Friday, April 04, 2008

Going to Baylor

Yesterday I received an email from Baylor announcing that they will be accepting me into their Ph.D. in English program with funding. At this point they are not sure what kind of funding package they can offer me. They said it could range from a $17,000 stipend and tuition remission to only tuition remission. If I only receive tuition remission, however, I can reapply for full funding next year and I was told that it would be "highly likely" that I would receive a teaching assistantship. Since they Math department is giving Brittany a $23,000 stipend, we could survive in Waco for one year even if they don't give me a stipend at first--I'll just have to get a part-time job. We'll probably be leaving the AV sometime in late July or early August.

Part of what has been so remarkable about this entire process is the way God has shaped the events. While we were waiting to see what He had in store for us we couldn't understand why he would allow me to get so many rejection letters, or why He would let me send in transcripts late, but in retrospect it all makes sense. God allowed things to unfold in such a way that every single need was met, every concern was soothed, and every weakness was tried.

For example, when Brittany and I first began to discuss her seeking her Ph.D. at the same time as I was going to school I was seriously opposed. From my understanding of doctoral programs I could not imagine any way that both of us could go to school and maintain a healthy relationship. Although I was seriously concerned about this issue, we decided that Brittany should apply to five of the programs I was applying to in order to see what they could offer and how reasonable the workload would be.

When we visited Baylor, Brittany was informed that the first year or so of classes that she would take would be classes she had already taken at CSUN--she's overqualified. In other words, the workload (at least at first) would be completely reasonable. In addition, her Teaching Assistantship will only require her to teach one class per semester, while it provides $23,000 per year! This means that she'll hardly be working at all. Between her head start on the program, her more-than-reasonable teaching load, and the lack of a commute to school (unlike when she went to CSUN), it seems like we'll have more time together than when we were pursuing our Master degrees. God solved my concerns in a way I would never have imagined.

Second example, I applied to twelve programs and was outright rejected from nearly all of them. After I kept getting rejection letter after rejection letter I began to seriously wonder if I had been working towards the wrong goal, if maybe all my aspirations were misplaced and misguided, if maybe I didn't have what it took to get a Ph.D. after all. I got the the point where I could read a letter of rejection without even opening the envelope:
"Dear Mr. Noble, we are very thankful that you considered our program for your degree. Unfortunately, the graduate committee decided that they are unable to accept your application for admission at this time. We have received many applications this year and the committee was forced to reject many qualified applicants....."

Finally, my choices for grad school came down to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, who could neither offer me funding nor hope for it in the future; UC Riverside, who hadn't accepted Brittany; UC Davis, who might have accepted me if some other applicant declined an offer; and Baylor still hadn't responded. I went to UC Riverside's open house on Wednesday and was overwhelmed with the fact that every single professor I encountered was exclusively studying some form of Theory (race, gender, post-colonial, deconstructionist, etc). In fact, one professor even bragged that he was a "Sophist." While the professors were all very kind, knowledgeable, and helpful, the reality was that I was (and am) not in any way interested in studying these approaches to literature. This was just not the program for me. I left Riverside thinking to myself that if this was the only school I could attend, I might not make it through the program at all; if I wasn't interested in what I was learning, how could I study intensely for five years? And considering that UC Davis is even more noted for their theoretical approaches to literature, I was forced to conclude that two of the schools I could attend would make me miserable. This left only Nebraska (and the thought of upwards of $15,000 in tuition debt--per year) and possibly Baylor. The very next day Baylor wrote me informing me of my acceptance.

At the time I saw all these rejection letters as defeats, as signs that I was making the wrong decision to pursue a Ph.D. and as signs that I was not a qualified student. And my experience at Riverside suggested to me that even if I did get accepted I wouldn't enjoy studying. But looking back I can see how God was closing doors so that I wouldn't ever be able to regret my decision to attend Baylor. You see, if I had been accepted to Iowa or Irvine with full funding, and then I turned them down to attend Baylor, I would always have wondered if I had "settled" or if I had picked the wrong school. Now I have nothing to regret and nothing to miss, and I know that most of the schools would have made me miserable anyway!

Finally, this experience made it clear to me that the glory belongs to God. About a month or so ago I realized that I forgot to send Baylor a transcript from a college. I had taken a few online classes on teaching classes online (confusing, I know) at a community college. Since these classes were not degree-related, I figured there was no point in my sending Baylor a transcript from the college. For some, foolish, reason, I put this community college on my application to Baylor, even though I wasn't planning on sending a transcript. It turns out that even though I sent my application in to Baylor weeks before the deadline, they were holding it until I sent them my transcript--and I had no idea. One day, after wondering why the English department was taking so long to get back to me, I stumbled across a page on Baylor's website which allowed me to check the status of my application--it told me that my application was on hold while they waited to receive the community college's transcript. Naturally, I freaked out, furious at myself for making such a silly mistake. I was convinced that my then late application would be turned down or at least that I would not be able to receive any funding. Looking back, I believe that God was allowing me to receive so many rejection letters and to mess-up my application to Baylor so that He could show that I had nothing to brag about. He brought me to a point where I was convinced that there was no way I could get accepted, and then He chose to bless me. What an awesome lesson in faith and humility!

Anyway, I'm sorry this was so long, but there's simply so much to share! We'll let you all know more as news becomes available.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Latest on Graduate School

After a few weeks of fairly discouraging rejection letters, this week God blessed me with some good news.

First, Nebraska accepted me, although they couldn't offer me funding. They did say, however, that if another applicant declines a Teaching Assistantship I would receive a T.A. offer. I can also apply next year for the funding. My application to UNL was late due to some transcript fiasco, so it seems that they already send out their funding offers. The way they worded the letter suggested that if I had actually got the application in on time I would have received funding--which is frustrating to hear, but encouraging! Brittany has already been accepted by them into the Ph.D. in Math program--with full funding. So we are prayerfully considering going there even if they don't give me funding the first year. I could work and reapply for a TAship my second year. We'd probably have to get about 10-15k in debt, but since it's a good school and they'll likely give me funding my second year, it would would worth the investment.

UC Davis also sent me a letter, which I received today. They liked my application, but were unable to accept me yet. They placed me on their waiting list. If an applicant declines their offer, I'll receive full funding for five years to go there. From what I'm hearing, this is a great school, so it was an honor even to be placed on their waiting list! Unfortunately, Brittany didn't apply there (she only applied to the places I would likely get into and want to go to), so if we went to UC Davis she would have to wait a year to start her Ph.D. program.

Next week, Brittany and I are flying out to Baylor to check out the campus. I still have not received word from them either way, but I'm hoping that by visiting I'll win them over and they give me a fat funding offer.

Thanks for your prayers everyone. Here's the official tally so far:

Ohio: Rejected
Washington: Rejected
Illinois: Rejected
Iowa: Rejected
Indiana: Rejected
Emory: Rejected
Baylor: Application delayed over transcripts
Nebraska: Accepted without funding. Funding may become available
UC Davis: Placed on waiting list. Will be accepted with full funding if a space opens up.
Riverside: Accepted with "full" funding

Rejections: 6
Offers: 2
Delays: 1
Waiting list: 1
Unknown: 3

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Grad School Tally

Ohio: Rejected
Washington: Rejected
Illinois: Rejected
Nebraska: Application delayed over transcripts
Baylor: Application delayed over transcripts
Riverside: Accepted with "Full" funding

Rejections: 3
Offers: 1
Delays: 2
Unknown: 8

Saturday, February 23, 2008

What I did to anger folks a MOVIEGUIDE

Alright, first off, I have the next entry in my series on top issues all Christian artists should consider sitting in my notebook, ready to be typed up, edited, and posted to this blog. I fully intended for that to be the next thing I posted here, but then I posted this article and some people read it.

My last article at Christ and Pop Culture was on Movieguide's Faith and Value awards, otherwise known as "the Christian Oscars." Well, today, it appears that the people over at MOVIEGUIDE found my article and were not too happy (I have a feeling there's an internal memo floating around about me right now...). Several people from the organization have commented on the article. They have some interesting points to make, and I'm very happy to have them join in on the conversation! It looks to be a lively discussion if nothing else. Come see what all the hullabaloo is about yourself:
"Whatever is Pure: MOVIEGUIDE's Faith and Value Awards"

I promise, I will get the next real post up ASAP. Thanks for bearing with me as I get myself into trouble.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Wearing Our Faith: Christian Clothes and Bumper Stickers

In my most recent post over at Christ and Pop Culture, I explore how bumper stickers and tee-shirts are used to promote Christianity. I engage questions like: What does it mean to wear a Christian tee-shirt? And what effect does it have on people? The article is entitled, Wearing Our Faith: the Purpose and Effectiveness of Bumper Stickers and Christian Clothes. Here's an excerpt:
One of the remarkable aspects of our culture is that although we are inundated with advertisements all day long, we are often willing to pay for a tee-shirt or bumper sticker which advertises for someone. As Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) once said, “A good shirt turns the wearer into a walking corporate billboard.” When we aren’t wearing an advertisement or sticking one to our bumper, we are often promoting an idea or belief which serves to identify us with a group: “I learned these 10 things from playing video games,” “war is wrong,” “gun control is unjust,” or even “Jesus saves!”

It is this last use of slogans, labels, and branding that I would like to explore. Specifically, I would like to ask what is the purpose and effect of using clothing and bumper stickers to promote the Christian worldview, and should we support this form of promotion? To answer this question we should look at how labels and slogans usually function and their effect.
Continue reading...

I think you'll enjoy reading the article and I hope you find that it encourages you to think critically about the way our faith should be displayed. As always, I look forward to your comments, critiques, and questions.


p.s. I hope to have a new, "real" post on here soon. It will be the next post on the series I'm doing on the essential issues facing Christian artists in different mediums. I apologize that all I've been posting are plugs for other blogs, but since I've basically moved all my social commentary posts from here to Christ and Pop Culture, I'm trying to keep this blog for issues that are specific to art and artists--which means I have a bit less to write about. Thanks for being patient.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Mass Effect, Jack Thompson, Kevin McCullough, Cooper Lawrence, Fox News, and the SeXbox 360

With all the recent hub and bub about Mass Effect, I thought I would remind everyone of the article I wrote before this controversy erupted concerning the moral implications of the game.

It's called "Mommy, what is that alien doing?" and you can read it over at Christ and Pop Culture. Here's a section of the article:

On November 20th, one of the most anticipated games of the year will be released for the Xbox 360, Bioware’s Mass Effect; when it arrives on my doorstep, I will have the choice to encourage alien, unnatural, sexual immorality. PC gamers have known Bioware for their Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series, but console gamers were first introduced to the game designer with the 2003 hit Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. Capturing the spirit of the epic Star Wars story KOTOR (as the kids would soon call it) became one of the most popular games for the original Xbox and arguably the systems best RPG. Aside from the Star Wars branding, KOTOR succeeded because of its compelling storytelling. Much of the game could be spent getting to know your characters; the more they liked you and approved of your actions, the more they would share about their history. In addition to back story, talking to the other characters in the game opened up new plot threads. Ultimately, however, these conversations didn’t affect the plot of the game much, they just opened little side missions. In Bioware’s new role playing game set in space, how the player treats the other characters will determine if they are able to visit entire worlds and whether or not they will witness an alien, lesbian, love scene.
Continue reading...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct

In an article written for the New York Times on January 13th, Steven Pinker makes his case for the biological and evolutionary source of our morality.

Pinker concludes that since certain moral ideals (murder, incest, etc...) are held universally and can be made to fit in the story of evolution, morals are all a product of evolution. At the articles conclusion, he argues that while morals are not absolute (since they are merely biological) we should strive to improve our morals--thus making the oddly elementary mistake of suggesting that we should adjust our (non-transcendent) "moral instinct" to the transcendent moral law exists outside of our biology while denying that transcendent moral laws exist.

What moral law is it that he appeals to?

Read it and see for yourself: Moral Instinct

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Science of Violence in Mice and Men

An article I wrote on the way the media reports on scientific studies was just published over at Christ and Pop Culture. It's entitled, The Science of Violence in Mice and Men":
"A few days ago a news article ran on the front page of Yahoo which reported on a recent scientific study. The research claims to show that mice - and by extension humans - naturally take pleasure in violence. Researchers taught a mouse to press a button if he wanted another male mouse to be released into his cage. They found that the mouse would consistently call for the intruder and then fight him, suggesting that the violence is viewed as a reward. The conclusion that is drawn is that humans, whose brains are “analogous” to the brains of mice, are built to crave violence like they crave sex. A desire for violence is a natural, although no longer “beneficial” aspect of our physiological make-up.

There are a few observations I’d like to make about this news report and the study it was based on... "
Continue reading...

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Top Five Issues All Worship Musicians Should Consider

This is the first entry in my series of important issues for Christian artists in different mediums. Before you read this, I would strongly encourage you to read the two posts that precede it, Ten Issues All Christian Artists Should Consider #1-5 and #6-10, as they form the foundation of the series and address issues which are concerns to all mediums.

The quality of praise and worship music in the Church is a contentious subject, affected by denomination, upbringing, geography, and taste. There are those who do not allow instruments in the church, others only sing hymns, and still others only sing songs written by top song writers like Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman. While some of the differences in styles and types of worship music reflect our different ways of glorifying God, this does not excuse us as song writers, worship leaders, musicians, and congregational singers from seeking aesthetic excellence. This list, as with all the lists in this series, is not comprehensive or in any particular order, but is meant to serve as a starting point for the worship artist.

1. Don't Support CCLI

Christian Copyright Licensing International is an organization that takes an annual royalty from all churches with members from 1-200,000+.  Here's how CCLI explains their function:

When we sing songs in a worship service there is no “fee” or “charge” to perform works of a religious nature. But when we retype the lyric, whether it’s for an overhead projection, power point computer projection or photocopied lyrics in the bulletin, it is expected that we will compensate the owners of the lyrics for that usage. The licenses required and the royalties they produce involve Christian Copyright Licensing Incorporated (CCLI) .

Yes, you read that correctly. If you project or copy the lyrics of songs written to glorify God, you have to pay someone. Of course, if the lyrics come from a hymn or another song in Public Domain, then you are free to use them without paying a fee*. Churches must report to the CCLI what songs they sing, and the CCLI then pays the artist a royalty based on their reports. One of the major problems with this is that artists are encouraged to write songs which will be song a lot, not songs which honor God. Take a look at the language the CCLI uses to explain this arrangement:

CCLI income is very sizeable for major Christian Music publishing companies, oftentimes larger than their Performance income. There are many songwriters unknown to the general public or Christian consumers at large who are among the most well-paid composers in the Christian music genre based on their CCLI income.

If the CCLI was an organization which outlined how pastors or Christian counselors could be "among the most well-paid" in their industry, the organization would be almost universally condemned as anathema to the teachings of Christ and Paul. So why does this organization get away with seducing song writers into writing worship songs for profit?

I am not arguing that praise and worship artists should never be paid for their service, but I am saying that the CCLI system is horrifying and dangerous to the spiritual life of the Church. I would like to encourage praise and worship artists, worship leaders, musicians, and congregations to write new songs which aren't governed by CCLI and to sing songs which are in public domain.

For more information about the CLLI, read this compelling blog entry by Warren Smith entitled, God, Mammon, and the Worship Wars.

2. Remember what your job is

The task of leading worship or writing worship music is not to be taken lightly. You are aiding people in the act of worshiping the holy, mighty, loving God. The words you write and the songs you chose will shape the worship that the congregation will offer. With such a momentous duty, it is important for us to search the Scriptures for passages will describe what it means to worship in song. For example, while the Psalms are often quoted when people are sorting out what worship is, verses like Ephesians 5:19 are rarely dealt with: "speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music to the Lord in your heart." It is imperative that we are not selective when we look at what the Word of God has to say about worship.

In addition, remembering what our job is requires that we are concerned with aiding others in worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth. As worship leaders there will be times when we would like to arrange a song in a particular way because we enjoy the way it sounds, but such an arrangement might not be conducive to worship. As song writers there will be times when we wish to write a song in a favorite genre--country, hard core, rap, ska...--but if the music does not lead others into a place where they can sincerely worship the Lord without distractions, then we shouldn't write the song. The wrong way to approach writing a worship song is to first decide on a genre or style and then write the lyrics.

One test we can use to identify our motivation for choosing particular songs or writing in particular styles is to take notice of how we envision performing the songs. When we imagine ourselves leading the church in worship, what to we see the congregation doing? If they are in shock of the song, in awe of our presence, impressed by our abilities, enamored by our hip-ness, or in any other way drawn to the music or musicians, then your motivation to worship or write is likely misplaced.

3. Worshiping God in Truth means being in reverent awe of Him

I believe as a consequence of worship artists who are paid to write songs which will be popular, not songs which are theologically and aesthetically excellent, most modern praise and worship songs deny or ignore the fact that we are commanded to fear the Lord.

Joyful songs of praise are important to our worship, however, they cannot be shallow, giddy, saccharine pop tunes which lack any spirit of reverence. There is a way to be joyful and still recognize God as almighty and awesome.

Where this issue of reverence has had the most negative affect is in songs which speak of Christ's work on the cross, the depth of our sin, or other serious issues. While we should be filled with joy for what Christ did on the cross, this joy must include an acknowledgement of the price Christ paid.  To fail to do so is to dishonor Christ's work and means that we are not worshiping in Truth. When we sing of Christ's hands being nailed to the cross for our sins, how can we use melodies and a style which sounds as if it was taken from a top-40 teenage love song?

Some popular worship songs sound like they were love songs written to a girl. In such songs we sing of love, beauty, passion, the desire for an intimate relationship, and the desire to see the person's face or to touch them, among other things. In some of these songs our love for God is disturbingly similar to a teenage infatuation. Where such songs go astray is that they present our love of God without acknowledging the righteous fear that we are called to have for Him. Instead of the kind of love we have for a father who is our judge and provider, someone who is not our peer, such songs reflect the kind of love a teenager has for a peer of the opposite sex. The lack of fear and reverence leads to shallow, theologically unsound music.

As artists and leaders of worship music we need to seek to understand what the Word says about how are are to fear the LORD. A good place to start is to notice the tone and language Paul uses when he talks about Christ and what He did for us.

4. Your model does not come from the radio or television

For the last 20+ years worship music has started to look more and more like a sub-genre of adult contemporary music. The way worship artists are marketed (we can thank the CLLI for teaching them that the job is profitable), the way worship leaders and musicians carry themselves and act on stage, and the style and content of modern praise and worship music all reflect an unhealthy lineage from secular, commercial, pop music.

The objectives of someone leading a congregation in worship and a musical artist who is striving to succeed in the pop music market are completely opposed.

A pop artist entertains his audience.

A worship leader assists others in worshiping God.

A pop artist writes songs that he believes will be pleasing to the largest audience possible. This usually means simple, trite, inoffensive  lyrics--lyrics which appeal to people's best impressions of themselves.

A worship artist writes songs which glorify God and aid others in worshiping Him. This means the lyrics are both symbolically rich and theologically profound; they identify the worst aspects of our character (our sin nature) and glorify the best in His.

A pop artist desires to make him/herself an icon, and idol, and image.  Image sells.

A worship leader/artist desires to vanish. Not to be filmed or photographed or lifted up as an icon of worship, but to shift every single bit of honor to God. No matter how much a worship artist says with their lips that they want all the glory to be given to God, if they are signing autographs and taking pictures with adoring fans they are giving lip service.

The bottom line is that worship music should not be entered into as an occupation, at least not in the same way that musicians and writers launch careers in the music industry as a whole. Worship bands are not just bands with songs that praise God. The very idea of writing songs and leading others to praise God is that our focus is not on ourselves and our glory, and it is not on pleasing or entertaining the audience. For any musician in the music industry, creating an image for ourselves and pleasing and entertaining the audience are foundational to any success.

Before we write or sing we must remember that what we are doing with music is fundamentally and profoundly opposed to what is done in the secular, commercial, music industry.

5. Strive to write lyrics and use language excellently

I have avoided making broad statements about the state of modern worship music, but here I must be blunt:

(Most) Modern Praise and Worship music lyrics are embarrassingly bad.

They are theologically unsound, poetically childish, and often they are linguistic nonsense--a pile of religious-sounding words thrown together without any order or purpose other than to evoke the feeling of the sacred which is a left over from the time when song writers used those same words in their proper context.

If you are going to write a worship song, a song to glorify our wonderful God, make it a work of excellence. Have something to sing about and express it in a varied and complex way. When a song has simplistic and repetitive music the listener and singer will drift into a dream-like state where they lose all understanding of the meaning of the words they are singing--all they know to do is sing. But we want the congregation to worship not only with their lips, but with their hearts and minds--in Spirit and in Truth.

Ask yourself when you write or choose a song for worship, will these words encourage the congregation to meditate and consider the meaning behind them, or are they just a collection of religious sounding words?

Read good poetry and prose and hymns. Consider men like William Cowper who wrote There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood. Cowper was a famous poet who published works of his own and translated Homer. This was a person who studied language and the way words relate and interact with each other. I'm not asking all worship artists to be published poets, but I would ask them to be students of language. The desire to glorify God through lyrics is good, but it is better to have such a desire and seek to fulfill it through artful work.

For a detailed discussion of how certain religious words (holy, wonderful, mighty, praise, glory, honor, etc...) have begun to lose their meaning in modern worship due to their senseless repetition, read my blog post entitled, Worship Music and Dead Language.

As always, I would love to hear all your responses to this, and if there are any points that should be added to this list, please let me know.




*Of course, if a modern artist takes a Public Domain song and adds a chorus, they own the rights to the "new" song. Both Chris Tomlin and Todd Agnew have taken Amazing Grace and added their own chorus, giving them rights to the song. Every time my church sings Amazing Grace with the five "new" lines from Chris Tomlin, he gets paid.