The Big Deal About the Beatles

Recently a friend of mine shared with me his frustration over how some younger folks scoff at his love for the music of the Beatles. They dismiss them as an overrated boy band. So, he asked me, “When someone asks you ‘What’s the big deal about the Beatles?’ what do you say?”

The way I deal with that is to begin by giving the questioner some historical context—explaining to them the kind of musical world it was just before the Beatles changed everything. Then, if they are still interested, I add a few points about the Beatles’ legacy, influence, and critical acclaim. So there are many ways to show why the Beatles are indeed a big deal. Below I count ten of the ways:

  • Before the Beatles, popular bands didn’t write their own songs. Professional songwriters did that. This changed because of the Beatles.
  • Before the Beatles, “guitar groups [were] on the way out” (as Decca executive Dick Rowe put it, when turning down the Beatles in 1962). The Beatles reversed that trend permanently.

    Before the Beatles, popular music was not considered a genuine art form. The Beatles (especially the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) changed that.

  • Before the Beatles, popular music wasn’t culturally significant enough to warrant newspapers having journalists devoted to covering rock music. The Beatles changed that. In fact, they were a major musical force inspiring the first rock music periodicals—Crawdaddy, Creem, and Rolling Stone.
  • The Beatles weren’t just a rock band. They were a masterful cabaret band, able to make excellent original music in about ten different categories: 50’s style doo-wop, surfer rock, blues, rhythm & blues, acoustic balladry, show tunes, folk rock, orchestral rock, hard rock, string quartet chamber music, Indian music, and (perhaps inventing) psychedelic rock.  Name another band to do this before or since. You can’t. The Clash mastered five or six, which is as close as any band gets. Bands like Phish could convincingly play more genres, but they didn’t write great songs in more than a couple categories.
  • The Beatles were among the first bands to make significant (and impactful) socio-political commentary in their music (thanks to Bob Dylan’s influence, of course).
  • The Beatles revolutionized the art of studio recording. Contemporary producers and sound engineers still consult the Beatles and producer George Martin “like we’re consulting a manual,” as one current record producer puts it.
  • You can draw major lines of influence from every great band since the 1960s (e.g., Queen, Led Zeppelin, U2, Radiohead, etc.) directly to the Beatles.
  • The Beatles made countless musical innovations and firsts, including use of the sitar (“Norwegian Wood”), tape loops (“Tomorrow Never Knows”), backward guitar and vocal tracks (“Dr. Robert” and “Rain”), the use of guitar feedback (“I Feel Fine”), and the Moog synthesizer (several songs on Abbey Road).
  • The Beatles’ music has stood the test of time, which is the ultimate filter for greatness. Nearly half a century after their break-up, their music still outsells most popular acts in any given year. They’ve sold over one BILLION records to date. And on all major “greatest album lists,” the Beatles have multiple albums featured, usually several in the top ten. This Rolling Stone list includes five Beatles’ albums in the top 15, four in the top 10, and three in the top 5, including Sgt. Pepper at #1. Even the prog- and alt-rock tilted NME top 100 albums list includes four Beatles’ albums and places their Revolver album at #2. Thus, by far, the Beatles enjoy the greatest critical and popular acclaim among rock bands. So in dismissing the Beatles, one must thumb one’s nose at two of the most significant criteria for evaluating artists of any kind—the historical test and the test of critical acclaim. To do so usually reveals arrogance or ignorance. Or both.

Such are the points I make to young Beatles skeptics. Some are moved. Others aren’t…to their own loss.

Why are Atheist Athletes Rare?

Last year, NFL punter Chris Kluwe made headlines because of his atheism.  The reason for his newsworthiness, as the writer of this Psychology Today report on Kluwe notes, is that “open secularity is rare in pro sports.”  This is something that has puzzled me since writing my atheism book several years ago.  Why are atheist athletes rare?

You can find all sorts of atheist lists on the Internet.  These include such categories as famous atheists, celebrity atheists, and top atheists in the world.  And it isn’t just atheist apologists that provide these lists.  There are also prodigious Wikipedia lists of atheists in various fields, including politics and law, science and technology, and arts and entertainment.

But try finding a similarly expansive list of atheist athletes.  Here’s the best I could do: 19 Famous Athletes Who are Atheist.  This is a classic case of exceptions proving the rule.  Pretty slim pickings.  I found it interesting, for starters, that they couldn’t even find one more to make it an even twenty.  (They should add Kluwe, since he’s not included.)  And it is supposedly a list of “famous” athletes.  Yet, as an avid sports buff, I only recognized five people on the list.  Moreover, some of these reach way back, such as to an Italian cyclist from 70 years ago.  And another is a WWE wrestler—isn’t that better categorized as acting?  After reading through this disappointing list, I discovered the Top 15 Athletes Who are Atheist.  But it largely overlaps with the list of 19 “famous” atheists above.

So why are atheists so rare in professional sports?  I have a theory, but to explain it I’ll need to start by discussing the primary rationale that atheists and religious skeptics give for not believing in God.  This is the problem of evil.  Lance Armstrong has been quoted as saying, “If there was a God, I’d still have both nuts.”  This statement encapsulates a common intuition about human suffering and religious belief, which essentially constitutes an atheistic argument:  God would not want humans to suffer significantly.  However, there is a lot of suffering in the world.  Therefore, God must not exist.  If you were to interview all of the atheists listed in the sites above and ask them why they reject theism, most if not all of them would cite suffering as a major reason.  But these men and women are not unique in their awareness of suffering.  All serious athletes are well acquainted with pain.  And here may lie the clue to understanding why atheist athletes are rare.

To do intense athletic training is to welcome a degree of suffering.  Athletes understand the usefulness of pain as a means to physical conditioning and mental toughness, which ultimately means success.  No pain no gain, as the saying goes.  Consequently, we should expect athletes to be less inclined to see suffering as antithetical to good ends.  And to become accustomed to linking these two things—pain and gain—is to gain a deeper existential awareness of how suffering is essential for growth in all of life, not just athletics.

This in turn will enable the athlete to recognize that God can work through painful experiences generally to bring about greater goods in people’s lives.  So he or she will be more ready to affirm with the prophet Isaiah that it is good how God gives us “the bread of adversity and the water of affliction” (Isa. 30:20).  And just as the difficulties and challenges one faces on the court, diamond or gridiron make one better, the athlete will be likely to affirm with the apostle James that our trials in life have a constructive end, namely to make us “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:4).  Such an attitude might not create a perfect immunity to atheism or religious skepticism, but it certainly could prevent one’s faith from being undermined by the problem of evil.  And this might explain why atheist athletes are so rare.

A Buster Keaton Starter Kit

I’m a huge Buster Keaton fan.  He’s one of the three “B” cultural loves of my life, the others being baseball and the Beatles.  I consider Keaton to be the greatest talent in film history (since he was a superb director, producer, cinematographer, screenwriter, actor, set engineer, and stuntman—no other Hollywood auteurs were great in so many critical categories).  Keaton makes you 220px-Busterkeaton_editlaugh and makes you think.  Without the benefit of special effects, he will make you scratch your head in wonder, perhaps even saying out loud, “Wow, how did he do that?”  But his films can be poignant as well.  Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece The General—widely considered one of the greatest films of all time—does all of these things.  Somehow it manages to be an engaging narrative, rollicking adventure, hysterical comedy, and emotionally compelling.

Keaton’s deep influence on entertainers from Lucille Ball, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, and Red Skelton to Richard Lewis and Jackie Chan is a testament to the power of his art.  Actor Jim Carrey, also a huge fan, has said about Keaton, “What a creative genius—what an inventor…  A guy like that, you just sit back and say, okay, I’ll never get there.”  So if you’re into film history at all, that should be motivation enough to look into his work.  And if you’re not into film history but just like to be entertained, then Keaton’s comic ingenuity will more than do the trick.

I recommend starting with a few early Keaton shorts:

  • Neighbors — That’s Keaton’s real dad playing his father.  Keaton’s parents were Vaudevillians, and they got him into the act at age three.  When Keaton turned to film in his 20s, his dad was skeptical.  But as the film industry took off, he was persuaded.
  • Cops — An early Keaton classic depicting how small turns of events can mount into cataclysmic disasters.
  • The Boat — The boat in the film is named “Damfino,” which is where the International Buster Keaton Society gets its name.
  • Electric House — Even a century later this little film remains a powerful commentary on modern technology.

And here are some features:

  • Our Hospitality — Check out the famous waterfall scene at the end—you’ll replay this several times, I’m sure.220px-The_General_poster
  • Sherlock Junior — The “special effects” in this one were revolutionary.
  • The General — Here is the AFI’s top 100 films list with The General listed at #18.
  • Steamboat Bill Jr. — Note the famous, life-risking falling façade scene at the 59.00 minute mark.  How many Hollywood stars literally risk their lives for the sake of their art these days?  Not that I’m recommending this, of course.

The shorts are only 10-20 minutes each, which is not a serious time commitment.  And the features are, by today’s standards, also pretty short—usually 60-70 minutes.  So it’s not too time-consuming to dig deeply into the Keaton catalogue.  I should add that all my kids love Keaton films.  So that’s something to keep in mind as well—it makes for good family entertainment and a great way to build your kids’ understanding of film and its history.

Further Reading:

  • Also, some of the Wikiquotes on Keaton are interesting.

Gone Girl: A Film Review

As Amy mentioned in the previous post, the Gone Girl novel was a gripping ride, even if it wasn’t high quality literature.  I would say something similar about the film—gripping but, on the whole, not a strong film.  Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (also the author of the book) follow the novel’s plot line pretty closely, but the adaptation to film brings a few surprises.  (For a plot summary see Amy’s previous post.)

As for the acting, Rosamund Pike turns in a superb performance as Amy (who bears no moral resemblance to my wife of the same name).  But Ben Affleck’s performance as Nick seemed flat to me, lacking the emotional dimension needed for a character under such an immense amount of stress.  This was just one aspect of the film that prevented me from fully entering into Flynn’s otherwise intriguing action mystery.  A marginal script and numerous flaws in terms of realism were other features that pulled me out of Flynn’s world.  220px-Gone_Girl_PosterBut the most distracting thing of all was the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  In many scenes, the music was jarringly mood inappropriate.  I liken film score composers to umpires in baseball.  When they’re doing their job well, you don’t consciously notice them.  It’s only when they fail somehow that their work intrudes on the viewer’s experience.  For me, the Reznor-Ross Gone Girl soundtrack was definitely intrusive.

As for other flaws, in referring to them I cannot avoid giving away key aspects of the plot.  So if you haven’t seen the film and would like to do so . . . SPOILER ALERT.  The flaws range from a lack of plausible motivations for the characters (for example, what would motivate Amy to go to all the trouble to frame Nick for murdering her?  She had nothing to gain—and much to lose!—in doing this rather than simply divorcing him) to the emotionally unbelievable (Affleck’s Dunne is not sufficiently angry with Amy after she returns home) to random unrealistic oversights (after killing her ex-boyfriend, which she made to look like self-defense, Amy goes to the hospital and is examined, but she leaves the hospital still covered in the blood of the man she murdered.  In real life, don’t you think she and/or the hospital staff would ensure that she got cleaned up before she was dismissed?)

In thinking about all of these flaws of realism in Gone Girl, I was struck by the directorial inconsistency of failing in these ways and yet being so meticulously realistic with regard to the portrayal of sexual content and brutal violence.  One pivotal scene at the film’s climax is so grotesquely graphic that even I found it appalling (and I’m not one to shrink at violence in films—Quentin Tarantino is my favorite director, so ‘nuff said there).  I would like to ask Fincher, why be so excruciatingly graphic (I would say gratuitous) with the violence, especially when you maintain such a low standard for realism in other aspects of the film, some of which are central to the narrative?  I don’t get it.

One positive thing I can say about this film, however, is that the southern detective, played by Kim Dickens, was not represented as a complete idiot, as southern characters in Hollywood films so often are.  However, in the end, the detective does blow the case, so elements of the Hollywood cliché are indeed there, but at least she wasn’t represented as a thoroughly detestable hypocrite, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been in this regard.  And this is probably my prevailing thought regarding Gone Girl the film as a whole—it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  That’s about as much praise as I can muster for this one.  Good riddance, indeed.

Good Riddance, Gone Girl

It’s funny how things work out. I had seen Gone Girl on the shelves of various bookstores. I think I even checked it out of the library once but never got around to reading it. When the movie came out, I was intrigued and bought the novel to read on our trip to California. The same week, Jim called to say he had just seen the movie. So here is the first of two reviews—of the book and, in the next post, the film.

booksI am not sure how best to describe my experience. If I wanted to be purely subjective, I would say, “I didn’t enjoy it.” Such a dark and hopeless perspective. There is no good guy to cheer for. Only characters with varying degrees of badness. But to say that I didn’t enjoy it would not be to say that I wasn’t drawn in. As Jim Gaffigan would say, this novel was McDonald’s for the soul. You know it is bad for you but somehow you feel compelled to go back for more.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot, I will do my best to summarize without spoiling. After losing their jobs and a substantial portion of Amy’s trust fund, Nick and Amy, a seemingly happily married couple, move from New York City to a small town in Missouri in order to care for Nick’s dying mother. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing and it isn’t long before everyone, including the reader, begins to question whether Nick is responsible. The story shifts from the past to present with Amy’s diary entries filling in the back story while Nick’s perspective moves forward in the present.

From a purely literary standpoint, the writing is okay. The plot is ingenious on paper but I am not sure the characters pull it off. As with any elaborate storyline, believable, well-developed characters are essential to suspending the reader’s disbelief. I personally think first-person narrative, especially first person “Dear Diary” kind of narrative, makes this much more difficult. It is foreign to our experience of life to hear the thoughts and feelings of others first hand. Even our own thoughts don’t come to us in complete, full sentence form. Unless you are a very gifted and skilled writer, the first-person voice actually places distance between the character and the reader rather than creating the realistic intimacy of developing a character in the same way we get to know real people, through dialogue and perceived actions.

For all the patient unfolding of the plot through most of the book, the ending feels unsatisfactorily hurried and the most unrealistic bit to swallow. I also have to throw in my two cents worth of disappointment at the number of f-bombs Flynn throws around. The book is certainly gritty enough without them.

Overall, this was a gripping vacation read, but that’s all—library worthy but not retail price worthy.

Some Thoughts on Moby Dick

This semester I am working as a Templeton Fellow at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.  It has been a wonderful experience so far, as I’ve been spending much time in discussion with the other fellows at the CCT and have had time to do a lot of research and writing (mostly on the virtue of open-mindedness, which is my research focus for the semester).  I’ve also been careful to reserve time for reading fiction, which is something I normally don’t have time for during the school year.  A few weeks ago I finished Melville’s Moby Dick, which was quite a journey.  If you’ve never read the book, then it might sound strange when I say that much of it is non-fiction.  In fact, I’d describe it as equal parts cultural history, marine zoology, maritime encyclopedia, and dramatic narrative.  I now know more about the history and practice of whaling (as practiced in the 19th century) than I ever thought I would.  Not only that, but I actually found Melville’s detailed descriptions of the process of catching whales and harvesting the various components (especially the precious spermaceti oil that made sperm whales such valuable ocean quarry) very interesting.

But for all of the stuff about whaling, what I find most compelling about Moby Dick is what has captured the imaginations of most readers of this classic:  Captain Ahab’s obsession with that great albino sperm whale which cost him one of his legs in a previous expedition.  Ahab is a portrait in monomaniacal vengeance—extreme but believable.  In one of my favorite passages, the first mate Starbuck challenges his captain for being so obsessed, and Ahab’s response is memorable:

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!  Madness!  To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer.  All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.  But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.  If man will strike, strike through the mask!  To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.  Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond.  But ‘tis enough.  He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy, man.  I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

Why does Starbuck suggest that such anger at “dumb brute” is “madness” and possibly blasphemous?  As for its irrationality, that is likely because he recognizes that animals, even highly intelligent ones such as whales, are not moral agents and thus vengeance, as typically understood, is inappropriately aimed at them.  Vengeance only makes sense when one’s target is somehow to blame for something (not that vengeance is ever morally justified; but sometimes it does make sense from a psychological standpoint, if not from a moral point of view).

From Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

But then why suggest that Ahab’s anger is blasphemous?  This is where things get really interesting, in terms of the contrasting worldviews of Ahab and Starbuck.  The latter seems to assume that since animals cannot reason, their actions, especially their interactions with people, are best construed as the indirect activity of God.  So to curse, resent, despise, or seek vengeance against an animal is indirectly to behave so toward God.  Ahab tacitly denies this, calling all “visible objects,” including whales, “pasteboard masks” which hide something “inscrutable,” the mysterious beyond which is precisely what Ahab hates, because whatever it is, it has defied him and not only that but seriously injured and permanently handicapped him.  He says, “that inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.”  So he hates what he doesn’t understand.  But more than this, he hates it because he doesn’t understand it.  He resents the mysterious and unfathomable.

All of this is a powerful image of a man despising the mystery of the divine precisely because God defies our comprehension as well as our desire to fully control our lives.  The whale only appears to be Ahab’s nemesis, when in fact the real object of the captain’s anger and vengeance is God.  And when that is the nature of one’s wrath, then literally anything that gets in the way is a potential target, as Ahab himself expresses when he says, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”  Absurd, of course.  But it’s an apt image of the absurdity of hatred directed at God.  It is also portentous, as the reader at this point in the book—only about a third of the way in—gets the feeling that this is not going to end well.  And, of course, it doesn’t.  Both for Ahab and his crew.  Such, too, is the way of human wrath.  It only brings destruction.

Problems with the Genderbread Person

A few years ago Sam Killermann (author of The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender) came out with his “Genderbread Person,” an edugraphic aimed at providing us with the complex “truth” about human sexuality, as he explains here.  The graphic went viral and has spawned much discussion and critique.  Consequently, Killermann has revised the graphic several times, and it is currently at version 3.3.  Here is one of the more recent versions.

Interestingly, very little critique of the Genderbread Person graphic on the Internet has come from traditionalists.  Since there are significant problems with the graphic that aren’t well represented on the Internet, I thought I would briefly point out some of these.  Some have to do with its substantive claims or implications, while other problems pertain to subtle, yet important, aspects of the way the concepts are presented.

First, I’m always wary when someone says things like “everyone thinks they understand X, but they don’t” and then they proceed to give you the correct analysis.  With his Genderbread Person graphic Sam Killermann does this.  In earlier versions the various factors (identity, expression, biological sex) were each presented along a continuum such that there was an inverse relationship between male/masculine and female/feminine.  In more recent versions (the multiplicity of which is itself telling), such as the current v3.3, these have been supplanted with spectra which keep these things independent.  Well, how do we know, in each case, that they really are independent variables?  Depending on the factor, there are some potentially compelling reasons to think that they are not (e.g., in terms of biological sex, the more “male” one’s genitalia, the less “female” they tend to be).

Second, the way it is laid out, biological sex appears no more significant than any of the other factors for determining “gender.”  This is more of a point of presentation, but it surely has a psychological effect on the reader regarding the relative importance of the various factors.  The old dictum “the medium is the message” is applicable here in certain ways.

Third, it could be argued that the graphic assumes an overly individualistic/atomistic humanist perspective on gender, as the factors that are presumably definitive of the concept are almost entirely inherent to a particular person, including his/her own thinking and behavior.  What about a separate social factor?  A cultural factor?  A theological factor?  Are none of these significantly relevant to our thinking about gender?  And, of course, we could go many directions in light of each of those questions.  (The Oxford Dictionary definition of “gender” actually prioritizes socio-cultural considerations to the exclusion of Killermann’s non-biological individualistic factors.  Many other lexicographical accounts do the same.)

Finally, there are numerous other questions to be posed about the graphic.  Does Killermann propose to report current usage/understanding of the term “gender” or to refine or reconceptualize current usage/understanding?  If the former, then that’s problematic because the graphic is at odds with so many lexicographic (dictionary) definitions of the term.  But if the latter, on what basis does he propose such a reconceptualization?  What research and studies?  And why trust that research or those studies?  I don’t see any empirical basis or reference to such on any of the Genderbread Person graphics.  Looking over his website, I don’t see any references to relevant studies, with the exception of a link to the Alfred Kinsey Wikipedia page. (And I trust we all know how notoriously flawed the Kinsey research was.)

Now someone could reply, “Hey, this is just a graphic—a handy heuristic device for prompting dialogue.  Of course, its imperfect.”  But hopefully you’ll agree that even such simple graphics ought not to be exempt from critical scrutiny, especially when they are ones that go viral (as this has) and can have a deep and profound effect on how people think and talk about crucial issues.

U2′s Songs of Innocence: A Review

When U2 dropped their new album, Songs of Innocence, on half a billion people two weeks ago, it was greeted with a range of responses, from jubilation (“At last, the new U2 record is here!”) to annoyance (“What?!  I didn’t ask for this musical spam on my phone!).  I suppose I felt something of both of these emotions.  I was happy to have the album, but I was put off by the annoyingly clever marketing maneuver, which enabled them to simultaneously appear generous (Here, have a free album!) while pocketing a ton of cash (upwards of 100 million dollars, by some estimates—thank you, Apple).

U2’s conscious commitment to remaining as popular as possible is evident in their new production team—Danger Mouse (Black Keys, Norah Jones), Paul Epworth (Coldplay, Adele) and Ryan Tedder (Adele, Beyonce, Maroon 5).  Since these guys have all presided over massively popular recent pop albums, one would Article Lead - narrow6136128010f7g9image.related.articleLeadNarrow.353x0.10j6o0.png1411107347492.jpg-300x0-1expect the gamble will pay off and this album will be extremely popular.  Given that it was instantly placed in the hands and ears of 500 million people, it sure doesn’t need any more promotion.  But not so fast.  The backlash prompted by the intrusiveness of the automatic download has negatively impacted public perception of the album, and this is evident in some otherwise inexplicable album reviews.

So the band’s preoccupation with popularity and profit might have backfired.  But I can’t help but wonder why these mega-millionaires are still being so careful to maximize their profits?  I thought they were liberal-progressives, not hard-core capitalists.  Consequently, I did not want to like this album.  I wanted it to be an aesthetic failure to match what I, like so many others, regard as a pragmatic flop.  And yet, as I listened and listened some more, I was thoroughly disappointed.  Yep, I must admit, it’s actually a really good album.  Dang.

Some people are put off by the production, which is more disciplined and clean than ever, making every song radio ready.  Some complain that they long for the raw energy of their older sound.  But U2 hasn’t sounded like that in more than twenty years, so why expect it now?  Anyway, I say don’t begrudge a band’s willingness to explore, even when that exploration takes them in musical directions you don’t like, such as toward a more polished, popular sound.  As annoying as their preoccupation with “staying relevant” might be, if the result is actually better music, then the quality of the music shouldn’t be denied, which is what I think a lot of listeners are doing—allowing the controversy around the music to prevent them from giving the music a fair hearing.

Nowhere is the more disciplined production approach more apparent than in Bono’s vocals, which sound as strong as they have since the 1980s.  Lyrically, too, Songs of Innocence works as well as any of their records, excepting The Joshua Tree.  The inspiration of most of the tracks is drawn from experiences in their youth (hence the album title), and many of the topics are intensely personal.  There are songs about Bono’s wife (“Song for Someone”), Bono’s mother who died when he was a teenager (“Iris”), the street where he grew up (“Cedarwood Road”), and an Irish paramilitary bombing in Ireland that impacted the lives of some of the band’s friends (“Raised by Wolves”).

There is a lot of longing and introspection on this album—deep emotions that defy the slick production.  In “Every Breaking Wave,” which has a Killers flavor to it, Bono sings, “Every sailor knows that the sea is a friend made enemy, and every shipwrecked soul knows what it is to live without intimacy.  I thought I heard the captain’s voice, but it’s hard to listen while you preach.   Like every broken wave on the shore, this is far as I could reach.”  And in “California,” which suggests an Arcade Fire influence with its rumbling drum section and string textures, Bono declares, “Everyone’s a star in our town.  It’s just your light gets dimmer if you have to stay.”

And the song “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is a tribute to the Clash, whom Bono has called “the greatest band ever.”  Bono explains: “After we saw the Clash, it was a sort of blueprint for U2.  We knew we couldn’t possibly hope to be as cool, and that’s proven to be true, but we did think we could get behind a sort of social justice agenda.”  And so Bono sings, “Soldier, soldier, we signed our lives away.  Complete surrender, the only weapon we know.  Soldier, soldier, we knew the world would never be the same.  Soldier, this is where you can reach me now.”  It’s a fitting tribute to the Clash, with Bono’s creative use of military images for their musical mission.  The only weapon they know?  Music.  And as career rock and roll social activists, U2 certainly did sign their lives away—to their art, their social causes and, yes, a whole lot of money.

The album concludes with “The Troubles,” which features additional vocals by Swedish indie singer Lykke Li.  The song makes for a haunting closer with its dreamy string section and ominous lyric: “Somebody stepped inside your soul.  Somebody stepped inside your soul.  Little by little they robbed and stole till someone else was in control.”  This might seem like an unexpected choice to close an album about innocence, unless it is supposed to be portentous.  Indeed it might be, if Bono’s intimations about an imminent follow-up themed “Songs of Experience” (with a nod to William Blake) is to be taken seriously.  Whether the next album comes sooner or later, time will tell.  But I think we can be confident of one thing—they won’t force it on us next time.

Three Great Books on Intellectual Virtue

This semester I have the honor of working as a Templeton Fellow at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.  Each year the CCT focuses on a different topic, and the theme this year is intellectual virtue and civil discourse.  My research topic, which fits naturally within this theme, is one that I’ve been working on the last few years—open-mindedness.  What does it mean to be open-minded?  Why is it a virtue?  When is it not virtuous to be open-minded?  And is it possible to be simultaneously open-minded and religiously devout?  For some of my thoughts about these questions, look here.

In the course of my research, I’ve read some really good stuff on intellectual virtue.  So I thought I’d provide a brief introduction to, at least in my assessment, three of the best books on the topic.

9780521578264Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind (Cambridge, 1996) — This book is considered by many to be a contemporary classic in the field of virtue epistemology, and for good reason.  Zagzebski not only develops a plausible theory of intellectual virtue, but also offers rich discussions of related and sub-issues along the way, including practical wisdom, understanding, and a critical assessment of Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology.  She conceives knowledge as “cognitive contact with reality arising out of acts of intellectual virtue.”  Although her account overreaches at times, it is nonetheless insightful at nearly every turn.  And, as is the case with all landmark works of philosophy, even her mistakes are instructive.



9780199283675_140Robert Roberts and Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues (Oxford, 2007) — Rather than defending a particular theory of virtue epistemology, Roberts and Wood offer what they call a “regulative epistemology” which aims instead to “generate guidance for epistemic practice.”  For those who are more interested in the practical implications and applications of virtue epistemology, this is a book to check out, which is chock full of insights about the moral life.  After clarifying a number of key concepts, including just what a virtue is, they explore the meaning and practical dimensions of a number of particular intellectual virtues, including intellectual courage, intellectual humility, intellectual autonomy, intellectual generosity, and practical wisdom.


9780199604074_140Jason Baehr, The Inquiring Mind (Oxford, 2011) — In a work that is a bit more theoretical and advanced than the previous two works, Baehr (who is also a CCT fellow this semester) develops and defends what he calls a “personal worth” conception of intellectual virtue.  Along the way he argues for the relevance of considerations of intellectual virtue, whatever one’s view, whether one holds to a reliabilist or evidentialist epistemological theory.  After making his cases for these theoretical points, he explores in-depth two important intellectual virtues:  intellectual courage and open-mindedness.  Baehr’s discussion of the latter of these is especially interesting to me, of course.

These are rigorous, enriching texts which provide theoretical and practical insights—improving our understanding regarding both the nature of knowledge and how we ought to live.  In word, they make us wiser.  Philosophy doesn’t get any richer than this.

The Black Keys’ Turn Blue: A Review

Some of the great albums in music history have been borne out of divorce.  From Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love to Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, it seems the devastation of the end of a marriage brings out the best in songwriters.  The latest confirmation of this sad psycho-aesthetic fact is the Black Keys’ most recent effort, Turn Blue.  Release of the album was apparently delayed by singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach’s divorce proceedings, which were particularly dark and full of disturbing allegations.

Black_Keys_Turn_Blue_album_coverThe songs on Turn Blue reflect what must have been some rough years for Auerbach, beginning with the haunting and patient opener “Weight of Love,” featuring some extended, anguished guitar solos that reinforce Auerbach’s grim declarations:  “Used to think, darlin’, you never did nothing.  But you were always up to something.  Always had a run in, yeah.  I got to think those days are coming to get ya.  Now no body want to protect ya.  They only want to forget ya.”

A few songs later, Auerbach’s grudge has turned to dismissive contempt:  “You wanted to love but you didn’t know how. That’s okay, it’s up to you now.  Its got so bad to where I wouldn’t allow, but no more.  It’s up to you now. (I’ll) let you go, so you can grow old.”  (“It’s up to You Now”).  Elsewhere, things get even more gloomy when he declares that even death would be preferable to his current situation: “Bullet in the brain I prefer than to remain the same” (“Bullet in the Brain”).  And in the title track, there are more ominous lines:  “I really don’t think you know there could be hell below, below.”

Vengeance, contempt, condemnation, suicidal thoughts.  Yep, that’s the psychological landscape of the death of a marriage, as anyone who has been through divorce will testify.

But what is interesting about this record is that it isn’t a dark or brooding album from a musical standpoint.  Much like their 2010 album Brothers, there is an early 70s era Motown vibe to many of the songs (especially “In Time,” “Waiting on Words” and “10 Lovers”).  Also, several tracks are upbeat, and the album is full of melodic hooks.  These are hardly qualities of a depressing album.  This probably explains why most reviewers of the album haven’t properly attended to the heaviness of the lyrics.

Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney set out to make an album unlike their previous release, El Camino, which was loaded with radio-ready track.  This one, they resolved, would be devoid of pop songs.  In spite of themselves, the album does contain some catchy pop-rock tunes, including “Fever,” with its addictive keyboard line, as well as the insta-classic closer “Gotta Get Away.”  Even more so than the rest of the album the music of “Gotta Get Away” defies its lyrics.  The chord progression and triumphant guitar solo feel like liberation and triumph.  But what Auerbach tells us is that he’s just glad to have escaped, even if there is no hope of finding love again:  “I went from San Berdoo to Kalamazoo just to get away from you.  I searched far and wide, hoping I was wrong, but maybe all the good women are gone.

And so the album ends, perhaps appropriately, on a pessimistic note.  Maybe Auerbach will find love again, as his newly remarried bandmate Patrick Carney apparently has.  Fortunately, all the good women are not gone.  So although he’s turned blue for now, he doesn’t need to stay that way.