Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ordinary Just Won't Do: 20th Anniversary Edition (Remastered) - Commissioned

Classy gospel music from a pioneer group

Ordinary Just Won’t Do: 20th Anniversary Edition (Remastered)
Artist: Commissioned
Label: Retroactive Records
Length: 10 tracks/42:15 minutes

The group Commissioned epitomizes style and substance. There is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Just Won’t Do. It’s classy right down to the album cover and CD label.

I can’t help wondering, if their smooth and intricate vocal harmonies, and their winsome combination of R&B, pop, funk and inspirational, made them forerunners for gospel artists that have followed, and have, like them, enjoyed crossover appeal. This CD reached #4 on Billboards’ Top Gospel Albums list.

From within, the group gave birth to the solo careers of two members who have become familiar names in gospel music: Fred Hammond and Marvin Sapp. That’s not to take away anything from the others who helped produce music that is recognized as being ahead of its time.

Ordinary Just Won’t Do, originally released in 1989, is the second Commissioned recording reissued by Retroactive Records. This sounds a little more sophisticated and mature then Go Tell Somebody, which was first issued in 1986. With the remastering, and the progress in recording during the three-year period between the two releases, this is nearly on par sonically with what you hear today.

Aside from a welcome variety of styles, slick production, excellent arrangements and songwriting, like the previous reissue it’s the strong spiritual content that stands out. What we so often hear today seems watered-down in comparison. The title song, a ballad, and perhaps the most outstanding track, is a prime example. On it the group unashamedly proclaims that Jesus alone is the answer to our problems: “Only Jesus Christ can supply your need.” Commissioned is bold with the truth.

Their lyrics alternate between challenge and comfort. One song can be like a pillow for a weary head while the next is a summons to live the life.

They inspire faith toward that end by continually drawing upon Scriptural truths, and yet it does not come across as preachy. “If My People,” which is derived from 2 Chronicles 7:14, is not the inspirational ballad one might expect from the subject matter. A funky groove complements the exhortation to get it together so that God can bless us. “Back in the Saddle” makes use of a forceful rap, solid drumming and another infectious groove to encourage keeping on.

We need these spiritual affirmations, which are often missing from modern music. Twenty years later this is still fresh and inspiring. Both reissues are worthwhile investments for those who enjoy gospel music.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation - John H. Sailhamer

More about hope

The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation
Author: John H. Sailhamer
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 632

A thought expressed by F. W. Boreham comes to mind when I think about The Meaning of the Pentateuch by John H. Sailhamer. Let your mind roam along new lines. Are you given to astronomy? Pick up a book on botany. If mathematics is your thing, a study of psychology may be in order. If you can’t get enough conversation, take the time to make friends with books. We are the richer when we break away from habitual ways of relating.

When it comes to studying the Bible, my preference in the Old Testament might be Psalms, Ruth or one of the Prophets. Studying the first five books of the Bible, commonly known as the Pentateuch, is further down the list. This book goes against my natural inclination, but I sensed my need to know more about the purpose of this section of Scripture. How many Christians are at a loss to know what to make of the Old Testament? I suspected this book would provide help.

I discovered that John H. Sailhamer is an excellent guide. He is a professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Brea, CA. This book is for his students.

As with any author or person, our greatest strengths can be an area of vulnerability. Sailhamer’s lifetime of study make this a scholarly work. His familiarity with historical analysis and recent studies, make this a valuable resource, one that would be a fine addition to any theological library. His insights open new vistas, but readers not inclined toward the technical may become impatient with his exhaustive treatment. Though the book is written for academics and serious students, a patient reader will find this rewarding.

Sailhamer is evangelical, orthodox and precise. Though some ideas may be debatable, his analysis and commentary is on the mark. Sailhamer draws rich meanings from texts through painstaking analysis, not reading into the text but letting it speak for itself. That’s part of the benefit of this book, watching someone rightly divide the Word of Truth.

Sailhamer focuses on the final form of the Pentateuch, rather than the history behind the text. He believes that the meaning lies in the text itself, something that modern critical analysis has moved away from.

Most Christians associate the Pentateuch with the Law. Though it comprises a significant part, Sailhamer demonstrates, to my delight, that in addition to “obedience to the Mosaic law,” the Pentateuch is about “living by faith.” Think Abraham and Moses. The former was an example of faith that the apostle Paul references in the New Testament. The latter failed to keep the law and was kept out of the Promised Land. Is the Pentateuch more about the failure of the old and the hope for something new?

Sailhamer seeks to get at the author’s original intent by exploring in detail the compositional strategy of the Pentateuch. Especially revealing are the compositional seams that link together narrative sections and collections of laws. Four major sections of poetry form the core of these seams and provide critical insight and commentary.

Sailhamer concludes that the Pentateuch is about “the prophetic hope of a new covenant. At the center of that hope, and extending to the whole of the Pentateuch, is the role of the king from the house of Judah who will reign over Israel and the nations.”

Sailhamer’s slow and deliberate enfolding of this meaning is beautiful to behold and has forever changed the way I look at these poetry sections.

This book is also valuable in showing how a Christian should relate to the entire Old Testament. How are we to view it, and what is still binding?

This study shows the benefits of grappling with subjects that are not as appealing but with sustained effort yield meaning that can be like a bloom in an unexpected place.

Hymnastics - Brad Hooks

Hymns as you have never heard them

Artist: Brad Hooks ( and (
Label: Independent
Length: 11 tracks/45:49 minutes

If Hymnastics by Brad Hooks makes you think of gymnastics your thought matches the cover design, which includes sketches of gymnasts in various poses. Maybe it’s a reflection of Hooks’ acrobatic maneuvers with some of Christendom’s most venerated texts. He puts these verses through widely creative and intricate contortions along the lines of Sufjan Stevens minus the horns. His use of programming and modern beats reminds me of David Crowder.

As a singer, he covers a wide range. One moment his falsetto sounds like Brit-rock; the next he is warbling (and whistling) like Andrew Bird.

Hooks succeeds admirably in updating hymns like no one before him. He also adds a couple of excellent original songs that fall in the contemporary worship category. Chris Tomlin should checkout “All Blessing” for one of his future releases.

For a generation that doesn’t know or appreciate hymns the last thing you want is for them to sound dated. Hooks’ attention to detail keeps that from happening. He infuses these classics with a fresh vigor by varying the music styles, which makes this fascinating and anything but boring. Some songs get a radical makeover with new melodies and even added words.

The most traditional sounding is “Blessed Assurance,” which relies on keyboards that fluctuate between more and less. It feels like the right touch for this dearly-loved composition from Fanny Crosby, who though blind could see more than many who have sight.

Getting back to the gymnastic analogy, this isn’t just a fun exercise. It breathes a spirit of worship, which is what these songs have always been about. They are not diminished by Hooks innovative production, just reinterpreted for new listeners.

Hooks has the talent to make this a series, but he also demonstrates proficiency in modern worship. He serves as the music director for Calvary Chapel Montebello and tours as a worship artist. It will be interesting to see what he does next.

I like hymn releases because I enjoy new versions of these classics. From my growing collection, I can’t think of any that sound more modern, original and creative than this.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wide Open Spaces - FFH

Their most significant recording

Wide Open Spaces
Artist: FFH (
Label: Independent/62 Records
Length: 10 tracks/41:25 minutes

I wish I had more recordings like Wide Open Spaces by FFH. It must be their most personal and honest recording. It’s a reflection of what FFH, after taking a three-year sabbatical, has become: an extension of Jeromy and Jennifer Deibler, chronicling their recent highs and lows.

You might be surprised by the theme of brokenness, which is why you won’t hear some of these songs on Christian radio. It’s unfortunate that Christians are sometimes shielded from unpleasant or controversial subjects. It may be a reflection of our reluctance to embrace suffering as part of the Christian life. When I hear songs like these, I feel a little less alone and crazy. Those who live under cloudless skies may find it harder to relate, but their perspective might change when their hard times come. At the very least, this may encourage them to take up their cross and empathize with the less fortunate.

Don’t let talk about suffering scare you off. This is not a heavy and melancholy recording. The sound is the FFH that many have come to know and love: gorgeous husband and wife harmonies, a strong pop sensibility and familiar music that sounds more mature and better than ever. There are lighter moments; particularly the celebration of the couple’s deepened relationship on “Hold on to Me” and “The Time of My Life.” The former has such a winsome-sounding chorus. The Deiblers know how to make great pop.

The opening “Undone” and “Wide Open Spaces” soar with a rock edge. The latter was co-written by veteran Christian music writer, Chris Eaton. Mia Fields helped write “Undone” and “What if Your Best,” two of the strongest tracks. Another recognizable co-write is Jill Paquette on “Who I’m Gonna Be.” Jennifer takes the lead on this song and a couple of others and is excellent.

What distinguishes this from past efforts is the lyrical depth, which stems in large part from Jeromy’s MS diagnosis in 2007. That and the break from FFH, which included spending six months of anonymity in South Africa, and the birth of their second child radically changed their perspective. The songs that emerged were unlike anything they had written before.

The idea that the best art comes from an artist’s pain is debatable, but there’s no denying that this is the most significant recording of their career. How often do you find an album whose theme is brokenness and becoming undone? It’s a little like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Christ’s call as an invitation to come and die.

This takes our humanity into account by being realistic about our trials and struggles. This is the soundtrack I need when I’m down and hurting. It encourages surrender rather than running.

This is a strong return for the Deiblers, who more than ever have something to say. This is art born in the crucible of life, which makes it all the more impacting.

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