Friday, June 28, 2013

G. K. Chesterton, Edmund Bacon, and Philadelphia's Late, Lamented "Gentlemen's Agreement"

G. K. Chesterton
Edmund Bacon

The Philadelphia Skyline as it appeared in 1940
(linen postcard dated 11 May 1941, from the author's personal collection)

Philadelphia is different in many respects from all other major American cities. It is also, in my opinion, better than all of them—or, at least, it is superior when it is content to stay true to itself rather than succumb to envy caused by its location smack dab in the middle between New York City and Washington, DC or, less understandably, to the economically booming-yet-sterile cities of America's growing sunbelt communities. Philadelphia looks different, thinks differently, and, at least historically, has acted differently from its peers. And that, in my way of thinking, is a good thing.

Ninety-one years ago the great English polymath G. K. Chesterton was similarly impressed by Philadelphia, then America's third-largest city, which (along with Boston and Baltimore) he compared favorably to its massive neighbor 90 miles to the northeast:

In the same way I hear some New Yorkers refer to Philadelphia and Baltimore as 'dead towns.' They mean by a dead town a town that has had the impudence not to die. Such people are astonished to find an ancient thing alive ... And what I mean by Philadelphia and Baltimore being alive is precisely what these people mean by their being dead; it is continuity; it is the presence of the life first breathed into them and of the purpose of their being; it is the benediction of the founders of the colonies and the fathers of the republic. This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and the future. It merely means that as what was done yesterday makes some difference to-day, so what is done to-day will make some difference tomorrow. In New York it is difficult to feel that any day will make any difference. These moderns only die daily without power to rise from the dead. But I can truly claim that in coming to some of these more stable cities of the States I felt something quite sincerely of that historic emotion which is satisfied in the eternal cities of the Mediterranean. I felt in America what many Americans suppose can only be felt in Europe. I have seldom had that sentiment stirred more simply and directly than when I saw from afar off, above that vast grey labyrinth of Philadelphia, great Penn upon his pinnacle like the graven figure of a god who had fashioned a new world ...
Needless to say, the modern vulgarity of avarice and advertisement sprawls all over Philadelphia or Boston; but so it does over Winchester or Canterbury. But most people know that there is something else to be found in Canterbury or Winchester; many people know that it is rather more interesting; and some people know that Alfred can still walk in Winchester and that St. Thomas at Canterbury was killed but did not die. It is at least as possible for a Philadelphian to feel the presence of Penn and Franklin as for an Englishman to see the ghosts of Alfred and of Becket. Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive. It means that it still matters what Penn did two hundred years ago or what Franklin did a hundred years ago; I never could feel in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago. (What I Saw in America, 69-70).
For Chesterton, it was John McArthur, Jr.'s great City Hall, with Alexander Milne Calder's statue of city founder William Penn perched at the summit of its tower, that symbolized what made Philadelphia special, more European in its sensibilities than New York or the newer cities to the west and south. And Chesterton, ever the astute observer, was, as usual, spot-on in his assessment. When completed in 1901, City Hall, at 548', was the tallest occupied building in the world, and remains to this day the highest masonry building on earth. The exquisite jumble of columns and statuary on its French Second Empire facade must be seen to be believed; and, in contrast to showy newer architecture that seeks to impress with size and flash alone, the solidity of City Hall's granite, marble, and limestone succeeds in causing one's appreciation for its charms to grow with repeated sightings. Indeed, as a child growing up in Philadelphia, City Hall fascinated me like no other building, holding my rapt attention whenever my family would drive down the Ben Franklin Parkway or, even better, east on Vine Street where one could at that time get an uninterrupted view of the tower as one crossed Broad Street a few blocks to its north.

City Hall and environs, late 1940s, with PSFS building to the left
and the PNB building immediately to the right
(linen postcard from the author's personal collection)
City Hall as seen from North
Broad Street, 1906
(postcard from author's
personal collection)

Philadelphia Skyline viewed from the southwest, 1949
(linen postcard from the author's personal collection)

As much as the architecture, however, it is the symbolism of Calder's statue of Penn, facing northeast to the Fishtown park where the great Quaker made his treaty with the aboriginal population of the area, that provides a clue to Philadelphia's unique character. In the popular imagination, Philadelphia is the city of the fictional Kensington pugilist Rocky Balboa: a faded post-industrial blue-collar city whose denizens weigh too much due to their consumption of cheesesteaks, Italian hoagies, and roast pork sandwiches, and who vent their frustration with hostility, directed not only toward supporters of other city's sports teams, but toward their own athletes as well. To more refined observers, Philly is home to the world-famous Philadelphia Orchestra, was the home base of such jazz icons as John Coltrane and Clifford Brown, painters such as Charles Willson Peale, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, and Andrew Wyeth, architects such as Frank Furness and Louis Kahn, such acting legends as the Barrymores and Grace Kelly, and has one of the country's finest Art Museums, a grand yellow limestone neoclassical temple on a hill overlooking Center City. For others, Benjamin Franklin provides the public face of the town, at least to the millions of tourists who flock to Olde City and Society Hill to recapture a bit of Revolutionary-era magic: Franklin the go-getter, the statesman, the inventor, the printer, the founder of the venerable University of Pennsylvania and the nation's first hospital. There is some truth in all of these, of course. But, I would argue, it is Penn, the reserved Quaker gentleman, who best explains the ethos of the town he founded back in October of 1682. It is Penn, and his fellow Quakers who originally settled here, who ultimately explain the city's innate modesty and conservatism (social, not political, of course), its pathological inability to promote itself, its instinctive loathing of superficiality and glitz (that is why the Dallas Cowboys, not the New York Giants, are the most hated team in town), its resistance to change, and, I suspect, the characteristic pessimism that has bred a host of "Negadelphians" like yours truly. But, as Chesterton accurately noted, the most salient characteristic of Philadelphia's historic character is a respect for history and tradition that approaches reverence.

Nowhere was this respect for the city's venerable history manifest more than in the famous "gentlemen's agreement" which for decades left the City of Brotherly Love with a uniquely squat skyline, at least as measured by American standards for a city of its size. According to this informal agreement, no architect would design, and no developer would build, any building surpassing the tip of Penn's hat atop City Hall. In my youth, only two buildings—Howe and Lescaze's 1932 International Style masterpiece, the PSFS Tower (492') and John Windrim's likewise splendid 1932 Art Deco Lincoln-Liberty Building (aka PNB, One South Broad; 472')—even approached City Hall's height. Moreover, when the skyline was viewed from the northwest down the Ben Franklin Parkway, the (somewhat) tall PSFS and PNB buildings nicely framed City Hall, giving the panorama an appealing visual symmetry.

The origins of this famous "gentlemen's agreement" are murky. In an informative post this week on The Philly History Blog, Ken Finkel suggests that it was Philadelphia's eminent City Planner, Edmund Bacon (the father of actor Kevin Bacon, by the way), who, if not necessarily the agreement's creator, certainly enforced it in the 1950s and 60s as a matter of honor in order to maintain the city's historical continuity with its past.

Indeed, it was the development of Penn Center in the 50s, 60s, and 70s after the (unfortunate) demolition of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station that served to exert the most pressure on the informal agreement. One by one, squat, banal modernist boxes rose around City Hall and along West Market Street: 1700 Market (IVB; 430' [1968]), Five Penn Center (Central Penn National Bank; 490' [1970]), One Meridian Plaza (492' [1972; destroyed by fire, 1991; demolished 1999), 2000 Market Street (435' [1973]), Centre Square I and II (417' and 490' [1973]); 1818 Market (500' [1974]); and, finally, the execrable, black glass-clad PNC Bank Building (491' [1983]). As a result, the Philadelphia in which I lived at 1701 Arch Street between 1974 and 1978 had a flat, uniform and, frankly, boring skyline running for approximately 6 full blocks down Market Street west of City Hall.

Not only had Philadelphia replaced one of the world's great railway stations with a landscape every bit as sterile as the most stereotypical Sunbelt city (all in the name of removing the "blight" caused by the viaduct emanating from the station's train shed), in effect it had transformed its physical appearance in a way inappropriate to its historic character. Not surprisingly, the natives got restless, and an increasing number of voices called for lifting the informal height limit. One such voice was that of Philip Klein, vice-chairman of the Philadelphia Planning Commission, quoted by Finkel: “It’s time Philadelphia did something like [topping William Penn]. I’d fight for it all the way. No city can be a big city without tall buildings.” [Of course, somebody could have pointed Klein to the classic counterexample provided by Washington, DC, but dollar signs and economic concerns have a way of clouding the judgment of most civic officials.] Finally, by 1984, when the voices of people great and small afflicted with short building syndrome had reached a fevered pitch, the city finally gave in to the dark side and gave approval to developer Willard Rouse III to construct two Helmut Jahn-designed skyscrapers, both far taller than City Hall, on the block bounded by Market and Chestnut and 16th and 17th Streets. The first phase of the development was completed in 1987 with the opening of One Liberty Place, a 61-story, spired tower topping out at 945', almost exactly 400' feet taller than City Hall Tower. As of now, a total of eight skyscrapers now surpass Billy Penn's hat in height, including the memory stick-shaped, 975' tall Comcast Center at 17th Street and John F. Kennedy Blvd, completed in 2008.

After 26 years, enough time has passed to reflect on the wisdom of the fateful decision to rescind the informal "gentleman's decision." Most, no doubt, particularly those for whom a showy skyline is the mark of urban prestige, if not vitality, would say that the decision was a wise one. At least a number of the new towers are architecturally worthy, at least by the diminished standards of post-World War II architecture. Two such buildings are the pyramid-topped, 792' BNY Mellon Center (1990) and the 739', red granite clad former Bell Atlantic Tower (1991).

Others, however, demur. One such voice is that of New York-based architecture critic Francis Marrone, who dubs these buildings "Ungentlemanly Towers" and writes: "I don't think it matters if the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building had been put there. Some vital part of the city's soul—one of the last things that made Philadelphia better than other American cities—was forever lost in the reckless decision to allow this skyward development" (An Architectural Guidebook to Philadelphia (161-62). Marrone, I believe, is right. Too many people gave in to their native civic inferiority complex (another of Penn's legacies) and hoped that emulation of more "fashionable" American cities would confer chic to their staid, time-worn metropolis. In doing so, they sacrificed the city's soul, and the results were no more beneficial than the mess of pottage Esau gained by trading his birthright. Little did anyone consider the suggestion that it wasn't the height limitation, but the unimaginative and boring architecture of the post-war construction boom that had reduced Penn Center and Market West to a barren, sterile wasteland devoid of foot traffic and, indeed, any signs of civilization after hours and on weekends.

Nostalgia, however, ultimately doesn't do any good. That is, it doesn't do any good unless one learns from the inevitable mistakes that one has made. Fortunately for Philadelphia, despite mistakes that can be counted in the thousands, it still has a built environment that, more or less, reflects its uniqueness among American cities. Here's to hoping that the powers that be value their unique heritage and pass it on for future generations.

I leave you with a number of pictures of the city both before and after the gentlemen's agreement was rescinded.

City Hall, May 1983
(photo by author)
Boxy skyline as viewed from west bank of Schuylkill River, June 1983
(photo by author)

Iconic view of skyline from Belmont Plateau, Fairmount Park, October 1984
(photo by author)

View from Belmont Plateau, October 1997. Note how City Hall is dwarfed by the new kids on the block
(photo by author)

Skyline from steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 28 August 2010.
Note the asymmetry caused by the new towers
(photo by author)

City Hall, 11 August 2007
(photo by author)

Skyline as seen from Boathouse Row, 2 September 2008
(photo by author)

Skyline as seen from the top of the PSFS Building, 27 January 2013
(photo by author)

Billy Penn contemplating the indignity of being supplanted in height
by the Comcast Center, 27 January 2013
(photo by author)

City Hall with the Mellon Center in the distance, 30 June 2012
(photo by author)

City Hall and its original supplanter, One Liberty Place, 30 June 2012
(photo by author)

The best of the "Ungentlemanly Towers," the Bell Atlantic Building,
5 October 2011 (photo by author)

One Liberty Place, 5 October 2011
(photo by author)

Comcast Center, 26 November 2011
(photo by author)

Comcast Center, 26 November 2011
(photo by author)

City Hall and Comcast Center, 14 March 2012
(photo by author)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Paul Krugman, Luddites, and What the Future Holds

I should just come out and admit it: I am a confirmed Luddite. I have never owned a cell phone, refuse to listen to music in the form of digital files of individual songs—give me the complete Born To Run, Exile on Main Street, or Led Zeppelin II any day—and will resist reading a book digitally until the real things are consigned to the dustbin of history. My former students would be appalled that I actually wrote the first draft of my Ph.D. dissertation in (cursive!) longhand, a dying art indeed. Of course, not owning a computer at the time I was writing (1994-95) made such a time-consuming task necessary. And don't even think of mentioning such philistine atrocities as "distance" or "on-line education" while in my presence.

Thus it was with interest when I discovered Nobel laureate Paul Krugman's New York Times column of 13 June, which he comfortingly entitled "Sympathy for the Luddites." The catalyst for Professor Krugman's column was a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that "disruptive" new technologies are threatening the jobs, not of mere working stiffs (like me!) manning industrial production lines, but of "workers who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills."

Ever since the Industrial Revolution broke out in Great Britain in the 1780s, technologies have disrupted age-old trades and occupations, making venerable and once-lucrative skills redundant in a hurry. So it is no surprise that the digital revolution has had a disrupting effect on the labor market. Until recently, the biggest losers have been lower-skilled industrial workers and secretarial/clerical office staff. The solution? For the last twenty years the drumbeat has been relentless: more education. Go to college, it was repeated ad nauseum, and you will gain the "skills" necessary to compete in the new world.

Despite every politician, most recently Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, giving lip service to this push for education as the "solution" to America's growing economic woes, a moment's reflection would have revealed it to be a canard that is half true, at best. Yes, college graduates make significantly more money, on average, than those without a degree. But ... such a push inevitably views individuals as an undifferentiated mass. Many people, most especially young men, are not made for sitting behind a desk and fiddling with a computer all day. Many do not have the means to pursue such education. Nor can one expect hard-strapped middle aged people with family responsibilities to, as it were, start again from scratch late in life. At a philosophical level, such an emphasis on education as job preparation has played a major role in the dumbing down of college education, which in many instances has been deliberately (!) reduced to the level of glorified vocational technical training. And why not? If one is going to saddle oneself with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, it is at least understandable that one would gravitate to fields of study that might contribute directly to the ability to pay the debt back. But we are all the poorer for such mass shortsightedness, as Sunday's New York Times editorial entitled "The Decline and Fall of the English Major" argues cogently.

Sooner or later, however, the naked condition of the metaphorical emperor was bound to be noticed, and it appears that the technologies mentioned in the McKinsey report may precipitate that recognition. As all are aware, we live in treacherous economic times, both the same and different than in other transitional times. College graduates, laden with massive debt, face a job market that offers little hope that they will ever be able to repay what they owe. Highly educated and/or skilled workers in their 40s and 50s have been laid off aplenty, and some will never again earn anything remotely approaching what they had previously grown accustomed to. Structurally, the signs are not positive. The combination of newer technologies and a globalism that has driven workers' wages down bodes ill for millions of people if "free market" solutions are the only ones allowed. And in today's increasingly rightward-tilting political scene, who doubts that such will be the case?

What is the solution? Is it unreasonable to wish that the broad-based middle class that was created through the policies of FDR's New Deal and the aftermath of WWII would continue to define American society? Many don't think so. Others, beholden to a more explicit social Darwinism, don't care. Krugman, for his part, maintains that desire as a fundamental priority. His solution, as he readily admits, is unlikely to win any support among more ideological free-marketers:

So what is the answer? If the picture I’ve drawn is at all right, the only way we could have anything resembling a middle-class society — a society in which ordinary citizens have a reasonable assurance of maintaining a decent life as long as they work hard and play by the rules — would be by having a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too. And with an ever-rising share of income going to capital rather than labor, that safety net would have to be paid for to an important extent via taxes on profits and/or investment income.
I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead?

The question is a good one. I, for one, have little to no faith in Adam Smith's "invisible hand" to create an equitable society in which all work is valued and compensated fairly. After all, it has been since 1980, when free market fundamentalism regained its hegemony, that income inequality has risen to its highest level since before the Great Depression. And the trends are not positive. Gains in efficiency and productivity have not been matched by a corresponding raise in wages and compensation, the money instead earmarked for corporate profits and executive compensation (for charts graphically showing the trends from 1979-2009, see here). Indeed, the shift in income from labor to capital has been one of the under-reported stories of recent American economic life. Many simply shrug their shoulders as if such a shift is the product of a blind determinism.

The question we must ask seriously is this: Is this acceptable? And by "acceptable" I mean morally acceptable to people holding a supposed "Christian" worldview. I write as a Christian to Christians, most of whom in today's America would be the most likely to disagree with what I have to say. So be it. One biblical text I have been reflecting on is 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, where St. Paul speaks of the church as the "body of Christ," with each member of the body, whether the prominent eyes, ears, and head, the less prominent hands and feet, and even the "less honorable" or "presentable" sexual organs, has its indispensable role to play in the operation of the whole body and should be honored accordingly.

Few realize that the apostle, by using this famous metaphor, was adopting and adapting a figure commonly used in the Mediterranean world of his day with respect to human society in order to promote social cohesion and concord (see Margaret Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992] 157-64). Whereas the ancient Romans utilized it to keep the restless plebeian masses, as it were, in their place, a truly democratic sensibility could use it more positively to affirm the essential worth and value of all members of society—not simply the wealthy doctors, CEOs, and entertainers, but especially those who do the hard, societally-undervalued and undercompensated-yet-important jobs on the margins. After all, who is really doing the more important work, the poorly paid nursing aide caring for elderly dementia patients or the millionaire hedge fund manager?

Of course, such thinking only becomes plausible once one abandons a selfish, pride-fueled, and uniquely American individualism which in effect denies the fundamental biblical notion that we are all our brothers' and sisters' keepers. Yet even in practical terms, a "society" in which everyone looks out exclusively for their own interests and tolerates the effective marginalization of increasing numbers of their fellow citizens, rests on a shaky foundation indeed. I know that many, if not most, of my readers would suggest caution in view of the "probable" scenario that things would even out after a generation or so, as it did in previous economic revolutions. But the people who are being displaced in the brave new economic world we are creating, just like those displaced in the past, are exactly that. They are people, not mere statistics. And God has charged us with prioritizing people over ideology. Moreover, unless anyone is wont to speak blithely about the system's ultimate self-correcting ability, I would like to remind him or her that 30 years amounts to 35-40% of the average lifespan—not a long period for the God for whom a thousand years is as a day, but quite long indeed for people truly wounded by our society's economic evolution. Things may indeed—or they may not, if things are left to themselves—even out in the long run. Nevertheless, we do well to remember what the famous British economist John Maynard Keynes—another of conservatives' least-popular 20th century luminaries—wrote in 1923 in response to economists who poo pooed concern about tempestuous economic seas by pointing to the calm ocean that would appear in the long run: "In the long run we are all dead."

Friday, June 21, 2013

The "Christian Left" and the "Christian Right" Are Both Wrong: Ephesians 1:9-10 and the Locus of God's Restorative Activity

More than 60 years ago, Yale theologian/ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr published his influential Christ & Culture, in which he famously listed five ways Christians have historically viewed the relationship between Christ and culture:
  • Christ against culture
  • The Christ of culture
  • Christ above culture
  • Christ and culture in paradox
  • Christ the transformer of culture
Notwithstanding serious ambiguities in, and difficulties with, Niebuhr's definitions of both "Christ" and "culture," it would seem that most Western Christians today—apart, that is, from old fashioned, dualistic, world-denying fundamentalists—clearly view their mission in transformative rather than escapist terms. Things were not always this way. For example, the fundamentalism in which I was raised was, to be sure, knee-jerk Republican in its political loyalties. Nevertheless, most of its energies were spent doing personal evangelism in view of the hope of escape from the world in the form of the imminent "rapture" of the church. The wider culture, it was believed, was irredeemable and destined ultimately for the rubbish heap of judgment associated with an anticipated 7-year "tribulation" from which genuine Christians will be spatially delivered—Christ against culture indeed!

Things began to change some time in the 1970s. On the one hand, a number of Evangelical Christians coalesced around ideas that later would result in their being dubbed the "Evangelical left." Seminal in this regard was the Yale-educated activist Ron Sider, who in 1977 published his influential Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Today this stream of thought is most prominently represented by TEDS graduate Jim Wallis and his Sojourners organization. Much more prominent, both in numbers and in popular influence, have been the various streams that have coalesced into the so-called "Christian right," which has apparently succeeded in convincing most theologically conservative American Protestants that genuine Christianity lines up point-by-point with the platform of the trending-ever-more-rightward GOP.

The Christian left (CL) and the Christian right (CR) disagree on almost everything. The CL rightly points to the great prophetic and Jesuanic traditions that emphasize care for the poor and the necessity of social or restorative justice. The CR, on the other hand, tends to think of "justice/righteousness" in distributive terms and emphasize the Bible's teaching on sexual morality and "right to life" issues. [Of course, many "pro-life" CLers, like Sider, criticize the CR for not carrying out their "pro-life" convictions consistently into all spheres of life.] Both, it would seem, emphasize genuine, though disparate, elements of the biblical tradition. Where they agree, however, is more significant: they both apparently believe that the church is called to "transform" the culture directly and, if necessary, through legislative and/or judicial action. The church, in these scenarios, becomes just one of many special interest groups, divinely-sanctioned though their "interests" may be.

Over the years, I have increasingly come to the belief that both the CL and the CR are on the wrong track in this emphasis, even though my sympathies lie much closer to the former group. The catalyst for my unease at the political strategies of both groups was a reexamination of a dense, easily passed over text in Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 1:7-10 read as follows:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight. He did this when he revealed to us the secret of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth. (tr. NET Bible)
In Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul—yes, I remain convinced Paul, not a subsequent "Paulinist," wrote Ephesians—opens his Ephesian letter with an elaborate, single sentence (!) encomium to God for having blessed Christians "with every spiritual blessing in the 'heavenlies' in Christ." In verses 4-14 he proceeds to enumerate these blessings via an incipiently Trinitarian formulation of these blessings: election/predestination by God, the Father of Christ; redemption and inheritance in Christ, God's "beloved one;" and sealing with the Spirit. Sometimes lost in the sweeping flood of these enumerated blessings is the remarkable claim made by the apostle in verses 9-10, where he articulates clearly the full extent and design of God's saving purposes, indeed "the ultimate destiny of the cosmos" (Ernest Best, Ephesians [ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998] 133). His argument proceeds in two stages.

First, God has now revealed his previously hidden "secret" plan and intention for the "fullness of times (1:9-10a). The term translated "secret" in verse 9 is the Greek term mysterion; hence the regular translation "mystery" in most older versions. To understand this term, one must look back to its use in Jewish apocalyptic literature rather than to the so-called "Mystery Religions" of the Hellenistic world, as was originally argued by Raymond Brown in the '60s and subsequently confirmed in monographs by C. C. Caragounis and Markus Bockmuehl. In particular, one should look to the earliest such usage in the LXX of Daniel 2:18-19, 27-30, 47, where mysterion translates the Aramaic term rāz and is used to refer to the contents of Nebuchadnezzar's dream which were revealed to Daniel. As in Daniel, so in later apocalyptic texts such as 2 Baruch 81.4; 4 Ezra 14:5; 1 Enoch 103:2; 4QpHab 7.4, 8, 13; 1QS 11.5-8: a "mystery" was an event to be revealed at history's end, but made available proleptically to the seer because it is already prepared in heaven. A "mystery," in other words, may be mysterious. More to the point, however, a "mystery" is a revealed secret, an aspect of God's decree for the denouement of history that had previously been hidden but now revealed.

This apocalyptic usage has obvious relevance to Paul's usage here in Ephesians 1. In verse 9 he explicitly states that God had already "disclosed" (the aorist participle gnōrisas) this secret to "us" (hēmin; whether this refers to all Christians, Gentile Christians, or to Paul and the apostles is of no consequence to our present argument). Not only that, but God's disclosure of the mystery was in line with (kata) God's sovereign and eternal purpose (eudokia, his "good pleasure" or "decree," as F. F. Bruce [The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians {NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984}en loc.] put it). In verse 10 the apostle continues by telling us that the sovereign purpose of which he is speaking has in view (eis) God's "administering" (oikonomia in an active rather than in a passive ["administration"] sense [so Best, 138-39; A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians {WBC; Dallas: Word, 1990} 32; H. W. Hoehner, Ephesians {Brand Rapids: Baker, 2002} 217-18) the "fullness of times," i.e., the time for the consummation of his purposes. God's purpose, as Lincoln rightly notes, thus "embraces history and its ordering" (31), history thus understood as the transcript of God's providential ordering of its development until its culmination ("fullness") in the achievement of what he had designed in his "good pleasure." What, then, is this secret purpose that God had lately revealed? The answer comes in the latter half of verse 10, and forms the second stage of Paul's argument in these verses.

Second, God's ultimate purpose is to reintegrate the universe under Christ (1:10b). Paul provides us with the content of the mystery in the infinitive anakephalaiōsasthai, which has been variously translated (""to head up" [NET]; "to bring together under one head" [NIV]; "to unite" [ESV]; "brought into a unity" [REB]). The term was used of the "summing up" or "recapitulation" of an argument in legal contexts (Quintilian, Aristotle, et al.). Paul himself uses it in Romans 13:9 to refer to a comprehensive summing up or unifying of a larger entity (the Torah) under one focal point (the love command). Paul's point here thus appears to be that "all things" (ta panta) will one day be subject to the sovereignty of Christ, who will reintegrate them and restore them to their divinely-designed place and function.

But when does this "summing up" or reintegration take place? In the immediate context the answer might appear to be "in the fullness of times," the final stage of the divine oikonomia of history. But in the wider context of the letter, the answer becomes more nuanced ... and interesting. First, in Ephesians 1:22-23, as a consequence of God's powerful raising and exaltation of Christ. Paul quotes Psalm 8:7 to the effect that God has (already!) subjected all things under Christ's feet (hypetaxen) and given him to the church as head over all things. Christ has already been installed as cosmic Lord as well as being head over the church. Second, in Ephesians 3:3-10 he elaborates on the "mystery" he so cryptically spoke of in chapter 1. Simply put, the mystery concerned the primary theological datum of the epistle, to wit, that Gentiles were fellow heirs, members of the same body, and fellow partakers of the benefits of the covenant promises whose fulfillment in Christ defined the content of the apostolic gospel.

What this means is that there is a two-stage fulfillment of this "recapitulation," which should come as no surprise to anyone attuned to the shared eschatology of the authors of the New Testament. For Paul, the unification of Jews and Gentiles in the church in Christ is the first stage of the reunification of all the diverse and renegade elements of the universe which will be complete in the new heavens and new earth. The necessary corollary of this is that the church is the locus of God's present activity in which his kingdom purposes are being implemented. And if that is true, then both the CL and the CR are wrong—if not necessarily in their beliefs of what God approves and disapproves in the spheres of social justice and morality, then certainly in how they intend to "transform" society to approximate more closely revealed biblical standards.

What I am arguing has certain precedent in a broadly Anabaptist vision of the church's relation to culture (and is one reason I prefer to characterize myself as an "Anabaptist Anglican," much to the bewilderment of most of my acquaintances). In other words, instead of directing their energies to legislating their values into law via the democratic  political process, they should rather put more energy into making their church communities be in practice what they are in reality, viz., colonies of the kingdom of God living in the midst of the world whose present shape, as St. Paul says elsewhere (1 Cor 7:31), is "passing away" (paragei). That is not to say, of course, that Christian citizens of Western democracies should eschew their privilege of voting and fail to work to enact legislation that conforms to what they believe to comport with the righteousness and justice put forth in the Bible as the hallmarks of human flourishing. It is to say, however, that they should not expect the world to agree with their views, and that consequently they should leave self-righteousness behind, be up front with the religious foundation of their positions, and accept rejection and ridicule with grace. And if the wider culture rejects their political shibboleths, they should refrain from moaning and whinging about the supposed passing of a fictional "Christian America" that never existed in the first place.

What it means most of all, however, is that we as Christians need to take more seriously than we thus far have that we need to embody the kingdom virtues of grace, mercy, truth, and justice in our own communities (for an example which we might profitably emulate, see here). We need to ask ourselves, what might be the result in the wider culture if we did so? That is true witness. And that is how we as Christian communities ought to go about our designed business to be a "kingdom of priests" in a fallen world.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Wedding Homily

[Note: I delivered a redacted, abridged version of this homily at the wedding of my son on Saturday, 15 June, at Milwaukee, Wisconsin.]

Back in June of 1967, 46 years ago, John Lennon wrote a song that the Beatles premiered in front of the first ever live global television audience. “All You Need Is Love” was direct and simple in its message, propaganda that Lennon later admitted was revolutionary in its intent. “Love is all you need.” And, notwithstanding his naively optimistic belief that summoning up such love was “easy,” a Christian should readily admit that, in a very real sense, Lennon was right. Love is all you need. 

No one makes this point clearer than St. Paul did in his famous encomium to love in 1 Corinthians 13. In verses 1-3 he articulates this quite clearly:

If I should speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resonating bronze or a clanging cymbal. And if I should have the gift of prophecy and should come to fathom the depths of all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have the gift of a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. Even if I should give all my possessions to the poor and hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, JRM).

We see here that spiritual giftedness, spiritual insight into God’s plans, even apparently sacrificial spiritual or religious activity all amount to a proverbial hill of beans if devoid of love as the engine driving their manifestation. For Paul, love is the decisive criterion by which all our actions must be evaluated. And that applies to every sphere of our lives, not least to the home.

In verses 4-7, Paul tells us exactly what this “love” he is writing about, this sine qua non of meaningful activity, looks like in action. These verses are so familiar, and so often used in association with weddings and romantic love, that what they actually say is often glossed over in the fuzzy warmth of pious sentimentality. To do so, however, would be to miss the point of what the apostle believes to be the greatest of the spiritual graces.

When we Americans think of “love,” we tend to think in terms of a feeling, or at least of an attitude of fondness or affection directed toward someone or something we either possess in some way or desire to possess. The ancient Greeks, not surprisingly, thought similarly. Indeed, they had four distinct words corresponding to the English noun “love.” The first was storgē. Storgē referred to familial love, the natural affection a parent might have for her child, for instance. Secondly, philia, as used especially by Aristotle, referred to the affection of friendship. The third term, and the one most highly celebrated in Greek literature, was erōs, which, as one might suspect, was the intimate love of romantic desire. One important characteristic of erōs was its nature as a love based on the perceived desirability or attractiveness of the object. This was true even with Plato, who attempted to “de-carnalize” erōs by transcending its sexual connotations and transferring its focus to the underlying internal beauty of its object. Importantly, however, we note that erōs, by definition, was a love oriented to the possession by the lover of the object of his love. Now, this is all well and good. Indeed, we see something of a poetic description and celebration of this type of love in the Old Testament book, the Song of Solomon, a selection from which was read earlier.

Paul, however, doesn’t use any of these terms when he describes love in 1 Corinthians 13. Instead, he uses a fourth term, the much rarer agapē. Agapē was, in regular Greek usage, a generic, catch-all term, free of the familial or romantic/sexual connotations that encumbered the other terms. As such it was more suited than the others to be the vehicle of the apostle’s profound ideas about love he sought to convey in 1 Corinthians 13. And when we read verses 4-7, the first thing that should strike us, if we are observant readers, is that the apostle describes love with a series of 15 verbs, not adjectives. What this means is that“love” may indeed be an attitude, but it is an attitude that invariably manifests itself in action directed toward others.

Specifically, says Paul in these verses, love deals patiently with the loved one. It shows kindness. It does not seethe with jealousy over the other’s accomplishments or public recognition. Corresponding to that, love doesn’t brag, let alone ostentatiously harbor delusions of its own grandeur. It doesn’t behave dishonorably. Nor does it selfishly seek its own interests. It does not become irritated or vexed by perceived slights or indignities. Indeed, even when wronged it refuses to keep score of those wrongs. Love, says Paul, takes no pleasure in wrongdoing of any kind; instead, it has the disinterested integrity to celebrate the truth openly, without playing thinly-disguised power games. It bears up against all difficulties, never loses faith, never loses hope, and never fails to persevere.*

In our society we place an almost exclusive emphasis on “being in love.” Indeed, it is this erōs type of love that our culture assumes to provide the foundation for marriage and the only basis of its continuance. Once again, such an emphasis is all well and good. All of us who have experienced such “love” can attest to its glory and desirability. However, this relentless emphasis on what the Greeks would have termed erōs masks the nasty fact, which we all know to be true, that such love is, by definition, ephemeral, depending as it does on feelings prompted by the attractiveness of the other. 

What St. Paul says about love, however, is entirely different—and it is his type of love, not the romantic and sexually-charged erōs, which provides the only solid foundation for a marriage. To be sure, our culture says otherwise. It is love of the erōs type that is assumed to be the foundation of marriage that will both endure and give glory to the God who instituted the ordinance to be the framework in which human beings can fulfill their role as God’s image bearers.

What is this love of which the apostle speaks? To put it simply, genuine love, Christian love, is an attitude that is disinterested and unmotivated by the perceived “worthiness” of its object. To be specific, love is a stance that seeks the welfare of the loved one above one’s own interests, and that consequently manifests itself in acts of patient and costly service to the one who is its object.

Such love is glorious because, above all, as Tony Thiselton wrote, “Love is that quality which distinctively stamps the life of heaven.”** Indeed, St. Paul can claim in 1 Corinthians 13 that love endures and never falls, and that it is greater than both faith and hope precisely because love alone will have relevance in the eternal future of the new heavens and new earth. And, for Paul, it is this ultimate future that has been brought to bear on our present existence through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Thus it is not surprising that St. Paul elsewhere points to Christ’s death on the cross in order to provide both motivation for, and the embodiment of, the love that should characterize the relationship between a husband and his wife. In Ephesians 5, as part of the mutual submission that he says should characterize God’s people, the apostle exhorts husbands to “love [their] wives, even as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph 5:26). Pointing back to the creation narrative of Genesis chapter 2, the apostle makes the startling claim that the union and “one flesh” relationship established for husband and wife is analogous to, and indeed a prefiguration of, the union that exists between Christ and his redeemed people (Eph 5:31-32; Gen 2:24).

The so-called “battle of the sexes” has raged from time immemorial, as even the Bible’s primordial narrative acknowledges. In Genesis 3, as part of the “curse” or judgment brought upon humanity because of their fall into sin, God says to the woman, “Your desire shall be for your husband”—that is, her desire would be to gain mastery over her husband—“and he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16). In Paul’s view, it is God’s own love for his people, manifested in his Son’s sacrificial death for them on the cross of Calvary, which simultaneously reverses the effects of the primal curse and deconstructs the notions of authority we instinctively associate with hierarchies of all sorts. What matters—all one needs, if you will—is love. In particular, all you need is love of the sacrificial, other-directed sort that, in the apostle’s view, only manifests itself as the fruit produced by God’s Spirit that resides in his people (Gal 5:22).

Now I am well aware that such ideas run counter once again to our culture’s dominant way of thinking. In today’s individualistic Western culture, what matters above all is being “true to oneself” and reaching one’s own full potential. Thus both men and women are not so subtly taught in all sorts of ways that their primary responsibility is to themselves, and that any relationships that hinder their own personal development must be sacrificed accordingly. Such thinking, to put it bluntly, runs directly counter to what we encounter over and over again on the pages of the New Testament. Our Lord himself taught, on the contrary, that the person who seeks to save his or her life will lose it, but the one who would lose his or her life for his sake and that of the gospel would save it (Mark 8:35). As with Jesus, so with Paul: the way of the disciple of Jesus is the way of self-sacrifice. It is the way of self-abnegation. In a word, it is the way of love. What that means is that one only truly reaches one’s potential as a human being insofar as he or she walks the path of love and gladly sacrifices one’s own interests for the benefit of others. Indeed, any marriage in which the partners depend on staying “in love” for its permanence and direct all their energies toward their own individual “fulfillment” is doomed to failure from the start.

John and Katie, as you may have guessed, and as any married person could tell you, this is not easy. It doesn’t come naturally. We can’t simply conjure it up or casually choose to live in such a way. After all, such love is, as I mentioned earlier, the product of the work of God’s own Spirit in one’s life. It will take discipline. It will take hard work. Behavior such as St. Paul describes must be learned, and it must be cultivated until such virtues become part and parcel of who we are. Expect failure to live up to what love implies both on your own part and that of your spouse. But take heart. God is gracious and has provided his people with his Spirit to produce this love in us.

Above all, like the apostle, always reflect back for motivation on the love shown by our Lord when he gave himself for us on the cross of Calvary. As he wrote in what is likely his earliest letter: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Paul never got over the love shown by Christ Jesus for him, undeserving though he knew himself to be. Nor should we. If Christ loved us enough to sacrifice his own life for our sakes, it is but a small thing to emulate him and live lives of sacrifice for others, especially our spouses. That is the measure of real love.

John and Katie, this is destined to be the most memorable day of your lives. Treasure it. Relish the life on which you are about to embark together. And, most of all, may the God of all grace bless you both richly and grant that you live your lives together in love for his glory alone.
* For my understanding of these verses, I am indebted, above all, to Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans/Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000) 1046-60.

** Thiselton, 1035.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

N. T. Wright: What Is the Gospel? An Interview with the Evangelical Alliance

Over the next couple of weeks my posts will be few and far between. I will be headed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Monday to attend the wedding of my son, at which I will be privileged to deliver the homily. Before I leave, however, I thought it helpful to share a brief (13 minutes) video interview from Britain's Evangelical alliance ( with the famous New Testament scholar N. T. Wright of the University of St. Andrews. The topic? None other than the gospel—in particular, What is the gospel? Regular readers of this blog will remember that I did an excruciatingly in-depth 9-part series on this subject in February, March, and April 2012 (see herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here). Last September I also did a brief post in which I attempted to summarize the gospel in seven words, à la D. L. Moody (with somewhat different results, of course). Over the past 20 years or so, no one scholar has had a greater influence on my work than Wright's has, and so it is not surprising that what he says in the interview resonates deeply within my soul. Listen ... and learn!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ernest Best on What It Means to Be a Disciple


Last week, while perusing the blog of Nijay K. Gupta, I was reminded once again of the groundbreaking work by the late Ernest "Paddy" Best (d. 2004) on Mark and discipleship that I had first discovered in my own doctoral studies back in the 1980s. Best, a native of Belfast, was one of a number of British New Testament scholars of a previous generation (along with C. F. D. Moule, F. F. Bruce, C. K. Barrett, and George Bradford Caird, among others) who brought vast, almost unimaginable knowledge of ancient Greek language, history, and literature to bear on their interpretation of the New Testament, bringing a much-needed moderating influence to a discipline then dominated by the German heirs of Rudolf Bultmann. Best also was the original Doktorvater for my own thesis adviser, John Grassmick, when he pursued his own Ph.D. at Glasgow in the late 1970s.

I met Best just once, in January of 1988, when he gave a lecture at Dallas Seminary where I was then a Greek instructor. At the time he was working on his magisterial ICC volume on Ephesians, which remains, along with the volume by my own teacher Harold Hoehner, my go-to text when studying that most fascinating of letters. But it was his work on Mark's Gospel that has made its greatest impact. Particularly significant was an article, "Discipleship in Mark: Mark 8.22-10.52," that first appeared in the 1970 volume of the Scottish Journal of Theology, and was subsequently published in 1986 by T. & T. Clark in a collection of essays entitled Disciples and Discipleship: Studies in the Gospel of Mark.

In the strict dispensationalist circles in which I was raised, Mark's Gospel, though almost certainly the first to have been written, took a back seat—some might say the rumble seat—to the later Matthew, whose teachings lent themselves more easily to the movement's theological predilections. Even more significantly, however, classic dispensationalism, by assigning Jesus' teaching to "Israel" and not the church, thereby marginalized the ongoing significance of the Gospels for the life of the church outside, of course, of apologetic concerns vis-à-vis Christ's person and work. [This was brought forcefully to my developing theological attention when, in my Masters degree studies, my teacher John Martin's view that the Sermon on the Mount's "ethic" was directly applicable to the church was considered by some to be "controversial" (!)] 

Best, as a good (though moderately liberal) Scots-Irish Presbyterian, would of course have nothing to do with such ideas. The Gospel was, after all, written by a churchman for the church, and colored his presentation of the life of Jesus accordingly. And nowhere does this become more significant than in the highly artistic central section of Mark's Gospel, which Best rightly sees as beginning, not at 8:27, but at 8:22, with the symbolically-significant ("metaphorical") two stage healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. "Everything" in this section,  Best correctly avers, "relates either to the meaning of the Christ or to discipleship" (Disciples and Discipleship, 2). Indeed, discipleship is intimately connected with the pattern of service manifested by the Christ who would attain his kingship through suffering and consequent exaltation. And being a "disciple" of such a Messiah is to be a person who is called actively to follow Jesus in the very "way" he went in his inexorable path to the cross.

I encourage you to find this article if you can, for it is a model of literarily- and theologically-sensitive analysis and spot-on in its definition of what discipleshipand hence being a "Christian"entails. Jesus himself said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:34-35). The stakes, as one can see, are very serious. Jesus' call, as Best rightly points out, to the dismay of certain evangelical circles, "is not one to accept a certain system of teaching (and) live by it" (7). Moreover, the call to "deny oneself" "is not a call to deny things to oneself, which is the popular meaning of self-denial and which leads to asceticism and self-mortification; it is the call to the denial of the self itself. The opposite is for a man to affirm himself, to put a value on himself or on his position before God or his fellows, to claim his rights, not just as someone with special rights, but the very right of being a human being" (8). 

What, then, does it mean to be a disciple of the Jesus who went to the cross to be a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)? Best's conclusion cannot be bettered:
It means to drop in behind him, to be ready to go to the cross as he did, to write oneself off in terms of any kind of importance, privilege or right, and to spend one's time only in the service of the needs of others (13).

Monday, June 3, 2013

Bruce Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" 35 Years Later


Yesterday marked the 35th anniversary of the release of one of the most important albums in rock music history, Bruce Springsteen's devastating Darkness on the Edge of Town. In the spring of 1978 popular music was in a state of flux, with an increasingly polarized audience split between rock-oriented FM radio (the preference of straight, white males) and pop/disco-dominated AM radio (the preference of everybody else). The heyday of classic rock was clearly in the past: it had been 8 years since the breakup of the Beatles and 6 since the release of the last essential album by the Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street). To be sure, Led Zeppelin and The Who were still around (though both were to lose their famous drummers to substance abuse in the next two years), but the best years of both were, in retrospect, clearly in the rear view mirror. Despite the continued popularity of a few progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd and Kansas, by and large mainstream rock success was limited to soft-rock bands like Fleetwood Mac and melodic, pop-meets-hard rock acts like Steve Miller, Boston, and Foreigner.

Rock critics at the time, however, swooned over the burgeoning punk rock movement, led by such bands as the Ramones in New York and The Clash and Sex Pistols in London. Punk rockers despised what they saw as the excesses and "indulgences" of the rock music of the previous decade (let alone the "thoughtfulness" of the  testosterone-challenged singer-songwriters of the era). Improvised instrumental solos were shunned, deemed ostentatiously unseemly. Indeed, the punk ethos demanded of the most basic, stripped-down simplicity, with loud volumes, quick tempi, vocals devoid of subtlety, three (at most) chords, and only the most rudimentary musical proficiency.

Above all, however, the spring of 1978 was the high water mark of disco, which had moved out of the African-American and gay club scenes in New York and Philadelphia to conquer the world with its funky, four-on-the-floor beat and what Pete Townshend later that year would call its "flashy, trash dance." The primary reason for its crossover success and ascendancy was the overwhelming success of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, whose soundtrack album, featuring Australia's reinvented Bee Gees, reigned as number 1 on the US album charts from January 21 to July 8 that year.

On the face of it, Bruce Springsteen should, by all rights, have had a hard time fitting in such a musical landscape. Just three years earlier he had become an instant phenomenon with a straight-ahead rock 'n roll album, Born to Run—which I consider the greatest in the history of the music (see here)—and simultaneous cover articles in Time and Newsweek. Even at that time his music seemed sui generis. But in the intervening years the musical landscape had changed completely, drifting ever farther away from the roots sensibilities and Spector-influenced sonic splendor that adorned Born to Run. Nonetheless, Darkness managed to sell well, despite a lack of hit singles, remaining on the charts for almost two years and eventually being certified triple platinum by the RIAA.

Considering the unique musical landscape of the period, it is a matter of some interest that in the week of 2-9 June 1978 three of what I consider the greatest albums in rock history were released: The Cars' eponymous debut, The Rolling Stones' Some Girls, and Springsteen's Darkness. How they navigated the tricky waters and used them to their advantage is instructive. The Cars, of course, were the prototypical "new wave" band, visually stylish, icy cool, with a sound heavily indebted to Greg Hawkes' synthesized keyboards. Despite their undeniable musicianship and Ric Ocasek's intelligent, wry lyrics, The Cars clearly were indebted to punk in the stripped down, straightforward simplicity of their songs' structures and the blistering hard rock textures that propelled them. 

The Stones, meanwhile, had been in somewhat of a free-fall ever since the release of their magnum opus, Exile on Main Street, in 1972, with Keith Richards sinking into heroin addiction and Mick Jagger, ever the socialite, spending more and more of his energies in that direction. Some Girls, however, marked a definite return to form, with its freshness and renewed energy a clear nod to the prodding provided by both disco ("Miss You") and punk ("Shattered"). Even the straight ahead rockers on the album ("Respectable," "When the Whip Comes Down") sizzle like nothing they had churned out for years, almost certainly a response to punk's implicit criticism of their music.

Springsteen, however, reacted more subtly, though no less noticeably. The background story to the production of Darkness is well known. Due to an unresolved contractual dispute with former manger Mike Appel, the Boss was barred from the recording studio until the summer of 1977. Meanwhile, he was in the midst of his greatest period of artistic fecundity, writing upwards of 40 songs in the interim, most of them potential classics, some of which he gave away to others ("Because the Night" to Patti Smith; "Fire" to the Pointer Sisters), the sonic breadth and diversity of which only became widely known with their release on his 4-disc 1998 rarities compilation Tracks and 2010's The Promise. Meanwhile,  for those of us, largely from the Boss's "home territory" between Philadelphia and New York City, who had responded immediately to his music in the early-mid '70s, the wait for his follow-up to Born to Run seemed interminable. What ultimately led to his selection of the ten songs that found their way onto the album? The Boss explains:
Music, music, music, big choruses, big melodies, rich arrangements, that is the direction I initially started to go in the aftermath of "Born to Run" but "Darkness" was also written and recorded at the height of the punk explosion. I had a little record shop in New York City where I bought all the early punk singles as they hit the street. I took them home, heard something unique, undeniable and not so foreign to my experience. My musical path had been chosen but the uncompromising power of these records found its way onto "Darkness" through the choices and themes of my material. I culled my music to the toughest collection of songs I had, songs that still form the philosophical core of what we do today, swept the rest away and headed on. (Liner notes to The Promise, dated 26 July 2010).
The sonic grandeur of Born To Run matched the songs' lyrical expansiveness. The album was populated by youths on society's margins who lived in dead end Jersey towns with few legitimate prospects to lift themselves up, but who nevertheless retained enough youthful romanticism to believe that better prospects lay just a motorcycle or car ride away out of town (see especially the all-time classics "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run"). Darkness on the Edge of Town is populated by these same characters. Only these characters are older and somewhat wiser, beaten down by the inevitable vicissitudes that characterize life lived in the "badlands," on "streets of fire," where lives are on the line, where dreams are found and lost, but can only be found in the "darkness on the edge of town."

Indeed, Darkness's relationship to its celebrated predecessor is most clearly understood via a song that, for stylistic reasons, didn't make the cut to be included on the album. I'm speaking, of course, of the legendary "The Promise," first made officially available after 32 years in 2010 (a piano-accompanied solo version was recorded and released on his compilation 18 Tracks in 1999). The song explicitly cites "Thunder Road," the thoroughfare that supposedly would lead to escape from the "dead ends and all the bad scenes" that held the song's protagonist and his mates in their grip. Yet, partly due to his own mistakes, "the promise" held by Thunder Road was broken, leading the narrator to realize that the fight he fought was a hopeless one, and the dream he dreamed an evanescent one. As a result, "Every day it just gets harder to live/This dream I'm believing in." Yet life must go on, and the cost is a significant one:
When the promise is broken you go on living
But it steals something from down in your soul
Like when the truth is spoken and
it don't make no difference
Something in your heart turns cold.
If one were to choose one word to characterize the existential atmosphere that permeates this album, it would be despair (for this theme in Springsteen's classic work, cf. this essay by Michael McGuire, originally published in Rhetorical Dimensions in Media: A Critical Casebook [2nd. ed.; ed. Martin J. Medhurst and Thomas Benson; Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1991]). In some songs, most notably the deceivingly devastating "Factory" (for my own theological ruminations on this underrated masterpiece, see here) and "Streets of Fire," this despair borders on hopelessness. But Springsteen's characters are too resilient to give in entirely, holding on to a stubborn hope because to do otherwise would be unthinkable. Typical is the album's opener, the classic "Badlands":
Lights out tonight,
Trouble in the heartland,
Got a head-on collision,
Smashin' in my guts, man.
I'm caught in a crossfire,
That I don't understand.
But there's one thing I know for sure girl:
I don't give a damn
for the same old played out scenes,
I don't give a damn for just the in betweens.
Honey I want the heart, I want the soul,
I want control right now.
You better listen to me baby:
Talk about a dream;
Try to make it real.
You wake up in the night
with a fear so real.
You spend your life waiting
for a moment that just don't come.
Well don't waste your time waiting.
Badlands you gotta live it every day,
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay.
Well keep pushin' till it's understood,
And these badlands start treating us good.
Workin' in the fields
till you get your back burned,
Workin' `neath the wheels
till you get your facts learned.
Baby, I got my facts
learned real good right now.
You better get it straight darling:
Poor men wanna be rich,
rich men wanna be kings,
And a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything.
I wanna go out tonight,
I wanna find out what I got. 
Now I believe in the love that you gave me.
I believe in the faith that could save me.
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it
Will raise me above these Badlands...
For the ones who had a notion,
a notion deep inside,
That it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.
I wanna find one face that ain't looking through me,
I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands...

This tenacity is likewise evident in the opener to the original side 2, "Promised Land." But the real weight of the album needs to be placed on the two songs that close the two sides of the album, "Racing in the Streets" and the title cut, "Darkness on the edge of Town." The former, in particular, ironically quotes Martha and the Vandellas' famous "Dancin' in the Streets" at the close:
Tonight, tonight the highway's bright
Out of our way, mister you best keep
'Cause summer's here and the time is right
For racin' in the Street.
This is no mere summer escapism. It is far darker than that. Early in the song the narrator divides men into two categories:
Some guys they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece,
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the street.
Racing here is clearly a metaphor for escape, but escape from dead end jobs and dead end lives, doing anything just to keep on going with life. And the toll is a grim one, in particular, for the narrator's girlfriend, whom he "won" from a competitor after blowing his Camaro away in a race. Three years later, however, her life was every bit the dead end the narrators is. All her previous delusions had come to a regretful end:
But now there's wrinkles round my baby's eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night ...
She sits on the porch of her daddy's house
But all her pretty dreams are torn,
She stares off into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born ...
Musically, the songs of Darkness simply sound different from anything Springsteen had recorded before. Part of it is due to the eschewing of its predecessor's "Wall of Sound" approach, where the individual instruments (apart from Clarence Clemons's saxophone) are mixed so as to sound like one instrument. Here each instrument is distinct, with Garry Tallent's bass and Mighty Max Weinberg's drums standing out like they hadn't in the earlier effort. More importantly—and it is here that the influence of punk is most readily seen—this is musically the toughest set of songs that the Boss ever recorded, with Miami Steve Van Zandt adding extra guitar muscle and the Boss providing one slashing guitar solo after another, most notably on the brilliant "Adam Raised a Cain"—Springsteen, the lapsed Catholic, makes excellent use of biblical imagery here to illuminate his complicated relationship with his late father—and "Prove It All Night."

But the best two songs are undoubtedly the first and last songs on side 1. "Badlands," indeed, is on the short list of greatest songs ever written and recorded by Springsteen. From Weinberg's opening salvo and Springsteen's programmatic riff (a thinly-disguised [and readily admitted] rip-off of the one Eric Burdon used in the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"), the song is propelled by martial beat signalling the protagonist's steely determination to succeed despite the odds, and finds the Boss in perhaps his best vocal form on record up to this point. The fine solos by Clemons and Springsteen in the middle are icing on the cake. "Racing on the Street," however, is the polar opposite: a ballad of sorts (though it originated as a dirge-like rocker, as the alternate version found on The Promise attests), with mournful vocals that contrast with the ironically-escapist title, and an outro organ solo by the late Danny Federici that will generate the bleakest of melancholy in the soul of any attentive listener. No greater contrast with the lightweight drivel of the era's popular music could be imagined.

I leave you with these two songs for your listening pleasure. But the entire album must be listened to as a whole for the proper effect to be experienced. You will not be disappointed.