Every Song on Sam’s Town, The Killers’ Finest Album, Ranked

killersTen years ago a handsome and waifish young man named Brandon Flowers who was just trying to make his way in the world told a music magazine that he and his band had a new album coming out, and that it would be the best rock album of the last 20 years. And it was!

12. For Reasons Unknown
One of these songs was going to be the worst. That’s okay! It’s better than half the songs on Battle Born and all the songs on Day & Age, save one.

These lyrics, though. Brandon, I would not be surprised if one day you revealed that your songwriting partners staged an intervention midway through this album to stop you from writing your own lyrics, an intervention that ended badly when you declared yourself “the greatest rock-and-roll star of all time” and wrote them anyway. So we ended up with an entire verse about sitting down in a chair—in the middle of a song about aging, which must be very hard for you at 24 years old. And this gem:

“I caught my stride
I flew and flied”

Brandon, FLIED IS NOT A WORD. You are an old, 24-year-old man, you should know this. Also: is “flied” supposed to be an activity distinct from flying, or did you perhaps mean to say “flew”? Also: “FLIED.” WHY.

11. Enterlude / Exitlude
A story: back when I was a young Killers-obsessed boy living in London I was out one afternoon wandering the streets, as I was wont to do, and I wandered into a record shop. There was a song playing on the overhead speakers. Enthralled by the piano and harmonies I went over to the register and said, “Who is this band?” The owner looked at me with a curious glint and said, “Why, it’s The Killers, your favorite band.” I ended up buying Carole King’s Tapestry, but a few weeks later a friend gave me a copy of Sam’s Town and these were the eleventh best songs on it.

10. Where the White Boys Dance (UK version only)
A tale of betrayal and infidelity, a couple of awe-inspiring guitar riffs, and a chorus that raises more questions than answers (where is this mythical place? do the white boys have jobs, or do they just dance and play? are non-whites allowed there? what does any of this have to do with the aforementioned betrayal and infidelity?).

9. Bones
In which we learn that: Brandon Flowers likes to relax by going to the beach and having a good cry; that he hears dogs barking and angels whispering his name; that the ocean is “only water and sand,” but that you can hold hands there! And cry. As for the music video, my BFF said it best: “A Killers music video should take place in the Nevada desert, not in Tim Burton’s twisted imagination.”

8. Bling (Confessions of a King)
Brandon wants you to know that things really aren’t that bad. They’re not! It wasn’t his idea to make that vision quest through the desert, he just woke up here. And he is holding hands with the devil, but it’s just, like, a smart thing to do when you’re stuck in the desert with no water. The devil is basically king here, plus he loved The Killers’ first album and had been looking for a way to thank him. Brandon knows you had some concerns, but you’ll remember him when it’s over. Just shut up until then, okay.

7. My List
The rare Killers love ballad that doesn’t involve jealousy, a bungled attempt to hide a dead body, or a boyfriend who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to your ex-girlfriend that you dated for, like, a month last year.

6. Why Do I Keep Counting?
A song about Brandon praying for calm on a plane flight (he hates flying) could potentially have been a great song. What he really needs is an editor who will sit down with him, fold her neatly manicured hands in front of her and say, “What does this mean, Brandon? Why is your sugar so sweet and obtainable? Also how is this relevant? How does one pave a street with good times? Brandon.”

5. Uncle Jonny
Supposedly this song is about Brandon’s uncle Jonny who did a lot of drugs and loved rock music and was thrilled to have his name attached to a song about a cocaine addict. And it’s actually pretty funny! On an album that suffers at times from being too earnest, the sly sarcasm and subtle sneering of Hot Fuss makes a welcome return. ‘Hey Jonny, I got faith in you man, I mean it, it’s gonna be alright!’ Brandon yells, in a tone that suggests he has no faith in his uncle, and he’s going to die.

4. This River Is Wild
Time Magazine got near the heart of The Killers’ appeal when it wrote, “Brandon Flowers sings as though he’s actually in the middle of a battle, belting out emotional platitudes over explosions.” Brandon loves crescendos, and he loves building his albums to a crescendo, which is why listening to Sam’s Town sometimes feels like watching a dramatic movie where every scene is bigger and louder than the last one. “This River Is Wild” comes near the end of the album, so naturally this is peak Killers, with Brandon lamenting his struggles to be understood and accepted while the world explodes around him in a shower of guitars and glockenspiels.

3. Sam’s Town
This is the secret truth at the heart of all the Killers’ music: Brandon gets you. He knows how it feels to be a lonely teenager burning with a restless energy to be the world’s greatest rock star. He knows how it feels to be scorned by your peers and your mum who think you’ll never make it. He knows how it feels to lose Grandma Dixie and to have a brother who was born on July 4. He knows. Oh, how he knows.

2. Read My Mind
If “When You Were Young” is the Killers’ “Born to Run,” then this is their “Thunder Road,” a sweetly naïve song about young love in a small town and a man’s hunger for greatness. “What do you have left,” the song asks, “when you’ve lost your faith and she won’t return your calls?” To which the song replies: your guitar and your dreams. People may break your heart, Brandon assures us, but they’ll never break the fight inside of you.

1. When You Were Young

Youth is a magical time: a time of romance and doubt and ambition, of skies filled with flaming debris. But like all things, youth comes to an end, and this heart no longer beats like it used to, and these eyes no longer see like they used to, and all we are left with is memory and desire. Desire for the days of our youth, before we dipped our feet in the devil’s water, before the arrival of the incorrigible gentleman-caller who looks nothing like Our Lord and Savior. The Killers know your pain, aging reader. They wrote this song for you.

Where to Begin with the Music of Leonard Cohen

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via Rolling Stone

Leonard Cohen, who for about fifty years was the world’s greatest lyricist, has died at the age of 82.

It’s not even the worst thing that’s happened this week, but it still hurts—as if the universe thought we hadn’t had our fill of pain and heartache. Coming at the end of a year where we’ve lost some of our best artists and songwriters, it stings even more.

Leonard never attained the fame and recognition of Bob Dylan, but he was every bit his equal as a songwriter. He wrote melancholy, sly, sad, hilarious lyrics that might as well have been poems: strip away the music and they would still retain their power to surprise and haunt you. He had an exquisite sense of irony and a way of keeping you laughing even as he gutted you with uncomfortable truths about the bleakness of living.

His musical career can be pretty neatly divided up into three periods. If you’re just discovering Leonard for the first time, here’s where I’d begin.

The Early Period
Songs of Leonard Cohen, the album that launched Cohen’s career at the age of 32, kicks off with what is arguably the best song he ever wrote, “Suzanne.” He sings of a romance that seems hallucinatory and not of this earth, but with a perfect attention to details (“tea and oranges that come all the way from China”) that keeps it from ever descending into sentimentality. Threaded through the song are dream-like images and religious metaphors—the entire second verse imagines Jesus as a drowning sailor—that would become a Cohen trademark:

“But he himself was broken long before the sky could open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”

Also worth noting from this period is “Famous Blue Raincoat,” from his third album, a song written in the form of a letter to an imagined ex-lover. Listening to it, you can almost feel the chill of a cold December morning seeping in through the cracks in your Brooklyn apartment.

The Middle Period
Leonard’s later music is so different from the songs of his youth that it can sometimes feel like listening to two different singers. In the middle period (which lasted for much of the 1970s) he had shed some of his dreamy wistfulness and begun to write music that was sharp, scathing and satirical.

The best album from this period, and in my opinion the finest album he ever made, was 1979’s Recent Songs. Almost every song on this record is a gem, but “The Traitor” stands out for its savage use of irony in service of a story about doomed love and betrayal, and “The Window” for being a hauntingly beautiful poetic and theological reflection on—what exactly? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to hear lyrics like these without getting chills:

“Then lay your rose on the fire

The fire give up to the sun

The sun give over to splendor

In the arms of the high holy one

For the holy one dreams of a letter

Dreams of a letter’s death

Oh, bless the continuous stutter

Of the word being made into flesh”

Like the poetry of James Joyce or Lewis Carroll, the words almost take on a shape of their own, even apart from their intended meaning.

Later Period
If your only exposure to Leonard has been the thin baritone of his early music, the bass-voiced, synth-heavy songs of his later years may come as a shock. He wrote and recorded “Hallelujah” in 1984 with a hundred-person choir, but few would argue that this is the best recording of the song ever made. (Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainright both improved the song by stripping it to its essentials).

But beginning in the 1990s Leonard put away the choirs and baroque instrumentation and wrote some of the best music of his career. My favorite album from this period is 1992’s The Future, which gifted us with “Closing Time,” “The Anthem” (probably his most-quoted song, even by people who have never heard it), and “Democracy.” Cohen’s lyrics have become wide-ranging, referential, and universal in scope and subject, the way you might think of Walt Whitman as being universal, without ever losing their sharpness. Take this verse from “Democracy”:

“It’s coming through a crack in the wall

On a visionary flood of alcohol

From the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount

Which I don’t pretend to understand at all

It’s coming from the silence on the dock of the bay

From the brave, the bold, the battered heart of Chevrolet

Democracy is coming

To the USA”

It’s all here: Leonard’s allusiveness, his sly humor, imagery that comes at you out of nowhere, his obsession with religion, his knack for playing one final joke on the listener. It may seem like an odd song to pull out of the Cohen catalogue but it exemplifies who he was and what made him a rare genius in contemporary popular music.

Seven Shows to Comfort Your Soul During a Gloomy Week

lorelaiI don’t know if you’ve heard, but it’s been a rough week for a lot of people. I’ve spoken with friends who haven’t eaten or slept, which seems like the wrong approach. When the soul is anxious, it’s right and good to treat yourself to a foot massage and a whiskey-infused sweet tea slush. And a comforting show can be a balm to the soul. Here are seven shows to calm you and take your mind off our inevitable deaths:

Gilmore Girls
You’re a young, bookish person reading an essay about comforting TV, so I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending you haven’t already watched this. But let’s take a moment to appreciate its excellence. From the beginning, Gilmore Girls had a couple of things going for it: the relationship between its two leads, the sassy, weird-dancing, bad-at-relationships Lorelai and her teenage daughter, Rory; and a masterful sense of place. Stars Hollow is just about the coziest place on TV, maybe the coziest place there ever was, with its townhall meetings and its coffee and its jobless troubadour wandering the streets singing songs that are oddly relevant to the characters’ lives. You want to go back there, don’t you? Luckily you can, on Thanksgiving. (available on Netflix).

Friday Night Lights
Yeah, it’s a show about football, or whatever, and yeah, there’s some drama, but it’s the kind of drama you want in your life: the kind that involves Coach Eric Taylor looking at you gruffly with a twinkle of unspoken love, and Tami Taylor reaching for your hand over a cup of tea in her kitchen during a late-night heart-to-heart. (Why are kids always knocking on their door in the middle of the night? Do they not know that they have jobs?). Plus, it’s got some of the best depictions of beautiful west Texas and the working-class you’ll ever see on TV. (available on Hulu and Netflix).

queenThe Crown
The Crown is wonderfully dull. It moves at a snail’s pace. Whole scenes are taken up by fancy men and women in fancy clothes reciting their long titles to each other. No one (except the Queen Mum) comes out and says what they’re thinking; instead they stand there staring at each other for minutes at a time, and eventually one of them (usually Elizabeth) will twitch her mouth slightly to express anger. Have I convinced you to watch it yet? Good, because you should. (available on Netflix).

mast-foyles-s7-hires
Foyle’s War
Imagine a show about a police detective living in idyllic rural Britain during the war. He uncovers evidence of corruption in the police force or at a local restaurant or wherever. He punishes the culprits by glowering at them with his sad eyes, a sadness that somehow conveys Righteousness and Justice and the Infinite Sorrows of Our Lord. It is a fate worse than prison. Also he has a spunky driver who chauffers him around and helps him crack the case. It is better than The Wire. Could such a show exist in this vale of tears? It exists. (recently taken off Netflix).

Chopped
I love this show. Love everything about it: the one contestant in each episode who obviously has no idea how to cook but somehow hangs on until the third round. The judge with his gently menacing smile and glasses that seem to change color between episodes. “Chopped” delivers the illusion of drama while never threatening you in any way. It’s a remarkably soothing experience, like watching Michael Kitchen play guitar for an hour. (select episodes are available on Netflix and the Food Network’s website).

Agatha Christie’s Poirot
If I haven’t already sold you on this show, there’s no hope for you, my friend. This is the reason television was invented, so we could marvel at David Suchet’s ridiculous mustache and Arthur Hasting’s inept bumblings that accidentally solve the mystery for sixty shining episodes. I even made a ranking of every episode for you! I watched most of them twice because I care about you and want you to experience humanity’s supreme achievement. (available on Netflix).

slow-tv-trainsSlow TV: Train Ride Bergen to Oslo
Recently Netflix seems to have gathered that our tired, sad nation just needs something pleasant and soothing to put our hearts at rest, so they’ve imported a series of (weirdly popular) Norwegian shows loosely grouped under the title “Slow TV,” for those nights when you need to watch a sweater being knitted for seven hours. My personal favorite is the eight-hour train ride to Oslo (which my family refuses to watch with me), though an episode about a boat voyage around the Norwegian coast, which took three days to air in its native country, was criminally trimmed to a couple of hours when it came to Netflix.

The Election Is Over. What Now?

everything-changes

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The pundits assured us it was fine. They were confident he wouldn’t win the general election, just as they had assured us he would never make it through the primaries. His path to 270 was exceedingly narrow. Hillary’s firewall would hold. The republic would be saved.

There was no need to fear.

But of course that was never true. I think it was Andrew Sullivan who said he could feel deep in his gut where this was all leading, that no matter what the polls said, there was no way the story of this year had a happy ending. Trump had been weirdly lucky, and had also been cannier and more cunning than any of his critics or opponents. Like the villain in a horror movie, his campaign had been pronounced dead again and again, only to rise again greater and more powerful than before.

I was surprised, the weekend before the election, to see a conservative columnist from the Wall Street Journal and a liberal Bernie voter from Salon.com suggest that maybe his ascension was some kind of divine judgment on America. But it makes a weird kind of sense. Maybe we didn’t deserve Hillary. And maybe he’s the true face of America: cruel and bigoted and beastly and imperialistic and greedy and hateful towards women and minorities and anyone who threatens it. A billionaire celebrity who doesn’t read: how could he not be our next president?

I know there’s much that is good about us. I see it reflected in the devastated faces of millions who are mourning today: the women, minorities, and LGBTs who have just seen their last hopes eviscerated. I see it in the young mothers who are now fervently praying that the world won’t suffer permanent damage from the effects of climate change or nuclear war.

I hope we’re that lucky, or that God has mercy on us. But I’m increasingly skeptical that we’ll make it through the next four years unscathed. The alt-right is ascendant in America. Their leader has just been elected president. Jews and Muslims are afraid for their lives like never before in this country. Bigotry won. Bullying won. We know now that you can be a serial sexual abuser and it won’t stop you from reaching the highest office in the nation; but if you’re a competent, professional woman, you’re out of luck.

The awesome powers of the presidency have been placed in the hands of a vengeful and self-centered businessman with no political experience, whose sheer charisma has lured half the country into a fascist personality cult centered on hate and the worship of Trump. I sometimes feel like I escaped one cult just to watch my country become one.

I hate talking about him. I stayed silent in the month before the election because the entire country seemed to be talking about him, even his enemies, and it empowers him. I’m tired of the jokes. They’re not funny anymore, if they ever were. I want to put this year behind us and pretend it didn’t happen, pretend half my country didn’t just vote for war crimes and racial oppression and naked abuse of power. But it seems our long nightmare is just getting started.

In the fight that lies ahead there are some people who are going to need to be activists, speaking out against his abuses. But there are others who are going to be called in a different direction. We need artists and writers and poets and prophets and thinkers and intellectuals who can rekindle a sense of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in an ugly and deceitful country. We need fighters who will expose the lies of the right-wing media bubble that imprisons millions and helped bring him to power. And we need novelists and bakers and dancers and musicians to remind us what the good is, and that a nation where twenty percent of the adult population hasn’t been to a library in their adult life is neither sane nor healthy.

The only redeeming aspect of this election and its outcome is that many of us didn’t know how diseased our country was. Now we know. Today is a day of mourning. But tomorrow we have to get up and begin the long work of taking it back.

I’m Sorry to Inform You I have Rejected Your Application to Date Me

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Dear Ms. Pengelly:

First I want to thank you for your patience during the last few weeks as we finished scoring your exam. It’s over now and you can relax. I hope the end of the day finds you in a big leather armchair surrounded by pillows, feasting on a slice of your favorite cake (orange-gingerbread, as I recall).

Since you applied to this position over a year ago, your commitment has been tireless and impressive. Regardless of my final decision, you’ve joined the elite rank of applicants. Over 50 percent of potential romantic interests are eliminated before the examination round, whether because of a poorly written essay or failure to disclose their complete medical history.

Second, I invite all applicants to meditate on the words of ee cummings: “nobody loses all the time.” Life is random and arbitrary, and at any given moment most of us are losing at something. Tomorrow’s victories nip at the heels of today’s defeats, and vice versa.

Still, it is with great sadness that I inform you I must reject your application to be my dating partner.

As Miriam explained to you when you started the application process, the examination is graded according to five criteria: Professionalism; Recitation and Delivery; Knowledge of Culture; Opinions; and Survival in a Harsh Environment.

With respect to the first criteria, you acquitted yourself admirably. No applicant makes it this far into the process without demonstrating a marked level of professionalism, and your choice of attire—earth tones, non-garish nail polish, a splash of body spray—served you well during the oral portion of the exam.

The pieces you chose for the Recitation and Delivery portion of the exam were similarly impressive. I won’t pretend I wasn’t flattered when you recited the entirety of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory, as I believe I have been careful to mention (more than once) in your presence that it is my favorite poem.

I was equally pleased when you recited, with great vigor, the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V—although I would have preferred “Once More Unto the Breech,” the enthusiasm with which you grabbed hold of that tree limb and raised yourself into the air as you shouted, “And hold their manhoods cheap!” etc. won me over completely, and any complaints about delivery (the occasionally shrill timber of your voice, for example) feel like nitpicking.

(Though, for future reference, the correct line reading is “when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,” NOT “when I am writhing,” which any self-respecting seventh-grader might have told you).

Unsurprisingly, your knowledge of culture was impressive, but it’s when we come to Opinions that your responses really begin to raise red flags:

– you mentioned liking the Beach Boys “about as well” as Pink Floyd, when the Beach Boys are demonstrably better

– your assessment of Sufjan’s early works paid scant attention to “Illinois,” his finest album to date

– you (correctly) listed Poirot among your favorite detectives, but lavished far too much praise on Ms. Lemon (when Hastings is the real glue that holds the show together).

– you cited Harry Potter as “one of the great fantasy series of our time” when it is, in fact, the greatest, bar none

– most worryingly of all, near the end of the oral portion when I asked whether you preferred cats or dogs, you broke down in tears and said, “Dogs, I guess,” when the correct answer was obviously “cats.”

Overall, it pains me to say, your conduct during the exam was exemplary. Although the interviews and tests were grueling, you never wavered in your devotion. I can’t tell you how moved I was when you woke up in that replica of Regency England—how you spent two weeks searching for another human soul—how you taught yourself to make butter and sew and store meats… and at the end of it, when your resolve was breaking down, when you didn’t think you could go on living, you took out the photo of me that you keep in your wallet and whispered, “No matter what happens, I will always love him.” And you held on to that conviction, even when you found out it was a simulation.

So it’s only with the greatest regret that I’m rejecting your application, because of the concerns mentioned.

But at least the exam is over now! You should reward yourself, maybe by going some place where the weather is warm and you can eat paella all day in the sun. And remember that if you are unhappy with the results of this exam, you are welcome to re-apply at any time.

Best wishes,

Let’s All Agree to Stop Talking about You-Know-Who

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Morse could not care less about You-Know-Who.

As of today, we have only one month and one day until the US presidential election. That can seem hard to believe, especially if you buy into the theory that this year has been going on forever and all our memories of the past are fake.

I hate to say it, but in the next month the election is just going to intensify. It’s going to be the last sixteen months again, only more. Terrorists will attack and one of the candidates will congratulate himself. Ex-wives and beauty pageant contestants and small dogs will come forward to explain how that candidate mistreated them. The Christian Right will continue its long, humiliating slide into irrelevance.

And the news is going to be wall-to-wall coverage of that rascal. You’ll log onto twitter and everyone will be tweeting about him, even the folks who don’t like him. (Especially them). He’s succeeded in creating what most narcissists can only dream of: a republic where he is the sole topic of conversation, now and always, forever and ever.

What if we just stopped?

What if we all agreed, for the next month, not to talk about this man?

Not to tweet about him?

I can hear you objecting. “He’s the most dangerous candidate nominated by a major party in our lifetimes; this is about good and evil; we have to do whatever we can to stop him.”

I don’t disagree.

I just don’t think that “fighting him” and “ignoring him” are mutually exclusive.

Especially not for a man as narcissistic and thin-skinned as this one.

If no one was talking about him, what would he do? Would he wither? Would he disappear?

Or would he just explode?

Quite possibly he would. The only reason he hasn’t yet is because we haven’t tried it. We keep trying to fight him with words and attention, and that just gives him oxygen, and energy.

So let’s agree to stop talking about him. From now until the election, let’s shun him with our hearts and with our words. Let’s pretend he’s not there.

He’ll be the guy in the coffee shop sitting down next to us, waving his arms, trying to get our attention. And we’ll put in our headphones and turn up the music and read our books in peace while he slowly self-consumes with rage.

Imagine how he’ll feel when he logs onto twitter and not a single person has tweeted about him.

Imagine how much happier we’ll be, how much calmer it will be in a world where he doesn’t matter.

Sometimes it feels like we’re addicted to talking about him. But there are thousands of other things that are Not Him, each of which is more delightful and interesting. Here are a few suggestions to help you start a non-You-Know-Who-related conversation:

– Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” trilogy (Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys which is inferior but worth reading)

– hot-air balloons floating above church spires

– a goldendoodle in need of a good home

– the Blessed Virgin Mary

– a lighthouse that sells fudge and ice cream

– fox fur stoles

– sheep: do they go to heaven

– shooting jackets worn over fancy waistcoats

– cathedral parapets

– a hand-cranked sewing machine

– the 1973 film version of The Three Musketeers starring Michael York

– an empire gown made of the purest white linen

– a rusty clawfoot tub filled with perfumes and various unguents

– a boot-scraper chasing a sedan chair mounted on poles

happy tweeting!

 

The Real Reason So Many Christians Make Bad Art, or How I Learned to Love the World

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During the past year or so I’ve become utterly engrossed in the TV series Friday Night Lights.

No one in my family expected this. I’ve never liked football; if you asked, I’m not sure I could tell you what a yard line is. (That’s a thing in football, right?). And it’s a show about rural Texas, a place I spent a good portion of my youth trying to escape.

There are no wizards or magicians, no real mysteries, and only a couple of murders (in the widely panned second season, which I’ve mostly avoided watching). In other words, none of the elements that usually draw me into a show and sustain my attention over four or five seasons.

What it does have, in spades, is detail. When she was reviewing the first season for the AV Club, Sonia Saraiya smartly noted, “The show is almost impossibly rich with detail… what makes Friday Night Lights evergreen is how detailed and authentic the production is.”

That sense of detail was what hooked me during the first season, far more than the high school drama between Tim, Jason, and Lyla, or wondering whether Jason would ever walk again. I had never seen a show that so perfectly captures what it’s like to grow up in Texas. (Among recent movies, only Boyhood comes close). Again and again the show gets it right on the smallest levels—the late-night runs to Whataburger, a fridge full of half-eaten barbecue, a screen door looking out on a back porch that’s just a single slab of concrete with a potted aloe vera plant. The writers clearly did their research. I felt like I was watching a documentary about my hometown.

Ever since I left the weird cult a few years ago I’ve had this peculiar hunger. It’s a hunger for something I didn’t have as a child, and that’s a passionate curiosity to know the names of things, to know what things are. It’s a hunger to know the world, to rub the back of my hand against it and feel its texture.

Maybe it’s a writer thing, but lately, when I read a book, it’s not enough for me to know that a tree was climbed. I want to know more about this tree: was it a cedar? An oak? An elm? Did it have fruit or nuts? Is the street on which the heroine and the giant centipede are fighting made out of stone blocks or asphalt? Because I don’t think I can be fully invested in this fight unless I know what the street is made of.

In my newfound fascination with things I started a notebook where I listed every interesting detail in the books I read and the movies I watched—a list that ran for hundreds and hundreds of pages: types of clothes; types of food; different architectural styles; dances of the Regency era; types of trees found in West Texas. Things I had never paid attention to before I joined the cult had now become the only things that could hold my attention.

When I was young, growing up in a fundamentalist church, this kind of absorption in the world was discouraged. “Love not the world, nor the things in the world,” was a verse that got thrown at me a lot (and is still thrown at me, on occasion). In the twisted interpretation of faith that my mom practiced, the world was just a coded symbol waiting to be deciphered, full of mysterious numbers and coincidences and patterns. This wasn’t a world that could be known or loved, but one that could only be decoded.

And I think that lack of engagement with the world can actually starve a child. It’s a form of spiritual malnourishment that leaves us grasping and impoverished. In one of his novels Jasper Fforde mentions how the lengthy descriptive passages in The Lord of the Rings can nourish a person spiritually. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within my cult, descriptive writing was preached against as if it was some kind of sin.

But now I’m finding that description, when it’s done well, doesn’t have to be flowery or purple. Description is just another word for the naming of things as they are.

So lately as I’ve been paying attention to things and asking questions, it feels like I’m reclaiming part of myself. At heart I’ve always been a person who’s absolutely obsessed with detail, but such fascination is anathema in a religious environment where the world is a place you’re trying to escape from.

And the reason so many novels marketed to Christians fail at the most basic level is because they don’t name these things, because their authors don’t know those things, because they’ve never taken to heart the advice of Rich Mullins and learned the names of birds and plants, the names of the constellations, the difference between a tulip and a redbud.

With a few notable exceptions (Rich Mullins among them—who could forget the moonlight spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills?), Christian culture has lost the art of paying attention to things. Open one of the Left Behind books at random, for example, and notice how lovingly the authors describe their weaponry and telephones, but what scant attention they pay to anything else—the natural world, what people look like, how people actually talk. Then contrast that with someone like Flannery O’Connor, whose every line conveys an understanding of the place in which she lives and the people who live there: an intensely religious woman in one story has “the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.” (One gets the sense that the Catholic Flannery knew her white Southern Protestant culture better than it knew itself).

And I think what ultimately separates good writing from bad writing, and good ideologies from bad ones, is the permission to be curious, to be utterly fascinated with the beauty and the horror of the world and the million small things that make it so beautiful and horrible. I don’t want to be part of your religion if your religion has no time for gelato or prosciutto or Michelangelo. I’m not interested in your justice movement if you’re not interested in hearing me rave about velvet pelisses and candied hibiscus flowers and green bean casserole with deviled eggs.

Because in the end, the naming of things has a sacramental power. It puts us in touch with the things themselves, and things—material things, the stuff of this good earth—are signposts pointing us to God. That doesn’t mean we have to love them for that reason. But they carry the divine spark because they come from the divine hand, and if we allow ourselves permission to love things, we may eventually find ourselves falling in love with God.