Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Standing in the Light


In the Orthodox Church, we speak a lot about "light."  We refer to those received into the Church as having been "illumined" in baptism and/or chrismation.  We sing about the "Gladsome Light" during the Vespers service.  During the Presanctified Liturgy during Great Lent the priest intones "the light of Christ illumines all," and at Pascha we sing "come ye, take light, that is never overtaken by night, glorify the Christ, risen from the dead."  Monastics speak a lot about the "uncreated light," which we and they long to experience.

The significance of this light is sometimes misunderstood, both within and without the Church.  When we stand in the light of Christ, we are illumined, this is true.  But what does that illumination achieve?  Why is it that the saints, on their deathbeds, so often pray for more time to repent.  And like the goats, their faithful followers ask "what do you have to repent of?"  And the saints so often respond, "I have not yet begun to repent."  Why do those closest to God become so utterly aware of their own unworthiness and frailty, and seemingly unaware of their own glorification?

I would submit that it is because when we say "the light of Christ illumines all," as a dear friend once said, we begin to see ourselves for who we really are.  That is, the light of Christ illumines us in the same way we are illumined in His eyes.  We see all of the things we hide away from the world.  We see how very dark and sinful we really are.  And it is because of that illumination that we can begin to heal, as He would have us healed.  Remembrance of sin is prolific in the Fathers.  St. John Climacus devotes large portions of The Ladder to discussing it.  The Prayer of St. Ephraim, which we pray at pretty much every Lenten service, is along these lines as well.  "Grant me to see my own sin, and not to judge my brother . . . ."  This is not to say that we should sulk around mourning our sins all the time and be joyless self-scolds or, worse, bask in a prideful false humility.  It is to say that a proper Orthodox outlook on standing in the light of Christ is one of mortification, not glorification.  We are not to bathe in this light as if it speaks anything good of us.  Rather, we are to show it forth as we see our own sin clearly and learn to show humility and deference and temperance and forgiveness toward all others, who are sinners, yes, but no worse than we are.  The light does not belong to us.  It is not of us.  It is ours only in the sense it is given to us by Him in Whose possession it properly resides.  And so we have no right to claim it as ours, and pridefully stand in it as if we have no sin.

We fail at this, obviously.  Yet we struggle, because in the end, to stand in the light means being willing to face our own iniquities and renounce our own pride and embrace the virtues of selflessness, humility and meekness.  Being illumined is not being set above.  It is, in a very real sense, becoming truly self-aware, truly human, and learning slowly to take on the light of Him Who gives it, and in that way, learning to view humanity as He does, with perfect love, submission, and self-sacrifice.  The light does not show us forth as we would like to be seen.  It shows us forth as we really are.  That we might see our own sin and not judge our brother.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Encountering God


I've had a lot of thoughts lately about Orthodox distinctives, and what qualifies as such, and what such distinctives are foundationally Orthodox versus what distinctives qualify more as theologoumena or pious opinion.  And in terms of Orthodox distinctives, I think one that escapes most people, including certain Orthodox Christians, is the idea that in Orthodox Christianity, we are not merely trying to do the right things to get reward or avoid punishment.  Rather, the point of the Orthodox Christian life is to encounter God.

I suppose in some sense every Christian could say this.  After all, if you believe God forgives your transgressions for the sake of His Son, and this is the goal of the Christian life, to receive that forgiveness, in a sense you have "encountered God."  And obviously, more sacramental communions (Lutherans, Anglicans and, obviously, Catholics) have a more tangible understanding of encountering God, even if all they believe they receive from the sacraments is forgiveness through some direct or indirect connection with God.  But that is not what we mean in the Orthodox Church. 

As Orthodox Christians, when we receive any sacrament, and in fact in the Sacramental Life (which is not limited to a strict numbering of sacraments), we believe God works in and through us.  For the Orthodox Christian, grace is not, as some of our Protestant friends suggest, merely "God's unmerited favor." Part of this is, for us, merit doesn't really enter into the equation formally.  Rather, for us, grace is the operation of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. We receive this first and foremost in our baptism, then we receive the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit in chrismation, then we receive God's Divine Energies through His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is the central act of the Christian Church for this reason -- it is the Sacrament to which the others point.  We are baptized so that we might be chrismated, and chrismated so that we might commune.  We are married so that we might receive the Eucharist together, strengthening the bonds of love between us.  We are ordained so that we might assist in serving or even ourselves serve the Eucharist.  We are given repentance that we might return to the Eucharist.  And we are given Holy Unction that we might be restored to full bodily and spiritual health, that we might receive the Eucharist to the greatest benefit.  This is the point of the Christian life.  All else leads us to this moment where we receive Christ's own immaculate Body, and His own precious Blood.  This encounter with God is tangible.  It is real.  And it is powerful.

This is why mere Christian ideologies are so vapid and empty.  What we believe about God is not nearly as important as how we encounter Him.  That is not to say what we believe about God is unimportant.  Only that our beliefs about God ought to point us to union with Christ, Who is God for us.  God with us.  God in us.  Belief about God that does not lead to an encounter with God is a belief that cannot save.  The Orthodox Church is not an ideology, or a set of beliefs about the Holy Trinity.  The Orthodox Church is a pathway to encounter the Holy Trinity.  More, belief in an intellectual sense does not really capture what the Church means by "faith."  Faith, in a Christian sense, is more akin to trust, as a child trusts his parent.  It is not merely saying the words, or even believing them truly, really in your heart.  Rather, it is clinging to the object of faith.  Faith is not something we do, or even something we try to attain.  Faith is something we live by, trusting in the Creator, the promise-giver, the life-giver.  This is true even when our faith is shaken.  As I've said here before, I don't trust me.  I trust Christ.

This is why efforts to narrow the Orthodox faith to a particular set of beliefs, especially in those areas where the Church has not dogmatized those beliefs, is doomed to fail. It isn't just that those beliefs are not exclusive or required or dogmatized.  It's that belief itself is not salvific.  Faith is, but belief is not.  What you believe cannot save you.  But trusting in the One Who saves?  That is where salvation lies.  And while this trust requires a certain set of beliefs, that requirement is not found in the particularities of Orthodox little "t" tradition.  It is found in the Scriptures and the Ecumenical Councils and the big "T" Holy Tradition of the Church, and not beyond those.  

This is not to say that pious opinions are invalid or improper.  It is only to say they are no more than what the word suggests -- opinions.  Orthodox Christians are free to believe them or reject them.  Orthodoxy is not found in the tightening of the noose around the neck of believers.  The faith is not a yoke.  The Orthodox faith is trusting in the One Who removes the yoke, freeing us from all worldly opinion and imprisonment.  Belief doesn't save.  Christ does.  We believe in Him, not in our own believing.  And we believe in Him, that we might encounter Him.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Fear and Self-Righteousness

Something occurred to me today while having lunch with a friend.  Christian rigorists tend to have two things in common.  First, a desire to be set apart from others, which inevitably tends to lead to self-righteousness.  Second, operating predominately from a position of fear.  

As to the first of these observations, at least in my own experience, those who embrace theological rigorism tend to have a very inflated view of their own group, at least those who are sufficiently rigorist as they are, and a very low view of those outside their group, and often even those within their group who they view as insufficiently serious or devoted or correct.  It seems to me that this stems from a Pharisaical desire for certainty, which will be discussed more below, and the remedy for this desire is to ensure that one's self is set apart, distinguished, separated from those for whom such certainty is absent.  This, it seems to me, has the commensurate effect of leading the rigorist to believe he is more righteous than he really is.  The desire to define Orthodoxy not by what we believe, nor even apophatically by what we cannot know, but predominately in opposition to others we deem to be inadequate, ends up putting us in the place of judgement over our brother's perceived failings.  And as we know, judgment stems from pride, and pride is mother of all the passions.  So rather than ending up in a place that authentically satisfies the rigorist's desire for certainty, we end up in a place that has us committing the greater sin in order to separate ourselves from those who would never judge us in return.  Such self-righteousness damages not only our neighbor and the Church, it also damages us.

As to the second observation, it seems to me that this desire for certainty stems from a position of fear before God.  Not the healthy fear of God that every Christian should have, but rather a fear-centered Christian life that results from a misunderstanding of Who God is and how God relates to His creation.  The Pharisees were not unholy people, at least to the extent externals allow one to claim to be holy.  The Pharisees, to the contrary, were the most holy people in terms of law keeping and rule keeping.  The Pharisees did not simply build a fence, but like Eve in the Garden, built a fence around the fence.  They were not satisfied with "do not eat of the fruit."  No, they had to go a step further -- "do not eat of the fruit, nor touch it."  In this way, their fear of punishment was allayed by the certainty that they had kept the rules, because the rules they kept were stricter than those God had given them.  Our Lord had harsh words for them.  They kept the Law, often perfectly, as far as anyone observing could tell.  But God said "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."  And thus they did not keep the Law in their hearts.  Instead, they wielded the Law as a sword against their neighbor, and even against their Savior.

This approach does not produce mature Christians.  If I tell you you must do this thing or else, then you will do only the minimum required to assuage me and no more.  That is, you will do only that which is needed to get "past the post" and avoid the punishment.  Even if the rules are made by setting fences around fences, as the Pharisees did, you still will not do more than required to stay on the correct side of the second fence.  Because your goal is not to seek the good, but rather to avoid the punishment.  As a former pastor once told me, "those who live by the Law are always looking for loopholes."  This is not a proper Christian outlook toward God.  God does not desire us to obey rules to avoid punishment.  He does not desire to punish us at all.  God desires that we enter into His life, encounter Him, and find Him in our neighbor.  That is not to say rules are unimportant, or canons ought to be disregarded, or that prayer and fasting disciplines are bad in and of themselves.  None of those things is true. Rather, we keep the Law because it is good for us to do so.  We forgive because it is good for us.  We pray and fast because those things are good for us.  We follow the canons because the Church has put them in place for our benefit. But that obedience, that desire to do good and follow the rules, must come first from a place of love and trust in the One Who gave them to us to begin with.  We obey because He is good, and just, and merciful, as the Psalmist said, "I follow the thing that good is."  We love because He first loved us.

The Christian lives to encounter God.  God is not found in fear and despair, nor in self-glorification and self-righteousness.  God is found first and foremost on the cross, and through the cross, we find God in our neighbor and our selves.  And so we pray not because we fear God will abandon us if we do not, but rather because we desire to encounter Him.  We fast and attend services and do good not to avoid His punishment, but to live in His glory.  God forgives.  He does not need us to keep His rules for His benefit.  We need to keep them simply because they are good.  Not because the end is worth the means, but because the means are an end in themselves.  

Friday, January 6, 2023

Holy Theophany


Holy Theophany is a celebration somewhat unique to the Eastern Church.  Some Western churches do celebrate it in conjunction with Epiphany (also on January 6), but others do not.  The distinction among us comes from the emphasis placed on the baptism of our Lord.

Epiphany is a Greek word meaning "to manifest" or "to appear."  Usually, in the Western traditions, it celebrates the visitation of the Magi in addition to the baptism of Christ.  In the East, however, it is bound up in Christ's baptism, which is why it is called "Theophany," meaning "appearance of God."  

At Christ's baptism, the first earthly manifestation of the entire Trinity was revealed.  As the Troparion of Theophany tells us:

O Christ our God, when Thou was baptized in the river Jordan

Worship of the Trinity was revealed

For the voice of the Father came forth to testify and name Thee His beloved Son

And the Spirit in the form of a dove, confirmed the truth of His Word

Wherefore, O Thou Who didst appear, and didst enlighten the world, Glory to Thee

The baptism of Christ has deep meaning for Christians.  First, He bowed His head to receive from John the Forerunner, His unworthy servant, the baptism of remission of sins.  Christ took on our sin so that we might take on His righteousness.  Second, in doing so, He cleansed the waters, calling down the Holy Spirit and hearing the voice of the Father "this is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased."  Third, He changes the water from a mere washing of dirt from the flesh, into a baptism of rebirth and regeneration, as St. Peter tells us.  

This is not to say that Jesus became "a sinner," but rather, as St. Paul says, the Father "made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."  That is, Christ in entering the waters meant for our cleansing, cleansed the water Himself, taking on the form of a servant, that in entering the same water in baptism, we too might live in His righteousness.  Baptism saves us not by mere symbolism or some transactional occurrence, but by the power of the Holy Spirit granted to us in baptism and chrismation, changing us as He changed the water.  This is why the water that is blessed at Theophany is reserved -- set aside -- for our use as Christians.  It is, truly, holy water.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

"That baby boy was circumcised..."

Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord
The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ

January 1 has the Church celebrating the circumcision of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, along with the feast of St. Basil.  I had the good fortune of celebrating both in a parish that claims St. Basil as its patron.  What moves me to write this however, is a comment a dear friend, Emily, made years back about the circumcision of our Lord in connection to the oft-repeated claim, "God is neither male nor female -- God is spirit."

Obviously, God the Father is a spirit, and yet the Church, following our Lord, His Son, calls Him "Father."  Obviously, the Holy Spirit is, as the name suggests, spirit as well.  Both are incorporeal.  Both lack human sexual genetics.  Both could as easily be called by any number of self-chosen pronouns in fashion these days.

And yet our Lord became incarnate as a man.  And not "man" in the generic sense used in the Creed, but as a male human.  How do we know this?  Because, as Emily wisely noted, "that baby boy was circumcised."

Granted, we do not want to get into the weeds of looking up God's skirts.  That is, we do not want to make too much of anthropomorphisms.  It's why we're careful about ascribing words like "anger" to God, and even why we suggest God is not merely love, but is in fact beyond love.  We cannot fathom God's existence, because He is divine and we are created and contingent.  

And yet in the case of Jesus Christ, we know He is male.  He was born that way.  In the parlance of the day He identified that way.  And no small detail -- that baby boy was circumcised.

There is, of course, a sense in which this doesn't matter much.  There is no ontological reason why Christ being born as a man impacts our salvation any more than if He had been born a woman.  But the mystery of the incarnation is that He was born at all.  In order to save us, He entered into our human frailty and sanctified it with His divine presence.  More, in order to fulfill the Law, He entered into the Law fully, submitting Himself not only to the moral commands of God, but even to circumcision, the entrance into the Jewish religion.  That circumcision is fulfilled, as we will soon celebrate at Theophany, in the Baptism of our Lord.  So it matters first and foremost as a matter of historical fact, and secondarily as a matter of proper fulfillment and keeping of the Law.  

The other thing notable about Jesus being born a man is that we do not stop there.  Jesus was born of a woman.  And not just any woman, but the Theotokos, the Mother of God.  We hold her as the greatest saint in all of the Church.  We reverence her and fervently request her intercessions before the Throne of God.  It is often said (typically by Protestants) that the Orthodox pay "too much attention" to Mary.  My own observation, having been an Orthodox Christian for 12 years and counting now, is this perception exists because most Protestants pay almost no attention to Mary beyond the recitation of the Nativity story and perhaps the Wedding at Cana.  So when attending an Orthodox liturgy, perhaps it seems she is all we talk about. The truth is, she is only referenced very occasionally, in the litanies and at the dismissal, as well as in a handful of hymns.  But I would also argue it is this emphasis on the Mother of our Lord that gives balance to the maleness of God, particularly in the Person of His Son.  Because in a very real way, the Incarnation points not merely to the sanctification of Jesus' flesh, but also to His mother's flesh, and through Him (and her), ours.  He enters our flesh and makes it holy with His presence.  He entered her womb and made it (and her) holy with His presence.  And He gives us His flesh and blood to make us holy with His presence as well.

It is fashionable of late to discuss what is inaccurately called "gender" as no more than a social construct.  The Christian Church has never spoken this way, and never will.  Jesus was true man, born of a woman.  That baby boy was circumcised.  And thanks be to God, for in His circumcision, we find the first steps of our own salvation.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

God is Merciful


Such a simple truth.  A truism even.  But today as we approach the Nativity, it weighs particularly heavy on me how great a truth it is.

I think two passages of Scripture put things in their proper place:

"We love because He first loved us." 1 John 4:19

"In this manner, therefore, pray:  Our Father in heaven . . ." Matthew 6:9

God is our Father.  We -- men and women -- are sons of the Father.  What this means is our faith -- which is properly understood not as mere belief, but as trust -- flows not from our obedience, or our fear, or our desire to avoid punishment, but from our love of God.  And that love is only rightly expressed as a return of His love to us.  Anything less and it is not true love.  We love God in the same way a child loves his father.  Not because he fears his father's wrath or punishment, but precisely because when that child was at his lowest, his weakest, his most helpless, his father took him in his loving arms and cared for him.  A father sacrifices his own comfort and happiness to see his children thrive.

This Nativity season, we remember when God sent His only begotten Son to us.  Not so we might avoid punishment, but so that we might live.  This is how we rightly understand our obligations as Christians.  It is why we love our neighbor, it is why we are obedient to bishops and priests and parents and earthly authorities.  It is why we avoid sin, go to confession, attend the services of the Church, and pray often. Not because God needs us to do it in order to save us, but because it is good for us, and God loves us and wants us to be healthy and whole.

Too often, Christians find themselves mired in a moralistic, legalistic pseudo-Christian faith where God is the judge and we are the accused, and therefore the basis of our obedience, faith and law keeping is to avoid punishment.  But the Scriptures do not speak this way.  God does not accuse us.  Satan does.  "Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, 'Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down.'"  Revelation 12:10.  And while certainly there is a Patristic thread that indicates we ought to self-accuse in order to see our own sin, for example, St. John Chrysostom's Three Homilies on the Devil, we also see in that same Patristic thread the notion that accusing others is of the devil:

For that ye partake of the divine oracles insatiably, that day particularly showed: whereon I discoursed about the unlawfulness of speaking ill one of another, when I furnished you with a sure subject for self accusation, suggesting that you should speak ill of your own sins, but should not busy yourselves about those of other people: when I brought forward the Saints as accusing themselves indeed, but sparing others: Paul saying I am the chief of sinners, and that God had compassion on him who was a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious, and calling himself one born out of due time, and not even thinking himself worthy of the title of Apostle: Peter saying Depart from me because I am a sinful man: Matthew styling himself a publican even in the days of his Apostleship: David crying out and saying My iniquities have gone over my head, and as a heavy burden have been burdensome to me: and Isaiah lamenting and bewailing I am unclean, and have unclean lips: The three children in the furnace of fire, confessing and saying that they have sinned and transgressed, and have not kept the commandments of God. Daniel again makes the same lamentation. When after the enumeration of these Saints, I called their accusers flies, and introduced the right reason for the comparison, saying, that just as they fasten themselves upon the wounds of others, so also the accusers bite at other people's sins, collecting disease therefrom for their acquaintance, and those who do the opposite, I designated bees, not gathering together diseases, but building honeycombs with the greatest devotion, and so flying to the meadow of the virtue of the Saint: Then accordingly—then ye showed your insatiable longing.

When I first visited an Orthodox Church, the thing that struck me most was the line from the dismissal that is the title of this blog.  The entire dismissal is:

May he who rose again from the dead, Christ our true God, through the intercessions of His all-immaculate and all-blameless holy Mother; by the might of the precious and life-giving cross; by the protection of the honorable bodiless powers of heaven; at the supplication of the honorable, glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John; of the holy, glorious and all-laudable apostles; of our father among the saints, John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople; of the holy, glorious and right-victorious martyrs; of our venerable and God-bearing fathers; of (saint to whom the temple is dedicated); of the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna; of the (saint(s) of the day) and of all the saints: have mercy on us, and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind.
As we approach the Divine Nativity of Our Lord, let us remember that the Father sent His only begotten Son, our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, not to accuse us, but to unite us to Himself. And as we continue the fast, increase our prayer and devotion, and celebrate the coming Feast, let us recall that great love, that our longing, too, might increase.  God is merciful.  We love because He first loved us.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Jason Isbell, Morgan Wallen, and Redemption


This is one of those stories I'd ordinarily not talk about here.  I do so mainly because it illustrates the failure of our modern culture to appreciate the value of redemption.

For those who are unaware of the story, Morgan Wallen is a country music artist. I have never purchased one of his albums, nor seen him in concert, and for the most part he is not the sort of fellow I'd give much of my attention to.  This was made all the more so when, in February of this year, a video of Wallen circulated wherein he was highly intoxicated and used the n-word to refer to a friend of his.  The friend is apparently not black, though I'm not sure which would be worse.  This sort of colloquial use of that word is one for which I have little use; however, suffice it to say, there is not a white person in this country who ought to use that word in any context.  It was bad.

Wallen was rightly, and quickly, criticized by nearly everyone.  He was also remorseful and apologetic.  You can read (or watch) his complete statement here:

He also pledged $500,000 to black-led groups, earmarking part of it in $15,000 chunks in the names of 20 people who counseled him following this incident, and leaving with them the option of donating to the charity of their choice or keeping it within the BMAC, the organization to whom he donated the money.  

Is that sufficient remorse?  It's not for me to say.  Ultimately, those he has harmed must answer that question, as must his fans and the country music industry.  The latter, at least, have answered that question by continuing to purchase his albums and go to his shows.  In droves.

Enter Jason Isbell.  Jason Isbell, by contrast to Morgan Wallen, is one of my favorite songwriters and recording artists.  I love his work with the Drive-by Truckers, and I love his solo work, especially his 2013 masterpiece, Southeastern.  Jason Isbell writes songs about redemption.  His redemption.  In a particularly strange twist of irony, perhaps the greatest of these songs is a song off of Southeastern entitled "Cover Me Up."  "Cover Me Up" was covered by Morgan Wallen.  This embarrasses Jason Isbell, in the bright light of 20/20 hindsight.

"Cover Me Up" is a song about a drunk, high, stoned, arguably abusive Jason Isbell, and how his now-wife, then-girlfriend Amanda Shires helped him through that period in his life to become a better man. The lyrics include masterpieces such as these:


 Days when we raged, we flew off the page
Such damage was done
But I made it through, 'cause somebody knew
I was meant for someone

* * *
Put your faith to the test 
When I tore off your dress
In Richmond on high
But I sobered up, I swore off that stuff
Forever this time
The old lovers sing
"I thought it'd be me who helped him get home"
But home was a dream
One I'd never seen 'til you came along

It is a particularly beautiful song, one that sounds themes of weakness, pride, hurt and ultimately humility, humiliation and eventual redemption. It is a song about brokenness, recovery and hope.

Because Morgan Wallen covered "Cover Me Up," Isbell thought it right to condemn Wallen's words when they were initially made public. He called them "disgusting and horrifying." He was right. They were. And he was also right that Wallen owed an apology and much, much more. For his part, Isbell donated the songwriting royalties for the Wallen version of "Cover Me Up" to the NAACP. This, too, was a noble act. After announcing the donation of the Wallen royalties to the NAACP on Twitter, Isbell's manager said he does not plan to comment beyond the tweet. This month, Isbell broke that promise.

This is, in part, because Wallen's redemption has been more than expected, certainly by Isbell at least. Morgan Wallen had the best selling album of 2021. Not the best-selling country album, the best selling album in any genre. His tour has played to sold-out venues all summer. One can imagine lots of reasons why, but two seem readily apparent. First, the attempt by people like Isbell to "cancel" Wallen generated a backlash. Second, people love a good redemption story.

Isbell talks about the second of those in a recent interview. Referencing George Jones, he says "excuses have been made over and over to try to craft that same white male narrative. It’s just part of the story. It’s like, ‘yes, sometimes, as white men who’ve been put upon, we slip and we make mistakes, but we can rise again! And that’s country music, folks.'" So to the extent country music fans, and Americans in general, believe in rising above your mistakes, Isbell thinks this is a terrible thing. Well, except for the success of his own version of "Cover Me Up," which is ironically about that very thing. Isbell sounds the themes, reaps the rewards, and then refuses to acknowledge that the same impetus that made his fans love "Cover Me Up" is the one that sends Morgan Wallen's fans to buy his album and attend his shows. The irony in this is hard to miss.

However, there is a greater issue, and it's the one Isbell doesn't talk about, except in an ironic sense because he's making it worse. Again referencing George Jones, he says "there’s a lot of shit that George did that was not cool, shit that you really should not be able to be completely redeemed from." Well, who is Jason Isbell to decide what one ought to be "completely redeemed from?" Does he want to live by those rules? The guy who "tore off (her) dress in Richmond on high?" Listening to Isbell's music, it is apparent that the very themes he sounds himself are the ones he cries against most loudly when others reap the benefit. This is a textbook example of why the phrase "virtue signaling" was invented.

This isn't the first time Isbell has done this either. In June of 2020, Mike Fuller, who makes Fulltone guitar pedals, made a comment on his own website about the rioting in Los Angeles, where Fulltone is based. He decried the looting "with 100% impunity," and said the mayor and governor don't care about small businesses. For this, Isbell took to Twitter to tar Fuller as a racist. He said "Check out black-owned pedal company Dogman Devices. I’ve not used them but they seem to be good and fulltone has always made overpriced junk." So Isbell doesn't purchase Dogman Devices pedals, he calls Fulltone Pedals "overpriced junk" (which is nonsense -- I own two of them and they are fantastic pedals, whatever one thinks of Mike Fuller's politics), and he gets in his Twitter virtue signal and his shot at Fuller. But what has he actually done? Maybe he began purchasing Dogman Devices pedals? Even assuming so, before that he had ignored them in favor of other manufacturers. He wasn't promoting that pedal company except in an attempt to tear down Mike Fuller's pedal company. So what makes him better than Mike Fuller? Mike Fuller never trashed Isbell's music publicly, after all.

All of this highlights the real issue. Isbell is not speaking now because Morgan Wallen's apology, donations and remorse are insufficient. And being honest, he's not speaking now because Morgan Wallen did "shit that you really should not be able to be completely redeemed from." That's not his call to make. He's speaking now because he has a large following on Twitter, and he has made a name for himself in large part by calling for the cancellation of people he disagrees with. And let's be even more honest -- that desire to destroy Wallen is precisely why Wallen's fans flock to him all the more. It's why Wallen's albums outsell Isbell's by multiples, and why Wallen sells out bigger venues routinely. Granted, part of this is the different way they make music -- Isbell is and has always been a smaller operation, and as a songwriter he is not willing to make the compromises people like Wallen make to be a bigger artist. That is commendable. But after that video surfaced, Wallen's career could easily have been over. Instead, people like Isbell unwittingly encourage his fans to embrace the redemption story. And that is a good thing, if only Isbell could see it.

The prideful impetus that makes Isbell feel he has to speak out against Wallen is not based in a desire for Wallen's redemption. Far from it. Isbell seeks Wallen's destruction in order to appease his fans. And ironically ends up helping him to be bigger than ever. It is an indictment on our society that this is encouraged by anyone, or seen as virtuous. And while I doubt I will ever buy a Morgan Wallen record or concert ticket, I have not yet lost so much of my humanity that I don't appreciate the value of redemption. It is the core of what the Christian Church teaches us. We are all rotten. But there is hope, and that hope is in Christ, Who calls us to become by grace what He is by nature. Who, yes, redeems us.

It is, I suppose, a great irony that if I did not believe so much in the value of redemption, I wouldn't like Jason Isbell's music as much as I do. And it is a great tragedy that he fails to see that.