Friday, March 28, 2014

Methuselah Goes To The Movies

In one week, I received two invitations to attend screenings of new movies, both with biblical themes. I had to miss the first of the films, but was available on the evening of the second film’s screening.

My Southern Born Woman agreed to go with me to watch a film called “Noah”, figuring it would be fun, knowing the theater served beer, and with the knowledge that if film were really bad, at least we’d be in cahoots in our criticism of it.  Sometimes it’s fun to be quietly catty with the one you love.

The cast of “Noah” was somewhat promising, if not odd: Russell Crowe as Noah, Jennifer Connelly as Mrs Noah, and Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah.  Given how old Noah is said to have been, I think Anthony Hopkins might have been better cast in the title role, although ever since he played Hannibal Lechter, it’s hard for me to see him without wondering who he’ll take a bite out of.

The lights came down, and the theater hushed.  I’ve never seen Hollywood move so quickly to make a story “Hollywood”.  Within 5 minutes of the movie’s start, they had angels turning into odd, animated stone creatures with low voices; creatures who would eventually help Noah wage war against his foes, apparently the descendants of Cain.  We knew right away that someone with a fantastic imagination had gotten a hold of the story.  

The acting, to be fair, was great; all top-notch players, not a bad apple in the bunch.

Russell Crowe’s Noah had a very hip wardrobe, starting with skinny jeans and a parka type coat that I’d like to see Columbia Sportswear issue someday:  The Noah Parka, waterproof and stylish-  I can see it now.

He also goes through three very distinct haircuts, starting with an unkempt hippy, longhair theme, moving to a buzz cut, and finally to what looks like a razor cut / nee shag.  I’ll have to ask my barber friend / guitarist Steve Mason for the details, but leave it to Hollywood to give us several versions of Noah to get into- Noah Mach I, Noah Mach 2, and Noah Mach 3, at your Christian hairdresser now.

My very biblically minded mother might have enjoyed one element of the adaptation.  Being of Swedish descent, I think she would have found some pride in seeing what appeared to be Vikings in all the battle scenes, although she would have been disappointed that they were on the wrong side of right, and destined for drowning.  

What I truly enjoyed was how all the animals were called by Creation to fill up the ark.  Each grouping of life forms finds themselves wildly yet methodically called to fill the ark. I used to think that Noah spent about 100 years gathering them, but the film’s version felt like something C.S. Lewis would have come up with, and thus probably acceptable by Christians everywhere.  

In this narrative, Jennifer Connelly burns a combination of herbs to put all the creatures to sleep. I've always thought of the ark as noisy and chaotic, but the sleeping herb notion gave weight to the idea of Mrs Noah being in touch with creation. In fact, a viable theme of the film is that what sets Noah apart from the sinful world that drowns away is an aversion to violence against creation, something we could use a dose of all these years after the Deluge.

The family conflict runs deep, and every story needs dysfunction. We've got high drama between Noah and his son Ham. No surprise there.  Knowing how certain theologies have used the Ham narrative, I was thankful that Ham was played by an average looking white kid from suburbia.  

Noah winds up as a lunatic, trying to kill his grandchildren, and generally upsetting everyone on the ark and in the theater.  To be sure, I can see a little cabin fever wafting about the ark, but I need to remind the screenwriters that it was Abraham who tried to kill his progeny, not Noah.

The special effects are dazzling, of course, and I suppose a theological explanation of the fantastic abilities of the effects team is that before the flood, everything was better.  People lived longer, and the movies were much longer.  Or so this one seemed.  All ends well, and the last Viking is vanquished, as the boat lands in what seems to be Ireland, verdant and as Celtic in appearance as most of the actors in the film.

It’s always kind of funny to me when a simple narrative gets turned on its head to make it more interesting or controversial.  I call that kind of writing “fiction”, and have found that most fiction is a true story bent into a more interesting form.

When screenwriters get into the Bible it never ceases to amaze me how they’ll interfere with the narrative.  Reflecting on all the biblical epics Hollywood has churned out, it gets a little predictable, doesn’t it?

Some version of Charlton Heston will always show up playing the hero, as if he’d just come from the set of a Western, and between soundstage walls, got rid of the gun, the hat, the spurs, pants, vest, etc, and grabbed a bathrobe for his biblical scene.  

I have to admit liking Ben Hur, but I never read the book.  Ben Hur was one of the first movies I ever saw.  My parents were godly people who weren’t sure how they felt about going to see movies.  Like every other evangelically raised person my age, Ben Hur was my gateway drug of movies.  From “Ben Hur”, I went to “Old Yeller”, and from “Old Yeller”, I went to “Mary Poppins”, and eventually wound up in a theater watching “Silence Of The Lambs” with Methuselah / Anthony Hopkins starring as a cannibal.

Don’t even get me started on “Christian” movies, because I have too many friends involved in making them, just like “Christian” music, and I don’t know anyone in either of those worlds that is trying to produce crap.  It’s just that there’s a certain audience that needs to be pampered and pandered to, hence feeding them vanilla ice cream and wonder bread.

Speaking of white, Jesus is always an unbelievably handsome Aryan guy, with the most piercing blue eyes anyone’s ever fallen for.  He’s also usually quite sedated, even when he’s calmly beating the tar out of the moneychangers in the temple.  He calmly gets the nails pounded into his hands and feet, groaning ever so slightly.  I will interject here that Mel Gibson tried to get it right with the torture of Christ, and then took it overboard.  But his Jesus was still a stud, what can you say?  You can’t have Danny DeVito playing our Lord and Savior.

All this just goes to show you that when you open up the Bible, you’ll read it a bit differently than your neighbor.  I know no other book which has so much valuable information for the redemption of humanity, and yet that information can be twisted into the basis for many people’s abhorrent behavior.  Imagination must be balanced with reverence when it comes to reading or even re-writing our holy texts.

My Southern Born Woman’s take on the Old Testament, as Christians call it, is intriguing and creative, and worth consideration.  It’s called “Jezebel’s Got The Blues and Other Works of Imagination”.  Her version of Noah is succinct and funny, narrated by a rat, perhaps the lowest mammal form on the ark.  I don’t mind selling that book here, because it’s a lot closer to the mark than Hollywood.  It’s got more in common with Broadway; no special effects, and no beautiful stars, but funny as Hell.

What to do with these holy stories?  Scripture gives us glimpses of human beings who connect with God in unlikely ways.  I suppose just connecting with God is unlikely, when you think about it, but the models in scripture give me hope that God is trying to connect with us, whether we are screenwriters, boatbuilders, authors, warriors, midwives or even precocious children, God is always whispering to us, calling us to Mercyland.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


When the infamous, sinister minister Fred Phelps of Westboro, Kansas died, I can’t say I mourned his passing any more than I celebrated his existence.  The abusive Bible thumper was of the ilk that used obscure scriptures to preach a message of pure hate; hate for gays in particular, but hate for anyone who was one degree out of line with his preaching.

His followers were mostly family members, and if the sins of the father were ever visited upon the children, the Phelps family lived out that prophesy in spades.  

A few years ago, my Southern Born Woman got a message from Christ Church Cathedral that Fred’s people would be picketing our church, which, like most Episcopal churches, is gay friendly.  We don’t attend very often but we took the message to heart, and thought we’d stand in solidarity with our gay brethren that Sunday.  The message from the Dean of the Cathedral reminded us to avoid engaging in any hostile debate, rather to invite the Westboro folks to attend our service.

We headed downtown to the cathedral, keeping our eyes open for some sign of the usual “God hates fags” and “God hates you” signs that the Phelps group is famous for, but Broadway seemed just as quiet as it always is on Sunday mornings.  The group was nowhere to be seen.  

Later on, we heard that the group had mistakenly gone to another church in Nashville that goes by the name “Christ Church”, a Pentecostal church which, to my knowledge, isn’t LGBT affirming.  I’m sure the folks at Christ Church felt like they must be doing something right with all that protestation.  

I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around hate mongers, no matter what the stripe, but when hatred is done in the name of Jesus, I take it personally.  There are many people who like to use the Bible as their ultimate argument for any number of things, some of them being worthy ideals; pacifism, charity, and personal sacrifice are just a few ideals that are easily backed up by the Bible.  An illogical read of Scripture can be the basis for many crimes of hate, but I fervently believe that a person like Fred Phelps would have to talk himself into the crazy rational that connects hatred and Jesus.  

It just doesn’t add up.  

On the other hand, the story of Redemption is in the air, singing through the trees, whispering through nature, and daring us to believe that we are loved.  Why redemption’s song, that perfect love song, wasn’t on Fred Phelps’ lips is a sad question, but probably answerable in the pathology of his history, found on the fingerprints of whatever insane person raised or abused him.  

But I owe Fred one, I must admit.  

When I decided to make a record called “Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us”, it was Phelps and his Westboro army that influenced me more than anything, in that "Mercyland" was a reaction to the Haters, and I don't know anyone who hates as much as Fred and Co, whose idea seems to be "God is hate", which I still can't find in my Bible.

When I invited the artists who wound up on Mercyland, I merely said that I wanted to do a record based on the idea “What if God is love?”

Emmylou Harris said “yes” before anyone else did, and once she was “in”, just about everyone I asked agreed to be on the project.  I wasn’t looking for artists who identified with the Christian faith, and didn’t think of the project as a “Christian record”, but I did want to gather artists and songs to identify with the idea that humanity might have hope in Something greater than ourselves.

The idea resonated with the great artists who partook, and continues to resonate when the songs from Mercyland are performed.

I wish Fred Phelps could have heard the message of the music he unwittingly inspired, but perhaps he's listening now.

While Mercyland wasn’t a gigantic seller, it did move people, and continues to do so.  In 40 years of being a music maker, I identify Mercyland as being my most important work.  In juxtaposition to the Westboro crowd, I like holding up my sign that says, “God loves you!”.  It’s something I truly believe, no matter who a person is, and no matter what they’ve done.

Everyone’s mother has reminded them, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything”, and I’ll take it a step further.  The only word worth saying or hearing is “Redemption”.

I like to think that Fred knows that to be true now.  May the Westboro army and the rest of us find it to be so.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Lenten Verses

My Southern Born Woman has been distilling her Lenten meditations into a few simple sentences every day, and I have followed her lead on this.   For more information about how she inspires writers (including me), visit

In the midst of 40 days without half and half in my coffee and no Havarti on my burger, I can't exactly say I'm suffering.  Nonetheless, here is the fruit of the first few weeks of Lent 2014.

Lenten sacrifice… trivial gesture, a spoonful of cream, voluntarily offered
How little can I give thee, Lord Jesus?
Spirit, enlarge my heart.

Under the ocean
Waiting the resurrection
A pearl in a shell

Pulling the oars
My back to my destination
Waiting for the skid of arrival
As a swan glides overhead

The body is its own distraction. When the body is in pain, it's trying to call us away from mindfulness and compassion.

The knot in a twisted back finally rubbed out, and Lo how blessed a body is to be able to stand, sit, walk, run, turn, bend. 

Bless the unseen blessings.

There is only one word worth saying or hearing: Redemption.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Brain's Playground

Note to readers- This is a chapter from my upcoming book.  I ended up reading it at Brian Harrison's memorial service a few weeks ago.  Brian AKA "Brain" was somewhat of a Nashville legend in the studio, having worked with many of us here, as well as Shelby Lynne and others.

Brain's Playground

I was sitting in my living room when I got a message from my friend Jim.  

“Are you around?”, he asked.

“Yeah, are you okay?”

“Well, my friend Rick told me his friend Brian had passed away today, and I thought it might be your friend with the same name.”

“Lemme get back to you”, I said, dialing Bryan Owings, my friend of many years and miles.

The relief of hearing Bryan’s voice was dampened with news that we’d lost a good friend, another Brian.  

So as not to confuse Bryan Owings and Brian Harrison, friends shuffled a few letters in Mr Harrison’s name and dubbed him “Brain”.  The nickname stuck.

Brain was beloved in the music scene in Nashville, being a stellar bassist and guitarist, and a great recording engineer and producer.  Brain’s entire house was a recording studio, complete with a 24 track tape machine in his bedroom, guitar amps in his kitchen, a recording console in his living room, keyboards in his dining room, and drums in his garage.  A wry Mississippian with a dark sense of humor, he named his studio “The Rendering Plant”.  I had recorded there quite a bit and loved working in what felt like Brain’s playground, surrounded by paintings of Muddy Waters and Son House, guitars, and vintage microphones.

Brain was likeable, irreverent, and witty; he possessed a slashing sense of humor and a most gracious gift of hospitality.  He had a particular lack of affection for former Vice President Dick Cheney, whom he believed (with many others) to be a war criminal.  It was as if every reason for despair was embodied in the person of Dick Cheney.

“On the day Dick Cheney dies, don’t call me, just show up.  I’ll be throwing the greatest bash Nashville’s ever seen.”  

Now Brain was gone.

Bryan told me that Brain’s computer had been open to a Google search for the phrase “tingling arms”.  

I could hear the aching in his trembling voice.  He choked up.  

“Philly, will you say a prayer?”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, right now.”

In my short prayer, I said that I was sure Brain was in Heaven at that moment complaining that Dick Cheney had outlasted him.  

A discussion ensued about Brain, the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, unless you were Dick Cheney.  Brain’s great capacity for congeniality and generosity offset his often caustic sense of humor.  

I listened as Bryan talked about what a great person Brain was, and how he just wanted to know that Brain was alright in death.  Those of us who believe in Jesus and an afterlife probably understand this uncertainty when someone who doesn’t care about God passes on.  After all, Brain had little use for religion, while he was respectful of his friends who were trying to connect with God.

I believe faith matters in this life.  I am glad I believe in Jesus, glad to have a sense of the Spirit’s presence in my life.  Of course, that Presence often makes Itself known via good people that cross my path, Bryan Owings, for one.  Brain, for another.  It would be ironic that an Atheist can exhibit behavior that reminds me of God’s goodness, except I believe the Creator’s DNA is running through the heart and soul of every creature.

The Story of Redemption is strong medicine.  Jesus died for all sinners, we’re told.  We are also told that God is Love.  

Some of us believe in an afterlife, while others are content that this is all you get.

Most of us probably don’t probably put much thought into these ideas. except when someone we love dies.

Some believe that the behavior of a saint lands you in Heaven, while anything less keeps you out.  I don’t believe that.

I cling to the idea that God is just like any good mother or father calling to beloved children “Come home”.  

My faith causes me to believe that Brain is in God’s presence because God is good.  

I cling to this kind of mercy, the all-loving kind- the kind I need to display more of, and the kind I see repeated in the Story of Redemption.  

The mercy I cling to does not co-exist with judgment; it is illogical, and possibly maddeningly unfair.  To wit, I believe this:  I believe the day is going to come when all of Brain’s friends are going to show up at his old house and party in style, meaning a certain former Vice President will have passed away.  By the time that day comes, Brain will have been so steeped in the love and mercy of Jesus that he’ll probably be the first to welcome an undeserving Dick Cheney through Heaven’s Pearly Gates.

I can use that kind of news.

Phil Madeira