Friday, April 29, 2011

Album Review: Gold in the Shadow

Gold in the ShadowGold in the Shadow by William Fitzsimmons (Nettwerk Records, 2011. 37 minutes)

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to blind parents, William Fitzsimmons was raised with music functioning as a communicative necessity. Fitzsimmons began his music career after graduating from Geneva College with a master’s degree in counseling and working as a mental health therapist. While working as a therapist, Fitzsimmons began writing songs that functioned both as a preparative exercise for his profession and as way in which to encounter his personal demons. William’s first two records, Until We Are Ghosts and Goodnight, were self-produced and recorded at home. After some initial success with these records, Fitzsimmons wrote The Sparrow and the Crow as a personal apology to his wife of ten years after a bitter divorce. His new record, Gold in the Shadow, focuses on life after his marriage and experiences of personal renewal.

The Joy of Creativity

One of the pleasures of creativity is trying something new. Joy materializes when an action commences a new journey. In the new pursuit, one finds learning opportunities. Whether an innovative brush stroke, genre of music, or word combination, creativity offers a breath of fresh air.

Sadly, when creativity becomes a profession, the joys of design are substituted with the toil of a deadline. Moreover, when a professional finds creative success, he or she finds it difficult to enact creative changes when the work becomes a brand.

Gold in the Shadow, the new full-length record from William Fitzsimmons exhibits the flawed creativity of music as a brand. Finding notoriety in lullaby folk songs and the occasional electronic beat, William Fitzsimmons has settled into a songwriting mold.

The Virtue of Throwing a Changeup

I have always maintained that it is crucial for an artist to craft songs that fit the sonic texture of a single album. A fan must be able to associate the sound of a song with the record from which it originates.

Without this tenet, an artist’s discography becomes a muddled mess. Without exception, every song on Gold in the Shadow could appear on Fitzsimmons’ previous records.

However, this indictment is not to say that this latest release is a poor record. In fact, I find it to be a consistent and enjoyable album.  Of course, if Fitzsimmons took more chances, the record might fail miserably or launch his career into the stratosphere. Instead, the album feels safe.

Hopeful But Still Depressing

Lyrically, Fitzsimmons attempts to add a glimmer of hope into his music after years of songs referencing his life in turmoil.

In the opening track, “The Tide Pulls From the Moon,” Fitzsimmons sings,

“I want to be changed from / The shadow and the tomb / Like water rushing over us / The tide pulls from the moon”

Although most songs sound similar to previous works, Gold in the Shadow carries a few standout tracks. More specifically, “The Winter from Her Leaving,” “Fade and then Return,” and “Psychasthenia” illustrate Fitzsimmons in fine form.

First, “The Winter from Her Leaving” shows off a tendency in this record to add an instrumental counter melody to William’s main hook. In this song specifically, the guitar hook that begins the songs keeps an energy flowing through the entire song.

“Fade and then Return” takes a page out of The Postal Service as a delayed guitar ambiently strolls throughout the song while Fitzsimmons notes,

“Like baby’s breath / I’m holding on to air / My lungs a thief / Should I know you / A stranger though you seem / You feel like home”

Start with The Sparrow and the Crow

Despite the well-crafted tunes, Gold in the Shadow suffers from formulaic songwriting and production. Hopefully, William Fitzsimmons will soon seek to try new things creatively. While the record is by no means awful, it is not the place to start the William Fitzsimmons discography. If you are interested in lullaby folk music, I recommend starting with Fitzsimmons’ record, The Sparrow and the Crow

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Album Review: The King of Limbs

The King Of LimbsThe King of Limbs by Radiohead (Ticker Tape Ltd., 2011. 37 minutes)

Formed in 1985, Radiohead is an alternative rock band from Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England. Led by Thom Yorke (vocalist, guitarist, and pianist) and Jonny Greenwood (guitarist and multi-instrumentalist), Radiohead found notoriety through the 1993 debut, Pablo Honey, and the hit single, “Creep.” OK Computer, the band’s third record, launched Radiohead into international fame. With lyrics discussing technological alienation and the artistic use of sound, critics worldwide proclaimed the record as the defining record of the 90s. The next decade found Radiohead expanding their experimental sounds on Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows. Of noted significance, In Rainbows created extensive buzz when the band announced that it would be released online sold under a pay-what-you-want format. Their latest release, The King of Limbs, is labeled the “newspaper album” because Radiohead released a newspaper titled, The Universal Sigh, with the record.

There Is a Season – Turn, Turn, Turn

Although we often find ourselves oblivious to it, our daily lives overflow with rhythmic patterns. Our body wakes us around the same time each day; we buy groceries every seventh day; our hearts drum syncopatedly; and with each inhale, live begins anew.

Similarly, the core function of Radiohead’s latest release, The King of Limbs, is a rhythmic consistency. Whether the tunes portray drum-and-bass heaviness as characterized by the first track, “Bloom,” classic guitar-driven Radiohead tunes such as “Little by Little” or the hauntingly simple “Give Up the Ghost,” The King of Limbs focuses on unswerving rhythms. Each song almost repeats the rhythm constantly from the first to last beat.

With these musical textures in mind, The King of Limbs seems to preach uniformity and determinism. No matter the desired emotion of Thom Yorke’s voice, each song tends to end right where it started.

Since the rhythm is central to the album’s execution, Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood, the drummer and bassist respectively, find a rare, featured role. For example, “Morning Mr. Magpie” and “Little by Little” exhibit the duo in their finest form.

Sing It Like You Mean It

Lyrically, Thom Yorke sings heartfelt but ambiguous lines.

He opens the record singing:

“Open your mouth wide / A universal sigh / And while ocean blooms / It’s what keeps me alive / So why does it still hurt? / Don’t blow your mind with why”

For me, the highlights of the record are “Little By Little,” “Codex,” and “Give Up the Ghost.” In “Little By Little,” the syncopated drums contribute an infectious energy. With an unusual piano driven chord progression “Codex,” resembles a reworking of the classic Radiohead tune, “Pyramid Song.” And, “Give Up the Ghost” offers an acoustic guitar and a heartbeat rhythm with an almost indecipherable lyric.

While I can’t confirm the lyrics since the album was not packaged with liner notes, it sounds like the background vocalist repeats either:

“Don’t haunt me.”

Or

“Don’t hurt me.”


Either way, the resulting lyricism of the song provides the listener with a sad, introspective feeling.

As life slides through its gentle rhythms, love, joy, loss, and regret emerge and disappear. The King of Limbs sonically mimics these rhythms of life in its consistent beats from song to song. Although this record does not find itself in the upper echelon of Radiohead releases, I still thoroughly enjoy it and recommend it to everyone.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Book Review: Work in the Spirit

Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of WorkWork in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work by Miroslav Volf (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001. 268 pp)

Born in Osijek, Croatia, Miroslav Volf performed his undergraduate studies at Evangelical-Theological Faculty, Zagreb. For his master’s work, he studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California and, finally, completed his doctorate at the University of T├╝bingen under J├╝rgen Moltmann. Volf teaches at Yale Divinity School as the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology and is the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Of his many books, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation won the 2002 Grawemeyer Award and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity won the Christianity Today book award. Volf is a member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A and the Evangelical Church in Croatia.

Why Do We Hate Work?

Do you like your job? For most, the answer to that question is an unequivocal, “no”. What does it mean to work? Is it merely a means to an end – the exchange of labor for money? In Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf seeks to answer these questions.

In quest of a theological case for work, Volf splits his tome into two sections. In the first portion, Volf discusses current conceptions of work – mainly highlighting the difficulties of the modern employee – and continues by exploring the philosophical undertones of contemporary work through the thought of Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

In the second section, Volf posits a theological significance for work. Theologians throughout history have considered work instrumentally important since it not only provides resources that allow humans to pursue leisurely goods but also offers support for those pursuing vocational work, such as pastoral ministry and caring for the poor.

Pnematology: The Study of the Spirit

Volf, however, argues that work possess more than an instrumental purpose; it carries a pneumatological function. As such, work offers a vocational and intrinsic purpose as an end in itself. Under this rubric, the Spirit of God gifts humans in different ways and through these means, humans find specific callings in the workforce.

Sadly, work for the majority of the human population is classified as toilsome. Structurally, work tends to alienate and exploit. Under these premises, it is easy to see why so many view work as a means rather than an end – who wants to endure toil for its own sake?

The Classic Christian View of Work

Thinkers throughout Christian tradition, however, agree that work possesses useful qualities.

Volf writes,

“The early church fathers affirmed not only the nobility of work but also the obligation to work diligently and not be idle” (72).

 Under these conditions, work only maintained instrumental value; it provided opportunities to increase ascetic discipline and it presented Christians with money to sustain the household and assist those in need.

Work through the Lens of the New Creation

Suppose, however, that the eschatological future is not a world annihilated and rebuilt, but a restoration of existing creation.

Volf posits,

“If [creation’s] destiny is eschatological transformation, then, in spite of the lack of explicit exegetical support, we must ascribe to human work inherent value, independent of its relation to the proclamation of the gospel” (93).

If consummation arrives not in destruction but in restoration, the value of human work becomes critical for Christians. The faithful ought not to remain in expectant leisure awaiting God’s return; they are entrusted with the care of creation.

Work, then, is a gift of God that is inherently good; it existed before the fall when God entrusted the garden to Adam and Eve, maintained after the fall, and glorified in the transformation of new creation.

Work in the Spirit

For Volf, a pneumatological view of work is the way in which humans find purposeful work in the transformative new creation. Concerning vocation and the work of the Spirit, He writes:

“We can determine the relationship between calling and charisma in the following way: the general calling to enter the kingdom of God and to live in accordance with this kingdom that comes to a person through the preaching of the gospel becomes for the believer a call to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which should characterize all Christians, and, as they are placed in various situations, the calling to live in accordance with the kingdom branches out in the multiple gifts of the Spirit to each individual” (113).

In other words, the gifts granted by the Spirit orient Christians toward specific vocational work. Under this conception, work, while remaining under the fall, encounters meaning through the Spirit as human beings labor in cooperation with God. By reflecting on the gifts God has given, Christians find more meaning in work and in the community.

The Body Does Not Consist Entirely of Hands

On the whole, I find Volf’s theological reframing of work’s purpose to be convincing. As Paul discusses in Corinthians, the Spirit gifts Christians in specific ways allowing the communal body of Christ to function well.
As such, not every Christian is a hand. If each person tried to fulfill the work of the hand, the community would suffer. Therefore, it is ideal to place people in work scenarios that suite their specific vocational gifts.

Are We Capable of Working in the Spirit?

Nevertheless, trouble arises with Volf’s theological framing of work. Jobs, as they currently stand, are a scarce resource. With the worry of not working, many people accept a poorly-suited job for them because it is better than unemployment.

Additionally, job scarcity denies many people the opportunity to work in the fields that best apply to an individual’s specific Spirit-given gifts. For example, a talented musician, more than likely, will never become a professional musician. The demand for the position far exceeds the supply of jobs.

As such, the awarding of these jobs often result in factors outside of giving the job to the most gifted applicant – for example, politics, nepotism, and the almighty dollar are highly influential externalities in the job market.
Additionally, many people are denied jobs through lack of experience or education. Often times, employers look, first and foremost, at job experience. If an applicant who possesses perfectly-suited talent for the position but has little-to-no experience, he or she will not get the job.

Or, a brilliant person who lacked the economic resources to obtain an education will lose the job to a less-gifted-but-educated person.

While a pneumatological theology of work clearly is the ideal understanding of work, in current practice, work suffers from an imperfect application in a broken world. Ideally, people ought to search for the perfect job that fits with the Spirit-given gifts they possess. In reality, people must often settle for a job because they have the relevant experience and it is better than no job at all.

Despite this problematic question, Work in the Spirit critically discusses the value of work. While many think of it as a means to a leisurely end, Volf argues that a pneumatological understanding of work allows humanity to be liberated to choose jobs that fit specific gifts. I recommend this book.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Review: Economy of Grace

Economy of GraceEconomy of Grace by Kathryn Tanner (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. 172 pp)

Working through the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels of Yale University, Kathryn Tanner recently returned home as a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. For her previous appointment, Tanner taught at the University of Chicago. Tanner focuses her research on constructive Christian theology relating to social, cultural, and feminist theory. On top of her numerous books and articles that have been published, Tanner serves on the editorial boards of Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, and Scottish Journal of Theology. She is a member of the Theology Committee that advises the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops and is currently researching financial markets through the Luce Fellowship.

Grace and Money

Kathryn Tanner splits Economy of Grace into three sections. In the first, she questions whether or not Christianity provides specific purchase on economic discussions. Answering in the affirmative, Tanner continues in the second section to outline a theological foundation for economics. Finally, she concludes Economy of Grace with a section promoting potential applications of a theological economy in a practical manner.

At first glance, theological and economic discussions contain little similarity. On one side resides the language of justice, faith, and health; on the other side: capital, profit, and competition. In the first chapter of her tome, Kathryn Tanner explores the relationship between Christianity and economics. While most typically view theology in the realm of the individual and economy in the realm of community, Tanner suggests that the link between the two in the simplest form is grace and money.

Without further explanation, of course, such an assertion raises the eyebrows of many theologians as the threat of prosperity theology presents itself. Nevertheless, Tanner battles these assumptions by suggesting the link between grace and money exists in the conception of distribution.

Just as theology is concerned with the distribution of grace amongst society, so too is economics with the distribution of money. Yet, the two starkly contrast since the distribution of grace operates under non-competitive assumptions.

Tanner writes,

“By setting Christian ideas of the production and circulation of goods into a comparative economy, by making that comparative framing an economic one, my intent is just to suggest that a Christian economy has everything to do with the material dimensions of life – with the economic more narrowly construed. It is clear that, set within a comparative economy, grace has everything to do with money” (29).

Unconditional Giving

Having presented the connection between theology and economics, Tanner utilizes the space in chapter two to discuss alternative forms of the economic system based on a theological lens. While efforts have been made to promote a theological economy through the ideas of inalienable property rights and gift exchange, both systems fall short of truly uniting with the notion of non-competitive grace.

A theologically-based economy must act similarly to the way God acts in relation to humanity.

Tanner adds,

“The whole point of God’s dealings with us as creator, covenant partner, and redeemer in Christ is to bring the good of God’s very life into our own. Our lives participate in that divine mission and thereby realize the shape of God’s own economy by giving that follows the same principle: self-sharing for the good of others” (85).

Scripture presents God as an unconditional giver. Everything we have is a result of God’s generosity and humanity is incapable of repaying such a gift to God. Therefore, our best approximation is to unconditionally give to others as God gives to us.

Constructing an Economy of Grace

But does this theological view of economy contain practical application or does it merely denote a utopian state? In the third chapter, Tanner attempts to apply her framework on a practical level.

In truth, Tanner admits that her economy of grace carries utopian themes. Given the current state of the global economy, it is probably impossible for non-competitive grace to achieve an economic stronghold. 

Nevertheless, non-competitive grace possesses applicable principles.

For example, capitalists seek the highest amount of profits typically by pursuing the most efficient production. The cheaper the cost of manufacturing with a maintained quality means high profits. Yet, such practices usually denote paying employees less and less. Taking this thought process to the extreme, if a company paid employees so little that they are unable to purchase the products, profits will plummet as consumption dies.

An economy of grace, however, suggests that a principle of non-competitiveness solves this inherent difficulty in capitalism.

Tanner notes,

“One should, whenever possible, promote growth strategies in which the economy grows and poverty is reduced at the same time” (96).

While capitalists can earn significant profits in the short term through diminishing wages, such practices are detrimental in the long term. An economy of grace, on the other hand, suggests that gradually raising wages and lifting the poor out of poverty benefits all of society.

A Slight Critique

While Tanner presents an intriguing vision for a theologically-based economy, I find her conclusions to be inconsistent. Although she readily admits that a pure economy of grace is utopian considering the current state of global affairs, her application of theological tenets to the current form of capitalism changes underlying assumptions minutely.

More specifically, if an economy of grace is based on non-competitive giving, a gift given in order to expect a return on investment violates the economy of grace. Tanner’s third chapter provides many examples where supposedly altruist behavior helps all stakeholders. But in my mind, such assertions betray the root purpose of non-competitive giving: the notion of self-sacrifice for the good of another.

In this way, Tanner’s attempt to reconcile a theologically-based economy with the current capitalist system equates to an argument of good ethics equals good business. What if good ethics equals bad business? Surely at some point, a manager must face a decision between ethical behavior and bottom-line profits. Does Tanner’s economy of grace answer this manager’s dilemma? I am doubtful that it can escape its utopian nature.

Additionally, Tanner’s prose is dense and unorganized. With cumbersome paragraphs and little formatting to break the monotony of the prose, Economy of Grace is a difficult read.

Nevertheless, the content of the book offers critical insight into a theological appraisal of the marketplace. If you have interest in a Christian view of economics, I recommend this book.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Banker to the Poor

Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World PovertyBanker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle against World Poverty by Muhammad Yunus (New York: Public Affairs, 1999. 312 pp)

Born in 1940, Muhammad Yunus grew up in the Bengal Province of British India (now Bangladesh). Yunus studied economics at Dhaka University receiving a B.A. and M.A. in the field. Afterward, he accepted a Fulbright scholarship in order to study at Vanderbilt University receiving his Ph.D. in economics in 1971. While teaching at Chittagong University, Yunus observed the poverty epidemic in the rural villages around Chittagong and began a poverty reduction program which later became Grameen Bank. The bank, established in 1983, dealt specifically with the poor and marginalized loaning these citizens money in order to begin micro-enterprise. In 2006, Yunus and Grameen Bank received the Nobel Peace Prize.

How to Eliminate Poverty

This weekend I attended the Bottom Billions | Bottom Line Conference hosted by Seattle Pacific University’s Center for Integrity in Business. The event served as a convergence zone between business, nonprofit organizations, and the academy seeking to better understand ways that business can help alleviate world poverty.

Of the many interesting subjects discussed at the conference, the topic of microfinance seemed to continuously echo through my head. For those unfamiliar with the term, microfinance occurs when banks or nonprofit organizations loan small amounts to the poor, helping them to use these miniscule amounts of capital to begin income-generating endeavors.

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and author of Banker to the Poor, observed that the only thing the poor lacked was opportunity.

He writes,

“When you hold the world in your palm and inspect it only from a bird’s eye view, you tend to become arrogant – you do not realize that things get blurred when seen from an enormous distance. I opted instead for “the worm’s eye view.” I hoped that if I studied poverty at close range, I would understand it more keenly.”

Charity vs. Microfinance

Without capital, the poor would take a loan from a moneylender at exorbitant rates in order to partake in the economy. At the end of the day, these people took home pennies to support a family. Yunus figured that if he could loan these slight sums at low interest rates, the poor could enjoy selling the products of their labor on the open market, thus creating economic capital and a trail out of poverty.

Charity, on the other hand, gives freely without expectation of return. Many, though, have suggested that pure charity does not eradicate poverty, because the poor become dependent on receiving aid. Blogger Filip Spagnoli aggregates international development aid on his website. The evidence he has compiled suggests that the amount of aid contributed to these developing nations is staggering, and yet economic growth is not a result.

Would development function differently if aid came in the form of a loan instead of charity? Yunus believes that loans to the poor provide the best investment.  Many stuck in the cycle of poverty are smart and hardworking; they just need the money to start. While big banks typically consider micro-loans to be both risky and inconsequential, Yunus’ experience argues that the poor possess the highest incentive to repay their loans.

Of course, when unforeseen problems such as natural disasters and economic meltdowns place the poor in positions where they are unable to repay the loan, Yunus extends grace and loans more money to help the poor back on their feet. In this way, microlending encourages entrepreneurial spirit. Where charity gives the widow a fish, microfinance engages in teaching the widow to fish.

What Is the Best Thing?

Although charitable giving in and of itself is never a bad thing, I do wonder if it is the best thing. Of course, a free gift without expectation of repayment carries the highest blessing for the receiver, yet long term, I wonder if microloans create a better society.  Certainly, charity is necessary for the destitute – the people who are so poor that any money loaned would be used to keep them from dying. Yet, the moderately poor need a kick start and microlending seems to be the best option in alleviating these struggles.

Yunus write Banker to the Poor in an autobiographical tone. He tries his best to position the book as a personal success story in the ongoing battle against poverty. It certainly seems like his position could and should be implemented worldwide, yet Yunus writes with a touch of humility. If you are interested in ways to eradicate poverty outside of giving to your favorite nonprofit, I suggest that you read this book.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Book Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go: A Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (New York: Knopf Publishers, 2005. 304 pp)

Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro moved with his family to England in 1960. Ishiguro attended the University of Kent receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1978 and continued his education at the University of East Anglia obtaining a master’s degree in creative writing in 1980. A celebrated novelist, Ishiguro has been nominated four times for the Man Booker Prize, winning it in 1989 for his work, The Remains of the Day. Recently, Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, was adapted to a full-length film featuring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield. Ishiguro resides in London with his wife and daughter.

The Same, But Different

Never Let Me Go depicts the coming-of-age story of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy told through the lens of Kathy, the protagonist. These characters resemble typical youth with yearly schooling, hooking up, and learning to drive.  The reader quickly learns, however, that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are anything but normal; they are clones.

After an education, these clones become carers, an occupation devoted to clones recovering from donations and, one day, they will all start donating themselves.

With evidence clearly suggesting that the lives of these clones end with the donation of vital organs, the implied undertones of Never Let Me Go are rather dark and sinister. When Ishiguro illustrates normal activities such as school life for these clones, their manufactured origins make typical human activities somewhat odd.

What Are Teenagers Doing these Days?

Ultimately, Never Let Me Go discusses the love triangle of Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth as the trio grows up and transitions into the darker phases of clone life.

Set against this dark sense of foreboding is a bunch of horny teenagers. While the promiscuity of the characters adds to the fleeting sense of temporariness, it ultimately worked against the plot in my mind. Too often, Ishiguro seems more interested in describing who is hooking up than he is interested in diving deeper into the psyche of a clone who knows the end of the story.

With a narrative somewhat reminiscent of the feature-film, The Island, without the high-tech special effects, Never Let Me Go offers a subtle story that seems slightly off from reality and yet the truth behind it is horrifying. It is a decent book and I enjoyed reading it. Yet, I leave it somewhat disappointed.