I bought a new bookshelf…

I’m just over a week shy of 9 months here in Brooklyn. June 1st will be the 10th anniversary of the beginning of my project, with only 3 more months after that to officially finish it out, an occasion I’ll commemorate with my 18th tattoo. (Another fun fact: December 1st will mark the longest amount of time I’ve lived in one place since I left Kansas.)

So I bought a bookshelf.

Over the years, I’ve stored my books in a variety of ways. In Charlotte, there was the makeshift shelving of a recently graduated male:

Bookshelves

In Philly, my tower grew vertically if not aesthetically (you’ll notice I’m still rocking a few VHS to go with my totally bitching VHS/DVD combo TV):

Entertainment Library

In later years, the shelving varied but I thankfully moved on from the milk crate stylings.

Book Shelf

Many of the books that began this journey with me are no longer in my possession, lost either to financial/practical needs or borrowed and never returned. As I progressed through my decade on the road, I grew reluctant to buy new books. Besides for the cost, they were simply more things to pack up and move each and every year. It seemed like such a waste when public libraries were just as convenient.

That is, until this year. Somehow, despite using the Brooklyn library for most of my reading needs, I’ve managed to add more than a dozen books to my collection, which for the past few years had been steady or shrinking. That is no longer the case.

My goal for the better part of my project was to get all of my earthly possessions down to 2 boxes and a suitcase. I never quite made it there as, at my leanest, I still required 3 boxes, 1 suitcase and 1 shoulder bag to accommodate my belongings. An admirable go of it, at least.

Living with less has always been more a product of necessity than some kind of spiritual mantra. Why bog down my existence with stuff if it was only going to make my already difficult life even harder?

In the process of trying to streamline my life, I’ve also gotten a little lazier about unpacking. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have at least one cardboard box full of shit serving double duty as a table or nightstand. It just made sense: One less piece of furniture to buy/find and one less box to pack when I moved again.

Which brings me to the present and my newest bookshelf.

It’s slowly been sinking in that I’m not moving this year. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I plan on re-upping my lease for the first time ever and sticking through a second year. Other than perhaps lugging it across the hall to a bigger bedroom, my stuff is staying put.

So I bought a bookshelf, put it together and placed it where my last unpacked box had been sitting.

I haven’t suddenly become a spendthrift. Everything I own still fits inside a bedroom that’s barely 9’x9′. I like the minimal life. But everything I own is also out of boxes, no longer staged for a quick move. I’m gradually acclimating to the idea that I will still be here for a second autumn, winter, spring, summer…

Unless, of course, I have a panic attack in the next 3 months and move to Moscow.

Nah, that probably won’t happen.

The next step: Get some art on my walls.

I’m here.
I’m settled.
I’m staying?

Peggy Olson Queen

Why Is Christianity in Decline?

You’ve seen the headlines. It’s been all over Twitter and Facebook, posted by that annoying brother of yours who won’t ever shut up about atheism or by that ‘friend’ you keep meaning to delete:

Christianity In America Is In Decline

Only 71% of Americans describe themselves as Christian.

Let’s be clear, Christianity isn’t going away anytime soon, and I’m fine with that. Even at my most “Militantly Atheist” I never thought religions should be abolished or eradicated. I know firsthand how a person can be better off without religion and I think Christianity has no place in our government. But some people find purpose and drive in faith, so Godspeed to them.

There will be a lot of thinkpieces written about why Christianity is in decline (a question that the original Pew Research Center Survey was not attempting to answer). Christian writers will have their arguments, Atheists will have theirs, and so will your dad.

Let me suggest that it’s actually pretty simple.

Christianity is the Reason Christianity is in Decline

“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – Brennan Manning

When I was a Christian, I adored the massively popular band dc Talk, and one of my favorite songs of theirs was “What If I Stumble” which begins with a recording of that above quote. The song then goes on to ponder the consequences if the singers stumble in their faith and make a mistake. A pretty reasonable concern for megastars who have major influence.

It’s a less reasonable concern for a 13-year-old kid who barely interacts with anyone outside his church or Christian school. It probably wasn’t smart for me to get much of my theology from pop music. So where should I have gotten it?

The Survey

The Pew Research Center survey found that Millenials (I hate that term) are fleeing Christianity, which isn’t particularly surprising since the younger generation is always less religious. That is, until they get older, have kids and fall back on faith again. Except that isn’t happening with older Millenials born in the 80s (that’s me). The survey found they aren’t falling back on faith.

So what happened in Christianity in the last few decades to turn off so many people in my generation?

I can’t speak for everyone. I wouldn’t presume that my experiences are universal, but I suspect that they might resonate with a lot of people.

My Interpretation

In the 90s, when I first entered youth group – weekly meetings for teens in Junior High and High School – Christian outreach was all about being hip. We went to rock shows (dc Talk and Jars of Clay were two of my first concerts), watched movies and had all-night lock-ins at the church. At the beginning of the 00s, My youth group had a video game room and a snack bar. It genuinely was one of the best things for a teenager to do on a Wednesday night in Lawrence, Kansas, Christian or not.

Christians were pretty good at casting their nets, but they didn’t know what to do with the fish once they had them.

The teaching in youth group was atrocious (big church wasn’t much better). I know because I was responsible for some of it. Our pastors and youth leadership were basically just making it up as they went. As near as I can tell, they still are. Our youth pastor and his wife were kind, wonderful people who cared about the kids they ministered to, but their theology was about as deep as a piss pool.

That’s not really that big of a deal when you’re teaching 13- and 14-year-olds since your function is mainly to keep them from screwing up their lives (though, inevitably, many slipped through anyway).

If you’re a kid like I was, though, who grew up in 9 years of Christian schooling, weekly church attendance and home Bible study, you seek a little more meat in your faith. This was especially true for me when, as a high schooler, my parents divorced and my dreams of moving to New York City were falling apart around me. I was pretty messed up in the head and when I turned to my faith for comfort all I got in return were platitudes and Bible Verse Confetti.

Here entered Steve, a pastor at my church (one of seemingly dozens). I was still only a senior in high school when he invited me to join his college only Tuesday night Bible Study. Not for the last time, I was the youngest in a group of considerably older members (some were only a year older than me, but others were well into Grad school).

Steve was a military guy who spoke at prisons. He was a serious teacher with years of theological study, and he was pretty damn intimidating. I respected the hell out of him and for a couple years I found a lot of comfort in those Tuesday night meetings.

Then came my sophomore year of college. My faith was falling from me like a lizard shedding its skin. I had stopped attending church and was no longer hanging out with my Christian friends. The only religious thing I still did was a Sunday morning Bible Study held at Steve’s house before church.

I remember the exact morning my faith broke: I was there with maybe 5 other people and Steve was preaching about demons. He handed out a sheet with a list of sins like lying and masturbation and a whole host of other small and big indiscretions. He then went on to explain that these sins were all demons that a person could be possessed by.

And I had this thought: “Oh, he’s making this all up.”

I had read the Bible. I had studied the scriptures. I knew there was no mention of a Masturbation Demon in there. That kind of thing would have stuck out.

I realized that no matter how deep and thoughtful a person’s theology was, at some point it was all made up crap. Read the Bible. It isn’t full of life changing teaching. It’s about 25% archaic laws that nobody follows anymore, 25% history, 15% redundant passages, 15% beautiful poetry and 10% lists of names. What remains could be considered religious teaching or guidance, but even a lot of that is pretty simplistic (“Do unto others what you would have done unto you” is hardly original or even that profound considering that it’s the first lesson our evolving species learned).

Yet, week after week, sometimes in 3 or 4 meetings, pastors across America find a new way to jumble together a dozen disparate verses and craft a new sermon. They say the Bible is the Living Word of God, and that’s a lovely turn of phrase but all it really means is that everyone can make up their own interpretation. Which is exactly what they do.

That’s fine when you’re just piecing together a faith to give your life a little meaning. When you’re attempting to guide your entire existence by the teachings of Christ, however, it’s a lot less helpful.

As a college student, I felt adrift in the ocean and when I tried to cling to the faith that I had been told all my life would support me, I found it riddled with holes and slowly sinking. Christianity is ultimately empty, as are all religions.

I have to politely disagree with Brennan Manning. I don’t believe Christians are the main reason for the increase in atheists. I believe that the fact that Christians are forced to make it up as they go is the cause. People of the faith can pretend like they’re all following the same religion, but go into any Christian bookstore in the country and you’ll see shelves full of different theologies. Some of those differences are minor, but they still represent one basic truth: Everyone is making it up.

Everyone’s theology is either based on their own interpretation of Bible verses or the interpretation of their favorite theologian/pastor/pop singer. Either way, it’s just an interpretation.

Once you realize, as I did that one Sunday morning, that there is no universal truth in Christianity, it stops holding any power.

And that’s why Christianity is in decline. Or, at least, that’s my interpretation.

End Hell

Charles Simic Reads A Selection of Poems

You murmur your poems
in a hall of doors and mirrors and
I strain to hear.
Your voice barely carries
through the staid air
so I make eyes with the reflection of a bodacious blonde,
herself half awake.
These mirrors broadcast more effectively
than the second generation speakers erected by grad students.
You command this room, its stifled yawns and watering eyes,
but poetry is a dead art,
you quip,
selling twelve more collections
of your critically-beloved, publicly-ignored
jumble of words.
Well, I fail to make an impression on her,
the red-lipped heiress who exits
before the free pinot gris evaporates.
There are others:
a brunette in a knit cap,
two French girls discussing a boy,
professors of literature.
For an hour, we are your audience,
but afterwards, like ex-lovers,
we are too ashamed to make eye contact.

5 Songs I’m Loving Now – 04/10/15

Death Cab for Cutie – No Room In Frame

The newest Death Cab album, Kintsugi, is getting mixed reviews, which is pretty much par for the course for latter day DCFC (or, really, any once critically beloved band), but for my money this is their most thoroughly enjoyable album since Plans. There’s a darkness throughout the album – reflecting Ben Gibbard’s recent divorce from Zooey Deschanel – and that’s exactly what was needed to rejuvenate the band (sorry, Ben). For that reason, “No Room in Frame” is the perfect opener, a bitter kiss off to a lover who is too enamored with her own fame and public appearance to allow room for him. It’s biting, incisive and tinged with hurt, like every great Death Cab song should be. Oh yeah, it’s catchy, too.

The Mountain Goats – Heel Turn 2

Last year, John Darnielle released Wolf in White Van, his first novel. Well, technically his first novel, because in reality most of his albums are so full of details and painfully true characters that it feels like I’ve been reading Darnielle books for years. When the most recent Mountain Goats release, Beat The Champ, was announced, I was a little skeptical: an entire album about wrestling? Well, no shock, Darnielle managed to take a subject I couldn’t care less about and find the pathos and humanity in it. “Heel Turn 2″ is the centerpiece of the album, and besides for having his trademark lyrical vulnerability, it makes a genuine left turn halfway through the song: The vocals disappear and all that’s left is gorgeous, haunting piano work. In a career built on unexpected maneuvers, there’s really only one thing you can count on from Darnielle: Beautiful music.

Sufjan Stevens – Fourth of July

If you’re seeing a pattern with these choices this time, there’s a reason for that. This has been a flat out phenomenal year for music so far. I feel spoiled. Not only are some of my favorite artists releasing music, but none have disappointed. Sufjan Stevens came out of hiding with Carrie & Lowell last month, and man does it pack an emotional wallop. Sonically, the album is probably his least varied creation so far – mostly unadorned vocals and piano or guitar with lilting atmospheric tones floating behind him. Yet, each song evokes very specific emotions, like the devastating “Fourth of July” (which brings to mind another holiday song by Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”). If I had any nitpicks with this album, it’s that it was released 3 months too late. This is clearly winter music.

Damien Rice – I Don’t Want To Change You

Dropping back to last year (only because I already mentioned the Decemberists in my last entry in this series), I have to give a shout out to Damien Rice’s lovely return from exile, “My Favourite Faded Fantasy.” Rice vanished after his last, not-quite-critically beloved album, 9. Folksinger with a guitar is always going to risk being a little too ‘soft rock’ for the critics, and admittedly some of his lyrics can be a bit ponderous. But Rice’s gift has always been in the gut-punch manner his songs connect both the saddest and happiest parts of love in one moment. In that way, “I Don’t Want to Change You” is classic Damien and a stand out track on an album that constantly reminds me why I used to listen to O night after night in my college years.

 

And finally…

 

Number 5…

Taylor Swift – Style

Hate if you must (must you?). Question my manhood (you wouldn’t be the first). Think Taylor Swift is annoying (eh) or a bad singer (eh) or has lousy legs (I will fight you to the death), but it doesn’t matter. I could pretend otherwise, but the truth is, I can’t get enough of this song. I thought “Shake It Off” was catchy, I enjoyed the self-deprecating wit of “Blank Space,” but “Style” is where TSwift (I promise I will never write that again) hits it out of the park. I’ve made no secret of my affection for pure pop gold, and that’s what she’s managed to create here. It’s easy to hate Taylor Swift when she’s talking about life in New York City or saying stupid, 14-year-old girl shit in interviews. It’s a whole lot harder to hate her when she just lets the music play (and, also when she’s wearing a “tight little skirt”).

dcfc-kintsugi

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