Friday, June 1, 2012

Now - Fireflight

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

Artist: Fireflight (
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 (
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 (
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.

Love is Making a Way - Sixteen Cities

Love is Making a Way expresses the simplicity and childlike charm of the love found in God.

Love is Making a Way
Artist: Sixteen Cities (
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 10 tracks/34:58 minutes

Some music is dark, depressing and even cynical. It can be filled with anger and angst, and to a degree that may be an appropriate expression at times. However, a steady consumption without resolve is probably not a healthy choice for most people.

One thing I appreciate about Love is Making a Way by Sixteen Cities is the hopeful outlook. Love is an obvious theme. To dwell in God is to know love. Living in love gives rise to hope. Thus you have the inspiration for many of these songs.

The title song, which is the first single, starts with acoustic strumming, a chorus of “oh’s” and a slightly off-kilter drum rhythm. Lead vocalist, Josiah Warneking, begins to sing over the background of a soaring synth that has a life of its own. Right there they have me even before the catchy, winsome chorus.

The love they sing of is illustrated on the cover by a heart-shaped collage showing jumbled maps of different states. It is highly appropriate given that love can be difficult. It can be hard to find and easy to lose your way. Though there are many twists and turns, Love is Making a Way points us to the simplicity and childlike charm of the love found in God.

It expresses itself in worship as on “Glorious” and has a swift rock-edge on “All Around the World.” “Mercy (Fall on Me)” takes an introspective turn recalling the promise that God’s mercies are new every morning.

The last three songs, “Walk on Water,” “I Need You” and “Consume Me,” are my favorite stretch. These are more acoustic and contain some of the strongest melodies. They are pleasantly engaging.

On the downside, I found myself longing for more artistry, particularly in the use of words and phrases. It reminds me of when I first heard Rich Mullins. Not everyone can write like he did, but I remember the joy of discovering a Christian artist that wrote like a poet.

Lead singer Warneking has a great voice and has at least a co-write on every song. He gets help from several others including Jason Ingram on “Consume Me,” which may be the best song of all.

There are several producers that work on different tracks. The music is tight and the production is clean. 

This is a solid release for Sixteen Cities. In a world characterized by darkness, it’s encouraging to hear these godly affirmations and desires. 

Mark: The Beginning of the Gospel (CD) - Michael Card

Card’s insightful commentary inspires these songs.

Mark: The Beginning of the Gospel
Artist: Michael Card
Label: Covenant Artists
Distributor: InterVarsity Press (
Length: 10 tracks/33:56 minutes

Being a companion to his commentary, Mark: The Gospel of Passion, Michael Card’s Mark: The Beginning of the Gospel provides 10 new opportunities to imagine the fast-moving drama in the Gospel of Mark. Looking more like a professor than a musician on the back insert, Card takes the opportunity to combine his scholarly talents with those of a seasoned recording artist to highlight distinctives found in Mark.  

This is the first gospel to be written, one that “uniquely portrays the emotional life of Jesus in simple, urgent language.” This theme is the setting for the spirited a cappella opening, “The Beginning of the Gospel,” sung by the Fisk University Singers.

Though a solo artist, the concept of community is increasingly important to Card. You see it in his frequent collaborations with other artists and in the way he invites others to participate in Bible study. Knowing this, I look forward to contributions from friends and colleagues on each new recording. Getting back to the opening song, though written by Card, it is arranged, performed and conducted by the aforementioned choir and their associates. It is a measure of Card’s security that he can step back and give prominence to others on his own recording.

You find it once again on the closing track, “Is It All Over Now,” where Christine Dente, formerly part of Out of the Grey (with her husband Scott), sings all of the lyrics written by Card and veteran producer Brown Bannister. This is an excellent choice since here the story of Christ’s resurrection is told from the point of view of one of the women at Christ’s tomb. Card’s involvement with others demonstrates that music (and life) can be richer when we invite people to share their talents.

Scott Dente and Ken Lewis do all the producing, bringing a slightly fuller, richer sound than on Card’s last outing, Luke: A World Turned Upside Down (2011). This duo has provided excellent musicianship and production to the most recent recordings by Twila Paris and Tanya Godsey. Fans of Out of the Grey might not miss that group as much when they recognize how well they support artists like Card.

You might not think that stringing together the words “A Great Wind, A Great Calm, A Great Fear” would work as a chorus, but the luscious harmonizing does the trick. One of the most beautiful moments is the seamless transition from the opening track to the first acoustic sounds heard here that play like the breeze on a wind chime.

And what would a new Michael Card recording be without a banjo song? It has becoming one of his most endearing sounds. “The Service of the Sod” is his latest bluegrass-flavored foray. It starts with an excerpt from what sounds like an old sermon, which is the source of the title. The seed is sown, and how it grows is a mystery. The background is the unique parable from Mark.

Card, and co-writer Sarah Hart, show the depth of Christ’s identification with us on “You Walk in Lonely Places”:

Lord you walked in lonely places
Oh you felt our emptiness
Lord you walked in lonely places
To know the pain of man

The haunting music perfectly conveys the sober mood. Despite the tone, the closing refrain is like a lifeline of hope:

And in my darkest hours
I can call upon Your name, oh Lord
And You come into the solitude
Of what I cannot face alone

“In Memory of Her Love” commemorates an exquisite act of unrealized service. Astonishingly, Jesus said of the woman who unwittingly anointed him for burial, “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9 ESV). The song is as beautiful as the act that inspired it.

You won’t find a hit song here, or a potential classic along the lines of Card’s early work (“El Shaddai” & “Immanuel”), but I like this better. It is a mature offering with finely textured music and depth of feeling and insight. Who else but the cerebral Card would title a song “The Paradigm”?

Sadly, this will not get the same attention as the trendy music on Christian radio, but it deserves to be heard just as much if not more because it is so substantive. This is on par with Card’s best work. It’s a superb companion to his commentary, which is not only a lot of fun; it is filled with great insights, just like this recording. As I listened, I could not help thinking about Card’s commentary, which informs these songs. 

Mark: The Gospel of Passion - Michael Card

From Scandalon to commentaries, Card inspires deeper engagement with Scripture.

Mark: The Gospel of Passion
Author: Michael Card
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 206

While browsing recently at a Thrift store, I found Scandalon (1986), one of Michael Card’s earliest recordings. It was fascinating to go on Amazon and read customer reviews praising this release. If you have any familiarity with Card’s music, you know that he has a remarkable ability to convey depth in biblical truth within the confines of a song.

It seems fitting that all of his Bible study for songs would lead first to theological books and now an ambitious commentary series on the four gospels. Mark: The Gospel of Passion is the second release. Luke: The Gospel of Amazement was released last year, and commentaries on Matthew and John are scheduled for 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Each of these will have a separate companion recording related to the themes of each gospel. Card has not given up his music career; writing commentaries is just another means to fulfill his primary calling as a teacher.

As I read, immediately (a favorite term in Mark’s gospel) I was inspired by Card’s meticulous study. His attention to detail is an example for us all. His way of combining facts and imaginative thought makes the text come alive, and it is what this series is all about.

Card was mentored in this approach by William Lane, and he most likely gets more into the “how to” aspect in his touring conference series. Here in these first two commentaries he teaches more by example and asides. If you are familiar with the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, you may recall the centurion’s confession, “Truly this man was the son of God” (Mark 15:39 ESV). In his comment on the passage, Card encourages, “Stop and take time to engage with the text at the level of your imagination. Imagine the centurion covered in the blood of three men, a hardened warrior of the Italian cohort far from his home. ‘Son of God’ is a title that belongs solely to the emperor he has sworn to serve. Imagine the response of Mark’s first Roman readers as they hear this glorious confession coming from the lips of a Roman soldier …” (184).

When I read of the crucifixion I am continually struck by the monumental nature of the events. I appreciate that Card makes it even more vivid. Popular depictions of crucifixions show the crucified in loin cloths. Card corrects this misconception when he writes, “The custom was that crucified criminals would be stripped naked on the cross” (180). After Jesus has been nailed to the cross, Card adds, “It is apparent that Jesus is now naked” (182). This is the first time I have come across anyone addressing this small detail.

Card continually shows that it is important to gain the facts through references like his own so that they can be thoughtfully engaged. If we don’t know the context and background, our imaginations can lead us astray.

From the start of this commentary I was eager to see how Card would handle the ending of Mark’s gospel, and he did not disappoint. Card speaks with authority, referencing William Lane and other sources in Appendix E in support of Mark 16:9-20 not being part of the original ending. Some believe that part of it was lost, but Card provides convincing logic in his commentary on verses 1-8 that this is the original ending. This is one of many insights that make this a keeper.

More detailed and exhaustive commentaries are designed as references to be consulted. This is a book to read. Both kinds are valuable, but the readability makes this a pleasure. Plus, readers easily gain the basic background, context and meaning, which all are critical for teaching, preaching and one’s own exegesis.

The cover, layout, graphics, and outlines are all pleasing to the eye. The book includes the full text of the gospel broken up by short commentary sections. The Holman Christian Standard Bible is used except where noted.

Card’s interactions with the sacred text have made him a fine scholar. William Lane, if he were still here, would be proud. Card might find it even more rewarding if this series inspires readers into a deeper engagement with the Scriptures. 

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

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