A second look at Owl City

Almost 7 years ago, on my first blog, I wrote about why Owl City is my favorite music artist. (I won’t be providing a link, because that blog is cringy.)  One of the main reasons I gave was the relentless positivity and general happiness of nearly all Owl City songs. As an optimist, who believed that being a happy and optimistic person was more Christian than not, this sat very well with me.

I repent.

I don’t look at happiness and optimism the same way anymore. Happiness is good, and it’s a large part of what we’re after, but that doesn’t make it always the best mood in this sinful age. And optimism, well, I think it’s a bit misguided. The more biblical option, I think, is stark realism shot through with faith and hope. But this change of mind doesn’t dampen my love for Owl City.

Owl City is even better than I thought.

I made the mistake of looking at Owl City through my own rose-colored glasses and missed the realistic richness in its music. Since then, I’ve come to better appreciate what makes Owl City special. The uniqueness is not that it’s just happy and optimistic all the time, because it’s not. Several songs released since my old post prove as much. Sometimes Owl City seems downright black.

But what makes Owl City unique is the way it handles all of these moods and emotions. It surpasses most other pop music, Christian or secular, with an impossible balancing act. Christian music seems to be plagued with naivete, sentimentality, and mere optimism, and a decent chunk of secular pop tends either to play to these as well (for the PG stuff) or to do hedonism, nihilism, cynicism, or the like.

Owl City avoids both of these pitfalls. It expresses joy without platitude, hardship without nihilism, wonder without nativete, heartbreak without cynicism, and the full range of light without denying the full range of darkness. The dark songs never completely omit a glimmer of hope, and bright songs are never without a tinge of sadness or a sharp edge of reality.  Indeed, sometimes the most interesting and creative aspects of any given Owl City song is the ironic way they combine light and dark. “Hot Air Balloon” sounds like a happy memory of childhood at first listen, but then you notice the subtle negativity playing hide-and-seek in the lyrics. “Bird with a Broken Wing,” about as bleak as Owl City can get (’cause it was inspired by The Walking Dead), sets its dark lyrics to an upbeat and even bubbly tune that feels as though it carries you forward into hope even as you feel the weight of sorrow.

The brilliance of it all is that we live in a culture where the default modes are either a cynical nihilism–life sucks, then you die–or a whitewashed, hedonistic approach combining egoism, denial, and sentimentality. Owl City celebrates as much as this second mode without its vices, and it mourns more faithfully than the first approach is even capable of. Where pop culture tells us that everything is hunky dory and you just have to believe in yourself, Owl City reminds us that sometimes it’s a bitter world where we’d rather dream. Where pop culture tells us that everything is stupid and life is joke, Owl City chimes in that there is hope from above which brings courage. It is the paradox of life that I love in this music. Owl City presents us with a dark and deadly world where dreams don’t turn to dust, a life of beautiful times punctuated by cold nostalgia that chills to the bone. And most importantly, in the midst of all the howling wind and starry serenades, the Saving Grace of the galaxies is there to make us new, to smile and hear our prayers, and to take us home when death is near.

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Coffee and Communion

A week or two ago I went to a larger church than I am used to for a special event they were having. It was good and all, and the event itself took place in the lobby where they served coffee. The cafe area was pretty nice and well designed, and it (as always) got me thinking.

Churches offering a coffee bar is pretty normal these days, especially for churches started in the last few decades. Some high church people scoff, some fundamentalists scoff, and some normal people scoff, too. Some people take issue with the idea that we could just be trying to market people in with the unspiritual means of tasty coffee. But for the most part, people like it. And it seems to have some beneficial effects. It makes a place and time where people can come, share drinks, and enjoy each other’s company. It forges a little patch of unity, a small table of community.

This is very similar to what Communion does, or at least is meant to do. Paul says that Communion makes us one body: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, since all of us share the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). The same can be applied to the cup: we all drink the same cup of the blood of Christ, and the washing of His blood makes us all one body.

Now, there are probably many layers to answering the question, “How does Communion make us one body?” But at least one part of it has to do with the fact that Communion is a meal, and meals bind people together socially. I’m sure you can imagine what I mean. People bond over shared food and drink all the time. You go out to eat on a date to get to know each other. You celebrate Thanksgiving together by sharing a turkey and some potatoes and cranberry sauce. Family memories and routines often center around a dinner or breakfast table. You could almost say that family is simply who you eat supper with.

Part of the “power” of the Lord’s Supper to make us into one body is just that: the power of a supper. (This is why, by the way, it should really be celebrated more like a meal whenever the group size makes it possible.) And this power is something it has in common with coffee.

Drinking coffee together is a lot like sharing a meal. And, socially, it works mostly the same way. Coffee dates are as much a thing as dinner dates. Office workers talk as much by the coffee maker as at the lunch table. People make and meet their friends at coffee shops. As we share a drink in common, we share our thoughts, our news, our loves, or even our faith.

A coffee bar in the church foyer, then, can be kind of sacramental. It can be a way that Christ works to create love and unity among the members of His body. An outsider, walking into a church for the first time, might catch a glimpse of the fellowship which we share in our Savior who brought us together in the first place. For those looking for community (and who isn’t?), the coffee bar can be a sign that God has provided just that in His Church.

Easter Fools

It is a two weeks until Easter. This year Easter falls on April Fools’ Day, and all of the atheists and skeptics fall on the ground laughing. Rightly they should. Indeed, more Christians ought to do the same. There is something supremely absurd about Easter. It is the absurdity of saying that the world was created twice, exactly what Christians say that Easter is about. We are fools to believe it. And yet, God’s absurdity beats all of our reasonableness, and “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.”

In a real sense, Easter is God’s greatest joke. The resurrection of Jesus is the uproarious laughter of God that rolls away stones and knocks guards to the ground. In folk religions devils are tricksters, but in Christianity God one-upped them all. For there is something incredibly amusing about the way the resurrection played out. It was a joke at Satan’s expense, for one. The hosts of hell were undoubtedly thrilled at their major victory. The Messiah, God’s Son, was dead. Israel was doomed to curse and and endless spiritual exile. The Gentiles would never even hear of hope. No doubt that, as dawn approached that Sunday morning, demons danced and leprechauns laughed.

It was also a joke at the Jewish leaders’ expense. The smug compromisers were undoubtedly relieved when they awoke. The rabble-rousing Rabbi was defeated. They no longer had anything to fear from a heretical, imposter Messiah. Things could go back to the way they were, the same people in charge with the same old dreams for Israel’s future.

Even the disciples were ready to become a joke. Their situation is more ironic than anyone else’s because they had been told that Jesus was to return. Yet instead they were in shock, thinking about how to return to a previous life, dealing with the collective disappointment that either God had abandoned His Chosen or that they had been wrong all along.

Meanwhile, God was snickering from His throne. The time had come to raise Jesus from the dead. So He did. Satan’s hordes were in a nightmare as dark as their souls, the Jewish leaders found their wrongful victory righted, and the disciples all became fools for their obtuseness. But out of them all, only the disciples could laugh at the joke. They were fools, but they were happy fools, fooled by God with the miracle of a new creation and a new covenant. The most impossible absurdity had happened—the great resurrection began early with a crucified Messiah!—but it was the absurdity of God. So they spent the rest of their lives retelling the divine joke, sharing it with everyone who would listen. They didn’t expect everyone to believe it, foolishness as it is, but they loved it.

Even today, with Jesus’ resurrection being 2000 years old, the Good News still sounds foolish. In our scientific age, we are supposed to know that people don’t come back from the dead (the joke’s on us: the ancients knew that, too, probably better than we do). In our postmodern pessimism, no one really believes that there can be a new creation which actually rescues everything good from the old. In our modern optimism, it seems ridiculous that we even need a new creation to save us when progress is always on the march. For both the alt-right and the social justice left, the idea that all kinds of people could find new life in the resurrection of one particular man of one particular gender from one particular race and be formed into His one body is a fool’s fantasy.

But if the Gospel is foolishness, it is foolishness to those who are perishing. For we fools who believe, it is true wisdom. If the world laughs at us, God laughs first and last. So we revel in the life-giving laughter of God. And this means that we, too, can laugh this Easter.

God actually does want you to be happy

The only worse teaching than “God just wants you to be happy” is “God doesn’t want you to be happy.” Of course, not that many people teach this specifically, but a number of people come close. Some of them do this by hammering in a more spiritual sounding point, something along the lines of “God is more interested in you being holy than being happy.” And, technically speaking, they’re right. If God had to pick between giving you a holiness boost and a happiness boost, I’m sure He’d pick holiness.

But the problem lies in the question itself, not so much in the answer. Or, to be clearer, asking whether God prefers your happiness or holiness more is already a bad way of putting things. It’s kind of like asking if my I would rather my son be happy or healthy. If I love him, I want both very much and would not wish to choose between them. But at the same time, a large part of the reason I want him healthy is because it will make him happy. A basic problem with unhealthiness is that is leads to unhappiness, or at least makes happiness all the more difficult. While I definitely wouldn’t mind making Nathan temporarily unhappy to make him healthy (I’ll get him his shots and medicine as needed), the point of that temporary unhappiness is so he can play happily later instead of being miserably ill. If the cure were worse than the disease in the long run, I’d probably pass it up.

What we tend to miss, then, is that holiness is a lot like health. In fact, holiness could be considered spiritual health. Health, after all, is when the various parts of our body work together in the right order and harmony. Holiness is when the various parts of our lives—thoughts, feelings, and actions—work together in the right order and harmony as defined by how God has made us to live.

This is why, for all our disagreements, I think John Piper is really getting at something important with his so-called “Christian Hedonism.” Piper is very right to say that there is nothing wrong with wanting or trying to be happy. Instead, what makes trying to be happy right or wrong is the way in which we do it. Sin may make us happy in the short term, but it causes misery in the end. Living by faith in Christ, on the other hand, may make us unhappy today as we take up our crosses, but it will turn out far for the best. And while Piper usually focuses on the eternal payoff, holy living pays off in the “short-long term” as well. Sexual restraint protects us from broken homes, broken hearts, and often broken bodies. Generosity and mercy build meaningful relationships and improve mental health. Getting wasted every weekend may be fun, but all too often leads to regrettable choices and mistakes that can never be undone. And this list can go on. Virtue is hard work and can involve suffering, but it makes a brighter life. Vice can be thrilling, but it quickly drags us into the lonely dark.

All of this comes back around to creation, to the subject of my last post. God made life to be lived and enjoyed. He smiles to see His children playing on the playground of the world. But He won’t—He can’t—tolerate sinful play. However much fun it may seem in the moment, it will ruin everyone’s day. This is the great sin. What God wants is to call His children in as the night falls to feast on bread and wine, with joy and laughter bought at the steep price of His true Son’s blood.

So, why make this point? Am I picking on words and phrases to be a pain or know-it-all? By no means! This is something that I believe causes serious trouble when forgotten. This is because everyone wants to be happy, and they feel that, in some way, it is right for them to look for happiness. And it is God who crafted their hearts with this desire. So when they hear it preached that God’s not concerned with their happiness, or if they only hear rules and “don’t’s” without a clear explanation of how God gives these commands because He truly does want their smile, it is far too easy to conclude that God is simply against joy and fun. They start to view God as a grumpy old man aggravated by seeing young people enjoy themselves. And I’m not talking hypothetically. This is something I have seen and heard myself.

Once this mistake is made, their God-given desire for happiness leads them away from the very unhappy picture of God they have developed. And while sinful pleasures aren’t as good for joy long-term as God is, they’re way better on any time scale than the Curmudgeon God who they have come to believe gave us Christianity. This becomes their excuse for sin. And sin will ruin their happiness, which God will not take lightly. God will not, of course, let them get away with their excuses, but we should be taking those away first with good theology. If we don’t, they won’t be the only ones having to give an account.

What we should be teaching, then, is not the technically correct answer to the misguided question of whether God prefers happiness or holiness. Instead, we ought to say, “Of course God wants you to be happy. But He knows better than you do what makes us happy. After all, He designed up. So let’s crack open the Bible and see what God has to say about what makes a happy life. You ask if partying will be involved? Let’s turn to Revelation 19:6-9…”

The female form is a fountain

Some ramblings about the natural place of the woman’s body:

Contra a popular, fake C. S. Lewis quote, we are not souls who have bodies. We are body and soul equally, and in truth the line between the two is blurry and ambiguous. So to speak of a person’s body is to say something about who and what they are. In modern culture we like to pretend that this isn’t true, which is why Western progressivism is really Gnosticism reborn. But I digress.

Back onto the point, the woman’s body is extremely unique. It, and thus she, is literally a source of life. She is a fountain of flourishing. I’ve said before that the man makes a home a household, and a woman makes a household a home. This is true, and comes close to what I’m saying here. It begins with the beginning of life. The first woman was called Eve, Mother of All the Living, and the first man was not called the Father of All the Living. For the woman is more inanimately associated with the spread of life. When a new human comes into being, he emerges in the womb of a woman. This womb gives him protection and health, everything he needs to grow and enter the world of the living. His mother swaddles him in her very flesh, and she, like Christ to us, nourishes him with her own body and blood.

This role, of course, does not stop after birth. A child born is still bodily dependent on his mother. For the longest time, he can eat and drink nothing but what comes from her breasts. Her body saps her own nutrients to give strength to the infant. Even once weaned, she continues to expend her physical energy, aging time, heart, and many opportunities to go, do, and be in order to grow the child from infancy to adulthood so that he can have a life of his own. His life is a gift from his mother.

Even after the child grows up, the female form remains a source of life. But at this point it is not the mother, but the wife. People make a lot of jokes and throw a lot of disdain to the male sex drive, but few stop to think just how vital it is to masculine life. There is a very real and very serious sense in which a man comes alive by his union with woman. When her flesh meets his in a healthy context, he can receive a strength, boldness, identity, and place in the world which is simply absent otherwise. In so many cases, men become men precisely because they are united to a woman. She empowers him and gives him something to fight for, something to (literally) lean on, and the assurances that he is worth something to at least someone. She does this all by the gift of her body.

The female form is the fountain of life, then. This is its, and thus her, nature. Woman are life-givers in a way that men aren’t. The man helps create life in a one-off action, and the woman nurtures and grows it in an ongoing manner. This is like the relationship between God and man, in which God is, as Father, the one who creates us ex nihilo and the Church, as mother, nourishes and teaches us that we might grow up into the image of our elder Brother, who was Himself grown in the womb of the Church when she was known as Israel. This is why the Spirit is also the only member of the Trinity who is sometimes referred to with a feminine pronoun in the Scriptures, for God as the Spirit uniquely continues in the ongoing action of sustaining and forming human life towards its fullness.

In the end, this is largely why I am so skeptical of modern feminism. Even when it gives lip-service to motherhood, it militates against it. The push for endless birth control and abortion proves as much, along with the push to fill corporations and legislatures with women as well. They try as hard as they can to rip the woman from the home, where she is an omnipotent goddess, to the workforce and the state, where she, like men before her, may easily become either a faceless cog or a soulless beast. They may possibly be right to suggest that no one hates women like some redneck Trump supporter with a picture of Hillary Clinton on a dart board, but I suspect that no one hates Woman as much as these feminists. Let them not dry up the fountain of life. Let them not tame the woman and turn her into an atom. If they succeed too far, it will be everyone who perishes.

To Brielle

There is a girl I know whose middle name is “Stinkin’.” Well, not exactly. That’s just what I always interject into her name. It’s not cruel or mean, you see, but simply one of those things you pick up by being friends with someone through high school. I’m sure most of you have given or received something along those lines in your life.

Alas, for my own friend, the name has taken something of an unfortunate significance. It has become prophetic. I once simply called for “Stinkin'” for ironic fun. It was the insult with no teeth. The problem today is that her life has caught up to this name. Her life stinks. I do not refer to her own choices or character, which pertain only to God. I mean events which have befallen her. My stinkin’ friend has come to bear a stinkin’ body, a body wretched with the burnings of death within. With this and other stinkin’ problems have come a stinkin’ mess for her own heart and mind. She’s found confusion and chaos which do not belong in a good world to a good friend. Her cosmos collapses, and it stinks.

Of course, all of this must be tempered with a very simple observation. “Stinkin'” is not really her name. Her actual middle name is Brielle. And Brielle is a very different name. There is nothing awful or distasteful about Brielle like “Stinkin’.” Instead, Brielle is lovely. “Stinkin'” may denote a very miserable creature indeed, but Brielle speaks of a goddess. It is short for Gabrielle, a feminine form of Gabriel, which means “man of God” or perhaps “God is my strength.” You can hear either of those meanings in the short and sublime name Brielle. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for the name of a divine being itself. Brielle suggests qualities of lightness, femininity, vitality, elegance, laughter, and the good. It is a name to elevate and dazzle with simple and innocent glory.

The name Brielle, then, stands in stark contrast with “Stinkin’.” One speaks of all that is wrong and mournful, the other of all that is right and merry. This makes the turn of life bizarre. Why does Brielle, the real name, seem to speak of a fantasy while “Stinkin’,” the fake name, seems to speak of the real world? How can such a thing happen? And since it does happen, is there any justice?

Perhaps these questions have no accessible answers. Maybe they are hidden in the mind of God. But God has a peculiar habit of speaking His mind. And what He has said on a few occasions leads me to question these questions with a radically different question.

What if Brielle is real?

What if “Stinkin'” is a sham?

I cannot but suspect that my friend is Brielle after all. For this age is the age of shadow, and only the age to come is the real thing. In this age, she struggles and suffers as though God Himself has turned against her. But if anything is the sham, I believe with all my heart it is this age. The age to come is the light, the truth in which perhaps Brielle, not “Stinkin’,” is the authentic character. Perhaps she is destined to glory. And in this case, why not name her by her true name? She is Brielle, whose strength is the God who named her. The stink may last for a night, but I see the first rays of joy coming in the morning.

In this spirit, then, I have a message to my friend. To Brielle:


As I sat on my bed, an angel of God carried me away, and said, “Come, I will show you the ruined goddess, whose has suffered, suffers now, and shall suffer again. The eyes of the Lamb are upon her day and night.”

So I looked, and behold, I saw a young girl upon a bed, wearing a blue gown, with a mark across her forehead which read, “MYSTERY: BRIELLE ABANDONED.” And men in white robes were coming and going with scrolls, speaking, but I could not hear their voices. They looked upon the girl and frowned. Some appeared distressed, some appeared confused, and some appeared angry. As I looked at their faces, I wept.

Suddenly I heard a loud voice from above the angels, saying:

How desolate sits Brielle,
pitiable among people!
She has become like a widow,
alone in her distress.
She weeps bitterly in the night;
her tears are on her cheeks.
All her gates are desolate,
and her temple lies in ruins.

It began in her temple,
corruption emerged in the stones.
Moth and rust came to feed,
and they would not be satisfied.
The enemy has stretched out his hand
over all her treasures.
She says, “I am in distress;
my inner parts are in torment!”

Then I looked again, and the eyes of the Lamb were fixed on the girl. They shone like the sun, and it seemed to me that they were glistening with tears. Then another voice spoke, and I perceived that it was the voice of the girl. She said:

My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
Why are you far from helping me,
far from the words of my groaning?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
I am the one who has seen affliction
under the rod of God’s wrath.
Yes, He repeatedly turns His hand
against me all day long.

And I wept again when I heard the girl’s words. I wanted to speak to her, but I found I could not open my mouth. In my distress, I looked and saw the Lamb, who was still gazing at the girl. Drops of blood came down His face, and He scratched at the scars of His slaughter. So I said to the angel, “Who sinned that this girl should be made desolate under the Lamb’s eye, her or her parents?”

And the angel said, “Neither her nor her parents have sinned.”

I began to say, “Then why does she suffer?” But as I opened my mouth, the ground shook, the bed split, and the girl fell to the ground. Her gown was torn, and she wept bitterly. I turned and said to the Lamb in a loud voice, “Will you not help her?” But the Lamb was not there. And there was blood where He had stood.

The angel said to me, “Did the Lamb help the girl?”

“No,” I replied.

Then the angel growled like a beast, and I shrunk back in fear. He continued to speak. “Come. I will show you the aid of the Lamb.” So he took me away to a dark sanctuary. He lit 7 candles, and the room was filled with light and a sweet smell. I looked, and I saw the Lamb bound to an altar. His fur was soaked with blood, and He gasped as He breathed. He cried out in a loud voice,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Then He was not, and I was taken back to the girl. I heard her sing a terrible song:

My days vanish like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is afflicted,
withered like grass;
I even forget to eat my food.
Because of the sound of my groaning,
my flesh sticks to my bones.

As she finished her song, I turned and saw the Lamb once again. He stood at an exceedingly great distance. His fur was no longer bloody, but white. He stood taller than He had before, and fire was in His eyes. He mounted a white horse and came galloping toward her, but He was still a long way off. But the girl did not see Him, and she wept over her miseries.

Then I was overcome by her predicament. I said to the angel, “Why can she not see Him?”

He said in a soft voice, “She can see you.”

I was startled at this, and I looked, and the girl was looking at me. I tried to speak and could not. But I saw the Lamb coming on the horizon, and my mouth opened:

Brielle, Brielle,
why do you mourn?
Why is your face downcast?
Do you not see?
Have you not heard?
The Lamb is coming,
and He rides near even now.

The Lamb has seen you,
and He has heard your divine tears.
He will rebuild your walls,
and He will cleanse your temple.
Your ruins will become shining gates,
and towers will rise from your ashes.

The Lamb holds a hammer,
and nails are in His hands.
He is a carpenter,
the son of a carpenter.
He is skilled at building,
and He makes all things new.

I heard the Lamb.
He spoke to me by His eyes.
His gaze was upon you,
and in His face, I saw your own.
Hear Him, hear Him,
for this is what the Lamb says:

“I will make peace flow to her like a river,
and healing like a great flood.
You will see, you will rejoice,
and you will flourish like grass.
Her compassionate one will guide her,
and lead her to springs of water.”

I pray, then, Brielle,
hope in the Lamb!
He rides with the clouds
and comes with the winds.
But do not be dismayed,
and do not be distracted.

The Lamb, the Lamb,
He is your hope.
Do not forget Him in your distress.
Do not fail to call on His name.
He has not always seemed a friend,
but He has always been the Friend.

Yes, Brielle, He is a paradox,
and His name is Mystery.
He does not always take your side,
but He is always on your side.
He does not always join your cause,
but you are always His cause.
He does not always agree with you,
but He always defends you.
He is not always what you want,
but He always wants you.
He does not always secure you,
but He always rescues you.
He does not always approve,
but His love always proves.
He does not always get you,
but He is always for you.

Do you not see?
Have you not heard?
The Lamb, the Lion of Judah,
He knows your distress.
Out of all people, you two have suffered,
He and you have been God-forsaken.

But the Lamb was not forsaken—
what does this mean for you?
His flesh was destroyed,
but He was restored evermore.
But His flesh is your flesh,
and His bone is your bone.

When I finished speaking, an angel carried me away. He said, “Come, and I will show you the goddess who has suffered, suffers now, and shall suffer again. But after suffering for 10 days, she was found by the Lamb.”

Then I saw the girl once again, no longer in a blue gown but a white dress. A crown sat on her head, and on it was written the name of the Lamb. She was no longer crying. Instead, the Lamb wiped away every tear from her eyes, and she laughed. The song of her laughter filled the air, and no sadness could be found for 144,000 miles.

Then a voice like a trumpet declared:

Look, I am making all things new!
What is dead will come to life,
and what is empty will be filled.
And I will give the goddess to the Lamb,
and He will be her God and she will be His bride.

When the voice finished, there was silence for half an hour. The Lamb and the girl walked together until they passed over a great hill, and from the hill came sounds of joy greater than all the joy heard on earth. I smiled, but an angel grabbed me and said, “Behold, you have seen many things. These things shall shortly come to pass, but they may not come to pass at all. What you have seen can only take place if the girl hears the words you have been given. Let her hear them, and believe, and all these things shall be. But if she does not hear them, or if she cannot believe them, all is lost. The Lamb longs for her. He is gazing upon her now. She is Brielle, woman of God, and He is her God. She is Brielle, whose strength is God, and He is her God.”

To Brielle, and to all who know her, or love her, and suffer like her, be grace and peace from the Lamb. These things must shortly take place. Amen.