Welcome to Yankee Gospel Girl! You can call me Esther O’Reilly. I’m a freelance writer, film and music critic, occasional film editor, and all-round old soul. These are a few of my favorite things: great art, conservative politics, and stuff that’s been around since before I was born. If you’re a first-time visitor, thanks for reading, and pardon my dust–this little corner of the web has been many disparate things for me over the years! Check out my “About” page, and follow me on FaceBook or Twitter. You can also find some of my artistic experiments in film editing on YouTube, read my social commentary at conservative daily The Stream , or read my film criticism at the group blog More Than One Lesson. Or if you care to stick around this space a while, feel free to browse around in the filing cabinets for more musings on music, movies, faith and culture, and old stuff. And if you find something I wrote seven years ago that offends you… I’m sorry. By which I mean I’m not sorry.
[Note: I have forayed into the world of Jordan Peterson think-pieces once before, here, but his work and the cultural phenomenon in his wake deserve more careful attention than a think-piece can capture. I hope to share more thoughts on it in this space. I encourage other Christians to engage him with the vigor, generosity and candor he deserves, between the Scylla of fawning admiration and the Charybdis of paranoid dismissal. Such opportunities and such men come perhaps once in a generation. Pass it by if you choose. It will be your loss. Herewith, my personal message to the man himself, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson.]
Dear Dr. Peterson,
I hope this letter finds you well. Many people would bristle at being told their names are remembered in prayer. I trust you are not one of them. So I trust it is some comfort to know that wherever your steps may turn, the prayers of righteous men follow after.
Once upon a time, there was a poet who knew too much. Perhaps, when you were a younger man, you would have recognized him as a kindred spirit. Like him, you found yourself “sitting on catastrophe’s knee…expecting Armageddon to come.” Like him, you woke from your dream in a sweat, with the knowledge of evil and good.
For you, it was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. For me, it was Whittaker Chambers. You sent me digging through my journals to find the entry where I analyzed my first encounter with Witness. I pick this out, in an 11-year-old’s labored, loopy cursive: “From it…I can draw several conclusions. One, man is involved in a terrible struggle in which he may either conquer, or be conquered, the struggle of his soul. There are only two options.”
Already, I had grasped what Terry Malloy puts far more succinctly: “Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”
Today, inasmuch as I speak for the Church, I send you her best regards and honest thanks for those souls who once struggled beyond our reach. It’s a curious thing, how you have carried broken men to our doorstep. I don’t pretend to understand it. Yet here they are. And here you are. So, from one humanist to another: Hail, and well met. Will you not stay? The fire is warm, and we have much to discuss.
You have, as I think, something to offer us, some three decades in the making. Something you believe we might need more than we know. How does the story go? Tell me if I’ve got it right: First, there was Christianity. Then, there was empirical science. That was when the foundation began to shake. But we would not believe it. Upon this shifting rock we stood, we could do no other. For if it should crumble, what would become of the moral edifice constructed thereon?
But you come to praise Christianity, not to bury it. And you come to assure us that we need not fear. For though the foundation should crumble, you offer us a new vision, a new lens through which we might look and see that the edifice, improbably, stands.
I applaud the valiance of your labors. I acknowledge the spirit of good will in which this offer is made, even as I must decline it. Still, as Pascal put it, you make good men wish Christianity were true. That is no small thing.
You say you are a religious man, but you are also a man of science. As such, you ask what many men like yourself have asked before you: How shall the twain meet? How could the assertion that man ascended from primordial slime be anything but brute fact, you wonder?
I realize you move in circles where the word “creationist” cannot be uttered unless it drips contempt in the uttering. I realize I cannot blame you for thinking that Ken Ham is all “creationists,” and all “creationists” are Ken Ham. When once a word has been stolen, perhaps it is too late to steal it back. But let us, for a moment, be precise in our speech: If by “creationist” we mean “one who willingly entertains the possibility of a Creator” (however long He took about the matter, for our purposes let us say it matters not) then you might be pleasantly surprised to meet a few real men of science who have pitched camp outside the echo chamber—men like David Berlinski, or Steve Meyer, or Douglas Axe. Perhaps you would discover some kindred spirits. Perhaps they know something you don’t know.
Meanwhile, we can begin at a closer point in space-time: the strange case of Jesus of Nazareth. On the fact of his existence, you once said there is “debate.” I suppose this is true, in the same sense that there is “debate” on the fact of the Holocaust. We have the man, all right. But what shall we do with him? And who do we say that he is?
You will recall that insistently mundane line in the middle of the creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The French doctor Paul Louis-Couchoud was known to say in snide fashion that “All the Creed is true, except under Pontius Pilate.” I must demur: While no line of the creed has lesser value, certainly none has greater.
Ecce homo. Who do you say that he is? You are an honest man, so you will tell me that you do not know. He is all we should be, and are not. He is the one to whom kings bow down in your dreams. Beyond this, who can say?
When he returned to Jerusalem after escaping from his enemies, knowing he was a marked man, they say you could have heard his doubting disciple rally the others in wry fashion: “Let us also go that we may die with him.” Let’s all pick up our crosses and walk up the God-damned hill then, for Christ’s sake.
And when the shepherd had returned to his scattered sheep, like that disciple you too could have protested when you heard it, not daring to hope, demanding the proof. They say you too could have seen it with your eyes, felt the spear wound with your hand. They say you too could have believed.
I challenge you to consider that the men who bore this record, this witness, were telling the truth—or at least, not lying. It may take three years, as you say. Perhaps that’s not so very long to an honest man, a man who likes a challenge. So seek on. Seek that place where the mind’s deepest understanding touches the heart’s deepest longing. Seek that place where faith and reason are parted no more, but walk hand in hand in the cool of the day.
Seek on. But understand what you are seeking. Once you have allowed the divine foot in the door, it is not so easy to bid the rest of the divine wait politely outside.
You ask, what do I mean by divine? And who am I to say you and the divine do not already have an understanding? True, you have no creed. But what good is a creed mouthed on Sunday and forgotten on Monday? What good is a word with no action suited to it? By this they will know you: That you live not by lies. That you keep your vows. That you rise and weep for the city, and when you have washed your face, you bear up under the heaviest load you can and journey on, a little farther up the hill.
Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and Jordan Peterson go free?
What more does God require? What more, indeed?
Only you can say what you mean by “God.” But I can tell you what I mean, and how I act: I act as if He loved me before the foundations of the world were laid. I act as if my sin has crucified Him. I act as if He loves me still.
Worship, for the only One worthy of it. Love, for Him and for that which He loves. Gratitude, manifested in obedience by word and deed. These things has my God required, who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven—infinite become finite, ineffable become empirical.
These things has He required, He who saw the crowd and saw five thousand lonely souls. He who looked at the rich man and loved him. He who told the Samaritan woman all she ever did. He who said to the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and to that same man, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.”
Which is easier to say? Which is easier to say?
He that has ears to hear, let him hear the One who called Lazarus from the grave. Let him hear the One who mourned with those who mourned.
And the Word was made flesh. And the Word laughed. And the Word wept.
I see a man who lost two brothers too young. I see him clinging to his wife as they ease the second brother down, crying openly, “Carl’s gone! He’s gone, and I don’t know where he went!”
Where has Carl gone? Where have the boys of summer gone?
I see a man who lost four daughters in the ocean. I see him crossing the Atlantic to fetch home his wife, saved alone. I see him standing on the deck, passing over the place where the ship went down, words rising in his mind: “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,/The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;/The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,/Even so, it is well with my soul.”
I see a man in Hell, the Hell of his nightly dreams, where he is dragged down screaming by demons. I see him awake and clutching the pen that will preserve a lucid moment: “When this poor, lisping, stamm’ring tongue/Lies silent in the grave/Then in a nobler, sweeter song/I’ll sing Thy power to save.”
I see a woman who sees more than I, though she is blind and nearly deaf, her face ravaged by a cancerous sore. I see her sit in dark solitude for twenty-five years, her only company those tired of living and scared of dying. I hear a visitor ask her what she thinks about, and I hear a clear answer, from a clear mind: “I think about my Jesus. He’s been awfully good to me, you know.”
And Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
There’s some utility in that.
Let us see one more shadow. Let us see the shy woman with a dog. You remember her, of course. Like one from whom men hide their face, she was despised, and they esteemed her not. You remember her: curvatus in se in body, but not in spirit. You weren’t the first person she had asked about whether she and her dog might take some wretched asylum inmate for a walk, beyond the gates of abandoned hope. You weren’t the right person to ask either. But you were all the same to her.
Perhaps there was something that whispered in your ear when you saw her, when you smelled her unwashed scent. Something or someone, taunting and tempting: “Look at her! Look at this woman who cannot look at you. What do you see?” Perhaps, from the depths of your immortal soul, you gave reply: “The image of Christ! What did you expect me to see?”
You remember her. You will never forget her. Neither will I.
At the end of your mourning, I wish for you a morning. I wish for you a sunrise fringed with fire, like the sunrise that broke upon an empty tomb, the grave clothes folded within, the woman weeping without. I wish for you the company of a strange gardener, with a strange accent, speaking a single, familiar word.
May you hear the Voice of this calling. May you feel the drawing of this Love, this Love that will not leave you, but prevents you everywhere.
The evening falls fast. Will you not stay?
In which I continue the process of spotlighting the 20 songs of Rich Mullins that I think are the most enduring, the most memorable, the “desert island” collection I would hand to someone who was hearing his music for the first time. (But not without a long list of honorable mentions.)
One of the things that impresses me most about the work of Rich Mullins in hindsight is its versatility. He could write classically cheesy 80s pop/rock in the vein of Mr. Mister or Toto. He could write dreamy, Carpenters-style ballads. He could write pop classical take-offs and piano-abusing growlers a la Billy Joel. Here you might interject that you don’t really need that kind of versatility in your life and give him a pass. But that would be a shame, because you’d be missing his nitty-gritty bluegrass, his Springsteenian soul, his country twang, his smart taste in folk covers new and old, and his Dylan-and-Simon-esque treks across the American landscape. And worst of all, you’d miss his unique, sometimes purely instrumental touch on instruments you’d never heard of, like hammered and lap dulcimer (and the inexplicable way he turned such instruments into the stuff of #1 singles).
Part 2 of our countdown continues to showcase that versatility across my hand-picked selection of tunes. Part 1 already included a number of favorites, but I’ve kept what I feel are some of the very best for second.
For those who are interested, I have written some thoughts on the life and legacy of Christian musician, writer, wise guy and unofficial saint Rich Mullins at The Stream here. As I write this late at night, it was twenty years ago this night that his life abruptly ended in a car crash. Later, it came out that neither he nor his passenger was wearing a seatbelt–a boneheaded thing, but as those who knew him could have told you, it was typical of Rich’s particular brand of boneheadedness. Most of the time, it just made him a little weird and iconoclastic. This time, it cost him his life. A lot of people he touched are pretty sore about that, including me.
Anyway, there was a time when you couldn’t browse a Christian magazine stand or turn on Christian radio without hearing the music of Rich Mullins. With the state of the CCM industry today, his success feels, in hindsight, like a dream–a weird, miraculous dream, the kind you have once and never have again. (More analysis here, for music and music biz nerds only.) Nevertheless, it has been twenty years, and that dream is fading from the collective consciousness of the American church. The worship choruses and songs Mullins wrote (partly in collaboration with friends) were the fabric of a childhood that I’m forced to admit is long gone. I doubt this would shock him. He was a canny guy, and he understood music business. He predicted exactly when his first smash, “Awesome God,” would be a smash. He also predicted when it would fall completely out of use. That’s part of why people love him: He was a no B. S. kind of guy. He knew exactly who he was and never pretended to be anything else.
I remember when I first discovered Rich Mullins. I was in high school, and I was browsing an old shelf filled with books, CDs, dry pens and cobwebs. My dad had a small collection of discs that he’d bought but didn’t have time to listen to anymore. One of them was Songs, by Rich Mullins. At the time, I had a portable SONY CD player. I pulled it out the other day. It needs new batteries. It sits on my desk now as I write. When I slipped that CD into that player, the first notes to come out were Rich’s spin on Bach’s Fugue #2 in C minor (sadly, transposed to a different key). I was hooked.
The next song was the one and only “Awesome God,” that legendarily cringe-worthy chorus at which my generation winces whenever it floats to the surface of our memory. Some ear-worms die hard. But the verses had always been fuzzy, and I heard them as if for the first time. Those verses, man. So weird. So cool. I find them even more so when I read that they came out of Rich in a spontaneous moment of improv while taking 16 hours to drag a trailer up a hill for a gig that was 8 hours away. He was bored and tired, his buddy was bored and tired, so what do you do when you’re bored and tired? If you’re Rich Mullins, and hence a little weird, you make like you’re an old black gospel preacher and start riffing. You take the Old and New Testaments and make a gumbo out of them. Out of that, you manage to pluck out an insanely hooky chorus. Then you try to remember it all for 16 hours until you can get to a piano and record a crappy demo. Then you hit stop, look up at your buddy and go, very quietly, “I think it’s gonna be big.”
In which we discuss the inter-locking timelines, emotional investment, casting, Nolan worship, Christian humanism, and the awesomeness that is the name Hoyte van Hoytema.
I know. It’s been a while. Okay, it’s been all summer. We missed Wonder-Woman because to be honest Little Sis is a bit more invested in guy superheroes, and we missed Spiderman Homecoming because to be honest I got home and realized I didn’t have a whole lot to say about it. So now, for something completely different… our thoughts on Dunkirk. Her first viewing, my second. She has never seen a Christopher Nolan movie before. All her thoughts are her own. We hope you enjoy.
[Update: Read Part 2 here.]
The Two Sisters are baaaaaack! We saw Guardians: Volume 2, and we’re here to tell you exactly what we thought about it. In the spirit of Drax, we will hold absolutely nothing back as we answer all your questions (Is it as good as Volume 1? Is it weirder than Volume 1? Who is Peter Quill’s dad anyway? Who’s the best new character, and why is it Baby Groot? Is there anything important parents should know about?) and contemplate related topics, including but not limited to: the gift of mortality, the redemption of scuzz-balls, the power of musical nostalgia, and how Marvel patiently continues to lay the groundwork for the Infinity War finale.
If you’re new to this series, be advised that this is really less of a proper “review” and more of a stream-of-consciousness deep dive, hence insert spoiler warning here. Proceed at your own peril.
Once upon a time, I gave you my top five underrated love songs (at the time). Once upon another time, I gave you my top five love songs (at the time). Notice a pattern? Like most “top 5/10/20 things” lists, my list of love songs is a many-splendoured, ever-changing thing. Certainly, I would keep some things, but not all, and others I would now add without a second thought.
Herewith, my top ten love songs. A few ground rules: no breakup songs. No Bryan Adams. No Air Supply. No Richard Marx (Dad, can you forgive me?) No Bette Midler. No Kenny Rogers. And no Lionel Richie. Absolutely no. Decidedly no. Uh-uh. Also, my mom will kill me if I put “Just the Way You Are” on here even though I kinda like that one. (Don’t tell anyone, I prefer we keep this between us.)
All right, now that we’ve got that out of the way, herewith, My Top Ten Love Songs As Of Right Now, c. Midnight on Valentine’s Day, 2017.
Wikimedia Commons/public domain
Many have commented that 2016 was thicker than usual in celebrity deaths. But some of those deaths have felt crueler and more poignant than others. (I for one couldn’t care less whether Prince lived or died. Sue me.) The comparatively young death of Carrie Fisher has come as a particularly sad shock to cap the year off. Tributes from various friends and associates have poured in, all emphasizing her sharp wit, humor, and honesty. It’s struck me that Fisher’s distinct un-sappiness as a person has rendered this outpouring less syrupy than the usual “dead celebrity tributes” fare. She was a complicated personality with lots of hard edges and dark corners, and she spoke about those hard, dark parts of herself with disarming candor.
Some fans are just now learning that Carrie Fisher was married: once only, to rock legend Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel fame. Their stormy, whirlwind romance gets extensive treatment in Peter Ames Carlin’s new Simon bio Homeward Bound, from which some pertinent excerpts are provided here. It’s painfully sad reading. Carlin paints a vivid picture of two people who had extraordinary sympatico, yet were so deeply dysfunctional that neither one could handle the other’s pain. They shared a fierce intelligence and a melancholy bent that inevitably drew them together. There are stories of titanic fights between them that would dissolve all of a sudden because they began to laugh helplessly at each other and themselves.
However, there’s no denying that their marriage was spectacularly ill-advised. Fisher’s bipolar disorder and drug abuse weren’t things that could be pushed under the rug. They were an ever-present ball and chain. Coupled with Simon’s own ongoing depression, and topped off by a tragic miscarriage, they inexorably dragged the marriage down to its doom, a mere year later. Interestingly, it was Fisher, not Simon, who made the final decision to cut it short, no doubt believing it was best for both of them.
As is typical with such things, this wasn’t the end of the story. Simon and Fisher maintained an on-again, off-again relationship for a number of years thereafter, before Fisher once again decided to break it off for good.
Musically, some of Simon’s best work came out of this relationship, most famously the song “Graceland.” Fisher is the “she” who “comes back to tell me she’s gone, as if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed.” However, Simon wrote another song about their relationship that slipped through the cracks at the time: the title track for a flop project called Hearts and Bones, which has been revived as something of a cult classic in recent years. While the stature of “Graceland” is undeniable, and the track understandably more ear-catching, “Hearts and Bones” is, for my money, the deeper and more poignant lyric of the two. It traces “the arc of a love affair” between “one and one half wandering Jews” (Fisher was half-Jewish), from marriage to divorce. One might mistakenly think it was written in the wake of their separation, but eerily, it was actually written on the cusp of their marriage.
This year, one of my all-time favorite films turned 70. It’s a Wonderful Life has rightly earned its place as an American classic and one of Jimmy Stewart’s best roles. It gives the lie to anyone who tries to paint old Hollywood in broad, simplistic strokes, by presenting us with a likable hero who catches one bad break after another and eventually has to be pulled from the brink of suicide.
Over at The Stream, I paid tribute to the film by dusting off a film project I’ve featured here before, which combines the movie with Andrew Peterson’s song “World Traveler.” George’s story has so many layers of meaning, so many resonances, chief among them the resonance of home. In this article, I weave George’s story and the story Andrew tells in his song with some personal reflections of my own. I hope it cheers somebody this Christmas Eve. A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
[Edit: A year later I touched up and tightened this project, and I am pleased to present that version here now.]
Is Rogue One really the first Star Wars movie to realize it’s about war? Why is Darth Vader suddenly making bad puns? What’s CGI [SPOILERS] doing in here? Can we talk about Jyssio for just a minute? And the 64k question: Did we NEED Rogue One? Welcome to Part 2 of our deep dive! And, as with Part I, SPOILER WARNING. If you have not yet seen the movie, bookmark this and come back when you have!