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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. 


Lamentation: A Necessity, Not an Option

A month ago, I introduced Coral Ridge to her first (at least to my knowledge) full-blown congregational song/Psalm of lament (Karl Digerness' fabulous "How Long O Lord [Psalm 13]"). It got me thinking about the relationship of lamentation to the gospel and how it all works both in corporate worship and in our daily lives. Go over to LIBERATE and check out the post: "Why Lamentation Must Precede Liberation."

SIDENOTE: That piece of art at the top of the post is "The Lamentation" by Ludovico Carracci (c. 1582). I was in NYC at the Metropolitan Museum of Art several weeks ago, and that painting arrested me. 


Eminem the Theologian

I recently posted over at LIBERATE on Eminem's brilliant new album, The Marshall Mathers LP2. Art historian and cultural analyst at King's College, Dan Siedell, has encouraged me of late to more honestly listen to the way art deals with dark themes. And Andy Crouch, who spoke at this year's Liberate Conference, encouraged much of the same.

I was blown away by the artistry and poignancy of the first song on Eminem's album, and I quickly realized that it was a kind of umbrella to the themes explored throughout the rest of the record. I encourage you to go hear what I have to say!

Read the post HERE.


"Art Diagnoses Me" and Other Fabulous Thoughts

I recently watched this 45-minute lecture by my friend, Dan Siedell, and I found it challenging, compelling, and fresh. He gives a very different angle on how Christians think about art and its purpose(s). I don't hear others talking like this. It's vulnerable and autobiographical, but its points aren't just subjective musings.


  • What Dan describes as "art interpreting me" gets at art's prophetic role in our lives, causing us to question ourselves, analyze ourselves, as it forth-tells truths to us about us.
  • He graciously challenges the understanding of some of the seminal works on art that have influenced evangelicals


The work of art...makes a claim on the viewer: "You, whom I see; you, who stands before me; you must give an account." And I have felt that claim. Theologian Oswald Bayer simply but provocatively states: "We must be told who we are." A painting does something like that to me. It diagnoses me, tells me who I am and who I am not. And one of the ways it does that is to disclose the present moment. As sons and daughters of Cain, we live our lives as restless wanderers and enveloped in a fog of discontent. We find comfort in the past with our nostalgia or regret and in the future with our fears and ambitions. We reign as kings in what David Foster Wallace once called "our tiny, skull-sized kingdoms." The work of art jerks us out of that fog back into the present moment where I stand being looked at by another, spoken to by another, reminded by what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians: "What do you have that you did not first receive?" The painting, when I happen upon it at a museum, exists at that moment for me. I am the intended audience for that work, and it speaks to me. What do I hear? That is the challenge and opportunity of art criticism and theology.

One of the things that compels me most about this lecture is that it seeks to understand (especially modern) art from the motivation of love, first and foremost. I don't hear that preeminent motivation in the way other Christians sometimes speak of modern art. Also contained in this talk is some very important reflection on the how the law and the gospel play out in life, particularly through art. 

The lecture begins at about 4:30 and ends at 46:00, after which begins a time of Q & A.


Defending the Musical Simplicity of Worship Songs

From several directions is sometimes heard the critique that "all modern worship songs sound the same"--the same four chords, the same trite melody, the same form, the same epic rise and fall.  Songwriters like me, when sitting down to put pen to paper on a musical staff, feel these critiques both consciously and subconsciously. We feel pressure to come up with something new, fresh, and different.  So we try to think outside of the conventional box of chords and progressions or come up with surprising melodies or out-of-the-ordinary song-forms.  Honestly, whenever I've succumbed to that pressure, I've crashed and burned in writing a good worship song.  But there's a reason why that has happened.

Elements of simplicity should characterize worship songs.  There should be aspects of a worship song that make it sound "the same."  

In worship songs, the music should always serve the text.

Unlike perhaps all other songwriting ventures, the worship song has a unique job description.  It is not first and foremost to be an art piece, though it could be. It is not first and foremost to be musically received with great reflection to mine the depths of its complexity and uncover new layers of truth and meaning, though it could be. The very genre of "worship song" or "hymn" in the songwriting field demands a pecking order: text above music. Have you ever noticed with certain paintings how a frame that's too ornate detracts from being able to engage with the piece of art itself?  Of course, there are times when the frame is part of the piece of art, but most times, the goal of a frame is to provide a level of simplicity to effectively surround, enhance, and amplify what is on the canvas.  So it is with the music of a worship song.  The music is to frame the text.  A good rule of thumb, when a worship songwriter is venturing into some uncharted or risky musical territory, is to simply ask the question, "Does this musical moment enhance or take away from the text?"  Worship songs are intended to be sung by masses of people who are attempting to corporately dialogue with God through faithful words. The conversation of worship can get easily interrupted when the music honks louder than the text. It becomes obnoxious, and it derails the train of the purposes of worship.  So, because music serves the text in worship songs, one should expect that such songs are more musically simple, just as one can expect the frames of paintings to be simple more often than not.

Simple is not the same as simplistic.

The frame metaphor is helpful in parsing the difference between simple and simplistic. There is a difference between a frame which is made simple through purpose, intent, wisdom, and a harnessed craftsmanship, and a frame which is cheap.  Sometimes, to the indiscriminate and undisciplined eye, a simple frame and a cheap frame look the same.  Likewise, the charge of a "musically cheap" worship song can be proffered too quickly and too easily. There is a difference between simple clarity and simplistic kitsch, and sometimes a quick, off-the-cuff, far off glance isn't good enough to determine the difference. (Some of the measures for how to determine the difference are below.)

Simple music serves the musically simple congregant.

Crazy chord progressions might pay hommage to the musical innovation of Beethoven or the Beatles, but they often become a stumbling block to the average congregant who doesn't have the musical compass to navigate those turbulent sonic waters. A songwriter who seeks to be a servant of their brothers and sisters knows they must err on the side of simplicity so as to not alienate or distract.  There is a measure of relativity to where this boundary between "challenging" and "too far" is. (Some congregations are centered in musically robust cities, where the culture generally "educates" people into greater capacities.) But the general principle still applies, and a songwriter seeking to faithfully love and shepherd God's flock probably knows when what they're writing will confuse the musically simple congregant.  And, again, when the congregant has to stumble over the music to get to the text, you've lost the battle. In this way, we can see how worship songwriting is a pastoral endeavor.

The genre of rock demands an element of simplicity.

I hear this argument less, but it should be articulated, especially to musicians who are irritated by "the same four chords" and "the same trite melodies."  Most folks writing worship songs in the West these days are consciously or unconsciously writing in the genre of rock.  Though it's an ever-evolving art form (and, yes, I believe it to be an art form), its evolution has carried with it certain "constants," which are precisely those building blocks that make it "rock."  

When I have conversations with classical music elitists (I used to be one, myself) who view rock as restricted and simple, I am quick to remind them of our beloved sonata form.  No serious classical musician would fault the sonata for having a predictable form--A, B, A, or "exposition," "development," "recapitulation." They wouldn't say "how trite," or "how boring," or "how uninspiring." They would properly recognize that working within its form is part of the artistic endeavor of that pursuit. They would see the "rules" of that form not as binding to the ability to artistically express.  They wouldn't say, "'s another trite return to the same thing they started with in the previous A-section."  No, they'd recognized that the art comes from how the composer expresses from within the rules of the form (and sometimes pushes the boundaries of those rules).

Similarly, rock has rules and a vocabulary that most people are now subconsciously attuned to.  Part of the reason "the same chords" are prevalent in worship songs is because they are the principle chordal building blocks of the rock genre.  The songwriter is not so much being trite as they are being faithful to the form. There is an element of truth to the fact that all rock "sounds the same," but it is no different than the way a sonata "moves the same." Suddenly, critics must work a lot harder and be a lot more nuanced in their criticism if they're going to fault the worship song for its "predictability."  (This, by the way, is some of the nuancing I see thinkers like T. David Gordon not doing.)

Much of rock is built on:

  • strong attention to rhythm
  • primary chords: I, IV, V, and vi
  • secondary chords: ii, iii
  • verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form
  • a folk-style aesthetic of less chords over longer melodic lines as opposed to a traditional/classical aesthetic of chord changes on nearly every move of the melody (i.e. "block-chord" formation, which most old hymns employ)
  • short instrumental melodic motifs, often called "hooks" or "riffs"
  • simple, repetitive vocal melodies which vacillate between being melismatic and "leapy"

These are arguably the general boundaries within which most modern worship songwriters engage their craft. Any honest musician would not think of these as "limitations" as much as the components of the genre, and their exploration of these components is not necessarily evidence of lack of musical prowess.  Just as the sonata structure is "simple," so the components of rock are "simple." Critics are making category-mistakes when they indiscriminately throw the "trite" and "kitschy" labels out there.  Just as the sonata is "predictable," so in many ways rock is "predictable," and one shouldn't necessarily fault them for being so.  My friend Jered McKenna made this same point well in a post a few weeks back.

The Heart of the Matter

The truth is, for worship songwriters who know what they're doing, it takes more discipline and humility to write simply and avoid the temptation to more overtly display one's artistic prowess.  At least for me, the times when I've crossed the boundary into being too complex and too ornate are the times where I can admit that my sinful heart was engaging in a self-salvation project, desperately trying to prove to other songwriters and art buffs that I was worthy.  In a great post on this very subject, Bobby Gilles outlines how the greatest hymn writers (e.g. Watts, Wesley, Cowper) understood and cherished the dynamic of harnessed simplicity.  No one would accuse that crowd of being trite, surface-level, fluffy theologians and songwriters. So in the end, my encouragement to critics is not to cease criticism but to go about their criticism from a more informed, generous, and nuanced approach. 


Salvation History in Twelve Easy Songs

Did You Sneeze?

I learned a big German word in seminary that I often throw around when I want to feel self-righteously smarter than other people—heilsgeschichte (pronounced “hiles-guh-SHICKH-tuh”)Biblical theologians use this word, translated “salvation history,” to talk about Scripture’s meta-narrative—its single plotline traced from Genesis to Revelation. 

In my opinion, the best reflections on salvation history zero in on interpreting all of Scripture in light of and through the lens of Jesus Christ (you might be surprised that some reflections on salvation history don’t do this).  The way I figure, if Christ interpreted all of Scripture in light of Himself, I can do no better than to attempt to try to find Him, well, everywhere (Luke 24:27).  I want Jesus’ exegetical method to be mine.

The Blood + The Breath, by Caroline Cobb

Now what happens when an artist investigates and explicates this heilsgeschichte?  For singer-songwriter Caroline Cobb, a concept album called The Blood + The Breath was birthed, creatively telling the story of Jesus in the Scriptures.  Needless to say, I’m an instant and huge fan of this project.  For me, this scratches so many artistic and theological itches.  It was released on Tuesday, so please buy it here ( iTunes | physical copy ), buy it early, and buy it often.

Pastors like me long to encourage artists like Caroline to do theological reflection through various artistic media precisely so: (1) we don’t forget that truth is not just right but beautiful; and (2) it is in the experience of truth’s beauty that we come to a more deep understanding of it (with the most holistic sense of “understanding” in mind here).  When we experience truth’s beauty, who we are as redeemed human beings becomes more fully realized.  Artists have something unique to contribute to our spiritual formation as disciples of Christ. 

The Album’s Story

Each song on The Blood + The Breath parachutes down into specific markers in the landscape of salvation history, all the while not losing the forest for the trees.  However, it begins and ends with a Prologue and reprised Epilogue which revel in Romans 11:32-36 and Colossians 1:15-20, word for word, line by line.  Its music has the epic feel and Divine calm of John 1. 

The second track, “Garden,” flies over creation and lands in Eden.  Even in the first two songs, we here the themes of blood and breath explored, here in this song tarrying in the ambiguity of the “breathiness” of the Holy Spirit in creation and re-creation:

I will breathe into the dust
The breath of life and all my love
And when you open your eyes
You will see and be satisfied
Because I will be with you
I will be with you, I

The final verse walks on from Eden, to Babel, to the golden calf (but ends again with grace, just as any instance of salvation history does):

Pick the lies right off the tree
Your eyes are opened but not to see
Build a tower to the sky
You think you know, you think you’re wise
Melt your gold down to a god
Sell your soul to pay for your facade
Trade your truth for silence
I’ll let you loose if you want it

“All the Stars” explores the Abrahamic covenant with a twinkling piano motif, and next comes “The Passover Song,” which is one of my favorites on the album.  It is brilliant musically and textually.  Its lyrics are worth reading in full:

There’s a promise in our veins
But it’s faded by all these years in chains
Send a prophet, send the plagues
That by sunrise we will no more be slaves

Take the lamb, take the blood
And paint it on our doorways
At night death will come but pass us by

This is all our hope and peace 

In the morning we will rise
Taste the freedom we thought we’d never find
We will dance now in the streets
Once held captive now we shall live as kings

Lift your head, your voice
And sing of your salvation
Of the blood of the lamb that gave us life

Now by this we’ll overcome
Now by this we’ll reach our home

There’s a poison in our veins
And it leads to death we cannot escape
Send a ransom a perfect Son
Remedy the curse with His precious blood

And the Lamb that will come
His cross will be our doorway
And the red of His blood will make us white
And daughters and sons
Rejoice in resurrection
And death swallowed up in endless life

Glory, glory this I sing
All my praise for this I bring
Naught of good that I have done
Nothing but the blood of Jesus 

What I love about this song is that it accomplishes musically what does textually, with its quotations of the hymn “Nothing But the Blood” as a lens through which to process the first Passover, in all its gore and glory, justice and joy. 

“Your Wounds” and “Dry Bones” pick up in the prophets—Isaiah and Ezekiel.  Notable in “Dry Bones” is its use of the parched, gritty style of country blues, filled with musical agitation, fitting for Ezekiel’s vision of the Resurrection as brittle bones vivify as they become wrapped in supple flesh.

“Everything You’ve Heard” moves us to the ministry of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, with some fabulous one- and two-liners that prove that good songwriting can really serve to both illumine Scriptural truth and prophesy it to our hearts:

You’ve heard it said, “don’t you murder anyone”
But you carry your anger like a knife
And your insults like a gun

You’ve heard it said, “don’t you cheat on your wife”
But your mind is a motel room
And you undress the other woman with your eyes

“Gethsemane” focuses on the garden the night before the crucifixion, which is an interesting and unconventional choice when reflecting on Christ’s passion in one shot.  I like it.  It offers a different angle on the cross.  “He Is Risen,” with its simple singability, is one that I could actually envision congregations singing (which I know wasn’t necessarily Cobb’s intent, but is a bonus!).  “Breath of God” is another congregationally-friendly song, and it’s my next favorite on the record, perhaps simply for the line,

O breath of God, O Spirit, come
Fill our mouths and loose our tongues

It’s a new twist for me on the “tongues” concept surrounding Pentecost to think that the reversal of Babel on that fateful day was executed so that our tongues would be unbound to sing God’s praises.  Whoa.  The penultimate song, “Wake Up,” peers at the final resurrection through the looking glass of 1 Corinthians 15. 

The final song very creatively weaves in both the music and themes of the album, all nestled in an ethereal, heavenly, Revelation-like blanket.

Final Thoughts and Giveaway

If you’ve read this far, you’re beginning to see that this album is a work of art and a cohesive whole, showing one great example of how a singer-songwriter does theology through their artistic medium.  I might challenge Cobb to add to her theological reflection one dispensation that was jumped over in The Blood + The Breath, namely, the period of the kings (1 Samuel – 2 Kings), which is so important to the story of salvation history.  But I understand the need to make important edits for the sake of brevity and clarity.

Now for the fun stuff!  I’ve got two giveaway opportunities that Caroline has graciously offered for this blog:

  • The first prize is a free digital copy of the album.
  • The grand prize is a digital copy, plus physical copy and companion devotional to be mailed to your front doorstep.

All you have to do is tweet or Facebook about this post, and you’ll be entered. (Make sure to tag me so I know you've entered, or you'll slip through the cracks.) This time around, we’re keeping it short and sweet and will close off entries on the end-of-day this Friday.  So hurry up and tweet it or get it up on your Facebook wall.  We'll draw two winners and announce them within a week!

Here’s an auto tweet for you on-the-go folks.  :) 

In the meantime, go get Caroline's album, and tell your friends about it.


Why the Spirit is the Artist’s Best Friend

"May Hour of Pentecost," by Makoto FujimuraBringing Life & Bringing Beauty

There is an interesting link worth pondering between the Holy Spirit’s creative and aesthetic roles.  Scripture speaks often of the unique role of the Spirit in vivifying—bringing life.  Job 33:4 exclaims, “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”  Isaiah prophesies, “The Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest” (Isaiah 32:15).  The Psalmist cries, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30).

No wonder, then, in the Trinity’s group-strategy of our salvation, the Spirit is tasked with the role of “new birth.”  “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6).  In Trinitarian soteriology (the theology of how we are saved by God), the Father chooses and calls, the Son accomplishes the work, and the Spirit, as the life-giver, applies the work of the Son to us. 

Making Life is Making Beauty

When we take the Spirit’s life-giving roles one step further, we enter quite naturally into the realm of aesthetics, because the lines between bringing life and bringing beauty are fairly blurred.  To vivify is to beautify.  Think of the people you know that you might describe as “full of life.”  Don’t they also seem beautiful to you?   Or think of those perhaps semi-attractive people you know of whom you’ve said, “Once I got to know them better, and saw their [full of life] personality, they seemed more attractive, more beautiful.”  When life bursts forth and grows, it’s intrinsically beautiful, isn’t it?  Nature reflects this in spring.  Humans reflect this in conception and birth.  It makes sense, then, when Job says, “By his breath [or Spirit], the skies became fair.”  Creation is not just a constructive endeavor.  It is an aesthetic one.

Why the Spirit is the Artist's Best Friend 

This helps us understand why the Spirit is the artist's best friend:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”  (Exodus 31:1-5, ESV)

I often pray with the musicians I work with before the service something like this prayer: “God, fill us up with your Holy Spirit to make beautiful art to You today.  Establish the work of our hands that the beauty You make in us might serve to inspire Your people to sing mightily unto you.”

If it really is true that all the world runs on Trinitarian fuel, then certainly every creative, beautiful endeavor, though marred by the fall, human frailty, and sinful privation, is the work of the Spirit in us.  The beauty we make is more than just echoes and reverberations of God’s beauty; it is the very Power of God, through the Spirit, in us.

Discipling Artists in this Truth

One of the ways we worship pastors can help make disciples of artists is to remind them of the Spirit’s work within them.  We should be quick to point out that God cares enough about art and beauty that one of the central roles of one of the Persons is to uphold, supplant, sustain, indeed inspire that human enterprise.  We should encourage them that their work has value not only because it might impact lives but because it is simply beautiful…and beautification is central to the heart of God.  We can edify them by reminding them that their art-making is, in fact, evidence that God is at work within them.  The beautiful outcome of their craft is a sign that God is near.

The understatement of the century: the Spirit is the artist’s best friend.


Gratuitous: We Worship as God Creates (Part 2)

Gratuitous beauty one Sunday at Coral RidgeIn the previous post, we explored the shocking gratuity of God’s beauty displayed in the earth.  We discussed how the Trinity’s lavish outpouring of excessive beauty should be reflected in our worship, because our worship reflects our God.  We now briefly turn to the pragmatics of how we as worshipers and worship leaders might see that gratuitous beauty come to life in our churches.

Toward a Way Forward

Here are some thoughts, off the top of my head, toward seeking more gratuitous beauty in our worship services.  (I’d love to hear yours!)

Have a keen sense of smell for the off odor of hyper-pragmatism.  (Notice that I said "hyper"; being practical isn't necessarily bad.)  Pragmatism doesn’t have to be the enemy of beauty, but in our history, it often has been (just think of educational budget cuts in schools and which departments first get hit).  When “what works best” is the prevailing mantra, just know that sometimes beauty gets suffocated.  Beauty, for everyone but God (Who is neither wanting nor wasting), often requires a bit of excess—excess money, excess raw materials, excess time, etc.  And excess is not a part of the pragmatist’s paradigm.  Excess feels very impractical.  We evangelicals have a long history of prioritized pragmatism (you hear it in the quip, “Win the lost at any cost.”).  We just need to have our antennae up for how pragmatism sneaks in to choke out beauty, and we need to be able to willingly and lovingly call it out.  (This is sometimes what is behind the tension between a worship pastor and a lead pastor.  Many worship pastors intuit or lean toward fighting for beauty, and sometimes lead pastors are wired with a heavy dose of pragmatic, bottom-line thinking.)

Cast a vision for a big budget.  Gratuity involves expense, especially the kind that seems inordinate.  I remember one of my college church music professors bemoaning the anemic worship/music budgets of many churches.  Sometimes that sounds like rich-guy talk…first world problems.  It’s more complex than that.  Whether you’re a big church or a small church, urban or rural, Western or majority world, you might try encouraging a budget which, as a percentage of the whole, seems a bit much.  But then, once you do that, you need to carefully steward such gratuity.  Gratuity should not be frivolous waste but lavish love.  Remember when Mary expended a whole pint of expensive perfume on Jesus' feet in one shot (John 12).  She “wasted” a big budget.  (I praise God that at Cherry Creek and Coral Ridge I’ve been alongside leaders and church bodies that get this!)

Begin to ask how you can beautify the elements of worship that already exist.  Sometimes, when we think about “arts and worship,” we pigeonhole our thought-patterns into adding “artistic elements” to our worship (you know, freestyle sculptors and interpretive dance and such).  But, what if we took inventory of what we already do and simply asked, In what ways can we make these things more beautiful?  How can I help beautify the music?  How can our prayers and Scripture readings be more beautiful?  How can we beautify our preaching? (Many don't think about the sermon as an opportunity for beauty, but oratory is just as much aesthetic as it is didactic.)

Beautify your worship space.  This might be one of the more obvious ones, but in recent years we’ve tipped the scales heavily in favor of pragmatic function over aesthetic impact, replacing cathedrals with warehouses. So it might be worth asking the question of how we can turn our drab, dated, overly-functional, or industrial-looking spaces into inspiring, beautiful ones.  (You can think about this whether you're a church with an established building or a community meeting in temporary spaces.)

If you're at a loss in the physical-space-and-beauty conversation, a great place to start for some building blocks is Bifrost's Arts' Liturgy, Music, Space Curriculum, available for free download here (see esp. pp. 38-47).

With ALL of the above, consult artists and artistically-minded people.  Don’t just commission an artist (or worse, ask for a donation) to paint some murals for your fellowship hall.  Don’t just bring them in to do a flash-mob sculpting of the bust of Jesus during your service.  Don’t just replace the sermon one Sunday with their Shakespearean recitation of the Gospel of John.  Engage their gifts and skills in the consultation and execution of addressing the big picture stuff, like budgets, worship elements, décor, and architecture.


I've only scratched the surface. What else would you add in the discussion of reflecting the Trinity's generosity of beauty in our worship?