Saturday, June 16, 2007

McCartney's 'Memory Almost Full': A Review

Back in September, 2005, when Paul McCartney's last studio LP, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, was released, I said:
No one who reads this blog will be surprised by my confessing that I'm a fan of Paul McCartney.

But you probably also know that I'm far from an uncritical fan...
I went on to enumerate some of the releases of McCartney's solo career which I classified as anywhere from great to horrible. He's had a few duds and he's had LPs that were only saved by a few flashes of brilliance. Yet, overall, his solo output has been fantastic, the past disclaimers of the rock and roll intelligentsia notwithstanding.

I'm not alone in that assessment. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan called McCartney's solo output "awesome." My twenty-two year old daughter recently informed me that among the young people with whom she works, Macca has suddenly become hip again. But is the new outbreak of Maccamania warranted?

Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, I believed then, was the best LP of McCartney's solo career, an uncommonly even and uniformly interesting collection of songs which was rightly nominated for the Grammy for Best Album of the Year.

It was widely believed that the former Beatle's teaming with young producer Nigel Godrich, who had the temerity to tell the star that he hadn't liked the way McCartney initially played the song, How Kind of You, had challenged McCartney in ways that had only previously happened with the other three Beatles and their producer, George Martin. McCartney even said that working with Godrich was like being in a band again.

As McCartney looked to complete an LP which he actually started before connecting with Godrich, he entered a period like those that have been artistically dangerous for him in the past. Often, spurred by successes and his innate desire to please, McCartney has followed good records with ill-advised ones.

On top of that, McCartney, who has no small ego, may have felt a twinge of resentment for the credit given to Godrich for Chaos. He most likely felt that he had something to prove.

But, in spite of all the danger, Memory Almost Full is a very fine LP. It's not on a par with Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which sets a very high standard. But Memory Almost Full is a very good LP, a collection of solid and interesting songs.

For the most part, McCartney's lyrics here display the same clarity he achieved in the previous collection.

But it's the music and the arrangements that truly stun the listener of Memory Almost Full. While McCartney's voice continues a decline that has been noticeable for several years now, it's still a more than serviceable instrument, one which he sometimes uses in surprisingly soulful ways.

Thematically, as with his 1989 release, Flowers in the Dirt, McCartney is contemplating his own mortality (The End of the End). He's also looking back incredulously on a life that no one could have imagined his living back when he was born in Liverpool on June 18, 1942 (Ever Present Past, That Was Me, Vintage Clothes). In the former song, McCartney also insists that even if we wear the old stuff, we need to keep looking forward. That's been a McCartney trademark, artistically and in his life. Unlike musicians less than half his age, McCartney is still capable of surprising us musically. And he manages to do that numerous times on Memory Almost Full.

There are some good rockers on this release, too. I think especially of Only Mama Knows, which is preceded and closed with a lucious string arrangement, and the silly but infectious, Nod Your Head, which closes out the set.

Two songs will be readily identified as McCartneyesque, the LP's first two tracks, Dance Tonight and Ever Present Past. As likable as the two tunes are, I think that they were poor choices for being highlighted as singles in the UK and US, respectively, as they have been. For the first single, I would have chosen either That Was Me, a jazzy autobiographical number I really love, or Only Mama Knows. Both are likely to make non-McCartney fans stand up and take notice.

Maybe the most interesting song on the album is Mr. Bellamy. With its narrative, it reminds the listener of such Macca classics as Eleanor Rigby and Paperback Writer. McCartney describes it as a kind of opera. Punctuated by a staccato piano, intriguing percussion, a clarinet solo, and a clipped French horn, McCartney tells the story of a man who refuses to come down off of a roof, his therapist, and the firefighters down on the street who want to rescue him. McCartney voices the firefighters' part in his best bass: "Steady, lads/Easy does it." McCartney's father was a volunteer firefighter. So, armchair therapists can have a field day, if they want. (Such efforts are notoriously difficult when speaking of a McCartney song, which are rarely directly autobiographical.)

Of further special interest is Gratitude, a soulful ballad in which McCartney proclaims his thanks to a lover with these intriguing words in its bridge:
I should stop loving you
Think what you put me through
But I don't want to lock my heart away
I will look forward to
Days when I'll be loving you
Until then, gonna wish and hope and pray...
Given McCartney's divorce from Heather Mills, the amateur therapists will have still more to ponder and yammer about with this one.

Another highlight of Memory Almost Full is its medley that begins with Vintage Clothes.
In an interview clip on his web site, McCartney claims that this is the first time he's tacked together tunes in medley form since Abbey Road. That may prove that his memory is almost full because medley-construction is something he's done both within songs (think, Picasso's Last Words and Uncle Albert and Admiral Halsey) and on LPs (think, Band on the Run and Red Rose Speedway) several times through his solo career. This effort isn't comparable to his best medleys, although the lyrics are thematically linked and the individual songs are good.

In summary, McCartney avoided the artistic dangers to which he's in the past succumbed and produced a really fine LP. If Chaos and Creation was an A+, this one is an A. I recommend Memory Almost Full.

[UPDATE, 07-02-07: On repeated listenings to Memory Almost Full, I find myself falling in love with it more and more. It's an aural feast and in a way, the most compellingly personal LP of his solo career.]

Friday, June 15, 2007

Book Review: "Grace That Frees: The Lutheran Tradition"

[Below is a review I just submitted to Trinity Seminary Review, the journal of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, my Master's Degree alma mater.]

Grace That Frees: The Lutheran Tradition (Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series). By Bradley Hanson. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books (, 2004. 159. pp. ISBN 1-57075-570-1 $16.00 (Paperback)

Spirituality is a slippery word, difficult to define. But I like the definition given by Bradley Hanson, author of this helpful look at Lutheran spirituality. “A spirituality,” he asserts, “is a faith with a path.”

But can one really speak of a Lutheran spirituality? One might not think so. As Hanson observes, “...Lutheranism is sometimes regarded by both those outside and inside the tradition to be seriously deficient as spirituality, even opposed to it.”

The reasons for this, according to Hanson, appear to be twofold. First, Lutheranism began as essentially a theological dispute, one in which right doctrine was regarded as central. Stereotypically, spirituality is seen as something that happens in the wifty regions of the heart. Lutheranism, while not disdaining the heart, is intent on right thinking about God as a way of staying true to God’s self-disclosure as recorded in Scripture. Second, traditional notions of spirituality as a set of rigorous disciplines performed by a spiritual seeker is inconsistent with Lutheranism’s radical theocentrism, the belief that everything is initiated by God, not us.

But in a rapid and readable survey of Lutheran faith, life, and practice, Hanson demonstrates the rich, diverse spirituality that has existed--and still exists--among Lutheran Christians.

“When you pray,” a wise Lutheran layperson once told me, “begin by reading God’s Word.” Hanson shows us how thoroughly Lutheran that approach is. Lutheranism--encouraged by such major voices as Luther, Melanchthon, Arndt, and Bonhoeffer--has always held that “we need to learn to pray by having the Word of God shape our prayer.”

Hanson, professor emeritus of religion and director of the Grace Institute for Spiritual Formation at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, shows how the Lutheran emphasis on grace alone, Christ alone, Word alone, has spawned a rich array of spiritual practices that includes devotional literature both simple and sophisticated; a sacramentalism that reveres God’s mysterious grace; hymns steeped in Scripture; and worship that has historically been diverse, emphasizing the accessibility of God in Christ, among other things.

This book would be a great text in seminary and college courses on Lutheran history, theology, and spiritual practices. Pastors will also find useful points to ponder here. I can even see it as helpful place for some congregational groups hoping to grow deeper in their faith, to go. This is a fine survey.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Goodbye, 'Sopranos': I Never Knew You...Literally

I feel that I'm part of a tiny minority today. Almost everyone I heard on the radio and many bloggers I read were talking about the last episode of 'The Sopranos.' Even Chris Matthews devoted some time to it during 'Hardball.'

But I'm not mourning the passing of 'The Sopranos.' That's because my wife and I got rid of HBO a few years back. We never watched the network because none of the programming appealed to us. So, we had the cable people whack it. So, no 'Sopranos' for us.

The decision to get rid of HBO wasn't a moral one. At least not the way you might think. Some readers will likely jump to the conclusion that being a pastor and wife (or a librarian and husband), that we had moral qualms about HBO's programming. Maybe if we'd ever watched HBO--other than to see the excellent Elizabeth I just before we rubbed the network out of our cable package--we would have had moral qualms.

But the only morality involved was our moral squeamishness over wasting money. That's what we were doing by continuing to pay for a network that we weren't watching.

As to why HBO's program previews didn't lure us in, it seemed to me that most of what they offered was dark and cynical, a slightly more extreme version of the stuff you can watch on conventional TV every night of the week. I'm tired of dark and cynical, frankly. There's enough dark and cynical in the world, thank you very much.

Give me a little honestly hopeful any day. Or informative. Or just entertaining. Maybe 'The Sopranos' has been all these things. But I'll never know. And I'm okay with that.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Cincinnati Weekend

We had a gorgeous weekend here in the Cincinnati area. While temps reached the mid-90s, the air was, for Cincy, atypically dry, with gentle breezes.

My wife and I took full advantage of the conditions...and the breaks in our schedule. Yesterday, we took a walking tour through portions of Cincinnati's Eden Park and Walnut Hills areas.

For those unfamiliar with Cincinnati, Eden Park and its surrounding area is a gorgeous place that sets atop one of the city's many hills. It provides great views of the Ohio River. There are majestic urbanscapes rivaling anything you might see in places like San Francisco. (A city I really love, by the way.)

Walnut Hills is an area with a rich history. While it has lots of bright spots, it's also afflicted with urban blight. There are also friendly people there, as my wife and I saw yesterday when many residents, sitting out on porches and front lawns said hello.

Walnut Hills is the place where Reverend Lyman Beecher lived with, among others, his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Beecher was president of Lane Seminary, a Presbyterian institution active in the Underground Railroad, which helped blacks escape slavery in the South.

The activities of the Beechers underscore a fact that seems often overlooked by contemporary social historians. And that's the absolutely essential role Christian faith has played in calling society to more humane and moral ways of living. Granted, many people misuse Christian faith to uphold dehumanization. But authentic Christianity always calls us to love God and love neighbor.

Close to the Beecher home, which can still be toured on three days each week, is the first African-American neighborhood in Cincinnati. Its original residents were former slaves. A prominent resident there, the son of a slave who had bought his own freedom, was Wendell Phillips Dabney. You can read more about him here.

The tour we took is one outlined in a fabulous book I've mentioned before, Walking the Steps of Cincinnati by Mary Anna DuSablon. And therein lies an interesting tale. Cincinnati is built on what appears to be hills. But as du Sablon writes:.
..Cincinnati is really a City of Valleys; valleys carved in a rolling plain formed more than two million years ago. This "indented edge" of the midwest plains, higher than [the Ohio River] Basin, is the crest of an upward fold in the rock called the Cincinnati Arch...
Starting in the 1800s, Cincinnatians began building stairways to facilitate going on foot from community to community in the area, putting them on the sites of footpaths that had already been established. Later, trolley cars and "eventually...five inclined railways" went up and down the Cincinnati "hills."

The steps, of course, were replaced by the automobile as a major form of transportation in the area and they largely fell into disuse, except for those used by hundreds of religious pilgrims who ascend Mount Adams each Good Friday.

Fortunately, the city of Cincinnati is committed to maintaining the more than 400 stairways that criss cross the area and they make for fabulous walking tours of city and its diverse neighborhoods.

This morning, as we prepared to go to worship, my wife, no baseball fan, suggested that we head down to Great American Ballpark for this afternoon's game between the Reds and the Cleveland Indians.

Our son went with us and what a great game we saw! It was a pitcher's duel that began as a battle between each team's ace: Aaron Harang for the Reds and C.C. Sebathia for the Indians. The game went into the 12th.-inning before the Reds won it, when Alex Gonzalez hit a single driving in Chad Moeller.

I mentioned to my wife as we drove home that we probably did more of Cincinnati this weekend than we have in years, partaking of the particularities of the core city of the area in which we've lived since 1990. It was fun!

In a world that's become increasingly homogenized, it's great to remember that communities and countries can still retain their unique characteristics and that often, it's differences that make them...and even individual people...special!

[THANKS TO: for linking to this post.]

How Will I Know? (Joyful Relationships, Part 2)

[This message was shared during the worship celebration at Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, on June 10, 2007. If you live in or are visiting the Cincinnati area, you're always invited to worship with us on Sunday mornings at 10:00.]

Proverbs 31:10-12, 25-31
2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

My aim in this message is not just to help people who hope one day to marry, but also to help those who care about them, be they friends, parents, aunts and uncles, or cousins, who might want to give them sound advice. Biblical advice.

But I do feel a little hesitation. One reason for that is the fact that my wife and I didn’t follow all of the advice I’m about to share.

We first met when I was in the sixth grade and she was in the seventh. As many of know, she pretty much couldn’t stand me throughout our junior and senior high years. In college, both of us worked at a department store--me on the loading dock, she on the sales floor--and we became friends. We decided to go to a movie together one night...just as friends. Six weeks later, we decided to get married. Five and a half months after that, we were married. Nearly thirty-four years later, we’re still together and I’m grateful to God...and to my wife!

Another reason for my feeling a bit hesitant about giving this message is that as I look at some of what the Bible tells us about marriage, I become very aware that there simply isn’t one way to decide on who to marry or when to marry or even if to marry. But there are principles and I want to talk about four of them today.

The first thing the Bible sees in strong marriages are commonalities between wives and husbands. If couples have core values in common, they’re likelier to make strong marriages. In Biblical times, that usually meant being from similar cultures.

How many of you remember the Old Testament story of Samson? Before Samson met Delilah, he married a woman who was a Philistine, a people hostile to God’s people, the Jews. Delilah was also a Philistine. Both of those relationships ended badly because of diverging belief systems and loyalties. Samson was absolutely committed to God. The women he loved didn’t share that commitment. Each brought grief to Samson. Delilah, ultimately, brought death to Samson.

On the other hand, I love the Old Testament story of Ruth. How many of you know Ruth’s story?

Ruth was a woman from a country called Moab. She married a young Jewish man whose family migrated to Moab after a famine hit his home country. But Ruth’s young husband died. As did her father-in-law and brother-in-law.

With her mother-in-law, Naomi, Ruth went to live in her husband’s homeland of Israel. She had come to believe in the one God of the universe in Whom you and I believe.

In the end, Ruth married yet another man from Israel and became an ancestor of Israel’s greatest king, David. On the surface, Ruth and her two husbands may not have seemed to have too much in common. Moab and Israel were very different in their cultures and beliefs. But in fact, Ruth had two great marriages. If two people have common outlooks, they have a good foundation on which to build their marriage.

So commonalities are important. The second thing couples should have to make their marriages work is a love beyond infatuation, beyond romance, beyond sexual attraction.

I often shake my head when I read about the latest celebrity marriages. A couple of celebs meet, then head off for Vegas or Monaco to tie the knot. Three months later, the two love birds are engaged in a knockdown, drag-out divorce battle, including contention over custody of their as-yet unborn child. They get married after they've fallen in love (or in lust), but before they learn how to love one another, before they became friends as well as lovers. (This, by the way, is why I think my wife's and my decision to marry isn’t nearly as shocking as it may sound at first. We were friends before we fell in love.)

C.S. Lewis once said that falling in love is like turning the ignition key in a car. There’s a gigundous explosion. After that the car starts, you won’t help a car a bit.

To keep a car running properly, you have to do mundane things like filling the gas tank, changing the oil, or rotating the tires.

Similarly, falling in love is a spectacular start to a relationship between a man and a woman. But it may or may not be a good predictor of how long or well the relationship will last.

Real love is composed of a thousand mundane things you do because you care about each other. Real love involves a lifetime of daily decisions to give, forgive, and help one another. It’s hard work.

Nowhere is the hard work required by love seen more clearly than in our Savior Jesus, God in the flesh. When Jesus hung on a cross, the reason He did so was crystal clear in His mind. He did it out of His love for us and His desire to give life to all who will repent for sin and trust in Him. But, as I’ve said many times before, it’s hard to imagine that as Jesus suffered on the cross, that He would look at the crowd demanding His death and say, “You’re so cute when you’re mad.” Jesus loves us, even when He's less than infatuated with us!

In Jesus, we see that love is often measured not in what we feel--not in our infatuation, but sometimes in what we do in spite of how we feel. Love isn’t a feeling. It’s a commitment to what’s best for those we love.

So, how will people know that they’ve met the person they should marry? First: When they have commonalities. Second: When their love moves beyond infatuation. Third: When they put on Christ. The phrase comes from something the first-century preacher and evangelist writes in Romans. He says that we shouldn’t worry all the time about being decked out in the latest fashions. “Instead,” he says, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Marriages have a better chance when husband and wife share a common faith in Jesus Christ. And there are all sorts of boring statistics to back that up, by the way.

But more than statistics as evidence, I can offer you my experience. You all know that when my wife and I were married, I was an atheist. I spent Sunday mornings with my head buried in my pillow and the rest of the week with my head buried in the sand, oblivious to all the ways God was reaching out to me in love, including through my wife. I thank God that He used my wife to call me to faith in Christ!

In a very real sense, today I look forward to being in heaven with Jesus because this unbeliever married a Christian willing to take a chance on me! Having a common faith in Christ has been the most important glue holding us together and making our love stronger through good times and bad. This is why in one of our lessons, Paul strongly advises people contemplating marriage to only marry those who share faith in Christ.

Marriage counselor James Christensen has written: “When couples realize they have a God-given mission here on earth and are ‘coworkers with God’ [as the Bible says of all believers in Christ], it saves marriages from the mundaneness of purely ‘secular’ living. [Couples who share faith in Christ] do not focus primarily on their own selfish...pleasures. They share a thrill of adventure; life becomes a great stewardship of giving of themselves [to each other]...”

This leads to a fourth way people can know if that someone is the right one to marry: If you’re committed to mutual servanthood and mutual respect. One-time president of Canadian Airlines Kevin Jenkins came to faith in Christ years after he’d gotten law and MBA degrees and attained success in business.

But when he came to faith, he writes of a decision he and his wife made: “We decided to to try to put the needs of the other ahead of our own.” This is exactly the lifestyle we need not only to make marriages work, but all relationships work.

It’s what Jesus did. He always put us first. And, Paul reminds us in one of the most famous passages in the Bible, this is exactly what he calls us to do in all of our relationships.

The result of Jesus putting humanity first is that all who believe in Him will live with God forever.

When couples put the needs of each other ahead of their own, they help one another become the people God wants them to be.

I’m blessed to be married to such a spouse...I only hope and pray that I can be as much of a Christian servant to her in our next thirty-four years together as she has been to me in our first thirty-four years!

Love is risky business. Marriage isn't just an act of faith, it's a radical, subversive, countercultural act!

But if we will surrender our lives and our marriages to Christ, we live with His promise that He will be with us always.

If prospective husbands and wives...
  • share common values,
  • have a love that goes beyond childish infatuation,
  • hold a common faith in Jesus Christ, and
  • adhere to a commitment to mutual servanthood and mutual respect,
the chances of their building a strong and joyful marriage are great.

May the marriages made by all the sngle people who are part of Friendship exhibit these four critical traits. And may all the married couples already part of Friendship commit themselves and their marriages to Christ and so see those marriages become all that God intends for them to be!