Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mixtape Letters

This summer, one of the toys I got was a Zune MP3 player. Like all Microsoft products, it has some problems, but all in all, I really like it. Plus, I got it for cheap, and that makes me happy.

With my Zune came a free two-week subscription to Zune Marketplace, which is basically like all-you-can-eat iTunes. Any songs I downloaded from Zune Marketplace would play as long as I was still subscribed, which after 2 weeks became no-longer-free.

Being the music lover that I am, I started furiously downloading whatever I wanted. A little Billy Joel here, a little Kanye West there. A smidge of Mercy Me, a bunch of Moby. A sample of Fergie, a plateful of Pink. A scoop of U2, a handful of Linkin Park. You get the idea.

But I noticed something interesting. At the end of my time on Zune Pass, I had only downloaded one album intact. For the rest of the material I downloaded, I only had a smattering of individual songs, which I had combined into finely tuned playlists. Basically, I had a bunch of mixtapes that I had cobbled together to satisfy my particular tastes. Screw the artist and the concept of an "album", I want track #4 only, and then I want to put it with track #10 of something completely different. Because, you know, it's all about me.

Some artists, like Radiohead, won't let you download individual tracks, because they view their albums as a cohesive whole. They won't submit to the demands of consumers, which take only what they want, when they want it, and discard the rest. With Radiohead you have to submit to the tapestry they create, rather than the tapestry you, as the consumer, want to create for yourself.

Unfortunately, this same consumeristic mindset invades our faith. All too often we, as Christians, don't read books like Genesis or Matthew as if they are a tapestry of their own, demanding to be read as a cohesive, stand alone whole. Instead, we take particular chapters and verses out, and use them as we please. We read only chapter 3:23-24, or 17:24-28 rather than wrestling with the fact that the whole book means something larger than those verses. We mix them together into playlists that make us feel predictable ways about ourselves, or about God.

All too often, we blur together bible stories until they have no distinctive context. This is especially true at Christmas. The story about Joseph being told to marry Mary? Only in Matthew. The story about Mary being told she would give birth as a virgin? Only in Luke. The story about the Magi following the star and bringing gifts? Only in Matthew. The story about the shepherds seeing angels and coming to worship Jesus? Only in Luke. The idea that the word became flesh and dwelt among us? Only in John. Most Christmas stories, though, are the ultimate mixtape of all these stories crammed together. In fact, I would bet most of us can't even conceive of the Christmas story without the mixtape. We have, in fact, designed our own tapestry.

I recently saw this happening with Genesis as well. Instead of reading Genesis as it's own tapestry, threads and verses from other tapestries were pulled out by preference and applied to particular verses of Genesis. What results is a tapestry of our own making, apart from what a book is actually trying to say. We, in fact, become more interested in our own mixtape letter than an actual Biblical letter. And in so doing, we get caught, once again, in the curse of folk theology.

I wonder, as I interact with christians in my church and at my work, what would happen if we let the confusing parts of Genesis, or of the prophets, or of Matthew actually confuse and disturb us through the unique tapestry they weave, rather than calming ourselves with a well constructed security blanket? What would happen if we looked at the Bible more as an art gallery about God and humanity - with each painting standing alone, yet somehow related to its neighbor- rather than a single smeared image?

What would happen if we ditched the mixtape letters? Can we? Should we?


Anonymous said...

ben, i always enjoy reading your posts as you make me think. i have to admit i am guilty of doing this often, picking out the cherry parts of the bible and leaving the hard messages or the confusing parts.


Tracy P. said...

Ben, I am laughing about the breaking up of the "album". When I was in college my friends and I were listening to some music in our dorm, and someone started a new album on side two. (You can think I must be talking about cassettes if you want to.) The music major about had a coronary over the idea that we would take this work of someone's art and just start in the middle. We would totally be missing the point. I thought she was crazy.

I can appreciate your point. We are pretty quick to fill in the blanks and talk over the silence. I would agree that it's a good discipline to study books or portions of scripture intact so that we get the whole picture of that particular writer's focus. However, our brains are so wired to make connections (think about your kids) that I think in large part the answer to "can we?" is no. Connections are so abundant in the Bible between old covenant and new, this teaching and that teaching that it is pretty much impossible to study a book or passage in isolation. (Even you linked to an old post from this one!) I think much of this is Spirit-led, as He often teaches us in themes, and reinforces or balances one teaching with another.

"You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." 2 Cor. 3:3 The Spirit will mix our tapes as He intends.

Benjamin said...

Thanks for the encouragement. Some days I want to lock myself in my house because I don't feel like anyone I hang out with wants to think penetrating thoughts. It makes me feel rejected and misunderstood. Even if you get tired of my ramblings, you're a good friend for telling me what you like and what you don't like.

I think it is hilarious that you think I might not know what a record is. Come to think of it, mixtape is a term from the LP era. Maybe I should have called it "Playlist Letters" instead.

But your larger point seems to be recombining some things I'm trying to separate. We are indeed creatures that see connections and integrate those connections. In fact, I started writing a post called "Mixtape Lives" right after I finished this one. Maybe I'll post it sooner rather than later.

I'm all for integrating things. As you've noted, anyone who reads my blog knows I integrate things all the time. Heck, this post is an integration!

But this post isn't about OUR tapestry. It's about honestly seeing the tapestry of something beyond ourselves.

Let's use the Christmas example. We tend to have this smashed together story about Christmas, which exists only in fragments of (arguably) stand alone books. Most of us would argue that our Christmas story is Biblical. But is it really? When we remove from Matthew the part about Joseph being told by the angel to take Mary as his wife, don't we lose Matthew's point? And if we don't have Matthew's point, are we really being Biblical?

When I make mixtapes (or playlists), I make them for something specific - because I am in love, or because I want some music for my workout, or music for traveling, or whatever. My intent usually differs from the album artist considerably. My intent isn't bad, but to say I am "into" a band when I only have a mixtape of a couple of songs is just wrong. I think we do something similar when we make mixtape letters.

My point in this post (and it may have been poorly constructed) is that some things deserve to speak to us from their own paradigm, and from their own tapestry. In so doing, these other tapestries can serve as correctives to our own. We will always impose our own tapestry to some extent (that's the Mixtape Lives), but we have it within us to lessen the effect.

Can we? Should we?

SteveM said...

We all do it. It is our way of trying to see how the whole thing works. Now it would be wrong to make our "mix" and never really listen to anything else but our "mix". I think it is part of the process of us growing in our faith and understanding of God and the Bible. Hopefully we do wrestle with it. Instead of picking just our "mix". I hope all of us, as we spend more time reading and getting to understand the bible, are confronted by the things that didn't fit into our "mix" and soon we form a new "mix" that is ever closer to what God intended.

My small group has been reading through the bible this past year. We are about to finish the Old Testament this week. It has been great to read it through like this. One of the things that I find interesting is finding things that were quoted in the New Testament that when you see it in the original Old Testament it seems that it was used almost out of context. It has been challenging. It makes me wonder about my own "mixed Tape".

Benjamin said...

Great points, Steve!

The point I'm going to try to make in a future post is that we can't neuter things by forcing them into our mix. Instead, they must confront our mix to the point where we ask 'How now should we live?' I argue in this post that we can't do that by constantly saying the world (or scripture, or whatever) must conform to our mixtape of personal preference.

I love your Old Testament example. Paul's use of Old Testament scripture has always been controversial. It seems that he was stretching the meaning of the Old Testament to the breaking point in order to explain what happened with Christ. We shouldn't neuter that thought, but let it disturb and challenge us as we ask how it should change our view of things. But to do that, we must not let our image of what Paul is saying cloud the context of what Isaiah is saying. Isaiah must, relatively speaking, stand alone. Otherwise, we end up with mixtape letters, smearing the colors of each book of the bible into a greenish-brown ooze.

There are other examples. How about God being sorry for creating man in Genesis 6? Do we explain that by appealing to some preformed image of God, or do we let the text speak to us, and continually wrestle with the image of a God that can be sorry for something? Or, in Genesis 11, do we allow ourselves to be confused by a God who looks down at humanity building a tower, and decides to confuse their language because otherwise "nothing will be impossible for them"?

In a recent Bible study, the class tried to explain these Genesis examples away with preconceived images of God. They seemed resistant to me pointing out that Genesis deserves the chance to confront our preconceived images.

So in a way, I guess, this post was a rant.

Tracy P. said...

I will grant you that the mixtape is what gets the wise men in the nativity set next to the manger and the shepherds. I'm glad Matthew puts Joseph's angel encounter into the mix--but he nearly excludes all of the other aspects of the story. So did he read Luke and just put in his own two cents' worth rather than be redundant? But if he did, why do they overlap in so many other ways (thus the synoptic gospels)? Is his gospel not just his own mixtape and really incomplete without the others against the backdrop of God's tapestry? So which is the the real story? The mix with all of them (noting that Jesus and his parents had found suitable shelter before the wise men arrived)? Or each one by itself? Are you really advocating that we take the time to look at each one on its own and lay them side by side rather than just relying on the traditional integrated folk theology version? (And should we then conclude that Matthew was a chauvanist because he had no time whatsoever for Mary?)

I think my takeaway from your point is that I need to learn to respond to the ideas that I encounter with questions more often, and give the answers a little more time than my knee jerk responses usually allow. Point well taken. Is it possible that some of us are better at generating questions once we've gotten our knee-jerk answers out of the way?

Benjamin said...

Wow - this post has caused more confusion that I intended. Way more.

What I'm advocating is that we try, as best we can, to hear Matthew's point, or the point of the author of Genesis, above the din of our own priorities. Matthew doesn't include all those trappings that Luke includes. We don't know why. A good number of Biblical scholars put Luke being written after Matthew, and uses Matthew as a source, but that is debatable. There is little evidence, however, that Luke was written before Matthew.

Matthew did not include Luke's version of the birth narrative. Evidently, that didn't fit into the point Matthew was trying to make, or he was ignorant of the birth details. In either case, I'm advocating that we find Matthew's point while ignoring the "why didn't he include?" questions.

Mark, for instance, doesn't include ANYTHING about Jesus' birth, and only a few words about what happened after Jesus' crucifixion. Mark doesn't even include the resurrection! Should we say that Mark hates babies, or doesn't believe in the resurrection? If we read with mixtape letters, we would be justified in doing that. I'm advocating that we should instead lay down our expectation that any gospel account include the resurrection, and listen closely to the gospel message Mark writes, sans resurrection. Does Mark have a point? What is it?

Similarly, should we conclude that Matthew was misogynist because he didn't include our favorite story about Mary? Should we inject parts of the story Matthew didn't include because we think he forgot them? What should be our approach and response to Matthew's account? I'm saying that if our approach to Matthew's account is to combine it with the other parts of the Bible WE think should be included, then we might as well respond by writing another book called "The Gospels" and get rid of the individual books that seem to cause so much trouble. How dare they confuse the complete story we have constructed!

I am indeed advocating that the individual books are important and deserve our attention as just that - Individual Books.

Now, the backdrop in which we find ourselves - in which we do this task of looking at individual books is a different story. Please don't confuse me saying that Matthew has a point of his own with the way in which we integrate Matthew's point into our lives.

This post is about getting to the point of Matthew, or Genesis, or Isaiah. Not about how we take that point with us into our life.