crosby and Otis Redding--but I do remember that it's good.

Aside from these, my policy on the vast majority of yuletide tunes is strictly zero-tolerance. Now, however, I will be forced to make another exception, which is kind of irritating considering that my list fit into a nice, traditional top five. But actually, I'm glad to do so--the seasonal offerings of this banjo-strumming, scout-uniforming-wearing, faith-and-arts-articulating, all around fascinating fellow has rocketed to the top of my Advent exceptions.

"Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming" - sublime.

"Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" - ridiculous.

Yes, friends, it's a very Sufjan Christmas.*

(Thanks to BW, co-proprietor of tiny drawings arts collective, for providing this link on his livejournal. As BW mentions in his thoughtful disclaimer, Sufjan evidently made these albums as gifts for friends and family, but they've been distributed on the web with abandon. I hope that policy still stands and would appreciate knowing if it does not.)

*Not familiar with ol' Soof? And you call yourself an expat--for shame! Educate yourself.


Saturday night and Sunday morning.

If you're not listening to NPR right now, you should be. Emily Saliers (of the Indigo Girls) and her kind father Don (a church musician and professor of theology and worship at Emory University) are talking about their new book, which describes their desire for readers to find the sacred in all authentic and truth-revealing music, regardless of genre. Both of them are so articulate, and the biggest bonus is that they've performed several songs live--Don joins in on "All That We Let In," and Emily sings on a beautiful liturgical song written by her dad, based on Psalm 139.

Go to the Diane Rehm show homepage to stream it, or if you've missed it you can listen to the archived episode when it goes online an hour after the program airs. Which you should. Because you don't want to miss Emily Saliers singing music from Taize.

It's interesting to listen to this having watched the insipid coverage of so-called "Christian" music on 60 Minutes last night. There is simply no comparison, not only between the interviewers' styles and grasp of their subjects' work (ie, Bob Simon playing Clueless White Guy to Kanye West's "dope-ass" beats--gimme a break, man), but in the depth of the interviewees' responses. Given the work I do at Calvin, I have developed much more empathy with musicians who have a "lover's quarrel" with the established church than those who are entrenched in the contemporary Christian music industry, regardless of whether they're getting mainstream airplay.

With all the exposure "Christian music" is supposedly getting, it never fails to amaze me how narrowly it continues to be defined. People raise a huge stink when the Indigo Girls perform at Calvin (which they've done twice in the last few years), as if their hot-button sexuality negates all else that might be good about them. But no one would so much as blink were we to bring in a band like Third Day, which is musically derivative and, on occasion, theologically sketchy. If you're going to question the Indigo Girls' theology (which you should), you need to question the theology of your favorite CCM bands, too. Just because they're signed to Essential Records doesn't mean everything they say is true. And just because the Indigo Girls are lesbians doesn't mean everything they say is false.

One of my favorite Madeleine L'Engle quotes sums this up: "God chooses his artists with as calm a disregard for surface moral qualifications as he chooses his saints." Praise God that he accepts and embraces the things we nitpick.


"Schizophrenic Christians in search of orthodoxy."

I'm usually not a fan of memoirs written by people still in their twenties. Maybe this is based on an unfair generalization, but let's face it--two decades and change makes for a pretty measely retrospective. It also doesn't give you much of an opportunity to write from the reflective, wizened perspective that comes only from years and years of seeing how your life actually turned out.

Yet it seems that these stories of life-in-process are becoming ever more popular in the publishing world, particularly in the religious press. There's Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God, which she wrote before she reached a quarter of a century. And Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, who is supposedly "the male Anne Lamott." (Not if you ask me, though.)

Patton Dodd is the latest twentysomething memoirist, but at least he's blunt about his limited life experience, given his new book's title: it's called My Faith So Far. While I hope this doesn't mean he'll be giving us an update every ten years ("My Faith Even Farther: Now With Cute Anecdotes About My Teenaged Offspring"), I'm interested in Patton's book, mainly because he appears to be the poster child for expatriates like me.

I first heard about Patton Dodd years ago, because of my friendship with Cameron Strang, now the all-powerful and omniscient CEO of Relevant magazine. Cameron and Patton went to Oral Roberts University together, and in the initial planning stages for Relevant, Patton's name came up as an excellent writer who might be interested in working with the publication in some capacity.

I don't think that connection ever materialized (and my connection to Relevant has since dissolved--which is one of those proverbial whole 'nother stories), but Cameron's enthusiasm for Patton's writing stuck with me. I've spotted Patton's byline here and there over the years, but most frequently as a contributing editor for Killing the Buddha. (If you are reading this blog, you should also be reading KtB. It's written in part for "people made anxious by churches." I don't know if that describes you, but personally, most churches give me overhead-projector-induced anxiety attacks. I wish I was kidding about this. I know I've found a church I can live with when I can actually breathe there--for me this usually means, as a commentor said in an entry below, "less sermon, more sacrament.")

But I digress. So, Patton Dodd has written this book, and everything's come full circle because I heard about it from Relevant's weekly e-newsletter. I wish I could link to the interview, but they don't archive them online. So here, simply, is the question that I thought summed things up rather nicely:
RM: So where are you now? How would you "label" your beliefs after all this?

PD: This will come as no surprise to anyone who is at all in touch with trends among young religious people, but at the moment I'd say I'm a schizophrenic Christian in search of orthodoxy. I'm an evangelical by virtue of my past and the basic structures of my belief, but I'm not entirely comfortable there. As the book makes clear, I'm not comfortable rejecting it either. I'm middled.
This certainly isn't anything profound, but there is a certain satisfying virtue in reading something that explicitly states how one already feels. Patton is one twentysomething writer I'll be giving a chance. Has anyone else read his book yet?