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The Warrior Baby: A Different Side of Christmas, Courtesy of Benjamin Britten

My colleague, our organist and choirmaster, Douglas Macomber, introduced me to this glorious piece which is a part of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols (Opus 28).  The text of "This Little Babe" is outstanding, ringing a seldom-heard bell about what Christmas ushers in--the paradox of a baby who conquers through weakness.  Our choir sang this at our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service.  It's a bit feisty, but I wonder whether we couldn't re-tune this text for congregational singing.  Don't get me wrong, the original tune and arrangement are spot-on, but they are meant to be performed by a choir and harpist.  It would be powerful, in my opinion, if congregations could sing it, too.  And, no, those aren't typos.  They're old English words.

This little Babe so few days old, is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field, His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need, and feeble Flesh his warrior's steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall, His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes; of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angels' trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight; stick to the tents that he hath pight.*
Within his crib is surest ward; this little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

*"pight" = pitched


All Things New: Red Mountain’s Last and Finest Album

Yesterday, All Things New was digitally released to the public.  (They are in the middle of printing and will have physical copies available soon.)  It is a remarkable album and definitely Red Mountain Music’s finest work to date.

You’ll notice a subtle change to the “artist name.”  No longer on the album are they called “Red Mountain Church,” but “Red Mountain Music.”  Brian T. Murphy, Red Mountain’s architect over the last several years, explained the shift to me in a recent email:

[The] biggest reason for it being our final record is I moved to NYC, and am no longer working for Red Mountain Church.  ‘Red Mountain Music’ is essentially a separate entity from the church, but at the same time the two ideas are so closely linked that it’s probably time for some closure.

Red Mountain Church/Music has had a rich and glorious history: Depth of Mercy (2003), Heaven (2004), The Gadsby Project (2005), Help My Unbelief (2006), This Breaks My Heart of Stone (2007), and Silent Night (2008).  Each album chronicles their growth—especially stylistically—with the common thread being their unwavering commitment to setting old hymns to new music.  To classify their music as “contemporary” is too general, quite unhelpful, and even misleading.  Red Mountain Music has never been mainstream pop.  They began with a more Americana/bluegrass-rock style and have shifted over the years to a meditative indie-ambient rock, light on the drums and heavy on the layers of electric guitars (courtesy of the creativity of Clint Wells, co-producer and now in-demand Nashville session musician and gigging artist).

Is All Things New the end of Red Mountain Music?  Not exactly.  As Murphy explained to me:

I still plan to be working on future hymn / sacred projects (have one in San Fran going on in early 2011, and a project I'm planning to kick off after the new year here in NYC); [it] just might not be "Red Mountain" going forward.  I've actually been getting a number of requests to collaborate with other artists and songwriters and that is something I'm really looking forward to, since that was really part of the hallmark of Red Mountain anyway.  Anyway, I guess all that is a long way of saying, I'm pretty excited about the next chapter.

I, for one, am glad for this.  Murphy and Wells have too much to offer the church music community, in my opinion, to abandon the enterprise altogether.  We need their voice.

All Things New, from top to bottom, is an incredible album.  If you want track-listing and information on the original hymns that inspired the album, check out Cardiphonia’s post yesterday.  My own brief comments are:

  • Textually and theologically solid as always.   The lyrics are taken from old hymns, usually from the 1600-1850 era, which was a golden age for English hymn-writing.
  • Musically rich.  The production is more inviting and professional than ever.  The layers are dense and sonically interesting.  One hears some interesting use of panning and distancing in the mic-placement to allow for some tasteful, creative sounds.  (This album is worth a listen on a good set of headphones or a nice stereo system.)
  • Never too rockin’.  I’ve noticed over the years that Red Mountain (esp. Murphy and Wells) have found their angle in soft, meditative, ambient reflection.  All Things New reflects that bent.  Not one song is fast-paced; high-energy drumming is not to be found on any track.
  • Congregationally friendly.  In songwriting for congregational material, a tension exists.  Though they aren’t mutually exclusive, there is a push and pull between accessibility and musicality.  If you’re writing material that is meant to be sung by congregations, it needs to be simple enough in melody and chord structure to be singable.  At the same time, if that is one’s only concern, it becomes musically “blah.”  Red Mountain has always found that sweet spot between these two poles.  Many of the songs on All Things New are congregation-ready, and yet they hold their musical integrity as songs and as arranged, recorded material.  The tone of the songs is fairly homogeneous across the album—reflective and humble.  Nevertheless, they are accessible for congregations.

In my opinion, Red Mountain’s legacy will be that they were one of the front-runners in the hymns movement.  Whenever you hear anyone talk about the movement, two names are always referenced: Indelible Grace and Red Mountain.  Red Mountain will always be known for being one of the first (in the modern worship era) to stick their necks out there in the enterprise of setting old hymns to new music, and, unlike other projects and artists that have come and gone, Red Mountain has a seven-album longevity.  In a day and age when mainstream evangelical worship music continues to be the choice of the masses in American Christianity, Red Mountain’s achievement is truly remarkable.

I have three favorite tracks on this album.  The first is its title track, “All Things New.”  It is singable, accessible, and lyrical.  Its text is from the great hymn-writer Horatius Bonar, and it sets forth an eschatological vision which fuels the church with energy and hope.  Track five, “My Business Lies at Jesus’ Gate” is equally moving.  Here is John Berridge’s beautiful text from the Gadsby hymnal:

My business lies at Jesus’ gate,
Where many a Lazar comes;
And here I sue, and here I wait
For mercy’s falling crumbs.

My rags and wounds my wants proclaim,
And help from him implore;
The wounds do witness I am lame,
The rags that I am poor.

The Lord, I hear, the hungry feeds,
And cheereth souls distressed;
He loves to bind up broken reeds,
And heal a bleeding breast.

His name is Jesus, full of grace,
Which draws me to his door;
And will not Jesus show his face,
And bring his gospel store?

Supplies of every grace I want,
And each day want supply;
And if no grace the Lord will grant,
I must lie down and die.  

The third song of choice is Psalm 126 (“When God Revealed His Gracious Name”).  This song was written as a part of Cardiphonia’s Psalms of Ascents grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship…a glorious text-and-tune pairing.

This final offering of Red Mountain Music is certainly its pinnacle achievement.  Just as the prayer of “All Things New” is that Christ would consummate the kingdom He inaugurated upon His first advent, so my prayer for Brian, Clint, and the rest of the Red Mountain gang is that, in this new chapter of their lives, God would make all things new in them and through them as well, to the glory of Christ and for the sake of His Bride.

Praise God for the legacy of Red Mountain.  Today, I raise a glass to eight plus years of great hymns and great music.



Where Has All the Singing Gone?: The Bifrostian Vision

Isaac Wardell and Bifrost Arts offer a great reflection here.  In true Bifrostian fashion, the video is simple and artistic, with a strong and unique message.  Wardell speaks of Bifrost's own counter-cultural moves of in-home, in-art-gallery, in-church "hymn sings," where the goal is to enjoy the beauty of singing together in worship of God.  The vision cast in this video corroborates the mounting evidence that the tide is turning with younger Christians who are exchanging hype for history, lights for liturgy, passivity for participation, and hits for hymns. 

Choice quotes:

It seems like we're listening to more music than we ever have...but, we're making music together less and less.  We're singing together less and less... 

When I walk into churches, I notice a disturbing trend, that people are singing less and less in congregations.  While our music production values may be getting better, while many of us have churches that spend a lot of time thinking about the quality of the performance of our music, congregational voices seem to be fading into the background... 

More and more it seems like people show up to church and they expect to have a worship experience delivered to them rather than people showing up excited to sing together... 

I think it's important that we urge our congregants not to think of our worship services as a concert hall, as a time that we come to receive something; but to think of our worship services as a banquet hall where we come to participate in something together.

Bifrost Arts represents perhaps the "radical reformation" strand of the hymns movement in modern worship reformation, reforming not only text (through re-engaging old hymns), but music.  The indie, quirky, elegant, pop-orchestral, Sufjan Stevens-esque musical style is different and refreshing.  Folks like myself are on the other end of the spectrum, seeking similar reformation through building bridges by engaging the most widely expressed musical idioms.  Perhaps we're more analogous the "Lutheran reformation," seeking reform through as much continuity as possible.

Wardell's statements rightly question whether the musical idioms of mainstream evangelical worship music are conducive to the goals of musical worship, i.e. the glory of God through strong congregational participation.  Authors like T. David Gordon, author of Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns, obviously feel that the modern music enterprise is so bankrupt and devoid of substance that it cannot be redeemed (some day, Lord-willing, I will muster up the strength to write what I hope will be a fair but critical review of Gordon's book).  I think differently.  While I share some of those concerns articulated by Wardell and brought to their extreme conclusion by Gordon, I am comfortable to live in the tension, because: (1) I've participated in "arena worship" services that are successful in drawing the congregation out (thus proving that it's ultimately about the heart, not the level of production); (2) perhaps what we are doing by retaining culture's dominant musical idiom can be like a "gateway drug" for mainstreamers to begin to explore hymns in different, beautiful musical idioms, like those of Bifrost Arts.

In any regard, I give Isaac Wardell and Bifrost 100% of my support for their music and broader vision for a brighter day in Western church music.


Let the Reformation and All Saints Trump Halloween: FREE ALBUM

(c) Kyle Ragsdale, 2010I had the privilege of being a part of a songwriting project, the sum of which was to set 12 hymns on the Apostles' Creed by Samuel Stone to new music and give it to the church for free.  Read more about the project and download sheet music for it at Cardiphonia.orgListen to the full album and download it for FREE here.

The list of songwriters on this project is outstanding.  Research their names, check out their work, and you'll realize what a stellar group this is.  What talent! 


Bifrost Arts from a Mainstream Worship Perspective

Check out how one blogger described their experience of joining with Bifrost Arts in worship at the David Crowder Fantastical Church Music Conference.  It's reveals how far people like us have to go in the quest to bridge the worlds of historicity and liturgy with mainstream evangelical worship:

Bitfrost Arts, a hymn-sing group from…well, I can’t remember if it was from Virginia or Missouri, but regardless, their sound was at the same time familiar and mysterious.  Instead of relying on the large square projection screens to prompt singing, Bitfrost Arts had printed out hymn-sing sheets, which really served more as an order of worship, complete with responsive readings and liturgical leadings.

I say that the sound was familiar in that most of what we sang were (somewhat) familiar hymns of the historical church.  The 2500 attendees were accompanied by a 15-person choir (comprised of randomly selected Baylor students on the quad), a drummer, guitar and bassist, as well as a full-sized harp.

I say the sound was mysterious in that the act of singing the old hymns with 2500 voices created a passionate sound which echoed off the walls with the same effect as if we had been standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Archaic yet relevant, to sing these songs was to take a fully engaged step back into the historical church.  And the harp just added the appropriate eerie/surreal layer to blanket it all.

Words or phrases that intrigue me are:

  • how they spell "Bifrost" :)
  • "a hymn-sing group" (?)
  • "archaic yet relevant" (I know what they mean...not sure "archaic" is the right word, though)
  • "a fully engaged step back into the historical church" (true...there are many instances of disengaged steps back into the historical church)

Kauflin Shares Insights on Crowder's Church Music Conference

Bob Kauflin, Sovereign Grace pastor and worship leader, author of Worship Matters, and blogger at, reflects on his time participating in Crowder's Fantastical Church Music Conference last weekend.  As the time was drawing near for this event, I posted about why this conference was significant, especially from the perspective of the hymns movement.

See Kauflin's whole post, but here are some of my takeaways:

  • Isaac Wardell and Bifrost Arts "led us in a low-key but engaging time of singing that was built on a more formal liturgy than most of us were probably used to. I thought they did an effective job showing how a liturgy made up of more historic elements, when well led and properly explained, can really serve to focus our eyes on the person and work of Christ."
  • According to Kauflin, it sounds like Rob Bell was a little gray on the doctrine of the atonement.  Hmm...
  • Four quotables from the "Why Do We Sing" panel discussion:
    --“Singing is a way we give ourselves away.”
    --“We sing to remember and re-member.”
    --“We are separate from the world and singing helps us remember that.”
    --“Singing involves relationship, faithfulness, and trusting in the work of Christ.

Hymns Movement News: The Release of "Merciful to Me," by Reformed Praise

I’m always excited and pleased when the cause of the hymns movement is furthered…when good musicians continue to take old hymn texts and set them to accessible contemporary music.  David Ward and the crew at Reformed Praise have been doing this for quite a while.  Over the years, they have faithfully provided the online community with free mp3s and sheet music of their great material.  Similar to Sovereign Grace’s recent albums, Merciful to Me contains works inspired by hymns and prayers (e.g. “O God the Holy Spirit,” inspired by a prayer in Valley of Vision) as well as re-tunings of full hymn texts (e.g. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”).  The songs on this album are singable and suitable for a variety of contemporary worship contexts.  Some will have to “listen through” the arrangements to hear how the tunes and chord structures will differently but effectively fit their own worship context.

Theological Comments

Impeccable.  Biblical.  Wonderful.  Gospel-centered.  God-exalting.  I have nothing but the highest praise for the lyrical content of the album.  The texts are 100% edifying and theologically right-on.  This is theologically worry-free worship music.

Stylistic Comments

The album has been said by other reviewers to house a wide variety of styles (pop-orchestral, bluegrass, rock, etc.), and while this is true, I would add that that it is all produced with an “adult contemporary” sound: vocals are high in the mix, strongly enunciated, pop-inflected, even and not terribly nuanced; drumming and percussion are often subtle in the mix and very straight; overall dynamics are steady; frequent presence of wind instruments.  I would consider this more of a piano-driven sound rather than guitar-driven (notable exceptions are obviously apparent).  “O Jesus” is a good example of a modern pop-rock style, and “The River” (which begins sounding reminiscent of a Michael Card arrangement) eventually arrives at a heavier rock vibe.  However, even those songs are all still sifted through the crisp, adult contemporary production grid…you won’t find anything with a sound that is raw or edgy.   The album, on the whole, then, has a sound similar to what you’d hear on a Keith and Kristyn Getty recording, though with a wider variety of stylistic expression.  “O Weary Saint” is a beautiful setting of the John Ireland tune—very musical, very creative.  “Majestic Sweetness” has a beautiful smooth jazz sound, with some surprising chordal moments.  As a whole, the album is melodic, beautiful, and well-structured. 

My Favorite Track

Personally, I most enjoy “O God the Holy Spirit.”  I love the self-effacing, God-glorifying nature of the text.  It ministers the gospel to my heart.  Its melody is beautiful, and its progressions are familiar, moving, and satisfying.


Evidently the Devil Hates "A Mighty Fortress is Our God"

I'm relaying this story from my colleague, Douglas, who is the organist and choirmaster at our church.  I'm not necessarily sure what precipitated the conversation, but I found it fascinating.  I'm interested in the thoughts of others...speculations as to "why."  My up-front disclosure: I believe that the spiritual realm is real and quite active (Ephesians 6:12), and I believe that demon possession still happens today (though perhaps, as my friend Sharon Beekman reminds me, not always the way that we think).

Douglas told me that, on one occasion years ago, it was believed that a woman associated with their church was demon-possessed.  Douglas and his wife were asked to go over to her place and minister to her through music.  Unsure of what would or could be accomplished by this, they still went over, and they sat down at a piano and began to play and sing.  The woman sat and listened, and for a long time she remained basically passive.  She did not react much.  Douglas and his wife worked through, especially, a lot of praise choruses that were considered by many at the time to be "moving" and "spiritually powerful."  No change in the woman's countenance.  They went on like this for a long time.  No effect.

Douglas and his wife switched gears.  They opened up a hymnal and began to play and sing Luther's "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."  Almost immediately, the woman became visibly agitated, and as the song progressed she began writhing all the more.  The demon in her was obviously not happy.  Douglas said that as they sang, the woman's behavior frightened them, but they kept on...and she kept on.  (Douglas did not share what eventually became of the woman.)

To me, what most obviously would elicit a negative reaction from the prince of darkness is the fact that the hymn thumbs its nose at him.  Here are the offending lyrics (though, really, the whole hymn is offensive to him):

For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate...

And though this world, with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth.

What is surprising about Douglas's encounter was that the praise choruses they sang did not elicit the negative protest of "the devils."  Critics of praise choruses would be quick to point out that this is confirmation of the spiritual impotency of modern worship music...and perhaps this is true, especially as a generalization and especially of early "praise and worship" music.  (I do want to remind readers that times have changed and that we're seeing a positive shift in modern worship toward more substance, rich theology, and historical connectedness, such that the broad-brush generalizations of yesteryear are fading in their applicability.) 

This all does raise an eyebrow to the lack of overt spiritual warfare themes in modern worship music.  Perhaps Redman's "We Shall Not Be Shaken" and the bridge of Tomlin's "Our God" are movements toward awakening about the need to "do" warfare in our worship music, but I don't know that I've ever seen anything as overt as "A Mighty Fortress" in a worship song.  For that matter, I don't know of many old hymns that come close to rivaling Luther's battle-hymn, either (perhaps some of you do). 

For some reason, the theme of "worship as warfare" just keeps coming up.  It's a fascinating and under-appreciated aspect of worship-thought.  One thing's for certain.  Whenever I sing "A Mighty Fortress," this story is at the forefront of my mind, and I end up singing a lot more forcefully in hopes that some of the shrapnel from my praise-bombs fly far enough to reach enemy camp.