Thursday, March 22, 2018

Reading Paul with the Reformers - Stephen J. Chester

What did Paul really say?

Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives
Author: Stephen J. Chester
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (
Pages: 478

What drew me to Reading Paul with the Reformers by Stephen J. Chester was its selection as winner of the 2018 CT Book Awards in the Biblical Studies Category. Another factor was an ongoing difference of opinion with my mother over how a small segment of Christians interpret the writings of Paul. Critics term the movement ultra- or hyper-dispensationalism, labels rejected by those immersed in these teachings.

I proposed that my mom and I read this book at the same time to better understand Paul. I naively hoped that it might shed some light on the doctrines of this movement.

Though my mom faithfully reads and studies the Bible daily, she would not have the patience to wade through these 478 pages of technical analysis. This is most accessible to the scholar and academic. I felt a little like Billy Graham when he mentioned his difficulty in understanding Karl Barth. Even though I enjoy reading books on doctrine, theology and even bible commentaries, this is challenging.

Also, I should have known better; this book does not begin to address those who believe that only the words of Paul are formative for Christians. That subject lies outside the scope of this book, which does not detract from its relevance to a much larger debate.

The books succeeds admirably in making clear what reformers like Luther, Melancthon and Calvin taught about justification, sanctification and righteousness. It’s a masterful synthesis of thought that serves as the foundation for interaction with the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP), which isn’t addressed directly until page 321. It shows how much background the author brings to bear on these issues. It’s scholarly exegesis of the highest order.

For those not familiar with the NPP, biblical scholars like like N. T. Wright and Douglas Campbell believe that the reformers were too narrow in their interpretations of Paul. As Alan Van Wyk, a reviewer of Wright’s new biography of Paul puts it, the NPP “is itself a desire for a more authentic Paul. Resisting 19th and 20th century interpretations that distanced him from his Jewish background, these new readings of Paul place him firmly in his late second temple Jewish milieu. N. T. Wright has been an important contributor to this new reading of Paul, and his forthcoming biography, simply titled Paul: A Biography, functions as a comprehensive popular introduction to this work. As Wright insists in the introduction, this biography and the broader body of work of which it is a part reflect Wright’s attempts to figure out what the first-century Paul was actually talking about, what he ‘really said.’”

This book is worth reading just to get Chester’s critique of Wright and those who are similar-minded. Wright is such a brilliant theologian that it’s easy to agree with his reasoning when you haven’t read any differing opinions.

The NPP see the reformers as narrowing salvation truths to something contractual that focuses on the forgiveness of sins and one’s standing; whereas Wright is more concerned with the community aspects, one’s place in the family of Abraham. Wright has more of a covenant view.

The author acknowledges what the new perspective adds but he is not afraid to point out where they detract. He admits that the reformers may have neglected some of the broader aspects but throughout the volume convincingly defends their views against misrepresentation.

What it comes down to is that both old and new perspectives deserve a seat at the table. Their different emphases do not have to be taken as mutually exclusive. Both sides bring needed correction to the other.

The book includes a glossary of medieval and reformation figures, a bibliography, and indexes of authors, subjects, and scripture and other ancient texts.

I do not want to discourage non-academics from giving this a try. Reading scholarly material can increase the capacity for understanding and provide wisdom. The fine points matter.

This is essential for those who wrestle with the seemingly opposing views of these two perspectives. It’s an excellent resource.

I will have to wait for a scholarly analysis of hyper-dispensationalism. It has not received the attention given the NPP. I would welcome the opportunity to talk to someone like the author about this extreme form of dispensationalism. Did Paul preach a different gospel than the other disciples? Are his teachings different from those of Jesus? How do we reconcile apparent discrepancies? Were the teachings of Jesus for the lost sheep of the house of Israel; whereas Paul was entrusted with the revelation of the gospel of grace, making his teachings the new standard for all those who believe by faith?

It’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of doctrinal differences. We can succumb to weariness and think why bother? As in the case of hyper-dispensationalists, who tend to be divisive, incorrect teaching is misleading and produces bad fruit.

So I appreciate books like this. The author is extremely knowledgeable, balanced and charitable in his assessments. Even for those who might disagree with some of the conclusions, it’s worth joining the conversation.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A Million Lights - Michael W. Smith

The Michael W. Smith album I didn’t know that I wanted

A Million Lights
Artist: Michael W. Smith
Label: Rocketown Records
Length: 13 songs/50 minutes

I have had more fun listening to A Million Lights by Michael W. Smith than any of his other recordings. It’s the blend of electronic and acoustic that delights and fascinates.

One moment it sounds like EDM (electronic dance music), the next I hear organic instrumentation. So expect this unexpected hybrid.

Surprises often happen on a bridge. In “Love Always Wins” suddenly you hear the gentle chords of an acoustic guitar. In “Crashing Waves” it’s the sound of a church organ. That might seem like a turnoff but this retro sound fits perfectly.

Smith accomplishes what can sometimes allude established artists, who seek to remain relevant. Musically and lyrically this speaks in the language of today.

It’s not just the EDM influence heard on many of the tracks. He frequently references the discord and division in our society and engaging those who are different. A cynic might dismiss it all as being too simplistic.

I think of the apostle Paul’s words, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Love has a healthy curiosity that seeks to understand the other. It builds a bridge instead of a wall. It crosses lines, sometimes self-imposed, to reach out. So I like it when Smith sings, “Bring me into the conversation … I just want to talk to you.”

So not only would I regard this as among Smith’s best work, it’s like an antidote; gentle persuasion towards making the bitter waters sweet. Listening increases hope.

In need of a personal resurrection? Try “Crashing Waves,” which sounds as powerful as its title. The forceful singing and music reminds me of some of the most passionate moments on his Worship (2001) release. The striking imagery adds to it all:

Somebody hid the sun / In the midnight of suffering / My tears are falling down / And crashing like waves / Somebody stole the day / And took your light from me / I’ll never be the same / Roll this stone away

This song seems so fitting as Easter approaches on the calendar. Initially, it made me think of the day when for a time the sun refused to shine. It was the midnight of suffering for the Son of Man, as he cried out, feeling forsaken.

Please be aware that this is not one of Smith’s worship releases. It’s a studio project of pop though at times it crosses over to include adoration. Instead for the first time in his career he has released two albums in a week, the second being Surrendered, a live worship recording, which I won’t comment on here as I have yet to hear it.

When Smith’s first album, The Michael W. Smith Project (1983), was released, production like this did not exist. Bryan Todd, Kyle Lee and Smith, who is a co-producer, deserve credit for making this sound so enjoyable.

A Million Lights opening title track imagines the stars worshiping God. If they had a language it might sound like the mysterious noises that you hear at the beginning, and which pop up in other forms later on.

Don’t think that it’s all wildly different. It’s still the same voice, though varied at times by programming. Plus, some of the tracks toward the end are more acoustic.

“Hey Love” is a piano and strings duet with Jordin Sparks that reunites Smith with his longtime songwriting partner, Wayne Kirkpatrick. It’s a beautiful ballad with a touch of melancholy as it contemplates the empty nest syndrome.

Shortly afterwards its followed by “Forgive,” another introspective track written with Wes King. I would have enjoyed hearing him play on it, but he may have retired from session work. Regardless, I’m glad for the depth that he brings to these lyrics.

This is followed by another big name collaboration, none other than Cindy Morgan on “Who You Are.” For those who might not know, Smith normally composes the music to lyrics supplied by others.

You hear his keyboard work throughout, and the melodies are captivating. In addition to praise and worship, Smith excels in pop craft, and it is evident here. It sounds fresh to me. It’s the Michael W. Smith album I didn’t know that I wanted.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

Passing on a vision of life with God

The Legacy (Secrets of the Shetlands, Book 3)
Author: Michael Phillips (
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers (
Pages: 451

I normally would not think of starting with the last book in a three volume series. I hesitated, wondering if I should seek to acquire the first. I received a review copy, and instead of seeking to acquire the first two books, I decided to start with what was provided. Now that I have finished it, I don’t feel like I have lost out by not starting at the beginning. Like any volume in a series, it should be written well enough to stand alone. The Legacy by Michael Phillips does not disappoint in that regard, nor on other levels.

Phillips and his wife Judy spend time each year in Scotland. So Phillips writes with meticulous detail about life in the fictitious Whales Reef set in the Shetland Islands, right down to the foods, plants and customs. J. R. Tolkien has been rightly lauded for creating such a fully-realized alternate world in The Lord of the Rings. Although this series is not fantasy, I applaud Phillips for doing something similar in creating such a true-to-life story in modern and pre-modern settings.

This tale flips back and forth between the beginning of the twenty-first century and the early to mid twentieth century. The time periods are tied together by the stories of two families and their ancestors: one in America and the other in the Shetlands. At times the continual back and forth was hard for me to follow, but I think it’s more of a challenge for me than a problem on the part of the author. It’s all well done, and the chapter headings make the time and place clear. Plus, the chapters are short in length, which makes for easier reading. As I have said before, Phillips is an excellent writer. I enjoy reading his books just for the writing alone, but fortunately he offers much more than that.

You get two grand, sweeping love stories, which develop slowly, but are ultimately worthwhile, especially towards the end. If you like rich character development, you find it here. I was captivated by the villain that readers meet towards the end.

In a time when even the best of our race can seem sullied just by being in this world, we meet honorable characters facing real-life situations. Don’t believe that fiction is just escapist entertainment and has nothing to offer.

This book highlights what really matters: themes of family, love and most importantly, passing on a spiritual legacy. The inheritance of land, as important as that may be, is symbolic of something deeper, as Phillips writes of the father of one of the main characters:

For him the land was life. It was a legacy that had been passed down to him and that was his responsibility to love and protect and pass along to his descendants with the same devotion. It is what he called the Deuteronomy legacy. The land was a biblical symbol for something deepera permanent family legacy that can only be passed down from fathers to their sons and daughters (359).

That legacy is “the spiritual vision of life with God.”

This thought is bolstered by the interest the author shows in Quaker spirituality. The first reference highly esteems it:

Among America’s Christian denominations, Quakers had always been at the vanguard of progressive thinking. Had it not been his own ancestor, Quaker John Woolman, who had awakened the American conscience against slavery fully a century before the Civil War? Quakers, too, were socially ahead of their time in respect of women and their standing in the world (26).

A little further on we find two Quaker literary references. The first pertains to Hannah Whithall Smith’s autobiography. The second is her book A Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, regarded as a Christian classic.

I delight in the literary references sprinkled throughout these pages. Of course, Phillips would be remiss, if he did not make some mention of the beloved Scotsman, George MacDonald. He and C. S. Lewis have been his mentors in writing and the spiritual life.

Being a book lover, I appreciate the thought that passing on one’s books can be part of sharing one’s faith with future generations. We can be enriched by the writings of those who have gone before.

Having authored more than seventy books, Phillips is at the top of his craft. His maturity makes me hope for even more books to come. His vision of life with God is helpful and instructive.

Check out the website (link provided after author’s name at beginning of review) to find fiction and nonfiction that you might enjoy reading. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Porter's Gate Volume 1 - A Live Worship Record

“A light that beckons world-weary strangers to come in and find rest.”

The Porter’s Gate Volume 1: Work Songs
A “sacred arts collective” (
Label: The Porter's Gate
Length: 13 tracks/52 minutes

The Porter’s Gate Volume 1: Work Songs connects worship with vocation, “who we are to be in this world” as recording artist Audrey Assad sees it.

In Christian circles it’s been said that worship isn’t just what happens on Sunday morning. We worship not just with voices but our lives. The 13 “modern hymns” on this release imagine what that looks like.

The Porter’s Gate is a collective of artists from diverse backgrounds seeking to build a community that invites conversation and collaboration. The hope is to become a welcoming presence in an inhospitable world. Founder and producer, Isaac Wardell, believes hospitality can impact the culture more than any other belief and practice of the church.

“Little Things with Great Love” featuring Madison Cunningham is a surprising opener in its stark beauty. It sounds like the resurrection of an ancient hymn:
In the garden of our Savior, no flower grows unseen
His kindness rains like water on every humble seed
No simple act of mercy escapes his watchful eye
For there is One who loves me
His hand is over mine

I could not find a songwriting credit but see that it is included on Evergreen, the Audrey Assad release scheduled for early 2018. Assad is on three tracks but not on this one.

This track is evidence that music is more than notes played. It’s also the silence in between, which in this case gives this a haunting quality. Strings add a classical presence.

“Wood and Nails,” which pairs Assad with Josh Garrels is also available as a single on Noisetrade. Though this release is all about serving others, I take delight in the work done on our behalf, highlighted in the first two lines of the chorus:
The work was done with nothing but
Wood and nails in Your scar-borne hands.

The first sounds on this memorable song are solitary piano notes, gentle strumming and Assad’s voice. Garrels joins in on the second stanza.

In a time when the world can feel like a dreary, overcast day, we could use more joyful songs. “Father, Let Your Kingdom Come” blows the clouds away. It’s a lively, gospel-flavored romp featuring Urban Doxology and friends. Urban Doxology is a group of artists dedicated to racial reconciliation and urban ministry in Richmond, Virginia’s Church Hall neighborhood, which is being renovated. Their soulful voices also enliven “Establish the Work of Our Hands,” another track with a delightful gospel influence.
How do I describe what I hear on “We Labor Unto Glory” sung by Liz Vice? It sounds like a Carrie Newcomer song. It’s a mixture of folk, pop and African American spiritual.

“Christ Has No Body Now But Yours” is Josh Garrels reverential adaptation of the famous Teresa of Avila quotation. The sound of a church organ stands out. The simple lines, which contain no additional thoughts, are repeated throughout with the sound swelling at the end with a congregation of voices.

Isaac Wardell co-founded Bifrost Arts and is the director of worship arts at Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, VA. Readers familiar with the three unique Bifrost Arts recordings will find that the production and styles here are similar. It’s stripped-down, organic, and on the mellower side with thoughtful lyrics.

The promotional materials convey an image of the hoped-for welcome intended here: “The Porter’s Gate seeks to provide an environment in which artists can reimagine the vocation behind their gifts and create music that sets a light at the door of our churches, a light that beckons world-weary strangers to come in and find rest.” Thanks to projects like this and many others there has never been a better time for those who appreciate expressions of praise and worship.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Come to the Waters (Collector's Edition) - Children of the Day

Genuine come-to-Jesus moments make this a classic

Come to the Waters (Collector’s Edition)
Artist: Children of the Day
Label: Born Twice Records (
Length: 9 tracks/38 minutes

Simple, diverse, sincere, earnest, and wise. It’s all here and more on Come to the Waters (originally released 1971) by Children of the Day.

It starts with the pleasant, straightforward “New Life,” a welcome-to-the-family song. A surprise follows.

The sound of a flute, followed by some woodwinds, and then harpsichord. The baroque-influenced melody and melancholy lyrics of “As a Child” extend for six minutes. It laments a former childhood openness that has disappeared.

“All Breathing Life” is a cappella, sung in the style of Handel’s Messiah, where parts of words are elongated, and the verses sung in rounds by the four members.

A Jewish rhythm animates the energetic “Children of the Day.” The combination of male and female harmonies, a folk style with no electric guitar, mainly acoustic instruments, electric bass and occasional drums (courtesy of John Mehler – Love Song, Richie Furay Band), with thoughtful, pointed lyrics, made Children of the Day a premier group.

It is unashamedly about a relationship with God through Jesus. We live in a different era. This kind of directness now might be considered preachy, but this does not sound forced. It’s a natural overflow from hearts that are full. It’s the desire to share treasure meant for everyone.

Records like this can remind Christians of their first devotion when God’s presence seems so near. It’s easy to let that slip because of cares and desires. Listening can actually rekindle lost aspirations.

Thanks to my mother, who played early Jesus music records on a stereo that went through our whole house, I had a soundtrack for my early experience just before and then after coming to Christ. Before I ever heard Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy and 2nd Chapter of Acts, my mom was playing The Way, The Joy Album, Let it Shine by Suncast, Love Song, The Praise Album, Come Together by Jimmy and Carol Owens, and others. The soft rock and simple lyrics were memorable, calling me. I never forgot some of those songs.

No doubt my mom had heard, “For Those Tears I Died,” the closing track on this record. It became one of the most popular songs of the period. It’s a genuine, moving come-to-Jesus moment, composed by group member, Marsha Stevens, who was only 16 when she wrote it. Mark Allan Powell calls it “an absolute masterpiece … it expresses adolescent piety better than any other Christian song ever written.”

New listeners may not feel a sense of nostalgia, but they can appreciate the sincerity and the primitive excellence.

Another classic invitation, “Two Hands,” written by Chuck Girard (Love Song), is elegantly covered here.

The song that follows, “Jesus Lives,” features background vocals that echo the female lead, all leading to an exuberant chorus that becomes euphoric when they begin to sing, “because of his love.” At that point, just when you think their voices can’t soar any higher, they do. Paradoxically, it’s a joyous song about Christ’s suffering and dying. It celebrates what that makes possible.

We have Born Twice Records to thank for reproducing this classic. As they detail in the liner notes, the masters were long gone, so they purchased a sealed vinyl copy and converted it to digital. Most people won’t be able to tell but those who pay attention to such things will notice. It sounds fine, and if you are into vinyl, you can find this album where used records are sold.

Born Twice Records has produced other classic Christian albums from the 60s, 70s, and occasionally the 80s. You can get the recordings at their website (see the address on the “Label” line).

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Alisa Turner EP

Your daughters shall prophesy

Alisa Turner EP
Label: Integrity Music
Length: 6 songs/26 minutes

Lauren Daigle. Audrey Assad. Mandisa. Sandra McCracken. Hannah Kerr. Now Alisa Turner. I marvel at how God continues to raise up new voices to declare his praise. I wonder if it’s a partial fulfillment of the prophecy, “your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28c ESV, italic added).

Declaring the truth is one aspect of prophecy, and that is what these young women are doing in psalm-like ways. Of course, many other women could be added to the list, and even seasoned artists, like Jaci Valesquez, Nichole Nordeman and Amy Grant are finding new voice in declaring the riches that are in Christ. God continues to pour out his Spirit.

On this six song EP Alisa Turner expresses the confidence that comes through experiencing God’s faithfulness in the face of challenges. At age 20 Turner suffered the loss of her father and shortly thereafter debilitation caused by Lyme Disease, which left her bedridden for six years.

So she sings not of self-reliance or self-confidence but faith in God’s ability to sustain her. Ongoing health challenges make life difficult, and some days all she can do is just worship. It gives her the kind of perspective heard on the chorus of “Not Even Now,” one of her boldest declarations:
Not even if the sky is falling
Not even when the enemy roars
Yours is eternal glory
You are forever strong

These songs were birthed at the piano where God continually draws her back to himself. The music reflects this, being a soothing blend of keyboards, guitars and percussion. The other instruments continually add pleasant accents. Delicate guitar chimes grace the chorus of “Lift My Eyes.” A well-placed percussion echo adds punch to “Not Even Now.” Just before the bridge on this same track a delightful guitar interlude adds a rock edge.

Songs like “Not Even Now” and “As it is in Heaven” carry further impact when Turner’s voice merges into a chorus of voices.

“As it is in Heaven” adds violin. I like the phrasing in the chorus that summarizes the longing of the children of God, and even all creation:
On the earth as it is in heaven
Oh, let it be with us here right now
Where your word is fulfilled and your glory revealed
Oh, let it be with us here right now

Surely, this is cry that God delights to answer. Lofty sentiments and elegant music make this a majestic track.

The string-laden, piano ballad “My Prayer for You” conveys blessing on the “bruised reed” and the “smoldering wick.” Christ’s passion ensures that it will not be broken. It will not be put out (see Matthew 12:20). Though the melody conveys a touch of sadness that initially may be off-putting, it becomes memorable with repeated listens. This is empathy in music and verse.

Perhaps the most sublime moment comes on the closing “Psalm 13.” It starts out in lament, but then, as is often the case in the Psalms, it ends in praise. It’s just Turner and the piano. It’s the same way that Lauren Daigle ended her debut, and once again I find it to be one of the most moving moments.

This stands in the line of recent worship-oriented releases that are more articulate than the early efforts in this genre. That’s not to diminish the value and importance of simple choruses or songs conducive to a congregational setting. I just appreciate the growth and maturity. Sons and daughters are proclaiming God’s truth in new settings.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Overflow - Hannah Kerr

Young women leading the way

Artist: Hannah Kerr (
Label: Black River Christian
Length: 11 tracks/43 minutes

Hannah Kerr and Lauren Daigle have something in common. They each give voice to a maturity and wisdom beyond their years.

They sing to God in a musical language of todaypop/rock with underlying hip/hop rhythms. I also hear some Euro rock influences on Kerr’s Overflow. In between driving guitars subtle accents from over the pond shape the tapestry of sound. These small sonic details are among my favorite moments.

Kerr has a hand in the songwriting, which teams her with some of the best: Scott Krippayne, Matt Maher, Joel Houston and Meredith Andrews, to name a few.

Similarly, many of the musicians are seasoned pros; Stu G one of the prominent ones. Is that shades of Delirious I’m hearing?

Mark A. Miller does an admirable job of blending organic and programmed styles. I wonder though why the peak levels seem high, saturating the sound. Was this intentional to give it more of a raw and rugged feel? Or is it just my imagination and/or a limitation of my sound system?

Warrior” is a metaphor for life as a battle, and serves as a terrific opening song.
Staring down the face of fear Gotta keep breathingWhen the negative is all you hear Gotta keep believing

I easily identify with the thought that we live in a time of fear and negativity that seems to be getting worse. It’s a challenge but essential to stay in an attitude of faith, as suggested in the song.

Kerr did not have a hand in the songwriting, but she sings the chorus with forceful conviction:
You’ll never stop me, I’m a warrior When I fall down, I get stronger Faith is my shield, Your love is the armor

Pummeling guitars and strong vocals make this powerful song her own.

Never Leave Your Side” is a plea set in the context of a ballad. The chorus is sung from God’s perspective. In addition to the comforting sentiments, what makes this standout is the beautiful wash of keyboards and gentle guitars.

Kerr co-wrote “Your Love Defends Me” with Matt Maher. His imprint is recognizable in the structure and lyrics. It builds to a crescendo at the end with a gospel chorus.

The closing, “Be Still and Know,” features Mark Hall of Casting Crowns. It’s more subdued than the other tracks, being primarily piano and string-driven, but it’s a highlight. The opening lines set the stage for the encouragement contained in the title:
When your heart is anything but quiet And peace feels a million miles away When the world is heavy on your shoulders And you don’t know the path that you should take

Debuts like this and How Can it Be by Lauren Daigle add depth to the modern worship genre. This kind of praise and adoration appeals to me more than some of the simplistic forms that emerged at the beginning of this movement. I don’t mean to discount their value at the time or even now. I just appreciate the growth and maturity in music made by Christian artists, in all categories including modern worship.

We can be grateful to live in such a time as this when artists have a vision for continued innovation and service to others. Young women like Kerr and Daigle are among those leading the way.

Reading Paul with the Reformers - Stephen J. Chester

What did Paul really say? Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives Author: Stephen J. Chester P...