Friday, December 18, 2015

What to do about ISIS

So I watched the Republican presidential debate Tuesday night on foreign policy, and it inspired me to write this now. I had this idea a few weeks ago but wanted to let it germinate for awhile before I wrote on it. Watching the debate, I think it's pretty clear that nobody has a real plan for ISIS. They were arguing about whether to put boots on the ground or not, how passionate each candidate was about how hard they were going to bomb them, but nobody really laid out anything even resembling a set of clear, achievable strategic goals.

This comes as no surprise to me. Since my last post on foreign policy, yet another of my predictions has come true. Enough have come true that I'm thinking about writing a post objectively examining which have come true and which have not, and how accurate in general my various predictions have been. But the one I'm talking about now is this:

3. Obama or whoever comes next will argue that in order to fulfill the mission of denying Assad air power we must institute Iraq-style "no-fly zones" over Syria.

In one of the previous debates, I think it was the most recent one other than Tuesday's, many of the Republican candidates proposed a no-fly zone over Syria. Jeb Bush in particular advocated a strong no-fly zone policy Tuesday night, saying he would even shoot down Russian planes violating it. This comes on the heels of the Turks shooting down a Russian plane they said was violating their airspace. (More on the Turks later.) Now it's true that this prediction of mine was made before the rise of ISIS and I did not predict that, but that makes it all the more interesting to me. The fact that I predicted a particular policy when Assad was the primary opponent in the region and that prediction came true even after the opponent changed, sort of, is just more confirmation that our foreign policy establishment is in over its head, providing simplistic sanitized PC solutions to complicated, dirty problems and being in love with our various technical capabilities but not giving two shits about the political realities on the ground in the region of interest.

That serves as a nice segue way to the last comment I would like to make on the debates about Turkey and Senator Lindsey Graham, who is apparently campaigning to be the foreign policy doofus in chief. In the under card debate, Senator Graham outlined a policy of 20,000 U.S. boots on the ground, evenly divided between Iraq and Syria, bolstered by massive infantry forces belonging to our allies in the region. He specifically mentioned Turkey as the primary contributor to a massive infantry force to be used in Syria against ISIS.

*facepalm*

Senators McCain and Graham have got to be the biggest dumbasses who somehow manage to get a hearing in serious foreign policy circles. A major pet peeve of mine is no one seems to understand or talk about Turkey's fundamental interests in the region. Plans are made, discussed and debated, news is written, and a full helping of stupidity is enjoyed by all without mentioning the single most important fact about Turkey's foreign policy interest: Turkey cannot abide a Kurdish nation. Why? Because Turkey has a very large Kurdish minority that their Sunni Islamic supremacist government is actively suppressing. Turkey is deathly afraid that if a Kurdish nation forms out of all this chaos that their own Kurdish minority will attempt to leave Turkey and join the Kurdish nation. This would be a major disaster for Turkey, as Kurds make up at least 15% of Turkey's population and some estimates put it closer to 20%. All Turkish foreign policy decisions are made with this in mind. Why did Turkey shoot down a Russian plane? Because Russia supports Assad against ISIS, and the Turks like ISIS. They are ideologically, religiously and ethnically aligned with ISIS, but more importantly, ISIS is fighting the Kurds. Turkey will never send a large infantry force into Syria to fight against ISIS. ISIS is the embodiment of all Turkish dreams come true. Turkey is far more likely to use military force against the Kurds than against ISIS, but they have been prevented from doing so because the U.S. supports the Kurds. In ISIS, Turkey now has a proxy force they can use to fight against the Kurds without angering the U.S. by suppressing the independent Kurdish groups directly. Senator Graham is either seriously misleading people or seriously mentally deficient to have sat through all the foreign policy briefings he has and failed to realize this fundamental fact about Turkey's interest. And yet he stated seriously on national TV that there would be no problem or difficulty in getting Turkey to commit a massive ground force against ISIS. In your second grade dreams, Senator Graham.

Now that that's out of my system, let's get to the main event: What to do about ISIS. Nobody will suggest what I am about to suggest, because anyone who suggests something which might actually work in this troubled region is going to sound like a really big meanie head, even in the age of Donald Trump. But what I am about to suggest is really no different than King Solomon's solution to a seemingly intractable problem.

Then two women who were harlots came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. It happened on the third day after I gave birth, that this woman also gave birth to a child, and we were together. There was no stranger with us in the house, only the two of us in the house. This woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on it. So she arose in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your maidservant slept, and laid him in her bosom, and laid her dead son in my bosom. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, behold, he was dead; but when I looked at him carefully in the morning, behold, he was not my son, whom I had borne.” Then the other woman said, “No! For the living one is my son, and the dead one is your son.” But the first woman said, “No! For the dead one is your son, and the living one is my son.” Thus they spoke before the king. Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son who is living, and your son is the dead one’; and the other says, ‘No! For your son is the dead one, and my son is the living one.’” The king said, “Get me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” Then the woman whose child was the living one spoke to the king, for she was deeply stirred over her son and said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him!” Then the king said, “Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him. She is his mother.” When all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had handed down, they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice.
~ 1 Kings 3:16-28

BABY KILLER! screamed the headlines the next day. No matter that this solution worked. No matter that King Solomon never actually intended to kill the baby. No, what matters is he's a big meanie head baby killer.

The President of the United States goes on television and tells the entire world that the United States has been attacked by ISIS (assuming this is true) and asks Congress for a formal declaration of war on them. Not an "authorization of military force". Not a "police action". Not a super serious smart bombing campaign. WAR. In his address, he shows a map with clearly defined borders of the territory that he has determined is controlled by ISIS. This map needs to be made publicly available in the native languages of the region and be detailed enough that anyone there can tell whether they are inside the border or not. Then he tells the whole world that in six months, the U.S. military is going to roll in and KILL EVERYONE inside those borders. This threat must be perceived as credible to everyone, including Americans and the media. Necessary preparations should be made and advertised. There should be some type of official countdown to the invasion date. The President and his advisors must argue vociferously and publicly that this is the only solution, that there is no way to tell the difference between someone who supports or is ISIS and someone who is an innocent civilian, that the safety of the American people is at stake, that everyone living in the region who doesn't openly oppose ISIS is to be held morally responsible for the actions of their government, etc., etc., etc. We are pissed off, we are serious, we will kill everyone. 

There will be numerous objections to this policy, so numerous I don't have time to deal with them all here. I'm going to focus on the likely results.

The first thing that will happen is all of the people within those borders who are not ISIS will be struck by the fear of God. All of the sudden their very survival depends on getting the hell out of the area as fast as they can. Refugee crisis? So what. The innocents will separate themselves from the guilty, and that is the important thing.

Or will they? The next likely thing to happen is ISIS will suddenly realize they have been outmaneuvered and desperately attempt to keep people from leaving. They may succeed with a small number, but they will probably not be able to prevent the vast majority from leaving the area. However, it is actually better if they do succeed, and to that end, we should suspend bombing or any military action in the area for the duration of the six month countdown. This will need to be somewhat negotiable as circumstances dictate. But in general we want to foment a situation where the most amount of people are forced to fight against ISIS. The more people who are unable to leave due to ISIS intervention, the larger the indigenous army to fight against them for their very survival. All of the sudden, a brand new resistance to ISIS will form out of thin air. Not based on ideology, not based on nationalism, religion or regional alliances, but based on the need to survive. If they don't leave, the U.S. will kill them. If they do leave, ISIS will kill them. They will have no choice but to fight for their very lives against ISIS, and we will have inspired a true resistance movement in the region and given them six months to decide their conflict with ISIS, one way or the other. The more people who are unable to leave and forced to fight ISIS, the more likely ISIS will be defeated before we even fire a shot.

Now if that were the sum total of what this policy accomplished, it would be a massive improvement over anything any of our leaders have proposed to date, but we have to account for various contingencies. Primarily, what happens when the countdown reaches zero?

Well, the best result would be ISIS is defeated by the resistance. In this case, the U.S. can simply recognize the fact and relent in our wrath. I don't believe this would result in a degradation of U.S. credibility. As in Solomon's case, everyone will recognize the wisdom of the policy.

Another result is that ISIS wins, and the resistance escapes, is killed or imprisoned. In that case we go in and make good on our promise, knowing that most everyone left is a sworn enemy of the United States. Tough choices will have to be made about rules of engagement, as ISIS will attempt the liberal use of human shields as these bastards have always done in Gaza and the West Bank. But the gloves come off. Civilian casualties should be avoided if possible but not at the expense of endangering American troops or impeding our mission to kill all hostiles. War is war. It's terrible, but it's required for decisive resolution of conflict. If San Bernardino or some future terrorist attack on civilians is determined to be a direct action of ISIS, than that constitutes an escalation to total war and total war is justified in response.

Unfortunately, in such a complicated region, neither of these two results is likely. The likely result is a more ambiguous situation, some elements of which will be unpredictable in advance. ISIS may splinter into a bevy of smaller localized elements that pursue their own strategies and goals. Parts of ISIS may attempt to escape the border themselves, or perhaps moving to a location just outside the border in order to be safe and conduct operations across it. They may do this in order to purposely muddy the waters and confuse the mission. We should be sensitive to this and it may become necessary to adjust the borders shortly before operations begin to reflect new realities developed in the previous six months. It should also not be out of the question to conduct operations outside the borders if necessary. We could potentially encourage ISIS to stay in the borders by limiting airstrikes to any known ISIS elements attempting to leave or take up residence just outside the border.

Another possibility, also likely, is that no organized resistance forms at all. Some escape, some don't, and we are left with a large number of innocents imprisoned in the area when the countdown winds down. In that case we will have to come up with rules of engagement that recognize that these people risked life and limb to at least leave but were unable to do so.

But at the very least this policy will give us the moral high ground, having warned everyone what would happen. It will also separate the true believers from those who just wish to live their lives in peace, something which would be very difficult to do on the fly if we just invaded out of the blue. The possibility that this type of line in the sand (literally) will inspire a native political movement built on opposition to ISIS is simply too tantalizing to ignore. This has always been the major problem in the region. ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the like are undesirable, but there appears to be little if any organized opposition, and the opposition that has worked in the past has taken the form of military dictatorships centered around ethnic tribal leaders like Hussein and Assad. The mere possibility that something like a political movement based on the protection of life and property is enough to give my proposal serious consideration. But of course, no one will even give it a second glance because all current U.S. foreign policy is based on domestic politics, rather than the facts on the ground in places where people, in the understatement of the year, are not very much like us.

Now that's whack.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Carly Fiorina on Gender Issues

I did not watch the so-called undercard debate of the bottom tier candidates last time, but Carly Fiorina apparently won that one hands down according to just about everybody. She rose enough in the polls that CNN decided to add her as the eleventh participant in the second debate last night, which was a marathon of three hours. I watched most of it, some of it twice, and Fiorina was the only one who really stood out to me. She really seems to shine in the debate forum, which is a surprise. Everyone thought Cruz, the champion competitive debater in college, would have the advantage here. I doubt I will vote for Fiorina as she doesn't reflect my positions on some things the way a guy like Cruz does, but I have to admit I was impressed. I was especially impressed with her very specific plan on building up the military. She's obviously done some serious homework on it. I don't agree with it, unless she's got a major war in mind. She's been very outspoken about dealing with Putin so maybe.

But I'm writing this post mostly because she expressed a point of view on gender issues which is almost exactly what I wrote in my chapter on gender issues in the book. I basically said that I didn't like the recent trend of using female pronouns to refer to a generic person, turning political correctness into a sort of super grammar. I think it's insulting to the intelligence of women to imply that they can't figure out that the male pronoun is conventionally used to refer to a generic person. Fiorina didn't quite say that, but she was the only person to refuse to answer the question about which women to put on the ten dollar bill. She said she wouldn't change it and doesn't want to change our history. Obviously, Fiorina is a highly intelligent woman and I suspect she is having none of this politically correct super grammar. Bravo, Carly Fiorina for making a statement.

Then she took it even further in her closing statement, which was a beautiful ode to Lady Justice and Lady Liberty, in which she constantly referred to them as "she" over and over again without making it a gender issue. She presented a great example of how the feminine has always been included in the English language, not discriminated against, by recalling the way we used to use the feminine pronoun as a way of enhancing meaning rather than confusing it with political correctness in every pronoun. In my book I suggested doing this and specifically mentioned vehicles, like cars and ships, countries, and the Vices and Virtues of old as appropriate uses for the feminine pronouns. I even specifically mentioned Justice and Liberty. I could almost believe she has read that chapter in my book, but I know that's not the case. Bravo again, Carly Fiorina, for not only smacking political correctness in the face, but also for raising the bar for all the candidates in how the English language should be used. If all women were as intelligent and strong as her, we would never have had this ridiculous trend of using the feminine pronoun when it doesn't mean anything except a sop to supposedly easily offended women. Bravo once again, Carly Fiorina  Bravo. You don't have my vote, but you have certainly won my respect.

Now that's whack.

Friday, August 14, 2015

My Top Ten Spun Albums

So I decided to finish this post from awhile ago just for fun. This is not a favorites list, which would likely be somewhat different now. This is a list of the ten albums I think I have listened to the most over my entire life. Looking over these, most of these album reviews are often just as much about the band than the album, but that's okay.

(NOTE: Several entries have been significantly edited from their initial posting.)

Going Public, Newsboys

The Newsboys hail from the heyday of the Christian music scene, the golden age of the 90s. Distrusted by older Christians and stigmatized by the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll crowd, the Newsboys epitomize this era of unapologetic Christian themed music made by people who love rock. But I remember when even at a Christian high school almost no one listened to Christian music because any Christian music must automatically be terrible. At the same time the adults distrusted anything with a beat. I still remember my friend playing P.O.D. in gym class and the skeptical look we received from our Spanish teacher when we told her it meant "payable on death". This was, of course, before P.O.D. became ridiculously famous and successful. At that time my favorite Newsboys album was their subsequent album Take Me to Your Leader, one of my first ever CDs, which had catchier lyrics, better guitars and crisper production. But in the quieter years that followed as I watched the more exuberant age of the Christian music scene fade away, I find myself returning to Going Public almost exclusively. For years I had only the cassette tape, but eventually bought the CD somewhere along the line.

Driven more by keyboard, base and soft drumming, Going Public has a classic resonant, haunting pop rock sound. The stand-out single, "Shine", a smash hit that drove the Newsboys to the top of the Christian music charts, is only the beginning of a deep and thoughtful album about real life as a Christian. "Shine" is a catchy number about the radical transformation that can take place when someone commits their life to Christ, comparing it to Eskimos renouncing fur and bouncers taking ballet class, inspiring a memorable music video. "Oprah freaks and science seeks a rationale that shall excuse this strange behavior." Still true even today, as an unbelieving people try to explain away the power of the Holy Spirit behind the phenomenon of Christianity. Why be apologetic about the power of the Christian story? Why hide it? In a world constantly on the attack against the cause of Christ, this was a clarion call to live boldly and unapologetically committed to the simple power that has always animated Christian belief. This was my favorite song for a long time, but the album is stronger than just the single. The theme is repeated in the title track "Going Public", and there are a few other upbeat songs, but the highlights of the album are the slower more thoughtful tracks. The first is the exquisite "Let It Rain", presented as the dying wish of the apostle Peter as he recalls all his experiences with Jesus involving water. He asks Jesus to let it rain one last time before he goes to meet him in heaven. The sound of the album is perfect for a rainy, overcast day, and there is no song I'd rather listen to on such a day, staring out the teardrop streaked windows into the surreal light, longing for home. Then there are the last three songs on the album starting with "Be Still", a call to slow down and meditate on God in a turbulent and fast moving world trying so hard to distract us from the things that really matter.

"We have filled our lives with inventions
That have hurried us nowhere fast
Now we need to turn our attentions
To what will last"

That message is even more relevant today as it was in 1994. Then there is "When You Called My Name" a song about a discouraged and burnt-out pastor trying to hold on to the reasons he originally felt called to be a pastor when nothing seems to be going right. Closing out the album is a heartache of a rock ballad called "Elle G." that has become my favorite song on the album. The song is an emotionally perfect accounting of someone mourning the loss of a close friend to suicide, traversing in poetic, poignant fashion all the feelings of anger, betrayal, confusion, sorrow, loss and desperate hope that he will see her again. How can we hope that a Christian who commits suicide will be in heaven? It's a heart-wrenching question, one my mom had to ask after she found her brother in their garage. The uncle I never met was a schizophrenic who shot himself with a shotgun at age twenty-eight. I always think of my mom in that garage when I listen to this song. She still has his Bible, chock full of handwritten notes. She struggled with that, but believes she will see him in heaven someday, hoping that God will "overcome evil for good." Going Public always reminds me that He will.

Life in General, MxPx

MxPx came out of the West coast, or as they would say it, left coast punk rock scene of the 90s and were one of the first openly Christian bands to reject the Christian label as too confining. In doing so they were the more fun-loving forerunners of bands like Switchfoot, Skillet and Chevelle which have made it big in both markets. It is probably difficult for the average music listener to understand the dilemma faced by Christian musicians that are serious about music and the music industry, but MxPx has always eschewed both factions, the secular and the Christian.

Sex masquerades as rock and roll
And manufactured music to save your soul
So go and do your homework
Demographics target marketing
~"Your Problem, My Emergency"

Unfortunately for MxPx, demographics and target marketing are genuine attempts to find out what people want, and ignoring that means ignoring what people want and, by direct consequence, being less successful in industry terms. Bands like MxPx elevate their own sense of artistry over what the market wants. At the expense of making more money and having a more successful career, they gain a sense of independence, and MxPx has consciously embraced that ethic with all the consequences. Many bands fail and then complain about the marketing and business aspect of the music industry, but MxPx has from the beginning preferred rebellion and independence over doing what anybody else wants from them, the primary objection to the Christian music scene. (For instance, the Christian music industry's answer to the Grammy's, the Dove Awards, began requiring certain lyrical standards in order to be considered.) Remarkably, in MxPx's later years (they are still actively recording and touring over twenty years running), they began to fear that they were abandoning their original fan base and tried to write music that was more punk and less pop. Unfortunately for this attempt, MxPx has always been better as a pop-punk band and has the uncanny ability to write song after catchy song in that vein, an ability no more apparent than on Life in General. Though The Everpassing Moment is probably their best album, there is one reason why I have listened to Life in General more: it's great driving music. For a long time I had only a cassette player in my car and I owned a cassette copy of Life in General. Most of the time it was just easier to put in the tape than hook up my portable CD player with a tape adapter. That and most of their most well-known concert anthems are from this album. So two reasons.

The obvious smash hit from the album is "Chick Magnet", a hilarious song about a popular guy who gets all the girls from the perspective of a loser unable to get girls, presumably the band members. Songs like this today often emphasize resentment and rejection of the person in question, but MxPx has always accepted that people are different and this is part of life, for good or for worse. "Chick Magnet" doesn't lampoon the *ahem* magnetic personality, in fact it pretty much wishes him well (He's gonna settle down if he meets that special girl soon). It's really more a funny, "that's just life" comment on the fact that girls tend to like some guys more than others. This song, though by far the most popular and well-known song on the album, is the tenth song on the album. Underground bands like MxPx often have hit songs later in the album because they are chosen organically rather than by radio airplay of songs that are marketed as "hit singles" and are always put in the first three or four on the album. The video is must see TV, as MxPx purposely uses their drummer, by far the ugliest guy in the band, to play the chick magnet.

The album in general is a clean, honest reflection on the life of a normal teenager. Loves gained and lost, understood to be what they were: just part of growing up. From the sappy love song inspired by an awkwardly cringing pick-up line, "Do Your Feet Hurt", all the while admiring and respecting the girl for waiting for her one true love because she believes in God, to the comparison between high school and prison, "Doing Time", to say nothing of "My Mom Still Cleans My Room". And those aren't even the best songs on the album. Then there is the final track, "Southbound" about the joys of driving on the highway, something my family and I did a lot when I was younger. I have never heard an album more honestly and refreshingly faithful to what it's really like to be an average teenager. Perhaps that's because it came from the perspective of innocent but inevitable mistakes, simple joys and exaggerated tragedies, rather than the darkly tragic or cloying perspectives. Or perhaps it's because MxPx started the band in their teenage years and never left them. Never grow up, MxPx. Someone needs to stay young. 

The Black Album, Metallica

If Michael Jackson is the king of pop and Elvis is the king of rock 'n' roll, then Metallica is the undisputed heavyweight champion of metal. I have not yet found a hard rock station that does not have a show called Mandatory Metallica, a solid half hour of nothing but classic Metallica songs late at night. Most Metallica purists prefer Master of Puppets, saying the Black Album was the beginning of Metallica's exodus from their roots, but all bands that make it big are accused of this by their original fans. For me, Metallica was the first non-Christian band I really started listening to in earnest, so this album represents something of an exodus for me as well. As far back as high school I knew I loved the music. I remember well when the basketball team at my Christian high school played "Enter Sandman" as their entry music for one game and caused a minor controversy. I was somewhat ambivalent, but if I had been asked I would have been against it at the time. For some strange reason, Metallica is one of those bands that symbolizes to Christians all that is evil about secular music, despite the fact that they rarely curse and never really sing about explicit sex or glorify violence or drugs. Compared to the spectrum of music out there today, Metallica is so mild they don't even register a blip on that radar. For them the focus has always been the music, not the message. And there is no band that political conservatives should admire more.

From the beginning Metallica kept ownership of their own music and vigorously protected their intellectual property rights. When young progressive rockers were rebuking commercialism in music, holding their nose at the crowd, and then creating their own industry which we now call indie music, Metallica was succeeding both commercially and in maintaining actual independence from the corporate world, gaining real fans for one reason only: their music is awesome. They also led the charge against Napster and online file-sharing before admitting defeat at the hands of the new reality of the Internet. But more than that, Metallica elevates and admires the individual against the crowd. This, more than anything, explains Metallica's huge appeal. Metallica became a huge sensation without much marketing or traditional music industry support because they made truly creative music. In an age when heavy metal meant hair bands and arena rock, Metallica made exquisite, almost classical, long meandering numbers full of multiple independent themes with little or no lyrics. In fact their best album is probably S&M, or "Symphony and Metallica"), a live performance with the San Francisco Symphony playing original arrangements for their songs. Metallica did everything a band was not supposed to do, they did it on their own and they made it big. They are the perfect example of the free market rewarding creativity and innovation when the odds are purposely stacked against it by large, centralized bureaucracies. Yet strangely, Metallica is not popular with the sort of people who love to hate big business. We will see why in a moment.

The clear highlight of this album for me is "The Unforgiven", which to me reads almost like a resentful conservative's take on the liberal vision for a man in modern society. That man must follow all the rules and must submit his will to a society that often contradicts itself in the asking and doesn't fulfill in the taking, yet still refuses to allow dissent.

They dedicate their lives
To running all of his
He tries to please them all
This bitter man he is
Throughout his life the same
He's battled constantly
This fight he cannot win...

In the end, this man is defeated and feels as if his life was wasted living up to a confusing system of contradictory rules and has missed the opportunities he had to shine and reach fulfillment, blaming a society he only ever tried to please:

What I've felt, what I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never free, never me
So I dub thee unforgiven

Certainly not a Christian band, Metallica deals with emotional and even spiritual issues of life, sometimes involving politics. They do have a song here called "The God That Failed", but a little Wiki research shows it was written about one of the band member's mother who died of cancer, refusing treatment because she was a Christian Scientist, basically a denomination of pseudo-intellectual faith healers for whom I have little sympathy. To someone like myself who has endured the progressive gauntlet that is the modern state university, the song "My Friend of Misery" has special meaning. The song is about a friend who is trying to save the world, and ends up putting all the sorrow and pain of the whole world on their own shoulders, crushing them in misery, for no human can save the world. At times I have been that person, possessed of both Christian compassion and up close and personal knowledge of suffering around the world from a very young age. It did not help me to be surrounded by clueless people who actually think the world can be saved from the consequences of sin and human mistakes and that it is our fault, meaning Americans, Christians, white people and men. I knew, again from personal experience, that American Christians are doing by far the most to alleviate suffering in the world. In many ways, I could have been a liberal but for the fact that I knew no one can or should be forced to shoulder that heavy emotional burden, and even if they were, it was American Christians who have been most responsive to it. These people act as if no one else in the entire world bears any responsibility except us. Modern liberalism constantly uses guilt and the suffering of others to emotionally browbeat people into submission to their program. I hate it with a passion, because for a time I really did believe it was all my fault. This song pretty well captures the same sentiment.

"Sad But True" has become probably my second favorite song on the album, and I really can't describe the theme without using Christian terms. The song is about the evil sin nature inside every one of us.

I'm your truth, telling lies
I'm your reason, alibis
I'm inside, open your eyes
I'm you

CCM and most worship style Christian music is notorious for putting a happy  Christian face on things because they are concerned about appearances. Here a non-Christian band tears that all away and reveals the evil inside everyone. Jesus Christ is not a cosmic teddy bear. He saves us from this evil inside all of us. Without that He died for nothing, and Metallica is halfway there.

If one is looking for an excellent conservative political anthem, look no further than "Don't Tread on Me". The title is pretty self-explanatory and unabashedly pro-American and conservative. If the Tea Party ever becomes a real party, it's animal symbol would be the rattlesnake from the Gadsden flag.

Liberty or death, what we so proudly hail
Once you provoke her, rattling of her tail
Never begins it, never, but once engaged
Never surrenders, showing the fangs of rage
So don't tread on me

Metallica represents the biker version of American conservatism, individualist, rebellious and contrarian. The metal attitude and rough exterior are largely an affectation designed to quickly get rid of those who are only interested in righteousness for the sake of appearances. They are also an excellent example of how conservative Christians rightly criticizing the culture and calling for change often fail to understand who their friends are. Oh, and they make damn good music.  

Speakeasy, Stavesacre

Stavesacre was the band which eventually supplanted Newsboys as my favorite, and stayed number one till they stopped making music. They are my Ford Edsel. No album has meant more to me personally than this one. In high school and even college I would sometimes drive somewhere to get away from it all. This was always the album I played on those trips. I always considered it an offense against high heaven that Stavesacre never made it big, and it was the only band I ever really made an effort to sell my friends on.

Stavesacre also presented a microcosm of the evolution of the Christian music industry over my lifetime. They started out aggressively and unapologetically Christian, complete with worship songs and seething anti-abortion anthems prophesying destruction on the U.S. for this offense against God. Eventually, the lead singer and front man Mark Salomon could no longer endure the hypocrisy constantly eating away at him, both from others and from himself. He has always hinted that he was sexually abused as a child, though even in his tell-all autobiography he only said that some things must stay in the family. But in the early Stavesacre years, behind the scenes he was sexually promiscuous, prideful and manipulative. He used his friends until they finally dropped him, and he hit bottom. Throughout all this, all he really had was music. When he came back to it, the band was still there, but the music and message changed. Speakeasy was released during somewhere in the middle of this transition. I actually had a conversation with Salomon once on MySpace, of all places, some time during the 2008 election, in which he objected to my contention that electing Obama would mean abortions would increase. He said if abortion was made illegal he would take to the streets with molotov cocktails. Stavesacre's transition could not have been more complete without them becoming atheists. The only other band I know whose transition during this period in Christian music was more complete was David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, whose story also involved sexual sin.

I watched this transition transpire over my lifetime, both in Stavesacre and the larger world of Christian music. There is a post called "The Rise and Fall of Christian Music" languishing in my queue. I cannot follow Stavesacre or Pedro to where they ended up, but I understand where they are coming from. As usual, the great Christian apologist and culture warrior C.S. Lewis has advice that is still relevant, even today:

"...when I speak of 'resisting the abuse of culture' I do not mean that a Christian should take money for supplying one thing (culture) and use the opportunity thus gained to supply a quite different thing (homiletics and apologetics). That is stealing. The mere presence of Christians in the ranks of the culture-sellers will inevitably provide an antidote."

In its early days, the Christian music industry failed to follow Lewis' sage advice, and the experience of bands like Stavesacre, Pedro the Lion and MxPx are the result: disillusionment, skepticism and failure. In the case of Bazan, it led to a loss of faith. Christian music became a front for selling Christianity to a world that was hoping to buy good music, and it took a long time to reform it's vision. It is all the more tragic because all the good, unknown Christian bands making great music during that time suffered stigmatization they didn't deserve, coming from Christians whose standard for music was apologetics just as often as from the "secular" world craving sex and drugs and hating on Christian music in general. The fact that they made great music didn't matter, because they didn't belong in either scene. Instead, they were the forerunners of a new scene, paying the price the industry visits upon innovation. Today, rock music as a whole is finally leaving its infancy and becoming more about the music than it has ever been. It is an environment within which Christians can and often do succeed, providing Lewis' antidote to the abuse of culture by their mere presence, not their preaching. 

Stavesacre's is a story of personal and professional failure, but in the midst of the ashes rises Speakeasy, a gem of an album whose tragedy revolves around a singular hope in God, thus capturing the true gospel message to the suffering. We may not ever find an end to it in this life, but God is still Just, and He will right all wrongs in the end.

"Under wings of gold and silver
Sometimes we have to hide
For shelter from this bitter winter
At least tonight"

"Thought I was a good man
And fell short of my standards
Now what am I left with?
All or nothing
And my first taste of freedom

Freefall weightless and terrified
On I go crossing over from living to so alive
And purified I know weeping is cast for the night
And joy comes in the morning

If I fall down
If I fail you
When I fall down
When I fail you
I hope to find you there
I hope to find you there
I know I'll find you there
I've always found you there"

The last song they ever released, though not on Speakeasy, is the perfect end to an inauspicious career, and one of their best ever. It looks back at the beginning and the end, realizing the whole struggle was a search for significance and success that never came:

For a moment I was sure there was a difference
No longer small or insignificant
The sound and fury only returned
To silence

Over all the years and all the changes in their outlook and art, they never made it. Their music was always more important to them, and to me, than to the rest of the world, but "against the silence the band played on." Play on, Stavesacre.

Our Newest Album Ever!, Five Iron Frenzy

FIF was/is a bunch of Christian band geeks rejoicing in self deprecatory humor about their junior high loserly nerdiness. And yet they are also former punks/metal heads who sing passionately about their faith. Somehow these eight strange bedfellows found each other and formed a ska/punk band in the mid 90s that became one of the most beloved Christian bands of all time. I suspect that happened mainly because Five Iron spoke to the sort of people who actually listened to the good Christian music in the first place: Christian teenagers whose parents wouldn't let them listen to secular music and were actually honest enough to obey them, but still rebellious enough to go for the underground stuff because it was so much better than what virtually all Christian radio stations played at the time. None of this was any sort of marketing strategy on their part. They were who they were, and they just happened to be the same kind of people who listened to Christian music back then. They were authentic and they were us, and that made them loved in a way I really haven't seen any other band loved by their fans.

Their second album, Our Newest Album Ever! did not remain true to its title, followed by Quantity is Job 1, from which this author took his web handle, the live album Proof that the Youth are Revolting then All the Hype Money Can Buy and Five Iron Frenzy 2: Electric Boogaloo, and finally The End is Near, an album they wrote knowing they were breaking up. Then ten years later they got back together and made the surprisingly good Engine of a Million Plots which was financed entirely by crowdfunding. But Our Newest Album Ever!, though no longer the newest, remains the definitive FIF album.

With crowd pleasers like "Superpowers", "Suckerpunch" and "Oh, Canada", the album has the catchy, humorous songs that have always been Five Iron's trademark. "Suckerpunch" is a song about losers and manages to be funny, self-deprecating and worshipful at the same time. It's real life honesty about those younger years reminds me of MxPx. It's what Christianity represented to all the kids who loved them. We learned the benefits of Christianity in personal and social terms.

A song sung for underdogs, for all the left out.
A flag flying for losers, somewhere in the Heavens.
The God of ever-lasting comfort, believed in me,
Loved me when I was faithless, he still died for me.

"Oh, Canada" is a song about Canada if you didn't catch that. I have never heard a song containing all the Canadian stereotypes that exist, and some that don't, followed by "Hey, let's go there!". 

"Superpowers" has the same mix of humor with a moral to the story. It's addressed to fans who tend to idolize musicians. In fact, it's actually making fun of such people. Imagine the Beatles or Michael Jackson singing lyrics like this:

"Eat some food off the floor
I've developed a taste for bread mold
Ride around in a van
Don't take a shower for six weeks and... "

"Sometimes we have a deadline
For writing our songs
Five minutes left to write this one
La, La la, La la, La la la."

What Five Iron Frenzy is doing here is purposefully and effectively destroying anyone's attempt to idolize them the way people sometimes do of other bands. They intentionally communicated their faults and threw cold water in people's faces just to get their fans not to think of the band more highly than they ought. Many of the bands I listened to, some on this list, recognized this but none of them tried harder to nip it in the bud than Five Iron did. In an industry dominated by prima donnas and attention seekers, Five Iron simply went the other way as hard and fast as they could. And we loved them for it because it obviously wasn't fake modesty. It was really what they wanted. They just wanted to play their music and all the rest of it to just go away.

These three songs alone would have been enough to make the album one of their best, but the clear highlight of the album is the final song, Every New Day, which became the song Five Iron always ends their concerts with. The song goes through its normal progression of verse, chorus, verse, chorus until the beautiful bridge-like crescendo at the end. Hearing it live should be on every Christian music fan's bucket list. If that wasn't enough, there's also the amazingly resilient number Blue Comb '78, a enduring fan favorite mixing humor and nostalgia about an ordinary plastic comb. It became commonplace to see people holding up blue combs at Five Iron concerts. In later years, the song Fistful of Sand has become one of my favorites. The lyrics are well and carefully written, which is somewhat uncharacteristic of Five Iron, as well as cleverly advancing a story-like message about greed. The album, like every Five Iron album with the possible exception of the last two, is not very accessible, but Five Iron is a truly unique and original band. There are no other bands even remotely resembling them, and this album brought them to the forefront of the entire scene. It was also the last album they made before they became really successful, something they never really got used to. This was Five Iron as they always were to their fans. The next release was an EP called Quantity is Job 1, and even though the quality was pretty good, the title betrays an increasing uneasiness with, well, the adult responsibilities of running a successful band. Our Newest Album Ever! was the last music they made without that feeling.

Songs to Burn Your Bridges By, Project 86

The simplest way to convey what Project 86 means to me is a rebuilding of a masculine Christian identity based on Truth. Though most of their other eight albums are very good and memorable, this remains by far the best Project 86 album. Project's first album was released on Tooth & Nail, the definitive Christian underground label, and got some attention. Their second album, Drawing Black Lines, was co-released on a major secular record label and achieved quite a bit of commercial success for an underground Christian band. Following this was Truthless Heroes, also released on Atlantic, which was an ironic scathing indictment of the entire industry. Though quite good on its own terms, the album was a flop commercially and precipitated Project 86's exit from the big time. In the midst of flailing around looking for a personal and professional identity, Project 86 independently produced and released Song to Burn Your Bridges By, a declaration that they were not sorry about what had happened.

"You wrote us off for so long, so, so long
We burned that bridge instead
And now we've got a song"

"The contract on my head
Isn't worth the paper, isn't worth the pen
Isn't worth the plastic promise
When the units aren't moving
We know. we know, we know
Our hearts are beyond prices
These words erupting from swollen tonsils
Will devour your clever devices"

"You broke my heart
But something tells me that I won't
That I won't
That I won't miss it"

The album was so amazing it couldn't go unnoticed, but there was no way Project 86 was going back to Atlantic. Eventually, they repaired their still existing relationship with T&N and re-released the album again with three extra songs. I'm a proud owner of the original limited independent release from 2003. Looking back on it now, the timing of the album's release probably has something to do with why it means so much to me. Project 86 wasn't high on my list of favorite bands until I heard this album as I was beginning my junior year of college.

My first two years I did what I was supposed to. I got straight As, mostly. The summer after my freshman year I got a job working full time in a genetics lab, then after my sophomore year I got a NSF-funded internship at another lab. But as I started my junior year I realized something had begun eating at me, something that took me years of reflection to understand. I had always known that I would have to be careful about representing myself in academia. I had always known that I would have to be partially deceptive in what I said and did in order to succeed, but I had always believed that academia was what it claimed to be: an open-minded dialogue. It was worth it, so I thought, to meet them on neutral ground because they could be convinced if they were shown the truth in the language they understood. What I began to unconsciously realize, was that they were not what they claimed to be. They were not open. They were not themselves willing to compromise and meet us on any neutral ground. It was never about Reason or Science or scholarship or anything else. It was always and ever about power. I knew they had it, and I didn't, and there was nothing I could do about it. I knew that the one thing they were asking of me was the one thing that really mattered. I tried to continue to do the things I was supposed to, but something deep inside my soul simply refused to participate. There were certain things that were non-negotiable for me, and I had mistakenly thought that I wouldn't have to give them up to participate. It wasn't a dialogue; it was a trap.

This album came to represent that part of me which refused to comply. I listened to it over and over again, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. For better or worse, that part has become who I am. Maybe it always was. Like Project 86, I am not sorry, and I don't miss what I left behind. My life is certainly worse for it, but I don't care. I need Truth.

I grew up wondering seriously whether I would be able to endure torture and martyrdom for what I believe like so many Christians had and were. How could I then balk at giving up professional success? What must go on in the mind of a potential martyr? It would be so easy. All I have to do is say a few words. I don't even have to believe them, I just have to lie and tell them what they want to hear. They are only words. Maybe if I survive I can do more good with the rest of my life than a simple truth that no one else will hear anyway. Maybe lies can advance the Truth.

And that is the problem. If one believes in the power of the Truth, one cannot also believe in the power of lies. This contradiction no man can navigate. No amount of cleverness, talent, charisma, influence or anything else can turn lies into a weapon for Truth. Mankind has no inherent power over such things. We are nothing. We are either slaves to one or the other. There is no neutral ground.

"Let's go back in time, you and I, to my
Initiation to your false empire
You greased, you aimed and then you spit while I
Once again pushed away my conscience"

"And though I once desired your twisted sense of fame
I know, I know that in myself I'm nothing

Nothing
Nothing
Nothing but the words of the meaningless

You have given me all I'll ever need
The nerve, the greed, the lust, the lust, the lust, the lust for justice
And now I will never rest until
The meaningless become your silence"

Silence, Blindside

Blindside is something of an enigma to me. Their first two albums were straight euro hardcore. I have them, but I could never really get into them. Then somehow they got a major record deal with Elektra and tried to break into the U.S. market. Somehow they cleaned up their sound to make it more accessible but managed to retain all the raw emotion to make this gem of an album, still one of my very favorites. The album was certainly a success, but somehow Blindside dropped off the radar anyway. I still followed them, and they still made some good stuff. Their last album was amazing too. But Silence will always be their magnum opus. They are still somewhat active, and recently played a show in New York where they simply played the entire album live. I seriously considered going, but Blindside was never a great live band unfortunately.

"The one thing I hate most about me
Is the one thing you wanna make your trademark
To feel lust
Without cute, boring love"

I recently found a new band that I really like called Wolves at the Gate. I was surprised and delighted to see they had done a cover of Sleepwalking from this album, which I always thought was the best song on the album even though the more well known song was the first single, Pitiful. Sometimes I think that record companies intentionally release the second-best song as the first single so that the second released single, the best song, has more legs. The problem with that strategy is that you might never make it to a second single. But every last song on this album is a classic, and there's not many albums even on this list about which I can say that. Blindside's style is unique, chaotic and creative. Blindside's songs refuse to follow a formulaic pattern. Often a verse/chorus pattern can be identified, but the ebb and flow of the music is always unexpected, yet still crunchy and satisfying. The closest band with the same innovative spirit in their music is Chevelle, which unlike Blindside became very successful in later years.

The other thing I love about Blindside is their colorful, foreign use of the English language. Blindside is a Swedish band, and like Nightwish, they have a strange but somehow coherent way of using English as a second language, heavy on symbolism, light on grammar and creative use of words. They manage some pretty creative lyrics at times, and they always somehow turn the words they want to say into an unorthodox melody. With two Scandinavian bands making this list, maybe I just like the way Scandinavians use English. I think this is where I recognize the similarity to Chevelle. Both bands seem at times to be forming the music around the lyrics, rather than forming the lyrics into lines like poetry and setting them to a tune. In any case, it works, and this album is still one of my very favorites. I only stopped listening to it when I had listened to it so much I could play the songs in my head on command.

"Time will change your heart
I'll be coming against your words
With something inside of me"

The Fashion Focus, Starflyer 59

Of all the albums on this list, this is the one I would most likely leave off an actual favorite albums list. It is not even my favorite Starflyer album. I put it here because I was trying to honestly list the albums I listened to the most. There is one reason why this album is here: I have always listened to this album to help me go to sleep.

The album marked a major change in Starflyer's sound. Their first three albums were a very heavy wall of sound, that were, unlike metal, extremely passive and soothing. The Fashion Focus eliminated quite a bit of the heavy elements, though some still exist, and went with weird instead of heavy as the sonic hook. The lyrics make little sense, as is always the case with Starflyer.

Before this album I had listened to previous Starflyer albums to go to sleep, but the transition to a lighter sound combined with the same sleepy, passive, slow nature of the music made it the perfect album to go to sleep to. Over the years I developed an almost Pavlovian response to the album. Sometimes it doesn't work, but sometimes it really does help me sleep. When it works I wake up in the morning without remembering hearing even the third track.

Song in My Soul, Acappella Vocal Band

Oh man. To this day just thinking about this album puts a smile on my face. I remember listening to this on cassette tape while navigating the crowds at a Husker football game. I remember listening to AVB's 90 minute best of/re-mix tape on long car trips. But most notably, AVB was the first band I ever saw live. They were four guys dancing and singing with lights and smoke. I don't remember being that taken with the concert, but I always loved the music and still do.

AVB came from non-instrumental denominations and that is why they were an a cappella band, which means they use no instruments at all. The interesting part is not that they were an an a cappella band, it's that they were very clearly trying to emulate groups like New Kids on the Block. AVB started as a spin-off band from a band called simply "Acappella". Acappella remained in the contemporary Christian music scene, or CCM, and AVB went off on its own somewhere by trying to target young people. Eventually they tired of the strained theology of non-instrumentalism, probably brought on by the fact that for some reason they were allowed to use all manner of recording equipment to alter the sounds of their voices during production but weren't allowed to use any instruments that were pretty much making the same sounds. For instance, the bass singer would quite often spend the entire song making a beat just like a bass drum. In their later years they left non-instrumentalism entirely, and I remember reading a rather long blog post denouncing them written by some non-instrumentalist pastor.

But Song in My Soul was before all that.  I was kid and blissfully unaware of the other stuff. Regardless of how they were produced or re-mixed later, the songs are just good and a joy to listen to. My only complaint is the album is way too short, clocking in at under thirty minutes and only ten songs. Listening to it over and over again, which I tend to do, sometimes makes the songs get old before they should. It probably also contributes to the number of times I've listened to the whole thing, but who's counting?

Dark Passion Play, Nightwish

This is the newest album on this list by several years, released in 2007. Albums made it onto this list by the sheer number of times I've listened to them, which means most of them are old albums that I go back to once in awhile. This album made the list because I went absolutely bonkers for this band when I first got into them. They are still the only band I've really gotten into after I graduated from college, even though they've been around since the 90s, although Wolves at the Gate may become my next new music obsession here soon.

Nightwish is a unique band, to say the least. They are melodic or "symphonic" metal with a female singer. Their original singer was a trained classical opera singer, Tarja Turunen, and she defined their early sound. Just the idea of an opera singer singing to metal got me interested. I've always loved Metallica's metal merged with classical, but Nightwish took it to a whole new level. Unfortunately, the original singer was fired from the band for reasons that never quite made sense to me. Supposedly she was spending too much time on other music endeavors, like opera singing and such, and the band wanted her to focus on the band and help it make the big time. Dark Passion Play is the first album they made without her.

It's not the tree that forsakes the flower
But the flower that forsakes the tree

Basically, Nightwish believed itself to be a great band without her. That is undeniably true, but it also appears to be true that they are never going to make it really big without her. Nightwish may have been as big as it was going to get before she left, but they were trying to break into the U.S. market in a big way. Tarja was the really unique thing about the band, and when she left they lost their unique niche in the market. However, it's also very possible they never would have made it big in the U.S. anyway. It's an open question whether the U.S. market could accept an opera/classical/heavy metal band. Sometimes I wonder if that wasn't the real reason they got rid of Tarja. I can easily imagine them listening to some American music industry people telling them opera metal wasn't going to work in the U.S. market. The images clash too much, even if the music meshes just fine. Regardless, they made two albums with their new singer, who then got stressed out apparently from dealing with fan criticism, and they just put out another album with another new singer who appears to be working out better, especially in her ability to handle the old stuff written for an opera voice. Neither are opera singers but both are female, as Nightwish is trying to hang on to its unique sound without Tarja.

Dark Passion Play was the new album when I got into the band, though I also bought two of their older ones with Tarja at the same time. I really, really wish Tarja had stayed, but despite her not being on this album, I just couldn't stop listening to it. I knew I like Tarja's singing better, but there's just something special about this album. I think Nightwish just found the sweet spot meshing metal with classical right here. Before this album it was too much metal, although I'm sure most Nightwish fans would say Once, the last album with Tarja, was their best. After Passion, the sound was too much classical, folk and sometimes just plain weird. But Dark Passion Play is just right. The music is difficult to describe since it's so completely foreign to American ears. The main songwriter, or perhaps composer, Tuomas Holopainen, listens to film scores for fun, so maybe that's the best description. It's movie music with a metal edge.

I probably would not have cared too much about the lyrics or philosophy except their most recent album had Richard Dawkins reading a couple passages from Darwin's Origin of Species on the first and last tracks, which I found exceedingly creepy given my own proclivities. It's almost enough to make me hate a band, much less stop listening to it entirely. The title of the album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, is a direct quote from Origin, and so I found myself pondering the themes of their music as a whole.

Aside from the obvious theme of the latest album, Nightwish has always obsessed over life and death, though more especially death. Even the band's name could probably be interpreted as "Deathwish". The title of Dark Passion Play is obviously a reference to Jesus Christ's last week before crucifixion, as well as keeping their European stylistic rebellion against Christianity. One of the best songs on the album, The Islander, breaks from their normal style for a simple acoustic, folk music sound and depicts an old man whose wife and children are all gone who has taken a job manning a lighthouse out on an island somewhere all by himself. He reflects on a full life well lived, but the good memories have become curses reminding him of the life he no longer has and making his loneliness unbearable. Eventually he sets sail in a "ship without a name" saying "farewell to the world", presumably committing suicide by sea. The song glorifies euthanasia, and post-Christian Europe, especially Scandinavia, has embraced this death cult. Nightwish is the third highest selling band in Finland, their native country, and Scandinavians have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. The Islander is one of the more coherent and easily interpreted Nightwish songs, but by no means the only one clearly about death. It seems clear to me now that Nightwish's artistic vision is consumed with finding beauty and meaning in death without resurrection, an emotionally and spiritually fulfilling atheistic worldview. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' professed love for the Myth of Evolution even after he rejected it as truth.

"But that is not the note on which I wish to end. The Myth has all these discreditable allies: but we should be far astray if we thought it had no others. As I have tried to show it has better allies too. It appeals to the same innocent and permanent needs in us which welcome Jack the Giant-Killer. It gives us almost everything the imagination craves - irony, heroism, vastness, unity in multiplicity, and a tragic close. It appeals to every part of me except for my reason. That is why those of us who feel that the Myth is already dead for us must not make the mistake of trying to 'debunk' it in the wrong way. We must not fancy that we are securing the modern world from something grim and dry, something that starves the soul. The contrary is the truth. It is our painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment. The real universe is probably in many respects less poetical, certainly less tidy and unified, than they had supposed. Man's role in it is less heroic. The danger that really hangs over him is perhaps entirely lacking in true tragic dignity. It is only in the last resort, and after all less poetries have been renounced and imagination sternly subjected to intellect, that we shall be able to offer them any compensation for what we intend to take away from them. That is why in the meantime we must treat the Myth with respect. It was all (on a certain level) nonsense: but a man would be a dull dog if he could not feel the thrill and charm of it. For my own part, though I believe it no longer, I shall always enjoy it as I enjoy other myths. I shall keep my Cave-Man where I keep Balder and Helen and the Argonauts: and there often re-visit him."

In America metal is, as I explained with Metallica, largely an affectation. In Europe they take the American affectation seriously because they have nothing else left from which to draw cultural meaning and purpose. Perhaps that is what so fascinated me about Nightwish. It is the first time I have really seen the same beauty in the evolutionary myth, which is really just a death cult in disguise, that Lewis saw and so reluctantly left behind. He is probably right. The evolutionary myth is now so deeply ingrained that it will take a very long time to root it out, and it probably cannot be done directly. I remember watching my physical chemistry professor shake with emotion when he broached the topic in class as something which was under attack. Maybe I will never fully understand, but it is definitely something which means a great deal to people in emotional terms. The only emotions I've ever experienced in relation to the Myth are hatred, zeal, disappointment and disgust. But for now, perhaps I can see something in this Myth and re-visit the Cave-Man when I listen to Nightwish. 

Now that's whack.


Honorable Mention

Fallen, Evanescence
Sumo Surprise, Ghoti Hook
The Blue Album, Weezer
Sam's Town, The Killers
All Star United, All Star United

Friday, July 3, 2015

How Should We Then Fight?

The great problem in American life is the progressive success in advancing the public sphere into the private sphere. The proper counterattack advances the private into the public. Church authority over marriage is the normal state of affairs in Western civilization, not the aberration. Only the last two centuries have seen the civil authority take over that responsibility. So let's just take it back. It would not even require passing any laws.

Private contracts with arbitration clauses are already perfectly legal. Why not designate your local church the arbiter over a marriage contract? An arbitration style contract would basically give the church arbitration board authority to decide whether a couple could get a divorce or not. The church would be allowed to do so on the basis of their own judgment, which could include whatever criteria you want, including religious criteria. The important thing is to insert a church board into the process of couples who might be considering a divorce. A church arbitration board might consist of a lawyer, an elder and a marriage counselor, all ideally volunteers and members of the church. Perhaps the church could put its most enthusiastic matchmaker on it as well to sell the idea to younger couples. And if you don't have one of "those", just put the singles group leader on the board. We all know why everyone goes to those singles groups. Might as well make it explicit.

Statistics show that the vast majority of church-going couples will never need an arbitration. But we should do this anyway as a political statement that God, not the government, defines marriage. It would also serve as an example to younger couples considering marriage, and young people in the church, so many of whom end up leaving. The problem with church relevance in American life is not going to be solved by skinny jeans and rock music. Making the church actually relevant, with real authority, just might make young people see that church is serious business rather than a social club.

When the CEO of Chick-Fil-A made a statement in support of traditional marriage, he instigated a nation-wide controversy. Mike Huckabee responded to the controversy by asking people to celebrate August 1st, 2012 "Chick-fil-A" appreciation day, and the public responded. Earlier this year the left began a massive social media campaign against an Indiana pizza store when the owner told a gay couple she would not provide a pizza for their wedding. The business began to suffer, but the owners started a crowdfunding campaign and raised almost $850,000 from sympathetic people all over the country. We turned potential defeats into victories. Conservatives have to learn how to do this more often, and in more important ways.

Imagine a response to the Supreme Court ruling just like that. Imagine local churches forming marriage arbitration boards, formulating a generic marriage contract that designated the arbitration board as the arbiter over marriage disputes, and Christian couples all across the country coming before the church to put God in authority over their marriage instead of the government. Obviously I don't have the public profile to start something like this, but somebody like Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum does. How much bigger of a statement would that make then buying a bunch of chicken sandwiches? You believe God is the authority over marriage? Even the demons believe that. How about putting your marriage where your mouth is?

I was too harsh with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton yesterday. I did not mean to attack them. I think they are doing what they can, but we must all recognize that they have to present the best case possible. What they are trying to do is use religious liberty as a protection for county clerks, judges and justices of the peace who don't want to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The theory goes that they don't have to if they have a religious objection. It's worth a shot I suppose. But lawyers don't publicly state problems with their own case, and these two lawyers and the others working on this must know that this is not going to win in court. The scenario that Abbott and Paxton are laying out here is encouraging low level public officials to refuse to issue a license if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. The inevitable result will be a court case where the ACLU or somebody else sues a county clerk who has done so. Abbott and Paxton are encouraging somebody to put themselves in the line of fire that they must know is a near certain defeat. But hey, maybe it will accomplish something. Just putting somebody up for a firing squad might turn public attention against the ones doing the firing. Even supposing they do win, and a few clerks here and there refuse to issue marriage licenses, gay couples can just go to the next clerk over. They can even go to the next county over, in fact, even the next state over, and get exactly what they want since the Court's ruling requires states to recognize marriages performed in other states. There are better things we can be doing.

Texas State Representative Matt Rinaldi has started a movement to ask governor Abbott to call a special session of the state legislature to deal with the marriage issue. He lists four priorities:

1) eliminate the requirement for individuals to obtain a government marriage license prior to undergoing a religious ceremony;

(2) remove the authority for government officials to issue marriage licenses or conduct marriage ceremonies;

(3) pass an expanded religious liberty protection bill that protects not only pastors, but private actors, as well; and

(4) address changes to our existing legal framework which would be necessitated by such changes.

The state of Alabama did something similar recently, but it was much more muted. From what I have read, all they did was change the word "shall" to "may" in reference to issuing marriage licenses, and then a lot of local clerks have decided not to issue licenses on their own initiative. There has been a lot of talk recently about ending marriage licensing by the states, especially among libertarians who have reasons other than protecting marriage for wanting to do that. I think it would be a positive step, but let's take a step back for a second and look at what that would actually accomplish and what it would not.

Marriage was not suddenly recognized in the law when governments began issuing marriage licenses. Marriage presents unique legal issues within our judicial system, and simply ending marriage licensing doesn't eliminate those legal issues. Parents still need special parental rights, and will still get them. Divorce, child custody, alimony, child support, hospital visitation rights and the myriad other laws governing marriage are not going anywhere because couples don't get a marriage license. And perhaps most importantly for our current purpose, simply ending marriage licensing doesn't end the state's recognition of gay marriage in the law. Ending marriage licensing is something libertarians want anyway. They would have supported it with or without the Supreme Court ruling. There's an element of political opportunism going on here. I'm not saying I'm against it, I'm just saying it's not exactly predicated on protecting marriage. It doesn't go far enough.

If the Supreme Court's rulings on Obamacare have taught conservatives anything, it's the importance of the meaning of words. The Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate by interpreting the word "penalty" as "tax". More recently it upheld subsidies in the federal exchanges against the plain meaning of the text. Defending the meaning of words is important to the conservative cause. C.S. Lewis wrote that "When...you have killed a word you have also...blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say." The biggest cultural impact of the gay marriage ruling has gone largely unnoticed in the aftermath. That is the meaning of the word "marriage". If we do nothing, in fact, even if we do all the things I have already outlined here, we will still face the future problem of being unable to speak about marriage in a way that we understand it. We have to do something about this, and we have to do it before we lose the political power to move anything on this issue, which will happen if the polls are any indication. This is part of the reason why I was so harsh yesterday. Refusing to admit defeat means failing to take steps like what I am proposing. If we believe that we can still win on this issue, there is no reason to do this. But if we are going to lose, or have already lost, it becomes necessary to protect what we still have. Military history is full of examples where armies overextended themselves and tried to defend too much. The price of a strategy to defend the indefensible is the failure to defend the territory that is defensible. When you are overrun, you have to make choices about what to leave behind and what to defend. Marriage is just a word, but words are important in the fight that we have ahead of us. We can no longer defend marriage in the law, but we can defend it's meaning in the language.

I propose we strike the word "marriage" from our civil and criminal law entirely. Go through the entire law line by line and remove the word "marriage" completely. Replace it with "civil union". This can be done in such a way as to have zero legal effect, and it will serve the purpose of separating the institution bent and twisted by the government from the true meaning of marriage which can then be defended in the church. Do I want civil unions? No, but we no longer have a choice. We must scorch the earth we leave behind. If we don't do this, the very term "marriage" will be irreversibly changed to include homosexual relationships. Future generations will grow up understanding marriage in terms foreign to us. It will become impossible to even explain to younger generations that when the pastor talks about marriage or they read about marriage in the Bible, that this does not mean homosexual marriage. Words are important. If we really want to protect marriage, we need to take steps to protect the meaning of the word from the deviancy of the judiciary. There should not be a legal problem doing this, because it does not involve any sort of discrimination against homosexual couples. Under the state law, everyone will have a civil union. The church sanctioned marriage I proposed earlier is voluntary and overseen by the church, where religious liberty can be maintained legally. We can call this "marriage", call the government version "civil union" and maintain the meaning of biblical marriage. This requires admitting defeat in the law, but we have already lost. If we don't do this, we will lose even more. We will lose the language. Arguably, that is more important than the law in the future.

Now that's whack.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Definition of Insanity

Last Friday I posted a chapter from my book called The State of Union, but that was written three years ago. I feel like I need to write some more on the topic, although I still stand by what I wrote then. The simple fact then, as now, is that gay marriage is a political reality in the United States. We cannot change that in a short time, just as we couldn't change abortion in a short amount of time. The pro-life position has slowly but inexorably gained ground in the forty years since Roe v. Wade, but it took forty years to get to where we are, and where we are is probably somewhere about halfway to where we need to be. In my book I predicted we would win on abortion and lose on gay marriage, both for the same reason.

Our culture has adopted a moral system based on empathy and feelings rather than on God. That means anything which makes anybody feel bad is wrong, while anything which makes us feel good is right. The rhetorical options available to the pro-life position are very favorable under those terms, while those available to the gay rights movement are also very favorable under the same terms. The political argument against abortion almost writes itself. We are killing innocent, defenseless babies. Regardless of the rational or evidential content of the argument, the emotional thrust is very powerful. Likewise, the gay rights movement rhetoric revolves around discrimination and equality. Especially potent is the comparison to slavery. Again, regardless of the rational or evidential content, the emotional momentum is with them. It is difficult to make an effective emotional argument in favor of abortion, just as it is difficult to make an emotional argument against allowing people to get married. Killing babies makes us feel bad. So does telling people they can't "love" each other. Abortion restrictions and gay rights are both the inevitable policy outcomes of our current moral climate.

If we are dissatisfied with that outcome, it would be behoove us to examine the moral climate itself, and ponder how to change it. That is the real issue, not gay marriage, not abortion, nor anything else. If we are going to spend another forty years fighting abortion and another century fighting gay marriage, perhaps we might consider spending all that time and effort fighting to replace the underlying moral system which renders these outcomes inevitable. Over and over again, I'm reminded of an old cartoon I grew up seeing all the time.




In the cartoon, the Humanism castle basically represents the moral system I'm talking about. Morals are based on human feeling and empathy. The Christianity castle represents a moral system based on God. The balloons are the more visible causes and policies which are natural outgrowths of the humanist moral system. The cartoon points out that fighting against these causes in the public sphere is pointless when the enemy is attacking our foundation. You see one of the humanist soldiers just blowing up another balloon to replace every one that Christianity destroys. You see Christians pointing cannons at each other and ignoring the cracks in the foundation. You also see that Christianity has three times the firepower of Humanism, but is still on the verge of losing because the firepower is aimed at the wrong targets. It is a sad but accurate portrayal of how American Christians fight the cultural and political battles of our time. Every defeat is followed by repeated calls to continue pursuing the failed strategies that got us into this situation. The Supreme Court rules against school prayer? Let's bring more litigation! The Supreme Court rules for gay marriage? MOAR LAWSUITS! Popping enemy balloons while our foundation is crumbling, threatening to send the whole shebang tumbling into the sea.

It is not that I am against efforts to pop the balloons. It is just difficult to be an intelligent Christian watching other Christians fail over and over again for the same reasons that no one seems to remember or learn from. Some people seem to be aware that the battle over gay marriage was lost long ago, but I still see no attempt to find a new strategy. It's almost as if we don't recognize that winning and losing these things is important business, and maybe it's time to reevaluate our strategy and whether our efforts have been well spent. For instance, Concerned Women for America put out a statement that admits bluntly:

"I think we have to be honest and acknowledge that this didn’t happen overnight. The culture has been on this journey since the 1960’s with a huge acceleration in the early 60’s and again in the last five years. How did this happen? Well, I think a recent Pew poll gives us some insight. The summary stated, “The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing."

Being "honest"? How about being obvious! But the statement then goes on to ignore the real problem and focus on all the same things organizations like this have always focused on: registering more evangelicals to vote, passing another law, speaking boldly on issues, etc. Several paragraphs are spent advocating a constitutional amendment. A constitutional amendment! When sixty percent of the American public favor gay marriage, yes, by all means, let's go for a hopeless constitutional amendment. What a waste of time. This is not "once more into the breach". It's once more off the cliff. It's almost the definition of insanity. Why do conservatives constantly act as though the law is the cause of social change rather than an effect?

Why? Why has religion been declining in America? Oughtn't we to address that issue as the one of first importance? Is there anyone out there who wants to win? To turn the tide? To stop fighting a hopeless rearguard action and start counterattacking? I hear all the chickens running around with their heads cut off, apparently taken completely by surprise by the Supreme Court ruling, as if none of them understood this is where we've been headed for decades, as if they suddenly pulled their heads out of the sand, looked around and saw what's really happening for the first time. And then the heads go right back in the sand.

When I was a part-time youth pastor, a friend of mine who was in it for life gave me some advice about the youth ministry that I'll never forget. He told me it's not about the events, the programs or the summer trips. It's about who you are. The most important thing a youth minister can do isn't an action. It's being like Christ. Kids see that and look up to it. They want to be who you are. Children learn how to be an adult by watching other adults, and it matters a great deal who the adults are. Children cannot be fooled. They will find out who you are, what you care about, what you believe, and then they will emulate it. When adults rail about "kids these days", they are railing against the sort of people they themselves created by being who they are.

When adults believe that love is a feeling, kids will intuit that love is a feeling, and feelings are legion and without restriction. A fifty percent divorce rate is not something that just happened to us out of nowhere. It happened to us because we replaced our Christian moral system based on God with a moral system based on what makes us feel good. When love is a feeling and the feeling goes away, so does the love, and so does the marriage. If a couple gets married because they "fall" in love, meaning it happened completely out of their control and without rational reflection, it means they can "fall" right out of love again at any time and that is also completely out of their control. The fading of the reason for the marriage destroys the marriage. It also means that any feeling a person has for another could become the basis for sexual attraction. If feelings, rather than religion or even just basic biology, are the basis of sexual relationships, then the feeling is all and the religion and biology is meaningless. Legitimate homosexual relationships are perhaps an innovation of the younger generations, but it's only a logical extension of the humanistic ethic where everything, including sexual relationships, is based on human feelings. When you look at younger generations engaged in this, you are looking in a mirror, and they know it.

If we don't recognize what the problem is and fail to deal with it, we are accomplishing nothing. If CWA's statement is any indication, we do have some recognition of the problem, yet we are still accomplishing nothing because we aren't attacking the source of the problem. We are reacting to anything popping into our vision. We are not seeking the enemy to do battle and wipe him out. We are waiting for his every move, every innovation, every affront and whining about it, then wondering why we lose and are forced into retreat every time. It is extremely frustrating, yet we show no sign of having any understanding of the enemy or any idea how to proceed. The battle is lost and it was lost a long time ago.* Instead we are attempting what is in fact a rearguard action, and a rather poor one at that, without admitting that's what we are doing.

Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, Texas governor Greg Abbott issued a statement I initially thought was a prelude to armed revolt. I assumed this because Abbott is a lawyer, and I thought he must surely understand that what he said was not legally defensible and could only be defended through force of arms. As events transpired however, it became clear that either he did not understand the implications of his initial statement or he wasn't serious and was effecting an attitude of rebellion for political reasons. Understand that this legal strategy by the state of Texas will fail miserably and quickly in the courts. It barely qualifies as a strategy at all. It is a recipe for the scattering and reduction of an army in catastrophic, full-fledged retreat. Instead of being proactive, gathering the troops together and retreating to an actually defensible position, we are currently attempting to stand and fight on ground that is already overrun. Militarily, I would call it suicide. Culturally and politically, it is a recipe for giving our side false hope quickly turning to despair and defeat.

Yesterday Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement claiming that the decision by the Fifth Circuit was consistent with his prior opinion. I looked everywhere for a second decision by the Fifth Circuit, but apparently Paxton is referring to the first decision which, responding to the Supreme Court's ruling, struck down gay marriage bans in states that had pending litigation. Paxton's statement references some part of the decision which references the First Amendment and religious liberty protections, but all the Fifth Circuit Court said was that these competing rights have to be balanced in accordance with our system. Surely Paxton knows exactly what that means. Either he is in denial or he is fronting a legal strategy he knows will fail because that's his job and he doesn't know what else to do. I saw Paxton speak on this issue in person a couple of months ago. He did not give the appearance of a man who thought he could win. In fact, he looked as if he had already lost and knew it.

I don't understand this suicidal tendency on the right. There is no honor in refusing to admit defeat when it is upon you. I know I have previously complained about prematurely giving up, but this issue, homosexuality, is already lost in the public sphere. It is, I think, the only political issue we have actually, really lost. However, there are things we can be doing that might actually work in providing us with some defensible terrain to which we can retreat, where we can regroup and continue the fight. This terrain centers around the Church.

The Church is the one place in American life where religious liberty is still completely defensible and also provides a moral alternative to humanism, the actual root cause of the problem. There may be other places where religious liberty is defensible, like privately owned businesses, but the Church is the only place where the root cause can be confronted successfully and on our terms. Statistics I have seen show that among married couples who regularly attend church, the divorce rate is close to zero. This is encouraging, indeed, cause for celebration. It means the American Church has not been overtaken by the political and cultural forces sweeping the public sphere, as has, for instance, the Russian Orthodox Church. It means we have successfully defended this position. It also means that not only can we retreat to it, we are in fact prepared to advance from it in new directions.

Stay tuned...

*Orson Scott Card is a Mormon science fiction author who has been fighting against legalization of gay marriage with everything he has. He risked his career and public reputation by issuing strident statements about gay marriage. His position inspired boycotts of his books and movie and certainly he has lost money and professional opportunities because of it. After the Supreme Court overturned DOMA in 2013, Card admitted that the battle was already lost and it was only a matter of time before gay marriage was legalized in all fifty states.