Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Scarecrow - Decyfer Down

Hard-driving music is a perfect match for expressing righteous anger.

Artist: Decyfer Down (
Length: 10 tracks/34 minutes

Scarecrow by Decyfer Down is hard music with heart. Though it can be blistering in sound and sentiment, it subtly expresses a Christian worldview. “Say hello to agony,” listeners hear, of someone who crosses boundaries that God has established.

“Westboro” had me wondering about its significance. Where have I heard of it? It starts with a fast hard rock riff, quickly joined by pounding drums. Listeners hear the unsettling lines which provide a clue, “Hey man, that’s my brother’s grave you’re spitting on/Hey man, this is hallowed ground/You don’t belong/Just go back to Westboro, baby/Where they love to hate.” This refers to the church by the same name that has become infamous for protests. The hard-driving music is a perfect match for the expression of righteous anger.

This rage, which the band expresses so powerfully, continues on the title track. The target is a modern day Pharisee. This provides commentary on the cover, which depicts a scarecrow, New Testament in pocket, but a heart filled with greed, envy and hate. It’s a person who is more concerned about maintaining their self-made righteousness than helping their fellows escape the mire of sin. This confronts without coming across as judgmental. Hard music complements hard truths.

“The River” is a change-up. It starts with acoustic guitar and builds into something decidedly southern. As in Scripture, water is used to depict the burial of the old life and rising to the new.

The closing, “So in Love,” removes any doubt about the band’s allegiance. They openly reference God in this powerful fusion of modern rock and worship.

Absent in this recording is the doom and hopelessness that overshadows this genre. The band chronicles the struggle between light and dark without the heaviness of spirit that might leave someone in despair. The production is precise without being sterile. Others plow similar ground but this harvest is a delight.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Morning Rises - Aaron Shust

“Praising God is like pushing aside the clouds.”

Morning Rises
Artist: Aaron Shust (
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 12 songs/45 minutes

“Morning Rises,” the title track of Aaron Shust’s latest, dawns with a series of cascading and echoing sounds. This segues into “God of Brilliant Lights,” a powerful anthem that provides a beautiful word-picture of God’s love: “He’s shining over us/Like the morning rises” (2 Peter 1:19).

The cover depicts beams of light slicing through layers of clouds that obscure a lush, green landscape. “Praising God is like pushing aside the clouds, allowing the Light of the Sun to pierce its way into my darkness,” Shust writes in the closing line of the liner notes.

Morning Rises is filled with praise that extols God’s majesty. If you have ever seen something like the Grand Teton mountain-range in Wyoming, you get a sense of that attribute, but Scripture tells us that God is more majestic, “Glorious are you, more majestic than the mountains of prey” (Psalm 76:4 ESV). Repeated declarations of God’s character and truth serve to elevate our minds to the reality that “Our God reigns!” This is reinforced by a band that provides epic sounds worthy of God’s grandeur.

It’s what makes “Deliver Me,” like a quiet respite from the tracks that thunder. It starts with just Shultz and his guitar and remains subdued throughout. It’s an earnest and vulnerable prayer, “Deliver me/Even when I am afraid (Psalm 56:3)/When the world around me shakes/I know You will never change” (James 1:17). The mood is trusting and hopeful.

This also includes the popular, “Cornerstone,” which combines lyrics from an ancient hymn with new words and music. It’s an excellent, straightforward rendition.

“Satisfy” has a starkness to it that captures the sentiment drawn from Psalm 63:1, “In a dry and thirsty land/You are the water.” The barren landscape of sound and the note of desperation reinforce the thought that only God will satisfy.

Shust sings all things well including the closing, new folk influenced, “Firm Foundation.” 

Morning Rises is fresh evidence that there is more to Shust then “My Savior My God,” which earned him three Dove awards in 2007 for “Song of the Year,” “Songwriter of the Year,” and “New Artist of the Year.” I like everything here as much and more than that celebrated song.

Produced by Ed Cash (Chris Tomlin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Bebo Norman), this is Shust’s fifth album and the second consecutive one produced by Cash.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Matthew: The Gospel of Identity - Michael Card

Michael Card uses an economy of words to convey the essential in Matthew’s gospel of identity.

Matthew: The Gospel of Identity
Author: Michael Card
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 267

“Matthew’s Gospel is about identity, about discarding the old, incomplete identities that enslave us and receiving a radical new identity. It is not your Jewish or rabbinic self, or your tax-collecting self. You are not defined by the old orthodoxy, but by the new reality. All of the old, false, incomplete identities must go and be swallowed up in a new organizing principle. It is about surrendering whatever citizenship you define your identity by and becoming a citizen of the new kingdom, whose king is Jesus,” (22) writes Michael Card introducing his third of four commentaries on the gospels.

What Card has so meticulously done in his music, he brings to the printed page. He points out that Matthew contains five large blocks of Jesus’ sayings, which occasionally may seem unconnected. Through background information, careful analysis and a sanctified use of imagination Card helps readers not to lose sight of the story. It’s easy to miss the forest when you focus too much on individual trees. I’m grateful that Card vividly brings the text to life through engaging narrative.

In his concluding thoughts on Matthew chapter one, Card ties the pertinent elements of the beginning story to the theme, “As the first hearers of Matthew’s Gospel sat listening in the synagogue, once again the theme has been touched upon that the Gentiles have a stake in the ministry of Jesus from the very beginning. The magi, who had come so far risking their very lives, are the first to recognize the dignity of Jesus and to offer him worship. Though the priests and experts in the Law know the facts about where the Messiah would be born, they missed out on the reality of who he was. Matthew’s first hearers are being encouraged not to miss out on who Jesus is, even though they, as Jews, know all the facts as well” (36).

Card succeeds in this and his other commentaries in creating a series that is highly readable but also scholarly. His comments on John the Baptist, are but one example of his consistent clarity: “His (John’s) primary mission was to make the Israelites aware of their personal sin and to urge them to respond in repentance and baptism. That is how one prepares the way for the Lord.… He is clearly the fulfillment of Malachi’s closing promise that in the last days Elijah would come (Mal 4:5-6)” (39).  

Even in the foregoing one can see how he unpacks meaning with a minimum of application, which can be a plus. An overemphasis on application can come at the expense of meaning. The first priority is to understand what the text teaches. Application then follows. Card leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions.

He gets at the heart of Matthew’s gospel, even if at times one might like him to go further. In Matthew 24, for example, he divides the text by two questions, “When will these things happen?” and “What is the sign of Your coming and of the end of the age?” In answer to the first question, “From verse 15 to 25, Jesus prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem, an event he will characterize primarily as something from which a person can flee” (211).  He broadly summarizes the passage noting, “With verse 29, everything changes. The image is no longer earthly—in fact, it becomes apocalyptic. Jesus opens his second answer with two quotes from Isaiah (Is 13:10; 34:4). The signs are cosmic; they involve the sun, moon and stars” (212). These summaries are apt, but if you want to know something about the reference to “one will be taken and one left,” you will need to turn to a reference that goes into more detail.
That goes beyond the scope of this book, which is to make Matthew’s themes and teachings accessible to a broad audience. This, in part, is written for those who never imagined reading a commentary. In their minds, such an undertaking might be like reading through a dictionary. Fear not! This volume is not a cure for insomnia. It won’t strike terror or generate loathing in those who see reading as little more than weariness.

This is excellent at providing context and contrasting the differences between the other gospels. It is a suitable companion for a more exhaustive commentary that one can use to more fully explore individual verses.

If you have been a fan of his music, this is your chance to become more of an admirer of Card’s way with words. For me, that’s what makes his music so special. The same gift is in operation here, and it blossoms as it does not have the same constraints as a three to four minute song. Card’s music has always led to the text. Now listeners have a ready source to learn more about it by availing themselves of this or one of his other fine written works. If you have not noticed, Card has become a prolific author.

Rich Mullins may be right about songs being remembered more than sermons, but writings can often more fully develop and expound on the riches that are found in Christ. Card’s books are a natural extension of his music, and hopefully, he will continue to encourage the body of Christ with both expressions.

As with the other commentaries, Card has recorded a CD that encompasses the content of this gospel. If I receive Matthew: The Penultimate Question from the publisher, I will review it separately. However, on the basis of the previous CD releases in this series, I can safely say that it will be worth having.

Look for John: The Gospel of Wisdom in 2014.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Larnelle Live in Nashville - Larnelle Harris

This recreates memorable moments in gospel music history.

Larnelle Live in Nashville (
Limited Edition DVD & CD
Featuring: Larnelle Harris, Steve Amerson, Steve Green and Sandi Patty
Approximate Running Times: DVD – 90 minutes, CD – 12 tracks, 60 minutes

When I think of Larnelle Harris, what comes to mind is his 1984 duet with Sandi Patty, “More than Wonderful,” which earned them a Grammy Award. Through the years that memorable performance has stayed with me. How fitting that they should be reunited on this CD/DVD for a new duet, “Then Came the Morning,” and “I’ve Just Seen Jesus,” which gave the duo another Grammy in 1986. Any recollection of great moments in gospel history should include the contribution that these two have made together as well as individually.

The CD and DVD are mostly the same, differing in only minor ways. The DVD captures Harris and Patty performing “Then Came the Morning,” in the studio, which is one of the highlights. The concert version is found on the CD.

All clad in tuxedos, Harris sings with Steve Green and Steve Amerson on “It is Well with My Soul,” and “Kings of the Earth.” On the latter they powerfully highlight the transitory rule of the kingdoms of this world. It makes me think of decaying monuments lying in forgotten wastelands.

Despite some minor problems in the DVD sound mix, consisting of occasional poorly-sounding applause and the bass being too prominent at times, the DVD is preferable to the CD. Listeners of the CD don’t get to see how demonstrative Harris can be, which enhances the listening experience.

The DVD also includes “Teach Me to Love,” a concept video recorded with Steve Green during their younger days. It’s another satisfying duet. This break in the performance is not included on the CD.

It is a wonder that each singer retains so much strength and dynamic range in their vocals. I can’t help but think that part of it is due to a godly lifestyle and their obvious desire to glorify God with their talent. I am not as familiar with Steve Amerson, but his voice may be the most powerful.

The songs include Harris doing one medley of his most popular tracks and another of some praise-oriented hymn classics. New and old songs serve as strong declarations of faith. There are no watered-down sentiments here. The selection is excellent.

“The Greatest of These,” written by Scott Krippanye, Tony Wood and Steve Siler, is an inspired adaptation of 1 Corinthians 13. It covers the entire chapter. Harris’ eloquent rendition reminds listeners of what matters most.

The concert was recorded in the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s studios and must have aired on the network. The DVD occasionally shows a website address for Harris, which would have been better to omit. The slight imperfections in editing and mixing make this seem less professional, but these are insignificant problems that many might not notice.

I respect each of the artists, who perform here at extraordinary levels, but the inspirational style, which can sometimes border on the grandiose, is not my favorite. It may be indicative of a bias for less production. Fans of these artists, however, should not be disappointed. Several times the audience is moved to stand and applaud.

This event documents some highlights in several notable careers. It serves as a tribute to their legacies and shows that they still have their song. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Evil and the Justice of God (paperback edition) - N. T. Wright

This is a useful resource for living in anticipation of “all shall be well.”

Evil and the Justice of God (paperback edition)
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 176

The now available paperback version of Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright is just as relevant and engrossing as it was in 2006 when the hardcover made its debut. Written in the aftermath of tragedies like 9/11 and natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Gulf Coast hurricane, there has been no cessation of horrific events, particularly ones that involve gun violence or bombs. Despite the continuing onslaught and the passage of time, society hardly seems closer to coming to grips with and restraining evil.

This book can serve as a call and challenge to the Church to take the lead in finding a way forward. It is only in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ that God has dealt a decisive blow to the problem of evil, making the way for everything to eventually be put right. Between now and the time when all shall be made well is what can be so troublesome.

Wright acknowledges the futility of two extremes that capture the imagination: the utopian dream of progress and the temptation for evangelicals to think that it will only get worse; there is nothing to do but make the best of it until Jesus returns.

This book presents us with a much grander view, worthy of the God, who not only desires to save souls but has begun the process of righting wrong through his people, whom he desires to live in the unfolding reality of his rule.

Wright gets practical as he briefly outlines ways that Christians can engage the world and make a difference. This goes beyond personal holiness and evangelizing. It also includes encouraging and helping the powers that be, in the words of the Old Testament prophet, to do justice and to love mercy.   

I appreciate how Wright even brings art into the equation. The Christian imagination needs to be educated to understand how what we create can play a role in God’s grand scheme of redemption. “Art at its best not only draws attention to the way things are but to the way things are meant to be, and by God’s grace to the way things one day will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the water covers the sea. And when Christian artists go to that task they will be contributing to the integration of heart, mind and soul which we seek, to which we are called. They will be pointing forward to the new world God intends to make, to the world already seen in advance in the resurrection of Jesus, to the world whose charter of freedom was won when he died on the cross. It is by such means as this that we may learn to imagine a world without evil and to work for that world to become, in whatever measure we can, a reality even in the midst of the present evil age” (128).

The book concludes with an overview of the central role forgiveness plays on a practical level in dealing with evil. There is nothing cheap, weak or unjust about it. Wright uses and commends three books that go deeper on the subject: Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf, which he extols as “one of the finest works of Christian Theology written in the last decade,” Embodying Forgiveness by L. Gregory Janes, and lastly, Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness.

For those whose interest includes details of the afterlife and the fate of the wicked, these subjects lie outside the scope of this book. The thrust is the cross of Christ and all its implications for the here and now and the future new heavens and earth.

I am glad that I read this book for a second time. It’s breadth and depth in so few pages on what is vital is amazing. I understand better one aspect of Wright’s handling of what he calls “the satan.” He prefers not to give the Christian’s adversary the dignity of personhood. It’s this supernatural element of evil and spiritual realities that will make it hard for the world to ever deal with evil in the most appropriate ways. Again, this is where the Church can take the lead and make a difference. We cannot convince the world of unseen realities, but we can serve as a living demonstration of God’s victory over evil through the reality of the cross of Christ.

Even if one might not agree with Wright on some of the doctrinal positions that he holds, his writing, as always, is wonderfully stimulating. He remains a thoughtful, scholarly observer of Scripture and the world. This is a useful resource for living in anticipation of “all shall be well.”

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