Monday, December 26, 2011

Tennessee Christmas - Amy Grant & Wexford Carol - Jeff Johnson


Tennessee Christmas – Amy Grant

What constitutes a Christmas classic? Whatever the criteria, “Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant makes the grade. I have no connection to the State, but I feel an instant bond with the song. The acoustic tones and the harmonizing make it warm and inviting. It exudes a goodness whose ultimate source is the Father of lights (James 1:17).


Wexford Carol – Jeff Johnson

“Wexford Carol” by Jeff Johnson is in a world all its own. I imagine the stark and rumbling sounds echoing between snow-covered hills. Trees like sentries stand silently as the notes soar above a landscape untouched by all but the Divine. It makes me think of eternity and one “whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2 ESV).

It is the final track of Centerpoint: Poetry and Music for Christmas (1990). The short original intro serves as background for a poetry reading before transitioning into an instrumental folk song. On the Johnson produced Christmas sampler, Spirit of the Season (1994), you get the sounds without the poetry.

In this and other Christmas recordings Johnson manages to capture something of the beauty, wonder and mystery of the season. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Way to See in the Dark - Jason Gray


“Jesus is speaking but it’s so hard to hear when disciples with swords are cutting off ears.”

A Way to See in the Dark
Artist: Jason Gray (www.jasongraymusic.com)
Label: Centricity
Length: 12 tracks/47:28 minutes

I listen to Jason Gray for the same reason that people might listen to Bob Dylan. He has a way with words. They take unexpected turns and are poetic. They are revealing and vulnerable.

It is what makes the music of Rich Mullins such a delight. It is a combination of spiritual insight, literary sensibility and a quirkiness that get yours attention. I relish it wherever I find it. I hear it in Christian artists like Randy Stonehill, Bob Bennett, Steve Bell, Carolyn Arends and Andrew Peterson to name a few.

I relate to it because it often springs from brokenness and humility. However one might define a victorious Christian life, it is not a state of perfection. One of my favorite phrases comes from the book of James, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). Artists like these convey grace and truth, something that I will always need.

It’s why I find a song like the opening “Remind Me Who I Am” so endearing. “When I lose my way, and I forget my name, remind me who I am,” Gray sings on the opening line. “In the mirror all I see is who I don’t want to be, remind me who I am.” The Official Music Video reminds us that we often fail to grasp a truth that is greater than our broken condition. Grace changes not only how God sees us but how we should see ourselves.

The longing that you hear is coupled with music that has somewhat of a rustic quality. It reminds me a little of The Band. A synthesizer that sounds like an accordion (or is it an accordion that sounds like a synthesizer?) comes in on the chorus. This is the Jason Gray that I like the best—acoustic, stripped-down production with yearning rumination.

On the track that follows, “The End of Me,” he sounds more like Coldplay, even down to the falsetto, not that this is bad. The chorus is an interesting derivative of the hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.” Skip to track three, and the power chords on “No Thief Life Fear,” may be fitting, but I find them less appealing than Gray just strumming his guitar.

“Without Running Away” is my favorite. The memorable lines like the following just keep coming, “Jesus is speaking but it’s so hard to hear when disciples with swords are cutting off ears / Broken and bleeding, waiting for healing to come.” The rural sound and sparse production are a perfect complement to Gray in his Dylan mode.

I favor his folksy, storytelling side. When he moves more toward rock, it’s less compelling. Generally, it’s the quieter mid-tempo songs where I lose myself in the words and sound. It makes me feel more alive and less alone. That’s part of what good art does to me.

One of the most poignant moments is “Nothing is Wasted.” This is the song to hear when you feel like your life is a wreck and past redemption. It mentions Jesus by name. It wasn’t too long ago that there was a controversy over how often Christian artists used (or did not use) the name of Jesus. A song might be judged by whether you heard (and how often) Jesus’ name. Hopefully, that kind of thinking is long gone, but because so many artists began to refer to God with personal pronouns and vague references, I notice when that name is used. Gray does it here on at least three songs, and it almost seems counter-cultural. I like it because I never want to lose sight of Christ.  

A Way to See in the Dark by Jason Gray contains some of the best songs that he has ever done. If you like singer/songwriters, especially those mentioned previously, check out Jason Gray. He has become one of the finest writers in Christian music. His childlike faith will help him and the rest of us find our way in the dark.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The IVP Introduction to the Bible


If you could only have one book to go with the Bible, this is an excellent choice.

The IVP Introduction to the Bible
Editor: Philip S. Johnston
Publishers: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com/academic)
Pages: 292

If background and context are crucial to understanding the meaning of Scripture, The IVP Introduction to the Bible is an excellent quick reference for discovering it. Various contributors from the US and UK provide overviews of all the major sections and all the individual books. Among the scholars are Desmond Alexander, Tremper Longman, Howard Marshall, Brian Rosner and Mark Strauss. Each writes in their field of expertise.

Their work is equal to or greater than the notes found in the best study Bibles. There you have space constraints, which require smaller text and abbreviated subject matter. One thing you do not get is detail on individual verses, which is where study Bibles have an advantage in that they do provide some commentary. However, the best source for exposition of individual verses remains one-volume or multi-volume commentaries.

This book provides clear and concise presentations that contain a wealth of distilled scholarship for anyone wanting to grasp themes and subject matter. The insights are highly relevant. On the inspiration of Scripture, Mark Strauss writes, “Though the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture may be perfect and precise, the vehicle of transmission (human language) is subject to ambiguity and imprecision. Our comprehension of divine revelation is therefore always partial and incomplete (1 Cor. 13:12)” (3).

The views are current and conservative, avoiding controversy, though readers may disagree with some conclusions. Traditionally, the author of Revelation has been identified as John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles. Carl Mosser writes, “John the son of Zebedee became an apostle, but little in Revelation supports identifying its author with one of the apostles. He never calls himself an apostle, and gives no indication that he is among the twelve apostles written on the New Jerusalem’s foundations (21:14), or is among the twenty-four enthroned elders, probably the twelve patriarchs and twelve apostles (4:4, 10; 5:8; 11:16; 19:4). So it seems unlikely that the author was John the son of Zebedee but we cannot determine his identity more than that” (265-266).

Returning to the beginning of the book, Mark Strauss’ definition of terms is valuable. He explains the difference between plenary and verbal inspiration, “Plenary means ‘full’ and refers to the fact that all Scripture is equally inspired. Verbal means that the words themselves, not just the ideas, are inspired by God. Here we must be cautious, however, since words are arbitrary signs which indicate conceptual content. It is the meaning of these words ― the message which they convey — which is ultimately inspired by God. In this way a translation of Scripture which accurately represents the meaning of that text remains God’s Word” (3). Some may disagree with that last thought, but this careful, reasoned analysis of every aspect of Scripture is found throughout, which makes this a great addition to any personal or institutional library. Ministers and teachers will find it helpful in sermon or lesson preparation.

Every section is interesting, but because it is less familiar to me, I especially enjoyed reading “Between the Testaments.” Carl Mosser takes readers through a fascinating account of the 400 year period between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.

Two of the best features come at the end of each section. There is a short synopsis that discusses each book’s relevance for Christians. This is especially helpful in the Old Testament, where believers sometimes wonder what applies. This highlights the importance of context, which this book consistently provides. In “Introducing the Old Testament,” we find this apt summary statement, “The basic rule of thumb for Christian interpreters of the OT is that the moral law, governing ethical behavior, continues in effect for the Christian, not as a means of salvation, but as a code ― based in God’s character — by which to live. By contrast, while we can learn from the civil and ceremonial laws, we are not directed by them in the same way” (45).

The other helpful feature is a further reading section, which shows where to turn for more detail. The list provides the best scholarship on the subject with short comments from the author.

The layout is pleasant to the eyes and the text easy to read.

Do you need help in understanding and applying the Bible? Maybe you just want a reliable reference to keep you on track. Look no further. If you could only have one book to go with the Bible, this is an excellent choice.

Collage - The Katinas


The Katinas’ favorite recording is a blend of many influences.

Collage
Artist: The Katinas (www.thekatinas.com)
Label: Destiny
Length: 11 tracks/49:30 minutes

Listening to “L.O.V.E.” and “Collage,” the opening tracks on Collage by The Katinas, you might feel like you had wandered into a club setting. The electronic beats and programming may catch you by surprise. The intent is to keep the music fresh, and this willingness to experiment carries over into the rest of the recording, which must have made this fun for these five brothers from American Samoa. If dance and synthesized sounds are not what you like, don’t give up on this CD. The other tracks have a more familiar sound.

In their 21 years together, the brothers realize that no matter how much they vary the music to stay relevant, the message is most important. That is especially the case on “Home,” which they have performed during altar calls at the “Harvest Crusades” conducted by evangelist Greg Laurie. The chorus is an invitation to every prodigal, “Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been / It don’t matter to Him / This is love / Turn around / Come on home.” Watch them sing it on the Official Music Video.

This strong vertical focus is maintained throughout. “I’ll Wait” is about yielding to God’s timing no matter how long it takes, learning to find peace in being still.

“Jehovah,” a lovely worship-oriented song, includes strong guest vocals from CeCe Winans. TobyMac, Jeremy Camp and B. Reith add their talents and vocals to other songs.

The band puts their own subtle stamp on enjoyable versions of David Crowder’s “How He Loves” and Delirious’ “Majesty.” Given the strength of the compositions and the reverent treatment here, it is easy to enter into a spirit of worship as you listen.

Among the pleasant surprises are two back-to-back feel-good tracks. “Every Single Bit of You,” written with B. Reith, is a sprightly love song. It’s followed by “La’u Pele Ea,” which has a tropical sound and sung, I presume, in the brothers’ native language.

Since loving God and our neighbors summarizes the whole Law, a song like “Love People” that repeats this refrain is a welcome reminder. TobyMac and B. Reith share the songwriting credit with The Katinas.

John Katina, one of the brothers, calls Collage the bands’ favorite recording. It’s easy to understand why with its smooth blend of diverse music influences and strong spiritual focus. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Love Enough - Laura Kaczor


Personal renewal is a theme on Kaczor’s national debut.

Love Enough
Artist: Laura Kaczor (www.laurakaczor.com)
Label: Universal-Fontana/EMI CMG
Length: 10 songs/40:48 minutes

On Love Enough by Laura Kaczor (kuh-ZURE) it is quickly apparent that her music is easy to like, which is no small thing. I am all for artistry, but unbridled creativity can make for a difficult listen. That is not a problem here. Whether it’s an up-tempo anthem or an introspective ballad, these are well-crafted songs that are pleasing to the ears.

Kaczor co-wrote nine out of the ten tracks, which are animated by an obvious heart of worship. This is not, however, what might be commonly thought of as a praise and worship recording, though it does include that element. It tends more toward the singer-songwriter style. Rather than containing songs for congregational singing, this is an individual extolling God in the face of brokenness.

“Renew My Life (To Worship)” is a good example. It is plea for God to restore, a theme that in various forms weaves its way through much of this recording. A simple but mesmerizing chorus is accented by a male harmony vocal. The soothing sound draws in the listener making it easy to identify with the petition.

This contrasts nicely with the two opening songs, which are full of energy and have monster hooks. Kaczor has a sure voice regardless of style. It may be the most powerful on slower tunes like the title track, where she adds weight to the opening lines: “How do I end up where I don’t want to be? / On the right path but just off a degree / A few bends in the road and before I know it / I’m miles away from you.” I appreciate the emphasis that even when we go astray God seeks us. He remains faithful even when we are not. 

You find a similar idea on “When Grace Calls You Out,” with the mellotron-like (think “Strawberry Fields Forever”) sounds that set the mood. “When grace calls you out into the open / Takes everything that’s broken / And makes it beautiful / Step into the light and see if you don’t find / Healing as the walls come down,” she sings, contrasting emptiness with God’s sufficiency and suggesting that there is no need to hide or pretend with grace.  

“Sacred Bride,” with mid-tempo music and breezy vocals, bears eloquent testimony to the wonder of this relationship: “You call me beloved / Your sacred bride / Though I’ve been unfaithful / And I’ve tried to hide / Your forgiveness is deep / And your mercy is wide / You call me beloved / Your sacred bride.” It is a fitting summary near the end of the CD.

Occasionally, the arrangements and production sound a little dated. This is more evident on the inspirational tracks. It’s less noticeable on the material that moves toward pop/rock. These faster songs have youth-oriented appeal but overall this is more adult-contemporary and inspirational. It’s reminiscent in style and content to Shannon Wexelberg, Sheila Walsh and Annie Herring.
This is a national debut for Kaczor even though it’s her third recording. The first two, one being an EP, were independent releases.

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Kaczor served for seven years as a worship leader at Jesus Fest. No surprise then that a desire to worship and encourage others is evident. Combined with her emphasis on renewal, she might be a good addition to a Women of Faith conference.

Overflow - Hannah Kerr

Young women leading the way Overflow Artist: Hannah Kerr ( www.hannahkerrmusic.com ) Label: Black River Christian Length: ...