Entries in theology (23)

Monday
Feb212011

Review of The Mercy Seat / The War by Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter

Jamie Barnes, The Mercy Seat
Brooks Ritter, The War (split EP)
Released: February 22, 2011

There is something very special going on in Louisville, and my writing a review about this “happening” is kind of like the woman who was straining just to get a finger on the hem of Jesus’ robe—just a touch is all I ask.  God has gathered a whole lot of young talent and put it under one ecclesiastical roof.  This is the best summary I can give for what is happening with Sojourn Music.  Sojourn Community Church is a multi-site community with a strong vision for how the arts are a part of God’s kingdom-restoration in the community.  You don’t see too many churches out there with this vision.  But before I heap accolades on the music of two incredible singer-songwriters, Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter, for their latest split EP, The Mercy Seat / The War (read Sojourn's description here), let me begin by commenting on something rather unrelated to the music itself.

Jamie Barnes and Brooks Ritter are humble, generous men of God.  I met Jamie several years ago when my wife and I took a field trip out to Sojourn in the summer of 2008.  I met Brooks just over a year ago at the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship in Grand Rapids.  I was flying solo, and Jamie took the time to single me out and invite me to a few social gatherings where I got to hobnob with Keith Getty, Kevin Twit, Mike Cosper, and other heroes of mine.  Jamie’s hospitality in that act meant a lot to me and spoke volumes about him.  Brooks engaged me in a bunch of conversations, and he always exhibited the uttermost kindness and humility, even as I told him that he had an incredible, one-of-a-kind voice.  These two are men of character, and that is perhaps the most important thing I could say about them.

OVERALL COMMENTS

The album itself is just incredible.  It is true artistry, which does not kowtow to simplistic pop sensibilities.  It is a “split EP” in the sense that it is a full, ten-song album split down the middle.  The first five are Barnes’ songs; the last five are Ritter’s.  All songs are either explicitly based in old church hymns, or else they are haunted by the spirits of the great English hymn writers.  But this is not a “worship album.”  It is definitely solo material, some of which can be (and has been) transposed into the context of corporate Christian worship (e.g. “The Mercy Seat” and “Absent from Flesh”).  Recorded live at the 930 Art Center in Louisville, KY, the stylistic diversity in these ten tracks is astonishing.  Jazz, gospel (black and white, mind you), blues, grunge, soul, country, rock—they’re all here.  Yet this smorgasbord is no hodgepodge.  The cohesion comes from its production, themes, and the souls of the singers themselves. 

If you can’t afford the whole album, you must at least get Barnes’ “Absent from Flesh” and Ritter’s “The War.”  In my opinion, they are the best songs on the album.

Theologically, the album is rock-solid.  Texts which are based in time-tested hymns from greats like Isaac Watts are nearly always a slam dunk in the Department of Biblical Conformity.  Barnes and Ritter write the kinds of songs that will last in Christian hymnody. 

THE MERCY SEAT  |  JAMIE BARNES

Barnes says, “If we’re being honest, we all have this longing for an advocate, and a lot of the songs on my side of the EP have this hint of desperation in them.”  That’s a great summary statement of the textual trajectory and musical edge which unify the five songs.  Musically, Jamie provides an aural feast.  His songs keep his voice in a modest vocal range, and his smooth, simple singing style perfectly fits the “longing” and “hint of desperation” he intends.  My favorite feature of his music here are the use of horns, sergeantly peppered throughout the EP.  The slippery, jazzy “Dark Passenger” has some moments of tight ensemble, especially among the horns.  There is an exquisite moment, just around 3:44, where the vibrato between two instruments locks into eerie symmetry.  Verse two is powerful:

Why do these hands withdraw from worship,
And battle your embrace?
They clinch in anger far too often,
And seldom stretch in faith.

“Jealous Arm” contains a haunting chord progression at the front-end that moves from the major tonic chord to the minor.  The ghostly, Coldplay-like piano line accentuates the tense nature of revelry in the jealousy of God.  The first verse:

Is this the way we repay our God?
Who among us has he not made?
Forsaking His face for the sculpted things
We have shaped with our evil hands.
And where are they now, our silent golden cows?
His swift and jealous arm has thrown them down.

The choice track, however, is “Absent from Flesh”—roomy drums, earthy claps and slaps, and wailing horns make this an exquisite, original, and inspiring piece.  Co-writers Barnes and Watts, though separated by nearly three hundred years, together celebrate the eschaton:

Absent from flesh, O glorious day!
In one triumphant stroke
My reckoning paid, my charges dropped
And the bonds ‘round my hands are broke.

I go where God and glory shine,
To one eternal day
This failing body I now resign,
For the angels point my way.

Hearing the unparalleled hymns of Isaac Watts so beautifully re-dressed and re-given to the modern church simply makes me want to dance naked in the streets. 

THE WAR  |  BROOKS RITTER

Many singers, including myself, shake their fists toward the heavenlies that they were not graced with the golden voice of Brooks Ritter.  No joke: the first time I heard his voice, I pegged him for a fifty-year-old, black Mississippi Delta bluesman.  This twenty-something has all the soul, presence, and maturity of a voice twice his age, and he stewards his gifts well throughout this EP.  “The War,” a grungy blues tune, introduces Ritter with a punch to the belly, and the left-hand-calloused fingerprints of Neil Robins’ axe-work (of Dirt Poor Robins and No More Kings) are all over this number.  It’s reminiscent of Soundgarden at the height of their music-making.  The text of this song’s chorus characterizes the posture of the whole album—centered upon the gospel of the finished work of Christ:

Though the scars of my sin run deep
They’re washed in the flood brought from Calvary
Remind me O Lord in my hour of deed
The war won  for the redeemed!

“Good Day” takes a stylistic leap in a different direction.  It is a black gospel number, through and through, full of clever colloquialisms fitting to the genre.  This song rocks:

Well, hey, Jesus the God man came to the Earth
He opened his arms to the children of dirt
He was singing a new song, “Child come on I’ll show you the way”
It was a good day when the Lord came
You know it was a good day

My Jesus came through the desert
He walked on the sea and died on the hill of Mount Calvary
He went to the grave but checked out on the third day
It was a good day when the Lord came,
It was a good, good day.

I love the thought that Jesus “checked out” of the grave on the third day like it was a hotel room.  The ease with which Almighty Christ sealed His victory over death is worthy of such a thought.  The next song, “Waters of Forgiveness,” is a soulful white gospel number that one could hear arranged for an all-male quartet.

In the words of Barnes: “This record, it’s more than just making music for our local church.We want to be a community of artists…So it’s important to us to publish music and to publish books and things of that nature…These songs are just a way for us to point to truth.  Hopefully that’s what good art will do, point to a good God who’s the author and creator of everything.”  God has given the Sojourn community a unique call with the provision of unique resources.  The Mercy Seat / The War is proof that these artists continue to steward such gifts well.  A while back I posted on why worship leaders should be theologians and theologians worship leaders.  Barnes and Ritter are worship leader-theologians par excellence.  Go get this album, people. 

Monday
Feb142011

An Untruth Which Has Affected our Worship Landscape: The Holy Spirit was Forgotten but Rediscovered 100 Years Ago

Justin Taylor brought to my attention a book I had read over a decade ago in my quest to know God better—Sinclair Ferguson’s The Holy Spirit.  Ferguson made this observation (links provided by Taylor):

The assumption which became virtually an article of orthodoxy among evangelicals as well as others, that the Holy Spirit had been discovered almost de novo in the twentieth century, is in danger of the heresy of modernity, and is at least guilty of historical short-sightedness.

It forgets that it was with good reason that the Reformation pastor-theologian John Calvin was described as “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.”

Moreover, each century since his time has witnessed events which were ascribed to the unusual working of the Holy Spirit.

Even in the late twentieth century, the two opera magna on the Holy Spirit remain the extensive studies by the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and by the great Dutch theologian-politician, Abraham Kuyper, founder of the Free University of Amsterdam.

Looking back even further, the assumption that the twentieth century had recovered truth lost since the first two centuries displays a cavalier attitude to the material unearthed by H. B. Swete in his valuable series of studies on the Spirit begun more than a century ago. These richly demonstrate the attention which much earlier centuries gave to honoring him along with the Father and the Son.

In every chance I’ve had to teach on the history of worship in evangelicalism, I’ve said that modern evangelical worship today, across denominational lines, is most immediately shaped by three things: (1) Finney-brand revivalism; (2) modern technology; and (3) Azusa Street Pentecostalism.

It is (3) to which Ferguson is referring, and he’s right.  So how has this “heresy of modernity” affected evangelical worship?  For one, it has pigeonholed our understanding of how the Holy Spirit moves and acts in the context of a worship service.  Such ideas are betrayed by the way we can equate a lack of planning with “room for the Spirit,” as though the Spirit cannot be present in a highly structured, pre-planned liturgy.  We think of the Spirit as acting only in spontaneity, rather than in order.  The irony here is that those who hold such a view may be in danger of “constraining” the Spirit (I use quotes because we can’t really constrain God, but the language is often used against those who are from traditions that have highly structured liturgies).   Problems arise also when we equate the Spirit’s movement only with feeling, or only with our feeling.  But these are Azusa Street values, and may not necessarily be the values associated with a full-orbed understanding of the Holy Spirit. 

The Spirit certainly is probably the most nebulous and “free-wheeling” member of the Godhead.  John 3:8 affirms, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  In fact, ruach (Hebrew) and pneuma (Greek) can equally mean “wind” and “breath.”  But the Holy Spirit is also called the “Spirit of Truth”:

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  (John 16:13)

The Spirit is a teacher:

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  (John 14:13)

In scholarly lingo, if you’ve been noticing that all three references to the Spirit have come from the same book, we need a full-orbed Johannine Pneumatology, here.  Then, maybe, our charismatic brothers and sisters (who have, undoubtedly, taught us much about the Spirit’s relation to and involvement with Christian worship) might be more open to how the Spirit moves in yet other ways in other worship contexts. 

Last June, our church hosted our denomination’s national gathering, called our General Assembly.   Naturally, I was in charge of planning the worship services that we would all partake in while we were together.  The spectrum of worship represented by our one, little denomination is surprisingly large.  We’ve got full-blown Pentecostal Presbyterians and high, stately Anglican-style Presbyterians.  And then we’ve got everything in between.  Needless to say, the very issues I speak of above were present in my mind as I planned these five or so services.  I attempted to plan and execute a variety of worship styles and expressions.  I ultimately don’t know how it hit everyone, but I did get many words and emails of appreciation for the diversity.  I think everyone was stretched (including myself, a bit) in our pneumatological encounters.  For those who were open enough, we all experienced winds of the Spirit in both the formality and informality of our times.  But, I have to say, I did wrestle with applying the very things of which I speak above. 

All in all, the lesson here is to fight the urge toward chronological snobbery in the way we understand worship and the Holy Spirit.  Knowing just a bit of church history can cure many ills and dysfunctions in the psychology of our worship.  I guess that’s reason #473 why worship leaders need to be thoughtful students of theology, history, and the Bible. 

Thursday
Feb102011

Review of "Come Away," by Jesus Culture

If you've been following my blog for a while, you know that, even at the relative beginning of my career as a pastor and worship leader, I want to be a part of God's work in mentoring and raising up the next generation of pastors and worship leaders.  Every other week, I meet with a bright young man, Robert, who I believe God is calling to ministry in some capacity.  Every once in a while, we have an assignmentThis one was for Robert to use some of the analytical tools we've been discussing to review a new worship album.  I encouraged him to review the important criteria for choosing worship songs and to take a look at some of my reviews.  After processing a few drafts, this is what Robert produced.  He did a great job.  Feel free to comment!

*****

I like to say that this album is a cotton candy album. It is sweet and good but its volume is largely disproportionate to its density. Jesus Culture itself is actually a series of conferences which started in 1999. Out of these conferences came the Jesus Culture music which has its sights on sparking a revival of God-fearing, Jesus-glorifying Christians on a global scale. Come Away is a live album.

MUSICALITY

The music in the album was comfortably overshadowed by the lyrics. The musical arrangements never distracted from the text being sung. Towards the beginning of the album the music felt one-dimensional and wasn’t a whole lot to write home about. However, there was a noticeable progression in the complexity of the music as the album played. The first track kicked the album off with a repetitive, four-on-the-floor rhythm accompanying solid, down-stroking guitar chords. The  4/4 with down-strokes lingered with nearly the entire album broken up by a few of the songs which had dynamic rhythm, volume and guitar riffs such as track three, "You Are My Passion" (one of the two strongest tracks). The album closed with a pointed rhythm and a lightly syncopated vocal refrain. This closing track felt the strongest of all ten tracks. Mostly because the much repeated refrain was musically interesting enough to keep from becoming monotonous, but at the same time not so interesting that it was distracting from the words.  Come Away’s music felt typical of most modern worship: sincere, bright and easy to pick up for Sunday morning.

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

In the textual territory, the album was full of strong and largely vertical worship lyrics (vertical worship=talking to God; horizontal worship=talking to creation about God) . One could step behind these lyrics and worship with them sincerely. However, they did not really delve into fresh aspects of God’s glory. The album was full of a lot of stock “christianese” such as, “Come into my heart,” and, “You’re so amazing, God.” I mean that not to say that they did a bad job, but rather that they only said what one would expect. My other critique for the text of the album is that the words are extremely "seven-eleven-ish" (one phrase repeated over and over). This is not bad, however there is a demographic which finds it difficult to worship with such repetition. There is nothing within the lyrics which is theologically unsound or out of context (both biblical context and contextually with the rest of the lyrics: no random, disjointed phrases). Some of my favorite lyrics on the album were from track six, "Freedom Reigns," which talks about the freedom gained from Christ. The song’s refrain is,

If you’re tired and thirsty, there is freedom
Give your all to Jesus, there is freedom.

These lyrics stuck out to me particularly because they draw a synonymous line between God’s grace and freedom. Most of the words are pointed directly at God, praying for Him to bring a passion for Christ to the youth of this generation.  All in all, the text is solid.

As a final summation, Come Away is an album full of good 2-3 minute worship songs. Unfortunately, every song was an average length of 7:45. This made the songs feel overly repetitive and "fluffy" (except for the final track, "One Thing Remains").  I like the album and commend Jesus Culture for their work in bringing this music to the table

-Robert



Monday
Jan102011

Why Right Theology is a Heavy Obligation for Worship Leaders

In his opening chapter to The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer exposes the crux of what makes churches crumble:

The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him…Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the Church confirms it. So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards declines along with it. The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God…The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of Him—and of her.1

These words seem timely now, but the reality is that they are perpetually timely.  As idol-factories, our hearts are prone to wander.  If Tozer is right, then worship leaders and planners have a burden to bear.  That burden is to give their people a lofty view of God.  They must be exposed to God’s greatness and loftiness.  God’s transcendence must never be lacking in a worship service. 

Critics of modern worship have continually pointed out the me-centered nature of so many modern worship songs.  Thankfully, I believe the leaders of the modern worship movement have been heeding these criticisms.  My reviews of recent worship albums such as those of Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and Gateway Worship, attempt to point that out.  But modern worship must continue along its trajectory. 

There is no better place than in the worship service for the Christian Church to fulfill her “heaviest obligation.”  More than in Sunday School, small groups, and special events, God has ordained a unique and special ministry of His Spirit to take place in the context of the gathered people of God.  It is uniquely in the context of worship where it seems that all the parts of the self—the intellect, the affections, the body—are stirred together in praise and experience of God Almighty.  Worship leaders should, consciously and subconsciously, always be asking themselves the following set of questions:

·   What view of God is being presented to the people of God this week? this month? this year?

·   Is one of my primary aims and goals to have people walk away from a worship service inspired by the greatness of God?

·   Are songs which do have more of a me-focus (which, by the way, are okay, given that many of the Psalms were written from such a perspective) set within a proper context of God’s greatness, whether that context be other songs surrounding them or other liturgical elements accompanying them?

How can worship leaders awaken their sensitivity to this very important issue?  A great place to start is by studying the attributes of God, and particularly His incommunicable attributes (those characteristics of God which he does not share with humanity).  If you are a worship leader or congregant and this is new to you, I’d suggest asking your pastor to recommend a good systematic theology text from your church’s tradition that will walk you through a deep, meditative study of who God is.  (And if your pastor can’t recommend anything or says that it’s not valuable, I’d further suggest you find another church J.)  But for now, here is one list of some of the incommunicable attributes of God, perhaps to whet the appetite for further study:

·   Independence (a.k.a. Aseity, Self-Existence)

·   Unchangeableness (a.k.a. Impassibility, Immutability)

·   Eternity

·   Omnipresence

·   Omniscience

·   Omnipresence

·   Unity

·   Self-sufficiency

What happens when worship leaders commit to studying and meditating upon the being and attributes of God?  For one, you develop a radar for and sensitivity to content that doesn’t measure up.  You start to listen to and evaluate worship songs with a different set of ears.  Furthermore, almost by instinct, you begin to crave extolling the greatness of God and you begin to develop a jealousy for God’s greatness when it is absent.  Meditation upon God is very much like an addictive drug.  You end up seeking more and more of God.  The difference is that, because of God’s infinitude, there is no point of diminishing returns, and because of His goodness, there are no ill side-effects…only blessing and “grace upon grace.”  The pursuit of God in all His greatness is the only truly healthy addiction, which nourishes us, strengthens us, and centers us.  And once a worship leader is hooked, they never turn back. 

Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones,
Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.
(Psalm 29:1-2, NIV)

1 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 3-4.

Monday
Jan032011

Worship Leaders Should Be Theologians, and Theologians Should Be Worship Leaders

In preparations for a sermon on Psalm 29, I re-opened two influential works in my own life and theological development: Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy.  The two theologians share a feature in their respective works—a feature which is instructive to both theologians and worship leaders alike (not that the two have to or should be separate offices).

For too long, the church has functionally made theology (study and meditation upon God and the Bible) and doxology (worship) two separate enterprises.  We have “theologians” and “pastors” on one side, and we have “worship leaders” on the other.  And the church has suffered greatly because of this bifurcation.  At least part of the reason that critics of modern worship are justified when they accuse contemporary churches of “dumbing down” the sacred expression of the gathered people of God is that we’ve made this split between theologians and worship leaders okay.  We’ve fostered it with our employment structures.  We’ve encouraged it with our niched resources and industry.  We’ve catered to it with our degree programs. 

Grudem and Tozer show us that there is a different way.  They’ve peppered doxology throughout their theology.  In fact, both The Knowledge of the Holy and Systematic Theology end each chapter with the text of a hymn.  For example, after expounding “The Infinitude of God,” Tozer ends with two verses of a Joseph Hart hymn:1

This, this is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable Friend,
Whose love is as great as His power,
And neither knows measure nor end.

‘Tis Jesus, the first and the last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home;
We’ll praise Him for all that is past,
And trust Him for all that’s to come.

Similarly, Grudem ends his Chapter 11, on the “Incommunicable Attributes of God,” with the famous hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”2  He explains why he does this in his preface:

I do not believe that God intended the study of theology to be dry and boring. Theology is the study of God and all his works! Theology is meant to be lived and prayed and sung! All of the great doctrinal writings of the Bible…are full of praise to God.  …True theology is “teaching which accords with godliness” (1 Tim 6:3), and theology when studied rightly will lead to growth in our Christian lives, and to worship.3

Just because theology is an academic discipline, complete with published works and degree programs, does not mean it should lack passion and praise.  Just because worship is artistic, expressive, and emotional does not mean it should lack theological reflection.  There are many implications for all of this, but here are some:

·   Theology should drive our worship—what we know about God should fuel our praise of God.

·   Worship songs, even simple ones, communicate theological truths and therefore shape the thinking and spirituality of the people of God.

·   Professional theologians should therefore be some of the most passionate worshipers in our congregations.

·   Professional worship leaders should therefore be some of the most rigorous theologians in our congregations.

·   Good worship leaders will examine and evaluate the songs they lead not only for musicality but for theological content.

·   Good theologians will regularly worship, on the spot, with their pupils, turning the classroom into a sanctuary.

 

*****

1 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 48.
2 Wayne Grudem,
Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 183-184.
3 Ibid., 16-17.



Monday
Dec132010

Review of And If Our God Is For Us, by Chris Tomlin

Chris Tomlin, And if Our God is For Us (Sparrow)
Released: November 16, 2010 

The Passion movement has its stars.  Chris Tomlin is its superstar.  He has seen the most commercial success, and he is very much the front-runner of mainstream American modern worship.  In some respects, it’s very hard for Tomlin to top himself.  The enduring success of many songs from Arriving (2004) manifests itself continually on the CCLI top ten list.  “How Great is Our God,” “Holy is the Lord,” and (Laura Story’s) “Indescribable” are now mainstay go-to anthems for mainstream contemporary/modern worship.  See the Morning (2006) and Hello Love (2008) were great albums but did not yield for the church the same caliber of lasting tunes for the church.  And if Our God is For Us is probably also destined to a similar fate, though the album, as a whole, seems to notch back toward greater congregational accessibility as compared to the previous two (See the Morning and Hello Love had its share of more performance-oriented, radio-friendly material).  The album’s title gets its name from the moving and raucous bridge of the first track, “Our God,” which made its first recorded appearance earlier this year on Passion’s Awakening.

REVIEW SUMMARY

And if Our God is For Us should not be considered a worship album in the proper sense, but many of its songs are congregationally-friendly and appropriate for corporate singing.  The musical production is exquisite, making typical pop songs and arrangements fresh to the ears through interesting and creative choices of color.  Theologically, the album is God-centered.  As is the case with the other mainstream worship leaders who have come of age (e.g. Redman, Hughes), there is a maturity and biblical overlay to the textual content that was not as present in Tomlin’s earlier songwriting ventures.  “All to Us” is a fresh, moving, and powerful song with hints at a new theological focus for Tomlin (ecclesiology).  I do hold a mild concern that the Gospel of Christ’s atonement is extremely understated in this album (one could note the same thing about many previous albums).  Tomlin is a master of writing broad, sweeping songs of exultation to God, but I wish for more explicitness as to the fuel of what makes that possible for us—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The songs I would incorporate for corporate worship at my church would be, in order: “All to Us,” “Our God,” and “Awakening.”

MUSICALITY

Because this is more of an “artist album” than a worship album, one should expect that not every song will have singable melodies fit for congregations.  The songs that seem more performance-oriented and less congregationally-friendly are “I Lift My Hands,” “No Chains on Me,” and “The Name of Jesus” (though some might view them as fine for congregations).  Stylistically, some songs, in melody and arrangement, sound conventional (e.g. “Jesus My Redeemer”), and others are arranged with more forward-looking choices (e.g. “All to Us” [see drum notes below]).

Seven of the eleven tracks were produced by Ed Cash, whose sonic choices I’ve come to admire greatly (the other four were produced by Dan Muckala).  The album, as a whole, takes a modern spin on the 80’s production sound: programmed pulses, drum loops, and very airy synths (e.g. the techno-club sound of “No Chains on Me”).  I love some of the rhythm choices made by the producers, especially the more unconventional sparse beat-compositions (e.g. “I Will Follow” and “Majesty of Heaven”).  In “All to Us,” the snare-kick work, combined with pregnant pause every other measure, is an appealing departure from the typical slow 4/4 ballad drum rhythm. 

“Our God” is a beautiful second arrangement of the now popular song which first appeared on Passion’s Awakening (see my review of that album and song) in a more typical arena-band style.  The string parts arranged in that song (though obviously programmed) are stirring and creative in their simplicity.  Likewise, “Awakening” is a second arrangement from the same album…perhaps a bit less interesting this time around.  In short, there is a simple diversity within the wide boundaries of pop music that makes this album a delight to listen to without tiring the ear with a lot of the same.

THEOLOGICAL CONTENT

Great on songs which exalt God.  Tomlin seems to specialize in songs of exaltation.  “Our God,” “Majesty of Heaven,” “Lovely,” “All to Us,” and “Faithful” are bent toward the transcendent. “All to Us,” in particular, stands out as a worship-gem.  The pre-chorus, in particular, is powerful:

Let the glory of Your name be the passion of the Church
Let the righteousness of God be a holy flame that burns
Let the saving love of Christ be the measure of our lives
We believe you’re all to us

Did you hear that first line?  Don’t miss it.  Yes, mainstream worship is finally breaking the ecclesiological barrier in their worship-writing.  Modern worship, at times, has seemed almost like a parachurch entity that had little understanding of and advocacy for the Church.  The “me and God” tenor of their songs lent itself to encouraging church-less Christianity.  When modern worship writers are recognizing God's special place for the Church in the world, I believe it is a mark of maturity.  I believe in the statement, which, though it has various forms, probably originates in Cyprian of Carthage: "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus" (Outside of the church, there is no salvation).  This statement can and has been taken to extremes by my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, but I understand it to simply mean that when God saves (by grace through faith alone, of course), He saves you into a community of believers--the Church.  To believe that "it's just me and God" (often called "Lone Ranger Christianity") is not Christianity at all.  So, I'm excited to see that the Church, even for a brief moment, is highlighted.

For Tomlin, the Gospel often equals freedomI also notice that Tomlin consistently writes from a certain angle of the gospel—freedom—and this seems typical of other mainstream charismatic worship forerunners like Hillsong.  For instance, here’s how “The Name of Jesus” progresses:

The name of Jesus is a refuge
A shelter from the storm
A help to those who call

The name of Jesus is a fortress
A saving place to run
A hope unshakeable

When we fall you are the Savior
When we call you are the answer
There is power in your name

So from this, I’m expecting to drive toward the root of that power—the atoning work of Christ.  But, instead, it moves here in the chorus:

In the name of Jesus
There is life and healing
Chains are broken in Your name
Every knee will bow down and our hearts will cry out
Songs of freedom in Your name

More Gospel, please.  So my question, in a song like this, is, Where does this power and freedom come from?  I don’t necessarily think that every song needs to highlight the atoning work of Christ, but I am using this song as an illustration for what I have found under-highlighted in Tomlin’s songwriting—the meritorious life and death of Christ, His active and passive obedience.  I would encourage Tomlin to make these more explicit.  In doing so, the Gospel will be more explicit, and the result will be that the meaning of all these songs will become that much more powerful.  There do exist “cross”-references:

  • “up on the cross with open arms” in “Lovely”
  • “you paid my ransom / you chose to suffer” in “Jesus My Redeemer”
  • “let the saving love of Christ be the measure of our lives” and "hope and mercy at the cross" in “All to Us”

But I believe there should be so much more.  If we are going to truly sing about “Jesus My Redeemer,” we should be singing about blood, sin, death, and imputed righteousness.  If we are going to be singing about how “Faithful” God is, we must sing about where that faithfulness was most proven—at the cross.  Christian worship is most overtly Christian when it begins, ends, and is saturated by the Gospel. 

Nevertheless, the theology in And If Our God is For Us is solid, and I’m probably nit-picking Tomlin simply because he’s, well, Chris Tomlin…perhaps the most influential American worship leader in this current generation.  A great album...very edifying...and a gift to the church!

Wednesday
Dec082010

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.



Wednesday
Dec012010

Retraction & Clarification in My Review of Gordon's Book

Hello blogosphere.  Since the Monday posting of my review of Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, Dr. Gordon and I have been engaged in an email dialogue about it.  I thank God for humble spirits like Gordon who are willing to engage and clarify, for the sake of truth and beauty, and to the blessing of Christ’s church. 

Gordon pointed out several misrepresentations I’ve made.  It is fair, right, and appropriate that I acknowledge and correct those misrepresentations.  Those changes have been made in my blog posts, and they have also been corrected with a red note at the top of the document, in the full PDF.  For crystal-clarity, I note them below.  I am fallible and can therefore only think that as Dr. Gordon and I continue to dialogue, there may be other clarifications I'll need to make in my document.  I promise that, as time permits, I will update them.

----------

1) I wrongly said that Gordon does not point out that Johnny’s parents are to blame.

Here is the original statement:

Because of the dominance of the value of contemporaneity, a generation of evangelicals has grown up never knowing hymns.  In other words, as Gordon points out, part of the reason Johnny can’t sing hymns is because Johnny is ignorant that hymns even exist to be sung!  However, Gordon doesn’t point out that it was largely Johnny’s father and mother who indiscriminately embraced those values and raised Johnny in a church with those values.

Here is the corrected statement:

Because of the dominance of the value of contemporaneity, a generation of evangelicals has grown up never knowing hymns.  In other words, as Gordon points out, part of the reason Johnny can’t sing hymns is because Johnny is ignorant that hymns even exist to be sung!  I agree with Gordon’s assessment when he says that it was largely Johnny’s father and mother in the boomer generation (esp. p. 159) who indiscriminately embraced those values and raised Johnny in a church with those values.

 

2) I wrongly assumed that Gordon favored the organ.  He communicated that he does not.

Here is the original statement:

Throughout the book, Gordon seems to insinuate that the pinnacle of Christian worship is to be found in organ-and-choir-led music—classical instrumentation and classical forms… Gordon traps himself in his own argument when he advocates for the traditional, organ-led rendering of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

Here is the qualified statement:

Throughout the book, the argumentation Gordon employs lends itself to the conclusion that the pinnacle of Christian worship is to be found in organ-and-choir-led music*—classical instrumentation and classical forms…Gordon traps himself in his own argument when he advocates for the traditional rendering of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

*[added footnote] In a subsequent conversation with Gordon, he felt this was a misrepresentation of his position.  He was clear that he does not favor the organ, and he pointed out that he actually sees deficiencies in the organ as an accompanying instrument.  I still believe, however, that the logical conclusion of his argumentation lends itself to favoring that instrument in worship.  I also still believe that Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns does contain an unfounded bias toward classical instrumentation.

The reason I qualified, but did not fully change, the statement is that I believe the larger point still holds.  Even if Gordon does not personally favor the organ, the argumentation in its book by strong insinuation encourages organ-playing over and against any relatively modern instrumentation. 



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