Sufjan Stevens' Insight Not to Be Missed

A Lot Under the Bus

Author David Roark has published a well-written article about Sufjan Stevens vis-à-vis the "Christian Music" scene. Roark has located the turn from Christians-as-artists to "Christian artists" in the 1960s, with the Jesus Movement's evangelistic objectives and youth culture targeting. The bulk of the article is focused on the dichotomy between what artists like Sufjan are trying to do and what the "Christian Art" world is doing. I appreciate the article, but at the same time I've become weary of such blanket diagnoses that appear to file everything coming out of "the industry" as "bad" and "kitschy." I understand that the need for brevity and clarity in such forums drives the thinking to sharp distinctions, but for me its black-and-whiteness throws too much under the bus that doesn't need to be thrown there. Not all produced within the cubicled four walls of a fabled Nashville office needs to be so blanketly dismissed. Still, I don't want to discount the need for us to charitably make some of the observations that Roark is making.

The Easily-Missed Punchline

People who read the article will probably either take offense or cheer it on. The polarizing nature of its content might cause either party, though, to miss something VERY profound at its end. In many ways, what is said here is THE fundamental insight for Christians in the arts (and, in fact, humans everywhere doing anything):

 “It’s not so much that faith influences us as it lives in us. In every circumstance (giving a speech or tying my shoes), I am living and moving and being. This absolves me from ever making the embarrassing effort to gratify God (and the church) by imposing religious content on anything I do.”

Please, please don't miss this. Here we have bedrock theology packed into what feels like a simple response. Stevens is making a few distinctions worth chewing on. First, faith is less a part of our life and more like an alien living inside of us. Second, this faith "absolves" artists from having to "impose religious content" on what they do. This is profound.

Sufjan Probably Isn't Afraid of Modern Art

It reminds me very much of what made Dan Siedell's Who's Afraid of Modern Art? so unique among conversations about Christianity and the arts (please read my review here). It drills down deep, beyond the conversations about what is "appropriate" or "Christian." It finds that subterranean core that echoes up to the surface its cries to be justified.

Stevens and Siedell remind us that many of our attempts as Christians in making art are really an "embarrassing effort to gratify God." It is always the case that when we are attempting to justify ourselves before God, we end up instrumentalizing, rather than receiving, God's good gifts, whether they be people or art. Perhaps the reason why some Christian art feels so cheesy and kitschy is because we can see through its all too thin sheen, recognizing it as an instrument for something else. When art is so wholeheartedly used for religious purposes (i.e. evangelism or persuasion to a Christian worldview), it forces us to look through it and past it, rather than, as Siedell says, "receive" it. Instruments don't speak; they are used

The Gospel, though, tells us that all our instrumentalizing efforts can cease because God has been gratified. We no longer have to make such embarrassing efforts, extracting art's art-ness to construct a platform to serve our self-salvation projects. God, in Christ, has declared us justified. We don't need to use art to satisfy our evangelism quota so that God will like us. We're free to receive art as a gift, and we're freed to make art from its gifted nature. 

Sufjan's Unlikely Bedfellow

Stevens said, "Logistically I suppose my process of making art is driven less by abstractions of faith or politics and more by practical theory: composition and balance and color.” I find the freedom of this strikingly similar to how Siedell describes 17th century Spanish painter, Diego Velázquez:

Velázquez not only refused to solicit or accept commissions, but he also refused to paint the historical and religious subjects that featured heroes from classical and biblical literature and which traditionally established an artist's reputation.*

This anti-establishment spirit (the same one I sense in Stevens) doesn't seem to be for rebellion's sake (another veiled form of self-justification), but out of a freedom granted from outside oneself. Siedell notes that Velázquez didn't take his paintings too seriously, evidenced by his odd practice of cleaning his brush on the corners of the very canvases on which he painted. I see that same kind of playful spirit in a man who performs quirky folk arrangements on a banjo while wearing bird wings. Siedell asks then answers:

How could a human being so gifted care so little about his gift? Certainly, a human being whose identity is received as grace, whose relationship to God, the world, and himself was not defined by his work as an artist and the paintings he painted.*

Would to God that we could all do our art-making from this starting place. From here, art would be simultaneously free and (most deeply and profoundly) Christian. Indeed, Lord, have mercy.

*Dan Siedell, Who's Afraid of Modern Art (Eugene: Cascade, 2015), 80, 85.

Behind the Song, "It Is Finished"

Like many of you, I'm a lover of good songs. One of the things that I'm always intrigued by is what went into th writing of a song. It's like reverse get to learn about its construction after having the finished product in your hands. For Coral Ridge Music, "It is Finished" is a flagship song. We worked hard on it. Go and read about the theology, allusions, and inspiration that caused this song to be over at LIBERATE.

chord chart | lead sheet

"It is Finished" is a song for the tired and weary. It is a song for folks who have crashed and burned or who are coming to the realization that they are at the end of themselves. It's a song about the gospel...raw, unadulterated, relentless, sin-tackling grace. It's a song for everyone. Check it out.


Is it Okay to be Singing in Worship about Feelings I Don't Have?

I'm Singing It, But I'm Not Feeling It

A recent, edifying Facebook exchange I had with a friend this week about a lyric of mine got me thinking about the "dishonesty" we all feel when songs and prayers are sung and prayed corporately which DON'T reflect our current emotional frame.

It brought me back to the early conversations I had years ago with several rehymn movement pioneers. We all collectively said, "I just can't do it anymore. I can't sing these happy worship songs when I don't feel happy. I can't sing about living for Jesus every day when I know I don't live for Jesus every day." In reaction, we abandoned ship and found solace in the church's rich hymn tradition. It gave us language for sung prayer that we never had access to before--lamentation, fear, longing, delayed hope, eschatological angst. And so we all embarked on a collective, not terribly organized quest to re-give these songs to the church in our own ways.

What I describe in the above paragraph isn't really what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about emotive, evocative language that speaks very specifically to a certain moment of feeling. Should we write and sing worship songs that dabble in this very subjective reality? Or should we, away from our fleeting feelings, sing only of the unchanging Truth which is the the bedrocked lighthouse amidst the ever ebbing and flowing tides of our emotional state? 

I used to think the latter, not the former. Perhaps in reaction to the hyper-emotionalism of contemporary worship (which is increasingly a caricature more than a reality, despite its current detractors' insistence on saying the same old straw man-y thing they've been saying for well over three decades now), where it seemed like one worship song after the other was nothing more than a gush of subjective feeling devoid of any objective truth, I was throwing the baby out with the bath water in insisting upon a pure singing of Truth with a precision removal of all emotional prattle. Worship didn't need a feeling-ectomy.

A Friend Comes to the Rescue

But then a mentor came along. He immediately caught my attention because, first, he was a Grade-A intellect with all the theological pedigree of which I could only dream, and, second, the kind of worship content he was writing and the kind of worship he was leading was FULL of (maybe even over-saturated with) gushy, sappy, emotionally charged rhetoric. When I studied the worship services that this guy planned and led, I noticed that he was beating the hyper-emotionalists at their own game. My mentor's name is Thomas Cranmer, 16th Century Archbishop of Canterbury. 

What? An Anglican out-emotionalizing contemporary worship?!? I think so. Check out the charged language of this prayer of confession, penned by Cranmer:

Almighty God...we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we...most grievously have committed...The remembrance of them is grievous to us, the burden of them is intolerable: have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father.

This might sound stately and "Elizabethan" to our ears. For Cranmer and his original audience, it was quite the opposite. Its evocative language, its repetitious use of synonyms, its sensual words, its melodrama were all meant to drive the pray-er to desperation. Cranmer's liturgy is saturated with this kind of stuff.

My Conversation with Cranny

Therefore, this week I started having a little dialogue in my head with Cranmer. "So, Cranny [that's what I call him...I know, disrespectful...I bewail it], you've got to believe that there are going to be some Sundays when some folks are actually not feeling all that sorrowful about their sin. You know, those 'meh' weeks we all have? Why in the world would you put words in people's mouths that were so specific that they would inevitably alienate some who aren't feeling the feelings your portraying?" Cranmer gave me a few answers in this imaginary dialogue:

1) Look at the Psalms.

The more I read Cranmer's 1549 and 1552 liturgies, the more I'm noticing that his affective prayers and readings are often nothing more than allusions to and expansions of the Psalms. I'm probably just dense, and perhaps tried and true Anglicans have known this for years, but the extremist and quite desperate phrase "there is no health in us" from another one of his confessions, for instance, is nothing more than a quote from Psalm 38. Psalms like 13, 42, and 51 are great examples of "hyper-emotionalism." They grant us permission to experience God and life--and then sing about it--in an emotionally-charged way.

2) Remember the formation that happens even when you're saying things you don't really feel.

Just because some voiced feeling isn't actually felt doesn't make it unprofitable to say it. It just might be that it's setting up some training wheels on you so that when the waves of joy or difficulty hit, you're not whipped over on your side. It just might be that the repetitious voicing of joy might best prepare you to experience true moments of joy in the most deeply human and most fully Christian fashion. It just might be that "going through the motions" of sorrow will prepare you to repent in the best fashion in the moment when you actually blow it big. Emotional formation is a complex thing. We shouldn't discount the "numb" or disjunctive moments as being inconsequential. They are perhaps just not, in those moments, simultaneous in their experience of the verbalized word and the affect it's describing.

3) Objective truth might just be most deeply known when it is subjectively felt, not just intellectually assented to.

I was also hearing Cranmer tell me to remember what I read in James K. A. Smith's landmark, Desiring the Kingdom. (Though Cranmer obviously never read Smith, both of them were big fans of Augustine, who, distilled through the other 16th century Reformers [particularly Melanchthon], championed this anthropology.) If human beings at their core aren't so much heads on sticks but desire-based creatures, then it changes the game a bit on what "knowledge" and "understanding" are from the human perspective. Emotions devoid of objective truth might seem vapid, but emotions tethered to Truth might just be the deepest kind of full-orbed "knowing" there is. One of the reasons we want worship to be emotionally charged is simply because it's more honest with the way humans experience the world and its truths. When your loved one dies, there is a sense in which you experience that death most deeply not when you're informed of their passing (intellectual assent, a transfer of facts from one party to another), but when you're huddled up in a ball on floor, weeping your guts out. Worship needs to be emotionally charged because it is the most deeply human way to experience all of life. 

4) Not everything is for everyone at every time, but that's not a sufficient reason to dial down the emotional language.

Still, this is all going to mean that some folks just "ain't feelin' it." For all the above reasons and more, this simply isn't a sufficient enough reason to jettison the project. Life is messy, and emotions are complicated. Perhaps all this will be resolved when all our emotional, hormonal, and chemical disorders are rightly aligned and balanced with our new resurrection bodies on the other side of this very confused existence. But for now, things are just messed up, and so are we. I guess another way to answer this issue is to ask, "What's the alternative?" Do we strip our worship of all its emotional language? It sounds noble at first, because perhaps you're allowing people to feel purely what they're going to feel without any coercion. But what if people, this side of heaven, need more emotional guidance than that? It seems more pastoral to help people along by gently (or not so gently) encouraging, "Hey, this is what you should feel in this moment." You're confessing sin. You should feel pretty despondent. You're hearing the gospel. You should feel pretty relieved. You're lamenting. You should ache. This idea of emotional formation, then, actually becomes a positive reason to jam-pack our worship, not with aimless, nebulous, "feelings," but with intentional, pastorally-motivated language that provides appropriate emotional tethers to the various ups and downs of worship's narrative.

Well, thanks, Tom. Great points. It was nice talking with you. Stop by anytime. 


Behind the Music Over at LIBERATE

Since the album release of Come and Make Us Free a few weeks ago, we've been sharing the behind the scenes details about the crafting of each song--the theology, the experience, the process. This week's song is one that I've already done some writing on, and I invite you over to LIBERATE to read the summary of why we wrote "Christ Surrendered All."  It was one of the standout favorites at LIBERATE 2015.


Two Posts Not To Miss

So, I've been doing a lot more guest-posting, especially over at LIBERATE, but you'll also see me writing articles a few other places, like Reformed Worship and Doxology & Theology. For those that follow my blog, I wanted to make sure you didn't miss these articles.

A Review of Dan Siedell's
Who's Afraid of Modern Art

"Hearing Art Tell Me Who I Am"

First, and most importantly, I want to commend to my readership an unparalelled book that weaves together art and theology like nothing I've ever read. It exposes how the art world, like all of our other "worlds," is a place where human beings struggle for self-justification, identity, and meaning. It asks probing questions about the way Christians in particular have thought of modern art, and it does all of this through a thoroughly strong Reformational lens that I buy hook, line, and sinker. So, if you might be on the fence about obtaining the book, please go read my post and be convinced!


The Story Behind Our Title Track

"Why the Church Should Sing About Prostitution, Slavery, and Addiction"

Our modern confession hymn, "Come And Make Us Free," serves as the thematic crown jewel of our new album by that title. This song is full of many scriptural allusions and was written through the process of an honest, personal journey. It dives into the theology of sin, particularly as the Scriptures expose sin as prostitution/adultery, slavery, and addiction. 


New Music Roundup - Early 2015

The landscape of great worship music continues to broaden and deepen. Styles continue to diverge, and I'm finding that lyrical depth is increasing on many fronts. This is all very encouraging. This post rounds up the first half, but check back later this week for the rest of the roundup.

Citizens & Saints, Join the Triumph

I am man-crushing all over this album. Citizens & Saints, along with Dustin Kensrue, are cutting their own path. What I love most about their writing, that I see so little of elsewhere, is their ability to write energetic, up-tempo songs exploding with great theology. In my opinion, the folks in this crew are the gold standard. The production is also very original, very poppy, very synthy, AND very out-of-the-ordinary. Just listen to the first track, "The Strife Is Over": moog-ish portamento and a Who-like synth pulse. Very fresh. And then, on top of all of this, they continue to tighten their proclamation of a raw, unadulterated gospel. This is an album that proves you can be "triumphalistic" Jesus triumph.

Journey Collective, Nothing But the Blood (Single)

A stompy, soulful arrangement of the hymn BUT...with some great rewritten verses highlighting (especially racial) reconciliation, which I know is big on the heart of Journey Collective's Russ Mohr. I admire him and Journey for this bold and beautiful recording. I'm of the persuasion that we need more Christian responses to injustice that look like THIS. I'd recommend churches to engage these alternate lyrics with whatever arrangement they're used to. It's a fresh way of approaching hymn-singing with pastoral intentionality. Download a chart here, and get the song for free.

Hillsong Young & Free, This is Living (EP)

I interacted with this album a bit on my post about how EDM could be influencing the form of song-structure, but I wanted to point it out as a sign of the times. The music is fun and dance-able. I wish the lyrics were a bit stronger (still a lot of triumphalism...e.g. see the opening lines of "Energy") to match the beauty and joy of the music. I would challenge the folks doing great EDM-worship production to wed the music with fantastic texts so that dance music can be all it can be for the sake of the Church.

Coram Deo Church, Swallowed Up Death

This album is incredible. Top notch musicianship, creative production. The title track reminds me of Modest Mouse meets The Sing Team, with a generous helping of Motown. Their "Come My Way" is the first convincing tuning of this poetic hymn that I have ever heard (never been able to fully sing some of the standard tunes). "How Heavy is the Night" is an early-Radiohead-ish confession and clinging to the cross. "The King Shall Come" is a remarkable song for Advent. I love how albums like these are, in addition to repackaging hymns, interacting with the hymn tradition in the NEW songs they write. So informed, so passionate, so beautiful. I'm very inspired by this record.

Sojourn Music, New Again

They can do no wrong. I sang "New Again" with tears in my eyes for the first time at the Doxology & Theology Conference just a few months ago, and I was hooked. It's another artistic, raw, roots-rock record in the musical spirit of The Water and the Blood. The texts are remarkable and deep, spanning the important and under-served themes of lamentation ("Psalm 126"), justice ("Let Justice Roll"), God's special affection for the weak ("Blessed Are the Poor"). My favorite songs are their two eschatological masterpieces, "New Again," and "Where Your Praise Never Ends."

Bethel Music, We Will Not Be Shaken (LIVE)

Musically, this album is elegant, passionate, and artistic. Their production choices are unique, and they are the masters of creating music that you can feel. Textually, there's a lot on this album really worth engaging. The message of the gospel is prominent throughout the record, and I'm drawn to many of the unique turns of phrase they offer to describe the age old Story. Listeners should especially pay attention to the rich theology of "No Longer Slaves" and "Seas of Crimson," which are the two songs I keep going back to. The Bridge of "No Longer Slaves" has a wonderful phrase loaded with redemptive-historical allusion: "you split the sea so I could walk right through it."

Drew Collins, Songs for the Liturgy

Denver-based worship leader, Drew Collins, gives us a small group of songs inspired by the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. I recently sang his "We Hear" during an Anglican service where the cross was processed in. Songwriting like this helps liturgically-oriented congregations fill their worship with both passion and understanding. Moments of rock, but overall a very acoustically-driven record. Liturgophiles will find Collins' rendering of the Sanctus joyful and accessible. I only recently became aware of this album, so I share it with you all now!

The Brilliance, Brother

The soundscape of modern church music is changing, and one of the groups we have to thank for expanding its palette and imagination is The Brilliance. With roots in the charismatic tradition, David Gungor and team have fallen head over heels in love with the Church's rich liturgical heritage. Combine this with folk and classical sensibilities, and you've got a small taste for what their mellow, brooding, and introspective music is like. This most recent gift, Brother, resets tunes from previous records (a few of my favorites are "Does Your Heart Break," and "Breathe,") and offers a few new ones. The simplicity of the meditative "Brother" has been working on my heart. "Prayers of the People" could work in many liturgical contexts. It's encouraging to me that The Brilliance is making such headway in Worship Leader Media, with both their conferences and magazines, and I wish them the best of success there. But whatever you do, don't miss the fugue-like surprise ending to "May You Find a Light (Reprise)" that begins after the four-minute mark.

Robbie Seay Band, Psalms LP

In case you've missed Robbie Seay's last three EP's, he's combined his psalms-obsession into one album. There's no new material on the record, but you can now find all his psalm-settings in one spot. They are tasteful, singable, modernized renderings of the only fully inspired Hymn-book ever written. If you haven't heard them yet, get acquainted!

Tyler Clements & Ryan Mayo, Songs for Danforth Chapel

A quaint, elegant acoustic-pop record with some wonderful options for playable, singable hymn arrangements (some retunes, some fresh arrangements of original tunes) which are accessible and congregation-friendly. Both in stylistic choices and singing, this sounds very much like early Caedmon's Call. I love the opening verse of "Well-Worn": "In grace my Savior did pursue / Though I to other saviors flew / By Jesus sought, by Spirit born / For grace has made its path well-worn." It was released two years ago, but I've only recently come across it.


A Great Invocation to Kick off Good Friday...or any Service

For our Good Friday service at Coral Ridge this year, we will begin the evening with an Invocation for piano, strings, and voices (though it really could be reset in a bunch of different ways, from choir and organ to folk). It's called "Come Witness This Gospel to Me," off our new album, Come and Make Us Free. Personally, it's my favorite on the album and probably took the most out of me to write, which is saying a lot, given how emotionally charged the album is.

The truth is that this isn't just a Good Friday text. It's an Invocation for any service of the year. After all, worship is nothing more and nothing less than God's divine service to us, where the Father showcases the glory of the Son through the witness of the Spirit.

Below is the text, but if you want a peek behind the curtain to see what I was thinking theologically and experientially when I wrote it, check out the article just published on LIBERATE: "He Saw the Whole Bloody Thing Go Down."

One little note about the recording: I love the way the strings always sag on the underside of the pitch. It makes the song feel more heavy and grievous. It's like they're both the mourning of the Spirit and our straining to believe.

Happy Remembrancing.

Come Witness This Gospel to Me

chord chart | lead sheet | piano music


1. O Holy Spirit, O One who was there
To witness the anger that God didn't spare
To witness a verdict both just and unfair
O Holy Spirit, O One who was there 

2. You saw on His face all the judgment of hell
My story of shame that I cannot untell
How heavy my burden of blame when it fell!
You saw on His face all the judgment of hell 

Come witness this gospel to me
Remembrancer, this is my plea:
Preach Christ till He's all that I see
Come witness this gospel to me 

3. You saw in His dying the death of my sin
The Son's bleeding body, I'm hidden therein
Where all of my poison He drank deep within
You saw in His dying the death of my sin 

4. You're preaching a grace that is forever free
There's no condemnation, no wrath left for me
I hear "It is finished" from Calvary's tree
You're preaching a grace that is forever free 

Now witness this gospel to me
Remembrancer, cause me to see
That Christ is my one victory
Now witness this gospel to me 

You witness this gospel to me
Forgiveness eternally free
And always Your child I will be
You witness this gospel to me 

O Spirit, the truth I now see
You witness this gospel to me

Words & Music: Zac Hicks, 2014
©2014 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP)

Why Studying Cranmer Can Be Valuable for Worship Leaders Today

Periodically, I will be blogging over at Reformed Worship, a broad and thoughtful home for deep reflection and great resources. My first submission is a plea for folks in our Reformed tradition (and beyond) to take seriously the investigation of Thomas Cranmer, sixteenth century English Archbishop and architect of the Book of Common Prayer.

In the article, I discuss why we're tempted to overlook him as one of the Reformation's best worship thinkers and why he should be considered as someone who was laboring within the Reformed tradition (theologically, he's been unfortunately pegged all over the map). Then I offer takeaways for how his work as a "missional liturgist" (someone who thought about how to contextualize historic Christian worship for the people his day and age) can inform our practice. Go check it out!

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