Monday, December 14, 2009

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament - Ben Witherington III

Scholar at work

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament (Volume One) The Individual Witnesses
Author: Ben Witherington III
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 856

“Scholar at Work” would be an appropriate cover sticker for this book. This might also be the most important reason for reading it. I watch in admiration when a scholar like Ben Witherington III employs the tools of his trade to examine Scripture.

In this first volume on New Testament theology, he focuses on exegetical work. What qualifies him for such a task? Prior to this project, he took on the rather daunting challenge of writing a substantial commentary on every book of the New Testament. This exercise served him well as he works in chronological order through the writings (and in the case of Jesus, the teachings) of all who contributed to the New Testament canon. In his effort to get at the heart of the major themes, he defines words and looks at their usage. He provides historical background, and he frequently resorts to extrabiblical writings to provide context.

He has an amazing grasp of these outside writings, and I wish he had explained their importance, but from his use it is plain that they provide corroborating evidence in support of the Scriptures. Again, the most valuable learning is watching Witherington attempt to determine the original meaning of texts. What we end up with is a multitude of Bible resources rolled into one. With extensive name, subject and verse indexes in the back, this is an extremely valuable reference, one that should be in any theological library, particularly those that support higher education in biblical subjects.

Even the most learned may find new insights in the wealth of exposition. One interesting example in his discussion of Matthew 19:1-12, where Jesus seams to permit divorce in the case of “adultery,” or “immorality.” Witherington states that the original term translated “adultery” comes from a word that means “prostitute.” He writes that the exception could be in a case where the wife has taken up prostitution. The word can also refer to the sin of incest. Jesus may have been commenting “on the very situation that John the Baptizer was beheaded for protesting against: the incestuous marriage of Herod Antipas to his brother’s wife.” If the exception is in the case of incest, a devout Jew would not see this as a proper marriage.

Since the word “porneia” can refer to a wide variety of sexual aberrations, translating the word in the normal way would seam to make Jesus more lenient than some ancient Jewish teachers in regard to divorce. The disciples reaction to all of this, “If that is the way it is between a man and a woman, it is better not to marry,” supposes a stricter view. Witherington suggests that what is meant “is either ‘except on the grounds of prostitution’ or more likely ‘except on the grounds of incest.’” He believes this makes good sense when compared with Mark 10, “where Jesus’ teaching is said to be ‘no divorce,’ and also 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul says that Jesus’ teaching was ‘no divorce.’”

In this survey, one major theme that continually emerges is Witherington’s view that salvation is not ironclad. He finds manifold support against the position of “once saved, always saved.” I wondered if being a Methodist scholar shaped his interpretations, but he displays a careful fidelity to the Scriptures, even if some finer points are arguable.

Further, he is not teaching the Wesley doctrine of sinless perfection, only that Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling. He seems to concede that it may be hard to lose one’s salvation, but it is possible.

It’s almost startling how clear this possibility of loss becomes. It probably serves as a much-needed correction to the idea that what comes after salvation is not as important as conversion. Witherington emphasizes the two-sided nature of salvation: faith and works. Somewhere over the course of time the latter has been uncoupled from the former. Highlighting so many passages that seem to show salvation is conditional is somewhat novel and unsettling, but we need to know the truth. More than once I wished that this kind of careful analysis would filter down into our pulpits.

Calvinists and others might take issue with Witherington’s Arminian positions. I encourage them to read him. He provides strong support for his views, and if they follow his logic with an open mind, they will at least come away with a better understanding of an opposing argument. Believers in Christ should not be afraid to hold up their beliefs to scrutiny and change them if needed.

Could this book be shorter? Maybe, but the length is what makes this so comprehensive. In this first volume he gives voice to all of the individuals whose thought, actions and writings comprise the New Testament. The second volume will be a synthesis that will focus equally on belief and behavior. Witherington repeatedly shows that there is no separating the two.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Songs 4 Worship: Country Live - Various Artists

Country style adds reverence
Songs 4 Worship: Country Live
Various Artists
Label: Time Life (www.timelife.com)
Length: 15 tracks/71:49 minutes

Songs 4 Worship: Country Live follows Songs 4 Worship Country, a 2007 studio release that has been on Billboard’s Top Country album chart since its release. That recording features some of the same artists (and in some cases the same songs, except in this recording they are live) that you find here. Having the same song, even if performed by a different artist, is a bit of a drawback if you already have the studio recording. Another is the use of popular praise and worship songs that have become overly familiar to many. But before you write this recording off, know that these are just minor weaknesses to an album that is full of excellent performances.

Spotlighting some of the best praise and worship songs in a country light brings an added reverence that you don’t find on the pop versions. It’s like they are born anew to be the means of adoration for a new audience. The artists highlight the best aspects of already strong compositions, and some tracks are outside the standard fare.

What immediately comes to mind is “Revelation Song” by Susan Ashton. The press release accompanying this CD states that it has been at the top of the Christian radio charts for 13 weeks. Ashton was prominent in the Christian music scene before recording two country albums for Capitol, the second, for reasons unknown to her was never released. She has kept a low profile for several years, and I can only hope that we will hear more from her. This song is not only my favorite; it’s off the charts! I found myself caught-up with its great swelling tide of exaltation.

Another standout is “There is a Reason” by Alison Krause & Union Station. I like this one for different reasons. It does not address God directly. It is more of a thoughtful reflection on how difficulties bring us closer to God. It features some exquisite picking that includes a Dobro solo.

I enjoy the deep voices and harmonies of the Palmetto State Quartet on “Trading My Sorrows.” “How Can I Keep from Singing” by Lenny LeBlanc was a great choice for an opening song. It soars. Like Susan Ashton, this is another artist that seems to have crossed over to country music. LeBlanc is credited with songwriting on two other songs performed on this CD: “Above All” and “We All Bow Down.” The latter is performed movingly once again, as on the prior studio release, by Ricky Skaggs.

Collin Raye shows his versatility by performing the liveliest song, “Get Up in Jesus’ Name,” with gospel-like backing vocals, and then switching gears to perform the lovely “Indescribable,” written in part by Laura Story and made popular by Chris Tomlin.

Every performance is excellent. These songs were captured live at the historic Ryman Auditorium, with the exception of “Open the Eyes of my Heart” by Randy Travis, which comes from a previous recording. I think it’s wonderful that the Ryman, which originally was a church, became the venue for some of the brightest stars in country music casting their glory like crowns before the throne of God in humble adoration and worship. They do their best to recognize the holy and awesome Creator as the light that outshines all others.

Redefining Beautiful: What God sees when God sees You - Jenna Lucado with Max Lucado

Beauty as God defines it

Redefining Beautiful: What God sees when God sees You
Author: Jenna Lucado with Max Lucado
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Pages: 221

In Redefining Beautiful Jenna Lucado writes in the same conversational mode that has made Max Lucado endearing to so many people. Max contributes throughout with excerpts and adaptations from previous writings, which serve to highlight his daughter’s thoughts.

Jenna is chattier than Max; girls and young women will find it easy to relate. She gets candid about beauty tips that deal more with identity than outward appearance. Jenna helps girls become all that God wants them to be, even if starts with something as unconventional as “embracing your weirdness.” It’s another way of saying, “Be yourself!”

Jenna is surprisingly transparent. She takes us not only into her inner psyche but the world of teenage girls. I found it fascinating. How often do you get to see life from the perspective of the opposite gender? Girls will find a friend and an advocate.

One subject that rightly gets a lot of attention is the influence of fathers. In introducing the topic she quotes Dr. Kevin Lehman, “The (most important) ingredient in any woman’s life is her relationship with her father.” She gives hope to those whose fathers have failed them, which leads me to a general observation about Max and now Jenna.

The Lucados make the gospel good news. They constantly remind us that God loves us unconditionally, no matter what. As Max writes, “God loves you just the way you are. If you think his love for you would be stronger if your faith were stronger, you are wrong. If you think his love would be deeper if your thoughts were deeper, wrong again. Don’t confuse God’s love with the love you get from people. Love from people often increases with performance and decreases with mistakes. Not so with God’s love. He loves you right where you are.”

But it does not stop there, as Jenna adds, “Being beautiful means overflowing in love for others. . . . God fills us with his love not only to show us how much he loves us but so that it will overflow to others.”

As Jenna writes of Joyce Meyer, who she uses as an example, change must sometimes begin with facing the truth about ourselves and our past. It may be as simple as realizing we need help. Jenna wants girls to give God the pen so that He can change the way their story is going. If they give Him their hearts, He can write a beautiful ending regardless of the ugliness of the past.

I was deeply impressed by the chapter on submitting to authority. Just the thought of it may seem distasteful, but as Jenna’s friend Hannah learned, it can mean “opportunity, wisdom, and triumph.” At first, Hannah would not obey her coaches. She disregarded what they told her, and as a result, did not attain the status she thought she deserved. After realizing her pride, her attitude toward authority changed. She trusted her coaches to achieve her goals. She realized that “attitudes and actions toward authority are a reflection of how we respond to the authority of God. I have learned that when we respect authority, some of that respect flows back to us from others. Good things come back—rewards!” Taking hold of this one truth can minimize the pain we go through from our own willfulness. It can also be the difference between success and failure.

This book is filled with practical principles that can change one’s outlook and life. Max and Jenna both have a way with words. They make the truth plain and simple. They are great encouragers in this journey of faith. You can’t go wrong by spending time with this book.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How Many Kings: Songs for Christmas - Downhere

Solid, mostly pop/rock Christmas offering

How Many Kings: Songs for Christmas
Artist: Downhere
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 13 tracks/44:40 minutes

How Many Kings by Downhere springs in part from the success of the title track, which originally appeared on their last recording, Ending is Beginning, as a bonus. The song, which had significant airplay on Christian radio, is included here in its original form and in a slightly re-imagined version at the end. Recording a Christmas album was also the natural outgrowth of being a part of the Bethlehem Skyline Tour with other Centricity artists. Catch the 2009 tour if you can.

Though the title song may be the favorite, there is much more to enjoy. Whether new or old, most songs are done in Downhere’s pop/rock style with acoustic sounds more in evidence. There are also some lovely musical interludes that reflect the wonder of the season.

As far as content goes, most songs contain substantive Christian reflections. The exceptions are “5 Golden Rings,” which only lasts long enough for you to hear those memorable words, and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which has a down-home, Salvation Army band sound. These were thrown in for fun.

I have heard instrumental versions of “Good King Wenceslas” and “Bring a Torch, Isabella” but rarely, if ever, have I heard the lyrics as you do here. The former is a blues-flavored rumble and the later a favorite with its pleasant melody, vocal tradeoffs and mesmerizing guitar.

The two co-front men, guitarist Marc Martel and keyboardist Jason Germain, are both outstanding on vocals. The musicianship and production are excellent. I especially enjoy the chiming guitar work that provides the winsome hooks.

Another favorite is the upbeat “Christmas in Our Hearts,” which has a strong feel-good vibe. It’s punctuated by horns that are as clear as a cold winter’s morning. Chase the blues away with this song.

“Silent Night” is a beautiful, stripped-down affair with piano, vocals, strings and a little acoustic guitar at the end. “What Child is This” is in classical guitar mode with vocals that have a pristine quality.

Downhere has done an excellent job of fusing their style with the more familiar melodies. They add just the right amount of creativity, which makes this accessible to a wide audience. This is a great way not only to celebrate the birth of Christ, but ten years together and seven recordings, not counting their initial independent release.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Love and War - Barlow Girl

An urgent call to relationship and boldness

Love and War
Artist: BarlowGirl (http://www.barlowgirl.com/)
Label: Fervent Records
Length: 11 tracks/43:08 minutes

You can hear the urgency in BarlowGirl’s Love and War. The opening “Come Alive” starts with, “Wake up, get out, there’s no time to waste now. Never shut up, it’s our time to speak out.” On “Running Out of Time” (the title says it all), they declare, “This is war, so pick your side.”

This album does battle by boldly proclaiming truth, which serves to combat lies. As I listened, pockets of deceit were being stripped away, leaving a desire to be more aligned with God’s heart. Having a passion for God is a repeated theme on several songs.

The music is a perfect complement. Jarring rock accompanies the more warrior-like stances. Producer Otto Price (GRITS, dcTalk) adds innovative touches.

The group becomes more melodious and pop-oriented when they focus on relationship with God. “It’s all about being in love with the Lord, and about that relationship with Him. If we don't have that …, we can’t have the boldness,” says Becca Barlow.

“Beautiful Ending,” the first single, is a gorgeous piano-driven track about not losing our first love. It’s forward-looking, wondering about our future with God.

One of the most moving moments is found on “Tears Fall,” which deals with a tragedy in our society. For two and half years BarlowGirl has struggled with writing a song that articulates their pro-life stance. This lovely, stripped-down ballad avoids accusation and in the process becomes a song of confession and repentance. A gospel choir makes it even better.

The Beatles had “Good Day Sunshine” and now BarlowGirl ends on a high note with “Hello Sunshine.” It leaves us with the prayer, “Let my eyes see all the beauty.” It’s a fun, upbeat way to end their third studio release (not counting their Christmas project, Home for Christmas).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Everything Sad is Coming Untrue - Jason Gray

Gray has become one of my favorites.

Everything Sad is Coming Untrue
Artist: Jason Gray (www.jasongray.com)
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 13 tracks/49:12 minutes

Everything Sad is Coming Untrue by Jason Gray is the kind of recording that Rich Mullins might make if he were still alive today. People like Mullins, Andrew Peterson, Derek Webb, Randall Goodgame, Chris Rice and Jason Gray have something in common. They see things a little differently. They write in imaginative ways. Their words are sometimes quirky but that can be the setting for some revealing insight.

I am thankful that when we lose people like Mullins, or when other luminaries fade from view, it seems like God brings along others to carry on. Jason Gray is one who stands in that line of faithful witnesses. From my perspective, he has come out of nowhere to become one of my favorites.

“How I Ended up Here” is a fine example of what I find so endearing about him. It’s humorous, self-deprecating, honest and peculiar enough to make it stand out. How many are willing to say that they don’t like people at all? (I’m sure that he’s just expressing how some of us feel at times.) Who would admit that they fear someone talking their ear off, which is how they ended up hiding in front of a lobster tank?

On “The Golden Boy & the Prodigal,” like the two sides of a coin, Gray sings of the ideal self that we tend to project to others and our actual selves, which we tend to hide. Care to guess which one Jesus died for?

“Jesus, Use Me, I’m Yours” is a stripped-down, self-effacing (“I’m not much to look at”) song of surrender. As I listened while driving one day, my heart melted like wax. It was deep calling to deep with my spirit echoing his cry.

“I Am New,” a joyous celebration of all that we are in Christ, is a favorite. It contains a wealth of Scriptural affirmations and music that soars. Listen to this to bolster your spiritual identity.

“Fade with Our Voices” is right up there with the best in contemporary worship. It’s a reminder that worship is more than a song, it’s what we do with our lives. May our devotion not fade with our voices.

Just the title alone of “Everything Sad is Coming Untrue” is a winner. This is definitely in the spirit of Mullins with its poetic imagery of the reverse of the curse. The background calls and the captivating music that breaks in on the chorus are terrific. It even ends with a hammer dulcimer playing along.

Jason Gray makes a believer out of me. I am reminded as I listen to the title song that the effects of the curse—no matter how real and trying— are as nothing before God’s truth and faithfulness.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sacred Singleness - Leslie Ludy

Letting God script your love story

Sacred Singleness: The Set-Apart Girl’s Guide to Purpose and Fulfillment
Author: Leslie Ludy (http://www.setapartgirl.com/)
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Pages: 184

This is one of the best books that I have read on singleness, and this is written for young single women. It was easy, however, for me as a guy to apply the material to my own situation. Who doesn’t need to let God occupy first place in their lives? If guys follow this approach by not chasing after women and focus on becoming mature in Christ, they will become the kind of men that godly women are seeking.

This is not a how-to-find-someone type of book. It’s the opposite of taking matters into your own hands. You could summarize Leslie Ludy’s perspective in a favorite phrase of Oswald Chambers: Let God engineer. In her words, it is “trusting God to script our love story in His own perfect time, without manipulation on our part.” In a broader context, “This book is about laying down your life for Jesus Christ; surrendering every hope, dream, desire, and ambition to Him. Exchanging your agenda for His. Awakening to His glorious purpose for this sacred season of your life.”

Ludy acknowledges that this self-denying view of singleness is at odds with mainstream culture and even many Christians. She spends the second part of the book using Scripture to demolish “lies” that are floating around Christian circles. She says that “the majority of Christian single young women today are surrounded by messages that encourage them to follow their hearts, take matters into their own hands, and find themselves a husband as quickly as possible.” In marked contrast, she believes the best way to find a marriage partner is to stop hunting for one and instead focus your entire life around Jesus Christ and His priorities. She writes, “God has not called us to build our lives around the pursuit of our own selfish desires, but to be poured-out sacrifices for His kingdom.”

Ludy wants to help young women live full and satisfied lives now, but she is not discouraging women from holding on to the dream of marriage. As she says, most people are meant to be married. It’s a natural, God-given desire. Through her testimony and that of many others in this book, she makes it clear that it’s a mistake to let that desire control our lives and put off present opportunities to serve.

This no-nonsense approach is not only refreshing, but it has the potential to be life-changing and world-altering. The last section of the book provides a wealth of information on how singles can get involved and help change the world.

This is very much in the spirit of Elizabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity, a classic on relationships. Ludy alludes to Elliott several times, and this is like a modern-day successor. The singular focus on becoming all that God wants us to be make this one of the best single books available. It’s a strong incentive to develop an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ as the best preparation for marriage.

“Prince Song” by the 2nd Chapter of Acts fits so well with the theme of this book. The song exudes the “first love” kind of relationship that Ludy continually advocates. If you are able to find the song, give it a listen, but here are the lyrics:

I got a brand new story though you have heard it a time of two,
About a Prince who kissed a girl right out of the blue.

Hey this story ain’t no tale to me now,
For the Prince of Peace has given me life somehow

You know what I mean.

My sleep is over. I’ve been touched by His fire,
That burns from his eyes and lifts me higher and higher.

I’ll be forever with Him right by my side.
He’s coming again on a white horse He’ll ride.
He’ll clothe me and crown me and make me His bride.

You know what I mean.
You know what I mean.


The song describes the true Prince of many a girl’s dreams. This is the One that Ludy rightly directs young women to have as the object of their supreme love and devotion.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Once Was Lost - Sara Zarr

Found delight in Zarr’s storytelling

Once Was Lost
Author: Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 217

The small town of Pineview is in a heat wave, and flowers are not the only thing wilting.

Fifteen-year-old Sam is feeling the absence of her mother, who is in rehab after her drinking finally led to an accident. Her dad, a pastor who always seems to have an answer for everyone else, never has the right words for her. Suddenly, the whole town is reeling from a tragedy that no one can explain. It’s like the day after 9/11; nothing will ever be the same.

Sam goes beyond doubting the religious convictions that have always been part of her life. She tells herself, “This is something I’ve never felt before, a total absence of whatever it is that’s made me who I am, on the inside, all my life.” Thoughts like this are a highlight of the book. Sara Zarr gives us the honest, questioning monologue of one who is searching.

The light exploration of spirituality never feels artificial or forced. This pays more attention to story and character development, which makes scattered observations more compelling. I never lost interest, and Zarr kept me guessing.

Thankfully, she leaves sordid events to the imagination, never getting graphic. On the other hand, she interjects a sobering realism that avoids fairytale endings. Sam could see the shadows that were left: “It makes me think of Lazarus. He must have had those shadows, too, after, his miracle. You don’t spend time in the tomb without it changing you, and everyone who was waiting for you to come out.”

This third novel of Sara Zarr’s was the first fiction book that I have read in some time, and this reminded me of the pleasure I have missed.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Lost Get Found - Britt Nicole

Day Dawns for Britt Nicole

The Lost Get Found
Artist: Britt Nicole (www.brittnicole.com)
Label: Sparrow
Length: 11 tracks/38:31 minutes

Strings that you might hear in an epic movie scene open the title track. Percussion kicks-in like a thunderclap. It’s a sublime start to a song that in Nicole’s words is “simply about being who we are called to be as Christians, and through that, seeing the lost get found. I believe that when we become who we are called to be, the lost will come to know God.”

That means more than the song being #1 for at least five weeks on the Radio & Records Christian Hit Radio chart. The CD opened at #63 on Billboard’s all-genre Top 200 albums chart. It was also #10 on their Christian chart for the week of 9/13/09. It’s impressive for the 23-year-old’s second recording, which follows Say It, her debut, which yielded three #1 singles and gained airplay on MTV’s “The Hills.”

What impresses me is a wonderful blend of organic and programmed sounds. The world of pop music has changed with the influence of hip-hop, urban and dance, all of which are felt here. It’s a real art to combine old and new in such a delicious blend. “How We Roll,” like all of these songs is completely modern, but it also has a vintage organ sound that is a perfect complement to the funky groove.

Watch out Lady Gaga. Nicole is blessed with pipes that are the dream of aspiring singers. She is quite the expert at making monosyllables ripe for consumption. I am not always sure what she is singing about—spiritual references tend to be subtle and some songs are in the celebratory dance mode—but it all sounds so good.

The weaker moments for me come on “Welcome to the Show” and “Glow” which tend toward rock. The execution is fine, but the music is not as catchy. I guess I have been spoiled elsewhere by infectious rhythms and ballads that sound fresh.

With regard to the latter, the closer, “Have Your Way,” is stunning. It’s vulnerable, intimate and has spiritual depth and maturity. It’s about choosing to trust and worshipping with one’s life even if everything is lost or stripped away.

This is not the kind of music that is familiar to me. It’s far removed from the adult contemporary pop that was so common among Christian artists. I am surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It’s creative and fun, but it also has substance. Unlike early Christian music, which could suffer from poor production, this is on par with anything in the marketplace.

The day is just dawning for Britt Nicole. As she continues on this path, I expect her future will get brighter and brighter (See Proverbs 4:18).

Bringing Theology to Life: Key Doctrines for Christian Faith and Mission - Darren C. Marks

Making theology clear, precise and applicable

Bringing Theology to Life: Key Doctrines for Christian Faith and Mission
Author: Darren C. Marks
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 190

In “Why the Care of Language is More Important than Ever” (Christianity Today, September 2009), Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes, “The discourse of the church, the subtleties of biblical language and the nuances of translation, the ear for poetry and care for theological distinctions may be eroded when the language of popular media is allowed to overtake the dialect of worship and conversation among believers. We need to help one another—reading, speaking, and praying thoughtfully together—to maintain the strenuous pleasures of precision, clarity, and lively confrontation that are mutually empowering and that keep us accountable to one another, to the responsible reading of Scripture, and to the God we serve.”

This is why a book like Bringing Theology to Life is important. It is an attempt to “maintain the strenuous pleasures of precision, clarity, and lively confrontation that are mutually empowering and that keep us accountable to one another, to the responsible reading of Scripture, and to the God we serve.” Recognizing and understanding theological distinctions are part of growing spiritually. We are impoverished when we speak and act without a substantive knowledge of what we are doing. It is like taking communion without knowing the significance.

Having come from a church background that gave little thought to history and theology, I find the book rewarding, even when I am unsure if Marks is correct. I appreciate the discussion. This is one man’s attempt to communicate the depth and richness behind the teachings that are fundamental to the Christian faith. You find one of many samples of this in the chapter titled “The Doctrine of the Bible and Sacraments,” Marks pulls back the curtain to integrate a theology of Scripture with preaching, which he contends rarely happens. We learn the purpose of preaching.

The value of this kind of precision is that it can be corrective, so that we can adjust our thoughts and actions to be more in line with God’s intent as revealed in the Scriptures.

Having coming from a non-sacramental background, I found his discussion on this subject fascinating and enlightening. He avoids controversy by not concerning us with the number and nature of sacraments, but giving us his view of what they do. He briefly provides non-sacramental perspectives in the book, but the sacramental views have greater depth and inform his theology. Those like me in non-sacramental churches may sometimes feel like a foreigner, but what keeps me interested is a desire to know the truth. This is what Marks seeks to convey even if some of the finer points are debatable.

This book arises from the author’s conviction that “theology, or rather academic theology, is largely divorced from needs and concerns of members of the community of faith.” Marks seeks to “redress that imbalance by clarifying that Christian theology is exactly the content of the life of the Christian community in terms of its worship and therefore its understanding of Christ.” He does this by introducing the insights of academic theologians. This is one of the delights, meeting key figures from the past and learning how their thoughts contributed to our understanding of foundational teachings. In learning why the doctrine of the Trinity is important, for example, the influence of Karl Barth (1886-1968) is reviewed. Each section ends with a bibliography that is grouped into introductory, intermediate and advanced levels.

Some theological distinctions are hard to grasp, but I appreciate the author’s view of the big picture. He continually relates everything back to the Church, rather than focusing on the individual. He reminds us that we are called to community, something our highly individualized society finds hard to accept.

This would make an excellent textbook for a class on the subject. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive book of systematic theology—its scope is limited to the Trinity, Sin, the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, the Bible and the Sacraments, Heaven, and the Church. The author believes that every Christian should be familiar with these concepts to “live and serve the gospel fully.” Marks succeeds in being clear, precise and confronting with the truth that empowers and make us accountable to each other.

Making Your Emotions Work for You - Harold Sala

A Sure Guide to Emotional Health

Making Your Emotions Work for You
Author: Harold Sala
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Pages: 236

Emotions may not have the best reputation. We don’t want to base our lives on fluctuating feelings, but are all emotions bad? On the contrary, as Gary D. Chapman, the author of The Five Love Languages, writes in the foreword: “God made us with capacity for emotions. In God’s design, emotions were meant to help us process life in a positive manner. . . . Emotions are not designed to control our lives, but to draw our attention to life. Positive emotions help us enjoy life, while negative emotions inform us that something needs attention.”

Author Harold Sala maintains that our greatest struggles are fought within our hearts as we deal with “frustration, stress, lack of self-confidence, fear, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, and the inability to cope with circumstances that are not to our liking.”

Choices can make us better or bitter. Sala walks us through relevant Biblical principles that we can choose to apply. We can thereby make our emotions work for us in the process of becoming more of what God wants us to be.

The first two chapters, which deal with our uniqueness and God’s acceptance of us in Christ, are worth the price of the book. It’s not that this introductory section, or any of the material that follows; is anything new. I just like how clear, concise and complete these first two chapters present the importance of having an identity established in Christ. If like me you have struggled with esteem and acceptance issues, this material alone can be life-changing. Just reading it I felt a little like Pilgrim being relieved of his burden in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Grasp these truths and feel the weight of negative emotions roll-off your person.

On the matter of self-acceptance, Sala writes, “When you can accept yourself as a person of worth and value, you can then accept adverse circumstances in life and realize that God has not forsaken you nor is He punishing you, but rather He is still guiding in the affairs of your life and home no matter what happens. . . . You don’t consider difficulty to be punishment because you know your sins have been dealt with and you are God’s child.” Sala doesn’t discount the fact that at times God will discipline us. I just appreciate him highlighting that when things go wrong, it doesn’t mean that God is not there or that He is necessarily against us.

Another thing I like about Sala is his liberal use of stories to illustrate his points. This is not dry reading. Sala draws on many years of ministry experience, which includes a radio program heard on more than 1,000 stations around the world. Over the years he has collected numerous responses to his broadcasts, and he often judiciously shares correspondence and anecdotes for interest and emphasis. If sermon illustration is becoming a lost art, you would never know it from reading Sala.

Even so, his writing is not cluttered with too much of a good thing. He knows how to be brief, which makes this a reference that one can turn to repeatedly for inspiration and help. It’s written for lay people, but church leaders will also find that it’s a good resource.

Sala is never heavy-handed, but his easy to follow applications gently challenge. For those who are hurting, this book offers a wealth of practical steps toward recovery.

In addition to several chapters focusing on the intricacies of emotions, separate chapters are used to explore anger, fear, boredom, stress and burnout.

Reading Sala is like having your own personal counselor who encourages making friends with your emotions. We must respond rather than react to them, and Sala is an expert at showing us how. His aim is that we become all that God wants us to be.

Alive Again - Matt Maher

Multi-faceted worship from an emerging singer/songwriter

Alive Again
Artist: Matt Maher (www.mattmahermusic.com)
Label: Essential Records
Length: 12 tracks/55:34 minutes

Alive Again, Matt Maher’s second release on Essential Records, solidifies his emergence as a recognized worship artist. It also highlights his ability as a songwriter. He is best known as the author of “Your Grace is Enough,” which appeared on his Essential debut, Empty and Beautiful.

Maher is one who believes in songs born out of community. These songs were written with Jason Ingram, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, up-and-coming writer/vocalist Audrey Assad, Mark Byrd and Mia Fieldes (Hillsong). I appreciate the honesty and vulnerability in some of the lyrics.

Originally from Newfoundland, Canada, Maher has gone from full-time ministry at his home church in Mesa, Arizona to leading worship around the world.

That is not to say that Alive Again is just the typical fare found on modern worship recordings. There are songs like “Shout of the King,” a driving anthem that would be right at home on a Chris Tomlin recording. But you also find a more than average variety of styles. Maher sings with a Bruce Springsteen-like swagger on “Hold Us Together,” which with its sing-a-long chorus could pass for a folk anthem. The plainspoken sentiments about love make it a song that I can imagine the Boss singing.

“Remembrance” is a communion song with lyrical depth and an ethereal sound that highlights the mystical aspect of the rite. The stripped-down, all-acoustic sound on “Letting Go” fits perfectly with its theme of relinquishing all. The quiet, gentle nature make this one of my favorites.

“You were on the Cross” is a stark song of lament from the perspective of someone who is in the winter of discontent. Yet when life falls apart, it still has the faith to direct the hard questions to God: Where were you when …? Songs like this are a heartening sign of maturity. Others have pointed out that modern worship recordings have often lacked this aspect of grief and sorrow.

Anytime anyone successfully incorporates the beautiful picture of God singing over his children (Zep. 3:17), it is worth noting. That is what you find on “Sing Over Your Children.”

“No Greater Love” celebrates the Incarnation with drums that shuffle and atmospheric guitar. Kudos to the producers, Paul Moak and Christopher Stephens, for helping to give this CD a raw, organic sound that makes this a little different from the many similar-sounding praise and worship recordings. My first exposure to Moak was his hot guitar-playing on one of Derek Webb’s tours. I can hear his influence.

“Garden,” another acoustic gem—one of two songs that include female harmonizing and the album’s closer—rejoices in the fruit of God’s cultivation of the heart.

This CD is like a fresh garden of delights. It’s not hard for me to imagine the gentle breeze of the Spirit carrying these songs of praise and worship heavenward as they fill the hearts of God’s children.

Hello, Stranger - Catie Curtis

No longer strangers

Hello, Stranger
Artist: Catie Curtis (www.catiecurtis.com)
Label: Compass Records
Length: 11 tracks/42:11 minutes

I had never heard of Catie Curtis, but now that I have listened to Hello, Stranger, I would welcome the opportunity to hear more. There is more—nine solo recordings over a 15-year career—but I am thankful for this introduction to such a friendly voice.

Those in the know have clamored for stripped-down versions of her classics, something that captured the spirit and intimacy of her live shows. Those who enjoy the sound of string instruments don’t have to wait any longer. This is a gentle feast for the ears from some of Nashville’s finest pickers.

The highlight is a warm voice anchoring songs that range from whimsical to thought-provoking. By focusing on acoustic instruments, occasional light percussion (no drums), and unadorned vocals, this has a pleasing organic quality. It is a delightful blend heard through a variety of styles.

The title track is a rousing country duet with Mary Gauthier. “Walking On a Wire” has a relaxed feel that makes its confession of falling seem so natural.

What drew me to this recording was “Tuesday’s Dead,” the Cat Stevens gem, which is still relevant and one of the highlights.

“Dad’s Yard” is ever so soothing with its beautiful harmony. “Passing Through” is similar to a gospel song, reminding us that life is transitory. The most moving for me is “Don’t Want to Know (No Evil).” Here she sings of shunning evil and wanting to know love.

I appreciate the authenticity in songs like “100 Miles,” where Curtis wonders if she is ahead or behind. She is not afraid to engage in a little humor at her own expense. Nor is she shy about posing challenging questions. It makes it easier to get to know her.

This is a lovely initiation to the music of Catie Curtis. I hope she counts me as a friend.

Billie Jean - Dr. BLT with Kim McAbee

“Billie Jean” goes alt-country

Billie Jean
Artist: Dr. BLT with Kim McAbee of the Buckaroos (formerly Buck Owens and the Buckaroos)

Billie Jean is one of Michael Jackson’s best-loved songs. The video has over 37 million views on YouTube. The song is found on Jackson’s 1982 Thriller release, which was number one in the US and the UK.

To record such a beloved a song and do it justice is risky and a challenge. I suspect that Dr. BLT chose it as a tribute to Jackson’s legacy. He succeeds admirably in making this his own. Who would have guessed that this could be made into a country song, but the subject matter fits well with this genre.

This classic fares well under the influence of the Bakersfield Sound, and is among Dr. Thiessen’s best work. Though Buck Owens is an influence, the rhythm reminds me of Johnny Cash.

I like being able to hear the lyrics more clearly than on the original. Thiessen’s rugged voice brings out the defiance in the chorus: “Billie Jean is not my lover!” This is balanced by Kim McAbee’s smooth background vocals and harmonizing. This more than meets the remake challenge; it’s like listening to a new song.

The song has been released as mp3 and is on the downloadable edition of the CD, From Buck Owens Blvd to Merle Haggard Drive, which is available at (http://www.drblt.net).

Monday, September 7, 2009

Your Kingdom Come - Matt Papa

Missional holy boldness

Your Kingdom Come
Artist: Matt Papa
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 18 tracks/74:00 minutes

On Your Kingdom Come Matt Papa is bold in every way. He incorporates Scripture to declare who God is and challenge believers. He touches on social justice issues, but goes further in songs like “Here Am I, Send Me,” reminding listeners that acts of compassion are not enough. “The world must hear the Gospel,” he says. “They must hear the name of Jesus. And we, the Church, must surrender all we have and go tell them!” He counts his recent marriage to Lauren, who “has always had a big heart for missions,” as a major influence.

And if you are challenging people to look beyond themselves to a world in need, it doesn’t hurt to have fast and furious guitars adding punch. Whether the speed is fast or mid-tempo, the style brings to mind Delirious, although a few songs are enlivened by a punk influence. Think Relient K leading the song portion of a church service. This is raw and raucous modern worship that can also be melodious. It’s broken-up by a few brief but delightful acoustic songs. The production and execution make this a pleasure provided you can handle sound and lyrics that are aggressive.

Papa’s words challenge. “Where is the Difference” and “Woe to You” are confrontational, somewhat similar in style to Derek Webb and the late Keith Green. “Open Hands,” a song of surrender, which also happens to be the first single, is more along the lines of Jason Gray in content and sound.

If you like modern worship, and you want something that is a little edgier than the norm, this is worth checking out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (Updated and Expanded) - Brian Godawa

God loves movies

Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (Updated and Expanded)
Author: Brian Godawa
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 261

“God loves movies,” Brian Godawa writes in the first sentence of Hollywood Worldviews. He goes on to explain that, “Movies are visually dramatic stories, and in the Bible the dominant means through which God communicates his truth is visually dramatic stories—not systematic theology, or doctrinal catechism or rational argument.”

Like it or not, “In some ways, television, music and the movies are the modern arena of ideas.” In light of that, Godawa advocates “interacting with the culture” rather than the two extremes of “avoiding it or embracing it.” He favors a middle ground that encourages discernment but avoids reducing movies to just a set of ideas that are good or bad. “My goal,” he writes, “is to help the viewer discern those ideas that drive the story to its destination and see how they influence us to live our lives—to understand the story behind the story. But we must be careful in our discernment not to reduce a movie merely to its worldview, as if knowing the idea is enough to understand it.… It is ‘entering into’ the story where one comes into true contact with that worldview, not through mere rational analysis. This book is not a call to praise or condemn films simply because of their ‘message.’ Rather, by learning to be more aware of worldviews, we will be more equipped to appreciate the finer elements of what is going on in our movie-watching experience.” A good story is something you experience.

With that end in mind, Godawa educates the reader about the various elements of story, including the worldviews that shape them. Fundamental principles are reinforced with examples from different films, which makes this an excellent resource. There is a wealth of scholarly analysis covering several hundred films that can easily be found by using the index in the back. Practical exercises follow each section.

This book is written for the general public, but it also serves as a mini-course in philosophy covering the predominant worldviews of our time—existentialism, postmodernism, romanticism, monism, evolution, humanism and neo-paganism. The author is an expert at not only highlighting these ideas in films, but also in his knowledge of the many movies that he examines.

Seeing how pervasive and sometimes subtle these worldviews are made me wonder if I want to keep watching. After all, many of these ideas are antagonistic to a Biblical perspective, which can be a rarity in film. Sex, violence and profanity are frequent reasons cited for avoiding movies. However, early on the author addresses this issue showing that context is all-important.

Though some may fail to appreciate the distinction, offensive items may be a little more palatable if they are necessary to the story versus being an excess of the filmmaker. “The key,” as Godawa writes, “is to ask some questions: Is this an educational approach to exposing evil? What are the context and consequences of the vice portrayed? Is it dehumanizing or humanizing? Does the movie celebrate evil, or does it ultimately condemn it? Is the sin displayed as an end in itself, or is it a part of the bigger picture that leads to redemption? Does the movie go overboard in detail, or is some detail necessary to emphasize the seriousness of our behavior?” We must also remember that no work of art, no sermon or anything in this life is perfect. Everyone and everything suffers from our fallen state. We are continually exposed to a mixture of truth and error.

Thankfully, this author is one that believes that growing in discernment does not have to take away from the benefits of watching a movie. We are better served when we understand what is being communicated through a film, but Godawa wants us to hear what is being said through movies. “Let them challenge us, allow them to help us see the world through different eyes, let them help us experience human existence in ways that we haven’t before. By entering into the story, we can experience a part of human existence and truth that we cannot reduce to abstract ideas or philosophy.” Movies are an artform and to the degree that they reflect truth, they transcend their format and enrich our lives. Godawa wants Christians to embrace the truth found in movies while being informed by a Biblical worldview.

The Real Thing - pureNRG

Real talent, great support and growing maturity

The Real Thing
Artist: pureNRG (http://www.purenrgonline.com/)
Label: Fervent Records
Length: 13 tracks/41:00 minutes

Even though Jesus is that real thing they sing about, in another sense, pureNRG is becoming the real thing. Since signing with Fervent Records in 2007, the group has now released five albums when you count this one, which may be their best yet. They have a polished pop sound courtesy of producer Rob Hawkins, who also plays a slew of instruments, and vocal producer Mark Hammond. Both have done an outstanding job.

Though this is similar to what they have done before, you can hear a growing maturity in their style and lyrics. It doesn’t hurt that they chose “Live to Worship,” a song that Scott Krippayne helped write, and “Sweet Jesus,” which includes Matthew West in the credits. Both of these songs plus “Overwhelmed” move the group into modern worship territory.

A little added heft in the guitar tracks is evident on songs like the catchy “Radio,” which affirms that individually and together we can change the world. “Savior” flirts with an urban groove before it gives way to a bright chorus where they seek to introduce the listener to Jesus. “Cover of a Magazine” is a song that needed to be written. It recognizes that none of us can measure up to the artificial perfection that we find on those glossy covers.

The CD also includes three sing-a-long tracks at the end. These songs have been stripped of some of the vocal tracks so that anyone can join in.

This group is on track in fulfilling their clearly defined mission statement, which you could summarize as being a Godly influence and positive role models for their generation.

Love’s All Around You - Devyn

West Texas singer seeks to inspire

Love’s All Around You
Artist: Devyn (myspace.com/missdevynrocks)
Label: Independent
Length: 3 tracks/11:55 minutes

Love’s All Around You by Devyn is the three-song debut from this West Texas pop singer. But she is not a newcomer. At only 18 months—yes, before she was out of the infant stage—family folklore has it that she could sing a pitch-perfect rendition of “He Touched Me,” the Bill Gaither classic.

It didn’t take long for Devyn and those around her to recognize that this was her calling. But with any calling, challenges and adversity are inevitable. As adolescence set in, Devyn suffered from debilitating anxiety and depression. She found herself in dark places as she also battled sever migraines. She finally emerged from her wilderness experience after praying with her parents. As the old hymn put it, she took her burdens to the Lord and left them there.

Thankfully, that trying time is now a distant memory. She is back in the bright light of some high profile performances, which include opening a sold out coliseum show for Phillips, Craig & Dean. She shared a home church date with Trent Monk (of acoustic rockers Monk & Neagle).

It’s what makes the opening song, “How Great Your Are,” so fitting. This guitar-driven pop song affirms God goodness and gives Him praise. The ballad-like “Next Chapter” explores choices made in hard places and their subsequent consequences. Regardless of what we have done or where we have been, it’s never too late to turn the page. This is a song whose style fits with pop or country. Devyn has the voice to sing either style equally well.

The title song is an energetic finale that recognizes that pain is temporary and life is good. It could be autobiographical, even though all the songs are written and produced by Michael and Ron Morales. One minor drawback is the synthesized production on this song. A remix that provides a more organic sound would make this better.

Lyrically, there are no overt references to Christian faith, which is intentional so that the songs will appeal to a wider audience. It makes different interpretations possible, but Christians will have no trouble reading between the lines.

Devyn’s purpose, however, is clear, “I just want to glorify Him and move other people to do the same when they listen to my music, and even if they have different beliefs, I want them to walk away inspired.” This is a good start toward that end.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

No Place Left to Fall - Bill Champlin

Champlin cuts loose on smokin’ R&B recording

No Place Left to Fall
Artist: Bill Champlin
Label: DreamMakers Music
Length: 13 tracks/68:15 minutes plus a documentary DVD containing over one hour of content

Bill Champlin may be the best known unknown artist. Until recently, I did not know that he was the singer on “Look Away,” the 1988 song recorded by Chicago that topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. I also just discovered that he sang on “Lead Me On,” the title track on one of Amy Grant’s best recordings. For years I followed the Sons of Champlin—one of the best unknown groups—, but lost track of Champlin once the Sons began to wane. This was before Champlin joined Chicago in 1981, becoming an integral part of the band.

He has now left Chicago (August 2009) to devote himself to his solo career. He has released a series of recordings in the past, but No Place Left to Fall is his first in more than 10 years. One might assume this to be an extension of his work with the Sons and Chicago, but that assessment misses the mark.

There are some similarities; the voice is the same and at times the sound borrows from both groups, but what sets this apart is the R&B backbone heard throughout. Having been influenced at an early age by Lou Rawls and James Brown, Champlin is a soul man at heart. That makes this work closer to the Sons than Chicago, though there are obvious pop influences. That is especially true on the title track, which could easily follow “Look Away” to the top of the charts. Chicago has done an acoustic version of “Look Away” in concert, which has now been retired by the band. A new acoustic version is part of this CD.

You can’t help being reminded of Chicago on “Never Been Afraid,” which includes Chicago’s former lead singer, Peter Cetera. The song is a duet featuring Champlin and Michael English. The two join Cetera on background vocals, creating an all star trio.

With the exception of “Stone Cold Hollywood,” which has outstanding horns courtesy of Sante Fe and the Fat City Horns, the brass associated with Chicago and the Sons is left behind for simmering, smoldering R&B with nods to rock and pop. One of the highlights is Champlin’s organ and keyboard playing. He’s been doing this for more than 40 years and his organ solo on the opening “Total Control” and the funky, jamming intro on “Tuggin’ On Your Sleeve,” is hot. Whenever I hear great art like this, the world suddenly seems alive with possibilities and becomes a brighter place.

The musicianship is stellar, and the music is not hidden under a bushel of clutter or distortion; the notes shine with a crispness and clarity such as I rarely hear. Major kudos to the producers (Bill Champlin and Mark Eddinger) and Jason Corsaro and Mark Eddinger for making these mixes such a delight to hear.

Lest you fail to appreciate what you are hearing, the CD comes with a DVD that includes a brief overview of each song. I so appreciated Champlin’s humility on the personal vignettes. He even has a few words to say about Dylan and The Beatles. There is a bonus for Sons’ fans: a live 12-minute version of “Gold Mine,” recorded in Las Vegas.

This is a solid effort, and I know from communicating with Champlin, that he is already collecting songs for his next solo outing. For fans of the Sons, this is the next best thing to a new Sons’ recording. If you like R&B, this is your chance to hear Champlin cut loose on the music that is part of his being.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision - N. T. Wright

Jump into a conversation on justification and God’s righteousness

Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 279

Many years ago, a Charismatic friend of mine said that he would never read a book by someone who was not baptized in the Holy Spirit. It was a sincere conviction, one I have thought of, when I realize how much enrichment I might have missed had I adopted his stance.

This is the first book I have read by N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, Church of England (or Anglican church). Unless you have a keen interest in literature, you may not know that he has become well known in the Christian literary world for his many books and articles. If you are evangelical, and have wondered if anything good can be found in the Anglican church, you need to read N. T. Wright.

I thoroughly enjoyed the depth of scholarship and the masterly exposition of Scripture found in this book. I have heard evangelicals lament the seeming indifference today to doctrinal precision, but I found it here, even though some might disagree with Wright’s conclusions.

This book is part of a conversation between the author and John Piper, the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. It’s a rebuttal to Piper’s book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. With the publication of these two books, the debated has gone beyond academic circles to the public arena.

Not having read Piper’s book, my knowledge of his views on this subject comes from Wright’s book. Wright is irenic and charitable toward his opponent (if I can call him that), and I don’t get the impression that Piper’s views are misrepresented. This is a civil debate, and as it says in Proverbs 18:17 (ESV), “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” I find Wright’s views convincing, but this book may elicit another response from Piper and shed even more light on the whole subject, which would serve us all well.

As I followed Wright’s exposition and logic, I realized how inadequate my own study has been and the teaching that I have received. One might be tempted to think that only scholars can accurately interpret the Bible. But Wright comes to my aid on that point, noting, “The many-sidedness of Scripture, the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, and God’s mercy in answering the preacher’s prayers regularly enable genuine understanding, real insight into the love and mercy and purposes of God, to leap across the barriers put up by our faulty and partial understandings.” He goes on to acknowledge that, “We all live within the incomplete hermeneutical spiral, and should relish the challenges this presents rather than bemoan the limitations it places upon us.” This spirit of humility is found throughout the book.

One key difference between the two men is their understanding of what is meant by God’s righteousness. Piper sees it as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which Wright counters as implying that “God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself.” In Wright’s view, “ ‘God’s righteousness’ is regularly invoked in Scripture … when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people.”

This is where Wright’s analysis gets expansive and, in my view, thrilling. The way he tells it, God has always had a single plan to save the world through Israel. He “always intended to call into being a single family for Abraham.” Israel’s unfaithfulness created an obstacle to the fulfillment of this promise. But the apostle Paul tells us that through the faithfulness of the Messiah, God’s plan of providing a family for Abraham is realized. In other words, “the believing-in-the-Messiah people” are “the new reality to which ethnic Israel pointed forward but to which, outside the Messiah, they could not attain.”

Wright’s all-encompassing view of justification brings new relevance to passages like Romans 9-11 and others that deal with the law and Israel. Don’t think for a moment that this is replacement theology, the view that the church replaces Israel. On the contrary, in the second part of the book Wright examines every New Testament passage that deals with justification. He succeeds admirable in weaving the many verses into a coherent narrative of the “single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” realized through the faithfulness of the Messiah. If evangelicals sometimes don’t know what to do with Israel, they will find help here. God’s plan remains unchanged. Jews and Gentiles make up that single family promised to Abraham.

One interesting difference between the two men involves the commonly taught idea of imputation, where, as in Piper’s view, Christ’s perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours. With Wright, God declares righteous those who are in Christ, but the result is a change in status rather than a transfer of substance.

Regardless of where a person might stand on these issues, this debate is worth following. This book is essential reading on the subject.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Life Journal - B. David

A soulful groove brings hope to the broken

Life Journal
Artist: B. David (http://www.bdavidmusic.com/)
Label: Destiny Style Records
Length: 11 tracks/45:50 minutes

Life Journal by B. David is a fine, aptly named debut. Those who escape the darker side of life through Christ have a depth of experience from which they can draw. David has turned the trauma of his childhood into soothing messages of hope and healing. It’s personal but not so specific that listeners will have trouble relating. It will be especially comforting to those who have been bruised and battered by life. It’s filled with positive affirmations that reflect a healthy outlook.

Thankfully, this is not a recording that is so message-driven that it suffers artistically. Though there are a few rock riffs, most songs consist of rhythm and blues arrangements with smooth as silk backing vocals. Much of it is delightfully acoustic with minimal production. The sound is somewhat reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, not that David has reached that pinnacle, but I think even Wonder would enjoy the soulful sentiments.

A standout is “David,” which like the rest of the songs has a one-word title. David has a high-pitched voice, and this song starts a little jarringly with him singing a melody that becomes the chorus. The song quickly takes on a Take 6 vibe, with a percussion track that sounds like finger-snapping, and gentle acoustic guitar. His voice carries an infectious rhythm as he sings: “This is a song that I will sing, when trouble enters my life. This is a song I will play, to get through the night. Though I think I’m nothing, I feel there is something that you want me to do. So I’m going to keep on waiting behind this mountain for you. Until you call my name, I’m going to sing to you.”

This reminds me that the songs, primarily written or co-written by B. David, have a wonderful childlike quality that is even reflected in the music. The sincere lyrics and the simple arrangements make the songs sound fresh.

Back to “David,” which is my favorite, even though the first single, “Believe,” is also an excellent song. Just when you think “David” can’t get any better, it becomes sublime at the end. The music begins to build after a bridge and the background singers start to say, in between David’s singing of the chorus melody, “When I feel sad … When I feel weak … ” It ends on a triumphant note with a choir of singers proclaiming, “I’m gonna worship.” This alone makes the CD worth having, but this is a likeable collection of songs. In my mind, the opening “Hope” is the weakest because of its generic rock riffs and sound. David is at his best when in the soulful groove.

This recording has broad appeal but is certainly a fine example of music’s potential to be therapeutic. David’s life reminds us that God can restore the years. His music follows in the wake of the prophesied ministry of the Messiah: “He will not crush those who are weak, or quench the smallest hope, until he brings full justice with his final victory. And his name will be the hope of all the world” (Matthew 12:20-21 NLT). This is a beautiful soundtrack for every life that is reaching for hope and wholeness. Any broken heart will do well to make this part of their therapy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pull up a Chair CD & DVD - Nathan Clark George

Makes Me Smile

Pull up a Chair CD & DVD
Artist: Nathan Clark George (www.NathanClarkGeorge.com)
Label: Franklin Springs
CD Length: 14 tracks/47:32 minutes
DVD Length: 1 hour 14 minutes plus a 28:52 minute documentary

Nathan Clark George’s music makes me smile. It reminds me that despite life’s harsh realities, living can be good. Where some artists take pleasure in singing about the worst one can imagine, George relishes singing from a faith perspective that makes this world seem a little less foreboding.

He does so with sincerity and a gentleness that reminds me of John Michael Talbot, Catholic music’s troubadour for the Lord. George could easily be the evangelical equivalent. He and his wife, and their five children, have spent the last 3½ years living out of a mobile home as they travel between concerts. The DVD includes an insightful documentary that shows the challenges and blessings of their time on the road.

This togetherness provides a wealth of material for George’s touching songs on family life. But he also excels at writing songs from Scripture. He recognizes that Psalm-singing is something that has been lost to our generation. He bookends his DVD concert performance with two songs of this type at the beginning and end. George exhibits the same kind of skill as Michael Card in joining Scripture passages with likeable and fluid music.

The sound is basic and acoustic. George alternates between performing solo with his acoustic guitar, and performing with a small backup band. Benjamin George, Nathan’s brother, handles drums and percussion. Ross Sermons plays bass guitars, and Mark Stoffel, a Bebo Norman lookalike, is heard on mandolin, violin and BGVs. The mandolin and violin give some of the songs a slight country and bluegrass feel.

George’s classical and folk influences are evident. Growing up, he was more familiar with artists like Simon & Garfunkel than with contemporary Christian music and modern praise and worship. This background gives him a fresh sound that appeals to all ages. His music never gets heavier than pop or soft rock.

“You Make Me Smile” is a love song for his wife. It doesn’t get much sweeter than this. This and the other songs are a window into his heart. James 3:17 summarizes what I see: “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (ESV). Expressing this kind of goodness may be foreign in a culture that calls good bad and bad good. That’s what George, who seems to care little about being cool—other than a few days growth of beard—, does so effortlessly.

The DVD is filmed in High Definition. The production on it and the CD are excellent. The CD includes three strong studio tracks as a bonus. The sound is a little fuller than the other tracks, which are the live performances also found on the DVD.

This is one of those rare releases that can be enjoyed by an entire family.

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion - Richard J. Foster & Gayle D. Beebe

You Don’t Have to Go it Alone

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion
Authors: Richard J. Foster & Gayle D. Beebe
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 364

Among some Christians, there is little, if any, attention paid to church history or those who have gone before. In some cases, the writings and thoughts of past luminaries may be disregarded or frowned-on because of their religious tradition, or because some of their teachings are considered controversial or unorthodox. Our tendency to write people off that we disagree with is tragic. We end up losing out on whatever we might have learned from them and may diminish their significance in the eyes of others. I’m not suggesting that we embrace false doctrine. When we encounter teaching that may not be correct, one noted Bible teacher of the past likened it to eating fish: “eat the flesh and spit out the bones.” This is an approach that I favor, one that requires us to become mature, able to distinguish between right and wrong.

This is the broadminded way that Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe take in Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion. They serve-up the best from twenty-six different historical figures who in some way have contributed to our understanding of experiencing God.

The book is divided into seven major sections. These consist of the seven primary paths to God that have been recognized throughout Christian history. The authors summarize them as:

 The spiritual life as the right ordering of our love for God
 The spiritual life as journey
 The spiritual life as the recovery of knowledge of God lost in the Fall
 The spiritual life as intimacy with Jesus Christ
 The spiritual life as the right ordering of our experiences of God
 The spiritual life as action and contemplation
 The spiritual life as divine ascent

The three or four individuals selected for each section were chosen “because of the way their witness to Christ has endured over time and guided people through the ages.”

The mature perspective, the ability to place individuals and events in their historical context, the expert synthesis of each individual’s thought and major writings, plus the simple but profound practical applications at the end of each chapter, combine to make this an outstanding resource. One slight drawback might be that you don’t get much of each person’s own words, but it would be hard to adequately represent their teachings through quotations in such short chapters. Some of these original writings can also be difficult to read. But if that’s what you want, each chapter gives you the titles of major writings. The book serves as a fine introduction to many of the brightest lights in church history.

This is easy to read and the chapters are short enough that you can read one a day as a devotional. The content is deep enough to provide much to think about. Richard Foster, who writes the “Reflecting and Responding” sections in each chapter, wisely chooses to keep his applications simple. Some of the thought is complex and as helpful as it may be, it’s important not to get overwhelmed or to try and copy the experience of someone else. We never want to lose the simplicity of personal devotion to Christ. Fortunately, the authors are of a similar mind in that they keep Christ at the center. One way to approach the book is to be like the Bible character Ruth in the fields of Boaz. Anyone can glean from the wealth of material presented.

Though I’ve read about a number of individuals covered in this book, I count it a joy when I can learn about people that are not as familiar. One such person for me was George Hebert, an English poet and pastor. His appreciation for beauty and language are endearing and an uncommon reminder of the role that they can play in our life with God.

Is humility something we can work at? Wouldn’t that generate pride in our ability to achieve it? If you are tempted to think that there is nothing that can be done to foster humility, you may want to read Benedict of Nursia. He “leads us through twelve degrees of humility that usher us into the presence of God.” One of the most interesting is “to speak gently, using reasonable words and humane tones. This emphasizes the way human speech can lift up or tear down.”

If you have ever read much of A. W. Tozer, regarded by some as an evangelical mystic, you may have come across repeated references to a book that was influential in his life and the lives of many others. The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous author is completely summarized here, so that I now know what it’s all about. The “cloud of unknowing” represents all that we don’t know about God. Our mind can make us aware of our lack, but this classic emphasizes that it’s only though our love for God that we begin to penetrate that cloud.

Don’t be tempted to think that this book might be too mystical, or one that advocates more of an ascetic lifestyle. I was pleasantly surprised throughout by the authors’ practical emphasis. They and their subjects continually remind us of our need for community and combining devotion with action. Love for God and service to others is a theme echoed frequently.

Some of us may have started out in the Christian life thinking that we are on our own when it comes to spiritual growth. This books shows that many others have traversed that path, and there are helpful things we can learn from their experience.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sweet Sweet Sound - Sarah Reeves

Pleas from a hungry heart

Sweet Sweet Sound
Artist: Sarah Reeves (http://www.sarahreeves.net/
Label: Sparrow
Length: 7 songs/22.43 minutes

If you have followed the praise and worship genre, you know that for many years Vineyard music was on the cutting-edge. Sweet Sweet Sound by Sarah Reeves feels like the natural evolution of music in that tradition.

Remember “Hungry (Falling on My Knees)” by Kathryn Scott? This CD is a modern successor. Reeves is hungry for the presence of God as heard in her many pleas.

Her lyrics have depth and poetic flair. She wrote with some of Nashville’s most sought after songwriters. This goes beyond simple choruses. These are fully-developed songs that can cross over into the rock and pop genres.

Reeves effortlessly fuses rock, pop and praise and worship in a way that reminds me of Kate Miner. Fast and furious guitars often punctuate the choruses making it sound like she’s being backed by Delirious. On “Awaken,” all of a sudden, you find yourself on this ethereal bridge that makes you think of Michelle Tumes.

“Come and Save” is a change-up. It’s pensive, piano-driven and includes strings. Stylistically, it’s a ballad, a song of confession and repentance.

The short “These Words of Mine (Intro)” sounds like an old scratchy record. Reeves asks God to humbly use her words, which often invite God to do something. This reflects a charismatic influence, which highlights the Holy Spirit and a God that can be experienced.

“Sweet Sweet Sound” is pop-oriented and will get the most airplay. The music is not as edgy, but it shows Reeves in a mode that will appeal to a wider audience.

This debut is well-crafted and appealing. It sounds modern and fresh. It’s one of the best recordings of its kind that I have heard.

The Listening EP - Dan Macaulay

Lead as no one else

The Listening EP
Artist: Dan Macaulay (www.danmacaulay.com)
Label: Independent
Length: 4 tracks/19:37

Winner of a couple Canadian music awards, and having shared the concert stage with well-known Christian artists, Dan Macaulay has released The Listening EP, his debut recording in the US. Macaulay is Canadian-born, but now serves as a worship pastor in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Said to be somewhere between Michael W. Smith and Jason Upton, his style and sound remind me of Chris Tomlin. It’s slightly edgy pop/rock with subtle artistry. The full and polished sound reflects the work of veteran producer, Nathan Nockels, who has also produced Tomlin.

Lyrically, the focus is vertical—these songs express and facilitate praise. Macaulay sings passionately, but the song, “Listening,” is weighed-down by cliches. This track is included twice—a shortened, radio edit is a bonus.

I can’t help thinking of F. W. Boreham’s thought that an artist, or in this case, a worship leader, has an individualistic view. He sees as no one else does. He must therefore pray, write, perform or lead in a way that no one else does. This element is sometimes lacking among Christian artists, including those in the praise and worship genre. Macaulay’s music is ahead of the lyric content, which would be better if his words were less generic.

He defines himself more on the two remaining tracks. “Win With Love” is a great opener. It’s a plea to show the reality of God’s kingdom through love. The driving beat compliments the earnest desire. Humility is beautifully expressed in “Amazing.”

This EP highlights Macaulay’s potential. May he lead as no one else.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Desperately Wicked: Philosophy, Christianity and the Human Heart - Patrick Downey

Can we be good?

Desperately Wicked: Philosophy, Christianity and the Human Heart
Author: Patrick Downey
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 181

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 KJV).

Patrick Downey begins with Jeremiah’s claim to lead his readers on a journey that lays bare the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Various readings, political philosophy, Greek tragedy and the Bible serve to show what the heart wants, what it fears and why it lies.

The author believes that “the desire to possess and the desire to be seen are what led us astray in the first place. To find our way back, we must pursue the desire to know, both ourselves and our true good.” Our deceit is in how we see ourselves.

I realized this in just reading the book. I don’t doubt Jeremiah’s words, and I can say with the Psalmist David, “My sin is ever before me.” Yet, as I read Downey’s thoughts on our desire to possess, which he shows is more than merely being materialistic, I saw how deceived I have been about keeping to myself. It’s so far from that New Testament example of a young group of believers, who were “together and had all things in common.”

The author goes on to write about our desire to have good rather than to be good. Though many of us want to be good, Downey writes, “Most of us mean that we want to have the feelings that go along with being good.”

Downey’s ability to make us see our true selves make this a searching and illuminating book. Along with a Bible, it will make a fine companion for spiritual inventory.

It is not, however, an easy read. Some passages, especially the more philosophical ones, I had to read several times to try and understand what was being said. Readings from various sources are set apart in block format and are designed to supplement the text. Downey could have done better in tying this material to the topic under discussion. Most of the time it’s up to the reader to discern the correlation. Academics and those schooled in philosophy will have an easier time digesting the material, but anyone willing to make the effort will at least find parts of this rewarding.

One of those moments for me was when the author compares the “Romantic” Fall with the biblical Fall. The former is made to sound like the latter but is designed to replace it. The Fall of Romanticism looks back to a time when “we lived in a garden of delights as free, innocent and solitary animals, one with nature, and no self-consciousness.” Can you see where this is going? “According to this Romantic telling, if there is to be any escape from the alienating ravages of this knowledge, it must come through the poetic return to nature we find in word or song or utopian politics (cf. John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’).”

It’s back to the garden and a return to simplicity. As much as I value the arts and self-expression, I can see the subtle error of embracing these things as a universal panacea. They have their place, but the human heart needs much more than something that can only produce superficial change. The loftiest sentiments, the most honorable philosophies and the greatest refinements are no substitute for the bloody sacrifice required to truly change our hearts.

Can we be good? It’s not possible on our own. Downey points to what we need for that to happen. Christ’s resurrection is the answer to our need for change. Our only hope in becoming good is being able to share in Christ’s new life.

The practical applications of this our covered in the last chapter, which examines how we can be good in relation to others. This includes an interesting look at politics and war.

Though this book deals with the subtle nature of our depravity, it is not morbid or overly introspective. Instead of leaving a feeling of heaviness, it can serve as a hopeful guide to exploring the meaning of Jeremiah’s words.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Live Revelations: On Stage Off Stage Back Stage DVD/CD - Third Day

Third Day in context

Live Revelations: On Stage Off Stage Back Stage DVD/CD
Artist: Third Day (http://www.thirdday.com/)
Label: Provident
Length: DVD – Approximately 72 minutes plus bonus material; CD – 9 tracks/35:35 minutes

If context is important in interpreting Scripture, it’s also helpful in getting to know Third Day. Live Revelations follows the concert DVD trend of taking the viewer behind the scenes between song performances.

This documents the fall 2008 Music Builds Tour, which Third Day co-headlined with Switchfoot. It records times and destinations, life on the tour bus, backstage banter before and after concerts, meeting with fans, getting together with family in Atlanta (the band’s hometown), interaction with Nigel James (Tour Pastor), and other events along the way.

Viewers get to follow the band through their days to the stage and off again. One of the most touching moments is hearing the band members talk about their families and seeing how they interact. “Born Again” from Revelation plays not only in the background but also on heartstrings as you see the sacrifices that these families make. Other songs from Revelation serve as background for other segments, so there’s no shortage of music on this DVD.

The majority of the concert songs are from Revelation, but you also get a short, acoustic version of “Cry Out to Jesus,” in which the audience sings along. In addition, Third Day perform the reworked version of “Thief,” originally from their first album, and “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Rockstar” from Wire.

It’s not until the second half of the DVD, during the Nashville segment, that you have more than one song together. In the previous sections, the pattern is one song followed by a look behind the scenes and then another song. You get three uninterrupted songs in the Nashville sequence.

The performances and technical aspects are all excellent. Robert Randolph makes the only DVD guest appearance on “Otherside.” The flames on the screens in the background are entirely appropriate as Randolph and the band heat it up with passionate playing.

The CD has a couple of songs not found on the DVD. The most interesting is a performance of the old U2 song “When Love Comes to Town,” which brings together Third Day, Robert Randolph, Jars of Clay and Switchfoot.

The sound on the CD is not as clean as I would like, but it may be as close to normal as they could get for a rock concert. The CD serves as a nice extra—the DVD is clearly the main attraction.

The highlight of the bonus material is the music video for “Revelation.” It includes numerous images of what is known as “Salvation Mountain.” Located in the California desert outside of Palm Springs, this is artist Leonard Knight’s visual presentation of the gospel. The cover art (also found on the Revelation CD) is a representation of the mountain. Live performances of “Slow Down” and “Tunnel” are also part of the bonus material.

Third Day rocks on this release but what I appreciate most is the fascinating look into their lives. Viewers will appreciate the authenticity. This is a must-have for Third Day fans and a great way for anyone to get to know the band better.

Then Sings My Soul: 24 Favorite Hymns & Gospel Songs - Ronnie Milsap

Country star shines on first gospel release

Then Sings My Soul: 24 Favorite Hymns & Gospel Songs
Artist: Ronnie Milsap (http://www.ronniemilsap.com/)
Label: Star Song Music
Length: 2 CDs (24 tracks/84:04 minutes)

It was just a matter to time. Country music star Ronnie Milsap knew that he would record a gospel album, he just didn’t know when.

His timing is appropriate. These are difficult days, and there is a comfort in songs that not only highlight gospel truths but also bring back fond memories. These songs have served as the soundtrack for many adults, especially while they were growing up. It would be a mistake though to just associate these songs with sentimental thoughts of the past. Their sometimes simple but timeless revelations still speak to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

They made a lasting impression on Milsap when he was only young. After being abandoned by his mother and told that his blindness was a curse from God, he grew up with his grandparents who loved him and took him to church. That was where he first heard songs of faith and discovered that he could memorize music quickly. As an adult, he has sung, “The Old Rugged Cross” for years, but has only now recorded it.

This 2 CD collection has both the popular and the lesser know. Alongside classics like “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace” and “Holy, Holy, Holy,” you get wonderful versions of “Father Along,” “Peace in the Valley” and “Swing Down Chariot.” There are also three new songs plus the contemporary songs, “Soon and Very Soon,” “Stand By Me” and “People Get Ready.”

The arrangements are reverent with subtle creativity. One refreshing departure is a slowed-down “I’ll Fly Away,” which is graced with a beautiful piano bridge. It breathes new life into an often-recorded song.

The music has a timeless quality that is a hybrid of country, gospel and pop. Milsap is one of country music’s most successful crossover artists into the world of pop. That skill is in evidence here, which gives this broad appeal. You don’t have to be a country music fan to enjoy this.

It’s amazing that his voice is in such fine form and that he sings with such warmth at the age of 66. The renditions are all excellent, and especially beautiful when he sings tenderly.

In an interview with Andy Argyrakis, Milsap expressed his desire for this recording, “I hope that they (gospel audiences) believe what they hear, because it’s real. It’s really me at this time in my life, and I hope they will open their hearts and accept me.” He’s made a believer out of me, and this release ought to be widely-embraced by the Christian community. It’s a feast for lovers of hymns and gospel music. I hope for more recordings like this from this talented artist.

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:...