Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Joy - Steven Curtis Chapman




Filled with variety and cheer, Joy is one of the best releases of the season.

Joy
Artist: Steven Curtis Chapman (www.stevencurtischapman.com)
Label: Provident Label Group
Length: 13 tracks/45:05 minutes

If you liken Steven Curtis Chapman’s career to the water that Jesus turned to wine at a wedding feast, you could say that Chapman has saved the best for last. Joy continues the winsome, acoustic-based, organic sound found on his last few releases. It may not be roots rock, but it is less CCM radio and more rustic. Chapman has never sounded better or been more creative.

Joy’s nostalgic cover, with old-school microphone, vintage guitar, Chapman in black and white with a starry tinsel-colored background and red banner, all right out of the ’50s, signal some of what you find here. Originals like “Christmas Time Again” and “Christmas Kiss” and the classic “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” hearken to a more romantic era where the electric guitar was a new novelty. Chapman joins a long line of holiday crooners, and it’s like the late Les Paul added his trademark sound.

In a world that esteems the extremes of those who cater to the masses and the more cryptic, songwriters like Chapman are easily overlooked and underrated. In the industry he serves, he has been rightly recognized many times for his abilities. Here, a little less than half of the songs are originals, and without exception, they highlight Chapman’s skill in making a pop song shine with radiant spiritual truth. Witness “Christmas Card,” which is like a beacon of hope for all who struggle with the holidays.

In “I Am Joseph (God is With Us)” he issues an invitation to all: “So let’s all gather at the manger/And bring all our hopes and hurts and fears/All our unworthiness and shame/Knowing every one of us is the reason that He came.”

This starts with fast strumming and snappy percussion on a mandolin-accented “Joy to the World.” Though it incorporates a few key phrases from this song in the next two tracks; it’s not at all repetitive. It’s more like, in case you missed the message because of the familiar context, here it is again set against a different background. I found myself hearing anew the familiar words about the birth of Christ as I listened to words from the classic carols.

The classics sound fresh and sometimes feature the African Children’s Choir. “Christmas Time is Here” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” are stripped-down, giving them the stark beauty of darkened branches presiding over a snow-covered landscape. These moments of melancholy are the perfect counterpoint to the livelier fare.

Chapman has revitalized himself on this and recent offerings. It makes me look forward to what he does in the future as he continues to experiment. Joy is evidence of how Chapman’s newfound creativity invigorates his work. Filled with variety and plenty of cheer, it is one of the best releases of the season.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Gregory of Nyssa: Sermons on the Beatitudes




There are numerous books on the Beatitudes, but how often do you get to read one by a Church Father?

Gregory of Nyssa: Sermons on the Beatitudes
A Paraphrase by Michael Glerup
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 124

Numerous books have been written on the Beatitudes, but how many are authored by a Church Father? Gregory of Nyssa: Sermons on the Beatitudes, paraphrased by Michael Glerup, is a collection of sermons published 1700 years ago.

What relevance could these messages have today? That these sermons were preached in a world much different than our own makes them unique. Gregory stands outside of our time providing a different perspective than our contemporaries, who are not immune from the influence of our environment. We pick-up prejudices and are blind to neglected truths. Though the same might apply to Gregory through the realities that shaped him, it’s a reason why a collective witness from saints past and present is worth gaining. Those who have gone before help us to see what we have missed and supplement our faith through their insights.

One beauty of gifting in the body of Christ is that individual uniqueness illuminates different facets of the same truth. We have four gospels that provide different portraits of the life and ministry of Christ. We have multiple commentaries and books on the beatitudes that together give us a more composite picture.

How does Gregory add to our understanding? “Gregory has a strong sense of God’s transcendence and the infinity of God. As a result, he consistently highlights the importance of trust, love, adoration and obedience to God. He also cautions believers not to think that their words describe God fully or with complete accuracy. Because of God’s infinity our words or mental images will always fall short of the actuality of God. This does not indicate that we know nothing or almost nothing about God. Rather, it suggests that our talk about God should be tempered by humility” (18-19).

Gregory’s reasoning appeals to me. He frequently moves from the natural to the spiritual, from the lesser to the greater. This kind of deductive teaching fits well with his view that the beatitudes our progressive. Each one is like taking a step up a ladder.

In our day there can be a rush to application, which though practical, can be unsatisfying if exposition is neglected. We need to be doers of the Word, but we also need to discover the richness that is in Christ and the Scriptures. Gregory is practical, but he also provides expansive views that are not as common in our time. We need those moments of inspiration to carry us when the work is long and hard.

Gregory’s take on the fifth beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” is a window into his heart. “Compassion is loving identification with those in misery. Just as hardheartedness and malice originate in hate, so compassion flows from love, for without love compassion cannot exist. In fact, if one wanted to dig in to the distinctiveness of compassion, one would find two qualities: a growing attitude of love combined with an understanding of the emotional ache of another. It is not unusual for our friends and our enemies to be willing to share in our prosperity, but the willingness to share in our misfortune is unique to those who are governed by loving kindness. I think most people would agree that practicing a life of love is the best way to live. Compassion is the deepening of love. As such, compassionate persons are truly blessed since they have reached the high point of goodness” (74).

Further in the same chapter, as Gregory reflects on humankind’s state after the Fall, he offers a unique application: “Is it advisable, having a realistic view of our situation, to be only concerned with the misfortunes of others? Shouldn’t we also feel compassion for our own heart, as we consider our current situation, and what we have lost? … We don’t have compassion on ourselves because we are oblivious to our real situation. We are like the mentally ill, whose disorder renders them unconscious to their disease. If we did wake up to both our past and present situation—as Solomon says, the wise know themselves—we would continually have compassion on our souls, and this disposition of spirit would attract the compassion of God. That is why it says, ‘Blessed are the compassionate, for they will receive compassion’” (80). This is a surprising take but one worth considering, especially for those who are overly hard on themselves.

What makes the book a little startling are the pop culture references supplied by the paraphrase. Though purists may have preferred a literal translation, Glerup’s work makes Gregory more accessible, especially to those who like The Message, which is the standard Bible translation for this work. Some of the revised vocabulary shares that style, which makes it easier for those not well-versed in theology to grasp the concepts.

In keeping with the other volumes in the Classics in Spiritual Formation series, Glerup occasionally adds shaded boxes that clarify content.

For those hungry to glean in the fields of a Boaz, Gregory has left behind many rich insights. Having gone to his reward, he speaks to a new generation through this paraphrase. As valuable as it is to commune with the living, we can also profit from the great cloud of witnesses that cheer us toward the rest they now enjoy.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology - Kevin Giles




Defining the Trinity matters because it is God’s very self.

The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology
Author: Kevin Giles
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 270

In reviewing The Eternal Generation of the Son by Kevin Giles, F. W. Boreham’s end-of-life observation comes to mind, “If I could have my ministry over again, I would talk more about God. Not about God’s works or God’s ways, God’s power or God’s bounty. But about God’s very self—God’s omnipresence, God’s omniscience, God’s omnipotence; God’s unutterable goodness, God’s inef­fable holiness, God’s splendor, God’s glory, God’s love. For if I could make people very sure of God, they would soon hurry to that divine Savior who is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by Him.” Two phrases in particular are applicable to what Giles has done and what makes this work valuable.

In seeking to answer if Jesus Christ, the son of God, is eternally begotten of the Father, Giles is examining “God’s very self.” Secondly, by examining whether this doctrine is scriptural, Giles is making us more “sure of God.” Throughout this book, God’s person in the Trinity is examined in detail. Regardless of where one might stand on these issues, the book is worth reading for the excellent scrutiny that Giles provides both doctrinally and historically. With regard to the latter, a significant portion of the book traces what the earliest Christians on up to the present believe to be true.

One reason why this matters is that some in our day question and even reject a doctrine that has been viewed as orthodoxy since the time of the early church. In one section, Giles summarizes this accepted teaching: “God is triune for all eternity. In the inner life of God, outside of time, divine threefold self-differentiation takes place in a way that is beyond human understanding or description. Following biblical language, this eternal divine self-differentiation is best designated as the eternal begetting, or generation, of the Son and the procession of the Spirit. God’s self-revelation in the economy (history) as Father, Son and Spirit reveals and confirms what is true apart from history—namely, that God is eternally triune. In other words, his triunity is not constituted by anything that takes place in this world; God himself constitutes his triunity by his own free and eternal decision. This is the view that triumphed and became orthodoxy” (19).

Giles focus is the eternal generation of the Son because it is this teaching rather than the procession of the Spirit that has come under attack.

Is it just a matter of semantics between theologians? I think not. Are there practical implications? Yes, and I will let Giles address this in his own words, “This book is a defense of the historic creedal faith of the church, which reflects the teaching of Scripture that the one God is Father, Son and Spirit. In other words, to deny that the Son is eternally generated by the Father is to undermine the very doctrine of the Trinity, which was developed to safe guard the full divinity of the Son. If the Son is not fully God for all eternity, then our salvation is in jeopardy. Only God can reveal God, only God can save, and only God should be worshipped” (21).

One surprising discovery is to learn of the connection between the idea that the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father (not an orthodox view) and the debate surrounding the subordination of women. Giles writes, “Virtually every evangelical who argues theologically for the Son’s eternal subordination in authority is committed to the permanent subordination of women. It is believed that just as the Father is ‘head over’ the Son, husbands are ‘head over’ their wives in the home and men ‘head over’ women in the church” (226). This subject is covered in a chapter near the end.

Giles grasp of historical and scholarly debate is impressive. He convincingly refutes those who pervert the orthodox view. In doing so, he presents truth about the person of God.

Christians talk frequently about knowing God. It’s puzzling then why there is so little teaching about this subject. How can we rightly and more fully know God apart from understanding His person? This is an excellent guide toward that end, which may even leave readers with a bit of wonder as they consider God’s unfathomable nature. As the apostle Paul exclaimed, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33 ESV).

Even though our finite minds cannot fully grasp an infinite God, it does not follow that we should not seek to grow in our understanding of Him. It’s beautiful seeing the many facets of the Trinity.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ LIVE! - Rhonda Vincent




Bluegrass and gospel, a marriage made in heaven

Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ LIVE!
Artist: Rhonda Vincent (www.rhondavincent.com)
Label: Upper Management Music (www.uppermanagementmusic.com)
Length: 16 tracks/56:55 minutes

On Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ LIVE! Rhonda Vincent marries bluegrass and gospel like “glove fits hand, as key fits lock, as domino fits domino” (F. W. Boreham). What she has joined, no one can separate. It is a marriage made in heaven for that is often the inspiration. World weary sentiments long for that ultimate repose. Relaxed music that winds like a restful stream through the countryside increases the consolation.

The power is in the gospel truths that populate these songs. They hearken to another era, a simpler time when people found greater comfort in anthems of faith. It might seem overly sentimental to moderns or postmoderns but that misses the timeless messages and the simple beauty.

There is joy here. Acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, upright bass and more combine for happy sounds for heaven bound pilgrims. It’s nothing but stringed instruments and voices without a trace of percussion. Recording this live in Vincent’s hometown of Greentop, MO at the Greentop Methodist Church adds to the pristine quality. Dignified applause and occasional brief stage banter breakup the songs.

Lovers of bluegrass will find every pace and style. “I Feel Closer to Heaven Everyday” is the rousing opening that gives each instrument a brief chance to make an introduction. Homely wisdom meets with biblical stories on slow and fast tempos. Further variation is added by a couple of a cappella numbers and beautiful interpretations of two hymns, “Just As I Am” and the closing “Old Rugged Cross.” The latter were the only familiar songs. The “Old Rugged Cross” includes brief audience participation where the instruments are momentarily silenced, so that all one hears our voices being lifted to God.

A sublime moment comes when Vincent sings, “God every day I fall short of your glory. Please help me to be more like him.” It’s a monument to a foundational truth.

Occasionally, Vincent’s voice is a little overpowering, but it serves to show that it is a strong instrument. The musicianship is stellar. According to the label’s promotional information, Vincent and her band, The Rage, are the most awarded group in Bluegrass Music, with over 80.

Play this on Sunday morning or at any time and feel a little closer to heaven.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

VeggieTales: The League of Incredible Vegetables (A Lesson in Handling Fear) DVD




When I feel afraid …

VeggieTales: The League of Incredible Vegetables (A Lesson in Handling Fear) DVD
Length: Approximately 50 minutes plus bonus content

Imagine a weapon that feeds on fear. It reveals your greatest fright, and then uses it to immobilize you. It gains power through dread and then literally freezes its victims. When the villain in the latest VeggieTales episode steals the so-called “feardar,” The League of Incredible Vegetables is called into action to save Bumblyburg.

This portrayal of how fear works shows the cleverness that is a hallmark of VeggieTales. Weighty subjects become not only understandable but filled with subtle insights and humor. It’s what makes VeggieTales appealing to more than just little ones.

Junior Asparagus aka Ricochet longs for a supersuit, so that he will never feel afraid, not realizing that everyone feels afraid at times. He soon realizes that to trust in a supersuit, which has limited value and is subject to failure, is a huge mistake. The story smartly references David when he prepared to face the giant, Goliath. Israel’s king offered David the best armor available, but David had no use for it. He faced Goliath with something greater: trust in God. This VeggieTales story highlights that only God never fails and is bigger than any problem that we face.

Despite his timidity, I appreciate the vulnerability of Junior Asparagus. He falls flat by letting fear loom large and misplacing his trust, but he learns the lesson of this story. In Psalm 56:3, David says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” In the end, Ricochet is triumphant, not because of an absence of fear, but because he has learned to place his confidence in God.

In addition to the “Supper Hero,” a brand new Silly Song, this release contains The League of Incredible Vegetables Music Video performed by the Newsboys, which also serves as the theme song. It’s on par with the excellence that is characteristic of the Newsboys and fits the story.

Blockbuster superhero movies like The Avengers get loads of attention, but I wonder if they can compete with the take-away value of a simple lesson like this. This DVD clearly answers the question, “What can I do when I feel afraid?”

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Christ-Centered Biblical Theology - Graeme Goldsworthy




A personal word or a unified message summed-up in Christ?

Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles
Author: Graeme Goldsworthy
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpacademic.com)
Pages: 251

What excites me about Christ-Centered Biblical Theology by Graeme Goldsworthy is the effort to show how the diverse parts of biblical revelation relate. As Goldsworthy writes, “Some acknowledge that the Bible is a unity and that the heart of it is the gospel of Christ. But they have never been shown, or have tried to work out for themselves, the way the various parts of the Bible fit together. Reading the Bible then easily becomes the search for today’s personal word from God, which is often far from what the text, within its context, is really saying” (29). Later Goldsworthy makes an assertion that is foundational to his thinking, “The unity of the Bible is of such a kind that every text has some discoverable relationship to every other text” (195). In a footnote, he adds that by text he is referring to a meaningful literary unit, not just a few words or a single verse. 

As inspiring as it is to experience the Scriptures coming alive in a personal way, it is even more thrilling to see how the vast vistas of biblical revelation fit together. I greatly appreciate his desire to find the links between the Old and New Testaments, without reading Christ into every passage, “The Christian meaning and application of an Old Testament text emerges as we show the links the canon allows us to make between any text and Christ” (224).

In the search for unity, it is important to avoid two common problematic approaches, “The one simply assumes a unity that allows the Christian to read the Old Testament as if it were originally written especially for us and directed immediately to us as Christians. This encourages moralizing and legalism through an overemphasis on an exemplary view of the characters and events in the narrative, and through a more direct application of the Law. The other avoids this direct application but has little to offer in its place” (193).

Later on, the author further warns against a rush to application, “The practical application of any text in Old or New Testament should never be divorced from the relationship of that text to Christ. Avoid the lemming dash over the cliff of direct applications. Of course we want people to be edified by ‘all Scripture’ (2 Tim. 3:16-17), but we want to get it right. The sufficiency of Christ stretches to his sufficiency as the fulfilling center of the whole canon of Scripture” (225).

Goldsworthy’s method is derived from his former teacher, Donald Robinson, an Australian New Testament scholar. In the attempt to study the Bible in its own terms, Robinson identified seven main issues. Those issues form the basis for the following summary, “We enunciated a biblical ‘typology’ using the three stages in the out working of God’s promise to Abraham, that is, (a) the historical experience of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham through the exodus to the kingdom of David’s son in the land of inheritance, (b) the projection of this fulfillment into the future of the day of the Lord, by the prophets, during the period of decline, fall, exile and return, and (c) the true fulfillment in Christ and the Spirit in Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, exaltation and in his parousia as judge and saviour in a new heaven and new earth” (22-23).

Goldsworthy defines it more succinctly as “the three main stages of revelation: biblical history from creation, and especially from Abraham, to Solomon; the eschatology of the writing prophets; and the fulfillment of all things in Christ” (25). From this point of view, the high point in the Old Testament is reached “in David’s Jerusalem as the focal point of the land of inheritance, in Solomon as David’s heir, and in the temple representing the presence of God to dwell among and bless his people” (25). A period of decline follows Solomon’s apostasy “with the prophetic promises that the Day of the Lord will come and bring ultimate blessing and judgment” (25). Finally, hope is restored in the person of Jesus, who is the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

Goldsworthy masterfully defends, contrasts and expands on his thesis. This is an excellent contribution on a highly significant subject, but those outside academic circles, who need this understanding as much as anyone, may get bogged-down by some of the technical aspects. This is not the kind of book to read haphazardly. It works best with sustained concentration.

Throughout much of the book Goldsworthy is laying a foundation. As a wise master builder, he is careful to make it sound so that others can build on it. Suddenly, upon reaching the more practical section at the end, I felt as though any preceding tediousness was worth it all. It is fascinating and instructive to read short sections on Israel and the Church, which rightly maintains the distinction between the two entities, and the various types of baptism.

Having noted the warnings against application, I would have enjoyed seeing more of how Goldsworthy’s method applies to various themes and passage in Scripture. It is there at the end, and to some extent along the way, but I wanted him to make the conclusions more readable and obvious. Nevertheless, I plan to keep this book for future reference. The material is so dense that one can easily benefit from repeat readings.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Jonathan Rundman




“I got ashes on my forehead, and I’m trying hard to learn”

Jonathan Rundman
Artist: Jonathan Rundman
Label: Salt Lady Records (www.jonathanrundman.com)
Length: 20 tracks/64:09 minutes

Jonathan Rundman does it all on a self-titled compilation. The singer/songwriter plays a variety of instruments but not at the expense of gaining contributions from others. The latter give him more of a band sound.

The styles are amazingly diverse. One moment I hear Tom Petty, the next Relient K, and then a little Dylan. The background vocals on “Librarian” are reminiscent of The Beatles. Rundman, who does most of the vocals, shows a fine attention to detail, which is evident on more than just BGVs.

Simple, uncluttered production makes for a rootsy guitar-driven sound. On the other hand, being lo-fi might lessen the appeal for some, but it complements somewhat of a classic rock sound.

Smart lyrics are subtly informed by the faith of the artist. This is never preachy, and it does not easily fall into the contemporary Christian music category. Many of the songs are reflections on life and relationships without any overtly spiritual content. Songs like “That Man Upstairs” seem metaphorical for a higher reality.

A few songs like, “Carol of the Bells,” (not the Christmas carol) have attitude, as in a punk rock influence. “Ashes” can lay claim to the most rousing, and maybe the best, Ash Wednesday song of all time. No somberness here but humility is not absent, “I got ashes on my forehead, and I’m trying hard to learn/This dust that I have started from is where I shall return/And I will follow out of love for there is nothing I can earn/I got ashes on my forehead, and I’m trying hard to learn.” Propelled by driving guitar, the latter is almost a laugh-out-loud sentiment.

A new and exquisite mix (the original is on Sound Theology) graces “Forgiveness Waltz,” which is stellar, defining forgiveness in sound and sentiment. Led by gentle acoustic guitar and a Wurlitzer, and with every instrument played by Rundman, this is one of several highpoints on this release. “It’s like a dance/It’s like a wheel/Less like math/Less like a deal/More like a heartbreak beginning to heal/We can start over/We know forgiveness” are words that capture the pathos of the subject and communicate peace.

Are you in need of a summer road song? With its driving heartland sound, “581” is the perfect backdrop for a top down or windows open driving experience. This reminds me of John Mellencamp.

“I’ll meet you there at the Narthex.” That last word sent me scrambling to the dictionary. Where else do you find that and “nave” mentioned in the same song? Rundman takes listeners to church, giving a sense of the mystery and majesty of ancient liturgy. It’s decidedly upbeat. Don’t imagine a long line of robed figures with swaying incense. This depicts ordinary people participating in the grandeur of something bigger than themselves.

Once again Rundman defies convention and brings a Christian perspective to the subject of death on the closing “Bright Funeral.” This is not the least bit morbid with a bouncy tune consisting of Wurlitzer and regimented drumming. Those left behind upon his passing are encouraged to celebrate rather than mourn. “Have a bright, bright funeral for me when I die/Not some gloomy dirge parade to tell your goodbye/Have a bright, bright funeral ’cause love don’t stop at death/And the hands of God are reaching out beyond our blood and breath.”

Some tracks are previously unreleased or remixed from their original form, so even if you have one of his prior releases, this is worth having. It’s also a fine introduction for new listeners.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Jason Gray - Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy




Christmas richly imagined through the principal characters

Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy
Artist: Jason Gray
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 13 tracks/44:40 minutes

Even though Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy is Jason Gray’s first Christmas release, he is among those who make music worthy of the season. His storytelling skill highlights God’s enfolding drama as seen in and through key players.

The most striking example is the over-looked innkeeper. Gray portrays him as a businessman, who anticipates Messiah’s coming but is blinded to it by jadedness. He cries for rest but fails to recognize how close it came to him in a babe born not far from his door.

Gray moves from the exuberant opening song to music that occasionally borders on roots rock. This is where he is at his finest, when the production is stripped-down and his singer/songwriter muse flows freely. Thoughtful lines abound like gifts offered for all who have ears to hear.

One surprise is “Ave Maria (A Song for Mary),” unusual for its retro-50s sound and added lyrics that imagine Mary’s early life. The chorus is peculiarly sublime.

It’s easy to think of the virgin birth as the miracle of Christmas, but in Gray’s reckoning of Joseph, forgiveness is the miracle. Joseph carried forgiveness in his heart, while Mary bore embodied forgiveness in her womb.

Who but the shepherds could have their story summarized in a pop/rock style with an anthem-like chorus? I can imagine “Gloria!” being sung by a multitude.

Gray does a brief, traditional take on “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which is gorgeous. He puts his own stamp on two other classics, “O Holy Night,” which has a programmed rhythm track that is a little distracting, and “Joy to the World.” The latter works well, but the best moments come on the many original compositions.

Gray invites listeners to the renewal that comes from seeing the Child of Christmas. He reminds us that the greatest gift we can give to God is ourselves.

His songs are richly imagined in every way, which makes this one of the season’s best releases. This is essential for Jason Gray fans, and those looking for fresh rumination on a timeless story.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Hurt & the Healer - MercyMe




When the hurt and healer collide, glory meets suffering.

The Hurt & the Healer
Artist: MercyMe
Label: Fairtrade Services
Length: 10 tracks/39:19 minutes

MercyMe’s The Hurt & the Healer recognizes the inadequacy of, “Why? / The question that is never far away / The healing doesn’t come from the explained.” These songs point to the comfort and hope found where “glory meets my suffering.”

Getting there is beautifully depicted on the cover. A half-dead lone tree stands in an amber field. The blue sky background rises to a host of celestial lights, a portal into heaven. It’s a thin veil that separates. Even in the death side of becoming conformed to His image, God may be more in control than we realize. As the chorus to the title track puts it, “I’m alive / Even though a part of me has died / You take my heart and breathe it back to life / I’ve fallen into your arms open wide / When the hurt and the healer collide.”

Our failures are more than swallowed-up by the grace of God. The hard driving “You Don’t Care At All” expresses it like this: “All of my yesterdays / All of my past mistakes / You’ve thrown them all away / You don’t care at all.” It is a reversal of Pharoah’s dream as interpreted by Joseph in the book of Genesis. Instead of the years of plenty being swallowed-up by the years of famine; the years of lack, however great, are more than offset by receiving the abundance that comes through Christ’s death on the cross.

It’s a new beginning, characterized by greater depth, which is depicted in the one piano-driven ballad, “The First Time,” which closes the recording.

One of the most interesting songs is “Take the Time,” a duet with Bear Rinehart of NEEDTOBREATHE. It’s dominated by a bluesy slide guitar until the band cranks it up at the end. I would have appreciated more like this, which is a little outside the norm. “Shallow is the voice of no concern,” Rinehart sings. “Running through the bridges that we burn … You do it to the least of these / You do it to me / You gotta take the time.” It’s too easy to look the other way and not see people.

“Hold On” is a guilty pop pleasure. It may be simple but it is excellent song craft. Why can’t more music today sound this good?

Another favorite for its encouragement and spacey atmospheric background is “Don’t Give up on Me.”

Lead singer Bart Millard is in fine form but he also gets an excellent assist from group background vocals scattered throughout. There are also brief but wild guitar solos that fit perfectly. I like the slightly raw, uncluttered production courtesy of veteran producer Brown Bannister and Dan Muckula.

Need encouragement? Find it here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Small Things with Great Love - Margot Starbuck




God wants to separate us from what divides us.

Small Things with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor
Author: Margot Starbuck
Foreword: Tony Campolo
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 239

In Small Things with Great Love by Margot Starbuck one thought summarizes what makes her voice fresh: “We don’t have to add lots more overwhelming activity to what we’ve already got going. Rather, the regular stuff of our lives―the commute to work and the potlucks and home improvement projects and errands and play dates―are the exact places in which we express and experience God’s love for a world in need” (20).

If some Pharisees in Scripture were known for laying on heavy burdens without lifting a finger to help, Starbuck is just the opposite. Her whimsical, humorous viewpoint makes the work of reaching those on the margins less frightening. Perhaps unknowingly her style echoes that of Jesus when he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30 ESV). I appreciate her gentle spirit, which does not burden readers but seeks to release them into a richer, fuller life.

She lightens the load by being transparent about her own struggles and showing through stories how readers can take baby steps. It is a wonderful primer for those who want to know God’s heart for the poor and move from an insular environment to one that is more open. It is far too easy to become separate from the ones that God loves. This book is a start to bridging that gap.

Along the way Starbuck addresses the many different places in which we find ourselves. One of my favorite chapters is “Introverts.” I found it liberating because it affirms the type of person that I am by temperament and points to ways of loving God and neighbor appropriate to it. It makes a point reiterated throughout the book. We can be ourselves in engaging others.

In keeping with the spirit of whimsy, this book can be read creatively in a way that considers our various differences and roles. At the end of each chapter readers have the option to skip to a section relevant to them. At the end of “Introverts,” if you are female, you can turn to page 75 to read “Women.” If you are male, you can keep reading into the next chapter, “Men.” And so it goes at the end of every chapter. Readers in every walk of life are addressed, and they can follow this adventurous path if they choose not to read straight through. It’s all so good that those who skip around might want to go back and catch the parts they miss.

One part that troubled me comes toward the end where the author discusses the impact of our choices. How we spend and consume has an impact on the rest of the world, and it is right to consider this. It’s not that I disagree, but I wonder if there is more to consider than choosing to pay more so that we don’t support cheap labor. I am simplifying, but I wonder what God would have us do. I have a friend that out of necessity buys cheap jeans. I live in an area where unemployment is typically above the state average. Some people, and I am now one of them, depend at least in part on the meager income they gain from working at big box retailers.

After being denied entrance into our community several years ago, Walmart is getting ready to open in a location that was abandoned after another store that was popular locally went out of business. As I am sure is the case in most places, there will be more applicants than job openings. Even though many local residents strongly oppose this retail giant, others will welcome the low prices. Perhaps an obvious solution is for retailers like Walmart to act responsibly and improve their record in relation to all involved in the manufacture and sale of a product. Loving your neighbor precludes exploiting him. Let justice roll down from the upper echelons to the lowest in every endeavor. What a difference it would make, not to mention the hope it would engender. Do these corporations and the people that manage them have the will to make changes?

If the answer in part is to avoid shopping at big box retailers, their employees might lose their jobs and be forced to find new ones in a scarce environment. Is this a cost that our nation needs to bear to move toward a more just society? It would be interesting to know more of what Starbuck and others think. I don’t have the answer.

What troubles me is wondering if these issues are more complex than we realize. Then again, maybe part of the answer is, as much as possible, to be simple in the sense of not complicating how God would have each individual respond. That in part is what makes this book endearing. Normally, it’s not a matter of doing great things, but small things with great love. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt




Antony embodies a holy belligerence to evil that still inspires.

Athanasius: The Life of Antony of Egypt
A Paraphrase by Albert Haase, O.F.M.
Foreword by Shane Claiborne
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 128

Is there such a thing as holy belligerence? The Life of Antony of Egypt by Athanasius shows that an aggressive attitude toward Satan and heretics can be appropriate. Antony reminds me that though our ancient foe seeks to work his woe, he is no match for Christ and those who have found refuge in him. “We conquer the enemy with godly thoughts and hope-filled feelings. Such thoughts and feelings expose the demons for who they truly are: worthless kindling for the eternal fires of hell,” (60) Antony said.

He continually exhibits a holy disdain toward anything that opposes God. He does not mince words when he believes the truth is at stake, “Stay away from the schismatics and the Arians, as I have, because they are heretics and enemies of Christ. Form your community around the Lord and the saints so that, after you die, they will recognize you as old friends and walk hand-in-hand with you into the heavenly mansion prepared for you” (98).

The fantastic stories scattered throughout read like legend. Whatever the truth, Antony’s life is inspiring. He is extremely devout, yet like the author, Athanasius, he is humble and intensely practical. There is a wealth of wisdom pertaining to spiritual formation, battling demons and living the Christian life.

This encourages deeper devotion without advocating a slavish following of Antony’s practices. We are all different, and God’s dealings vary with the individual. Antony’s asceticism, though foreign to our modern culture, which has gone to the opposite extreme, encourages discipline. Aside from his example, readers can gain from a godly perspective. The righteous disdain for Satan and his forces is revelatory. It’s not some crazy ranting; it’s the mature perspective of someone who lives by the truth of Scripture.

The editor provides occasional context and instruction in shaded boxes that appear in the text. One particularly illuminating insight pertains to the “noonday devil”: “Within the desert tradition, acedia was often referred to as the ‘noonday devil’ and is better translated as ‘throwing in the towel.’ The hermit would begin his life and spiritual and spiritual formation in the desert with enthusiasm and gusto. However, by midday (figuratively speaking; hence the name ‘noonday devil’), the sun would be beating down upon him and he would become discouraged and want to give up the entire challenge of spiritual formation. And so he would throw in the towel and return to his former way of life” (54-55).

The book includes three pastoral letters written by Athanasius. The last, which is a fragment, covers the canon of Scripture. Haase writes, “This Easter letter fragment, of which there is a shorter version found in Greek and a longer version found in Coptic, is the first written documentation of the ‘canonical’ books of the Christian Scriptures. Athanasius’s list simply records the unofficial consensus of the church which would be subsequently endorsed by church councils in Rome (382), Hippo Regius (393) and Carthage (397)” (117). This also touches on what are known as the apocryphal books and how they are viewed by various groups. Athanasius does not see them as authentic and authoritative Scripture.

Haase makes this ancient classic easy to read and his comments are helpful. The stories about Antony are fascinating, which makes this engrossing. This can be read quickly, but as the editor suggests in relation to Scripture, far more can be gained by “treasuring” and “pondering” the passages that speak to readers.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Velvet Prince - Mike Johnson and friends




Along with The Artist/The Riddle, this is an overlooked Jesus movement recording.

Velvet Prince
Artist: Mike Johnson and friends
Label: Born Twice Records (www.retroactiverecords.net)
Length: 10 tracks/36:10 minutes

For those interested in music with roots in the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mike Johnson’s Velvet Prince and The Artist/The Riddle have been remastered and released by Retroactive Records.

I wish that contemporary Christian music (CCM), the industry that grew up around the music of the movement, had followed some of the highlights found here. CCM is by definition message-driven but has been lacking at times in the raw inventiveness of the early Jesus music. It has suffered from a narrow focus and being overproduced and homogenized. That pristine quality is one of the benefits of an old recording like the Velvet Prince.

It’s raw, a little ragged, but earnest in exhibiting a broad array of styles and subject matter. It also has an underlying sophistication that reflects Johnson’s background with heralded groups like the Mike Bloomfield Blues band, Electric Flag and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. One standout track where you can hear that influence is the Dylanesque blues-rock of “On to L. A.”

On the lighter side is “Your Health Food won’t Get You into Heaven.” It’s not just the comical words; what makes this funny is an old-timey country style combined with most-important-song-in-the-world singing. I enjoy natural food as much as anyone, but I appreciate the hilarious reminder that “yogurt ain’t got no savin’ power.”

“Something’s Goin’ On” is a satirical “the end is coming” rag, complete with kazoo. For those who might remember him, it is reminiscent of Country Joe McDonald.

On the more somber side is the mournful “Standin’ at the Station,” perfectly suited to the feeling of being abandoned. The sparse, gentle instrumentation make this hauntingly beautiful.

The title track is a hard-rocking allegory that closes with wild feedback. Johnson also employs this literary device effectively on The Artist/The Riddle. If allegory and humor are scarce and a lost art in music today, it is a shame since both are powerful tools. With all the heaviness in the world, the need for humor has never been greater. Allegory remains a creative way to convey meaning to those who might be turned-off by a more didactic approach.

“Would You Believe” is a signature song reworked here into light jazz from Johnson’s self-titled Exkursions recording. The Exkursions were an early group for Johnson. Their concerts featured mainstream music without any Christian witness until the end when they closed with one invitation-to-faith song, normally “Would You Believe.” Johnson then shared his testimony, and Anglican minister John Guest preached. Johnson believes that this “low-key” approach was the secret to their success in ministry.

Velvet Prince follows in that legacy. The Christian witness on most songs is less overt. The appeal is in the careful craftsmanship. It might hold more interest for those whose first attraction is the music. Along with The Artist/The Riddle, this is an overlooked early document of an artist creatively expressing his Christian convictions.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Artist/The Riddle - Mike Johnson




A first love faith gives birth to a childlike simplicity, wonder and creativity that are often missing today.

The Artist/The Riddle
Artist: Mike Johnson
Label: Born Twice Records (www.retroactiverecords.net)
Length: 10 tracks/35:15 minutes

Back in the late 1970s I remember seeing The Artist/The Riddle by Mike Johnson in my friend’s large LP collection of early Christian music. A smiling Johnson with a sparkle in his eye is in the foreground while the background of the album cover reflects the peace and tranquility of Christ’s future millennial reign.

It was a remarkable time with artists like Larry Norman, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, Phil Keaggy, Barry McGuire, the 2nd Chapter of Acts, Nancy Honeytree, the All Saved Freak Band, Love Song, Children of the Day, and many more singing of their faith in a contemporary music context. Like the move of God that preceded it, bringing many in the counter-culture to Christ, it was new. There was no established Christian music industry like there is today.

A first love faith gave birth to a childlike simplicity, wonder and creativity that are often missing today. As that early movement became an industry the music and content became more homogenized losing some of its freshness. It makes me thankful for artists that create something new and different. With so many talented Christian artists inside and outside the industry, how wonderful it would be to see original expressions of faith blossom again.

Mike Johnson was one that I overlooked when I started listening to the music of that era. It may be because he never achieved the same popularity as the more well-known artists. But that was not for lack of talent. He was an original member of the Mike Bloomfield Blues band and went on to become lead guitarist for Electric Flag and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. His background shows in music that is slightly more complex than what is found on some of the early Christian releases.

One of the remarkable features of The Artist is the diversity of styles. “The Artist” starts off with gentle folk sounds, but when this allegory shifts to the work of the enemy, the sound becomes biting. Johnson repeatedly uses story to convey biblical truth.

The other title song, “The Riddle,” is more renaissance with the use of flute and recorder. “I Met a Man” is a humorous rag depicting the futility of trying to find life outside of Christ.

“Lord Doctor” is a favorite with its lyrical guitar, reminiscent of Phil Keaggy and vocals that sound a lot like Terry Talbot, another early pioneer in this genre.

“Jesus loves you” may be cliché but it sounds fresh to me on “Little Boy,” where a father confesses to a son that God loves him more than he ever can.

“The Witness” extols a person who would otherwise be unknown but for his faithful testimony, which changed lives throughout his town. This depicts true significance.

It’s interesting that the last three tracks, though varied in style, all relate in some way to Christ’s return. “The Sound of His Returning” is regimented marching band music. Something similar to this could have been used many years ago by the Salvation Army as they marched and sang like a banner of Christ waving through the mean streets of London.

“The Wedding” draws heavily on Jewish marriage custom with music to match. The closing “We Want You to Return” combines those words at the end with a winsome melody. I appreciate the second coming emphasis, which does not seem as prominent in our day.

I missed this when it was first released in 1976, but the remastering is excellent, making the production closer to today’s standards. It is a worthwhile addition for fans of the artist and any who are interested in music from that special time. For mature Christians, it can be reminder to cultivate again that first love.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Louie Giglio: the Essential Collection, DVD




Giglio highlights God’s wonders, from the furthest reaches in space to the human heart.

Louie Giglio: the Essential Collection, DVD
Publisher: sixsteprecords
Length: 5 DVDs; each over 40 minutes

I want to share it! That is how I feel about Louie Giglio: the Essential Collection, DVD. Giglio’s primary audience may be college-age youth, but this is relevant to most age groups. I want to share this with my mom, a friend and the person who does not know Christ.

Giglio is an excellent communicator, which is one reason I am comfortable recommending this to a wide variety of people. He is passion personified and has the knowledge and experience to make each subject relevant to real life. He is winsome but does not sugar-coat the topics. He acknowledges that inspirational speakers often resolve conflict and tension with a satisfying conclusion. I appreciate his desire to avoid being untrue to the way God works. Perhaps it is a reminder that whatever relief we experience now is only temporary and partial. God does not right every wrong in this life. He is moving toward something that defies imagination, when time shall be no more.

Giglio sees this big picture. He imparts a vision that inspires people to live for God rather than themselves. Those who need a more expansive view of God and what he can do in their lives will be well-served by the encouragement found here.

This is especially true of the talk “Hope: When Life Hurts.” This gets beyond everyday trials. Where do you turn when your life is shaken so badly that you wonder if God is even there? This is a message that one could return to repeatedly when going through life’s worst moments. 

Giglio draws attention to the cross, which is not just for salvation, as important as that is. Much has been said and written about the cross of Christ, but it can still be a challenge to comprehend what it means to the Christian in suffering. Giglio connects the dots in a clear and unforgettable manner.

This third talk is comprised of two complete messages even though it is counted as only one of five talks. Here Giglio tells the story of Ashley, a University of Florida student, who is nearing graduation. Though exposed to Christianity growing-up, Ashley chose the party lifestyle and sided with her atheist father. Giglio tells the story of how her life intersected with his in a way that has impacted people all over the world. He tells it in these two parts and in “Fruitcake and Ice Cream,” the fourth talk in the series.

Giglio is probably best known for the first two talks, which are older, “Indescribable” and “How Great is Our God.” Here Giglio’s love of astronomy helps viewers get a sense of the greatness of God. After seeing this one could say that the word “awesome” should be reserved for God alone. It will be a challenge for anyone to watch this and not come away with a larger view of God.

Passion conferences are known for worship music. I would have liked to have seen performances of the songs from which these early titles come in the form of bonus content, even though they are available in other formats. It would have been like icing on the cake. On the other hand, I recognize that the production on these earlier talks is slightly inferior and that this might have carried over to any music videos. I was more than pleased, however, to see Chris Tomlin leading a special song at the conclusion of “Symphony (I Lift My Hands),” Giglio’s latest talk.  

This is a beautiful ending to a fitting finale. If the first two talks extol the greatness of God, and the next two grace for salvation and suffering, this last message is about our response. It recognizes God’s centrality not just in our lives but in the universe, which in itself amazingly offers ceaseless praise. Giglio provides a taste of it. Since I like surprises, I will say no more so as not to spoil it for viewers.

Again, this is suitable for any age, except for young children, in an individual, group or even church setting. A discussion guide is included. This was my first exposure to Giglio, and I was not disappointed. This inspires hope and noble aspirations.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Remedy Drive - Resuscitate




Remedy Drive survives breakup to sound more alive than ever.

Resuscitate
Artist: Remedy Drive (http://www.remedydrive.com)
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 10 tracks/36:43 minutes

The difficult road to Resuscitate by Remedy Drive began when lead singer David Zach’s brothers decided to leave and pursue other options. This was not a band on life-support but in the throes of demise. That such a solid release has emerged, one that must rank among their best work, is a tribute to Zach’s persistence and the synergy he has with the new members.

As Zach affirms in a couple of the songs, losing our way does not make us a lost cause. Crisis serves as a setting for the brokenness and hope that inform the lyrics.

On different note, if Coldplay helped bring the piano back to rock, Remedy Drive benefits from that legacy. The creative use of keyboards woven into the fabric of many of these songs is striking. They are the first sounds that you hear on the opening, “Better than Life.” They continually add a subtle and satisfying beauty to the well-crafted pop/rock found throughout.

I enjoy the latter and normally don’t gravitate towards heavier fare. Even so, the hard rock heard on the title track and “Make it Bright” are strangely beguiling. The raw energy makes these tracks explosive and compelling.

But have you heard the story of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet? God was not in the strong wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the sound of a low whisper, a thin silence, which brings me to “God I Hope So.” It is not the sound of quiet desperation, but rather a hopeful longing. It’s an honest cry that yearns for a better day. It carries even greater weight than the heavier sounds in the aforementioned tracks. I appreciate the uncertainty because that’s what life is like. We can be certain of God but not much else.

Remedy Drive move toward modern worship on “Crystal Sea” and “Glory”. If the band was ever dead, this is life from the dead. They add their voice to that mighty throng that stands by the crystal sea.

The theme of the closing “Hold On” reminds me of the words from “Rock of Ages,” “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” When all is stripped away, we must depend on God.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blue Like Jazz, DVD




Blue Like Jazz provides something better than quick resolve: the beginnings of a genuine faith.

Blue Like Jazz, DVD (www.bluelikejazzthemovie.com)
Publisher: Lionsgate
Time: Approximately 107 minutes

In Blue Like Jazz, a Steve Taylor film based on the bestselling book of the same name by Donald Miller, jazz is a metaphor for the complexities and unresolved issues of life.

A willingness to explore fallen human nature without rushing toward an obvious conclusion sets this film apart from others that are marketed to Christians. The filmmaker was not afraid to skewer evangelical subculture, which should not surprise those familiar with Steve Taylor, who frequently employed satire in his music. If the movie exaggerates, it is only to show just how wacky and hypocritical church life can be.

This is not a “come to Jesus” movie. There are no altar calls. This has little in common with Billy Graham films or Sherwood Pictures, the makers of Facing the Giants, Fireproof and Courageous. As good as those films may be, to use the words of Paul Metzger in praise of the book, the movie Blue Like Jazz is “honest, passionate, raw … real.”

That is not to say that the other films are not. It just seems an apt description of a movie that has an indie/art-house feel, whereas the other films are more standard fare. “Christian” films typically take fewer risks and are not as creative. They appeal primarily to Christian audiences. Skeptics, seekers and unbelievers may be more at home with the content of Jazz than Christians, who may have their sensibilities offended by the debauchery depicted, which is mild by the world’s standards, and the language used.

By the way, if some Christians are put-off by the trailer, they might consider that trailers can be misleading. Scenes ripped from their context can communicate a different meaning than what is in the film. Suffice it to say that one quip from the trailer can be unsettling until one hears the complete thought.

Perhaps we Christians need to further educate ourselves in how we evaluate movies. A movie like this requires patience. There is no quick resolve with jazz.

Author Donald Miller uses the film to briefly show viewers the elements of story. It provides clues as to where we are in the movie. This might sound rather wooden but leave it to Miller and Taylor to be wildly creative. Don’t be surprised if one moment you see a bit of animation and the next you are watching someone floating untethered in space. The latter is an apt metaphor for a young, sheltered Don losing his way in an anything goes environment.

It’s not just cloned Christians that are exposed and get lost before the camera. Political correctness run amok is also a target. The left can be just as predictable and stereotypical as the right. Neither is a good scenario if the kind of jazz you hope to create is marked by creativity and authenticity.

The characters are well-cast and likeable, even if, sadly, many Christians might shy away from their counterparts in real life. Early on at liberal Reed College Don befriends a fellow-student, who is a lesbian. They support each other through difficult moments. Penny, Don’s romantic interest, is introduced as somewhat of a radical protester, but as it turns out with many of these characters, there is more depth than is first apparent. Penny somewhat hides a significant part of her life until later in the story.

The intriguing DVD cover image comes from the scene where Don learns from Penny that Portlanders do not use umbrellas. I enjoyed the interactions between Penny and Don, and true to the jazz metaphor, there is no easy resolve, but both deepen as they improvise.

The story, of course, is based on Miller’s life. I am not sure how much is factual. The book is a series of essays rather than a biography. Miller and Taylor had the challenge of making it into a compelling narrative, and for the most part, they succeed.

Miller makes a cameo as an author speaking in a corporate bookstore that becomes the target of a protest.

Danny Seim of Menomena produced the soundtrack. He met Taylor in a record shop. The music also includes snatches of “All I Ever Get for Christmas is Blue” by Over the Rhine and “I Hurt Too” by Katie Herzig. And what would this movie be without some music from jazz-great, John Coltrane? I like the scenes where Coltrane records are in view and where a needle is gently placed on spinning vinyl.

One could point to examples in the past, but here is a modern day film made by Christians for the irreligious. Believers can appreciate it too if they can get past the irreverence. There may not be any resolution in jazz, but this movie earns its satisfying conclusion: the beginnings of a genuine faith, something that anyone can relate to.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Andrew Peterson - Light for the Lost Boy




Andrew Peterson’s boldest, most imaginative work

Light for the Lost Boy
Artist: Andrew Peterson
Label: Centricity
Length: 10 tracks/48:57 minutes

Light for the Lost Boy by Andrew Peterson is his boldest, most imaginative work. The theme and music are more fully realized than any of his previous releases, with the possible exception of Behold the Lamb of God: the True Tale of the Coming of the Christ, a Christmas classic.

Aside from the winsome songwriting, a major reason is the production team of Jason Cooley, Ben Shive and Andy Gullahorn, all long-time collaborators, who take Peterson’s music to a new level. It’s not radically different; they just make the production a little more sophisticated and include some programming and other embellishments.

“The Cornerstone” is the most obvious example. Vocal layering, a snatch of ethereal keyboard reminiscent of Jeff Johnson, a haunted swirl of B3 and unhinged guitar imagine a God strange and wild. It’s Peterson as you have rarely heard him. It’s a child’s view: a God inscrutable.

The latter is what also makes this noteworthy. Much of Lost Boy is a perspective on childhood and the loss of innocence. It is fertile ground for exploring mystery and wonder along with questioning and doubt. The hard-edged notes underscore that the world is fallen. All is not as it should be.

Peterson directly addresses his children on “You’ll Find Your Way.” Most songs are more subtle, lighting a path for them to follow. This is record that they can return to when older, encouraging them to order their ways aright.

Songs like “Carry the Fire” bring the welcome reminder that we are not alone. God gives marvelous comrades that support us when we falter.

This steadfast, unconditional love is highlighted on “Rest Easy,” which Peterson wrote with his wife in mind, but also represents Christ’s love for his church. A wondrous thing happened when they began conceiving a video for what is perhaps the finest single that Peterson has ever done. Why not have a contest and let fans interpret the song? Check out the first place winner with tissue in hand. This is a near perfect piece of pop with a bittersweet video.

The epic, “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone,” clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, offers this resolve to the recurring storyline: “Every little boy grows up, and he’s haunted by the heart that died/Longing for the world that was before the Fall/Oh, but then forgiveness comes/It’s a grace that I cannot resist/Oh, I just want to thank someone/I just want to thank someone for this.”

One can surmise that Peterson’s work as an author of children’s books has influenced this work, including the enchanting cover. Since this may be his best release yet, let’s hope that in addition to writing whimsical adventures, he keeps singing them. I will keep listening as long as he does.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

VeggieTales: The Penniless Princess—God’s Little Girl, DVD




Remake of a classic is brilliant, as the British might say.

VeggieTales: The Penniless Princess—God’s Little Girl, DVD
Publisher: Big Idea Entertainment (www.veggietales.com)
Running Time: Approximately 50 minutes

Larry the Cucumber dons British attire and accent to introduce The Penniless Princess, an adaptation of the classic children’s book, A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The stage is set for this London story by a question: How do you love those who are less than kind? The answer comes with knowing the true source of our worth. Hint: it’s not derived from material things. It has to do with who we are in God’s sight.

This has it all: a compelling story, biblical values, gorgeous animation, excellent music, simple but witty dialog, and moving moments balanced by the zany humor that is uniquely VeggieTales. Speaking of the latter, upon arriving in London, Papa Razzi with his filmless camera, remarks to his companion, who wants to see a musical, “Musicals are so unrealistic, people bursting into song for no reason.” Immediately, a porter appears singing, “Might I fetch your bag?” Suddenly, he is singing in reply.

This is a musical of sorts, but it is not overdone, for those who might not fancy “people bursting into song for no reason.” It is similar to previous DVDs. A new silly song, “Best Friends Forever,” a humorous take on all kinds of texting acronyms, serves as an intermission in the middle.

In the story, Miss Minchin, who is as mean as Sara Crew is kind, indirectly provides some of the comedy. On almost every occasion when the former’s name is mentioned, there is an ominous neighing of horses. She also happens to be allergic to Mortimer, Sara’s teddy bear, which leaves her in a disheveled state that is most unbecoming. It serves as just punishment for her cruelty.

Unwittingly, Miss Minchin (horses neighing), brings out the best in Sara, who goes from a life of privilege to having nothing. Here a parallel is draw between her and Joseph, the Old Testament patriarch. Joseph went from wearing a princely robe and dreams that exalted him above his family to an extended stay in an Egyptian dungeon. It’s not the change of circumstance that he or Sara would choose, but we learn that with God, one is a prince or princess in any situation, no matter how difficult.

Before having his life cut short by cancer, my dad was greatly comforted by Max Lucado’s writings. One day he insisted that my mom write down the words he read in A Love Worth Giving: “God loves you simply because He has chosen to do so. He loves you when you don’t feel lovely. He loves you when no one else loves you. Others may abandon you, divorce you, and ignore you. But God will love you. Always. No matter what.” As I watched The Penniless Princess, I could not help recalling these words, which are continually repeated almost verbatim in this marvelous story.

Since we are all made in God’s image, we all have worth. It’s what inspires Sara’s kindness to everyone. We can love because God loves us and each person is his unique creation.

Should we ever doubt God’s love, the closing lesson from Romans 8:39 provides assurance that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God ….”
    
VeggieTales has created a classic of their own from this engaging children’s story. To borrow a phrase from the British, this is brilliant.

It might even lead people to the book. Books tend to excel the movies they inspire. Even so, let’s hope that this won’t be the last to inspire a new VeggieTale. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Now - Fireflight




On the way to the Celestial City, Fireflight stoop to lift people out of the swamp of despair.

Now
Artist: Fireflight (www.fireflightrock.com)
Label: Essential
Length: 10 tracks/36:11 minutes

Imagine someone in the depths of despair. They have no hope. They live in the shadows of this world. Their existence is tortured and self-destructive. They identify with heavy music that expresses the weight they feel.

Along comes Now the fourth release from the female-fronted Fireflight, a voice for the desperate. This has the characteristic heavy chords but none of the sense of doom that other artists in the genre might project. These songs are like light that streams into dark places.

God is that light, though he is rarely explicitly referenced here. The band avoids being preachy. The only direct mention is on “He Weeps,” one of two ballads, the other being “Rise Above.” That these are my two favorites shows my bias for quieter melodies.

The rest are sometimes heavy, fast and intense. It is sweetened by programming in the quieter moments, often at the beginning and end of a song. The production is tight and excellent throughout.

Getting back to “He Weeps”; it is the answer to that age-old question, “Where is God when …” You fill in the blank. God weeps when we “taste defeat.” He is there in our darkest moments. Fireflight cheers on listeners, especially the broken, with this message.

These songs are loaded with encouragement and hope. To borrow from the imagery in Pilgrim’s Progress, Fireflight is on the path that leads to the Celestial City. On their way they purposely stoop to lift people out of the swamp of despair. Their music and words speak the language of the despondent. The time to rise above is now.

“Stronger Than You Think,” which directly addresses the work of Satan, exhibits a disdain for the dark side and a confidence that those who belong to God can know.

It was the passion that I saw and heard in a Fireflight video that drew me to this release. As much as I like mellower music, I recognize that rock, and in particular the heavier form of it, can be the best vehicle to convey the desperation and turmoil in this life. Anyone who has ever seen U2’s “Pride” video can also see rock’s ability to communicate passion. There is a fire in this band to take the light to dark places.  

Forever Reign - One Sonic Society




One Sonic Society recognizes that it is better to worship a transcendent God than to foster the illusion of being a super-group.

Forever Reign
Artist: One Sonic Society (www.onesonicsociety.com)
Label: Essential Worship
Length: 10 tracks/56:50 minutes

I want to call One Sonic Society a modern worship super-group, but no band in their right mind will want to wear such a label. When Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech formed Blind Faith, shortly after the dissolution of the super-group Cream, this new incarnation was being promoted as such, but the expectations that came with it were a burden. So even though the three members of One Sonic Society are all highly-skilled, I won’t weigh them down by attaching an unrealistic title.

Nonetheless, you should know a little of their background. Jason Ingram is a name that you will often see as a writer, producer and performer on worship music releases. Of course, Delirious is an instantly recognizable name to many. Since their disbanding, guitarist Stu G has been involved in session work, which may have led in part to this collaboration. Paul Mabury, a native of Australia and one of Nashville’s most in-demand drummers, rounds out the group.

Even with such exceptional parts, the sum is greater than the individual talents. It is a sonic joy to hear the rich blend of vocals and music. Alice Cooper has rightly stated that part of what made musicians like George Harrison, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Ringo Starr great was what they didn’t play. They play at the right time. Similarly, there is no excess here. What makes me appreciate Stu G more than ever is not his abandon, but the near perfect restraint that hears him playing just the right thing. The same could be said of the others on this recording.

They do not reinvent the genre. They make it their own by using just enough creativity to make it interesting while keeping it engaging. There is a definite Euro influence, which occasional has a more industrial edge. That and the sometimes ethereal base come from the use of programming. It all makes for a solid collection that I took to immediately and can easily listen to repeatedly.

The songs often start quietly before becoming anthems. My spirit soars with group background vocals that give this a live feel, while having the superior fidelity of a studio release. It is the best of both worlds.

I am not sure how many of the songs count as new ones, but I suspect that most fall in that category. The writers, in addition to group members, are some of the best in the business. The only track familiar to me, “Forever Reign,” was co-written by Ingram. Though there have probably been numerous versions, here the keyboard notes dance like rain bouncing off a roof. Stu G’s guitar drives the chorus. It’s one highlight among many.

Modern worship has been criticized and perhaps rightly for some of the ways it has fallen short. However, those who may be cynical should remember that it is often inspired by a sincere desire to facilitate an experience of God’s presence. I listened to this one Saturday near the beginning of my day and it changed my outlook. Those like my sister, who relish this type of music, know that just listening can draw one heavenward. I realize how valuable a recording like this can be, especially for those who may be prone to depression or feelings of hopelessness.

These highly skilled servants of Christ more than meet expectations but demonstrate their humility by harnessing their talents in a way that brings glory to Christ. It’s like they are throwing their crowns before God’s throne. They wisely recognize that it is better to worship a transcendent God than to foster the illusion of being a super-group.

Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament XII Ezekiel, Daniel




A starry sky of reformation lights illuminates the meaning of some of the most challenging material in the Bible.

Reformation Commentary on Scripture
Old Testament XII
Ezekiel, Daniel
Editors: Beckwith, Carl L; George, Timothy (General Editor);
Manetsch, Scott M. (Associate General Editor)
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 452

My reason for requesting Ezekiel, Daniel was the opportunity to read commentary from reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter and many other ancient expositors. This volume provides the opportunity to see how they interpreted these challenging Old Testament books. What I read convinces me that the existing and forthcoming volumes in this series will be a valuable addition to any theological library. Collect them all if you value commentaries.

These commentators stand outside our era and culture offering varied and different interpretations than their modern counterparts. They may not always be right, and they don’t always agree, but echoing the thought of G. K. Chesterton, they should have a voice at the table. It is not just contemporaries that need to be heard.

One instance where the reformers agree, but may be wrong, is their reading of the description of the temple in Ezekiel 40-48. They see it as figurative of the Church and heaven but not literal. This stands in sharp contrast to the many today looking for a literal rebuilding of the temple.

When Christ took hold of my life in the late 1970s, it wasn’t long before I encountered teaching on Ezekiel 36-38. Many see a reference to Russia invading Israel in the last days. While that may be the case, the reformers do not have the same emphasis. I value their perspective because it can keep us from having a narrow view. The second part of Proverbs 11:14 states that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” A consensus of opinion is worth considering and may help one to avoid error.

This volume effectively brings together the reformers’ most concise thoughts, which are drawn from a multitude of writings. Though this is a strength, it is also a slight shortcoming. Instead of getting detailed exposition on every single verse, you get commentary on select verses and overviews of passages, which may leave a reader wanting to know more and reaching for other resources. This might work best alongside a modern commentary using it in a way that one might compare old and modern translations of the Bible.

One feature I appreciate is the editor’s summary of the reformers’ thoughts on a passage, which follows the text of Scripture. Immediately readers have a general sense of the reformers’ understanding. This is a valuable feature.

The reformers comments come next, grouped under the appropriate text reference. This is further broken down by content specific headings for each commentator, whose writings normally stretch from one to three paragraphs. This layout is excellent, making it easy to navigate. The entire text of Ezekiel and Daniel is given in the English Standard Version except where noted.

This changed the way I see Ezekiel’s visions. I saw Christ more clearly than I ever have before. The reformers’ reverence and godliness shines through the material.

Overall, the exposition is sound, though it occasionally has a Calvinist and anti-Papist slant. The latter is no surprise; these our protestant reformers! But like the Calvinist leanings, this material is just in passing. The editor limits the discussion to what is pertinent.

Reading the many passages by Calvin, one quickly realizes that he is a fine expositor. I enjoyed his thoughts, even though I might disagree with some Calvinist doctrine.

These expositors do an admirable job on some of the most challenging material in the Bible. Where else can you find such a starry sky of reformation lights illuminating the revelations in these two books?

Finally, the color scheme and artwork in this series is my favorite among the Ancient Christian sets of books. The main color is a pleasing shade of green with off-white lettering. “The Paradise,” the Protestant Church in Lyon is part of the jacket artwork.

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

Passing on a vision of life with God The Legacy (Secrets of the Shetlands, Book 3) Author: Michael Phillips ( www.fatherofthein...