Monday, June 7, 2010

Almost 100 Worthwhile Reads

I found all of the following books worth my time. Books that come at the beginning are on my mind, and may be more significant. Series count as one. Plays count as well.

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
2. The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov
5. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket
6. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
7. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
8. Ulysses by James Joyce
9. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
10. Dubliners by James Joyce
11. The Rabbit Novels by John Updike
12. American Pastoral by Phillip Roth
13. White Noise by Don Delillo
14. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
15. The Pearl by John Steinbeck
16. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
17. Black Boy by Richard Wright
18. Native Son by Richard Wright
19. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
20. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
21. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
22. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
23. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
24. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
25. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs
26. Mystery Train by Greil Marcus
27. Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stephenson
28. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
29. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
30. Roots by Alex Haley
31. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
32. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon
33. For the Sins of My Father by Albert DeMeo
34. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi
35. The Tempting of America by Robert Bork
36. Right Turns by Michael Medved
37. Parliament of Whores by PJ O'Rourke
38. Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
39. Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis
40. The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis
41. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
42. The Space Trilogy by CS Lewis
43. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
44. Basic Christianity by John Stott
45. The Cross of Christ by John Stott
46. Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga
47. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
48. The Collapse of the Fact-Value Dichotomy by Hilary Putnam
49. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
50. The Once and Future King by TH White
51. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
52. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
53. Silence by Shusaku Endo
54. Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
55. A Song of Fire and Ice series by George RR Martin
56. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr.
57. The Illiad by Homer
58. The Odyssey by Homer
59. The Aeneid by Vergil
60. The Giver by Lois Lowry
61. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
62. His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman
63. Time series by Madeleine L'Engle
64. 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King
65. The Stand by Stephen King
66. 1984 by George Orwell
67. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
68. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
69. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
70. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
71. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
72. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
73. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
74. King Lear by William Shakespeare
75. Othello by William Shakespeare
76. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
77. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
78. The Bible by Various Contributors
79. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
80. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
81. Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed
82. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
83. The Language of God by Francis Collins
84. The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins
85. The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
86. How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom
87. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
88. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
89. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
90. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn
91. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

...and without naming some books that I didn't like all that much or textbooks that are worthwhile only to chemists and mathematicians, that's as far as we're getting in one sitting. (Edit: Thought of a few more.) Add in all the books in series and we're well over one hundred. For a very depressing evening, head over to Harold Bloom's canon and see all the wonderful works that you may never have time for.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Comprehensive Guide to Christian Behavior

This list is gleaned from years in the nondenominational (but actually denominational) Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. I have omitted Biblical citations for obvious reasons.

-go to bed early
-get up early
-be tidy
-marry as young as possible
-have children as soon as possible after marrying
-live in the place where you grew up
-if you choose to move, move to a smaller town than the one you grew up in
-eat lots of casseroles
-create pointless chores for your children
-say "No" for no reason
-make sure that your daughter has an extremely unfashionable hairstyle
-buy lots of knickknacks
-men - drive pickup trucks
-women - drive minivans
-do not talk to your children about sex until they are at least three years into puberty
-do not venture into densely populated areas
-vacation in Gatlinberg, TN

And if you do not stray from this path, my child, you shall earn salvation.

A Note on "Minimalism"

A fallback term for mediocre music critics, "minimalism" has come to mean "music that is simple and sparsely arranged." This use is extremely misleading. Historically, "minimalism" has referred to a style of American art music pioneered in the 1950s and 60s by composers such as Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass perhaps most strongly expressed in Glass's interminable "Einstein on the Beach." Minimalist music is characterized by the repetition of short, usually highly rhythmic phrases of music that vary gradually, often unnoticeably. It is difficult to overstate the impact of minimalism on popular music - virtually all hip hop and electronic dance music owes an enormous debt to the repetitions of minimalism, and sophisticated acts like LCD Soundsystem have recorded several gradualistic tracks. However, the records most often described as "minimalistic" are usually highly reliant on strong, varied melodies and and relaxed sense of time - qualities that minimalism deliberately avoids. Let's choose our words carefully.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Local Library and Ideological Purity

I'm a big patron of the Cincinnati Public Library. Their selection of books, films and sound recordings is exhaustive, their online catalogue is easy to browse, and best of all, it's almost free so long as I return materials on time. The library is also a great dividing line between pragmatic conservatives and ideological purists.

You see, the library is a publicly funded institution, and hard-line conservatives oppose all public institutions that provide services that a private market could supply. To a great extent, I recognize the inefficiency of public institutions and entitlements and the culture of dependency that they sometimes create. Moreover, it's obvious to me that the private sector could provide most of the services of a public library (see: Netflix). And yet, I still like the library.

Though it's publicly funded, it's still pretty cheap; last year's library levy increased local sales tax by a fraction of a cent. Moreover, it actually does what it was designed to do, providing wide access to books and media to patrons of all socio-economic backgrounds. It's also locally controlled; library funding is approved by the people who will actually use it.

What would be the advantages of a privately funded media co-op that would replace the library? Perhaps greater efficiency, more focus on new titles, the ability for local residents to opt out of the system. To the negative, the huge waste of media and space that would accompany a dismantling of the public library system and the limits placed on access by the membership fees that such a system would necessitate. These considerations weighed, I still favor the public option.

At the point, I hope that readers speak a collective "Duh." I am glad that you too like the library. What I am trying to illustrate is the need for a paradigm shift in conservative thinking, away from a priori opposition to all public institutions, and toward a weighing of the relative costs of addressing needs publicly or privately. As conservatives, we will still be skeptical toward public solutions and decide against them more often than not and will be very cautious about creating new institutions, but we will still consider problems on a case-by-case basis, and we will recognize that the serious costs associated with dismantling public institutions, even if we would have opposed their creation in some ideal original social position.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Addendum to Previous Post

For purposes of clarification, I provide the following summary of the points made in my previous post, along with a handful of new thoughts.

-We cannot evaluate songs chosen for corporate worship the same way we evaluate other songs, even Christian songs. The context of these songs demands that they express praise, thanksgiving, repentance, belief, etc. in ways that are common or ought to be common to all believers. Explicit description of specific personal experience renders a song inappropriate for corporate worship, no matter how good the song may be on its own.

-We must be careful about what our figurative language signifies. This is especially difficult because bad metaphors are the essence of pop lyricism. Worship songs, however, are trying to convey important truths and serious mysteries, not pleasant ambiguities. Figurative language should signify concrete truths to an audience. The most prevalent quality of hurricanes to most people is their overwhelming destructive power, and so "loves like a hurricane" is a bad lyric for a worship song, brilliantly ironic though it might be in some context. "The Lord is mighty like a hurricane" would be a better lyric.

-Worship songs should not require an inordinate amount of background knowledge to understand. A couple people have pointed me to the circumstances under which "How He Loves" was written, and these shed a bit of light on its meaning, but exacerbate some of the difficulties in it. But let's say for the sake of argument that the background story clarified everything in the song. It would enhance my appreciation of the song, but the song would still be a poor choice for corporate worship because few people know the background a be able to understand it; the worship leader would need to explain the story every time the song was played. It's one thing when a background story enhances our appreciation of a song (see "It is Well" by Phillip Bliss), another when that story is necessary to understand the song (see "American Skin (41 Shots)" by Bruce Springsteen).

-Biblical imagery provides a good basis for worship lyrics. We already know that its meaning is sound, and it calls congregants' minds to a wider body of truths. Inevitably, it brings us to think about God and not ourselves, as lines like "My heart beats violently inside of my chest" are wont to do. Moreover, song lyrics are marvelous teaching tools. They present the opportunity to ingrain in us the most important truths of our faith or meaningless pap.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Two Worship Songs Considered

Last summer, I wrote an extended criticism of Contemporary Christian Music, indicting the genre for its rigid formulas in song structure, instrumental arrangements, vocal styles and lyrical content. In that piece, I was primarily focused on the entertainment branch of the industry, the music that people listen to in private spaces. I tried as much as possible to avoid discussing congregational worship music, that is, music primarily intended to be sung in church services by all Christians in attendance. There were two main reasons for my avoidance. The first is that entertainment music and congregational worship music have very different goals and cannot be evaluated with the same standards. The second is that I was writing a deliberately negative essay, and I actually like a substantial number of popular worship songs as popular worship songs.

Still, I have some strong ideas about what worship music ought to be and lately I have been bothered by a handful of songs that deviate sharply from those ideas. Here I'm going to look at two songs that might be dubbed "worship songs", one good, one bad. I'm going to concern myself exclusively with lyrical content here, because musical standards and tastes in worship music are much more flexible than lyrical standards and tastes.

Edit: I originally wrote that this song was written by David Crowder and analyzed it under that assumption. A commenter has informed me that John Mark McMillan in fact wrote the song in the wake of a friend's death. Rereading the lyrics with this knowledge doesn't change my analysis at all.

I first consider "How He Loves", a worship song popularized by bandleader David Crowder. Summary opinion of Crowder: Somewhat more electronically adventurous than most of his peers, gifted leader in person, okay with other people's songs, mediocre melodicist, miserable lyricist.

Full lyrics of "How He Loves"

He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden,
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize just how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us so,
Oh how He loves us,
How He loves us all

Yeah, He loves us,
Oh! how He loves us,
Oh! how He loves us,
Oh! how He loves.

We are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
And Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss,
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest,
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets,
When I think about, the way-

Analysis: The first line is perhaps the most Biblical in the song. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord proclaims himself "a jealous God," desiring an exclusive covenant relationship with Israel, opposing their worship of any other deity. The song's worthwhile content ends here. The simile "loves like a hurricane" is very bewildering, because hurricanes do not love, hurricanes destroy. The lyric continues, "I am a tree, bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy," a confusing metaphor, both because wind is a natural phenomenon and mercy a moral quality, and because it implies an imprecise and involuntary response to this moral quality. The next lines are similarly vague. When? In the midst of the hurricane, or have we broken from figurative language? What afflictions? What glory?

The next line is more theologically problematic. It claims to realize "just how beautiful" the Lord is and how great his love. It is one thing to say that the Lord is beautiful and quite another to presume to know the degree of his beauty. In the Exodus 33, Moses, God's chosen leader of Israel, petitions, "Show me your glory." God allows Moses to see his back, but proclaims, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." Is David Crowder greater than Moses? In my opinion, to claim to know the extent of God's beauty indicates a failure to consider God's holiness and one's own sinfulness. So long as we do not enjoy the fullness of forgiveness from sin, we cannot claim to fully know a holy God. The lyric reeks of the "moralistic therapeutic deism" that is seeker-sensitivity taken too far.

The second verse begins much as the first, with a Biblically grounded lyric, and then again descends into meaningless figurative language. Again, "the grace in his eyes" is a cumbersome metaphor. In Christian theology, grace is a moral quality, not something clearly present in appearance, and in conventional language, when one attributes grace to something physical, it is to describe a person's or object's motion, and so "grace in his eyes" seems meaningless. We are drawn to redemption by the cross of Christ - at least nod to it. "If grace is an ocean, we're all sinking" implies that we are in fact drowning, and unless this is a very oblique allusion to the symbol of death in baptism, the image implies the exact opposite of the life-giving nature of grace. The kiss simile is crass and meaningless.

Now, there's nothing doctrinally problematic about "And my heart turns violently inside of my chest," but it's indicative of one of the worst tendencies of modern worship music. It's a worship lyric about the subject experience of singing worship lyrics. I've always found such lyrics to be very alienating, because I don't often have these responses to worship music. A congregational worship song should have lyrics that all believers can sing truthfully at any time, regardless of their dispositions. No matter how emotionally involved I am in a particular worship service, I can always affirm "What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus." I can almost never affirm descriptions of the phenomenology of worship in song.

Nevertheless, I do not want to deny the worth of the intense emotional experiences that many people have during this kind of worship and I'm not opposed to constructing songs to draw out these emotions. The lyrics of the song's chorus are very simple variations on "He loves us". Were this chorus situated after a song describing the many acts that demonstrate God's love, it would be a fitting conclusion, an opportunity for personal reflection on these demonstrations and for personal expression of the emotions that come from reflection. Not all participants would respond emotionally, but all could affirm that "How he loves us" is greatly. Instead, I come to the chorus wondering "How does he love us?"

I now turn to what I believe is an exemplary worship song, "Awake My Soul", by the group Caedmon's Call. I have presented this song to several people in the past, and for whatever reason none of them have shared my enthusiasm for it. It will nevertheless serve to illustrate some important points.

The image of God invisible, the first born of all life
Before and within, he holds it all in
One name, one faith, one Christ

No one is good enough, to save himself
Awake my soul tonight, to boast nothing else

I trust no other source or name, nowhere else can I hide
This grace gives me fear, and this grace draws me near
And all that it asks it provides


No seam in this garment, all my rags to hide
No less than your love, for Jesus is mine

When I stand on the edges of Jordan
With the saints and the angels beside
When my body is healed, and the glory revealed
Still I can boast only Christ


On the whole, I think that the song's lyrics speak for themseleves, but I do want to point out some structural features. The first verse of the song alludes extensively to John 1, and proclaims Christian truths with an easy poetry. The first line of the chorus is also theological, and the second is an invocation. When Christians sing this song together, they affirm important beliefs that they hold in common, pray a prayer that they ought to pray, and have the opportunity to express their own emotions and needs through this prayer, an opportunity that will be appealing to many congregants because of the gravity of the truths they have just proclaimed.

The second verse maintains a grasp on both theology and personal need. "I trust no other source or name" is an aspirational rather than a factual statement, but it is one to which all Christians ought to aspire. In contrast, "My heart beats violently inside of my chest" is not a statement that all worshippers can affirm, nor is it one that anyone necessarily ought to affirm. There's nothing inherently immoral about having no emotional response to a worship song. The description of grace in this verse makes that of "How He Loves" seem laughable. Rather than a meaningless metaphor, we get a description of this startling gift of God - it calls us to become children of God and simultaneously provides the means to do so. The final verse again personalizes the song's theme of saving grace, drawing on Biblical imagery, which I always approve of, and with its eschatological bent, serving as a companion to the first verse's talk of creation.

At this point, some may argue that what they want in a worship song is a chance for expression of feeling, not a theology lesson. I counter that one has a great deal more to express when one has an emotional stimulus, and the great Christian doctrines are nothing if not emotional stimuli.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Grad School FAQ

People have been asking a lot of questions about my grad school plans. I've constructed this FAQ to answer some of the most common ones.

Q: Where will you be attending graduate school?

A: I will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: So you're going to get a master's degree?

A: No. As is common in the natural sciences, I was accepted directly into a PhD program without any prior graduate study.

Q: And what exactly will you be getting a PhD in?

A: Chemistry, with an organic major, and potentially a chemical biology minor. Organic chemistry is the study of carbon-based compounds.

Q: How long will your program take to complete?

A: Most students complete the program in 5-6 years, depending on rate of research progress. The PhD is awarded upon submission of an acceptable dissertation documenting an original contribution to the discipline. This takes different people different amounts of time.

Q: Wow, won't you be totally sick of school by the time you're done?

A: I will not be attending school in the traditional sense. I will have a full schedule of coursework and teaching in my first year, and will move into full time laboratory research by my third year. Graduate school will be more like a full time job.

Q: But aren't you going to pile up a mountain of debt?

A: No. My tuition is paid by my department and I will receive a livable salary.

Q: So what do you want to do when you finally get out?

A: The chemistry PhD is uniquely flexible in that a very high proportion of degree holders work in industry, often for pharmaceutical and oil companies. Others work in government labs or in academia. At this point, I am leaning toward an industrial career, but I have been told that I will not really have a good idea of my career goals until a couple of years into grad school.

Q: So you could be a professor when you get out?

A: Not quite. Most academic positions require postdoctoral experience. Postdocs are typically 1-2 year positions dedicated to full time research, and are usually conducted at another institution. Industrial positions do not usually require postdoctoral experience.

Q: When does your program begin?

A: Next August. Can't wait.