Monday, October 29, 2007

A philosophical look on the impact of environment on religion

The Luminous Dusk (Finding God in the Deep, Still Places)
Author: Dale C. Allison Jr.
Publisher: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company
Pages: 178

In The Luminous Dusk, Dale Allison Jr. throws “modest light upon some current conditions that most of us seldom consider.” He points out that though we may be products of our environment, we help make that environment. “Our convictions, however much they may be thought of as the conclusions of arguments, are often heavily indebted to environmental factors we fail to perceive because we are too close to them.”

In his introduction, which by itself is worth the price of the book, Allison seeks to account for the modern tendency to disbelieve in God. He argues convincingly that our “seeming secularization correlates directly with a growing physical separation from the so-called natural world.” We have moved indoors, and the more that we have done so, the less some of us have been inclined to believe.

Our disconnect from the natural world has produced a corresponding loss of wonder. The wonder that our ancestors felt at the lights of the heavens has been replaced by a host of artificial images.

Our insulation from nature has made us more self-sufficient and less dependent on God. In the past people were more vulnerable to the elements and often equated them with God. Now it seems that only cataclysmic elements are able to break into our world. Even then we tend to look for help from others more than we do from God.

Allison’s point is not that experience of the natural world generates faith. “But surely it can encourage a psychological orientation favorable to some brands of religious faith; and this suggests the correlative possibility that reduced experience of the natural world might do just the opposite.”

My sister, who happens to be a Christian, was approached some years ago by a local newspaper on a question that the paper was putting to local residents. I can’t recall the exact question, but the gist of her answer was that she thought people needed to spend more time outside. As I read Allison’s introduction I thought of my sister’s comment. Here is the theological basis for what my sister knew to be true. Being indoors and being exposed to a host of artificial environments and images of our own creating has changed us. Allison makes the case that we have suffered for it.

As I read this book, I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a scholar of Christian and classic literature, who was sharing riches from his storehouse of knowledge. In reading books by Christian authors, it’s not often that I feel a sense of wonder being rekindled within me, but I found it here in unfamiliar subjects, intellectual honesty and scholarly analysis. The impression that the author is not jumping to preconceived conclusions on a topic is refreshing.

Allison delves deeply in a philosophical way into a number of subjects. This includes the impact of technology on religion, a treatise on light and dark and its implication on finding God, and the impact of artificial environments on the imagination. There is also a profound lament on diminished Bible reading. Happily, the end of books is not approaching. One chapter deals with the need for role models rather than celebrities so that we become more than we are rather than just being content to mirror the culture.

The theme that runs through the book, including the last section that touches on prayer, is a shutting out of sensory overload and the many distractions that compete for our attention. If we shut out the lights of this world and the fires of our own making, we can find God in the dark. It’s hard to argue against the notion that the darkness of stillness and silence is conducive to experiencing God. This is what many of our forefathers discovered and Allison eloquently encourages us along the same lines.

Brad Stine’s truthful humor hits the mark as he rails against political correctness

"Wussification" DVD/CD
Artist: Brad Stine
Label: Right Minded Records
Length: 19 tracks/91 minutes

If you were to see Brad Stine in a short video clip, you might take him to be a loud, macho guy who likes to rail about whatever he is talking about. He’s not a timid Christian. He speaks forcefully and is not afraid to touch on controversial subjects.

For those who don’t know him, Brad Stine has been a vulgar-free, in-your-face type of comedian for the past 18 years. Seven years ago he "came out" as a Christian, letting the world know where he stands.

That gets to the crux of this particular DVD. Wussification is what happens when people refuse to take a stand. With political correctness gone amok and a pervasive fear of causing offense, no one wants to speak out about what’s right and wrong.

But that is what Brad Stine does so well on this DVD. He’s not afraid to speak the truth even if it offends. "The truth is supposed to offend," he tells us. With great animated expression, he makes us laugh at the craziness and superficiality in our world (and in our lives) as he walks us through a variety of subjects.

Whether he’s talking about the differences between men and women, sports, Jesus and the Pharisees, Barney vs. Captain Kangaroo, legalism, "We Say Toot" (he argues that "fart" is not a dirty word), or France, it’s all motivated by a desire to communicate the truth. He may be a bit brash at times, but that’s just his personality and zeal. His heart is in the right place.

He has a good word to Christians about being real with outsiders so that they take more of an interest. He speaks plainly to fellow believers (his "tribe") about becoming free of the legalism that keeps us in bondage. If the Bible doesn’t address it, we should not substitute its silence for rules of our own making.

Near the end he shares his story of how God led him to move from California to Nashville, which seemed like the death of his dream to make it in the movies. It’s a powerful illustration of the reward of being obedient to God’s call. It was only after he moved to Nashville that his career took off. He’s now appeared in three films, written two books and this is his fourth audio/video release.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Warm, relaxed and inspired, this feels like home

Songs of the Season
Artist: Randy Travis (www.randytravis.com)
Label: Word Records
Length: 13 tracks/43:20 minutes

Randy Travis makes himself right at home with these songs of the season. This feels as warm, relaxed and inspired, as you would hope for the holidays to be. It’s fitting that the first song is "(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays."

Listeners will be comfortable with a fine mix of carols and classics done in that country style that has endeared Travis to so many. It may be the richness of his voice that is the most inviting, as he sings each song as though it were written for him.

After the often-covered "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," there is a wonderful sequence that focus on the spiritual side of Christmas. It begins with the classic "O Holy Night," which is led by a few simple guitar chords. The vocals are subdued allowing one to be quietly moved by the thoughts in the song.

Then comes a soulful rendition of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" that features a gospel choir. "Labor of Love," written by Andrew Peterson, is destined to be a classic. This song paints a realistic picture of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Christ.

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David's town

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" is a personal favorite. I first heard Travis perform it with just a guitar on an episode of "Touched by an Angel." The original performance was a highlight, as is this equally beautiful version of a sweet song.

Repeatedly with every song Travis shows how well he can adapt a song to his simple, straightforward style. The vocals are beautifully understated, never overly dramatic, which could lessen the appeal.

The lighthearted "Nothin’s Gonna Bring Me Down at Christmas Time" is a delight.

When he makes a small change to an arrangement, as he does on "Joy to the World," it sounds fresh. It’s the best take that I’ve heard on the song in a long while. It’s enough to make one wish that he had taken more chances.

His deep voice is perfectly suited for "The First Noel." The CD closes on a strong note with an excellent version of another modern song, "One King."

This could become a modern classic that will be enjoyed for many years to come.

Acoustic-based, light country recordings of mostly classic Christmas songs

The Star Still Shines
Artist: Diamond Rio (www.diamondrio.com)
Label: Word Records
Length: 12 tracks/38:48 minutes

Together since 1984, The Star Still Shines is country group Diamond Rio’s first Christmas release and their first project on Word Records, the group’s new label. They may be a stranger to much of Word’s customer base, but not to the rest of the music world.

The band achieved major success in the 90’s performing a mix of modern country, traditional bluegrass (especially with respect to their harmonies) and a hint of rock and roll. Their 1991 self-titled platinum debut was the forerunner for a series of number one and top ten hits.

This release features pleasant acoustic recordings of mostly classic Christmas songs done with a light country flavor. It’s a little light on spiritual content with only three of twelve songs dealing with Christian themes. This consists of two carols, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and the title cut, which is an excellent original song that will most likely get significant radio time.

The classics are well-done and include "Christmas Time is Here"—a song many know from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The CD ends with an instrumental from the same program.
In addition to the title song, the group shines on "Christmas Times A Comin’," a bluegrass gem. This is so good that I wished they had incorporated more of this style.

Throughout the CD the most delightful bits are the scattered instrumental solos and interludes that make the songs more distinctive. It’s a pleasure to hear the mandolin and the other acoustic instruments. The vocals and harmonizing are strong and fit well with the music.

It will be more than a little interesting to see what they do on future Word releases. Will they delve more deeply into explicitly Christian themes like they do on the title song? It would be great to hear more of their bluegrass side.

This is a fine introduction from a talented band to Word’s customer base.

Variety Abounds on One Wintry Night

One Wintry Night
Artist: David Phelps (www.davidphelps.com)
Label: Word
Length: 15 tracks/54:45 minutes

One Wintry Night by David Phelps has tremendous variety, but finds its unity in the Christmas theme and Phelps’ impressive pipes.

It starts with an a capella version of “O Come O Come Immanuel” that has some jazzy background vocals. “The Singer” starts without a pause, and surprisingly sounds like Queen with its combination of pop, rock and opera. Then before you can say, “shades of Carman,” we are into a hip-hop flavored version of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” This comes with lyrics that Phelps wrote to make it a complete song.

Then comes the dreamy, island sound of “Blue Christmas,” an Elvis Presley song that rarely makes it way on to Christmas recordings. Another infrequent visitor to Christmas recordings is “If Christmas Never Came.” This is a haunting version led by a music box and done with sparse instrumentation.

The jazzy a capella of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is straight from the Take 6 playbook. The hopeful “If Everyone Believed” has a slight punk rock edge. “Hark the Herald,” the chorus being a spin-off of the better known hymn, is an energetic pop/rock song.

Phelps easily alternates between quiet ballads and pop songs like the dramatic “One Wintry Night.” The title presumably comes from the book of the same name by the late Ruth Bell Graham. The song is one of six originals—the rest being a mix of classics and favorites.

This is a diverse collection but it’s meant to be a unified work. Phelps notes that “we tried to approach it as a solid record that just happened to have Christmas as its theme.… It really is a concept project.” He believes that listeners will get more out of it when they listen to it straight through.

The quiet, beautiful moments are shared with the powerhouse vocals of this former Gaither Vocal Group member. Phelps’ dynamic range and Monroe Jones’ production make for a seamless flow.

Fans will want to get this, but the sometimes overly dramatic inspirational style, often associated with CCM, lessens the appeal. It’s a great effort, but more simplicity might have made it better.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Jump5 say hello one last time before they say goodbye to nine years together

Hello and Goodbye
Artist: Jump5
Label: Slanted Records
Length: 10 tracks/30:58 minutes

What drew me to Hello and Goodbye was Jump5’s rendition of The Beatles’ classic "Hello Goodbye." It’s a fitting choice for a farewell recording from a group that has sold more than 1.4 million units, which includes four studio albums and two gold videos.

Fortunately their breakup won’t be providing fodder for the tabloid and rumor mills. Having been together for nine years, the members of the group just felt that it was time to move on. This release and a farewell tour will close this chapter of their lives so that they can go their own ways.

It all makes the inclusion of "Hello Goodbye" so appropriate. Previous group member Libby Hodges joined in on the song to help Jump5 say hello one last time before saying goodbye. It’s difficult to improve on a classic, but this is a likeable and admirable version that has the pop edginess that is typical of the group.

This is followed by a beautiful piano-driven "I Surrender All." This song, which is the most moving, is also fitting. As they go forward, it’s a way for each member to acknowledge their surrender to the One that has brought them this far. The future is in His hands.

It’s a bittersweet recording with other scattered references that reflect on their journey. It has all the energy and playfulness of their past efforts, but it’s a little sad knowing that this is their last.

It’s somewhat disappointing that this goodbye is so short with only 10 tracks, including two versions of the song "Fly" and an update of a previous song, "Throw Your Hands Up ’07."

Despite the brevity of the release, one of the pleasant surprises is an a capella version of the "Star-Spangled Banner," which closes the CD. Fans also have had something to cheer about with the lead single "Shoot the Moon,"—written by the same team that wrote the number one single "I Got Nerve" by Miley Cyrus—playing on Radio Disney.

In the end they are leaving in the same way that they came, with trendy teen pop filled with hopeful, encouraging and God-honoring messages. Say Goodbye to Jump5. May each of them be able to say hello to the new things that God will do in their lives.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Meaning can be found in everything, even in a video that tells the story of a rock band and a founder’s descent into madness.

The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story (Deluxe Edition)
Available through: MVD Visual (http://www.mvdb2b.com/)
Time: 203 minutes

The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story is a documentary that traces the development of Pink Floyd from its earliest days when it was led by Syd Barrett, lead vocalist, lead guitar player and initially the principal writer. His innovative nature helped to pioneer the band’s early psychedelic sound. Sadly, his use of LSD and other drugs may have exacerbated an undiagnosed medical condition that led to his demise and inability to continue with the band after 1968.

After one weekend in particular, in which he may have overdosed on acid, it was evident to the other band members that Barrett had changed. The once ebullient bandleader looked the same, but it was as if he was no longer there. As band member Roger Waters wrote in "Shine on You Crazy Diamond":

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun
Shine on you crazy diamond
Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky

One of the most touching moments of the film is the display of some black and white photographs taken of Barrett by a friend after Barrett had moved back home to live in his mother’s basement. Syd still looked the same but his face says so much. You can see the pain and sadness. It’s almost as if he’s thinking, "I know I’ve lost it but I don’t know how to be whole again."

As hard as it may have been for the band to go through Barrett’s dysfunction—and they tried to help—it makes me want to be more compassionate towards those who suffer. It reminds me of the story that F. W. Boreham tells of a meeting between J. J. Doke and Mahatma Gandhi.

On the wall of Mr. Gandhi’s office hung a beautiful picture of Jesus; and the moment that Mr. Doke’s eyes rested upon it, he felt that he and his new friend were bound by a most sacred tie. "I want you," he said to Mr. Gandhi, "to consider me your friend in this struggle. If," he added, with a glance at the picture on the wall, "if I have learned any lesson from the life of Jesus it is that one should share and lighten the load of those who are heavily laden."

"How I Wish You Were" was another song that the band performed in remembrance of Barrett. How I wish he could have been helped toward wholeness. Perhaps he found some measure of peace in his life. Questions arise and this film wisely chooses not to try and answer them all.

Instead we are given a fascinating and tragic account of a tremendously artistic individual. But it’s done in such a way—and this is clear from the short written bio included as a bonus feature—that this is a tribute to Barrett’s life and his brief but influential musical legacy. It’s intended to celebrate his accomplishments.

The focus is on Barrett but along the way you also learn much about Pink Floyd through interviews with band members and many others. Perhaps we can also learn much about ourselves. It’s an overused cliché, "but there but for the grace of God go I" seems applicable. It may be a thin line that separates any of us from losing, to some degree, our hold on reality. Mental illness may be more common than realized, especially now, given the state of the world. We are fortunate if we can go through this life with a healthy sanity.

There are a number of brief video clips of the band performing, and the film is peppered with early Floyd and Barrett music. Some of the latter comes from the two solo albums that Barrett recorded after leaving the band.

The second DVD contains extended, unedited interviews with band members and solo performances of a few Barrett songs performed by other individuals.
More could be said about Pink Floyd after Barrett’s departure, but this DVD captures the lasting influence that he had on the band. This is a must-have for the Pink Floyd fan that can appreciate a documentary.

A wonderful likeness of Barrett and the psychedelic nature of the band’s early sound are beautifully captured on the front cover artwork.

John Michael Talbot returns to what he does best on his 50th

Living Water 50th
Artist: John Michael Talbot
Label: Troubadour for the Lord (http://www.johnmichaeltalbot.com/)
Time: 11 tracks/44:09 minutes

How does an artist commemorate his 50th recording? If you are John Michael Talbot, you record an album that encompasses the music of your entire career but sounds like something new.

On Living Water 50th, John Michael lays aside the electric guitars heard on his last two releases to return to his contemplative music. His unique folk/classical style arrangements coupled with orchestra and chamber music lends a dignity and elegance befitting such a milestone.
It sounds fresh even though it incorporates the elements heard on past releases—classical guitar, chants, rich harmonizing, orchestration and quiet, simple songs alternating with ones that are more intricate and triumphant.

The orchestration adds beauty to the quieter songs and majesty to the celebratory ones. Several contributors, including producer Billy Ray Hearn and orchestrator Phil Perkins, make it work even better than what has been heard on previous efforts. The brass heralds a king, the percussion booms like a cannon and the violin whispers some forgotten story.

You won’t find a "hit song" like you might on some of his earlier recordings. These songs have more of classical and liturgical feel, with most of the words coming straight from Scripture with only minor adaptation. The depth of the lyrics, arrangements and sounds give it more of a timeless feel that will hold up to repeated listens.

Being liturgically-challenged, I suspected a pattern to the overall work but wasn’t sure what it was until John Michael clued me in. In the liner notes he writes: "We begin with a song of praise, move to a ‘Kyrie’ as a time of repentance, followed directly by a "Gloria" celebrating the forgiveness God gives us in Christ." The pattern will be familiar to those acquainted with liturgical forms of worship. It shows once again how much thought John Michael puts into every aspect of his recordings. It makes them a pleasure to review.

When I think about his music, I realize that he is able to do something that few artists can do so well. His very manner of singing conveys gentleness—one of those fruits of the Spirit that seem too rare in our day. It gives one a sense of peace and comfort.

Congratulations John Michael on reaching such a momentous milestone. Thank you for bearing so much fruit in your ministry of music.

A Worship Album for the World

Dreams & Visions
Artist: Mary-Kathryn (www.mary-kathryn.com)
Label: Rhythm House Records
Time: 10 tracks/49:52 minutes

On Dreams & Visions, her fourth release, Mary-Kathryn has created a worship album for the world. God-breathed but somewhat generic lyrics, a strong and beautiful voice, world music influences, soft pop/rock and a heart that seeks to unite people combine to produce an album that anyone looking to connect with God through music will enjoy.

The first song, “Incense of Praise,” with its opening sitar and Hugh Marsh’s electric violin flourishes, set the stage for a song that envisions people of all nations worshipping before the throne of God. It’s strong rhythm, exotic instrumentation and a brief interlude of singing in the spirit make it one of the outstanding tracks.

Another highlight is the alternative rock sound of “In Your Time,” which includes a barely audible reading of Isaiah 60 toward the end. The power and beauty of Mary-Kathryn’s voice is particularly evident on the hymn, “My Father’s World.” “You Are There,” which includes an answering male background vocal, is reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac.

Though many of the songs are directed toward God, they also convey comfort as in “Flying Toward the Sun,” which speaks of unconditional love. Mesmerizing and soothing are two words that come to mind in connection with Mary-Kathryn’s music.

It’s a delight to hear Hugh Marsh’s violin on several songs. His brother Fergus joins him on Chapman Stick and bass. The out of the ordinary instrumentation and production scattered throughout give this album a unique sound.

Though this might be a little too “new age” for some, it provides a broad appeal making it accessible to those of varied persuasions.

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

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